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Podcast: Emerald Recommends the songs that defined 2016

In this installment from the Emerald Podcast Network, arts and culture editor Craig Wright, music writer Sararosa Davies and Emerald associate podcast editor Emerson Malone join forces and share some of the songs that defined 2016 for them.

This episode was produced by Emerson Malone. Our theme music was written by Evan DuPell.

Songs mentioned in this episode:
– “Eugene” by Sufjan Stevens
– “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie
– “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” by X
– “Latino and Proud” by DJ Raff
– “We Got Back the Plague” by The Fiery Furnaces
– “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest
– “Fill in the Blank” by Car Seat Headrest
– “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyoncé feat. Jack White
– “Friday Night (Is Killing Me)” by Bash & Pop

Additional songs not featured in the podcast: 

“All Things Must Pass” — Yim Yames (George Harrison cover)

I hate Beatles covers. Always have, always will. With that being said, there are exceptions to every rule. Jim James of My Morning Jacket has a voice that can make everything right with the world — it’s a sonic source of comfort rivaled by few. On his 2009 EP of George Harrison covers titled Tribute To, James, under the moniker Yim Yames, uses his ethereal voice and minimal instrumentation to pay his respects to the second member of the Fab Four to pass away. 

Harrison died in 2001, and this beautiful compilation seeks to fill the void of losing a musical hero, which was unfortunately an all-too-common occurrence this year. Out of the sadness, James turned Harrison’s mostly cheerful songs into a reflective celebration of his life. The best example is the title track from Harrison’s 1970 epic triple album, All Things Must Pass. In the song, James’ vocals are rich with reverb and his acoustic guitar strumming is simple. This adds up to a haunting yet reassuring sound:

“Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this gray.”

No matter how beautiful or broken things may seem at any given time, remember: All things will eventually pass: heroes, heartbreak and 2016 included. — Craig Wright

“Stressed Out” by A Tribe Called Quest

The song title says it all.

While it’s true that “Stressed Out” is centered on the struggles of financial survival, it can also be applied to an assortment of daily stresses — like college.

Fall term has been a juggling act for me, eliciting a certain level of stress derived from taking on school and two jobs. I genuinely enjoy the work I do, and I cherish my education endlessly — but I would be lying if I said the balancing of these pursuits didn’t stress me out at times. OK, all the time.

Moreover, as a student nearing the end of my college career, the sentience of the “real world” inches closer and closer, perpetuating a lingering anxiety about the future. “Stressed Out” is a quintessential Tribe song, and for me it has consistently been a reliable source of soothing for any feelings of stress; it never fails to somehow boost personal morale, and Faith Evans’ silky voice on the chorus constructively replaces any feelings of stagnancy with those of reassurance. 

One of Q-Tip’s verses reads, “And the stresses of life can take you off the right path … we gotta hold it down so we can move on past / all adversities, so we can get through fast.”

But my recent inclinations to play “Stressed Out” on repeat represent a bigger picture because 2016 was a rather eventful year for A Tribe Called Quest. In March, the group lost one of its esteemed members, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, to complications with diabetes. Tribe has remained one of my favorite music groups, even since before I understood what their complex, evocative rhymes alluded to. But this tragic loss of a culturally influential and valued hip-hop artist inevitably spurred the resurgence of Tribe’s timeless music, and I developed a newfound appreciation of the group’s classic tracks during 2016. 

Additionally, on Nov. 11, Tribe released its sixth and final album We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. Although Phife Dawg made an appearance on a couple tracks before his death, the new album will stand as a farewell to the beloved artist. 

The group’s comeback is a potent reminder of its quintessential sound, recognizable in classics like “Stressed Out.” And for me, this song works its magic on a peculiarly deep and personal level: It is able to soothe my stress, which 2016 delivered in excess, by propelling me into the comfort of the past while simultaneously providing consolation from the future. It’s a song about stress that makes me forget my own, and it symbolizes my 2016. — Carleigh Oeth

“Franklin Avenue” by Jeremy Messersmith

One of my fondest and clearest memories of 2016 happened in the new year, on the Metro Transit Blue Line in Minneapolis. I was riding the light rail alone and feeling kind of down. I had started Jeremy Messersmith’s album The Silver City as I boarded the bus.

I thought that the album, my favorite album of all time, would maybe provide some comfort or some clarity as to what I was feeling. So I put it on, sat down in an empty seat and looked out as the city I love so dearly passed me by. 

Minutes later, as the train pulled into Franklin Avenue Station, Messersmith’s song about that very station began. As Messersmith sang, “Waiting for that sinking feeling/it’s all that keeps me together/and I’m so scared to let it unwind,” I began tearing up. As much as my idea of home and its greatness was holding me together, it was also holding me back.

I’m back in Minnesota for winter break, and listening to this song has taken on a new meaning as I walk the neighborhoods I still love. I can have two homes now; one just happens to have a Franklin Boulevard instead of an avenue. And actually, I’m pretty okay with that. — Sararosa Davies

“Cut Your Bangs” by Radiator Hospital

2016 was the year I got bangs and then promptly decided to grow them out, so Radiator Hospital’s “Cut Your Bangs” feels pretty applicable, and yet there’s more to this song than the title. It fits my mood as the end of 2016 comes into view. The beginning of college has been full of stops and starts for me. It’s a fun but jolty ride, almost like a roller coaster; luckily, it’s more comfortable than one of those rickety old wooden ones. 

This rendition of “Cut Your Bangs” fits that vibe. I’m usually one of those people who listen to music to change my mood or find a way out of what I’m feeling. In college, I’m finding that this habit is changing and that I want my music to be in tune with my life.

“Cut Your Bangs” fits all of the right moments. With its rollicky, circuital guitar and sunny drums, it’s a great song to dance around to in my dorm when my roommate isn’t there. The lyrics “You say you cut your bangs/I’m calling your bluff” feel right for moments that I’m not feeling great or an assignment is stressing me out.

The end of 2016 has been a mixed bag, but a fun one, too so to 2016 I say: “I’m calling your bluff.” You weren’t that bad all of the time, 2016. Just maybe some of it.  — Sararosa Davies

“Mad” by Solange feat. Lil Wayne

“We lived in the threat of death every day … I was just lost in this vacuum between integration and segregation and racism. That was my childhood. I was angry for years … very angry,” recalls Solange Knowles’ father in the interlude that plays before “Mad.” It’s rare to find an album like Solange’s A Seat At the Table, an exemplary 21-track protest-soul album filled with grace and emotional trauma. Its tracks are transposed with interludes of interviews with Solange’s family members talking about the black experience in America.

Solange covers a litany of issues: self-empowerment, malaise with the world, consent and how to numb the pain. In “Mad,” she challenges the social sentiment that frowns upon black women expressing anger. In the final line, she skewers the argument: “But I’m not really allowed to be mad.” It’s not just that she can’t openly confront what’s bothering her, since she’s doesn’t feel like she has the right to show it, so she’s still suppressing it all. — Emerson Malone

“You Disappear” by La Luz (released in 2015)

Surf-rock and the Pacific Northwest have never exactly been close allies, but La Luz is ripping that idea apart. This time last year, the band was not necessarily a household band name, but they seem to be charging toward this goal after appearances this year at Sasquatch! music festival, Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Oregon and a show at the WOW Hall in August.

Lyrically, “You Disappear” has about as much to do with surfing as with any other Olympic sport. In 2015, La Luz released Weirdo Shrine, which was produced by Ty Segall and literally recorded in an abandoned surfboard warehouse. The all-girl approach to a genre rife with masculinity is rich. Weirdo Shrine is dark and heady; you might expect that, since it was inspired by the graphic novel “Black Hole” by Charles Burns, wherein Seattle teenagers grow physical mutations after having sex.

La Luz exists somewhere in the overlap between the uneasy terror of the Charles Burns world and the vacuum left behind “Surfin’ Safari.” This gives some ominous subtext to lyrics like when Shana Cleveland sings in a forlorn tone, “Out in the ocean, our time is short and sweet / You disappear always, it doesn’t bother me.” — Emerson Malone

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Carleigh Oeth

Carleigh Oeth