All things considered, 2016 was a pretty great year in my career as a casual music listener. The year saw me deepening my tastes in avenues such as metal, jazz, and bonafide Japanese music (as opposed to music that simply plasters Japanese imagery all over its album art). I partially credit that to my move to Japan, though as always, most of the new music I discovered this year was within the borders of cyberspace.
This list has a single rule—only one track per artist. (Otherwise there’d be more Babymetal on here than I’m proud to admit.) Okay, let’s get started!
15. Crystal Castles – Char
This track’s disorienting synths and ethereal vocals resulted in the standout moment of Crystal Castle’s otherwise disappointing new album, Amnesty (I). Let’s hope that the inevitable Amnesty (II) contains more haunting bangers like this.
14. Underscores – Null
Underscores’ genre-bending Air Freshener was one of the most exciting EPs I heard this year. The music fluidly hops between wildly divergent jazz and electronic styles without any of the jarring discordance you might expect.
13. WONK – savior
This Tokyo-based “experimental soul band” manages to combine jazz and electronic sounds in a manner not unlike Underscores, but with the added bonus of vocals that fit perfectly into the band’s warm keyboards and virtuosic drumming.
12. Babymetal – Karate
Once you move past the gimmick of “little girls playing in a heavy metal band,” Babymetal provides some bafflingly enjoyable pop metal. (Wikipedia tells me to call this “kawaii metal,” but I refuse to propagate that term.) Don’t be one of the many who dismiss this band based on its premise alone—Metal Resistance ended up being one of my most replayed albums this year.
11. NVDES – My Mind Is (feat. Oliver Tree)
The infectious bassline that propels this track from start to finish is more than enough to forgive the track’s relentless noisiness. Throw this on at your next college party.
10. Vantage – Breaking Away
Yes, vaporwave was still a “thing” in 2016, but the best tracks to come from the genre sounded increasingly less like “slowed down elevator music played from a malfunctioning tape deck” and more like “French house for weeaboos.” Hey, I don’t mind. Vantage’s ナイトライフ [Night Life] EP was evidence that there are plenty of great samples left to be mined from the sounds of 1980s Japanese “city pop.” “Breaking Away” in particular is a high-energy jam propelled along by emotional strings and a relentless disco bassline.
9. Kero Kero Bonito- Graduation
Silly, bilingual lyrics and tongue-in-cheek (but tight) production has been a staple of Kero Kero Bonito’s music from the beginning, but they really hit their stride with this year’s Bonito Generation.
8. 水曜日のカンパネラ [Wednesday Campanella] – アラジン [Aladdin]
“Shining for you! I scrub for you!” There’s nothing about this Japanese dance-pop cut that isn’t fun.
7. Disclosure – BOSS
As much as I love the kind of obnoxious, vapid EDM that’s blasted across neon-colored festival grounds, it’s nice to know that there still groups like Disclosure out there making high-energy yet soulful dance tracks like “BOSS.”
6. Skrillex – Purple Lamborghini
There’s a point in the film Suicide Squad where an incomplete version of this song plays muffled in the background of a nightclub scene—and yet that mere taste of the track cemented that scene as my favorite of the movie. Hearing the full version unhampered by the film is… well, I’ll let you experience it. This is the sort of song that I imagine sounds even better blaring out of the speakers of a yacht while you and DJ Khaled smoke cigars and fire Uzis into the sky.
5. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
Bruno Mars once again proves himself to be one of the strongest songwriters in pop music today. “24K Magic” is unapologetic retro-funk fun. Also, bonus points for bringing back the talk box. #blessed
4. Beenzino – Dali, Van, Picasso
I know very little about Korean music, but this smooth, smooth track from rapper Beenzino makes me think I should do something to change that.
3. YUC’e – Future Candy (short ver.)
And now for the most out of left field pick on this list: “Future Candy (short ver.),” a wonderfully overwhelming barrage of pixie-dust-covered chaos. It’s over in two minutes, but not before blowing your mind three or four separate times in the process.
2. Green Day – Forever Now
This multi-part slacker’s anthem harkens back to Green Day’s best album—and no, I’m not referring to Dookie. “Forever Now,” along with the strong singles off this year’s Revolution Radio, gives me hope that Green Day might still have it in them to write an album to rival American Idiot.
1. Justice – Safe and Sound
2016 was a particularly divisive year, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the world needs more dirty, French disco music. Justice sought to remedy that with their new album, Woman, which ended up falling short of expectations—expectations set by this monster of a leading single. “Safe and Sound” layers a choral hook over the SLAPPIEST damn bass line I heard all year. If 2017 gives us more tracks like this, I’ll be happy.