The Key’s Year-End Mania: K. Ross Hoffman’s alternate reality chart-toppers of 2016

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The Monkees | still from video

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2016 incredible. Today, Key contributor K. Ross Hoffman imagines a world where these songs ruled the charts.

Sometimes reality just utterly fails to live up to even the most modest standards of reasonableness.  2016 was one of those times.  Or, actually, many of those times.  Fortunately, we music critics have a long-standing tradition of inventing alternate realities.  Granted, it’s mostly limited to the realm of the pop charts, which all things considered represented some of 2016’s lesser transgressions.  (Hey, the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” was only the #1 song in the country for a mere quarter of the year – it could have been worse!)  But just in case you feel like dreaming up a nicer, happier parallel universe version of 2016, you might as well have a re-tooled mainstream cultural soundtrack to go along with it.  Here are a few of the massively successful, inescapable smash hits of 2016… in my dreams.

of Montreal – “It’s Different For Girls”

Not to get too political – I’ve already stumped for Mavis Staples’ “Action” as a under-heralded, much-needed rallying cry for our times – but I really do wish we lived in a world where this one could top the charts, for so many reasons.  In case you’ve lost track of these merry indie-pop pranksters – the brainspawn of gender-warrior freak-flag fashionista Kevin Barnes, as devoted a Prince/Bowie disciple as we’ve got – somewhere among their past dozen albums or so, here’s the update: their 2016 full-length was kind of a mixed bag, but their technicolor, puppet-strewn Union Transfer gig in September was one of the most joyous experiences of my entire year, and this jam – which they played at beginning of their set and again at the end – was a gleaming highlight of both.  It might even be my favorite song with this title, and I really like the Joe Jackson one.

It’s both Barnes’ catchiest, most straight-ahead pop song (and song title) in about a decade – all rubbery basslines, candied synths, afropop-tinged guitars and dreamy harmonies – and also one of his (and 2016’s) sharpest political statements: a litany of binary sexisms (“they’ve built miles of defenses/they’re not numbed by oppression”) that touches on some crucial, profound truths virtually never discussed in pop music (or pop culture in general.)  Notably, it has at least as much to say about noxious “aggro-prick” male social conditioning as women’s subjugation – observing, for instance, that (in contradistinction to men/boys) women “…don’t have to size up every person they meet / or create an elite / or poison the game so no one else can compete.”  On second thought, could we have a universe where this song just doesn’t make any sense?

The Monkees – “You Bring The Summer”

Hey, the Monkees are pretty popular, right?  Their absurdly good new album (the first in twenty years) came out in May, so we’ve had to wait quite a while for the proper season to enjoy this pure jangle-pop gem.  See, it’s a winter song disguised as a summer song.  Or something.  Is it a song for all seasons?  More improbable (and more relevant to this song’s greatness) than listening to the Monkees in 2016 is the rare emergence of Andy Partridge – the hermitic melody-god behind all-time great fantasy-world hitmakers XTC – who wrote this one to sound exactly like an XTC song, before Fountain of Wayne Adam Schlesinger produced it to sound even more so.  Which makes it an unabashed ‘10s pastiche of an ‘80s revival of the ‘60s, as performed by actual ’60s popstars.  Wait, which is the real reality again?

D.R.A.M. – “Cash Machine”

Broccoli” is getting plenty of (well deserved) year-end love – and actually did make it to #5 on the charts, despite its unrepentent weirdness – and “Cute” probably deserves more too, but this one is just such a ridiculous rush.  It’s a love song directed toward his cash machine!  (Amazing.)  It samples the sound of an ATM spitting out bills!  (Why hasn’t anybody done that already?!)  (Wait, so does he have, like, his own private ATM?)  It also samples Ray Charles way better than Kanye West ever did.  (And yet just as blatantly and idiotically.)

To be honest, probably anybody could have made a stupidly cheery, infectious banger given this beat (just try not bouncing to it…) – which also, accordingly, makes DRAM’s boasting feel a lot more good-natured than it probably would otherwise.  Still, he’s got some great lines here: “My credit card is a plastic bankroll.”  Plus it’s just nice to hear somebody bragging about their stacks and knowing they earned it all by Doing Real Ass Music.

Maren Morris – “80s Mercedes”

The second single from this theoretically-country breakout “star-let” is currently sitting at #90 – appropriate! – in the Hot 100, and presumably rising (it’s top 20 in the country charts), so there’s some possibility it could become an Actual Reality Chart-Topper of 2017 – also, she was recently on SNL, and she’s already sold out a February gig at the TLA – but it’s been a go-to cruising jam in my personal universe since the summer.  Nothing too complicated here…just a girl and her car.  Morris has got quite a way with brilliantly preposterous lines (her crush is like “a Coca-cola on Christmas Day”; her idea of opulence is “me and Diddy dripping diamonds like Marilyn”) and this song has no shortage of them – but it’s the crucial central chorus line that really clinches it: “I’m a 90s baby in my 80s Mercedes.”  Even if, by the way, Morris is only just barely a ’90s baby – fun fact: she’s only four months younger than Taylor “1989” Swift (whom I first saw as an opening act for Keith Urban…which just-so-happened to be Morris’ gig for much of 2016.)  Also, btw, in no way is this a country song. 

Allo Darlin – “Hymn on the 45”

Of all the great musical losses we suffered this year, nothing hit quite as close to home for me as learning that the muffinhearted indie-pop geniuses Allo Darlin’, one of my absolute favorite bands of this decade, have broken up.  This, the A-side of their final 7” single, is a worthy addition to the ranks of “Tallulah,” “My Heart is a Drummer,” “Neil Armstrong,” “Crickets in the Rain” or (seasonal classic) “Will You Please Spend New Year’s With Me?” – which both cushions the blow and also makes it sting that much more.  (Okay, not to get too weepy about it all: breaking up amicably so they can focus on being parents – and also because Elizabeth Morris lives in Florence now – isn’t exactly the worst way to go out.  But, you know, amicable break-ups still suck.)

If you’ve never heard (of) them before – this new song also a very suitable introduction to what they do best.  Like all of their songs, or at least the great ones, it’s nothing more or less than a sweet, simple anthem for anybody who believes that love and/or pop music are more important and more real than things like “success” and/or “growing up.”  Amen to that.  Turn it up, baby!!

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