As is custom, a new decade ushers in an abundance of ideas. It seemed as if every artist or band created some form of music this year and when it was good then hell, it was good. Album sales continue to peter off but somehow the creative process flourished. The album, a medium of conversation that critics felt was being eroded, is back as a talking social point across the world. This second part- of three parts-- looks at the very best of the year and features four hip/hop records. And there are more to come. This part also highlights singer/songwriters and bands that have held it together and are in their prime. Here we go:
11: Sharon van Etten
By track one (the brooding A Crime), van Etten has us hooked with her electro-folk musing and is not emitting a strong vibe that doesn’t appear to tire at all. It’s a stunning turn from her mostly instrumental debut that sounded like a woman chasing a broken heart. Epic is the sound of that realization met and now being dissected. Her improved efficiently is fiercely on show: D sharp G is lulled into a structured space that would’ve floundered previously. Peace Sign never caves into its repetition, instead it radiates strength. Don’t Do It does the craftily impossible: delivers a stinging but non-bitter examination of infidelity. When she croons, ‘and, you want to do it/ if you want to do it/ you will do it/ even if I don’t want you to’, its painfully but realistically faced. I haven’t even mentioned the heart-breaking effect of One Day, a track that features just her gorgeous voice with a guitar.
Body Talk: Series
The coolest Swede on the planet returns with a trio of dance/pop songs split up in three separate discs. While not everything is as booty-shaking as previous work, Robyn has uncovered some definite groove. Love Kills sounds like a 80s Madonna dust up and it works well. She reveals thuggish intent on U Should Know Better (‘even the Vatican knows better/ than to fuck with me’) but grabbing Snoop Dogg for the ride. Disc I is the most successful because it offloads the newest version of her pop style: the melodic intonation of Dancehall Queen and Dancing on My Own. Ethereal and Bjork-like on None of Them and Femot. Don’t Fucking tell Me What to Do is all her original sass though, laced up on an 808 groove.
13: Active Child
Curtis Lane EP
Active Child clearly believes in second opinions: after a less-than-stellar fill LP, he turns around and delivers this EP, a far more interesting concept. Buoyed around Wilderness, the flow of the opus is dreamy, ultra chillwave and compelling. Wilderness is the standout but it’s all uniformly good, with deep, brooding beats that show how complexity can be structurally broken down by sheer vocal work. When Your Love is Safe features a club feel juxtaposed to soaring vocals. Weight of the World minces the beats to showcase the music on show. Take Shelter has a haunting reverb propelling it above the average fare out there.
14: Black Milk
Album of the Year
It takes guts to title a body of work as album of the year but when one exudes confidence like Curtis Cross then who cares? The rapper is retro and now in his fourth reinvention. A transformation marred with pain after losing a close friend and nearly his manager to a stroke. Cross buries his pain with loud, jarring hip/hop beats and outsized collaborations (Over Again). Like his mentor Jay Dill, he’s never pessimistic though nor trying too hard to convey a mood. The music flows seamlessly along with his verbal barbs. Welcome (Gotta Go) ups the ante with a haunting sampled beat driving everything else and unearths an inevitable Kanye West comparison.
15: Cee-Lo Green
The Lady Killer
When I opined a few years ago that Gnarls Barkley was done as a group, many scoffed at the idea but, as both Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo have moved on I guess I was right after all. Cee-Lo’s talent is as immense as is his determination to remain in our sight. The Lady Killer tries too hard to be seen as what its not (to swoon the ladies)but when he just simply wants to rock then the results are at turn stunning (Bright Lights, Big City), affirming (I Want You) and groovy (It’s Ok). Lead single, Fuck You is where it all swings classiest though, because his disparate urges unite. And that voice, so reminiscent of Al Green, can shake one down to the core.
16: The National
The photo cover of High Violet features what looks like an ornate junk drive emitting fuzzy, colours and textures and that’s totally fitting, given the atmospherics on the album. The band has long established a solid rock base so they’re veterans now, polished and secure. In essence, one could see Grammy awards now aligned in the not to distant future. Lemonworld is the subtle two-step that U2 has been failing to replicate for years. Afraid of Everyone and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks explore a type of vulnerability that we rarely see a successful band expose. It’s to the National’s credit that in rummaging through their experience that they haven’t lost the human touch even while moving on.
Diverting slightly from his Microcastle-era recordings a bit have not hurt Bradford Cox but rather expanded his genius. Halcyon Digest is the work which most embodies his expansive idealism for a genre that, quite frankly, he is rapidly outgrowing. The opener Earthquake ripples with tiny electronic riffs and shards of guitar feedback to the point of unclassifiable beauty. The album is full of sadness however, the type that comes by spending way too much time alone (Basement Scene, Sailing). When he lifts the gloom then we get stompers like Coronado and Revival, stuffed with blissful horns and his gorgeous vocals. Everything pales though to the seven minute ending track He Would Have Laughed, a tribute to his friend the late Jay Electronica.
18: Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh
After getting some heavy analog shit off her chest, Badu reconnects to her Baduizm phase and it’s yet another wonderful effort. This is the victory lap segment of her riveting career but Badu’s mature posterity incites much clarity: Window Seat thus distances her while pleading for understanding simultaneously. Turn Me Away is a sweet, introspective look at her love life. Even when she borrows from others or her own past, Badu skilfully navigates the waters, as life. It’s interesting to hear her uncovering more while her contemporaries struggle to remain as relevant, as fresh. At times inspired, at times almost drunk on revivalism, Badu strolls out yet another winner.
Born in Kenya but raised in Ontario, Shad is basically the non-American version of Lupe Fiasco. That said when TSOL is on its shit then that comparison seems skewered. His clear, wry delineation of the black urban experience cuts through regions like a knife in hot butter: Telephone may lament about a ‘mixed bag’ then buries itself in a lovely sample but its shockingly real. It’s yet another old joint record but this is the best one of the year because his perspective isn’t chuffed up with flashy accessories...Shad’s too busy parting dollops of wisdom upon us (Yaa I Get It). Of course, Rose Garden is the highlight. It features his best line (‘those who have eyes/ should act like it’) and an infectious sample that grooves for days.
20: Wolf Parade
I could limit this mini review to just three words: Krug is back. Yes, let the bromance flow like good bubbly because Wolf Parade’s third opus is all about reliving their past lives. Cloud Shadow on the Mountain dusts up familiar territory while everything else rallies back to the 80s hard. Yulia and Pobody’s Nerfect both are down-tempo numbers, heavy on synths and an almost reggae beat. But it is Krug’s now trademark growl that snaps back everything into contemporary relevance: it shifts the ground that In the Direction of the Moon finally touches down on as well as the jittery suitability of Ghost Pressure. And even if this is really their last record together then it’s still a hell of a way to bow out.