Saturday, December 17, 2016
A strong year for albums ends with a new year-end champ:
1.Frank Ocean Blonde: ever since Channel Orange and his sexuality became public knowledge four years ago, the music world have eagerly awaited Ocean’s next move. Blonde is a natural progression but Ben Beaumont-Thomas sums it up best for The Guardian online when he states that Blonde represents the psychic reality of 251st century youth culture. I’d go a step further and add queer fluidity to that. Blonde, with its ambivalent cover and alternative spelling, is unabashedly gay or, more correctly, not totally straight. Ocean gets his listeners so well because he reflects the same nervousness and insecurities and that transcends race and sexuality. All that frustration to compress individuality into the grand social acceptance boils over into the remarkable closing track, Futura Free, where he breaks down, strips his façade away and steps into full sublime mode.
2. Esperanza Spalding Emily’s D + Evolution: in a year dominated by the Knowles sisters, leave it to Spalding to release an album that combines the attitude and personal politics of both to present a superior album. Heavy, fink grooves run wild juxtaposed to her empowering lyrics. Emily’s D + Evolution is the result of a two year hiatus from music but given how perfect the first 7 tracks are, you’d never know. If the album catches its break after that magical opening breath it is just to catch a quick sip to press on.
3. Danny Brown Atrocity Exhibition: after two very different types of albums, one wondered which Danny Brown would be trotted out this year and I’m pleased to see that alien-Danny is just as intriguing. Atrocity Exhibition populates its spaces with a lot of proto-funk and braggadocio, two things he’s never been short of but he’s cutting it so much harder this time. Strains of Outkast and rock can be heard but clown Danny is in there too.
4. Kendrick Lamar Untitled Unmastered: fresh from repositions black culture last year with To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar now tosses out that album’s discarded tracks and it’s like a treasure trove of gems. In fact, I’m not sure how other artists can listen to these “rejects” and not have a sinking feeling that they’ll never put anything out half as good ( here’s looking at you J. Cole).
5. A Tribe Called Quest We Got It From Here…Thanks 4 Your Service: you know an album is elite when it draws out Busts Rhymes’ best work in decades (Mobius) and. Like D’angelo, there was a long gap between this and the last album and yet again it was well worth the wait. While waiting, Q-tip and company have updated their references and tackled new fights—even if the enemies remain the same. The Black Lives Matter struggle, xenophobia and identity crises all get thrown in. We Got It From Here…never tries to assimilate into the culture however but merely adds its piece, respectfully but forcefully.
6. David Bowie Blackstar: In avoiding making another rock album—by producer Tony Visconti’s own admission—David Bowie has surreptitiously turned into a new type of star at 69, the type that eludes the folly of his peers because he’s not trying to sound cool, he just fucking is cool. And that’s by not committing the often-made mistake of ripping his former self off or fronting with whichever flavor of the month musician is around. No, Bowie has simply reinvented himself and trusted that we’re open to his ongoing evolution.
7. Mitski Puberty 2: let’s get the St. Vincent comparisons out of the way first: both women approach pop similarly but Mitski drags her nails in mud doing so---which works out rather deliciously on nerdy hits like Happy and Dan The Dancer. She never loses focus though, which makes this album a grower.
8. Radiohead A Pool Shaped Moon: with their ninth album, Radiohead reminds us that no one does ghost rock quite like them and perhaps no other band ever will. It’s common knowledge that a lot of these songs have been around in some shape or form for at least 15 years now—a long gestation period—but that’s the charm of them, of a band that’s never wavered from an aesthetic we’ve come to love and appreciate as totally peerless sand high end.
9. Pusha T Darkest Before Dawn: nearly a year after its release, Darkest Before Dawn has not lost any of its potency, especially now in this Trump America. The gritty lyrics compliment the reality in the world’s super power…an unflinching personal view on greed and power.
10. Anderson .Paak Malibu: Anderson .Paak not only looks like an old soul but he sounds it too on the phenomenal Malibu, the album that has proven to be his breakthrough. A track-list that runs 16 songs could prove daunting but enough cornbread funk is here along with his sense of timing: listen to the precision that marks Come Down and see that this kat ain’t leaving anything to chance.
Friday, December 16, 2016
Here at last is the final section--closing out the year with history: for the first time since I started this list in 2007, one artist has successive songs topping the list (Kendrick Lamar).
Lamar, by virtue of claiming the top spot, now is the first artist on my lists to have two #1 songs....
It's been a titanic year for him but the rest as well. Here goes:
1.No More Parties In L.A. (Kanye West feat. Kendrick Lamar): for every Kanye hater out there desperately trying to convince us he’s washed up, here’s the track that proves them wrong. So, why is No More Parties In L.A. so memorable? Well, it’s not, oddly enough, Kendrick in spite of him shouting out the song’s most iconic line (“Instagram is the best way to promote some pussy…”) but rather the return of Kanye’s braggadocio. And I’m not talking about his post-MBDTF sexual agitation but rather his internal battle method of spilling the tea while burning everything to cinders around him.
2. Goose Eggs (Joanna Newsom): with the uproar over Dylan winning the Nobel literature prize for song lyrics this year, it gives me hope that Newsom will be thus recognized one day. Here’s another amazing tour-de-force.
3.Untitled 01(Kendrick Lamar):who can forget this song’s debut at the Grammys? No one knew where it was from or the words but that didn’t prevent everyone from singing along. That’s the power of Kendrick, even while his spitfire verses are sandwiched by other weird abstraction.
4. Walkway Blues (M83): who knew Anthony Gonzales has so much soul in him?
5. Happy (Mitski): the title might be happy but the DNA of this brilliant track is filled with sadness.
6. Come Down (Anderson .Paak): with all respect to Bruno Mars’ talent, he’s never produced a track like Come Down, a song so encased in 70s funk yet totally original.
7. Good Lava (Esperanza Spalding): fully embracing a transformation from full jazz to funk mix, Spalding pulls off the year’s sweetest surprise.
8. Nikes (Frank Ocean): the new hustler’s anthem.
9. Home (St. Lucia): electronic hi-claps never sounded so retro so great.
10. Identikit (Radiohead): been knocking around for some time now but Yorke finally gives it the perfect ghostly sound.
11. Lifetime Achievement Award (Lemon Demon): there’s a reason why many artists refrain from crazy pop---not many are crazy-sounding enough to pull it off but here Lemon Demon après Kevin Barnes all the way to the line.
12. Formation(Beyonce): a lot has been made of its provocative music video but the lyrical poison unleashed from Beyonce literally starts from the get-go. A line like, “when he fucks me good/ I take his ass to Red Lobster” could have been all types of wrong but here it’s a sign of a 21st century feminist statement.
13. Nights (Frank Ocean): another dark assessment of how young people hook up and interact with each other afterwards.
14. F.I.F.A. (Pusha T): given the recent brouhaha with football’s top governing body, this could be a sly acknowledgement of it.
15. Solo/ Solo (Reprise) (Frank Ocean & feat. Andre 3000): two interpretations of one remarkable idea: Ocean, over a spare breezy hook, explains to a friend why his woman is so vital to him while the other has Andre 3000 explaining why—as the friend-- it’s so hard for males to relate to what women go through with stunning vocal acrobatics.
16. Bone + Tissue (Gallant): it’s so rare to hear a great pure R&B song anymore but thanks to Gallant, I no longer have to wonder.
17. Sweet Design (Sia): I can bet Jennifer Lopez is kicking herself for passing on this gem because aided by sampling Thong Song, Sia rides it to a winner.
18. Feisty Chat (Popcaan): insane beat!
19. Really Doe (Danny Brown feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt): the kind of great hip/hop collective effort we’ve come to expect every year and it doesn’t disappoint.
20. We The People (A Tribe Called Quest): as if tracking Trump’s rise to the presidency, Q-tip assesses what will follow, including immigrants, Muslims and gays not being welcome in America because Trump’s supporters will feel empowered to expel them.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
getting closer to the moment of truth...
11. Gallant Ology: Christopher Gallant has been knocking on the door for two years now but nothing could have prepared us for his command of the stunning urban R&B tracks like opener, “Talking To Myself”, “Shotgun” and spectral delight of “Weight In Gold”. No one really does pure R&B anymore but it’s so nice to experience this semblance of beats, hi-claps and production that so many other famous stars just can’t seem to get right.
12. Emma Pollock In Search Of Harperfield: finally finding steady footing, Pollock has reigned in her straying aesthetic and now luxuriates into her folk/pop ditties. This is confident yet upbeat. Songs like Vacant Stare and standout Don’t Make Me Wait are timeless, sunny expositions of a time when the genre experiments and works.
13. Chance The Rapper Colouring Book: expanding his scope, Chance now bounces an almost-religious vibe to go with the texture of his music and, irrespective of the guest verses, he remains on point. Unlike other artists, Colouring Book doesn’t sacrifice its beats for art, but juxtaposes them into a stunning production template.
14. Childish Gambino Awaken, My Love: no longer merely a rapper, Glover embraces the past (specifically 1970s funk) in order to forge a wild present state of mind. If the fact that Atlanta has repositioned the black experience in contemporary America, consider Awaken, My Love the reluctant distant cousin trying to get one last retro delight off before reality sets in.
15. Solange A Seat At The Table: two things struck me immediately upon researching Solange: one, she’s thirty and two, she’s been married twice. Though we’ve been aware of Beyonce’s sister in bits and pieces, 2016 was the year when she became a real artist to us and not just some cool oddity or elevator folklore. A Seat At The Table is a grown woman’s record, not some flirtatious treat but a sobering, introspective piece of what it’s like to wait for recognition and calmly accept it when it finally comes along.
16. James Vincent McMorrow We Move: the Irish singer-songwriter, following the Justin Vernon model, brings soul to acoustics and a convincing falsetto. The soul aspect is reinforced as well by the fact that dvsn mastermind, Nineteen85 helped shape the structure of the album. In the process, both men have produced the chef d’ouvre James Blake has been trying to release for the past five years now. Don’t believe me? Try listening to the serene “Surreal” and not thinking that it’s Blake singing.
17. Shearwater Jet Plane And Ox Bow: eight albums in and Jonathan Meiburg has his Bowie-esque sound down pat. Here though the band has embraced its inner-Americana to stunning results. The first half is packed with the soundtrack of underground rock, while what follows it is typical of journey bands filling mid-sized stadia with loud, raucous fans cheering on, hooked on every line.
18. Blood Orange Freetown Sound: sometimes it takes a truly gifted artist a while to settle in their skin and its always when they turn inside for inspiration, that’s when the magic happens. Enter Dev Hynes, songwriter to other stars, but now egged on by the Black Lives Matter movement and his own experience with prejudice, Freetown Sound clap backs viscerally: silky smooth grooves juxtaposed to that distinct quivering vocal style of tales of endless questioning.
19. Kanye West The Life Of Pablo: love him or hate him, one thing Kanye West is isn’t boring. And now that we have his politics beating outside his heart, it clarifies the schizophrenic turn that his music has taken since the start of the decade. Ever the innovator, West stepped back on TLOP and others took control while he span a little out of control---only to resume the reins and rescued himself.
20. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam I Had A Dream That You Were Mine: one of the most important things for a musician to know, if a part of a collective, is to time their departure for other creative ventures. Leithauser (The Walkmen) and Batmangliij (Vampire Weekend) are two such examples: fresh from respective departures come shopworn yet exciting songs.
Monday, December 12, 2016
As we close the imperfect year that was 2016, musically, it can't be said not to be relevant to pop culture. The black community continues to inspire its superstars to dig deep and unearth catchy yet socio-political anthems. Even more poignant is the fact that art continues to sopldier on in the face of great oppression and, alas, even death...
21. The Frightnrs Nothing More To Say: it’s been a year of releases with heartbreak in them and the story behind The Frightnrs lead singer, Dan Klein, is one such story. He died before Nothing More To Say would be out in the public domain but his battle with ALS is undetected here. Here he sounds like Sublime two decades earlier tearing into Jamaican ska without the self consciousness that usually limits a lot of American artists.
22. Rihanna Anti: eight albums in and finally Rihanna releases at entire body of work that is cohesive vis-à-vis showy singles. Whereas Beyonce is enraged on Lemonade, Rhi Rhi is lost in nostalgia and it’s fascinating that her thought process takes her back to the sounds of her youth: 1990s R&B and alternative. She’s never relied on vocals so much before but there it is in all its glory on Love On The Brain and Higher, tracks that show her huge, if understated jump in maturity.
23. Beyonce Lemonade: Lemonade aka the clap back was foreshadowed by Beyonce’s last album---a grown woman’s celebration of her married life. Now comes the sobering up and realization that the marriage isn’t perfect and at least one side-chick’s involved.
24. Bon Iver 22, A Million: and now for something new. Out of nowhere Justin Vernon eliminates the cabin-in-the-woods folk for electronic twitches but he can’t ditch that soul---it’s resplendent on tracks like 8 circle and 33 GOD. But the defining trait of the album is Vernon’s insistence not to remain in an established mode, daring us to take this unsettling journey with him.
25. Angel Olsen My Woman: three albums in and Olsen finally has released the music equivalent of Fear Of Flying, a feminist statement that doesn’t seek to overpower but explore in depth of emotions, uncertainties and piques of the young female thinking process. Olsen said that My Woman addresses "the complicated mess of being a woman” and on that score as well as in every regard, it’s a smashing success.
26. Lemon Demon Spirit Phone: while Kevin Barnes continues to struggle with identification, meet Neil Cicierega, Kevin Barnes Version 2.0. Spirit Phone is at turns poignant, hopeful, sad and comical---all the thing Barnes’ group, Of Montreal used to be.
27. Bayonne Primitives: in 2009 when Animal Collective gave the world their masterpiece, Merriweather Post Pavillion, I stated that its influence would rise to the fore and here, seven years later, Roger Sellers is the proof. Hailing from Austin, Texas, Sellers is the type of fascinating DIY underground freak-folk artist who McGuyvers music---looks around a room, sees what instruments and clime he has to work with, and gets to work.
28. St. Lenox Ten Hymns From My American Gothic: Andrew Choi is of Korean descent, that’s pretty much what this album is about: exploring what that means in America. It’s a lovely pop geographical lesson, one that reflects as much what people expect coming into the free democratic world and what they choose to get influenced by.
29. Radkey Delicious Rock Noise: there’s no doubt Americans are currently cooling on rock, hard rock even more so but Radkey hasn’t got the memo. Thankfully too: Delicious Rock Noise is aptly titled---with its glorious crunching guitars and catchable hooks. Fresh from a sophomore slump but now they’re back with a vengeance.
30. Schoolboy Q Blank Face: the reign of TDE continues or the streak of snappy albums at any case. Blank Face may not reach the highest heights but prior to its release, the singles that were bandied around had me worried Q was about to crash. Luckily he had a make-it-work moment and instead we have a crisp production running throughout his every thought.