Archive | December, 2018

The Top Five Albums of 2018 – Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

There’s been a lot of great music in this year, from sources both expected and previously unknown. It took quite some effort to bring the list down to just five, but these are the five that we think you should definitely listen to when ringing out the new year.

5. Chris – Christine and the Queens

Musically, Chris is a throwback. This album sounds like nothing as much as an escapee from the pop / R&B charts of the 80s and a very good one at that. It’s upbeat music with lots of interesting little quirks. It is not just effortless, but actively fun, to flow with this album and it’s embedded with myriad little flourishes that delight.

What truly elevates it though is the modernity it brings. While the structure is that of Michael and Madonna, the album is clearly something of 2018, both musically and, more strongly, lyrically. Héloïse Létissier’s alter-ego Chris explores the edges of modern femininity with intelligence and complexity. The character is strong and sensual but vulnerable and human. She’s a full person and she makes this one of the most vivid albums of the year.

4. KIDS SEE GHOSTS – KIDS SEE GHOSTS

Kanye has had an interesting year to say the least, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re just going to talk about the best of the series of seven-song mini-albums. Kids See Ghosts finally brings Kid Cudi out of the rut that his last few albums found him in and gives Kanye the grounding and focus that he’s lacked for a few years now. The two of them have a history of bringing out the best of each other and this album is the culmination of that relationship.

The rock-flavored rap of Cudi has exploded of late, but most of the current practitioners are somehow substantially more emo than Cudi ever was. It’s refreshing to see a return to his more straightforward, guitar-focused strain with this album. His deep voice and the thrum of his humming have always been his greatest strength and Kanye’s flat-edged rapping cuts right through it beautifully.

This album is a spiritual experience and clearly built to be so. “Reborn” evokes the kind of devotional feeling most religious ceremonies can only grasp at. The strength, the upliftment and the humanity of the song and the album as a whole transcends the human and reaches the divine.

Read our full review here.

3. Room 25 – Noname

Room 25  is easily the most unique album of this list and of this year. I’ve never heard anything like Noname’s blend of laid-back rap, jazz and soul before and I doubt that I will again until her next album.

Her technical skill is astounding. She takes rapid, layered lines and delivers them with a staggering nonchalance. She’s even able to mix a little laughter into the lines that she goes through at a blazing pace.

It’s not a loud album. It doesn’t need to beat you over the head with its merits. It just does what it wants to do and it does it extremely well.

Read our full review here.

2. MUDBOY – Sheck Wes

MUDBOY is basically the opposite of Room 25 in every aspect but quality and innovation. Where Room 25 is gentle and intricate and relaxing though, MUDBOY is pounding and blunt and arousing.

This is a rough and uncompromising album. It bludgeons you with ideas and innovations relentlessly. It’s also just really good rap. “Mo Bamba” is not just a viral hit, it’s the most exciting song in rap this year. He doesn’t need any kind of ornateness in this album, it’s just straightforward and strong.

I don’t actually expect to see this start a new trend in rap just because of how unique Sheck Wes’ sound is. Imitating him is not a task for the weak. Instead, we’re going to have to leave it to the man himself to show us what’s next for the most interesting music of the year.

Read our full review here.

1. Both Directions At Once – John Coltrane

Both Directions At Once was the album that I was most excited about this year and it delivered fully on that hope. Recently discovered in a copy given to his first wife, this album found Trane in the middle of that fertile period around My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. It never got the full release that his classics of the time obtained and so is quite naturally rough, but the brilliance here is undeniable.

His early takes on “Impressions” are fascinating not just for what they would become, but for the music that they were in the moment. It’s clear that this is a transitional period for Trane. He still has some of the pop sound of My Favorite Things here in “Nature Boy” and “Villa”, which may not be as challenging as the rest, but are still excellent.

The Untitled Originals are all intriguing. His variations on 11386 are all thought-provoking in different ways, Take 2 is exploratory and Take 5 is playful. They are elegant and unexpected and so beautiful.

There’s a clear difference between Both Directions At Once and the masterpieces that Trane actually released in those fertile years of the late 50s and early 60s, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is an album of tremendous intelligence and my easy pick for album of the year.

Read our full review here.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2018: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

In more ways than one, 2018 has been an interesting time to be alive. One thing to be thankful for, though: there’s been some great music this year. There have been knock-out debuts, surprising self-one-ups from established artists, and some fantastic soundtrack albums. Suffice it to say, it was a tough exercise to whittle down this year’s music to the top five albums below. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

5. Sweetener – Ariana Grande

With three well-received albums under her belt, Ariana Grande is not a new name in pop music. On her fourth album Sweetener, she has really elevated her craft. With heartfelt, self-written lyrics and a greater focus on her glossy vocals, Sweetener is Ariana’s best album so far. It’s also the best pop album of the year, essentially because it was able to capture zeitgeist genres – trap, hip-hop, R&B – and adapt them into veritable pop songs.

Take, for example, the ubiquitous “God is a woman”. At its core, with deliberate and hypnotic beats, it’s a trap song; but Ariana flips it around to a surprisingly effective message of female empowerment. “breathin’” could pass for a mid-tempo dance song; listen closely, though, and it’s a well-penned mantra for positive mental health. On “no tears left to cry”, synth beats and perky vocals belie a tragic backstory: the track is her direct response to the 2017 Manchester bombing at her concert that killed tens and injured hundreds.

All things considered, it’s no wonder that Sweetener created a whole legion of new Ariana fans. Her next album thank u, next is reportedly already in the works – we can’t wait!

Best songs: “God is a woman”, “breathin’”, “no tears left to cry”

4. Albert Hammond Jr. – Francis Trouble

As we talked about in our full-length review, Francis Trouble has an intriguing backstory. Albert Hammond Jr. (guitarist for the Strokes) had a twin called Francis who died in the womb; Albert apparently created this project as an artistic rendition of the ill-fated Francis’ life. The result is a rambunctious, inspired and fun album that sparkles with the spirit of a man who’s happy to be alive – even if it’s only on this record.

Long-time Strokes fans should be able to quickly read the subtext here. Hammond was a high-functioning drug addict throughout the Strokes’ heyday in the early aughts before finally sobering up a couple of years ago. On Francis Trouble, the opportunity to explore Francis’ would-be life seems to have given Albert a fresh appreciation for his own new lease on life.

If you’ve got 36 minutes to spare in your day, we suggest you go ahead and listen to the entirety of this gem of an album. If not – start off with “Set to Attack” and we’re sure you’d want to hear more.

Read our full review here.

Best songs: “Set to Attack”, “Muted Beatings”, “Tea for Two”

3. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer

Dirty Computer, the third full-length album from Janelle Monae, is her most accessible album so far. While her debut (The ArchAndroid) and sophomore album (Electric Lady) featured heady themes of a cyborg-populated dystopia, Monae takes it down a notch here with more direct storytelling. The result is a great pop-funk album that does justice to Monae’s lovely voice.

But even on the most accessible tracks, Monae’s incredible creativity shines through. “Make Me Feel” (President Obama pick for 2018!) is a sexy funk hit with a catchy, sing-along chorus that would make Prince proud. “I Like That” is a lovely R&B hit that honestly should receive far more coverage than anything Beyonce releases. And “Pynk”, featuring the electronic artist Grimes, may seem saccharine on the surface, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek, never-before-seen take on femininity.

Dirty Computer is funky, spunky and just plain enjoyable. Maybe one of these days, Janelle Monae will finally get the adulation she has always deserved.

Read our full review here.

Best tracks: “Pynk”, “Make Me Feel”, “I Like That”  

2. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B is everywhere this year, from guest spots on high profile songs to her own record-breaking list of chart toppers. We know this for sure: the Bronx native is not a one-time wonder.

Cardi is a shape-shifter – from stripper to social media star to reality TV hit to rapper – and it’s her ability to draw a common line across these phases that makes Invasion of Privacy an incredible album. Invasion overflows with swagger, great beats and surprising honesty; it’s almost hard to believe that it’s a debut album.

Commercial hits like “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” (another Obama pick) have cemented her status as the new reigning queen of popular music, but it’s the truth-spitting lyrics on “Get Up 10” and “Be Careful” that stay with you for much longer.

Read our full review here.

Best tracks: “Bodak Yellow”, “I Like It”, “Get Up 10”

1. The Voidz – Virtue

If you’ve made it this far and you’re surprised that we chose this relatively unknown album as our top pick, let us explain.

Virtue is old-school. It’s the kind of album that lures you in with an affable track – maybe “Leave It In My Dreams” – and fifteen listens later, you have a personal relationship with every single song on there. It’s rich, diverse, creative and endlessly gratifying in a way that very few modern-day albums are.

The Voidz, fronted by the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, are as eclectic as they come, so it’s no wonder that Virtue is an astounding mishmash of genres, styles and influences. There’s plenty of Strokes on here, from the friendly pop of “Wink” to the subtly mysterious “AlieNNatioN”. There’s some understated moments – like the sweet Mac DeMarco-esque “Lazy Boy” or the dreamy jazz on “Pink Ocean”. But perhaps nothing defines Virtue better than the bonkers Middle Eastern-synth-dance-pop vibes on “QYURRYUS”. (If you’ve never heard those words hyphenated together, it’s because there is no other music like this song and we’re trying our best to describe it in text.)

Just trust us on this. Virtue is one of those albums that gets you to view music itself in an entirely different light. Thank us later!

Read our full review here.

Best songs: “Leave It in My Dreams”, “QYURRYUS”, “All Wordz Are Made Up”

The Top Five Songs of 2018: Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

You might have heard a few of our top five songs on the radio; a couple are famous for their blockbuster music videos. All of them, though, have made our year that much better, and we’re excited to share them with you. Read on for our top picks!

5. “Nice for What” by Drake

The women in this Dreezy hit from 2018’s Scorpion work hard and party harder. They don’t get bogged down by bad partners; they put in their best from 8 to 5 and don’t feel guilty to hit the club later at night. With hypnotic beats, a sunny outlook and endearing lyrics, “Nice for What” is a feel-good female empowerment song from a totally unexpected source – a male rapper.

A special shout-out is warranted for the song’s excellent music video featuring some real women role models. Issa Rae, the black writer-actor behind HBO’s Insecure, leads suited-and-booted men in a neon-green jumpsuit. Zoe Saldana, who plays a superhuman fighter in the Marvel Universe, is a doting mom to her young children. Letitia Wright, the scientist-princess from Black Panther, dusts the dirt off her bright red jacket. Like the song itself, the music video captures the true happiness and optimism that comes from being an independent, hard-working woman. And we are here for it.

4. “QYURRYUS” by The Voidz

Tyranny, the debut album from The Voidz, was a genre-defying exploration of eclecticism, peaking with an eleven-minute amorphous beast called “Human Sadness”. On this year’s follow-up Virtue (full review here), The Voidz have sharply toned down the weirdness for a much more accessible album. “QYURRYUS” (pronounced “curious”), though, does not fit into that formula – or any formula, really.

There are no precise words to describe what this song is because there are no others like it. Familiar-sounding synth beats dissipate in the first five seconds into an imagining of what Rammstein, for example, might sound like if they were a belly-dancing nomadic tribe. Julian Casablancas’ strange, indecipherable vocals could be viewed as a musical instrument on their own. The chorus sounds like a robot attempting to create a Bollywood song. Somehow, miraculously, it’s a catchy song, too.

File this one under its own damn category because there isn’t going to be anything like this anyway.

3. “Set to Attack” by Albert Hammond Jr.

In our opinion, the best songs are the ones that can change your mood just by listening to them. “Set to Attack”, the highlight of Albert Hammond Jr.’s fantastic Francis Trouble (full review here), is just that kind of song.

With an achingly nostalgic mix of early Beatles and early Strokes, “Set to Attack” is a sweet, simple ditty about the trials of young love. “I was still hoping that you were the victory / To what had felt like love,” croons Hammond, taking us back to a time when you could know and feel all the words on a love song.

“Set to Attack” is a little happy, a little sad, but ultimately impossible to not love. An instant classic.

2. “SICKO MODE” by Travis Scott feat. Drake

Travis Scott’s new album, Astroworld, is a tribute to a now-closed, much-beloved amusement park in his hometown of Houston. “SICKO MODE”, the stand-out track from that album, is an inspired, three-part roller coaster of a ride that shows why Scott is a cut above the rest.

“SICKO MODE” is so packed with surprises that it might give you whiplash. Drake lays the intro in a verse that seems to build up to a beat drop – except it doesn’t. Travis takes over with two verses of hypnotic flow that lull you until he swerves again, with sludgy beats that lead into a dizzying new section. A few seconds before the end, the tempo abruptly slows down to a halt, and you know you just have to get back in line hit replay.

1. “This is America” by Childish Gambino

It’s been seven months since “This is America” broke the freaking Internet, and we still can’t get over it. The song starts off innocently enough, with gospel-style vocalizations and a gentle guitar. With a gunshot, it breaks into an on-point summary of black America in 2018: racism, shaming and unwarranted police violence.

Of course, no review of this song is complete without talking about its music video. There is no doubt that Donald Glover is the renaissance artist of our generation. He wrote for 30 Rock; he’s an established actor; he produces and often directs his own award-winning show; and he is an independently popular musician. On the music video for “This is America”, he puts it all together in a maddeningly talented way.

There are so many layers to the music video that this short review cannot do it justice, but consider the following images. He grooves along to an upbeat gospel choir but suddenly shoots them dead with a machine gun. He joins uniformed black kids in traditional African dances while chaos reigns in the background. And the camera pans to folks filming the whole thing on their phones.

There are musicians, and then there are artists. And then there are geniuses. No points for guessing which one is Childish Gambino.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard

27 Dec

Ever since the demise of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has seldom made an effort to keep up with the mainstream narrative. While his eponymous first effort as a solo artist marked a genuine effort to become more accessible to those alienated by Pavement’s lack of polish, his subsequent releases have been unabashedly indulgent.

Malkmus realized his dad rock fantasies by officially bringing the Jicks into the fold. Their first two outputs, the almost-prog opus Pig Lib and the very jammy Real Emotional Trash, upheld the lo-fi aesthetic. However, with the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic and its follow-up, Wig Out the Jagbags, Malkmus and the Jicks renewed their quest for the perfect summer song, striking gold with tracks like “Tigers” and “Houston Hades”.

On Sparkle Hard, Malkmus and the Jicks bundle the prog rock touches and the sing-songy goodness from prior efforts into an almost perfectly crafted album.

Album-opener “Cast Off” begins on an unfamiliar note but quickly descends into a classic Jicks sound. The song then leads off a chain of solid numbers that tip a hat to almost every phase of Malkmus’ illustrious career. “Solid Silk” is a charming strings-backed track in the same vein as “J Smoov” from Wig Out. “Middle America” is a ballad that wouldn’t seem out of place on a late 90s Pavement record.

While Pavement was almost unanimously considered the intellectual’s band, few could decipher Malkmus’ cryptic, often mangled wordplay. On Sparkle Hard, he remains indecipherable, with a few notable exceptions – for example, references to #BlackLivesMatter movement on the chugging “Bike Lane” and the #MeToo movement on “Middle America”.

There are a couple of weak points, though. On the country-tinged “Refute”, Malkmus trades verses with Kim Gordon of the Sonic Youth about the perils of falling in love; the song has promise but doesn’t quite take off. “Rattler” is confused and laced with Autotune; we consider it a rare wrong move on this album.

However, what really brings his songs to life on Sparkle Hard is the production wizardry of Chris Funk. Malkmus has worked with some big-ticket producers in the past but this albumsets a new standard for production value. Sparkle Hard is arguably the best work Malkmus has put out since his post Pavement career. Let the wine analogies pour in.

Best tracks: “Solid Silk”, “Kite”, “Middle America”

Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

26 Dec

Earl Sweatshirt has already staked out his space as one of the most interesting of rappers and Some Rap Songs takes him even further into the left field. It’s a fascinating, muted listen. It’s rough and jagged and made with found sounds. It’s uncompromising and extremely rewarding for it.

The first song “Shattered Dreams” has the strong elongation of the dreams of the chorus which continues into “Red Water”. It’s an album that moves perfectly from song to song but seamless would be the wrong word to use. It’s too ragged for that. Instead they fit together like a jigsaw, asymmetric and bitten, but still inextricable when interlocked.

The whole thing is underpinned by Earl’s strong flow. His voice is immediately recognizable. It’s almost a monotone but he gets so much done with it. He’s just compelling to listen to.

His beats are uniformly submerged and complement him well. “Cold Summers” in particular has an intriguing, textured beat that Earl dances around instead of flowing into. It’s thought-provoking and off-kilter and then “nowhere2go” continues the same thought seamlessly.

“The Mint” has a short and simple beat that loops over and over again and that’s all the song needs. It’s minimal and intelligent and gives Earl lots of space to work with. Similarly, the rough-chopped beat of “The Bends” is endlessly gripping while being slightly dissonant. It’s another fascinating moment in an album that’s full of them.

Earl just has the gift of drawing you in. Something like “Cold Summers” pulls you in like a riptide and doesn’t let you go and then he does it again in “December 24”. His rapping is just so deep and dark. It doesn’t give you any chance to surface.

It ends with a jazz interlude in “Riot!” that’s very fresh and that ends with a quick distortion. It’s a very cool, very unexpected moment in an album already defined by those traits. This is the most interesting album of an always interesting rapper and something you should be listening to.

@murthynikhil

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

23 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard Cardi B rap at some point this year. Maybe you’ve heard her chart-topping hits, “Bodak Yellow” or “I Like It”. Maybe you’ve heard her guest spot on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”, or her collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Finesse”, or her verse on Migos’ “MotorSport”. The point is, she was everywhere this year, and for good reason: Invasion of Privacy is the best debut album of 2018.

Part of Cardi’s allure is her stranger-than-fiction, modern-day origin story. At 19, Cardi B (born Belcalis Almanzar in the Bronx) was fired from her humdrum job in a supermarket, and turned to stripping to help pay her way through school. The stripping job led to a buzzy social media persona, which landed a spot on a VH1 reality TV show, which in turn opened up an opportunity in rap. This extraordinary series of events, combined with her livewire personality, have created a brand so strong that sometimes it’s unbelievable to think that Cardi’s been a rapper for only two years.

Of course, as anyone with fifteen minutes of fame can tell you, brand alone is never enough. On Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B pairs this outsize brand with a gift for great beats, amazing delivery, self-confidence and playful wordplay. The result is a fun and surprisingly repeatable album.

Let’s get the famous tracks out of the way first. Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’ve heard “Bodak Yellow” and its numerous instant-classic lines (“I don’t dance now / I make money move”, “These expensive, these is red bottoms / These is bloody shoes”). With its mystical lilt, gunfire flow and inimitable accent, this is essentially Cardi B’s warning shot to the world: “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to”.

The other ubiquitous Cardi B hit, “I Like It”, switches it up with a Bronx take on a classic Latin American vibe. In between the infectious earworm of a chorus, Cardi B lists out some of her favorite things, like a garish, contemporary Maria von Trapp. Any two-bit rapper can list their choice luxury goods – Balenciaga and what-have-you – but Cardi takes it a step further by listing out her favorite power plays: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving niggas wrong, I do what they say I can’t”. True wealth is power, and Cardi – the self-confident stripper, the viral social media sensation, the reality TV star – is all power.

At all points of her chameleon career, fascinated eyes have fallen on Cardi’s body – and she knows what works best. On “Money Bag”, she gives herself the best compliments: “With them pretty ass twins, you look like Beyonce”, she brags in third-person, following it up later with “I’m like a walkin’ wishlist”. It’s a breath of fresh air from other female rappers whose brags seem to focus solely on bedroom performance (lookin’ at you, Nicki).

All braggadocio aside, however, the best moment of Invasion of Privacy lies perhaps on the stripped-back “Get Up 10”. At over 800 words long and with hardly a repeating line, this is Cardi’s life story told through a raw and passionate voice. From the opening couplet (“Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school”) to the chorus (“Knock me down nine times, I get up ten”), Cardi paints her remarkable backstory in equal swathes of motivation, humor and outright defiance.

In his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule: once you put in 10,000 hours of practice into anything, you suddenly start to notice incredible results. Even though Invasion is a debut, Cardi knocks it out of the park because she’s clever enough to laterally combine bits and pieces of her past into that magic number. She’s already got 10,000 hours of sheer self-confidence, of succeeding under long odds, of monetizing popularity in the digital age. If “Bodak” was the warning shot for Cardi, then Invasion is the warning shot for her entire career. We’re going to be hearing much more from Cardi for sure.

Best songs: “Bodak Yellow”, “I Like It”, “Get Up 10”

The Voidz – Virtue

20 Dec

Over the years, there have been numerous side projects of The Strokes’ members. Lead singer Julian Casablancas had a short-lived solo act, while lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr has had a string of well-received albums (including one that we loved this year). However, the most intriguing project has consistently been the New York group known as The Voidz.

Consisting of six musicians (and led by Casablancas), The Voidz are perhaps an alternate-reality version of The Strokes: one where the immense mainstream success of the latter’s debut Is This It did not stop them from fully exploring their musical capabilities. Quirky, eclectic, and mind-numbingly creative, Virtue is perhaps Casablancas’ most inspired music since the matchless Is This It.

What stands out the most on Virtue is the vast number of musical styles that it manages to touch. The band has mentioned in interviews that their creative push comes from the members’ wide-ranging tastes – and it’s easy to see that here.

QYURRUS” can perhaps be described as Arabic Autotune, with Casablancas’ literally unintelligible vocals often sounding like a foreign language (and / or a cult leader). Strangely, though, the song’s freakishly morphed melody gets stuck in your head; sort of like musical Stockholm Syndrome. On the immediate next song, The Voidz swerve with “Pyramid of Bones”, featuring hard rock verses that devolve frequently into a full-on death metal chorus.

Pink Ocean” is something else altogether: a slinky, vaguely pessimistic number that relies on Casablancas’ famous falsetto (see: “Instant Crush”). Toward the end of the album, “We’re Where We Are” frazzles the soul with its barked-out political commentary (“New holocaust happening / What, are you blind? / You’re in Germany now, 1939”) and hell-raising anger.

Not to say that all of Virtue is crazy stuff, either: Casablancas thankfully dips into Strokes-y brilliance once in a while. Album opener “Leave It in My Dreams” is an instantly nostalgic tune with clean guitars, sharp drums and some of Casablancas’ most emotive vocals. “ALieNNatioN” is more sinuous and mysterious, but has many of the same broadly pleasant elements. There may be a lot of strange sounds on “All Wordz Are Made Up” (cowbell, anyone?), but the classic dance-pop beats push the marker from weird to fun. “Wink” and its cousin “Lazy Boy” could make frequent rotations on your favorite pop station, with lush rhythm guitars, laconic vocals and beautiful melodies.

There are fifteen songs on Virtue, and frankly, each of them deserve their own page-length homage. This is an album that rewards you with something new on every single listen. Highly recommended, no matter what your tastes are.

Best songs: “Leave It in My Dreams”, “QYURRYUS”, “All Wordz Are Made Up”

P.S. The album has generated many great music videos, but perhaps the best is the one for “All Wordz Are Made Up”. If it’s this interesting while sober, we can only imagine…

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