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The Top Five Albums of 2017

1 Jan

2017 has been a good year for returning legends and young upstarts alike. On the former front, Jay-Z released his side of the story behind the infamous elevator fight in 2014, following albums by his wife and sister-in-law in 2016. Spoon released yet another great album, and indie darlings LCD Soundsystem came back from self-imposed retirement with a surprise album.

As for the upstarts: we got some amazing debut albums from buzzy artists like Moses Sumney and Sampha, but we were also graced with surprisingly strong follow-up records from Lorde and Vince Staples. And of course, there was Kendrick Lamar, who simultaneously fits both categories (and, really, all categories) with his third major-label full-length album.

Read on for our take on the top five albums of the year past.

5. The OOZ – King Krule

the ooz_king krule

According to King Krule (the stage name of 23-year-old Archy Marshall), the “ooz” mentioned in the album’s title is an homage to the various solids and liquids that ooze out of the human body – the primordial “creations” that we make and refine to fit into society. The vowel is lopped off at the end as a tip of the hat to the backwards-form of Marshall’s previous avatar, Zoo Kid.

If all of this seems strange and circuitous, then we’ve given you an apt welcome to the world of King Krule. The OOZ lies somewhere along the spectrum between jazz, punk and grunge, and Marshall’s brilliance lies in elevating this sonic kaleidoscope into a seamless new genre.

“Dum Surfer” opens like a menacing surf-rock song, crisp guitar bouying Marshall’s half-remembered boozy stories. About a third of the way through, the song segues into a skillful jazz guitar solo, complete with backing brass, but the beat never changes – it’s the same song. “Czech One” is a heart-breaking jazz-R&B song, complete with melancholic saxophone. Two songs later, “Vidual” is the hypothetical output of the Libertines penning a ska song.

Aside from his obvious musical aptitude, King Krule also happens to be a pretty good writer. Specifically, his allure lies in his ability to shuttle between precise anecdotes and profound reflection without losing the overall plot. For example, on album opener “Biscuit Town”, Marshall transitions from plaintive young-adult angst (“I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar / In fact, we made a pact, but now I think it’s over”) to name-dropping Coca-Cola and Chelsea player Zola in the same verse. Somehow, this mishmash of story structures deepens your investment in Marshall’s emotions – with the effect that you are left feeling sorrier for him than deserved for what is essentially a yearning post-break-up tune.

The OOZ is a unique, woozy picture of Archy Marshall’s wide-eyed sadness. If there is a flaw, it’s that 19 tracks is a bit too long, but that’s just our opinion. File this one next to Mac DeMarco, early Nirvana, jazz classics, or pretty much anywhere else on your shelf – it’ll work.

Best tracks: “Dum Surfer”, “Biscuit Town”, “The Locomotive”

4. Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

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In direct contrast to current radio-reigning rap stars, Vince Staples is not boujee at all. He does have a lot of new money, but he certainly isn’t wasting it on stupid shit. In fact (just like a great man once warned), more money brought Vince more problems, in the way of an inability to be happy despite achieving everything he’s ever wanted. Vince battles the ennui by making more music, which in turn brings more money and – you guessed it – more problems. It’s a vicious cycle, but happily for us, it results in great music from Vince Staples.

Don’t get us wrong – Big Fish Theory is no sob-fest. Vince Staples’ lyrics may speak of an inner tedium (“Human issues too strong for tissues”) but damn, can he lay a strong boast over a sick beat when he needs to. On “Big Fish”, Vince describes his bad-ass self-control over a club-ready trap beat – not only is he good at getting rich, but he is damn good at staying rich. On “Yeah Right”, Vince sneers at the priorities of today’s rap stars – money, women and then musical fame – all over a sludgy, sexy beat that could replace any one of these stars on the charts.

Full review here.

(If you’re wondering where you’ve heard his music before, it’s probably “BagBak” on the soundtrack for the Black Panther trailers.)

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “BagBak”

3. Hot Thoughts – Spoon

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There’s a certain consistency to Spoon. The beats are always crisp; the guitars alternate expertly between nervy energy and rock-star confidence; the lyrics are slightly peculiar, matched by Britt Daniels’ idiosyncrasies. That may sound like formulaic, but Spoon is anything but. The essence of the band remains constant – the Austin-y quirkiness especially – but Spoon is actually very adept at updating the rest of their sound with each subsequent album.

Hot Thoughts, the band’s ninth (!) album since their formation in the mid-90s, is no exception. Keeping with the times, the album gets an almost hip-hop treatment, most audible on the sly overconfidence of “Can I Sit Next to You”. Hot Thoughts also benefits from the guiding hand of Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, resulting in the sonic dreamscapes on “Pink Up” and the free-jazz masterpiece of album closer “Us”.

The best tracks, though, are still the Spooniest ones. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is all big drums and Daniels confidence, and “Shotgun” could soundtrack a bar fight in your early 20s. It’s the kind of music that makes the Strokes seem frumpy.

Full review here.

Best tracks: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

2. Melodrama – Lorde

Melodrama

Lorde started working on her debut album, Pure Heroine, when she was a 13-year-old in small-town New Zealand. The album, which released a few months before her 17th birthday, was set in suburbia, with a close set of friends and nothing really to do, and it was so good because the songs reflected those circumstances so well.

Melodrama is very different, because Lorde herself is very different. In between the two albums, Lorde became extremely famous, originally through her break-out track “Royals” but later supported by a slew of well-received singles. She moved from New Zealand; she made new friends. Fortunately, Lorde’s skill at transcribing the moods and phases of her life into song have grown with her. Melodrama is the result of spending an already melodramatic period of life – late teens – under the auspice of immense fame.

Every song on the album is a standalone story; a slice of Lorde’s life, shuttling between New York and New Zealand and everywhere else in the middle. On the whole, Melodrama is a break-up album – in a very real sense, from her New Zealand boyfriend James Lowe, and in a deeper sense, from the starry-eyed naivety of her late-teens.

Melodrama is a near-perfect, infinitely enjoyable pop album, and you’re losing out on a real musical treat if you haven’t given it a full listen.

Full review here.

Best songs: “Homemade Dynamite”, “Sober”, “Perfect Places”

1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar

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As we speculated in May, it has basically become an assumption that a new Kendrick Lamar album will be the best album of the year. For the remaining seven months, we looked far and wide – from post-rock to punk-jazz, from hip-hop to pure pop – but nothing comes close.

Like its predecessors, DAMN. is a masterpiece because Kendrick Lamar is bigger than life. He is a born-again Christian, and genuinely believes that he has been put on this Earth with a greater purpose. His literally godlike self-confidence lets him do things that others simply cannot do. On “DNA.”, he explores black heritage from a blinding barrage of angles (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA”). Like many rap songs, “HUMBLE.” is boastful (“I blow cool from AC / Obama just paged me”); but by masterfully balancing the brags with too-real pictures of the very recent past, Kendrick keeps himself humble. “FEEL.” is a free-fall through Kendrick’s complex feelings on his newfound fame, delivered in a flow so fluid that the words almost become beats.

The hundreds of words in Kendrick’s verses are so full of wordplay, imagery and thematic elements that each song basically needs its own Cliffnotes. Kendrick Lamar is a masterful poet and storyteller who just happens to have the lucrative gift of making chart-topping hits. DAMN. is not even the best album of his career, but it’s still the best album of 2017.

Best songs: “HUMBLE.”, “ELEMENT.”, “DNA.”

 

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The Top Five Songs of 2017: Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

It’s been a good year for music and culling contenders for this list needed a fair bit of soul-searching. There were both big name releases and stunning debuts that, while fantastic, just could not find a place on this list. It took some tricky filtering, but these are our top five songs of 2017.

5. Chanel

I’m truly grateful for this new phase in Frank Ocean’s career. First of all, getting singles from him so soon after he released a pair of albums feels almost like excess after his long quiet period. Secondly, this more subdued sound works really well. He’s never been the most overstated of singers, but “Chanel” is stripped down like nothing before.

This focus pays off. It’s a very evocative song. It is both dense and wandering and so listening becomes an almost pointillist experience as you pick phrases and words from the stream. It is trademark Frank Ocean that it works so well. No one can make creating the future look as cool as he does.

4. Spice Girl

It wasn’t that long ago that you would need to go pretty far left-field to find someone like Aminé, and even further to find a song like “Spice Girl”. A love letter to the Spice Girls is just not what rappers were doing back then. Aminé actually not only got all five of the actual Spice Girls to sign off on this, but literally went to a Spice Girls show at age 5 and got a Sporty Spice Barbie right after.

The result of all of this dedication is an almost bubblegum pop-rap ode to his perfect girl. It’s just incredibly catchy. Interpolating the earworm of a hook from “Wannabe” to list out what he’s looking for is both clever and effective. Like its inspirations, this song is neither deep nor profound. It feels thrown together quickly, and justly so. However, it is also a lot of fun and something unique in a year which pushed all the boundaries of rap.

3. Mask Off

Rap has been the new rock for years, but this may have been the year where it begins to vie with pop for dominance. If so, “Mask Off” is one of the reasons for the shift. This is one of the defining sounds of 2017. Trap has come to stay.

That grimy, submerged beat is some of Metro Boomin’s best work. That flute lick is insistent and endlessly listenable. Future’s viscous flow is the star of the song though. That central boast of “Mask on / Fuck it mask off” could have very easily come off as empty, but Future keeps far too dark and heavy for that. This is the rare song that’s better without the Kendrick remix.

2. Rican Beach

Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album, The Navigator, is a lot of things at once. A folk-rock concept album is already out of place in 2017, but a Nuyorican one is unique anywhere. These layers and more come in to play in “Rican Beach”, which somehow keeps them all moving together at once. It benefits from a really strong folky spine and wraps it with idea after idea.

It’s a complex piece with huge swathes of fascinating sounds and human for all of that. It’s a singular achievement and a compelling statement. It’s quite easily one of the best songs of the year.

1. XO TOUR Llif3

I remember the first time that I heard this song. I was in a fairly crowded office and just trying to keep my head down and get some work done. I don’t think I actually did anything that day but listen to this song. I played it on repeat for the next couple of days. Just this song and nothing else. There was no question for me that this was going to be the song of the year.

This is the year of trap and that’s proved divisive. Mumble rap has been used as a pejorative more than a descriptor. In a way, this is understandable. Lyricism has long been a hallmark of rap and the seeming repudiation of that by some of the newer rappers was naturally going to meet a backlash. However, rap is more than lyricism and to judge a genre by a single lens can only ever be limiting. “XO TOUR Llif3” shows why.

Taking the hook of “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” and making an anthem of it just to slur it past comprehensibility is the cleverest thing that I have seen all year. The space this song has to be raw and emotional feels unprecedented in the genre and it fills it completely with Uzi’s story of his ex and substance abuse.

This is the song that I’m going to keep coming back to. There are a few songs that I return to over and over again, because while situations change, and while I change, these songs remain true. Coltrane, Kanye, Joy Division and now Uzi. These are the songs that make me.

@murthynikhil

Top Five Rap Albums of 2017 That We Didn’t Want To Write A Full Review Of

28 Nov

There’s been a lot of music out this year and it’s easy for some albums to fall to wayside. Here, we’re going to go over five albums that didn’t lend themselves well to a full review, but that we still wanted to talk about.

FLACO – WKRFRMHME

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We didn’t get a chance to cover the previous FLACO album Gunsforgirls when it came out. This one is not quite as good as their debut, but it is still reasonable and has some clever lines. However, it doesn’t have anything strong enough to push you to seek it out. It’s far too self-indulgent and so is occasionally grating and occasionally repetitive. It’s mostly just solid rap though.

Amine – Good For You

“Spice Girl” is actually very good. It’s a very clever song with an imaginative and catchy hook and is from far enough left field to still make me smile. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year.

Stand-out single aside, “Slide” is reasonably fun, as is “STFU”. There are some other interesting things, like moments of “Heebiejeebies” scattered through the album. Unfortunately, the whole is mostly bland. The single is great though.

Chief Keef – Thot Breaker

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Thot Breaker is fun and listenable. It’s just not really interesting.

Big Boi – BOOMIVERSE

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It’s a shame to put someone with the history of Big Boi in a list like this, but that is where he is now. It’s been a while since OutKast defined Atlanta rap, even if this album would have you still believe that its still the late ‘90s. Big Boi is unabashedly retro here and some of his collaborators play along masterfully. Snoop is smooth as always and Killer Mike shows up well in “Made Man” and “Kill Jill”. This is the style of music that really lets both of them shine. Bringing in the more current Gucci Mane feels off however and the resulting song “In The South” is just irritating to hear.

Leaving aside a couple of misfires, this is actually a solid album. It never comes close to the highs of OutKast’s best, but is still a reasonable addition to the legacy of one of the most storied rappers ever.

KOOL A.D – Sky Ladder

skyLadder

KOOL A.D. is dense and self-referential as always. He’s gotten a bit more experimental than in his Das Racist days. It works in places. “Lapsand Souchang” is quite strong and the jazzy beat works well there. “Glitch Hoperatical” is definitely interesting, but sometimes ends up being more noise than signal. “The Basement” makes a good point when it states that music criticism is a fictional occupation, but he lost all of his hipster credentials when he got the plural of haiku wrong, so I’m just going to ignore that. There’s some reasonable stuff here, but nothing stands out. Rap has grown more interesting, but it feels a little like Kool A.D. is standing still.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2016

1 Jan

2016 has not been a kind year for musicians. We lost many greats this year, starting with David Bowie in January, to Prince in April, to the double-whammy of Leonard Cohen in November and George Michael on Christmas Day. However, a year that has seen the death of so many singer-songwriters has also been a year that has let loose some of the greatest solo music in recent years: a silver lining, if any. Without further ado, we present below our top five albums of the year.

5. Sept. 5th: dvsn

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dvsn have been shrouded in mystery from the start. When the band first signed on to Drake’s OVO Sound record label, it wasn’t even revealed who the singer was. Since then, they’ve lifted the shroud a little – the voice belongs to Daniel Daley and the beats and words belong to Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jefferies). The mysterious nature suits them, creating an allure that perfectly compliments their sparse, lusty R&B.

And lusty it is. Sept. 5th is essentially about doing the deed with your significant other. Popular music is rife with this topic, but dvsn takes a very respectful approach to the subject matter. “In + Out” (yep, it’s exactly about what you’re thinking it’s about) refers to the partner’s body in royal terms: thrones, highnesses and crowns. On “With Me”, Daley respectfully asks his partner to come over to quench his lust.And on the titular track, Daley knows he messed up and pleads to make it up through – yep, you guessed it – sex.

Beyond the tone of their lyrics, dvsn really excel at creating music that’s sparse and dense at the same time. On “Too Deep”, Nineteen85 layers subtle handclaps, funk sounds, downtempo beats and Daley’s lusty croon, with enough space to co-exist and build off of each other. “Hallucinations” also features just a handful of sounds, but there’s also immense gravity in the negative space – in what isn’t said or heard. It’s almost like dvsn have taken a leaf out of the xx’s book.

Sept. 5th is a highly enjoyable R&B album from a mysterious and highly talented duo. We’re definitely looking forward to hearing more from them.

Best tracks: “With Me”, “Too Deep”

4. Blonde: Frank Ocean

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Frank Ocean’s efforts to release Blonde are nothing short of a drama. The story begins in 2009, when the soft-natured, velvet-voiced Ocean – then inexplicably part of the violent rap crew Odd Future – signed with Def Jam Records. In 2011, Ocean released his critically-acclaimed mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Although its follow-up album Channel Orange was well-received, it was not comparable to the quality and cult following of Nostalgia.

Ocean seemed to have lost his mojo for a couple of years after Channel Orange, although rumors of a follow-up have been surfacing since 2014. Finally, on August 18th and 19th of this year, Ocean streamed a visual album called Endless, effectively completing his recording contract with Def Jam. The very next day – August 20th, 2016 – free of a record label’s controlling hand, he released his real offering: Blonde.

“Smoking good, rolling solo / Solo, solo” incites Ocean on “Solo”, yet another example of the endless battle between creative artists and corporate labels. The freedom suits him, though.

Blonde on the whole is more mellow and meditative than his previous two offerings. Moreover, although Channel Orange and Nostalgia had gospel tinges, Blonde is drenched in them. Nowhere is it more apparent than on “White Ferrari”, a dreamy R&B classic with psychedelic nods to the Beatles. The serenity of the white car offers a nice contrast to the orange Lamb on his mixtape, providing a clue into the singer’s growth since those days. “Sweet 16, how was I supposed to know anything?” he incites, perhaps speaking of the fame that was to follow Nostalgia.

On Blonde, Ocean uses minimalist, introspective music to frame his chocolate-smooth voice and troubled thoughts. Great for rainy, moody evenings.

Best tracks: “Nikes”, “White Ferrari”, “Close to You”

3. “Awaken, My Love!”: Childish Gambino

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Donald Glover challenges the very idea of a triple-threat, a term usually reserved for singer-dancer-actors like Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. Glover, however, spreads his creative talents far further. He got his first break as a writer for Tina Fey on the legendary “30 Rock”. After whittling his comedic talents behind the scenes, Glover moved to the other side as Troy on the equally-legendary show “Community”. As if that weren’t enough, Glover released a critically-acclaimed album, Camp, in 2011. Whatever the Donald does, he does it to perfection (well, this Donald at least).

It seemed for a while that Glover would continue in a mildly-hipster route in music, as he did with writing and television. After Camp (and in between his myriad other creative commitments), Glover released Because the Internet, a Grammy-nominated ode to the World Wide Web – fitting of the world that Troy and his friends resides in. And thus it comes as a true surprise that “Awaken, My Love!” is, at its core, a thoroughly accessible album.

The creative impetus behind the album seems to be the recent birth of Glover’s first child, with a woman that the world knows next to nothing about. The baby seems to have mellowed out Glover, replacing the smug references with feelings and emotions. The deliberate and intense “Me and Your Mama” is a weed-infused love song for his baby mama, sung with the same passion that created his baby boy (“Girl you really got a hold on me / so this isn’t just puppy love”). At the same time, he seems to understand that his days with the baby mama are limited. On “Baby Boy”, Glover speaks alternately to his baby and to his baby mama.  (“I’ve never lied about us / we were never supposed to be together”), but expresses permanent, unconditional love for his child.

Apart from songs written for his baby, the other key notable theme on this album is Glover’s formidable tribute to old-school funk. On album stand-out “Redbone”, plucked staccato notes support Glover’s surprisingly adept falsetto. His lyrics, too, are top-notch. Redbone is slang for someone with mixed African, Creole and Native American ancestry, characterized by the reddish undertones in their skin. Glover calls his redbone woman a “peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid”: metaphorical, funnily accessible and sweet at the same time. “Boogieman” is a perfectly-named double-entendre: a musical homage to the Boogie but a lyrical homage to the Bogeyman.

Overall, “Awaken, My Love!” is a great new direction for Donald Glover the Musician. Glover’s other personas are doing incredibly well – he’s slated to star in a new Star Wars movie and play a part in the new Spiderman movie – so let’s hope he can still spend some time on his music. Because we love what we’re hearing.

Best tracks: “Redbone”, “Me and Your Mama”

2. Lemonade: Beyoncé

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard of the elevator incident. In May 2014 at the Met Ball, Beyonce’s sister Solange physically assaulted Jay-Z with almost inexplicable rage. Few things seemed to explain the intensity of her rage, but the most plausible explanation was that Jay had cheated on her sister.

Beyonce and Jay-Z largely kept mum about the elevator incident. All seemed well in the household of the second-most powerful black couple on the planet (at least by omission). On April 23, 2016 – days shy of the two-year anniversary of the elevator incident – Beyonce broke her silence with a record heard around the world. Lemonade was born.

Accompanied by an HBO film of the same name, the visual album is an exploration of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s extremely high-profile and lucrative relationship. It’s unclear whether the album is a state-of-the-nation report or an “inspired-by-real-life” relationship drama. Whichever it is, Lemonade has got us hooked from start to finish.

The album starts off with a two-level prayer: Beyonce prays she can peep into Jay’s cheating world, and also prays that Jay understands that she knows he’s cheating. The first half of the album fleshes out these ideas. On “Hold Up”, she warns Jay that she’s the best he’s going to get – braggodocio and a plea at the same time. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry”, the braggodocio takes over. In the former song (which features Jack White), Beyonce sneers at Jay as a weak man who had to cheat and in the latter, she goes full Queen Bey (“Middle fingers up, put them hands high / Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye”).

After the rage and fury of finding out about a cheating husband, Beyonce comes back to her family-centered values on the second half of Lemonade. On “Sandcastles”, she is willing to break her promise to leave him. “All Night” is a cease-fire: Beyonce has come to terms with Jay-Z and is willing to take him back, because she knows their love is deeper than that.

Lemonade is an exceptionally well-produced concept album that articulates complex feelings like few pop albums have. Its hooks are irresistible, and its lyrics are well-crafted. Clearly, Lemonade is what Beyonce made after life gave her lemons.

Best tracks: “Hold Up”, “Sorry”, “Formation”

1. The Life of Pablo: Kanye West

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In popular culture today, Kanye West is many things. First, he is a famed rapper, producing beats and albums that are way ahead of the rap game at the time. Second, he is the husband of the woman who is by far the most famous in the entire glittering category of women who are famous for being famous. Third, he is a budding designer, whose shoes and clothes capture the fine line between madness and genius: a line that is basically his home address.

In short, Kanye West is famous. Really famous.

Where does all that fame land him?

It lands him in bed (literally) with a host of other really famous people: Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump to name a few. These are the world’s foremost leaders at running the hype and fame game. (See: 2016 presidential elections.)

It gives him a fascination with several incarnations of Paul. Pablo Escobar, famed druglord with an alter-ego as a Robin Hood for Colombia’s poor. Paul the Apostle, carrying forth Jesus’ words and, in essence, his fame.

It provides him a deep, undying love for the thing that matters most: family. Even if that family includes a woman whose claim to fame is a sex tape with another black man. Kanye loves Kim and Nori and baby Saint very, very much – no matter what the naysayers may say.

It also shows him the underbelly of fame: cousins stealing laptops as ransom, acquaintances fronting as friends, friends fronting as real friends.

Life of Pablo is about all of these things. It is a greatly stripped-down album compared to the flamboyance of his previous albums. Much like Childish Gambino, Yeezy has been changed by the birth of his children. But in essence, Life of Pablo is a highly accurate painting of Kanye West as he is right now. It’s a masterpiece, as always.

Best tracks: “Famous”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”

The Top Five Albums of 2015: Nikhil’s List

1 Jan

2015 has been a good year. A lot of very good music has made it on to this list and lot more didn’t make it. One particular album killed everything else, as was expected, but we’ve had a lot of pleasant surprises as well. For instance:

5. Carrie and Lowell

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Given that this album is named after Sufjan Stevens’ mother and stepfather, it is no surprise that it is a deeply personal record. However, it handles its confessions with a deftness and tenderness that most could not manage. It frames its tales of depression, self-abuse, dissatisfaction and, for a brief moment in “Should Have Known Better”, happiness in gossamer threads of music to give the album a gentle, exploratory feel. This album slips ever so softly through the skin and straight to the heart. Carrie & Lowell distills a personal loss and acceptance and makes it a part of you.

4. Surf

Surf_(Donnie_Trumpet_cover)

Hip-hop can actually be this fun. Chance the Rapper is nothing short of jubilant throughout. Chanting “I Don’t Wanna Be Cool” is freeing in the way that Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is, but so much bouncier. The jazz solos are not the most engrossing and the album lacks a little punch, but all is forgiven when things are this upbeat. Surf puts a smile on your face and keeps it there as long as the album is playing.

3. No Cities To Love

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No Cities To Love is rock and roll. Anthemic, full of fight and always ready to go, this is music that burns away the mediocrity you didn’t realize you were tolerating. Primal but intelligent, raw but proficient, No Cities To Love is punk rock at its best.

2. The Epic

Kamasi Mike

This is 2015, we should not get a new Coltrane-era jazz album. That we did and that it is this good is unreal. At three hours, the album justifies the name handily. It draws from all across the jazz spectrum, picking up pieces of Miles, the fusion of Weather Report and even touches of Latin Jazz and gives each pieces its due before melding the whole into something entirely its own. This would be nothing without the passion and virtuosity of the band. Not a note falls out of place or lacks in energy. There have been enough jazz greats to make the term “classic” a high bar, but for an album of this caliber, nothing else will suffice.

1. To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_Butterfly

It took me something like a week when To Pimp A Butterfly came out to actually figure out if I liked it or not. As it turns out, I really did. good kid, m.A.A.d city was much more straightforward, you can see the brilliance in it immediately. To Pimp A Butterfly has singles, “King Kunta” will make you move, with or without your consent, and both “i” and “The Blacker The Berry” are the work of a craftsman at his peak, but “For Free” is almost spoken word poetry. I’ll accept that from Gil-Scott Heron, but it mystified me from Kendrick Lamar. Similarly, the funkiness of the album came out of nowhere and the lyrical content has no precedent.

Listening to it now, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a moment where I didn’t like it. It’s a struggle now to find what I once found questionable. The album justfits together so well. Ideas, both musical and lyrical, are layered deeply into this album and yet it flows seamlessly between them. The album manages to encompass contradictions like the self-castigating ‘u’ and the upbeat ‘i’ without blinking an eye. Similarly, the album holds the full musical spread of the near-funk of “Hood Politics” to the hip-hop clinic of “King Kunta”. At this point, there really is nothing that Kendrick Lamar cannot do.

I thought three years ago that good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick at the top of the game and I thought the same when he dropped “Control”. I’m not going to make that claim after To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s clear that Kendrick is going to take us further still and I can’t wait to see where he goes. This is the greatest rapper of his generation and he has just gotten started.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Albums of 2015: Neeharika’s List

31 Dec

2015 has been a great year for music, particularly for solo artists. Adele released 25, a follow-up album to her groundbreaking age-denoted 19 and 21 that immediately rose to the top of charts and minds. Attention-grabbing British superstars aside, the underground scene saw the meteoric rise of gender-fluid pop stars, solo ventures of established bands, and a general proliferation of great individual-driven acts. So without further ado, here are the Top Five albums that caught our attention this year.

  1. Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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The Auckland-Portland collective, driven by singer-songwriter Ruben Nielson, has been a critic favorite since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2011. In early 2015, the band released Multi-Love, an album that defies the psychedelia genre by incorporating minimalist versions of vintage pop elements. For example, the eponymous track is a shimmery mix of Lonerism-era Tame Impala and your favorite Scandinavian pop from the 80s. On “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, a slinky horns section segues into a syncopated interpretation of a disco-heyday track.

In fact, both tracks highlight the stylistic theme that pervades the entire album: the fact that Nielson has a damned good ear for understanding how to turn a musical trope inside out. Take “The World is Crowded”: it’s counter-intuitive that the song could be that sonically pleasing when it has so much potential to be sped-up and jazzed-up into, say, a Maroon 5 hit. But Nielson makes it work, and with great confidence. The same with “Puzzles”: there’s enough snaking bass on there to pique Josh Homme’s interest, but Nielson tames the beast with his chosen pace.

Overall, Multi-Love starts off as a fresh take on psych-pop and ends as a stand-alone great album. Guaranteed to stay with you a few years.

Best track: “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”

  1. Art Angels, Grimes

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Grimes shot to the top of the charts in 2011 with her absurd, literate brand of synth pop. The music video of her viral hit, “Genesis”, was inspired by a Judgment Day painting drawn by a 15th-century Dutch religious painter, and she considers Hustler Magazine CFO’s daughter Brooke Candy as her personal muse. Her idiosyncrasies may paint her as purely an art-pop phenomena, but with Art Angels, Grimes successfully crosses over into pop that can be enjoyed by all, no matter personal dispositions towards abstract art.

What surprised us on first listen is the fact that almost every track on the album could be a bonafide pop hit, if only exaggerated with a few mainstream flourishes. However, Grimes’ eccentric touches – whether it’s the vocal trills on “Flesh without Blood” or the K-pop-inspired AutoTune on “Kill V. Maim” – elevate the album much beyond its mainstream confines.

Art Angels really rises above the bar set by Visions because of the sheer number of new landscapes that Grimes has explored. “Venus Fly”, featuring the inimitable Janelle Monae, has a bomb-ass beat that could be the soundtrack to an advert by an impossibly-cool fast-fashion brand. If “California” came on the radio, you would be sure that it was a remixed version of a Taylor Swift-outtake from her country-darling days. Essentially, Grimes has managed to surprise us by being, well, normal.

Art Angels sees Grimes evolve from a wildfire underground act to a unique pop star that is okay with taking a wider audience into her fold. And that’s definitely a good thing.

Best track: “Venus Fly”

  1. Ratchet, Shamir

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Shamir and his home-town, Las Vegas, have one key aspect in common: they defy normality. Vegas is the world’s playground, a campy, adult-sized amusement park with rides that revolve around desperation and addiction. On Ratchet, Shamir defies age, gender, orientation and our expectations by creating ten tracks that succinctly sum up his generation.

“Vegas”, the album opener, is an ode to this very connection. With an androgynous voice as fluid as his gender, Shamir gives us an insider’s view into life in Sin City (“You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/But if you’re living in the city oh you already in hell”) over a sparse beat that bubbles and pops. Vegas is the spiritual backbone of many of his sparkly dancefloor tracks, as well. For example, “Hot Mess”, with surreal Hot Chip-esque beats slathered against an acid house bass, hides anguish behind hypnotic Technicolor, much like Las Vegas does.

Shamir also stands out as the best representation of his post-millennial generation, a group that has never known life without the endless possibilities facilitated by the Internet. On “Make a Scene”, a dizzying ode to poor teenage decisions, Shamir exhorts you to kiss strangers in lust-fuelled nights while simultaneously thumbing his nose at superficial Tinder culture. He expands on this theme on “On the Regular” – “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample”, he chides, atop a dazzling mash-up of boasts reminiscent of Le1f and Azalea Banks. It’s only fitting that the song has been used for Android Wear commercials!

With Ratchet, Shamir has proven that he has a future as bright as his hometown’s glittering Strip. Expect more from this guy, for sure.

Best track: “On the Regular”

  1. In Colour, Jamie xx

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Jamie xx, one-half of Britain’s foremost minimalist act the xx, is a master of repition. He knows how to balance a layer, carefully and precisely, until the track becomes a chaotic, living beast – like a Jenga tower in reverse.

While the xx is mainly known for breathy vocals over sparse beats, In Colours shows off the range of Jamie xx’s textural arsenal. Jungle beats form the perfect, if unlikely, minimalist element on “Gosh”, which reels you in with chant-like thumps that belie a melody forming right in front of your ears. On “SeeSaw”, a trip-hop pulse creates the perfect anti-thesis to xx bandmate Romy Croft’s signature dreampop vocals. “Obvs” is a four-minute electronic paean to the steelpan; it’s even more magical than it sounds.

The album-standout “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” just serves to prove Jamie’s hypnotic dexterity. Although the song features Young Thug spitting lyrics that would make Lil Wayne blush, and wonky dancehall beats from Popcaan, the genius lies in Jamie’s skill in synthesizing these elements into a summer-time radio hit.

On In Colour, Jamie xx displays layering wizardry that hasn’t been seen since this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion. A musical roller coaster, if there ever was one.

Best track: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

  1. Currents, Tame Impala

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If you’ve been reading our articles for a while, you know that we’re great fans of Tame Impala. The Perth pysch phenomenon’s Lonerism earned numerous mentions on our articles throughout 2012 and eventually topped our year-end list. It’s déjà vu, then: Currents is, in our honest opinion, the best album of the year.

Over the three years since Lonerism, Kevin Parker – the one-man army behind Tame Impala – has grown considerably. His words have sharpened, his beats are more full-bodied and his anguish is far more complex. While previous records allowed us not-so-fleeting glimpses into his brooding mania, Currents shows him alternatively trying to let go more and hold on tighter – a fascinating combination that leaves you hooked from start to end.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the haunting album-opener “Let It Happen”. Parker speaks of a voice telling him to let his paranoia go, but undercuts his would-be catharsis with gloom that chills you to your bones: “If my takeoff fails, make up some other story/And if I never come back, tell my mother I’m sorry.” It’s a train-wreck, slowed down to a speed that underscores the stark beauty in destruction.

He shows progress, though. On “Cause I’m A Man”, he accepts his faults as the man in the relationship, slicing away at self-hate by handing over the reins to his woman (“You see, I have a conscience and it’s never fooled/ But it’s prone to be overruled”). “Eventually” sparkles with liberation, after a break-up that would have left erstwhile-Parker in a death spiral (“But I know that I’ll be happier/And I know you will too”). It’s an interesting turn of events.

Currents lies at the exact sweet spot of lyrical genius and musical innovation, alongside its two predecessors. It’s also perfectly-named: Kevin Parker is changing as a person, and his music circles him like an eddy in a flowing stream. Aptly, Currents will change your life – if you just let it happen.

Best track: “Let It Happen”

A Wednesday’s Mix – Five Records to Get You To The End of the Week

11 Mar

It’s the middle of the week! Top Five Records is here to break up the monotony of your depressing existence with 5 (sort-of) new songs that will hopefully tide you over until the weekend!

 

Fuck Art, Let’s Dance! – “Atlas”

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 Fuck Art, Let’s Dance! bring more to the table than just a colourful name and a call-back to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “Atlas,” FALD!’s title track from their debut album (released in mid-2014), is a gorgeous testament to the art of understatement. The Hamburg-based quartet eschew their moniker’s call-to-arms (or legs, at least) and instead have created a song that mixes Nico Cham’s half-swallowed voice with simple drum-loops, clean guitar lines and some heavenly synth sounds that urge you to sit down and quietly contemplate your life. The song’s music video takes the urge further with its sparse visuals of chinese martial artists and dragons; all the action and movement somehow leaves you standing still.

 

 

Shubh Saran – “Mission Man”

Shubh Saran

India’s jazz scene is arguably one of the most malnourished of all the already-starved non-Bollywood music scenes, despite the existence of the Mahindra Blues Festival and sporadic city-based attempts to create a culture for it. This may explain guitarist Shubh Saran’s decision to seek greener pastures at Berklee College of Music. His debut EP, however, is an emphatic underlining of why this was the right call. A Room With a View is a beautifully crafted work of smooth jazz and neo-soul, with just enough world-music to not be obnoxious. Mission Man stands out as a killer track that makes amazing use of a saxophone, creating a jazzy hook that’s coupled with just enough piano and bass to fill out and accentuate the song. Admittedly not without a few rough edges and odd phrasings, Mission Man (and indeed the entire EP) is a great way to shut critics up who lament the modern jazz scene.

 

Young Wonder – “Intergalactic”

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Ireland’s musical gifts to the world just don’t seem to stop coming. Young Wonder are an electronic pop due from Cork whose new single is vibrant, haunting, and all other good things associated with the word “sparkling.” “intergalactic” dreamily begins its space-bound journey right from the first screeching synth sound, guided shortly thereafter by Rachel Koeman’s reverb-laden vocals that are dripping with whatever the ethereal version of honey is. Just shy of 4 minutes long, Intergalactic makes full use of both Rachel and Ian Ring’s considerable talents before allowing you to float gently back to the round, hungry for more.

 

Pond – “Man it Feels Like Space Again”

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What is the city of Perth smoking? It’s hard to imagine, but Western Australia’s capital is home to some of the most talented psychedelic bands in the world right now. Pond have not quite managed to break into the cultural parlance beyond the island nation to the extent that their contemporaries Tame Impala have, but they’ve arguably pushed the psychedelic envelope a good deal further with their single “Man It Feels Like Space Again.” It’s 8 minutes of sheer, unadulterated bizarreness; a cacophony of discordant, disjointed instruments and effects and voices that fall just short of being grating and instead end up in a surreal, blissful territory that is its own. It’s so good it’s good. The only thing more perfectly twisted is the music video: it would be unfair to describe the outlandish, almost unsettling faux-kid’s show as Kafkaesque or Dadaist because that would just be lazy writing unworthy of the lysergide-infused spectacle.

 

The Bots – “All I Really Want”

There must be an inverse relation between band-size and overdrive, because two-piece LA outfit The Bots have some of the fuzziest, grittiest, energy-driven tracks this side of the White Stripes. It’s unfair (though quite common) to make such a comparison, though; where Meg and Jack White often seemed held back, caged, brothers Mikaiah and Anaiah Lei are unfettered and free to unleash their zeal. Their first single “All I Really Want” blazes by in two-and-a-half minutes and demands another listen, if only to keep those energy levels up. A jacked-up bass-line kicks in only to quickly segue into fuzzy guitars and Mikaiah’s deliberately-bored voice. What follows are crests and troughs of shout-singing followed by periods of short refractory, that are over all-too-quickly. The song is arguably anthemic for the milennial generation not just because of its lyrics (“Make a cup of tea/sit down and stare at the screen until I see something that relates to me/but it’s all so boring”) but with the music video: A Mac scrolling through a click-bait-titled Buzzfeed article. Literally the only time that image has made me happy.

 

 

And that’s our list! Love it? Hate it? Swept up by some third emotion we’ve failed to grasp? Leave comments below! 

 

 

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