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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

Vince-Staples-Big-Fish-Theory-Album-cover-art

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

Hot thoughts

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

Kendrick-Lamar-DAMN-album-cover-featured-827x620

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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Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

24 Sep

 

On the face of it, Big Fish Theory sounds great. On his second full-length album, Long Beach-native Vince Staples layers his poised and confident flow over reworked techno-house beats, and interludes these gems with often bizarre but invariably interesting spoken-word segments and collaborations. There are enough references to oceans and marine life to make the album title seem reasonable, and you’re left with a tidy hip-hop album, with a bow on top.

But dig a little deeper, and Big Fish Theory shines blackly with grimness and desolation. After the break-out success of his debut Summertime ’06 (2015) and his follow-up EP Prima Donna (2016), Staples has gotten really famous really quickly. With a rough past in the mean streets of North Long Beach, this is exactly what Staples should want – enough money, fame and women to catapult him into a different life. But the new life didn’t quite cut it. Staples is left with aching loneliness, and is often met with money-grubbing groupies and fair-weather friends when he tries to reach out for help. So he works on his music, harder and more focused, to exorcise his demons, all the while knowing that the “goal” he’s set himself won’t bring him happiness in the end.

It is this ominous pendulum of emotions that drives the entire album.

“Alyssa’s Interlude” sets the tone for the darker side of things, with a snippet of Amy Winehouse talking about her self-destructive nature being a major source of material for her music. On “Party People”, Vince shows his own streak of self-destruction – his fame pushes him into the spotlight, where he can’t hide his suicidal thoughts (“Please don’t look at me in my face, everybody might see my pain”). The fruit of his success threatens to undo him and, as Vince is finding out the hard way, money doesn’t fix everything anyway (“Couple problems my cash can’t help, human issues too strong for tissues”).

But it’s not just self-sabotage pushing him to the edge. On “745”, Vince is sitting in a swanky car with a beautiful woman – what he’s wanted all his life – but the dream cracks from the inside. His lady friend heads straight to the oyster bar, without regard to poor Vince who’s still out parking the car. “This thing called love’s hard for me,” he confesses, “This thing called love is a God to me.” Pity that he seems so far from it.

But the grim moods don’t last forever. Vince seems to pull himself out of depression by vowing to stay away from demons, within and without. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” uses house beats over an Azalea Banks-like off-kilter flow, to draw a mental image of Vince struggling to make it out of the “bucket” of his old neighborhood. (The song also marks the first appearance of Kilo Kish, who often adds a velvety, ethereal gloss over Vince’s hard-to-swallow bullets of truth throughout the album.)

“Crabs” is followed by the club-ready beats of the first single, “Big Fish” – the part where the intro melds into Vince’s almost taunt-like drawl still gives us chills after half a hundred listens. It’s fair to say that Vince doesn’t fit the mold of the typical hip-hop star – he’s a teetotaler and has never done drugs. We also find out from “Big Fish” that he’s really into saving his cash, wielding his bank balance as a protective float from his past misfortunes. “I was up late night ballin’, counting up hundreds by the thousands,” he boasts repeatedly, and it’s not tough to believe him when he says he’s taken the smart route out of his Ramona Park childhood. “Homage” gives us the same message, relayed over neat Gorillaz-style megaphone vocals – no doubt a nod to his recent collaborator Damon Albarn.

Beyond the pendulum between his self-destructive introspection and his drive to succeed, Big Fish Theory displays another overarching theme: Vince’s cynicism with the hip-hop game. He has repeatedly stated on interviews that he considers rapping to be his job, not a side hobby (“Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra,” he stated bluntly in a recent Vulture interview). Over sludgy beats and tinny drums on “Yeah Right”, Vince sardonically questions the order of importance for many of today’s hip-hop stars. “Is your house big?”, “Is your girl fine?”, and almost as an after-thought, “If your song played, would they know that?” And of course, we would be remiss to not mention that the song also features a stand-out verse dropped by rap’s current king, Kendrick Lamar.

All in all, Big Fish Theory works on two levels. It is a great album to hear from start to finish even if you aren’t paying attention to the words; if you are paying attention, that’s a whole different level.

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “745”

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN

26 May

At this point, it almost feels like a foregone conclusion that a new Kendrick album will be Album of the Year. The only real question is whether it is another classic. Personally, I don’t think DAMN is quite that strong. Kendrick Lamar has set an impossibly high bar for himself, and I think this is the album that finally fails to hurdle it. I’d be shocked if it there’s another album this year to touch it though.

There are so many strong parts to this album. I love the flow and the submerged beat of “FEEL.” “LOYALTY.” features an excellent Rihanna. The more rap that we get from her, the happier I will be. “FEAR.” is genuine in a way most confessionals aren’t. It’s eye-opening to hear Kendrick’s mother on the verse and to hear him speak about still being worried about money. His storytelling is still the best in the game. Also, these videos are the best of his career. TDE is doing really amazing work right now.

However, there are just more weak points to this album than to its predecessors. “YAH” is honestly weak, despite giving us the excellent nickname of Kung Fu Kenny and while the harmonizing of “LOVE” is interesting, it’s just not that good a song. Every Kendrick album has weak points, but this is the first one that seems to lack a purpose and so these faults feel exaggerrated. GKMC was his breakout and TPAB was breathlessly innovative but DAMN just doesn’t seem to have as strong a raison d’etre and so can’t help but feel a lesser album.

This is still a great album. This will almost certainly be Album of the Year. This is something you should listen to right now. Even if you’ve already had it on repeat all year, you should listen to it again. This is not quite a masterpiece, but is still close enough to deserve reverence. It’s a bold and innovating album that showcases a top-tier rapper at the top of his game. I highly recommend it.

@murthynikhil

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

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_Lowell

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

No_Cities_to_Love_cover

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

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly

13 Apr

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_Butterfly

I really like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s hard not to like Kendrick Lamar right now, good kid, m.A.A.d city was a classic and his work since then has been exceptional. While not quite the masterpiece that his previous album was, To Pimp a Butterfly can at least raise the question when it comes to sheer quality and most certainly surpasses its predecessor in innovation.

That’s part of what made the album so hard to evaluate. There is no doubt that this is a challenging album. It bends genre incessantly, “These Walls” could have come off a Prince album and “For Free” is more slam poetry than hip-hop. A jazz band backs the entire production. Yet, despite those things, this is a hip-hop album through and through. Songs like “King Kunta” or “The Blacker the Berry” are fire for even the most die-hard rap purist.

It challenges the listener with content as well though. The entire album has a running storyline of temptations from Lucifer and tests from God with Kendrick as a messiah. “u” tears deep into Kendrick showing him holding himself responsible for his failings and tears into the listener as a result. “Mortal Man” questions the listener’s dedication to him, but comes off as self-doubting instead of accusatory. For all of the lows though, there’s the positivity of songs like “i” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” both of which break up the intensity of the album very nicely while also just being very good music.

To Pimp a Butterfly is very simply what you should be listening to right now and what you will be listening to for a long time.

@murthynikhil

Kendrick Lamar: Section.80

2 Jun

Section.80 is the work of a very talented kid. This is Kendrick Lamar’s album before good kid, m.A.A.d city and before “Control.” This is back when he was just a guy with talent and not one of the biggest names in the rap industry. The inexperience shows, there some degree of searching for who exactly he is, but there is also enough identity to make a very good, very individual album.

There are some stellar cuts on this album. “A.D.H.D.” is an excellent tale of life in the poorer parts of L.A. “No Make-Up” is a positive track in the vein of Goodie Mob. “HiiiPower” is K.Dot’s take on “So Appalled” and “Keisha’s Song” is “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and both are exceptional themselves. However, the album has its share of weak points and lacks the consistency of a more experienced rapper. His flow is a pleasure to listen to, but his lyrics have moments of weakness amongst all the cleverness.

In summary, Section.80 is a little bit rough but well worth a listen, even three years and a sequel into its history.

@murthynikhil

The Top Five Songs of 2013: Nikhil’s List

26 Dec

2013 was a great year to be into music. It’s hard to think of the last time that things have been quite this interesting. There have been stellar debut albums and big name comebacks (including a return to Blue Note bandleader after no less than 43 years). There has been major rap release after major rap release after major rap release after major rap release (with a very refreshing minor rap release thrown in for good measure). We even managed to see the return of science fiction. It’s been a great year with great music and here is my take on its top tracks

Honorable Mention: “Valentine’s Day” by David Bowie

Adding an honorable mention to lists like this is cheating, but I couldn’t write this without touching on this song. “Valentine’s Day” was both heartfelt and topical. With barely anything at all, Bowie manages to paint a complex picture of the eponymous Valentine. His description of the planned school shooting is extremely personal and that lets you fill in what pushed Valentine this far. The song itself shifts from tender as he goes over his treasured plans and power trips to frenetic as he is about to take action. Frightening and remarkable, this song is David Bowie as good as he’s ever been.

You can read our full review of his album here

5. “5 AM in Toronto” by Drake

It’s easier to laugh at Drake than to like him. Nothing Was The Same did nothing but reinforce how soft he is. I mean, have you seen “Hold On, We’re Going Home“? It wasn’t actually a bad album though and that speaks volumes about his talent. “5 AM in Toronto” though is Drake going hard and is excellent. Look at this

The part I love most is they need me more than they hate me
So they never take shots, I got everybody on safety
I could load every gun with bullets that fire backwards
You probably wouldn’t lose a single rapper
Niggas make threats, can’t hear ’em over the laughter
Yeah, that’s cause I’m headed to the bank, nigga

Why he chose not to put this in Nothing Was The Same is beyond me, but album complaints aside, this is just really good rap. At the end of the day, this boy has talent.

You can read our review of his full album here.

4. “Lies” by CHVRCHES

So, CHVRCHES have finally arrived. Now that they’re here, I was disappointed by their album, but had a ton of fun at their concert. I like intelligent pop with female singers, and this covers that in spades. This song pulls off the same sound that made me fall in love The Knife and Lauren Mayberry’s voice is glorious. Besides, that chorus just can not be resisted.

This is dark, beautiful and glorious to listen to. Her story of self-confidence through control over her lover is splendid and made much more so by the motif of lies. This is perfect pop.

Again, album review here and concert review here.

3. “New Slaves” by Kanye West

When I first heard Yeezus, it was actually “Blood on the Leaves” that straight up convinced me that Kanye West was still on top of the game. It has been a while though and “New Slaves” is the song I most return to. The menace on that opening beat is palpable. You could cut a block out of it with a knife and use its inner fire to heat a home for a month. And that’s before Kanye opens his mouth.

This song is rage. This is pure in the way so few songs are. This is Kanye upset and rightfully so and calling out things that are wrong. You shouldn’t have to be a god to do this, but of all of the players this year, no one else has proven godhood as convincingly. Everything I’ve said until now though does nothing but diminish the song. Rage and menace is worthless if not as crafted as this song. It may have been forged in a crucible instead of handwoven on an ancestral loom, but this is masterwork nonetheless.

Album review, link. You’ve got this by now.

2. “She Will” by Savages

The Savages’ debut album was one of the most intense things that I heard this year. There are very few albums that affect me so deeply that I need to carefully monitor when and how much I listen to it. Silence Yourself acts on me the way Unknown Pleasures does, and that is a very high bar to reach. Songs like “She Will” can absolutely break me.

Jehnny Beth is scathing and confident in her takedown of gender roles. Although takedown is far too mild a word for this song. Evisceration is much more apt. Fay Milton’s drumming is primal and the guitar and bass work could be a song in themselves. These individual points are meaningless though because their sum is so much more. Everything fits in, everything works together and as a listener all you can do is what it says. This picks you up and hurls you where it wishes. That repeated refrain of the title at the song end is far to commanding to ignore.

This is the kind of song that you need to sit alone in perfect silence and breathe after. You can still hear it though. You’ll never really escape it.

1. “Control” by Big Sean (feat. Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica)

Let’s be clear about this. No matter what the title may say, this is K.Dot’s song. I haven’t seen a song been snatched quite so hard since a young Eminem killed Jay-Z in his prime on “Renegade“. The other verses are fine, but I’m not even going to go over them.

Kendrick Lamar has put it down with this song. Rap is going to change because of this and with it music and with that society. The world has moved and his verse is what did it. Let’s start with the easy part to talk about. He just claimed both coasts. With one hand, no less. He name-dropped everyone. Even people performing on this very song weren’t safe from him. Enough nice-guy rap, things are going to go hard again and Kendrick has brought the golden age back.

Now, let’s get to the song. Kendrick’s flow is still impossible. He rides this beat so hard it dies the moment he gets off it. Honestly, its heart probably stopped beating minutes before and K.Dot pushed it anyway. That moment when in the middle of calling out competition he takes a breath because the list is so long, that’s as much of a statement of confidence as wearing the crown. Don’t even talk to me about the replies. The mic was dropped with that verse and not even Thor has the ability to pick it back up. We’re done.

@murthynikhil

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