Read Part 1, 100-51, HERE for a good look before heading down this road! All info, premise, and honorable mentions will be there. Now let’s go on with my top picks of this year.
IT’S FINALLY HERE!
050: Dante Mars Ajeto！ – Celebrating Digital Artifacts (Bedlam)
It’s not often one runs across an album that brings a wholly refreshing spin on an old concept, but Celebrating Digital Artifacts takes the cake when it comes to sampling. The familiar romanticism in the glitches evolve and fluctuate beyond foreseeable parameters for explosive tracks like “A5 roland.mp3” and “B7 keep_keep_(#000000).mp3.” Silky beats, harmonious vocal chops, and creative twists to sampling coalesce a celebration for plunderphonics that would even make dds.wmv’s I’ll Try Living Like This blush at points. More relaxing cuts like the vintage 80’s dysphoria of “B3 scopaesthesia.mp3” or the soft analog warmth of “B5 infp.mp3” still present the catchy and breezy moments that made his last release such a bop. Coming from conventional, funky roots, Dante Mars Ajeto！’s latest project is this year’s latest surprise, but it’s one to impress both an artist and a non-believer of sampling.
049: Monster Rally – Mystery Cove LP (Gold Robot)
It’s obvious why a Monster Rally record would be awesome. Amazing beats, therapeutic tropical themes, and a wiggling ear for looping and sampling curation. Mystery Cove LP is just more of that lovely relaxation tape vibes I’ve yearned since 2011’s Crystal Ball, except with a newfound narrative to connect all the tracks this time around. Out for a cruising getaway, the story of two lovers is visualized in the summer analog sunshine of “The Big Surf” to find delectable yet foreboding acoustics dribbling on “Banana Bread,” or get trapped in the rainy piano pours of “Little Buddy.” One even gets lost in the bouncy kitsch of “After Hours” for that vintage Herb Alpert swing. Whatever the situation, Mystery Cove LP is there for you in the sun and in the rain, and that’s already special enough coming from Monster Rally.
048: Nyctophiliac – Dark Side of the Mental (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
Oh, man. Right from the lonesome, squealing horns and bobbing percussion of “Enter the Temple” was I not ready for the dangerous and unsettling trip of Dark Side of the Mental. This is a unique dark jazz record, because the genre-hopping within these tracks brings out all the color on this project. Contorted violins driving the groove of “Metamanoir” or the loud murmur and instrumental scratches on “The Cursed Gospel” are snippets to the tucked puzzle pieces that make up the instrumentation. Tracks like the seductive evil of the bass and creepy vocals on “Nycto’s View” feel outright inspired from a David Lynch-produced soundtrack. While the Nyctophiliac project leans toward a hip hop and trip hop beat crowd, I’d say it’s one of the more experimental jazz records of this year and I can’t wait to hear more from an excellent debut.
047: Factory Floor – 25 25 (DFA)
I have to admit with every listen of Factory Floor comes a stronger appreciation for the piercing shock of percussion and acid-house energy. The introduction of 25 25, “Meet Me at the End,” with its sparse acid-disco rhythms and repetitive 808 section, has the synths and added textures to the industrial drumming that clicked so well as a reminder from Liars’ Mess from 2014. The title track is another sharp example of club-inspired rhythms, wonderfully crafted and a jarring repetition both disorienting and melodic. It’s s track sculpted and drilled for the dance floor. I do have to credit David Wrench, considering he’s done work with FKA Twigs and Caribou, I feel like 25 25 was done some justice in the mixing department. One more track I do have to mention is the track “Wave” for the brilliant remarks to Sheffield bleep and industrial techno, which do sound like someone performing Morse code as part of the rhythm. Overall, it’s a damn impressive sophomore release that is a challenging listen compared to their debut, even more hypnotic and eerie than anticipated.
046: Frankie Reyes – Boleros Valses y Mas (Stones Throw)
Californian-based musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker strips down to a single Oberheim synthesizer on Boleros Valses y Mas. Minimal and pure of heart, Reyes’s interpolations of classic Latin standards thrive vividly on this twelve track album wonder. “Alma, Corazón y Vida” is a re-imagining of Los Panchos where the nostalgic Nintendo-like melodies owes itself to Reyes’s passionate take. Rafael Hernández Marín’s “Lamento Borincano” is stripped of added instrumentation and lyrics, but it maintains the dramatic fire present from the original. The cartoonish wistfulness of Chacuba Granda’s “La Flor de la Canela” and the equally friendly jingle of Los Pancho’s “Espinita” are other favorites adding to Boleros Valses y Mas’s realized and nostalgic collection of instrumentals. A celebration of his Puertorriqueño roots, he captures the unforeseen and solitary melancholy of each track in ways that seems witchcraft-ian.
045: Death Grips – Bottomless Pit (Harvest/Third Worlds)
Is there any question to the mighty power of Death Grips? MC Ride and his crew, the most unrelenting counter-culture to music’s mediocre state and platform, have evolved to the point of untouchability. It’s simply incredible to watch. Not even a year, and they drop Bottomless Pit, the culmination of everything they’ve done so far. A fiery implosion of sound from the skittering chaos of drums, jizzing snowmen, and rumbling concoction of synth textures “Spikes” to the witty themes and busy rhythms of “Eh,” Bottomless Pit is a much tighter and hook-heavy release. My favorite track has to go to the silly and comedic commentary on “Trash,” especially with the incredibly addictive main verse of the song. While I’m still deciding where the falls in the rank of best Death Grips album, it’s not complicated to see why this album is some of their most confident and expressively detailed works. If you already like Death Grips, I don’t need to convince you, but seriously, pick this up.
044: Noname – Telefone (Self-Released)
She was simply a feature on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap and Coloring Book when I first heard about her, but I didn’t expect a project to come from it, especially not as intimate and thoughtful as her debut mixtape. Being an established poet, her delivery and soothing voice reminiscent of Bahamadia works for the kind of heartwarming production on Telefone. Her soul influences come through on the Take 6 vibes on “Sunny Duet”, the chord progressions are lovely and I have to give credit to the multi-tracking on the vocal layering, which does this mixtape wonders. While this is about her upcoming as a woman in Chicago with stories of love and death, relationships and family, there’s a lot of nuance and impactful moments to appreciate. Her experiences with abortion on “Bye Bye Baby,” or her aunt’s fight against cancer on “Reality Check” and worrying her young friends facing police brutality on “Casket Pretty” are songs of overcoming her fears. The dark lyricism paired with pretty instrumentation all makes sense with “Freedom Interlude” where she quotes Nina Simone’s interview about freedom meaning “no fear.” It makes the ending of “Shadown Man” all the more potent, where she envisions herself attending her own funeral. Telefone is a soothing listen and makes the dark themes digestible for the audience. Noname’s framing and writing really helps this album stand out, and it makes her one of the more exciting rappers of this year.
043: Kemba – Negus (Self-Released)
Kemba is the new name for YC the Cynic, most known for the excellent and mischievous project of GNK. While that album was a journey about ego and pride, Negus loosely ties with the recontextualization of the same royal Ethiopian title presented and dives off into a new chapter in relation to social problems happening in the US. Strangely, this is one of few albums this year that speaks on a very honest and open level towards the effects that have occurred in our nation’s lack of justice and resources for black individuals. From the unapologetic declarations on “Caesar’s Rise” to the dark realities of poverty and greed that plague communities on the threading story of “Psyrens (Curious),” “Greed,” and “Heartbeat,” Kemba’s hitting delivery and straightforward lyricism feel so genuine and heartbroken. Along with the intro and outro and snippets of dialogue planted between tracks, Negus is one of the most eye-opening listens of this year. Even through struggles, loss of faith, and the evils of the world around us, Kemba reminds us that we have to encourage and help our future generation push forward, just like those before us.
042: Xenia Rubinos – Black Terry Cat (Anti-)
Xenia Rubinos’ second project is an impressive collection of influences and musical styles. It’s all jumping between soulful, contemporary R&B and funk music, and Afrocentric styles that isn’t too far from Tune-Yards’ Nikki Nack. Take a look at the tight drum patterns and infectious keyboard tones on “Black Stars,” or the colorful outro of “How Strange It Is” that ends the album with an odd time signature on the drums. There’s even some lo-fi hard rock tinges on “Just Like I.” Black Terry Cat isn’t simply a beautiful experiment on sounds, however. Grab a glimpse at quirky and funky cut of “Mexican Chef,” one of my favorite songs that praises and respects brown people and minorities who take on hard jobs in food service. “I Won’t Say,” with its twinkling keyboard interludes and twangy strings, is about preserving black beauty in a world that wants to tell us that lighter skin and straight hair are the real traits of human complexion. Xenia Rubinos is very open about the political undertones in her tracks, so it’s a very black album that I would call the more hectic and gritty side to Solange’s A Seat at the Table (at least compositionally). Listening through this again, it’s such a groovy record from Rubinos that really earns a spot on my list.
041: Zetaprism – Storyline (BLCR Laboratories)
Seeing this artist go from the roomy and intimate instrumental experiments as Echonaut to this current project, it all spoke potential as I came to enjoy his touch for remixes and edits. Zetaprism had existed as a separate Soundcloud project and this label project is a wonderfully confident entry that I hope is appreciated more down the line. Storyline wears its 90’s ambient and electronic influences on its sleeves like the chiming, Y2K netherrealms of “The Cell” and “Post Sunrise” (think of Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars, etc.), but it’s the simplistic delivery and subtle instrumentation at its core that never feels overwrought. The floaty mist of computer synth textures coloring the upbeat percussion on “Skyline” or the cozy and warm household of a track like “Scattered Storms” are all meditative pieces that have the same emotional depth and love one would get from a Percival Bembroke project. What has to be phenomenal track is the closer, “Memento,” a spacey and otherworldly interlude that whispers a continuation rather than an ending to the narrative of Storyline. There’s something really special going on with this Zetaprism debut, and I can only hope it’ll get better from here.
040: Ak.R – Strength of Materials (Pizza Beast/Genjitsu)
This is one of those beautiful and gorgeous lo-fi experimental adventures that is a rare find and will go heavily underrated. Strength of Materials is simply an emotional yet dissonant listen, a narrative on human disconnection from loneliness and technology. “When Present Becomes Past” and “Rewind” are different emotional ballads capturing the twinkling craving for happiness in the instrumentation. “Saturday Evening” is a flourishing and intimate post-rock tune with low horns and acoustics reminiscent of Mogwai that is one of my favorites off this album. Other cuts like the interlude of lo-fi acoustics on “永久に続くオーディオテープ” and “0dbV 0.775V,” or the darkwave influences on “D_A Converter,” are expressive motifs that feel disconnected but serve the greater mood of Strength of Materials. There is still a lot to unpack from Ak.R’s fourth release, and it’s one of his best he’s done so far.
039: reef frequent – Emperor (Bedlam)
Download this on a rainy day, get yourself a hot drink, and find yourself a spot to watch the droplets hit your window as the sky fades to black. Emperor is a contemplative and moody release from reef frequent, and it’s the best of his input this year. A refreshing narrative that subverts the dreaminess of the city, it instead presents a bustling, cold production with sparse and noisy percussion and gloomy ambiance. The dank texture of fragmented synth and layered trap percussion on “Falling” and the liquid instrumental shifts of “Redoux” with Nothing Important Happened Today are chunky, delectable slivers of what’s being offered. If you’re into a heavily reverbed 808s & Heartbreak production with a lot of heart and personality blossoming, I see no reason to not give this a try. It’s an experience best listened to as a whole, and it’s rewarding at every listen, too.
038: Xiu Xiu – Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (Polyvinyl)
Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks is already a surreal and dreamy experience with a sharp wit for eeriness and underlying sadness, yet Xiu Xiu managed to amplify those qualities to a staggering standard that can only be described as a Xiu Xiu experience. Sure, if you haven’t watched the show, the context of these tracks are somewhat lost, but it’s never essential to the music, as it stands on its own merits completely. Tracks like the mourning whispers of Julee Cruise’s “Into the Night” are ramped up with a sickening, noisy guitar and pounding rhythm section that only gets more intense. Jamie Stewart’s vocals are at their most passionate on the cover of “Falling,” howling with the familiar crooning and crackle of his vocal range to chimes and a marching beat that swells in the most satisfying ways. The sweaty, raunchy fervor of “Blue Frank/Pink Room” blown up to a dizzying performance really gets the blood boiling. This is not to discredit softer and equally noisy cuts like the contorted boogey of “Sycamore Tree.” There’s a lot to say on this short paragraph on a covers album, but I think no other band could have captured what Xiu Xiu does on Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, giving it a righteous and emotional performance like no other.
037: patten – Ψ (Warp)
Nothing has consumed my time more than this project. While I fairly admired patten’s past works, something felt oddly addicting about Ψ that made me yearn for more at every listen. It’s loud, it gets cacophonous and blurry incredibly fast, and it’s such a rush to my brain. The visuals, themes and performance of this record are part of the accentuation to an already amazing, experimental club descent. From the twinkling and disjointed rhythms of “Locq” to the rumbling and crackle of “Dialler” and the small, yet intense detour of “Pixação,” they’re all tracks that grab my attention for how pleasant the instrumentation sounds. Especially with new member A’s vocals on this album, favorite tracks like “Epsilon” and “Yyang” are emotionally stimulating performances in their blur of trance and bass. Overall, patten have done an excellent experiment on Ψ that I only suspect will become even more refined and intense on their next adventure.
036: Vektroid – Big Danger (Self-Released)
While it’s less known (or rather, not known) that this was an existing collection of music remastered from old demos and chunks from two lost projects, Starlight Iguana and Planet Dudette, the culmination of Big Danger is still a considerably hefty and strikingly cohesive project from tracks that possibly span years apart in context. This is a beautifully crafted lo-fi experience from original and sampled instrumentation alike. The warbling cassette filtering of the snippet from the original “Dead Bart” introducing the chunky goodness of the album, then flipping to the ten-minute zen vibration of “Edge of Hell / Akumu no Ojo” is all a mesmerizing feeling of the mind warping into a VHS tape. We also get peeks to the hazy ambiance of a soft acoustic cut on “Kill Data Ocean” and “Must Wait,” the fizzling disintegration of “Wave Digging,” and the warm, sudden interruptions on a cut like “Final Round / No Crisis” that has a squeeze of the vibe from her famous PrismCorp series. I could go on with the details and small sections that make up each instrumental, but at the end of the day, Vektroid’s Big Danger is a lo-fi beauty that should be right at the top on the best of hypnagogic music.
035: WWWINGS – PHOENIXXX (Planet Mu/Self-Released)
This one really snuck up on me big time. The collaborative project between Lit Internet, Lit Daw, and Lit Eyne, this post-Soviet group bust up their chops and seriously focus on something incredibly unadulterated and wild. PHOENIXXX incorporates some of the nastiest and grimiest tracks with guest appearances like Kastle, Born in Flamez, and Gronsos1 on the violent churn of “ERA” and the hugely experimental club cut of “AETHEREAL” with Chino Amobi. What’s really amazing is the stark difference between its free release in March and its beefed remastering and extra production final product for Planet Mu. It makes tracks like “RESURGE,” arguably the wildest track off PHOENIXXX, sound incredibly disgusting with its drilling bass tones and a frenetic friction that could make metal melt under the heat. WWWINGS, while not big on concepts like other experimental artists, simply deliver a twelve-track hellhole of righteous fury. It’s truly a testament of what potential a purely internet project, from three folks who have never even met before, can possess.
034: Eaves – Verloren (Purple Pedigree)
If you love Arca, you’re going to love what Eaves brings to the table. A Brooklyn-based producer, Eaves is set on seeking connections between the physical and future virtual realms through a sonic lens. While such a concept and the music itself are incredibly overwhelming and overstimulating to decipher in practice, one can find familiarity in the chilling haze of “Exegesis” or the fragility in the strings and synthkey arrangements on “Wounds.” Verloren is a complex recording in mood, loss, and the emotional human process at the face of a fictional future. Take the horror-ish panic of the horns and the familiar sounds of an organ rippling against glimpses of human voices on “Linthen Heap.” What I feel to be the highest reach of a climax is on the emotional loss of control on the vocals on “Seas 2,” broken to fragments as it roars to distinguish the line between reality and fiction. Eaves has really put out a powerful and though-provoking listen, no dull moment in sight for this one. It’s mindblowing.
033: The Avalanches – Wildflowers (Modular/Astralwerks)
The Avalanches are back, baby! An explosive and euphoric summertime album full of original and sampled composition and amazing guest features, Wildflowers finally answers what’s been going on behind the curtain. Just listen to the positive and remarkably pretty intro of “Because I’m Me” slip into the single smash of “Franky Sinatra” with Danny Brown and MF Doom. I’m doing a chef kiss for how delicious this album is. The swirling psychedelics of “Colours,” the ever silly and kid-like energy of “The Noisy Eater” with Biz Markie and Jean-Michael Bernard, and the happiest and purest track you will ever hear, “Harmony,” that has samples from ‘Sesame Street’ of all things. I can’t help but smile throughout the album, even in the shorter, less developed moments. This is a fun album to listen to, and it’s really what I needed from this year.
032: Lori McKenna – The Bird & the Rifle (Thirty Tigers)
This year brought us more albums from women in country than no other, but it also brought the best from older women. In comes Lori McKenna, whose Grammies for her contributions to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush and Tim McGraw’s cover of “Humble & Kind” brought her mainstream attention despite numerous albums. Connecting with Dave Cobb for her new album though, she shows herself to be one of the most powerful voices in modern country with The Bird & the Rifle. Soft, acoustic guitars, subtle and organic arranged instrumentation, and a cushiony bass define tracks like “Wreck You,” “Old Men Young Women,” and “Halfway Home.” Cobb’s production, while a tad formulaic, are an amazing fit for her McKenna’s subject matter to cut deep. The powerful gut punch of the fading relationship on “Wreck You,” or the change of nostalgia from “Giving Up on Your Hometown,” and even the resonating fairy tale of the title track feel intimate and all the more tragic from excellent songwriting. This sits real close to Lori McKenna’s best, and it can’t be ignored how much this album broke me down. Powerful stuff here.
031: Clipping. – Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop)
Out from the gates of Hamilton, the bending wordplay of Daveed Digs is back to astound us with something far divorced from what Clipping. has ever done before. A hip hop space opera with a pool of sci-fi references and political commentary, Splendor & Misery pushes its concepts to the absolute limit, even by sci-fi narrative standards. A lone surviving black man in a slave ship deep in space, never to potentially see another human soul ever again, and told from the perspective of a computer that is a little too fascinated with the former slave, it’s potent material. However, this could be the most glitch-like, deadpanned, and barren production Digs has ever rapped on. The atmospheric tension and chiptune on “All Black,” or the dark tones and empty radio feedback from “True Believer,” and even the hook full of static and blur on “Baby Don’t Sleep” are jarring listens compared to the fragments of bluesy melodies that show up on Splendor & Misery. Compared to the a capella and the return of slave songs on tracks like “Story 5” and “Long Way Away,” the tones on this album shift all over the place. That’s ignoring the central themes of this album, dealing with a futile existence amongst an uncaring universe, it doesn’t lose itself in the insanity, and that’s really saying something. While I can’t say it’s a step above their last album, it’s a step above most concept albums ever made, period.
030: The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time (History Always Favours the Winners)
Stage one of a six-part series, it is Leyland Kirby’s narrative on The Caretaker’s advancing dementia through the further disintegration of its music. It all serves the purpose of Kirby’s deep interest and understanding in illnesses relating with memory loss, something that’s existed since 2006’s Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia. To put simply for what the music is, it’s a project exploring the crackle and worn-out grooves of ancient 7” vinyls that played in 78rpm, creating and warping its sampling to a sly, cohesive soundtrack. It’s a formula that makes 2011’s An empty bliss beyond this World so damn memorable and ahead of its time by going back in time (if that makes sense). Where Everywhere at the end of time comes in, well, it’s the same formula at the surface, but there’s a totality and a looming darkness that plagues the serene daydream of its samples. Take the slow, timid ringing of the pianos on “Slightly bewildered” or the soap opera tearjerker of “My heart will stop in joy.” There’s a display of happiness but with a finality one would get from being told you will die in a few months. It spins tracks like “Things are all beautiful and transient” and “We don’t have many days” and pushes the ache all the more. It’s not a very complicated listen, but it’s incredibly effective in a way only The Caretaker can go. Overall, it’s a great start to the six-part series.
029: James Flamingo – Welcome to the Internet (Lost Angles)
Welcome to the Internet is a fresh and almost innovative amalgamation of everything Hubbard has released into one explosive and thought-provoking cauldron of collected sounds. “‘E’ Country,” a thirteen-minute epic of drone and constant shift of modern life from iPhone notifications to fast food bubbling to computer technology whispers, describe the concept of an “internet country.” “Je Suis, Offline!” is one of many standouts, a manipulation of samples creating an atmospheric landscape from Microsoft launch sounds and synthesized Eastern music. This is a release that will make one ponder, from the obscure sampling sources, to the voice recordings, and even the track names. This is a release to challenge and please the listener. When it comes to painting the canvas of what the internet would sound like on audio, James Flamingo captures that.
028: Various Artists – PC Music, Vol. 2 (PC Music)
Yeah, it’s a packaged compilation of existing singles from these last two years that ultimately doesn’t present any cohesion, but it’s my way of praising PC Music’s output so far (and quenching my frustration for an album release from one of these artists). PC Music, Vol. 2 is wildly better than the first one. With the iconic masterpiece of pop and internet relationships on Hannah Diamond’s “Hi” and the megastar collaboration between Danny L Harle and Carly Rae Jepsen on “Super Natural,” you really cannot go wrong here. Even the new tracks specifically for the compilation, easyFun’s “Monopoly” featuring Noonie Bao and Felicita’s “a new family,” bring in a ton of flash and memorable, experimental moments as the statement of PC Music’s musical evolution. While I do wish they would have included both Chris Lee (Li Yuchun) tracks, the inclusion of “Only You” is probably my favorite cut on here. If you’re looking to explore PC Music, this is the compilation to glean over. It gets extremely addictive, something I can say with more emphasis than before from such a promising label.
027: Beyoncé – Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia)
Her icon status overshadowing her music, Beyoncé has been able to exceed expectations when it comes to music consumption, but I couldn’t argue the same for her music. Other than 4, I wasn’t really a fan. Something about Lemonade’s campaign though, having peculiar guests like Jack White and Josh Tillman of Father John Misty, coupled with interpolations from Led Zeppelin and Animal Collective, I have to admit my ears perked up. Everyone’s told you by now, this is Beyoncé’s best album in a long time, and it’s her most personal story and biggest artistic progression. Lemonade works because she walks a confident balance between sexual swagger and explosive rage and anxiety that is earned. Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd both push her narrative and play to her performance, the latter being the perfect showman to elegantly rough “6 Inch.” The album about the alleged cheating of Jay-Z, she really taps to some potent anger on tracks like the bubbling nature of “Sorry” and the heartbreaking ballad of “Sandcastles.” Even so, there’s an implied realism to the relationship on a track like “Freedom,” knowing that their love is worth so much more, and she’s willing to work out with Jay-Z as he reportedly broke down, “…’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”
026: Negative Gemini – Body Work (100% Electronica)
Lindsey French of Negative Gemini fame is finally out with her big label release called Body Work, and this was such a fun album full of personality to dance to in any environment. Not just in the production but in her vocals as well, her new project shows a lot of character and groovy dips to 90’s overarching land of regional techno. There’s a full embrace of dance music with a satisfyingly melodic and dreamy pop appeal to them. Especially with influences of trance, big beat, cheap 90’s music compilation aesthetics, and chillwave sprinkled throughout, it makes tracks like the borderline cheese of “Break” work incredibly well. She takes bigger steps, too, from a typical electronic release, with anthemic lyrical themes about rage and betrayal from false love on “You Never Knew” and striking a big fuck you to shitty catcallers on “Don’t Worry Bout the Fuck I’m Doing.” Body Work, while keeping it fresh from her grounding influences, manages to create the most empowering and amazing electronic records of this year, and possibly of our decade, given the time.
025: Skyjelly – Blank Panthers / Priest, Expert, or Wizard (Doom Trip)
Skyjelly’s Blank Panthers / Priest, Expert, or Wizard, is an amazingly catchy and beautiful release that commixes two different objects to a singular experience. There is a hefty amount of balance between lo-fi and hi-fi with the added busyness of the composition. Tracks like “Sixes” and “Acosta” are particularly my favorite for the fast-tempo psychedelia and catchy melodies encapsulating the vibe of summer. Skyjelly Jones sure knows how to soften a blistering fury with his voice like on the sandy bass of “Catherine’s Rabbi” and squealing guitars on “Headphone Jack.” It’s equally as beautiful on the ballads of “All Around Me” and “Babies in Light” that are like little pockets of sunshine. Of course there’s a lot of 70’s and 80’s rock influences powering through these cuts, but the instrumentation is extremely infectious in its personality. This is one of those rock albums that will simply get more attention from word of mouth as the years go on, but you’re missing out if this isn’t on your top rock albums of this year.
024: Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote)
The ever talented Donald Glover has been incredibly busy making a hit TV show, being a rapper, and basically exceeding in multiple mediums that no artist has the time to do. Even so, hinting over something different on his next album, Awaken, My Love! is the surprise departure we all didn’t see coming. A switch to soul, funk, and R&B, it’s an incredible album paired with his wildest performance ever. Childish Gambino’s vocal contortions are a total mindbender. The painful howling on “Me and Your Mama” or the high-pitched crooning on “Redbone” (which is reportedly not manipulated) and squeaky ranges of the cutesy reggae vibe on “California” are something to be applauded. The themes, while a bit scattered, is central on his fatherhood (see “Baby Boy”), as it all displays messages about pseudo-fame (“California”), police brutality and black stereotypes (“Boogeyman”), and general perseverance (“Stand Tall”). The soul and funk revival may be having a resurgence in hip hop, but Donald Glover took the extra step of immersing his persona in a new light, and it’s created one of the best records of this year.
023: Solange – A Seat at the Table (Columbia)
I was never inclined towards a Solange album, she was more on the music trends of the time, and other artists like Janelle Monáe outdid her style in spades. Despite that and an eight-year absence, she was able to pull out an album to critical acclaim. Unsurprisingly, comparisons to her sister are unavoidable, but where Lemonade dipped its toes on social issues, A Seat at the Table is the true dive into black empowerment and places the social issues at the forefront. Solange is done to white pandering and is not making this easy listening for her non-black audience. The guest verses are also a surprising mix, from André 3000 on “Junie” to an amazingly awoken Lil Wayne on “Mad.” Centerpieces like the unapologetic “Don’t Touch My Hair” and the soothing piano lines of “Borderline (Ode to Self Care)” with Q-Tip were tracks tailor-made for the healing and empowerment of black people by black people. The instrumentation is notable as well, with the sharp snares and soulful subtlety on “Rise” and the cello on “Cranes in the Sky.” There’s even a “Benny and the Jets” interpolation on “Where Do We Go” that is stunning. While I can say A Seat at the Table isn’t an album made for everyone, because it’s not, but there’s so much to appreciate regardless, and I’m glad it got the attention to be on the top lists of major publication this year.
022: chris††† – no lives matter (Bedlam)
It may be how I first listened to this album, but to make a story short, I was walking back to my college dorm in the rain and it was so unbearably wet, too. So, what do I soundtrack my miserable trek to? There was an underscored beauty in the mighty power of chris†††’s no lives matter, a colossal injection of sounds and hellish samples that will feed every pummeling sensation. The seriously concerning madness on “judas inside” and the bleak dance of “trudging on emotionless,” juxtaposed to the freakish silliness of YouTube poops on “ytp death” and a Beach Boys sample on “he left” that feels like a sick joke, it left fans and artists alike scratching their heads. It’s an album that is unconcerned with itself and audience for approval, and none display that better than the behemoth of jazz and blasting euphoria on “i am death.” The ultimate mission statement of the experience, every punch of the beat feels like the reaper’s scythe coming to bestow the final judgement on your pitiful soul. This is the most emo that an electronic and plunderphonic release will ever get, and it’s a blessing to hear it.
021: Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)
It’s been five years, and every time Will Toledo put out a new project, he managed to be on my year-end list without fail. Teens of Denial is just another reason why he deserves that spot. While pulling from the same 90’s rock of bands like Weezer, Toledo’s formula of throwing enough catchy melodies and hooks in hopes for an effective landing works more than it should. Powerful percussion lines and riffs really give this album its grit at the face of such long track times. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is a famous example of his sequencing and layering of hooks. It’s an eleven-minute storm of change ups coming together with natural, intimate cohesion. The real star of the show, however, is the writing of this album. The narrative of the depressed teenage is a difficult point to make that can fall as pretentious, but we’re never told he’s cool and takes a frank view on how it affects him and others around him. Tracks like “Cosmic Hero” and “Joe Goes to School” are critical discussions in the divide between our generation and the last, and how our mistakes have to lead us together instead of shutting ourselves in our own depression. This is where the denial of the whole thematic arc comes into place, the big middle finger to teenage conformity Teens of Denial represents. This is an album that speaks to two generations of teens, and it’s a wake-up call we all need.
020: Siddiq & Vektroid – Midnight Run (Self-Released)
I knew about Midnight Run since 2013 with the sneak peek from Siddiq’s lost PAID2013 mixtape. There was even an announcement for it on that year, but nothing came of it until now. A ten-track masterpiece of rap and experimental electronic production, it is the atmospheric and mythical fruition that I had accepted would never happen. The iconic title track of the release has been beautifully remastered and rearranged from the original cut to a stunningly luscious four-minute cut of muted beats and a conversational, low pitched Siddiq. The vocal layering and spacey trap instrumentation leading to a jazzy interlude at the back half of “Fly Shit” is fantastic There’s many perfect moments where the two synch up incredibly well. The creepy introduction slipping to a grinding hip hop rhythm with Playstation-esque undertones, and Siddiq confident voice riding the beat on the Dom K. cover of “On My Hometown” is one example of that. Siddiq’s enthusiastic flows, classy drumming, and arrangement of synths sounding straight out of a SEGA game on “Jordan 3” wouldn’t sound off on an OutKast album. This is one hell of an amazing project that is one half hip hop and one half electronic, and no album has married those two sounds in an interesting way like Siddiq & Vektroid’s Midnight Run this year.
019: Anna Meredith – Varmints (Moshi Moshi)
One of the most surprising listens all year, Anna Meredith is a British producer whose written operas and orchestral arrangements for years and now venturing to electronic. You may know her from working with James Blake, too. Varmints is her bizarre debut, blurring classical and electronic music with a poignant and powerful conviction. There’s an odd pop sensibility, too, to the repetition and EDM inspirations. The thick beats and dubstep wobbles fused to the melodically ear-grabbing intro of “Nautilus,” or the galloping percussion and neat synth tones on “The Vapours,” and similarly ambitious cuts like the heartbreaking string performance on “Backfriars” possess wowing tempo and beat change-ups. The control of dynamics on a lot of these tracks, and their interwoven intricacy, is worth applauding at a technical point of view. Surprisingly, the narrative is pretty solid as well. “Dowagers” and “R-Type” highlights the drama of an apocalyptic relationship that is thematically potent against the instrumentation. This is a challenging album if you’re not used to EDM/pop leanings or classical compositions creeping in, but the fusion is incredibly rewarding.
018: Vektor – Terminal Redux (Earache)
Fantastic metal album. Goddamn, is this a fantastic metal album! Vektor, the most prolific blackened thrash metal, have pulled off an exciting, complex, and incredibly epic album (thankfully, not their last) with seventy-minutes of jam-packing material to boot. Terminal Redux is a visceral performance that pursues an ambitious and technical performance, full of glorious guitar passages and a heavy sci-fi narrative. The intro to this tale, “Charging the Void,” is quite the opener with loud crescendo, aggressive guitar play, and even female background vocal support near the end. The transition to the more eerie “Cygnus Terminal” is so oddly pleasant, yet works musically. “Collapse” is its own mystical journey, with cleaner, atmospheric guitars and vocals punctuating the coldness at the near end of its narrative. The story behind Terminal Redux is as involved. An astronaut captures the key to immortality from a space dictatorship, and using his powers to control and monitor the population (“LSD (Liquid Crystal Disease)”), create facilities to destroy and control the regime for his own power (“Ultimate Artificer”). Yet, his uncontrollable thirst for power is his own undoing as he suffers existential crisis and casts the universe and himself into the void (“Recharging the Void”). I’ll try not to spoil every detail, but do yourself a service and grab this. You’ll love every second of it.
017: ♥ GOJII ♥ – HYPERSYMMETRY (HyperPop/Self-Released)
There’s only so few albums that can get me this emotionally happy and reflective at the same breath. Similar to Rustie’s sweet dip on EVENIFYOUDONTBELIEVE, the power of HYPERSEMMTRY may lie on the perfect mix of bombast and energy, but there’s a flaring intimacy explored on the softer moments. It’s a balance not often seen that makes this all the more worth the listen. Get a taste to the club ballad of “ICECREAM” and the theatrical rhythms of “ALLIEBEAR (♥ GOJII ♥ MIX),” garnered to the sensational onomatopoeia of bottle cans, vocal snips, and chair squeaks. The plucking strings introducing the sweltering palpitating of the main beat on “AIIRO REACHER,” yet slowing down to get an extremely personal moment coupled to a drifting piano. It’s where the album’s subtle narrative comes into play for me, to cope with an underscoring depression hidden in the adrenaline. It’s an incredibly loose idea at best, but it’s why tracks like “HEART MENDER” with r u s s e l b u c k and JINKONU and “BITTER SPARKLE” seem incredibly powerful to me. Both steadily bouncing and euphoric dance instrumentals with their own touching piano interludes, yet there’s a confident reassurance and hope at the face of unmentioned struggles. Credit must be given for the remixes from Elevation, Water Spirit, and Tenkitsune, which are an added complimentary to the different angles HYPERSYMMETRY possesses. ♥ GOJII ♥ did a beautiful album, and it’s one of the best of the year for me.
016: Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
As a brief for Endless, it’s the more pastiche listen of the two, and while it has its strong moments, it’s really only meant as continuous listen. With Blonde, it’s a lot more self-contained, fragments coming together more cohesively for some potent songs. Frank Ocean’s long-awaited sophomore release is a lush, humid, and emotionally subtle exploration on past relationships and what they mean now for him. From the search for higher things in his loneliness on “Solo” to his disappointing date with a guy on “Good Guy,” and the enjoying love in the permanence of relationships on “White Ferrari,” they’re all loose memories coalescing Frank’s troubled experience with understanding love and what happiness means for him now compared to then. Coupled with sparse and broken instrumentation to simulate different passages of memory, like the buzzing guitar intro to “Pretty Sweet,” the twinkling, recurring piano interlude on “Facebook Story” and “Be Yourself,” and the reinterpretation of organ to piano on André 3000’s feature on “Solo (Reprise).” While it speaks more to his own condition rather than a populist view on the effect of relationships, Blonde is at most a nuanced take on the struggles of bisexuality and searching ways to move on from the emotional pains in life.
015: Yen Tech – Mobis (SVBKVLT)
I still question whether anything on this album is real, because the surrealist production and odd bi-lingual delivery between trap lingo and futuristic Y2K narratives from Nick Newlin is out of this universe. Simply get a taste for the compressed rattling of the instrumentation, that is the equivalent of an unholy love affair between Clipping. and Arca, on “Hunter – Seeker,” with Newlin’s vocals piercing through the dense jungle. “Cloudchasers” has this monstrous trap and club fusion that feels like brain disintegration. Quieter jams like “Lotus” still pull through from his experimental R&B performance on Revengeance, albeit a lot more looming and hedonistic. “Zero Angel” is the ecstatic finale to this album, the fisting climax to Mobis that ends the bizarre journey. While I can tell you that this is like hearing a trap album from the future, as if escaping from the dark depths of some chaotic neo-club to your ears, writing doesn’t explain well enough the intensity presented from an amazing debut release from Yen Tech.
014: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (GOOD/Def Jam)
What a journey it has been with Kanye West this year, because his life really has fractured more than anticipated, but what does that mean for The Life of Pablo? While I can’t praise this album for any thematic theme or even want to legitimize controversies with any thoughts, I can’t lie in saying I’ve returned to this album again and again. It’s not only for the gospel masterpiece of “Ultralight Beam” with Chance the Rapper, but also for the noisy hedonism of “Freestyle 4” and the stunningly personal pieces of “FML” and “Real Friends.” It’s for the broken dysphoria of Desiigner’s “Panda” just rudely placed on “Pt. 2” and the beautifully placed “Mysteries of Love” sample that drives the groove of “Fade” that I find entertaining and is right up my alley. I really do have to mention I admired the Arthur Russell sample on “30 Hours” as the main melody of the song. I don’t even care if this makes me sounds like a Kanye West stan, because I don’t know how else to explain it. Was the campaign for this album frustrating? Yeah. The ridiculous number of revisions and added and rearranged tracks? That was maddening. Not including “All Day” even though it was a good track? I’m also pissed about that. Yet, if you ask me how I feel about The Life of Pablo, I have the full confidence in saying I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I should have. Kanye West at least does one thing right consistently in his career, and it’s putting out something that will make you perk your eyes and ears, every time.
013: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
My opinions kind of waver mostly. Personally, I do like their earlier work of Pablo Honey (yes, I don’t care if you hate me for that) Kid A, and In Rainbows, but never been a fan of Hail to the Thief and I have a weird love/hate relationship with King of Limbs. I fairly like and love Radiohead most of the time, so of course I would check out A Moon Shaped Pool. I did not find anything with this album at first listen, everything was lacking, but I did like the messages behind “Burn the Witch” and the swelling string sections on it. Sitting around for a couple months, I decided to give it another shot and I gradually became to love the album for the instrumentation, the thematic themes being loose at best. The lullaby and almost nostalgic twinkles backing up the reflective piano on “Daydreaming” and the stark loneliness of “True Love Waits,” are tracks accentuated from Thom Yorke’s pensive, wistful delivery. The In Rainbows-esque acoustics and drumming on “Present Tense” and the subtle grooves on “Ful Stop” seep into the blend of the album’s bliss. I think the reason this album ranks so high on my list because of the instrumentation. Knowing most of the subject matter rings decades apart is mostly a subject to itself, but A Moon Shaped Pool offers enough humanity to reflect on that I preferred more than their later 2000’s material.
012: David Bowie – ★ (RCA/Columbia/Sony)
Hey, it’s David Bowie. Need I speak for someone whose presence speaks for itself? In terms of where I stand with Bowie, I never grew up with him, but his 70’s classics like Ziggy Stardust, Low, and Heroes are my favorites. His 2002 album, Heathen, is a modern Bowie I could love, along with 2013’s The Next Day. Ignoring the context of his death after the release of his newest album, ★ is his best work and an appropriate swansong since this was his last album anyway. He was incredibly self-aware of his fame, his fans, and his overcoming cancer that would take him away any time soon, which is why this album rang so prophetic in general. While there’s higher influences in his spacey rhythms from Low and experimentation from Outside, there’s enough edge and subtleties in the mixing that make it unsettling yet human. The teaming synths and loud percussion and sax lines on “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and the dark bass work and fuzzed guitar riffs near the end of “Lazarus,” coupled with the industrial touches and intense panic of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” are all good examples of this. The backing piano with the lovely guitar rhythms on “Dollar Days” and his howling performance of the finality of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are particularly heart-wrenching. ★ by David Bowie will stand as a ghostly and haunting release for years to come, maybe even rivaling with his classics soon.
011: Autechre – elseq 1–5 (Warp)
This one’s a hard one to evaluate on paper. I can’t even begin to describe the intense wall of sounds and numerous influences running across the five-part series, spanning close to four hours. What you hear on elseq 1–5 is some of the most impressive and celebratory collection of tracks that will defy categorization and barriers. To try to name a couple of highlights, the near twelve-minute earthquake of “feed1” is one hell of a way to start a release on elseq 1. Coupled with the welcoming hip hop churner of “c16 deep tread,” Autechre waste no time bending expectations at a whim’s notice. The wobbling mindbender of “elyc6 0nset” is an eyebrow-perking, slow-motion blender of twenty-seven minute sounds on elseq 2. “eastre” is an unusual drone piece that feels like someone is physically pushing down on a resisting blob, and later travels to the sunburnt crisp of industrial noise on “mesh cinereaL” for elseq 3. While it may be somewhat exhausting to pull through the entirety of elseq 4 (arguably the weakest, but that may just be from how much energy this album takes away from me at this point), elseq 5 is the most serene and warming, especially on “freulaeux,” if there ever was such a thing for this music. I won’t say Autechre’s elseq 1–5 is an easy listen to go through, or anything easy to recommend if you haven’t checked out their past work, but it’s some of the most satisfying and refreshing work Brown and Booth have done.
010: Jeff Rosenstock – Worry. (SideOneDummy)
New York punk and ska scene veteran Jeff Rosenstock is back, and he’s made the record punk has so desperately needed. Worry. is a record that still retains the same themes of wanting something real in the midst of a growing and changing world presented from We Cool?, but there’s definitely a nuance on this new affair. It’s an album about punk’s conformity and his own exhaustion in a conforming world. Look at “Festival Song,” about bands screaming to fight the power while punk gets glamorized and commercialized as just another trend. “To Be a Ghost…” is a melodic yet critical take on the negativity of social media, trolls, and hashtags taking drastic tolls on isolation to the point where one completely tunes out from the real world. “The Fuzz” is a similar take but cues on police brutality. “Wave Goodnight to Me” is a pivotal track of Rosenstock’s increasing worry that he hadn’t done enough in his youth and reconciles by making the most fun out of his life before he ages too quickly. The frenetic, riotous songs of “Bang on the Door” and hints of ska on “Rainbow,” and even the organ lines on “Staring Out the Window of Your Old Apartment,” all serve to place the tension behind stories of powerlessness and anxiety. Worry. is an album that realizes that all our screaming and protesting will never be enough, and life isn’t worth living if you’re not fighting for anything you love. As the last verse of “…While You’re Alive” humbly yells: “It’s not like the love that they showed us on TV / It’s a home that can burn. It’s a limb to freeze. / It’s worry. / Love is worry.”
009: Kinesthetiac – I’m Discovering Days of My Life (HRR)
If there’s anything that kept me engaged, puzzled, and satisfied at every listen, it’s the debut craftsmanship of Kinesthetiac’s I’m Discovering Days of My Life. A twenty-two track whirlwind of emotions and a deep love for plunderphonics that pierced me deeper than I even realize at times. The cartoonish mesh of a filtered vocal bending though galloping IDM and fractured synths on “Sunbust Atrium,” and the sunny, kaleidoscopic beat tape warping on “Brickshat” felt reminiscent of the unadulterated joys like something off J Dilla’s Donuts. I think this album is heavily influenced from Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven as well, from the MIDI intro of “Extra Green Sour Apple” to the grainy keyboard interlude on “In Memory” and a wobbling yet pretty synthkey melody on “I Was Waiting on You at the Doe.” The borderline synthwave of “Weaponized Time Warper” colliding through a whiplash of interludes that set up the weighty beauty of “Transformative Magic at Camp Doubletree” is a fantastic highlight to this record. Lastly, the slight chiptune-inspired edutainment sounds of “Bugs Bunny Tired Sad” morphing to a surprisingly menacing bassline, swelling to a punching finisher near the end, was some of the most breathtaking twists from Kinesthetiac. I think the album’s loose statement, especially on the short finale of the title track, is like a guiding beacon self-confidence in the little things that make life enjoyable. At least that’s how it feels after listening through it. You discovering little things every time, and those are the kinds of albums that always stick around.
008: Christa Lee – Welcome to the Fantasy Zone (Bedlam/Self-Released)
“To be this good takes AGES. To be this good takes SEGA.” Taken from a deep, philosophical inspiration for the historical depth of the SEGA franchise, Christa Lee embarks to the pure joy and inner core of the video game music behind SEGA’s best games. Welcome to the Fantasy Zone is a near hour love affair in the best way. “Magical Sound Sailor,” a track dedicated to iconic racing games of ‘Outrun’ and ‘SEGA Rally Championship,’ is a bright and snappy city pop banger with a killer synthkey line. And if you really want to hear the beautiful subtleties, play this on some good speakers. “The Marks on Your Head Look Like Stars in the Sky” may be the classic ocean sprite tribute to ‘Ecco the Dolphin,’ but the rollicking synth tones under the mix and the unsettling echo of the track really lends itself to the darker elements of the game it references. “Dragons Over Tokyo-to” is a breakneck boss theme with an unlikely combo between ‘Shenmue’ and an awesome A Tribe Called Quest sample that starts the intro with its fists ready to duke. “The Revenge of Neo-Zeed” and “Hearts Burning Bright,” while I believe the former references ‘The Revenge of Shinobi’ in title only, are simply awesome and funky tracks that would make Yuro Koshiro smile for sure. Welcome to the Fantasy Zone is a goddamn fun listen that does some incredible world building on its own merits. Christa Lee can reflect a nostalgic listen that mimics a time when Saturns and Mega Drives were the star of childhood memories, too, but it’s serves to create new experiences with any listener, gamer or not, which is ultimately the real beauty.
007: Helado Negro – Private Energy (Asthmatic Kitty)
Would it be much to say I relate to this album a little too much? I always admired Roberto Lange’s work, especially on 2014’s Double Youth, but it is this album that resonated with me the most from his catalog. It’s about struggling with finding his own identity in a world where neither his Latin and American roots accept him, to the point where it messes with his ability to be open up with anyone (see “Transmission Listen”). It can be related to the struggles of a “pocho,” someone who was born in America to parents who were born in Mexico, who’s Spanish and culture is too much for Americans but is too gringo (even inauthentic) for native Hispanic/Latinx people. Private Energy’s confident yet soft instrumentation and inclusion of English lyrics is an opening to find that underlying identity. Songs like “Calienta” that open up the album have this languid, yet longing air to the ambiance signifying the warming of a smile that hides the cold and bitter energy that releases on “Tartamudo.” Powerfully assertive tracks like the Wild Beasts-esque performance of “Young, Latin, and Proud” and the swagger of his voice on “It’s My Brown Skin” are reassuring anthems of Latinx/Hispanic pride. It’s an album about Latinx/American identity for people who struggle with the same things, and it makes me happy and relaxed at every listen.
006: Dave Cobb & Various Artists – Southern Family (Low Country Sound/Elektra)
Southern Family is an album produced and arranged by Dave Cobb, the legendary producer behind the best albums of country from Sturgill Simpson to Jason Isbell. Partially inspired by the seminal 1978 compilation of White Mansions (one of few ambitious concept albums in country), this is an equally gutsy record with old and new performers from Shooter Jennings, Brent Cobb, and Anderson East to Zac Brown, Miranda Lambert, and Jason Isbell. Yet, with all those unique voices, and the potential of everything to go wrong, not a single instrumental or vocal performance feels out of place or as fill-in. It’s country styles may be all over the map, too, but it well balances the darker, dreary moments with broader strokes of warmth that is more cohesive than it ought to be. The songwriting and overarching themes are incredibly powerful, as well. Focusing on family and their hold on traditions, tracks like the steel guitar melody on Miranda Lambert’s “Sweet By and By” on cherishing your family before they slip away, or Brandy Clark’s story of a grandmother struggling to move on from the death of her husband on “I Cried,” Southern Family aims to bring solace from focusing on the little moments. John Paul White’s “Simple Song” introduces the concept of death that runs through the dark, minor tones on the electric guitar on Morgane Stapleton’s cover of “You Are My Sunshine” or warm subtleties of Jamey Johnson’s “Mama’s Table.” Rich Robinson’s “The Way Home” is an amazing gospel finish to the album. Through the pain of facing death, there is a promised seat in the kingdom of God and a way to move forward. It’s a shining hope to hold, if there ever was one.
005: HELLCOM – ENERGY111 (Business Casual)
If you love the concept of Y2K and the aesthetics and art that come with it, then boy are you going to love what HELLCOM offers to the table. One of few artists embracing the inner core of Y2K as an art form, the glossy and gleaming shine of fashion, technology and AI advancements, HELLCOM converts the accelerating promises of a new era to a sonic form with ENERGY111. You can hear it from the metallic splash of percussion and frosty synths on the title track of “Energy111,” or the looming digital rain on “Accelerator” that is on the verge of exploding its own dotcom bubble. “Mitsubishi” and “Unity2000” are glittering and bustling club cuts to soundtrack the synthetic transparencies of Apple computers and bloated gradients of early 2000 music videos. “Quicksilver” and “Reactivate” mark a boosting confidence from an omnipresent ambiance and cascading rhythm. ENERGY111 is a true and celebratory statement on a short period of time where the promise of a cyberutopia was all the more real at the failure of the downfall to our technology. The year 2000 was here, and HELLCOM captured that optimism to its center.
004: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic/SME)
I’m not going to detail why A Tribe Called Quest is a damn important group, with a discography that still holds up today. You do have to possess that prior context to fully enjoy and understand their album, however. It’s a final hurrah kind of album, with long-time friends Consequence and Busta Rhymes, just doing what they did best with some updated production. The real concern was the missing voice of Phife Dawg, who luckily left enough material before quietly passing away from diabetes. It’s his presence that runs through the blood of We’ve Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, from the album title to the songs themselves, and it wouldn’t have been a Tribe Called Quest project wouldn’t him. The features, old and new, are well placed, from Anderson .Paak’s fantastic performance on “Movin’ Backwards” to Elton John’s breezy vocals on “Solid Wall of Sound.” Hell, even Kanye West’s part for the chorus on “The Killing Season” is a wonderful accentuation for the track. The themes running across this album pretty inspiring as well. Breaking down false narratives perpetuated from the media on issues of class on “The Space Program,” and passing the torch of music and chance to a generation that needs all the help it can get on “Dis Generation” and “Kids…,” it’s a welcoming album that seeks to lift up the listener. I could go on with how familiar and warm the instrumentation is, from songs like the scratchy bass tones of “Whateva Will Be” and backing guitars from Jack White on “Ego” and “Lost Somebody.” The closing tribute to Phife Dawg on “The Donald” is a perfect finisher to a legendary career and group. Phife Dawg kind of sums up the experience, too, in his energetic optimism on “The Space Program,” something to keep us up: “time to go left and not right / gotta get it together forever / gotta get it together for brothers / gotta get it together for sisters / for mothers and fathers and dead n*ggas / for non-conformists, won’t hear the quitters … let’s make something happen, / let’s make something happen.”
003: Run the Jewels – RTJ3 (Mass Appeal/RED)
There’s one thing to describe this album that has been increasingly noticeable with each RTJ record: the laser-point efficiency. It’s not about feeling their chemistry or taking shots at rappers or creating a new musical style to hip hop, or even a complex string of verses from El-P to decode. It’s a self-aware duo doing what they’ve done since the start of their career: using their righteous untouchability (see “Legend Has It” and “Oh Mama”) to squeeze at the throats of every adversary somehow left spared from their last two purges (see “Don’t Get Captured” and “Everybody Stay Calm”). Bringing the comfort to our present and future issues delivered from the symbiosis of our emcees with Boots on “2100,” they’re declaring the death of every yuppie and corporation on “Hey Kids (Buyame)” with Danny Brown’s additional warning call. Deconstructing arguments against rioting through sci-fi references and MLK’s criticism of the state on “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” and vilifying a conformist society on “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters,” it’s through the sheer power of their music that every principality and master in their way will either bow or get dethroned. There’s a world of Caesars out there, and RTJ3 is the fire-spitting confirmation that none shall pass.
002: Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
It’s been a minute since we heard anything from Danny Brown. Sure, he’s been on a couple features and Old was a pretty decent release in itself, but it was interesting seeing him sign up with Warp and get Paul White as the producer of his next album (anyone who follows Open Mike Eagle should find that name peculiar). In came the posse cut of “Really Doe,” which wasn’t surprising but it had some solid rhymes from Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar, the star being Earl Sweatshirts punchlines and performance. Then came Atrocity Exhibition, and what a drop it was. It’s some of the most bizarre instrumentation that no rapper would dare rhyme over, and the amazing thing being Danny Brown’s nonstop matching energy. The cartoonish excess and consciousness that split most of this album is at a greater divide on this album, and it’s a powerful smell that wafts from the first rumble of “The Downward Spiral.” He mirrors his insanity with tracks like on the overloaded horns and heavy grooves on “Ain’t It Funny” and the borderline dance hall inspiration of “Dance in the Water.” There’s even a surprising sample from Joy Division on “Golddust,” which makes way too much sense. Themes on poverty and cheating with death at the face of his borderline overdose and neurosis on “White Lines,” “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” and “Dance in the Water” are incredibly ballsy in their reckless abandon that only Danny Brown could control. It’s a record unlike anything from this year, and having seen Danny Brown perform this live, it really makes this one of my favorite rap and hip hop album of the year.
(And my number one pick is……!)
001: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
There’s really no way to talk about this album directly. It’s one of the shortest Nick Cave releases, was left partly unfinished in the middle of the process with some patched improvisation, and the story surrounding it is all the more personal to the point of it being insensitive for listening to this record. A tragedy that squashes the passion of someone who wrote murder ballads and incredibly descriptive yet twisted characters, it’s morbid to even know that context on a track like “Magneto.” Where David Bowie’s ★ prophetic theme of his death was the subject, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree may simply be the looming of it, but it’s the way he delivered and sung like he’s never had on past releases. It’s the crackling and thin howling of his voice going off tempo, holding his chokes to avoid breaking down. It’s the feeling of watching a powerful and unbreakable figure timber and show a level of humanity and frailty one never dared to believe they would have. This isn’t Nick Cave the cynical storyteller and genius writer from past albums, it’s a crying soul still aching for closure. It’s the claustrophobic atmosphere of the buzzing guitars and lone pounding key on “Jesus Alone” and the spinning, unstable drum patterns and alien fervor on “Anthrocene” that encapsulate the richness and subtleties of the composition. Even the somber kickdrum and subtle backing vocals on “I Need You” and lonesome organ and bells accompanied by Else Torp’s soprano performance on “Distant Sky,” it all rings so disturbingly minimal.
In “Rings of Saturn” and “Girl in Amber,” both tracks about suffering in the unending coldness of a void, the former foretells of the chilling spun of webs from the sickle of the goddess of Saturn while the latter details two figures trapped in unending darkness that almost seems inescapable. The desolation in his writing is all the more apparent on “Magento,” where his loss of passion for gory, torturous writings leaves him feeling lesser, and he tries to recapture it before it’s completely lost, “one more time with feeling.” He confronts the aching fear that he can’t defeat death no matter how well spun and tall his tales are, because nothing he can do can bring back his son. It’s why a track like “I Need You” feels so painful to listen through. Yet, through all that that pain and grief comes the closing “Distant Sky” and “Skeleton Tree” marks a calmer and more composed Nick Cave, letting go of the hubris to flickering transmissions because no dream or God can outlive us. For as much as the pain will never go away on the fading closer, he will live on as he distracts himself with the fuzz of brightly lit TV. “Right across the sea / I called out, I called out / That nothing is for free / And it’s alright now… / And it’s alright now…” It’s a peaceful, imperfect gleaming of hope amidst his trauma that he willingly shares for us to hear. He needs it more than most right now, and it’s what makes Skeleton Tree bittersweet enough to listen through. It’s a perfect album, at least for me.