Another year lived! Another year ALIVE. These days I don’t think so much about aging; I think about surviving. It’s been quite a year for me (and maybe eventually I’ll go into detail, because I do think there’s value in sharing), but I’m in a much, much better place than I was on this exact day last year. Here’s to another year of moving forward. To living, to being alive. :)
Björk - Vulnicura
Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp
Lower Dens - Escape From Evil
Beach House - Depression Cherry
Braids - Deep in the Iris
Lana del Rey - Honeymoon
Nicole Dollanganger - Natural Born Losers
Yumi Zouma - EP II
Sunflower Bean - Show Me Your Seven Secrets
Purity Ring - Another Eternity
Earl Sweatshirt - I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
Grimes - Art Angels
Camila Moreno - Mala Madre
Marina and The Diamonds - FROOT
Made In Heights - Without My Enemy What Would I Do
A$AP Rocky - At.Long.Last.A$AP
Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars
Empress Of - Me
Youth Lagoon - Savage Hills Ballroom
Melanie Martinez - Cry Baby
Chastity Belt - Time To Go Home
Lapsley - Understudy
Tei Shi - Verde
Julieta Venegas - Algo Sucede
Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The Internet - Ego Death
Tame Impala - Currents
I also made a spotify list with my favourite songs:
Daniel Lopatin’s compositions are always freakishly in control, but have never brimmed with the audacity that they do on Garden of Delete. This pronounced vision serves him extremely well. The music of Oneohtrix Point Never has never struggled to commit to eye-opening tones and even more worthwhile structure, but here the songs are practically overflowing with conceptual and atmospheric presence. At first, the appeal can get lost. Out of all the auras Lopatin has worked with, this is the most digital, the trashiest, and the one brimming with the least amount of life. In fact, this listening experience can almost seem suffocatingly inorganic. Songs like ‘Ezra’ and ‘Sticky Drama’ feel excessively eager to exit their dystopian, shivering ambience, but regardless of the conventional beauty, Garden of Delete is sufficiently encompassing. You can cut the tension with a knife, a tension that reveals itself everywhere you look.
29. On Your Own Love Again- Jessica Pratt
Jessica Pratt’s voice, like Joanna Newsom’s or Björk’s, is the first thing that jumps out at you about her incredibly dense music. It is a frail, understated instrument that possesses the capacity to dominate any space it is put into, capitalizing on this ability constantly throughout Pratt’s second album On Your Own Love Again. However, it must be said that this record is much more than a vocal showcase. Pratt’s voice is stunning in the sense that it excels in the environment of its lightly plucked guitar backdrops. It is an exotic gift that casts a fleeting shadow over the album but tastefully steps back when the vibe begs for restraint. This self-control is ultimately what makes On Your Own Love Again so essential. There are not many colossal moments here, but Pratt is able to find magnitude in the oddity. Through warmth and claustrophobia, Love Again prospers.
28. The Agent Intellect- Protomartyr
The graceful rant is a hard thing to master. Gut-wrenching anecdotes and heaving mantras are littered through The Agent Intellect, the second exceptional album Protomartyr have released in about a year, and they seem to reside in a separate vessel from the music, which is emotional and occasionally elegant. Joe Casey has polished his reach as a frontman, delivering flawless vocals in the context of these ringing, deadbeat anthems. When these songs are at their most catchy and animated (‘Dope Cloud’, ‘The Devil in His Youth’), Casey crumbles into an overblown melody or a flawlessly emphasized hook as if it is nothing more than a pattern of speech. The main upgrade here is the songwriting; Protomartyr’s music appears to be more concise than it has ever been, but none of the impulsiveness is gone. The Agent Intellect is devoid of much saturation, but this bluntness plays directly into its balance.
27. PC Music, Volume 1- PC Music
PC Music, the post-bubblegum experimental record label responsible for this extremely close-knit various artists compilation, have historically put their music in the passenger seat to their image and marketing, one that is troubling in its hedonistic embrace of capitalism and simplicity, but profound in its capacity to throw itself on its back. The music on this label is sickeningly aggressive, and its best artists, like A.G. Cook and Hannah Diamond, are even less subtle than the majority of music in the Top 40. It feels kind of unfair to put this album on the list, because it is basically a greatest hits compilation. However, these excellent songs unveil a whole new dimension when placed in this context. When grouped together, PC Music’s aesthetic turns into a mission statement, ready to bask in all of its hyper-glossy glory.
E•MO•TION- Carly Rae Jepsen
When listening to Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album, it is almost impossible not to question its intentions. How could someone go from a disposable, bubblegum artist who happened to have the biggest (and catchiest) single of the year to someone who is genuinely interested in branding themselves as an indie hero, constructing one of the most charming and cohesive listens in recent pop memory?
comes with the pretense that it is a manufactured statement, one done with the intention of appealing to the critical masses, getting an abundance of hot producers on board (Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid) to help deliver an album that has been meticulously crafted to exist without flaw. The only reason ‘Run Away With Me’ didn’t even chart is because of its branding, and the brand is a colossal part of what Carly Rae Jepsen has become. She is an intelligent pop artist, a product of a tasteful goal. Whether or not this is off-putting for you, it is ridiculous to deny Carly Rae Jepsen’s success.
is absolutely brimming with surprisingly flawless pop songs, ones that blend infection
with restraint, packed with the choruses and themes to expand their reach. You can’t knock
for its devious intentions; it is the sleeper masterpiece of the year, one that turns Jepsen into a platform for a collective step in the right direction.
25. Frozen Niagara Falls- Prurient
Is any double album filled with metal-tinged noise music supposed to be soothing? Frozen Niagara Falls seems to answer affirmatively. The exceptionally loud trance that these tracks
fall into is captivatingly beautiful even if some of its raw elements- the
clanging percussion, the horrifying vocals- are borderline disgusting.
Nonetheless, every single song is not only hypnotic, but shockingly
entertaining, especially in its unpredictability. The sounds on here- whether
those be harsh noise or spacey synths- are so filled with texture and flavor
that nothing really disrupts the listener’s drive to hear the next exhibition. Frozen Niagara Falls is a technicolor parasite that disrupts your
well-being but thrills you nonetheless. It is a frightening album with so many dimensions yet such a narrow
commitment to putrid tension.
24. Beach Music- Alex G
G’s music will spike itself into your veins with its delicacy, and Beach Music heightens his reputation for goosebump-inciting melodies and even
more intimate poetry. These songs are in-touch with an extreme bittersweet
melancholy, but seem a bit stranger and more polished than the music off of DSU,
Alex G’s equally excellent release from last year. I didn’t like Beach Music the first time I heard it, because it slacked a little bit and
appeared to be mundanely thrown together; however, with repeated listens, this
messiness becomes the purest testament to its hushed splendor.
The songs are dominated by a tone of spooky apprehension, but these are some of
the most optimistic (‘Brite Boy’) and creepy (‘In Love’) songs to ever appear
on an Alex G record. Atmospherically, you can’t ask for something more in-tune
with its soul than this.
23. In Colour- Jamie xx
It would be very easy to litter a review of In Colour with lists of influences, sample sources, and terms like “future garage” while gawking at how distinctive Jamie xx makes it all sound. You could also discuss how he has come a long way since remixing Florence + the Machine and being the guy who stands in the back on the The xx’s live stage. However, In Colour is one of those albums that can be enjoyed just as much, or arguably ever more, without context. If you take it in with a blank mind, this record is untouchably pretty. However, if you are dissecting Jamie Smith’s production chops…well, it’s pretty damn impressive too. Smith has a magnificent ear for rhythm and is able to transform this skill into huge, momentous club music. He also possesses a talent for layering, blending samples of voice, saturated bass, and deep beats so smoothly that they form a larger, singular sound. This sound is entirely his own, and it makes In Colour one of the most emotional and transcendent pieces of dance music in years.
22. Painted Shut- Hop Along
songs on Painted Shut are theatrical by nature, don’t get me wrong, but
it is bizarre to consider what they would sound like taken outside of the
context of the tool that delivers them. Francis Quinlan does not only have a
distinctive voice, she is a distinctive vocalist. This means that her
capability stems not from her tone as much as it does her patterns and
delivery; the fractured, scruffy whirlwind of a voice that seamlessly
transforms from a holler to soft croon. However, Painted Shut is not a vocal album. The vocals are mainly there to provide the
perfect platform for the album’s urgency. And trust me, this album is urgent.
Every sharp downstroke is like a stab in the heart, every lyric begs for your engagement. Painted Shut will leave you winded, but not before it lures you
in with captivation.
21. In Plain Speech- Circuit Des Yeux
Fohr’s voice is the first thing that will jump out at you about her music
before you are completely mesmerized. A shaky, unsettling bellow, the vocals
here blow everything else out of the water, becoming the only vivid ingredient in
a shockingly restrained yet heaped atmosphere. Everything else about In Plain Speech, an album inspired by the struggle of, quite literally, being heard,
is bent around soft-spokenly haunting buildups. But every time Fohr opens her
mouth, that ground-shaking cry is always there. She has expanded her scope into
the context of a full band with this new record, tackling an aesthetic that
blends folk with noise and delivering it with excessive drama. The cinematic
quality of In Plain Speech sounds like the product of immense concentration,
and on an album so subdued, I wouldn’t doubt that this is where the majority of
the power comes from.
20. Four Phantoms- Bell Witch
of the most difficult emotions to evoke when it comes to any form of metal is
penetrating sorrow. The music is often too inherently aggressive to stay
faithful to its deflated doses of sadness, and gets lost in a technical and
energetic whirlwind. Bell Witch do not have that problem. When Four Phantoms is on, your mood will change regardless of how you feel about the album;
these four plodding, harrowing 10-20 minute pieces overwhelm you with their
downcast charisma. The extremely low-tempos are spread over a winding dynamic,
ranging from throat-shredding screams to empty guitar segments so frail that
you can barely discern the melodies that attempt to arise. However, the volume
may be dynamic but the emotions aren’t; Four Phantoms’ game is
excess, and it is so committed to this, that it becomes the right kind of
exhausting, one that swells up in a relative calm.
19. Divers- Joanna Newsom
For some, Divers might be a middle ground. The listeners who found the most appealing qualities of Joanna Newsom’s past work in her outlandishness might consider this a retraction, seeing as the production is beautiful in a current, conventional way, as opposed to the timelessness of Ys. However, those who couldn’t sit through all two hours of Have One on Me will be pleased to have something digestible in their hands, a record that can be admired (although not fully appreciated) at a casual glance. The depth is still there, but it plays a much less vital role. Think about it; Newsom’s weapon of choice is a harp, a niche instrument that is called upon very passively in popular music. There is no trendy context in which Newsom fits, no aesthetic that stems beyond her compositions. Therefore, it is easy to analyze a record like Divers at face value. When Newsom roamed the streets of New York City in the video for ‘Sapiokanikan’, it was the most identifiable visual to ever surface through her music. On the other hand, the song’s huge chorus and riveting build-up fosters quite a bit of appeal even if the visual art and poetry allusions are ignored. It is shallow to say that you don’t need to sit down with Divers to enjoy it, but it works as a pop album far more than her past records did, with arrangements and instrumentation swelling up for an alluring glow.
18. Valis- Mastery
Two things will hit you off guard as soon as you turn on Valis. Firstly, this album is absolutely unhinged. This is obvious from the intro to the first track, ‘V.A.L.I.S.V.E.S.S.E.L.’; a menacing ringtone from hell that lasts five seconds before launching into some technically astonishing, splintering guitar work. Valis is defined by turbulence, with the primary source of engagement being the fact that it is impossible to guess where it will go next. With only five songs (two of which are interludes), Valis plays like a sonic stream of consciousness, completely rejecting form in favor of primal, sweltering energy. Second of all, Valis exists to unnerve. There are plenty of metal albums that are ugly, brutal, and creepy, but the key feeling produced by Valis, from the grimacing vocalsto the outward rejection of structure, is distress. You will feel overwhelmed. However, these unstoppable, spastic black metal pieces do not demand engagement; somehow, they just clinch it.
17. New Bermuda- Deafheaven
Deafheaven have become the metal band for deniers of metal, a group that people spend as much time disputing what they aren’t as what they are. However, all talk of classification becomes meaningless in the face of their music. Sure, Deafheaven are not traditionalists, but they do have a very familiar way of garnering impulse. They are well acquainted with the power of the crescendo. Every song on their third album New Bermuda goes through multiple movements, as if the group has a very conspicuous understanding that there is no point in building things up if you can’t knock them down. New Bermuda relies heavily on masterfully articulated bursts of fury and works best when these developments come out of nowhere or fall into the shadows as if they never existed. Take opener ‘Brought to the Water’. This track has the sky-scraping, murky fury of Deafheaven at their darkest, and although it always hints at something supremely beautiful, it keeps in touch with a hysterical aggression, allowing it to veer ever so slightly towards blackened inaccessibility. This energy persists, with levels of course, until the last minute where this music fades out and a dreamy, flowery piano comes into replace it. There is almost no attempt at a transition. In fact, this completely contrasting element is introduced in a way that could be lazy if it was done with any less purpose. The big, and almost only, transformation that looms over New Bermuda is this complete negation of subtlety. You’ll know exactly when these songs peak and exactly what emotion you are supposed to feel. However, Deafheaven owns this conspicuous maximalism. Vocalist George Clarke times his harshly toned screams impeccably, and when the music plummets towards a climax on ‘Baby Blue’ or ‘Luna’, he is right there with it. The guitars and drums slush around in a fervor, only to simmer down when peace is summoned. Deafheaven see no need to cloak any of their volume shifts or sudden rifts of tension.
16. Never Were the Way She Was- Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld
There are albums that are
marvelous physical achievements for the sake of gimmickry, but the fact that
the tracks on Never Were the Way She
Was are single-take live
recordings isn’t just impressive, its imperative. For an album so haunting and
scrupulously atmospheric, the imperfections and impulse that come with
this technique contribute immensely to its unworldly rawness. Colin Stetson’s
avant-garde saxophones musings are often performed with a robotic energy, twisting
the conventions of his instrument until his patterns practically turn into
noise, an inhuman darkness that has become part of his character. Sarah
Neufeld’s orchestration merely embellishes the exhausting tangents that Stetson
goes on. This album is consistently celestial and very fragile, a product of
the visceral creative process.
15. Guud- Ash Koosha
For Tehran-born, London-based producer Ash Koosha, sound carries an examinable
behavior, something that can be tapped into in order to unearth a certain
psychology. The patterns on all of Guud’s bizarre, short tracks spring off of each other
and drill themselves into the sonic foreground to construct a sort of
cathartic, mechanical hell. This purgatory, however, is a relentlessly engaging
one, relying on a boxed, unconventional palette to formulate tracks that are
jam-packed with personality and accessibility. This is very much a collection
of abstract compositions, but in this case, abstraction does not translate into
impenetrability. In Ash Koosha’s world, car engines can become beats and synths
can be as rhythmic as they are melodic. With textures that radiate huge amounts
of energy, this record recognizes no lines between the foreign and the
14. Art Angels- Grimes
With Art Angels, Grimes sacrifices a lot of the haziness that defined her three years ago to pursue a peak in production quality and creativity. Thankfully, she is extremely successful. The smothered, absolutely gorgeous synthline on ‘World Princess Part II’ or the sharp vocal melodies on ‘Flesh Without Blood’ trigger a sense of universal nostalgia, possessing uncanny perfection in terms of emotion. Art Angels gets big, like on the title track or the Janelle Monáe featuring ‘Venus Fly’, and these moments would be overdone if Boucher were not so good at what she does. In fact, Boucher’s public priority has always been to receive recognition as a producer, especially in a landscape where female producers are subject to endless condescension. With Art Angels, she has not only proven her point but made a record that bleeds artistry. It is clear now that Grimes didn’t scrap an album because she was insecure; she wanted to do something that would stand out. Art Angels epitomizes this originality.
Every other track practically defines itself by its not-so-subtle touches. This is why the first few listens of Art Angels hit you like a wildfire, with songs that revel in sugar-soaked pop to the point where it becomes confounding. It makes sense that initial exposure to tracks as melodically bright-eyed and infectious as ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘California’ are usually dominated by uneasiness. These songs are an uncharacteristically poppy departure and absolutely nothing like the Grimes we got with Visions, a pathway that the majority of Art Angels sticks to. This record is packed with overblown vocals, layered production, and a saccharine pop sensibility that places Boucher way out of what was priorly perceived to be her range. However, just because Art Angels is not the project most people wanted, does not mean it is not an excellent album in its own right, as it sees Boucher expand her realm to take her talents into a far more daring territory.
13. Third Side of Tape- Lil Ugly Mane
kind of a weightless, cliched thing to say at this point, but there is
genuinely nothing I’ve heard in my life quite like Third Side of Tape. There is no way to navigate around this two-hour
compilation except for the fact that the project is split into six movements,
or “sides”. Each of these sides exhibit the same type of mysterious, fractured
randomness, without a common theme to tie any of the ideas on Third Side of Tape together. Thus, it comes off like a long-winded
collage, a product of mind-blowingly good curation. Lil Ugly Mane is a rapper
by trade, but he is also an artist who has completely shied away from the
spotlight, which gives Third Side
of Tape practically no context.
All this mystery multiplies its appeal. This is an exceptionally confusing
listen, spreading its reach everywhere from Dilla-inspired rap to jubilant
electronica to extreme metal to punk rock, but somehow manages to maintain
cohesion and keep the listener entertained for over two hours. Only a master of
taste could pull something like this off, but with every turn Third Side of the Tape takes, you’ll find an entirely new environment in
its rapid, impenetrable, encompassing world.
12. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside- Earl Sweatshirt
I Don’t Like Shit seemed poised to slide under the radar. Originally planned for a secret release (until iTunes fucked it up, apparently), this record is nothing like the peak of an everlong hype cycle that Doris was. This record carriers a lead single that seemed alarmingly toned down, very few big name features, and a running time that barely exceeds standard EP length. However, in some messy, thrown-together way, it is Earl’s best. This doesn’t feel like the album we have been waiting for, but the beauty of it comes with the fact that we weren’t waiting for anything. Coming out of nowhere, this record is a boost, a reminder that Earl is still there and still dope.
As if the title didn’t make it obvious enough, seclusion persists throughout I Don’t Like Shit. In fact, Earl’s whole public persona has been defined by the act of being cast away. The most prominent detail of his “story” was his exile to a therapeutic reform school in Samoa, to which he was apparently banished after his mother’s reaction to the vulgar, violent elements of his music. On ‘Faucet’, we see Earl hoping his phone breaks as he struggles to come to terms with the impact this very public absence has had on his personal life by acknowledging how weird these situations can get. This discomfort translates into unbreakable music, as shown by ‘Grief’ with coats its wretched serpentine imagery in a smear of clattering electronics. I Don’t Like Shit sees Earl turning down quite a bit, whether that be with light, volume, or speed; the atmosphere at equilibrium here is a chopped-up, hushed darkness, which allows Earl to successfully keep it subdued.
11. Sympathy- Gabi
On an album as sparsely composed
as Sympathy, space practically becomes its own instrument.
Influenced in equal parts by the grandiosity of opera and a-cappella, the
composition on this record is intellectually straining, delving in a a rare experimental academia. This sophistication is key. There is intent and purpose
in every crescendo, yet these arrangements burst with an unstoppable grip on
atmosphere. Centerpieces like ‘Mud’ and ‘Falling’ sprawl back and forth until
the clean, fluctuating rhythms hit a humble plateau; elsewhere, we get songs so
centered around Gabrielle Herbst’s vocals that the rest of the instrumentation
absorbs an organicness. These arrangements are huge but they manage to be more
refreshing than overwhelming, a trait reserved for artists who have complete
control of their unadulterated sonic poetry.
10. Barter 6- Young Thug
You could write an essay about the type of album Barter 6 could have been. You could talk about how Young Thug has become one of the most controversial stars in rap music ever since the success of ‘Lifestyle’ and how he is surrounded by drama regarding his sexuality, his feuds with other rappers, or his place in mainstream hip-hop. Young Thug appears to have taken the less favorable side in the Lil Wayne/Cash Money dispute, and that has given his public persona a fair bit of heat, especially considering the trips to jail and murder plots that have followed him around. I mean Barter 6 was literally going to be called Tha Carter VI before potential legal issues arose, which seems like the biggest corporate dick move in rap history, considering Thug and Wayne’s label boss Birdman has blocked the release of Wayne’s own Tha Carter V. Barter 6 could have been the centerpiece of all this ugliness, a cultural landmark and, admittedly, an even more fascinating album to listen to. But Young Thug doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t need to say anything because the public speaks for him, and fanning the flames of his own controversy would be completely out of character. So instead, we have an album that is gloriously minute. Scratch that, it’s not even an album, it’s a fucking retail mixtape. And, unsurprisingly, Barter 6 is a piece of lazy genius, a collection of songs that aren’t going out of their way to sound half as good as they do. However, amidst everything, it becomes clear that an album so removed from its own context is perhaps the smartest thing Young Thug could have released.
Young Thug is the poster boy for rap’s ever-expanding style over substance trend. It is a trend that is upsetting many purists, but also contributing some of the freshest, most boundary pushing hip-hop of our time. However, Young Thug has a bit more bite than the others. Sure, his songs say absolutely nothing, not even scratching the surface of tenacious concept, and arguably serving no lyrical purpose outside of exhausting already stale rap cliches. Although there is something glamorous about his stream of consciousness overindulgence, his character still lacks inherent traditional charm. making everything rely on delivery. Thankfully, to say he delivers would be an understatement. He is one of the most talented rappers out there in terms of fluent passion, taking his auto-tuned, often incoherent drawls and demolishing any emotional barriers. Everything he says is catchy and everything sound he makes demands attention.
9. Are You Alone?- Majical Cloudz
you think of Majical Cloudz, you most likely think of their frontman, Devon
Welsh. More specifically, you probably think of Devon Welsh stripped to his
absolute emotional core, wide-eyed, looking you right in the face, singing
without a single shroud of irony in his body. It is this intimidating closeness
that has always defined their music, and songs from 2013’s Impersonator were shocking in how raw and fragile they were. They had a darkness
that hit you off guard. Are You
Alone? no longer approaches this, at least not as heavily. Although these songs are as sparse and intimate as
ever, Welsh seems humbled, negating the opportunity to steal the show. Instead,
he seems content with mere existence, putting himself on the level of Matthew
Otto’s instrumentals, which present themselves here with more delicacy than
ever before. The production ensures that there is a warm melodic comfort
to such unavoidably sad songs, and with each track on Are You Alone?, Majical Cloudz find a simple way to hit this extremely emotional
8. Carrie & Lowell- Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell, might be the most conventionally alluring album of Sufjan Stevens’ career. It places its focus on a constant struggle; an unconventional relationship will inevitably result in unconventional grief, yet here Sufjan resides in unconditional love, recalling memories from his time spent with his mother in Oregon but unable to use them to cloak the misery. ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ is quite explicit with this as Sufjan sings “I’ll drive that stake through the center of my heart…I’m chasing the dragon too far”. At its core, this is a Christian album and the role religion plays makes it even more interesting. ‘Shadow of the Cross’ isn’t the only track with thoughts of suicide. On ‘The Only Thing’, Sufjan is on the verge of driving his car off a cliff or cutting his arm, with the only thing stopping him being his own faith. These jarring thoughts are means of bringing himself to an afterlife, the single place where he can pursue the relationship that was so hard to preserve during his mother’s life. The themes of destruction contrast with the melancholy reminiscences to make the mental friction of Carrie & Lowell absolutely devastating.
Sufjan has stripped-back his musical appetite here but a refined focus on gut-wrenching stories and emotional portraits does more than just compensate. It grants Stevens a capacity to function with immense grace, reveling in the weight of such therapeutic lyricism and exemplifying the beauty in remorse; the jaw-dropping melodies and performances only flesh it out. ‘Death With Dignity’ and ‘Should Have Known Better’ have an unshakable elegance to their composition, with vocal crescendos you can climb and codas that are practically hypnotic. In fact, the whole album is just beautiful. Fuck, man. Sufjan did that shit. Carrie & Lowell is gonna move you, I guarantee it.
7. Platform- Holly Herndon
Holly Herndon doesn’t merely embrace the
glitches in her music: she lives off them. Platform embodies a very
hyper brand of modernism, a world where cyber and human are interchangeable.
The electronics are the heart of these pieces, and the most mechanical
corruptions in their patterns give the album some space to breathe.
Platform is an album very much
in-touch with the fact that it is a product of technology. For Herndon, the
laptop need not suffer from its inorganic limitations, the fact that the choppiness,
textures, and editing are very much the life of the party. Pieces like ‘Chorus’ are centered around occasions where these machines break down, falling
almost effortlessly into a momentous, rhythmic climax. Elsewhere, ‘Lonely at
the Top’ and ‘Locker Leak’ utilize textures that are usually unheard of on an
album this electronic. The voices and dialogue that tinge these tracks are
hyper-pristine and hyper-realistic, creating a hallucinatory juxtaposition
between the understated backgrounds on which they recline. You could fall asleep to Platform, a record that resembles pure sedation
as it slips into the background. However, at its core sits a masterful grasp on
a very spooky atmosphere. The way this album comes together is almost
6. Ripe 4 Luv- Young Guv
If you think Ripe 4 Luv sounds like it is from the 80s, then you’re not wrong. Everything on the debut album from Young Guv, the new project by Fucked Up guitarist Ben Cook, was run through an FX unit commonly used 30 years ago called The Chimp Box, which places it within a very vintage, lo-fi breathing space. That means this album sounds like it is coming straight from the radio in the summer of 1985. The nostalgia doesn’t end at the production. All eight songs are absolutely bombastic with their masterfully infectious refrains and joyous, playful energy. Power pop hasn’t been this syrupy since The Outfield’s ‘Your Love’, and if that doesn’t sound like a flattering comparison…well, it is. Ripe 4 Luv’s main draw is that has some of the best pop songwriting all year (Cook has written songs for Taylor Swift, if that puts it into context); it simply happens to stumble on an unprecedented sound in the process.
The emphasis on choruses here is heavy. Ripe 4 Luv is sculpted in a way where the filtered guitars/drums are constantly threatening to swallow up the vocal melodies. Thus, whenever we get to a refrain, it seems to hoist the track out of a swamp. In the case of the oddly flirtatious ‘Kelly, I’m Not a Creep’, the chorus yanks the song so hard that it turns itself inside out, being the one moment where Cook’s enchanting whine transforms into a desperate scream. ‘Crushing Sensation’ and ‘Crawling Back to You’ are pretty much all hook; when one melody sounds contagious enough to be the drawing point, the track one ups itself in ways you would never expect. Ripe 4 Luv is dense like that. It is atmospherically versatile, and some of the record’s most refreshing moments come when Cook slows it down. The lumbering ‘Aquarian’ is tactfully sandwiched between the album’s two most aggressively sweet tracks, with a laid-back magnetism that does wonders for the pacing. Even ‘Wrong Crowd’, a lax song which wears down the same groove for seven minutes before throwing a twee saxophone solo on top of it, feels necessary. When Ripe 4 Luv gets loud it is enthralling; when it stays soft it is delicate. This balance ensures durability no matter how far the album goes.
5. Summertime ‘06- Vince Staples
If you take Summertime ‘06 at face value, it’s a coming of age tale. In the real-life summertime of ‘06, Vince Staples was a 13 year old growing up in Long Beach, California, grappling with what he would call “the power of fear”. This is what he chooses to emulate on his debut record. More specifically, he wants “people to feel the fear of being 12, 13 years old when your best friend’s dad goes to jail”. Notice how he doesn’t want to “share” the fear; he wants people to “feel” it. He’s aware that many can not relate to the life he has lived. He’s also aware that he is not the only rapper discussing the things he discusses. Thankfully, this album’s vision is thoroughly sculpted. Summertime ‘06 isn’t exactly a concept album, or at least it doesn’t feel the need to shove its concept down your throat. Instead, Staples’ lyrics are observational. On these tracks, he’s listing off things he notices without placing too much emphasis on their message. He is a rare breed of the conscious rapper, seeing as he prospers without the self-appointed moral responsibility of, say, Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole. He has no interest in telling you how to think. He just wants to see how he can make you feel.
The first time most people heard of Vince Staples was when he rapped about raping and killing a girl on Earl Sweatshirt’s 2010 mixtape track ‘epaR’. Even if you don’t get anything from Summertime ‘06’s fascinating content and structure, you will at least be able to appreciate this record for its maturity. The length he’s come since the Odd Future days is mind-blowing, but the Sweatshirt connection is still an important one. Until last year’s Hell Can Wait EP helped Staples pave a path of his own, Staples had not had much exposure outside of his numerous features on Earl’s work. These appearances have been the most direct benchmarks of his development. On ‘Wool’ from this year’s Earl album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Staples sounded like the main act on the bill and Summertime ‘06 cements this presence. Sweatshirt himself appears on this record, not to rap but to deliver snippets of rhythmic speech on the album’s second ‘Ramona Park Legend’ interlude. The only words he says are “I’m a motherfuckin’ legend/that’s how a nigga feel” as if he is waiving his chance to assist Staples, instead opting to watch from the distance. Sure, we might not have known who Staples is without Earl’s co-sign, but on his debut album, Staples considers no perspective but his own. Seeing as he is one of the most gripping vocal presences in street-rap, he can construct a compulsively listenable album paired up with spellbinding musical taste. In fact, Summertime ‘06 sounds so good that its thought-provoking introspection into abandonment of youth actually takes the passenger seat. Lyrics being a rap album’s second priority isn’t a conventional compliment, but when you consider that Staples is one of the strongest songwriters in modern day hip-hop, it is merely a testament to this record’s strength.
4. I Love You, Honeybear- Father John Misty
Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) has a pseudonym, affiliations (ex-percussionist of Fleet Foxes), and a look that suggests a very specific type of musician. And for a while, he was precisely that. His early albums as J. Tillman share a couple of elements with I Love You, Honeybear- most notably his powerful, golden voice- but in contrast seem rather underproduced and pedestrian. There is plenty to admire about folk music as sparse and charming as Tillman’s earlier work. However, the reason it was a tad forgettable was because it rarely played up perhaps what is now his most defining characteristic: his personality.
Honeybear, incidentally the most elegantly produced and well-written album of Tillman’s career, owes most of its charm to its lyrical charisma. In fact, taking this album at face value might suggest a focus on something completely different. Each song here is graced with impeccable instrumentation, which elevates the even stronger melodies to a platform where they are able to expand with ease. It almost makes you group Father John Misty with artists like The Walkmen, First Aid Kit, or even Fleet Foxes, who center their admittedly powerful emotional appeal around sounding “nice”. But Honeybear is not a nice album. Not even a little bit. It is easy to miss how one of the first lines on this record is “mascara, blood, ash, and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love” if you are being swept into its instrumental crescendo. When this album plays in the background- which it inevitably will- you might not realize that at its core sits a cynic, a narcissist, a tortured lover who graces just about every song here with some of the most passionate aggression, tenderness, or speculation in recent times. It is easy to be blown away by its conventional studio glamour (I definitely was), but Honeybear progresses into so much more as Tillman’s character is realized. With that in mind, it is the most current singer-songwriter album around, a fearless character study that puts itself out there with poise.
3. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late- Drake
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is Drake’s first official “mixtape” since 2009, although such a status is put up for debate seeing as the record costs money. Aesthetically, however, the lack of any obvious radio song or mainstream pop appeal separates the tape from your typical Drake record, which is usually doused in similar emotional self-indulgence but packs a few obvious singles in there for good measure. However, this is no reason to assume that IYRTITL lacks viral charm. In fact, if Drake himself has become a cultural phenomenon, this mixtape, an hour-plus exercise in unabashed fragile narcissism, is the Drake-est thing in existence. Gone is the corniness that was such a drawback on some of his earliest material; although IYRTITL is shamelessly confident, there is no childish delusion. When Drake claims “if I die I’m a motherfucking legend”, he is not putting himself on a pedestal but merely stating what he believes and is willing to prove. Bold statements like this are woven through every end of the mixtape, but Drake stands strong as one of the few rappers who gives words like these real weight.
Even if the poise bounces at you, IYRTITL works so well because of its entertainment value. Drake has only gotten more animated with age, and songs on here see him getting the very best of his charisma through his delivery. ‘6 God’ is sheer hype at its most impulsive, rattling through its spot with a flow that is completely on edge. This level of ferocity was new for Drake as of 2013’s ‘Worst Behavior’, a song where Drake just hurled himself at you vocally. Nowadays it seems to be Drake’s most appropriate delivery method, as it shows up on many of the best tracks on this mixtape. ‘Know Yourself’ gathers an absurd amount of momentum with its beat change and ultimate launch into perhaps the most hauntingly hyped segment of Drake’s career: the already iconic “runnin’ through the six with my woes!”. Drake does not seem to be holding anything back here, and this relatively newfound expressive freedom may be the finest thing about the tape.
2. Vulnicura- Björk
Even with the historical quality control on Björk’s part, her new album, Vulnicura, is surprisingly brilliant. The two albums that came before it, Volta and Biophilia, were graced with conceptual ambition and intriguing experimentation but seemed to imply that Björk was starting to grasp at artistic straws. Comfortable is the last thing you could call an album as grating and emotionally fragile as Vulnicura, but the record certainly projects a fuller sound and thus feels more at home than Björk has felt in 14 years. At first, drawing on IDM wizards like Arca and The Haxan Cloak for production may have seemed like a smart way to fit in with the current landscape of underground electronica. Instead, it turned out to be an effort to enlist the creators of the eeriest electronic albums of the past two years to help Björk develop the haunting atmosphere she required. So, Vulnicura does not feel like a comeback record in the sense that Björk needed to reprove herself. Rather, it excels 22 years into a career that many assumed would have gone astray by now. So, the real surprise stands in how Vulnicura not only satisfies, but propels a living legend right back into her prime.
It makes sense that the most draining album of Björk’s career comes off the tail end of mammoth emotional turmoil. Following a separation from ex-husband and longtime collaborator Matthew Barney, Björk likened the construction of this album to “open-heart surgery”. The heartache and frustration that has loomed over Björk since the heartbreak is present on Vulnicura and it is a tough pill to swallow. It is evident that Björk has never made an album this personal before and such a raw exhibit of her emotions must be nerve-wracking, but the intentions are clear.Vulnicura is therapeutic. It is shattering. It deals with feelings so deep-rooted and real that listening to it almost feels invasive. On ‘Black Lake’ we get a sense of the dynamic; “You fear my limitless emotions/I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions/did I love you too much?”. Björk paints a relationship dominated by doubt and resentment. Yet, it is something so overwhelming that it becomes inescapable. ‘Family’ reads like an obituary, where the void romance is painfully obvious but the persistence of the past exists in the form of a child. “Show some respect between the three of us”, Björk demands. “There is the mother and the child/then there is the father and the child/but no man and a woman/no triangle of love.”
In a career so legendary and filled with highlights, it is hard to determine whereVulnicura stands. On one hand it is a fresh return to sensitive form after a couple of albums that seemed to put emotion in the passenger seat. On another, it is simply a continuation of the impulse that has dominated this career; the fact that Björk never seems to know where she is going to go. However, Vulnicura evidently begins to stand up to masterworks like Homogenic and Vespertine, albums that were very unlikely to be challenged by anyone, let alone their own creator. It just goes to show that there is nobody quite like Björk. Her stamina and individuality is unmatchable, and with Vulnicura she adds yet another layer to her unique legacy.
1. To Pimp a Butterfly- Kendrick Lamar
Trying to pin To Pimp a Butterfly down is the wrong way to approach it. You could look at it as an emotional statement from a young black male at a time where discrimination is scarily prevalent. This is precisely what it is, but Lamar is not willing to take stances on these issues as much as he is eager to grow through them. It is a fresh perspective for Lamar; one that rejects clichés, doctrines, and any sort of linear progression. Instead, it serves its disjointed purpose through disjointed characters, disjointed situations, and disjointed sentiments. The spoken word snippets deliver it best. At the end of ‘i’, a song that was a bit troubling on its studio release but is completely revamped here with a live version, Lamar struggles to get the crowd’s attention, stammering “niggas ain’t trying to play victim, how many niggas we done lost?” before concluding “it shouldn’t be shit to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left”. On the end of the record’s already iconic Tupac interview, the resurrected rapper claims “in this country a black man only has five years where he can exhibit maximum strength”. If there is a key theme on Butterfly, it is a celebration of black American culture, spitting vitriol at those who threaten it (‘The Blacker the Berry’) but rejecting cynicism and deflation as solutions to the problem. Butterfly is layered, and within those layers is a dense, scattered plate of passion that surfaces in many guises.
When the album starts, Kendrick is metaphorically “nutting” on the rap industry over a Flying Lotus beat, hitting just the right note. Coming off one of the most monumental breakthroughs in recent memory, it is understandable that Kendrick is conflicted by fame. ‘Wesley’s Theory’ takes the irresponsible wealth stereotype and blows it up, going as far as to have a pre-chorus that goes “we should never gave these niggas money/go back home”. We could revel over the perfect stylistic choices- opening with a sample from an old reggae song called ‘Every Nigger is a Star’, having Dr. Dre come in for a hyped guest appearance- before even getting to the nitty gritty. ‘For Free’ shows how far Kendrick is willing to veer from trite delivery, adopting a rapid-speed, unwinding slam-poetry flow over a catastrophic jazz backdrop. It is the type of thing that is so over-animated it almost seems like a throwaway, until you realize that a throwaway should not feature some of the most technically proficient rapping in recent memory.
There are no clear radio songs on Butterfly, a first for a Kendrick record, but the tracks that come closest are miraculously catchy considering their daring experimentation. For example, ‘King Kunta’ is busy as fuck. Every segment diverts from its projected path, either taking unexpected pauses, incorporating surprise melodies, or, most notably, engaging in punchy call and response (“I’m mad! (Hey Mad!)”). It is astonishing that a track with so many grooves can be this alert with all of them. Every single diversion is absolutely on point, and by the time the track ends it has expanded so much that its only option is to shatter into the somber disarray of the record’s remains. ‘Institutionalized’ sees R&B singer Bilal taking the role of Kendrick’s grandmother, preaching an ear-catching mantra of “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass, nigga”. For Kendrick, the community has been stuck in the mud for decades. However, it is a hunger for strength that is drilled into the record, not optimism. The most menacing moments come post-depression; on ‘Alright’, Kendrick hopes to “tell the world I know it’s too late…drown inside my vices all day”, but only over a grinning Pharrell beat and an assured hook. It is easily the most jubilant track on the record. This is emphasized since it comes after the second half of ‘u’, where Kendrick drunkenly weeps “shoulda killed your ass long time ago/shoulda felt that black revolver blast long time ago”. Hatred and insecurity dominates Butterfly, but it is always topped off by a whiff of realistic positivity. Lamar is a jarring wordsmith who knows how to let an emotion sink in (“you Facetimed the one time that’s unforgiven/you even Facetimed instead of a hospital visit”), and this ability steers his words up to the top of the music’s stunning instrumental labyrinth.
It truly is the music and delivery that makes Butterfly far more than a collection of haunting poetry. You could listen to this record without paying attention to a single word and still love it (an observation, not a suggestion) and that is all because it sounds like a spectacle at every turn. The prowess for jaw dropping moments is a constant reminder that you are listening to a intricately designed, endlessly labored-over masterpiece. For example, the moaning, seductive introduction to ‘These Walls’, the rhythmic whines on ‘For Sale’, and the gradual grittiness of Kendrick’s voice on ‘Mortal Man’ are all magnificent touches. Nevertheless, the real virtue of Butterfly is its stories, statements, characters, and allusions. Rarely do you ever get to witness an artist put such weight into every word he writes. Within the span of the record Kendrick frigidly haggles with God, interviews Tupac, and vocally embodies his mother. He simultaneously deals with hatred, bliss, and hope. He reminds you that he’s the greatest rapper around but only after he touches on politics and police brutality. He recites a poem that comes together as the album progresses, and when it is finally revealed in its full form, it feels like relief from a cliffhanger. Indeed, Kendrick Lamar has made a record even more cinematic and less obvious than its predecessor, which was incidentally one of the greatest concept albums of this generation. So grab a lyric sheet, embrace judgment, and grow. To Pimp a Butterfly is a fucking masterstroke.
“I go for a lot of walks and I sing. That’s when you find an angle on things, where it makes sense for that particular moment. It’s more that feeling. In a way, I also rediscovered music, because [chokes up]—I’m sorry—it’s so miraculous what it can do to you; when you are in a really fucked situation, it’s the only thing that can save you. Nothing else will. And it does, it really does. I’m hoping the album will document the journey through. It is liberation in the end. It comes out as a healing process, because that’s how I experienced it myself.”