Albums of the Year 2016: #6 Anderson.Paak – Malibu

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In a year that saw a number of great releases coming from already established artists – people like Leonard Cohen, Swans, Radiohead and Nick Cave – Anderson.Paak was perhaps my favourite emerging talent. Fresh off of a couple of limelight-stealing performances on Dr Dre’s 2015 album Compton, Paak stepped out on his own this year and proved he can box with the best of them. We had two albums from him in 2016: October saw the release of his collaboration album with hip-hop producer Knxwledge, NxWorries, which was a sexy and smoky blend of neo-soul and hip-hop.

But the real knockout blow was Malibu, which released within the first few weeks of the year. Like NxWorries, the album is a blend of neo-soul and hip-hop, but here we can also throw R&B as well as funk into the mix. Malibu is a vibrant and eclectic blend of musical genres that effectively blurs the lines between different styles, and is all the stronger for it. In fact, it would be difficult to pigeonhole any one of these songs as purely R&B or purely hip-hop, just as it would be difficult to pigeonhole Anderson.Paak as either a singer or a rapper. The guy switches effortlessly between the two, and is talented at both.

‘The Season/Carry Me’ is a great example of this, a tune that starts out with a real g-funk vibe and sees Paak spitting some great lines about the city he grew up in and his rise to fame: I ran bases, pitch flame/I call plays, remove labels/And fuck fame, that killed all my favorite entertainers. But the beat changes up for the second half into a soulful boom-bap slide with a gorgeous piano line, and has Paak singing a passionate chorus about his mother and his youth.

This song also contains a reference to ‘K-dot’, and the influence of Kendrick Lamar can be felt throughout Malibu. It can be heard in the use of live funk and soul instrumentation blending with hip-hop, particularly on a track like ‘Waterfall’ which really reminds me of ‘These Walls’. It can also be heard in the way Paak plays with the tone and pitch of his voice, and the snippets of recorded voices and samples which play between songs, giving the album a (very) loose sense of conceptuality. This is something that Solange also adopted for her fantastic A Seat at the Table this year, and while I think she embraced the narrative and political possibilities of the concept album a bit more than Paak did, these moments still provide Malibu with a nice through line and offer a bit of structure to the record. I’m glad to see that To Pimp a Butterfly is pushing hip-hop and R&B musicians to be more ambitious and conceptual with their music in 2016.

‘Room in Here’ is another fantastic single from the album which gained Paak a lot of attention this year. The song is one of the slickest and sexiest on the record, containing a fantastic groove of kick drums, hand claps and rolling bass. The vocals on top find Paak at his most seductive, inviting his lover into the privacy of their bedroom while the listener spectates: Aint nobody but you and me in here. A great verse from The Game combines to make this simultaneously one of the most intimate and most confident moments on the entire record, and an easy highlight.

‘Am I Wrong’ is another fantastic tune that contains shades of hip-house and funk, with a driving beat and a catchy chorus that has possibly the most pop appeal of any song here, while ‘Silicon Valley’ somehow manages to be a really heartfelt and touching song about breast implants. The two closing tracks, meanwhile, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘The Dreamer’, close off the record on a more personal note that really rounds Malibu off emotionally and makes it a satisfying listen from front to back.

I could go on to talk about any number of songs on Malibu, because I really find almost every one here to be a fantastic mix of R&B, hip-hop, funk and soul. Paak demonstrates his diverse talents across a cohesive, eclectic and sunny record that, despite being released just over two weeks into the year, was only topped by a handful of others in 2016.

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Albums of the Year 2016: #7 clipping. – Splendor & Misery

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Experimental hip-hop trio clipping returned this year with a more focused and more adventurous album than anything they’d released to date. Splendor & Misery took the groups blend of harsh noise and hip-hop into orbit, its 15 tracks comprising a tight but detailed concept album about a man who escapes from a deep space slave ship. The unusual subject matter proved to be a perfect fit for the group’s cold and unsettling music, while Daveed Diggs’ technical lyricism took on a new level of cohesion when applied to a more structured narrative style.

Throughout Splendor, Diggs raps from the perspective of both the escaped slave, Cargo 2331, as well as the ship upon which he escapes. And the detailed story he tells plots a course through slavery, religion, love and a healthy dose of space madness. Just as on previous clipping releases, Diggs raps at a very fast pace, and the variety of flows, cadences and topics he covers proves very impressive. But this time around you can hear a greater range of influences extending past the violent excesses of gangsta rap. The sci-fi raps of Deltron 3030 prove just as influential, particularly in the albums only real single-worthy track, “Air ‘Em Out”, which contains some pretty great lyrics about blasters and suns and solar systems.

Musically, too, Splendor was weirder than anything the group had done before. No longer shackled to the blueprint of traditional hardcore hip-hop, Johnathan Hutson and William Snipes produced an album that pushed the sparse, industrial elements of the groups sound even further. ‘Baby Don’t Sleep’ is without drums entirely, and instead features three alternating channels of static and found sound over which Diggs raps. ‘The Breach’s only musical accompaniment is a pulsing noise that sounds like cold air being sucked through a vent. And the percussion on ‘Break the Glass’ sounds like pistons and heavy machinery creaking away in the bowels of the ship.

There are even more bold musical choices to be found in the inclusion of several gospel interludes – purely vocal spirituals which tie the theme of slavery back down to Earth. It seems an unusual combination at first, but the fact that it somehow works demonstrates that one of clippings greatest strengths as a group is their ability to combine disparate sounds and styles together into a cohesive whole.

It takes guts and a lot of creativity to pull off an album like this, but clipping have it in spades, and with Splendor & Misery they have charted a course into undiscovered galaxies with a sound that is truly their own.

 

 

Albums of the Year 2016: #8 Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

True legends never lose the creative spark. 2016 was a year that saw not one, but two magnificent late-period albums from revered musicians on their deathbed. In January, David Bowie released the haunting Blackstar just days before his passing, and on November 11th, only three weeks after the release of Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker, we received news that he had died at the age of 82.

Like Blackstar, You Want it Darker is an album that stares death boldly in the face and isn’t afraid to sing about it. ‘Sing’ perhaps isn’t the right word, though – Cohen’s voice on this record has been reduced through the years to a powerful and gravelly mutter which provides the perfect vessel for his spoken word poetry. It’s the voice of a man who has lived for a very long time and seen far too much, imparting his world-weary wisdom at the gates of death before departing forever.

Cohen’s words, then, are a heavy focus of the album, and they remain as vivid and poetic as they were 50 years ago on the classic Songs of Leonard Cohen. As on that album, an undercurrent of religion and faith flows through the songs on You Want it Darker, never far away from the spectres of love, separation and, yes, death. The album’s title track, opening the record, features an ominous bassline on top of a ghostly organ and choir vocals, while Cohen ponders the existence of God and his own mortality:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

It’s a spine-tingling introduction that lets the listener know straight away: this is a lights-out, late-night album that demands your attention, despite never rising above a murmur. That isn’t to say its all gloom, however. ‘On the Level’ is a lovely, mid-tempo ballad that features some soulful backing vocals and lilting organs and drums, while ‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’ is a heartfelt piano piece in which Cohen pays tribute to the healing effects of love.

The funereal ‘It Seemed the Better Way’ finds Cohen in more somber mood, looking back on his career and his poetry, questioning its validity and its persistence after the passing of so many years:

Sounded like the truth 

Seemed the better way

Sounded like the truth

But it’s not the truth today

Whatever Cohen himself makes of his legacy, its clear from the songs on You Want It Darker that he never gave up searching for truth and understanding in poetry, even at the grand old age of 82. He wasn’t content to settle with his already substantial achievements, but was instead always pushing his music forward and asking questions. The magnificent ‘Steer Your Way’ at the albums end is similarly exploratory, and finds Cohen navigating through an apocalyptic landscape of passing years, forgotten faith and bodily decay. Cohen is at the end of his journey here, and one particularly chilling lyric from this song sticks in my mind above all others: ‘Please don’t make me go there / Though there be a God or not’.

In creating You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen faced his own death with equal parts fear and bravery. I find it really quite staggering that any artist could create a work that ranks among their very best within the final weeks of their life, but that is exactly what Cohen has done with his last album. You Want it Darker is a powerful, authoritative and world-weary send off from one of music’s greatest poets.

Albums of the Year 2016: #10 Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

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Atrocity Exhibition saw Danny Brown doubling down on the most unique elements of his sound, and producing his best album to date in the process. This is a guy who has had one of the most unusual and instantly recognizable voices in hip-hop ever since his breakout 2011 album XXX, but until now hasn’t quite been able to utilise it to make the definitive statement he always seemed capable of. Atrocity Exhibition is most certainly that statement – on this album Danny takes the unhinged and yelpy delivery he is known for and applies it his weirdest, darkest and most intriguing music yet.

Sonically, the album doesn’t sound like very much else. Even in the realms of contemporary experimental hip-hop, which is largely of the industrial variety, there isn’t much of a precedent. Atrocity Exhibition is bleak and psychedelic but also eclectic, taking in a variety of styles and filtering them through Danny’s strung out musical vision. ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’ could be some kind of alternative-universe G-funk in which Dr Dre and Snoop were both Satan worshippers, and the beat on ‘Really Doe’ is one of the most evil boom-bap tunes I’ve heard in my life.

The batshit insane ‘Aint it Funny’ is possibly my favourite track on the record: a lysergic stomp full of strange squelchy bass and dissonant honking trumpets. The rhythm of this song is just so damn infectious and weird that I can’t help but get excited every time I come to it in the tracklisting, and the way Danny’s flow rides over the unusual tempo of the beat is masterful. Throughout the entirety of Atrocity Exhibition, in fact, Danny’s flow and delivery prove to be his greatest skill.

While his lyrics are effective and his writing always solid, there are a few moments on the album where Danny approaches his subject matter from an angle that feels a bit too familiar. The topics of drugs, addiction and emptiness arise on nearly every song here, but I don’t find this to be too glaring of a flaw when taking into consideration the amount of variety Danny throws into his delivery. From the punchy, staccato flow of ‘Rolling Stone’ to the frantic ‘Dance in the Water’ or the defeated mumble of ‘From the Ground’, there are a lot of different tones, cadences and ideas to be found in the albums vocals.

The production, a lot of which comes from UK producer Paul White (whose collaboratiothis year with Open Mike Eagle, Hella Personal Film Festival, was also a very strong release), has just as many ideas packed in. There are some really bold musical choices found in these songs: those trumpets in ‘Aint it Funny’, the squeaky keyboards in ‘When it Rain’, or the spooky organs and unusual clicking percussion in ‘Golddust’. Danny might paint himself as beaten down and strung out throughout Atrocity Exhibition, but the music he and his producers have put together here is full of confidence.

Atrocity Exhibition is the work of an artist who really understands what it is that sets them apart from the crowd. On this album Danny Brown seemed hellbent on pushing as far as possible into the darkest corners of his twisted, drug-addled creativity, and in doing so put together one of the most unique hip-hop albums of the year.

Albums of the Year 2016: #13 Preoccupations – Preoccupations

Fresh off a name change from Viet Cong and the release of their self-titled album (which was my seventh favourite album of last year), Preoccupations return with yet another fantastic record that sits among the year’s best. And, embracing the change of name, the band has come out with an album that also represents a slight change of direction this time around. Although Preoccupations, like Viet Cong before it, is primarily a blend of indie rock and post-punk, the reference points and influences evident of this album are a bit different, and theres been a notable change in production style in the transition.

Where Viet Cong was raw and loud, Preoccupations is thick and textured. The production on many of these tracks utilise drones and heavy reverb to create walls of sound that envelop rather than assault. And there is a greater prominence afforded to the synthesizers, whose glistening tones often provide a counterpoint to the sombre mood created by the rest of the music. This blend of bright and bleak throws a touch of New Wave/Darkwave into the mix, and reveals the band’s love for groups like The Cure and New Order in a way that wasn’t evident before.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the song ‘Memory’, which transitions at the four minute mark from an eerie mid-tempo chug into a shimmering New Wave tune that sounds more than a little bit like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Although the band don’t do anything particularly new with the style, it provides a nice contrast to some of the records darker moments, and throws in a bit of variety. The weirder corners of post punk are still given due diligence here, too. Opener ‘Anxiety’ is a dissonant and unsettling intro to the record, as befitting its lyrical themes. Vocalist Matt Flegel sings about ‘all-encompassing anxiety’ over a bed of sour drones and synths, setting the tone for an album that is slower, darker and thicker than its predecessor.

‘Stimulation’ is perhaps my favourite track on the record, and represents the bands most effective synthesis of post-punk and indie rock to date. While the song has all the rhythm and energy of an indie rock tune, the muted guitars which whine away in the distance and the loud, driving bass provide the propulsion of post-punk. The song builds to a volatile climax of sharp guitars and spitting drums, cutting out tantalisingly right as it threatens to explode. While I would have happily listened to a ten or even fifteen minute version of this song in the vein of ‘Death’, the closer of their previous album, I think the band exercised a lot of restraint in keeping it tight like this.

And, having mentioned ‘Death’, which still stands as the bands crowning achievement in my eyes, I have to say that the highlights on Preoccupations aren’t quite as high as they were on Viet Cong: this is a more measured and more consistent album with a heavier focus on mood and texture. The only complaint I could make about Preoccupations is that while the first of the two one minute interlude tracks was a nice breather, ‘Forbidden’ just feels like the introduction to a regular length song which fades out as soon as the drums and bass come in. That one could have been left on the cutting room floor.

Aside from this misstep, Preoccupations proves to be yet another fantastic record from one of the most interesting bands playing either post-punk or indie rock in 2016. It represents a progression in terms of production and a change in musical direction which nevertheless stays true to the band’s style. I’m excited to see where the group goes next.