Albums of the Year 2016: #1 A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

https://i1.wp.com/hiphopdx-production.s3.amazonaws.com/2016/11/A-Tribe-Called-Quest-We-got-it-from-Here-...-Thank-you-4-your-service-cover-art.jpg

In a lot of ways, the latest and last album from jazz-rap legends A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, is really too good to be true. This is a record that dropped completely out of the blue for me at the end of last year – I had no idea it was in the making, and only heard about it when I saw a Facebook post from the group announcing its release. Being that the Tribe are quite possibly my favourite hip-hop artists of all time, I was equal parts excited and terrified to listen to this thing.

It’s a universal rule that comeback albums are almost always shit, and in a lot of cases their half-hearted and uninspired attempts to appeal to fan nostalgia often do more harm than help to the legacy of the group in question. In the last few years alone, a handful of my favourite artists ever have released comeback albums that were nothing but huge disappointments: Pixies’ Head Carrier, The Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanny Valley, Cannibal Ox’ Blade of the Ronin

So imagine my surprise as I tentatively give a listen to the Tribe’s first album in almost twenty years, and the realization slowly dawns on me that…it is incredible. Not just a great album that brings back the things I already loved about the group, but a stone cold classic that actually pushes those things in new directions, and is on a par if not even better than their 90s material.

We Got it From Here… is not an album that trades in nostalgia. This is one of the most currently relevant and in-the-moment comeback albums I have ever heard. It deals frankly and poetically with the state of politics, race, music and life in 2016, and it updates the Tribe formula just enough to bring it up to speed with modern hip-hop without ever losing their distinctive sound.

There are the steady jazz-rap rhythms, the live drums and bass, and the laid-back, philosophical and socially conscious lyrics. But never before have the Tribe been as overtly political as they are on We Got it From Here…. This is made immediately clear on the albums second track ‘We the People…’, which contains an ominous vision of Trump’s New Great America: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays / Boy, we hate your ways”.

2016 was a year of political division and a whole lot of controversy, and the Tribe remind us that we need music now more than ever as a unifying force. ‘We the People…’ serves as a stirring call to arms, and a reminder of how important it is to stand up for what you believe in alongside the people who believe it with you.

Elsewhere, ‘Dis Generation’ is another song that feels very of the moment, but this time with a focus on the world of music and not politics. It finds the Tribe in braggadocious mood, reflecting on their legendary status in the hip-hop world and passing on the torch to the new generation: Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul’. Even as the Tribe prepare to bow out with their final record, they make it clear that the socially conscious hip-hop spirit and the intricately crafted lyrics of the so called ‘golden age’ are still alive and kicking in 2016.

And it’s at this point in the review that I need to mention the reason why this is the final Tribe album: founding group member Phife Dawg passed away on March 22, during the recording of the album. And while there plenty of reason to mourn the passing of one of hip-hop’s all-time greats, there couldn’t be a more fitting testament to his life and work than We Got It from Here…. The fact that he passed away halfway through the creation of the album, however, leaves it in an unusual state: the record features (fantastic) posthumous contributions from Phife himself, but also reflections from the surviving members of the group on his life and all too sudden death.

This proves to be the case on ‘Black Spasmodic’, quite possibly my favourite track on the album. Riding on top of an utterly joyful, buoyant reggae rhythm, the verse first finds Phife spitting classic, grin-inducing boast raps (‘You clowns be bum sauce, speak my name and its curtains’). But in the second verse Q-tip uses this most upbeat of songs to spit one of the most affecting verses on the whole record, channelling the voice of his lost friend to create a moving and very personal eulogy.

‘Lost Someone’ serves as a more mournful tribute, with a beautiful piano loop and a soulful boom-bap slide providing the musical backdrop to Tip and Jarobi’s reflections on Phife’s life and work. But the mood is never sombre even when it is sad, and the emphasis is always on celebrating Phife’s achievements rather than mourning his loss.

The same could be said for We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service as a whole. Never content to look backwards at what has already been achieved, the Tribe saw fit to bless the music world with one final album that drew a line under everything they had released to this point and then pushed even further into new and exciting territory. In a year that was dominated by controversy, division and musical deaths, We Got it from Here… was an urgent reminder to celebrate the things we love and never stop looking to the future. Long live the Tribe.

___________________________________________

…And with that, my favourite albums of 2016 are complete. I know these reviews are coming very late and not too many people read them anyway, but it was important to me to try and find the time to finish this project even while travelling all over Australia. Thanks to anyone who did read my reviews, and please go check out some of the albums I’ve been writing about for what feels like months now.

I’ll repeat what I said last year: next time I will be writing reviews throughout the year rather than only at the end. I fully intended to do that in 2016 but it was very difficult to do while travelling. And I haven’t been able to listen to quite as diverse a collection of music as I sometimes would since Spotify is my only means of listening in Oz.

It might feel like a chore at times, but I do love writing these reviews and organizing my thoughts about music and the year in general. This is something I plan to do at the end of every year, and hopefully my writing and my knowledge of music in general will only improve as I go. So – I’ll see you in 2017, and peace out!

 

Albums of the Year 2016: #2 The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free

https://i0.wp.com/www.tinymixtapes.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/Article_Width/1603/feelin_kinda_free.jpg

It’s not just because they’re Australian, I swear. The Drones, hailing from the land of Oz where I’ve been living for the past six months, are one of the most forward-thinking and exciting rock bands in the world right now, and I’m here to tell you why. As a group, they’ve been at it for a long time: almost twenty years, having started out in 1997 as an aggressive but fairly straightforward punk blues/garage rock act.

But over the course of those twenty years, the band has done nothing but evolve their sound and their last two albums have found them pushing bravely at the boundaries of experimental rock. 2013’s I See Seaweed was a colossal but beautiful monster that all fans of weird rock music absolutely need to check out, and last year’s Feelin Kinda Free, my second favourite album of 2016, was their very best yet.

This record is loud, slow, sinister, and mysterious. Its eight songs are shrouded in sour synthesizers and huge, enveloping basslines that create an overwhelming wall of sound. It’s hard to pin down exactly what instruments you’re hearing at any one point on this record, which goes to show just how far The Drones have moved away from their humble punk blues beginnings.

‘Private Execution’, opening the record off, begins with a cacophony of psychedelic noise that erupts into an unsettling and unstable groove when the rest of the band comes in. The production is fantastically soupy – like wading through a nightmarish sea of static and distortion. And the very first words that frontman Gareth Liddiard sings on this track make the bands intentions clear: ‘The best songs are like bad dreams / If you can cover all the exits’ .

But if Feelin Kinda Free is a nightmare, then it is one conducted with eyes wide open. Gareth’s Liddiard’s lyrics have always had a strong political and social edge, and this album is no different: Feelin Kinda Free finds him taking on privacy, freedom, immigration, surveillance, ISIS and a whole range of other topics. For as apocalyptic as the music on this album is at points, Gareth’s lyrics are always witty, darkly poetic and firmly rooted to the ground.

‘Then They Came For Me’ is a blast of enigmatic pessimism about how much of Western society and Gareth himself are ignoring the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Against a monstrous, shuddering bassline, Gareth imagines himself Stranded on a pier / Watching waves of emigration / Being rewound off the beach’, and then in the chorus growls about his own inactivity and failure to do anything helpful.

I couldn’t help but think of this song when I visited the South Australian Art Gallery in Adelaide and came across a really moving piece by an artist named Ben Quilty. Quilty had taken hundreds of fluorescent life jackets intended for Turkish refugees that had washed up on the shores of Greece, and then sewn them together to create one huge, twenty foot life jacket – a moving collage of all the lives and stories that aren’t being told.

Like Quilty’s piece, ‘Then They Came For Me’ is affecting in its sheer size. The rumbling bass and the sharp guitar lines in the chorus, as well as Gareth’s scathing and very pointed lyrics, combine to create one of my very favourite songs of the year.

The record shifts from political to highly personal with its next track, ‘To Think That I Once Lived You’. Here we have Gareth detailing a break-up with an absolutely primal vocal performance: his heartbroken lyrics are delivered with the passionate howl of a wounded wolf, while the band conducts a grand orchestral noise behind him.

‘Taman Shud’ and ‘Boredom’ are musically adventurous tunes that absorb the rhythms of hip-hop into pointy rock songs, and are full of strange, uneven grooves. The staccato guitar picking on ‘Boredom’ in particular creates a very sinister mood in combination with the dissonant synths in the background of the track.

And final track ‘Shut Down SETI’ is a suitably apocalyptic closer to the record. Against a martial drum rhythm and squirming synth line, Gareth scrutinizes the human search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and asks why we keep looking to the stars when everything on Earth is so perpetually fucked up: ‘You can’t defend the open sky / Let alone our actions’. The album then ends with another blast of chopped up psychedelic noise that is the sound of the Earth being totally destroyed by aliens. Hows that for fucking climactic?

Twisted, poetic and totally unique, Feelin Kinda Free is an album that doesn’t have much of a precedent. It found The Drones embracing their weirdness to the maximum and coming out with their best material yet. Although it certainly won’t be for everyone, and probably won’t do much to help the bands stature in the music world, Feelin Kinda Free was one of my absolute favourite albums of 2016, and ended up being topped only by one other. We need more artists in the world like The Drones who are able to make music that is both politically charged and rich in imagination.

Albums of the Year 2016: #3 Frank Ocean – blond

https://i2.wp.com/cdn4.pitchfork.com/albums/23692/5f06f7f6.jpg

blond released on the back of a lot of hype earlier this year, and it’s easy for that amount of expectation to warp either the quality or the reception of a record. You have to give it to Frank Ocean for managing to come out with such a fantastic release even despite all the talk surrounding it: this record feels more mature, more varied and more cohesive than his previous material, and represents a real musical evolution.

Let’s start with more mature. The production on blond is fantastic – lush, detailed and atmospheric. Each track really stands apart from the others, and many songs like ‘Nikes’ and ‘Nights’ contain instrumental transitions that provide a lot of new ideas. Frank’s voice has developed a lot too, and goddamn does he know how to write a sweet melody. Some of the tracks towards the albums end are very instrumentally minimal, but he carries each one off the strength of his vocal performances alone.

Broadly, you could classify this album as introspective alternative R&B, but a number of tracks contain elements of folk, neo-psychedelia and soul. This is what I mean by more varied: blond experiments with a lot of different styles and sounds across its runtime. Tonally, as well, there is a lot of variety. From the killer first three tracks, which provide a perfectly sexy and psychedelic intro to the record, to some of the more single-worthy songs in the middle (‘Solo’, ‘Nights’) to the quiet, introspective finish, blond has a real emotional arc to be found in its song progression.

This progression gives blond a cohesion which makes it work well as an album and not just a collection of songs. Having said that, though, there are some fantastic individual tunes here, too. Opener ‘Nikes’ is among the albums best – that wobbly bass and slow, sexy drumline is such an inviting way to start the album. And the lyrics in the songs heartfelt second half are very moving, as is Frank’s singing.

‘Pink and White’ is a slice of gloriously trippy, wide eyed funk which sounds like sipping cocktails on a sunlit beach, and ‘Solo’ which follows shortly after is a neo-gospel ode to the pleasures and pains of being by yourself, filtered through a heavy cloud of weed smoke. As on channel ORANGE, many of these songs are a lyrical blend of Frank’s personal life and created stories which have a real cinematic quality to them.

‘Nights’, which is perhaps my favourite song on the album, also has this quality. The first half of the track tells a bleak story about a young parent who has to work night shifts in order to make ends meet, and the backdrop is an absolutely killer hip-hop instrumental with an unusual, chopped up kind of bell sound. The second half of the track, though, switches up to an atmospheric trap swirl, full of sticky keyboards and crooning vocals. It’s a fantastic transition that gets me every time I hear it.

There are some low points, too. A couple of the interlude tracks get a bit annoying on repeated listens, particularly ‘Be Yourself’ which I skip every time, and the run of tracks in between ‘Nights’ and ‘White Ferrari’ are among the albums weakest, with ‘Close To You’ and ‘Pretty Sweet’ both being pleasant but unsubstantial.

Other than that, though, I have nothing but good things to say about blond. Kudos to Frank for putting together one of the years very best albums even despite all the hype.

Albums of the Year 2016: #4 David Bowie – Blackstar

https://i1.wp.com/cdn3.pitchfork.com/news/63061/183b5632.jpg

Barely more than a week into 2016, two huge events took place in the music world. First, David Bowie released Blackstar, his most ambitious and experimental album for almost thirty years. Then, two days later, on the 10th January, he passed away. It was a shocking and somewhat foreboding way to start the year, no doubt, and began an unfortunate trend that saw a number of revered musicians pass away in the following twelve months.

But Bowie, being the brilliant bastard that he is, wasn’t content to let his death become a TV montage of Ziggy Stardust theatrics and lightning bolt face paint. No – instead he faced his own death squarely in the face and turned it into an elaborate, cryptic and highly personal concept album that was his best release since 1977’s “Heroes”.

A work of art like Blackstar, in any medium, is a rare gift. How many great artists, no matter how brilliant, have had the opportunity or the devotion to create something like this? An album which reflects upon their whole career and then summons one final burst of creative genius to take on the last and most unknowable topic of all? Virginia Woolf called her own death “the one experience I will never write”, but with Blackstar Bowie has managed even that: he’s written his own death.

And how fantastically he’s written it, too. Blackstar is an album that is by turns delicate, dark, funereal, fun, and always intriguing. It draws together experimental jazz, industrial hip-hop, and classic Bowie glam-rock into a somehow cohesive whole that sounds like no other album. Among the various instruments that make up the sonic palette of Blackstar are saxophones, guitars, electronics, piano, harmonica, orchestral synths and both live and programmed drums.

The way in which these instruments are utilised to create a multitude of different sounds and tones is very impressive throughout. Opener ‘Blackstar’, for example, begins with a very sinister and sour saxophone line, but when that same saxophone returns a few minutes later and the track transitions into its middle section, the tone is a triumphant one. It’s in this middle section that some of Bowie’s most affecting lyrics can be found: singing as if he was viewing his own death in the third person, he laments:

 

‘Something happened on the day he died

His spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place and bravely cried:

I’m a Blackstar…I’m a Blackstar’

 

It’s just one of a number of haunting and beautiful moments that appear throughout the record. ‘Lazarus’ is another song that deals very directly with Bowie’s approaching death. Over a bed of sadly plucked guitars and mournful saxophones, Bowie sings the words that were heard the world over last January: ‘Look up here, man, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’. To be addressed so openly from beyond the grave by someone who knew they were dying is frankly chilling, but the swelling conclusion to this song is incredibly moving and far from melancholy.

Elsewhere, Bowie’s lyrics and songwriting prove a bit more cryptic. ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ is a song that clearly demonstrates the influence of industrial hip-hop (and Death Grips in particular) with its skittish drums and electronics, while ‘Girl Loves Me’ is full of off-kilter rhythms and gurgling synths to soundtrack Bowie’s mysterious words.

The albums final two tracks, however, are its most direct. ‘Dollar Days’ is a gorgeous ballad of piano and acoustic guitar that erupts into a roaring sax solo at the halfway point. And this transitions wonderfully into ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, which, as the last song Bowie ever recorded, could not have been a more perfect send-off.

On this track we find Bowie playing a harmonica solo that strongly resembles the one from Low’s ‘A New Career in a New Town’, which seems sadly fitting coming at the very end of his career. The soft orchestral synths in the background of this track and the gently plucked guitar chords are incredibly moving, and build to a stirring, melancholy climax. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the bittersweet sound of Bowie’s spirit gently leaving his body, and the perfect conclusion to his bold, brave and utterly unique swansong. Nobody else but Bowie could have made an album like Blackstar, and very few released better records in 2016. RIP.

 

 

 

Albums of the Year 2016: #9 Angel Olsen – My Woman

https://f4.bcbits.com/img/a1136135788_5.jpg

I initially had Death Grips’ Bottomless Pit in at #5 but after some relistening I decided to bump it off the list and have Angel Olsen’s My Woman, which I’ve only just gone back and discovered, a bit further down. I can’t stop listening to this album. So everything else I’ve already reviewed above this is now bumped up one spot…

My Woman is an album that crept up on me. This is an unassuming record, and one that, on first listen, seems like not much more than a pleasant but fairly unambitious indie rock/singer-songwriter album. But damn – this is one of the most compulsively listenable albums that released in 2016, and having had it on non-stop rotation for the past week, I’m pretty convinced that it’s actually one of the year’s best.

Angel Olsen’s singing is the most immediately striking thing about My Woman, and what grabbed my ear at first – she has a sultry, crooning voice with a lot of character, and is able to execute an alluring, breathy whisper (‘Those Were the Days’) just as well as she does a forceful, Riot-Grrrl howl (‘Shut Up Kiss Me’). The songs on this album are full of earworm melodies and choruses that are easy to love on first listen, but there are also real nuances to the production of My Woman that only reveal themselves with repeated plays.

The record has a satisfying arc, too, starting off with the album’s most upbeat, single-worthy songs, before transitioning into the wonderfully hazy trifecta of ‘Heart Shaped Face’, ‘Sister’ and ‘Those Were the Days’, before closing on an unexpected note with the psych-rock ‘Woman’ and tender piano ballad ‘Pops’. There really isn’t a weak song to be found on the record, but there are highlights at every turn.

Deceptively ambitious, full of fantastic songwriting and a whole lot of personality, My Woman is an album that places Angel Olsen firmly at the forefront of indie rock in the present moment, and suggests plenty of directions for her music to move in the future.

Albums of the Year 2016: #5 Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

https://i1.wp.com/static.stereogum.com/uploads/2016/05/Car-Seat-Headrest-Teens-Of-Denial-compressed.jpeg

My favourite indie rock album of last year was easily Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, a messy, unhinged and epic record that served as a musical testament to frontman Will Toledo’s various breakdowns and neuroses. Full of dark and often hilarious self-deprecating lyrics set to soaring indie rock melodies, Teens of Denial makes stadium-sized singalongs out of social anxiety, and is packed front to back with unforgettable hooks. From the scatterbrained ‘Vincent’ to the sweeping ‘Cosmic Hero’, the endlessly catchy ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ and the anthemic ‘Destroyed by Hippie Powers’(featuring one of the year’s best choruses), every song here is fantastic.

While the albums sequencing is a bit uneven (‘Cosmic Hero’ should definitely have been the closer), the slightly disjointed flow of the record gives it a charmingly homebrew quality, as does the raw production of these songs. This album retains the DIY aesthetic that made Toledo’s previous self-released albums so appealing, but reimagines it on a much grander and more ambitious scale. Teens of Denial could easily have been a lost classic from the golden era of 90s indie rock, but as it is it remains the best indie rock album of 2016, and one of the best of the decade so far.

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

https://i0.wp.com/cdn4.pitchfork.com/albums/22694/0e1836c9.jpg

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.