Well,2016 has been quite the year, with the array of genius musicians passing away, Brexit and Trump it seems as though there is little to celebrate. The world has changed, for better or worse if you are like me you probably believe it is leaning towards the latter. However, music always has this charming way of remaining strong (perhaps even more so) during times when the world seems to be crumbling right before our eyes.This is particularly apparent with the generous amount of impressive hip hop albums released this year as marginalized people in America are not being empowered by their government to a point of revolt. That said, I am always impressed by those who continue to fight the good fight and not only make art but great art in the throes of this madness. The following is a list of albums released this year that are especially bold, brilliant and even revolutionary from various genres and geography.
Car Seat Headrest- Teens Of Denial
Car Seat Headrest are based out of Seattle and driven by 24-year-old front man Will Toledo. Toledo is originally from Virginia and way too young to be so talented. Toledo started recording at 17 out of his family’s car for a sense of solitude and guaranteed soundproofing. He wrote a generous catalog of contentious, intelligent and genuinely lo-fi songs well paired with the oblivion of youth. In 2014, Toledo assembled a lineup with bassist Ethan Ives and drummer Andrew Katz. Their music is filled with astutely critical observations of our current society, wax-poetic ramblings and complex walls of reverb. Teens of Denial emphasizes second generation theology, depression, lack of direction and the complex relationship with alcohol one has in their early 20’s (or potentially evermore). They are signed with Matador Records, a label that seems to be a barometer of new and vivid talent. Their music is a refreshing ethnography of the new generation, reminding us music still matters, art is still thriving and new ideas are being created. Car Seat Headrest revisit the sound of The Strokes and Pavement which is part of what makes them notable yet they are something completely unprecedented all together.
Blonde is a 17 song strong grandiose exhibition of musical experimentation, poetic exploration and innovative song writing. Every song on the album could easily be the hit single, it’s consistently powerful and doesn’t take any shortcuts. Additionally, Ocean’s voice is smooth like good scotch yet haunted like the hangover that follows. Unlike, his previous and groundbreaking album- Channel Orange, Blond is quite tortured. The record is reflective on heartache, the misery of millennials and the general apathy floating through contemporary America. However, the material also manages to be soulful R&B dance music, it really depends on what angle you wish to perceive it.
Part of what makes Blonde so strong and complex is the rather unbelievable list of collaborators on it. This list includes Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood who provides some heavy and gritty guitar riffs that elevate the music to a level we seldom hear. James Blake, Beyonce and Pharrell are also present in this eclectic marvel. Additionally, the legendary Bob Ludwig (Rolling Stones, Nirvana, The Beatles) helped produce the record. Obviously some money was involved in the creation of the Blonde, however it’s really the songwriting that stands out.Ocean recently shared that “If you’re a writer you can write anything..prose, songs, raps, novels, plays, films, laws..take the governor off your gift.”
Ocean is a diverse and unique artist; he is one of the controversial rappers in Odd Future, makes tender R&B lullabies, is the first main stream male rapper to come out as bi-sexual and avoids media attention. Blonde is a sophomore album that contains decades of wisdom, remarkable musical bravado and almost every emotion imaginable. This is one of those get the hard copy, listen to it several times alone as the activity for the weekend kind of album.
It would be irresponsible and rather absurd not to include this album which is a more like a pop culture phenomenon. Beyonce, who is enigmatically human is truly talented and easily this generation’s Michael Jackson. Her success is beyond comprehension and she is adorned by diverse demographics which is a form of cultural solidarity. All of that stated, I have always respected Beyonce yet have never committed myself to any of her albums until this one. Lemonade is not only her best work yet but an art piece that reflects our time. This was made more powerful with the surprise release of the record and the stunning visual version of the album. It is easily a feminist album, not because of it’s possible media attention demanding stance of infidelity potentially committed by another wildly famous individual. It is a feminist album as it is an empowered soundtrack for an entire society of oppressed people becoming empowered. It is a celebration of not only femininity but black femininity which could not be more needed during these times. Additionally, the music is more complex than she has ever experimented with previously. Diverse elements of jazz, afro-beat, reggae and country surround her voice which has evolved tremendously over time. She even delivers a tribute to the iconic Fela Kuti quite distinctly in the visual album but arguably throughout the entire album itself. Every song is a single but the track and video for “Hold Up” is an anthem for the masses and musically revolutionary. Lemonade affects everyone a little differently but the result is commonly liberated. It is a easily timeless album and very possibly the album of 2016.
Leonard Cohen- You Want It Darker
The tragic loss of one of the greatest musicians of all time made a classy exit, as usual. You Want It Darker was written whilst dying, a rare and poetic combination that seems suitable to the ever creative Cohen. You Want It Darker is easily one of his best albums of all time, like the wine he loved he got better with age. His voice thickened and delivered the exquisite and sombre lyrics more powerfully. Said lyrics are as beautiful as ever and the album is filled with memorable lines such as ” I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame”. Even the title of the album is mysteriously symbolic, Cohen was always his idiosyncratic and expressive self. There is certainly a tone of recognition that this is his last record, making it even more haunting and heartbreaking. The album is a testament to his rare talent and unique ability to generously release unforgettable music.
Micah Erenberg-Poor Mic’s Toe
Micah Erenberg is the brilliantly unconventional singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, MB. Erenberg’s debut album “Poor Mic’s Toe” is a cleverly crafted collection of honest, hilarious and whimsical songs. Erenberg’s blunt poetry is charmingly juxtaposed with Tex-Mex and lo-fi sloppiness. The album is fun yet wise and ubiquitously aware of itself. Every song on the album is truly different from the last but they all manage to be excellent.
The opening song “I Just Wanna Go To Sleep Forever” portrays the band’s ability to express the tragic humour of life. The dichotomy of tragedy and humour is often felt but rarely expressed clearly but when it is, an emotional phenomena occurs. The album makes listeners feel uniquely understood, that this young gun from Winnipeg somehow just get’s you. His lyrics are wise beyond his years yet the sound is forever young. The album is is a refreshing cleanse of lyrical clarity and genuine catharsis. The sound is completely void of pretending to be interesting, it just is. This is the kind of music and attitude that can’t be faked which is profoundly important amongst of sea of millennial plastic.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds-Skeleton Tree
The one and only Nick Cave often dances with the subject of death in his music, this album addresses it. Cave uses the figurative morality as a muse which is most notable in his legendary “murder ballads”. This past year, Cave’s son Arthur Cave passed away at age 15 by falling off a cliff. It is inexplicably sad to lose a child and this very real subject matter is apparent throughout this entire heart wrenching album. Cave has this omnipresent ability to make listener’s explore the topography of human suffering, but the Skeleton Tree goes beyond the realms of poetically ominous. It is genuinely tragic and doesn’t take any short cuts to avoid being overwhelming visceral. You need to allow yourself to fall into the complexity of this album, it doesn’t serve as a background soundtrack for anything. On the brilliant song “I Need You” Cave is audibly crying whilst singing and only a frozen heart couldn’t be affected by it. This is Nick Cave and The Bad Seed’s 16th album together, their sound is truly refined and could be identified amongst millions of others.
Malibu is Anderson. Paak’s (the period is intentional) fourth album and arguably his magnum opus. This is the hip hop you have been looking for, with evolved jazz infusions and real music provided by his band the Free Nationals that he plays drums in. Paak collaborated amply with Dr. Dre on Compton last year, which got him the recognition he deserves. His previous work, such as the album Venice released in 2014, is great but Malibu is exceptional; it is profound, personal and unapologetic. Other talented artists such as Schoolboy Q, Talbi Kweli and The Game are featured on the album which adds to it’s complexity. Malibu discusses the difficulty he has endured with lyrics such as “ya moms in prison, ya father need a new kidney, ya family’s splittin’, rivalries between sibling, if cash ain’t king, it’s damn sure the incentive” from track: The Season/Carry Me. His voice is pure molasses, he raps with unparalleled dominion and the beats are a combination of New Orleans and Chicago based blues and jazz. There are moments in Malibu that pay notable homage to James Brown followed by innovative lyrics rapped with precision. Much like Guru’s Jazzmatazz or the Abstract and The Dragon’s Mix-Tape, Paak takes time to thank everyone who assisted him on the creation of the album. This is part of what makes Malibu an inclusive and inviting body of work. On the final track : The Dreamer (which features Talib Kweli and the Timan family choir) Paak shares “ This one’s for all the little dreamers, I’m a product of the tube and free lunch. Who cares if your daddy couldn’t be here”.
Malibu emphasizes the importance that you can do amazing work in this world despite the struggles you have endured. It is an record for everyone and even if the lyrics aren’t your thing the musicality of it will hypnotize you. If you haven’t heard it yet I envy you for what you are about to experience.