[Originally published June 27, 2016]
We’re living in an exhilarating time for music. 2016 alone has been quite the watershed year. Everyone from Beyoncé to Radiohead to Desiigner has hit us with a surprise release. Emo has been redefined for a new generation with help from bands like The Hotelier and Modern Baseball. We’ve bid farewell to titans like Prince, David Bowie and that guy from the Eagles. We’ve seen the rise of Simpsonwave (and still are trying to figure out what the hell it is). DIY punk continues to burgeon, and jazz and hip-hop are renewing their vows and rediscovering their passionate love for one another.
Light Upon the Lake
Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich have constructed a breezy, almost effortless collection of ten expertly crafted, folk-saturated pop tunes that recall the best of 70s AM radio. Woozy, triumphant brass, warbling keyboards and the dual falsetto of Kakacek and Ehrlich lend just the right amount of quirky psychedelic charm to summery car jams like “No Matter Where We Go” and “Follow.” It’s one of the most charming and instantly lovable records of the year – an idyllic garage-pop marriage of the minds.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
In three short years and as many records, Simpson has transcended and redefined the traditional definition of the country troubadour. With the lushly orchestrated A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, he takes us even deeper into his strange, lovely universe. His classic, soulful croon glides over swoony beds of horn, organ and guitar as the recent new dad advises his son on how to navigate the stormy seas of life. Modern “country” singers would do well to take note of Simpson’s ability to deal with real human emotions in a way that’s never trite and always beautiful, grand and sweeping while still maintaining its intimacy. His lovely, understated-yet-grand cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” seems to place emphasis on the phrase “…to love someone” – a fitting summation of Simpson’s world, in which, at the end of the day, having someone to care for (and to care for you) is what matters the most.
Tegan and Sara
Love You to Death
Vapor / Warner Bros.
The Quin sisters return after a three-year hiatus following the release of 2013’s excellent Heartthrob. On Love You to Death, they continue to bring their newfound pop sensibilities to the forefront. The confusion of love and sex in the still-young millennium is explored in three-minute bursts of emotion atop bright, insanely infectious hooks on songs like the shimmering, upbeat “Boyfriend” and the stripped-back “100x.” It’s passion and pain, lust and regret, all wrapped up in a sugary-sweet, immaculately produced package. All that’s left to do is enjoy – and DANCE!
Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade
The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty hits us with a work of stark, terrifying beauty. With her unmistakable androgynous croon – flanked this time around by icy synthscapes courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never – she launches a fierce attack against the many ills of our fucked-up modern world, from global warming (“4 Degrees”) to American exceptionalism (“Marrow”) to the U.S.’s unyielding war machine (“Crisis”). She lashes out at “Violent Men” and exposes the shortcomings of President “Obama.” To be sure, it’s a major departure from the beautiful baroque pop of records like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, but the destination is more than worth the journey.
The Life of Pablo
GOOD / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella
Sure, it’s not his best record (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), his most enjoyable (The College Dropout), or his most experimental (Yeezus), but America’s provocateur-laureate has proven himself incapable of creating uninteresting music – or, at the very least, music that provokes a whole hell of a lot of discussion and hubbub. Yeezy’s sonic craftsmanship remains unmatched, and the music of TLOP reflects its tumultuous, fussy creation (an act that seems to still be taking place as we speak). Gospel choirs, dark atmospherics, narcissistic lyrics, and a veritable fruit salad of collaborators and genre-hopping samples abound. It can be a bit all over the place and downright brutish at times (see the T.Swift-dissing “Famous”), but in its best moments it serves as a poignant reminder of West’s fearless, uncompromising creative spirit.
Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
The gifted young creator of last year’s best record has consistently shown a dogged refusal to rest on his laurels, though it would be tough to blame him for doing so. Here, he documents his insatiable work ethic by presenting us with eight tracks assembled from various previously unreleased demos, some of which date back to the aftermath of 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d city. Butterfly‘s riveting jazz-funk-soul-avant-garde amalgam continues to unfold and flourish, as do Lamar’s unfiltered, revolutionary lyrics. The end result is TPAB‘s less-polished but just as hungry kid brother – a deep, eccentric, laid-back affair (possibly even more so than its predecessor) that simultaneously soars far above the average B-sides and rarities disc to become a powerful statement in its own right. King Kunta reigns on.
On January 8, one of the world’s true musical originals released his twenty-fifth record. Three days later, he was gone. Blackstar became his final statement to listeners – and what a hell of a statement it is. As one of the most wildly experimental works of a career built upon constant left-field reinvention, it’s a disconcerting, enticing, and often gorgeous listen from start to finish. The sprawling, mystical title track; the howling sax and choral oohs of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; the warped funk of “Sue”; the frenetic, Nadsat-screeching “Girl Loves Me”; the grand vulnerability of album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – it’s all there, and it’s all magical. Appropriately, it’s also a record rife with mortality; Bowie almost seems to know death is coming for him, and he intends to go out with a bang. The beauty and fearlessness of the record is remarkable and refreshing, the kind he was always capable of and which seemed to have evaporated from his latter-day work. Just as Christ raised “Lazarus” from the dead, so does Blackstar resurrect our fallen idol in our hearts, making him live on forever despite having passed from this mortal plane. “Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me.”
One of the most ambitious debuts of this year, 99.9% is a remarkably bold opus that sees the young Canadian (by way of Port-au-Prince) producer blending a variety of tropes from the last four decades of EDM – from 90s house and disco to new jack swing and trip-hop – into an immaculately-produced sound that feels instantly familiar yet uniquely and undeniably belongs to him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kaytra has assembled a winners’ circle of collaborators that make the affair something truly magical – we hear the dark, airy jazz-hop of Badbadnotgood on “Weight Off”; the ultra-confident rasp of Anderson .Paak on “Glowed Up”; the crisp, breathy vocals of Syd tha Kid on “You’re the One”; AlunaGeorge’s cool, club-ready aesthetic on the bright, Control-era Janet Jackson-channeling “Together.” It’s a sexy, slick, playful, lovingly-crafted record that honors its inspirations without resorting to pastiche or glib parody. If only all dance music could be this much fun.
Parkwood / Columbia
One of 2016’s biggest and most refreshing surprises, Queen Bey’s fifth solo record is an uncompromising, unfiltered celebration of both blackness and black culture. The lyrics are a vivid, stunning exploration of heartbreak and redemption, and Bey’s message of rising above adversity has never carried more weight. Ever the gifted producer/tastemaker, Bey draws from a stunning musical palate on this record – jazz, funk, indie pop, gospel, and even boot-stompin’ country on the uplifting, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek ballad “Daddy Lessons.” Its focal point, of course, is the cocky, jubilant “Formation,” on which Ms. Knowles-Carter, over thumping avant-soul beats, definitively acknowledges herself as both hero and provocateur, sinner and angel (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”). Anthemic, sweeping and bursting with a punchy brashness throughout, Lemonade is the perfect rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and a gigantic middle finger in the face of impotent would-be oppressors. Slay on, Queen.
Chance the Rapper
Lil Chano’s star-studded followup to last year’s Surf is a spectacular, jubilant affair – a soul-and-jazz informed, gospel-drenched celebration of life in all its triumphs and blunders, complete with choir outbursts, horn blasts courtesy of bandleader Donnie Trumpet, and wailing church organ. Chance has been blessed beyond his wildest dreams, and he couldn’t be more thankful. The only enemies he has to lash out at are the devil, whom he threatens with a “swirly,” and the record labels, whom he threatens with aggressive fans in the lobby. His braggadocio is only in the interest of the exaltation of his Lord and Savior – and in defense of the belief that the ability to remain true to oneself is a greater gift than any earthly possession. As Surf proved, Chance has a blast just getting together with his friends and creating and performing his music. You can almost see him grinning ear to ear as he rips through tracks like album opener “All We Got” (produced by none other than his mentor, one Kanye O. West) and the absurdly fun “Angels.” Creators, take note: when an artist pours their entire heart and soul into their work, this is the end result. If KRS-One was right and hip-hop is meant to uplift the people, then this is just the record to do it. It’s a landmark musical achievement and the pinnacle thus far of the career of this already-shining young star. Even if you’re an atheist, Coloring Book will have you praising God – or, at the very least, embracing the joy and beauty of everyday life on this gigantic spinning rock we call home. You ready, big fella?
Death Grips / Bottomless Pit (Harvest)
Frankie Cosmos / Next Thing (Bayonet)
Har Mar Superstar / Best Summer Ever (Cult)
Lake Street Dive / Side Pony (Nonesuch)
PWR BTTM / Ugly Cherries (Father/Daughter / Miscreant)
Parquet Courts / Human Performance (Rough Trade)
Radiohead / A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Paul Simon / Stranger to Stranger (Concord)
Teen Suicide / It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot (Run for Cover)
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down / A Man Alive (Ribbon Music)