Saturday, December 30, 2017

20-ish 2017 Jams

I devour every end of the year list voraciously, ending up with dozens of new albums and books that I want to listen to and read immediately. Time is arbitrary but having occasions for taking stock are never a bad thing (it's what we do with that reflection that can tip from healthy to unproductive). Many many musical end of the year roundups have expounded on the making of music in times of darkness or political unrest - I'll spare you that since I think that anyone reading this knows what the year was and felt it in ways specific to their lot in this life on this planet. I know as I made this list I have left off crucial albums or songs (Jay-Z's 4:44 isn't here because of Tidal but I adore "Moonlight" especially for its lyrical inventiveness and phenomenal use of a Fugees sample). But here is a half baked, day before New Year's Eve romp through the songs I kept returning to as this year finishes off.

Enjoy and let me know what made you hit repeat this year *heart emoji*

1.     St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCATION is amazing and very hard to explain without making you listen to all of it. On this most recent album, she has managed to make more accessible her sound with its galloping embrace of genres (pop, rock, electronica, new-wave, punk) without sacrificing her appetite for blending melody with noise. This album is loud with guitars and synths, yet tucked with sweet refrains and clear control over the seemingly chaotic moments of climax. “Los Ageless” careens across genres but seems most nestled in the glitch skittering sound of a new-wave synthesized dance sound. The chorus is full of biting critique of Los Angeles, continuing St. Vincent’s frequent attention to the complex interplay between our actual lives and the lives we see in/through the media environment that shelters us. Where the verses are presented in almost a snarl, the choruses swell with multitracked voices and a beautiful melody as the song shifts from snark to discontent and melancholia. The song rides into escalating noise before tipping into a softer, sadder fade out.

2.     The concept of Lorde’s Melodrama tracks the rise and fall of house party as fun and social anxiety jockey for prominence. On her sophomore album Lorde remains idiosyncratic in her vocal phrasing and her incisive lyrical ability. She knows you think she’s insular and adolescent and she knows she’s smarter than you. There’s a fuller sound yet the album is also comfortable with silence, spaces between songs and within tracks, negative space that makes the listener wait and wonder. On “Sober II (Melodrama)” the full might of a string section is brought to bear on a snearing response to both the petty drama of life and those who would mock this drama. As the song ends, the chorus is repeated by several layered iterations of Lorde who seem to be straining their vocal chords as if pushed to their limit. “Perfect Places” starts with a simple drum machine beat and builds to a boisterous jubilant chorus that resists the idea of the perfect experience of the perfect evening.

3.     On Meaning of Life, Kelly Clarkson leans into her giant bombastic voice. With a new recording contract, she is able to stop chasing pop music trends and this album is her attempt at making an “Aretha” record. The sound is more soulful without the retro gloss that often is applied to this type of venture. She generally relies on backup singers and live music over electronic sound. I love this whole album but “Would You Call That Love” and “Move You” are probably most replayed. “Would You Call That Love” is a propulsive beat-driven track laced with the resentment of the lost love who doesn’t realize what he’s left behind. Clarkson’s rages against the coos and questions of her background singers and it’s a delight. “Move You” is a slow burn track dripping with desire and longing, built around a ringing synth sequence.

4.     I liked the first Haim album, but it didn’t have a staying power for me. This second album Something To Tell You however feels more cohesive and richer in emotional weight. I bought a car this summer and for a long time all I listened to when I drove was this Haim album. The Haim sisters blend beachy, Fleetwood Mac-y harmonies with big guitars and a willingness to explore beyond the purview of pop rock as needed to fill the nooks and crannies of their sound. “Found It In Silence” with its driving strings is the perfect song for driving home after a long day while “Right Now” is intimate and hushed, bathed in reverb. “Walking Away” is a circular slice of pop rock with the sisters’ voices moving in and out.

5.     As Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas has made some of the saddest and most melancholy queer lullabies with his crystalline voice raising through them sometimes as a whisper and sometimes like a wraith or a banshee. On his most recent album No Shape, Perfume Genius shifts most directly into happiness and the comforts of love found and kept. “Wreath” propels forward on with the backing instruments and Hadreas’s voice both pushing us further and further into the Kate Bush fantasia of love as the bittersweet moments between visiting gravesites and exploring bucolic fields. The song is rich with tinkling sounds and rising orchestral notes and ends with the music skidding off into silence like the end of “A Day in the Life.”

6.     On her debut solo album Fake Sugar, Beth Ditto from the band Gossip stretches her voice into the rootsy end of rock and disco. Ditto plays ably across genres on the album but “In And Out” is the track I still have to listen to at least three times in a row. The song builds from simply her rich thick voice and a guitar to a full band that leaves me wanting to dance. There’s lush production complete with handclaps but it’s the contours of Ditto’s voice that always touch me. She moves between wistfulness and coquettishness as the song tracks the back and forth of a tumultuous relationship with the thrust of a barroom dance.

7.     Kelela’s “LMK” mixes the cold space age sound of 90s r&b with the decidedly millennial uncertainty of being left on the hook by the vagaries of digital communication. The song follows the dance of wanting to know where you stand with a lover and yet seeking to be casual. Every time I’m taken in by the synthesized sounds chiming throughout. And the video – with its homage to the best of 90s r&b videos – is divine.

8.     Jessie Ware’s Glasshouse is both her sleepiest album and her album that I most enjoyed top to bottom as an album. She’s consistently made some of the most beautiful tracks but this was the first album I luxuriated in throughout. On “My Domino,” Ware sings in hushed warm tones as she asks to be loved, to be the one. There’s a lot of theatricality on Glasshouse, especially the drama of “Selfish Love” with its dancey kiss-off and the Whitney-meets-Elton “Midnight” (both of which I also live). “My Domino” is quieter and simpler in many ways and this allows it a kind of contemplation I adore.

9.     Let’s be clear, Miguel makes the most consistently sexy music. His newest album War & Leisure seeks to balance babymaking with a world in turmoil and does so without ever feeling false or preachy. The album pivots on the need for pleasure in a world gone to shit, and “Pineapple Skies” is the song that I consistently return for a jolt of pure joy. The song’s lyrics imagine a surreal brightly colored world and promise “everything gonna be allright.” Miguel namechecks Stevie Wonder and there’s a trippy 60s vibe and a lightness that gestures towards Wonder’s mix of joy and gravity. I imagine this song as a perfect day at the park, laying in the grass, watching the clouds and forgetting the world beyond the moment.

10.  Curtis Harding’s Face Your Fear is a masterpiece of 60s r&b blended with the twang of garage rock guitars and synths. The rich Danger Mouse production compliment Harding’s warm and complex vocals. “Go As You Are” brings together girl group backing vocals, thick electronic guitars, and forward drums for a claustrophobic and intimate feeling. “Need Your Love” conjures up obvious comparisons with Cee Lo but is more wistful in its desire for love and affection.

11.  For their newest album the Gorillaz basically just called everyone in their address book and everyone said yes. I love many of the songs on the album but “Let Me Out” is the standout for me, ably balancing Pusha T’s impassioned bars about police brutality, the rich textures of Mavis Staples on the hook, and excursions into the dream land of Damon Albarn’s vocals. It shouldn’t work and of course it does.

12.  This was Demi Lovato’s year between the smash of “Sorry Not Sorry,” the fact that she got to get all hot and bothered with Jesse Williams in the video for “Tell Me You Love Me,” and her documentary. While I don’t think that she’s quite making full-fledged albums (parts of Tell Me You Love Me feel like factory-made filler with the whiff of attempts at guessing the market), I was impressed by her range and the way she pushed her voice. My favorite track is “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” a downtempo ballad with spare production. The song allows Lovato to show off her pipes with r&b runs shot full with despair and builds to an impressive climax. At times her voice can’t quite reach as far as she wants it to, and yet her feeling carries off this lovely track.

13.  Technically Jamila Woods released HEAVN in 2016 but it was re-released in a deluxe edition in 2017 and this is the year where I really dug into it. Woods is most well-known for her work with Chance the Rapper but she holds her own on HEAVN which blends soul, hip-hop, and poetry and at all times keeps central her black feminist and antiracist politics. “Holy (Reprise)” closes the album and it’s a beautiful affirmation of self-love in a world that seeks to undermine so many. Woods has a warm voice which moves between singing and spoken word cadences as she shares mantras which recast the negative as a positive. The song is built on top of a bright keyboard riff and percussion and it feels like a perfect way to begin your day.

14.  Bad Baby isn’t my favorite Sarah Jaffe album but it’s still a lovely showcase for her indie pop sensibilities. “Between” is a simple bubbly song that argues for the space between the extreme feelings of our everyday. She calls for a dialectic reading of the world as a way to bring people and figure out futures.

15.  What can I write about “Redbone” that you haven’t already read, heard, thought? I think there’s a bit of Childish Gambino fatigue at this point (and some people questioned the album’s prominence in Grammy nominations) but all I know is that this summer anytime I bought songs on the jukebox in a bar I played this song. Childish Gambino sounds like he’s singing to us from across a tear in the time space continuum, like he’s coming to us from a 70s radio left out on a back porch on a summer night thick with moisture. The blend of the call to “stay woke” and the psychedelic production gets me every time.

16.  Jennifer Hudson has a giant voice (like Kelly) and the record industry seems unsure what to do with her. She’s frequently saddled with second-rate r&b songs or tinny uninspired pop songs. “Remember Me” was a single from an album that hasn’t arrived and I love it. J Hud’s voice is best suited for either the kiss-off (“Spotlight”) or the depths of despair flecked with rage. In “Remember Me” her voice is allowed free reign as she calls on a lost love to not cast her aside and it gets me every time.

17.  Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is kind of witchy dark bedroom pop that seemed to dominate certain corners of white woman pop in 2017. Her sound on this album has clear debts to the multitracked eccentricities of Lorde’s first album and the more lo-fi sounds of many indie pop/dream pop groups. The single “Bad at Love” is delightful, but I am more drawn to “100 Letters” and “Don’t Play.” “100 Letters” is built on top of a simple kick drum beat and the lingering brightness of a synth tone that never fully decays. She’s intimate and personal, nearly diaristic in this track. “Don’t Play” is buzzier and glitchier, built on top of what sounds like a music box, full of biting verses that are spat out as the song builds to its weird cluttered conclusion. I don’t think every song on Hopeless is successful but I loved it in spite of my initial feeling that it would be too calculated or overwrought.

18.  King Kendrick really arrived in the mainstream landscape in 2017 with an album that blended his eccentricities with poppier sensibilities. My favorite off DAMN is “LOVE” where he lays down some of the most moving verses about his fiancée alongside the haunting singing of Zacari whose verses frequently interrupt the raps as if finishing the ideas. Kendrick shifts his flow back and forth across the song and it’s just lovely.

19.  With all love to Bryson Tiller and Asahd’s dad, for me “Wild Thoughts” is Rihanna’s track. The cheesiness of Santana’s guitar riff from “Maria Maria” makes sense alongside Rihanna’s ice queen come-ons. There’s a laziness about the track – the smoothness of the guitar (see what I did there, eh eh eh?) and Rihanna’s clear pleasure in the punchlines wrapped in her verses – and I know this is a perfect summer song but I am still geeked at 10 degrees.

Monday, January 2, 2017

24 songs from 2016

I know that time is arbitrary but I do love end of the year lists as a time of accounting for things loved and obsessed over. 2016 as has been written about by people much more capable was the year of Black excellence in music – not that ever year doesn’t see phenomenal work by Black musical artists but this year was a cornucopia of insistent, urgent, important Black music. Intersecting with this was also a year of the album – the surprise album, the album as multimedia project, the album as exclusive to one streaming platform, the album that requested to be listened to in its entirety, the album that was released unfinished and tinkered with. Of course there was Beyoncè’s Lemonade, but also Solange’s A Seat at the Table, the “finally” of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), the magic of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the black queer bravura of Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, the grimey sexy interior space of Rihanna’s Anti and more beyond. Below in no particular order are 24 tracks that really got under my skin and into my head this year – there were others that were also there from the recent past and the far past (a lot of Nina Simone and Emmylou Harris this year) and some that I adored but they didn’t linger (I’m still working through my Lady Gaga feelings). Lemonade isn’t here since it’s not on Spotify (and I wanted to make a playlist) and I am not even sure if you entirely do justice to the music without the video (or maybe that’s just a pretension on my part). But know this, I had “Hold Up” stuck in my head for weeks and “All Night” is my favorite track and I want it played at my wedding (if I ever get married).

And here we go:
1.     “Calling All” – Phantogram – I’ve always been into Sarah Barthel’s voice and the sound of this group, but Three was their first album I found necessary listening front to back. The songs are layered with samples, ghostly voices, glitch sounds, and thicker emotions than past albums. Barthel’s sister death by suicide lingers over this album, but this closing track is an all-out embrace of sexual desire and exploration with a mocking chorus that opines “We all got a little bit of ho in us.” One of those tastemaking blogs suggested that this song was ruined by its chorus but I glory in Barthel’s distorted voice tempting the listener and speaking to our baser instincts. A downbeat electronic stomper. “You know you wanna shake.”
2.     “Wolves” – Kanye West with Sia and Vic Mensa – I know people have a lot of feelings about ‘Ye but he remains to my mind a true artistic genius – by which I mean what he does creatively doesn’t always make sense and he doesn’t really care when he’s in the grips of inspiration. The Life of Pablo was an album where he let us see him tinker and retool as the album was sort of released and then re-made and reconsidered. I love Frank Ocean but I prefer this version of the song with Sia and Vic Mensa since I love the richness and texture of Sia’s voice alongside the haunting backing vocals. On “Wolves” as on some of his best tracks Kanye perfectly marries his darkest fears and discontent with his lyrical playfulness and sexual frankness. The song sprawls and ever second is thick with eerie sounds and despair.
3.     “Fuck Apologies” – JoJo with Wiz Khalifa – Armed with a voice beyond her years, JoJo finally returned with a new album and a take no prisoners attitude. This track is built on a neverending forward motion as JoJo owns her actions and refuses to demure. A perfect R&B track with a looping guitar and JoJo’s forceful vocals this song was on repeat for me for weeks and remains my go-to track for blasting away unwanted criticism.
4.     “iT” – Christine and the Queens – My current obsession is the debut album by Christine and the Queens aka the alternate persona of French singer Héloïse Letissier. Moving between genres and languages, Christine toys with gender and sexuality in provocative ways. Watch the amazing video for “Tilted” IMMEDIATELY. Okay, did you? Good. Okay, that song is awesome but my favorite is the album’s opening track “iT” staged as a dialogue between Christine and “the Queens” which are Greek chorus also voiced by Letisser. Despite the protestations of the Queens, Christine becomes a man (elsewhere in the album she calls herself a HalfLady). The song accumulates instruments as it builds before ending simply with the chorus accepting Christine as a man. Divine.
5.     “Crisis” – ANOHNI – Jesus Christ, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness was devastating when it was released and 2016 only further got gripped with a kind of fatalism that makes returning to this album difficult and necessary. In spite of the album’s title, ANOHNI (formerly Antony and the Johnsons) is not simply giving up even as she sings about drone bombings, the false progressiveness of Obama, and mass graves. This is a delicate album of electronic music lovingly produced and showcasing ANOHNI’s nuanced voice which can rise and fall like a blues singer. As with many of the album’s tracks, “Crisis” speaks from the place of power and privilege, from the person who caused the deaths of the vulnerable. The despair, the apologia, is uncomfortable and beautiful and never allows for easy escape for the listener. But there is empathy here and that is what makes me tentatively hopeful when I listen.
6.     “Unnatural” – the Jezabels – The Australian indie rock group’s album Synthia is appropriately draped in 80s synths cascading over ethereal yet urgent vocals. The singer claims her unnatural status in rich evocative lyrics which jive with the album’s overall feminist bent (on the track “Smile” the chorus calls out men for asking the speaker to smile in public). Standing apart has always been the speaker’s “surplus” and it may mean she consorts with the darkness but it also makes her sparkle.
7.     “Blended Family (What You Do For Love) – Alicia Keys with A$AP Rocky – Okay, I know that public sentiment has kind of turned against Alicia and her slightly eccentric public persona but I’ve always loved her. Her album this year Here marked a return to a grittier older R&B vibe when her last two albums seemed to be coasting into the colder realm of smooth R&B and Coldplay style dreamscapes. Like many tracks on Here, “Blended Family” is a song that makes me always sing along. Alicia is in fine voice singing about her own family situation (her very public taking up with producer Swizz Beatz while he was still married with children) and the old school vibe with that guitar riff is warm and inviting. A$AP’s feature works organically and seamlessly.
8.     “Ivy” – Frank Ocean – What can even be said about Blonde? Picking a single track is difficult partially since the album is mixed so the tracks flow together in a kind of acoustic poem or fever dream. The triple punch of the first three songs is invigorating but this one stands out to me for that haunting guitar and the amazing control Frank has over his voice. He glides between a nearly conversational sing-song to the crooning R&B voice to the cast off pleas to the lost love. The intentionally jarring distortion of his voice at the end serves to keep the song slightly off kilter and functions like the divot in a perfectly cast pot, reminding us of the human creator.
9.     “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange – A Seat at the Table is so fully formed, so perfectly formed and yet the individual songs function like linked short stories in a longer novel. “Cranes in the Sky” has a deceptive lightness acoustically and yet Solange’s honeyed voice sings about the endless search for a way to kill the pain. Solange’s central metaphor of the title cranes flying away mirror the song in its uncompromising beauty in the face of a difficult world.
10.  “The Valley” – Claire Maguire – Where her first album was full of pop music bombast on the level of Kate Bush, Maguire’s second album Stranger Things Have Happened is tight and intimate with the scratchy closeness of a 1960s folk album. “The Valley” aspires for the Laurel Canyon bitter sweetness of a Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt. One imagines Maguire singing this song alone in her mirror in a black and white film and as magically as the music arrives it fades away.
11.  “rEaR vIeW” – ZAYN – Zayn Malik aka the hottest One Directioner went out on his own this year with a moody alt-R&B debut album that shoots for the murkier and darker end of R&B. This track showcases Zayn’s falsetto as he pines for a woman and recounts what he’s heard secondhand. Malay – the producer for Frank Ocean’s channel Orange – tricks out the song in lush instrumentation and helps push the sense of desperate yearning. Poor Zayn.
12.  “But You” – Blood Orange – Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound is a love letter to, in his words, those told they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” Hynes is a dynamic producer (see Carly Rae Jepsen’s last album, Solange’s True EP) but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Freetown Sound includes his voice alongside appearances from Carly Rae, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and others. “But You” is a song of love and an acknowledgement of unseen importance in those unseen by society. Hynes’s R&B vocals are tentative, whispered, yet also intimate and real. He’s not in full voice always and at times allows his voice to break slightly. This song works its way into the feels like the boy at the back of the class with a note he leaves for you to read at home alone in your room.
13.  “Ain’t Your Mama” – Jennifer Lopez – My life goal is to age like JLo – if I can look that good in my 40s than I will be blessed. This empowerment anthem uses the mothering metaphor – the woman refusing to baby her partner – to acknowledge Lopez’s age while also reminding us that she is the sexiest triple threat mother you’ve ever met. The song’s stuttering drum beat and her nasal cools pair with a chorus you are meant to belt along with in a bar.
14.  “Desperado” and “This Is What You Came For” – Rihanna – When Rihanna FINALLY released Anti it was a dark grimey album, a journey into the imagined fantasies of our cold ice queen sex goddess who wants to smoke up, dance alone in front of the mirror, and have sex on her schedule at her whim. If Lemonade is a public display of complex Black female community, Anti is a private interior world of Black female sexual agency. On “Desperado,” Rihanna crooks her finger at a boy and draws him into her Western fantasy of sex, tells him she doesn’t really want him, but says she’d rather not be alone. AND YOU BETTER GO WHEN SHE SAYS GO. This is the song that makes me dance in coffeeshops. “This is What You Came For” isn’t from Anti; it’s a Calvin Harris summer trifle that shouldn’t linger and yet it burrows deep inside. Rihanna isn’t always the strongest singer (although she’s vastly improved as on tracks like “Love on the Brain”) but her voice is one of the most distinct and it carries an icy vulnerability. She can play her voice like an instrument and Harris harnesses this and chops it up and in other places lets her coo and whisper and telegraph so much need on the dance floor. Her world, we just live in it.
15.  “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” – Lucius – This track has the synthy drum and bass sound of 80s pop but also the bright sparkle and blended vocals of a 1960s pop song. The two lead singers weave their voices in and out moving between rich multitracked choruses and softer solo parts. The song feels cheesy at first listen but there’s a sorrowfulness in the lyrics about the wishes for rain to wash away potential happiness; the closing rain noises feel less trite and more like a bit of defeat.
16.  “U-turn” – Tegan and Sara – I know not everyone has welcomed the full on embrace of melancholy pop by the pop punk lesbian twins from Canada, but I for one am all as long as their songs come tinged with a nostalgia and regret. Initially a teaser for the new album, I was immediately taken with the ear-wormy wonder of “U-turn” in all its snarky obviousness (“Shape up for I’ll drop you like a call”) and the delightful meta-narrative of a song about writing a love song. The doubleness at the center of the song makes it a kiss off masquerading as a paean to love. Sold.
17.  “Phenomenal Woman” – Laura Mvula – Mvula’s first album was beautiful but at times overly mannered and cerebral. Her second album The Dreaming Room opens out with more intentional bangers, moving between jazz, R&B, disco, and world music. “Phenomenal Woman” is brief and direct with a martial rhythm that drives forward a simple yet urgent message, echoing Maya Angelou’s classic poem of the same name.
18.  “Running Man/Gospel OP1” and “See Her Out (That’s Just Life)” – Francis and the Lights – Francis Farewell Starlite is the voice behind Francis and the Lights, featured on songs by Drake, Chance the Rapper, and others but just this year releasing his first full-length album. Francis blends an old-school crooner approach with the glitchy experimental sounds of alt-folk artists like Bon Iver (featured on the album) and more avant-garde rap. “Running Man” glitches and pops as Francis multi-tracks himself into a falsetto chorus like a more electronic Bon Iver with poppier aspirations AND AMAZING ELECTRONIC STRINGS. “See Her Out” has an older feel with epic sad synths and vocal stylings which suggest 1980s Peter Gabriel dealing with the heartbreak of the girl who got away. The track is laden with need and recognizable pain.
19.  “House on Fire” and “The Greatest” (with Kendrick Lamar) – Sia – Okay, so last year I was singing Sia’s praises and then she released her album This is Acting and my love affair never ended. People criticized her songs for at times turning on obvious metaphors – “House on Fire” doesn’t hide its point and instead places the metaphor front and center and for me this is the song’s strength. The song opens quietly and elegantly suggesting a waltz before layering in instrumentation and Sia’s raspy throaty ever distinct voice. “The Greatest” is a more straightforward empowerment anthem placed on top of tinkling music box sounds and a tropical lightness. Another track that I found myself singing for weeks, especially that promise that “I’ve got stamina.”
20.  “What You Do To Me” – John Legend – The beauty of John Legend’s voice cannot be understated. His entire album Darkness and Light is evocative and gives me chills. This track with its deep felt desperation, cooing yet ominous backing singers, and dramatic strings lingers with me. There’s a classic feel to the track’s presentation especially the interplay with the female singers and Legend’s falsetto falling apart in the final minute.
21.  “Hold the Line” – Broods – Georgia Nott’s smoky voice implores, cajoles, and insists with the listener. She describes the intoxicating give and take of a relationship over a dense blend of guitar and electronica. An immensely satisfying pop song.