10. Nonkeen — The Gamble
For me, Nils Frahm can do no wrong. In fact, he can do nothing less than outstanding. After last year's hauntingly beautiful solo piano record, he convened with two old friends to resurrect their childhood band. This album is built upon the skeleton of old 4-track tapes that were recorded in the youthful years of musicians who, lucky for us, clearly didn't stop pushing. Many of those old sounds are sampled or used as a spring-board here. The album plays like one long song, weaving through a distant and darkly-alluring world. Listen for the brittle delayed synth line that starts 'Ceramic People' and for the gooey, fuzzy bass sound that, when it drops some forty-five seconds later, immediately rounds everything out. Listen for the slow, undulating, thick, mossy beat on 'Animal Farm.’ Mmmmmm. And throughout, listen for the diversity of percussion that interjects itself with a perfect messiness. And for Frahm's wizardry on the Rhodes—never too heavy handed, appearing at opportune moments to provide a jazzy glimmer on top of a hypnotic underbelly.
9. Solange — A Seat At The Table
Where her sister succeeds at organizing a vision and calling it to fruition through sheer will, Solange succeeds at something that is, to me, much more impressive. Writing and producing an album as good as this makes the glory of its words and melodies land with such incredible potency. We can really feel her beneath the surface here. I watched the short documentary tracing the growth of A Seat At The Table and felt so clearly in its vignettes the artistic burning that made this music a thing of necessity to its creator. I love feeling that necessity in art, it gives it the vitality that leads to relevance. And how relevant this album is. There is a story woven throughout. Listen for it. It’s about community and beauty and adversity and celebration and anger and progress and solidarity and the power of creativity. Listen for the sonic cohesion encircling that story.It never misses a beat. It sounds like the future. It consistently points back towards its own center. And it’s really quite lovely.
8. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
How is it possible for such a strongly political record to sound so playful? These guys take a sobering subject matter and somehow make it feel like Biz Markie’s ‘Just A Friend,’ without losing a drop of eloquence, nor artistic muscle. “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…” Was this really written before the Trump shit-show? Wow. Also, how is it possible for an album to sound like it exists in both 2016 and 1991 simultaneously? The characteristics that populate these tracks are all a flashback of early-90’s smoothness, but none of them sound antiquated nor cliché. I’m still trying to figure out how they did it. Listen for the electric piano on ‘The Space Program’ as it dances with the bouncing fingered bass and the tight-as-hell hi-hat and snare drum. Listen to the ingenuity of the second verse there too—its cadence, its melody, its words. Listen for the silky meandering and the nostalgic reverb of the guitar on ‘Dis Generation.’ Also, listen for all the guest vocal/production appearances, none are out of place, all are triumphant.
7. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid
I’ve been listening to Aesop Rock since high school, when Labor Days was in my car’s CD player more days than not. But I lost interest. He released three albums between then and now, none of which did anything for me. But this year, The Impossible Kid is very obviously a resurrecting effort. His voice is still singular and mesmerizing, it will never be mistaken for anyone else’s. His words are still poignant, emotionally mature, intellectually rich, and seemingly never-ending. No one in Hip-Hop will soon dethrone him as king of vocabulary prolificity (or is it prolificness?). But besides those incredible skills, what impresses me even more is that this guy produces all his own beats, so very few rappers do that, and these beats are just so good. What better way to support the uniqueness of his voice than with the backdrop of his own musicianship? Listen for the instrumentation on ‘Rabies.’ A tight analog drum kit, a fat string bass, a grungy guitar, a swirling synth pad, an ethereal electronic flute. What? Listen for the story on ‘Blood Sandwich.’ Listen for its slowing building arpeggiated mallets, for the simple celebration when the beat finally drops and the new song that’s spawned as it does. There’s a lot to uncover in the words on this one. And maybe for the first time, in the music as well.
6. James Blake — The Colour In Anything
Oh dear. This album definitely wins the award for eliciting the most tears this year. The week it came out I could barely leave my house. I used the weeping emoticon a lot, pinging a dear friend who I knew was also rendered still in a quiet room for the beginning of May, celebrating the incredible power of the melancholy. James Blake’s is a new kind… perhaps the epitome of Millennial Melancholy. Sharply electronic, bouncing off the walls of a weirdly shaped gymnasium, lost in repetition kind of melancholy. At first I was worried when I saw there were seventeen tracks here—surely some could’ve been thrown away. But no, I kept finding new reasons to listen, new sounds, new implosions, new inventive vocal loops… none of them uninspired. James Blake has truly turned the voice into a new kind of instrument. Listen for the second-long vocal sample of the syllable -er on ‘Points’ that becomes the glue holding the entire song together. Listen for the blurry bass on ‘I Need A Forest Fire,’ and the vocal loop above that clarifies it. Listen for the woozy vocal loop on ‘Noise Above Our heads.’ It also sits perfectly against its backdrop. And perhaps most powerfully, listen for the auto-tuned choral arrangement on ‘Meet You In The Maze.’ Dear Lord.
5. Kyson — A Book Of Flying
Kyson is Berlin-based wunderkind Jian Kellett Liew. His release this year is completely different from the ambient Blackstone of 2012 and the slightly more energized The Water’s Way that followed it up. But A Book Of Flying can be heard gestating somewhere in the cracks of his previous efforts. The emotion that they hinted at is fully formed here. And incredibly powerful. This record is a progression of little prose-poems. He isn’t scared to let a two-and-a-half minute idea stand on its own… and then end with an abruptness that’s perfectly followed up by the next one. Listen for the beginning of ‘Flightless’ and close your eyes as plucked strings poke through analog drones, both of which are held together by Liew’s voice—a falsetto beauty that moves through something sounding like a candlelit church. Listen to ‘You,’ from start to finish, a hundred times in a row. It could be my favorite song of the year. Listen for the subdued aesthetic of ‘Pictures’ and ‘A Song About The Future’ as they exemplify Liew’s statement that he makes music that sounds like the “distance between friends, family and loved-ones; images viewed through the lens of an old camera…”
4. Nicolas Jaar — Sirens
It’s easy to tell Nicolas Jaar spends entire days constructing little sonic happenings that end up lasting for only a few seconds on a final product. Those happenings then intertwine with many countless others to make something much bigger emerge. The songs seem to materialize in a way that could be described as architectural. He builds music with a virtuosic orientation towards design, a design that makes the word nuanced seem overused. This album is complex and challenging. It provides a danger in its invitation to pay close attention, for if that attention is lost, not only does the richness of his offering get lost, but we find ourselves unprepared for the power that lies in the depths towards which it travels. This is a man who rewrote what it means to build suspense in dance music, a man who brought jazz into dance music, not by adding horn solos, but by dismantling path-of-least-resistance sensibilities. Sirens is 2016 Jazz. Listen for the drowning-under-water piano that underlies ‘Killing Time’ and the snare sound that seems to be made of wood, metal, glass and air colliding with each other. Listen for the analog, sawtooth bass on ‘The Governor,’ especially at around 1:50 when its teeth really start to show. Listen for the intoxicating groove on ‘No’ that perishes in a graveyard of chaos only to be reborn minutes later, taking the listener on something of a transcendental journey. And also, listen for the poetry on this album. Nico stepped up to the plate with his words here.
3. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Funky. Soulful. Sexy. If these words hadn’t been used to describe thousands of albums over many decades, they could be used here. But because they’ve been worn out, they do an injustice to Anderson Paak and everything he touches. This album makes us start over with funky, soulful sexiness. It would’ve been so very easy for him to be derivative—there’s not much more to say in the musical conversation that Paak launched himself into. But with every song on this album, those tired conversations are freshened in a way I never knew they could be. And it makes me so happy. His blend of singing and rapping is entirely his own and the songs to which his voice is added are made all the more seductive because of it. Listen for the sparse but solid-as-gold beat on ‘Heart Don’t Stand A Chance’ and see if you can refrain from undulating to it. Listen for the vinyl crackle on ‘The Season/Carry Me.’ It’s like a sonic fireplace. Listen for the claps on ‘Parking Lot’ and the backing vocals on ‘Room In Here.’ So perfect. But mostly, watch out for the sultriness at the center of you as it bubbles right up to the surface.
2. Frank Ocean — Blond
I didn’t understand Channel Orange when it came out in 2012. But with the release of Blond this year, I think I get what all the Frank Ocean fuss is about. He’s redefining song structure. His hooks aren’t built upon verse/chorus tidiness. His hooks stand on their own. Then they cascade off a cliff, one after the next, often times never to return again. There are brilliant moments here that must’ve required incredible artistic discipline to refrain from repeating in the way that pop music has done for as long as it’s existed. One of the most remarkable things about this album is how guitar-driven it is. Another is the number of masterpieces it contains that don’t have a single drum beat. Listen for ‘Ivy’ and ‘Solo’ and ‘Self Control.’ Not a drum to be found. And somehow nothing is lost. These songs can’t be escaped, even without the rhythm that usually locks us in to a great tune. And when he finally does provide a beat in which to sink some teeth, then it’s simply not fair, it’s pure gravity. Listen for innocence of ‘Pink and White’ and the yearning of ‘Nights.’ And goddamn, listen for André 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise).’ Exemplary.
1. Bon Iver — 22, A Million
This album should only be listened to from start to finish. It’s a mere thirty-five minutes long but each of those minutes contain a timelessness we’ve never before heard. This is, in the purest sense, a new album. 22, A Million is a journey in which the listener is lead by an intimately familiar, but oddly novel voice on a journey from the individual to the collective, from the finite to the infinite, from birth to death. I’m so glad Justin Vernon waited five years to make it, I’m so glad he didn’t settle on any of the ideas in those years that weren’t all the way there, I’m so glad he waited for something whole, something perfect to appear. This album is that. It gives me goosebumps every time. Listen for the angst on ‘715 - CR∑∑KS’ made audible in the stunning synthesized voices. Listen for the third chorus on ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ when it falls into a bit crusher and almost totally disappears, only to be saved by a naked guitar and a few words encased with an earthen, low-end hum. Listen for the few high notes that loop through ‘666 ʇ’ hidden in the background as Vernon’s hungry pipes takes front and center. Listen for the entrance of the bass and drums there too, at around 1:40. Magnificent. Listen for the vacuous breath of the horns on ‘__45___.’ Listen for the piano as it melts into its atmosphere on ‘00000 Million.’ And all along, listen for your heart. It’s made more audible with every moment of this album.
0. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead is, to me, the best band in the world. Not only for their ability to continuously reinvent themselves and push the envelope of what’s possible, and palatable, in songwriting and sound design alike, but also for their ability to create a visceral representation of what the world feels like to me. They balance chaos with design, angst with ease, and darkness with beauty in a way that never fails to grab me by the bones. They inhabit the space between total control and wild recklessness… and what purity comes from that space! When this album was released, I listened to it without distraction several nights in a row, lying on my couch, dawning my favorite headphones while looking only at the void behind my eyelids. There, in that void, was projected the universality that's common to every worthwhile piece of art. Thom Yorke allows himself to writhe in the friction-laden hands of the world and then uses the energy found there to draw the circles that tie us all together.
Listen for the staccato social commentary wound together with the staccato strings on ‘Burn The Witch.’ Listen for the eerily reversed vocals and violins on ‘Daydreaming.’ Listen for tastefully repeated splatter of spring reverb at the end of ‘Decks Dark.’ Listen for the alien 7/4 meter on ‘Desert Island Disk’ and how it never really gives you the opportunity to settle in. Listen for the tornado of power on ‘Ful Stop’ and the seagulls, so reminiscent of Tomorrow Never Knows, swirling around that power. Listen for the crystalline piano and the sounds of rosin on ‘Glass Eyes.’ Listen for the reverberant backing vocals as they splash off a faraway liquid on ‘Identikit.’ Listen for the conversation between piano and strings on the second verse of ‘The Numbers,’ which has to be one of the most uplifting songs Radiohead has ever written. Listen for slow build of ‘Present Tense’ and the feeling of deliverance that waits on its faraway edge. Listen for the snare made out of white noise on ‘Tinker Tailor…’ and the unapologetic disorderliness that surrounds it. Listen for the hard-fought polyrhythms on ‘True Love Waits,’ a song that took twenty-one years to complete… the manner in which those rhythms interact exemplifies the manner in which individuals move with and against each other, through love. And then finally, listen for the few seconds of silence as the album fades into nothingness. Then start again.
Plus Sooooo Many Fantastic Honorable Mentions —
Kevin Morby - Singing Saw, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - Ears, Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch, The Avalanches - Wildflower, Blood Orange - Freetown Sound, Jamila Woods - Heavn, Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker, Agnes Obel - Citizen of Glass, Poliça - United Crushers, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree, Beyoncé - Lemonade, Ben Lukas Boysen - Spells, Kanye West - Life of Pablo, Nosaj Thing - No Reality, The Lumineers - Cleopatra, Yves Tumor - Serpent Music, Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition