Monthly Archives: December 2016

Sound ‘Round: The Best Albums and Singles of 2016

BEST ALBUMS

a-tribed-called-quest

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here … Thanks 4 Your Service (Epic) (19)
  2. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (self-released) (14)
  3. Beyonce – Lemonade (Columbia) (12)
  4. Rihanna – Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Roc Nation) (11)
  5. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO) (10)
  6. Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere (Customs) (9)
  7. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive (Ribbon) (8)
  8. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador) (6)
  9. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Rough Trade) (6)
  10. Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death (Warner Bros.) (5)
  11. M.I.A. – AIM (Interscope/Polydor)
  12. Wussy – Forever Sounds (Shake-It)
  13. Solange – A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia)
  14. Elza Soares – The Woman at the End of the World (Mais Um Discos)
  15. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker (Columbia)
  16. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros.)
  17. Anderson .Paak – Malibu (OBEY)
  18. Bonnie Raitt – Dig in Deep (Redwing)
  19. Leland Sundries – Music for Outcasts (L’Echiquier)
  20. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (RCA Nashville)
  21. The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset (Hardly Art)
  22. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – Lice (Rhymesayer, 2015)
  23. Lori McKenna – The Gun & The Rifle (CN/Thirty Tigers)
  24. Weezer – Weezer (Crash)
  25. Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown, 2015)
  26. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)
  27. Young Thug – JEFFERY (Atlantic)
  28. Tacocat – Lost Time (Hardly Art)
  29. Teddybears – Rock On (Lateral)
  30. Childbirth – Women’s Rights (Suicide Squeeze, 2015)
  31. Kevin Gates – Islah (Atlantic)
  32. Azealia Banks – Slay-Z (self-released)
  33. The Internet – Ego Death (Columbia)
  34. Vic Mensa – There’s A Lot Going On (Roc Nation)
  35. Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (Bloodshot)
  36. John Prine – For Better, Or Worse (Oh Boy)
  37. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life (Sire)
  38. Pussy Riot – xxx (New Life)
  39. PJ Harvey – Hope Six Demolition Project (Vagrant/Island)
  40. The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome (Polydor)
  41. Kyle – Smyle (Indie-Pop, 2015)
  42. BJ the Chicago Kid – In My Mind (Motown)
  43. Homeboy Sandman – Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw)
  44. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
  45. Buddy Miller – Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West)
  46. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (Topy Dawg/Interscope)
  47. The Paranoid Style – Rolling Disclosure (Bar/None)
  48. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville, 2015)
  49. Alicia Keys – Here (RCA)
  50. Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife 2 (Interscope)
  51. Viuex Kanté – The Young Man’s Harp (Sterns)
  52. The Waco Brothers – Going Down in History (Bloodshot)
  53. Willie Nelson – Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Legacy)
  54. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
  55. Youssou N’Dour – Africa Rekk (Sony Music)
  56. Maren Morris – HERO (Columbia)
  57. Plus Sized Dan – Plus Sized Dan with Marshall Ruffin (Plus Sized Dan)
  58. Pat Thomas – Coming Home (Strut)
  59. Loretta Lynn – Full Circle (Sony Legacy)
  60. Various Artists – The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network)
  61. Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)
  62. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
  63. Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Def Jam)
  64. Gwen Stefani – This is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope)
  65. Joey Purp – iiiDrops (self-released)
  66. The Coathangers – Nosebleed Weekend (Suicide Squeeze)
  67. Britney Spears – Glory (RCA)
  68. Young Thug – I’m Up (Atlantic)
  69. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers)
  70. Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component (Cinematic)
  71. Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me (Total Treble Music)
  72. Konono No. 1 – Konono No. 1 meets Batida (Crammed Discs)
  73. Lady Gaga – Joanne (Streamline/Interscope)
  74. Bombino – Azel (Partisan)
  75. Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Warner Bros.)
  76. Fifth Harmony – 7/27 (Epic)
  77. 75 Dollar Bill – Wood / Metal / Plasticv  / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (Thin Wrist)
  78. Future – Purple Reign (Free Bandz)

BEST SINGLES

  1. “Celebrate” – Anderson .Paak
  2. “Finish Line / Drown” – Chance the Rapper
  3. “What It Means” – Drive-By Truckers
  4. “My Church” – Maren Morris
  5. “Your Best American Girl” – Mitski
  6. “Humble and Kind” – Tim McGraw
  7. “Borders” – M.I.A.
  8. “BWU” – Tegan and Sara
  9. “We the People…” – A Tribe Called Quest
  10. “Sorry” – Beyonce
  11. “Fill in the Blank” – Car Seat Headrest
  12. “Blended Family” – Alicia Keys
  13. “Lazarus” – David Bowie
  14. “Black Beatles” – Rae Sremmurd
  15. “We Should Be Friends” – Miranda Lambert
  16. “Make Me Like You” – Gwen Stefani
  17. “Girls @” – Joey Purp
  18. “Human Performance” – Parquet Courts
  19. “Astonished Man” – Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
  20. “Don’t Touch My Hair” – Solange
  21. “Record Year” – Eric Church
  22. “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing” – Weezer
  23. “Keep it Between the Lines” – Sturgill Simpson
  24. “16 Shots” – Vic Mensa
  25. “The Wheel” – PJ Harvey
Advertisements

Sound ‘Round: Elza Soares / The Rolling Stones

They’re as old as they feel

Elza Soares – The Woman at the End of the World (Mais Um Discos)

elza-soares-the-woman-at-the-end-of-the-worldThis Brazilian samba icon experienced a lifetime’s worth of trauma by the age of 21. Daddy sold her into marriage at 12, becoming a first-time mommy at 13. Her second child passed away two years later followed shortly by her husband. Alone with five children, Soares hustled through Rio’s notorious clubs to survive. 58 years and 53 albums later, we’re gifted one of the year’s most dramatic and challenging records. The music gets you in the door. A stew of traditional polyrhythms, punk’s brash demeanor and fusion’s unpredictability, think Carnival meets Miles Davis meets The New York Dolls. While the production leans cosmopolitan, the lyrics — entirely in Portuguese — look inward at a country rife with corruption and sexual violence. She tackles domestic abuse on “Maria De Vila Matilde,” showing police a bruised arm while singing in a leathery, phlegmy voice that sells the subject matter. But where there is turmoil, there is celebration. Sexuality and race dissolve into the frenetic pace of “Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo,” and she’s alive enough at 79 to sing about intercourse on a song wherein the title includes the verb for sex. From start to finish, Soares makes damn sure the world knows she’s a fighter, scatting, bee-bopping and howling all the way to the winner’s circle. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Mulher Do Fim do Mundo” / “Pra Fuder” / “Firmeza”

The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome (Polydor)

rolling-stones-bue-and-lonesomTheir best album in four decades is rooted in a lark. After failing to compose originals that surely wouldn’t impress, Mick and Keef ran through blues standards to grease the wheels and stumbled upon a spark that eluded them since the era of Thatcher. Smart and seasoned enough to recognize inspiration, they stayed the course and recorded their first covers record in three days. In a dozen songs and 42 minutes they give love to Buddy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, sounding every bit the inspired outfit they once were before solidifying into rock’s largest corporate entity.  The material lets them play to their strengths. Richards, ever the laissez-faire showman, keeps the riffs a-coming at his own pace, bending and stretching notes with glee as Charlie Watts plays the kit with enough force to mask his 75 years. But the winner is Jagger, who climbs down from his executive suite on high to reaffirm his status as the G.O.A.T. His weathered howl takes the material beyond the typical nostalgia-laden retread, and his re-ignited passion for the harmonica sets the music on fire with a ferocious, aching cry needed to drive the point home. The whole thing sounds great. It’s a wonder they didn’t do this sooner. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Just Your Fool” / “Ride ‘Em On Down” / “I Gotta Go”

Sound ‘Round: Regina Spektor / Alicia Keys

Ivory ticklers from the NYC grow up

Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life (Warner Bros./Sire)

regina-spektorSpektor is wiser than her years because she’s so damn smart to begin with. New York’s bubbly art-pop princess, this classically trained pianist is charming for a delightful sense of whimsy devoid of schmaltz and endearing for a well-grounded touch of realism that doesn’t pander. Think East Coast Bohemia meets the kind of humanism learned emigrating as a child from a crumbling Soviet regime. But album number seven comes with another layer of reality in the form of adulthood. A married mother of one and closer to 40 than 30, life came at her her fast since her previous release when Obama won reelection. So forgive the music’s diminished buoyancy and excuse her if the snark is slightly softened. She was too busy writing the sharpest lyrics of her career to give a shit. From the one about two friends driven apart by time (“Enjoy your youth, sounds like a threat.”) to a tale of florists stuck in poverty (“No one lives long enough to see the outcome / To know any answers, to know what the point is.”), nearly every song is graced by a matured and pressing sense of immediacy. Spektor doesn’t claim to have the answers for herself or the characters she creates, but she knows life is nonetheless worth living. Carpe diem, comrades. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Older and Taller” / “Small Bill$” / “Bleeding Heart”

Alicia Keys – Here (RCA)

alicia-keys-hereShe is one of the millennium’s most consistent and dynamic musical minds, crooning through neo-gospel, fierce R&B revivalism and helping Jay-Z’s old ass secure another hit anthem. But the albums have been so-so, related parts that struggle to coalesce into a memorable whole. Here, Keys musters her strongest collection of songs since emoting in A Minor. The catalyst is a renewed fascination with the beat instilled in part by hubby and producer Swizz Beats, whose warm production pushes the tunes forward while complimenting her Manhattan timbre. But Swizz provides more than rhythm. His children from a previous marriage are the subject of “Blended Family,” in which she tenderly sings about the step-children she loves as her own —“Hey, I might not really be your mother / That don’t mean that I don’t really love ya.” It’s so sincere it becomes easier to stomach the platitudes. Right, women are held to senselessly high beauty standards (“Girl Can’t Be Herself”), and having sex is better than making war (“Holy War”). Corny, yes, but I’m glad she says them anyway. What’s more admirable is “Pawn It All,” where she swaps his golden ring in exchange for freedom. Here’s to their continued wedded bliss and to knowing she’d do damn well on her own, too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Blended Family (What You Do For Love)” / “Pawn It All” / “She Don’t Really Care_1Luv”

Sound ‘Round: Solange / Pussy Riot

Women weary of, and emboldened by, the struggle

Solange – A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia)

solange-a-seat-at-the-tableIn which Beyoncé’s kid sister delivers a statement-making album of her own, she does so at a deliberate and thoughtful pace. While Bey spent the year wresting with a faulted marriage from her platinum-studded palace on high, Solange relays the struggle for women of color who continue fighting for what’s theirs. Think pulses instead of beats and atmosphere instead of grooves. So hushed and still is the production — provided in part by neo-soul man Rafael Saddiq — it requires focus and extra rotations before it clicks. Her voice rarely rises above a dispirited coo, reflecting the burden of her people, and the melodies, as underrated as they are understated, serve to bolster the sparse arrangements. No surprise the most immediate hooks are found on the celebratory “F.U.B.U,” which toasts a Black culture viewed with suspicion and/or contempt by some on the outside. Listen intently, however, and you’ll hear a stronger feminist foundation than the one that built Lemonade. “Don’t Touch My Hair,” is about agency and self-worth as much as it is a protest of Anglo-American beauty standards, and “Mad” answers one of the many questions women hate being pestered by. Q: “Why you always gotta be so mad?” A: “I got a lot to be mad about.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “F.U.B.U.” / “Don’t Touch My Hair” / “Weary”

Pussy Riot – xxx (Nice Life)

pussy-riot-xxxTo understand Russian activist Nadya Tolokno, dig the excellent documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. There you’ll watch her and a pair of band mates receive a two-year prison sentence for protesting Putin’s fascism at the altar of a national cathedral in Moscow. The Kremlin called it “hooliganism,” a phony charge meant to quell dissent. They were lucky to keep their lives — don’t believe me, research Anna Politkovskaya. After an early release, Tolokno came to America where a progressive woman can breathe, or so we thought until the rise of Putin’s favorite stooge. This three-song EP was released before the election but remains an urgent thesis from someone familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. Her English is improved, though gussied up here by enough auto-tune to render her political points as worthy couplets. The opening number inverts Trump’s dog whistle of a campaign slogan into a utilitarian mantra. “Let other people in / Listen to your women / Stop killing black children.” It’s simple, but not simpleminded. Better yet is the follow-up, wherein she employs biology to celebrate universal humanism. “Don’t play stupid / Don’t play dumb / Vagina’s where you’re really from,” goes the chorus. Not quite, says this Caesarian-born critic. Still, I nonetheless consider vaginas my adoptive home. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:
“Straight Outta Vagina” / “Make America Great Again”

Sound ‘Round: A Tribe Called Quest / Swet Shop Boys

A nation of white privilege can’t hold them back

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic, SME)

tribe-called-questThe unmitigated album of the decade is as American as the Super Bowl. Meant to celebrate a continued era of progressivism — one for the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way” — this double-disc is instead a formal protest of President-Elect Clownface. Released the day after the election and eight months after Phife Dawg succumbed to diabetes, their thesis statement comes 11 seconds in: “It’s time to go left and not right.” Then it’s 60 minutes of funk, groove and power while bemoaning the horrid state of the union. One wherein marginalized groups are gentrified out of the neighborhood, love is in short supply and the superrich move to Mars while the poor clean up the mess on earth. (“There ain’t no space program for niggas / We stuck here, nigga.”) Income inequality, racist cops, white nationalism. No wonder Q-Tip gobbles Melatonin like candy. Their weariness of the struggle softens on “Lost Someone,” a eulogy for Phife, whose Caribbean cool appears throughout. Q takes the first verse to pay homage to his homie’s immigrant roots while Jarobi recalls simpler times when they were New York nobodies who craved the world. They achieve that dream on this farewell album, which shows love is a weapon needed for these terrible times. What a legacy. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “We the People…” / “Black Spasmodic” / “Melatonin”

Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere (Customs)

swet-shop-boys-cashmereYou already know Heems a/k/a Himanshu a/k/a the guy from Das Racist a/k/a/ the group that made the viral hit about Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. If you don’t know Riz MC, you will when he appears in the latest Star Wars film. Both are brown men living in precarious times for brown people. The former is a New Yorker of Indian descent while the latter is a Brit from Pakistani parents. The catalyst for their brilliant collab is the same that’s spurring a dangerous rise in global populism — 9/11. The dominoes from that moment (Iraq, ISIS, Islamophobia, mass migration, the surveillance state) are pervasive elements here, relayed by men who bear the brunt of the West’s long-festering contempt for non-whites. It’s why Heems gets profiled by the T.S.A. during the opener. and why Riz gets his phone tapped by Big Brother. They rage against the machine with help from producer Redinho, who cooks up bold beats to match their political convictions with samples as colorful as their cultural lineage. But a sermon this ain’t. At 11 songs and 35 minutes, they fight the power with matching brevity and bravado. This is potent protest music for a pressing moment in history. Play it again during the 2020 election, it’ll ring just as true. How sad. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “T5” / “Phone Tap” / “No Fly List”

Sound ‘Round: Miranda Lambert / John Prine

Couples counseling, country style

Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (RCA Nashville)

miranda-lambert-the-weight-of-these-wingsIf anyone was destined to make a double album about the drudgery of divorce, it’s Ms. Kerosene. Lambert’s best material gleefully avenges men who have wronged her through abuse (“Gunpowder and Lead”) or philandering (“Baggage Claim”). These 24 songs centered on annulment are in her wheelhouse, but evening the score ain’t the point. Instead, she spends 90 minutes reconciling the fall out. She’s beholden to solid songwriting over country tropes, hence namedropping Uncle Willie — a songmaster supreme — on “Highway Vagabond,” wherein an endless highway is an endless retreat from the world. The escape vehicle isn’t a coach, rather a covered wagon provided by Danny O’Keefe. And it’s not a Hollywood therapist that improves her disposition but a pair of pink sunglasses that cost $9.99 and make the Monday drive of shame a little more bearable. There’s less fury to her feminism, but notice “Tomboy,” in which a would-be southern belle gets along just fine with dirty nails and worn jeans. Notice too that the lust-as-love songs find Lambert searching for a man on her own terms. There’s a 60-minute album for the ages lurking beneath the sheer volume of the material, but with the smarts and ambition to fill an arena, she rolls on as long as she damn well pleases. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “We Should Be Friends” / “Vice” / “Tomboy”

John Prine – For Better, Or Worse (Oh Boy)

john-prine-for-better-or-worsePrine works in humor the way Luke Bryan works in beer bongs. But a two-year duel with cancer muted his jocular ways and shrunk his voice to a gruff baritone. He’s a weathered 70 and still carries a tune, but his output has slowed to the point of releasing just one batch of originals this millennium — 2005’s Fair & Square. This is a duets record composed of covers, a two-pronged tactic that honors the greats and showcases contemporaries. Every guest is a woman from across the country spectrum. Miranda Lambert — who has covered Prine in studio and on stage — pays him back on the Hank Williams number, and Alison Krauss helps him fall in love again on a German ballad. The quivering soprano of Iris DeMent brings the laughs and the coffee shop voice of Kacey Musgraves is too cute to make the divorce song believable. There’s Opry glitz aplenty, but it’s the cameo from wife Fiona that endears most. She’s the mother of his three children, the one who makes life worth living, the one he tenderly calls, “My Happiness.” Call it corny if you want. Me, I call it inspiring. We all should strive to be so satisfied this late in the game. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “My Happiness” / “Color of the Blues” / “Cold, Cold Heart”