Favourite Albums of 2016 – #25 to #21

#25. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown

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Atrocity Exhibition is the opposite of pleasant; it’s filthy and brutal, a no-holds barred stream of debauchery and tumult. Danny Brown has long lived on the fringes of hip-hop, whether it be due to his abrasive rapping voice, discomfiting persona or the translation of his darkest parts and times into his music. But with this album, Danny has abandoned any notions of conforming to traditional hip hop sounds, instead plunging into the depths of his psyche, with some of his most left-field hip-hop and electronic production.

While the dreary hedonism on here – full of drugs and sex – is certainly disconcerting, Danny also raps of his many conflicts, and the violence he has been, and continues to be witness to, describing his past with an oft-repeated nihilism. The production, though, is the most evidently anti-mainstream, anti-radio, aspect of Danny’s music. Combining layers of electronica, hip-hop and post-punk, there’s grisly percussion, glitch-y synths and haunting, psychedelic samples. Atrocity Exhibition, then, is a piece of utter chaos, interspersed with tales of sordid successes, that most musical audience would be turned off by. And yet, it exists as the ultimate middle finger to commercial music.

Listen to: Rolling Stone, Pneumonia 

#24. Telefone by Noname

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I’ve been waiting on a Noname album ever since I heard her heart-rending verse on Chance the Rapper’s Lost (back when she was Noname Gypsy), her tempered voice and mellow flow acting as a front for deep introspection. In the years since, Noname has put together an intensely personal coming-of-age record, her poetic lyricism and spoken-word cadence delivering her story in evocative arrangement.

Noname’s form of confessional hip hop reflects that of several of her Chicago peers – Chano, Saba, Mick Jenkins – but there’s some unabashed soul-searching with a depth that some of her peers miss. She’s not a rapper’s rapper, but her thoughtful musings are layered with deliberate detail, and she raps intricate phrases with ease. No other album in recent memory has revealed the soul of a pensive black woman as well as this one; and given the America’s social climate, this scion of black femininity is a welcome addition to hip-hop.

Listen to: Diddy Bop, Shadow Man

#23. The Wilderness by Explosions In The Sky

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Explosions in the Sky are one of the finest post-rock bands of our times for good reason: their sprawling music encompasses an array of textures, often within the same songs, but they resonate in intimate notes. Songs float in an expanse of space, sometimes surging in volume, sometimes shedding its moving parts down to the bare minimum. the mood shifts between intimate, to soaring, to shades of melancholy; the instrumentation is intricate, but never messy, making impeccable use of an array of musical components. As for the music itself, its beauty lies in the range of emotions it evokes. While the song titles and the moods of the soundscape themselves convey a trotting journey through the titular abstract wilderness, the reactionary perspective to each of these moments is entirely subjective to the listeners. And therein lies the significance of this record, and EITS themselves – epic in scale as it may be, it resonates with the audience with a familiarity that is entirely personal.

Listen to: Wilderness, Logic of a Dream

#22. Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

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An album that embraces aggressive weirdness and amps up the adrenaline to over 9000, while never really taking itself overly seriously, Nonagon Infinity is that rare beast – and it truly is a beast – of an album that is made for the purpose of finding out to what strange new extents music can be pushed. It’s loud, it’s relentlessly paced, and its garage-rock/psychedelic instrumentation is a vortex that is nearly impossible to get out of once you’re sucked in. One of the primary reasons for this immersion is the sequencing of the tracks; besides the impeccable segue of each track into the next, this is also probably the first album in the history of music that can be played as a continuous loop, its assigned end smoothly flowing into the opening notes of the album. Once you begin a listening session, there is no escape – while the wonderfully arcane lyrics are a delight, the frenetic soundscape will ensnare you in its spiked jaw, and the endless loop will imprison you in a perpetual stampede. Enjoy your stay.

Listen to: the whole album

 

#21. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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Music can often exist by itself, in meaningful vacuum, but there are albums where the context is inextricable from its content; Skeleton Tree is one of those albums. Although created prior to the tragedy, there is no denying the influence the event has had on the creation of this work: the death of Nick Cave’s 15-year old son.

There is no joy to be found here; the music over which Cave’s husky voice deadpans is almost underproduced, with no unnecessary flourishes or embellishments, yet moving in its own right. The voice and the words are front and center; the esoteric ruminations on death permeate the album, with anecdotes that simultaneously feel fantastical and personal. The pain and darkness that came with the tragedy is pervasive, and it influences every aspect of the music here. But it feels like Cave is speaking to his listeners just as much as he’s looking inwards, his eyes to a clouded-over sky, his feet on unstable ground; the result is one of the most sadly beautiful albums in recent times, and one that will stay with its creator and its audience for a long time to come.

Listen to: Rings of Saturn, Magneto

 

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #25 to #21

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #30 to#26

#30. NO REALITY by Nosaj Thing

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Rare is the album that can form a mood, and stick to it throughout its runtime. NO REALITY is that type of album. Eclectic producer Nosaj Thing has experimented with varying styles throughout his career, and he’s settled on dark atmospherics here. Imagine a deep pit, blacker-than-black to sight, with you stuck at the bottom, trying to claw your way out, with a barely visible rope in hand. There’s glimmers of hope, but mostly an unshakeable dread. This is the mood NO REALITY captures.

With deep, driving basslines and glitchy percussion, the weight of the sounds weigh heavy. Bursts of sound, almost like static, puncture the blanket of black.  The pacing of the production is deliberate; it sways between urgent and foreboding, never settling.

NO REALITY is a body of work that demands a complete listen; given its short runtime, that might not seem like a challenge, but the music is anything but light. It truly seeps into you, and is one of the most fulfilling electronic listens of the year.

Listen to: the whole thing

#29. Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka

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The first time I heard Michael Kiwanuka was the title track off his rustic debut album, Home Again. The incredibly soulful voice and melancholy lyrics stirred my very soul (no pun intended.) If I thought that album was special, four years later, the sprawling Love & Hate does it one better, with some gorgeous production and Kiwanuka’s vocals, reminiscent of some of the finest soul singers.

The title is a sweeping thematic declaration, that finds resonance in varying forms throughout the album. Here, love and hate are personal revelations, political declarations and a culmination of the spectrum of emotion, positive or negative. As a ‘black man in a white world,’ Kiwanuka offers unique points-of-view to these sentiments, expressing them in their entire depth, courtesy of his sonorous voice. The production derives from classic soul, jazz, funk and blue, with a rich, textured sound. It sounds contemporary, without compromising the timelessness of the music. The epic title track acts as the lynchpin to this body of beautiful work, proclaiming that “you can’t take me down/ you can’t break me down.” In the years since his debut, it’s clear that Michael Kiwanuke has come into own as a mature artist, as one worth giving your complete attention to. I have only love for this LP.

Listen to: Black Man In a White World, Love & Hate

#28. untitled unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar

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What does one say about Kendrick Lamar, and his music that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? The rapper, who by this point has all but staked his claim as the finest of his generation, if not among the all-time greats, has nothing to prove. It’s fascinating to view these tracks as works-in-progress; the amount of meticulous detailing Kendrick puts into his final music becomes very evident. But even in this unfinished state, the music here can often be stunning; the ‘demo’ tracks that comprise this collection are far better thought-out than most rappers’ albums.

The songs tackle an array of perspectives and concepts, which although not entirely fleshed out, are a peek into the mind of possibly the most fascinating artist in the industry. Kendrick’s rhymes are as sharp as they’ve ever been, his vocals contorting in the wonderfully weird ways he’s come to be known for, and he orchestrates a song like few other artists can. The beats are evidently constructed in the same space To Pimp a Butterfly was, with plenty of throwback live instrumentation. Truly, the only reason this album doesn’t feature higher up is it because it isn’t an album; nevertheless, it’s one of the most interesting collections of songs this year.

Listen to: untitled 02, untitled 07

#27. Cardinal by Pinegrove

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Cardinal is an album about friendship. This might not be immediately apparent; the lyrics are far from esoteric, but there’s a certain doublespeak in the themes. This doesn’t really matter initially, for Pinegrove have created an immensely listenable indie rock record, with the sincere vocals and nostalgia-inducing instrumentation. But listen closely, and the words begin to make sense. You begin to see the people you know and love, or loved and lost, in the songs. As a year that brought me extremely meaningful friendships, and new wisdom on what these relationships meant, it’s hard to truly measure the quality of this record, except in terms of how it resonated with me. It’s a moving listen, but never overtly sentimental. It’s an ode to our equations with some of the most wonderful people in our lives, and an ode to the mistakes and successes we’ve had with them, in an intensely personal manner. So throw on Cardinal, call over a few friends, and soak in this record. And even when it ends, know that your friends are still around.

Listen to: Old Friends, New Friends

#26. Darkness and Light by John Legend

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John Legend is an RnB traditionalist: he’s one of the best singer around, and emotes classic RnB subjects through his vocals: love, loss, hope and grief. But with Darkness and Light, Legend makes his most distinguished attempt to present himself as an artist that understands his place in music and society, as someone with a voice that’s speaking – or singing – about what matters to him.

Given his appearances on shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher and tweets, it’s evident that John Legend cares about being a person of colour in the America he lives in; it’s a harsh place, even more so for someone without Legend’s money and influence. For the first time in his music, he acknowledges this, and grapples with the reality his community lives in. Herein lies the darkness.

However, his light comes in the form of people: his wife and his daughter, most prominently. He derives hope from them – despite their obstacles, there is an abundance of love between them, and Legend builds upon this as his foundation, as his reason to keep fighting, living and making music. His ode to his daughter, Right By You (For Luna), thus acts as the thematic centerpiece – a recognition of the world she’s been brought into, with the reassurance that he will do his best to show her the goodness in it – the darkness and the light.

Listen to: Penthouse Floor, Overload 

 

 

 

Favourite Albums of 2016 – #30 to#26

Favourite Albums of 2016: Special Mentions

2016 has been a bad year for many, in several ways, but music is thankfully not one of them. Although we lost some legends – some of whom released music this very year – there were also some stunning new releases by established artists, intriguing projects by relative newcomers and masterpieces by an enigmatic few. To pick the ‘better’ albums among this flood of great music was far more difficult than I’d anticipated. In addition to the albums I’d call my favourites, the list also includes those that challenged my sensibilities, affected me emotionally, and/or offered new perspectives.

The first five albums on this list are the special mentions – albums that have come out too recently to judge their impact, or ones that don’t quite fit in with the rest, but ones I enjoyed nevertheless.

1. Stoney by Post Malone

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White Iverson was a dream start to Post Malone’s career  – it was a viral hit, ubiquitous throughout 2015, and gave him a major label deal. In the coming months, however, album release dates came and went, with his buzz seeming to fizzle out, despite an intermediary mixtape release.

With Stoney’s eventual release though, it’s now clear that the wait had merit to it. Post plays to his strengths here, while indulging in a bit of genre-hopping. While the subject matter sticks to the conventional comeup story, he combines an array of compelling melodies with top-notch production. Tracks such as the stadium-sized Broken Whisky Glass, the tropical RnB jam Deja Vu – with a Bieber guest spot, and the acoustic-tinged Go Flex, ensure that the album – at 18 tracks long – rarely stagnates, and allows Post to display some musical diversity.

True to its name, Stoney is an album to lay back and listen to in a haze; it might not be particularly innovative, but it’s never boring.

Listen to: No Option, Go Flex

2. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ by Kid Cudi

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Kid Cudi is a deeply flawed man, and his music has reflected that ever since the landmark confessional hip-hop of the first two Man on the Moon albums. In the following years, however, Cudder has been more hit than miss with his experimentation, often tied to his issues in his personal life and addictions. After a stint in rehab – inspirational in its own candid admission to his struggles – Cudi has put out his best album in years, navigating his personal demons in his trademark style of unflinching honesty.

There are seemingly contradictory narratives of intense pain and depression, optimism and self-assured confidence, of love and hate; the many shades of the man and a tumultuous period in his life are on display in stunning clarity. Thankfully, Cudi’s words and always-powerful vocals find their complement in the gorgeous, thematic production, largely courtesy MotM collaborators Plain Pat and Mike Dean. Stirring strings and synths, purposeful percussion and elegantly used vocal samples provide the perfect soundscape for Cudder to preach his gospel.

There are redundant moments and lyrical slip-ups, to be expected given the particularly long run time, but this is the most focussed, revealing work Cudi’s put together off late. And his fans are rooting harder than ever for him.

Listen to: By Design, Rose Golden

3. The Hamilton Mixtape by Various Artists

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Few pieces of art have occupied a place in pop culture as quickly and as ubiquitously as the Hamilton musical. And given its USP as the first hip-hop Broadway show, releasing a relevant mixtape consisting of some of the finest talents in rap and RnB seems only logical.

Although largely contextualized in the musical, the majority of the tracks are self-explanatory, and make for great standalone music. The racial discourse of the musical is reflected in the themes of the mixtape, and make its contents extremely relevant to the nature of race relations in modern America; whether proclaiming the staunch perseverance of the black manor tackling the anti-immigrant sentiment of Trump’s America head on. Besides thematic relevance, however, the sheer beauty of the music is just as noteworthy; from the moving duets on Satisfied, to the shimmering Dear Theodosia and Dear Theodosia (Reprise), there is plenty to enjoy here, irrespective of your knowledge of the musical.

Given its labelling as a mixtape, this record can seem like a scattered collection of tracks rather than an album, but in no way does that diminish its quality. The Hamilton Mixtape is another feather in Lin-Manuel Mirinda’s crowded cap.

Listen to: My Shot, Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)

4. Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada by A.R. Rahman

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It is rather difficult to classify the soundtrack of a movie as an album, given its wide range of sound and emotions, couched in the screenplay of the movie. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to find an album as cohesive as AYM‘s orchestrated by the maestro A.R. Rahman himself; the music providing the imaginative fuel to visualize the scene(s) associated with each track here.

Pulling from a variety of influences – local and foreign – Rahman infuses existing musical structures with fresh dynamism. The bass-heavy melodic trap of Thalli Pogathey might have been a disaster in less capable hands, but coupled with the incredible vocals of Sid Sriram and a surprisingly congruent verse by ADK, the track became the monster hit it has for good reason. The Carnatic stylings of Rasaali, meanwhile, might seem like an unconventional choice for a road song, but once experienced as such, makes little sense as anything else. The breezy pop of Idhu Naal is one of my surprise favourites, impressive in its earworm quality, with bright vocal turns by Aditya Rao and Jonita Gandhi.

Bolstered by poetic lyricism throughout the album – save some of the cringe on Showkali – there is ample reason to call AYM one of ARR’s finest productions in recent years.

Listen to: Thalli Pogathey, Rasaali 

5. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil by Pritam

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In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Pritam delivers the quintessential Bollywood album: multiple gut wrenchers helmed by Arijit Singh, a couple of energetic dance-floor numbers and the rock-tinged hype track. What elevates this album, then, is the quality of the music itself, with some truly moving vocals and emotive lyrics penned by Amitabh Bhattacharya.

The melodies are sparsely arranged, with Arijit’s voice front-and-center; fortunately, when paired with the compelling turns of phrases in the lyrics, they escape the trap of the Arijit saturation. The title track is gorgeous and ruminative, although it sometimes veers towards the melodramatic. The standout Channa Mereya, however, remains one of the most subtly devastating tracks in recent memory, the vocals betraying the deep sorrow beneath the pretense of acceptance, and Amitabh’s lyrics ripping out the heartstrings. Bulleya, on the other hand, is an extremely memorable, Sufi rock-influenced ode to love and one of its foremost proponents, Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, that also acts as a tour-de-force for Amit Mishra’s vocals.  Cutiepie and Breakup Song, meanwhile, are nothing if not fun, with production guaranteed to get you grooving.

As a whole, ADHM is a powerful run through the gamut of emotions sure to be present in a KJo movie – good or bad. Luckily, these songs work just as well without the context, in one of the year’s most musically stunning Bollywood releases.

Listen to: Channa Mereya, Bulleya

Favourite Albums of 2016: Special Mentions