#30. NO REALITY by Nosaj Thing
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
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.
#28. untitled unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar
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
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.
#26. Darkness and Light by John Legend
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.