With the way music is consumed continuously changing, the way it is created changes too – artists have found new and exciting ways to destroy the limitations of genre, meld an array of sounds together and shape it into music that pushes boundaries, while still retaining the core of musicality. This charge into a genreless future is being led by a few stellar artists, each in a class of their own while defying categories.
#20. American Band by Drive-By Truckers
The Drive-By Truckers sure sound like a true-blue American Band, with their country-inspired rock and southern twang. Given their roots then, this unabashedly political album is a bold statement to make. There are no convoluted metaphors or wary approximations here; the lyrics are a direct reflection of the America that primary songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood live in.
Ranging from racism, immigration and police shootings to personal struggles and economic hardships, the Drive-By Truckers are grave and contemplative throughout, and offer more nuance to the issues that country is grappling with than several political pundits, the largely frenetic guitars and percussion driving home the point. Uniquely positioned as they are in the South, making an album such as this one is risky, but there are messages here their audience would do well to listen to. And that makes this record an essential listen in 2016.
#19. Blank Face LP by ScHoolboy Q
Rap is currently experiencing a paradigm shift: shedding the sounds of the old school, and embracing a more fluid definition of hip-hop. ScHoolboy Q is one of those rappers straddling both eras in a way few others can, revitalizing West Coast gangsta hip hop with a dose of hazy cloud rap. Q’s rhymes are among his sharpest here, delivering incisive, vivid observations of the street life he came from, and his transition to a life of fame, with clever bars delivering pithy commentary on the consequences of his lifestyle. But this isn’t a steady stream of hedonism either – Q recognizes that he often personifies what, to him at least, is necessary evil. There is a menace in the tone of the album, whether it be in Q’s snarling vocals – even the more laid back flows have a sneer to them – or the grimy production. Booming 808s, growling guitars and basslines, everything comes together in a form that goes from haunting to aggressive. Blank Face is a West Coast record through and through, in its imagery, sound and character, and ScHoolyboy Q has assured himself as one of the finest purveyors of that atmosphere.
#18. Jeffery by Young Thug
Is any character in hip-hop today as fascinating as Young Thug? From a ~gangsta~ rapper with a unique voice, Thugga has evolved into one of the most wonderfully weird rappers around. His subject matter may not exactly be unique, but his delivery is his USP. Thug modulates his raspy sing-song voice in ways few other musicians can, be it a high-pitched screech, an aggressive growl, or a smooth RnBesque flow, often switching styles multiple times in the same song. He flows effortlessly over bass-heavy trunk rattlers that stay faithful to his own off-kilter style, perfectly accommodating his unconventional melodies. However, this isn’t to say his lyrics aren’t equally entertaining – whether he’s rapping about his seemingly endless sexual escapades or his high-end lifestyle, he elicits more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, in moments of hilarious brilliance reminiscent of golden-age Lil Wayne, one of Thugga’s idols. Alongside his own declarations that “there’s no such thing as gender,” supported by the androgynous album cover, it’s clear that Young Thug aka Jeffery has no fucks to give about convention. Hip-hop is better for it.
#17. 99.9% by Kaytranada
99.9% is abstract, bright music that demands the listener’s attention. With polyrythmic, massive-bass driven production, Kaytranada comes up with some truly unique sounds that skitter across a wide array of sounds, never getting into a rut. While it can be broadly classified as electronica, with distinct hip-hop influences, there is a significant amount of progressive genre-blending here, particularly with the percussion, such as on the stellar BBNG-assisted Weight Off, the unmatched Glow’d Up with Anderson.Paak’s inspired vocal performance, and Breakdance Lesson N.1 which sounds like straight 80s hip-hop interspersed with futuristic synths. The vocals, although limited, often complement the production extremely well, with some hip-hop, and a healthy dose of RnB-based vocals from decades post.However, Kay’s work on the boards remains front and center for the most part, resulting in a hypnotic, layered record created by a man with a meticulous ear for sound. Music is all the better for it.
Listen to: Got It Good, Weight Off
#16. Malibu by Anderson .Paak
It’s hard to describe Malibu in musical terms; it’s a record that feels both sprawling and intimate, offering up depictions of .Paak’s life through a bird’s eye view of his soul. We’re walked through the streets of his town, peeking into the churches he sang in, the rooms he fell in love in, the grimy dance floors he let loose on, and the homes where his heart was broken. In his inimitable raspy voice, he weaves tales of family, strife, love, and growth with incredible lyricism, the imagery evocative, and the settings distinct. Drawing on the sounds of various past decades, while still firmly grounded in contemporary hip-hop and RnB, the rich live instrumentation complements .Paak’s prowess as a singer, moving between forms with incredible ease. Malibu is .Paak’s heart worn on the album’s sleeve, and it is one that beats with a passion that few other musicians can conjure.
1. 99.9% by Kaytranada
The cover art for 99.9% is emblematic of the music it contains. This is abstract, bright music that demands the listener’s attention. With polyrythmic, massive-bass driven production, Kaytranada comes up with some truly unique production that skitters across a wide array of sounds, never getting into a rut. While it can be broadly classified as electronica, with distinct hip-hop influences, there is a significant amount of progressive genre-blending here, particularly with the percussion, such as on the stellar BBNG-assisted Weight Off, the unmatched Glow’d Up with Anderson.Paak’s inspired vocal performance, and Breakdance Lesson N.1 which sounds like straight 80s hip-hop interspersed with futuristic synths. It’s a bit of a disappointment then, that some of the vocalists, particularly with their lyrics, sound rather uninspired. I have a love-hate relationship with Little Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano, and the closing track, Bullets, does little to sway my opinion towards love. One Too Many has Phonte pushing his singing abilities to an unfortunate breaking point, alongside some truly cringeworthy lyrics. However, when the music plays, these issues recede, for Kay’s stellar work on the boards is front-and-center. The instrumentals are unlike anything I’ve heard this year, and sounds just at home on full blast as they do in my headphones. Save for the occasional vocal misstep, then, 99.9% is a hypnotic, layered record created by a man with a meticulous ear for sound. Music is all the better for it.
2. Cloud Nine by Kygo
Kygo is a phenomenon: he’s almost single-handedly engineered the next wave of festival-filling EDM with tropical house, that’s come to permeate the mainstream in an incredibly short period.Courtesy of a few uber-popular singles, all eyes have been on Kygo, which he’s directed towards this album, Cloud Nine. Unfortunately, Kygo’s music, while very well done, reveals its biggest flaw – its homogeneity – when extended to album length. In fact, most of the best tracks on the album, gorgeous in their own right, have already been released as singles. Some of the strongest vocals on the album appear on Firestone and Stole The Show, courtesy of Conrad Sewell and Parson James respectively, while the acoustic stylings of Kodaline on Raging and James Vincent McMorrow on I’m In Love make them some of the best tracks here. Among the deep cuts, Happy Birthday is a shimmering gem featuring the always-incredibe John Legend, and Not Alone featuring RHODES is worth multiple listens. As with most EDM, lyrics are hardly the focus here, being standard pop fare. The production is obviously why we’re here, and Kygo’s blend of lush, summery synths and strings, and gorgeous keys remain beautifully atmospheric, which shine through on the instrumental Intro and the closing For What It’s Worth, which would’ve been better off as the original vocal-less Piano Jam. Even as the tracks bleed into each other, Cloud Nine remains vibrant and truly stunning in sections. Kygo’s music, then, is clearly better off consumed as individual songs, than listened to as a traditional album. With that in mind, the listener can settle into some wonderful vibes with Cloud Nine.
3. Konnichiwa by Skepta