Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Honorable Mentions

After yesterday’s look into albums that I found forgettable, it’s time to wash the taste out of my mouth with some albums from 2016 that I very much enjoyed and kept on heavy rotation, yet just missed out on my Top 15. Each of these albums shows depth, complexity and soul. For some, it’s a bold debut that defines the sound of what’s new, others it’s a progression of their sound that illuminates their artistry, or perhaps it’s a grizzled veteran disproving doubters and showing they still have the chops to compete with the exuberance of youth.

In no particular order:

Donald Glover – Awaken, My Love!

Donald Glover – Awaken, My Love! I’m encouraged by albums like this, Blond, Atrocity Exhibition and others that fully embrace a certain sound or feeling for the length of the project. Still, Glover makes a pretty radical shift going from tongue-in-cheek college rap to Bootsy Collins and Parliament Funkadelic space rock. Despite a few moments where Glover’s inspiration gets away from him (lol at the singing in “California”), this is a bold project that Glover pulls off admirably.

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial This was an undeniably fun listen even though I don’t track much post-punk pop, but these guys pulled off a witty and textured album that brings back to life the agony of teenage uncertainty. There’s a pleasant diversity in the sound of this album, something that keeps me cautious of similar acts in the genre.

Paul Wall – The Houston Oiler, E-40 – The D-Boy Diaries, Kool Keith – Feature Magnetic Nothing spectacular or ground-breaking here. Just a solid display of the talents, skills and swag that these three MCs have brought to the game for years. E-40 in particular brings his A game.

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid This album represents a fairly triumphant return to the spotlight after a bit of a hiatus. Aesop has always been one of the most lyrically gifted rappers anywhere, and The Impossible Kid finds him weaving intricate and introspective stories from the perspective of a hip-hop veteran.

Logic – Bobby Tarantino Logic is proving to be lethal with his delivery. The layers on his lyrics are so sharp and relentless that it’s like being caught in a midsummer southern rain storm. I wasn’t as impressed with 2015’s The Incredible True Story as many others were, but I liked Logic’s focus on his flow with Tarantino.

Nx Worries – Yes Lawd! Definitely a solid effort from 2016’s golden child Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge. It doesn’t quite recreate the magic of Malibu, and Knxwledge outshines .Paak a bit, but still a beauty of an album. With more collaborations on the way in 2017 (including a project with Flying Lotus), it will be interesting to see how .Paak follows up his freshman season.

Solange – A Seat at the Table I really enjoyed this album despite what some of my previous tweets may have suggested. It’s a wonderfully lush album with diverse production and an unabashed spirit. From front to back, there are no weak songs on this project, and it remains focused and on task throughout the duration. Obviously, the timely themes of the album, including black identity in white America and social division, cannot be ignored. It may not be in my Top 15 Albums list, but it’s not far off.

Marquis Hill – The Way We Play

Marquis Hill – The Way We Play Chicago jazz trumpeter Marquis Hill had a fine debut with 2015’s Modern Flows V.1, and The Way We Play is a consistent follow up. The notes fly out of Hill’s trumpet like water through a fire hose, and the sound is complimented well by xylophone and spoken word.

Atmosphere – Fishing Blues The two man tandem of MC Slug and Ant on the production has been the definitive apex of the indie rap world for over 15 years at this point. They’ve made some absolute classics (God Loves Ugly, Lucy Ford) and a few forgettables (You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having), but this latest release trends closer to the classics. A rejuvenated Slug shows you why he’s still one of the top storytelling MCs in the game with plenty of lyrical gymnastics to keep long-time Atmosphere heads bouncing.

Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus

Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus This new downbeat jazz duo consisting of Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) released Black Focus in November of 2016 and have immediately made a link to stateside counterparts Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin. Yussef Kamaal’s sound is loose and improvisational, driven primarily by a wonderful interplay between the drums and bass of the rhythm section. Although not quite as funk-focused as Herbie Hancock during his Columbia days, the sound of Black Focus takes the baton from Hancock’s work on Headhunters, Man Child and Secrets by producing a dynamic sound that probably isn’t played the same way twice during their live shows. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this duo hopefully playing in the US.

Also receiving votes: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Blood Orange – Freetown Sound, St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Sea of Noise, Phantogram – Three, Alicia Keys – Here, Kamiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto, Mayer Hawthorne – Party of One, Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust, Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool, Lake Street Drive – Side Pony, Wilco – Schmilco

Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top Jazz Albums
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top Vinyls
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top Live Music Events
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Garbage Albums
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Best Local Projects
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top 15 Albums (15-8)
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top 15 Albums (7-1)

What Qualifies as Music?

Music consists of three elements: rhythm, melody and harmony. If it lacks any one of those three elements, it’s not music anymore.

Back in my high school days, the most popular kind of music (according to record sales – which I never take much stock in) were boy bands. Yes, let’s hop in the way back machine to 1999. The Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, 98 Degrees and Rising, plus self-titled albums by N*Sync, Ricky Martin and Britney Spears ruled the airwaves.

The bane of my musical existence in 1999

Personally, I avoided this sugary sweet, unfulfilling and ultimately annoying brand of music. My heros of the day were Jay-Z, OutKast, Nas, Tupac and other hip-hoppers. I held their lyrical storytelling and head-nodding beats in high regard, and similarly denounced the corporate-manufactured pop music as a product of the shameless big music business machine. I still feel the same way today.

But that’s not the point of this blog. Back in the day, my friends, who also listened to hip-hop (we were few and far between in southern Indiana), also despised boy bands and pop princesses. We often trashed them with great vitriol, dismissing them as a sham of the music industry.

One argument that we used was basically this: It wasn’t real music because they didn’t play real instruments.

It seemed to make sense, given our preconceived notion that these bands were just shills for their record companies (that part I still don’t doubt). But that raises the question: What musical ability does an entertainer need in order to be considered a musician?

If you want to look at it that way, what instrument does a rapper play? In the same way JT, Lance, Joey, JC and Chris sang prepackaged harmonies, rappers would use only their voices to convey rhythm, melody and harmony. Often times, as I would later discover, using lyrics written by others. Fundamentally, some of my favorite rappers were no different than those annoying pretty boys with their stupid frosted blonde tips (can we all agree that frosted blonde tips should never EVER come back in style?).

In reality, music, like many other art forms, is a subjective experience, one that will differ from person to person. What one person sees as trash is another person’s proverbial cup of tea. While songs like “I Want it That Way” and “Bye Bye Bye” (let’s not even get into the abomination that LFO’s “Summer Girls” was) were the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me, I cannot deny that a significant number of people my age adore those songs to this day (you know who you are).

This mentality is still very much alive today. Most notably, it takes the form of people criticizing the rise in popularity of DJs and producers, who often times perform on stage with merely a laptop and perhaps a pair of turntables. The exact same argument is used to discount the idea that because an artist is making music with electronic instruments that it is somehow not music.

Still very much music

While I personally prefer live instrumentation, music that is made electronically is no less worthy of the definition of music since it contains rhythm, melody and harmony. It may not speak to everyone, but it does speak. Hip-Hop itself was born out of DJs using two turntables and a microphone, which predated the modern day MC. In that sense, pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa are not too different from the Calvin Harris’, Steve Aoki’s and Mark Ronson’s of today.

With this in mind, pop music is no different than the polarizing views people hold in regards to works of art like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child” and basically the entire realm of Modern Art. The beauty or apathy are truly in the eye of the beholder.

So while you won’t catch me with a One Direction, Skrillex or New Kids on the Block record any time soon, that doesn’t mean I don’t respect it as a work of art that connects and speaks to so many other people. If it makes others happy, that’s cool even if that’s not what I prefer. It still holds rhythm, melody and harmony, which meets my definition of music.

Now let me get some of that “Party in the USA”, that’s what I call rhythm, melody and harmony!

First Listen: Anderson .Paak – “Malibu”

Throughout his entire career, Dr. Dre has been many things (revolutionary producer, acceptable rapper, tenuous business man and more), but what’s the one thing that he has probably excelled at the most for the longest duration? Having an impeccable ear for talent. His list of protégés reads like a first-ballot hip-hop Hall of Fame list: Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game and the list goes on.

Despite a soul-sucking decade-plus long wait and counting for Dre’s theoretical next album Detox, his ability to find engaging new artists is still as sharp as ever, as evidenced by Malibu the second LP from LA singer, rapper, drummer and producer Anderson .Paak.

Malibu is a mix of many things stylistically: hip-hop, R&B, jazz, soul, funk and disco, each gently contributing to the flow of the album while graciously not dominating it. This swirling mix of sounds is rooted in a storyline uniting the narrative of the album, .Paak’s story of growing up in the chaotic and unforgiving LA streets. “Your moms’ in prison / your father need a new kidney / your family’s splitting / rivalries between siblings / if cash ain’t king it’s damn sure the incentive”, .Paak raps on “The Season | Carry Me”. The tone of the album, however, is anything but a bummer. There’s ample energy and flair for the duration, but .Paak does an excellent job of grounding it in a self-aware story.

.Paak, of Black and Korean descent, is a drummer by trade. Everything on Malibu is based around the percussion and rhythm, which is smooth, has a good bounce and sets the tone for the swagged-out feel of the album. It’s hard to put on this record and not want to nod your head (as Dre used to say) to many of the lush grooves here. As mentioned above, several styles are represented here, and .Paak blends them masterfully. Each genre is the result of a deep working knowledge and respect for that sound, but .Paak’s ability to make each bend to the will of his persona and story is what makes this album good. .Paak – the stylized “.” in his name, according to him, represents the “details”, which are what got him to where he is – is clearly knowledgeable about each of the styles he wants to use.

The opening track, “The Bird”, quickly establishes a smooth feel, as .Paak gently croons about his fractured family dynamic over a mid-tempo drum, piano and guitar line with a welcomed saxophone solo line on top. “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” pushes the tempo dial up, however, with a bouncy two-step beat and decadent drum-fill chorus.

Malibu starts trying on different sonic outfits at this point. “The Waters” sound like a cut off of a D’Angelo album with a smoky bassline, hazy drums, and a rapid-fire lyrical flow backed up by a soulful harmony section. The obligatory radio-ready track is next, but it hardly feels like it. “The Season | Carry Me” is a twofer, with the first track produced by Raleigh-based soul sample master 9th Wonder, and the latter a Callum Conner work, both are beat-heavy hip-hop tracks that play perfectly off one another.

via youtube.com

.Paak is assisted by some heavy hip-hop names (no doubt the benefit of working with Dre) such as producers 9th Wonder, Madlib and Hi-Tek; and rappers Schoolboy Q, The (aforementioned) Game, Talib Kweli and North Carolina’s own Rapsody, but the album is clearly .Paak’s. His style of vocally singing and rapping while hitting each point in between sounds fresh through the full listen. His voice is slightly raspy and nasal, but easily conveys the cool tone of the album. The lyrics are tight and the hooks are constructed out of some very catchy melodies.

“Put Me Thru” has a heavy rock and jazz influence, with a clean, funky guitar sound in the verse, which transforms into a distortion-filled force during the chorus. “Am I Wrong” is a take on a dance song, reminiscent of the feel on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. “Without You” goes back to hip-hop roots and features a heartbroken Rapsody rhyming over a boom-bap beat.

The album isn’t without it’s flaws. Some of the tracks could easily have been left off, sounding more like half-baked song ideas, rather than fully-fledged songs. “Parking Lot”, “Lite Weight” and “Water Fall (Interluuube)”, while evidence of a solid element or two to build on, don’t go anywhere after that. Adding to that is that all three of those tracks surround an otherwise healthy song (“Room in Here”), drowning out that track’s energy ever so slightly.

.Paak makes up for it with the next two tracks, which really drive the second half of the album. “Your Prime” features a staccato flow that could have been a feature on To Pimp a Butterfly. Ironically, “Come Down” is similar to the filler songs I mentioned before, but instead of half-baked beats, this song is anchored by a spectacular, ill-mannered and boastful bass line that would make Bootsy Collins bashful. However, there’s not much more to the song besides the bass line and a two quick verse/chorus exchanges.

The album closes with the ambitious but clumsy “Silicon Valley”, and the nostalgia-fueled sunny-day vibes of “Celebrate” and “The Dreamer”. It’s at this point in the album, however, that the strain from the less-than-necessary tracks take their toll. As an entertainer of any kind, you always want to leave the audience wanting more and these tracks rob Malibu of that feeling in the long run.

Overall, Malibu is essential listening in this young year. A fresh sound from a fresh name, one that honors the magic of the past, while taking the sound into the future. From rapping to singing and even producing a few of the tracks on this album, Anderson .Paak shows that he has the talent and the ambition to build a name off of. Dr. Dre, meanwhile, continues his streak of finding diamonds in the rough.