Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top Albums (7-1)

KING – We Are KING

7. KING – We Are KING This album was a short list contender for most spins in 2016 for me. This is an exceptionally well done album by a trio of ladies who hopefully won’t be mired in obscurity much longer.

KING first came on the scene in 2011 with their three song EP The Story. Though the quantity wasn’t much, the quality was such that it caught the ear of heavy hitters like Questlove, Phonte and the one and only Prince, who reached out to them, mentored the young trio and eventually had them open for him while he was playing in Los Angeles. He also was adamant that they retain all rights over their work, which may partly explain why there ways a five year gap between The Story and We Are KING.

The wait was well worth it, however, as We Are KING is a tight production, with each song displaying a psychedelic, electronic, neo-soul feeling that is still rooted in a progressive pop bedding, making for a dreamy and luscious listen. This is an album that I play all the time, but each spin still sounds fresh.

Read the interview I did with KING’s Paris Strother for CLTure here.

Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

6. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. What this album lacks in cohesion (it’s a collection of material that didn’t make the cut on To Pimp a Butterfly), it makes up for in raw energy, explosive lyrics, and a refined mastery of form that K Dot displays.

With all the tracks left unnamed, the titled clearly stripped down and the lack of album art, this project is clearly focused on making Kendrick’s transcendent rhymes take center stage. That they do, and the production provides fertile ground for Lamar with a mix of jazz, soul, avant garde and funk providing ample room for work. You don’t need me to tell you that the lyrical output of this album is in top form throughout, with Kendrick’s rapid-fire delivery never missing a beat or delivered with even a moment’s hesitation. There’s not much to say about the lyrical display on this album other than K Dot is really at the top of the game as an MC.

While the album may suffer micro point deductions because of its untethered structure, this is still an absolute heavyweight. The only way songs like these hit the cutting room floor is if they’re being left off of a timeless instant classic like TPaB.

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

5. Run the Jewels – RTJ3 Killer Mike probably won’t ever get the true props that he deserves as one of the game’s undeniably great MCs, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar. That didn’t stop El-P and Killer Mike from dropping RTJ3 early and for free on Christmas Day. Thankfully, I waited (lol, procrastinated) to write this post long enough that I could give the album a few listens before properly placing it on my Top 15 Albums list.

The early returns? Another *fire emoji* album from RTJ. Even though this album doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table (which I’ve already shown is important to me), there’s just too much *fire emoji* here to deny it. Venomous rhymes, slamming electro beats and a bombastic core of energy that perfectly suits the group’s punk-crossover appeal are the signature tones of this album.

While the formula of RTJ3 follows that of both its predecessors, the duo continue to sharpen and refine their sound to perfection. Now both fully confident and comfortable in their roles, Mike and El trade witty and biting rhymes that either end with a hilarious punchline or a thought provoking bon mot. The gas can is poured fully onto the fire of social justice on tracks like “Talk to Me”, “Thieves!” and “Kill Your Master”. That final track features a verse from former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, which is fitting in a sense because RTJ has firmly picked up the political revolution baton from Rage’s cold, lifeless hands. 2017 goal: see RTJ live in concert.

Frank Ocean – blond

4. Frank Ocean – blond When it was finally (and legitimately) announced that this album’s release was imminent, a wave of anticipation quickly swept over most of the music listening world. Ocean’s 2012 debut, Channel Orange, was a massive critical and commercial success, thrusting the enigmatic R&B singer to world stardom. Singles like “Lost” and “Sweet Life” carried Ocean to a place of prominence in the neo-soul world that rivaled established acts like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.

With blond, however, Ocean shifts gears to a project that is decidedly anti-pop, producing few, if any, tracks that will be considered for a Top 40 rotation. What the radio misses out on is the discerning listener’s gain. blond is a remarkable album, one that explores Ocean’s inner monologue, contradictions and conscience in a dark, spacey and moody package. There are no “Lost”’s on this project, anything with a danceable beat has been replaced with slow tempo, arrangement driven songs that make a great use of sonic blank spaces, adding emphasis to Ocean’s crooning. The result (with help from key contributors like Beyoncé, Kanye West and one of André 3000’s finest verses of his career) is an album that truly captures a mood and feeling that makes no compromises to what is expected of the mainstream. Ocean even made it clear that he has no intention of appeasing the masses by deliberately not submitting this album for Grammy consideration.

While this is not a record you would want to reach for first during your next house party, it is an album that will stir your soul when you sit down with it in solitude to reflect on your own demons.

Anderson .Paak – Malibu

3. Anderson .Paak – Malibu It’s fair to say that Anderson .Paak came out of nowhere to become on of 2016’s most celebrated new artists. The Dr. Dre protogé burst onto the scene early in the year with Malibu, and stayed busy throughout with a collaboration with Knxwledge (Yes Lawd!), a string of hit features (including the new A Tribe Called Quest), a spot on NPR’s Tiny Desk series and relentless touring. Malibu was the catalyst for all of that, however, as the album brought a fresh, smoky and grooving feel to 2016.

The album is a rolling mix of styles, from funk to pop to R&B to doo wop and beyond. .Paak is clearly a diversely skilled artist who shows a great deal of expertise in each area. A drummer by trade, .Paak kept his affinity for percussion and rhythm at a high level while developing his vocals into the tool that separates him from his peers. .Paak effortlessly shifts from singing to rapping to rhythmic spoken word with each verse. His style is always smooth, funky and cool, which was desperately needed in 2016.

You can read more about Malibu in my full review, which can be found here.

David Bowie – Blackstar

2. David Bowie – Blackstar I think it’s pretty safe to say that there’s never been an album quite like this one, and there may never be another like it in the future. An outstanding album in it’s own right, the fact that Bowie recorded this album while he knew his body was failing him, and that he was able to distill the feeling of facing imminent mortality and use that feeling to produce a bold and brutally honest record is something that may never be replicated by an artist of Bowie’s stature.

Blackstar was released January 8, coinciding with Bowie’s 69th birthday, and just two days before his death. The resulting album is haunting, chilling and yet hopeful, the sound of a man who is resigned to his own fate, but one who is also at peace with it. The production is classic Bowie, reinventing himself again and always on his terms. Songs like “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” find a lucid Bowie making no pretense about his place in pop music. Bowie cryptically reflects on how he’s given everything to his art form, but his body won’t let him give any more.

Like Frank Ocean’s blond, this is not an album that you will want to spin while getting ready for a night on the town, rather one that is much more reflective in nature, and demands to be listened to intently, marveling at what so few people will get to experience in their lives: a sober and accepting contemplation of one’s lifetime work just inches from death’s doorstep. That’s why Blackstar ranks so high on this list, not because it’s the best instrumentation or the most innovative style etc., but because it’s such a powerful, honest and brave look into the eyes of death by one of the world’s most unique cultural icons at a time when he still had the clarity and strength to produce it.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

1. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service Even now, almost three months after the release of this album, I’m still trying to find the right words to describe it. This is an album, much like David Bowie’s Blackstar, that could perhaps only have been produced by this particular artist with it’s very specific timing.

What makes this album great is a combination of three factors. For one, it’s an old school hip hop head’s delight. Jazzy and effervescent beats lay a groundwork for ATCQ’s introspective, observational and sharply resonant lyrics. There’s a supreme return to form for fans of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders that incorporates relative newcomers like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, grizzled veterans Talib Kweli and André 3000 with absolutely zero insincerity.

Second, this album absolutely *had* to pay a proper tribute to Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, who passed away in March. Tribe pulls this off expertly, including a bevy of previously unreleased Phife verses (many of which recorded after the group’s appearance on The Tonight Show in late 2015). The surviving members of the group also penned heartfelt tributes to their departed partner in rhyme on songs such as “Lost Somebody” and “Black Spasmodic”, the latter of which finds Phife coming back to life via Q-Tip, delivering a reflective verse that serves as the proper send off that Phife never got to do in person.

Third, the timing of this album’s release was absolutely critical from two points of view. 2016 was filled with heartbreaking moments from legends who passed too soon to what seemed to be a deterioration of rap as an art form with the sudden popularity of “mumble rap”. This exaltation of rapping that placed the emphasis purely on style, leaving lyrical content an afterthought, was something that absolutely perplexed and disappointed many long-time fans of the genre. Also, this album was released just days after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, leaving many segments of the American population feeling vulnerable and lost. It felt as if Tribe knew it had to step up to the plate to stand against both of these developments, and they delivered a vicious retort with this album, especially on songs like “We The People”, “Melatonin”, “Kids…” and “Dis Generation”.

Simply put, Thank You 4 Your Service is an album that not only stands squarely on the merit of quality contained, but also one that becomes transcended in the scope of what it represents on a larger scale. There could not have been a more timely or important album to be released this year, and despite sky-high expectations, Tribe delivered an album that smashed the bar and gave hope to hip hop and thousands (if not millions) of people cautiously entering Trump’s America. For me, it was a no-brainer that this was my Top Album of 2016.

Image via okayplayer.com

So there you have it. My somewhat belated but fully comprehensive review of my 2016 Year in Music. What did you think? Did you read all the entries? What stood out to you? What did I miss? My scope of music is wide, but not wide enough to catch everything. I’m sure your year in music may have included some very different highlights. Some of you may be much more knowledgeable about jazz, vinyls and local music, and you may be sitting there thinking to yourself, “Damn, Andy doesn’t know shit about jazz/vinyls/Charlotte music/contemporary music.” If that’s the case, let’s talk. It’s clearly one of my favorite subjects to talk about.

Hit me up on twitter (@andygoh) or email me at andy@gohjo.com and we’ll chat. Hopefully I can learn something from you, and hopefully I can at least explain how I came to many of the lists described above. Lets make 2017 a year for discussion, and music is one of the best places to start.

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: Honorable Mentions
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 Albums (15-8)

We’re here! We’re finally here. It took literally every last second of 2016 for me to write this (and a few days into 2017) but… we’re here.

*breathes deeply, exhales, looks around wistfully*

Despite all the tragic losses of some of the most talented and significant names in music, I believe 2016 was a great year for music. There were plenty of new names, new styles and innovative projects to keep the scene fresh. Plenty of grizzled veterans came through with projects that reasserted their authority or gave a classy send off to impeccable careers. Life, and therefore music, is a continuous cycle and while it sucks losing so many legendary names, it opens up room for some of these new artists to make names for themselves.

OK, I’ll stop stalling here it is!

J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

15. J Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only I really wanted to put this album higher on the list, but there’s a few things holding it back.

One, it doesn’t progress Cole’s style, only leans comfortably in the groove that he’s been in for the past few albums. Make no mistake, his lyrical ability is supreme, so it’s not a bad place to be, I just didn’t see the progression I was hoping for.

Two, this album offers up nothing to counter the (mostly false) narrative that he’s a boring rapper. Not that artists should be making music to please critics, but it goes back to my first point. If you don’t bring anything new to the table, you’re moving backwards in essence, because some else is going to bring that heat. In fact, I would say he almost took a small step back lyrically in this album. “Head game stronger than two Excedrin” – seriously, Cole?

Finally, I feel like the concept of the album could have been delivered more clearly. Cole shifts back and forth between personas on this project, but it’s hard to tell where you are in the story, like if you only watched the first half of Pulp Fiction.

Overall, it’s still an excellent album, and Cole is a torchbearer for creative lyricism and flow. I just would have liked to see him take a next step and focus a bit more on his storytelling.

Beoncyé – Lemonade

14. Beyoncé – Lemonade In contrast to J Cole’s project, Lemonade actually brings to the table to progression and focus on storyline that 4 Your Eyez Only lacks. Beyoncé incorporates elements of soul, rock, country and jazz into her new album, giving it a range of sounds that span the spectrum of emotions. This also helps the album sound different than anything else in the contemporary R&B market.

Obviously, this album would not be what it was if you didn’t include the surprise release date and the massive speculation that mushroomed once the album’s lyrical content was heard. That’s the power of storytelling in music, however, and is exactly what was missing from Cole’s album. Bey was able to create something that had a beginning, middle and end, leading the listener through every stage of emotional grief one goes through when (presumably) their partner is dishonest.

There’s really not any filler on this album, each song contributes meaningfully to the story arch. And, of course, Bey leaves us with a banger of a single in “Formation”.

Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

13. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution I wasn’t very familiar with Esperanza Spalding before this, her fifth album was released. However, this album took me, and many other listeners around the country, by surprise.

Her sound is new, fresh and full of an infectious energy on this album. The arrangements are intricate and the musicians pull off their execution flawlessly. The lyrics are sharp and wry, and like a classic Steely Dan album, they need to heard a few times and dissected before they are fully understood.

Take this lyric from “Ebony and Ivy”: “It’s been hard to grow outside/ Growin’ good and act happy/ And pretend that the ivy vines/ Didn’t weigh our branches down” This refers to Spalding’s love of education and science, but it’s tempered with the sobering realization that science was a justification for slavery in the early parts of the 20th century.

Subtle yet profound storytelling, dynamic and progressive combinations of jazz and rock and a bridling enthusiasm combine to make this an excellent album.

YG – Still Brazy

12. YG – Still Brazy This project came out of nowhere for me. YG’s previous efforts (Young Gangsta, Blame it on the Streets) were representative of some of the underwhelming and unfulfilling styles of rap that wouldn’t dare venture outside of their wheelhouse of club bangers and boastful rhymes. With Still Brazy, YG brought the absolute heat.

Brazy reminds me of some of the old west coast G-Funk records of Dr. Dre, Warren G and Tha Dogg Pound. The instrumentals are clean and melodic and lay a fine groundwork for YG and his features to really rip some serious lines.

There’s also a consistency of thematics in some of the songs such as “Gimmie Got Shot”, “Who Shot Me?” and “She Wish She Was”. YG also uses his voice to produce some more thoughtful material in the final quarter of the album, speaking on police brutality and race relations in “Blacks & Browns”, “Police Get Away with Murder” and of course “FDT” (Fuck Donald Trump).

When you combine thoughtful and focused storytelling with unrestrained bangers, it’s a good recipe for a Top 15 Album on my list.

De la Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody

11. De la Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody De la Soul have long been one of hip hop’s most innovative groups, never compromising creatively. It makes sense then, that they would be the first hip hop group that breaks new ground by funding the production of their new album through a Kickstarter campaign. They used their fan’s money well in delivering a project that is undeniably unique and full of vision.

De la has always wanted to dip into the mix of rap and rock, and while they pull it off well on songs like “CBGBS”, those are still the slower points of the album for me. Where De la Soul really shines is in their mastery of delivering thoughtful, inspired lyrics over melodic bass lines. Songs like “Royalty Capes” and “Pain” set the tone for the album that contains plenty of witty lines and observations. It’s going to be interesting to see how this album ages, given that it’s a progressive offering from a band already known for their willingness to try new approaches.

Kaytranada – 99.9%

10. Kaytranada – 99.9% Ah, the top ten, where dreams are made! This album by newcomer beatmaker Kaytranada certainly makes me feel a bit dreamy, combining hip-hop, pop, trance, house and other styles into an album that sounds different than anything else out there.

I really dug the dancehall vibe of this album that is well rounded out by hip-hop and soul influences. Seamlessly mixing genres isn’t all that this album does well, however. Kaytranada (real name Louis Celestin) makes this album all his own with a homogenous mix of features (Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, Little Dragon among others). Lyrically, the album suffers, but it seems to be by design, as Kaytranada lets his unique style shine.

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

9. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition If you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve actually read my descriptions, you’ll notice that I generally appreciate albums that show an artist’s’ progression, and Atrocity Exhibition might be the best example of that thus far.

To this point, Danny Brown has gained a reputation as mostly a party rapper, crafting high-energy beats that sound right at home at a packed music festival. His lyrics basically revolved around how many drugs Danny did (“Kush Coma”) without much respite.

That’s part of what makes Atrocity Exhibition such a profound album. Not only are the music-festival beats gone and replaced by the most out-of-this-world production I’ve ever heard on a rap album, but the lyrics go inside Danny’s mind much more deeply than ever before. This time we get a look at the habits and contradictions that fester in the remote recesses of Danny’s mind. His flow and delivery is still sharp and witty, delivering punchlines that always make you both think and laugh. But this time we are treated to plenty of substance that adds dimension to the portrait of a rapper who has to this point reached a lofty level of fame walking a narrow path musically.

Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits

8. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits One of the most promising developments of 2016 for me is the ushering in of this new era of jazz in the mainstream. Terrace Martin, along with Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and more have breathed new life into the once-stagnant genre’s lungs using the natural connection to hip hop as the lever. Martin’s work on the Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly has clearly reached the masses, but his non Kendrick catalog is deep and fruitful, and Velvet Portraits may be the most complete offering yet.

Velvet Portraits is a mix of bebop jazz, anchored by Martin’s saxophone, with bits of soul, funk and R&B that curiously taps into each genre just long enough to get immersed in the sound but not long enough to derail the overall momentum of the album. Each song is masterfully recorded and produced making the record a true pleasure to listen to. Albums like this are leading the way for new and progressive urban jazz sounds that will hopefully continue to develop in 2017.

Albums 7-1 in the countdown get published tomorrow!

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: Honorable Mentions
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Best Local Projects
Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top 15 Albums (7-1)

 

Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Best Local Projects

I can’t just give you my Top 15 Albums of 2016 without first shouting out some of my favorite local Charlotte-based projects of the year. Despite its tepid reputation for local and touring music, Charlotte is not lacking for talent. There’s plenty of proud and innovative musicians in the area that are ready to put Charlotte on the musical map and give the real Queen City the props it deserves. Hopefully, the city and profit-minded developers consider that and help restore some of the character to the scene by building a few more local live music venues.

In no particular order:

Elevator Jay – Slurred in Mecklenburg

Elevator JaySlurred in Mecklenburg This album really could have just about made it into my overall top 15. Jay is a pioneer in Charlotte’s rap scene by keeping things thick and sticky like the album title would imply, but also spitting sharp rhymes with a different flow on every track. The production and rhyming on this album are classically southern, but they never fall into tired trap clichés, with the beats and Jay’s flows being different on each track. Elevator is a dangerously talented musician, able to fire off melodic raps, catchy hooks and innovative beats faster than a Cook Out drive through. Read my full review of Slurred in Creative Loafing.

Radio Lola – The Burden in Our Bones This four piece tsunami of bluesy rock & roll force has been touring around Charlotte for a few years now, and this album contains some of their finest material yet. Their dark and brooding hard rock sound is driven by the wailing, feedback-fueled guitar of Chris Hendrickson and the sultry, siren-like vocals of Dani Engle. The songwriting is also deep and emotive, but at the same time has you wanting to throw down at a moment’s notice. Radio Lola partially funded this album through Kickstarter, showing that they are backed by the hearts of the Charlotte music scene.

Well$ – The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous

Well$The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous I’m really digging this release from Well$, who seems poised for some national recognition. Durham-based Sylvan Esso give a kick start to the album with production on “Young Man”. The rest of the listen is laden with punchy beats and clever word play. The album’s mood is dark and brooding, but it never seems to get to a place where it takes itself too seriously. Keep an eye out for big things coming from Well$ in 2017.

Deep 6 Division (Rapper Shane and Mike Astrea) – Self-titled This is the second straight distinctively solid collaboration project that Rapper Shane has worked on in as many years, with 2015’s Dap City with RBTS WIN being the first. While Dap City may have set a high bar, Deep 6 Division might exceed it with searing production from Astrea and increasingly complex and textural rhymes from Shane. The sound of the album is brutal and harsh with aggressive electronic beats powering the album throughout, creating a sound not unlike Run the Jewels. An album that meets at the intersection of hip-hop framework and punk rock spirit, this is the perfect project to get hyped to.

Lara Americo – She/They

Lara Americo – She / They The debut EP from singer/songwriter/artist/trans activist Lara Americo is an intensely personal one which sees the performer pour every ounce of herself into the mix. Light on instrumentation (most songs feature only Americo’s voice over an acoustic or electric guitar, bass and simple percussion), but heavy on genuine emotion and exploration, She/They is a journey through the often complex and painful process of self discovery that comes from being transgender in a testosterone-fueled straight white male society. Americo also plays all the instruments on record, sings as well as produces (often using her own closet as a recording booth), making this one of the most genuine, real and raw records you’ll hear. This record is an emotional roller coaster that is as provocative as it is pure.

Miami Dice – Venus in Retrograde 80’s synth rock duo Miami Dice followed up 2015’s Premium Cut with this 13-track EP in October. Fans of the greasy haired, golden chained and hairy chested synth and drum track-heavy sounds will not be disappointed as Venus follows much of the same pattern. From the opening track “Something That’s Real” (which samples The Whispers’ 1979 hit “The Beat Goes On”), the atmospheric glam grooves transport you directly to the sweaty and sniffly clubs along South Beach circa 1986. This project was also released on cassette tape, making me wonder if cassettes are already back in style. That would be a big kick in the pants for me, after having spent much of 2016 building my vinyl collection.

Bless These Sounds Under the City – On the Brink of Life

Bless These Sounds Under the City – On the Brink of Life I was very impressed with this record, released in November. Another Charlotte duo, this one consisting of Albert Strawn and Derrick Hines, the sound of On the Brink of Life is one that is diverse, bringing a wide range of influences and sonic elements to the table. Everything from indie rock to folk to electronica to hip hop is represented here, and it’s clear that BTSUtC possesses a wealth of knowledge of each genre. Songs like “Suspended in Hypnosis” and “A Clever Disguise” rely on drum machines and sharp rap verses, but a song like the title track makes terrific use of lush string arrangements and clever chord progressions. In the third quarter of the album, “Spirochetes” and “Whatever You Become” all but eschew a percussive track, instead focusing on tender piano and acoustic guitar melodies. This is a tremendous album overall, one that will have me anxiously awaiting the next BTSUtC live performance and album.

Ancient Cities – Supermoon Blackout Well-established local rockers Ancient Cities released their second LP in July of 2016. The quintet is known for soundtracking many live events and parties around Charlotte, but these guys bring the heat in their own right as well. With Supermoon Blackout, Ancient Cities turns up the energy and dials in some solid harmonies, diversifying their previously straightforward rock sound. Led by the songwriting, singing and wailing electric guitar of Stephen Warwick, Blackout is a fun and jaunty listen, perfect for any feel-good sunny day. Songs like “Actress” and “Phases” contain bright and jubilant melodies that evoke early-seventies era Beatles. Many of the tracks here have been carefully crafted and it makes for a fantastic listen as an album.

Also receiving votes: Serfs – Day HangAndy the Doorbum and Justin Aswell – Intent, RBTS WIN – King Summer EP*, Rapper Shane – Too Busy to be This Broke

* Technically, RBTS WIN is from Asheville, but these dudes rep Charlotte so hard, perform here all the time and are close with many Charlotte artists so they get an honorary Charlotte residency from me.

If you’ve got a favorite #cltmusic project that I forgot to mention, or a local artist that I’m unaware of, hit me up!

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: Honorable Mentions
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)

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)

Andy Goh’s 2016 Music Year in Review: Top Live Music Events

I promise we’ll get to my Top 15 Albums of 2016 in a minute! But since I am my own editor, I think this is the perfect place to talk about my top live music events of the year.

Obviously, I love recorded music and the magic that comes with listening to your favorite album or hearing a new artist for the first time. However, music is most impactful when experienced live. There’s nothing in the world like hearing your favorite artists play your favorite songs and experiencing how their live performance differs from what you’ve heard on record, especially when you can share that moment with a friend or two or 100,000. Let’s do this!

10. The Stooges Brass Band, Double Door Inn This ended up being my final show at the Double Door, but this was one of the most fun shows I got to see all year. It gave me a warm and rich feeling seeing true New Orleans Jazz in one of the most history rich venues in town. Too bad it didn’t last.

9. Lake Street DriveThe Fillmore Lake Street Drive is just a damn good band. Fun and pop friendly, their style is effortless and infectious. This show was also bouncy and effervescent as the quartet brought lots of energy to the Fillmore stage, and the crowd responded with plenty of warmth. While I’m not a huge fan of their latest album, Side Pony (just a bit heavy on the pop angle for me), their music translates well to live shows. It’s also crazy to think that just a few years ago they were booked at places like The Evening Muse.

8. PhantogramThe Fillmore Phantogram came to town for the first time in a while in October. Touring in support of their new album Three, the duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter came out strong, despite a few technical glitches with their projection system. I interviewed Sarah for CLTure prior to this show, which you can read here.

7. Deep Six Division Album Release Party – The Station As Charlotte continues to axe small live music venues, homegrown artists continue to have to find new places to play. The Station is small as a nickel, but sometimes that’s where the best music happens. On this night, the energy was tangible as RBTS WIN, Elevator Jay, Jr. Astronomers and Deep Six Division (Rapper Shane and Mike Astrea) absolutely threw down on a stage that wasn’t so much a stage as it was the corner of the bar. Despite the size limitations, I had more fun at this show than I had in a long time.

6. ScarfaceThe Fillmore This was part of the Arts, Beats + Lyrics mini festival sponsored by Jack Daniels Honey I believe. Sponsorship isn’t ideal, but in reality, that’s what makes awesome events like this one possible. This event combined some really cool art stations, a kind of traveling tour of artists’ work. Scarface, one of the true OGs in hip hop, far from disappointed as he stepped on stage with authority and supreme control. He was also looking fit and trim, a welcome sight for someone who’s battled health issues and depression.

5. KING – Neighborhood Theatre This neo-soul trio from Minnesota (by way of Los Angeles) released their debut LP, We Are KING, in January of 2016 after much anticipation. Counting the one and only Prince as a mentor, these three ladies’ sound is much more mature than their experience would lead you to believe.

They played on the “intimate” stage of the Neighborhood Theatre next to the bar in the front foyer, which actually worked well for the acoustics of the show.  It was a small, but dedicated crowd which added lots of energy to the show. Vocalists Amber Strother and Anita Bias’ effortless harmonies weaved in and out of each other over Paris Strother’s (Amber’s sister) hypnotic electro-pop instrumentals. This was an excellent show, and hopefully the next time KING plays Charlotte, their name recognition will warrant a bigger stage.

Read my interview with Paris Strother of KING in CLTure here.

4. Mobb Deep – Amos’ Southend Probably my last show ever at Amos’, but it was an absolute banger. The Infamous Mobb is just as grimey as ever and they showed it at the soon-to-be defunct music venue. Like most all hip hop shows, they made the crowd wait for what seemed like forever, leaving the hapless hype men out there to a chorus of boos and chants of “We want Mobb Deep!”

mobb-deep-gohjo

So apparently it’s not that easy to get a photo that accurately depicts the show you’re seeing with just a cell phone camera. It’s almost as if you should just put the phone away and enjoy the show. Or nah.

Then, out of nowhere, Prodigy and Havoc appeared and immediately went into a ground shaking set that included all of their classics. The crowd went absolutely ballistic for songs like “Survival of the Fittest”, “Hell on Earth”, “Quiet Storm” and of course “Shook Ones, Pt. II”. The most impressive part for me was how P and Hav traded lines and stanzas seamlessly. The Queensbridge duo have been through a lot and have seen it all, and throughout the show you got the sense that shows like this had become almost second nature. If this was my last show at Amos’, then it was a hell of a way to send it out.

3. Frédéric YonnetJazz at the Bechtler Quick aside, the Jazz at the Bechtler shows have been truly influential for me in the past year. Held the first Friday of every month, the performances feature the Ziad Jazz Quartet, led by Ziad Rabie, playing a different theme, style or artist each month. These guys play together all the time all over the place in various iterations so they are razor sharp wherever they play.

This particular show, however… whoa. Frédéric Yonnet is a harmonica player who’s played with Prince and Stevie Wonder (he toured with Wonder for the Songs in the Key of Life tour), as well as playing the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture, officially making him the most badass harmonica player in the world.

Yonnet’s energy was absolutely infectious and impossible to ignore. He’s the only guest musician to be so remarkable that he absolutely overshadowed the rest of the quartet. Yonnet’s talent with the harmonica was mind bending, making sounds and melodies that I truly couldn’t believe I was hearing. Neither could the crowd, as they gave a standing ovation after every single song. I asked one of our frequent attendees of the Jazz at the Bechtler series, Loyd Dillon (who’s seen 65-ish of the 70-ish shows held in total over six years) to rate it, and he said “Top three” without hesitation.

frederic-yonnet-gohjo

Frédéric Yonnet’s performance was pure, concentrated energy.

If you ever see the name Frédéric Yonnet on a bill anywhere you are, drop what you’re doing and get a ticket to that show because I promise you won’t regret it.

2. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – Knight Theater With jazz being such an influential force in my personal auditory world in 2016, this was a real treat. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, headed by Wynton Marsalis, are clearly some straight jazz OGs. On the final night of the Charlotte Jazz Festival, Marsalis led the orchestra in recreating the vibrant big band sounds of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

I went to this concert by myself, a bit socially burnt out but also wanting to experience the mastery of the musicians in complete focus (I’m kinda weird like that). My efforts were rewarded as I could simply sit and take in the way the musicians played off of one another, communicating with no words, only their instruments.

Big band is a style of jazz that has plenty of action, as there were probably 13 or so musicians on stage at once. Despite the big bouquet of sounds, Marsalis was the ever-present maestro, controlling the group at his will, but letting them improvise when needed. He also served as a narrator for the audience, telling stories about the music and how it came to be.

It goes without saying that I’m already anticipating what this year’s Charlotte Jazz Festival will bring to Uptown.

1. Music Midtown – Piedmont Park, Atlanta Granted, this isn’t a single concert, and it was the only true musical festival I attended this year, but oooh lawdy it was a good one. While getting to see acts like Big Boi, Logic, Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz, Twenty One Pilots, Alabama Shakes, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, The Killers and more was nice, the best part of the weekend came outside festival grounds.

One of the things that struck me, as someone who doesn’t go to music festivals all that often, was the sheer number of people that were there. I’ve been to a Bonnaroo or two, but those are held in farms in the middle of nowhere. Music Midtown featured 100,000 strong in the heart of Atlanta. The park, while still sprawling, is a relatively confined space in comparison, making the number of people there seem endless. This was most palpable when one set would end and another would begin as enormous waves of people would shift from one side of the park to the other, moving in a sort of chaotic unison, like a school of fish in the sea. There were times where this would happen, and I wasn’t going anywhere, where if I had got knocked over, I probably would have been trampled.

Despite the massive crowds, I still had an almost ideal (and ultimately unforgettable) experience in Atlanta. The mood of the weekend was one of unison and unabashed ecstasy. It’s exactly the reason why music is so powerful. Tens of thousands of strangers came together to experience something that binded them together no matter the distance travelled, color of their skin or content of their bank accounts. It was absolutely beautiful and was probably my favorite moment of the year, musical or otherwise.

big-boi-music-midown-gohjo

To be fair, I took this photo of Killer Mike, Big Boi and the Dungeon Family with my cell phone.

Two things before I wrap this post.

One, I’ve got to thank my homie Cameron Lee at CLTure for helping me get into and being a part of several of these shows. Cam does tremendous work and his contributions to the local music scene are far underrated in my opinion. CLTure is exactly the type of grassroots organization this city needs, driven by someone so passionate that they won’t be denied by anything. If Charlotte is ever going to be a truly world-class city like we hope it will be one day, we need more Cameron Lee’s and more CLTure (no pun intended).

Second, I’ve got to get to more live music in 2017. This is non negotiable. Especially when it comes to local acts, I’m embarrassingly deficient when it comes to the quantity of shows I’ve seen, at least for my standards.

When you spend money on a ticket to these shows (or the requisite transportation, lodging, food etc.), you don’t leave with something tangible that you can hold on to or an investment that generates future returns.

No, what you get out of these experiences is much more valuable. What you get is something that speaks directly to your soul, something that unifies you with the performers and those around you, like Jedi and the force. The electricity and atmosphere aren’t things that can be recreated in any recording or social media post. What you get from live music is an experience that shapes you as a person, filling your world with color and character that stays with you, leaves an impression in you and makes you a different person than you would have been otherwise.

These memories and moments are priceless, and in the long run, we as people are only what our memories and moments make us. I’m sure I could have taken the money I spent on that Music Midtown ticket and invested it or bought a swanky new overcoat. But I know that when I’m nearing my final breath in this life, I’ll have had a more rich and wonderful experience in this world because of the trip I chose to make and the lasting memories I made with my friends. That will never change. Damn an investment and damn a piece of clothing because you damn sure can’t take that with you to the other side.

2017, like David Bowie said, let’s dance.

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