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)

 

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.