There were no real tectonic shifts in electronic music in 2016; even the most skilled artists’ efforts went largely toward improving upon—or at least making their mark upon—long-established forms. Perhaps that’s why our year-end ranking is so full of veteran players, like Aphex Twin, who continued his post-comeback streak to put a new spin on slow-motion techno, and Larry Heard, who returned to his Mr. Fingers alias for the first time in more than a decade. (Speaking of comebacks, none was more unexpected than the Avalanches’ long-awaited return from the wilderness—but like some kind of sample-flipping Rip van Winkles, they managed to make Since I Left You seem like only yesterday.) While diverse takes on traditionalist house and techno set the tone for much of the year’s output, from Leon Vynehall’s deep-diving Rojus to Marie Davidson’s brittle, chilly Adieux Au Dancefloor, even more classic strains of funk bubbled up in the work of Mndsgn, Nite-Funk, and Moodymann, who dedicated his DJ-Kicks mix to a wide-ranging array of reconstructed soul. That’s not to say that there was nothing new under the sun, however: Autechre continued to bang out algorithmic jams that extraterrestrial beings may one day use as a kind of sonic Rosetta Stone to figure out exactly what made humans tick.
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- Frank Ocean: Blonde/Endless
- Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
- Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
- Bon Iver: 22, A Million
- David Bowie: Blackstar
- Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
- A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
- Beyoncé: Lemonade
- Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
- Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
- Anderson .Paak: Malibu
- Solange: A Seat at the Table
- Angel Olsen: My Woman
- Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
- Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
- Mitski: Puberty 2
- The Avalanches: Wildflower
- James Blake: The Colour in Anything
- Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
- ANOHNI: HOPELESSNESS
- Kaytranada: 99.9%
- Rihanna: ANTI
- Death Grips: Bottomless Pit
- Parquet Courts: Human Performance
- Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker
- Young Thug: JEFFERY
- Nicolas Jaar: Sirens
- Pinegrove: Cardinal
- Hamilton Leithauser/Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
- Schoolboy Q: Blank Face LP
- Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing
- Drake: VIEWS
- Weezer: Weezer (White Album)
- Noname: Telefone
- Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor's Guide to Earth
- Kevin Morby: Singing Saw
- Zayn: Mind of Mine
- NxWorries: Yes Lawd!
- King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: Nonagon Infinity
- DIIV: Is the Is Are
- Swans: The Glowing Man
- Porches: Pool
- Isaiah Rashad: The Sun’s Tirade
- Preoccupations: Preoccupations
- Jeff Rosenstock: WORRY.
- Deakin: Sleep Cycle
- Travis Scott: Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
- The Hotelier: Goodness
- Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch
- Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” [ft. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin]
- Frank Ocean: “Ivy”
- Radiohead: "Burn the Witch"
- Radiohead: "Daydreaming"
- Beyoncé: "Formation"
- Bon Iver: “33 ‘GOD’”
- Chance the Rapper: "No Problem" [Ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz]
- A Tribe Called Quest: “We the People...”
- Mitski: "Your Best American Girl"
- Solange: “Cranes in the Sky”
- Angel Olsen: “Shut Up Kiss Me”
- Danny Brown: “Really Doe” [ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt]
- Kanye West: "Real Friends"
- Radiohead: “True Love Waits”
- ANOHNI: "Drone Bomb Me"
- Kanye West: "No More Parties in L.A." [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
- Bon Iver: “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]”
- Car Seat Headrest: "Fill in the Blank"
- Angel Olsen: “Sister”
- Blood Orange: “Best to You” [ft. Empress Of]
- Anderson .Paak: "Come Down"
- Beyoncé: "Hold Up"
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “I Need You”
- David Bowie: "Dollar Days"
- Childish Gambino: “Redbone”
- Chance the Rapper: "Blessings"
- Beyoncé: "Freedom" [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
- Solange: “Don't Touch My Hair” [ft. Sampha]
- Kaytranada: "Glowed Up" [ft. Anderson .Paak]
- Kendrick Lamar: "Untitled 2"
- Rihanna: "Work" [ft. Drake]
- James Blake: "Radio Silence"
- Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker”
- Hamilton Leithauser / Rostam: “A 1000 Times”
- Whitney: "No Woman"
- Rae Sremmurd: “Black Beatles” [ft. Gucci Mane]
- A Tribe Called Quest: “Dis Generation”
- D.R.A.M.: "Broccoli" [ft. Lil Yachty]
- Danny Brown: “When It Rain”
- Car Seat Headrest: "Vincent"
- Drake: "One Dance" [ft. Wizkid and Kyla]
- David Bowie: "Lazarus"
- Frank Ocean: "Nights"
- Kendrick Lamar: "untitled 05 | 09.21.2014"
- Blood Orange: “Augustine”
- Chance the Rapper: “All Night” [ft. Knox Fortune]
- The xx: "On Hold"
- Whitney: "Golden Days"
- Pinegrove: "Old Friends"
- The Avalanches: “Colours”
- Anderson .Paak: Malibu
- Pinegrove: Cardinal
- Noname: Telefone
- Kaytranada: 99.9%
- Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
- Frank Ocean: Blonde/Endless
- Deakin: Sleep Cycle
- Weezer: Weezer (White Album)
- Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
- Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
- Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
- Beyoncé: Lemonade
- Drake: VIEWS
- Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
- Frank Ocean: Blonde/Endless
- Bon Iver: 22, A Million
- Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
- David Bowie: Blackstar
- ANOHNI: HOPELESSNESS
- Solange: A Seat at the Table/Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Tie)
- Lil Yachty
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- Kanye West
- LCD Soundsystem
- Anderson .Paak
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- Kanye West
- Father John Misty
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His formerly hermetic tendencies now firmly a thing of the past, Richard D. James continues his hot streak, dusting off two woozy, low-slung tracks from his famous SoundCloud dump and assembling an entire EP around them. Building the release around the sounds of the Cheetah MS800—described by one enthusiast as “one of the most unfathomable instruments ever made”—James makes the most of the obscure digital synthesizer’s mutable wavetable technology, slowing the tempo, stripping down the beats, and zeroing in on gelatinous timbres. The slow tempos and straight-ahead tones make for what, at first, seems like one of his most uncomplicated releases in ages—but direct your attention just right, and, as with a “Magic Eye” image, a world of detail comes snapping into focus.
Autechre’s live shows, performed in near-total darkness, can be overwhelming experiences. And in recent years, so are the duo’s releases: Their ongoing series of live recordings is nine installments deep and growing, while this digital-only album sprawls across five virtual “discs” and more than four hours. Even if you don’t pony up the cash for the 24-bit lossless version and content yourself with a damn-near Paleolithic 320 kbps, Sean Booth and Rob Brown’s algorithmic free-for-alls have never sounded more vivid, flitting between cellophane crinkle and ice-crystal fractals, and flecked with stray bits of hip-hop and Stockhausen. If you own a quality pair of headphones or speakers, however, the hi-fi version really is the way to go: Staring down the tunnel of a track like “TBM2” or the gorgeous “pendulu hv moda,” the level of detail is so granular, it can practically inspire vertigo. And even if “cozy” isn't quite the right word for it, there is something soothing about Autechre’s music once you let their silvery space-blanket textures envelop you.
Autechre: “c16 deep tread” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)
XL / EMI / Astralwerks / Modular
Over the past few years, a number of stragglers—My Bloody Valentine, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk—have finally come in from the cold. The Avalanches, on the other hand, had promised their imminent return so many times that there was little reason they’d ever abandon surfing, or dingo hunting, or whatever antipodean pleasure that was standing between them and their sophomore album. By June, though, that last sample-clearance form must have finally gotten faxed back to them, paving the way for the giddy “Frankie Sinatra” and, after 16 long years, Wildflower. Just like their debut, it's a densely packed collage of disco, soul, and folk that glistens like dewdrops on dandelion tufts; this time, though, Danny Brown, Biz Markie, and members of Mercury Rev, Toro Y Moi, Silver Jews, Royal Trux, and Camp Lo are on hand to inject their soft-focus fantasia with an added element of humanity.
The Avalanches: “Colours” (via SoundCloud)
Adieux Au Dancefloor
For an album whose title translates as “Farewell to the Dancefloor,” Marie Davidson’s Cititrax debut pulls no punches: Pairing chilly coldwave synths and even chillier spoken-word vocals with tough drum programming, the Montreal electronic musician offers nine tracks aimed squarely at the small hours in cavernous warehouses. There’s nothing conventional about the way she uses her machines, though. On “Inferno” and “Denial,” she sculpts pummeling repetition into wide, psychedelic arcs, and on bare-bones cuts like “Good Times,” she strips acid house down to its leering, Cheshire Cat grin. “You call me naïve?” she asks, unapologetic, in another spring-loaded track. “I’ll tell you what: I’m naïve to the bone.”
Marie Davidson : “Naive to the Bone” (via SoundCloud)
Rupert Clervaux / Beatrice Dillon
Where their 2015 album Studies I-XVII for Samplers and Percussion strung together 17 short, minimalist sketches for marimba, xylophone, and other small, percussive sounds, Beatrice Dillon and Rupert Clervaux’s Two Changes takes the opposite tack, with two long, evolving explorations of shifting rhythms and garbled frequencies. “The Same River Twice” offers nearly 19 minutes of rippling techno pulses overlaid with free-jazz trumpet, scraped piano strings, and birdsong, while “A Different River Once” uses vibraphone improv and modular squiggles to suggest dynamic phenomena in microscopic detail, like a molecular view of snowmelt.
Beatrice Dillon & Rupert Clervaux: “The Same River Twice” (via SoundCloud)
Open Your Eyes
On his first album for Teklife, DJ Earl proposes a vision of footwork that's both bumblebee nimble and heavy as a Mack truck. What makes Open Your Eyes so thrilling isn’t just the 808 programming, though his devilishly syncopated rhythms snap with the precision of very expensive robotics; it's the richly colored, keenly textured synths and samples that fill every corner of this deliriously detailed album. In “Rachett,” we get silvery Rhodes and petulant mosquitos; “Let’s Work” gives us disco strings and hyperreal soprano sax. Some of that ultra-vivid sheen probably comes down to Oneohtrix Point Never, who contributes to three tracks. But the rough-and-ready sonics of two tunes featuring DJ Manny and DJ Taye are no less gripping—particularly “Fukk It Up,” which sounds like a turntablist going to town on dub techno pioneers Basic Channel.
DJ Earl: "Let's Work" [ft. MoonDoctoR and Oneohtrix Point Never] (via SoundCloud)
Described by Jaar as a companion piece to Pomegranates and Nymphs, Sirens bundles together all of the Chilean-American musician's interests and talents—slinky house beats, atmospheric collage, and midnight-hued pop—into an expansive, shape-shifting beast. Moving from ambient to song-form and back again, Jaar channels Bauhaus side project Tones on Tail into elegiac jazz piano, filters ’50s rock’n’roll into Gregorian chant, and layers squealing bass clarinets over overdriven drums. Collapsing the personal into the world-historical, he offers a dark, deeply nuanced record that feels especially apt for the present moment. “Chapter one: We fucked up,” he sings on the closing “History Lesson,” counting his way up through the mounting catastrophes, picking his way through the ethical wreckage. The final lesson—“Chapter six: We’re done”—is a wearily familiar one these days.
Nicolas Jaar: “Fight” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)
From the police scanner on the trap track that opens the album to the title “Sawgrass Expressway”—a reference to Broward County’s State Road 869—Jubilee’s debut album couldn’t get much more Floridian if it featured an octopus floating in a parking garage. The Miami-raised, NYC-based producer goes in hard on the whipcrack syncopations of classic Miami bass, but she doesn't stop there. “Wine Up,” featuring the Bronx singer Hoodcelebrityy, is a tough, bass-heavy dancehall tune in which the dissonance between vocals and backing track throws off sparks, while “Beach Ball” projects contemporary bass music through the lens of classic Detroit techno.
Jubilee: “Wine Up” [ft. Hoodcelebrityy] (via SoundCloud)
Kornél Kovács is a cofounder, with Axel Boman and Petter Nordkvist, of Stockholm’s Studio Barnhus label. On his debut album, he smoothes the imprint’s sometimes oddball, sometimes impish style of dance music into a relatively streamlined set of crisp, percussive house tracks. “Relatively” being the keyword here: For all the bittersweet detachment of cuts like “BB” and “Szív Utca,” he can’t quite resist giving free rein to more manic moods on “Gex,” a disco-fueled tune that's primed for conga lines.
Kornél Kovács: "BB" (via SoundCloud)
For an album called Body Wash, Ringgo Ancheta’s slinky second album for Stones Throw feels a lot more like a full-mind rubdown. Taking a page from Dâm-Funk’s SoCal electro-funk squelch—LinnDrum thwacks, legato synth leads—he leans hard on the harmonies, tipping the balance toward the cosmic jazz accents of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. The blissed-out vocals, meanwhile, amount to subliminal self-actualization messages designed to steer the listener “from where ya at to where ya going” as frictionlessly as possible. Sun-baked, wind-kissed, and West Coast to the extreme, it’s new age for a new era.
Mndsgn: “Use Ya Mnd (Twentyfourseven)” (via SoundCloud)
Kenny Dixon, Jr.’s installment for the German label !K7’s long-running DJ-Kicks series—amazingly, the Detroit veteran’s first official mix CD—mostly steers clear of the house and techno you might expect from him. Instead, he lavishes his attentions on rainy-day soul, shuffling boom-bap, and curveballs like Swedish folkie José González and British electro-poet Anne Clark. Only Detroit could forge a sensibility like this, and nobody presents it more compellingly—or more soulfully—than Moodymann.
Joe Williams’ debut under his Motion Graphics alias floats along at an easygoing glide, but its ideas zip to and fro at hyperspeed velocities. Breathy choirs and sounds of splashing water traverse the real-or-Memorex divide, while trap rhythms cut crosswise against tango nuevo’s bandoneons and marimba patterns inspired by classical minimalism. Over it all, in a cool, calm voice, Williams sings matter-of-fact odes to the way we live now: “Links accelerate/Rendering a time zone/Moving in a mobile home.”
Motion Graphics: “Houzzfunction” (via SoundCloud)
Outer Acid EP
As much as anyone, Larry Heard invented deep house. Now with the revival of the style pushing dangerously close to self-parody, Heard proves how much life there is left in the idea. On his first record in a decade under his most famous alias, Heard breaks new ground yet again. The elements have barely changed—here we have the usual silken pads, brooding chords, and pitter-pat drum programming—but the sound is unmistakable from any of his previous releases, or, indeed, anything else out there. That’s particularly true on the gurgling “Outer Acid,” a barely-there 303 jam that a strong gust of wind could scatter to the four corners, and “Qwazars,” an ambient-techno epic that transmits more genuine awe for the mysteries of the universe than we’ve seen since Carl Sagan departed the planet for points unknown.
Mr. Fingers: "Qwazars" (via SoundCloud)
Seven years after Nite Jewel and Dâm-Funk’s shared appreciation for vintage LinnDrums yielded “Am I Gonna Make It,” a proudly throwback R&B slow jam, Nite-Funk finally got around to making the duo official. They still make no secret of their influences: The anxious “Let Me Be Me” sets freestyle bass synth to the ringing guitars of the early MTV era; “Don’t Play Games” drops a phrase from Prince and Sheila E.’s “A Love Bizarre” into a liquid pool of synth and voice and lets it swirl like purple food coloring. But “U Can Make Me” turns out to be a heartfelt tribute to Everything But the Girl’s soft melodies and sleek house beats—a detour in the duo's nocturnal roadmap that few fans could have seen coming.
Nite-Funk: “Let Me Be Me” (via SoundCloud)
In pop music, hip-hop, and R&B, collaboration is the favored mode these days. That goes for electronic music, too, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that pushing around pixels on a screen is the most solitary of activities. Like many of his peers in contemporary bass music, Brooklyn’s James Hinton, better known as the Range, is deeply indebted to the guest singers whose voices provide the warm, beating hearts for his wistful electronic productions. But his method—sampling amateur and otherwise anonymous strivers he discovers deep down in the nether regions of YouTube, where view-counts might top out in the double digits—is unique to his own practice. The result is a kind of music that feels deeply personal and universal all at once.
The Range: "Florida" (via SoundCloud)
Detroit’s Omar S keeps up a gruff façade; hence tracks like the pummeling acid grind, “Bitch… I’ll Buy Another One!!!,” whose title possibly reflects the damage inflicted upon his TB-303 while making it. But he’s secretly a softy at heart. Behind the ’80s bounce of “Take Ya Pick, Nik!!!!!” bubbles a keening synthesizer melody; “Seen Was Set (Norm Talley Mix - BIG Strick Vocal)” is a loving disco tribute to 1988, “the true Detroit party scene, where there wasn’t no wallflowers holdin’ the wall down.” There’s no shortage of moody, machine-driven house cuts like “Time Mo 1 (Norm Talley Mix).” And the closing “Heard’ Chew Single,” tossed between rolling parade snares and a pensive piano melody, might be the most lovelorn track he’s ever done.
Lilting African rhythms tangle with new wave synths and vocoders in this endlessly delightful album from Shy Layers, an Atlanta-based multimedia artist. Cherry-picking the best tracks from two Bandcamp-only EPs, his debut album, on Hamburg’s fledgling Growing Bin label, is the equivalent of a tropical vacation on wax—a yacht-pop cruise where Kraftwerk, Arthur Russell, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Cat Stevens’ “Was Dog a Doughnut?” are in heavy rotation.
Shy Layers: "SEG" (via SoundCloud)
On their debut album together, White Material’s Galcher Lustwerk and Alvin Aronson pay tribute to the ’90s outlet of labels like Rephlex and Apollo, using analog (or at least analog-inspired) gear to turn out a diverse, dreamy array of ambient house and techno. They stretch the same raw material into an impressive range of shapes, from the juke-tempo “Speed City” to a pair of tracks, “Session” and “Bent Light,” that reference the rippling machine-soul sound that ruled the Midwestern underground 20 years ago. And few contemporary musicians have come closer to replicating the melancholy vibe of Autechre’s Amber than Studio OST do here with the closing “Whitesands.” File under IDM, but this time, let that stand for “intuitive dance music.”
Studio OST: “Session” (via SoundCloud)
DJ Koze Presents Pampa Vol. 1
While the world waited for a follow-up to DJ Koze’s Amygdala, the German electronic musician took 2016 to prove why his Pampa Records is one of the most exciting and emotionally unguarded labels currently circulating in house music's outer orbits. While Isolée, Lawrence, Roman Flügel, and Axel Boman all contribute sparkling after-hours anthems in a sentimental mood, Jamie xx and Koze team up on a breathless ode to road-tripping with the top down, and Ada adds to her catalog of unorthodox covers with a graceful flip of Cassie’s “Me & U.” Matthew Herbert’s remix of Lianne La Havas’ “Lost & Found,” meanwhile, is the most affecting song from the UK producer since Koze’s own “It’s Only” remix from a few years back.
DJ Koze: "I Haven't Been Everywhere But It's On My List" (via SoundCloud)
Inspired loosely by the mating rituals of birds of paradise, and how they mirror the behavior of clubbers, Leon Vynehall’s Rojus is a carefully calibrated display of iridescent color and graceful movement. The album’s swinging, rattling grooves bear the influence of classic deep house producers like Mood II Swing and Pépé Bradock, and rich tone colors swirl together sampled keys, disco strings, easy listening choirs, and even actual jungle birds. It’s a humid, late-night trip to the middle of the rain forest.
Leon Vynehall: "Beau Sovereign" (via SoundCloud)
What forms can pleasure take? Is it exclusively the province of serenity and happy thoughts? Or is it possible that political confrontation and discomfort are even more powerful venues for deriving pleasure? If there is anything that unites the music on our list of the best experimental records of 2016, it is the idea that aesthetic beauty and fun can come from unlikely places and from strange sources, be it the archival sounds of protests or the pitter patter of a washing machine. Perhaps the impetus of experimental music is to challenge, but spend some time with these records, and you’ll discover not just radically different ways of finding joy in the world, you’ll also be dumbstruck with the creative methods artists use to get to that sweet spot.
The music the Berlin duo Amnesia Scanner makes doesn't seem to exist in any knowable zone of time or space. It might be dance music, but it also just be might be a new way of writing a science fiction horror story. The sounds they utilize can feel both primeval and dystopian: existing somewhere between Lotic’s free-flowing club music and Holly Herndon’s postmodern experiments. Their debut release, a short EP of six tracks, is a riotous collection of experimental electronic music. The songs here are all small Frankenstein's monsters of sound art, stitched together with unlikely samples, biological bits and parts, terrifying voices, and gurgling noise. And against your expectations, what these two have created will make you move.
The 14 sections of Arca’s unclassifiable release Entrañas exist as a single 25-minute block of jagged, queasy, and unexpected electronic sound. You’d be hard pressed to know when one section begins or ends, or discern the moments when collaborators Mica Levi, Total Freedom, and Massacooramann enter the scene. It is a rigorous piece of music that bears many of the fluid and rippling hallmarks of Arca’s compositional style, but with a voice even more abject, harsh, and slippery. Here, he takes a turn for the truly nightmarish and gothic, sampling everything from the Cocteau Twins to a Charlotte Gainsbourg monologue. Entrañas in Spanish means “bowels” or “entrails,” a winking nod to Ghersi’s continual project of shattering and transforming the normative sense of disgust into a new kind of pleasure.
Arca: Entrañas (via SoundCloud)
Romance isn’t what first comes to mind when you think of noise music. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma is here to change that. He has described his new five-track cassette release, In Summer, as a “catalogue of photographs,” a strange description for drone. His sweltering and harsh compositions are supposed to be like little snapshots that evoke reminiscence and longing. The listening experience he provides with In Summer often feels extremely tactile and the mood is lush and humid and dreamy. And he does something that seems so unlikely with tape loops and crunching noises, he writes amazing love songs that just happen to make your ears ring.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma: “Love's Refrain” (via SoundCloud)
Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City
Over just two albums, Elysia Crampton has offered a body of work that burrows deeply into American history, sexuality, and community. WithDemon City she has invited a host of collaborators to write what she calls an “epic poem” that looks at 18th century revolutionary Bartolina Sisa and “transformative justice” through music. She has fine-tuned her abilities as a supremely talented electronic collagist: mixing the sonic vernaculars of huayño and cumbia into a dizzying electronic geography that samples the sounds found in clubs around the world. With this album, Crampton cements her place as one of the foremost minds in electronic music, and in the years to come we’ll still be figuring out what messages she left behind.
Elysia Crampton / Rabit: "The Demon City" (via SoundCloud)
Hospital / NON
Just a few years ago Fred Warmsley was a Soundcloud producer who worked under the name Lee Bannon. He collaborated with Joey Bad$$ and the Alchemist, making nostalgic hip-hop beats. Then he abandoned all that to make jungle and drum‘n’bass. Now he’s abandoned the name Lee Bannon all together, and along with it the easy logic of dance music to make eerie ambient pieces. His debut full length as Dedekind Cut, $ucessor, illustrates the circuitous journey Warmsley took to figure out what he might be best at doing: making soundscapes of tape hiss, pained voices, and pointillist synths that are strikingly urgent. His new brand of ambient is in no way music for airports. It doesn’t exist in the background to activate comfortable thinking, but rather combats anxiety by tackling it with tempestuous noise.
Dedekind Cut: “ℐntegra” (via SoundCloud)
Ostensibly, Brian Eno’s The Ship is about the Titanic. In this suite of 48 minutes of palatial ambient, including a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free,” Eno attempts to tell the tale of “the apex of human technical power” thwarted by the random force of nature. Unlike, say, James Cameron, another great bard of this historical disaster, Eno has no desire to dwell in drama, but is more interested in the creation of startling sensations. At points you might feel like you’re floating in the middle of the ocean, or washing up on shore, or in the middle of a maelstrom.
Takahide Higuchi started making footwork because he thought the feeling it generated was something akin to punk or dub, the creation of its blistering beats was “about an expression, a way of approaching sound that transcends multiple genres.” The special form of footwork he makes transforms the quick pace of the genre into something that mimics the frenetic action of a human body. He deploys belching horns, bright drums, and distended samples that seem to come straight from the churning stomach of a massive whale.
Foodman: “Mid Summer Night feat. Diskomargaux” (Buy on Bandcamp)
Jan Jelinek / Masayoshi Fujita
On the back cover of Schaum, Jan Jelinek writes that his collaboration with the Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita is in some part informed by an obsession with “the tropics.” This obsession, he continues, is centered around a “specific quality of landscape” that is defined by a “deliriously extravagant unstructuredness.” The tropics to these two might be best be understood as an undefinable thicket shrouded in mist, which is an accurate way to describe how they wend together their specialties of lulling loops and vibraphone exploration. There is a powerfully organic quality to Schaum: the sounds here are wet, diffuse, and filled with samples of chirps and quacks. In effect, it is transportive, and the album becomes a small experiential filter, suddenly changing the space you inhabit into the riverbed of a sumptuous rainforest.
Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek: “Botuto” (via SoundCloud)
4AD / Paper Bag
If artists who experiment with the modalities of noise are sculptors—chiseling sine waves to do their bidding—then Tim Hecker is a land artist, bending his surroundings into massive pieces of art. Love Streams, the latest in his fruitful career, finds Hecker working with Jóhann Jóhannsson and an Icelandic chorus to make some of his most textured musical pieces. The songs on Love Streams reimagine the sensorial possibilities of things as basic as voice and noise. His work makes these normalities feel like natural wonders well worthy of inspiring reverie.
Tim Hecker: “Castrati Stack” [Preview] (via SoundCloud)
For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
There is a moment during some club nights, where dry ice fog drapes every corner, the bodies that surround you seem like apparitions, and time moves slower. Brian Leeds (aka Huerco S.) has logged enough hours in clubs around the world to watch this ghostly moment slowly take hold over a crowd. He abandons the strictures of techno and house music’s grid in For Those of You Who Have Never (and Also Those Who Have), for a form of ambient music that can help imagine what it must be like to have a seance on the dancefloor. Huerco’s ambient work is spectral, haunted, and shimmering with moments of romantic bliss. There is no hard beat, percussion, or sense of total rhythm, here, and rather his music exists like a gust of warm wind or a plume of smoke—seemingly ever present and wonderfully ephemeral.
Huerco S: “Promises of Fertility” (via SoundCloud)
More than an album of music, Blood Bitch is what Jenny Hval calls an “investigation of blood,” a celebration and analysis of menstruation, “a poetic diary of modern transience and transcendence,” a cornucopia of sly philosophical musing, and a funhouse romp through a vampire story. She is one of the smartest and funniest musicians currently working, and Blood Bitch is a testament to Hval’s skill as a storyteller and thinker. Her stories are accompanied by breathtaking, atmospheric sound that extract the grandeur of Norwegian black metal, liturgical, and ambient music. Here she reinforces her genius yet again, showing that blood is what we all share and what we should worship.
Jenny Hval: “Conceptual Romance” (via SoundCloud)
Ultimate Care II
At the release party for Ultimate Care II,M.C. Schmidt warned the crowd, "this is genuinely an experiment. It’s experimental fucking music, so we’re going to play a washing machine.” For almost an hour, they did just that, by processing its sloshing sounds through arrays of microphones and samplers, and literally drumming all over the machine’s metal body. Ultimate Care II documents their experiments with their washing machine, and the album extracts a special discombobulating joy from the banal domestic object. It shows thatthe elder statesmen of experimental music are not done thinking outside of the box.
Matmos: "Ultimate Care II Excerpt Eight" (via SoundCloud)
PIAS / Moshi Moshi
The classically trained composer Anna Meredith dove into the world of electronic production and slightly unhinged dance music because she “wanted more volume” than concert halls could provide. Her 2012 debut single “Nautilus,” is a swaggering, imperial march, where instruments chase each other towards a endpoint of chaotic action. Four years later, that single opens her debut LP, Varmints, a set of 11 tracks that move with the same demonically possessed pace. Her music is entropic; these compositions are always on the brink of tearing themselves apart. Across these songs Meredith displays a knack for making inimitable compositions of immense scope and eccentric grace.
Anna Meredith: "Taken" (via SoundCloud)
On Behalf of Nature
ECM New Series
Meredith Monk has said that philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of “bricolage,” the way cross-cultural myths use the same materials and tools of narrative to create new forms, was one way to model her practice. On her performance piece, On Behalf of Nature, she weaves through 19 grandly wrought exercises of glossolalia, her ensemble of singers and instrumentalists maneuver the human voice through all of nature’s sounds: infantile coos, bird calls, screams, laughs, hymns, and chants. The goal was to speak on behalf of nature, and she does so with panache, celebrating the lexicon of sounds our mortal vocal box can offer and mimic.
Camae Ayewa is a Philadelphia activist, organizer, and a seasoned veteran of one of America’s most fertile and diverse music scenes. Her most recent album as Moor Mother, Fetish Bones, is a focused, dense, and harrowing journey through the history of government mandated racism, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, and all manner of sickening facts that came from centuries of mistreatment folks of color have suffered in this country. Using archival sound, dissonant noise, and insanely intelligent poetry, Ayewa has offered something that throttles a listener with the weight of trauma and the love that can eke out of years of hardship.
Moor Mother: “Deadbeat Protest” (via Bandcamp)
The producer Mikael Seifu hails from the Ethiopian capital city Addis Ababa. After a period of study in the States and an exposure to the tropes of Western electronic music, he returned to Ethiopia with a newfound appreciation for the sounds that eked out of drinking halls and the azmaris musicians on the city streets. He is part of the “Ethiopiyawi Electronic” scene, and Zelalem is his love letter to the homegrown genre that’s emerged in his city. He combines electric pulses and wonky synthesizer work with indigenous instruments like the krar and masinko. On top of all this he gives a beautiful local color to his music by using recordings
Mikael Seifu: “How To Save A Life (Vector Of Eternity)” (via SoundCloud)
Josiah Wise’s debut EP, blisters, pairs his devastating, multivalent voice with the baroque soundscapes of co-producer Haxan Cloak. blisters in some respects is an incredibly chaotic record: a mercurial environment where ancient medieval sounds borrowed from harps, organs, and armadas of string instruments collide into luxuriant electronics. Yet it’s empathetic, emotionally complicated, and controlled by the exquisite power of Wise’s singing voice, which can evoke all the travails that can seem to exist in a single lifetime.
serpentwithfeet: "blisters" (via SoundCloud)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is a disciple at the altar of the Buchla Music Easel, a rare synthesizer that looks like an overgrown piece of alien flora. Smith has extracted an extraterrestrial magic from this bizarre object, and EARS, her latest dispatch from the Buchla’s musical universe is a terrarium of hypnotic sounds that meld together influences ranging from ’70s new age, Laurie Spiegel, and Terry Riley. She adds her relaxing voice to a chorus of beautiful sounds and an army of woodwinds provided by Bitchin Bajas member Rob Frye, make for a transcendental experience.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: "Existence in the Unfurling" (via SoundCloud)
Suzanne Ciani / Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
In the coastal town of Bolinas, California, Suzanne Ciani met Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at a dinner party, and both musicians are grand masters of the arcane arts of Don Buchla’s synthesizers. After their chance meeting, Ciani invited Smith to be her studio assistant, and their collaborative effort for RVNG Intl., Sunergy is akin to a blissful Matisse-esque landscape painting that crystallizes the Pacific cliffside view from Ciani’s home. Over three pieces, their dialogue is glittering and oceanic: a beautiful tapestry of white noise, drone, and electric magic.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith/Suzanne Ciani : “Closed Circuit” (via SoundCloud)
Rahel Ali started composing Serpent Music after a stint in Leipzig, looking for an outlet to write about “relationships and stuff.” The album is Ali’s interpretation of soul music, as informed by Throbbing Gristle as Otis Redding. He utilizes a sleepy falsetto, opiated guitars, jagged percussion, and a variety of field recordings that range from solemn choruses to the sound of lapping water. Serpent Music is an astoundingly sensitive portrait of Ali’s emotional range as a producer who can generate a kaleidoscope of moods at will.
Yves Tumor: “Role in Creation” (via SoundCloud)
Pitchfork’s associate social media manager Bailey Constas ranks the music-related memes and Vines (pour one out) that reminded us to take things a little less seriously this year, each in 140 characters or less.
When Nelly realized taking off his clothes wouldn't get rid of the IRS
12. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo Cover
SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH SHOULD’VE BEEN SWISH
11. Young Thug’s JEFFERY Cover
Young Thug said yes to that dress
10. Taylor Swift = 🐍 ?
Taylor Swift’s true identity kinda makes more sense than Tame Impala working with Lady Gaga :/
9. The Issues That Matter
Bernie’s political platform was actually just OK Computer lyrics
8. Waiting for Frank
Hey, what a wonderful kind of day! To sit and wait for Frank!
7. The Mannequin Challenge
“Wait, Paul, why are you looking at the ceiling? OK, whatever, just stop playing the piano.”
6. Beyoncé’s Lemonade
Beyonce single-handedly made it a crime to be named Becky
5. Evil Kermit
Kermit: Kanye had a rough year, he doesn’t deserve to be made fun of
Evil Kermit: Whatever, he big-upped Trump
4. Young Metro’s Trust
There are two types of people in this world: those who Young Metro trusts and those he doesn't
“Carly, I know these horns sound like a Casio just took a dump, but they have the ability to shatter glass ceilings” OH WAIT
2. The Fake Events of Our Dreams
After sobbing into your Extra Crispy $20 Fill Up™ KFC bucket, stay for a vaping competition and salad bar!
1. Drake’s Got the VIEWS
Drake’s on a wave, Drake’s on a ride, Drake’s everywhere, Drake’s hard to find
In 2016, everything felt more intense. The most visible pop music was also some of the most political. The saddest songs came from people who passed away days after releasing them. Debut singles from some of the most anticipated releases sounded broken. One of the best songs of the year received its studio debut 15 years after a live version was released. Insanely catchy, meme-driven hits reached new levels of ubiquity. This is our attempt to make some sense of it all. As voted by our staff and contributors, here’s our list of the 100 Best Songs of 2016.
Lil Peep is not the boy you take home to meet your mother. He may look like a scuzzed-up Justin Bieber but, with his copious face and neck tattoos (including one of Lisa Simpson scorched into his Adam’s apple) and a penchant for lyrics about cocaine and suicide, he makes Justin Bieber look like a picture of pure innocence. The 20-year-old Long Island native is a devotee of both trap wildman Waka Flocka Flame and emo heroes My Chemical Romance, and he’s racked up millions of SoundCloud plays as an unholy combination of the two.
His best song so far, “Kiss,” is a power ballad at its core—but you’ve never heard a power ballad quite like this. Peep sounds like a zombie version of the late Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley as he explores newfound vulnerabilities (“Nobody knows the me that you do”), takes solace in his outsider status (“I’m a freak/That’s why nobody’s friends with me”), and offers some semi-sweet nothings (“I think of you on blow”). A woozy mix of trap hits, tinny guitar strums, and sleigh bells(!) set an ominous tone, but just then, as the song seems destined to fade out, Peep’s voice rings out from the bleakness, begging for one more chance. Give it to him. –Ryan Dombal
Lil Peep: “Kiss” (via SoundCloud)
“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”
The opening track toSturgill Simpson’s ambitiousthird LP begins grandly, as Simpson intones, “Hello, my son, welcome to Earth” with the solemnity of a bible reading. He then establishes the record’s themes of fatherhood, love, and selflessness in the beginning of this lovely ballad. But it’s at the 2:43 mark that “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” astonishes by breaking out into a wholehearted, exciting honky-tonk jam. Simpson, meanwhile, shifts his tone and sings about the regret he feels, having to tour during the most precious moments of his newborn son’s life. Warmth emanates from Simpson’s greatest point of vulnerability: When lamenting missing his son, the entire thing explodes with love and joy. On an album of universal themes, “Welcome to Earth” is defining and contagious. –Matthew Strauss
“Poetry is my hardcore,” the artist Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, told Pitchfork this summer. “Deadbeat Protest,” from her astounding debut album Fetish Bones, is both at once: an 83-second industrial-noise rap with the all-caps ferocity of Death Grips, but irreducible, more explicitly political, more necessary. “I'm in line at the soup kitchen,” she spits with a low, cooly unspooling monotony, as if threading lyrics to hold together a great tapestry of reality. “These pigs wanna blow my mind/These people wanna stop my grind.” The grating abrasion of “Deadbeat Protest” drones on, as Ayewa’s concrete-hard flow curlicues over it. She grunts and roars, shreds her voice, bends it like rubber. It’s a picture of American upheaval, and it seethes, all energy barreling into the future without permission. –Jenn Pelly
One Little Indian
You might expect a conservatory-trained composer to lack fluency when it comes to electronic music, but Olga Bell makes herself right at home on the dance floor with “Randomness.” Kinetic and catchy, it's among the most straightforwardly clubby tracks on her third album, Tempo, and demonstrates Bell’s ability to flow between dance, R&B, hip-hop, and experimental modes. In fact, you’d never guess that Bell hasn’t spent her entire career as an electronic producer, or that her last record was a Russian-language folk song cycle.
Bell may have set out to use overtly commercial (and even “almost kind of gross”) sounds, but the sheer exuberance of “Randomness” overrides her use of dance music’s most familiar hallmarks. The thumping beat and frosty synthesizer hook are about as true to convention as they come, but Bell brings a distinct spark of personality, her vocals landing with a slight sting. If you’ve never had the pleasure of mouthing the words, “You've got that shit eating grin when there’s nobody smilin’” while going full-tilt in a crush of moving bodies, here's your chance. –Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Olga Bell: "Randomness" (via SoundCloud)
“Vibin in This Bih” [ft. Gucci Mane]
Dollaz N Dealz
How is it that Kodak Black—a young Floridian rapper who sounds like a combination of a half-asleep Lil Boosie, a more sing-songy Lil Wayne, and Juvenile minus about two decades of life experience—is able to sound so wise? Part of it is that voice, which manages to croak and float; it doesn’t seem like anyone should be able to do both. The other part is his complete disinterest in being flashy.
“Vibin in This Bih” is just two vocabulary-obsessed rappers doing what they do best. Kodak is a vibrant, economical writer: “People rootin’ for the hustler, I think I’m on next/At your neck, I don’t get tired, I ain’t gon’ rest.” His verse is quietly hypnotic, each line its own story, and then Gucci comes in, palpably reveling in his newfound freedom. They’re a great pair, but Kodak carries the track. He may not be asking for our attention, but he’s already earned it. –Sam Hockley-Smith
Kodak Black: “Vibin in This Bih” [ft. Gucci Mane] (via SoundCloud)
Doubling as Kamaiyah Johnson’s mission statement and her come-up fiesta, “I’m On” is taut, direct, and throwback hazy. Producer Drew Banga bolsters the 24-year-old Oakland, California MC’s vocals with tambourines and splashy tropical keyboards, recalling late-’80s/early-’90s R&B minimalism. Kamaiyah slides effortlessly from rapping to singing and back, retracing bleak yesterdays and brighter tomorrows with a dispassionate, no-bullshit rasp. “Remember when I didn’t have shoestrings?” she asks. “Now I pull up, hop out, watch that coup swing/Big money, get money, we do things.” As she relates, her rise seems equally incredible and inevitable: Her hard pluck overcame the hardest of luck, steering her from going hungry to scoring features on YG and E-40 tracks. In “I’m On,” Kamaiyah seems unfazed by her burgeoning success, but it’s hard not to celebrate her. –Raymond Cummings
Kamaiyah: “I’m On” (via SoundCloud)
Cate Le Bon
No song on Cate Le Bon’s Crab Day better exemplifies the album’s curious balance of sweetness and dissonance than “Wonderful,” a song whose seemingly chipper refrain—“Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful”—belies its anxious, caustic mood. Atonal guitar figures skitter like spiders across pumping barroom piano, marimba flourishes, and sour bursts of throaty saxophone skronk. The net effect suggests a fender-bender between the Slits and the Velvet Underground, with Raymond Scott as the lone eyewitness. As usual, “cryptic” barely begins to describe the Welsh singer-songwriter’s approach to narrative; if you’ve ever repeated a word to yourself until all meaning leached out of its suddenly alien contours, her verses here will have a certain uncanny familiarity. Ultimately, the song adds up to a kind of giddy riddle with an answer only Le Bon knows. But whatever she may mean by the declaration, “I wanna be a ten-pin ball,” knocking down the pieces and picking them up again proves endlessly fascinating. –Philip Sherburne
Listen:Cate Le Bon: “Wonderful”
“When It Rain”
In inner cities, the saying “when it rains, it pours” often correlates to gunshots. This is especially true in Danny Brown’s hometown. Violent crimes were down 13% in Detroit last year and still, the city still only finished behind St. Louis in murder rates. Brown’s “When It Rain” is a careful taxonomy of Detroit criminology that identifies the many types of gunmen in the so-called City of Boom, what drives them (poverty, mostly, but sometimes greed), and how locals, including Brown himself, try to escape from death’s grasp. His flow is skittering and his vocals bend out of shape into his signature squeal. The way he cuts perspectives together is jolting; he relates with both the shooters and the victims, the jailed and the free. Over a collage of percussive sound that rumbles with a thunderous boom, he is strikingly eloquent: “Dark clouds hanging all over our head/No sunshine and them showers be lead.” –Sheldon Pearce
Listen:Danny Brown: “When It Rain”
“Can't Stop Fighting”
Sheer Mag’s “Can’t Stop Fighting” is another entry in their ironclad canon of classic, beefy rock’n’roll. Kyle Seely’s guitar sound is still enormous and catchy; Tina Halladay still comes through with a dominant growl. They make adrenaline-filled guitar music, which is good, because the narrative here starts out rough: The song opens with a scene from thefemicide in Ciudad Juárez. One minute, a woman is walking home after a late shift at the maquiladora. Eight days later, she’s still missing. “We can’t stop fighting, we can’t stop fighting,” sings Halladay. It’s a grisly narrative—one that likely has more in common with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 than the Philly band’s day-to-day reality. By the end of the song, it’s a battle cry to fight palpable enemies—both the neighborhood assholes and the so-called “friends” who refuse to empathize. Sheer Mag are mad as hell, they’re not going to take it anymore, and they've got hooks. –Evan Minsker
Sheer Mag: "Can't Stop Fighting" (via SoundCloud)
21 Savage / Metro Boomin
Tellingly credited to 21 Savageand his producer Metro Boomin, the Atlanta rapper’s deliberate, chilling summertime EP Savage Mode worked a few notes (icy synths, ominous low-end, spoken-word delivery) into a fully crystallized aesthetic. “No Heart,” a song that could be summed up as Fredo Santana meets the xx, is the record’s highlight. 21 Savage’s autobiographical imagery could be dismissed as horrorcore but his delivery makes it work as he subtly alters his flow with each verse, signaling a different train of thought. In the end, the song becomes less about its shock value and more about how 21 Savage tells this story—it’s a treatise on the GBE-meets-Ka aesthetic, a wisp of a banger confident in both its content and how it presents its story. –Matthew Ramirez
21 Savage/Metro Boomin: “No Heart” (via SoundCloud)
Run for Cover
Pinegrove’s 2015 compilation Everything So Far began with Evan Hall singing, “I resolve to make new friends/I like my old ones but I fucked up so I’ll start again.” It was boisterous and optimistic and rightfully so; making new friends in one’s twenties can be simply a matter of resolve. But it gets harder with every year into adulthood, and this past February, theBritish Journal of Psychology and Pinegrove’s “Old Friends” came to the same conclusion as to why that is: Intelligent people become too goal-oriented and less vulnerable or, as Hall puts it, “Too caught up in my own shit/That’s how every outcome’s such a comedown.”
“Old Friends” finds Hall in one of his solipsistic moods, making hyper-detailed observations of his surroundings yet feeling disconnected from the people closest to him. “I should call my parents when I think of them/Should tell my friends when I love them,” he sighs, the should making it unclear whether he’s had an epiphany or just another clever thought that will come and go like a joke about the Port Authority. Even as the economic and romantic anxieties of millennials continue to be exhaustively documented, “Old Friends” feels like a fresh take—maybe making new friends isn't as important as keeping the old ones. –Ian Cohen
Pinegrove: "Old Friends" (via SoundCloud)
“On the Lips”
Greta Kline, aka Frankie Cosmos, has a gift for songs that are demonstrably grounded in real life, with arrangements anyone could play, but which still seem like miniature epiphanies. Next Thing highlight “On the Lips” has all the trappings of quintessential indie-pop: keenly observational lyrics, sprightly guitar strums, and a wistful chorus about a kiss that never happens. But Kline packs so much into the track’s sub-two-minutes:musings about watching David Blaine, a curious lyrical aside that gave the title to Cosmos’s 2013 effort im sorry im hi lets go (where “On the Lips” originally appeared, in rougher form), and an existential question that never gets answered. It’s a song less about kissing than about believing, even at the risk of looking foolish. “I don’t want magic that looks real,” Blaine himself once said. “What I want are real things that feel like magic.” That’s an apt description of what Kline accomplishes here. –Marc Hogan
Frankie Cosmos: "On the Lips" (via SoundCloud)
Roc Nation/Westbury Road
This year, a photo of Rihanna made the rounds in which she’s wearing super pointy heels, a giant coral jacket that might as well be a sleeping bag, and a T-shirt that reads “YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE.” It’s unclear if she’s wearing pants. Seems like a safe bet that’s what she was wearing when she recorded “Needed Me.” Has Rihanna ever delivered a more apt lyric than, “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?/Fuck ya white horse and ya carriage”? “Needed Me” may be a steady 110 BPM, but it slinks along like she recorded it in a steam room. Producer DJ Mustard borrows from the UK house tradition of the disembodied voice, and all the cut-up vocals echo like ghosts of the men Rihanna swallowed whole. –Matthew Schnipper
Listen:Rihanna: “Needed Me”
If you follow Alicia Keys on Instagram, you already know she’s drawn to Nigerian pop acts like Wizkid and Davido, part of the ascendant Afrobeats sound. Part UK funky, part soca, part dancehall, part soda pop bubble, this Nigerian/Ghanaian hybrid became the sound of the year, so it made sense that Ms. Keys and producer Illangelo wove those vibrant tropical patterns into “In Common.” It’s a rare, welcome instance of Keys moving out of her musical comfort zone and riding the humid groove, and she took it all the way to the DNC stage. It would have been easy enough to pair that genre’s bubbling rhythm with a lyrical bauble, but Keys instead twists the love song trope of “opposites attract.” “If you could love somebody like me/You must be messed up too” simultaneously indicts and embraces the dysfunction, insecurity, and maddening laws of attraction that undergird modern love. –Andy Beta
Listen:Alicia Keys: “In Common”
Bat for Lashes
Bat for Lashes’ The Bride is a concept album about a woman left stranded at the altar when her fiancé is killed in a car crash en route to their wedding. Overdramatic? Yes. Heavy-handed? Sure. But Natasha Khan has always excelled at sweeping up the listener in grand tides of feeling, and the widowed bride’s emotional rollercoaster ride proves to be an ideal vessel for her songs.
“Sunday Love” takes place after the bride has raced out of the church, jumped behind the wheel of her car, and sped away to embark on a grief-stricken solo honeymoon. The track’s nervous, pulsing rhythm mimics the paranoia of the lyrics (“I see her in every place I go,” “She's in my bedroom/Now I can't fight”), contrasting with Khan’s lilting vocals and harp melody to conjure a swirling descent into madness.The Bride ends with redemption through self-love, but no story earns its happy ending without a fight. “Sunday Love” is the bottom the bride must hit in order to begin her crawl upwards towards the light. –Amy Phillips
“The thing about getting older is that instead of deciding that you’ve figured it out, you get better at realizing you never will,” Angel Olsen told Pitchfork earlier this year. Olsen reaches a similar conclusion at the end of the ambling journey she takes on “Sister,” the Crazy Horse-flecked centerpiece of her third album, My Woman. “All my life I thought had changed,” she pleads again and again throughout the last half, before an eruption of a solo from guitarist Stewart Bronaugh. Though some may think Olsen is singing about her actual sibling, her inward reflection suggests that the sister is within, the parts of herself that she’s learned to love over time. Like many existential struggles, these are hard-earned realizations, not eureka moments—a fact that’s echoed by the song’s pacing and its video’s loose plotline. Few singer-songwriters could sustain an introspective slow-burn the way Olsen does here, but then again, few singer-songwriters have the lyrical skill and vocal range that she does, either. –Jillian Mapes
Angel Olsen: “Sister” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Give Violence a Chance”
One of the most puzzling reactions to Donald Trump’s election within the music community has been, “Well, at least there’ll be some good punk rock in the next four years.” As if life in America up until this point hadn’t already been vitriolic fodder for anyone on the outskirts—as if punk had always been the realm of straight, white men, sequestered in suburbia, who apparently needed the threat of an orange boogeyman to bang out a record. In reality, this is merely the moment where the true 21st century punks—the black kids, the queer, the transgendered, the anarchists—are put to an even more arduous task than before. “Give Violence a Chance” by G.L.O.S.S. (which stands for “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit”) may just serve as one of their anthems, a two-minute call-to-arms to cut the kumbaya and start bashing back. Spewed across a booming buzzsaw riff, frontwoman Sadie Switchblade screams with a rage so potent, you could slice through it with a rusty boxcutter. “When peace is just another word for death/It’s our turn to give violence a chance,” she yells, giving life to a scary realization the vulnerable can face when confronted with hate: You better get them before they get you. –Cameron Cook
G.L.O.S.S.: “Give Violence a Chance” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Promises of Fertility”
Huerco S.once described listening to ambient music as a means of coping with anxiety while traveling; he noted, too, that his own most recent LP, For Those of You Who Have Never (and Also ThoseWho Have), had a similar calming effect on him. “Promises of Fertility” is the most distilled example of this, a track that stretches and softens the atmospherics that colored in the grainy house music of his earlier work. It’s comprised of a glistening melody that wanders above tape hiss—vaguely reminiscent of hold music, but decelerated to the point that time seems to disintegrate. The track begins and ends in the middle of a note as if, for seven minutes, Huerco is tuning us into a radio frequency that will transmit this loop forever. It’s dreamy but neutral in its expression and, in turn, utterly narcotic. –Thea Ballard
Huerco S: “Promises of Fertility” (via SoundCloud)
For a little while last year, Ariana Grande seemed close to a Bieber/Britney-esque freefall. After the whole donut-licking scandal, the flop of intended comeback single “Focus,” and her breakup with Big Sean, the familiar narrative of child star-turned-sexpot-turned-trainwreck appeared to be playing itself out again. But the release of the mature, self-assured Dangerous Woman, and the various hits it spawned, ended up crushing haters’ doubts under the spike of Ariana's high-heeled go-go boot.
“Into You” has haunted pop radio for the past several months, as songs produced by Max Martin tend to do. A throbbing, slow-burning come-on, “Into You” captures the thrill of the moment just before an illicit kiss, when the will-they-or-won’t-they tension becomes almost unbearable. “A little less conversation and a little more touch my body,” she demands, channeling Elvis and Mariah Carey, the progenitor of Grande’s particular strain of vocal bombast. And now we know: Ariana Grande is not going away any time soon. –Amy Phillips
Listen:Ariana Grande: “Into You”
My Animal Home
There’s a beautiful irony in Deakin’s “Golden Chords.” The album it comes from, Sleep Cycle, was born from a controversial Kickstarter project long delayed due to Josh Dibb’s creative doubts and “fatal perfectionism.” That delay upset many, but the final music was worth it—not despite the struggle, but because of it. “Golden Chords” is an honest meditation on uncertainty and self-esteem, an attempt to escape artistic paralysis by, as the Animal Collective co-founder sings, “shak[ing] these broken chords till they turn gold.”
Dibb gives himself this pep talk using soft acoustic guitar strums, subdued percussion loops, and a whispery falsetto. He opens the song so confused about how to combat his creative funk that every solution feels wrong. Yet small stabs at positivity build up until Dibb sounds nearly restored: “In time/You’ll revive what you thought dead … Stop believing your being’s beenshattered and distorted/’Cause, brother, you’re so full of love.” That he’s right makes “Golden Chords” a meta-victory: a song about how strife can lead to triumph that proves its own point. –Marc Masters
Deakin: "Golden Chords" (via Bandcamp)
PJ Harvey’s “The Wheel” is a song haunted by war and human rights atrocities, but it’s no dirge. Everything is handclaps, saxophone, and momentum leading to a call-and-response singalong chorus. “Watch them fade out,” she sings at the end, repeatedly, about the wall of “sun-bleached” photographs of the disappeared. Then, the song itself abruptly fades. Harvey has written about global conflicts before, but “The Wheel,” about the state of Kosovo, could well be her most vibrant attempt—a potent combination of rock’n’roll gusto and stone-faced reporting. –Evan Minsker
Listen:PJ Harvey: “The Wheel”
“What’s going on? Quasars.” The spacey sample is repeated a handful of times across this slowly evolving six-minute track by Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers. He’s engaging in a bit of mystery-building, one that has been central to dance music for decades: Make some common elements—a pulsing synthesizer, some hi-hats and a snare that have been shifted off-axis just so—feel stranger than they really are. Though he’s working with pretty simple stuff, that does not mean what Heard has done here is easy. The opening kick drum and pulse land so softly that “Qwazars” feels like a baby shampoo version of Heard’s rawer work under the Fingers alias 30 years ago. The ringing tones that dot the track are given their star moment in the final minutes. It takes a deft hand to recreate what the future sounded like in the mid ’80s; it takes an old hand to realize that’s what we still want the future to sound like now. –Andrew Gaerig
Mr. Fingers: "Qwazars" (via SoundCloud)
The lead song and title track on serpentwithfeet’s debut EP, “blisters” might have been spontaneously produced from the ether, so airy are its harp and strings and so weightless serpentwithfeet’s own falsetto. But it is also a song about suffering, from its title to its sorrowful subject matter, in which unrequited love stands in for a more existential kind of trauma, one connected to ideas about blackness and sexuality and articulated in the heartbreaking refrain, “Forgiveness has not forgiven it.”
serpentwithfeet is no stranger to contradictions—his forehead bears tattoos reading “SUICIDE” and “HEAVEN”—and the Haxan Cloak’s production on the song does an admirable job of living up to the singer’s multitudes. The funereal drumbeat’s handclaps sound like splashing water; a lonely clarinet traces a line of flight out of the song’s gridded repetitions. But even these sounds pale next to the vividness of the singer’s own richly imagistic lyrics. In just six carefully chosen words—“Concrete has hurried itself into blue”—serpentwithfeet gives us one of the year’s greatest opening lines, the kind that sinks its hooks into you and refuses to let go. –Philip Sherburne
serpentwithfeet: "blisters" (via SoundCloud)
Boy Better Know
Skepta’s “Man”lays out some friendly parameters for how not to ingratiate yourself to this Mercury Prize-winning grime icon: Don’t seek attention, don’t tell people you’re his cousin, and, most of all, don’t ask for a pic for the ’gram. Driven by an excellent Queens of the Stone Age sample and ominous, relentless bass, the frenetic track is one of the most concise singles on Konnichiwa.
This year has highlighted how audiences expect pop and rap artists to reinvent themselves regularly if they want to hold our attention. However, it’s equally rewarding to hear Skepta refine his voice as he stays loyal not just to his friends and family, but to the sound he’s helped build. Plus, “Man” sneaks in one of the best disses of 2016: “Dressed like I just come from P.E.,” he brags to an interloper. “You’re dressed like you just come from church.” –Thea Ballard
Skepta: “Man” (via SoundCloud)
The Brooklyn rapper Ka likes to keep things economical. His introspective music is self-released and nearly always self-produced. By those standards, “30 Keys” counts as a lavish indulgence: Roc Marciano provided the beat, and you can make out some drums. “In this trade, ain’t afraid to get splashed or busted,” he recalls, slipping the borders between past and present. “Even for small numbers, none are vastly trusted.” His frayed rasp frames crime as an existential act: “I don’t wanna do it, gotta do it.” Ka also directs his own videos, and this one cuts between shots of the MC in sparse rain and scenes from old blaxploitation movies, lingering on incidental details; the opening is somebody loading a DVD for half a minute. Extreme close-ups cut off the top half of Ka’s face. Like much of his work, “30 Keys” uses abstract language to yield bigger truths. –Chris Randle
Listen:Ka: “30 Keys”
Travis Scott and Young Thug
“Pick Up the Phone” [ft. Quavo]
“Pick Up the Phone” is nominally a Travis Scott song, but in nearly every way that matters, it belongs to Young Thug. That’s Thug leaning like grandma, comparing cheating to treason, paying his sisters’ tuition in crumpled fives and 10s. It’s Thug rapping “Mama told me don’t hate on the law/Because everybody got a job/Because everyone wanna be a star,” a tossed-off parable that doubles as a reflection of modern state violence. For him, “Pick Up the Phone” is a tour de force, a reminder that no matter how scattered or inscrutable his solo output becomes, he can cut through the din with a perfect piece of pop. By the time Quavo swoops in to coin the word “discriminize” and say, “I thought I was right/Then I had to man up/I was wrong,” it’s already a wrap. –Paul A. Thompson
The 1975’s “Somebody Else” describes someone caught between the emotional phases one passes through after a breakup, as if stuck between colors in a gradient. It touches on the kind of confused feelings people usually bury for fear of looking like an asshole—but the 1975 frontman Matty Healy isn’t afraid of looking like an asshole. “Somebody Else” embodies this post-breakup ambivalence in both its lyric and its sound—there’s a swerve to the opening synths that makes it seem like they’re evolving from one hue to another, a damp echo to the atmosphere that makes every instrument sound slightly hazy and drunk and too cool for itself. Unlike their previous singles, the band sound like something less defined and more introspective, a position from which they are able to give shape to something vanished. “I don’t want your body/But I hate to think about you with somebody else,” Healy sings, drums pulsing behind him like the vague, sourceless ache of a hangover. –Brad Nelson
Listen:The 1975: “Somebody Else”
Like a lot of rap pairings, this Schoolboy Q/Kanye West track is less a meeting of minds than a negotiation between agents. Nearly anybody can land nearly any feature for the right price, and at first Kanye almost seems to be mocking the transactional nature of guest verses here, filling an alarming number of bars with the word “OK”—you can almost imagine Schoolboy’s face sinking when he heard it for the first time. It’s a fake-out, though. Soon Kanye is feeding off the energy of his fellow hothead, firing off some of his most memorable zingers of the year (“Rich n*gga, still eatin’ catfish/That bitch ain’t really bad, that’s a catfish”). And in what could be an apology for all those “OKs,” he even throws in a wild, half-improvised walk-off verse where he brags about having Scottie Pippen at his wedding and comes this close to making a Ray J reference but stops short, just to fuck with people. Never let it be said that when you pay for a Kanye verse, you don’t get your money’s worth. –Evan Rytlewski
There are two sides to Moses Sumney as we understand him now. The first is the solo live performer, a powerful presence that constructs sonic journeys onstage using only his voice, his hands, a guitar, and some loopers. The second is the recording artist, a more reclusive specter that has just begun to take shape in the world’s eye. After channeling Nina Simone’s pained timbre in the verses, Sumney slowly reveals “Lonely World” as an attempt to extend his insular artistry. It’s a sonic mission that recruits some of the most viciously capable contemporary musicians—Thundercat, Animals as Leaders’ Tosin Abasi, Son Lux drummer Ian Chang—to craft counterpoints and supporting textures for Sumney’s intricate harmony stacks. The result is a song that begins as a flickering flame, eventually fanning into a chaotic wildfire before it’s extinguished with a whisper. –Noah Yoo
Moses Sumney: “Lonely World” (via SoundCloud)
Top Dawg Entertainment
These are usually some of the most fun rap songs: When a newly famous artist returns to his neighborhood to flaunt his newfound stature for awed childhood friends and rub his success in the face of anybody who doubted it. For a victory lap, though, Isaiah Rashad’s trip back to his native Chattanooga, Tenn., is pretty bumpy. On “Smile,” the TDE rapper wakes in a fog of depression, gets in a seriously ugly spat with his baby mama, picks a losing argument about Lil Wayne’sTha Carter IV, and struggles to resist the bar of Xanax tucked in his back pocket. The beat is convincingly triumphant—a Southern-fried flip ofa savory Brazilian soul number—but when Rashad brags about kicking back and enjoying his worry-free life, the person he’s most trying to convince is himself. –Evan Rytlewski
Listen:Isaiah Rashad: “Smile”
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
“Existence in the Unfurling”
This year brought to light the talents of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, whose use of the Buchla Music Easel announced a new voice on the device. Her third album, EARS, was one of the most exhilarating experimental albums of the year, an ever-shifting landscape in which to lose yourself. And it all led to the majesty of the closing track, the 11-minute epic “Existence in the Unfurling.” Amid the fretting arpeggios of her Buchla, Smith’s digitally warped vocals emerged from the circuits, only to camouflage themselves anew amid the timbres of fluttering woodwinds and saxophones. As the piece expands past the three-minute mark, it transforms into a sonic odyssey, exploring a realm between minimal composition and transcendental electronics, providing in this wearying year a much-needed source of wonderment. –Andy Beta
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: "Existence in the Unfurling" (via SoundCloud)
“Prima Donna” [ft. A$AP Rocky]
In the first verse of “Prima Donna,” the highlight from his hard, baleful EP of the same name, Vince Staples buys a new house and blows his brains out on the kitchen wall. Women stop by afterward to admire the splatter, thinking it’s modern art. That’s a Vince Staples joke. Ha ha.
Vince has never really been one for inclusive humor: He wants it to hurt when he elbows your ribs. The production by DJ Dahi hurts, too: Each downbeat sounds like a collapsing column Staples barely dodges. When he makes fun of himself, the pain is still there: As a newly minted star, he is going to “pull a Wavves on the Primavera Stage,” maybe the least glamorous self-destructive behavior a rapper could boast about. His airless squeak of a voice bounces around inside a hollowed-out beat, which nosedives and the end, his voice disappearing into a blender with an A$AP Rocky sample. When it's over, we’re left with ashes and ambivalence,as we are with every great Vince Staples song. –Jayson Greene
Vince Staples: “Prima Donna” [ft. A$AP Rocky] (via SoundCloud)
RCA / Little Tokyo
Nao’s particular variety of R&B has the efficiency and even the pneumatic qualities of good design, every instrument angled or curved so that it sounds assembled without any human intervention. The chorus of “Girlfriend” is like this: the guitar, synth, and Nao’s voice collapsing into a single harmonic cylinder. If it could be hung in an art gallery, it might look like a tube of neon. But within this precisely shaped environment, Nao primarily expresses anxiety, as if she’s reacting to a kind of airlessness around her. “Feels like pretty doesn’t know me/Only shows up when I’m lonely,” Nao sings, her voice generating internal harmonies like Prince, from whom the phrasing of the chorus is sort of borrowed, and from which the fractal design of her harmonies is certainly borrowed. The song’s construction is sensitive to this; whenever Nao’s vocal doubles or triples, the track itself seems to hiss with pleasure. –Brad Nelson
Nao: "Girlfriend" (via SoundCloud)
Rap crews and studio wizards have long known that a hit song comes when you capture the vibe of friends wildin’ out and crystallize their energy as sound. No song this year did that better than Young M.A’s self-released breakout hit “OOOUUU.” The title alone is a kind of litmus test: How you say it reveals your level of excitement and conviction. The Brooklyn rapper sing-slurs it, confident and drunk, boasting and charismatic, six letters that spelled arrival when “OOOUUU” made rounds on the street before rap royalty started jumping on remixes. M.A and her crew stunt in the video—another winning vibe that has landed more than 100 million party-crashing views. A young brown lesbian bending a male-dominated industry around her flow—this is a story we need to hear and repeat. But what’s the limit of a vibe? Explaining how she wasn’t going to explain a line in the song, M.A said: “All the dykes out there, they know exactly what I’m talking about. It ain’t for a guy to understand. If you don’t understand, you don’t gotta understand it.” –Jace Clayton
Listen:Young M.A: “OOOUUU”
During the intro to “The Greatest,” right as the ladies of KING ask, “Who wants a run with the number one?”, there is a short glissando on the keyboards. This sound, and all its variations, is one of the best things you can hear in an R&B song: a cue to get ready because it’s. About. To. Go. Down. The band immediately delivers on this promise, letting the synths kick fully before launching into three minutes of pure electro-soul bliss. The track’s harmonies and retro flourishes give it the feel of an ’80s R&B love song. And while that’s certainly part of the story, KING are more concerned with self-love: the belief that you can be the best at whatever you set your mind to. The single, off their debut We Are KING, was written in honor of Muhammad Ali, “the modern marvel man to stand behind.” A few months after we got “The Greatest,” we lost the Greatest—making what was already a terrific song work doubly as a tribute to Ali’s legacy of winning. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
KING: “The Greatest” (via SoundCloud)
“Adore” was born as a song about Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth’s refusal to suppress her desires. “Is it human to adore life?” she asks over and over, pitying the repressed and their prudish norms. Nearly 12 months and untold tragedies later, her question now sounds like a radical act of resistance. She repeats it with a cool steadiness, as if jutting her jaw in the face of someone who’s determined to break her; when the chorus drives towards a crescendo worthy of Queen, Beth pulls back and lets her question hang as a lonely provocation rather than a proclamation of false triumph. Clinging to hope in a condemned landscape, she pulls off the grave romance of the great fado and cabaret singers—until she turns her question into a statement. “I adore life,” she intones, first sadly, but then as a rapturous invocation, her voice ascending through key changes and effervescing alongside Savages’ apocalyptic climax. As we enter 2017, hope is a privilege, but love and truth are still the path to the sublime. –Laura Snapes
When he first started Porches, the New York musician Aaron Maine played charming indie rock only really set apart by his insouciant tenor. On this year’s Pool, his first album on Domino, he almost completely ditched the guitars to make an off-kilter, laconic dance record, one in which his minimalist approach yielded to a new intimacy and lyrical sparsity. Like all good synthpop songs, “Be Apart” is immediately catchy, its keyboard line bouncing off like a poolside volleyball no one can be bothered to chase. “I wanna be apart/Of it all,”Maine croons, stuck in limbo between the exuberant discovery and blasé isolationism of youth. You can't get much more bedroom-pop than a song literally about not leaving home, and the anxious melancholy that seeps out of “Be Apart” is palpable. –Cameron Cook
Porches: “Be Apart” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Bum Bum Bum”
A good Cass McCombs song is like a locked door: mysterious, resolute, matter-of-fact, inaccessible. Whether there’s anything behind it or not is irrelevant. “I’m not here to convince anyone to like what I do,” McCombs said about his most recent album, Mangy Love. “I’m really comfortable with people disliking it,” he went on hermetically, adding that he wasn’t sure he liked it himself.
“Sent a letter to my congressman, the Ku Klux Klan, from my pierced hands,” he sings on “Bum Bum Bum.” “They sent me back an Apple phone, a fine-hair comb and a bell tolled.” In one line, he plays the cynic, the satirist, the surrealist, the citizen of disgust—in other words, an authentic Californian, wise to bullshit but still up for the occasional smudge stick. The band grooves behind him like soft-rock scarred by an indigestible truth. Never the kind of guy for whom people start fan clubs, McCombs continues to find his purpose outside comfort, in the lost art of questioning everything. –Mike Powell
Cass McCombs: “Bum Bum Bum” (Buy on Bandcamp)
Cash Money/Young Money Entertainment
In an era when Drake songs about women feel colder than a Toronto winter—callous, hardened, without optimism—“Controlla” is a reminder that he can still turn on the charm when he wants to. Rather than stew in his usual contempt, Drake spends the duration of the VIEWS hit attempting to prove his worthiness, emphasizing his dedication (“I made plans with you, and I won’t let them fall through”) and willingness to take her needs seriously (“I do it how you say you want it”). And, because it’s Drake, being a little bit extra: “I think I’d die for you/Jodeci ‘Cry for You.’” The music slinks down the Jamaican coastline, painting in reds and oranges rather than his usual muted blues and grays. “My last girl would tear me apart, but she never wanna split a ting with me,” he sings, yearning for true collaboration. It low-key might be the romantic thing Drake has ever sung. –Renato Pagnani
“Blood on Me”
London’s Sampha has made his name so far as a guest vocalist, singing on tracks by SBTRKT, Drake, Jessie Ware, and more. His ability to blend in with such different surroundings speaks to his flexibility and expressive range; his great skill is to find the essential feeling at the heart of a song and amplify it. “Blood on Me,” a single from his forthcoming debut album (due early next year), is a song built around a single emotion: fear. As Sampha moves through the breathless set-up, we follow him as he flees nameless and faceless pursuers down dark alleyways. Somehow he manages to convey paranoia, anxiety, panic, and desperation while never losing sight of the melody, and when the chorus arrives and the tension explodes, it’s pure catharsis. –Mark Richardson
Listen:Sampha: “Blood on Me”
This was another boundary-bulging year for R&B, but every experiment needs a control group. Maxwell played that role beautifully with “1990x,” a song that sounds old but doesn’t feel it. The gleaming chamber-funk arrangement is zippered together with contemporary tightness, while the music is both hard and soft, as if made of the glares and glints of a revolving diamond. All this incandescence is faintly ironic: Though he now often sports perfectly tailored suits, in the ’90s Maxwell was part of a countercurrent to the shiny suit era, dousing R&B in oceanic cool, beatific consciousness, and earthy threads alongside the likes of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. He’s always been a little out of time and off-trend, which is apt of his music’s fundamental appeal—an insistence on revving up weathered musical modes with fresh insight and an evolving perspective.
In a year when R&B was ruled by youthful passions and roiling politics, Maxwell brought back classic soul with lyrics that weren’t about protest, predation, or property, but about what it’s really like to be in love, a bubble he has a rare talent for pausing and thinking inside of. “1990x” is sex music for grown people who’ve gotten past all that conquest and insecurity stuff, somehow capturing the silence of the romantic moment in lush, vivid sound. It’s music for having, not for wanting; a song for knowing who you are, not searching for it. –Brian Howe
Drop “L.A.” into a song lyric (as Whitney do in the third line of “No Woman”) and it will generally establish a few basics—announcing the song as part of a long pop continuum of songs about Los Angeles, evoking a mindset and a myth as well as the actual city. A brief mention of L.A. is the only concrete detail in “No Woman,” and it acts as a floating emotional signpost as much as a physical place. Starring Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, both ex-Smith Westerns, and drawn from their affable debut Light Upon the Lake, the song is a tale of lost love and wandering, with no fixed narrative and a distinct lack of resolution. The “haze” Ehrlich sings about pervades “No Woman” like both California sunshine and the unnamed presence Ehrlich mourns. Produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, it also fogs over a cleverly unfolding arrangement that achieves density without drama, light percussion never quite succumbing to melodrama while horns and strings sway like props in the gentle breeze of the stage-set version of L.A., the one that lives most vividly in the imagination. –Jesse Jarnow
Whitney: "No Woman" (via SoundCloud)
Young Thug is rap’s enigma wrapped in contradiction—an ATLien swathed in Greek mythology, an androgynous fashion cognoscente who packs a pistol. And the paradoxes continue on “Digits.” Thugger counts his cash and flashes his ice on the song, but this is no gaudy show of strength. Over London on Da Track’s creeping keyboard riff, the rapper sounds mournful as he contemplates the unbreakable patterns facing all hustlers: “You can lose your life but it gon’ keep goin’.” But it’s the virtuosity of the performance—his nimble, infinitely melodic flow at its most tuneful—that makes this a standout moment from an artist who takes joy in eluding any type of final form. –Dean Van Nguyen
Young Thug: "Digits" (via SoundCloud)
“VRY BLK” [ft. Noname]
As I type this, another police officer has gotten away with killing a black man. This time, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a prosecutor has determined Brentley Vinson’s actions were justified in the September shooting of Keith L. Scott. It’s the latest in what feels like a brutal assault on black people at the hands of law enforcement: Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and the list goes on.
On “VRY BLK,” singerJamila Woods fights racial oppression with a regal sense of purpose, declaring her blackness with the utmost pride and nobility. Woods asks bold questions, holding cops accountable for their actions. “If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” she wonders. “Your serving and protecting is stealing babies’ lives.” This song—like others from her excellent debut album,HEAVN—outlines the beauty of being black, using cavernous soul to punctuate the theme. It speaks to the connection you feel with fellow people of color. No matter who you are, you’re still family. –Marcus J. Moore
Jamila Woods: “VRY BLK” [ft. Noname] (via SoundCloud)
G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
If you had to name the most ubiquitous debut of 2016, it would likely be Desiigner with his mega-hit “Panda.” While the general public’s introduction to the song came through Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, “Panda” quickly took on a life of its own and became unavoidable—it got played in the club, blasted on the street, and stuck in your head for hours at a time. “Panda” is ominous but also great fun thanks to its knocking drums, lurching strings, and constant stream of ad-libs. It’s a case study in the modern conglomeration of rap: A New York rapper buys a beat from a London producer he’s never met and crafts a Southern hip-hop song that ends up topping the charts. –Noah Yoo
Desiigner: “Panda“ (via SoundCloud)
“1st Day Out tha Feds”
“First Day Out Tha Feds” is a homecoming anthem in the truest sense. Gucci Mane wrote the lyrics during a three-year stint in federal prison, recorded the vocal within an hour of returning home, and released the song less than 24 hours after his release. But even though this song introduced the world to Gucci Mane 2.0—trim, self-possessed, exacting in his delivery—it’s hardly triumphant. The new Gucci is sober in more ways than one: Off alcohol and drugs for the first time in 17 years, he’s now taking an unflinching look at his former life. The track’s accounts of prison life are harrowing, but its most striking moments occur when Gucci turns his focus inward. “I did some things to some people that was downright evil,” he raps, before admitting, “My own mama turned her back on me/And that’s my mama.” Thankfully, the story has a happy ending: Gucci has never looked better, often appearing so grateful to be on earth that he’s downright beaming. But as “First Day Out Tha Feds” reminds us, this happiness was hard won. –Mehan Jayasuriya
Gucci Mane: "First Day Out tha Feds" (via SoundCloud)
Warner Bros. / OVO Sound
“Hallucinations” solidified dvsn. It was the fourth and final single released ahead ofSept. 5th, the debut from the once-mysterious Toronto duo of Daniel Daley and Nineteen85, who up to that point had specialized in slow jams. While the song didn’t rewrite dvsn’s entire ethos, it finally showcased Daley’s impressive vocal capabilities, reaching higher places with newfound verve. Nineteen85’s production chops were never in question—he’s the architect behind some of Drake’s greatest pop hits—but instead of providing atmosphere, “Hallucinations” builds with Daley’s falsetto in mind. Lyrically, Daley conveys only necessary details, leaving enough room for listeners to fill in with their own memories. Most who’ve endured heartbreak can understand how disorienting it feels to now only see the one you love in dreams. dvsn capture the haunting accurately, with wounded beauty rather than gut-wrenching pain. –Matthew Strauss
dvsn: "Hallucinations" (via SoundCloud)
“Glowed Up” [ft. Anderson .Paak]
The lines between hip-hop, house, R&B, and bass music have never felt as blurred as they have in the past few years, with 2016’s most compelling example arriving via Kaytranada. The Montreal-based, Haitian-born producer’s debut, 99.9%, shows off so many different ways to build a groove that singling out a centerpiece feels reductive. “Glowed Up” is a standout in part because it powerfully contrasts the slippery elasticity of the upbeat dance cuts. Consider it a dizzy comedown after a steady dose of stimulants, a mid-album respite of E-funk that’s halfway between L.A. Reid and L.A. beats. That latter factor is not just Anderson .Paak-driven, though the obvious charm comes from his wiseass strut-drawl—half toilet jokes (“No bullshit in mi casa/Laxatives in your chowder”), half resilient artistry in the face of fame’s looming pressures (“Even when you’re far out there in the sun/You’re still in the hands of the one who cares for you”). It’s also the fact that the beat’s air-suspension glide really does shine like a full-spectrum light, warm chords where Brian Wilson’s theremin meets Junie Morrison’s ARP. That it finds an extra gear to rev low in during the left-turn third verse is just showing off, and the best kind of it. –Nate Patrin
“Who Shot Me?”
On June 12, 2015, a still-unknown assailant opened fire on YG outside an apartment complex in Studio City, California. One bullet hit the rapper in the hip; YG and his friends drove to the hospital. He refused to cooperate with the cops and checked himself out after less than 24 hours. For a year after the shooting, YG’s only comment of substance on the incident was an aside in his song “Twist My Fingaz”: “I tried to pop first, got popped at/Got hit in the hip, couldn’t pop back.” But “Who Shot Me?,” the second song from his superb Still Brazy, deals with the psychological fallout. The color of his would-be killer’s pistol sticks in his brain, beside a list of suspects and designs for potential R.I.P. t-shirts. Through it all, YG’s more concerned with the mental states of his friends and family than he is with beating his chest. He’s cool and calm, unnervingly so. You learn a lot about yourself in a crisis. –Paul A. Thompson
Listen: YG: “Who Shot Me?”
“Earth to Heaven”
Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding’s first album since besting Justin Bieber at the Grammys, has finally earned the jazz musician plaudits beyond the world’s music students and academy elders. “Earth to Heaven” isn't the most surprising cut on the album—see the plunging vocals of “Good Lava” or the cover from the Willy Wonka soundtrack—but it’s the most indicative. There’s funk and art-rock in the hopper, but also Joni Mitchell and Stephen Sondheim. Spalding’s phrasing is that of an actress, flipping nimbly from coy to blunt in the space of one line. There’s plenty of material to work with here: Spalding’s pilgrim’s prog moves dispassionately from Ecclesiastes to science to earthy self-help. It always returns to the same idea, though: getting to heaven, maybe, but in the meantime driving a groove into the ground. “All legacies end here,” Spalding sings. Theologically, perhaps. Musically? Not remotely. –Katherine St. Asaph
Parquet Courts have a reputation as the kind of obtuse, smirking lit-punks that built the indie rock pyramids of yore, so it’s notable that “Human Performance” is about pop music’s most basic-ever sentiment: grieving lost love. The song contains no double entendres or glancing witticisms; even the central conceit—that, minus love, singer Andrew Savage is a husk merely acting as a human—is well-trodden ground. The change in tone makes you realize how Savage’s lyrical jigsaws can be affecting instead of dazzling, how he’s able to turn familiar sentiment into striking lines by breaking in odd places and lovingly positioning his syllables. It is the first Parquet Courts song I have walked away from feeling that Savage is not smarter than me, but sadder. –Andrew Gaerig
“CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]”
We’re not used to hearing Aphex Twin dole out slow-motion, four-to-the-floor beats—and at just 100 BPM, “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]” dips about as low as techno is inclined to go. But that sullen andante trudge allows the British electronic musician to get the most out of the unusual instrument that the song pays homage to, and which he presumably used to record it: the Cheetah MS800, a digital synthesizer known for its woozy timbres (and once described as “the most difficult instrument to program on the planet”). Here, that translates to background pads that shimmer like a heat mirage, and a midrange bass melody that writhes like a greased pig on ice. It’s unusual to hear Aphex Twin strip his tracks down like this, but that focus on the texture of his sounds—and few producers know how to program a synthesizer quite like he does—ends up making this no-frills record one of his most immediately satisfying releases in ages. –Philip Sherburne
“E.V.P.” starts with a fat synth belch, like rubber boots squawking on wet linoleum. A studio rat as well as a solo act, Dev Hynes is especially good with evocative noises, and that synth seems to arrive straight from New York’s Danceteria circa-1982, still draped in scarves and trailing glitter. The song it announces is the centerpiece of his luminous and compassionate album Freetown Sound, and it pulls all of that album’s various threads—yearning for freedom, awareness of injustice, unbridled joy at the presence of the body, fear for its vulnerability—into one dense, breathing heat of tangled limbs and yearning.
On an album containing a metropolis of characters, cameos, and sonic details, “E.V.P.” is the most populous: Every sound, from the neener-neener synth whines and stiff funk guitars evoking “Slippery People” to the scratchy Arthur Russell strings, impart some indescribable flavor to the broth. It all resolves into a melody so generous it nearly overflows the borders of the song. No one wrote a chorus of this scale all year, or even seemed to try. In “E.V.P.” Hynes is alone, soaring unaccompanied in the sky. –Jayson Greene
Listen:Blood Orange: “E.V.P.”
Chance the Rapper
“All Night” [ft. Knox Fortune]
Chance the Rapper does not want you to ride home in his car. To hear Knox Fortune, the Chicago singer and producer who lilts the song’s boozy hook, tell it, this ungenerous theme was the original concept behind “All Night.” But Chance is nothing if not magnanimous. The reasons he gives for refusing to chauffeur our drunk asses—we talk politics, we falsely claim to be his cousin, we fart—are amusing enough to be worth the rejection. Kaytranada’s tipsy instrumental, which posits Chance snugly within Chicago’s deep house legacy, also evokes SaveMoney crew founder Vic Mensa’s 2014 house love letter “Down on My Luck” (previously remixed by the Montreal producer). But like Chance’s gleefully eccentric, shape-shifting lyrical observations, the strobe-lit four-on-the-floor thump here is irresistibly inviting. Turns out, the most extroverted song on Coloring Book was a sly curmudgeon’s plea for privacy. –Marc Hogan
Chance the Rapper: “All Night” [ft. Knox Fortune] (via SoundCloud)
Hamilton Leithauser / Rostam
“A 1000 Times”
Hamilton Leithauser didn’t need RostamBatmanglij’s help to go pop—fans of the singer’s old band, the Walkmen, know that his voice alone can convey the urgency of a radio jam. So just short of the 30-second mark on the tragic “A 1000 Times,” when Leithauser uncorks his signature yelp, it doesn’t feel like something new. It feels like rediscovery, a welcome return. That sensation is a perfect fit for a song that drifts through the past as it charts the winter to come, acknowledging both the constant temptation of unrequited love and the hard reality that it’s all an overbaked fantasy. Meanwhile, Batmanglij’s touches—the playful keys, the harmonies, a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s best—offer the type of subtle accompaniment that takes a song from good to great, forging a wistful epic that’s in line with the hurt at the song’s heart. –Jonah Bromwich
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: “A 1000 Times” (via SoundCloud)
“I Have Been to the Mountain”
“I Have Been to the Mountain” is a misleadingly upbeat track that’s actually about the death of Eric Garner, killed by police after repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” The song, built on a tense bass line, guitar skronk, a horn section, and a choir, is also an explicit rejection of cynicism. Kevin Morby’s voice has settled into a curved and pockmarked take on young Bob Dylan, humming with wisdom and, because it’s necessary, some spite too. “I Have Been to the Mountain” is about injustice, and helplessness in the face of injustice, but it’s also about that feeling that when things go inexorably wrong, the only thing anyone can do is work to make them better. –Sam Hockley-Smith
Kevin Morby: “I Have Been to the Mountain” (Buy on Bandcamp)
EMPIRE / Art Club / Steel Wool / OBE
“Come Down” is equal parts celebration and warning. Anchored by a fat G-funk bassline, the standout track from Anderson .Paak’s solo breakthrough Malibu sways under the weight of the artist’s hard-earned braggadocio. Even though he knows ascending to greater heights could lead to a longer, harder fall, he can’t help but flirt with the edge. One moment, a group of onlookers taunts, “You might not ever come down!”; the next, he flips it and channels James Brown, shouting, “Wanna get down!” The Hi-Tek production is remarkably spacious, but .Paak finds a way to fill out that space by imagining the people and sounds in it, including rowdy crowds, his own multiple personas, and—why not—a clip from the 1978 Malibu surf movie Big Wednesday. It’s his world, after all. He can get as high as he wants. —Minna Zhou
Anderson .Paak: "Come Down" (via SoundCloud)
“Girls @” [ft. Chance the Rapper]
Save Money crew-member Joey Purp’s latest, iiiDrops, tackles the multitudes of his native Chicago, veering between frustration and frivolity, political verve and spiritual angst. One of a few excursions is standout jam “Girls @,” buoyed on a Neptunes-catchy Knox Fortune beat and heaps of irreverent glee. Purp spends half of it winking to the camera, seemingly fretting over “Where the girls at?” while playfully notching up his date demands: credit cards, heels, Birkin bags, and a topless Benz. In truth, he sounds more impish than self-serious, like a cruising bachelor giggling to his buddy in the passenger seat, indiscriminately firing champagne emoji into their address books. When Chance chimes in, he’s all lovable chutzpah: He eyes a bookworm “reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, humming ‘SpottieOttieDope’” then goofily asks to borrow a girl’s iPhone and car. His absurd charm—“Where the mid-sized girls? You bad!”—should make Purp’s flash ridiculous; instead, they sync like a glorious double act. –Jazz Monroe
Joey Purp: "Girls @" [ft. Chance the Rapper] (via SoundCloud)
“Lockjaw” [ft. Kodak Black]
French Montana has made a career out of being upstaged. On song after song, he has charmingly brought someone more popular to the party, like Nicki Minaj or Drake, and proceeded to bask in their glow. But the Bronx-raised MC has quirks and chops worthy of a main attraction, and on “Lockjaw,” he graduates to big-brother status and invites upstart Kodak Black to shine on his dime. They’re not an obvious pair—Kodak slurs out in croaks, French mumbles in a conversational sing-song—but the duo are entirely complementary in the moment, boasting through gritted, MDMA-addled teeth. The beat’s hard drums make it instantly familiar as its eerie background echoes ensure this song never grows old. It’s an anthem that demands open car windows and doors, an invitation to bite down and stunt. –Jay Balfour
Listen:French Montana: “Lockjaw”
“Sorry” is not sorry. Not even close. Beyoncé’s most flagrant kiss-off of the year is cold as fuck, but there’s no angst, no furrowed brows, no lashing out. She glides through her revenge as effortlessly as a figure skater, carving an outline of her oppressor’s severed head into ice. She flips the bird for fun. She has the balls to grab her crotch. She turns two words—“boy” and “bye”—into a devastating GIF factory.
The essential video only goes deeper, as she expands the song’s meaning across time and place. The interiors were shot at Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation, a grand locale that once hosted brutal beatings of slaves and now hosts Queen Bey in a throne and Serena Williams as her twerking accomplice. Beyoncé and her chorus line of ancient spirits also sport body paint from the Yoruba tradition, white ink imbued with a lasting sacredness. And then there’s Becky and her good hair—a throwaway whodunit wrapped in pointed racial signifiers. At the end of the video, Beyoncé lets out a photo-ready smile before quickly turning deadly serious and delivering that guillotine chop of a final line. She’s in complete control. She’s having a great time, but she’s not kidding around. –Ryan Dombal
Hip-hop has always been mercurial, but in 2016, fluidity itself—from form, to function, to delivery—became rap’s defining trait. Young Thug’s “Kanye West” is this trend crystallized, melted down, and imbibed via ayahuasca ceremony in an Atlanta club basement. The track went through several working titles—“Elton John,” “Wet Wet,” “Pop Man”—but the final is most fitting. Just as The Life of Pablo tried to turn the idea of an album into an ever-changing endeavor, Thugger sees music as a product of the moment; titles matter little, albums less, and songs gush from the internet like water from a spigot. The production is almost totally removed from a traditional trap sound, filled with humid tones, booming 808s, and childlike flourishes—it’s as if Phil Collins, circa Disney’s Tarzan soundtrack, made a song about anal sex and female ejaculation. Then there’s Wyclef laying down dad-rap couplets goofy enough to soften Young Thug’s filthiest metaphors: “Play truth or dare/Jumpin’ in the pool with no swim wear gear,” he sings. That the two vastly different artists collaborated at all boggles the mind, but the result is Young Thug at his most fully realized and fully weird. –Nathan Reese
Young Thug: “Kanye West” (via SoundCloud)
“It Means I Love You”
You’d be hard pressed to assign a single genre signifier to what Jessy Lanza does in this song. Somehow, she crams Yellow Magic Orchestra, Mariah Carey, feverish footwork, and an infectiousSouth African tabla beat into a terse and tightly compressed floor-filler. The more time you spend with it, the more it opens up and the more its composite pieces become mysterious. Her voice is just as coolly inscrutable as the beat as she hammers away at a few simple phrases: “When you look into my eyes boy/Then it means I love you.” Even when she disappears into the song’s thick shroud of beats, her confident presence remains palpable, and the song lingers in the ears like a fresh secret. –Kevin Lozano
Jessy Lanza: “It Means I Love You” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Do You Need My Love”
The soft-rock melancholy of Weyes Blood’s “Do You Need My Love” has the faded feel of a lost classic—a ’70s AM-radio gem unearthed from a box of dusty 45s. The easiest comparison to make is to the bittersweet ballads of the Carpenters, and judged on that scale, Natalie Mering holds up well. Her wistful voice and the music’s richly textured arrangement strike a tone both soothing and sobering. She even adds a chorus of “ba-ba-ba”s to remind us this is pop music, not Sylvia Plath poetry.
Still, “Do You Need My Love” exudes a darkness that even Karen Carpenter didn’t touch often. Mering’s opening sentiment—“tired of feeling so bad”—pervades the song. She sounds weary and lost, stuck in an eternal limbo of unrequited love. “Passion is the only thing/Passion must mean everything,” she insists, rationalizing her inability to think about anything else. As her doubts gather over swelling chords, “Do You Need My Love” starts to sound as much about our modern problems as hers. Like many people alive right now, Mering is caught in a land of questions without answers; hearing her give that feeling a voice is pretty inspiring. –Marc Masters
Weyes Blood: “Do You Need My Love” (Buy on Bandcamp)
Noname is here to remind us of Chicago’s most lasting hip-hop tradition, one that provides a throughline from Chance to Kanye to Common to No I.D., leading all the way back to the city’s history as an incubator for jazz and soul. Her debut mixtape, Telephone, hearkens back to these roots; its sound is warm and sepia-toned.
Fittingly, the album’s opening number, “Yesterday,” is all about remembrance. Noname memorializes a departed grandmother and brother, longs for her own childhood, and wonders who will remember her when she’s gone. The song’s chorus is simple, direct, and utterly heartbreaking: “When the sun is going down/When the dark is out to stay/I picture your smile, like it was yesterday.” As always, the future of Chicago rap remains inextricably bound to the city’s rich musical past. –Mehan Jayasuriya
Noname: “Yesterday” (via SoundCloud)
“untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”
Top Dawg / Interscope
According to the entry dates on his demo/diary collection, untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar recorded this track just six days after he turned 27—an age that’s assumed grave significance in the annals of pop history. Fittingly, “untitled 02” represents the purest, most potent distillation of the survivor’s guilt that wracks so many of his rhymes. It may not have made the cut for his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, but in its Compton-via-Cotton Club trap-jazz sprawl and the conflicted ruminations on what it means to be a successful black man in modern America, “untitled 02” retroactively previews Lamar’s next album. It’s part Top Dawg Entertainment office party, part funeral for the friends who got locked up or gunned down. And nowhere is that inner tension and turmoil felt more acutely than in the line where TDE president Dave Free rolls up to show off his brand new Porsche 911, and all Lamar can think of is planes crashing into buildings. –Stuart Berman
Atlantic / Breadwinners Association
Plug, load, bitches, dough: Judging by the evidence of “2 Phones,” Kevin Gates’ life is more complicated than most. But on the song of his career (so far), he juggles the difficulties just fine. “2 Phones” is a song about distrust and near-paranoia, yet it feels fearless. The chorus is so catchy it invites mimicry, even parody—try replacing “phones” with two of whatever happens to be lying around you—but Gates isn’t joking, and the song is an anthem of desperation. His multiple phones are a necessity, as an alternate means for survival had music not panned out. Fortunately for Gates, that urgency manifested into a triumphant performance. Whatever the reason, the phone keeps ring ring ringing. –Matthew Strauss
Kevin Gates: "2 Phones" (via SoundCloud)
Chance the Rapper
“Summer Friends” [ft. Jeremih and Francis and the Lights]
Chance the Rapper’s “Summer Friends” packs an astonishing amount of detail into less than five minutes. By the time the Chicago rapper runs down the people, places, and things that surrounded him as a kid—from JJ and Mikey and Lil Derek to day camp to the dollar bills he folded like lawn chairs after mowing yards—you feel like you’re watching a film with wide shots and saturated colors, eyes darting from one image to the next. Chance’s rapid, uninflected sing-song delivery jumps from section to section in order to get everything in; he’s sitting with us in the present moment, while the ghostly vocals carry the ache of the past. His story juxtaposes the simple innocence of childhood with the danger and complexity that, for those who grow up in a certain time and place, is always lurking just outside the frame. –Mark Richardson
Chance the Rapper: “Summer Friends” [ft. Jeremih & Francis & The Lights] (via SoundCloud)
“Broccoli” [ft. Lil Yachty]
People love an underdog story. We also seem to love goofy songs about weed. “Broccoli” is both. Virginian font of sing-song hip-hop euphoria, D.R.A.M., in his joyful warble, recounts with touching matter-of-factness how he went from a precocious preschooler to the 26-year-old owner of an unlikely 2015 hit called, of all things, “Cha Cha,” and then on to noshing on lox and capers at a restaurant as strangers gawk. Now 28, he has another sleeper success in this collaboration with likeminded Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty. Released first on SoundCloud, consisting of little more than Yachty flirting around and D.R.A.M. braying infectiously (also “sleazily,” “greasily”) about pesos and Alfredo, all over a cheerful keys-and-claps loop, “Broccoli” ended up going top five. In February, it will vie for a Grammy against Drake’s “Cha Cha”-indebted “Hotline Bling.” If grinningly ridiculously ear to ear for almost four minutes is therapeutic, then loving “Broccoli” may actually be good for you, too. —Marc Hogan
D.R.A.M.: "Broccoli" [ft. Lil Yachty] (via SoundCloud)
“No More Parties in LA” [ft. Kendrick Lamar]
Def Jam / GOOD
Essentially a microcosm track of The Life of Pablo, “No More Parties in L.A.” may just be Kanye West’s most urgently scatterbrained banger. Despite 12 songwriter credits, it seems nearly accidental, like West’s real-time fever dream jammed between conference calls, gym sets, and Twitter bouts. So swathes of Walter Morrison, Ghostface Killah, Larry Graham, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson cuts are accordioned into tangled, thorny funk; so guest MC Kendrick Lamar, reveling in his recent triumphs, is at his punniest here. (“Come Erykah Badu me/Well, let’s make a movie.”)
“No More Parties” feels vital and alive because West seems to have more thoughts percolating than he can express. All is breathless shorthand: the gesticulated self-mythology surveying, the Glamorama SparkNotes, the over-specific sex-talk, that cock-eyed callback to “Real Friends,” the unmistakable impression that West’s got more creative irons in the fire than there are hours in the day. “Pink fur, got Nori dressing like Cam/Thank God for me” segues neatly into “Whole family getting money/Thank God for E!” The lyric, like the song as a whole, links West’s past, present, and future—he is rapping like we never thought he would again, even though he’s light-years removed from the baller with a backpack who used to wear bear costumes on his album sleeves. –Raymond Cummings
Kanye West: "No More Parties in L.A." [ft. Kendrick Lamar] (via SoundCloud)
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your service operates on several levels: It is a revival and a requiem, an affirmation and a farewell. “Dis Generation” functions as its fulcrum, providing a pivot between A Tribe Called Quest’s past and a hip-hop that will exist without them. To that end, Q-Tip nods at Joey Badas$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, but he’s not so much passing the torch as placing the new guard into a continuum that predates him.
Even so, the hazy, soulful shimmer of “Dis Generation” deliberately evokes A Tribe Called Quest’s prime. In sampling Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” for its hook, they draw a direct line back to 1992, when the same song provided a rhythm for the “Vampire Mix” of “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”—and the group revels in the lush production, trading jokes, devoting a large passage to compatriot Busta Rhymes, and looking at the present with clear eyes. In “Dis Generation,” A Tribe Called Quest bridge eras with poignant joy, writing with a sense of middle-aged wisdom about what’s been gained and lost, still hopeful for what’s to come. Even if things won’t be like they once were, culture is built upon the passing of generations. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine
“One Dance” [ft. Wizkid and Kyla]
Cash Money / Young Money Entertainment
Drake’s business model has proven to be very successful. It’s basic licensing: When he hears something he likes, he stamps his name on it, adds a few verses from his tried-and-tested playbook, and calls it a hit. So it goes with “One Dance,” arguably the earworm of the year. The song includes two features: one of them a sample of the all-but-unknown singer Kyla Reid, whose velvety voice provides an essential hook, along with echoey punctuations by Nigerian artist Wizkid. These valuable outsiders provide the foundation to which “One Dance” returns whenever Drake’s stock melodicism needs a jolt of momentum. But is Drake’s strategy canny tastemaking or stealth exploitation? Kyla was thrilled when the song was released with her name on it; she pissed off her neighbors by blasting it 20 times in a row.“Once Dance” has since hit No. 1 in over 10 countries. It becamethe most streamed song in Spotify’s history. The business model works again. Everyone’s happy. —Jonah Bromwich
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is far from the kind of music made for mass consumption, yet something about it resonated for many. Through a thick haze of newfound inscrutability and looping weariness, Justin Vernon’s voice emerges as one of the most powerful tools in music. Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is comprised of sounds that often seem broken, or maybe just organized with chaos in mind. But his voice corrals everything together, allowing those brief pockets of sweet saxophone hiss, swells of strings, and spectral choruses to have direct emotional impact. The tangling of Vernon’s recent digital inhumanity with warm empathy makes for something that is poignant for reasons that are hard to articulate, but viscerally felt nonetheless. –Kevin Lozano
Bon Iver: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” (Buy on Bandcamp)
Columbia / Parkwood
Lemonadeis Beyoncé’s most reflective album, as she refuses to play the one-dimensional scorned woman the past few years of tabloids have reduced her to. “Hold Up” finds her peeved (to say the least), but she doesn’t sound peeved. The samples are a bit prickly, a bit twitchy, but the track ultimately projects calm—an Andy Williams fragment ends up somewhere between new age and reggae—and the video is as much about smashing shit as dancing around the shards with the whole neighborhood. It’s a stream of consciousness—Beyoncé’s vocals and lyrics outpace the track throughout—but for all the emotional liability, the fears about “looking jealous or crazy,” and the vow to fuck up a bitch, the lyrics are ultimately completely contained. As always, what Beyoncé presents the listener is utterly unflappable, idle musings upon lodging a baseball bat into the windshield of the unworthy. To call her “crazy” would be wrong; it’s a mark of skill and gravitas that “Hold Up” makes perfect sense. –Katherine St. Asaph
Listen:Beyoncé: “Hold Up”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
“I Need You”
Bad Seed Ltd.
In a break between sessions for what would become Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 16th album, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from the white cliffs of Brighton. And while the music was mostly arranged and all the lyrics written by that point, that tragedy shadows Skeleton Tree like a ghost. For grief of this magnitude and proximity, words founder for even the stoutest of poets. And while Cave’s ink-black prose has detailed death of every sort over the decades, on “I Need You,” you can hear him abut that wordless void, dealing with a pain that rekindles in line at the grocery store. “Nothing really matters” and “I need you” are as timeworn as any string of three words can be, but even if Cave can’t quite suss a new metaphor, he contorts his voice to convey the anguish instead. He drawls out these lines like an old country act as Bad Seed Warren Ellis shadows that heartache via his microKORG. Wringing the rrr of “matters” and eee of “need” like a dishrag, Cave reveals an unsounded sadness and the paucity of language to express it. –Andy Beta
“Really Doe” [ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt]
Several tracks on Atrocity Exhibition portray Danny Brown in a state of private anxiety, but “Really Doe” displays the MC at a peak of ebullience and oddball sociability. Over droning bass tones and a manic xylophone loop, the Detroit rapper proffers sex brags full of unexpected metaphor (“That hoe want my piccolo”), and compares the force of his rhyming to the blast from a C4 explosive. His emphatic release is matched by everyone else on this posse cut: Kendrick Lamar switches up speeds and rhythmic stresses, handling the chorus with a couplet that claps back against rivals. (“I ain’t boomin’—that’s a goddamn lie, whoa/Really doe, like really doe.”) Earl Sweatshirt pivots from “countin’...dubs” to hanging “on a mountain with monks.” And Ab-Soul giddily recalls snatching his mom’s wedding ring for a session of elementary school “show-and-tell.” The upside is obvious: When you’re getting sick of your own interiority, invite some of your more intrepid friends over to the house. –Seth Colter Walls
In the years since 2012’s magnificent Channel Orange, we eventually stopped asking when, but if there’d ever be a new Frank Ocean album. He’d drop a song or two, tease us with sporadic Tumblr posts, then fade into the ether just as abruptly. So in a way, Blonde opener “Nikes” encapsulates everything Ocean has been to us in his career: moody, elusive, mysterious, heartwarming. Pitched to a nearly chipmunk falsetto, the singer looks at himself and his environment, wondering what’s become of such a beautiful mess. It’s woozy and all over the place, steeped in drunken sadness and off-the-cuff reflection. “Pour up for A$AP,” Ocean muses at one point. “R.I.P. Pimp C/R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” Still, “Nikes” isn’t just about societal ills, it’s a kiss-off to gold-diggers looking for a pay day: “These bitches want Nikes, they lookin’ for a check/Tell ’em it ain’t likely.” That sentiment isn’t a shock coming from a guy like Ocean, of course: You can get a piece of him, but don’t get too attached. –Marcus J. Moore
Listen:Frank Ocean: “Nikes”
“Daydreaming” begins—like countless Radiohead songs before it—in the midst of a nebulous disaster. But something’s different here. In an oeuvre animated by technological angst, political indignation, and the threat of ecological catastrophe, this song is rare in that it exists “beyond the point of no return,” instead of on its cusp. “It’s too late,” Thom Yorke concedes, his tone dripping elegant defeat. “The damage is done.”
The song’s innocent title is misleading—there is a sense, in the sleepwalking piano motif and disembodied vocal fragments, of a post-traumatic, amnesiac daze. That the narrator’s circumstances remain shrouded feels less like Radiohead-being-Radiohead than a sort of radical expressionism, the work of someone who has waded so deep into troubled thoughts that only abstractions remain. Yet there is room, in Yorke’s coda, for a flicker of exposition: “Half of my life,” he sighs repeatedly, vocals reversed and entombed in reverb. Yorke, 47 when A Moon Shaped Pool came out, had recently separated from his partner of 23 years—about as long as Radiohead have been releasing music. “Daydreaming” is a reckoning with those years, and, in one way or another, an elegy to them. –Jazz Monroe
“I Can't Give Everything Away”
For decades, David Bowie dropped the best breadcrumbs in rock, and embraced the fans who did the sleuthing: What fate befell Major Tom? Was the Thin White Duke steeped in the occult? So when his 25th album, Blackstar, closed on an overtly cryptic note, it was easy to fall down this next rabbit hole, and wonder what, exactly, he was sing about atop this inquisitive jazz-pop. “With blackout hearts, with flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes,” he sang resignedly—but was that a grace note of frustration? And how about that warbling, plaintive melody—what bounty was he withholding?
It was the shortest Bowie or his followers ever reveled in one of his mysteries; two days after Blackstar’s release, he passed away. And so we learned that this beguiling, openhearted performer had created a gracious farewell with his final album, and particularly this song—the last this shepherd of the fringes would ever sing to his flock. It’s a gentle confirmation of what we knew: that he still had worlds within him, and that he would never have time to express them all. Because every time the song ends, Bowie is gone again. –Stacey Anderson
In Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, romantic rejection becomes its own form of creativity. Spurned by the sociologist Dick, Kraus in turn rejects consummation as the end point of infatuation, and in doing so, interrogates the intersection of failure and desire. Named for Kraus’ “conceptual romance,” the centerpiece track of Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch finds the Norwegian visionary opening a similar portal. On the precipice of heartbreak, she loses herself in her “combined failures” rather than succumb to sentimentality, and she arrives at a revelation. “I understand infatuation, rejection/They can connect and become everything, everything that’s torn up in your life,” she sings, a faint trace of hysteria shaking her calm voice. Here, sensation and loss aren’t the voids they’re usually framed as, but the tangible fabric of existence. “Conceptual Romance” is an anthem for over-thinkers and individuals, for those who value anticipation over payoff. Though going by Hval’s insidious, dusky melody—the very best of her catalog to date—she’s more of a natural at seduction than she’d like to let on. –Laura Snapes
Jenny Hval: “Conceptual Romance” (via SoundCloud)
“Don’t Touch My Hair” [ft. Sampha]
The personal is the political. And in Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” the political is black agency and resiliency in the face of the everyday. Blackness comes with certain truths in this country. Our blackness is laden with history, adversity, and overcoming. For black women, that is especially true. Admission into white society often inscribes sacrifice of the mind and body. We suppress our emotions in the face of hate. But recently many black women have refused to suppress their hair and, in the process, reclaimed bodily autonomy. We will no longer conform.
“Don’t Touch My Hair” gives these ideas musical form: “You know this hair is my shit/Rode the ride, I gave it time/But this here is mine,” Solange sings in the chorus. She has gone through the process of reclaiming her coils. And although its height and structure and beauty leave others in awe, her hair is not something to sully with your confusion or questions or hands. They are “the feelings I wear,” Solange sings, but also her “pride” and “glory.” It's not just hair. It was never just hair. –Britt Julious
Listen: Solange: “Don’t Touch My Hair”
Car Seat Headrest
“Fill in the Blank”
Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo burst through this year like he’d been preparing his whole life for it, making his previous work seem like merely a dress rehearsal. Throughout the dense and knotty songs on Teens of Denial, his first album of new material since signing to Matador Records, you can hear Toledo’s attempt to divulge all he knows: about drugs, about friendship, about youth, about life. But its opening number, “Fill in the Blank,” compressed the album’s 70-minute sprawl into one vicious rock song. When Toledo, dressed a bit like the cool older brother at his sister’s Bat Mitzvah, performed the song on Colbert this summer, he made its energy physical, stuttering and shaking with the song’s all-caps lyrics sheet projected behind him (“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE DEPRESSED/YOU NEVER TRIED HARD ENOUGH TO LIKE IT”). Even as Toledo sings about having seen too much of the world, he doesn’t seem like he’s about to turn away in defeat; he’s now ready to take it all on. –Sam Sodomsky
“You Want It Darker”
There’s a beautiful story about Leonard Cohen that starts after his father’s funeral. Cohen was nine. Mourning, confused, faced with the infinite mystery of death, Cohen snipped the wing of one of his father’s bow ties, stuffed a small note inside it, and buried the tie in the yard. “I’ve been digging in the garden for years, looking for it,” Cohen said later. “Maybe that’s all I’m doing, looking for the note.”
The story’s themes–ritual, testament, the unearthly ways we bear our earthly pain–became the anchors of Cohen’s songs. His 14th and final album, You Want It Darker, opens with its title track, written in direct address: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.” Thirty years ago, he would’ve said the same thing to a lover, but at 82, he talks mostly to God. You think his voice—spectral, bottomless, the sound of wind sweeping across an empty cave—indicates a connection to the beyond, but Cohen’sexplanation was more terrestrial: “500 tons of whiskey and, you know, a million cigarettes.” But that is—or was—Leonard Cohen, an artist for whom the gutters of life were shortcuts to heaven. –Mike Powell
In between two incongruous moments—a tossed-off reference to the aggressively hip boutique hotel chain the Ace and a sped-up sample of country singer Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning”—something truly strange happens to Bon Iver’s “33 ‘GOD’”: It is besmirched by bird shit. You ears might not have noticed, but it's right there in the lyric video: What could pass for a manipulated string sample is rendered, in the style of a stage direction, as “(bird shit).” Its intended purpose is as inscrutable as anything in the song’s free-associative lyrics, which veer from diaristic fragments (“Sent your sister home in a cab”) to perfect couplets marrying the sublime with the quotidian (“I could go forward in the light/Well I better fold my clothes”). But that very inscrutability goes to the heart of what makes the song so fascinating—not just lyrically but also musically, as Vernon’s ruminative piano chords are tossed this way and that by odd squalls of digital interference.
There’s clearly some kind of crisis of faith going on here; the song is prefaced by an excerpt from this oft-quoted passage from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” But Vernon’s willingness to crap on his own canvas proves his disinterest, even in the eyes of God, in taking himself too seriously. Perhaps everyone writing tortured genius exegeses of songs that were never meant to be unpacked should take a page from his book.–Philip Sherburne
Bon Iver: “33 "GOD"” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Am I Wrong”
Empire/OBE/Steel Wool/Art Club
Dancing and self-consciousness make for one of the uneasiest combinations in music. But Anderson .Paak makes it work on “Am I Wrong” by sneaking it in under the cover of a supremely self-assured performance, shooting off about free time being precious and social effort not going to waste. As far as deflections go, Schoolboy Q playing retro-disco “Love Boat” guest star is a major one; you'd be excused for thinking it's the heart of the track, all no-worries party liberation. And that electric-piano glow sparks daydreams of unheard circa-In Our LifetimeMarvin Gaye/Donald Byrd collaborations, but still pulses like it’s too wavy for ’80. Time’s precious, but only an extended 12” mix could make “Am I Wrong” sink in deeper—and leave plenty of room for ambivalence and confidence to hash things out. –Nate Patrin
“Your Best American Girl”
The lead single from Puberty 2—the album that tookMitski Miyawaki from being a good, heartfelt singer-songwriter to the architect of her own graceful vision—is a perfect glass terrarium of a song. Within it, heartaches grow like moss: the desire to be seen for who you truly are by the person you love, the chill of knowing that even the most tender touch can’t bridge some cultural gaps, the knowledge that you’ll have to say goodbye sooner than you wanted to. It’s both universally resonant and personally specific. Even the rock convention she adopts—contrasting spacious, stripped-down verses with a blown-out, full-bore chorus—is done deftly, and lands with a hollow ache. Turn this song in any direction and you’ll find a new perspective to view its tiny, complete world. –Jes Skolnik
Mitski: "Your Best American Girl" (via SoundCloud)
“Best to You” [ft. Empress Of]
Dev Hynes is one model of what a pop auteur should aspire to in 2016: sonically omnivorous, constantly evolving, driven by righteous anger against systemic injustice while empowering marginalized people. But his best-known songs are about the way people hurt each other in the most intimate spaces. “Best to You” leaps from its hazy, funkadelic surroundings,a poison-penned duet wherein Hynes’ female counterpart plays against type. Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez begs to forfeit her independence and identity to be nothing to a someone of her choosing: “I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you throw away.”And surely, some took Rodriguez’s airy delivery, the percolating, chillwave-meets-Afro-pop percussion, and the song’s title at face value and ignored the lyrics, including it on Spotify mixes as a presumptive love song. But the key is right there on Freetown Sound’s cover: That young couple in their bedroom might appear temporarily immune to the indignities that Hynes documents painfully on the rest of the album, but they're not safe from their own private cruelties. –Ian Cohen
Def Jam / GOOD
“Real Friends” is a sober moment amid Kanye West’s chaos. Primarily produced by West, the beat is relatively throwback and very tight, with echoed boom-bap drums and ambient keys that ring out, sad as hell. Here, Kanye delivers The Life of Pablo’s truest lines, a litany of complaints and regrets against himself, his family, and his friends. “When was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?” he asks himself, as if poring over diary pages. Then Ty Dolla $ign swoops in, backing him up, his golden warble the emotional underline to Kanye’s acid. The song nearly ends with Kanye vowing to “throw dirt” on his enemies, but then a chorus of angels enters from stage left and blesses the whole sorry state of affairs. It’s not a flashy song but an honest one. –Matthew Schnipper
Kanye West: "Real Friends" and "No More Parties in LA (Snippet)" (via SoundCloud)
“Pink + White”
Whether he’s casually sidestepping the Grammys, following up a No. 1 album with minimal tour dates, or emerging from a thorough profile with his mystique intact, Frank Ocean’s disregard for the status quo has defined his year. This fact is also evident throughout “Pink + White”’s chill-inducing waltz. The song relegates the world’s biggest pop starto an uncredited support vocal spot. Meanwhile, Frank’s lyrics flow in a stream of consciousness too meticulous to be candid. The images he paints feel at once heart-achingly intimate yet vague. He doesn’t name his muses. His stories arc without exposition or resolution. All this while he strings scenes of a post-Katrina New Orleans (“In the wake of a hurricane.../Nose dive in the flood lines/Tall tower of milk crates”) and waning childhood (“Remember life/Remember how it was/Climb trees, Michael Jackson, it all ends here”) into one of the sweetest melodies of 2016. At this point, it’s futile to try and pin Ocean down. His art is paradoxical at every level. The more critics attempt to parse his identity, the more fluid it becomes. –Corey Smith-West
Listen: Frank Ocean: “Pink + White”
Chance the Rapper
“No Problem” [ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne]
“No Problem” is nothing but infectious. There’s a chipmunk soul vocal loop (not a sample), an instantly memorable and recognizable hook, and a callback to another great rap song. But despite its vibrancy—Chance the Rapper’s primary mode throughout Coloring Book—the song is a departure for Chance.Blessed with a voice that transitions seamlessly between rapping and singing, the Chicago artist has never leaned on Auto-Tune or other noticeable vocal enhancements. His light rasp and trademark yips are part of his charm. But on “No Problem,” he adds just enough of a computerized touch to make the song stand out without entering robotic territory. He also includes two big-name veterans on the track: Lil Wayne and2 Chainz drop by and Chance laps them both, but there’s nothing competitive or bloodthirsty about the song. “No Problem” is Chance’s unsigned-artist manifesto, his way of him telling the major labels, “I can do what you can do, only much, much better.” –Matthew Strauss
Chance the Rapper: “No Problem” [ft. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz] (via SoundCloud)
A Tribe Called Quest
“We the People...”
Rappers can often be heard observing (and decrying) the differences between idealism and practicality. But on A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People...”—the second track from their refined final album—they take this yardstick to the nation at large. After a synth-led introduction, Q-Tip’s first rhymes momentarily stall the song’s forward motion, as he throws down a challenge to the Constitution’s opening statement: “We don’t believe you/Cause ‘We the People’/Are still here in the rear/Yo, we don’t need you.” With the culture in a “killing off good young nigga mood,” the MC reports on a chasm that still exists between the nation’s abstract virtues and its daily, lived reality.
After noting how gentrification threatens vulnerable communities, Q-Tip proposes a cynical redraft of the national credo: “All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/All you poor folks, you must go.” For good measure, he includes some other targets of resurgent white nationalist politics: “Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” The melody he attaches to this chorus is pointedly simplistic, near-monotone, and devoid of the vibrant personality of his opening bars. In the second verse, it’s up to the late Phife Dawg to reenergize the culture under assault. He does so with boldness and wit, nominating Tribe’s pluralist swagger as an aphrodisiac: “We got your missy smitten, rubbing on her little kitten/Dreaming of a world that's equal for women, with no division.” –Seth Colter Walls
“Black Beatles” [ft. Gucci Mane]
“Black Beatles” is the moment Mike WiLL Made-It discovers a new universe while Rae Sremmurd find new ways to plug their irresistible voices into the pocket. There’s an elemental depth to the composition—Mike WiLL is on some Steve Reich shit. Such an industrial, looming beat became the soundtrack to the viral Mannequin Challenge where people froze, a tacit acknowledgment that the song’s buoyant flair is tempered by a monolithic quality so immense it stops time (fittingly, the Mannequin Challenge helped the brothers overcome underperforming album sales and score their first #1 record). With the fatherly presence of Gucci Mane, hot off his rejuvenated life post-prison, the song crams as much joy into itself as possible, the two young rappers and their Atlanta dad trading bars, comparing themselves to the most hallowed group in rock history. Swae Lee, the same guy who penned the irresistible Beyoncé hook “OK ladies, now let’s get in formation,” turns a meme (“Get you somebody that can do both”) into a sweet croon. By the time Slim Jxmmi declares, “Me and Paul McCartney related!” near the end, this pair has efficiently turned the song’s simple conceptual gag into a reflection of their own songwriting prowess. –Matthew Ramirez
“True Love Waits”
For the longest time, it seemed like “True Love Waits” would remain one of the great songs never put to tape in a studio. Originally written around the time of 1995’s The Bends, Radiohead have played it live for years, and its ever-evolving form—from a delicately strummed version to one made opaque by reverb—has been chronicled by bootleggers and fans along the way. Though the band did release an official, stripped-down concert recording of the song in 2001—which producer Nigel Godrich once called “that shitty live version”—the mystery remained.
But then, 21 years after it first graced a stage, “True Love Waits” showed up to close A Moon Shaped Pool. Fans have speculated that Thom Yorke’s own broken heart resulted in this definitive take; it’s more cracked and brittle than any bootleg, with pianos that pull at the singer’s voice like spirits tugging at the corporeal world. Lines that once felt like a plea—“just don’t leave”—sound hopeless now, Yorke singing to his departed lover. Whatever the reason the band felt the song was finally ready, “True Love Waits” is an elegiac coda to one of Radiohead’s most inward-facing albums and a fitting treatment to a song that many already considered a classic. The wait was worth it. –Nathan Reese
Listen:Radiohead: “True Love Waits”
“Shut Up Kiss Me”
Angel Olsenopens My Woman with a dreamy prediction that she will “fall in love with you someday.” That haze is short-lived; when “Shut Up Kiss Me” rolls around a few minutes later, she’s suddenly full of determination. “Someday” now translates to “immediately.” There’s no time for debate in her demand to “shut up kiss me hold me tight.” My Woman’s most rockin’ number cuts straight to the point.
Olsen is no stranger to frank expression, but the dogged determination of “Shut Up Kiss Me” shows off many new tools in her arsenal. After her initial attempts at reconciliation prove futile, Olsen pulls out her final tactic: throaty temptation. As she offers herself as a vessel for her lover’s anxieties (“I could make it all disappear/You could feed me all of your fears”), something within Olsen snaps, and the gravity of the situation is truly felt for the first time. In the song’s self-directed video, this moment is represented by Olsen being dragged away on her roller-skates until she falls to the ground, her voice spinning off-kilter until it dissolves past words. There’s no resolution here, but there’s also no doubt that Olsen will get back on her feet and keep trying. –Quinn Moreland
Angel Olsen: “Shut Up Kiss Me” (Buy on Bandcamp)
“Work” [ft. Drake]
Roc Nation / Westbury Road
It’s likely that the sweeping popularity of Rihanna’s “Work” led the way in a windfall of dancehall-inspired pop tunes throughout the year, from Tory Lanez’ “Luv” to Sia’s Sean Paul-featuring “Cheap Thrills,” bringing Caribbean riddims and vernacular to the top of the Billboard 100 for the first time in about a decade. (In a year where ethno-nationalism swept the United States, this feat proves Rihanna can be just as political as, say, the Knowles sisters.)
Elsewhere in “Work,” Drake is at his earnest best, playing the emotional foil to Rihanna’s chorus while assuring her that he’d pick her over an equally hot, talented twin. The beat is magical and minimal, with Boi-1da leaving enough space to allow the two superstars to propel the song forward. In a year that gave us two AubRih songs (and plenty of relationship-status speculation), “Work” stands out in its urgent beauty. –Noah Yoo
Listen: Rihanna: “Work” [ft. Drake]
“Drone Bomb Me”
Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade
At the center of Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto “The Art of Noises” is a letter from his friend and fellow Futurist F.T. Marinetti. It is a punch-drunk, stream-of-consciousness string of gibberish meant to replicate the concussive tumble of trench warfare—a breathless, onomatopoeic blast of “zang-tumb-tuumb” climaxing in an “orchestra of the noises of war swelling under a held note of silence in the high sky.”
A “held note of silence” isn’t a bad description for the way Anohni’s voice cuts through the rapid-fire chaos—the rat-a-tat drums, the martial fanfare—of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never’s production in the devastating “Drone Bomb Me,” which she has described as a “love song” from the perspective of a 9-year-old Afghani girl whose family has just been killed by a drone strike. But when she sings “I want to die” in a voice so clear it could stop bullets in mid-air, she turns the Futurists’ macho posturing on its head. In place of noise, Anohni gives us a melody that’s almost unbearably gorgeous. In place of Marinetti’s lust for war and “scorn for woman,” she posits radical empathy—an empathy so extreme, in fact, that it may make you a little uncomfortable. “Blow my head off,” she sings, giving voice to the little girl’s extravagant death wish. “Explode my crystal guts/Lay my purple on the grass.” –Philip Sherburne
ANOHNI: “Drone Bomb Me” (Buy on Bandcamp)
There is no resurrection in “Lazarus.” The song arrives as a moment of tension: a lumbering melody tugged along by mournful saxophones and guitars that sound like heavy doors slamming shut. In it, our narrator finds himself in danger. He drops his cellphone and heads to New York City, desperation never too far behind. He has a fleeting vision of himself in the not-so-distant future: “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird.” After a chaotic squall—the kind of wild, jutting rhythm that Bowie used to ride toward the heavens—things abruptly fade, giving the song an eerie, elliptical end. In his last video, Bowie acts out that finale, looking terrified before flashing a sudden devilish smirk and retreating into the darkness. You forget for a second that he’s acting; then you remember he’s not. –Sam Sodomsky
Listen:David Bowie: “Lazarus”
Boys Don't Cry
“Oooh I could hate you now/It’s quite alright to hate me now,” sings Frank Ocean with all the tenderness in the world, “but we both know that deep down/The feeling still deep down is good.” A shimmery guitar intertwines with his voice, and the snake-space formed by their movement is mesmerizing. The only other musical element in this ballad of reflection and regret is a bassline whose understated propulsion allows for subtleties of timing that a rhythm section would deny. Love songs that trade in high-contrast emotions draped over straightforward song structures may be aspirational but they rarely ring true, which is why this love song stays with us, irrefutable and unexpected: “I had no chance to prepare/Couldn’t see you coming.”
After climaxing with a scream, “Ivy” ends amid a scrabble of indeterminate noise. By including the sound of a song being abandoned, Ocean voices what every bruised lover knows: Messiness both fucks with grace and makes it possible. –Jace Clayton
Listen:Frank Ocean: “Ivy”
“Cranes in the Sky”
“Cranes in the Sky” is a wondrously wrought song about emotional precarity and recovery. If the body and mind are some personal city unto itself, for Solange, the cranes looming above are powerful symbols of how omnipresent and ugly the work of self-care can be. With the help of Raphael Saadiq’s magnificently spacious production, she weaves together a series of defeats and diversions into some landscape of possible healing. It’s a small epic about coming to grips with yourself, framed as a deep, warm, musical embrace. –Kevin Lozano
Listen: Solange: “Cranes in the Sky”
Columbia / Parkwood
No one was quite prepared for Beyoncé’s “Formation.” The video dropped with little fanfare—just an unlisted link on her website during a Saturday afternoon in the dead of winter. But by the next day, when Bey appeared at the Super Bowl halftime show with Coldplay and Bruno Mars, a new era had dawned. Both song and video were defiant, proud, political: Beyoncé flicked off the camera, sprawled before us, drowning atop a police car. She was taking a stand for herself and for larger issues like Black Lives Matter and police brutality, no longer conforming to the structures around her.
Mike WiLL Made-It’s production begins piercingly, with sparse trap beats rolling into a marching-band stomp. Spindly synths bubble below the surface, a complement to aggressive, proudly black lyrics: “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” Bey sings at one point. Here, plainly and strongly, is a woman redefining her long-established role as an entertainer; a few months later, upon the release of Lemonade, we also learned that this was a woman advocating for the resiliency and internalized power of all black women in a world that denigrates our minds and bodies. –Britt Julious
“Ultralight Beam” [ft. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin]
G.O.O.D. Music / Def Jam
I’m tryna keep my faith. But I’m lookin’ for more. Kanye West has always stood before us a troubled, hungry soul, a Rorschach blot of desperation and exuberance. Duringhis frantic, decade-long scramble to the pulsing center of pop culture, he has often seemed a man cursed by dissatisfaction, doomed to pull repeatedly from a thermos of salted water. It’s been hard not to wonder, whether you hated or loved him: What drives this guy? Can anyone keep this up?
Somewhere I can feel safe. And end this holy war. As 2016 dawned uneasily, West seemed, for the first time, capable of succumbing to the exhaustion that was the flip side of his blazing creative energy. He was in the second half of his 30s; he’d had his second child; he was trying to corral an unruly mess of an album that seemed to keep defying basic order and structure. So he opened the album with a prayer. The song is at least 30 percent silence. Silence is not a common guest on Kanye West’s albums. Here, it is the star.
Pray for Paris. Pray for the parents.“Ultralight Beam” is an exalted space, a promise of redemption and healing that felt more fragile and unlikely as the year wore on. It is a song of Godlike perspective from a man who spent most of the year appearing to have none. It’s a Kanye West song with almost no Kanye West in it. Oh, he is responsible for it—technically speaking, he is the reason that Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price are here, sharing space with The-Dream and Chance the Rapper; he’s the motivation behind this thumping, sleepy beat and those rafter-quaking gospel harmonies. But apart from dispensing some words of kindness and benediction, he barely appears. Whatever we are meant to experience inside of this little space, we need him out of the way. He seems to understand this.
This is a God dream. This is everything. Not much felt safe or certain in 2016, the year of crumbling structures and looming threats realized. Humanity’s penchant for destroying itself, for tearing at societal bonds, took its raging turn in the spotlight. There was precious little empathy or palpable love to be found. We all seem exhausted. On November 22, West checked himself into a hospital, shortly after unraveling onstage, for “temporary psychosis due to sleep deprivation and dehydration.” He spent Thanksgiving there, canceling future tour dates. Weeks earlier, his wife had been held up at gunpoint in a brutal robbery. As the darkness closes in, “Ultralight Beam” pulses outward, neither dimming nor brightening as it offers its unchanging message: This is a God dream. This is everything. Everything. –Jayson Greene
The album has never seemed stronger. Artists have never had more ways to express themselves, from one-off Soundcloud singles to social media posts to live streams of video. Yet in this world of plenty, they’ve continued to keep the album in an exalted place, one where they make a bid for serious amounts of their audience’s fractured time. From Radiohead to Frank Ocean to both Knowles sisters to Leonard Cohen, 2016 was an embarrassment of riches from major artists. Highly personal and flowing concept records like A Seat at the Table landed alongside tightly sequenced song-cycles like Singing Saw, genre-hopping experiments like Emily’s D+Evolution, and drifting slabs of ambient music like For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have). These are the best albums of 2016.
Metro Boomin / 21 Savage
Rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode is a heavy, dark collaboration between these two young Atlanta stars. Though many artists draw their verses from lived experience, there is something uniquely dour in Savage’s storytelling. His narratives are accented by the production’s rhythmic twitches; low, round bass buoys his flat, vocal fry monotone. Flutes, xylophones, and old video game effects contrast with the harsh whisper of Savage alongside Future on “X.” “Feel It,” a love song, seems hopeless, but Savage’s near-percussive repetition of “I can feel it in the air” is intoxicating. This record presents a slow burn and a singular mood: grim music for grim times. –Erin Macleod
Since Aaron Maine began releasing music as Porches, his style has evolved from down-home alt-country to synth-streaked, lo-fi pop. Pool, Porches’ second album and first on the indie mainstay Domino Records, was another shift, diving headlong into the lacquered keys and prickly guitars of quintessential ’80s pop in a way that recalls circa-2009 chillwave. With mixing by ace Chris Coady, the bid for professionalism paid off in a set of elegantly restrained, melancholic synth-pop tunes that showcase Maine’s aching falsetto. The laconic yet vivid lyrics, with references to weed, water, and other music, belie Maine’s background in painting. There's even a heartstopping saxophone solo. What saves Pool from getting lost in its own glossy vibes is an underlying sense of intimacy, helped no doubt by its being recorded mainly in Maine’s Manhattan apartment, and by some warmly enigmatic backing vocals from Greta Kline, better known as Frankie Cosmos. A follow-up EP of Pool demos, Water, further attests to the sturdiness of Maine’s craft. –Marc Hogan
Greta Kline is the girl on the F train scanning the subway car’s bounty for inspiration, scribbling her thoughts in a notebook. As Frankie Cosmos, her muses include New York City, animals, the touring life, memories, friends, growing up—big topics that she distills with a few carefully chosen words and notes and sounds. Near the end of her brief, brilliant album Next Thing, backed by a simple backbeat and ringing guitars—think the Strokes minus any and all machismo—the 22-year-old breaks down nothing less than the paradox of life in two tidy lines: “When you’re young, you’re too young/When you’re old, you’re too old.” The record’s 15 songs all clock in around the two-minute mark, a brevity born of wisdom rather than laziness. Kline is a keen editor of feelings and fragments. She knows exactly when to end a song, which can be just as important as knowing when to start one. –Ryan Dombal
A Good Night in the Ghetto
On A Good Night in the Ghetto, the young Oakland MC Kamaiyah captures lightning in a bottle. Confident and nuanced, it’s a self-contained piece of Bay Area hip-hop with clear lyrical nods to Too $hort, as the funkified, fleshy beats recall DJ Quik. Kamaiyah chronicles her young life via a series of drunken and stoned nights (“Out the Bottle”) and a supply of sexual conquests (“Niggas,” “Break You Down”) that are notable in how bold and plainspoken she is about them. Kamaiyah’s style descends from fellow West Coast rappers like Suga Free, but it’s also very much her own, blending equal loves of Cali hip-hop and ’90s vocal groups like TLC. Bay Area producers such as P-Lo, 1-O.A.K., and Trackademicks blend new jack swing and radio R&B samples for this young, agile rapper. The YG-featuring “Fuck It Up” and life-affirming hit single “How Does It Feel?” leap out of the speakers and onto many DJ sets, but it’s the overall triumphant vibe of A Good Night in the Ghetto that merits repeat listens. –Matthew Ramirez
Listen:Kamaiyah: “How Does It Feel”
Run for Cover
The Montclair, N.J. group Pinegrove have two logos: one, a small box intersected with an identical box, is favored among their legions of young and tattooed fans, as evidenced in an endless stream of RTs on the band’s page. The other is an ampersand. This summer, when Pitchfork interviewed the band’s frontman, Evan Stephens Hall—a 27-year-old of highly enthusiastic, bookish charisma—he said he’d thought about publishing a pamphlet on Pinegrove iconography. Both symbols, he said, are intended to reflect an ethos of multiplicity, of many simultaneous realities, and thus of radical empathy.
On Cardinal, Hall’s plainspoken lyrics belie this epistemological headiness, but you can feel the compassion in their raw alt-country arrangements, in phrases that reach and erupt. Pinegrove songs are appealingly episodic. “Aphasia,” the best one, is about moments when language falters. The narrative leading “Size of the Moon”—moving furniture to dance, the liminality in love—is basically Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods.” When people call Cardinal“emo,” what they mean is there’s bracing lucidity to lyrics such as “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/Saw some old friends at her funeral,” or “Maybe I should have got out a bit more when you guys were still in town/I got too caught up in my own shit/That’s how every outcome’s such a comedown.” Life, as ever, demands such clear-headedness. It demands we learn how to talk with one another. Cardinal contains that power and hope. –Jenn Pelly
Listen:Pinegrove: “Old Friends”
In a post-truth age, who needs words, anyway? Certainly not William Tyler, whose guitar talks the talk on Modern Country, his fourth album. A former member of Lambchop, Kurt Wagner’s long-running Nashville-based country-soul collective, Tyler’s ambitions always pointed further out than just being a solo guitarist. When he released his debut in 2008 (under the name the Paper Hats), Tyler’s instrumentals mixed in drones, and subsequent releases have featured clattering avant jams (2014’s Blue Ash Montgomery cassette) and pedal steel-laced krautrock covers soaring towards the Western horizon (2014’s Lost Colony EP). But like the genre it takes its name from, Modern Country is extremely accessible. Welcoming of every experimental deviance, the album firmly establishes Tyler as a link in the chain of experimental American guitarists who know that sometimes, lyrics just spoil the fun. –Jesse Jarnow
Listen: William Tyler: “Gone Clear”
Atlantic / Bread Winners' Association
At the time of this writing, Kevin Gates’ major label debut, Islah, is one of only two rap albums released this year to be awarded platinum certification by the RIAA (the other being Drake’s massive, guest-star-laden VIEWS). It’s a remarkable accomplishment for an album with no featured guests, apart from the Ty Dolla $ign/Trey Songz/Jamie Foxx trifecta on the bonus track “Jam.” It’s all Gates, a summation of his career that pushes him into new but logical directions. At once too-much-coffee intense, disarmingly gentle, and unfashionably sincere—often all at the same time—Islah is a lot to take in, but having zero chill is one of Gates’ greatest strengths. On “Ain’t Too Hard” he raps, “Sometimes emotions get the best of me clearly/And I ain’t never try to straddle no fences.” May he never aim for the middle ground. –Renato Pagnani
Listen:Kevin Gates: “2 Phones”
Front Row Seat to Earth
Though Natalie Mering wears her ’70s rock influences proudly on her sleeve, Weyes Blood is careful not to rehash the past. Gorgeous synth strings, blocky piano chords, and vast harmony stacks lift her powerful, baroque voice. She often sings about modern topics; on “Generation Why,” she amusedly recounts her fractious relationship with technology. “Goin’ to see end of days/I’ve been hanging on my phone all day/And the fear goes away,” she lilts as phantom background vocalists rise alongside a rumbling organ and acoustic guitar plucks resound, seemingly from a dream. Front Row Seat to Earth has many of these moments, where Mering’s vocals and arrangements coalesce into a melancholy, beautiful cry to the heavens—not a plea to a higher power, but a declaration of worthiness in the present day. –Noah Yoo
Def Jam / Blacksmith / Artium
Vince Staples cites “Kurt Cobain dreams,” but the suicidal Nirvana frontman serves as a stand-in for anyone who ever felt the walls close in. If rock/rap star alienation is its own genre, Staples rehabilitates it on this barely 20-minute EP—part F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” part psychedelic gangsta rap industrial rave brawl soundtracked by James Blake, DJ Dahi, and No I.D. Unlike his more self-pitying peers, Staples lucidly dissects his psychological disintegration. We see the pitfalls and contradictions of celebrity—the pressures that mount when you need to escape poverty and violence but can’t turn your back on the place that raised you. Prima Donna is existentially trapped music—when you’re too wealthy to complain but branded a consumer product, forced to answer condescending questions, and smile for inane selfies. When Staples sings in that wounded croak, “this little light of mine,” it’s hard to imagine anyone else so artfully distilling the darkness. –Jeff Weiss
Listen:Vince Staples: “Prima Donna”
For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Huerco S.’s ambient album For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), was this year’s great salve. Itevoked that liminal state between awake and asleep, when your whirring brain slows down enough to let your body rest. The burbling, drunken loop of “Lifeblood” is in constant danger of being overtaken by a lush drone, while “Marked for Life” drags warmth from what sounds like the flickering glow of a million computer screens. But the real feat of this record is the sequencing, beginning with the pillowy ambient of “A Sea of Love” and ending with a look to the stars via “The Sacred Dance.” In between, the album lurches and drifts through underwater atmospherics, subtle sonar pings, and blunted nostalgia trips via the sound of ’70s science films. At the right volume, it can muffle the outside world entirely.
Much has been made of how these tracks cut off abruptly, like the producer didn’t know how to end them. It’s consistently jarring, but it also makes sense. Endings require answers—or at least some gesture toward certainty. But when that certainty is impossible, For Those… acts as an antidote. –Sam Hockley-Smith
Wadada Leo Smith / Vijay Iyer
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
The core of the album by the pianist Vijay Iyer and his mentor, the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, is its title suite, commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a tribute to the late Indian artist and photographer Nasreen Mohamedi. The suite ranges in mood from the quieter “Uncut Emeralds” to the rumbling intensity of“A Cold Fire”—all titles stemming from Mohamedi’s diary entries—and coheres into a minimal yet layered partnership that connects two generations and two approaches, as well as echoes the thoughtful minimalism of the visual artist. Iyer and Smith worked together previously in Smith’s Golden Quartet, but this is the truest expression yet of their relationship: Here, they are united in palpable fondness and awe. –Erin Macleod
For Moodymann’s entry in the DJ-Kicks series he creates a hazy world, feeling free to invent a space where singer Cody ChestnuTT’s blunted “Serve This Royalty” is mashed up against Detroit rapper Dopehead like they were always meant to play next to each other. It’s not about making a huge statement, it’s about making a series of small ones. Years and genres are disregarded as Moodymann pieces together a mix linked by disconnect. Each of these tracks is just slightly off—marred by a drum stutter, a muffled throb of bass, or a piece of fuzzy sound. By the time he gets around to revitalizing Jai Paul’s modern classic “BTSTU”—which sounds like a revelation here—it’s clear that there’s another subliminal theme at play: Each song is an epiphany, a bedroom artist pushing his or her idiosyncratic tendencies into the world at large. –Sam Hockley-Smith
Listen:Dopehead: “Guttah Guttah”
Blank Face LP
Interscope / Top Dawg
Like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle or Clipse’s Lord Willin’,Blank Face LP is gloriously, unrepentantly street, an album disinterested in crossover or concession. Shadowy and ochre and starkly soulful, it dips low and knocks hard. Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Jadakiss, Vince Staples, and others drop in and out, but almost as soon as they’ve surfaced, dense plumes of figurative Cali weed smoke swallow them whole and you forget they were even there. The scenery-chewing Schoolboy Q won’tbe faded or upstaged as he spits clipped, curving darts straight into your consciousness. Redemption isn’t necessarily foremost on the South Central L.A.’s rapper’s mind here: For every “Let’s put the guns down and blaze a spliff,” there are eight or nine equivalents of “I was out here sellin’ dope at 14, what it do?/I was out here fuckin’ hoes at 14, what it do?” Blank Face’s triumphlies in how it weaves these extremes into a realized, lived-in world, each vignette bleeding naturally into the next, and in Q’s lyrical and tonal commitment to a version of his youth that past releases only touched on. –Raymond Cummings
We Are KING
KING’s first album is rendered in just the right number of brushstrokes; songs like “Carry On” rely heavily on negative space, free of clutter and pretense. Their competence and earnestness is also reflected in three tracks that reappear from the trio’s 2011 EP, presented here in “extended mixes” that display a half-decade of shrewd tweaks and revisions. All these fragments coalesce into one synth-led, R&B-heavy, deeply soulful whole. KING work best as impressionists; “Red Eye” sounds like a bout of sleep deprivation mixed with a little desperation and a good bit of sex. The signature song is “The Greatest,” a delightfully off-kilter ode to Muhammad Ali: It’s no wonder Prince spoke so highly of these new Los Angeles royals. –Paul A. Thompson
Listen:KING: “The Greatest”
On the first Tuesday in July, police killed Alton Sterling. On Wednesday, they took Philando Castile. The following day, Jamila Woods showed us HEAVN and reminded us that despite everything, there is still hope.
In her glowing solo debut, Woods seeks and creates her own refuge, proclaiming graceful pride in her blackness and her hometown of Chicago. On “LSD,” an ode to the city (via Lake Shore Drive) featuring Chance the Rapper, she sings, “A body of water inside me/Reminds me of oceans, though I’ve never known one/I’m born by a cold one”—in one fell swoop, linking Lake Michigan to the Atlantic, and herself to her ancestors. On “VRY BLK,” Woods flips the children’s clapping game Miss Mary Mack into a quietly devastating commentary on police brutality. She also stitches anecdotes from other Black women into her songs, telling of a place where Black girls with “braids filled with bubbles” chants Assata Shakur, where the CD man still walks up and down 79th, where young love blooms on Emerald Street. Throughout HEAVN, members of Chicago’s young musical vanguard lend themselves to Woods' warm vision:Noname delivers poetic raps, Nico Segal offers jazzy trumpet lines,oddCouple makes cushy beats. Chicago is her heaven, which, she comes to realize, was also inside her all along. –Minna Zhou
Listen:Jamila Woods: “HEAVN”
Rostam / Hamilton Leithauser
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
Hamilton Leithauser, late of the Walkmen, and Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, took a nod from David Byrne and Brian Eno when deciding how to bill their album together, and that was telling: Like those pioneers’ two classic collaborations, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine keeps both of its creators’ identities intact. In combining two of the recent indie-rock realm’s more distinctive artistic sensibilities, though, this first full-length from Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam transports both someplace altogether wonderful and different. What would the disheveled-yet-debonair voice of the Walkmen sound like over finger-picked classical guitar? ...with saxophone? ...alongside the dulcet Angel Deradoorian on a Disney-esque symphonic reverie?
Now we know. Between dry shooby-doo-wops and barstool howls, with a slide guitar here and a smattering of synths there, I Had a Dream updates mid-20th-century pop tropes—and tweaks its makers’ musical trademarks—for a thoroughly engrossing, richly enjoyable album rooted in nostalgia and loss. “I use the same voice I always had,” Leithauser roars early on, and it’s true of both parties here. Although Leithauser is touring the material without Batmanglij, who’s increasingly busy as a pop producer, let’s hope that, unlike Byrne and Eno, it doesn’t take them 27 years to reunite. –Marc Hogan
By most accounts, classic rock had a good year in 2016. Beyoncé sampled Led Zeppelin. Frank Ocean sampled the Beatles. The Oldchella Festival found the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Neil Young uniting for a block of music that previously existed only on classic rock radio. And then, on a more modest scale, there was Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw: an album steeped in this tradition with ideas so ingrained in our collective conscious as to feel idiomatic. But the most striking thing about Morby’s music is less his set of influences and more his ability to locate the internal geography that has informed them all.
The album, tellingly named after an instrument whose eerie warble sounds like wind howling against a window, finds wisdom in the natural world. Morby lets his songs unfold with an organic sense of inevitability. When he asks for trumpets in “Destroyer,” they appear. In the title track, he wanders behind the house as percussion chirps around him like crickets. And in “I Have Been to the Mountain,” the album’s most momentous anthem—one that eulogizes Eric Garner, giving Singing Saw its deepest sense of urgency—Morby gazes heavenward to find he’s become a part of his surroundings, and that they are as attuned to him as he is to them. “A sky that mirrors,” he muses. “A sky that stares as I sing.” —Sam Sodomsky
Though blackSUMMERS’night was Maxwell’s first album in seven years, the final product doesn’t sound overwrought or overworked—in fact, parts of it seem half-erased or smudged. In that sense, it recalls There’s a Riot Goin’On, where the number of overdubs melt and obscure the original tracks until the voice at the center seems to be singing against a production of ghosts. The horns that were central to Maxwell’s previous album are now almost parenthetical, swelling out of the corners of songs like “Fingers Crossed”and then sinking back into silence. This makes for an album the pleasures of which, beyond Maxwell’s newly grainy voice, can be as abstract as they are immediate: The disco pulse of “All the Ways That Love Can Feel” exists between two margins, a stereo space in which guitar and organ sounds merge like inkblots. “The Fall”’s drums give the song a jazzy digression that resembles the shiver of autumn leaves. Beneath their generous detail, though, the songs on blackSUMMERS’nightare still Maxwell songs; it’s music as furniture—not in the Erik Satie ambient sense, but music you can sink into and feel something resembling an embrace. –Brad Nelson
A Mulher do Fim do Mundo (The Woman at the End of the World)
Mais Um Discos
Elza Soares’ story ought to be a tragedy: The 79-year-old Brazilian singer has survived political exile, enduring racism, and marital abuse by a national icon. But since emerging from the Rio favelas in the 1950s, she has channeled that horrific biography into an display of perseverance in the face of adversity—both her own and her country’s. “While there are still black people taking a beating, we will have music to make,” she has said.
Soares recorded her last studio LP, 2004’s Vivo Feliz, with her 26-year-old rapper husband. Its follow-up, again made with artists decades her junior, is a work of staggering, coruscated beauty. Musicians assembled from São Paolo’s samba sujo (“dirty samba”) scene abrade and mutilate Afro-Brazilian rhythms, with staccato guitars that splice eerie post-punk with primal post-hardcore. Soares’ what-is-this-shit rasp thrashes through the noise. In the chorus of “Pra Fuder,” or “To Fuck,” she pelts out the titular refrain like a dancer on hot coals; on “Maria da Vila Matilde,” she offers her domestic abuser a faceful of scalding water, then calmly refills the kettle to welcome the cops.
She is always in character, but often that character is Elza Soares, the Brazilian myth. On the title track, written in her honorby Rômulo Fróes, Soares attends an apocalyptic carnival, seeming to hover overhead. She wanders through the “confetti rain,” past “angel wings…scattered on the ground.”“There, in the parade,” she growls, as the chorus explodes like so many streamers, “I left my black skin, my voice...My home, my solitude...Woman at the end of the world, I am.” InA Mulher do Fim do Mundo, she has made the album of her life, in every sense.“I go on singing,”she croaks finally, “Till the end.”–Jazz Monroe
Light Upon the Lake
Emerging from the ashes of Smith Westerns, guitarist Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich created a sound tinged with late-’60s, harmony-soaked nostalgia. Ehrlich’s lyrics are winsome, celebrating an America of yawning skies and infinite possibilities, and the arrangements are big, fitting forWhitney’s large touring presence. “No Woman” uses strings and horns as perfect punctuation, while the “na-na-nas” of “Golden Days” call for arms-around-the-shoulders-style camaraderie. Light Upon the Lake isn’t about grand statements or shifting paradigms but is instead a place of escape and comfort, a perfectly rendered example of guitar-pop at its best. –Nathan Reese
Listen: Whitney: “No Matter Where We Go”
BeforeEmily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding was a certain kind of artist—the kind who performs at the White House, who wins Grammys as reliably as you and I file taxes. Somewhere along the line, she must have squinted at all this and decided it was boring, because on Emily’s D+Evolution—a runaway buggy of jazz fusion, folk rock, and prog—she exploded it. Sinewy, lean, and containing some three-dozen hairpin turns across its 12 tracks, the album feels pitched somewhere between master’s thesis and decathlon. It is a heroic feat that would feel fatiguing if Spalding weren’t nearly cackling with glee through it all. Even when the music conjures Joni Mitchell fronting Yes, Spalding sings and plays with mortal urgency, exploring questions about gender roles, about the existence of evil and temptation, about humanity’s ability to self-destruct, and about the need for love and courage in the face of it all. “We could change the whole story of love,” she pleads on the open-hearted ballad “Unconditional Love.” By the ferocity of her conviction, you are almost swayed into believing it. –Jayson Greene
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Exploring the Buchla synthesizer, says composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, has led her to think differently about her surroundings: “When I hear any sound in the entire world, I end up thinking, ‘How would I have made that?’” This appears to be the challenge she presented herself while creating her masterwork EARS. An uncanny valley of burbling aquatic sounds and the chatter of birds, insects, and amphibians mark “Wetlands,” while “Rare Things Grow” is full of sloshing, dripping movement. Smith has discussed the patience required to understand a modular synthesizer, and that manifests in this slow-building music, which blurs the line between organic and synthetic. Vocals are processed beyond comprehension; woodwinds tangle with Smith’s electronics. The album’s artwork is a painting full of flora and fauna, some recognizable while others are seemingly fictional. Similarly, EARS teems with life both knowable and incomprehensible. She’s built a world of her own. It’s a good place. —Evan Minsker
Months after breaking through with his vibrant, heartfelt album Malibu, Anderson .Paak continued to drape himself in his most garish threads—literally and metaphorically. On Yes Lawd!, his collaborative project with bohemian beatmaker Knxwledge, you can picture the satin-smooth soul man peacocking in a blaxploitation joint, draped in a gaudy-as-hell coat with matching fedora. Knxwledge, meanwhile, chops up the samples into quick-fire sonic sketches; this is a beat tape of lean soul, grubby basslines and hard drum loops. .Paak delivers his low-level hustler anecdotes with a broad grin etched across his face. This is old-school gold, as vintage as .Paak’s plaid jackets. For best results, try bumping it on a convertible’s tape deck. –Dean Van Nguyen
Listen:NxWorries: “Lyk Dis”
Aside from their name, an emerging rapper’s hometown is one of the most important details to know about her. On Telefone, Noname’s stunning debut, her native Chicago is a central character; even though her chosen moniker hints at a guarded public persona, any reservedness disappears as she takes us through the Windy City. Sometimes she evokes the nostalgia of childhood summers, eating ice cream on her front porch as she watches her friends hit the “Diddy Bop.” Then, abruptly, she describes her peers as being “Casket Pretty,” because any one of them could be buried looking just as beautiful as they are in the instant before their life is taken.
Similarly dark prospects are juxtaposed with happy beats throughout Telefone: warm church organs, snapping fingers and major-key vocals from friends and collaborators like Cam O’bi and Eryn Allen Kane. The record would be completely devastating if it weren’t so charming. Any city, even one whose narrative isfrequently reduced to one of danger and unrest, is inhabited by people who want the best for themselves and their loved ones. On Telefone, Noname invites the listener to see this through her eyes by opening up about her joys, her loves, and her losses closest to home. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
The Brooklyn band Parquet Courts have the misfortune of seeming smart, which they are. But under the art-punk jigsaw puzzles and copious amounts of thinking, there are feelings, too: ordinary ones like I miss you (“Berlin Got Blurry”), nobody understands me (“Paraphrased”), and I feel kinda lonely (“One Man No City”). They are clearly felt if not always clearly stated. Romantics at heart, Parquet Courts keep their wits up; sensitive, they yell as often as possible. Even richer and more layered than Austin Brown and Andrew Savage’s lyrics is the band’s music, which sounds both working-class and sophisticated (“Human Performance”), country (“Outside,” “Pathos Prairie”), and city (“Captive of the Sun,” “Two Dead Cops”). It is as psychedelic and gristly as Manhattan traffic at dusk. In other words, Parquet Courts continue to rock, with and without quotation marks. –Mike Powell
Listen:Parquet Courts: “Outside”
Many talk about it, but this year, a handful of guys—DJ Paypal, Sporting Life, and this crazy kid from Quebec—actually stomped on the line connecting archival black music tropes to the ever-branching threads of electronic music. 99.9% got everything right by “Track Uno”(among the best song titles of the year): the junk-bin funk sample lands like a transmission from the early-’80s radio sets that birthed Detroit techno, even leaning back into scratchy A.M. static before the drums plunge. Kay’s drums are like his glasses: at once nondescript and trademark, their Dilla-ish wonkiness frame the many different voices he invites to play throughout the record. From legitimizing Craig David’scomeback to prodding Syd tha Kydout front, Kaytranada might’ve made R&B great again by dancing around it like an election pun. Still, turn up your bass and blast “Lite Spots,” and it becomes quickly apparent how futile it is to overthink his style. For every R&B remix that inspires a thousand Soundcloud jockeys, he drops an inimitable freak-out like this Portuguese chop job—hard evidence that a featured guest or obtuse sample can’t distract from his strong hand when he chooses to show it. –Matthew Trammell
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
This is how bands are made in 2016: Not in the garage or in the basement, but in the backseat of your mother’s car. Graduating from a period during which he released approximately 11 albums of smart but scrupulously ambition-free indie rock through Bandcamp, songwriter Will Toledo stabilized his lineup, expanded his sound, and resigned himself to his talent.
A feel-good album about people chemically incapable of feeling good,Teens of Denial reckons mental illness, alienation, and a blooper reel’s worth of false epiphanies without angst or coddling, the only real redemption being a chance to fuck up again. And if you don’t have the time for lyrical exegesis, you can pump your fist instead—the music certainly warrants it. How Toledo manages to keep such close company with depression and still find the will to rock is a mystery. That he does it with humor is a miracle. Pray that he never takes happiness seriously. –Mike Powell
Midway through pop avant-gardist Jenny Hval’s sixth album, Blood Bitch, her frequent collaborators Annie Bielski contemplate the record’s concept. “It’s about vampires…. It’s about blood,” Bielski concludes. True, as Hval has said, Blood Bitch is indeed a look into “the purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood,” but it is also about desire, capitalism, and self-discovery. As she considers these ideas, Hval's voice floats skyward, tethered to her worldly concerns only by pulsing beats that conjure the throb of menstruation. Rarely does an album focus so fully on the dignity and beauty of female fluids. This year saw the female body and her rightsattackedrelentlessly, as if the capacity to reproduce automatically prohibits autonomy. Blood Bitch gives power to the rejected body with a simple encouragement: “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood.” –Quinn Moreland
The pivotal moment on YG’s set-throwing sophomore album, Still Brazy, is “Who Shot Me?” a song that attempts to uncover who exactly tried to kill the rapper last June. It’s like opening a film with a flash-forward to the violent, climactic ending, narrated by the victim, who’s reflective and conscience-stricken. In his 11th hour, isolated and angry, YG scrolls back through his memory bank seeking to identify the shooter from the long list of enemies he’s made as a rich gangsta. What spirals out is a polished gangland parable, brimming with paranoia and panic. YG assesses the short history of his wrongdoings, and subtly examines the cycle of bloodshed incited by sporting colors. His resulting value realignment brings about a turn toward social consciousness, producing snapshots of black American ghettos, addressing race relations and police brutality, and offering up the most succinct and righteous denunciation of Donald Trump on record—the useful chant of “Fuck Donald Trump,” devoid of any substantial politics, filled with literal vitriol. As it smoothly stitches together swatches of g-funk and P-Funk, Still Brazy coolly stares down the barrel. –Sheldon Pearce
Atlantic / 300 Entertainment
Before hearing JEFFERY, you could be forgiven for not buying into the hype around Young Thug. Maybe you thought he was sub-verbal, notpost-verbal, and the only talent Jeffery Lamar Williams had was a knack for getting attention; even wearing a dress on the album’s cover seemed like a stunt.
But JEFFERY’s opener, “Wyclef Jean,” laid down the gauntlet in bar one: “Ok my money way longer than [a] NASCAR race.” The magic is partially in the words and the silliness, but also in Thug’s melodicism and attitude—that slurry, undeniable voice, urging you to imitate him. Then the song unfolds into one of the most unpredictable pop jams of the year, with a mid-song rappity-rap showcase unfurling into JEFFERY’s crowning achievement. If you don’t get hype to “Future Swag” or “Floyd Mayweather,” or aren’t prepared to respect the fury of “Harambe,” you are the one left in the cold. On “Kanye West,” when you hear Wyclef Jean’s voice bringing things full circle, Young Thug demands to be celebrated. And so we do. –Jonah Bromwich
Listen:Young Thug: “Kanye West”
Patience has always been a part of the Nicolas Jaar experience. His melodies and references reveal themselves slowly. Though he’s been consistently active as an artist and label owner since his debut LP, Space Is Only Noise, a formal follow-up was slow to materialize. When Sirens arrived, its cover was obscured by scratch-off foil; the first track is an amorphous, 11-minute sound collage.
Sirens is more assured and aggressive than Space; “No,” the album’s centerpiece, is a lightly stepping pop song, sung in Spanish. Jaar hasspoken eloquently about how Sirens straddles the political and the personal but in the music itself, the contradictions feel smaller and more ethereal. The first half of the album ends with “Leaves,” another collage, wordless until he shares a snippet of himself, as a child, having a discussion with his father. This is peak Jaar: equal parts intimacy and obscurity.
“Space Is Only Noise had all these little tunnels in it, and I’ve tried to go into every single one of those tunnels ever since,” said Jaar earlier this year. The tracks on Sirens feel like those explorations: They take unexpected turns, double back, break for a sandwich. Jaar is investigating these tunnels on Sirens; we wait, patiently. –Andrew Gaerig
Listen:Nicolas Jaar: “No”
Roc Nation / Westbury Road
After seven LPs, Rihanna finally made a great album, rather than a collection of zeitgeist-dominating bangers surrounded by filler. What makes ANTI work (work work work work) is the presence of Rih’s no-fucks-given (but secretly a few fucks given) attitude in every crack and corner. Her stoner queen comes out in“James Joint,” an all-too-brief gem of Stevie Wonder warmth. The savage boss she perfected in “Bitch Better Have My Money” (and across social media) comes full force on “Needed Me,” the quintessential “Oh, you caught feels?” anthem. It’s only as ANTIcontinues that Ms. Fenty realizes maybe no woman is an island, no matter how many platinum records she racks up, diamond ball gowns she wears, or skull-sized blunts she smokes. By the time we get to old-school piano ballad “Higher,”Rihanna raspily belts out what is essentially a drunk voicemail to a man she has to admit she still thinks about. Whoever he is, he doesn’t deserve her. –Jillian Mapes
Listen:Rihanna: “Work” [ft. Drake]
Mitski Miyawaki’s Puberty 2 is a case study of the modern condition, a record for this era crippled with worry. The Brooklyn musician told Pitchfork in June that one of her goals as an artist is “to always make clear that I am a real person,” and on her fourth album, that realness is a bittersweet proposition. Puberty 2 is vividly, excitingly, and sometimes crushingly human, containing all the ups and downs of maintaining emotional sanity as told through her guitar’s indie fuzz. To convey a range of tenuous emotion, Mitski uses uncomfortable metaphors, nuanced lyrics about instability and unpaid rent. On “Happy,” for instance, contentment is a one-night stand that leaves just as quickly as it came. The song “Fireworks” may or may not be about pushing back distressing tears, but when its chorus explodes into a starry crescendo, it feels like a liberating cry shared amongst friends who need it most. Even with its nerves, there’s something incredibly comforting—hopeful, even—about Puberty 2’s half-hour minutes of catharsis. –Alex Frank
You Want It Darker
Columbia / Sony
You Want It Darker will always be linked with Leonard Cohen’s death. Singing while seated in his living room medical chair, he calls himself “broken and lame.” He looks back on his past, with regrets, and says goodbye on “Traveling Light” and “I’m Leaving the Table.” Several times, he notes that he’s out of the game. He’s joined by the choir from his childhood Montreal synagogue and sings the same prayer that was offered at his funeral just three days later: “Magnified, sanctified be Thy holy name.” You Want It Darker is one of the world’s greatest poets putting his house in order.
Through the darkness and mortality, there’s levity. Backed by gospel organ and a bluesy guitar solo on “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” he sings about the revitalizing powers of love. At one point, asubtle dick joke even finds a place in the mournful fray. As usual, Cohen oscillates between heft and humor, love and death. It closes with a string reprise of “Treaty”—a gorgeous requiem followed by just a few more words from Cohen. “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine,” he sings. And with that beautiful notion of surrender, he’s gone. –Evan Minsker
Top Dawg Entertainment
Even Kendrick Lamar’s afterthoughts are fiercely thought-provoking. Last year, his To Pimp a Butterfly—an 80-minute opus of plush jazz-funk grooves, intricate rhymes, and ruthlessly self-interrogating philosophical excursions—was close to a consensus album of the year. This March, Lamar followed with untitled unmastered., a work that’s as different from TPAB in presentation as it is sonically and thematically similar. Its cover is an unadorned green box, and untitled is a 34-minute set of eight numbered and dated tracks. It further cements Lamar’s singular position in both hip-hop and popular culture while deftly sidestepping the non-musical noise that generally accompanies such lofty status. At its best, untitled is just as potent as TPAB. Where TPAB breathed the sound of jazz back into rap, untitled more closely embodied the jazz spirit: living in the moment, embracing mistakes, and foregrounding the music with the quiet confidence of a virtuoso bandleader. –Marc Hogan
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Bad Seed Ltd.
Nick Cave’s songs have always been the scrim between the visceral dark of this world and the promised light of another; the Australian songwriter, our high priest of goth, is the docent moving freely between them. He has for years offered this sweaty and bloody vision of life: at times bawdy and carnivalesque, other times fueled by ample heroin, libido, and hair gel. Though Skeleton Tree was released following the tragic death of his son Arthur, it is still another excavation of humanity, this time deeper and more austere, taking place in a zero-gravity cathedral of grief. Here, Cave steps into the hereafter to look beyond the simple rituals of mourning and into the state of the soul. Where goes love when it is interred?
Instead of succumbing to the weight of death, these songs have a certain airiness. Above the music of Warren Ellis and his fellow Bad Seeds’ latter-day tranquility, Cave’s words float unbound. Always one to avoid mawkishness, Cave reveals the ugliness within himself with gruff self-examinations like, “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now” (“Jesus Alone”). These articulate moments are surrounded by more surreal imagery—rabbit’s blood, mermaids, stars splashed across a ceiling. But the faith that hums in Cave’s sacrament is not vengeful or supernatural; it’s vulnerable and uncertain. Through his art, Cave has tried to wrest some good from so much evil. One cannot exist without the other, and so this, his most painful and human album, is filled with love and the divine. –Jeremy D. Larson
It seemed overnight that Dev Hynes, a London ex-pat who’d arranged himself as defiantly individualist, was seized by the cause for representation, sparking dialogue in stylish circles that had largely avoided such messy threads. This was Freetown Sound’s primary concern: enlivening genres and eras past, people in margins, and cultures in shadows. Hynes’ patented style of nimble, vintage quirk funk carries excellently on “Best to You”—Empress Of remains an effortless duet partner—and is pushed to its conceptual peak on “E.V.P.,” a Downtown ’81 pose made even sharper with help from Debbie Harry. The format blossoms out by the second half, with vaporous meditations like “Hadron Collider” and “Thank You” bearing Hynes’ most palatable writing and production work yet. On the latter, he sums up his shrewd sheepishness through vocals from Ava Raiin, one of 11 female guests: “Thank you for all your praise,” she sings, “even if you promise me a way out of your gaze.” Freetown Sound stirs up the hymnal punk of Coastal Grooves and runway soul of Cupid Deluxe, combining all of Hynes’ most fascinating angles to earn the ogling it got. –Matthew Trammell
EMPIRE / OBE / Steel Wool / Art Club
There are better songs than “The Waters” on Anderson .Paak’s star-making 2016 release, Malibu, but none lay out his musical history with the precision of its opening lines: “Tried to tell n*ggas/In 2012, n*gga/Working hand to hand and no avail/Volume one was too heavy for you frail n*ggas/So I got leaned like codeine and pills.” So he’s been hustling, making soulful music for a minute. But he couldn’t find an audience until the machete-sharp verses he contributed to Dr. Dre’s Compton made him a name to watch. All of a sudden, an audience was there. A couple lines later, .Paak says, “I can do anything but move backwards.”
By 2016, the Oxnard native understood what the most precocious people take the longest to learn: Try to do everything and you won’t be the best at any one thing. On Malibu, .Paak’s focus is primarily on his voice and his flow. He learned to trust his collaborators, and got a slew of amazing beats in return. That’s how you make dreamers like “The Bird” and “Your Prime,” inventive combos like “The Season/Carry Me” and funk bangers including “Am I Wrong” and “Come Down.” And while for .Paak, success must have seemed like it was a long time coming, for the vast majority of his fans, Malibu was only the beginning. –Jonah Bromwich
Listen:Anderson .Paak: “Come Down”
22, A Million
Bon Iver’s first two albums trafficked in distinct emotional impressions. They evoked three-dimensional spaces: whether or not one knew the real-life backstory, For Emma, Forever Ago conjured the den of a small backwoods cabin, while Bon Iver, Bon Iver rang out from a mountaintop. But 22, A Million takes place solely within its own stereo image: It’s an electroacoustic obstacle course that constantly destroys and rebuilds itself, smudging out prospective mise-en-scènes before they can fully form. When the ol’-reliable, fingerpicking Justin Vernon rears his head at the beginning of “29 #Strafford APTS,” he quickly falls victim to a series of elaborate pranks: Tracks speed and slow abruptly and non-sequitur horn fanfares, seemingly borrowed from a lost Moondog record, bleed into the mix. Versions of himself sing different lyrics on top of each other, rendering his emotional pleas inscrutable.
Why did Vernon force that lovely Lyle Lovett-as-choirboy voice of his into dubious battle with those vocal shadows, plusa chipmunked Mahalia Jackson? To test whether his voice was strong enough to shine through it all? If so, he passed the exam: His stylistic signatures remain intact even in the record’s most deformed moments, especially his rare ability to transfer the natural rhythms of breath and speech into vivid melody. The incongruities of 22, A Million hammer it home: This is a record about the perpetually dissatisfying search for the divine, or really anything to hang one’s hat on, within an overwhelming, constantly regenerating digital present. –Winston Cook-Wilson
Danny Brown is great on social media and an engaging interviewee and he puts on a good show, but solitude is the essence of his art. His music always circles back to one man in a room, struggling with his demons. In Atrocity Exhibition, the scene is set from the first verse, with Brown sweating like he’s at a rave though he hasn’t left his room in three days—he’s forever the guy who gets all the teeth-grinding anxiety of the drug experience but none of the communal joy or release. But then, “mind expansion” has never been the point of Danny Brown’s experiences with chemicals; he smokes blunt after blunt because he’s trying to poison the thoughts that plague him, fill them with so much dope that they drown in the bathtub and leave him at peace. And the fact that he finds a way to share those thoughts, bouncing horror against dark humor, makes his listeners, at the very least, feel less alone. If XXX was a room-clearing explosion and Old found him picking up the broken pieces to see how they fit together, Atrocity Exhibition is where Brown slows down and sinks deeper, exploring how wisdom might possibly emerge from pain. –Mark Richardson
A Moon Shaped Pool
For a band that has cultivated a roughly 25-year bond with their fans through alienation and obfuscation, the plucking of heart strings on “Burn the Witch” signifies a new mode of operation: less clever, more giving, more human. For once in Radiohead’s career, there are other people on their album: the beds of violins, violas, and cellos are played by members of the London Contemporary Orchestra, then arranged by Jonny Greenwood in a newfound romanticism. Songs are archly composed, as finely detailed as ever—and at times, like on “Daydreaming,” monumental. Whereas The King of Limbs was anemically written using proprietary computer software, A Moon Shaped Pool was recorded to tape on 8- and 16-track recorders, capturing the early, genius impulses of the group.
The other person who orbits around this album: Thom Yorke’s former partner of 23 years. Impressions of loss ring out; in his heartbreaking turn of phrase, he is “trapped in your full stop.” There’s something elliptical about this album, best represented by the long-awaited studio version of a fan-favorite track from the 1990s, “True Love Waits.” By the end of the album, we are inches away from these sustained piano notes, so much so that we can hear the felt of the keys rubbing up against each other. Yorke’s pure tenor is recast as the voice of a man who just woke up, exhausted and phlegmatic. After eight albums of labyrinths and paranoia and rabbit holes, Radiohead finally let us in. –Jeremy D. Larson
Listen:Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”
By all accounts, Angel Olsen didn’t set out to make a pop record with My Woman, and while it remains funny to call any album with a nearly eight-minute centerpiece a “pop record,” her fourth LP is concentrated and undeniable—more confident and less dissonant than her previous work. Olsen, whose voice is resolute but still soft in places, sounds like a person who has figured out much of what she needs and what she’s willing to endure to get it. “I want to follow my heart down that wild road,” she sings on “Sister,” the album’s long, anchoring jam. Her vocals have taken on a wizened texture, the warmth of knowing, of having lived and discovered. “You learn to take it as it comes, you fall together, fall apart.” –Amanda Petrusich
Listen:Angel Olsen: “Intern”
Rough Trade / Secretly Canadian
If war is politics made physical, and politics is war made verbal, then ANOHNI howls from the sliver of sanity between the two. On “Drone Bomb Me,” she whimpers, taking the voice of a young Afghan girl, asking that a random strike “Blow my head off/Explode my crystal guts.” Of global warming, her lips curl into a sneer: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water/I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea.” She lobs similar vitriol at Barack Obama, NSA surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, and any other matter of CNN carnage. This would founder as a dire sermon from other musicians, but ANOHNI’s voice is as lucidly beautiful as her prophecies are grotesque. Her range is wide, from low soprano to racking falsetto, and her tone quavers with tearful, light vibrato that dances over Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke’s stuttering production. Even a simple line like “I don’t love you anymore” is a shot through the heart; when she turns that acuity towards her more topical subjects, it is debilitating. On HOPELESSNESS, ANOHNI’s songs reflect horror at every turn; eyes wide, she wails upward as the weapons rain down. –Stacey Anderson
Listen:ANOHNI: “Drone Bomb Me”
A Tribe Called Quest
We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
Even in their heyday, A Tribe Called Quest were often mistaken for soothsayers. It was an easy error to make if you weren’t listening very closely—if you focused on the lilt of their voices, say, or their spacious, inviting beats. But Tribe were always revolutionaries. And on their first new album in 18 years, a miracle that the year 2016 barely deserved, they are returning to fight. “The Space Program,” for one, is a song-length metaphor for gentrification, dedicated to “Tyson types and Che figures.” These are the radical spirits Tribe are calling for, the energies they wish to summon. The rounded stand-up bass plunks genially along in the background, but Q-Tip uses his time to salute Bree Newsome, the woman who scaled the South Carolina statehouse flagpole to remove the Confederate Flag nine days after the hate-fueled 2015 Charleston killings.
The vibe is welcoming, as ever: You can come in and wipe your feet on the rhythm rug, but after that, it is time to confront some sobering realities. On “We the People...,” Q-Tip addresses state-sanctioned figures and paranoiac actors who find themselves in a “killing-off-good-young-n*gga-mood,” and on “Whateva Will Be,” he envisions an uprising, signing off with, “in some universe, this verse will be true.” He sounds older; they all do. The mixing seems purposefully ragged, with echo trails left on many of Phife’s vocals, Jarobi’s mutters buried. Q-Tip’s production leaves some wrinkles in as well, with unusually sharp drums that hit like peeling soup can lids. Maybe this is an honest way of acknowledging their age while showing their character. It was a final ride into the sunset for the most beloved rap group in history—its outcome assured, its standoff graceful. –Jayson Greene
Chance the Rapper
On Coloring Book’s “Same Drugs,”Chance the Rapper sings, “Don’t forget the happy thoughts/All you need is happy thoughts.” On the Chicagoan’s third mixtape, he believes in the power of positive thinking. But the closer you listen, the more complicated the record becomes. While light in tone and sound, Coloring Book also touches on sin, veering track-to-track from “God song” to “flawed human song.” Chance parties “All Night”; he deserves a “Smoke Break”; he’s got “No Problem” threatening major labels. On “Blessings,” he bestows his most praise on God, simultaneously accepting goodness and admitting helplessness. “Blessings keep falling in my lap,” Chance sings, because it is out of his control; they could just as easily fall to the person next to him. Coloring Book glides across the surface, full of wonder, but it remains a truly special record because of the existential concerns that simmer just below. –Matthew Strauss
The Life of Pablo
Def Jam / G.O.O.D. Music
Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo may be a masterpiece, but it’s a lumpy one. It’s got tracks that play too long, songs that barely feature Kanye, perfect moments scattered deep, deep into the tracklist. So while not flawless in a traditional sense, TLOP’s hyperactive bent is what makes it great. Consider its most memorable moments, all unhinged and/or collaged: West praying for Paris, Kelly Price belting it, Future’s Young Metro warning, Madlib’s boom bap, André 3000 harmonizing with Arthur Russell, Max B calling from prison, approximately seven seconds of Young Thug. Remember the blown release dates, the title changes (R.I.P. Swish), the schadenfreude of catching Taylor Swift in a lie. The pleasures of Pablo are varied and tactile, sometimes extramusical, sometimes illicit, sometimes religious, always scarily committed. It’s a record for the greedy made by a glutton willing to share.
The man’s overzealousness can lead to some strange places: Recently, a sleep-deprived Kanye declared his allegiance to Donald Trump, which was an odd moment from the guy who scared the shit out of Mike Myers by saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV when no one else would. Soon after the recent outburst, he was hospitalized. Whatever he genuinely believes about the people running this country, it seems clear that he is a musical genius who appears to have some serious problems. His baser instincts may reveal him as a stressed-out perfectionist, which, while not a lifestyle to ascribe to, makes his artistic output pretty much unparalleled. In his search to create Pablo is a messy marriage of his previous two albums, Yeezus and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; its production is not as tight as the former, nor are its wild moments as blissful as the latter. But the album can be as compelling as those anointed classics, its highs arguably higher, its lows a lot weirder. Listening to Pablo is a chaotic experience, so seems about right it was made by someone with a unique perspective on reality. –Matthew Schnipper
Columbia / RCA / ISO
It’s hard to escape the gravity of an album that offers up an artist’s farewell. That task is even more difficult when the record includes a song entitled “Lazarus,” or a promotional video laden with sickbed imagery. But when listening to David Bowie’s final studio set, it’s important to avoid letting the singer’s death dominate your thoughts entirely—if only because Blackstar is so creatively alive.
Before fans knew Bowie was ailing, before hiscollaborators confirmed that they knew he was suffering, what we had, on release day, was one of the artist’s best records. The singles demonstrated that Bowie had outdone a prior experimentation with jazz textures (on 1995’s Outside). Here, his decision to collaborate with saxophonistDonny McCaslin’s band paid off handsomely. The ensemble is capable of moving between hurtling rock and the more abstract atmospherics heard during the title track’s transitional sections. By the time the last song “I Can’t Give Everything Away” hits, there’s an exuberance that’s miles away from the mood of the grim opener. Bowie’s brief harmonica tones communicate some weariness, but also joy. McCaslin reaches for exultant high notes while soloing behind the singer. Ben Monder’s guitar spirals through lines of bluesy invention. Though it has the limitations of life in view—right down to its title—the track also makes good on a death-defying boast offered by Bowie, several songs earlier: “I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.” –Seth Colter Walls
Listen: David Bowie: “Blackstar”
Columbia / Parkwood
This year led to a lot of re-imaginings, including a colossal re-think of what we mean when we talk about protest music; suddenly, the old definitions don’t make sense. Lemonade, Beyoncé’s sixth solo album, isn’t expressly political in the grand, didactic tradition of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But these songs (and the album's accompanying film, a densely layered portrait of what it means to be a black woman in America in 2016) still feel like a call to arms—a mandate to reassess everything, whether it’s relationships with those we hold dear or the methods by which we fight for what we believe. The institution Lemonade critiques most explicitly is marriage: On its surface, the record is a recounting of infidelity and betrayal (or, possibly, a sneaky meta-commentary on celebrity coupledom, a way of actualizing and profiting off the rumors that have dogged Beyoncé and Jay Z for years). But it doubles as a how-to guide for anyone keen on self-reclamation. Here, Beyoncé suggests, is how you get yourself back: by transforming anguish into art. That lesson—and others, about conviction and forgiveness, and how those things can co-exist—feels more essential than ever before. –Amanda Petrusich
The oddest image Frank Ocean’s Blonde conjures is one of his former arch-nemesis. In 2006, Chris Brown accepted the trophy for Best New Artist at the BET Awards, and, reading from notes scribbled on his hotel card envelope, he thanked, “My manager Tina Davis, who I brought up here, who been with me from day one, pushing me, telling me to sing—I ain’t no rapper. Smile.”
Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He doesn’t sing all that forcefully either. And he certainly hardly smiles. His hook has always been his glowing pen, which he used to complicate the image of a male R&B artist through his awe-drawing lyrics on nostalgia, ULTRA and channel ORANGE. So, throughout Blonde, it’s fun to hear him indulge the inner-rapper we’ve occasionally seen him flash, in content if not form: the groupies on “Nikes,” the Jagger-swagger on “Solo,” the interlude on “Good Guy,” the “I been out here head first/Always liked the head first” on “Nights.” After creating as much room around himself as contracts and silence would allow, he filled the moat with dense verses, only iced with melody. “Self Control” even opens with a pitched-up bar or two, before melting into the album’s highpoint: “Keep a place for me,” a helium voice sings, “I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” Ocean’s gift, toyed with on Endless and crystallized on Blonde,is his ability to find space where there shouldn’t be any. It’s no coincidence he came up with rappers, and a blessing that he didn’t end up one. –Matthew Trammell
Listen:Frank Ocean: “Nikes”
A Seat at the Table
Columbia / Saint
“And do you belong? I do.”
The assertion sits atop anessay that Solange Knowles wrote in the waning weeks of summer. In the text that followed, she recounted a painful, much-publicized recent incident: A group of women had pelted her, with words and then trash, as she stood to dance at a Kraftwerk concert in New Orleans. She recalled her resolve to stay positive for the sake of her young son and his friend, also in attendance, and remembered assuming that she must have been imagining their violation: “Certainly a stranger would not have the audacity.” But that charity proved misplaced, and disappointingly familiar: As a woman of color, she had been dismissed, scrutinized, and harassed by strangers in predominantly white spaces before. She knew well the emotional labor of turning the other cheek.
When A Seat at the Table dropped three weeks later, it became clear that the essay’s title pulled from the lyrics of “Weary.” It’s a wistful ballad that explores how, when you’re constantly fighting for the base amount of respect, graciousness can be downright exhausting: “Be leery ’bout your place in the world/You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world/You’re leaving not a trace in the world/But you’re facing the world.” A Seat at the Table is full of similar admissions, delivered with a rare and beautiful empathy. In it, Solange often speaks to the universal experiences of youth (new love, confusion, heartbreak), but does not shy away from her own journey; the specificities of black life are proudly inextricable from her accounts. On “Mad,” she offers a poised reply to a damaging stereotype commonly affixed to black women, flipping accusations that they’re always angry into an uplifting rebuttal: “You got the light, count it all joy!” Floating over Raphael Saadiq’s lush soul arrangements, she travels “70 states” to escape such pressures, turning to sex, alcohol, isolation and material pursuits on the haunting ballad “Cranes in the Sky”—but the journey leads her back to where she began, looking inward for strength.
A Seat at the Table has a gorgeous sense of flow; ideas of identity commingle easily with social commentary as lithe R&B melts into spoken interludes. The latter happens with a cinematic ease; the interludes sew the album together like plot points of a larger narrative. Solange’s mother, Tina Lawson, makes an impassioned appearance, saying: “It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black, and that if you do, then it's considered anti-white. No! You’re just pro-black. And that’s okay.” This segues beautifully into the standout track “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a measured stance against the misguided act of reaching for a black person’s crown. Much like the know-how required to care for this hair, which is often passed down by a maternal figure, Lawson’s words offer a glimpse of the love for her heritage that she instilled in her daughter. Other monologues feature Solange’s father recalling the trauma of school integration (“We lived in the threat of death every day”) and an introspective Master P, who crystallizes one of the album’s salient themes: “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me—so this is not for you.”
On her third album, Solange has reclaimed every part of her narrative and has done something undeniably inspiring. In 2016, when it still seems like a radical act to release a record that catalogues the nuances of black womanhood, she has done so with stunning candor. A Seat at the Table is a contemporary take on the protest records of yesteryear, steeped in the tradition of vanguard singers who critiqued society’s ills from the female perspective. It is an offer of solace for anyone working towards their own glory, and for those whose right to dignity is long overdue. –Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
Listen: Solange: “Cranes in the Sky”
Watching television on an actual television set may be rarer and rarer these days, but the medium is stronger than ever. It’s easier than at any other point in history to watch musicians performing on TV shows, and it’s no longer a requirement to stay up until midnight to see your favorite artist close out “Colbert” (and then “Fallon” and... then “Kimmel” and then…) with that one single you love. But there is also more TV than ever before, meaning it takes a lot more for a performance to stand out from the pack. From intense choreography to stunning political statements, unlikely collaborations to tributes to fallen legends and more, these artists brought their music to life on television in the best ways this year, delivering one-of-a-kind performances in the brightest spotlight.
Beyoncé: Lemonade at MTV Video Music Awards
It’s fairly impossible to come up with a new presentation when you’ve already played the Super Bowl, released an Emmy-nominatedvisual album, and taken that imagery on a world tour. But, obviously, we are talking about Beyoncé, who is not exactly someone bereft of ideas. Announced as a performer with only one one day’s warning, Beyoncé took 15 minutes of Lemonade to the VMAs. In that relatively short time frame, she brought the audience through the album’s impressive arc–complete with many costume changes, of course. The VMAs host the most hotly anticipated performances of the summer; Beyoncé at the VMAs builds anticipation higher. Naturally, she exceeded expectations.
Chance the Rapper [ft. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne]: “No Problem” on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”
Chance the Rapper truly and literally brought “No Problem” to life on “Ellen.” He tore up that label lobby, as promised, and had a full band, 2 Chainz, and Lil Wayne there to back him up. It was the perfect venue for the Coloring Book explosion, as the always-dancing Ellen may be the only person more publicly jubilant than Chance.
D.R.A.M. [ft. Travis Barker]: “Broccoli” on “Conan”
Sure, it sounds like a mess on paper. But Travis Barker’s drumming was actually the perfect complement to D.R.A.M.’s surprisingly understated “Broccoli” performance. Far from Collision Course, it gave some oomph to the twee rap hit. Beneath the novelty title is a very sentimental song about achieving your dreams. This collaboration with the somehow-restrained Barker emphasized how far D.R.A.M. has come.
Flying Lotus checks his email on “The Eric Andre Show”
Flying Lotus gave the DJ set of his life on “The Eric Andre Show”–a mix you will not find on SoundCloud. FlyLo checking his email was not a destructive outing, like most of André’s othermusical guests, but it was still something unique and absurd–without forcing you to locate the nearest barf bag.
Green Day: “Bang Bang” at the American Music Awards
Green Day do not exactly operate with subtlety. But when there’s a crisis, bluntness is necessary. As much of the country stewed with outrage at Donald Trump’s election two weeks earlier, Green Day screamed “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist U.S.A.!” at an award show with over 8 million viewers. Right now, it’s important for the highest-profile voices to be louder than ever.
Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” on “Saturday Night Live”
The Life of Pablo was supposed to come out on February 11, the same day that Kanye West premiered it at Madison Square Garden. It didn’t, and he kept editing it. The few days between then and his Valentine’s Day “Saturday Night Live” performance felt like total chaos to Kanye fans. But what resulted on the “SNL” stage was five-and-a-half minutes of pure calm, as Ye, Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and most breathtakingly, Chance the Rapper, took their turns preaching their faith on “Ultralight Beam.” Of course, West ended the performance convulsing and shouting about Tidal. Maybe it portended the hectic year to come, but for a time, everything felt holy.
Kelly Clarkson: “Piece by Piece” on “American Idol”
Kelly Clarkson is the reason “American Idol” made it to its 15th and final season. She proved that an audience-selected singer could become a star. Clarkson was at a very different stage in her life, pregnant with her second child, when she returned to the “Idol” stage in February. But she still had her powerful voice, the same one that endeared her to millions as a 19-year-old. She performed a touching song about restoring faith in loved ones. And just like in 2002, she left the room in tears.
Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys
Watching Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys, it was kind of hard to believe what was happening. Shackled and prison-suited, Kendrick started with the familiar words of “The Blacker the Berry,” not backed by his usual instrumentation, but rather a caged saxophonist. Out of nowhere, he broke himself free, quoted Biggie, and the world-shattering Assassin-delivered chorus began as rock guitars blasted. And that was just the first half. Kendrick then rapped “Alright” in front of a bonfire, and delved into what would become untitled unmastered. It was a rare unleashed moment at a typically tame event.
Mike Yung: “Unchained Melody” on “The Late Late Show With James Corden”
Mike Yung capitalized on his 15 minutes of fame. Because he deserved it. A lifelong musician who just missed a chance at a record deal, the dream never died as he played in small bands and sang locally. And then, all of a sudden, when he was in his mid-50s, in the space of about a week, he went from singing the Righteous Brothers on New York City subway platforms to performing on a national TV show best known for letting celebrities goof around in a midsize SUV. His performance of “Unchained Melody” was undeniably powerful: Reggie Watts, among doubtless others, cried.
Millie Bobby Brown: “Monster” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”
The “Stranger Things” kids had their fair share of exposure after the Netflix show took over our collective consciousness this summer. While they got high-profile opportunities like a dab-filled “Uptown Funk” performance at an Emmys pre-show, Millie Bobby Brown (aka Eleven) used Jimmy Fallon’s platform to show off her impressive rap skills on “Fallon”–long after her fellow 12-year-olds were likely sent to bed. She nailed Nicki’s world-beating “Monster” verse (the clean version, at least) in a moment of talent, taste, and fun that made up for all the oversaturation, memes, and “Have you seen ‘Stranger Things’?”
Run the Jewels: “The Halloween Wiggle” on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”
“The Halloween Wiggle” is unlikely to come out as a commercial single (no matter how many emails I send to Killer Mike, El-P, and Stephen Colbert). Along with being drop-dead funny, the novelty song has everything that makes Run the Jewels great: hard-hitting rhymes (no matter how silly), attention to detail, and an unmatchable chemistry. The song is a made-for-TV gem that incorporates everything at its disposal: skits, costumes, Colbert’s timing, and the word “Hersheyhole.”
A Tribe Called Quest: “We the People…” on “Saturday Night Live”
A Tribe Called Quest’s “SNL” performance was devastating. Ali Shaheed Muhammad DJ’d and Jarobi White hyped, but the stars were Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg. After Tip’s impressive “We the People…” verse, and the chorus (scarily fitting for the first post-Trump episode), they stood in darkness as a Phife canvas was unfurled. Jarobi and Tip held their mics up to their fallen brother’s face while his words played on the speakers. Tip has said the group plans to tour one final time, but it’s hard to see how they could ever live up to the emotional intensity of their first performance without Phife ever again.
Ty Segall and the Muggers: “Squealer” on “WGN Morning News”
In 2012, Ty Segall went on a Chicago morning news program and freaked everyone out. For some reason, the network let him do it again this year. And he got even fuckin weirder. Segall wore a baby mask–his new Emotional Mugger get-up–screamed “CHICAGO,” and rocked hard enough to make morning coffee redundant.
YG and Nipsey Hussle: “FDT” on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”
YG and Nipsey Hussle were forced to edit “FDT” to “No Donald Trump” for cable. It wasn’t the cleanest performance: There wasn’t much atmosphere on the “Nightly Show” stage, and the pair were a bit restrained by more general cuss censorship. Plus, four minutes of lyricism is a bit hard to sustain. But the awkward fit made their efforts even stronger. They had a message and they communicated it clearly. It doesn’t really matter where you say it: Fuck Donald Trump sounds good anywhere.
Top 50 Albums
Top 50 Songs
Most Underrated Album
Most Overrated Album
Best New Artist
Best Live Act
Best Social Media Presence
Blond vs. Blonde
Phone for the plug vs. Phone for the load
Thom Yorke’s ponytail vs. Thom Yorke’s dancing
Lemonade album vs. Lemonade movie
Visual albums vs. Just albums
“Work“ club video vs. Drake’s “Work” video
Should Ty Dolla $ign be more popular?
“She in school to be a real estate agent” vs. “She be Puerto Rican Day Parade wavin’”
Axl Rose as GNR frontman in 2016 vs. Axl Rose as AC/DC frontman in 2016
The Gorillaz return vs. “Harambe” by Young Thug
A dirty dead-end in London’s Kings Cross is nobody’s idea of sanctuary. But on November 9, hours after Donald Trump’s victory was confirmed, escape lies at the end of this dark alleyway. In an upstairs rehearsal room, the xx are practicing for an imminent BBC performance; in a fortnight, they’ll travel to Croatia to kick off their first tour in more than two years. The group’s reemergence comes along with their third album, I See You, a record that knows something about surviving dark times. This evening, the outside world is well and truly banished.
They run a closed rehearsal, where producer Jamie Smith’s hulking crescent of synths are only audible through headphones. A single serene candle atop Romy Madley Croft’s guitar amp seems to mock the discarded cups littering the low-ceilinged room, bringing calm to a day of disbelief. “I try not to check my phone first thing, but…” Madley Croft trails off, looking down at her Siouxsie and the Banshees hoodie. “I thought it was a joke. I’m speechless.”
Not that the xx are an explicitly political band. Co-leads Oliver Sim and Madley Croft are both gay, and there’s an argument to be made for the xx providing a rare portrait of queer intimacy, though they prefer to see it as universal. In the rehearsal room, it’s easy to imagine them as teenagers in a South London garage: Sim the leader, Madley Croft the guide, Smith the silent sage.
“Let’s power through, and if something goes wrong, just let it happen,” says Sim. From his synth battalion, Smith triggers the vocal samples from “Gosh,” a single from his 2015 solo album, In Colour, which turned the band’s shyest member into its unlikely breakout star. Over the track’s chomping rhythm, Madley Croft starts singing “Shelter,” from the xx’s self-titled debut. The mash-up shouldn’t work. “Gosh” clatters, while an airy synth seems to trace the London skyline; “Shelter” quietly anguishes over vanishing sensations. But more than 16 years of friendship has led to a certain mind-meld, and the tracks fuse perfectly, Smith’s song heightening the desperation in Madley Croft’s lyrics. As the synths wind skyward, she sets down her guitar. Sim spontaneously extends a hand, and the singers turn a hug into a sway, spinning slowly until they return to their microphones for the song’s final lines.
“I like our slow dance for ‘Gosh’—let’s slow dance!” he tells her afterwards. She’s less convinced. They run through the song again, the pair dancing more purposefully this time, their clasped hands pointing out as her head rests in the crook of his neck. When they pull away, they hold on until their fingertips brush apart. “We’re gonna do that!” says Sim excitedly, poking Madley Croft’s middle with one finger and pointing at the floor with another.
It’s not Miley Cyrus’ inflatable hotdog, but this kind of showmanship—any kind of showmanship—doesn’t come easy to the xx. Before they attempt “Lips,” a downright lustful new song built around big drums and a haunting modern classical sample, Madley Croft asks Sim, “Should we face forward?” She then turns to me to apologize; I’m watching from a couch six feet away from their microphones. “We have to get used to facing forward and not looking at Jamie. I’ll look past you.” Faced with a painfully intimate audience, Madley Croft winces and recoils from the high notes.
When they first emerged, the xx’s appeal came from music that sounded as if it was directed towards an audience of one, from somewhere beneath rumpled bedclothes. The intimacy reflected their shared bond. They grew up together: Madley Croft and Sim played in the same sandpit as toddlers. Smith joined their gang at 11, when they started at the Elliott School in Putney, South London. After several years of making music individually in secret, they formed the xx in their final year.
The band looked perpetually shellshocked when they broke out as 20-year-olds in 2009. They won the Mercury Prize for their first album, which has sold nearly 1.7 million copies worldwide. Journalists mocked them for looking like “suburban goths.” They did, but it was less style choice than a reflection of their profound social anxiety.
“The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening has been an ardent fan since he picked them to play a festival he curated in 2010. “They averted their gaze, like a relationship that’s dead but hasn’t quite broken up,” he says with a deep laugh, recalling their performance. “However, they delivered the goods musically. They were just so young, and shy, I guess. It certainly wasn’t arrogance.”
I See You is a bold, rhythmic revamp. It’s their first album to use prominent samples, which Smith considers his voice. Opener “Dangerous” starts with a striking brass fanfare that immediately raises the stakes. (The first time I hit play, I thought I was listening to the wrong record.) Madley Croft and Sim now write together in a room as opposed to via email, and talk openly about their songs. As a result, they’re no longer singing past each other, but singing out, like ’80s dancefloor belters. In the past, their lyrics were always inside their heads, wishing, observing, never doing; on I See You, they dare and scream and test. “’Cause I couldn’t care less/If they call us reckless/Until they are breathless,” Madley Croft and Sim sing over ominous bass at the album’s start. “They must be blind.”
The day before rehearsals, the xx are camped out in their label XL’s homey West London headquarters. Their publicist slides back the door to the stylish lounge where they’ve been cooped up all day. In the corner of the giant sofa, the black-clad trio are slumped on top of each other like a pile of puppies. They spring apart and stand to shake hands.
Trying to discuss these strident lyrics in the lounge is a different matter, met mostly with hesitant platitudes about growth. We briefly broach quarter-life crises and Saturn returns, which traditionally occur around their age: Smith is now 28, Sim and Madley Croft 27. Sim nods enthusiastically—just yesterday he was discussing the astrological phenomenon with his mum.
For him, writing lyrics has been less about observing, more “working off actual things that have happened.” Like? “Reaching an age where being the drunkest person in the room isn’t charming anymore.”
From the torturous process of making their second album, 2012’s uneven Coexist, the xx knew that they had to escape their comfort zone for the follow-up. (“Our comfort zone is a very small place,” says Madley Croft, perhaps unnecessarily.) They recorded that album in a studio that Smith built behind a McDonald’s in North London, and didn’t let anyone else hear it until they had to. “There was so much pressure from ourselves about: What do people like about us? What makes us sound like us? What do we need to hang onto?” says Sim. “When we’re thinking like that, at our worst, we can end up sounding a bit like a parody of ourselves.” They abstained from letting themselves eat at McDonald’s until they completed the album. Some reward.
This time around, they had a vague plan to record in far-flung places. In March 2014, they brought an ambitious residency to Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. These were far from normal shows: Only 45 people attended each one, even though the hangar-like space could hold hundreds more. “On the very last show we did, I looked up and saw Madonna staring at me in a very long, fur-type coat,” says Madley Croft with disbelief. “I was trying not to stare at her, like, How am I supposed to perform? Am I supposed to bring it more now because Madonna’s staring at us?”
“A friend can sometimes see youRomy Madley Croft
better than you can see
They recorded a bit at the Armory, and then in Marfa, Texas, and Iceland. These early sessions overlapped with the making of Smith’s In Colour, on which Sim and Madley Croft made guest appearances, ceding all control to their bandmate. It led to the xx scrapping their old rule that everything they recorded had to be playable live, opening up unseen possibilities. In a further effort to break out of their own self-imposed bubble, co-manager and close friend Caius Pawson established “group therapy” sessions where they would review their work every month or so, playing it to guests like Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Sampha, and Savages’ Jehnny Beth.
That November, they took a five-day road trip down the West Coast to Los Angeles, joined by Pawson and engineer Rodaidh McDonald. Smith drove, and they all introduced each other to tons of music: Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Rumours, Heart’s “Magic Man,” Ace’s “How Long,” Arthur Russell’s First Thought, Best Thought, soft rock twins the Alessi Brothers, and primitive guitarist Robbie Basho.
L.A. was about having fun and bringing that feeling into the new record. But, as McDonald admits, “Perhaps parts of that trip went a little too far.” There was a lot of drinking and partying. They rented a Hollywood mansion and worked on songs like Sim’s “Replica,” a desperate missive about trying to break away from your own self-destructive history. They went to Miley Cyrus’ birthday party, and invited too many people back to their place afterwards. “There were a few arguments,” says McDonald. “It was the point where we had to take a step back and remember that we were working on an album.”
When that session was over, the band went their separate ways for a while. Madley Croft stayed behind in L.A. to experiment in the pop hit factory, knowing the unfamiliarity would be horrible—but that was the point. She wrote with artists like Rhye’s Robin Hannibal and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. “I’ve been referencing the xx sonically for three or four years in writing sessions,” says Tedder, who has worked with nearly every modern pop star that matters, including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. “And their ‘hauntingness’ gets referenced at least every other session, without question.”
Smith was busy touring and finishing In Colour. Sim stayed at home in London and started to spiral. The trips were meant to consolidate the band, but during the gaps between recording, doubts began to form.
It’s usually a bad sign when band members travel separately, but in London in late November, three days before the xx are due to start their tour in Croatia, individual taxi journeys and pub assignations are the only way to crack their monstrous schedule. They seem embarrassed of the fuss. The day starts early, riding with Sim from an upscale deli near his home in Hackney, East London, to a photo shoot. Since we last met, the band made their charmingly awkward debut on “Saturday Night Live,” where they appeared alongside Kristen Wiig, a shared hero, and tried not to smell her hair when they recorded promos for the show. They all say the actress made them feel more at ease, and it turns out the feeling was mutual. “I was so happy that they played ‘SNL’ when I was hosting,” says Wiig. “It felt like a little gift to calm my nerves and also lose myself a bit during a night when you don’t stop running around.”
Sim feels good about the upcoming shows, he says decisively. They will be among the first he’s ever played sober. In 2014, when he came home from touring Coexist, he realized that he lacked some fundamental life skills, like scheduling and self-care. “I was going out a lot with the excuse that I was celebrating—‘celebrating’—the past few years.” He curls his fingers and raises his eyebrows. “Just fighting the idea of becoming an adult. Some friends had started to mellow a bit, and I didn’t want to.” He feared responsibility and accountability. “And with alcohol, like a lot of things, it’s all or nothing for me. So right now it’s just nothing.” It’s been just over a year since his last drink.
The car pulls around the back of St. Paul’s Cathedral. “I was the last person to think that I wasn’t drinking… successfully,” he demurs, speaking in considered fragments. “Everyone had voiced their opinions.” He listened. “But the problem was that I was, I suppose, distancing myself, so I thought, How would they know?”
I tell him that sounds pretty telltale.
“Yeah,” he says, his soft, South London accent dropping even lower. “That’s real telltale. Romy and Jamie confronting me independently was… the last straw.”
He had also started to feel insecure about his contribution to the band. “Never mind that I wasn’t leading a very healthy lifestyle,” he says, growing quieter. “The fact that I wasn’t being creative hit harder—and kidding myself that I felt more creative with a drink in me.”
In the months between recording sessions, as his friends were working on their own projects, he became paranoid about their relationships, based on his own interpretations of texts and emails. “When you haven’t seen someone for a while, it’s so easy to project and make your own ideas about what’s going on,” he says. “I always feel like the two of them are a step in front of me in confidence and maturity. I worried that they were going in a slightly forward direction, and I wasn’t.”
He laughs at the suggestion that he seems like the most confident member of the band, recalling an old story about Smith: As young teenagers walking home from school, Smith once turned to Sim and said, “I’m at peace with the fact that I’m not going to make big waves in the world.” Sim laughs at the memory. “I was like, ‘That is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. Aim for the stars?!’ Now, Jamie’s silently confident, he’s a solid, solid guy.” He rhapsodizes about Madley Croft’s drive too. “She’s the perfect example of, ‘If something scares me, I’m going to do it for the sake of growth.’ I don’t think it’s in her nature to lean into discomfort, but she does it.” He rolls the sleeve of his coffee cup up and down his palm. “And I’m just trying to find my confidence a bit.”
“You can save some of your harshest moments for the people you love… with me and Romy and Jamie, it is so easy for feelings to get hurt.”Oliver Sim
Right now, talking to strangers scares him the most; the bravado he felt as a younger man has been replaced by social anxiety. But there’s an upside to this awkwardness. “The times when I actually do have, like, a successful conversation, I feel really good about it and it stays with me as opposed to… kind of not remembering,” he says. “While I’m struggling more now, I am actually happier.” That said, he’s also wondering about what happens when the album comes out. “One thing I can’t wrap my head around, to be honest, which makes me a bit sad, is: How do I celebrate and let go a bit? Which I’m still figuring out. I’ve got lots of help.”
There was no big reconciliation. Madley Croft and Smith came home to finish the album in London in early 2015. They had all worried about growing distant from one another but realized nothing had really changed between them—just that after decades of friendship, they still had to work at communicating. “I’ve noticed that you can save some of your harshest moments for the people you love,” Sim says. “I feel like with me and Romy and Jamie—but especially me and Romy—it is so easy for feelings to get hurt. Because Romy knows exactly how to push my buttons with a short sentence, and likewise with her.”
Coexist closed with “Our Song,” the xx’s love letter to each other. “All I have, I will give to you,” they sang, echoing traditional wedding vows. Knowing now how difficult the recording of that album was, the lines sound like damage control, glossing over a torrid situation. Sim agrees. In contrast, I See You ends with “Test Me,” a song about the band that’s so brutal, it could only have been written from solid foundations. Madley Croft wrote all the lyrics and turned her back to Sim when she first played it to him. “Just take it out on me/It’s easier than saying what you mean,” she sings, unwavering. “Test me, see if I break/Tell me this time you’ve changed/Test me, see if I stay/How could I walk the other way?”
Sim exhales and laughs, recalling the moment. “It was hard, but we had a hug. It was good for me to hear.”
Several hours later, the band’s publicist delivers Madley Croft to a West London pub. While she was away in L.A., she didn’t initially realize how bad things were with Sim. “You have a best-friend intuition that he’s not really 100 percent, but there’s a point where everyone’s drinking and it’s quite easy to not realize if someone’s actually not in a good place with it.” She hesitates. “As with any friend going through anything, it really affected me because I care so much about him and I just want him to be happy.”
I See You sounds like a confrontational title, though it’s meant as a kindness, taken from a line in the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”: “Please put down your hands/’Cause I see you.” “A friend can sometimes see you better than you can see yourself,” says Madley Croft. “There were so many times when I wanted to tell Oliver—and I tried—‘You’re amazing and there are so many things that are great about you.’ Sometimes you have to find that yourself. And I really feel like he has done that, which I’m really proud of him for.”
For Madley Croft, the main theme since Coexist has been coming to terms with her parents’ deaths. Her mum died when she was 11, her dad when she was 20 and on tour in Paris. Two weeks later, the xx had their biggest gig to date at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, which she played to honor his support of the band. A month later, she lost a cousin who was more like a sister. “These crazy highs and lows,” she recalls. But the highs were a great comfort to my family, and for me.” In a cruel irony, her unresolved grief resurfaced during a contented period of downtime while making the new record.
“Brave for You” is the first time she’s written about her parents. “Though you’re not here/I can feel you there/I take you along,” she sings over Smith’s shuddering washes. It ends on a pained note: “There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go.” She praises Smith for making her heartbroken demo into something more celebratory. Usually she leaves her family to listen to new xx music without her, but she recently sat down and played them the whole album.
By throwing herself into the things that once scared her, Madley Croft has emerged fearless. “Which is nice because I used to feel uncomfortable calling for room service—they’re strangers!” she laughs. “That’s quite extreme! But now it’s not a problem.”
The publicist returns with Smith and a waiting cab driver. The car will drop off Madley Croft for dinner with her girlfriend, and take Smith to a friend’s Thanksgiving celebration. They grab five minutes together, dissecting Smith’s impending move. Tomorrow he’s leaving his longstanding home in the busy central hub of Old Street for quieter Clapton, in East London. In less than 36 hours, they’ll be on the plane to Croatia. This morning, they put a record-breaking seven nights at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy on sale. It’s now 6:30 p.m., and they’re all sold out.
Although Smith is the oldest member of the xx, he says he feels the least mature. His big personal breakthrough has been learning “to try and talk about everything, which I never used to do, and nobody in my family did, either.” He’s more open than he once was, though he still answers questions with the reticence of a boy being asked what he did at school that day. “It makes me feel good, even if I’m saying something that is not necessarily making me look good. The fact that Romy and Oliver will listen, and I will listen to them, is really comforting.”
His confidence slips out via a few offhand comments and wryly raised eyebrows. Of their “SNL” performance, he says they were all excited to meet Kristen Wiig—though he’d already met her in 2012, when she turned up at one of his sets in New York City. I rib him about there being none of his trademark steel drums on I See You, and he cracks a wry smile: “Justin Bieber’s doing tropical house.” And of the dance purist backlash against In Colour, he says he understands their grievances. Ultimately, though, “I’ve played the biggest clubs in the world, so…”
When Smith was touring In Colour, he had to be told that his bandmates were feeling distant from him, “which is often the way,” he says. But he was keenly aware of Sim’s issues with alcohol. “It was a learning curve for everyone,” says Smith. “They say that you have to realize for yourself, and he did, and he was so good about it. It felt very grown-up, much more grown-up than I felt.”
Manager Caius Pawson says Smith, “a classic stoic Englishman,” underestimates himself. “Jamie was the glue in that period. He would come back from touring and be the one who’d go out and rescue people. For someone like Jamie, who’s still trying to piece together his own emotional map, that was a tremendous amount of pressure. Just because someone hasn’t quite worked out how to access their own emotions doesn’t mean they’re incapable of dealing with other people’s emotions.”
One song that didn’t make the new record was “Naive,” in which Sim surprised his bandmates by writing more honestly than he was willing to be in real life. “Everyone’s trying to save me/Can’t they see I’m having fun?” he sings, filled with sarcasm and self-loathing. “Something’s wrong, but I choose to be naive.” In response, Smith sampled a line from a Drake song: “That’s the wrong thing to do.”
Zagreb, Croatia’s Boćarski Dom is a run-down sports hall by day and an even less auspicious venue by night. There are no bathrooms. Outside, by the thorough security search stations, there’s a wall of unlit Porta Potties—a bracing experience in 35 degree weather. A bootlegger sells some fantastically misguided T-shirts depicting the xx styled like “Family Guy” characters. You can smoke indoors, and everyone does.
In preparation for the band’s set, two stagehands spray and brush the stage meticulously, like a one-sided curling team. A black cloth comes off Smith’s giant plexiglass setup, which resembles a bar that Carrie Bradshaw would visit in the earliest seasons of “Sex and the City.” The bottom two feet of the unit are mirrored, reflecting the first few rows—the xx want fans to know they can see them.
At 9:33, the lights drop. The bass ricochets around the venue’s bare brick walls. Madley Croft and Sim bob around each other theatrically. They stand at the front of the stage and stare down the crowd, ignoring the fans who are waggling copies of In Colour for them to sign. When the glacial synths of “Brave for You” strafe the room, the stage floods red, and Smith’s transparent box flashes wild white lights. It’s thunderous and undaunted. As soon as Madley Croft delivers her heartbreaking final lines, bows and stands back, Sim rushes over to hug her tight.
Just as he did in the Kings Cross rehearsal room, Smith starts up the “Gosh”/“Shelter” mash-up. “And I’ll cross oceans, like never before/So you can fe-el the way I feel it too,” Madley Croft belts. Her slow dance with Sim finally gets its public debut. Grinning, he swoops across the stage, places one hand on her back, rests his head on hers, and they sway.
Whatever else could be said about 2016, it was a year with plenty of great music. While we probably won’t see the stars align again with new Beyoncé, Kanye West, Radiohead, and Frank Ocean albums in 2017, there’s still no shortage of promising releases on the horizon. Here are 32 prospective albums that give us reason to hope this year could be even better (if only musically) than the last, listed in alphabetical order by artist and including album titles, artwork, release dates, and new music where available. Of course, as with everything in the music biz nowadays, all info could change at any moment, so stay tuned to our news section for the latest.
Prisoner was inspired by Ryan Adams’ divorce from singer and actress Mandy Moore—but, based on the riff-rocking first single “Do You Still Love Me?” a wonderfully goofy recent interview with Lil Bub, and some livepreviews of new tracks, the 12-song record does not look to be a complete cryfest.
During a Reddit AMA over the summer, when asked about the release date of Arcade Fire’s fifth album, band member Will Butler responded: “Probly next spring? No definite schedule though. It’ll be done when it’s done.” Since then, the Montreal-based group has played new material at a secret show and announced a round of summer festival dates starting in June, so it looks like Butler’s prediction could very well hold up.
Last month, the reunited rock band announced plans for a follow-up to 2000’s beloved Relationship of Command and shared their first new song in 16 years, “Governed by Contagions.” The band’s Omar Rodríguez-López is producing the new LP, and they’re also set to play some shows in March.
A couple of releasedates have already passed by for Beck’s follow-up to 2014’s Morning Phase, a low-key record that catapulted him to an Album of the Year Grammy, memorably drawing the ire of a certain Kanye West. But given the music he’s released since—including “Dreams,” “Wow,” and “Up All Night”—it looks like the ever-changing artist is switching things up again and going into metapop party mode. The new record was reportedly produced by Greg Kurstin, who’s worked with Sia and Tegan and Sara, to name a few, and also includes songs titled “No Distraction” and “Dear Life.” In the meantime, Beck also contributed to Lady Gaga’s Joanne, co-writing the masturbation ode “Dancin’ in Circles.”
Bing & Ruth
No Home of the Mind
It’s easy to connect Bing & Ruth’s music to minimalist forebears like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but there’s no resisting the almost devotional quality in their mesmerizing drifts of piano, woodwind, upright bass, and tape delay. The shape-shifting New York collective led by composer and pianist David Moore makes its 4AD debut with No Home of the Mind, led by the dream-like video for gorgeous opener “Starwood Choker.”
Chromatics’ brand of artsy ’80s nostalgia has only gotten more intriguing since they first stepped out of the fog in the 2000s. And, as bandleader Johnny Jewel told us almost two years ago, the group’s forthcoming album Dear Tommy could be their last. It’s been a long time coming. The follow-up to 2012’s Kill for Love was originally teased for a February 2015 release date. The tracklist, first announced in December 2014, was still officially the same as of last September. So far, Chromatics have shared the title track, “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around,” “Just Like You,” “In Films,” and “Shadow.” “Cherry” and “Camera,” originally from 2013’s After Dark 2 comp, were also on the tracklist.
Following a move to Los Angeles, the winsomely goofy singer-songwriter hit a snag while recording his new album earlier this year. “I just had penis enlargement surgery so my balance is all out of whack and I can’t play my drums properly right now,” he explained. “But soon enough I’ll get used to this new piece.” Apparently the adjustment period was short, as DeMarco recently finished mixing his proper follow-up to 2014’s Salad Days, according to a bottle-popping recent Instagram post.
Late last year, Dirty Projectors shared somesnippets of new music, along with the new track “Keep Your Name.” The glitchy ballad seems to herald another reinvention for Dave Longstreth’s ever-morphing project. The upcoming record will be their follow-up to 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan as well as the first Dirty Projectors release since guitarist/singer Amber Coffman, who wasn’t credited on “Keep Your Name,” announced plans for her own solo album, City of No Reply.
As of late, Drake has been recovering from an ankle injury and celebrating one of the most commercially successful albums of 2016, VIEWS. Originally penciled in for December, More Life—which, according to Drake, isn’t a mixtape or album so much as a playlist—may include the 21 Savage collaboration “Sneakin’” as well as “Two Birds, One Stone” and “Fake Love.” And, perhaps, a Taylor Swift collaboration?
“I refuse to put out something that isn’t honest,” Sky Ferreira said a year ago regarding new music. At that point, a song and short film she’d teased for summer 2015 had already been delayed over health issues and scheduling conflicts. She later said her next album, Masochism, would arrive in summer 2016. It didn’t. But, as we all know, honesty takes time. She has called her recent Playboy cover appearance, which she produced and directed, the first visual introduction for the album.
Fleet Foxes have shared plenty of hints about their next project. Frontman Robin Pecknold has also revealed he’s working on a solo album. In November, when asked about their new record, the band replied, “Alllllmost done.” They have plans to tour. Last month, Pecknold indicated the LP will have 11 tracks, be “55ish minutes” long, and include what a fan called “folk-soul songs.” We can alllllmost hear it now.
Girlpool’s Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker “are symbols of the rawness and honesty that our entire society lacks,” Willow Smith recently told The Fader. She’s not wrong. The Philadelphia-based duo’s debut album, 2015’s Before the World Was Big, had a minimalism rarely heard in indie-pop since a fellow guitars-and-vocals duo, the Softies, moved onto other projects in 2000. The follow-up is reportedly keeping things streamlined at 12 songs in just 28 minutes and was self-recorded in Los Angeles.
It has been more than two years since Alice Glass broke away from Crystal Castles, her duo with Ethan Kath, for “reasons both professional and personal.” Glass’ Twitter account has been essential reading ever since, but her only solo material so far has been 2015’s thrilling “Stillbirth,” a thunderous electro-punk statement of autonomy. In April, she said she was hoping to complete an album in 2016. “It’s incredibly personal,” she noted, adding that she has worked with multiple collaborators.
Last June, Kanye West released the posse cut “Champions” and said it was the first song from the long-speculated sequel to 2012’s Cruel Summer compilation. In September, crew member Travis Scott said he was executive producing the forthcoming group effort. But, given Kanye’s recent tour cancellations and health issues—not to mention his support of Donald Trump, defying many of his fans and peers (including G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T, who vocally backed Hillary Clinton)—it’s especially difficult to say what will happen in West’s world in 2017.
Gorillaz sure are acting like a (virtual) band that’s about to release a follow-up to 2010’s Plastic Beach. They’ve recently been doing absurdist interviews, sharing a series of multimedia narratives, and, why not, joining Instagram. Past collaborators De La Soul and Snoop Dogg have reportedly recorded parts for the new record. And co-founders Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn turned up in the studio together this spring, with Albarn confirming in July the next album “should be ready fairly soon.”
In October, Grizzly Bear tweeted that their fifth album was “90 percent done.” The band had started recording in June. In 2015, band member Ed Droste explained that Grizzly Bear were “feeling more adventurous with the sonic directions,” though their new LP would not be “a techno dance album.”
In July, Haim canceled their European tour dates because they were “at a critical point of finishing up” recording the follow-up to 2013’s Days Are Gone. Earlier in the year, they said they had written more than 12 new songs, which they hoped to release by the fall. That didn’t happen, but Haim did debut two ingratiating tunes, “Nothing’s Wrong” and “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love,” on their U.S. tour last spring. Before that, the trio had been hunkered down in Days Are Gone producer Ariel Rechtshaid’s studio; they also recorded some songs with the producer, Hamilton Leithauser collaborator, and former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij.
Near to the Wild Heart of Life
The Canadian band’s new LP was recorded mainly in Vancouver with longtime producer Jesse Gander. In a recent Pitchfork interview, the band talked about expanding their spartan sound to include synths and drum loops. “In some ways, we’re approaching this like it’s our very first record,” singer/guitarist Brian King said. “We’re removing all the self-imposed rules that led to the songs and the sound of our whole career up until now. When you do that, you can try anything.”
Japandroids: “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” (via SoundCloud)
Kelela staked out a place as one of forward-thinking R&B’s leading voices with 2013’s Cut 4 Me mixtape. On 2015’s Hallucinogen EP, she only got better. Oh, and have you heard “Scales,” her gorgeously languid duet with Solange, from A Seat at the Table? Early last year, Kelela said she had said been working on her debut album with producers Arca, Jam City, and Bok Bok. Back then, the as-yet-untitled LP was set for a May 2016 release date—which makes us think it could come out any moment now.
A man of many monikers, the London artist born Archy Marshall has been a talent to watch since we only knew him as an audaciously-coiffed teen called Zoo Kid. His late-2015 project under his own name, A New Place 2 Drown, was stunning, and he has said the next King Krule album will be “similar” to his brilliant 2013 debut, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon; if Marshall can apply the gorgeously textured production of A New Place to his song-oriented work as King Krule, the results will be something to behold. He performed an unreleased song in October and reputedly said his next album was on the way.
The reunited LCD Soundsystem hit the road last year, and James Murphy revealed they were working on a new record, too. In February, news emerged that LCD Soundsystem had signed to Columbia, and the original goal was to release the album in 2016. A music festival curated by the band was recently canceled, but LCD have already announced their first show of 2017.
LIV is a new group with Lykke Li and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt sharing vocals. Rounding out the lineup are Li’s longtime collaborator Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John, Wyatt’s Miike Snow bandmate Pontus Winnberg, and producer Jeff Bhasker. They have more than an album’s worth of songs, but as of early October they weren’t necessarily dead-set on releasing a traditional album. Describing their sound, Li told us, “It has this Swedish melancholy in the melodies, but the soundscape was really influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk or Crosby Stills & Nash.” So far, they’ve shared the songs “Dream Awake” and “Wings of Love.”
Lorde’s Ella Yelich-O’Connor has faced questions about the follow-up to her monumental debut album, 2013’s Pure Heroine, since… well, 2013. This past November, on her 20th birthday, the New Zealand singer-songwriter shared the first real insight into her sophomore effort, explaining that it will be about the time after “our teenage glory” and adding that “the big day is not tomorrow, or even next month realistically, but soon.” Between albums, she co-wrote Broods’ “Heartlines,” sang on a Disclosure track, curated the Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack (including her first post-Pure Heroine song, the Golden Globe-nominated “Yellow Flicker Beat”), paid awards-show tribute to Nirvana and David Bowie, and appeared alongside both Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Pure Heroine producer Joel Little has indicated he’s working on the new record, and O’Connor keeps doing things with fun.’s Jack Antonoff. Which brings us to the question: What had you accomplished by the time you turned 20?
In May, Real Estate replaced founding guitarist Matt Mondanile, aka Ducktails, with Julian Lynch, who should bring a promising new element to the band’s upcoming material. Then the New Jersey band’s remodeled lineup hit the road, where they performed a new song called “Harpsichord,” and teased footage from the studio. They apparently mastered the follow-up to 2014’s Atlas in late October, and have said the album is “tentatively slated for early 2017.”
Long a scene-stealer for others—from SBTRKT, Jessie Ware, and Drake early on to Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange more recently—Sampha has kept fans waiting for a proper solo follow-up to 2013’s Dual EP. Finally, the London artist’s debut album, Process, is due out next month, with a 10-song tracklist that includes the devastating singles “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Blood on Me.”
The garage rock lynchpin has kept us following along across a discography that’s inevitably described as “prolific.” Segall’s follow-up to this year’s Emotional Mugger is actually his second self-titled album, following his 2008 debut. The restless artist will be touring this year, and he has already shared the gleaming psych-folk strummer “Orange Color Queen” as well.
Ty Segall: "Orange Color Queen" (via SoundCloud)
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark has been busy since her self-titled 2014 record: She scored a new Kristen Stewart short film, signed on to write and direct for the horror anthology XX, and recently covered the Rolling Stones—with Kendrick Lamar associates Sounwave and Terrace Martin producing—for the film A Bigger Splash. In June, she performed a new original song‚ while dressed as a toilet. And in a recent interview, Clark said her as-yet-untitled new album will be a “real sea change” sonically, adding, “I think it’ll be the deepest, boldest work I’ve ever done.” Coming from an artist who has established herself as nearly unrivaled in her zone as an adventurously shredding art-rock storyteller, it’s an exciting prospect.
Earl Sweatshirt was none too pleased with his label Columbia’s rollout for his 2015 album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, which was announced only a week ahead of its release. He wasted no time unveiling new material, offering up a 10-minute project called Solace the following month, and performing unreleased songs live on multipleoccasions. He has shared a host of new songs since, including “Pelicula,” “Wind in My Sails,” “bary,” “SKRT SKRT,”“Quest/Power,” and “silenceDArapgame,” plus the Knxwledge collaboration “Balance.” He also lent verses to 2016 records by Danny Brown and Samiyam, making it clear he’s still one of the sharpest MCs out.
Earl Sweatshirt: "Balance" [ft. Knxwledge] (via SoundCloud)
Vampire Weekend are at a turning point. Musical mastermind Rostam Batmanglij left the band last January (though he didn’t rule out taking part in future Vampire Weekend songs). Frontman Ezra Koenig confirmed at the time that the group was at work on its fourth album: “There will be a lot of familiar faces in the studio but also some fresh, new ones.” Asked recently about collaborating with Vampire Weekend again, Rostam demurred, saying, “I want some surprises for 2017.” Meanwhile, VW drummer Chris Tomson recently announced his debut solo album as Dams of the West, Rostam has been busy collaborating with everyone from Hamilton Leithauser to Frank Ocean, and Koenig has been hosting his Beats 1 show and, oh yeah, just co-writing Beyoncé’s “Hold Up.” There are also unconfirmed rumors that Vampire Weekend might move from longtime label home XL to Columbia for the new record.
Recently, the Philly band led by Adam Granduciel has been posting on Instagram from the studio, leading us to believe that their follow-up to 2014’s Lost in the Dream is on its way. The social media shots also suggest Granduciel has been watching old episodes of “Seinfeld”—fans hoping for a War on Drugs concept album about puffy shirts, 2017 could be your year.
In 2016, Wolf Parade reunited after an extended hiatus, touring and releasing an EP of their first new material in six years. Both the EP and the live shows had a sense of (re)discovery about them that could bode well for a full-length. The indie-rock supergroup of sorts has too many affiliated bands to name here, and indeed, members Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner, and Dante DeCaro all also issued music from other projects last year. But in early December, Boeckner’s Twitter account showed the band in the studio for a new album.
I See You
Producer Jamie xx’s 2015 solo album, In Colour, was vibrant proof that he could do much more than the familiar quietude of his main band. “On Hold,” the first single from the xx’s forthcoming third album, finds the band folding in some of those same brighter textures, along with an audacious Hall and Oates sample. The trio also debuted another new song, “I Dare You,” on “Saturday Night Live,” played two more, “Brave for You” and “Performance,” in their recent tour opener, and just released another album cut, “Say Something Loving.” The xx also talked about the new record extensively in our cover story from last week.
Killer Mike arrives at this Hollywood rehearsal space a little stunned. He’s coming straight from breakfast at the chicken and waffles landmark Roscoe’s, where he had slid into a booth—and suddenly noticed groups of customers coldly glaring at him. There he was: One heavily blunted half of Run the Jewels wondering if it was about to go down before the waitress even got to bring him a Herb’s Special.
“Four black guys walk in, sit down, and start looking at me. I’m like, Did I get in a rap beef?” Mike says, laughing. “Then they turn around and throw up the RTJ sign. Then I look to another table, and it’s a crew from Philly, and they throw up RTJ, and it fucks me up because all of a sudden I’m in a Batmanmovie.”
It’s early December, several helter-skelter weeks after the presidential election, and a few before Run the Jewels surprise dropped their third eponymous album on Christmas Eve—a sneak attack that caused half the internet to collectively scream “It’s a Christmas fucking miracle!” while tossing their family’s lavishly decorated Douglas fir through a plate glass window.
Credit the bunker buster strength of the latest assault. For the last four years, the best tag team since the Road Warriors have comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable better than any reputable journalistic institution. From their first recordings, El-P and Killer Mike stunned everyone with their innate chemistry—a how-did-nobody-think-of-this-before pairing as ingenious as, well, chicken and waffles.
Their second album heralded a great leap, as they went from excellent solo rappers trading bars to realizing that intangible alchemy that defines all great rap groups. The Bomb Squad heir from New York and the Dungeon Family’s Demosthenes artfully merged and expanded upon chief inspirations like early Ice Cube and Rage Against the Machine.
The odd couple partnership ostensibly comes straight from central casting—right down to the fact that El smokes sativa and Mike favors the body highs of an indica, OG Kush. In person, they’re exactly how you’d expect. El hunches forward, all perpetual motion, wearing a denim jacket and sunglasses. He’s as Brooklyn as a bialy, eternally wry, black lunged, and speaking in swift staccato bursts. Mike lounges comfortably in a black T-shirt and sweatpants, enormous but agile, blessed with photographic memory, an easy smile, and the ability to effortlessly unspool complete paragraphs of well-reasoned, fact-based conclusions.
Beyond the sulfurous rage aimed at crooked cops and kleptocrats exist two generous and sincere men who deeply love their family, friends, and fans. Without over-publicizing the gesture, they’ve given away each of their albums for free. They’re like Red and Meth if they rapped with the subject matter and subversive attitudes of Public Enemy. The friends you’d want, the enemies you’d fear.
Midway through the interview, we pause for a smoke break in the parking lot. Between exhales on this ashen Saturday afternoon, El-P spots a DeLorean parked outside the studio. Just beyond the gates, an anti-Trump rally suddenly rumbles past. If you asked a computer simulator to project the peak “Run the Jewels scenario,” this would be it—give or take a necklace heist simultaneously occurring in the studio next door.
We talk for a minute about the DeLorean. Fifteen years ago, when he was toiling as an underground standard-bearer in NYC, El recorded a song named after the plutonium-powered time machine that ushered in the alternate dystopia of Back to the Future Part II. And now, that film grimly feels like documentary with its forecast of Biff Trump’s reign, a mid-decade Chicago Cubs World Series victory, and hoverboards for all. There’s one of those brief, “I don’t necessarily believe it, buuuut….” bouts of stoner paranoia. Somehow, the conversation shifts to Uber.
“If Uber was around when I sold fucking petty weed and drugs on the street, I’d be a millionaire,” Killer Mike’s bellow cuts across the parking lot like jet fuel melting steel beams.
Run the Jewels: “Talk to Me” (via SoundCloud)
Recorded over the past year at El-P’s studio in upstate New York, RTJ 3 finds them as masters of the form, equally able to steamroll their opponents or employ a scalpel. Danny Brown, Zack de la Rocha, Trina, Tunde Adebimpe, Kamasi Washington, and Joi Gilliam aid them, but the guests feel like fellow conspirators rather than big-name recruits.
The writing occurred amid one of the most turbulent years in American history. Of course, this endemic chaos left claw marks all over the record; roiling discontent, political toxicity, and police murders are addressed. In person, you can sense a residual weariness in both Mike and El, a reluctance to be asked for answers that no one possesses. With RTJ 3, they do what they have to do: capture the bleakness and despair of a pestilential time, but refuse to let it drag them down. In the process, they’ve held onto their title as the best rap group alive.
If anything, the new record might reveal them as inveterate optimists. This election cycle also found Mike emerging as one of the most eloquent political voices of his generation, frequently appearing alongside Bernie Sanders during the senator’s presidential run, and beyond the duo’s sustained anger at oppressors is their unstinting belief that human beings can change. That somehow, if we can stop lying and hating one another, we can actually improve upon this monstrous world.
After our interview, El-P excuses himself to go outside and have another smoke. I linger for a bit, then start to head back to my car. But before I make it there, Killer Mike stops me. He wants to say one more thing.
“This record—our friendship—kept me with eternal hope, and it does every day,” Mike leans in close, that trademark submarine baritone slightly cracking. “Making this record with my friend in there, I learned what an ally was. I learned what a brother was. This has meant more to me than even I knew.”
Pitchfork: What did you do on election night, Mike?
Killer Mike: Smoked marijuana. I’m black and I’m from the South, so there’s no fear on the other side of this that I haven’t faced before. That’s not to say I’m above feeling the pain, but when I speak around the country I encourage white kids I meet to develop peers and friends outside of their cultural group, to develop empathy. I tell people who look like me, “You have to be more self-reliant because you’re living in a time where either the government’s going to have too much control over your life or they’re going to be hands-off when you really need them.” So I’m glad that my music can help some people persevere because that’s what music always helped me do growing up in Georgia during the midst of the fucking drug war in the South.
I’m happy to be for people what Scarface, Ice Cube, and Rakim have been for me. As an artist, that’s our job—to be with you in times of celebration and when the world is kicking your ass, and I’m happy that we can give the world a record at this moment.
Personally, I smoke weed and prepare each day as though I’m a free human being. That means I figure out how to grow tomatoes and collect my rainwater for my own garden. I just bought about three acres of land. I’m sure I’m going to kill a deer, have it go in the deep freezer. All you can do is control yourself and your day-to-day life. Don’t hold your fucking head down. This is a beautiful life we lead in spite of whatever things come against us or whatever team loses or wins. You’re already free. You’re already here. Seize this shit and be. Don’t worry about them.
On some level, did the results surprise you?
KM: No. I was not surprised. I am not surprised. The Democrats did not run the best possible person. That’s what happened. Working class white people in this country are pissed, and we are remiss not to see that. The system is fucked up for everyone, and at some point all of us are going to figure that out and stop letting these little things that aren’t real separate us.
People are just trying anything now because nothing seems to work. That’s what it is. It’s not like, “Oh, this whole country’s racist.” A fucking reality star with a bad haircut is the equivalent of a fucking B-list celebrity with a great haircut and a Gucci belt in 1980s. This is history fucking repeating itself.
We’re Americans still. We’re not a fucking nation of pussies. We’re just not. We have endured the best and the worst from outside and in. We’ll be OK. White folks acting scared—I’m not used to white people acting scared, man. Got to turn it up. We got Russia to worry about.
El-P: Well, you know, I’m just going to rap a lot. I’m going to do a lot of rapping.
KM: We are an American cultural export to the world. You have nothing to worry about.
El-P: Forty-year old rappers who are stoned out of their brains.
KM: Kicking ass.
Run the Jewels: "2100" [ft. BOOTS] (via SoundCloud)
Have the events of this last year confirmed the dystopian worldview that you guys had all along?
El-P: Yeah, it sucks because I see what it looks like for people to be experiencing that revelation for the first time, like, “Damn, you’re just having to deal with this thought now.” I’m not trying to be condescending in any way. It’s just that I’ve always had that idea in my head—essentially that crooks are taking over. That’s something I always felt and put in my shit.
How did the turmoil of this past year contribute to the new record?
El-P: We were all under a dark cloud, and there were times when Mike was frazzled, angry, and didn’t want to fucking rap. There were times where we had to talk, and I had to make sure that he knew that I was there for him and whatever he needed to do, and he did the same for me. That made it into the music and the experience.
KM: There were great parts of this year too. Being a part of Sanders’ campaign was one of the highlights that helped keep joy in my music. I was able to do that trip because I was around this fucking wiry old guy with a fucking crazy weird sense of humor and honesty about himself. In rap, we’re the older guys. But age doesn’t really exist. I’d be around a room full of young people that are crazy about me. I’d be around him, and it was just like being back around, say, my grandparents. He was so sharp with the questions that he’d ask me and my wife.
I brought that joy back, but it seemed like every time I went to record, a black man was being murdered by someone in uniform. You’ve got to understand: I’m at home with my 14-year-old son and my 9-year-old daughter, and a fucking black man is killed on television what feels like monthly. That’s over-fucking-whelming. No one should feel like that again. If I was running stories of women being raped by police officers every month, something would be done, even if not for the fucking national stir that caused the injustice. No one would want to see it every month, but the fact that people have almost become pornographic in their lust to see this shit, it’s just a lot.
So getting an opportunity to see people on a grass roots level driving out in places like Vermont and South Carolina, getting the chance to see people of every race, religion, and ethnic group working together for the better hope of other human beings—it gave me a lot of hope when I needed it. It kept me afloat because it was a spiritual assault just to be a black guy this year, because you keep getting told your life ain’t worth shit over and over and over again, and you know that’s not true. That’s not how it feels. That campaign, making dope music, and kicking it with my family has been my salvation this year.
Did campaigning with Bernie inspire you to want to do politics in a larger way?
KM: I was inspired to do politics before I ever did that campaign. I always knew it was some shit that I’d do when I finished rapping. I’ll always push for what I believe in. I campaigned for the current mayor of Atlanta and I’ll probably campaign for whoever I think should be mayor next. That’s what you’re supposed to do. If you’re an American, you’re supposed to be part of the process, especially if you’ve been denied it. I represent a group of people for whom it didn’t come innately. It wasn’t promised or guaranteed. I take being an American very seriously. I’m going to always be involved because my grandmother really marched. Her grandfather really was part of the Tuskegee experiment, and his father really was a slave. I don’t have a choice. I am in this shit.
Run the Jewels: “Legend Has It” (via SoundCloud)
Even with all the heaviness happening around you, there’s still a lot of exhilaration in these new songs.
El-P: We did it over the course of a year, so you hear those moments where there’s a ghost haunting us and those moments where we’re just fucking high and having fun. I love the fact that we try to make our records available to all of those feelings. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. For us, just being able to be focused on some dope ass rap shit is just as important as us being able to have those cathartic moments where we really are working out shit as friends, too. Not only do you have different dynamics of what’s going on in each other’s lives but you’re in a group and you’re making a song, finding those intersecting realities and being able to make jams off of them.
How has that friendship evolved over the course of these last three albums?
KM: It’s that trust in the studio. We’re fully intertwined now in the way that we’re encouraging each other to try shit. I worked with Three Six Mafia some years ago, and DJ Paul was telling Juicy J how to cut a record, and at one point, he put his hand above Juice and he was going like this [motions putting one hand on top of the other]. You just saw their hands become one. That was one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen.
I’m sure you saw something like that with OutKast too?
KM: Absolutely. The thing with OutKast though is I saw it more with ATLiens. Just being a little brother, just being able to be around Stankonia, I got to see them recording together and have a lot of fun. On the later records, they had started recording differently. It just wasn’t the same. I’m happy to be able to enjoy these moments now, because I value the ones I had with OutKast a lot more. I was lucky as hell to be around. They would leave the studio with fucking 20 dudes going straight to the strip clubs.
Looking back at your careers in music, you think previously being in groups and crews allowed you guys to get along better as a duo?
El-P: It’s the George Costanza-reversal theory. Remember when George figured out one day that every one of his instincts was completely wrong, so all he had to do was just reverse everything that he wanted to do? It’s kind of like that. Run the Jewels definitely gave me an excuse to do the group thing correctly, which I don’t think I would have been able to do if we hadn’t met when we were 35.
The one advantage to blowing up in your mid-30s is that you actually have been through some shit and you know who you are. Mike and I are completely interconnected, but we also are not going to ask from each other what doesn’t make sense to ask for.
KM: I’m just a fan of my friend and I like rapping with him. I got the best fucking gig on earth. Being an adult, you’ve already suffered enough from your own mistakes, and the world, to come to this as a humble human being. So it’s not like, “I’m going to do the right thing because it advances me,” as much as it’s like, “I’m going to do the right thing because this puts me closest to the dream I had as a 10-year-old kid.”
I grew up with two parents, and they were my grandparents. I grew up with old people that had already fucking made money and already fucked up money. They had already done everything irresponsible, so the people that me and my sisters ended up with were just in it for the life, love, and fun of it all, and we had a rich life in the middle of a little, poor working-class neighborhood in Atlanta’s west side. Spiritually, that’s what this group does for me. I just wanted to be fucking famous on some rap shit. I wanted to be able do what I did right before this: go to Roscoe’s, walk across the street to smoke a joint, and drink champagne.
El-P: That’s definitely the American dream.
And to be in a video game…
El-P: Just when you think you should start accepting that you’re becoming an adult, all your childhood fantasies come true.
KM: My dad’s in his late 50s now. Growing up, I fucked up his record collection. I fucked up his classic cars. But I never fucked up his comic books. So getting the opportunity to give my dad all those Marvel comics we’re in has been one of the greatest things in my adult life. He lost his fucking mind.
Has being older made it easier to handle this level of success?
El-P: By the time you get to 35, if you’re still doing it, then that means that you got through your moment of holy shit, this may be over and decided to keep going, or the moment hadn’t occurred to you yet. I had already had that conversation with myself and some close friends, like, “Well, I don’t know if this is going to go much further than I’ve taken it, but I’m going to do this shit.
When did that happen?
El-P: I definitely hit the fucking rock bottom after about 2008 and 2009. [Friend and rapper] Camu Tao died, and then we tried to hold it together for a while, and I ended up putting together his posthumous album. That had a pretty rippling, devastating effect on me that I wasn’t acknowledging. I was kind of blown out. I lost all my money, and my direction. All of a sudden, I was like a fucking newborn baby. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
I did Cancer 4 Cure, and as I was doing it, I remember talking to my friend and just being like, “This may be the last one. I don’t know if there’s room for me in this business, in this form.” I had come to peace with that. I was like, “If that’s the case, then fine. Fuck it. I’m going out blazing.” Me and Mike met at the same time and were both like, “Fuck it. We’re going hard.”
KM:I seen the shit, though. I was on his head, hard, from the top. The first day we made some music, I knew he was special. I had that feeling. I understood what Snoop felt. I understood what the fuck Cube felt for the first time in my life. I’ve worked with incredible producers in the past, but when me and El-P got in a room, there was no way I was going to let off his head because not only was he one of the greatest producers I heard, he was one of the illest rappers I had ever heard. I just saw us kicking ass.
El-P: I had reduced my ambition to trying to make great records, and that’s when I was re-born. I was like, “Oh, wow, that should have been the point the whole time.” I spent the first half of my career trying to be everything for everybody else. I had to realize, “Man, you have to be who the fuck you are.” That’s what I encourage any artist to do: just stop giving a fuck as soon as possible.
KM: As soon as you can. If you’re 13, stop giving a fuck now.
El-P: Don’t even give a fuck what the structure of a song is.
This week, we’re celebrating the past, present, and future of Pitchfork’s Rising series, which has offered profiles of exciting new artists for the last eight years.
Lil Peep: “Kiss” (via SoundCloud)
Lil Peep will readily admit that he’s impulsive. The weekend before Thanksgiving, he’s seated on a charcoal grey sofa next to his girlfriend, Layla, in their shared two-and-a-half bedroom apartment in Los Angeles’ Echo Park. They met a month ago at a video shoot for one of his songs and got their names tattooed on each other the next day. Layla, currently clacking away on her laptop with pink press-ons that match Peep’s signature fingernail lacquer, moved in shortly after.
“I do what I want, when I want,” says Peep, 20, with a Cheshire grin, clutching a water bong without lighting it for almost an hour, a blanket draped across his lap. His hair is parted down the middle, brown roots giving way to blonde tendrils that frame him as a grittier Justin Bieber lookalike with more face tattoos; the mantra “Get Cake Die Young” is inked just below his hairline. His Technicolor mane has become one of his calling cards, something he started toying with around middle school by looking to My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, who had bleached his cropped coif for the release of 2006’s The Black Parade. Today, Peep’s hair shifts between hot pink and near-white, though within a few weeks, he will have dyed it midnight black, matching Layla.
Image is paramount to Peep, born Gustav Åhr. When he’s not pairing Katy Perry T-shirts and hockey jerseys with fluorescent magenta jeans, he’s performing shirtless, exposing a stomach tattoo bearing the word “LOVE” with a sad face imprinted in the “O.” He flaunts his relationship with Layla, recently showing up in a tweeted photo with his face is planted in her bare ass. (The caption: “fine dining.”) He now has more followers on Instagram (112,000) than on SoundCloud (82,000), where he posted his first song just a year ago.
“It’s like professional wrestling—everyone has to be a character,” says Peep. “If you’re not a fun enough character, then no one’s gonna fuck with you because you don’t have enough shit that’s different.”
Peep is a big personality, but he’s not a clown; he’s not just another RiFF RAFF. He’s the fresh-faced avatar of post-emo angst that’s not quite rap or rock. Instead, it falls into a grey area full of with spidery guitars, 808 drums, and wall-of-sound production. It’s been described as the “new emo” and “emo trap,” raw and stinging and a direct confluence of his influences—Gucci Mane, Crystal Castles, Panic! at the Disco.
It was Peep’s debut project, LiL PEEP PART ONE, that initially set him apart: He sings from his throat in half-rapped ruminations about guzzling drugs, suicide, and ex-girlfriends, all facets of his real life. His music recalls Kurt Cobain’s tortured sense of self, the jetpack fuel for his breakthrough September mixtape Hellboy, mostly recorded in a forgotten drug-fueled haze at his old place in Skid Row. Living in an apartment with just Layla, he now spends his days watching “Scooby Doo” and compulsively recording down the hall from his living room with a bare setup of a single pink-lit lamp on the desk next to a towering bong, clothes strewn in the corner, takeout cartons scattered on a futon, and a microphone centering the space.
Lil Peep: "The Song They Played (When I Crashed Into the Wall)" [ft. Lil Tracy] (via SoundCloud)
Peep’s zonked recklessness is surprising given the nature of his pedigree. Before settling, he tossed back and forth from L.A. and Long Island’s South Shore, where he was raised, though he’s originally from Pennsylvania. He comes from a family of educators: his grandfather and father are professors—at Harvard and Hofstra, respectively—and his mother, who he considers his best friend, is a first grade teacher. His dad left his mom and older brother when Peep was 14, and his eyes dart to the ground when it’s brought up. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to him since either. I don’t really fuck with my dad.”
He cut class nearly every day and soon dropped out. Peep was home schooled through a computer course and got his diploma soon after; he took one semester online through a local community college before quitting. “Education was never my higher calling,” he explains.
Music became his primary outlet for expression and led him to Los Angeles, where he’s shacked up with a regular cast of a dozen friends over the past few years. He’s finally living in a space with just one roommate, tucked in the back of an alley dotted with apartments along the way to a staircase littered with trash on the awning. Inside, the kitchen is sparse, with an empty pizza box on the counter, and his bedroom wall is scrawled with autographs in green ink from rappers who have visited since he moved in roughly three months ago. It looks disheveled but, according to Peep, there’s order in the chaos.
Pitchfork: When did you first become interested in rapping?
Lil Peep: When I found out about the L.A. underground rap scene and the whole online rap scene that was developing on YouTube and SoundCloud. It inspired me to start doing it myself. So I went to Guitar Center and spent $200 on a microphone, plugged it into my MacBook—I’ve been using the same MacBook since then. I recorded every song I’ve ever done in GarageBand myself, and it’s very homemade. After a couple of months, I noticed there were tens of thousands of plays on my shit, so I kept going. And it’s turned into this.
When did you first move out to L.A.?
I moved out here straight out of high school thinking I was going to pay rent with this SoundCloud rap career I had going on. But it turned out I couldn’t really do that yet. So I had to go back [to Long Island], but I started making more and more money and the fan base grew. Now I’m straight: make plenty, got plenty of fans, plenty of followers, plenty of people willing to support.
What was high school like for you when you were there?
I wasn’t there. I would go, sit there for 45 minutes, be like, I cannot take this. My high school was a closed campus, so we weren’t allowed to leave, so I had to hop a 20-foot fence to run away from these fucking fat security guards every fucking day. Literally. They’d be like, “You have in-school suspension tomorrow.” I was like, “Cool! I won’t come.” School was forced the whole time. Now it’s apparent that it was never very necessary.
Were you heavy into the emo scene?
I would listen to underground bands and shit, but I wouldn’t call [my music] the new emo necessarily. It’s just another wave of it, it’s a subgenre. I don’t think it replaces it or is even mimicking it. It’s a whole new thing, and it’s good for the emo genre as a whole and all the fans and all the people who ever liked it, because it’s going to keep it relevant. It’s just adapting to the new sounds that people want to listen to when they hop in the car and shit. We’re just giving it that emo spin.
Lil Peep: "OMFG" (via SoundCloud)
On the Hellboy track “OMFG,” you talk about wanting to kill yourself. Are you suicidal?
Yeah, it is serious. I suffer from depression and some days I wake up and I’m like, Fuck, I wish I didn’t wake up. That was part of why I moved to California, trying to get away from the place that was doing that to me, and the people I was around. I realized it was just myself—it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain. Some days I’ll be very down and out, but you won’t be able to tell, really, because I don’t express that side of myself on social media. That’s the side of myself that I express through music. That’s my channel for letting all that shit out.
Are you medicated for depression?
I’m not. Everyone always begged me to, but I don’t want to do it. I just like smoking weed and whatever other drug comes my way.
Most people usually have to set out to find drugs.
I don’t like to pay for it. I just like to get it for free.
Hellboy is also very women-focused, and it seems there’s one relationship that inspired this album in particular, that someone really broke your heart.
I’ve had my heart broken in a lot of different ways a lot of different times by different people—whether it be a family member, a girlfriend, a friend, just all types of relying on people, making yourself vulnerable to people. And then they fuck you over. You just want to succeed and rub it in their face. That’s the theme.
Yeah. I have “revenge" tattooed right here [on my forearm].
Lil Peep: "Hellboy" (via SoundCloud)
How do you plan to capitalize on your success so far?
I’m going to keep growing in whatever way possible. If I’m not growing in some way, I go crazy. I’m always making moves. I do it in silence, and subconsciously, but I don’t waste time. It may look like I’m wasting time, but I’m definitely gaining inspiration at all times, from whatever it may be. Conversation, visuals, everything.
Do you feel like you know what you’re doing at this point?
Yeah, I feel like I really know what I’m doing.
So what is that?
Just getting my name out there. In a couple of years, I’ll be a household name. Everyone’s going to know who I am. I’ve done so much in such a short amount of time already that I don’t think it’s that unreasonable of a goal.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the rap scene, whatever that means?
I have no idea. But I know it’s going to happen and it’s going to be really fun to see where I end up and who ends up fucking with me. No one’s ever been in this genre before, so I couldn’t really compare it to anything from the past. I’m excited to find out.
This week, we’re celebrating the past, present, and future of Pitchfork’s Rising series, which has offered profiles of exciting new artists for the last eight years.
In the spirit of paying positivity forward, we asked a bunch of onetime Rising acts to tell us about the burgeoning music makers they are most hyped about going into 2017. Here are their picks.
CuckooLander is someone who makes beautiful, intelligent pop music with gorgeous, almost baroque visuals—like when she pulls out an oud (like a Middle Eastern lute) in the video for one of my fav songs of 2016, “Beating Myself Up.” Her voice is stunning and totally blows me away every time I hear it, and couple her vocals with Rostam’s production... #omg. She makes me melt/cry/die all at once, and I totally love her for it.
Camp Cope is a three-piece from Melbourne that released a rad self-titled debut album in 2016. “Keep Growing,” however, is a new song from an upcoming release. I saw them play it recently at a vinyl in-store, and it gave me all the emotions. I’m all for a great cyclical song. Keeping on growing and going nowhere, I guess it’s all tied together.
Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss
The Frightnrs’ debut, Nothing More to Say, came out in September on Daptone, and I’ve listened to it pretty much once a day since its release. Tragically, the lead singer and songwriter, Dan Klein, passed away from ALS shortly after they finished recording the album. There is an intimacy and simplicity to his songs that really move me. “Gonna Make Time” is my favorite track: The groove is solid, and while there’s a mournfulness to his delivery, I can’t help but feel hopeful after I listen. This album has soothed me many times over the course of a turbulent 2016.
Deep Cuts are a hidden gem of East Texas. Their tailored muso aesthetics harken back to quiet storm-era Sade and the slick sophisti-pop sheen of bands like Johnny Hates Jazz and the Blue Nile, who telegrammed the ’90s that new wave had all grown up. Live, their musicianship seems slugged out in both the sweaty basements and velvet ropes of the world, a beautiful friction not often seen in the indie continuum.
Deep Cuts: "Take Me Back" (via SoundCloud)
River Tiber has that incredible vibe that Toronto artists have, but it’s very, very special because he infuses a lot of gospel vibrations in his song “West” with Daniel Caesar, who is just as dope vocally. It all comes together for a vibe that I play back-to-back, like five times in a row, everyday.
Tobias Jesso Jr.
Alex Izenberg is a complete maniac. I first found that out when I met him in 2011 and he forced me to call him ‘Glóin’ (The Lord of the Rings, Gimli son of Glóin). Back then, Glóin had three different musical projects (all him), two separate record contracts (he signed two deals without anyone knowing until they both found out later), about a hundred email accounts, and, each year on his birthday, he would turn 19 again. He would often blur the line between con artist and artist, and for the most part it worked for him. He was also writing music beyond my comprehension (it still is beyond my comprehension). It seemed so simple to watch him play me his songs, but I could never quite understand them. A chord change that felt wrong at first, like he’d made a mistake, would upon repeat listens turn into my favorite part. His lyrics acted like a maze that never seemed to go anywhere until, like a maze, you figured it out.
Shortly after meeting him, he asked me—someone he barely knew—to produce and mix the entire album he was working on. I had never produced anything but also didn’t have much of an idea of what production even meant, so I said yes. It turned out to be a terrible choice for him because, along with being an unpayable illegal alien, I also had zero experience with computers and wasn’t a producer, so nothing ended up getting done besides roasting a lot of almonds. But during that time I learned a lot from Alex, his songwriting, his musical choices, his ideas. Alex is largely responsible for how my original demos sounded with the warble-y piano, a trick I learned from him. I’ve never met anyone quite as unique as Alex. His music today feels both as simple and complex as it always was, and his choices remain a mystery to me, but I will always love them.
Parquet Courts’ Austin Brown
I had the privilege of working with Gauche on a new record a few weeks ago. They come from three different East Coast cities— D.C., Baltimore, and Providence—and are top-notch performers and talented musicians that take the edge off of a punk background and lean towards more danceable grooves, taking cues from close-to-the-heart classics like Maximum Joy, XTC, and the B-52’s. I was super into their cassette, and since then they have added a saxophone and lit up their basement with a disco ball.
I recently had the pleasure of going on a short tour with Mary Lattimore. She is such a wonderful human, I’ve known her for a few years—she’s friends with everyone. In addition to her incredible sense of humor, kindness, and uniqueness, she has a spellbinding, otherworldly talent that is completely her own. It was a treat to watch her cast her spell over our audiences every night.
Kevin Garrett is incredible, and his EP Mellow Drama is one of my favorite bodies of work in a while. He opened for me on tour early this year, and I was blown away every night. His songs have this common thread of anticipating or accepting things that haven’t happened yet, but he writes in a way that evokes pathos in such a strong way. He’s played me songs that have me sobbing while not even being 100 percent sure of what they’re about. It’s genius.
Krispy Kareem was one of the bands I played with when I played my first basement show in Philly. Consisting of Chris Terlizzi, Kieran Ferris, and a rotation of drummers—most notably the absolute ledge Tom Kelly, who can be seen killing it with Alex G—the band has been writing and playing together since high school. I moved in with Chris this spring, and we slowly converted our basement into a little studio, where Krispy’s latest album Poussine was created. The boys make perfect alternative/pop-rock songs and are dominating East Coast basements, but what makes Krispy Kareem extra special is Kieran and Chris’ beautiful harmonies. I always get envious of siblings and close friends who can harmonize so well you feel there’s only one voice. Their harmonies really shine in the chorus of “Fraternity Forefathers”—they’re so lush and almost rustic. It takes me back to the old Crosby Stills & Nash records I’d listen to when I was in grade school.
I’m excited for Baba Ali’s debut EP that’s coming out soon. He toured with me on the West Coast in August and he’s a hypnotic performer and a fantastic singer. Musically, his songs are really exciting—these elaborate percussive tracks and unfurling instrumentals with fantastic lyrics.
I met this artist Ale Hop when we played a club in Peru a couple months ago. I don’t usually have such a strong physical response to music when I’m tired on tour in a crowded club vibe, but her show was so loud and overwhelming, and the energy was amazing in the room. Her singing feels pleasantly demented and free in a way I like.
Ale Hop: "Sinnerman" (Nina Simone cover) (via SoundCloud)
Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker
The Range of Light Wilderness is a quintessential rock band for the 21st century. Perfect three-part harmonies float above overdriven garage hooks in service of melodies so catchy they feel almost ingrained in a greater musical consciousness. This band has earned a steady and loyal cult following along the coast of California, popular for their super-tight, uplifting live performances and textured lo-fi recordings.
Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis
I saw Marina Fages perform at a DIY club in Buenos Aires earlier this year and became obsessed with her most recent record, Dibujo de Rayo. After the show she took a selfie with me and my mom—nice. The title track is all snarl, guitar dissonance, and shifting time signatures—her voice sometimes recalls fellow Argentine singer Juana Molina, while her instrumentation sounds like the best of Scout Niblett’s records with Albini. Fages is an accomplished player and composer in more genres than rock, and releases folk and improvisational guitar records, too. She owns a label and a record shop—both of which are titled Mercury—and has the coolest blue hair on the block. A true superhero.
I’m really fucking with KAMI’s new music. He has an album coming out full of new vibes I feel we aren’t digging into yet as a culture. It’s like if the ’80s had Wi-Fi.
Cienfuegos is the industrial project of Miami-born, Brooklyn-based musician Alex Suárez. The project shares its name with the Cuban town and translates to “one hundred fires.” The intent of this moniker can be felt tangibly throughout the music’s gritty, driving rhythms, which veer towards nasty while never losing their groove, and the siren song of synth tones that promise accessibility and then turn on a hairpin to skronk and wail, lashing out against expectation. The vocals are often snotty and provocational, while at other times reminiscent of the authority of an empowered political speech, but always commanding. The lyrics, written in Spanish, explore the sordid history of relations between the Caribbean and the U.S., and apply these themes on a personal level, through poetic description of the fragmentation of cultural and personal identity, the misplacement of a nomad. This is passionate revolt music, or as Suárez so succinctly describes it, “some form of resistance music for people who know the world has already ended.”
Cienfuegos: "Trabajito" (via SoundCloud)
It is always a pleasure to find contemporary music where the human qualities aren’t overshadowed by technological ambition. “Woman of the Year” by Outside Source plays out like the echo of an intimate bedroom cantata which only a few have the privilege of hearing. Simply pure.
I could go on and on about the insane virtuosity, about the rare analog wind synth that almost no one in the world plays anymore, about the most unique intervallic melodies and harmonies, but it’s all secondary to the simple beauty that Justin Walter is able to conjure up with his solo music.
Justin Walter: "Dream Weaving" (via SoundCloud)
Katie Gately is an entire problem. OK?! Her music is explosive and nocturnal and so damn elegant. I am such a fan of the way she processes vocals—because she pushes harmony into the future. She doesn’t bind the human voice. I prefer to listen to imaginative music, and Katie Gately makes music for the person that wants to unhinge forever!
Erik Hassle is such a superstar. He’s so talented at what he’s doing when it comes to writing, singing, melodies. His lyrical side is very special, and you can feel that it’s for real—that he had his heart broken many times. Yes, he’s been writing for a long time but he’s been putting out great music, so we feel he should be massive because he’s so, so amazing. He can sing almost any song and he moves you.
Nour Harkati is a young Tunisian who doesn’t sing in Arabic, and his album The Shift deserves much more attention, because it’s just great he did it by himself in Berlin after escaping from Paris’ lack of encouragement. It’s another situation where artists are pushed from being what they are to correspond with a fantasized vision that the Western market has of us. He explored a sound and visual dimension that I haven’t heard or seen in young Arab artists yet.
Nour Harkati: "Ivy" (via SoundCloud)
RYAN Playground is an artist I’ve been watching and listening to for a while. I started a label so I could spend time in both the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat for this whole experience—that evolution. So I’ve watched RP go from DJing to producing to singing and performing all on her own, navigating and pushing through to finally reach that point where she is her own artist, solidifying her own sound. Her upcoming album will be all her, fully formed. Confident. It’s been a privilege to be on the sideline cheering on.
I first met the brilliant, Baltimore-based Ami Dang in the fall of 2014 when we fortuitously shared a flat together during Pop Montreal. It was the same weekend I gave my Rising interview, so it seems all the more fitting that I should choose her for this! I had the great pleasure of hearing her practice in our flat and I’ve been a fan of hers ever since. Her voice is heavenly—strong, sensitive, elastic, wise, warm, sweet and a million other honey-flavored adjectives. A singer, sitar player, and producer, Ami’s music fuses deeply personal elements unique to her upbringing in a Sikh-American household—ancient Indian texts and hymns meld with Bollywood and electronic music. The result is something completely mesmerizing.
In high school, Lætitia Tamko begged her parents for a guitar after hitting a wall trying to write songs without one. She learned how to to play using an instructional DVD. Early Taylor Swift songs seemed manageable, and she taught herself their simple chords, pleased at her ability to capture what she heard on the radio. She could never be on the radio herself, she thought, but it was fun to play. She put the guitar down, took up engineering and computer code, graduated college, and found a professional home for her circuit-board expertise.
But before she graduated, and with the encouragement of a friend, she wrote down and recorded some of the songs she had in her head. After posting them on Bandcamp, she was invited to perform at NYC underground mecca Silent Barn, where a new universe opened up for her. Most of the artists she played alongside, like Frankie Cosmos and Told Slant, weren’t perfect. But still they got onstage and soaked up applause from loving audiences. To Tamko, musicians either fiddled at home or played the Super Bowl halftime show; instead of feeling so far away from the artists she admired, she began to find new inspiration and influence on a smaller stage.
She warmed to her new peers’ wonky takes on rock and shaped Vagabon into a powerful band, with raw and loose electric guitar supporting her massive voice, a booming tenor writ small on her songs about regret and being short. Her forthcoming debut LP, Infinite Worlds, includes a number of re-recorded tracks from early on in her career. Some have new titles, too. “Sharks,” a song where Tamko describes herself as a “small fish,” was once tentative, ambling. Redubbed “The Embers,” it’s now a soft-to-loud statement of purpose.
“I don’t feel like a small fish all the time anymore,” says Tamko, a petite, smiley young woman usually topped by a watch cap. “Now I feel more rooted in myself, so I can sing the song.” In the video, she dances in a pet store in front of aquariums. Whatever version of her felt tiny is nowhere to be found.
Being able to access the support to grow as an artist in the underground’s genial middle ground was a welcome surprise to Tamko, and in some ways—musically, socially—she has fit right in. But, when you talk to her about her everyday listening habits—basically Migos on infinite repeat—you get the sense she wouldn’t complain if that same scene was slightly less dweeby. Or a little more black. Indie rock stumbled onto Tamko as much as she stumbled onto it. She’s embraced the community but wishes there was a way for people like her—young black women—to know it existed, to benefit the same way she has, and perhaps provide some company.
Tamko was raised in Cameroon and moved to New York in her teens, first to Harlem then to suburban Yonkers. She did not fit in in either place. Students in Harlem teased her by asking if she was a boy or a girl because of her shaved head, a not-unusual style in Cameroon. In Yonkers, she was mostly ignored. That she’s finally found a shared sensibility in a DIY indie scene is a relief. But the scene caters to just some of her needs as a personable, quirky, thoughtful, funny musician. Her version of indie rock is also funky, catchy, punk, and her vocals elevate her songs above so many other charmingly off-key odes. Tamko’s voice is enormous but delicate, and she belts it with gusto throughout Infinite Worlds, spinning out little effortless arias amid songs Modest Mouse may have written in another life.
Tamko now has many musical friends steeped in the traditions of indie rock, and she relishes that this scene discovered her and expanded her purview. But she says there’s not a lot of people at shows and parties who look like her. How would it be different if there were? It’s a question that doesn’t leave her mind.
Pitchfork: Who are the girls you want to reach with your art?
Vagabon: Weird girls. Girls that are not celebrated, both in their communities and in the world. Obviously women of color, but specifically black women, because that’s who I represent. There are all these barriers in front of what you think you should do, and some of it involves not feeling like you have that knowledge: if you didn’t go to art school, or just feel like no one within your reach also identifies with what you’re doing. So for me, it’s more about—I don’t always feel comfortable being out here. If I hide, like I am naturally inclined to do, then I don’t further my desire to see more black girls making this kind of music, or just not being afraid to be here, because we’re outnumbered. If I can be one more number and have them see that, then they’ll be like, “I can do that” or, “I identify with this person, my skin color is dark, I’m not an ambiguous black girl.” This is for black women and this is for black men. This is for women of color and this is for girls. I want to be here and present, even if it’s uncomfortable, just so that I can get to the people that I would’ve loved to see when I was doubting in myself.
Can you ever not think about identity with Vagabon?
I can’t not think about it.
When is that good and when is that a burden?
It’s almost always good. It becomes a burden when it locks you into something. It’s especially important for me to reach beyond the community that I started playing music in. I love that community, but a lot of people who look like me aren’t in that community. I can’t reach them if they can’t see me, and that’s what I want to do. I almost don’t care about what a specific community thinks about me because I know what I want to reach, and I know that my being and my music and my shows can’t not be political. I can’t dilute it, and I don’t want to.
I just also don’t want to be put into a box: “Look at this black musician.” It’s like: I’m black. It is so clear. I do not deny it. I am doing this for all the black people like me who didn’t know that they could be in spaces like I am in. I have no crazy entry point. I had no friend who brought me in. I had no music school connection, and I want other people to feel like it’s OK to penetrate that scene. It’s cool.
Growing up, did you have that same relationship with an artist or piece of art that you want somebody else to have with you?
Man, not really. Not really. And that could be due to me not knowing. Because there’s so much that I don’t know. It could’ve been out here, and I know that it probably is, but I wasn’t privy to it. That’s why I always talk about “the bubble” and how to expand that bubble, because I just saw the people who were on the radio. And that seems so inaccessible.
You don’t have to do any work to hear what is on the radio.
Exactly. I know we have Beyoncé. I know we have the whole hip-hop game on lock. Black people are killing it in so many ways. But as someone who didn’t know what they were doing three years ago, it was like, Who can I see that also had no idea what they were doing? All of these people are fucking seasoned professionals, and it doesn’t seem like something you can do when you’re listening to them. So stumbling into people who are making independent music in their bedrooms—it was like, Holy shit, this is a game changer. I was so stoked on it.
What do you want to say that you didn’t get to hear?
That it’s uncomfortable to do this. Really. Everyone seems really put-together, and I understand why it’s important to seem to hold yourself together and be resilient. But that just gave me the impression that if something felt uncomfortable, then you just weren’t meant for it.
I know a lot more artists now than I did back then, but I know that, 99 percent of the time, all of them are uncomfortable in one way or the other. Maybe they’re freaking out that so many people are taking photos of you at your show at all these weird angles, and you’re tagged in them. Or it’s hard to get yourself to a show because you can’t get out of bed. It seems trivial, but that shit is real. And it doesn’t stop people from making music. My will to be present and successful in this—in the ways that I think of success, which is getting in front of all those people, constantly making better and better music—it doesn’t come without that discomfort.
But in this moment, I still feel really powerful about saying, “Yeah, I’m just fucking real. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes I don’t want to watch myself, sometimes I can’t even look at myself, and the world is shit.” There’s a lot of things that say people like me shouldn’t have confidence. Well here I am, even though it’s not all the way there. Even after years of working on this and hearing from other people about what they thought I should be, here I am. I may not be 100 percent sure of myself, but I’m sure enough to still be here.
Yves Tumor’s birth name may or may not be Sean Lee Bowie. The electronic musician has gone by a variety of monikers in his artistic career, but his given name has also been listed differently around the web—he’s been called Rahel Ali by some publications, Sean Bowie by others (I’ve seen it spelled Shan, too). When I ask him about what he actually goes by in his personal life, he rebuffs me as though the answer does not matter.
This, I will discover across our 90-minute conversation, is his process: He’s loath to broach the real world topics that might have influenced his wonderful 2016 album, Serpent Music, fearing they might ruin his art’s eerie spell. The record does inspire questions, though: Who could make an album both this difficult and this charismatic? Who could bend through soulful R&B grooves and dissonant feedback this lithely? Who could emerge with such an unlikely gift for both rhythm and, as he puts it throughout our talk, “nasty” and “disgusting” noise sounds?
Tumor is committed to his mystique but, thankfully, he’s not too self-serious about it—his evasions are generally lightened with a laugh. Skyping in from Berlin, he mostly keeps the screen cheekily affixed above his brows so as not to make eye contact. After about 30 minutes, he turns the camera off completely, leaving just his voice and a blank screen.
Yves Tumor: "Serpent I" (via SoundCloud)
We do know Tumor was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee and spent some time hanging out in Los Angeles’ experimental scene. He is also an associate of rapper Mykki Blanco and contributed greatly to a 2015 compilation put out by Blanco for his Dogfood Music imprint called C-ORE. Since at least 2010, Tumor has put out music under various pseudonyms—Bekelé Berhanu, Shanti, TEAMS—that vacillates nimbly between ambiance and aggression, simplicity and polyrhythm, darkness and light. He has played live shows, known for their tumult, mostly in Europe. Last June, he performed for fashion brand Hood By Air’s June runway show in L.A., moaning like a zombie on top of a pile of sand in the middle of the models.
And then came Serpent Music, Tumor’s biggest statement yet. It is a beguiling introduction to a larger world, featuring the incredibly soulful highlight “The Feeling When You Walk Away,” which almost sounds like a lost B-side from a 1970s funk band. But then Tumor shifts quickly to lefter contexts, including songs filled with ambient nature sounds, field recordings of a man talking, harsh and fuzzy loops, and then, ultimately, what sounds like a choir of angels. Serpent Music is a slippery album, as it’s title suggests, made more so by its allusions to spirituality, including a song named for Dajjal, Islam’s antichrist, and a lighter, maybe more hopeful one called “Role in Creation.” We don’t know if we are in heaven or hell here, and that seems to be the point.
As I found through our discussion, elusiveness is not just Tumor’s approach to journalists, but to music as well. Serpent Music, just like the man who made it, seems to say: keep them guessing.
Pitchfork: It’s hard to find out exactly where you live—I’ve heard Turin, Italy, Los Angeles, and now you’re hanging out in Berlin?
Yves Tumor: A lot of people are confused about my actual whereabouts, but that’s OK.
Do you have a permanent home?
Where is it?
Question mark, question mark, question mark—it’s private.
It seems like there are a lot of things about you that are private. I couldn’t even definitively determine that your name is Sean.
That’s one of my names.
Why don’t you want people to know your name?
I don’t keep anything from people—the people who should know my name and where I live know those things. But as far as journalists and bloggers, I may fabricate things at times. I’m not trying to be like Burial or anything, but I don’t really like people to be involved in my personal life unless they are very close to me and I’ve known them for a long time, just out of respect.
Being online so much, I’ve noticed that people who post a lot of stuff about themselves grow a fanbase out of the constant show that they are putting online, and then their fanbase starts to feel like they know this person personally even though they’ve never met them. It’s happened to my friends who have put themselves out there intensely. Sometimes the fans cross the line and take advantage of this connection, and it becomes super unsettling, and it’s hard to reverse. So I just started to draw back the things I say about myself online, so they don’t have a chance to cross that line.
Yves Tumor: “Role in Creation” (via SoundCloud)
Let’s talk about your music then. Is there a deliberate narrative to Serpent Music?
There absolutely is an arc, but it wasn’t intentional. I want it to be like a journey, like you’ve just walked with me through some dystopian place.
Well, even saying “dystopian” boxes the production in—I try to steer away from that stuff.
If you had to pick a word, what kind of story is it?
What is your own spirituality like?
It’s very real, but it’s not something I discuss with too many people.Are you a spiritual person?
What do you feel when you listen to it?
Well, on “Perdition,” the image that came into my mind was not spiritual, but it was quite frightening: It sounded like somebody digging a grave by water to bury a body in the middle of the night.
I can’t argue with that. That’s very close to what I had in mind. It’s actually someone running, panicked, sprinting away from an inevitable source that is going to destroy them.
Yves Tumor: "Perdition" (via SoundCloud)
Let me ask you about something else a little creepy, which is the photos of you that accompany the album. It looks like you are in a coffin—are you?
Yes, I am in a coffin. Well, not necessarily a coffin, but I am definitely not alive.
How did you start making music?
I started playing instruments when I was about 17 in Knoxville, where I was brought up. I got a bass guitar for Christmas and I taught myself corny classic rock: Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin. Then I started teaching myself acoustic and electric guitar. My grades were so bad my parents took my guitars and bass away, so I just taught myself how to play keyboard. So, in a way, they helped me out in a huge way by doing that. I started making electronic music, and people started to notice my stuff on the internet. I made my first shitty record on GarageBand. It was pretty nasty.
Your earliest music is very noisey.
I had no gear, it was me just recording directly into the Mac microphone. The noisy aspect came from me not being able to record properly.
Noise is such a particular context to come up in. What did it mean to your sense of sound to start there?
It’s a pure way to start, if you don’t think about the scene—the noise scene is pretty scary. But when you get into music and start with noise, there’s so much room to grow from there. If you start with some really technical shit, you just grow from the colonized way of thinking about music.
Yves Tumor: "Spirit in Prison" (via SoundCloud)
To some extent, though, it seems like you made a leap from noise with Serpent Music. Hearing you say your first instrument was a bass guitar makes so much sense now, because there’s such a groove and rhythm to some of this newer work.
It’s in my DNA. My father is obsessed with Motown, so I’ve always had funky, groovy shit in my ears, probably before I even knew what music was—this shit was being blasted to me in the womb. It’s always been around me, and I still listen to a lot of sexy, sensual music, even while I like listening to harsh, disgusting shit as well.
Why add singing, as you do on this record?
A voice is important to me. People can understand it so much more than just a cool groove. Sometimes people want to sing along to some shit.
And the song “The Feeling When You Walk Away” kind of sounds like a classic hit. I know you’re an avant-garde guy, but at some point, did you also just want to make hits?
Yeah, man. I only want to make hits. [laughs] What else would I want to make? I don’t mean in a radio sense. I don’t mean, like, Usher hits. I just mean a track or song that people constantly need to play over and over and over and over again.
What does that title—“The Feeling When You Walk Away”—mean?
People want to think it is about being heartbroken when someone leaves, but it’s moreso about being around someone you love so much, but they just don’t care about themselves. You’re trying to help them help themselves, so when they finally do leave you, you’re relieved and shook and destroyed all at the same time. It’s a mix of feelings. It’s not the classic heartbreak. Sometimes you need to completely collapse to be able to rebuild.
There are a lot of strange ambient samples and interesting field recordings of people talking too. Where did those come from?
I wanted people to lose themselves in the record. The song will stop, and then it slowly builds into this weird psychedelic thing, or just a really serene water stream or bird noises or the sounds of a deer eating some trees, and then the harp and guitar just melds together. When I listen to it, it puts me in another world. Like a dream sequence.
Yves Tumor: "Serpent II" (via SoundCloud)
What’s your general perspective on the world right now?
We’re doomed. That’s it.The world is over. [laughs] Sorry to laugh. But I don’t want people to be happy or sad when they listen. I just want them to be hopeful.
But you just said the world is over. What should people be hopeful about?
A happy ending. And when I say happy ending, I mean that if there is a meteor that’s going to destroy the earth, at least there’s the most beautiful sunset the world has ever seen right before it crushes us. Maybe my album is that sunset.
I’ve been watching videos of your live performances and the audience gets so aggressive and touchy with you. I can’t tell if they are trying to fuck you or kill you.
I really can’t tell if people are trying to fuck me or fight me when I perform either. I think both, really. Or they are just completely terrified and they make a huge circle around me and watch me perform—that I don’t like. I really like the crowd interacting with me. I’ve gotten really fucked up: sprained ankles, punched in the face, busted my lip, busted two guys’ noses in a show. And no one is upset or runs to the hospital. They come up to me really happy even with their noses still bleeding, bloody paper towel in their hand, still telling me how much fun they had that night.
In one of the live videos, you’re singing the words “I love you” to the audience but in a pretty violent way, almost as a threat.
I am threatening them. [laughs]
You performed at a Hood By Air fashion show recently. They bring a conversation about race and gender and sexuality to the table—do you feel a part of that conversation?
I really like to drop hints in the way I express myself, instead of making my gender or my sexuality or my feelings about equality my personal brand. That’s not why I do what I do.
Can you tell me why you do what you do?
This week, we’re celebrating the past, present, and future of Pitchfork’s Rising series, which has offered profiles of exciting new artists for the last eight years.
Interviewing an artist when they’re first starting out can be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding all at once. A lot of times, these nascent talents are figuring out what they want to say with their work in real-time, which can lead to hesitation and nervousness. This is natural. But over the course of the more than 200 Rising pieces Pitchfork has ran since 2009, a general pattern has emerged: If an artist begins with a firm grasp on how their music fits into their own world as well as the universe outside, they are more likely to succeed.
Of course, success means different things to different people, and the rule is hardly foolproof. But I’ll never forget talking to James Blake over a crackling phone line nearly seven years ago. At that point he was bubbling as an electronic experimentalist, and almost no one knew he could even sing. Even at that stage, though, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his music and how he wanted to show himself to the world. He was confident, and I remember hanging up the phone fully converted to his cause. I wouldn’t be the last.
With all that in mind, here are some highlights from our ever-growing collection of Rising interviews. They tackle topics like band names, early musical experiences, the power of the human voice, songwriting secrets, and the difference between internet hype and something more lasting. With Risings, we want to introduce you to the best new sounds around. But we also want to introduce you to the people behind those sounds, to the perspectives that drew us into their work in the first place. The goal is connection. –Ryan Dombal
“It heads off assholes right out of the gate. Nobody can look at me and say shit about my appearance or my body, which is all too common for women in music. It’s like, ‘Are you going to call me a cunt? Are you going to tell me I’m ugly? Well, here’s my band name—do your worst, motherfucker.’”
“The name White Lung doesn’t sound offensive, but it is a disgusting disease term—it’s what bakers get when they inhale flour and it gets packed in their lungs and makes them sick. It’s kind of like all of us—we’re all a little disgusting.”White Lung’s Mish Way
“I remember when I first told Lil Jon I was gonna switch my name from Playboy Tre to Y.B.M., which stood for Young Black Male. He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna be straight up with you. That sucks.’”Playboy Tre
“It’s boring where I’ve grown up. Taking baths was a very good escape for me.”Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld
“Some of us have flirted with the idea of surfing, but I don’t think any of us can actually surf.”Surfer Blood’s Marcos Marchesani
“There’s a point where you think everyone knows what’s going on, how it all makes sense. Then you realize that everyone’s just pretending. I remember sitting on a train and realizing that if it was suddenly the end of the world, we’d take on animal instincts again—I had an apocalyptic vision of everyone tearing each other apart.”Savages’ Gemma Thompson
“There’s always some moral at the end—it’s like reading the Bible.”Thundercat on the cartoon series “Thundercats”
“My name is silly Sally, and I bust the ally/Don’t know me, don’t need no ID/When I come around hold your back down ’cause I’m about to lay the smack down.”
“I used to film myself singing Spice Girls songs into hairbrushes, it was a bit much. I had sort of a ’fro, so whenever me and my friends used to dress up like them, they would make me be Scary Spice, which really upset me. I really wanted to be Baby Spice, but I never got to do that. Oh my god, what a sad childhood!”Charli XCX
“I was never the pretty girl at school. I’m tiny and mixed-race. I grew up in a white area. I was always the loner. I was always kind of off—a little weird.”fka Twigs
“I’ve always had a problem with authority. I worked at an HMV but I ended up telling my boss that I thought he was a cock, and got fired. I understand people have to go to work and earn money and bring up kids, but I always thought, Why can't I just do what I want to do? And now that’s happening—it’s quite scary.”Gold Panda
“These days, everybody says ‘keep it real,’ but I say, ‘keep it fantasy.’ I was always into astro-travel and UFOs. I feel like we’re so busy paying rent and dealing with everyday life that we never dedicate time to how we really got here and where we’re from—I want to hear the music that’s in other galaxies to see how mine measures up.”Dâm-Funk
“After one of the last gigs I played, a woman came up to me and said that I made her womb tickle. She seemed pleased.”The Haxan Cloak
“Music as molecular gastronomy is something I like to think about. It’s about getting to the molecular level of a particular sound—realizing what that sound actually is made of, and why it behaves a certain way when processed or cooked. And of course, it should be bloody delicious.”SOPHIE
“If my music can forever be putting-your-daughter-to-sleep music, I swear to god I’ll keep on making music until I die.”Nicolas Jaar
“I’ve always wanted to interrupt the space—more than sounding like anything, my commitment has just been to fuck it up.”
“No matter how famous somebody is, nobody has their shit together. Everyone is still trying to figure it out.”Moses Sumney
“It’s easy to make something really depressing, but I like stories where things dip to their lowest and then rise out of it.”The Antlers’ Peter Silberman
“I like writing music that I think is beautiful, but perfection isn’t really beautiful to me. To me, beauty is a lived thing.”Lotic
“I don’t know if there’s a right ideology at the moment that expresses what I want. I’ve never been a real big fan of capitalism. I’ve studied quite a lot of Marxist theory. I’m still quite confused about it, to be honest, but I just like learning about all of it. Knowledge is power.”King Krule
“My songs are cinematic so they seem to reference a glamorous era or fetishize certain lifestyles, but that's not my aim. I’m not trying to create an image or a persona. I’m just singing because that’s what I know how to do.”
“Nowadays, although I’m making this heavy dance music, I sometimes just sit down at the piano and just sing. It’s like that's my ultimate calling. It’s a strange feeling to have a lot of electronic music out when all you really want to do is sing.”James Blake
“I listen to a lot of people like Nina Simone and other androgynous voices, almost to make me feel like I’m not alone.”Shamir
“You can do whatever you want to and call it pop!”
“When we’re in dire situations we can surprise ourselves with what actually comes out of our mouths.”Glasser
“Someone once said to me that no one gives a shit about the lyrics in pop songs, but I find that very offensive because I always listen to them.”Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry
“Kool Keith says pop stars are like wack-ass Britney Spears with headsets—that’s what I want to be. Like a pop singer.”How to Dress Well
“I’m really into mainstream rap and R&B, but I never saw myself as intertwined in that world. But now we’re in a situation where we might as well just go for it ourselves rather than releasing records from our own little world and having mainstream pop and rap producers ripping all our shit off.”TNGHT’s Hudson Mohawke
“I have a big feeling [my debut album] is going to be classic, in a sense. And even if it’s not classic, it’s going to be really interesting for music. I think. I hope."
“I went to see Beyoncé in concert two months ago and at one point she was flying above the audience, which was beyond huge. I’d love to think that we could fly at some point in our career, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”The xx’s Oliver Sim
"Sonically, this’ll be that tape that people look back on for forever, like when Kanye came out with the pink polos and the soul samples, and niggas was like, ‘This is completely different.’ When artists come out and do some shit that’s different and it's accepted, it can be huge."Chance the Rapper predicting the impact of his mixtape Acid Rap a week before its release
“With the internet, because everybody wants to know everything about you, to pigeonhole and categorize bands, it flattens their image. Back in the day, there was a mystery to rock’n’roll, where you could look at album covers and imagine what their lives are like. Now we’re not satisfied unless we know exactly what they do everyday, who they are, where they live.”
“I don’t like what's happening with music now. It’s all image, coming from people who are supposed to be at the height of fashion. The music’s taking a backseat. We want people to just hear the music and form their own experience with it. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.”Rhye’s Mike Milosh
“I hear a lot of music that’s just lazy—you know, people in their bedrooms singing some shit into the microphone. It’s just bad. But they’re like, ‘This is art.’ It’s so annoying.”Julia Holter
“When you have all these micro music genres popping up out of nowhere, it seems like the only way to expand or retain any sort of relevance is to exhaust every possible variation until it implodes like this supernova leaving a residue of hundreds of shit MP3s.”Neon Indian
“The way I look at music—especially urban music, black-people music, whatever you want to call it—is that we’re all in the zoo, and the listeners are the people outside of the cage. You can look at five lions that could literally destroy you, but since you’re looking through the glass, it’s fun and cute. You point at the glass. You wave at them. But you’re not going to step inside that glass, because you know what’ll happen to you. Rappers are making this shit a petting zoo.”Vince Staples
“Songs are like spells or little exorcisms. If you perform the spell, the demon might go away. And it only works if you are completely honest. Sometimes I feel like a wizard.”
“My work is not meant to keep people happy or give them an escape—I don’t want to use those Instagram effects.”Jenny Hval
“For me, the only way to write lyrics is to not think about other people at all. You have to just be completely honest. Otherwise, what you’re feeling loses its meaning. If you write a song that’s trying to be universally relatable, it won’t mean anything.”Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield
“Emotional honesty isn’t encouraged in our generation; cynicism is encouraged. It’s not in vogue really to wear your emotions on your sleeve, mostly because people take that to be too nostalgic or romantic—but I don’t.”Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage
“If I feel hurt by something that happened, or vulnerable in a situation, and then I write a song about it and put it out, I’m taking power over that situation. Writing a song is my way of dealing with my emotions.”Frankie Cosmos
“I just like the idea of earning a fan, a listener, an ear, a mood, a heart, rather than being pushed on the plate in front of someone. It also serves to help us, longevity-wise, when you have a slow grind. You know everything you gained along the way belongs to you. It’s a genuine thing.”Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler
In 10th grade, Kelly Lee Owens’ class unanimously voted her “Daydreamer of the Year.” Today, her pride in the achievement is undiminished. “I was like, ‘Yes! Someone understands me,’” the 28-year-old beams, perched in the café of Rough Trade East, the London record store where she worked a few years ago. As if to welcome the ascendant producer home, staff are blasting out Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” soundtracking shoppers’ Tuesday-evening daze. Owens, though, is anything but distractible. Were you a genuine daydreamer, I ask, or actually—“planning to take over the world?” she says, grinning. “Mixture of both.”
Since then, Owens’ global domination prospects have broadened considerably. Last February, Alexander McQueen picked up her track “Arthur”—an Arthur Russell tribute that merges lush dream-pop and austere techno—for a runway show. After seeing the event, the Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound signed Owens for an EP, Oleic, as well as her debut album, due this year. The self-titled record is a confluence of enveloping club tracks and underwater transmissions—roiling currents, sonar bass pulses, and a sense of chaos teeming beneath a pristine veneer. A few songs nod to the underground dance sounds of her sometime collaborator and mentor Daniel Avery; with others, such as the Jenny Hval collab “Anxi,” you could be listening to Broadcast in a floatation tank.
Owens has a penchant for the aquatic. Her ancestry, which encompasses a series of tiny Welsh villages, spans the epic mountains of Snowdonia along the country’s northern coastline. The region’s dramatic land- and seascapes exude serenity and mystique. In London, Owens says, “We have the River Thames, but where my mom lives is on the cusp of the Irish Sea. It opens up into another place. There’s always that prospect of: What is out there?”
That uncertainty, and awe, informs Owens’ songs, as well as her exploratory path through life. At 19, she moved from Wales to Manchester to work at a cancer treatment hospital; as she trained for a nursing career, terminally ill patients urged her to cut loose and chase her dreams. Needing little encouragement, Owens used her 12 weeks’ paid leave to help run local indie festivals, selling merch for bands like Foals and the Maccabees on the side.
Then, instead of returning to the hospital, she interned at XL Recordings in London and took a job at the record store and dance label Pure Groove. She fell in with a circle of record-store clerks moonlighting as DJs and producers—Avery, Gold Panda, and Ghost Culture—but Owens, then embroiled in Shoreditch’s indie-pop scene, still hadn’t embraced electronic music. “Björk would walk into [Rough Trade] and ask, ‘Where’s the techno section?’” Owens recalls, gesturing to the counter. “And I’d be thinking, Why does she listen to techno?”
Kelly Lee Owens: "Oleic" (Buy on Bandcamp)
When Avery began recording his debut album, the lysergic techno opus Drone Logic, Owens hung out with him and Ghost Culture, eyeing the controls. She came away with a new fondness for techno and a cracked copy of Logic, as well as her first credits: a handful of frosty vocal features and a co-write on the closer, “Knowing We’ll Be Here.” In the ensuing months, she played bass in the indie-pop group the History of Apple Pie but found herself drawn to electronics. As her confidence grew, she learned to sift through her techno-head friends’ pointers and, where necessary, preserve the more cloistered sounds crystallizing in her mind.
The identity she advances on her upcoming album—dreamy yet involving, with a melancholy undercurrent—reflects her interest in emotionally nuanced techno, as well as her newfound immersion in the world of healing music. She has exploredgong sound baths, a kind of aural massage involving tremendous gong reverberations, and thesolfeggio frequencies, a sequence believed to reconfigure spiritual energies. “Certain frequencies can unblock things within you,” she says, finishing off her red wine. “I’m trying to bring these worlds together and open the idea of allowing yourself to be healed.”
Pitchfork: You started as a nurse before getting into music, but when did the worlds of sound and healing converge for you?
Kelly Lee Owens: There’s always a connection between healing and music. When I worked at the cancer hospital, I started doing research. It turns out that people have been researching resonant frequencies for a long time and they’re finding that specific frequencies can shatter cancer cells. There’s a TED talk about it. The dream is that one day there’ll be this beautifully lit room with wonderful colors where children just play with their toys on a soft carpet—and above them would be these machines they didn’t even know were there, curing their cancer in a non-invasive, non-intrusive way.
Have you thought about exploring that side of things yourself?
I might be doing an exhibition next year on the relationship between sound, healing, and resonant frequencies. An immersive installation, perhaps. So I’ve been doing loads of research about this geeky stuff. I’ve always been obsessed with frequencies. I have this weird thing, when I’m looking at an EQ, where I can see the frequency before I actually start to look for it on the grid. It’s not synesthesia, it’s not colorful, it’s just a sense.
Is that something you learned?
No. A lot of what I’ve done has been intuitive. I didn’t even know what production meant until I started working with Dan Avery and Ghost Culture. I learned by doing, which I think comes from my Welsh background; you have to get stuck in. People have mostly working-class jobs, and the only way to survive is by going out and working. I had a part-time job waitressing when I was 13. I was supposed to be studying, but it was like, “No, Kelly, you’ve gotta get out there and know what it’s like to earn money.”
Kelly Lee Owens: "Elliptic" (Buy on Bandcamp)
Were you into the Welsh landscape as a kid?
I used to be such an emo. I’d go to the top of my mom’s fields and write poetry, sit on the windowsill and stare at the moon, which is why I’m obsessed with astronomy and astrology. That connection with nature was very much part of who I am as a sign, mixed with a bit of fire. And [the isolation] gave me time to write.
Do you feel like that kid staring up from the windowsill is still in your music? The vocals sometimes sound like a satellite orbiting the song, and there’s a sense of being isolated or underwater.
Yeah, subaqueous—I like that word. It’s about immersion. You want the music to give you a bit of a hug, even if it’s techno. When I first heard Arthur Russell, I was like, “Oh my god, I can literally float here.” I sometimes imagine myself as an astronaut, floating along. I’m obsessed with seeing the Earth as one collective living thing. I feel like everyone should watch [the space documentary] Overview, just to have that perspective [of seeing Earth from above]. To look down and see that we’re all here in the same boat. What is that Carl Sagan quote? “We would wonder why all the rivers of blood were spilled, to become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” I’m inspired by that bigger picture. We live in a culture of the self, but if you can look up every night at the stars, just to remind yourself of your place, that’s very powerful.
You’ve talked about becoming interested in psychoanalysis lately—what have you learned about yourself?
If you can embrace your shadow’s dark sides, you’re loving your whole self. I’ve been really getting into psychiatry and R.D. Laing, whose books were revolutionary in the ’60s and ’70s. He didn’t believe in giving medication to people who suffered schizophrenia—he didn’t even believe that schizophrenia existed. [He thought] it was derived from experience and family, from birth. He didn’t believe in shock therapy and all that bullshit. He’s a fascinating creature. It’s about being real, and embracing your whole self.
Are there any parts of yourself that took longer to embrace?
Maybe the ego, in general. I was always giving to other people; I struggled for a long time to look at myself, my family, my history—to look at things that have affected me in a negative way. And there’s a thing, when it comes to being female in a very male-dominated industry, that the male side of you comes out a bit more. You feel like you have to stick up for yourself and not be feminine. I had to go through that, the aggressive side of me being more upfront, before realizing: No, I’m comfortable having both within me.
You’ve spoken about hoping to launch music production workshops for women.
Yes, once I have the funds and support. I hope, for now, young females and producers will just be inspired to get in touch. Sometimes you just need a mentor, someone to give you advice or an opening. Personally, I’m very self-critical, to the point where I wouldn’t even begin something because I’d think, That’s gonna be shit. But then you’ve got certain people going, “No, this is good.” “Oh, really, OK.” There are guys out there who can’t plug in a synth, hook it up to the box, and make it record, but pretend they can do it all. It’s just stupid. Let’s be real and learn and help each other.
A respected yet divisive figure who was scorned by the jazz mainstream for most of her life, Alice Coltrane was one of the most complicated‚ and misunderstood of all twentieth-century musicians. In the twenty-first century‚ however‚ her music has grown in stature‚ and one can now hear echoes of her influence everywhere‚ from Björk’s juxtaposition of timbres and textures to Joanna Newsom’s harp playing‚ and from the twisted astral beats of Flying Lotus (her great-nephew Stephen Ellison) to the final works of her late husband John Coltrane. While his discography remains titanic in modern jazz, Alice’s own albums are equally compelling and mysterious, suggesting a musical form that moves away from jazz and into a unique sonic realm that draws on classical Indian instrumentation, atonal modern orchestration, and homemade religious synth music. The adventurous nature and spiritual import of her work continues to resonate through New Age, jazz, and experimental electronic music of all stripes.
Alice used a number of names throughout her career, and collectively they chart a path of self-realization. The names she adopted demarcate radical shifts in her life and her work, serving effectively as chapter headings in the story of how a bebop pianist from Detroit evolved into one of jazz’s singular visionaries, ultimately walking away from public performance to became a guru and beacon of enlightenment for others.
“There was such God feeling [in the church]. ... The pianist started playing at such a rapid pace, and everything just stopped. What could you do?”from The Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane, by Franya J. Berkman
Alice McLeod was born on August 27, 1937, in Alabama, though her family soon relocated to the rough east side of Detroit. The two world wars solidified Detroit’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse and by 1959 it was the industrial center of the country. It had also gained renown as a bebop hot spot and was home to future jazz players like Cecil McBee, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Milt Jackson, Yusef Lateef, Bennie Maupin, and Elvin Jones.
The McLeods were a musical family—Alice’s mother, Anna, played in the church choir, her half brother Ernest Farrow was a prominent jazz bassist, and her sister Marilyn went on to be a songwriter at Motown—and Alice took up piano and organ at a young age. As a teen she accompanied Mt. Olive Baptist Church’s three choirs, and at sixteen, she was invited to perform with the Lemon Gospel Singers during services at the more ecstatic Church of God in Christ (COGIC). In Franya J. Berkman’s biography Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane, Alice remembers those formative services as “the gospel experience of her life,” an instance of devotional music that gave her teenage self “the experience of unmediated worship at the collective level.”
Encouraged by her half brother Farrow, Alice continued to pursue music. She formed her own lounge act, performing gospel and R&B (with touches of blues and bebop) around Detroit. The young McLeod soon became a fixture of the city’s jazz scene and found herself involved with Kenneth “Poncho” Hagood—a scat jazz singer who’d recorded with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. The young couple were wed and relocated to Paris in the late fifties.
Alice gigged regularly around Paris, befriending other musicians like fellow pianist Bud Powell. In 1960, she gave birth to a daughter, Michelle—the joyousness of which was tempered by her husband’s burgeoning heroin habit. It wasn’t long before she returned to Detroit as a single mother, moved back in with her parents, and started picking up gigs to support her daughter. Once again immersed in the bustling Detroit scene, McLeod began to contemplate jazz beyond the dizzying array of chord changes, scales, and standards that were fundamental to the bop era. One album in particular spurred her creative contemplation: John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass.
While known to be a junkie early in his career, by 1957 tenor saxophonist John Coltrane had kicked his habit and begun his musical ascent in earnest. He was a sideman for Thelonious Monk and in 1959 appeared on Miles Davis’ modal masterwork, Kind of Blue. Coltrane was already an accomplished bandleader, releasing a slew of records from Blue Train (1957) to My Favorite Things (1961). Later that same year, firmly established as one of the greatest tenor saxophone players of his generation, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Impulse Records—the brand-new jazz imprint of producer Creed Taylor.
Coltrane’s new deal allowed him the creative control and artistic freedom necessary to push jazz’s boundaries and imagine new musical vistas. Africa/Brass was his first album for Impulse and featured a twenty-one-piece ensemble that included the preeminent reedman Eric Dolphy backed up by the rhythm section of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Cuts like “Africa”—an expansive suite augmented by birdcalls and jungle sounds—announce Coltrane as a tireless innovator, using Davis’s modal template as the launching pad for new explorations.
Alice went to see John Coltrane and his new quartet when they played Detroit’s Minor Key club in January of 1962. She didn’t speak to Coltrane that night, but an opportunity to play piano in vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ ensemble brought her to New York City in the summer of 1963, where Gibbs’ group opened for Coltrane’s quartet during an extended engagement at Birdland. When her group wasn’t on the bandstand, Alice was trying to work up the nerve to talk to Coltrane.
She describes her initial impressions in Berkman’s book: “I had an inner feeling about him...I was connecting with another message that I had perceived as coming through the music. At Birdland, that same feeling would come back, something that I comprehend was associated with my soul or spirit.” The two musicians barely spoke, though Alice described Coltrane’s silence as “loud.” A few days later, still having exchanged very few words, Alice heard Coltrane playing a melody behind her. She turned and complimented him on its beautiful theme. He said it was for her.
“Of course, John Coltrane is who inspires everybody, if you were fortunate enough to be in his presence in those days. He would always encourage you to express what you had … You could hear your sound, music, light coming from the ethereal, heavenly realms.”Alice Coltrane
John and Alice’s relationship began in July of 1963, and they were married in Juarez, Mexico, in 1965. They remained together until his death from liver cancer two years later. Alice gave birth to their three sons: John Jr., Ravi, and Oran. While the couple only began to record together in February of 1966, their musical relationship spanned the duration of their romantic relationship, both predicated on mutual inspiration and spiritual elevation.
Alice had felt limited by the rigidity and orthodoxy of bebop throughout her career and, as her relationship with John bloomed, she found his influence on her musical explorations to be profound. The couple used musical innovation as a path toward personal enlightenment: “You heard all kinds of things that would have just been left alone, never a part of your discovery or appreciation.” It’s difficult to gauge the degree to which her approach to the piano changed once she met John, as aside from a few Terry Gibbs albums released in 1963 and 1964, few if any recordings of Alice’s early performances exist.
John Coltrane’s discography from 1963 until 1967 demonstrates a restless urgency to expand every aspect of his horn and his music. Two Impulse albums from 1963 find Coltrane exploring ballads and collaborating with Duke Ellington and vocalist Johnny Hartman. While some critics see these albums as a response to being labeled “anti-jazz” by Down Beat in the early sixties, in hindsight they seem to serve as a reset and resting place—a last look back toward jazz history before Coltrane and his group forged ahead into an exploration of innovative new sounds.
At the end of 1964, Coltrane entered engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio in New Jersey with his classic quartet—pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and thunderstorm drummer Elvin Jones—to record a four-part suite documenting a spiritual conversion he had undergone after an overdose almost ten years prior. “This album is a humble offering to Him,” Coltrane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme. “An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work.” It’s the summation of the quartet’s lyrical, evocative, and dynamic power.
Within that same year the quartet would both expand (with the addition of second saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and second drummer Rashied Ali) and fray, with Tyner and Jones leaving. “All I could hear was a lot of noise,” Tyner said in one interview. “I didn’t have any feeling for the music.” Starting in 1965, Coltrane embraced fiery free jazz—“the New Thing”—a sound that sought freedom from meter, chord changes, harmonies, and whatever else had previously defined and codified jazz. The influence of younger horn players like Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler on Coltrane is well documented, but very little has been said of the musician who replaced Tyner on the piano bench: Alice Coltrane.
Biographies of John Coltrane often reduce his marriage to a relationship between mentor and disciple, with John as the musical guru and Alice as the initiate. “Many of John Coltrane’s fans viewed her as accomplice to the so-called anti-jazz experiments of his final years,” Berkman writes, a sentiment that stemmed from “the controversial role she assumed when she replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist in her husband’s final rhythm section.” (Years later, Alice Coltrane contributed harp to Tyner’s 1972 album Extensions.) Four years before Yoko Ono allegedly broke up the Beatles, thereby earning the scorn of all future generations of rock fans, Alice was accused of breaking up the greatest jazz group of the mid-sixties.
But Alice, if anything, was the catalyst for Coltrane’s greatest music, abetting and inspiring his spiritual quest to realize a universal sound. When the couple met in 1963, Coltrane was still working within the framework of modal jazz. Soon after Alice entered his life, he started to push beyond the conventions of modern jazz, freeing himself from meter and steady tempo, fixed chord changes and melody. A Love Supreme was composed and realized after their relationship began. Seen in that light, the questing Coltrane albums Ascension, Om, Meditations, and more all stem from this relationship. Without Alice’s own roots in the ecstatic spirit of the Church of God in Christ services and a shared interest in a less dogmatic and more universal understanding of God—to say nothing of their love and devotion to each other—would Coltrane’s own spiritual transformation have occurred?
The Coltranes’ spiritual study did not take place in a vacuum, but amid a broader religious upheaval and restructuring of the sixties. New forms of Afrocentric spirituality ranged from a renewed interest in Egyptology and the rituals of Santeria to Ron Karenga’s creation of Kwanzaa (recognized in 1966) and the rise of the Nation of Islam. But Alice herself acknowledged that the new couple’s pursuit intensified soon after they came together. “What we did was really begin to reach out and look toward higher experiences in spiritual life and higher knowledge,” she told Berkman. Despite Alice’s history in the church—with COGIC’s direct experience of God through a communal, ecstatic music—and her subsequent life as a swamini, she still receives little acknowledgment in biographies and jazz history as catalyst for her husband’s spiritual rebirth.
Alice herself didn’t do much to correct these accounts. As the decade rolled along and music—as well as societal roles—became increasingly radicalized and questioned, Coltrane embraced her role as wife and mother. In a 1988 radio interview, she said of her marriage, “I didn’t want to be equal to him. I didn’t have to be equal to him and do what he did. That, I never considered. I don’t think like that. And whatever in the women’s liberation—that’s what they want. I didn’t want to be equal to him. I wanted to be a wife, to be … that for him. To me, as a result of that association, it fully manifested. There was no more question about direction.”
Once Alice joined her husband on the bandstand, they toured the world, the music going further and further out, with standards like “My Favorite Things” pushing toward the hour mark. Not that critics always noted her. In a February 23, 1967, Down Beat review of Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, Alice warrants but a single line in a fifteen-paragraph review: “Mrs. Coltrane’s piano support is always firm and appropriate, never overbusy or obtrusive.”
And then in May of 1967, John Coltrane complained of abdominal pain that was soon revealed to be liver cancer. By summer, he could no longer eat, and he left his earthly body on July 17, 1967.
Alice Turiya Coltrane
“I hope to be able to do some of the work thought of by John, with recordings, concerts and whatever community work, but there is a higher and culminating idea in the mind of John, which I hope will become a reality during my lifetime.”from the liner notes to A Monastic Trio, 1968
In quick succession, Alice Coltrane suffered the loss of both her husband and her half brother Ernest Farrow. Her account of her spiritual awakening between 1968 and 1970 in her self-published tract, Monument Eternal, is harrowing: her weight plunged from 118 to 95 pounds and her family worried for her well-being. In her telling, her weight loss was not the result of grief and depression but due to tapas—extreme austerities undertaken for spiritual advancement. It leads to detached remembrances, like: “During an excruciating test to withstand heat, my right hand succumbed to a third-degree burn. After watching the flesh fall away and the nails turn black, it was all I could do to wrap the remaining flesh in a linen cloth.”
The rainbow-covered booklet makes no mention of her jazz music career, her husband, or her travels to India. Instead, she matter-of-factly details making a doctor recoil in horror at the sight of her blackened flesh, what occurs when one experiences supreme consciousness, the nuances of various astral planes, her ability to hear trees sing, and scaring the family dog with her astral projections. Amid this, her family feared for her sanity: “My relatives became extremely worried about my mental and physical health. Therefore they arranged for my return to their home for ‘care and rest.’” Later she adds: “Communicating with people was found to be like suffering judgment. In fact, it was almost impossible for me to dwell upon earthly matters, and equally impossible for me to bring the mind down to mundane thoughts and general conversations.”
Deep in this quest, Alice assumed control of her husband’s formidable estate and released his first posthumous album in September 1967, Expression. And while Down Beat gave it four stars, Don DeMichael wrote: “Mrs. Coltrane, while sounding somewhat like McCoy Tyner, does not have her predecessor’s physical or musical strength.” She soon after released her first album as leader, A Monastic Trio (1968). On it, she referred to her husband by her spiritual name for him, Ohnedaruth (“compassion”), and sought to follow his example to create a music that was free, open-ended, and spiritually questing. The album features late-period quartet bandmates Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali, with Alice on piano as well as a new instrument for her, harp.
Alice’s self-taught playing style on harp—ordered for her by her husband, who didn’t live to see its arrival— was full of glissandi and accentuated arpeggios and took cues from another Detroiter, Dorothy Ashby, but Coltrane’s playing was decidedly more abstract. She compared the piano to a sunrise and the harp to a sunset, marveling at “the subtleness, the quietness, the peacefulness” of the latter instrument. It would figure prominently in her future albums. Such subtlety was lost on critics at the time, with Down Beat’s review of A Monastic Trio labeling Alice’s playing as “a wispy impressionist feeling without urgent substance.”
Fans and critics expecting the strength and urgency in her husband’s music were befuddled by Alice Coltrane’s approach as a bandleader. Down Beat wrote of one album: “It seems incredible that a group so heavily stamped by the late John Coltrane would not be able to pull off an album, but that’s just what happens here.” As more posthumous John Coltrane albums came to market, some featuring Alice’s own harp and string arrangements on top of previously recorded sessions, critics were enraged by the perceived blasphemy.
“Black female musicians have been quintessential others, overlooked because of … gender, race and class,” Berkman writes. “Black female musicians rarely transcend difference and obtain the status of artist.” In the context of such overt racism and sexism, Alice’s early solo albums were at odds not only with jazz’s “New Thing”—chaotic free-blowing sessions that roared and shrieked for entire sides of vinyl—but also with late-sixties radicalism and black power. At a time when African American female artists from Abbey Lincoln to Nina Simone were growing more and more politically outspoken, when riots and protests were roiling the inner cities of America, Alice’s music was the diametric opposite of such trends: introspective and contemplative, gentle and impressionistic.
Cecil McBee, a jazz bassist who played with Alice at the turn of the decade, says of her position and approach: “Where we were trying to come from [as free jazz musicians], with the loudness and bombast of our music, she made these statements in a more delicate, graceful, articulate, and uniform way than we did.” She was intentionally making something softer than protest music; she wasn’t demonstrating on the bandstand. In an era when national, racial, and gender identity were highly contentious, Alice Coltrane was aiming for transcendence.
The Coltranes’ universalist view, which dates back to A Love Supreme, came into focus for Alice Coltrane in 1969 when she was introduced to a figure who clarified her spiritual path and resolve, Swami Satchidananda. Invited to New York City by film director Conrad Rooks, Swami Satchidananda came to visit in 1967 and began to lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church in the Upper West Side, soon establishing the first Integral Yoga Institute on West End Avenue. Within a few years, Satchidananda made the spread in Life magazine’s Year of the Guru issue and then sold out Carnegie Hall. He later opened the ceremonies at Woodstock. Alice gravitated to his Eastern philosophy of self-knowledge and became close friends with the Swami.
Anticipating a trip to accompany the Swami through India, Alice Coltrane entered the studio in 1970 to record what is arguably the most sumptuous spiritual jazz album of the era, Journey in Satchidananda. The liner notes speak of that upcoming voyage, but the music itself reveals that a stunning internal shift has already occurred, fitting for the cryptic title, in that “Satchidananda” is not an external destination to be journeyed to, but rather a place to be discovered within. Augmented by oud, tamboura, Sanders’s soprano saxophone, and McBee’s bowed bass, Coltrane’s assured harp playing takes on a Technicolor vibrancy, entwining with Indian overtones to create a divine music that transcends not only the limitations of jazz but of both Eastern and Western music, and anticipates the rise of New Age music at its most resonant.
McBee described the sessions to Berkman as intimate: “It was very, very spiritual. The lights would be low and she had incense and there was not much conversation ... about what was to be. The spiritual, emotional, physical statement of the environment, it was just there. You felt it and you just played it.” The month after Satchidananda was released, Alice accompanied the Swami to India for a five-week trip, visiting New Delhi, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Rishikesh, and Madras. She brought her harp with her, an exotic sight to most Indians, and also began to learn Hindu devotional hymns.
Alice returned from the pilgrimage and recorded her next album, Universal Consciousness, shortly thereafter. It deftly mixes orchestral strings, Indian timbres, harp, and the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument Alice said had been revealed to her in a vision. It was a music she described as a “Totality concept, which embraces cosmic thought as an emblem of Universal Sound.” And while a fellow devotee of Indian music, George Harrison, might have set Hindu chants to folk-rock arrangements, Alice saw in them something both avant-garde and transcendent. One won’t mistake her version of “Hare Krishna”—with a harp and orchestral arrangement that could levitate mountains—for what you hear chanted in Union Square. Even Down Beat couldn’t deny its majesty, calling Universal Consciousness a “paragon of the new music. … [Alice] emerged as the strongest of Coltrane’s disciples. Her leadership affects everyone, consequently producing a stunningly beautiful result.”
That adoration was short-lived in the press, with her last two albums for Impulse getting dismissive reviews. World Galaxy earned two and a half stars, lambasted as “super-saccharine, often corny and terribly repetitive,” while Lord of Lords was described as being “not much more than pretty music … made up of little more than strung-together arpeggios and glissandi … a massive swaying smear.”
For Alice’s great-nephew, Flying Lotus, the turbulent and beautiful Lord of Lords goes far deeper: “For me, that record is the story of John Coltrane’s ascension. It’s her understanding and coping with his death. In particular, ‘Going Home,’ that’s a family song. When someone passes, that’s the song we play at the funeral. When my auntie passed, we played that one. When my mom died, we played it for her.” Some thirty years after its performance, it was turned back into a gospel hymn by a former student of his and entitled “Going Home.” In performing it, Coltrane paid tribute to her parents’ favorite church hymn. Lord of Lords would be her last release on Impulse Records.
Swamini A.C. Turiyasangitananda
“I got ready and put on a white dress and all, and I noticed when the time came, the colors of orange were poured into the cloth of the dress I was wearing … I just watched everything go into that beautiful saffron color.”from the last interview with Alice Coltrane, 2006
In 1976, Alice Coltrane received a divine message to start an ashram and renounced the secular, beginning her new life clad in the orange robes of the Swamini. And while there were a few more studio albums for Warner Bros., the music contained within for the most part no longer consisted of original compositions but rather iterations of Indian hymns. Beginning on her first trip to India, Alice began to adapt bhajans—the Indian hymns associated with the Bhakti revival movement of India—to be sung at worship services at the ashram. Her last two WB albums, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana and Transcendence (both released in 1977), comprised such devotional music, and soon after, she no longer performed in public or recorded for a label. A few years later, a series of four albums was self-released on cassette: Turiya Sings (1982), Divine Songs (1987), Infinite Chants (1990), and Glorious Chants (1995). The music within reveals a private universe of cosmic contemplation, the Swamini accompanying herself on electric organ, sometimes with her students chanting along with her. It’s a disarming music, both solemn and celebratory, haunting yet joyous.
When she removed herself from the material world to devote herself to more spiritual matters later that same decade, writing four books about her divine revelations, she was called Swamini Turiyasangitananda by her devoted students, an eight-syllable name that translates from Hindi as “the Transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss.” Coming into prominence in an era when almost every rock star and jazz musician dabbled in Eastern mysticism and wrapped themselves in spiritual clothing only to drop them later, Alice Coltrane embodied that change wholly, turning away from public acclaim and becoming a Hindu swamini and teacher.
As a child, Flying Lotus visited Alice at the ashram every Sunday: “It’s a very beautiful place, very musical. After my aunt would speak, she would play music. She’d be on the organ and people would bring instruments and there would be singing and chanting. The sounds Auntie would get out of that organ were crazy. I still never heard anyone play like that. It was super funky. As a kid, I didn’t have an appreciation for it. Now I have a different perspective on it.” Ellison told me that as a young teenager, he traveled to India with his aunt and witnessed strangers on the street drop to their knees to kiss her feet, realizing her divine presence.
To get to the Sai Anantam Ashram, one must drive through the entire length of the San Fernando Valley, toward the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains, before turning down a road that winds through Agourra Hills, the land brown and red with tufts of white and green brush. Past a vineyard and an equestrian center, there is a dirt road to the ashram’s gate, which is open to the public for only four hours each Sunday. The grounds are almost silent.
On a bright Sunday afternoon in August, there are only eight people at the Vedantic Center’s service. Plastic patio chairs line the walls of the unadorned room and marigold throw pillows are scattered throughout atop plush royal-blue carpet. The devotees, clad all in white, sit still yet sing with great fervor. Music fills the room; led by an organist situated between garlanded portraits of Sai Baba and Swamini Turiyasangitananda, the gathered sing more than a dozen hymns, accompanied by organ and the hand drums, bells, and rattles that the devotees play themselves. The bhajans segue into one another, and, curiously, these Indian hymns have a Pentecostal gospel feel to them, the blues coursing through each mesmerizing movement to suggest a place where Southeast Asia and the Deep South of America meet.
After the two-hour service is concluded, the small congregation gathers for fellowship. Since the Swamini’s passing on January 12, 2007, only seven people live at the ashram. Over carrot-raisin bread and a paper cup of strawberry lemonade from Trader Joe’s, the remaining devotees of Turiyasangitananda discuss the upcoming anniversary of their Swamini’s passing. The word death is not used. One member says that they should no longer call it a “memorial,” as that word lingers on the past. Another offers up a suggestion: the anniversary should be called an ascension, as a way to keep the blessed Swamini Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda forever in the present.