411’s Top 200 Albums Of 2016 (50-26)
The top 50! We are so very close people, but there’s no need to rush to the finish line – there’s still plenty of time to catch up on the previous parts (see the links below) before we reveal 411’s album of the year.
Correction: LUH’s Spiritual Songs For Lovers To Sings has appeared twice (my fault for mislabelling), so there will be one extra LP in this section to get us back on track.
Here we go
50. Freetown Sound by Blood Orange
The 411: Freetown Sound was made by Dev Hynes – I have to keep reminding myself of this fact. I hate to constantly bring up an artist’s past, but when I saw him in dingy Camden bars slamming out punk noise with Test Icicles or on stage at Festivals as Lightspeed Champion covering the “Imperial March” (Star Wars), I never dreamed he would one day be making music this soulful and subtle. If you ever want a lesson in exactly why you should never pigeonhole or underestimate someone, Dev Hynes (Blood Orange’s) career is very much it. Freetown Sound revels in the scratchy soul and sumptuous R&B of the 1990s, but with concessions to contemporary electronica and modern eclectism which ensure the record is no work of rose tinted nostalgia. Hynes’ whispered and heavenly high vocals are perfectly imbedded in pillowy, aerated arrangements when he croons and set to burbling synthetic funk when it’s time to strut. There is a kindness inherent in Hynes voice that belies an album wrought with systemic oppression and dismay in face of world so advanced, but so beset with injustice. There are times when the album flirts with over-sincerity, playing the healing light of music a little too straight to the point where Hynes’ almost sounds soporific, but mercifully his control of tone and taste for elysian sonics is so astute he always tip toes around a morass of mawkishness. Freetown Sound might be far too long for its own good, but there are so many delights to be uncovered and the sound proves so sublime, that each and every detour is worth taking. Your patience will be tested, but Freetown Sound rewards perseverance handsomely.
The Critics Say: “Dev Hynes’ work–populist, experimental, healing, agitating, straightforward, multi-layered–demonstrates this unfailingly. Prince’s radical pop spirit lives on in many artists. But none are channeling it more fully, or artfully.” Rolling Stone
50=Fires Within Fires by Neurosis
The 411: What a strange way to celebrate your 30th anniversary: Neurosis have delivered one of the leanest records of their career (their shortest since 1992), a mere 40-minutes of post-metal marauding and soul searching (or should that be stomping?). The fact that 40 minutes is considered brief, tells you everything you need to know about Neurosis’ work – the Oakland band who traded post-hardcore for post-metal innovation are merchants of billowing music that spreads a empty desolation across the broadest possibly landscape. Compared to the more grandiose and prog-inspired theatricality of Honor Found In Decay (2012), Firese Within Fires feels Spartan and hoarse. There’s plenty of ambient exploration to be found – the tortured strains of “A Shadow Memory” are gruesomely fascinating set against a vortex of spacey static – but this is undoubtedly Neurosis’s most under-produced album to date. Steve Albini has been at the helm for five straight albums now and this Fires Within Fires is the moment when the legendary rock producer’s flair for primal simplicity seamlessly merges with Neurosis’ increasingly complex artistry. Rather than showcasing single instruments or drawing attention to certain sounds, Fires Within Fires has the gruff, rawness of 90s rock throughout – even the textural subtleties and slow creeping doom elements seem to howl from an underground basement. This is the x-factor that tips Fires Within Fires over the edge. Not only is this the rare Neurosis album that leaves the listener begging for more, it’s also the band’s first album in a long time that has the urgency and excitement of amateurism. Albini is making Neurosis slum it and, naturally enough, the Oakland rockers are more than capable of making the universe fold in on itself in absolute squalor.
The Critics Say: “Fires Within Fires is the summation of 30 years of experimentation in tonality and texture. Yes, Neurosis are firmly positioned within the extreme metal underground, yet their music, with its ability to generate images of beauty akin to those many of us have experienced in our own lives–not to mention the loss that accompanies them–challenges this categorisation.” The Wire
49. Yes Lawd! By NxWorries
The 411: It has been quite the year for Anderson .Paak. After Dr Dre set the crooner-come-rapper on the path to superstardom in 2015, the young Californian protégé blew critics away with his debut album Malibu back in January. Before the dust could settle, Anderson was at it again. Teaming up with otherworld producer Knxwledge to form NxWorries, Paak has found a partner who can rival the singer’s soulful eccentricities without descending into parody. Yes Lawd! is dripping in serene soul, summery seductive hip hop and masterfully mutilated funk. Knxwledge, who is a star in his own right, proves a dab hand in the production booth. His beats might be informed by classic soul and funk samples, but NxWorries sound nothing like vintage Kanye West – and that’s no mean feat considering how strongly Yeezy set the sampling template. Instead, Anderson’s wonderfully singular vocal is free to tell intimate tales of romantic and social struggle atop sticky and sensual beachside arrangements. Yes Lawd! seem like a rarity, informed by both G-Funk and The Avalanches without sounding like a hybrid of either. Not to be outdone, Anderson can shock: after a host of tales of slow sex beneath smoke clouds, we are plunged into the brutality of streets on “Kadijah” – where the sticky weed and sweaty flesh of the previous nine tracks is reframed as a necessary escape from a reality too abhorrent to contemplate. Make no mistake, Yes Lawd! remains a joyous and utterly uplifting listen, but it comes from a darker place that either Anderson or Knxwledge care to let on with this collection of loose, alluring fragments.
The Critics Say: “An album with this much flair and originality is hard to fault.” The Observer
48. 99.9% by Kaytranada
The 411: 99.9% is a masterclass in post-Dilla production. Kaytranada showcases an instinctual control mood and a lithe ability to fold and roll from one blissed out texture to the next. There is immediacy to found on the Haitian-Canadian DJ’s debut, the combination of the spunky, Anderson .Paak assisted, “Glowed Up” and the elegant dancefloor deviations of “Breakdance Lesson N.1” are brimming with understated glee, but to focus on the surface is to very much miss the point entirely. 99.9% is an album of slow, but magnificent gestation. Kaytranada has a start point and a distant end point in mind: the magic and the mystery comes from hearing these beautiful subdued rhythms and sumptuous sounds deviate, adapt and transform in infinitesimally small, but hugely satisfying ways. Whether the desire is to chill out or dance the night away, Kaytranada manages to maintain the energy levels and create a constant sense of movement and evolution. 99.9% is not an elongated demonstration of skill, there are no house beats stretched to within an inch of their lives over the course of nine minutes; instead, an album’s worth of shifting sands are snuck into delightful three or four minute packages. Best of all, like all the great dance producers of yesteryear, Kaytranada lives in a world of minor keys – there’s a somberness underwriting every incestuous beat – the resulting music is unmistakably enjoyable while hinting a deeper ache that no hedonistic night could ever wash away.
The Critics Say: “He seems to have complete control over the proverbial dance floor, switching up tempos to match the crowd’s mood throughout the 15-track album; this prevents 99.9% from feeling bloated and is yet another reason Kaytranada’s debut album is a resounding success.” HipHopDX
47. Light Upon The Lake by Whitney
The 411: It’s time to take a load off Annie, with the album that best encapsulated the thick summer haze and invited listeners of all stripes to kick off their shoes and let an awful year pass them by. Light Upon The Lake might just be the antidote to 2016, that’s not to imply that Whitney’s debut is lightweight or emotionless (far from it), but it’s hard to do anything other than drift away with these sumptuous tones. The horns, the strings and the bass are all employed masterfully, reminding the rock world that there are still plenty of lessons to be learned when it comes to marrying sauntering jazz sounds with the world of rock & pop. “No Woman” might be the stand out hit, but Light Upon The Lake is a collection that demands to be taken as a slow motion whole. The instrumentals are so rich and weedily warm (evoking opportunities missed and memories cherished) that, when you least expect it, a heartbreaking line can leap up and take you by surprise: “I lie awake in all kinds of darkness”.
The Critics Say: “In its relentless fixation upon youth Light Upon The Lake seems to have stumbled across the timeless.” Clash
46. Dissociation by The Dillinger Escape Plan
The 411: Now this is just demented. Dillinger Escape Plan are making music befitting unstable young men on the fringes of society with their sanity hanging on string – i.e. what fuelled some of the best hard rock music ever made. Plenty of bands can tear their vocal chords to shreds and burst eardrums trying to make a feral racket, but few acts actually sound unhinged or dislocated. Using all the tricks of mathcore, metalcore, post-hardcore and even some pinched from the classic heavy metal canon (those theatrical vocals), DEP foam at the mouths as the ride riffs that teeter and plunge, before darting off in fiddly fits of obsession or elastic acts of self harm. The sound might be brutal and unpleasant in a wholly intentional way, but Dissociation is also stuffed full of breakneck joy. The question that Dissociation keeps asking is where will this gaggle of demented loons take us next? The answer could be a jazz interlude, some spectral naval gazing or into the heart of the circle pit – the joy is both in the never knowing and the finding out.
The Critics Say: “A fascinating, headbanging and improbably accessible listen.” Magnet
45. Malibu by Anderson .Paak
The 411: When Dr. Dre brought Anderson .Paak to the world’s attention on his thrilling return from the wilderness LP Compton, few – outside of the good doctor himself – would have glimpsed the visionary potential Paak possessed. As a guest, the Malibu star seemed like the first true post-Frank Ocean artist: a soulful, wounded and ultra-modern songsmith. His debut album, however, reveals not an imitator, but a richly talented artist capable of serene melodies, raspy cries and sneaky raps. The album unfurls at a luxurious pace, clearly influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s plumbing of black music history (not to mention the Compton rapper’s flow), but while the subject matter is often deep, Paak sounds luxurious where to Pimp A Butterfly felt nightmarish. Perhaps, the greatest testament to Paak is neither the strength of his imagination nor his capacity for well meaning imitation, but his own soft charm. At times he recalls Andre 3000, not in his scatter-brained creativity, but in his ability to take the listener on a journey no matter the length, no matter the subject. Malibu is a divinely drift, close your eyes, press play and take Paak’s hand – he’ll never steer you wrong.
What The Critic Said: “This is a sincere, soulful project, brimming with honesty and humble perseverance.” Pitchfork
44. SIRENS BY NICOLAS JAAR
The 411: “Don’t let the slender and seductive voids of Sirens fool you, Nicolas Jaar is still the man who produced 2011’s dark, but wilfully irreverent, Space Is Only Noise. Part of what makes Jaar special, aside from his love of ticking clocks and ghoulish found sounds, is his inability to avoid moments of bad taste and pretension. In a genre full of restraint and beauty, Jaar feels like a man who knows how to have fun, even as he strikes the severest of poses. He’s willing, even in a moment of absolute tranquility, to slap the listener in the face with a kitsch, faux-futuristic sonic: it might sound strange – and, frankly, it does sound strange in a very literal sense – but it keeps you on your toes. A jaunty carribean rhythm is just as likely to emerge from a echo of static as a cello or guitar played backwards. Jaar is clearly infatuated with the idea of time folding in on itself and voices seem to drift out of decades past like disembodied specters. The Chilean-American composer clearly knows his way around both a melody and an irresistible rhythm, but he prefers to tease – prodding and probing at the psyche, and only bringing together hook and beat for brief snatches of sonic perfection. Jaar is a polymath and Sirens rarely stays in a single lane, and yet, the album is held together by its creator’s force of personality and the endearing oddness of his deviations.”
The Critics Say: “The record may be about repeating, but Jaar has yet to repeat himself.” Pretty Much Amazing
43. Metal Resistance by Babymetal
The 411: “There’s a glorious delight that comes with pressing play on a BabyMetal album for the first time: guitars skid, fists pump and suddenly the homicidal gunmen from Contra are running rampant throughout the Mushroom Kingdom blasting everything in sight. The decision to merge J-Pop sweetness with metal’s grueling intensity and mythical pomposity remains as astute and endearing as ever. Frontwoman trio Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal still retain their mastery of J-pop conventions and their backing band is as tight and ferocious as ever. Neither sound would thrive alone – the hooks are dated and retiring compared to CL or best of Korea while the metal is workmanlike despite its finger splitting intricacies – these two 7-out-of-10 sounds combine to create something greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Real forethought has gone into the interplay between melody, hook and arrangement – BabyMetal are no copy + paste rockers. Instead, they are – almost unquestionably – writing the best hooks in metal right now. Equally, it’s worth equivocally stating that whacking some oppressive guitars on Carly Rae Jepsen’s brilliant “Boy Problems” would achieve little and actively diminish an airy arrangement. BabyMetal’s pop may be slight and spritely, but it is custom built to melt faces while smartly sending out dog whistle rallying cries to an untapped demographic (yes those are sparkles and coin collection sounds you here).”
The Critics Say: “This album seamlessly flits from one brilliantly bold idea to another with no dips in quality.” Rocksound
42. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
The 411: A Moon Shaped Pool is an elegant record and that is not to be underestimated. Radiohead have, despite producing plenty of brilliant music in isolation, inelegantly groped there way towards new textures and new ideas in the post-Kid A era. Like In Rainbows before it, A Moon Shaped Pool is a moment that suggests Thom Yorke and co. are not lost in a sea of ideas and sounds they half understand. If they pull back from the fringes of their experiment and fold back what they’ve learnt on recent albums (and what they’ve heard other artist produce) into their core sound, the results can be spellbinding. What Radiohead have produced in 2016 is first and foremost a work of exquisite delicacy. The twinkling, beeping, shimmering, stabbing and rattling tones of this album are all stuck in a decaying orbit around a piteous stillness at the album’s core. And therein lies the tension, as refined and meditative and melodious as A Moon Shape Pool may appear on the surface, it is all underwritten by a creeping bleakness that threatens to pollute and distort all the soothing and sumptuous sounds the band create. Radiohead have always been sinister and it is to A Moon Shaped Pool’s credit that the album is so gracefully arranged that the malignity inherent in their music is suppressed. The darkness is pushed beneath the surface to such an extent that the moments when the façade cracks and the off-kilter menace is free to seep into the foreground prove genuinely terrifying. After all these years, Radiohead can still make us swoon and creep us out in equal measure – if only they’d try a little less hard more often.
The Critics Say: “This may not be Radiohead’s most experimental album, but it is without a doubt their most sonically pleasing, elegant, and acoustically immaculate offering to date–and it just might be their best, too.” Sputnikmusic
41. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
The 411: Vampire Weekend producer and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithausers appear to be a perfect partnership. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine never feels like hardwork, it has the air of two bosom buddies throwing their arms around each other after a few drinks and deciding to hit the studio to jam the wee hours away. That’s not to imply that IFADTYWM sounds tossed off or rough – no this is a pristine pop project – but that there’s a looseness and ease that defines this shimmering and seductive record. The melodies are sweet, every so slightly urgent and desperately needy, in a way that feels utterly endearing – Rostam and Hamilton instantly become you pals, sharing stories of lovers lost and decisions they now regret. These are songs of experience, of men who have been crushed and recovered and can now look back fondly on and even smile about good women and bad times (“Now when I sing that song it doesn’t sound so bad”). The record has a wonderful autumnal quality: even as the songs shimmer and shoo-wop, there’s the unmistakable glow of the fireplace. This is music that invites misty eyed reflection: memory is the specter that threatens to haunt this collection, but each fresh ache only serves to strengthen your (and the album’s) constitution. Hamilton and Rostam, whether they intended to or not, have written a life affirming classic destined to rouse scotch stained souls the world over.
The Critics Say: “Their playful mutability keeps them from being genre exercises and makes I Had A Dream a delight.” Magnet
40. The Weight Of These Wings by Miranda Lambert
The 411: Miranda Lambert has established her own voice so successfully over the course of her 13 year career that she is now capable of delivering lines that sound true to her own badass persona and like something out the pages of Nashville folk law: “I’m going north on 59, but I know good a well I’m heading south/Cause me and Birmingham don’t have a history of not working out”. What’s remarkable is that a line like that, the kind that would have once characterize a bristling barroom clearing rocker, is now a scene setter for a thoughtful piece of retrospection that ends, “It ain’t love that I’m chasing, but I’m running just in case”. The Weight Of These Wings reveals the defiant Lambert as bruised and conflicted artist looking for both home and direction. She insists repeatedly that she knows where she’s going even if she has no destination: i.e. NOT THERE, ANYWHERE BUT THERE! Miranda control of tone is remarkable, even in its bombastic, cocksure moments there’s a resignation in her voice that whispers: am I still doing this? Where on earth is my life headed? It’s an implausibly taut tightrope to walk, but Miranda manages it: when she’s resilient, you don’t believe a word she says – and that generates an incredible depth of pathos. How she got from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Hell On Heels to here we’ll never know, but it’s been one hell of a ride and Lambert may have just arrived at her most intriguing embarkation point to date.
What The Critics Say: “it asks for patience and rewards it, weaving true tales of regret and resilience into one fiercely honest, gloriously flawed whole. Bless this mess.”
39. Nattesferd by Kvelertak
The 411: Norweigan metallers Kvelertak have decide to pull their sound into focus on Nattesferd. There’s nothing gentle about Nattesferd per say, instead the band have got the boot polish out to make this angry-mob-on-rampage of an album shine. The result is thrilling: the band will be kicking up dust and spilling blood like a katana-wielding-cyclone when, all of a sudden, the guitar work will cutthrough all the madness with a cleanliness that defies expectation. The drum fills with climb and crash with stadium sized aplomb and suddenly Kvelertaak are ready to strut and preen like Van Halen. More than a neat trick, this blend of rock-and-pop precision with full metal madness is practically irresistible, especially when it comes in a perfectly packed 9 track, 47 minute package. “1985” is confounding in its brilliance, it sits somewhere between Mountain, Status Quo, Kiss, The Cars, Fang Island and your favorite devil worshiping Black Metal band. It should come apart at the seams, but Kvelerak’s raw musicianship holds it together through some totally-rockin’-solos (70s naffness fully intended) and some rapid-fire-brutality not seen in Norway since the days of Odin. Being a Kvelertak album the riffs keep coming no matter what the texture, how pinched the harmonic or what pace or pedal the band see fit to employ. This is career best stuff.
The Critics Say: “There’s a ton of wild, riotous energy to Nattesferd, but it’s a little more cleanly delineated rather than roped together and blurred around the edges. It’s a shake-up rather than a clear evolution, but it’s a productive one.” Exclaim
38. Cardinal by Pinegrove
The 411: “Pingrove might relish rustic barroom awkwardness, but rather than shying from the fight, Cardinal is a sprawling all American epic recorded in a dingy garage. There’s a joy to hearing Evan Stephens Hall’s longform narratives and introspective streams of self-consciousness unfurl – his tone is simply stellar – but Pinegrove remain anxious to produce ballsy arrangements, like a tossed off, under rehearsed Guns N Roses. Pingrove somehow disdain the grandiose, while producing the biggests songs you’d could conceivably fit in a 30-capacity-bar. Throw in some heart breaking lyrical insights worth falling in love with, two road tested singles (“Size Of The Moon”, “New Friends”) and one sublime ode to grabbing life by horns despite your deficiencies (“Aphasia”), and you have 2016’s finest debut album.”
What The Critics Said: “While the lyrics are what everyone will talk about, it’s Hall’s voice that makes them work. That insistent yelp, straining to create melody without being beholden to it.” Absolute Punk
37. MY WOMAN BY ANGEL OLSEAN
The 411: ““Shut Up Kiss Me” is an absolute riot, a darkly sexy statement of intent that explodes into a scuzzy lofi banger with a seductive melody hiding in the second verse that typifies My Woman’s tight, rock ready opening half. The plot thickens as the album approaches the finishing straight. Among the drifting delicacies and lingering torch songs that litter the album’s conclusion, Olsen’s music not only holds its shape, but asserts itself with “Sister” suggesting that Olsen has spent as much time studying Stevie Nicks as she has PJ Harvey and Sharon Van Etten. Where once the romance and misery of the lyrics held sway, an Angel Olsen album can now stand and thrive on the strength of the airy beauty of its arrangements. “Those Were The Days” is a masterpiece content to swoon and drift in a dessert of desire and longing – the saunter proves so seductive you’ll wish you could waste a little more time in its protracted presence…To paraphrase a tired sports cliché: if Angel Olsen was once an album away from being an album away; after My Woman, she stands a mere step shy of perfection. Her next release cannot come quickly enough.”
The Critics Say: “Here she sounds more assured, even in her darker moments, and her strong, versatile voice is as extraordinary as ever.” The Observer
36. Stranger To Stranger by Paul Simon
The 411: “Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life/Made a fairly decent living/Had a fairly decent wife/She killed him/sushi knife”. The first verse of the first song on Stranger To Stranger, Paul Simon’s 13th solo album, sets the tone perfectly. This is the loosest, most carefree and experimental album the veteran songwriting has released in at least two decades. Simon could always conjure beauteous restraint with ease (“Heart And Bone”), but Stranger To Stranger proves he can still cut loose and risk embarrassment to say something timely and make people move their feet. It would all to easy to be distracted by the garish clash between hard global funk and sepia tinted Americana and skip over a lyric sheet that speaks directly to our times. Simon paints a picture of modern man distracted by work, retail and the quest for normalcy and losing sight of where the real power and wealth lies. His eye is also cast on both brutality and adoration, there are tender songs dedicated to his wife and “The Riverbank” a song inspired by wounded veterans and a dear friend slain at Sandy Hook. Remarkably, the latter is not mournful, instead it offers an observational and spiritual sense of unavoidable and, perhaps even, ignored tragedy (“no one to turn to, he turns to the gun”). Taken in its entirety, Stranger To Stranger bristles with energy. Paul Simon finds plenty to sink his teeth into lyrically while indulging his life long love of combining instrumentation from across the globe in wild and wonky rhythms that push structural coherence to breaking point. “I write my words for the universe”, Simon sings, and you believe him: Stranger To Stranger is a boarder and ageless record that seeks to transcend all earthly confinements.
The Critics Say: “So spend your capitalist dollars on this album. He’s worth them.” Pretty Much Amazing
35. Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys
The 411: “He used to move weight down Grove…but since he put the stick down and grew a beard, now the pigs at his crib like woah…they think he’s going to blow”. Riz MC’s flow might be rough and a little corny, but it’s shot through with fiery political outrage and a playful flair for narrative that brings to life the reality of being a suspect in society’s eyes because of his race and religion. “Shottin” is stunning, a booming and wickedly funny tale of a criminal and street thug who got more police attention when he embraced religion than he ever did carrying heat on the streets. This is multicultural music and, were it not for the undercurrents of anger in the face of stop and search and racial profiling, Swet Shop Boys would be lauded as heirs to M.I.A.’s world town sound (A.K.A. the real sound of London). Actor turned rapper Riz is hilarious as he turns a host of classic pop hooks and rap flows to bitter satire: “even hipsters ain’t safe, you’d gotta be careful what part of your face you shave”. The humor that permeates this album proves (more effectively than any heavy-handed rhymes ever could) that Swet Shop Boys are westerners through and through. The references points might span the Muslim world, but the jokes are very, very London – crass, sarcastic and full of self-deprecation. This is the duo’s most effective weapon; by bringing tragedy and absurdity together, they never do their weighty subject matter a disservice; instead they make our 21st century dilemmas feel refreshingly human (after all, political extremes might never agree philosophically, but we can laugh as one). Best of all, the album bangs: Redinho’s production blends sitars and tablas with the street sounds of London and Brooklyn. Few, if any, albums are ever this thoughtful, original and important while being so much fun and so damn hilarious. Cashmere is an incredible achievement.
The Critics Say: “It’s a dense and lyrically challenging record, as you would expect from two highly intelligent individuals who have lived through the bars they deliver, but it ends on their most salient point: “Can’t escape yourself, please love yourself,” Riz MC’s final words on “Din-e-llahi.”” AllMusic
34. Worry. By Jeff Rosenstock
The 411: “It feels completely ridiculous that I’m a willing participant” sings Jeff Rosenstock on the sarcasm drenched “Festival Song”, but far from a throwaway joke, in that one sentence he succinctly reveals Worry.’s central thesis. Everyone has rebellious fire in their eyes and no one is fooled by false-sincerity, accept of course we all are. Modern life is built on pitiful posture and degenerating attempts at social competition. We raise a rebel banner as we actively contribute to a system that chipping away at our fundamental securities and mental health. How do you know when whether you’re part of the problem or part of the solution – what do I buy? Who should I tweet? Who really knows, but Jeff Rosenstock masterfully explores 21st Century anxiety on a punk rock masterpiece that surveys every possible intersection between scuzzy, lo-fi punk and confessional mainstream pop. It’s so easy to get hung up on the fascinating words that spew from Rosenstock mouth, that it’s tempting to let a masterfully crafted and unendingly punchy punk record pass you by (keep an ear out for sudden shift to the miraculous Side B medley). Worry. is the work of a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of punk’s past and brain floundering under the weight of a distinctly modern neurosis.
The Critics Say: “Maybe the glorious thing about WORRY. Is that he’s realised he can live the super-romantic, heart-meltingly high-stakes life he’s always dreamed of.” Sputnkmusic
33. Blank Face LP by Schoolboy Q
The 411: Black Hippy might be conscious, but they can still go HAM – that is the key takeaway from Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP. His supergroup cohorts might be more concerned with confronting societal ills, reevaluating 21st Century blackness and, well, getting high, but Q is, first and foremost, a gangsta rapper. Sure, he’s wildly ambitious and embraces trippy, ultra-modernist production (“WHateva U Want”), but strip it all away and the rapper is serving up brutal rhymes that speak to the streets, the excess of wealth and fucking (normally while high as a kite). This might sound dreadfully conventional, but by blending sounds informed equally by LSD and electronica with gritty street level bravado proves revolutionary. The Blank Face LP is a bad trip and a good time (“TorcH”), a callous, emotion free realm spiked with a detached paranoia (“By Any Means”). At his absolute best, Q sounds genuinely demented: like he’s tapped his viens so often the feeling has been removed from his eyes and he’s incapable of caring for anyone (he has no friends), least of all himself (reaper do you worst). The quality of the beats, which prove wonderfully unpredictable (dark one moment, playful the next, soulful at the death), provide the sense of joy lacking in Q’s lyrics. The cry of “If I don’t make it to 25, I’m still gonna fly” provides a dark, but nevertheless appropriate coda to thrillingly unpleasant album of the year contender.
The Critics Say: “It’s hard and sinister like a gangster rap album, but it’s also sprawling and even psychedelic at times. Nothing else sounds like it, and that’s a joy to behold.” Consequence Of Sound
32. All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us by Architects
The 411: “Architects are pulling no punches on this barnstorming LP. In fact, they’re not wasting time swinging, they’re content to grind their fist into the side of your skull with the sheer weight of their cynicism. Okay, the lyrics might be a little laughable at times, but that’s kind of the point – the OTT nature of the paranoia helps to soften the blow as Architects rail against the establishment – hell if your going to toast to our miserable existence you might as well have a little fun doing it, right? Or maybe not, because after the severe image of god clutching a razor blade emerges (“Nihlist”), Architects unleash their knockout punch of a final line: “he said: “look at the fucking mess they made, they’d trade their hearts if they were made of gold, but their as worthless as the souls they sold”.”
As the above snippet suggests, we were very excited about All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us back in May and now the year’s at an end, Architects’ latest stands a ferocious tent pole album for metal at large. It’s progressive, ambitious, powerful, tuneful, accessible and as bleak as a murderous medieval bastard child. This is the kind of music that makes teenagers run through walls to get tour t-shirts and tickets so they scream-along until their lungs bleed. Better still, the elder metal fan can also sit back and be wowed by the piston-like mercilessness of it all – Architects simply refuses to relent without sacrificing their crossover appeal or snuffing out oxygen for honest emotion. This is the album metal desperately needed: bold, unashamedly broad in its reach and, above all, credible.
The Critics Say: “This cements their position as one of the world’s most exciting, vital bands, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear many (if any) more impactful records in 2016.” Rock Sound
31. Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding
The 411: Now this is a bit special. Emily’s D+Evolution is a concept album about (and supposedly sung by) Esperanza’s muse and alter ego Emily (her own middle name). In truth, this is information is interesting, but entirely unnecessary – what Esperanza Spalding has created is the best album of her career: a sonic wonderland that dazzles with both its compositional ingenuity and the strength of its towering lead vocal performance. It’s hard to know where to begin, so let’s start with the highlights: the tantalizing and resplendent ballad “Unconditional Love”, the progressive dripping walls of the Joni Mitchell echoing “One”, “Good Lava’s” winding St. Vincent dips it low insanity and the show stopping clarity of “Earth To Heaven” are simply supreme. It’s worth pointing out that those four songs were chosen not because they stand out above the rest of this collection, but because the prior sentence would have run hideously long if “One”, “Funk The Fear” and “Elevate And Operate” had been crammed in for good measure. Esperanaza Spalding has done something remarkable, she has shown her limitless potential: this is a varied and expansive collection that proves curiously compact and coherent. Stranger still, it’s an album that recalls the past readily (you can play spot the influence) and yet, Emily’s D+Evolution is pure Spalding without question – this is singular 21st Century music. It’s the work of a prog queen, a rock goddess and a gentle soul, simultaneously. Yes indeed, Emily’s D+Evolution is a beautiful contradiction: one which, although we brushed over the themes at the outset, tells the story of a young woman coming to terms with her gender, race, love and upbringing without a hint of severity or tedium.
The Critics Say: “Esperanza Spalding’s new recording, Emily’s D+Evolution is an astonishing beauty, a set of a dozen songs that artfully and persuasively bridge genres.” PopMatters
30. The Life Of Pablo by Kanye West
The 411: “Rumors of Kanye West’s decline have been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the worried whispers that blighted The Life Of Pablo’s much delayed release were inaccurate. In many ways Mr. West has lost his edge: his latest album is not a zeitgeist redefining vision of the future, nor is it the great gospel album the egomaniac-in-chief had led us to believe. Stranger still, this lifelong perfectionist seems riddled by indecision, opting for a series of strange inclusions and half finished productions. Staggeringly, despite all these warning signs, The Life Of Pablo is not the moment when Kanye West is revealed to be a charlatan. His eye might be on fashion and he may have very little to say, but this is not the deluded flop his detractors were anticipating. Instead, Yeezy has served up a strange blend of contractions; an album that isn’t truly avant-garde, but one that few mainstream artists would dare to imitate. The quality of production and the way West sacrilegiously manipulates classic samples remains truly sublime. The Life Of Pablo is chocked full of fantastic music as well as plenty of horrible, bad taste one-liners and (for 14 of its 18 tracks) it’s a surprisingly thoughtful reflection on the alienation, iconoclasm and psychosis of fame. If this is the end of Kanye’s revolutionary period, then TLOP is his Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – a whiff of decline is in the air, but the end product is largely stellar.”
What The Critics Said: “More than on any of his previous albums, “Pablo” reflects that rambling, fearsome energy. This is Tumblr-as-album, the piecing together of divergent fragments to make a cohesive whole.” The New York Times
29. Hit Reset by The Julie Ruin
The 411: Kathleen Hannah appears to be having the time of her life on The Julie Ruin’s second album. At times this wonkily lo-fi album will sound as if someone had decided to grab Ari Up, stick her in the time machine and make her front the Shangri-las. This is a selection of classical girl group hooks mutated by bitter cynicism, sardonic eye rolls and lots and lots of reverb and distortion. The hooks are incestuous throughout and what makes the album click is the way a seemingly simple track can be thrown off the rails by an instrumental break that sounds like a gruesome air traffic accident. Guitars squeal, groan and clatter, the arrangements are wrapped in such tight pop packages that it’s thrilling when, suddenly, the seams pop and the ice cream begins to melt. It’s inane and ammatuerish at times, but it never feels like a parody – the wonky wasteland of The Julie Ruin actually sounds better – and that is the key. Hit Reset can’t be dismissed as a slap dash brain fart, because even its most unhinged and hair brained moments are hypnotically addictive. When all said and done, The Julie Ruin is akin to finally holding hands with your childhood sweetheart only to have her blow a snot rocket in your face and let out a demented cackle – the kicker is that rather feeling disgusted, it kind of turns you on.
The Critics Say: “The Julie Ruin have hit their mark squarely with this oddly hooky, and totally unique, release.” AllMusic
28. Prima Donna by Vince Staples
The 411: The anticipation for Summertime ’06 successor continues to ratchet up as Vince Staples delivers another masterful EP. This time, Staples isn’t concerned with intellectually charged hits, he just wants to spit straight bars and use all the available oxygen in Prima Donna’s 20 minute run time to unleashed torrents of knotty rhymes. This album could well be called oblivion, because Staples’ eye for personal despair and societal decline is polluted by the malevolent smile of the ringmaster of the apocalypse. “Smile” is an incredible work as Vince Staples flits between demented glee – he’s enjoying watching the world burn – and lying in his bed, face in pillow, muttering suicidal thoughts in an a attempt to shut out everything round him. Remarkably, despite flitting between insanity and misery, Prima Donna is a strangely thrilling listen – the beats don’t so much bang as hypnotically lead the listener down the rabbit hole. Staples might be a serious young man, but he understands the importance of rhythm as his flow almost functions on a instrumental level, providing a counter groove to the aggressive beats that underpin his words. To borrow another rapper’s words, Prima Donna is a head-trip to listen to: a horrific hip hop hallucination whose brutality is only surpassed the misery of reality (represented by bleak spoken word interludes). Vince Staples enjoyably abhorrent world is summed up perfectly by the rapper himself in one masterfully macabre image: “Buy a million dollar home and blow my dome to paint the kitchen”.
The Critics Say: “Given its lyrical and musical density, the EP’s short runtime feels particularly abrupt. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplished collection from one of rap’s most promising young talents.” Entertainment Weekly
27. Blonde by Frank Ocean
The 411: “Whether (or not) Ocean has gazed so long and so hard at his own navel that he’s actually fallen in; there’s no denying Blonde’s impeccable moments: the squelchily beautiful douchebagery of “Nikes”, Andre 3000’s incendiary “Solo (Reprise)” verse, “Ivy’s” pitch-shifting romanticism, “Solo’s” careening narrative flair (not to mention that stunning chorus) and the sordid slow sung majesty of “Self Control”. There is something intriguing about Ocean’s rejection of seemingly any booming beats. Unlike so much cutting edge RnB, Frank refuses to ride on the coattails of the production. Quite the reverse. Blonde, despite its illusions, is very much the work of a singular artist. So much so, that, like fellow innovator James Blake, listening to Blonde is akin (for better or worse) to being stuck in stalled elevator with the artist as he pours out his soul ad nauseam. The end result is album that is too fractured and indulgent to rival Channel Orange’s effortless excellence, but too compelling and intriguingly alien to be dismissed – Frank Ocean’s scattered, post-gender soul is a heartfelt head scratcher, and that’s no bad thing.”
The Critics Say: “Realign your expectations, and what gradually emerges is a record of enigmatic beauty, intoxicating depth and intense emotion.” The Guardian
26. HEAVN by Jamila Woods
The 411: “If I say I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk line?” It’s hard to look beyond the stunning “VRY BLK”, singer/poet Jamila Woods moment capturing single that’s equal parts rage, composure and humble hope. The nursery rhyme charm of this blistering broadside on racial tensions and injustice remains shocking after repeated spins and its immediacy can undermine the serene and soulful reflections that populate HEAVN as a whole. Jamila is a dreamer whose beautiful, playful vocal invites the listener to drift along on her thought cloud. The tragedy of the album lies in the fact that these dreams which seem so speculative and out of reach, represent normalcy to millions of white (or simply, wealthy) Americans. Now don’t get it twisted, Jamila might employ plenty of sugar and spice, but she can twist the knife when she needs to – “In My Name” is wonderfully brash, the quiet comeback of a person sick of having others speak for her. The picture that quickly emerges is that of a singer with endless reserves of love and warmth (provided she’s accorded due respect on her own terms) for her skin, for her city and for all that she is. At her best, on “Blk Girl Soldier”, Jamilia uses the serenity inherent in her sound to shock the listener with heartbreaking couplets that dissect the historic disregard for the black female body and mind – the call response technique employed through the track is simply devastating (“We go missing by the hundres/Ain’t nobody checking for us” and “Look at what they did to my sister/Last century, last week”).
The Critics Say: “It’s an auspicious welcome for an artist who’s lifting up her entire community of talent with her and making the task look light as a feather — all the while spinning on a dizzy edge.” Spin