Following my posts from this morning, here are my favorite albums from this year. Here’s a playlist.
ALBUMS: “Afraid of the cops when I was outside, afraid of my friends when I was inside”
Camp Cope, Camp Cope. Georgia Maq’s shame and desire and excruciating self-consciousness are painfully bright— you have to squint— and our witnessing of it would all be for nothing if the space of liberation her songs long for weren’t blasted out by the big jarring drums and melodic counterpoint of the bass and that jangly basic guitar. Makes me think of Defiance OH or Your Heart Breaks: the way good music creates in moments the better world it desires.
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial. Not shame and desire on this one, but depression and falling-inward; a self-consciousness not excruciating but ironic, curious, and ultimately sort of redemptive. Will Toledo’s music is sad shit, but it’s never sluggish or stark. Teens of Denial attests to a rich imagination for arrangement: it’s rowdy and dynamic, decorated by horns and answering voices and a complex sense of construction (yes, you’ll listen to all eleven minutes of “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” without your mind wandering). You make music like this because you survive, and maybe part of the reason you survive is your musical imagination is your friend, or it represents the sustaining power of some buried self-belief and resistance under the sinking weight of your own biochemical hopelessness, or it’s a taunt that stirs some despondency in you into raging loud life.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book. Exuberance and hope. Faith and a little licking flame of anger. A gymnastic verbal gift. Open-heartedness and a sense of collective grief rather than a personal chip on the shoulder. “Giving Satan a swirlie.”
Dr. Yen Lo, Days with Dr. Yen Lo. Modern life is war: Ka is part of a long hip-hop tradition (Genius, Rakim, the Poor Righteous Teachers) of solitary mystics cultivating secret learning and esoteric insight to actively resist, not elude, systemic oppression: “slave body, master mind.” Ka the drumless rapper: an FDNY fire captain by day deprogramming his listeners into mind-freedom out in Brownsville by night: murmuring on this record (a collaboration with producer Preservation) over cutups from The Manchurian Candidate like the last unbrainwashed POW. If you want his album, he’ll mail it to you himself, but be cool because he doesn’t make it to the post office every day.
Grimes, Artangels. Claire Boucher’s songs are political but they aren’t built to rally around: her personae are solitary in their feminist rage, anti-capitalist dread, and declarations of freaky independence. But, as on Lemonade, you speak your truth right and other people hear themselves in your words and live bigger lives because of you. I could never get the hang of Grimes before, but here Boucher’s elastic sugar-high voice and the production– calling back with its breakbeats and bright guitars to Ray of Light and other late-90s “progressive” pop– makes me feel fifteen again.
Kevin Gates, Islah. In rap as in rock, plenty of smart people become stars by figuring out how to make enlarged retweetable cartoons of themselves, but Kevin Gates is Kevin Gates: an unapologetically complete and contradictory character, dangerous and tender, rough and sensuous, pitiless and lonely, supremely confident in the broadness of his talent. On Islah (named for his daughter), every, I mean every, song has hooked my ears; some unsettle me, others move me, and many stick in me as aphorisms I’ll be repeating until I hear another rap album this good.
Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni, Les Filles de Illighadad. Some of the Portland label Sahel Sounds’ collections of northwest African field recordings succumb to folkloricism: music whose interest is mostly that it’s “an enriching example of the diversity of” your topic, the best players you’d find in any dusty small-town courtyard presented in a geographic sweep. But these two Tuaregs, a guitar player and singer joined by drummers on the long single B-side track, make intricate and hypnotic music that keeps compelling my ears, played casually and recorded intimately.
Carly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION and EMOTION Side B. Seems like she’s turning her energy toward having fun with her (huge) cult instead of trying to compete with Taylor, Katy, etc., which I think is just fantastic. Hip critics called Emotion overly professional, but at a certain level you’ve got to trust that Jepsen’s hyper-developed sense of craft is one expression of artistic personality, not a concealment she needs to grow out of. Likewise her very particular taste in collaborators (turning down multiple songs from Max Martin to work with Devonte Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid). Her B-sides album is more idiosyncratic and giddily expert bangers: just what she wanted, and I bet a few million fans, too.
Kelela, Hallucinogen EP. The blue-robot cover of this EP is the least human thing about it: my pleasure of replaying Hallucinogen is in the contrasts, the heat of Kelela’s hunger, regret, power, and dread over cool and spacious electronics, the wingbeat of her voice over the digital pulse and skitter. I bet the next record will be better– Kelela was first celebrated for her sound when she was still a maturing artist– but this EP is already a sign of sharpening artistic vision: the songs all sound like her, whether she’s got five collaborators or fifteen.
KING, We are KING. Natalie and I got to see Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bass on their second pass this year through Seattle, and seeing KING live helped me untangle the production on their debut. Through my laptop speakers, I thought it was pretty but a little gauzy and samey; with it booming in my face, I could separate out the doubled voices, feel the edges of the big washes of old-fashioned synthesizer, and let the fuller-bodied bass rumble my body. Afterward I came back to the record with more open ears, loving the drama of KING’s sense of melody, letting the lyrics’ assurance and tenderness contribute to atmosphere rather than needing them to tell me a story.
Chris Knox, Seizure reissue. This is what it takes to be the godfather of a scene: a spiritual generosity that springs out of your own generative fluency— if I can do this, why don’t you give it a try?—; a real committed child-like eccentricity and an affinity for Beatles-y melodies; a cassette machine. Knox had been pouring his heart into New Zealand indie music for a decade when he released this solo album in ’89, playing everywhere, engineering everyone who needed it, and distributing his friends. I first met most of these songs thirteen years ago, when Cait played me Knox’s anthology Meat (comprising a weirdly partial selection of this record, its followup Croaker, and a few other tunes). I met them again on Stroke, the tribute assembled by his countless admirers, friends, and mentees in and out of New Zealand to pay his medical bills after he lost his speech and much of his mobility in a grand mal seizure five years ago. In that time, my love for them hasn’t faded in the slightest. I’ve never heard a song about sexism like “The Woman inside of Me”; “The Face of Fashion” and “Not Given Lightly” are love songs, real heart-widening miracles; when you tune your ears to their timbres, you’ll whistle along with “Wanna!!”
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS. The sense of a huge damp respirating landscape, mossy stone and fir trees and water bluer than the sky, synthesizers creating an effect that feels pre-human: music whose rhythms reflect not an arc of bodily ecstasy but the minute motions of creeping roots and dripping rain. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the pride of Orcas Island.
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer. It’s not always good news when poets are lyricists, but Sadie Dupuis’s arch, bitter, self-delighted, and swiftly-moving lyrics are a real joy, and her band’s music is awkward in a way I love, all jabbing elbows and tangled feet. I’ve always said I’m just not a child of 90s indie rock– Archers of Loaf are never gonna move me like the Replacements– but Speedy Ortiz makes me love that era’s mixture of spasmodic whiz-bang energy and delighted irony enough to make me wonder. Maybe I’m wrong!
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thanks 4 the Service. I was a teenager when my body was swept up by the sound of Low End Theory and an aspiring cool kid when I found Beats, Rhymes & Life and I loved them both and never expected I’d hear another, let alone one even more musically various, politically exact, lyrically virtuosic, whatever other overjoyed adverb-adjective pairs you wanna throw at this astounding thing.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo. I tried to hate this one and I just completely failed. Coming back to it on a car trip with my brother on a sad fucking day, I finally heard how each unpredictable production choice and every obnoxious or grace-starved lyric and off-the-wall musical element lean on each other and I put my head down on the glove compartment and surrendered to loving it. The Life of Pablo is full of loose ends and unfinished threads, but what unites it is a sense of shame and redemption: it’s religious as nothing he’s done since “Jesus Walks.” And throughout Pablo, there’s that unique genius of West’s, those reckless ingenious acts of musical balancing: cramming samples into “No More Parties in LA” until the song bursts like a torn quilt; tucking Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” into the last third of “Famous.”
Rough Guide to African Rare Groove, Vol. 1. A serious damn party record: in less than an hour it hunts everywhere for pleasure, from buzzy solid-state Ethiopian funk to Tanzanian open-air dance music and a Malawian one that sounds like calypso with a drum machine, wrapping it all up with a Celestine Ukwu song that dissolves in soothing guitar and saxophone prettiness (the comedown tune?) and a really busted kooky Francis Bebey song (that’s him pictured) for your 4 a.m. seizures of inspiration.
Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8: the Private Press. This label, which specializes in rare guitar music, here does itself one better and shares an hour-plus of rarer-than-rare guitar music: Imaginational Anthem Vol. 8 consists of selections from three decades of privately printed LPs and 45s, by artists I’ve never remotely heard of: a world of one-offs, flashes of brilliance, prayers and musical tangents. My favorites are the stuff in the British-Isles line, but there are Delta- and Latin-inspired tunes, dabs of psychedelia and jazz, multi-tracked cascades; anything you could want, annotated with fondness and curiosity (“according to YouTube…”). A treasure.
Urgent Jumping: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics. From Stern’s, an East African dance music anthology that’s a little too overstuffed and (as above) folkloric/collector-y to really knock me out start to finish (as say African Pearls: Pont Sur le Congo or Golden Afrique Vol. 1 have): “twice as good if it were half as long,” as they say. But it’d be churlish of me to complain against the variety— benga, rumba, lilting Arabic-mode Zanzibarian tunes, and fuzzy soul alongside the sublime liftoff of the soukous tunes I’ll always like best. Favorites include L’Orchestre Grand Pisa’s “Oboti Kolisa,” L’Orch. Moja One’s “Dania ni Duara Pts. 1 & 2,” and Victoria Jazz Band’s “Anyanga.”