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The Champion of Femcee Madness is…

Lauryn Hill

With a solid 83% of the votes over her fresh competitor, Noname, Lauryn Hill is your Femcee Champion! Congratulations to Ms. Hill, to all her committed voters, and those who called her as the winner from the beginning! I think even Noname would be supportive of this decision, considering how she idolizes and emulates her competitor.

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We happen to agree whole-heartedly here at OnRecords. In case you’d like to dive deep into the archives, I did happen to write about a couple of Lauryn albums a few years ago. The links are below, but fair warning: the formatting is weird – especially on the post about The Score.

The Score – The Fugees, 1996

Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998

Thanks again to everyone who listened to playlists, watched videos, had conversations about women in rap, and voted in the polls. Look out for March 2018 for a whole new set of brackets.  In the meantime, I’ll try to write about great albums a little more regularly.

Peace,

Danice

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16 Albums of 2016 Part 2 (#8-1)

Time for the rest of the list – here are my top 8 albums of 2016! If you haven’t yet seen my choices for #16-9, you can find Part 1 of my albums list here.

For the most part, you’ll have to find your own way to listen to the albums – most of them are available on all the major streaming services – but in case you’re new to the artist, I’ll post at least one video link from a track on the album. Enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter @DaniceCarlson. Happy Holidays!

#8  Telefone – NoName

telefoneMany of us Chance the Rapper fans have been following this long-time Chicago collaborator (formerly NoName Gypsy) for a while now, so when news came of her debut LP, it took me exactly zero minutes to download Telefone. And it’s even better than I imagined it could be. Not only does she show up with what she does best – a gentle flow of honest and poetic wordplay – but she brings in other Chicagoan artists, like Saba and Eryn Allen Kane, for some help with hooks. This album feels like a graceful and deeply mature version of adolescence, still holding on to childhood but constantly hit with daily doses of tragic reality, all in the localized context of her unsafe yet “happy” city of Chicago. My only complaint is that at 33 minutes Telefone is entirely too short, but I usually just end up listening to it twice in a row. It’s hard for me to pick a highlight, but if I had to I would say the tracks “Yesterday,” “Reality Check,” and “Shadow Man.” You can listen to the whole thing for free below via Soundcloud.

#7  ANTI – Rihanna

antiReleased in late January, this whole album was my jam for the first quarter of 2016. You could find me spouting comparisons to Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope over a beer on the regular. Rih Rih sets up her Anti-expectations album (her first for label, Roc Nation) with the very first chorus: “I got to do things my own way darling, will you ever let me, will you ever respect me? No.” And so she does things her own way, and it is as glorious as it is, at times, surprising. While she’s been showing her badassery for some time, ANTI expresses the whole gamut of emotions, including some Amy Winehouse-style vulnerability on “Love on the Brain.” As much as I still love watching what the Drake-featured song “Work” does to a Toronto dance party, my highlights from this record are “Needed Me,” and “Goodnight Gotham,” and the first track that I quoted above, the SZA assisted “Consideration.”

#6  22, A Million – Bon Iver

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Having fallen deeply in love with Bon Iver’s first two albums, I was nervous about 22, A Million – especially when they released the tracklist that featured a little more math than I feel comfortable with. It strays sonically from what I’ve come to expect from the band, but since my very first listen I’ve been absolutely mesmerized. Like Radiohead, what manages to remain in Bon Iver’s ever shifting and evolving music is an atmosphere that accesses emotional language beyond words. It seems that as Justin Vernon experiments more and more with heavily filtered and produced sounds, his own voice ironically becomes clearer and more easily understood. So although this album is more electronic and even, at times, robotic, the songs themselves never lose a sense of human intimacy… which is exactly why I would like to make another comparison to Radiohead, but I’ll let you make that connection on your own. The opening/title-ish track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” seems especially relevant at the moment, and with a perfectly fitting sample taken from Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” it holds on to some hope at the beginning of the record. My other choice tracks include “8 (Circle),” – which sounds a bit more like something from their self-titled album – and “33 “God”,” which is embedded below in a video of the live release.

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Before moving on to the top 5, I just want to say that this is the most ridiculous top 5 I can ever remember. #5-2 were some of the hardest spots to settle on, and for a while I considered making a 4-way tie. Seriously, so good. Ok, now that you’re a bit more prepared for how great I think these albums are… on with the list!

#5  A Seat at the Table – Solange

seat-at-the-tableMusically, conceptually, and as a package, A Seat at the Table is flawless. The scaled back production leaves room for the light piano and nearly counter-melodic bass lines, creating what sounds like conversation between the instrumentation and Solange’s soft yet powerful vocals. I have trouble remembering a time when I so loved the use of interludes, in which she uses personal and generational voices (such as her parents, and No Limit label founder, Master P) to delve deeper into a broader experience of being black in America. Each interlude has echoes and hints of songs to come, allowing for smooth transitions between dialogue and melodies. Without question,  “Cranes in they Sky” and “Where Do We Go” are two of my favourite songs of not only the album, but the year. Solange sings of strategies and questions that are both timeless and particularly pertinent, and offers songs as signs of healing and possibility without an ounce of naiveté, making ASATT one of the most hopeful collections of the year.

#4  Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

coloringbookIf you are not yet a Chance fan, I simply don’t know what to say to you. It seems like every time he puts out a new single, I forget about everything else that’s out there. His rhymes are clever and playful and full of joyful energy. Chance has managed to do what only Kanye has come close to doing – he has married hip hop and gospel music in a believable way that stops just short of preaching. Praising, sure, but it’s hard to sound judgmental when you take a “Smoke Break.” The Kanye and Kirk Franklin featuring opener, “All We Got,” is like part 2 of The Life of Pablo’s “Ultralight Beam,” similarly bringing the choirs together, literally and metaphorically, to begin the album. Sometimes I imagine it’s like the start of a hip hop pageant – you can hear a delightful chaos of all the participants warming up their instruments and finding their way to their rightful places in the church. Then suddenly, the album is off with a bang, and while it takes some time for wistful reflection (on “Summer friends”), it’s an animated celebration of life and creativity, bringing in a whole team Chicago collaborators, BJ the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods, NoName, Saba, and even the Chicago Children’s Choir. He released one of my favourite tracks, “Angels,” early, and it made my songs list of 2015, so that is obviously still a highlight, but I would add “Same Drugs,” with its extended Peter Pan imagery around growing up and apart, and the closer, “Finish Line/Drown.” “How Great,” and even “Blessings,” are nearly too much for this semi-post-evangelical, but both tracks have verses that are pure FIRE. Oh, and “All Night” has been my favourite non-Beyoncé track to spin at any and every party I’ve thrown this year.

#3  HEAVN – Jamila Woods

heavnJamila Woods’ debut solo LP is phenomenal. Lyrically she shows off her skills as a poet and a spoken word artist, but the music never sounds like an afterthought. Woods defies genre, playing with folk, hip hop, hymns, r&b and lullabies to create a sense of childhood and nostalgia for everyone, even quoting Paula Cole’s Dawson Creek theme song on “Lonely, Lonely.” Like Solange’s ASATTHEAVN makes use of the interlude/skit in really effective ways; they mostly consist of black women leaving voice recordings talking about their experiences. One of these interludes describes how black children playing outside is proof of the resilience of black people, and it’s hard not to hear that as the underlying theme and image of the entirety of HEAVN. It seems so fitting that Woods played a grandmotherly voice on Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” because on every track she says pointed and difficult wise words like only a grandmother can get away with. Also, like Chance and NoName, Jamila is deeply rooted in the city of Chicago, and regularly reflects on how her hometown has shaped her, not willing to give up any memories, no matter how painful. Speaking of memories, there is plenty of tribute on HEAVN to black women who have already gone ahead, paving a path of resistance, resilience, and healing. Every song on this record is pure art, so I hesitate to name specifics lest you only listen to only one piece of the puzzle. Especially since you can stream or download the whole album for free from Soundcloud.

#2  Blonde – Frank Ocean

blondeLike most of Twitter, I was anticipating this record HARD. Blonde (spelled with masculine on the album cover and feminine in your digital music player) was the second album released in a matter of days, breaking his 4 year streak of silence. For those in need of refresher on the timeline, the visual album, Endless was released only for Apple Music first. It was relieving and beautiful, but when he surprised us with this second album, Blonde, it felt like summertime Christmas. Yet, while I’m happy to loudly defend any album on this list, I’d rather not talk about Blonde much at all, but just experience it alone, loudly over headphones. The album feels laced with subtle knowing glances and inside jokes, along with tornados of feelings and regrets. Frank manages to weave so many real-life tensions right in the music, as songs regularly referencing recreational drug use surround a lecture-interlude about the danger of drugs and alcohol, and descriptions of booty calls are directly before homages to Trayvon Martin – one of many young black men shot and killed by a cop. It’s these uneven, and at times, stream-of-consciousness transitions that make this album sound so very beautifully human. So many moments stop me in my tracks – “Pink & White,” “Nights,” “Solo,” and “Godspeed” are all regular reminders to keep your eyes open to the beauty and life around you, even in the pain and heartache. “Nikes,” is the only video released from this album so far, and just as a warning this is NSFW.

#1  Lemonade – Beyoncé

lemonadecoverTo some extent I feel sorry for every other album released this year, because Lemonade is so much more than album of the year. It has been nothing less than iconic. For the third time now, Beyoncé has made what I was certain was the defining album of career; first with 4, then in 2011 with her self-titled visual/audial masterpiece, and yet somehow she managed to outdo her only real competition – herself! – with this beautiful masterpiece. With Lemonade we have stories within stories. At surface level, it continues the ongoing drama of Bey’s personal life with husband Jay Z. “Is he cheating on me?” is the question posed early on, and the guiding emotion of the first half of the record. While on one level this is a story of reconciliation between two people, every song seems to beckon more characters in to the narrative using both lyrics and genre. By time time we reach “Daddy Lessons,” we’ve heard the expected pop and R&B with some hip-hop nods, as well as straight up rock-and-roll in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” when all of a sudden we get a deep-fried, New Orleans style, country song that asks us to consider not only Bey’s relationship with her husband, but also her relationship with her father. Suddenly it’s no longer just about a celebrity power couple, but reaches beyond them to the socio-political importance of all relationships within every community. It’s about the hard emotional work that all mothers and wives inevitably do, and particularly the burden that black women carry for the people they love. It’s about listening to one another’s stories and holding each other up. It’s about doing the personal inner work in order to “get in formation” and stay ready for whatever comes your way. It’s about taking whatever random tart fruit you’re given and making the absolute best damn summer beverage you possibly can. Even more than that, it’s about not taking some white fangirl’s word for it and paying attention for yourself.

As many of you probably know (or could guess), I’ve been hosting mini “screenings” of Lemonade at my house about once a month since its release in May. I might get in trouble for making even a light comparison to The Holy Bible, but I think our reading of media like Lemonade is only made richer when we watch it with others. Each and every person I’ve watched the film with has provided new insights and questions. While I prefer to experience Blonde in private, it’s my belief that Lemonade is best when shared.

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As happy as I am with this list, I was forced to leave out some truly fantastic collections. Honourable mentions go to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled, Unmastered, Anderson Paak’s Malibu, and Nao’s For All We Know. I’ve been also working on a list of 2016 songs that will purposely look at those not already featured on albums here, so check that out in about a week’s time. This year doesn’t seem to be getting any better, but I hope our collective reflecting and listening will prepare us for all the work left to do as we approach 2017.

16 Albums of 2016 Part 1 (#16-9)

Even before we knew 2016 would be the tragic and eventful year it was already one of pointed artistic and musical responses. Police brutality and racial injustice are nothing new, but our consciousness and ability to talk about it has both increased and escalated to a new level of conflict, especially in light of the campaign for the USA’s now president-elect. And as the whole world seems to be choosing hatred and discrimination over care for our planet, we’ve lost an especially high number of inspirational icons and artists. For many of us, the music of this year has produced the only visible (audible) glimmer of light in the midst of many seemingly hopeless unknowns.

A couple notes to get us started – this is the first year I’ve had such an early deadline for songs/albums I’m considering. While in years past I would include an album dropped in late December, this year I’m only considering complete LPs released between January 1st and December 1st. That way I can write this blog with a little less stress about giving enough of a listen to some hot LP dropped yesterday. I’ve also decided to break this list into two parts to make it a little more manageable. And with all of that out of the way, here are the first 8 of 16 albums that have helped lead me through the processes of grief, celebration, protest, and deep thinking in 2016.

#16  The Suffers – The Suffers

suffersEasily one of my favourite new bands this year, The Suffers’ debut LP is bright, energetic, soulful, and there’s not a single dud on it. Whether you have the chance to see them live, or just blast the album over speakers in your living room, every member and section commands your attention without competing for it. Their lead woman, Kam Franklin, has so much charisma and attitude, matched only by her blaring horn section. Nearly. Oh hey, and three of my stand-out tracks happen to be what they perform for their smile-inducing Tiny Desk Concert! …But also check out “Make Some Room” and the rest of the album while you’re at it.

#15  Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

moonshapedpoolAlthough I had a lot of anticipation around the release of Radiohead’s latest LP, it took a few listens for me to really fall in love. With every record they release, Radiohead manages to play with such different sounds and yet always create similar deeply moving melodies and soundscapes. Along with many electronic tools and effects, Moon Shaped Pool plays with a much richer orchestral instrumentation than their last several records. But ultimately what convinced me was Yorke’s own voice, consistently dripping with emotional honesty whether I understand his words or not. Album highlights are “Burn the Witch,” “Glass Eyes,” and the last two songs on the album, “Present Tense,” (which is embedded below) and “True Love Waits.”

#14  Love Letter For Fire – Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop

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A strong recommendation for anyone who loves The Civil Wars, since Love Letter for Fire is a collection of duets by two incredibly creative, talented, and often solo-performing songwriters. I’ve wanted Sam Beam of Iron & Wine to record more collaborations ever since first seeing him perform with his sister harmonizing at Sasquatch ten years ago, and this record is the answer to that prayer. Jesca Hoop is a new voice to me, but I especially enjoy her sense of humour and quirkiness when paired with often musically melancholic Beam. They balance each other out while adding layers of both harmony and depth to one another’s songwriting. As much as I like their work separately, this collaborative album seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. I particularly like “Know the Wild that Wants You,” “Soft Place to Land,” and the rather odd “Chalk it up to Chi.”

#13  Black America Again – Common

common-baaThere is rarely a Common record that I don’t love – I’m a sucker for his articulation and enunciation, not to mention his lyrical consciousness. But this is far from a favourite-rapper nod. The more I listen to Black America Again, the more I’m convinced it’s Common’s best work since the 90s, finding that perfect balance of sharp and smooth – angry as hell and calm as dawn – as he describes not only what is wrong with America, but also his hopeful imaginings for a way forward. On top of all of that, the list of features is stacked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bilal, Syd (from The Internet and Odd Future), BJ the Chicago Kid, and John Legend. My personal highlights are the title track, “Pyramids,” and the chilling closer, “Letter to the Free.”

#12  Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens

chaleurhumaine

I was listening to this album all year without realizing it could be a contender for this list. Héloïse Letisser (aka Christine) re-released her 2014 album for the Anglophone world in February of this year and has been picking up some serious interest outside of France ever since. On one level, this is creative work around gender, sexuality, and identity, while on another, it’s a collection super poppy synth beats that manage to both excite and relax. The moments that especially stand out for me include her take on Kanye’s “Heartless” in “Paradis Perdus,” as well as “Tilted,” and “Night 52.”  Oh yes, and her music videos are almost as cool as her live performances.

#11  Love You To Death – Tegan and Sara

love-you-to-deathThe Canadian twin duo’s 8th album was never going to be the year’s most important album, but it might be the happiest, which is an impressive title given how much of it explores difficult confession, breakups, and regrets. I think Love You to Death is so satisfying for me because it sounds like the album I wanted in Heartthrob. Their journey into synth-pop feels right and complete, and yet they’ve managed to maintain the emotional honesty that made their earlier albums so effective. The whole record is super accessible, but my favourite moments include “That Girl,” “Dying to Know,” “100x” and “BWU.”

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

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The reunion album that no one knew whether they should hope for – especially in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death in March – was released in two perfect volumes and is exactly what our imaginations promised and more. It has everything we’d expect – jazzy hip hop, Q Tip’s classic lyrical flow and Phife’s playful energy, a mix of unexpected samples with live instrumentals, and deep exploration of racism and political corruption in America and worldwide. The timing of this record is creepy, having been primarily recorded early this year but seemingly tailor-made for the post-election experience. The featured verses on this album feel both nostalgic, with old friends such as Busta Rhymes and Consequence, and poetic, with new(er) heavy-hitting friends such as Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, and Kanye West. 18 years was a long time, but it was worth the wait. Literally every song is a highlight.

 #9  Blackstar – David Bowie

blackstarThe year of 2016 basically began with the bad news of Bowie’s liver cancer and death, which brought with it the release of his own personal epitaph. The entire collection is an appropriately dark and eerie prodding lament. There is a deep sense of importance – like we’ve been given this brief but valuable glimpse into the mortality of a legend. Actually, exactly like that. I wouldn’t call this record fun or even enjoyable, but there is mysterious beauty in the jazz inspired arrangements, and David’s own deeply exhausted voice. The title track and “Lazarus,” are the two songs that haunt me most from this album.

That’s it for the moment! Now it’s time to lean into the spirit of advent, and wait for a week to check back to see my top 8 albums of the year!

 

15 Albums of 2015

So much for publishing this over the Christmas break, but for those who are still interested in some fantastic albums of 2015, I’m hoping to cash in on the phrase, “better late than never”.  As I mentioned on my list of 15 songs of 2015, this has been a particularly good year for new music.  Usually I’m able to fit just about every album that I have loved in a year into a list of 12-14, but this year 15 does not feel like enough.  No matter what I do, I will need to leave off an album that shaped my year in some way.  Sorry in advance if I miss your favourite album of the year in this list, but you can likely assume I agonized over including it.

(15)  All We Need – Raury

allweneedI love a whole lot about this debut from Raury, but maybe most of all I love the fusion of genres.  All We Need is part folk, part hip hop, and part poetry, and manages to never sound scattered.  If anything, I’d say it feels comfortable in its own skin.  Dare I call it hippy-hop?  No, I don’t think I will.  At times Raury does come across as a bit idealistic, but then I remind myself that this guy is 19 years old, and I relax into the music.  My highlights are the Big K.R.I.T. assisted “Forbidden Knowledge,” “Woodcrest Manor II,”  and “Mama”.

(14)  How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence and the Machine

HBHBHBI would still consider Ceremonials to be Florence and the Machine’s strongest album, but one thing I love about their 2015 release is their band consistency.  The group does what they do best – dark and broody verses matched with loud, belted, catchy hooks; a concept album that plays with related themes (this time often biblical heartache and marine imagery), yet doesn’t go overboard; and of course an ethereal quality somehow pulled off with huge volume and instrumentation.  Highlights include “What Kind of Man,” “Delilah,” and “St. Jude”.

(13)  Unbreakable – Janet Jackson

unbreakableWe’ve been waiting 8 long years for Unbreakable, and although it’s not my album of the year, it’s full of diverse R&B for any occasion.  My favourites are the opening three songs: “Unbreakable,” “BURNITUP!” and “Dammn Baby” back to back.  The album sales have been brilliantly packaged into bundles with merchandise or concert tickets, which I think we’ll end up seeing a lot more of in the future. I bought my copy of this album with a tour T-shirt.  But you can just buy it on iTunes, the old-fashioned way.  In case you missed it, here’s the video for the first single, “No Sl333p,” featuring J. Cole:

(12)  Every Open Eye – Chvrches

chvrches eoeYes, “Leave a Trace” is the big song of this album, but the entire thing manages to keep a high energy without tiring out or boring the listener.  I can’t decide if Lauren Mayberry’s voice has matured slightly, or if I’ve just gotten used to it, but I never listened to their first album, The Bones of What You Believe, nearly as much as I’ve played Every Open Eye.

(11)  Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

SIJS-2400I was skeptical of all the chatter around new Australian artist, Courtney Barnett, and her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.  Listening to a single on its own didn’t hook me, but when I finally decided to give the whole thing a spin I was pleasantly surprised.  Comparisons to Dylan’s lyrics have been ripe, but the first thing my wife and I noticed was how her voice sounds like Sheryl Crow.  Sometimes I think this album sounds like a lost record of 1996, but nobody in the 90s was writing music this good about things like buying organic vegetables or the price of housing.  Seriously, she can make a decent tune out of any random subject matter – she’s like the Sydney Bristow of blues-rock.

(10)  Vieux Loop – The Acorn

vieux loupFive years since their last album, and eight years since I became a fan, Ottawa’s The Acorn has released a short but sweet, folky album named after an old wolf.  Ever since hearing this among the Polaris Prize nominations list, it’s been a go-to record for chill activities like tea-drinking and writing.  Highlights include “Cumin,” and “Domination”.

(9)  Ratchet – Shamir

Ratchet

Genderqueer 21 year-old Shamir from Las Vegas, Nevada is one of my favourite new artists in a long time.  Shamir makes fun, innovative music, making use of various sounds both electronic and acoustic, and performs it with a beautiful counter-tenor voice that reads neither as masculine or feminine, reminiscent of Prince or Annie Lennox.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to get to know Shamir’s quirky style through a music video.   Here’s “Call It Off”:

(8)  You Should Be Here – Kehlani

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I will never forget my first night in NYC this past October, getting ready to go out, and a friend putting this album on.  Until that moment, I thought that Kehlani had only released her EP, Cloud 19, so as soon as I recognized the voice I was excited to give this a closer listen.  Among so many up-and-coming R&B voices, this one is a little more uniquely hip-hop; smooth but with a distinct edge.  From the intro to the final track, this album feels cohesive and ready to play any time of day, as long as you’re okay with a parental advisory warning.

(7)  Epic – Kamasi Washington

KamasiEpic may be the most appropriately titled album of the year, with no less than 3 hours of heavily Coltrane-influenced saxophone.  Kamasi has been making a name for himself via collaborations with Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, but I doubt even he expected to his debut jazz LP to be as well-received as this has been.  With his 10-piece band, this sounds reminiscent of post-bop jazz, while also forging a new kind of fusion that just might provide a way forward for jazz saxophone.  If you feel overwhelmed by a triple-disc record, give “Re-Run” or “Change the Guard” a try for a taste of Kamasi Washington.

(6)  Coming Home – Leon Bridges

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The comparisons to Sam Cooke have been most rich, and indeed this album sounds like a lost record of the 60’s, when gospel first became pop.  The production is soft, echoey and reminiscent of the golden Motown era, while 25-year-old Bridges’ voice is like salted caramel – smooth with a bit of crunch, and ever so delicious.  If I had to pick some favourite moments, they’d be on “Brown Skin Girl” and “River”.  But it’s best heard all together, and this is number one on my vinyl-to-purchase list.

(5)  Sound & Color – The Alabama Shakes

sound&colorFrom the first track on The Alabama Shakes’ second album, it’s clear that this is a departure from their debut, Boys and Girls.  Vibes open the album, introducing us to more diverse instrumentation and more softly subtle sound.  Brittany Howard also released some music with her punk band as Thunderbitch, and I can’t help but wonder if that outlet freed The Shakes up to explore some quieter dynamics here.  Brittany’s contagious energy as she sings simple and honest lyrics, combined with super catchy blues riffs, provides plenty of consistency for old and new fans alike to be all about Sound & Color.

(4)  Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment 

surfIt was an emotional rollercoaster when Surf was released for free on iTunes.  First, elation.  Second, disappointment when its availability was only on American iTunes.  Third, I went into problem solving mode, attempting to find someone who would buy it south of the border and dropbox it to me.  About a week later I finally found a downloadable copy here (and you should too), and proceeded to download and listen to these collaborative tracks on repeat for another week or two.  It’s not what I expected.  Chance the Rapper has continued to evolve and explore, bringing passion and humour to every conversation, and you can tell how much these musicians respect and enjoy one another.  If nothing else, give “Sunday Candy” and “Wanna Be Cool” a listen.

(3)  Ibeyi – Ibeyi

ibeyiIbeyi is the Yoruban word for “twins”, an appropriate band name for French-Cuban twin sisters, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz.  Soon after being mesmerized by the video for “River”, a friend sent me their interview with Shad on the Q.  I think I knew then that their album would be somewhere on this list.  This is proper folk music, made by people tied to land and language, culture and place.  It’s minimalist, relying on sparse rhythms and rich harmonies for a simultaneously haunting and comforting sound.

(2)  Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

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I am not a Sufjan purist.  What I mean by this is I have not been sitting around hoping he would return to the folky style of Illinoise or Michigan.  I loved Age of Adz, and am a firm believer in artists losing some fanbase in order to explore new soundscapes.  What impresses me about Carrie & Lowell is not the way it seems like a return, but the way Sufjan makes such a dive from his head to his heart.  We are so used to never speaking ill of the dead that when  Sufjan sings honestly about his mother and her imperfections, we know there is something especially vulnerable and beautiful and human going on.  This album feels nothing short of sacred, and requires energy to engage it properly.  But I promise it’s worth it.

(1)  To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

TPABblogIf you have had more than one conversation with me this year, you will likely not be surprised by my number one pick.  To Pimp A Butterfly was my most anticipated album in a very long time and it did not disappoint.  What can I even say in a paragraph? Kendrick Lamar wrestles through massive themes of race and celebrity, love and hate, family and success, while reuniting funk with rap to tell another beautifully crafted story woven together through a spoken-word poem.  If Good Kid M.A.D. City was a Compton album, TPAB is an American album, rising up and peeling back layers of systemic racism and oppression on grander and larger scales than ever before.  Yet the constant self-awareness and reflection never lets it be reduced simply to a protest album.  Plus, on top of being arguably the best rap lyricist right now, Kendrick uses his masterpiece to showcase other phenomenal musicians, whether legendary, like George Clinton, or fresh faces like Thundercat, Rapsody and Kamasi Washington (to name a few).  This is without hesitation my album of 2015, and is providing some serious competition with Beyoncé and Frank Ocean for my album of the decade so far.  And with that sweeping statement, let’s jam out to “King Kunta”, shall we?

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I feel like I ought to mention couple of hot contenders that at some point were on this list.  If you want even more suggestions, check out Miguel’s Wildheart, Jamie XX’s In Colour and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness.  If these albums were released nearly any other year, I’m quite sure they would have been included, but the fact they are not on my list  just goes to show what a strong year 2015 was.  And now for 2016 – peace!

 

And the Winner is… O Brother Where Art Thou, 2000

OBro Perform

Congratulations to all who voted for O Brother, Where Art Thou, making it OnRecords’ most favourite soundtrack ever!

Probably my favourite fun fact about this winning soundtrack is that its recording actually began before filming the motion picture.  This probably helps explain my decision to place it in the “Musicals” category, even though it was one of the few that haven’t been turned into a Broadway show (it’ll probably happen eventually though, right?).

So much more than a great soundtrack, O Brother has become like a curator, introducing many to early American folk music.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the film is credited with the rise in popularity of folk instruments in the past 15 years, as well as successful bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers.  But I digress.

When we press play on this album, it begins with a loud crackling noise – the sound of a log being chopped – which becomes the downbeat for “Po’ Lazarus”, the work-song recorded by Mississippi prisoners in 1959.  This track accompanies one of the coolest stories behind this album: former inmate James Carter (who is credited as the lead vocal on the song) was presented with a cheque for $20,000 and when the soundtrack was nominated for a few Grammys, he attended the award ceremony in 2002, one year before his death.

The next track, Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, is the only other compiled and pre-recorded song on the album.  Since its recording in 1928 this song has been covered by many and even cleaned up for children a few times. But luckily we get the uncensored hobo’s paradise, complete with “lakes of Whiskey” and “cigarette trees”.  It really sets the tone, for the rest of this old-timey soundtrack..

The rest of the tracks are a collection of traditional folk tunes brilliantly chosen by T Bone Burnett and re-recorded by a variety of country, bluegrass, and blues musicians.  First up is Norman Blake’s rendition of the classic “You Are My Sunshine”, beginning with the saddest verse to temper the mostly light and sweet melody.

“Down to the River to Pray” is the first of a few to feature the crystal clear, angelic voice of Alison Krauss.  It also happens to accompany one of my favourite moments in the film, when Delmar gets himself baptized:

Next up is the radio version of the plot-central track, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, which will show up a few more times before the album is done.  This particular version (with lead vocals by Union Station’s own Dan Tyminski) is stripped down to vocals and acoustic guitar, reflecting how the recorded it in the film.  The country music is broken up a bit with “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” by ever-smooth bluesman Chris Thomas King before launching back into “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time as an instrumental acoustic guitar solo.

After the perky “Keep on the Sunny Side”, Alison Krauss returns, first with one other female bluegrass legend, and then with two: Gillian Welch joins her on the theologically-problematic but emotion-lifting funeral favourite, “I’ll Fly Away”, before Emmylou Harris joins both women to complete the country vocal trifecta on the dirge-like lullaby, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”.

Cutesy and chipmunk-y, “In The Highways”, is followed by what is possibly my favourite track on the album, from the Cox Family, “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)”.  Then, another instrumental of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time on violin, sets us up for Ralph Stanley’s haunting a cappella rendition of “O Death”.

The fictional singing group of the film, The Soggy Bottom Boys, return for an encore, and give us “In The Jailhouse Now,” as well as a full band version of our favourite theme song, which has an official music video that acts a bit like a film trailer/summary.  Good luck not watching the movie after this.

The album closes out with two traditional folk tunes, first an a cappella and bass-heavy “Lonesome Valley”, and second, the Stanley Brothers’ old-time-country, mandolin accompanied “Angel Band”.  There doesn’t seem to be a great way to finish off this throwback to old school American music, so the soundtrack ends there, not with a memorable moment from the film, but with a simple gospel folk tune about preparing for one’s death.

I think O Brother is such a clear favourite because it is not only a great collection of nostalgic tracks or a memorable keepsake from a great film, but because of the way the music transports us to a different time and place, covers a lifetime of emotional highs and lows, and if we’re lucky, we return to our own world with a new perspective.  With or without the visuals of the movie.

…But if you haven’t yet, you should probably still see the movie.