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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.

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Diva Madness: Sweet 16, Part 1

Welcome to the Sweet 16 of Diva Madness!  With so few battles in each quadrant, we’re going to take two at a time, and in this post we’ll be voting on the west side, representing our more recent divas of the 90s and the 00s.  For a full and updated, printable bracket, here’s the link: DivaMadness S16.  Now let’s take a closer look and start the voting.

ModernDiva S16

BEYONCÉ (1) vs. LADY GAGA (4)

And so it begins with two living legends, both having recently begun a new era or phase of their careers.  They are both easily triple threats (if not quadruple or more), and have found very little competition in Diva Madness so far.  This is certainly not the first interaction they’ve had, and you can watch both divas feature each other on phone related tracks here and here.  Perhaps this poll will be closer than either have experienced in previous rounds…

ADELE (6) vs. P!NK (7)

I’m somewhat disappointed that there is no such thing as an Adele/P!nk collaboration, although I really can’t picture what that would look like on a performance level.  So far here in Diva Madness, Adele has easily beaten underdogs, while P!nk has most recently and notably upset the 2nd-seeded Rihanna to contend for one of the Elite Eight spots.  Who would you like to face off against the winner of Beyoncé vs Gaga?

On to the 90s…

90sSweet16

MARIAH (1) vs. MJB (5)

Although I saw this match-up coming in my prediction, I have to admit, now that it’s a reality, I have no idea how to vote.  These two women are vocal powerhouses who bring a personality to their performance just as large as their dynamic range.  The majority of younger, potentially rising divas are regularly compared to these 90s icons.  Mariah certainly has the record sales and billboard hits to make her a #1 seed, but MJB continues to make current hits and gain younger fans.  There is no given in this poll.

LAURYN (11) vs. CELINE (2)

Initially I thought it might be difficult to draw comparisons between these two divas, but there are actually some similarities.  They both began performing at a young age, their vocal talent is beyond compare, and both women have reached a status that is not easily relatable for the common person.  Who’s the bigger diva though?  That’s up to you.

Share with your diva-loving friends until early next week, and check back in a day or two for the second half of Diva Madness Sweet 16!

Diva Madness Round 2: Modern Divas

Even before the NCAA’s March Madness has their Selection Sunday announcing their seeds and brackets, Diva Madness is ready for your final decisions about which divas will progress into our Sweet 16.  Here are the last 4 polls of round 2, all pairing up modern divas for your votes.

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Beyoncé (1) vs. Kelly Clarkson (8)

Not even the tragic death of Amy Winehouse could prevent Beyoncé from advancing to this round, and now she goes up against America’s sweetheart idol, Kelly Clarkson.  Though they are stylistically different, both Bey and Kelly are first and foremost powerful vocalists who have learned to do a whole heck of a lot more than sing.  Ok, I might be talking about one person more than another, but it is simply not possible for me to fake objectivity.  Votes are anonymous.

Katy Perry (5) vs. Lady Gaga (4)

These are two modern-pop-defining, novelty-loving superstars, and now they appropriately go head-to-head.  While both have been known for their over-the-top antics, they have also proven to be go-to acts for events such as The Oscars or The Superbowl in recent years.  Also, they really inspire hyphens!

Jennifer Hudson (14) vs. Adele (6)

At the 14th seed, JHUD upset the 3rd place to be here and goes up against one of the most popular voices of pop music right now, Adele.  I would absolutely love these two to have a sing off in real life, and to be honest, they both have such great and quirky personalities, I’d love to just watch them hang out on a reality show.  Who should I talk to in order to make that happen?  In addition to the performances below, consider checking out both women on James Cordon’s “Carpool Karaoke” – they are two of his most entertaining guests so far.

P!nk (7) vs. Rihanna (2)

Once again, we have two artists that both have been selected to win this bracket by some who have predicted their final four.  P!nk seems to be on a bit of a break from the spotlight, but there is no doubt she’ll be back with anthemic vocals and some new performance trick any day now.  Meanwhile, with her most recent release, ANTI, Rihanna just became the only artist to have #1 Hot 100 singles from 7 consecutive albums.  I’m also curious who you think would win a fist fight, but maybe that’s a conversation for the comment section.

There are still a few more days to vote on the other brackets, so in case you’ve missed any, here are the links, and how long their polls will be open.  Otherwise, get your friends voting, and prepare for Sweet 16 starting Wednesday, March 8th!

Classic Divas (Until 12am, Sat. March 4th)

1980s Divas (Until 12am, Sun. March 5th)

1990s Divas (Until 12am, Mon. March 6th)

 

Diva Madness: Modern Era, Round 1

Before you get down to business voting your favourite modern divas into the second round, please take a minute to download or print the brackets below and share your predictions for the final four (on twitter or Google Form)  by March 1st, 2016 for a chance to win a prize!

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If you haven’t yet voted for the first round of Classic Era Divas, they are up and ready for you now.  And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s an intro to the March Diva Madness tournament!  Now that those details are out of the way, let’s make some hard choices about the best and most beloved divas.  Since these are divas who’ve made their success during the first era of social media, we’ll try to keep the ballad examples as intimate as possible, showing off the vocals more than other performance elements.  Let’s get to it!

Beyoncé (1) vs. Amy Winehouse (16)

Those of you who know that I devoted this tournament entirely to Beyoncé two years ago may assume this seed is biased.  However, Bey is tied with Diana Ross and Mariah Carey for second most top-10 billboard singles of all time, though she has only been charting since 1998 (with Destiny’s Child).  With every single or album she releases (with some of the most brilliant marketing plans seen in music), she continues to prove her diva status with both her increasing vocal abilities and the way she attracts or drama and controversy.  Speaking of drama, her rival is the only deceased diva on this particular bracket.  For her all-too-short career, Amy Winehouse in concert was often like Whitney or Lauryn at their worst.  But when she was on, it was clear that Amy had not only a unique sound, but also a deep connection with the soul she grew up on.

Carrie Underwood (9) vs. Kelly Clarkson (8)

Herein lies the battle of the idols.  After Kelly Clarkson was the first ever winner of American Idol, it was quite sometime before anyone challenged her success.  Even after Carrie Underwood started making albums, Clarkson was considered to have sold more records worldwide than all the other Idol contestants combined.  However, since Underwood’s most recent album, Storyteller, the two divas’ sales are pretty competitive, estimated in the 60-70 million range.  When Ryan Seacrest (host of American Idol) was asked only last month whom he considered to be the most successful idol of all time, without hesitation his answer was Carrie, who has also broken nearly every possible record in her category of female country artist.  Meanwhile, Clarkson has continued to out-chart Underwood in the top 40 category, giving her a higher seed by a fraction of a score.

Katy Perry (5) vs. Nicki Minaj (12)

Katy Perry is a single-making machine.  Although she doesn’t have as many top 10’s as the top seeded divas in this bracket, she is tied with Beyoncé for 8 #1’s on Billboard’s 100.  She is known for her over-the-top live shows, including her 2015 Superbowl Halftime performance when she rode in on gigantic animatronic horse.  Nicki Minaj is known for her over-the-top performances too, but she tends to rely more on her massive Barbie-influenced persona than tricks and technology.  Although there are not many other rappers in this competition, I’ve found few disputes when it comes to Nicki’s inclusion.  Recently I asked an 11-year-old whom she thought was a prime example of a diva, and without thinking she answered “Nicki.”  Proof.

Florence Welch (13) vs. Lady Gaga (4)

The lead singer of Florence and the Machine is known for her unique and characteristic vibrato, and songs that allow her to build dynamically until she belts from her mid-range with all the power and soul of the greatest rock singers of the past.  While she may not receive royal status (yet), there does tend to be an other-worldliness about her stage presence.  Speaking of other-worldliness, Lady Gaga has been the standard by which we measure all pop gimmick.  However, don’t let Gaga’s antics distract you from the fact that Stephani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) can sing.  At 17, she was one of few select students to gain early admission to the renowned musical theater program CAP21, and more recently she has been showing off her ability to perform jazz standards with Tony Bennett.

Shakira (3) vs. Jennifer Hudson (14)

While Shakira hasn’t found nearly as much success on Billboard’s Hot 100 as many of the divas from her era, this Columbian belly dancer is especially known for her international acclaim.  She has broken nearly every record for a Latin recording artist to break on American charts, making her arguably the most successful Latin artist of all time.  In English she is mostly known for her hip-shaking dance tracks, so for a ballad example, it’s best to hear her in Spanish.  Jennifer Hudson made a name for herself as a vocalist to take seriously shortly after her run on American Idol, when she starred in Dream Girls as “the one who out-sang Beyoncé.”  She has been through the ringer but refuses to give up.  Although she has had limited success in pop radio, I am predicting this to be JHUD’s time to really shine.

Alicia Keys (11) vs. Adele (6)

I don’t know what Alicia Keys has been up to lately, but every diva has her own rhythm of popularity, and although her last album was not as successful, she’s charted most recently with The Hunger Games’ big theme, “Girl On Fire”.  Now that she’s a mom, it might just be the norm for her to take a few more years between each project, but that hardly takes away from her repeated appearance on pop, r&b, and hip hop charts.  Adele would have made this list before 25 and her huge ballad of 2015, “Hello,” pushed her over the 100 million sales mark, but she certainly would not have been seeded quite so high.  This year she embarks on her first tour since 2011 which will certainly continue to solidify her superstar diva status.

P!nk (7) vs. Miley Cyrus (10)

Although P!nk hasn’t had the same level of success on the pop charts, she not only has a powerful diva-worthy voice with an edge of attitude, but she’s a performer who has no physical boundaries with what she’s willing to do.  Whether she is swinging on fabric from the roofs of stadium venues, or whether she is mastering powerful and violent choreography to dance while singing at the top of her lungs, P!nk has made it look effortless.  I have no doubt that some will call into question Miley Cyrus’ presence on this list, but regardless of what you think of her personality or performance style, this girl was born and raised as a phenomenal power country vocalist.  She is the youngest person on this list for a reason, and whether they pay for her voice or to see what she’ll do next, she sells a heck of a lot of concert tickets.

Sia (15) vs. Rihanna (2)

In some ways, Sia is an anti-diva.  She has said that her wigs and other strategies of hiding her face are intended to keep some level of mystery and privacy for herself.  Though she has had success as a songwriter writing songs for many other artists (including the diva she is up against in this round), there are few singers who can perform her songs with the technical ability they require.  Meanwhile, Rihanna has the most #1 songs of any other woman from this era, and has been incredibly prolific in both recording and performing.  Her most recent album, ANTI, is a departure from her dance floor anthems, but seems to be a statement about making the music she wants to make right now, reminding me of Janet’s The Velvet Rope – no small comparison from this unabashedly massive Janet fan.

Don’t forget to vote for the Classic Era Divas, and watch out for more brackets at the end of the week!

Old New Borrowed Blue #4: FemBosses

Today is all about a few of my favourite women in music.  Enjoy!

Something Old:  Because there may not be another artist that was as influential on my tastes growing up than Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty).  And because I am already counting down the days (54) until I see her live for the first time (finally).  I’m hoping she performs some career-defining throwbacks like this, with or without the keytars.  Song starts around the three minute mark, but you might want to watch the whole thing, because this video from 1987 is EVERYTHING.

Something New:  The inspiration for today’s femboss theme is without question this short film released by MIA a couple weeks ago.  Over the years she has become one of my favourite women in music with her catchy dance tunes and her bold statements through music videos like “Bad Girls” and “Born Free”.  Matahdatah Scroll 01: Broader than a Border features two songs, “Swords” and “Warriors”, and footage of people doing fabulous and ordinary things in India.

MIAuniverse

Something Borrowed:  #SorryNotSorry to those who are not big fans of MIA, but this is too fun not to post.  Here is MIA’s tribute to Beyonce.  Though it’s called a remix of “Flawless”, “Baddygirl 2” borrows from other Yoncé tracks such as “Diva”, “Drunk in Love” and “Run the World (Girls)”.  Let me know if you notice any other references or samples that I missed!

Something Blue:  So many of my favourite women in music have made some incredibly beautiful, blue music, but possibly my all-time favourite sad songs is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.  Originally written in 1930 as a poem, Holiday’s recording has become one of the most popular racism protest songs of the century.  It’s imagery is dark and haunting, and elicits a fairly physical reaction in me every time I hear it, so it’s a less-frequently-played favourite, but favourite just the same.