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Songs of 2016

One of the most apt tweets I’ve read in the past month was from Emmy Kegler: “2016 has been, for almost all intents and purposes, a garbage fire. But a couple of things have been really great and I wanna collect them all.” Nearly all of my better-than-garbage-fire moments of 2016 have been musical, and these are some highlights of my collecting.

Making a list of songs from a year is incredibly challenging, especially from a year that has been far more interested in providing us with fantastic albums. Please do not hear that as a complaint – far from it!  I am so happy that the art of an album is alive and well in our digital world. It’s just that a plethora of great albums makes for a myriad of memorable songs.

In order to make this task of choosing 16 songs somewhat more possible, and to allow for profiling a few more artists, this list does not include songs that are featured on records that have made my 2016 Albums list (although there might be the odd, but justifiable exception). Enjoy exploring some new music or comparing your own lists with mine! Let me know what I missed in the comments or on twitter @PlayListedPod. If a song does not include an embedded video, make sure to click the link in the title to hear it for yourself.

#16  Dang! – Mac Miller featuring Anderson Paak (from the album The Devine Feminine)  

This song has very quickly become my feel-good track of the last several months. I have never given Mac Miller a real chance before (being a white rapper and all), but his playful, goofy verses match perfectly with Paak’s laid back vocals. I find it especially satisfying to dance to while cooking or doing dishes.

#15  Don’t Mind – Kent Jones (from the mixtape Tours)

I need at least one guilty-ish pleasure every year, and I’m still not 100% sure whether I spin it at parties for anyone other than myself. It’s basically Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” reimagined, but I think the Kent Jones version is slightly less terrible lyrically, and far more catchy. Plus it will forever remind me of some amazing teens I met this summer in Pennsylvania who taught me the dance (which you can always find me doing behind the turntables).

#14  Worry – Jack Garrett (from the album Pulse)

I first listened to this song early this year as I was helping a friend put together a break-up playlist – the track fit perfectly, but I forgot about it for a few months (probably sometime after Lemonade took control of all my listening time). “Worry” manages to marry the bitter and sweet of moving on from a relationship in both its lyrics and melody, over a chill beat that works for nearly any occasion.

#13  I Need a Forest Fire – James Blake featuring Bon Iver (from the album The Colour in Anything)

I love this collaboration so much that I’m shipping James and Justin… at least for the sake of a collab album. I have to be careful what playlists I add this song to, because it stops me in my tracks whenever and wherever it’s playing. The ethereal quality is perfect for reflecting upon regrets, distant memories, and other big life questions and feelings. Best listened to from fetal position.

#12  OOOUUU – Young M.A.

There is a reason why after only a few months of this track going viral, more than 10 other rappers, including Nicki Minaj and 50 cent, have already been part of remixes. “OOOUUU” has quickly become a phenomenon, and there is something very refreshing about having a lesbian rap the gangsta anthem of the year.

#11  Room in Here – Anderson Paak featuring The Game (from the album Malibu)

Anderson Paak’s debut was the hardest not to include in my Albums of the Year list. Instead I’ll focus on the track that stands out to me the most, which is this groovy love song about wanting to spend alone time with the girlfriend. And not to distract from the brilliance of Paak himself, but The Game’s verse here is on point.

#10  The Greatest – Sia featuring Kendrick Lamar (from the album This is Acting)

Warning: the video above does not contain the Kendrick Lamar verse, which means you should probably go listen to that later too. Still, the video seems like the best way to fully experience this song as both an energetic dance/work-out track and a touching homage to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June. Maddie Ziegler and Sia together demonstrate how we can pick ourselves up in the face of tragedy and threat, and move forward in joyful protest.

#9  One Dance – Drake featuring Wizkid and Kyla (from the album Views)

I never thought I’d be playing so much Drake at parties, but now that I’m in Toronto and Drake is pretending he’s from the Caribbean (perhaps to woo his longtime crush?), I’m almost convinced. With one of his best samples/featured vocals from Kyla, this song is straight-up contagious.

#8  Find Me – Sigma featuring Birdy 

Don’t ask me to differentiate between the song and the music video, which features everyone’s new favourite 12-year-old actor, Millie Bobby Brown. Does anyone else imagine Eleven singing this from the Upside Down? All I know is that since watching this beautiful and dramatic video, all I need to do is listen to this song in order to feel all of my feelings again.

#7  Bourbon – Gallant (from the album Ology)

I tend to be a sucker for songs named after beverages, but it’s a done deal when said song introduces me to a falsetto as smooth and strong as Gallant’s. Once I started paying attention to the lyrics and asking whether he’s comparing love for a woman or his struggle with faith and doubt to addictions, I’m completely slain.

#6  Good As Hell – Lizzo (from the EP Coconut Oil)

If you have had any conversation with me in the past several months, you’ve probably heard Lizzo’s name once or seven times. She seems to specialize in self-confidence anthems, and this is my favourite, although “‘Scuse Me” is also a contender. In my job searching this fall, “Good As Hell” and the rest of the Coconut Oil EP became my interview prep soundtrack, and I highly recommend it for any kind of boost you need.

#5  Overcome – Laura Mvula featuring Nile Rogers(from the album The Dreaming Room)

This was a song that 2016 needed – a rally cry to keep on keeping on, while most likely borrowing from Maya Angelou’s biography title “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes,” in the outro’s refrain. Mvula is a queen, and although her album The Dreaming Room didn’t make the same kind of impression on me as her debut in 2013, Sing to the Moon, I will always anxiously await any projects she undertakes.

#4  Ultralight Beam – Kanye West featuring Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, and The Dream (from the album The Life of Pablo)

Every once in a while I put TLOP on, but every time I’m reminded that it’s all downhill after this opening track. Not that there aren’t a couple of other great songs, but as an album this is admittedly Kanye’s most unfinished and scattered collection so far. But oh, the hope “Ultralight Beam” creates, reaching deep into gospel and providing space for one of Chance’s best feature verses yet. I think it’s proof that even as Kanye continues to spiral, there is still some connection to his own humanity and brilliance, despite his angry ego.

#3  Show Me Love – Hundred Waters featuring Chance the Rapper #4  Show Me Love – Hundred Waters featuring Chance the Rapper 

There is something beyond special about this track, and that something is a kind of holy trinity of Hundred Waters’ spooky earnest prayer-song and the pure joy of Chano mixed over the contagious drums of Skrillex’s keen ear and imagination. This song has become a mantra for me whenever engaging with folks who tempt me to violence.

#2  At Your Best – Frank Ocean (from the album Endless)

There are very few songs that have had the kind of effect on me as this song, Frank Ocean’s cover of Aaliyah’s version of the Isley Brothers’ “You Are Love.” I cannot do anything, even write this blurb, while this song is playing. It’s like Frank’s falsetto has a magical spell that whispers to me: “No typing, No eating, No thinking… Ok, I guess you can breathe a little bit.” I recognize that this experience is due to a number of factors. Like so many of you, I spent a lot of time anticipating the visual album, Endless. Nothing could have prepared me for beginning with this. Sometimes it still takes a couple tries to continue the album past “At Your Best.” Endless indeed. *Warning – the link above is a slightly lower-pitch version that ends up also being remixed. If you have access to an Apple Music link, that’s the best (and only legal) way to have a listen.

#1  Formation – Beyoncé (from the album Lemonade… sort of)

No surprises here, ironically, since this song was initially such a huge surprise to everyone. Do you remember where you were when this song/video was released? It shocked and stopped the world, and was yet another example of Beyoncé refusing to play by music industry rules. Instead of releasing it as a single or even a video on her website, “Formation,” was shared as a private youtube link, individually via email, until everyone knew about it whether they had managed to see it yet or not. Then of course, she performs her brand new song – never mind that it is full of very explicit southern, black, female pride – at the Superbowl halftime show. World stop. Carry on.

I’m not even going to write about the video because there are articles upon articles already out there, analyzing scene for scene. I’ll just say that the song prepared us for Lemonade in the way that I think the spirit of Lemonade prepares us for the work of “Formation.” Although the song is intricately connected to the album, they have been, and are meant to be experienced separately. This song is simultaneously a dance track, a marketing campaign, a protest march, a rally call, a think piece, and an anthem – and it’s damn good at each and every role.

 

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!

 

Diva Madness: Classic Era Round 1

The time has come for voicing your opinions in another epic bracket tournament, this time between the beloved Divas of our pop music world.  For a longer description of how these particular 64 divas were chosen and seeded, check this out.  A link for the printable brackets is in the image below – make sure to download a copy and play along at home.  If you send me your final four selections (either filling out this nifty Google Form or by tweeting a pic of your brackets to me @djwhysoserious before March 1st), correct predictions will be entered to win a TBD gift-prize!

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Ok, now with those details aside, let’s get this tournament happening already!  It’s time to make our hard choices about which Classic Era Divas get to progress to the next round – and to help us decide, I’ll pick a ballad for each diva to show off their chops for us.

Barbra Streisand (1) vs. Gloria Gaynor (16)

First up we have our top seed of the classic era, Barbra Streisand (henceforth known as Babs) going up against disco sensation Gloria Gaynor.  In terms of Diva status, both of these ladies did their share in defining the term, one in the world of musical theatre, the other in the clubs.  Babs’ career has spanned 6 decades (!), and she is one of only 16 performers to have won an EGOT.  Gloria’s career may only span 4 decades, but she has arguably the most timeless breakup song ever, “I Will Survive”.  For comparison purposes, we’ll hear Babs sing the iconic “People,” (from Funny Girl), and Gloria on one of her few ballads, “I Never Knew” from 2004.

Of course your votes do not need to be restricted to these two performances, but instead should take in to account all that you know and love about these women, their music, and their diva-like attributes.  Who will survive?

Linda Ronstadt (9) vs. Dionne Warwick (8)

Although she was the most successful female artist of the 1970’s, Linda Ronstadt is rarely a name I come across anymore.  She is known for re-popularizing tunes with covers, breathing life and energy into songs that otherwise might have been forgotten, something that only a diva can truly get away with.  Dionne Warwick is another diva who rarely gets the recognition she deserves, even though she is the second (to Aretha Franklin) most charted women in billboard history.  Even into her seventies, she carries herself with an attitude and grace that proves her diva-worthiness over and over again.  She may be known for “That’s What Friends Are For,” and “Walk On By,” but I’ve chosen her original “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” to show off her effortless vocal power.  For Linda, I’ve chosen “Long Long Time” to give some evidence of why Time Magazine described her as “Torch Rock”.

Remember, vote for the diva, not necessarily my song choice.  😉

Aretha Franklin (5) vs. Billie Holiday (12)

Yes, this tournament is going to get ugly right away.  I’ve already mentioned that Aretha is Billboard’s most charted female artist, which speaks to both her prolificacy and her longevity, having charted as early as 1961 and as recently as 2014 (with her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”).  On top of numerous awards, Rolling Stone Magazine has called her the Greatest Singer of All Time.  Then again, what do they know if they make such a list without including Billie Holiday, a force of expression who broke and rewrote every rule for jazz vocalists and performers?  It’s hardly any doubt that the majority of singers that did make the list took their cues and inspiration from this lady right here.  Billie may easily be the original diva, with attitude and drama dripping from every performance and recording.  To show off these matriarchs of soul, I’ve chosen a couple of their earliest, career-creating songs.

Judy Garland (13) vs. Tina Turner (4)

This is the oddest match up of this bracket, and because of very different fanbases, I have no idea how this one will end.  The similarities are there: both women seem most comfortable on stage, and are classic examples of what they do best, whether it’s singing like a Hollywood angel in Judy’s case, or infusing a performance with as much personality and energy as we’ve all come to expect from Tina.  Each of these divas has had to repeatedly overcome personal drama in many forms, refusing to let it define their careers.

Cher (3) vs. Debbie Harry (14)

Cher just may be the original pop chameleon, reinventing her image and style for each decade she went on to dominate.  Though she began her career primarily as an entertainer, Cher worked hard to improve and strengthen her vocals, and released some solid ballads along with her dance tunes to prove she could play the diva game and stand out, with her contralto range and personality for days.  Debbie Harry is not only a punk icon, as one of the most successful women in rock music, but she also stands as a symbol of female beauty, talent and badassery.

Neither of these ladies are known for their ballads, but that’s what you’re going to get for this round.

Dolly Parton (11) vs. Ella Fitzgerald (6)

These may be the two least drama-driven women in this bracket.  Dolly Parton is one of very few child stars to make it through adolescence without addiction or major crisis.  She is still with the same man she married in 1966, and has for decades seemed to be the one solid rock in a host of emotionally extreme divas.  However, this rock is also a star performer with a personality to match her ample bosom and massive hairdo, and she is the most awarded woman in the history of country music.  Ella Fitzgerald didn’t start her life drama free, having regularly been homeless after running away from an abusive stepfather and multiple orphanages.  But it seemed the First Lady of Song found her home in singing jazz standards with an unmatched clear tone and an ear for improvising.  Though she was reportedly quite shy in person, her stage presence was another story.

Donna Summer (7) vs. Janis Joplin (10)

These two divas have been regularly crowned “Queen” of their genres, disco and psychedelic rock respectively.  Donna Summer began her career in musical theatre, but rose in popularity with her hit “Love to Love You Baby,” a song so popular in clubs that she recorded a 17-minute version so they wouldn’t need to play it on repeat.  A live version of the sexy song is below, since even her ballad songs eventually turn into a full-on disco dance party anyway.  Janis Joplin has plenty of solid blues tracks perfect for feeling and grieving, although she isn’t so much showing off her voice as she is her very soul.  Unfortunately for all of us, her potential for longevity was cut short by a heroin overdose, which ended her life before she reached 30.

Patti LaBelle (15) vs. Diana Ross (2)

Nothing like the Godmother of Soul and the Queen of Motown facing off.  I doubt I need to say much in terms of justifying either of these women’s diva-status.  While Patti LaBelle is known for her powerful voice (which allegedly spans 5 octaves), Diana Ross has often been accused of her fame being more reliant on her performance (which probably says more about her stage presence than it does about her voice).  Whatever you see as Diana’s strengths, they’re strong enough for Billboard to call her the “Female Entertainer of the Century,” and for her to be arguably the best charted woman worldwide.

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

kehlani

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

LeonBridges

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

carrienlowell

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!

 

Fave Songs of 2015

2015 has been an absolute standout year for new music, making the task of choosing only 15 songs and albums far more difficult than I remember in the past.  I will not pretend that this list represents the best since I know I haven’t listened to everything made this year.  But it does represent the songs that I have most enjoyed using to soundtrack my life this year.  If there is no embedded video, the titles will link to a place where you can hear the tracks for yourself.

(15)  Lean On – Major Lazer featuring MO & DJ Snake

The production on this track is pretty subtle, at least for trap, and I can’t get enough of it.  The hook is catchy, the beat is bouncy, and the whole thing never fails to bring a smile to my face.

(14)  Should’ve Been Us – Tori Kelly

It took me a little too long to jump on the Tori Kelly train, but now I might as well be the conductor.  Not only does her voice rival divas twice her age, she has the talent and charisma to stick around for the next several decades.  For the most part I like her covers better than her originals, but “Should’ve Been Us” is my exception.

(13)  Loud Places – Jamie XX featuring Romy

Jamie of The XX has for the last few years been regularly reminding me that he is not going away as one of my favourite dj/producers.  I could have included a few tracks from his debut solo album, but ultimately it was this song featuring The XX bandmate, Romy Madley Croft, that has ended up on more of my playlists than any other.

(12)  Yoga – Janelle Monae featuring Jidenna

This along with “Classic Man” launched Jidenna’s career this year, which was fine, but I was just happy for some new J.Monae music.  “Yoga” is a bit of a departure from anything on Electric Lady, but I’m just happy that people dance to a song that includes the lyrics, “get off my areola!”

(11)  Borders – M.I.A.

Still no new album from M.I.A. (she announced that one is on its way back in July), but this new video is enough to tide me over.  Between the striking images of refugee boats, style-fusing production and politically charged lyrics, she is back to “Bad Girls” status.

(10)  Cell U Lar Device – Erykah Badu

Usually posted on youtube as a “Hotline Bling Remix,” this cover from Badu’s mixtape You Caint Use My Phone shows us how great this song can be if you put it in the hands of an artist like Erykah Badu.  She turns a mainstream earworm into something both sexier and more whimsical, reminding me of what Nina Simone would do with standards.

(9)  The Only Thing – Sufjan Stevens

Out of a whole album of songs devoted to Sufjan’s complicated emotions about his mother’s death, “The Only Thing” is the one gets me the closest to tears every time.  It also is the song that most sounds like it could have come from an earlier album like Michigan or even Seven Swans, except for its deeply personal theme.

(8)  Israel (Sparring) – Chance the Rapper featuring Noname Gypsy

Chance is my man of the year.  He has been shifting the landscape of 2015 music with every free release and collaboration with one brilliant young Chicago artist after another.  (“Israel (Sparring)” is available for download on the Soundcloud link attached to the title above).  Here he introduces me to the slam poet/rapper Noname Gypsy who seems to chill Chance out so much that he raps a little slower and clearer than usual.

(7)  Mercy – Eryn Allen Kane

Every sound heard in this song was vocalized by Kane herself, though it is still a super impressive song even without knowing that bit of trivia.  The artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince was so impressed with this track that he’s since done a collaboration with Kane, so I think we have plenty more to hear from this young talent.

(6)  What Do You Mean?  –  Justin Bieber

This was certainly my surprise this year: to be not only including Bieber in my list, but actually having to choose between a couple contenders from our favourite wayward Canadian teenager.  “What Do U Mean” made it for its consistent groove, best representation of Purpose’s new trademark dolphin-esque sound, and lyrics like, “be more straightforward”!

(5)  Can’t Get Enough Of Myself – Santigold

The most recent release on my list signals my most anticipated 2016 album from Santigold, 99 Cents.  It’s only been out for a few weeks, but I can’t get enough of this positive, upbeat jam.

(4)  Leave A Trace – Chvrches

Like “The Mother We Share” from their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, “Leave a Trace” is the outstanding single from Chvrches’ latest record, Every Open Eye.  The understated verses let the synthesizers and drum machines shine, while the chorus builds to become all about Lauren Mayberry (and me yelling along).

(3)  WTF (Where They From) – Missy Elliott featuring Pharrell Williams

So, Missy Elliott is back, which, along with new music from Janet and M.I.A., has made this year a dream come true.  And true to Missy’s career so far, this track is just as much about the visuals as the audibles.  Since it hit the internet mid-November, this video has been on non-stop repeat in my household.

(2)  Alright – Kendrick Lamar

This was another very difficult decision, since “Alright” comes from the very connected and cohesive album, To Pimp A Butterfly.  Still, this song stood out with a positive message in the face of racialized police brutality, and became a kind of anthem for party-goers and protesters alike.

(1)  Sunday Candy – The Social Experiment featuring Jamilla Woods

In a year full of fantastic music, there was no question about what my song of 2015 would be.  If you haven’t been won over by either this sweet tribute to Chance the Rapper’s grandmother, or the playfully staged music video, I believe you either have yet to experience “Sunday Candy,” or you lack a heart.

Just for the record, there are a few honourable mentions that I went back and forth on.  The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” was undoubtably the dance track of the year and I am a gigantic sucker for Jason Derulo’s “Want to Want Me“.  Also, if it weren’t for every grocery store in Toronto overplaying it, I’d likely include Alessia Cara’s “Here“.  Sometimes CanCon requirements really suck.  Right up until the moment I hit publish, I will consider swapping any of these three into my list.

Also, I feel as though I need to say a little something about Adele’s “Hello“, which very much seems to be the planet’s song of the year… it just isn’t mine.  Check back next week for my 15 choice albums of 2015!