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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

22-a-million

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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Mama’s Gun – Erykah Badu, 2000

I recently had the opportunity to reorganize my record collection while relocating my vinyl from pull-out bins under my entertainment unit to a tall black shelf.  My records are now book-style, displayed spine-out, and I’ve organized them by genre and era, before going alphabetical to artist.  My Erykah Badu albums are with my soul/r&b-since-1990 albums, but Mama’s Gun rarely ends up in its spot with the others.  This particular album usually ends up on the “recently played” shelf, and barely ever makes it back to its rightful home before hitting the turntable again.  I love it.  There is almost never a time when I am not in the mood to listen to this record.  In fact, I would not be surprised if her four-sided red-pressed album from 2000 holds the title of my most listened-to album on vinyl.

But, I was motivated to write this blog after recently listening to Mama’s Gun over headphones while stuck on the subway for over an hour.  I was supposed to meet my wife at a coffee shop near our house.  She was happily drinking tea and being productive, while I was sitting on a motionless subway with no internet or cell coverage.  Have I mentioned that this Vancouverite hates the transit in Toronto?

Anyway, I found a silver lining in spending some quality time with one of my favourite albums.  Each individual track has a link to a youtube upload, but I highly recommend listening to the whole thing at Grooveshark link, so you don’t miss the sweet, sweet transitions.

With the intimacy of headphones, I heard things I had never noticed before. From the moment I hit play, “Penitentiary Philosophy” opens with a groove that crescendos into a mournful wail, of the question “Why?”.  And right away, we know that we are dealing with a very human artist, far more vulnerable, honest, and relatable than the one we encountered on Baduizm.  Even on the album cover art, not only does she show her face, but she has replaced her wrapped turban with a knitted cap.  What has changed?  The woman is recovering from a breakup with her baby daddy and partner of 3 years, Andre 3000.  In stepping down from her goddess persona, she takes up a new mantle of a regular African-American earthling woman, that quickly grows into female royalty of the new soul movement.  And like D’Angelo, she could easily hide for 14 years and still hold that title (please don’t).

imagespinoDidn’t Cha Know” goes hand in hand with the first track – they both groove hard and rock out, while being perfectly open about feelings of hopelessness and regret and uncertainty.  Also, this bass line is one of my all time favourites, ever.  So smooth and sexy.  I think it’s Pino Palladino, who is kind of a Soulquarian/NeoSoul staple, also having played with D’Angelo, Bilal, and Common.

 

Strings build upon each other to introduce “My Life“, offering a brief pause for anticipation of the beat, and once I reach the repeated “no turning back” line, it feels like courage and worship.  The transition to “….&On” – her sequel to her earlier hit “On & On” – is flawless.  Badu offers some humorous self-criticism with my favourite line on the album, “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you?  Don’t go talking that shit, Badu, Badu.”  Also, there’s something really refreshing about the break-it-down bridge section.  Maybe it’s the reference to her first period?  I can’t even say.

Cleva” reminds me that this is indeed an analogue album in a digital world, and musicians like ?uestlove on the drums, James Poyser on piano and Roy Ayers playing vibes give it a live reality that cannot be sampled.  Thematically, “Cleva” is all about being alright with yourself, the very opening lines stating, “This is how I look without makeup, and with no bra my ninny’s sag down low.”  Oddly, this is the attitude that gives us such a reverence for Erykah Badu; even as she has shed her mysterious, exotic persona, she grows in majesty and beauty and even a sense of truth.

After the 70’s inspired, flute heavy interlude properly titled, “Hey Sugar“, we finally get the the funky, down-and-dirty, “Booty“.  For a moment, you think it’s going to be a straight up The-Boy-is-Mine-style girl fight, with weave pulling and press-on nails, which would be fine. boyismine Instead, it becomes a critique of male-centricity as she speaks to the Other Woman with grace and dignity in the chorus:  “Hey, hey, hey, I don’t want him, cause what he’s doing to you, and you don’t need him, cause the boy ain’t ready.”  erykah don't wantUnfortunately, it seems “Booty” didn’t directly inspire a new era of girl-powered pop music.  Too bad.

Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” is simple, thoughtful and poetic, but usually I’m just happy for it to be an excuse to dance with my wife in the kitchen.  The stripped down, acoustic guitar plucked, “A.D. 2000” is as political as Mama’s Gun gets, and written about a black man gunned down by cops in NYC, is still sadly pertinent and effective.

Orange Moon” is just so classy.  It starts with crickets, jazz flute, soft vocals, and plenty of chill.  How good it is, indeed.  And the chill continues on to the only duet of the album, “In Love With You” with Stephen Marley.  This song, with the snaps and acoustic guitar are very reminiscent of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters”, if it had been recorded on her hip-hop/folk MTV Unplugged album.

The mellow groove continues and slowly picks up with the album’s first single, “Bag Lady“, where she encourages the woman to let go of relational and emotional baggage in order to move on and accept love elsewhere.  Warning: the music video contains a remix.  But I’ll post it anyway.  I personally love how bored the woman in purple looks.

Time’s A Wastin” is the most relaxed expression of urgency I’ve ever know, making it hard to take seriously.  It’s ironic, right?  I have to admit, I’m not sure.  But by the time the next and final track begins, “Green Eyes” makes us forget most of what has come before and demands our full attention, whether over loudspeakers or headphones.  We hear a an old-school recording of Erykah as lounge singer over muffled piano and muted trumpet (played by Roy Hargrove!) backing up, singing a very quotable metaphor for jealousy: “My eyes are green ’cause I eat a lot of vegetables.  It ain’t got nothing to do with your new friend”.  And that’s just Part One (Denial)”.

“Green Eyes” is the masterpiece of the album, interweaving themes of uncertainty and courage and grief and reflection into 10 minutes and 3 movements of shifting grooves and melodies, not to mention emotions, which are summed up pretty well in “Part 2: Acceptance?” with lines like, “But I don’t love you anymore, yes I do, I think loving you is wrong…”  and then you have her begging for one more night of love making in “Part 3: Relapse”.  Here she is on part 1 and 2 live in Paris…

The song (and album) ends on an unresolved word: “I know our love will never be the same, but I can’t stand these growing pains”, giving me a sense of sad hopefullness.  Hope does win out though, because listening to this record 15 years later, we have the advantage of knowing that the this is far from the last we will hear from Erykah Badu.  Though it still may be the best.

 

Danice’s Favourite 2012 Albums

12.  Devotion – Jessie Ware
Some classic UK R&B has been coming out this year, but Jessie Ware is the one most worth paying attention to.  She doesn’t look like your typical pop or soul star, yet perhaps the best comparisons have been made to Sade, one of the greatest R&B vocalists to ever step out of the UK.  Whether Jessie is epically belting about your “Wildest Moment”, or playfully singing a catchy pop tune like “Sweet Talk”, the sounds coming out of her are raw and beautiful.  In a world of pop music that’s trying too hard to be sexy, Jessie Ware’s naturally sexy tone is breath of fresh air.  Also, did you know she found her earliest success in a taxi?  Yep, check this out:
11. Coexist – The XX

Since their album Islands, I have been falling in love with the work Jamie, The XX’s DJ does.  He has created some of the most original and beautiful remixes I have ever heard or imagined.  With The XX, he generally creates an atmosphere for Romy Madley Croft’s soft and haunting voice.  Their 2012 album, Coexist does more of the same of what they do best.  Their sound feels detached, as if they are primarily creating a world to step into, rather than communicating an idea or expressing an emotion.  This is one of my favourite records to play while doing administrative catch-up, or to discover is being played in a coffee shop.

10. MTMTMK – The Very Best

This year I was able to go see The Very Best live in Seattle, and had no idea before I got there that they even had a new record out.  I have appreciated everything this Malawian lead and Swedish DJ have ever produced, so it was no surprise that I bought the new album as soon as we got home.  MTMTMK stands for “More to Malawi Than Madonna’s Kids,” and features a bit more dance music than The Warm Heart of Africa did.  If you are still unfamiliar with these guys, look into both albums – the first for a more African feel, and MTMTMK for more of a sense of blended cultures.  This album also brought some attention to Seye (pronounced like Cher), the Nigerian-born, London-bred singer-songwriter who toured and collaborated with The Very Best.  I would have considered one of Seye’s songs in my top 12, only that my favourite is not actually available yet.  Still, here’s a video of him singing J.O.A.N.N.A.:

9.   True – Solange
I was racking my brain whether to include E.P.’s on this list.  There were a few really great and really promising short albums that came out this year, from Brandi Carlisle, Shad, and Azealia Banks, for example.  But there is something about this 7-track collection from Beyonce’s younger sister that I simply can’t exclude.  Maybe it’s the 80’s R&B throwback (the record is full of drum tracks, synthesizer, and even retro sounding harmonies) just when we most miss Whitney Houston’s early years.  Maybe we’ve all been secretly wishing to know what Beyonce would sound like if she weren’t an epic diva. For whatever reason, True feels as though it’s exactly what a musical doctor would prescribe.  I can’t find a full album stream, but here’s the Rdio preivew.

8.   The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
This album may still be in the “Under $8” section on iTunes.  That’s how I picked it up, only having really listened to the two tracks that had viral videos, “Same Love,” and “Thrift Shop”.  I actually forgot I had purchased it, until one day a song popped into my headphones while my ipod was on shuffle (a rare moment, indeed).  Macklemore surprised me by being far more than your average white rapper.  He does hip hop justice by both speaking out on issues, and having a sense of humour, two things that I believe hip hop music does at its best.  There are a couple moments that could feel slightly preachy to some, but for the most part this is a solid record built on thought and guts.
7.   Love this Giant – St. Vincent and David Byrne
I think this collaboration makes more sense than any I’ve heard of in a long while.  Two incredibly talented, brilliant, and quirky musicians from different generations team up to give us exactly what you would expect, plus some extra horns.  The only downside to Love This Giant is that Annie Clark (St. Vincent) doesn’t have nearly enough guitar solos.  Still, it’s clear through the work they did produce that both David and Annie respect and generally enjoy each other’s music and style, which along with their stunningly complementary vocals, makes this team-up worth every effort.

6.   …Little Broken Hearts – Norah Jones
Like no Norah you’ve heard before, …Little Broken Hearts shows off the jazz standard singer’s versatility, and producer Danger Mouse’s ability to transform an artist’s sound.  Like Adele’s 21 the year before, …Little Broken Hearts is an album dedicated to a break-up, and although it hasn’t reached nearly the level of mainstream success that 21 did, I find it refreshingly more mature and balanced on the dejected-to-irate spectrum.  Highlights for me are “Sad Goodbye”, “Happy Pills”, and “Miriam”.  Just click on the album image to stream all the songs.

5.   Boys and Girls – The Alabama Shakes

The Alabama Shakes have the secret power of time travel.  Every time I play Boys and Girls I have to remind myself that I do not actually live in the 60’s.  The album kicks off with the addictive single, “Hold On”, and then does nothing less than restore my faith in Rock & Roll.  The album is filled to every last edge with lyrics of desire, anger and sadness that are only deepened by Britney Howard’s soulful, raspy, low croon.  I have yet to see them live, but I’ve heard this is necessary, so if you have the chance, don’t pass it up.

4.   Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – Kendrick Lamar
I did not like this right away.  At first listen, I couldn’t handle the macho and misogyny long enough to get past the first half.  Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City tells Lamar’s own coming-of-age story, and at first, Kendrick tries to prove himself a man with the usual tough act. In order to see him grow, you need to give the album/story time.  Punctuated by voicemails left by Lamar’s parents (beginning angrily asking for the car back but eventually become gentle invitations to come home) this solid rap record leaves a surprising message of manhood: that it’s not perfected in violence but in taking care of family.  Although it is heard best in context, I’ve embedded my favourite song off the record below.

3.   The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple
I had started to give up on hope that Fiona Apple would come out with another album as amazing as Tidal or When the Pawn…  She has certainly returned to the longer album title though, this time with an exactly Twitter-kosher 140 characters.  The Idler Wheel… is exactly what I want to expect from Apple: fast jungle-inspired rhythms mixed with slower angst-y ballads, held together by Apple’s own eccentric personality and dark imagination, and unique percussive-style piano.  The best place to stream this one is on grooveshark, so instead of a soundcloud link, here’s a bizarre video you should watch from The Idler Wheel is Wider Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do:

2.   The Bravest Man in the Universe – Bobby Womack
There was something about 2012 that brought a lot of older artists out to record.  Springsteen, The Stones, The Beach Boys and even Van Halen all released music this year, but only Bobby Womack was able to give us something that feels stunningly relevant and original, while holding a greater depth of experience and wisdom.  His age can be heard in his voice, and I think it makes The Bravest Man in the Universe Bobby’s best album yet.  Stream the whole thing at the Guardian.

  
1.   Channel Orange – Frank Ocean
Someone asked me what my life highlight from 2012 was, and my first instinct was to say Frank Ocean.  I anticipated this album like nothing else this year, so it had a strong potential to let me down, but obviously it did not.  Channel Orange explores the disadvantages of living a privileged rich kid’s life along with a couple deep and personal instrospective pieces that are held together by flipping television channels that offer news from the outside world.  The music is fresh and heavy R&B with a hip hop attitude, and I can’t get enough of it.  If you still don’t have this album, click the image to the right for a stream of it on soundcloud.  I doubt you’ll last long without purchasing this one.

2010 Rerun: Wake Up! – John Legend & The Roots

Here it is, the first of the Record Rerun series.  Beginning with 2010, I’ll be moving backwards, picking an album from every year.

It could be a little tricky to predict that an album less than 2 years old will be one I listen to for years to come.  2010 was a decent year for music, but I have to admit, this decision wasn’t so difficult for me.  Although there were a fair amount of stand-out albums – Sufjan, Kanye, Janelle Monae, Erykah BaduBeyonce, Cee-Lo, Arcade Fire and The Black Keys, to name a few – still, Wake Up! was a relatively quick pick.  It did help that I’ve written about a few of the albums above already.  But ultimately, this gospel-saturated collaboration between John Legend and The Roots (and a few other guests) gives off the sense that it intends not only to be a great album of its year, but an all-time classic.

In 2010, I so anticipated this record.  I love John Legend’s voice and style, but am often let down by his actual song choices, so I was stoked for him to work with The Roots on some soul covers.  I picked it up immediately, and was not disappointed.  The animated cover art is beautiful, and the music is even better.  I suggest a relatively high volume for your ideal listening experiece.  Speaking of, if you want to listen along, here’s the soundcloud link: http://soundcloud.com/billboard/sets/wake-up-john-legend-and-the-roots

“Hard Times” kicks off the album with some brief reflection time, as ?uestlove gives us some cymbal love, and John Legend freestyles a bit before the beat drops.  And when it does, it drops hard.  Nearly every beat is accented by something, whether it’s the drums, horns, or bass.  It’s a full song, with a lot of anger-release potential, showing off just how tight The Roots can be.

“Compared to What” settles into a groove, without ever letting go of the drive already established.  As it fades out, piano runs and tambourines give us a decidedly philly-style introduction to the title track, “Wake Up Everybody”.  The duet features Melanie Fiona, who sounds best when harmonizing with Legend, but I am probably biased.  Common also makes an appearance, which is also just fine with me.  I feel like it would be a good idea for him to collaborate with John Legend more in the future.  The call to “Wake Up” continues into “Our Generation”, with the punchy response of, “let’s straighten it out”.  The invitation to accept responsibility and make things better is refreshing, and the baritone saxophone doesn’t hurt either.

“Little Ghetto Boy” – first the prelude, which comes across more as a spoken word over piano and drums, and then the song – begin Side B of the record.  The song flows seamlessly, and kicks in with Black Thought rapping over a progression led by an organ.  These two related tracks represent what this album is all about: optimism in the face of pain and suffering.  Never does “Little Ghetto Boy” excuse the kid to spiral – he’s expected to grow up and change his situation – but neither does it minimize the difficulty that his situation presents.  Like in “Our Generation”, a the choral response is repeated, but instead of an imperative, a different kind of hope is offered: “everything has got to get better”.

I somehow always miss the next song on Wake Up!  Even when I intentionally listen to it, by the time “Humanity” drops its reggae feel, and talking “about love the way it should be…” and I forget all about “Hang In There”.  Both songs offer optimistic hope and encouragement, and feel laid-back, which you should enjoy before you’re taken to church on Side C & D of the vinyls.  

“Wholly Holy” is a song I would legitimately love to hear in a church.  On this record that calls us to not only believe, but act towards making our world more live-able, it makes sense that the spiritual overtones would be given some explicit reference.

I have a sneaky suspicion that “I Can’t Write Left Handed” was The Roots’ favourite song to record.  Legend opens it up with some preamble, recognizing that, “war is always hell.  It always will and it always has been”, before launching into to this beautiful soul-folk song, telling the story of a man shot in the arm.  This song is long, builds slowly, and is performed in every imaginable collection of dynamics.  John Legend shows what he’s made of, as he repeats a lot of the story several times, yet every time brings the lyrics alongside a deep-seated emotion and soul.

One last time, I flip the vinyl over for the shortest Side of the record.  “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free”, and “Shine” complete the song cycle, by moving the focus not just to ourselves, but letting stifled voices heard.  You should probably listen to Nina Simone doing “I Wish I Knew…” as well, because she is the bomb.  “Shine” works almost as a benediction, or a modern day version of “This Little Light of Mine”.  While we move out to Wake Up the world around us, and make it better, “Shine” reminds us not to write anyone off, and let them shine on.

It is so easy to complain about everything and anything, but this album inspires hope in a way that few have the confidence to do.  Happy listening, and I’ll try to be quick with posting my 2009 rerun.  Peace out.






Actor – St. Vincent, 2009

Recently, I made the mistake of trying to listen to St. Vincent’s Actor at work.  I call it a mistake, partially because this album begs more attention than it gets as the soundtrack to my pink ukulele sales pitch, but also because I’ve become accustomed to listening to it on vinyl, in my living room, very loudly.  Background levels of volume at the music store hardly does it justice, and left me wanting, so I played it again on the bus over my headphones, and yet again when I got home on the record player where it was truly meant to be.

I have no qualms describing Actor as a work of art.  Themes and images run deep beneath thick textures boasting of driving rhythms and catchy-as-hell melodies and counter-melodies(whether sung or played on sax or violin, I can be heard whistling St. Vincent melodies daily).  As the title suggests, the album explores the line between fake and real, authenticity and invention, especially in the portrayal of personas and primarily in the likely setting of the suburban neighborhood.  Nearly every song is linked by foundational questions of how well we are really known by our lovers, friends and family, introduced right off the bat in “Strangers”.  As I let these questions percolate, I can’t help but wonder what part her stark headshot on the album cover plays, and indeed, even her use of pseudonym (her given name being Annie Clark).  How well do we know this woman who serenades us?  Who is she really?  How thick a line separates who we are from who we present ourselves to be?

When I break from philosophizing, I appreciate St. Vincent’s sense of orchestration.  Like listening to Radiohead, you know know that every sound has been placed by a perfectionist – with utmost precision – so that even the most chaotic moments are fully controlled.  Also like Radiohead, St. Vincent loves to experiment with extreme clarity and distortion, yet somehow is never beyond accessible.  Strings, horns, and a rhythm section give Actor the epic feel of a movie soundtrack that is mostly rock and roll, but transforms itself when necessary to jazz or even Broadway-esque.  Her rhythms are intensely controlled, creating a contrast against her almost lazy vocals.  

One thing that I find so beautiful about listening to this on vinyl is that it seems intentionally divided into two acts, moving the final song on the CD, “The Sequel” to the end of Side A, allowing for the bouncy “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” to be heard as a new beginning, and concluding the album with “Just the Same but Brand New”, which I never even noticed before hearing it as the final track.

Although the songs of this album feel completely tied to one another, in an attempt to take angled digs at the same subject, I feel as though I respond to each one differently: During “Strangers”, I’m philosophizing; “Save Me from What I Want” has me grooving with my shoulders while I drink my beer; “The Neighbors” gets me moody; “Actor out of Work” gives me an all-out desire to dance; “Black Rainbow” has me singing the lines of the violins and horns out-loud; “The Sequel” allows me to sink back into my head, before I’m brought back to reality when I flip to Side B and hear “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood”; I can’t not rock out to “Marrow” before settling into my thinky-ness as “The Bed” brings me a sense of mystery in the world, though it doesn’t make me want to actually lie down in bed like “The Party” ironically tends to; and finally “Just the Same but Brand New” pulls me full-circle to a nostalgic questioning of meaning in the world.  And I don’t regret the experience for a minute.  Just writing this blog gives me such an impatience for this woman’s next work of art.  But for now, let’s watch this great video:

Peace out,
Dance