Friday, July 08, 2016

Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 2

11. Hélène Grimaud - Water Grimaud is a chance-taking pianist who has mainly applied her iconoclastic POV to basic classical repertoire. But Water is something else entirely, an eclectic collection of works spanning the centuries, from Berio and Takemitsu to Janacek and Liszt. She proves herself the master of all she attempts, playing the spaces between the notes as required by Takemitsu and Fauré, or showing great command of filling all the spaces with notes as Liszt demands. To pull it all together, Grimaud collaborated with atmospheric composer Nitin Sawhny to create brief electro-acoustic interludes, which are beautiful little sketches in sound. This is my favorite kind of classical piano album, one which makes you hear old pieces anew, and it's been go-to morning music on many a day. Invite it into your life.

12. Anthony Cheung - Dystemporal
In a perfect world, a sparkling collection of six compositions by Cheung, brilliantly performed by Talea Ensemble and Ensemble Intercontemporain, would be a major event beyond the confines of my own mind. No matter - the music speaks for itself and it is entrancing post-Boulez stuff, with uncannily perfect orchestration and a stylish melodicism that should welcome any listener. The title piece has a hint of menace and makes me think of a circus, slowed down and grown slightly threatening. Running The (Full) Gamut is a cogent piano solo (beautifully played by the composer) that is an ideal introduction to Cheung's strong sense of structure and proportion. Start there if you want to ease your way into Cheung's world and make it part of your own. Save the date of November 11th for the record release concert at National Sawdust. Maybe then Dystemporal will become the event it deserves to be.

13. Anderson Paak - Malibu I gotta tell you - I thought Dr. Dre's Compton was horrible, with even young guns like Paak being drawn into Dre's stodgy and smug conception. So I admit not having high hopes for Malibu, even though his prior album, Venice, had shown great promise. But no worries - on the sprawling Malibu Paak comes on strong as the missing link between Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar, with a little Flying Lotus in there for good measure. This is lush and luxuriant R&B with a hip hop edge, up to the minute but sounding classic all the same. Right from the first cut you feel like you're in good hands. All the guests, from BJ The Chicago Kid to Rapsody to Talib Kweli, are well-integrated, leaving no doubt as to who is in charge. Room In Here is the coziest slow jam in many a year - even The Game sounds ready to cuddle - and, lord knows, we can always use more opportunities to get close.

14. TV Girl - Who Really Cares How do I love thee, TV Girl? Let me count the ways, with your hip hop beats, bittersweet samples and melodies, and your conversational, psychologically acute lyrics, it's hard to get enough! Is it a formula? Sure, like your relationship with your best friend is a formula. And it works just as well. 

15. Skylark - Crossing Over An album of contemporary choral music about death? Let's just say this is an unlikely triumph

16. Wire - Nocturnal Koreans A friend of mine who is a least as big a Wire fan as I am didn't even want to listen to this because of that wacky title. My skepticism was more based on the fact that their last album was a bit of a snooze. Neither issue should concern you: this brief eight song blast finds the post-punk legends at the top of their game. Ironically, these are all songs that were left off the last album, which main songwriter Colin Newman now admits was too "respectful" of the band. Based on these songs, each one a sleek gem with unexpected touches, the more disrespect the better. Damned good for a band in its fourth act - long may they reign

17. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered Like the Wire album, these are all cuts that didn't fit on Lamar's last album, 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. While I can see how they didn't fit the narrative construct of that titanic album, they are still a stunning tribute to Lamar's creative fecundity. Over expansively funky tracks he tries on a few new guises here, such as the love-man of the opening cut, or the retro-didacticism of untitled 03 05.28.13: "What did the Indian say?" It's like Reading Rainbow in some alternate universe  - and I doubt anyone but Lamar could get away with it in 2016. I'm on the edge of my seat, wondering where he'll go next. 

19. Rupert Boyd - Fantasias 2016 seems to have more than its share of "Calgon take me away" moments and this delightful travelogue works better than bath salts. 

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo That so many people think West is a relentless jerk is one of the artistic crimes of our age. I don't pay attention to his antics - what matters it what's on the records. Granted, Pablo had a more difficult and public birth than most albums (remember when it was going to be called Swish?), and one that would have crushed the life out of most artistic endeavors. But West powered through and got the music off his hard drive - although he's famously been tinkering with it since it came out, an impulse to which any artist can relate. 

Based on the original18 track version I have (there are now two versions on Spotify!), Pablo is his most fragmented album yet, with many songs under the three-minute mark or taking hairpin turns halfway through (I could listen to the spooky 50 second coda to FML for a lot longer). Even so, there are some "tent-pole" songs that keep the album from collapsing, starting with Ultralight Beam, the gorgeous opening cut, which embraces Kirk Franklin and Chance The Rapper in equal measure, while providing an operating principle: "You can never go too far when you can't come back home again."

He then proceeds to test that theory, dishing out some nasty, purposefully provocative stuff. Taylor Swift fans know what I'm talking about - but even Famous has a cutting edge backing track ("Swizz told me to let the beat rock" - good advice). Other standouts are the bittersweet Real Friends, the classic single No More Parties In LA (with a fiery Kendrick Lamar feature), and Fade, a haunting exploration of dying love via early 80's house. That nostalgic touch is a telling sign, as this is the first album where West seems to be looking back, as if trying to trace his path and figure out how it all got so crazy. 

Don't get me wrong - this is hardly a perfect album; there are clunky choruses, punch lines that land like concrete, and other misguided foibles. But there's something beautiful about the way West just lets it all hang out there, the good, the bad, and the nutty. There's the wonderfully tossed off a capella I Love Kanye, for example - which is probably not what you think it is. And one of my favorite moments is at the end of the reflective 30 Hours, where he's just vibing out to the smooth groove provided by Andre 3000 and Karriem Riggins - "This the bonus track...all my favorite albums got, like, bonus joints like this..." Then he gets a phone call - and takes it! "Yo, Gabe, I'm just doing an ad lib track right now, what's up?" Guy's got guts. 

So in the end, Pablo is minor masterpiece of audio collage, with enough moments of transgression, regression, and aggression to slot Kanye West - in my mind, at least - near Houellbecq, Burroughs, and even Huysmans. Not really a pop record, but one with pop celebrity as a subject - and one released into the Hadron Collider of one of the globe's most fanatical pop audiences. Can't fault Kanye for cracking a little under that kind of pressure. Kendrick Lamar would probably say he's gonna be alright and I'm inclined to agree.

Sample my Top 20 with this handy playlist and keep up with everything else I've been listening to here.

What's been making your year?

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