Saturday, January 19, 2019

Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB And Reggae

My Top 25 only included one hip hop album, Pusha-T’s majestic Daytona, and no R&B (Natalie Prass notwithstanding!) but that’s probably more of a “It’s not you, it’s me,” scenario as there was plenty of stellar work in the genres throughout 2018. Black Milk’s FEVER demonstrated a new level of lyricism for the master producer and Cardi B.’s Invasion Of Privacy was top notch commercial rap with a sharp New York edge. Speaking of sharp, Telmary’s Cuban fuerza was like a cut diamond, Ghostface Killah’s Brown Album reveled in grimy beats and gritty raps, and Golden Chariots highlighted some exciting up-and-comers.

With Isolation, Kali Uchis delivered a deeply informed - and deeply funky - treatise on R&B and old school rhythm and blues and should have been nominated for at least three Grammys, Best New Artist among them. SIR dropped the subtle and witty November early in the year but it promptly disappeared, even though the TDE Championship Tour found the crooner sharing the stage with label-mates Kendrick Lamar and SZA. Hollie Cook’s Vessel Of Love put some rocksteady reggae in the Top 25 but Sly & Robbie’s collaboration with Dubmatix also echoed seismically. The albums mentioned above are represented at the top of the list with some call-backs to previous posts, followed by an unordered list of other standouts.

Various Artists - Black Panther: The Album Kendrick Lamar masterminded this collection of songs based on Ryan Coogler’s magnificent comic book blockbuster. Given the tear he’s been on for the last few years Lamar can be forgiven if this wasn’t quite the imperial statement I expected. I also imagine that all the money and cooks in the mix when you dabble in Marvel’s “cinematic universe” may be some of the cause behind some of the album feeling smoothed out and sluggish. Even so, it’s damned good, and if it’s the one hip hop album some parts of the film’s audience are exposed to, they’re getting a fair representation of the current approach to the idiom. The inclusion of some young African artists added intrigue and the the songs with SZA (All Of The Stars) and Anderson .Paak (Bloody Waters) fully lived up to all the promise. Also worth checking out is Black Panther: Original Score by Ludwig Göransson, which combined sweeping strings with trap rhythms, the voice of the legendary Baaba Maal and sounds sampled from an archive of African music. Fascinating stuff and actually edgier than Lamar's compilation. 

Kids See Ghosts - Kids See Ghosts Long after Kanye West's MAGA BS has died down and the holes he’s shot in his feet have healed over, we will still have to consider the run of five short albums he pumped out last spring. It’s almost universally agreed that Daytona was the strongest of all and his own ‘Ye the weakest (and the worst of his career), leaving the other three to jockey for position in the middle. For my money, while some of the songs on Nas’ Nasir hit home, they were too often sunk by the rapper’s poorly thought out rhymes. Teyana Taylor’s KTSE had some sweet jams but I was never totally convinced by her embrace of graphic sexuality on a few of them. She could take a few lessons on such things from Kali Uchis!

That leaves this collaboration between West and Kid Cudi, an artist who impressed me years ago with Night And Day before seeming to slide into Drake and Weeknd-style solipsism. Not here - both artists kick each other in high gear, with West injecting some spacious post-punk, dubbed out nihilism into his tracks and Cudi singing well and with emotional conviction. West’s raps hearken back to an earlier time, before he seemed intent on pissing everyone off. In short, it’s a solid album that delivers a few welcome surprises. If not for West’s red hat and the muddled thinking going on beneath it, Kids See Ghosts would likely have had a broader impact. 

Noname - Room 25 Coming out of the same rich Chicago scene as Chance The Rapper, Noname has been honing her style for the last few years. Room 25, her second album, finds her at her best, with her conversational, poetic flow swathed in lush, jazzy surroundings courtesy producer Phoelix. Listening to Noname (real name: Fatimah Warner) grow up in public should continue to be one of the most compelling facets of hip hop for a long time to come. 

Mick Jenkins - Pieces Of A Man Jenkins, another Chicago rapper on a mission, announces his ambition by cribbing a title from one of Gil Scott-Heron's classics. This album is a deep and rich display of his talents, giving us some "free thought" on many subjects, including a "red-hot case of dot-dot-did-it-dot-dot-dash, the re-morse code, the damned if I know..." or what GSH called the "Ghetto Code." Of specific concern is that "there are more and more things black people thought they had a handle on that they sorta seen slowly slip away from them." Those musings come in a track called Heron Flow, but don't worry that Jenkins is trying to be someone he ain't - this is a thoroughly contemporary hip hop album, which honors his hero's independent streak way more than if he tried to imitate him. Giving gritty voice to our moment, Jenkins earns the right to use that title over the course of the album, which is certainly not something you can say about other people biting titles of great albums (yes, Yo La Tengo, I'm looking at you). Keep your eye on Jenkins - his third album is bound to be a corker if he continues on this hot streak.

Saba - Care For Me This album has an uneven beginning, but by the time you get to Calligraphy, the third track, you will be convinced of Saba's abilities, especially the way he can inject furious emotion into his songs while still remaining in control. The heart of the album lies in its penultimate song, Prom / King, in which Saba confronts the murder of his cousin. It's an extraordinary use of hip hop as memoir and nearly singlehandedly reimagines the power and possibility of the music. But while I can't help but be thrilled by everything Chicago is giving us musically, it's more than a damned shame that so much of it is rooted in pain and tragedy. Here's to brighter days for Saba and all in the Windy City.

pinkcaravan! - 2002 Setting her childlike musing and reminiscing within a candy-coated laptop-generated universe makes every pinkcaravan! release a delight. It’s all sweet, so she also wisely keeps things short, leaving you wanting more rather than running off to the dentist. 

Anderson .Paak - Oxnard Malibu, Paak's last album was a joyful explosion of killer grooves (often with him behind the drum kit) and ultra-confident rapping and singing about growing up in L.A.'s environs. Oxnard continues the formula, with results that are nearly as good except for some muddled lyrical moments. The guy is massively talented but might want to take some more time writing his next batch of songs.

Mad Professor - Electro Dubclubbing!! This massive slab of sound proves yet again that, in the 21st Century, nobody dubs it better than this Guyanese-born British producer and vocalist. The rhythm sections are tighter than the clampdown and the chord changes and melodies are enough to inspire - or resolve - many emotions. Translation: this album will make you feel fantastic.

Various Artists - Snoop Dogg Presents Bible Of Love All rise: the "Rev." Calvin Broadus (AKA Snoop Dogg) has assembled a classy, splashy contemporary gospel collection, lavishly populated by some of the finest singers around, both sanctified (Rance Allen, Kim Burrell, Marvin Sapp, etc.) and secular (Charlie Wilson, Patti Labelle, Faith Evans, etc.). It's also a showcase for the family of Snoop's co-Executive Producer Lonny Bereal with no fewer than ten people bearing that surname involved in the project. Special note should be made of the contributions of Michael Lawrence Bereal who provides crucial support on bass, keyboards, tambourine and strings. At over two hours, it's certainly too long but the good stuff is as good as the good book deserves. Hallelujah!

Various Artists - Everything Is Recorded By Richard Russell On this eclectic collection by the head of XL Recordings (which releases everyone from Adele to Thom Yorke), he brings together some of his less-established signings like Sampha (whose excellent Process was my #8 album of 2017), the French-Cuban duo Ibeyi, British rapper Giggs, a singer named Infinite (also the son of Ghostface Killah) for mostly powerful night visions. Ghosts in the machine include Curtis Mayfield, Keith Hudson, Grace Jones, Peter Gabriel and Green Gartside of Scritti Politti. But even if all these names mean nothing to you, I can fairly well guarantee EIRBRR is going to give you something you can't get elsewhere. Standouts include Wet Looking Road with a supremely confident Giggs ("I ain't never going to need that click!") interacting with a glistening Hudson sample, Mountains Of Gold, which finds Sampha, Ibeyi and another rapper, Wiki, making hay over Jones' Nightclubbing, and Bloodshot Red Eyes, an intimate slice of starlit R&B with Infinite receiving subtle accompaniment from Gartside. Russell has the curator's knack - I wonder what he'll put together next time.

Chloe X Halle - The Kids Are Alright When I reviewed their 2017 mixtape/EP, The Two Of Us, I concluded by saying, "Reading around the web, I get the idea that Beyoncé fans are waiting for something bigger from these teenagers. I hope they maintain their delicate but intense minimalism, poetic lyrics, and vocal restraint, without falling into radio-ready convention." I'm happy to report that the Bailey sister are mostly sticking to their guns, layering their preternatural harmonies over spare tracks of synths and programmed drums. I never would have expected them to become go-to providers of theme songs for movies and TV, but the inclusion of Grown (from Blackish) and Warrior (from A Wrinkle In Time) doesn't interrupt the hypnotic flow of the album. Thank goodness their song from Trolls was left off! The soundtrack work can have the effect of making their lyrics a bit too general, so it's welcome that songs like Fake (with a feature by Kari Faux) and Down come from a more personal place. Considering they're both under 20, they still have a lot of living - and singing - to do, and I couldn't be happier following along.

Stimulator Jones - Exotic Worlds And Masterful Treasures Multi-instrumentalist Sam Lunsford has elbowed his way into the tuneful and retro-styled club populated by Remy Shand and Meyer Hawthorne, although he's odder than both of them. His colorful, mostly electronic R&B has hints of the 70's and 80's but also sounds slightly otherworldly, as though something was both lost and gained in translation. I discovered him on Sofie's SOS Tape - if you missed that tip, plug in here.

Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs That title strikes me as ironic as this short (15 songs in 24 minutes) album seems to celebrate the producer's art more than the rapper's. But since Sweatshirt (real name: Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, AKA randomblackdude) has his hands all over the sonics, I now have a new appreciation for his skills. Having so many short songs gives it the feeling of a collage (he considered releasing it as a continuous track) and it really is a fascinating conglomeration of murky sounds, with the voices, his and those of a few guests, just more textures from which occasionally arresting images arise: "We cellophane your story so it stays/Since birth mama raised and burped me, I ain't changed/I'm a man, I'm just saying that I stayed imperfect" (from Veins). I've often had my problems with the offshoots of the OddFuture collective (except Frank Ocean) but I seem to be finding more to love in Sweatshirt's imperfections. That could mean he has changed - or maybe I have.

MIKE - War In My Pen This intriguing character is one of Earl Sweatshirt’s main collaborators on the above album and this murky collection underscores how he might have contributed. However the lines of inspiration run, this is a feast of tightly edited electronics, fragmented sonics and MIKE’s slurred vocals. Like the Sweatshirt record, listening to it in one sitting (not hard, it’s under 30 minutes) is the way to go, rather than focusing on individual tracks. Both records make a strong case that the future of hip hop will sound something like them. Whether what follows is as artful, however, remains to be heard. 

Cypress Hill - Elephants On Acid The title is an accurate description of the marauding stomp of the beat-driven tracks on this, a remarkable return to near-form for a group a quarter century from their debut. DJ Muggs is the true star on this brawny slab, assembling narcotic grooves for B-Real and Sen Dog to spit their stoner tales over. While some of the experiments fail, there’s more than enough meat here for a mighty meal. 

Parliament - Medicaid Fraud Dogg Bad cover art and a digital-only release (CD is coming later this month) did not promise much for this overloaded album, the first under the Parliament name since 1980’s Trombipulation. But George Clinton is an atomic dog who never seems to entirely run out of tricks and the fact that so much of this is not only funky as hell but also memorable is quite an achievement. Even the most low-key tracks make you realize that not only have few people succeeded at reconciling funk with modern R&B and hip hop, not that many people have even tried. And for every song that has you marveling at the durability of the Parliament groove, there is another that takes you to a new place entirely, like the slinky, haunting Backwoods, which really shows off the vocal talents of Tracey Lewis-Clinton, George's son. Lewis-Clinton has been perfecting this sort of thing since the 90's (sometimes under the name Trey Lewd) and is a big presence on this album as a writer, producer and vocalist. Other members of the Parliament family are here, too, such as Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Gary "Mudbone" Cooper, which is a comfort when the "in memoriam" list (including Cordell "Boogie" Mosson, Garry Shider, Bernie Worrell and others) is so long. With our nation seeming less groovy all the time, praise and gloryhallastoopid to Clinton & Co. for reminding us that Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk may win a battle or two but he will never win the war!

Push play on the mix, which includes a song from all of these in an order suitable for your next rent party. You can also dig deeper into the year's releases in AnEarful: 2018 Archive (Hip Hop, R&B And Reggae). Did I miss something? P.S. Keep up with this year's output here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, R&B And Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop And R&B
A Vacation In Hip Hop Nation
Best Of 15: Hip Hop
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Hip Hop And Jazz

Monday, January 07, 2019

Best Of 2018: Electronic

The music I put in this category is not always primarily synthetic or computer-driven yet evinces a certain artistic stance that makes it fit. My Top 25 included three albums along these lines: You Were Never Really Here by Jonny Greenwood, Zebra by Arp, and Quilt Jams by Elsa Hewitt, but there were quite a number of other excellent releases that kept me coming back for more. Find out about them in this unordered list, starting with some I covered in a post early in the fall.

Record Roundup: Electronic Excursions
Good Luck In Death - They Promised Us A Bright Future, We Were Content With An Obscure Past
Novelty Daughter - Cocoon Year

Various Artists - S&S Presents: Dreams Intrigued by the gorgeous packaging and the promise of an unheard track by Mutual Benefit, I picked this up at their concert at Park Church Co-Op last month. What I ended up with was entree into another world. Although I was familiar with many of the artists (Sea Oleena, Julie Byrne, Kaitlyn Aurelia Amith, etc.) the compilers, who run a blog called Stadiums & Shrines, had not crossed my radar before. Based on their series Dreams, for which they commissioned favorite artists to step slightly outside of their lanes and compose ambient tracks inspired by collages created by S&S co-founder Nathaniel Whitcomb from images clipped from one vintage travel book, they know what they're doing. As expected, Bali, the Mutual Benefit song, is a standout, a pure distillation of their current approach into instrumental form - but there is no filler on Dreams. Stream the album and you will find yourself sinking slowly into a transporting continuous experience - but if you buy it on vinyl or digital you can also lose yourself in those wonderful collages along with writings by Dave Sutton and Matthew Sage. Now leave me alone as I have to catch up on a decade of Stadiums & Shrines!

Enofa - Arboretum Displaying a command of structure not so common in this genre, Ross Baker’s 42-minute suite masterfully blends electronic and acoustic instruments with field recordings for a cinematic journey in sound. His album Melkur, which came out late in the year, finds him bringing the same approach to shorter pieces, mostly with success. Another release, the 15-hour compilation 2T: Experimental Works 1995-2017, explains why he’s so good - he’s put in the work for decades.

Masayoshi Fujita - Book Of Life Composer and virtuoso vibraphonist Fujita has a way of creating sound images that feel as natural as breathing. The use of nouns related to nature and weather (fog, snow, clouds and mist all make appearances) in the song titles is perfect for the atmosphere that will be created while you play this lovely music. There's also sense of melancholy and exploration, which keeps things from becoming too precious.

Laraaji/Arji OceAnanda/Dallas Acid - Arrive Without Leaving Just when we needed him, the man born Edward Gordon has been having a major moment for the last couple of years, from reissues and remixes to concert appearances and now this album. A collaboration with OceAnanda, his longtime partner in leading meditation workshops, and a synth trio from Texas, this album finds his trademark autoharp combining perfectly with they synths and OceAnanda’s mbira to create swirling clouds of sound that warm your heart and soothe your mind. All these years later, you can still hear the beauty and humanity that stopped Brian Eno in his tracks on a New York street corner before he invited Laraaji into the studio to create Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance.

Tim Hecker - Konoyo Almost a decade ago, Hecker corralled my consciousness (and that of many others) with Ravedeath 1972, but nothing really grabbed me since then. Until Konoyo, that is, which puts his supremely beautiful textural combinations on full display in a seven-song suite that is not so much cinematic as novelistic, with certain sounds almost becoming characters to be followed as you listen. The emotions here - wistfulness, sorrow, acceptance - are deep and deeply nuanced. It would be easy to assume Hecker is running on some kind of extraordinary series of instincts in putting this stuff together, but more likely there's a load of craft and experimentation behind it all. Either way, the end result feels completely inevitable without a hint of contrivance.

Rival Consoles - Persona Compared with Tim Hecker and some of the other items on this list, this project of Ryan Lee West's almost seems to be delivering pop songs, although of a brooding and moody variety. Take the title track, which uses a subdued dance beat to push sweeping chords through time and space, with a central hook that echoes in my mind for days. 

Nils Frahm - All Melody The vinyl package of this is so fantastic that it took me a while to reconcile it with how wildly uneven the album is. The first two tracks, for example, are almost completely forgettable, but then we get magic like A Place, My Friend The Forest and Harm Hymn. If he could have kept the quality at that level, it would have been extraordinary. The duff songs are more than made up for by an accompanying EP called Encores 1, which is all top notch stuff. Sometimes even someone as talented as Frahm might not know what his best work sounds like.

Kuuma - Level This is another collage-like blast from the mind of Adam Cuthbért (I-VT - see above, slashsound,etc.), this time purporting to the "the origin story of Kuuma, a databorne algorithm," which is fun to think about while you listen. Get the picture here - or just listen and let your imagination write your own story.

Viberous - Splintered This queasy and claustrophobic trip into sonic degradation was introduced to me by Cuthbért, who remixed the last song, Nettle, and could be seen as of a piece with Kuuma and I-VT. Do I sense a movement? Sign me up!

Ian William Craig - Thresholder Speaking of sonic degradation, no one does the "machines breaking down with film burning in the projector accompanied by Gregorian chant" like this classically trained singer, songwriter and producer. Of course, he's been doing his thing since at least 2014 when he released the stunning A Turn Of Breath. This album finds him in top form, so if you're still unfamiliar feel free to start here.

Frederic D. Oberland - Labyrinth In addition running Nahal Recordings, who released the epic Good Luck In Death album mentioned above, and his work as a photographer, Oberland is also a producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist. Labyrinth is his second album and manages to somehow be both pitch black and optimistic. With inspiration coming from Dante and the "anguish and ecstasy" of George Bataille's Inner Experience, I suppose that's to be expected!

E Ruscha V - Who Are You There is also optimism to be found here, in the latest work by Ruscha who has a large collection of vintage gear and knows how to use it. Ruscha knows how to have fun, too, such as on the title track, which would be the perfect accompaniment to an underwater robot ballet. Some of the delight to be found here may have a genetic origin, as Ruscha is the son of one of my favorite artists, Ed Ruscha. Book a flight on Guacamole Airlines if you need to know more.

Narducci - Break The Silence Matthew Silberman, who made one of the best jazz albums of the decade a few years ago, is the main man behind Narducci and one of these days I need to ask him why that name? But for now, I'm too busy being fascinated by all the ideas behind the four tracks on this EP, which feature electronics, sax, vocals and even a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. There is enough ambition here, and (dare I say) spirituality that listening is a deeply involving experience. Sometimes I play it on repeat, which is a sure sign that I want more.

Saariselka - Ceres I've been waiting for something new from Marielle V. Jakobsons ever since Star Core came out in 2016 and just recently became aware of this shimmering collaboration between her and Chuck Johnson, a pedal steel player. The combination of his treated guitar with her Fender Rhodes and other keyboards is just sublime. If another year must go by without a follow up to Star Core, additional music like this would make the passing of time completely painless.  

Elizabeth Joan Kelly - Music For The DMV Isn't it funny that most of the artistic children of Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music For Airports are for much less mundane uses (meditation, primarily) than visiting a transportation hub? Kelly, a composer from New Orleans, has taken her inspiration in the opposite direction, to a destination even more reviled than JFK or LGA: the Department of Motor Vehicles. While one would think that relaxing sounds would be the best thing to help survive another license renewal, Kelly uses a variety of shiny textures and bright melodies to instead provide distraction. And there's plenty of that to be found here, as well as charm, especially in the three tracks classed as Gymnopedies. Best of all, however, is Call My Number, which has an almost comical sense of yearning and absolutely reminds me of that time when the scheduling system crashed at the DMV and I lost my place in line.

Brian Eno - Music For Installations There are few artists who loom larger in the field of electronic music than Eno and even fewer that could credibly release something like this five hour behemoth of a set. Stretching back as far as 1985, the set collects nearly everything Eno created for his installation work or other visual projects like 77 Million Paintings, which combined software and sound art. The penultimate "disc" is called Making Spaces and was originally sold at installations. Featuring short pieces, including a beauteous number for guitar called New Moon, it showcases a different side of the artist, closer to the concision of Music For Films Volume II than the rest of the set. There are also four tracks for "future installations," which qualifies as a new Eno album of gleaming subtlety and proves once again that nobody does it better. 

Find tracks from all these releases, except Cocoon Year and Splintered, in this playlist or below. Want more? Check out the Archive, which has several additional hours of electronic intrigue to explore! What did I miss?

You may also enjoy:
Best of 2018: The Top 25
Best of 2018: Classical 
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic