Sunday, January 17, 2021

Best Of 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

The only pure hip hop album on my Top 25 was Alfredo, the devastating team-up between Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist (see also his brilliant live session with the El Michels Affair). But that doesn't mean the year was devoid of exciting or even important releases from that realm, not to mention R&B and Reggae. A few of those showed up in earlier posts, which are listed first and included on the playlist below. 

Of Note In 2020: Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae
Charlotte Dos Santos - Harvest Time
Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2 (Deluxe)
Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)
Quakers - II - The Next Wave
Supa-K: Heavy Tremors

Clipping - Visions Of Bodies Being Burned How far you want to dive into the references to classic horror films and homages to an earlier generation of hip hop artists on this latest from Daveed Diggs' group is up to you. Even if totally ignorant of all the cogitation behind their creative process, I can't imagine the brick hard, serrated beats - constructed by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes with other collaborators - combined with Diggs' machine-gun delivery not having an impact. Part of that is the sheer viscera Diggs pumps into couplets like: "'Til nine months later with a stomach full of Devil baby/She startin' to think it's time to pump the brakes/But that train left the station with the Great Migration/Bloody tracks left right by the drain, say the name." You would not be mistaken if you assigned the album to the same moment that gave us HBO's Lovecraft Country, another canny a mix of pop-culture inside jokes with social commentary. So whether it's the words or the grim soundscapes that discomfit you while listening, either way you will not be bored.

Conway The Machine - From A King To A GOD, No One Mourns The Wicked (with Big Ghost Ltd.), and Lulu (with The Alchemist) Maybe it's the raw winters of Buffalo that forged this indomitable rapper, who seems to have endless bars to deliver over beats by some of the best producers around, including DJ Premier, Havoc, Big Ghost Ltd., and The Alchemist. In some ways, there's nothing on these three albums that couldn't have come out five years ago, but rather than live on the cutting edge, Conway seeks merely to be excellent. He's also damned convincing in whatever tales he's delivering, with a persona of having come through the fire to rise to the top. But among the brags are heartfelt and humble moments of reflection, as on The Contract from Lulu: "Let's toast to my enemies, no, let's toast to my injuries/Turned my negative to positive, I don't need no sympathy/I'm the GOAT 'til infinity, I wrote with intensity/Plus, my potent delivery, I just hope they remember me." If he keeps up this pace and quality, he'll be impossible to forget.

Megan Thee Stallion - Good News Like Conway, Megan sees no need to jump on trap or drill trends, just serving up fun, creative beats from a roster of expert producers (I count 20!), and slathering her diamond-sharp rhymes all over them with infectious glee. Her joy - and ours - comes not only from her sheer skill with syllables, but her complete lack of inhibition, which can also be found on WAP, the era-defining single (and video!) she made with Cardi B. While Cardi is not on the album, there are a ton of other guests, but she lets none of them dim her shine, although Dababy and Sza come close. While Don't Rock Me To Sleep, the one pure pop move, is regrettable, mainstream hip hop this good is not as common as it should be so all is forgiven. Not that she would care what I think - nor would I want her to!

Jean Dawson - Pixel Bath The Pigeons & Planes Discord is one of the brightest spots on the internet, full of positivity, constructive criticism, and enthusiastic sharing. While time constraints have me mostly lurking, my antennae are always up for something getting a lot of attention, and this nearly genre-free debut quickly bubbled up. As much a rock or pop album, with all the soaring guitar solos and sticky choruses that implies, it slots in here nicely due to its omnivorous nature and sharp attitude. While there is plenty of youthful angst, it fortunately stays to the right side of emo, landing almost in a post-punk zone on occasion. It's anyone's guess where Dawson goes from here, but his options appear to be unlimited.

Spillage Village, JID & EarthGang - Spilligion Even before I knew this collective was from Atlanta, GA, I was getting strong OutKast vibes based on the beat-making, which is colorfully original yet steeped in funk, soul, gospel, etc., and the variety and energy of the flows. Loads of pop smarts, too, with several songs achieving ear worm status. Perhaps a testament to the deep collaboration underpinning the whole album is the fact that, with 20+ producers and a more than a dozen rappers, Spilligion not only doesn't collapse under its own weight, but is actually a joyful and consistent listen. You can listen free on every service, but tell me you aren't tempted by this vinyl package, which is as exuberant as the music.

Goodie Mob - Survival Kit Speaking of the Dirty South, here comes the Mob with their first album in seven years - and one of their best. Even at nearly an hour, it does not overstay its welcome thanks to the lively tracks by Organized Noise and energized and engaged rhyming from everybody, including the three stellar guests: Chuck D, Andre 3000, and Big Boi. Considering the way 2021 has kicked off, I'm going to keep this album close at hand. As Khujo Goodie says in the title track: "Mask on, gloves on, we ain't out the woods yet/The power of the mind is my survival kit."

Run The Jewels - RTJ4 Some have complained that while this is good, it's nothing new from Killer Mike and El-P, but I think the former is carrying the latter less often, which is refreshing. El's beats are as great as usual, with more of an electro flavor (and a great Gang Of Four sample on The Ground Below), inspiring Killer Mike to some awesome heights, as on this verse from Goonies Vs. E.T.: "Ain't no revolution is televised and digitized/You've been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys/Cues to the evening news, make sure you ill-advised/Got you celebrating the generators of genocide/Any good deed is pummeled, punished, and penalized." There's also a devastating Mavis Staples feature on Pulling The Pin, and one of the best rallying cries ever on JU$T: "Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar." When I start using paper money again, I will be looking hard.

Sault -  Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) Through a combination of savvy marketing and a canny combination of influences ranging from Black Heat and 24 Carat Black to contemporary funk, R&B, and hip hop, this mystery collective topped many a list of 2020's best music. Much of that acclaim was deserved as they delivered two albums full of sticky tunes, danceable grooves, and up to the minute rallying cries. However, each album is salted with PSA like interludes (like You Know It Ain't) that lose their luster after a few listens. But there is much that is thought-provoking and much that is sheerly enjoyable here. Maybe next time around they'll realize they have nothing to prove.

Orion Sun - A Collection Of Fleeting Moments And Daydreams This slightly updated version of her 2017 EP shows off Tiffany Majette's talents with exquisite focus, slightly more so than her other 2020 release, Hold Space For Me. But both make great use of acoustic guitars, scratchy records, bossa nova samples, and Majette's voice, which has a delicacy belying its hidden strengths. Both records are a time-lapse view of a new original blossoming before your ears.

Kali Uchis - Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios) Anyone who's heard 2018's Isolation, Uchis' first album, would know from songs like Your Teeth In My Neck that she is "sin miedo" (without fear) - and that she's an endless font of melody. That combination means it's no surprise that this album of mostly Spanish language material goes down so smoothly. She traverses boleros and reggaeton with equal ease, demonstrating that steely delicacy on song after song. Even on a banger like Te Pongo Mal, she never oversells, making an album that will work at a party but also in quieter circumstances. The last track, Angel Sin Cielo, which could have been a tour de force of layered vocals over acoustic guitar, is an unfortunate misfire, but the rest is close to perfection.

Denise Sherwood - This Road If the name looks familiar to you from the On-U Sound universe led by Adrian Sherwood, you're already on the right track to digging this delicious debut by his daughter. Apparently years in the making as she sought her voice, it's helped by that temporal variety, with touches of trip-hop and drum & bass among the sleekly assured reggae you would expect. And it's a gorgeous voice, too, confident yet restrained, with the low-key strength of someone who knows they have nothing to prove. More than holding its own among classics from the New Age Steppers, African Head Charge, and other Sherwood projects, This Road sees the On-U legend yet being written. All hail!

Toots & The Maytals - Got To Be Tough That was a bit of a sorry roller coaster ride we went on last year with this reggae legend. First, there was his inspiring interview in Rolling Stone, which revealed a long-in-the-works new album would soon be coming to fruition, with the unlikely help of Zak Starkey. Then, just days later, the dispiriting news that this indefatigable force had been felled by complications resulting from COVID-19. So now the album had the dual weight of not only being his first in ten years, but his final statement. I'm happy to report that, after a shaky start (the first song is annoying, the second inconsequential), and despite an unnecessary remake of Three Little Birds, this is a fine album. His voice sounds strong throughout and there are more than a few songs - the title track especially - worthy of including on a career-spanning playlist. There may be more in the vaults that will come out posthumously, but for now this will serve as a capstone to a life in music that needed no burnishing. 

Singles: This category always churns up essential stand-alone singles. In 2020 there was the aforementioned WAP and we also got Frank Ocean singing dreamily in Spanish on the spare Cayendo, the warm Terry Callier/Isley Brothers vibes of The Sun by Secret Night Gang, Hot Sauce, another tasty lagniappe from Pinkcaravan!, and Lockdown, the quarantine smash by Anderson .Paak. He rose to our current moment with one his best songs yet, somehow giving us permission to dance while looking squarely in the face at some of the challenges of 2020. My grandchildren will understand a bit more of what we're going through when we play them Lockdown. What music will you share with them to help them understand?

For more from these genres, check out my archive playlist - and make sure to follow the 2021 edition so you don't miss anything.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB
A Vacation In Hip Hop Nation
A Few Brief Words About Some Recent Hip Hop

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Best Of 2020: Electronic

Electronic music comes in many flavors and sometimes it's as much about the attitude as the instruments used. But one thing all the albums below have in common is the presence of synthetic sounds or treated instruments. My Top 25 included five albums that could slot in here (Molly Joyce, Matt Evans, Nnux, Miro Shot, and Yaeji), but there were a number of others that transported me, which I have detailed below. Let them take you places.

A few of these were included in previous posts - links to those will come first, followed by new reviews.

Hear tracks from these albums here or below.

Of Note In 2020: Electronic

Roger Eno & Brian Eno - Mixing Colors (also check out Film Music: 1976-2020)
Seabuckthorn - Through A Vulnerable Occur (also check out Other, Other)
Beatrice Dillon - Workaround

Daniel Wohl - Project Blue Book Soundtrack This show, a UFO procedural on The History Channel, has ended, but Wohl's expertly crafted and evocative music lives on in this tightly assembled soundtrack album. While the emotional depths of Corps Exquis or Etat are only hinted at, Wohl's burnished textures and subtle structures are put to excellent use. 

Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never I'm not sure if Daniel Lopatin, who performs as OPN, reached a new level of feeling on his soundtrack for Uncut Gems or if a key turned in me, giving new access to his music, but this new album is similarly dazzling. One main difference is the presence of hopeful and even upbeat sounds, as opposed to the unremitting (and wonderful) grimness of Uncut Gems. His use of unexpected sonic juxtapositions and overlays puts him in the class of master bricoleurs, giving us soundscapes both adventurous and assured. I'm now looking forward to investigating the last decade or more of ONP albums to see what I missed the first time around!

Various Artists - Music From SEAMUS, Vol. 3 and Vol. 23 These archival releases from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States are consistently fascinating, whether it's the mutating piano on Larry Nelson's Order And Alliance (1991) from the first or Chester Udell's assemblage of metallic and white noises on Steel Golem (2011-12) from the second. And how cool to see Switch~Ensemble crop up here, in a recording of Christopher Chandler's Smoke And Mirrors from 2013, a gorgeous miniature of enhanced chamber music.

Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders This is an album to sink into, as Lattimore's harp loops and echoes, like ripples on a pond, enhanced by delicate touches of guitar and synth from Slowdive's Neil Halstead. File under: Balm for the soul.

Corntuth - Music To Work To There's some of the simplicity and cockeyed optimism of Raymond Scott's Soothing Sounds For Baby in these 13 tracks "written on the fly on a 1983 Yamaha DX7 and run through a Yamaha R100," but also unexpected moments of drama and a melodic sense straight from pop music. A-009 even brings a touch of soul to the experience. Whether you choose to have this delightful collection accompany your work or a strenuous session of cloud gazing is up to you, but I think you'll find it equally appropriate to either occasion.

Epic 45 - We Were Never Here There were always ambient touches to their gorgeous future-folk songs, never more so than on their masterpiece, Weathering, which was both in my Best Of 11 and 100 Best Albums Of The 2010's. On this lush album, they go all in - no words and few beats - and have arrived at their best since Weathering, with only a hint of the 80's tinniness that has crept into their work of late. Listen carefully and it may lead you down a hall of memories you forgot you had.

Emily A. Sprague - Hill, Flower, Fog Like Epic 45, Sprague is a very good songwriter (work she releases as Florist), who also pushes into ambient electronics, and this may be her best yet in that field, with much of the tuneful charm of her song-based work. As the title suggests, engagement with nature is an inspiration for her work so if your quarantine has you missing the outside world, put up the video for Star Gazing on the biggest screen in your house and revel in imagery and sound.

Glass Salt - Greetings There's a sense of intuitive collage to these tracks by Caylie Staples and Johann Diedrick, with voices set alongside synth sounds and unidentified percussive noises. There's a gentleness here, too, perhaps a product of what appears to be a seamless collaboration, something to which we can all aspire. Yet another great release from Whatever's Clever!

Sofie Birch - Hidden Terraces and Behind Her Name Chestnuts Fall Forever On these three long tracks, Birch combines piano, field recordings, and electronics in what feel like films for the mind. The way she imperceptibly moves from section to section in each piece gives you a sense of a firm structural hand even as you lose yourself in the languor.

Michael Grigoni & Steven Vitiello - Slow Machines A shimmering combination of Grigoni's luminous work for stringed instruments of all sorts and Vitiello's enhancements, including synths, field recordings, etc. Vitiello is an old college friend and usually plies his trade more in the realms of installation-based sound art so I'm thrilled to have this cogent and supremely listenable album to enjoy at home - and share with you.

Ian William Craig & Daniel Lentz - Frkwys Vol. 16: In A Word Collaborating with pianist Lentz seems to have brought new subtlety to Craig's signature glitched and chopped vocals. Contemplative, but with an edge.

Nils Frahm - Tripping With Nils Frahm Aside from one or two overly sentimental solo piano moments, this is genuinely thrilling - in a quiet way - as Frahm builds up his hypnotic electro-acoustic tracks in front of a rapturous live audience. Get closer to the experience by watching the documentary film.

Narducci - El Viejo Soundtrack Matthew Silberman, who records as Narducci, shows great skill with texture and dynamics, drawing you through the narrative of this documentary about athlete Thom Ortiz. Narducci has been busy this year - he also released a soundtrack for another documentary, Until the Day Someone Puts Me in a Coffin, about Brazilian Ju Jitsu, and a single called Ancient Dialogue, an intriguing blend of sampled Inuit singing and electronics with a true ceremonial flair. I could do with more of that combination, but instead I'll just put the video on repeat and go tripping with Narducci.

Taylor Brook - Apperceptions Composer Brook shows a very different, but no less innovative, side of himself here than on the cutting edge chamber music of Ecstatic Music, his 2016 album with Tak Ensemble. Featuring improvisations for his electric guitar and an "audio-corpus-based AI improviser" he designed, these tracks are full of sinuous melodic lines and chords that feel lit from within, gently growing more complex as the computer takes up the themes and provides its own variations. Should the singularity ever occur, I hope Brook and his software collaborator are on hand to provide the soundtrack.

Adam CuthbĂ©rt & Daniel Rhode - Greet The World Every Morning With Curiosity And Hope The title of this latest from the modular masters of Slashsound says it all for this perfect blend of burnished tones and cautiously optimistic vibes. And what better way to start the new year?

For similar noises, check into this archive playlist with much more where these came from and follow the 2021 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
Best of 2019: Electronic
Best of 2018: Electronic
Best of 2017: Electronic
Best of 2016: Electronic