Top 25 Albums of 2017

Boy oh boy, what a year it’s been. 2017 has basically been the dour, elongated sigh after the shock of 2016. That sour demeanor has been felt in the music industry as well, as many of the most popular and acclaimed albums have been made by heartbroken singers, angry rappers and anxious youths trying to take action. Despite the low-key attitude of the last 365 days, there are always some outstanding pieces of music to dive into. Since I ashamedly missed out on doing a list last year, I decided to bump up my list and highlight 25 albums that stood out and helped make 2017….tolerable.

 

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25. Washed Out – Mister Mellow

There’s always been the sense that Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr., better known as Washed Out, was building towards something. Potential was there right from the start of his breakthrough single “Feel It All Around,” with its luscious synthesizers and hazy vocal melodies. Since then, he’s kept building on that potential and expanding his chillwave sound. With Mister Mellow, he finally gets his chance to organize and craft all the colorful sounds in his head on wax. He may start off overwhelmed and frantic on “Burn Out Blues” before finding his warm and soaring groove on “Hard To Say Goodbye” and even partying with his demons on the manic “Instant Calm” and the two-step of “Get Lost.” No matter how many synths and drum beats hit on the dance floor, Washed Out always finds the melody in the madness.

 

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24. JMSN – Whatever Makes U Happy

Simplicity is underrated in today’s music industry, and no genre uses simplicity better than neo soul. Case in point: the fifth studio album of one Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN. The Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist is a man who understands that songs of love, lust and the vices we abuse to feel something similar to the former two (see “Drinkin’”) are best presented with minimal excess and a spotlight on the voice telling the story. Backed by pitch-perfect snare drum kicks, acoustic guitar and choir-like background harmonies, JMSN makes sure that his bluesy, achy vocals don’t sound the tiniest bit fake on the heartbreaker “Love Ain’t Enough” to the spooky cowboy jam “Slide.” The album cover, with JMSN posing legs crossed and face stern, speaks for itself: He’ll do whatever you ask of him, so what do you want besides what’s real?

 

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23. Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess

One of the many surprises on Tyler, the Creator’s new album Flower Boy was the adolescent droll of Rex Orange County, a 19-year-old South London resident that best showcases young love and awkwardness probably because he still can’t legally drink in the U.S. That doesn’t stop him from sounding love drunk on his debut LP, which sounds like if Beck ever made an album of midnight lounge music after getting his first kiss. The title track effortless fades from string-backed piano ballad to a swinging conga groove about a boy who wants nothing more than to hold his dream girl’s hand. At the end of the 40 minutes of lo-fi piano pop, Rex throws his heart on the table and promises his girl that throughout all of his self-loathing, he just wants to know that she’ll be there. It’s his sincerity in the vocal delivery that sells him as a legitimate hopeless teenage romantic.

 

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22. Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Hey look, it’s the best Oasis album in over 20 years! Haha, I’m totally the first person to make that joke! But seriously, the younger (and more irritable) brother Gallagher finally drops the overblown stadium rock of Beady Eye and gives the world what he was born to make: an attitude-laced British rock record. The bluesy swagger of “Wall Of Glass” is so great and Liam so effortlessly struts his nasty vocals it’s amazing he didn’t lead with his right after brother Noel went AWOL. Liam may be a bit older now and his singing is certainly an acquired taste, it’s hard not to hear the passion and effort he puts into pulling off heartfelt ballads like “For What it’s Worth.” Liam finally gets his own solo spotlight, all he had to do was take it for himself.

 

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21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band 

Imagine if The New Pornographers decided that they wanted to sound like KISS in their glorious, 1970s heyday. Sound weird but kinda awesome, right? You’re in luck, because Louisville’s own White Reaper are here to make rock great again. The quartet’s second album is 32 minutes of unabashed pop rock that everyone from Jack Black to Richard Linklater wishes they could jam out to. The guitars riffs are razor sharp while the background synthesizers glisten, and the vocals from frontman Tony Esposito are so grimy and growling that even Iggy Pop would offer him a cough drop. “Judy French” is the best Cheap Trick song in 30 years with its chugging riffs and scorching guitar solo, while “Crystal Pistol” is so party-ready that Motley Crue are probably pissed they didn’t write it first. Every single track here belongs in a treasured teen comedy in any decade, inspiring youthful spirit to run free. The kicker? None of it sounds dated, with production that’s crisp but not overblown. White Reaper sound awesome on a record, but the energy and sonics on this probably sound way better in a bar three beers in with fists pumping in the air.

 

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20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?

Sorry Liam, age before beauty. The eldest brother Gallagher and his collection of psychedelic, scissor-using musicians have seemingly made good on their promise of mixing soaring stadium ballads with epic rock anthems. Credit goes to producer David Holmes, who gives Noel and the Birds a huge sonic tapestry to paint their heartfelt anthems. “Keep On Reaching” sounds like an energetic gospel anthem with its background choir and heavy organ, while “She Taught Me How To Fly” sounds like peak New Order with its driving bass line and electronic flourishes. Whereas brother Liam seems firmly trapped in the era of his heroes that never made it past 1969, Noel has seemingly taken all of the lovable things about rock’s classic era and updated its sound where it can exist in 2017 without seeming dated.

 

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19. Beck – Colors

Beck may be in his late-40s, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t cut loose. On album 13, generation x’s favorite “Loser” plays the brightest and most energetic songs of his entire career. A tight 11 tracks without a single lull, Beck indulges in hand-claps, synthesizers, vocoders and a boosted production. Even with his past awkwardness with pop music, “I’m So Free,” “Up All Night” and “Dreams” embrace sunny guitar rock and dance pop into a unique blend of radio-ready alt rock. And for those pining for classic Beck, “Wow” is the man in freaky funk-rap form over a warped beat. While most of his contemporaries have either burned out or faded away, Beck keeps finding new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate himself for the music landscape he finds himself in.

 

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18. Miguel – War & Leisure

Miguel could’ve sat back in 2017 knowing “Quick to dead the bull like a matador” was the coolest line in any song this year. But he decided to complement “Sky Walker” with another stellar slice of thumping R&B. Miguel takes elements from his last studio album, the rock-tinged Wildheart, and mixes it with electronic funk and soul. The guitar is actually the most prominent instrument heard in the background of War & Leisure, played with reggae scratches on “Banana Clip,” plucked on the Latin-infused slow jam “Wolf,” or strummed like disco king Niles Rodgers on “Caramelo Duro.” Also like his previous hallmark album Kaleidoscope Dream, warped electronic effects fuel each song with a drug-filled haze. But of course the star is Miguel himself, managing to be both a classic R&B vocalist with range and someone who can easily insert himself into the modern urban music landscape of trap-R&B (“Sky Walker”). He uses his vocals to build the sexual tension in “Harem” to its climax (probably a literal climax in his case) and can actually sing rap bars on par with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “Come Through and Chill.” Prince may be gone, but his aura is being honored with pride by Miguel.

 

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17. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

Look, the only person who wanted and needed another LCD Soundsystem record is James Murphy. He jumped the gun at his band’s peak and, in a petty form of panic, decided to call it quits. It was brief, but beautiful to have LCD Soundsystem around. Six years later, they’re back and things are not so beautiful in the world anymore. Don’t worry though, Murphy is not ignorant about the world around him. Everything about American Dream is meant to be dark, haunting, borderline depressing with low-droning synthesizers, scratching guitars, and Murphy’s vocals that range from awkward squeaks to ghoulish low notes. Murphy doesn’t trust the “other voices” in his head and surrounding him, he knows he’s too old and too frazzled to “change yr mind” and can’t stop asking his former business partner “how do you sleep?” And through all this sadness and misery, there’s still plenty to dance to. “tonite” is arguably the more robotic sequel to “Losing My Edge” with its European discotheque dance beat, while “call the police” is that rare indie rock stadium anthem that Murphy always pulls out of his ass every now and then. We didn’t need LCD Soundsystem back, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind checking up on them every once in awhile.

 

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16. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

Every single rapper’s mantra may be “money cash hoes” and it might get boring to hear on all their songs after a while. But nobody in the rap game makes flexing sound so fun and wear it so good like the artist formerly known as Tity Boi. After dropping SIX mixtapes in the four years since his last studio album, 2 Chainz returns as a champion of the underground who still rolls like a king. It doesn’t matter what beat he’s given, from the guitar-backed slow burn of “Saturday Night” and “It’s a Vibe” to Codeine-laced southern trap of “Blue Cheese,” “4 AM” and “Good Drank.” Chainz steps up and drops bars like a wizard of words that’s part goofy, part brilliant (“You know what they say/Me and my safe, got a friendship,” “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended/I called, she ain’t pick up, I text her back, b***h you stingy”). It’s a miracle that a blockbuster album 16 tracks long this stacked with rap elites (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane) is so thoroughly entertaining. And it’s all because of the effortless vibe 2 Chainz brings on bar none his finest album to date.

 

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15. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

The second he stepped onstage with Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium nearly 10 years ago, Dave Grohl ran all the way to the center of the 115 yard grounds just to get the entire crowd hyped for rock and roll. What made anyone think he and his band of bearded badasses could sit still for five minutes, let alone a “hiatus?” On album no. 9, the Foos sound more rejuvenated and loose than ever before. Under the loud and crisp production of Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Adele, Sia), the Foos get to make music for intergalactic death races (“La Dee Da”) and jump from a harmonious country ballad to fist-pumping prog rock on the same damn song (“Dirty Water”). Unlike 2014’s Sonic Highways, where the band tried shoving different genres into their unique unity, you can hear each member entwined with each other on Concrete and Gold. Pat Smear’s guitar sneaks up on “Arrows” to a quiet roar, while Taylor Hawkins gets to collapse the mountains with his drums on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and Nate Mendel’s fuzzed-out bass leads the charge on “La Dee Da.” Concrete and Gold is being able to see the engine roar in an awesome muscle car: when you see the parts work together, it makes you admire the machine all the more.

 

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14. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

2017 has been a great year for female rappers, arguably the best year they’ve ever had. Cardi B became one of the biggest stars in music out of nowhere, Nicki Minaj reinstated her clout without dropping an album, and underground artists like cupcaKKe started getting buzz. But the one who made an impact on 2017 with a compelling, cohesive work was 34-year-old Rapsody. The North Carolina wordsmith dropped her second studio album without any use of social media savviness or sex appeal. She needs neither, as her delivery and flow is as cocky and nasty as the typical gangster rapper. On “Power,” featuring a solid guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody rides 9th Wonder’s heavy beat to drop bars about the things that make others powerful and how they can be easily exploited (“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that/I know some n***as sold theirs, sit back and watch ’em tap dance”). Even with her tough attitude and clear desire to step up to the big names of rap, she’d rather have respect and connection with her peers on “Nobody” (“It’s all Hip Hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground music, I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Wacka Flacka last Christmas, Clap!/Clap for a n***a wit her rappin’ a**”). If there was ever someone to further legitimize the rise of the female rapper, Rapsody could definitely be the one to break down the door.

 

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13. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

What a weird year it’s been when Josh Homme makes a better dance-rock record than the co-founder of DFA Records. Though Mr. Homme and his scuzz rock scalliwags might’ve cheated a bit by having super producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) turn the knobs on Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album. It’s odd to say that a Queens of the Stone Age album “swings,” but Villains has a greater focus on groovy guitar licks and funky bass lines instead of pummeling riffs and constant propulsion. Even when they put the pedal-to-the-metal on “Head Like a Haunted House,” there’s still a swinging dance groove built into the punky headbanging brought by the speeding riffs and the rolling drums. No matter how druggy and pummeling QOTSA have sounded in the past, Homme has always had a sneering sexual swagger in his vocal delivery, like the worst possible sleazebag your daughter could bring home from the bar. Villains finally gives him the music best suited for his singing, from the mutated reggae of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as Homme keeps searching for self-destruction (“I chase the gates and drift ad nauseam/Driven by feelings I cannot hide”). And then there’s “The Way You Used To Do,” which manages to have the same groove as Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” and yet sound like the sexiest thing QOTSA has ever done because of the guitar-bass interplay and Homme’s moaning vocals (“When I first met her she was seventeen/Seventeen/Jump like an arsonist to a perfect match/Burned alive”). In the words of the late great Bon Scott, lock up your daughter and lock up your wife: Queens of the Stone Age are horny again.

 

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12. Hey Violet – From the Outside

Are there any more great pop bands in music? I mean bands that explicitly write and perform catchy pop songs as a band with real instruments and actual personality, not whatever Maroon 5 have been cruising on for the last five years. Maybe because pop has been so lifeless and droll in recent years that it needs a little youthful spunk to make it fun again. Enter Hey Violet, a collection of Hot Topic models that can actually write songs and play instruments pretty well. Their debut album is chock full of sugary-sweet pop-rock that mix pop-punk energy with funk, electronic, alternative, and youthful exuberance. Sometimes all of that in one song, like the bouncy ex-girlfriend anthem “Hoodie” or the ballsy kiss-off “Fuqboi.” Hey Violet seems well-versed in the flavors of music taste, jumping from stadium anthem “Break My Heart” to the sinful funk of “Brand New Moves” then even to the spooky romance of “Like Lovers Do.” From the Outside replaces a flowing atmosphere with outstanding personality from each member in each song. Casey Moreta’s guitar and Nia Lovelis’s guitar and drum attack power through “This Is Me Breaking Up With You” and “Unholy,” while Miranda Miller cooks up some great electronics on “Where Have You Been (All My Night)” and “My Consequence.” But the cherry on  top is frontwoman Rena Lovelis, who pulls off the attitude of brat, seductress, introvert and intellectual compared to others her age. While “Guys My Age” might seem like dubstep dribble, but Rena’s confident vocal performance creates an aura of its own. These are the future leaders of our pop music, party on.

 

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights 

On the cover of Julien Baker’s second studio album is an explosion, or better yet a release of dark colors spewing out of something small. It’s pretty easy to assume that said release is coming from the pint-sized Memphis native’s heart and soul through all 42 minutes of this quiet slice of heartbreak. Even though Baker is the star of this album, both her aching vocals and her echoing guitar, she’d rather not have you see her fragile and alone. She doesn’t know the depths of her own loneliness (“I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone/Is it real or a dream, which is worse?”), the difficulties others have with a private fight (“I know that you don’t understand/’Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see/When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”) and how the only one she has to conquer is herself (“Am I a masochist/Screaming televangelist/Clutching my crucifix/Of white noise and static”). Baker thrives on the combination of her music grim yet glistening atmosphere, her believable vocal performance that puts other whispering indie rock singers to shame, and just the blunt honesty of her lyrics. Turn Out the Lights is more of a concise diary entry than an album with Baker trying to mend all of her wounds in one sitting and feeling the weight of it all. But that doesn’t mean she still won’t try (“And damn it, we are gonna figure something out/If it takes me all night to make it hurt less”).

 

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10. Remo Drive – Greatest Hits

Emo rock gets a bad rap that feels (mostly) unfair. The idea of a bunch of kids from a small town swinging their guitars around while screaming into their microphones about the joys of middle America lost on them seems totally justified. Perhaps its only when these bands become more successful and start believing their hype is when it gets to the ridiculous levels of say, personalized eyeliner, that emo music loses its value or believability. So you’d better get to know Remo Drive fast before someone offers them a deal to soundtrack the next movie adaptation of a John Green book. The Minnesota trio’s debut album excels in a combination of melody and blunt force trauma that would earn salutes from Nirvana and The Promise Ring alike. It’s impressive to hear the strong wall of sound from the simplicities of a low-tuned bass and fuzzed-out guitars, not to mention Erik Paulson’s aching growl on vocals. Greatest Hits is an excellent snapshot of the working-class guitar band stuck in the midst of cynicism, rebellion, arrogance and self-loathing. The danceable drum beat and propulsive guitars of “Eat S**t” are a joy to behold even when the band talks about the struggles of friends growing up while Paulson is “stuck in the habits I formed when I was fifteen.” Even when Remo Drive try to be snarky to upper class girlfriends on “Art School,” their humor comes at their own expense (“Art school/Colored hair/Too cool/For me but that’s fair”). But Remo Drive are about feeling, like the true sentiment of “Yer Killin’ Me” (“You make me want to start rolling/Fat a** blunts ’til I start choking/Anything that’s bad for me”). Even with hands in their pockets and their heads staring at the floor, who said emo couldn’t be fun?

 

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9. Rina Sawayama – RINA

If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to turn of the century bubblegum pop with its automated acoustic guitar, skittering blips of electronics and start-stop vocal delivery. You also know that you’re ashamed to be listening to nearly 20-year-old albums by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears unironically while clamoring to have the sound be old enough to be retro and cool again. If this applies to you, say hello to Rina Sawayama and her debut EP. The 27-year-old Japanese born, London raised singer is a connoisseur of both Total Request Live-era pop and modern-day indie dance music. Like a well-aged wine, RINA is awash with the tastes of olden days: “Ordinary Superstar” is a classic slice of 80s pop rock with its chugging guitar riff and bright synthesizers, “Take Me As I Am” is a perfect splice of Britney’s “Overprotected” and her curly-haired ex’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Tunnel Vision” is a lovely duet with Shamir that harkens back to peak-Toni Braxton. As a singer, Sawayama follows the teen-pop singing style of moderately-high pitched aching and inflecting syllables in the hopes to have a more memorable chorus. But while the Jive Records family sang about boys and girls and trouble with said boys and girls, Sawayama instead sings about the trials and tribulations of single life in the social media age. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” is where the EP closes and is also its highlight, a bittersweet dance jam about making friends through the screens of her laptop and phone (“I am connected/I am the girl you want to watch…Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”). What with TRL back on the air and Britney and Backstreet officially deemed legacy acts, why can’t Rina lead the charge for the 90s nostalgia?

 

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8. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog 

It’s almost fitting that 27-year-old Mac DeMarco has an appearance that makes him look like someone’s dad who’s about to paint a neighbor’s house, since he has more maturity and heart than his cigarettes and duck-bill hats would suggest. His third album, This Old Dog, is his softest and most tender album to date, about a man with his hands in his pockets trying to have a hand in a world he doesn’t recognize. While known as a guitar virtuoso, DeMarco’s kooky slide guitar is replaced with soft pluckings of an acoustic guitar while quiet organs and low drums fill the background. While it still has hints of the stoner vibe heard in his previous album, This Old Dog sounds more restrained and focused on getting DeMarco’s experience across to the listener. The star of This Old Dog is not DeMarco the musician, but DeMarco the man contemplating what the years have done to him (“For he can’t be me/Look how old and cold and tired/And lonely he’s become”). Regardless of the loneliness, age, and time that has passed DeMarco, he remains a chain-smoking soft-spoken optimist (“Don’t feel like all the time you put in went to waste/The way your heart was beating all those days/And suddenly it beats another pace”). This Old Dog confirms that DeMarco has more to him than goofball charm: he’s a legitimate songwriter and storyteller, especially when he gets personal. While the next step will be seeing if he can break out of his own musical bubble, at least he still knows how to be a human being.

 

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7. Jay-Z – 4:44

Humility is not a word commonly associated with one Sean Carter. Even when he tries to rap about his first-world problems, it’s hard to sympathize with him when he’s rapping on a golden throne. But after being emasculated by his own wife for cheating on her on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year, Jay-Z decided it was time to really look at himself in the mirror and address his faults. The result is the most minimal album of Hov’s entire career: 10 songs at 37 minutes long with one producer (No I.D.) and plenty of room for Jay to question his worth and the world around him. Right from the get go, it’s obvious that Jay is not in the best mental state (“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z”). He’s thinking about how the suit-wearing industry buffs he signs deals with are no different from the conniving murderous drug dealers he once knew on the streets (“Caught Their Eyes”), and how “The Story of O.J.” taught him that being truly successful as a black American is success you can pass down to generations instead of blowing it all on finer things (or a court case). But Jay is also looking inward to his own personal faults, like his inability to admit his mistakes for the sake of family (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) or how his youthful pride hurt someone who truly loved him (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”). It’s on 4:44 that Jay-Z is heard not only using his poise as the most famous rapper on the planet for use outside of hubris for once, but as a rapper willing to admit how human he is. And in a way, that’s actually the boldest move any rapper can make. No matter how many bars Migos or Lil Uzi Vert dropped about their stacks or cars or women they sleep with, none of them can compete with the ballsy move of rapping about how he cried over sleeping with another woman.

 

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6. Thundercat – Drunk

Ever get so hammered on beer and good booze that you start thinking about how the little things in your life are actually so much more important? Ever think those conversations are so deep and profound that they could actually be interesting enough for mass consumption? Well you’re too late, because Thundercat beat you to it. The big man with the big bass dropped a 23-track opus about the hazy thoughts in his head all set to exceptionally-crafted lo-fi funk. What makes Drunk stand out as being more than a fun funk novelty is the way Thundercat and co-producers Sounwave and Flying Lotus stick with its spacey and quite-beautiful atmosphere throughout the album. While Thundercat’s bass is the prominent instrument throughout the album (as it should be on the smooth grooves of “Tokyo” and the freestyle freakout of “Uh Uh”), the boom-bap drums of “Jethro” or the futuristic synths of “Jameel’s Space Ride” that help keep the album on such a sonic high. Thundercat also proves himself a damn good lyricist, managing to turn inner wonderings of what life would be like as a cat (“Everything the light touches/It’s where I will roam/My roar would be so powerful/I would scare off everything”) into a heartfelt slow jam. And then there’s “Friend Zone” a hilarious bop about all the things Thundercat would rather do than being shut down by his crush (“Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I’m all about my Johnny Cage/If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe”). Outside of his name and choice instrument, Drunk is a wonderful testament to Thundercat’s unique personality.

 

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5. Paramore – After Laughter

Paramore is dead, LONG LIVE PARAMORE! It’s been a little over five years since Franklin, Tennessee’s favorite band were waving the flag of emo rock they used to carry with “Misery Business,” “Crushcrushcrush” and their megahit “Decode.” Not that it’s stopped them from becoming one of America’s biggest rock bands, switching to a more explorative outfit with their 2013 self-titled album that mixed fist-pumping alt-rock (“Fast In My Car,” “Now,” “Anklebiters”) to genuine pop-rock (“Ain’t It Fun,” “Still Into You”). If Paramore was the band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, their fifth album is the band’s next phase fully-formed. Again co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who first worked with the band on Paramore, After Laughter is 12 tracks tight with bright, bouncy, jangly alt-rock with only one track breaking the four-minute mark. Hints of The Strokes, The 1975 and Vampire Weekend are heard throughout the album thanks to the production highlighting the individual instrumentation of the album. Returning drummer Zac Farro brings a heft of energy with his rolling bass drum lines on “Grudges,” “Pool” and “Idle Worship,” while Meldal-Johnson’s electronic flourishes on the keyboards and synthesizers turn “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy.” The MVP of After Laughter is guitarist/co-producer Taylor York, leaving his own stamp on each song with super-catchy riffs both strummed (“Caught in the Middle,” “Rose-Colored Boy”) and plucked (“Hard Times,” “Told You So”). And despite changing her hair from a fiery orange to an atomic blonde, frontwoman Hayley Williams remains one of rock’s most captivating lyricists and singers. It’s refreshing to hear her flex her vocal range from the quirky yelps on “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship” to the soft harmonies on “Forgiveness.” But Williams is exceptional when the lights go down and gets the spotlight to herself, and the album’s centerpiece is the acoustic ballad “26.” With York’s soft plucking and a lovely string arrangement in the background, Williams coos about depression hanging over her head like a rain cloud and trying her damndest to hold onto hope. Corny? Sure, but Williams and co. sell it with simplicity and the earnestness of the performance. What makes After Laughter all the more revelatory is how involved the band sounds in this process. This isn’t a career move for longevity’s sake, this is a band evolving together into a sharper, spunkier machine. Warped Tour might be gone, but Paramore is forever.

 

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4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Every now and then, some up-and-coming rapper makes enough of an impression on impact to be referred to as the new “best rapper alive.” Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. Point is, being called the “best rapper alive” is merely a buzzword to put in articles and on t-shirts. Yet ever since his breakthrough in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has made a helluva case to to be called the best rapper alive and have it actually mean something. DAMN. is not only Lamar’s third consecutive release since 2015, but it also serves as a warped and more-aggressive follow-up to his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Nearly everything about DAMN., from its song titles in all caps to the darker musical production, is meant to highlight a man crashing into modern times confused and confrontational at the same time. A repeated line on DAMN. is “nobody prayin’ for me,” showing Kung Fu Kenny trying to find who in the rap game and the real world he can truly confide in now that’s fully exposed in the mainstream. “FEEL.” is a heightened and more focused slice of Kendrick’s paranoia through a low-fi rap beat and Kendrick growing more bothered by the second (“Feel like my thought of compromise is jaded/Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it/Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all/Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved”). As he did on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick is also bothered by his celebrity and how he should properly use his influence on the frantic “XXX” (“He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?….To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him/”I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:/If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”). He’s still proud of his street origins and has no problem calling out Fox News for using his people and neighborhood to frame agendas on “DNA,” and has no problem with brag rap on “HUMBLE.” The bottom line of DAMN. is that even at his most focused and most emotionally woke, the best rapper alive is well-aware of the dangers of being called the best rapper alive. He doesn’t want your titles, only your attention.

 

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3. SZA – Ctrl

For the last 20 years, the music industry has been trying to successful and continuously splice R&B and hip-hop. There have been success stories: Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, The Roots, Beyonce, Drake and Frank Ocean. But the problem with this synthesis is that it hasn’t been consistent: D’Angelo took 14 years to make another album, we’re STILL waiting on that next Lauryn Hill album, Drake’s synthesis is mostly hit and miss, and Frank Ocean wants to be as mysterious with his album releases as D’Angelo and Lauryn. Even Rihanna, one of the most successful artists of the new millenium, bounces between pop and rap and R&B like a pinball between the machine’s flappers. The thing that makes a successful R&B/hip-hop combination is consistency, and no one has made a more full-formed idea of how the two genres could live in harmony together than New Jersey’s Solána Rowe. Making her astonishing studio album debut as SZA on CTRL for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kung Fu Kenny has taste, eh?), Ms. Rowe’s intent and personality is one of the most immediately fascinating and likable in a long time. Her singing is a near-flawless combination of rap god bravado and seductive soul as she both begs for true intimacy and brushes off any flakey behavior. She’s so brazen, she even admits to cheating on her boyfriend as a reason for leaving said boyfriend on the FIRST DAMN TRACK. From there, SZA does everything from mock thirsty womanizers (“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”), using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for the value of waiting for sex (“Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/Never even pushed for the p***y”) to being open about how the wandering eye of men hurts her (“Beep beep, why are you lookin’ around, you lonely?/I feel you comin’ down like honey/Do do you even know I’m alive?”). SZA’s lyrics are merely the perfect icing on the cake, as the base is full of hazy future-soul music mixed with trap drums and low-synthesizers. SZA is game for all of it though as her voice rides effortlessly on any beat placed in front of her. She has the flow of a rapper on par with the albums guest stars (Travis Scott, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad) and yet the singing performance of someone not overstaying her welcome yet still retains a strong presence. Not only is CTRL the best debut album and best R&B album of the year, it presents the best new personality for the modern music scene to have blossom in it. SZA fits perfectly in 2017, but imagine what she could do in the next five years?

 

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2. The xx – I See You

Picture this: you’re at a house party. It’s crowded, loud and you came by yourself. You rub elbows with everyone there and laugh with friends, but you’re mostly likely going home alone. Then there’s someone across the room standing alone with a red solo cup in hand. You want to talk to her, she might want to talk to you. Neither of you know, but that glance across the room makes you want to do something. And even if there’s loud party music playing for the room, the two of you are probably hearing The xx’s third studio album in your heads. A darker, more gothic experience than the trio’s previous outings, I See You also sounds like The xx’s first complete album. Aside from the two dance tracks “Dangerous” and lead single “On Hold,” which stand perfectly well on their own and in the album, I See You is full of deeply intimate and romantic lovelorn anthems. “Dangerous” sets the tone with its low-thumping, propulsive drum beat, followed by the double-dose of gothic, skeletal romance of “Say Something Loving” and “Lips.” The classic xx sound appears on “A Violent Noise” and “Performance” with the lightly-plucked guitar strings and the delicate voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. I See You also showcases new sonic clarity in the production of Jamie xx as he puts Croft and Sim’s vocal performances front and center and lets the music merely act as color for the stories their lyrics say. The xx’s message is that much of love is a “Performance” (“I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”) and no matter how much it can seem “Dangerous” (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, ‘Danger, danger’/I can’t make them take you under”), the little moments of love are worth the major drawbacks. On “Brave For You,” featuring one of Croft’s finest vocal performances, there is a sense of so much struggle and strife in knowing about someone and what their faults could be. But something keeps her going (“There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go”).

 

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1. Lorde – Melodrama

It was near-impossible to count out Lorde. The New Zealand indie-pop singer/songwriter had too much mystique in her presence and yet such boldface honesty about modern culture with her breakout song “Royals” that it was hard to believe she could end up a one hit wonder. What would she do next? How would a teenager hit with such immediate exposure adjust to it all? How would her music evolve? What else does she have to say? We may never know her immediate agenda after “Royals” hit big, because life had different plans to make her truly come out of her shell. After a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Lorde is isolated in the spotlight with the world waiting for her reaction. The result is both volatile and gorgeous, intimate yet boosted to be heard in stadiums, sad at the start but incredibly satisfying. So it’s Lorde, but fully-formed. It fits that the cover for Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is a painting of her in her bed possibly longing for the night to end as the album is a very intimate affair. She’s lashing out at her ex seeing other people (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), trying to make new friends with unstable people (“Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”), but is as messy and confused as any 21-year-old. From the massive sound of Melodrama (co-produced by Jack Antonoff), Lorde’s one night at a party looking for some kind of relief from her heartbreak might be the most revelatory night of her life. “Green Light” opens the album with an incredible punch of piano and bass drums, “Homemade Dynamite” is swamped with dropped-down drums and synthesizers, “Supercut” sounds like classic 80s new wave boosted for the EDM scene and “Perfect Places” is the album’s closing rebellious anthem. But like all great performers, it’s when Lorde has a song entirely to herself that she truly brings magic. And the album’s centerpiece and arguably the most captivating moment in pop music this year is “Liability,” a stunning piano ballad where reality comes crashing down on her (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/And then they are bored of me”). If that’s what she once was, Lorde is now the pop star of the future: down-to-earth in her experience yet forever hovering above us all in her musical landscape.

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The Broken American Girl

 

I found it very fitting that a trailer for the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie played before Jackie, considering that Pablo Larraín’s biopic of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy depicts the former first lady much like the character in Disney’s beloved fairytale. Oh, but I’m not talking about the whimsical, good hearted Belle who sees the good in even the ghastliest creatures. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy has much more in common with the Beast: someone cursed for his own ego, living in a cold and empty palace with a reminder of his woes kept in a case always in his presence. While Mrs. Kennedy was certainly not a furry monster with horns damned by an enchantress’ curse, her wealthy upbringing and glamourous interpretation of life as the First Lady certainly fueled the confidence in her smile. But after a quarter of her husband’s head was blown to bits inches away from her on November 22, 1963, the White House that was her castle became an icy, vacant tomb of what her life was and she couldn’t escape the sorrow of her loss, whether it be the vacant chair in the Oval Office or sitting right next to her husband’s casket mere hours after trying to collect bits of his brains off of a car. But don’t worry, she made sure everyone knew she and her family remained every bit as perfect as she (or the American people) wanted them to be. In a way, Jackie Kennedy believed in beauty in the most beastly time of her life.

This is the balancing act that plays out in Jackie, a grim yet gorgeous character study of an American icon that got the dream and nightmare in the best and worst way. Jackie’s framing device is a journalist (Billy Crudup) interviewing the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, MA for Life magazine in 1963, mere weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. During the interview, Jackie is bitter and standoffish while constantly questioning Mr. White’s intentions and notes as she burns through cigarette after cigarette (though doesn’t want her smoking habits in print). While speaking her mind on everything from policies of the First Lady to the legacy of her husband’s presidency, the movie flashes back to various moments in her time at the White House. It shows the poise and grace of Mrs. Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in early 1962 and the nights she danced to classical music with her charming husband. The main focus of the flashbacks kickoff on that fateful day in Dallas, with Jackie in her iconic pink dress holding her dead husband in her arms while her face and skirt have splashes of his blood on them. Even with her husband dead, she’s already planning a funeral with the same gravitas and pageantry as Abraham Lincoln’s. Surrounded by confidants including brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), longtime friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), and a priest (John Hurt), Jackie tries to comprehend how she wants her husband to be remembered by the public and how to conduct herself after the love of her life is gone and if she ever loved her life at all.

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It would be easy to paint Jackie in the narrative of “grieving widow trying to be strong.” Larraín has that in his film, but it’s such a miniscule part of the story that it goes by nearly unrecognized. Instead, he sees more anger in Jackie than grief. She wants the public to see her shaken demeanor and somber face next to her husband’s coffin as punishment for the immense pressure and scrutiny they put on her and her family, practically blaming the people for JFK’s death (“They put him on ‘Wanted’ posters,” she says before rolling out JFK’s casket off of Air Force One). She’s also angry that after all of the effort to present herself as perfect as porcelain, all she gets in return is a dead husband and kicked out of her presidential palace. At the end of it all, she wonders who she did any of this for: her husband, herself, or the American people? It’s fascinating to see Jackie appear fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy one minute, micromanaging where he’ll be buried and how many horses will be carrying his coffin through Washington D.C., to drunkenly sulking around the White House in old dresses while a vinyl of Camelot plays in the background (because ain’t irony a kick?). It’s questionable as to how much of the scenes are fact or fiction, but Noah Oppenheim’s script is more about the ethics and morals of Jackie’s dilemma and letting the real events inform each decision. The movie as a whole is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine dimming the colors in the movie with a hint of gray. There’s also a good combination of sweeping wide shots of the barren White House or the JFK funeral procession and closeups of the characters under constant emotional stress, boosted by Mica Levi’s haunting string section in the film’s score. It’s Terrence Malick meets David Fincher, and it works surprisingly well.

But you know why you’re here: Natalie Portman…….HO-LY LORD. Portman is a force as the First Lady, capturing every possible side of Jackie’s personality at the time: the fiercely protective wife demanding the world honor her husband like he was King Midas, the broken-hearted lover grieving over the loss of her Prince Charming, the unsure rich girl on the verge of having the lavish lifestyle taken away from her. The most interesting segments of Portman’s performance is when she questions her own worth and her own direction. She speaks to the priest (in a great performance by Hurt) about wishing she could’ve married a baker or a store owner, questioning if all of the comfort of her life has been worth anything if it could go away so suddenly. Portman has the fragility of Jackie down, but turns that into a jaded form of rage as she tries to control something entirely unstable. Even through her tears, she controls each scene. And then the interview segments the journalist (Crudup, also exceptional) where she continuously snipes about what the American people deserve to hear about the assassination and how she coped with it all. Portman shows the layers of Jackie on full display and masters every single one. While it may not be as complex and disturbed as her Nina Sayers in Black Swan, her performance in Jackie marks another peak for her career and one of the best acting performances of the year. To complement that is a well-rounded cast of supporting performances from Skarsgaard, Hurt, and Crudup all giving ace performances. But this is Portman’s show and she owns it.

Jackie avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics by playing around with the order not only of the scenes, but of its title character. The movie lays out Jackie’s character like pieces of a jumbled puzzle, piecing bits together not exactly in the right order but regardless comes together at the end. When Jackie ends, I felt as if every possible question about Jackie Kennedy Onassis has been answered even if the movie is not a complete look at her life. But maybe that’s what one moment can do to one’s life, as corny as it sounds. After all, it shook an entire country, perhaps even an entire world. Imagine what it did to one person?
4 out of 4 stars

Waiting In The Sky

Of all the things to write about in the world of music, film, art and culture, this may be one of the hardest to do….David Bowie is gone. A mere three days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, Bowie’s family has confirmed that he died yesterday after an 18-month battle with cancer. The British performer…..artist….designer..

I’m sorry, what didn’t Bowie do in his lifetime? Pushed art rock into the mainstream? Done. Practically invented glam rock? You bet. Expanded the imagination of fashion? Yup. Touched and tasted various genres of music? Oh yeah. Influenced generations of future artists? Sure, one of them is writing this piece.

Bowie was something beyond being just a legendary musician, but a prime example of being true to one’s self. Bowie rarely did anything on the whim of someone else, no matter how strange or offbeat it appeared. When Bowie was at the peak of his powers around 1974 with the glammed-out freakiness as Ziggy Stardust, he decided to do white-guy R&B. When disco wrapped, he became The Thin White Duke and nearly lost his mind. When he got clean, he rounded out the 70s by diving further into experimental music. He then thrust himself into the 80s by testing out pop music, and making it look cooler than most of his peers.  Even the in 90s, when his influence was felt in most musicians on the charts, he veered into electronic music and more experiments.

 

The 2000s and this recent decade had a smaller output of Bowie music, not that there needed to be. Bowie’s influence had come full circle by influencing nearly every genre of music. Lady Gaga, The Pixies, Janelle Monáe, The Flaming Lips, Sia, Kanye West, U2, Madonna, Florence + the Machine, Pharrell Williams and countless others. You can go on Twitter right now, type in #DavidBowie and scroll through the laundry list of artists that claim Bowie as his or her hero. Whether he was promoting a new album or hiding from the public eye, Bowie was omnipresent in pop culture. He was a looming shadow and beloved legend, like a story told by numerous campfires. Whispers of the Man Who Fell to Earth and his Spiders From Mars.

 

The last few years have seen Bowie enter another reawakening in his career. 2013’s The Next Day had Bowie dipping into the various genres of music he’s touched on over the years, showing his continuous talent that seemingly never faltered. This past Friday had Bowie releasing Blackstar, his freakiest and most challenging album in the last two decades. But put this into context: Bowie had reportedly been fighting cancer for 18 months and still put out a new album. Could he have known this was the end? With songs about Lazarus and refusing to lie down quietly, was Bowie giving the world one last hurrah?

It makes sense. Bowie’s extravagance and showmanship requires that bit of dramatic flair. What kind of performer leaves his stage without a dramatic exit? It wouldn’t be surprising if his coffin turned into a rocket that blasted him into space. David Bowie represented an idea that anyone could be more than just a man. Be whatever you want to be, and be someone else if you get bored with it. Bowie was a chameleon, but he was Bowie. He was proud to be weirdo and even prouder to be different from norm. He never bowed to any muse but his own and no matter how it was received, he wore it like a badge of honor. Bowie is a proud example of how to be an artist, and notice how I use “is” and not “was.” Because Bowie will never leave. He never has. He’ll always be far above the moon.

Ten Most Tolerable Hit Songs of 2015

Pop music is such a wash. 95% of it sounds the same, has the same message and pretty much contributes the same to the music landscape (nothing). That being said, pop music is EVERYWHERE: commercials, movies, clubs, Spotify playlists and PA systems in shopping malls. It’s practically inescapable, but 2015 was the year when it felt more dominant than others. Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Adele each had a big year in 2015 with chart-topping hits and albums. But they’re a dime a dozen and there were a bunch of other hits this year. Some good, mostly annoying. With that in mind, here (in no particular order) are ten of the biggest hits this year that went down easiest on the earholes.

 

“Worth It” – Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink

For what essentially is the female American version of One Direction, Fifth Harmony turned out pretty great. The quintet formed in the second season of The X Factor USA in 2012 and had a breakout 2015 with their debut album Reflection featuring thumping hits like “Sledgehammer,” and “Bo$$.” Their big hit was “Worth It,” flexing their vocals around reminding guys that all the pressure’s on them because they know they’re the total package. The hand claps, spare electro drums and saxophone (courtesy of Stargate) move the song along without being more EDM backwash. But Fifth Harmony themselves are the driving force, with flexing vocal chops that evoke brass and sexual bravado. “Worth It” can be described as a feminist anthem on confidence or just a sexy party song for girls to order more drinks to. Whatever the case, every time Fifth Harmony sings they sound like they’re kicking down a door. So yes, more of them please.

 

“Blank Space” – Taylor Swift

Unless you went to live on that island from Cast Away, it was impossible to avoid Taylor Swift in 2015. She had four major hits from her blockbuster album 1984: “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood.” Despite her becoming a full-fledged pop star and virtually selling out her sound, her songwriting thankfully remained intact as evidence by “Blank Space.” Swift talks about the early bliss found in love at first sight (“Saw you there and I thought/Oh my god, look at that face/You look like my next mistake”), is honest with herself (“So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames”) and the psychotic back-and-forth about relationships (“But you’ll come back each time you leave/Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”). She puts the blame on her, but still waxes philosophical on the men in her life (“Boys only want love if it’s torture”). Swift’s pop transition has turned her mildly pleasant country into occasionally overblown stadium pop, but Max Martin’s stripped down drum taps and glass synths let Swift speak for herself. If Swift’s music has gone shallow, at least her lyrics are growing up.

 

“Where Are Ü Now” – Skrillex & Diplo feat. Justin Bieber

One would think the collaboration of a dubstep master, an EDM superstar and a global pop phenomenon would be a recipe for an overindulgent, big-headed ego stroke. There’s a lot to say about Skrillex, Diplo and Bieber (mostly bad things), but they seemed to have struck a musical sweet spot this year. Featured on their collaborative album Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now” is a surprisingly restrained club banger from two of EDM’s loudest maestros. It’s propelled by slight piano and a quiet repeating beat, even the bass drop with the Eastern island feel feels sparse. Then there’s Bieber himself (pop’s Biggus Dickus), who uses the song to kick off the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour” he started with all of his somber, apologetic hits this year. He just wants to know where his true love has gone (where art thou, Madame Gomez?) and actually sounds sorry about it. Somber and lonesome doesn’t usually mesh with summer club smash, but club-pop’s Holy Trinity of douchebags pulled it off in spades.

 

“What Do You Mean” – Justin Bieber

Speaking of the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour,” Canada’s former teen heartthrob is older now and is trying to make everyone forget that he’s an awful human being. He himself is brought up more than his music, so it’s easy to find his work easily ignorable. This year, he synchronized with the EDM craze in pop to co-produce “What Do You Mean” with MdL. It’s a laid-back jam with the same Eastern sound as his collab with Skrillex & Diplo. This time around, he’s questioning the mixed signals a girl is giving to him. It’s pretty simple stuff but works because it has the one thing that makes Bieber tolerable: restraint. Bieber can be a bit much at times, but his matured vocals are lower and not as whiny as it was when he was younger. He doesn’t oversell it, just rides the beat. If this is the new sonic direction he’s going for, he might earn some points back.

 

“Sugar” – Maroon 5

Ever since they started using outside songwriters on their 2012 album Overexposed, Maroon 5 has been morphing into a more flaccid commercial act. They’ve dipped in club music (“Love Somebody”), white-guy reggae (“One More Night”), power-pop (“Maps”) and stuff you’d probably hear in a dentist’s office (“Daylight”). But with all those new forms of pop comes one that fits them surprisingly well: discount-funk! Much like Bruno Mars did with “Treasure,” Maroon 5 tapped into the more disco-oriented R&B with “Sugar,” a sex song played with a simple party tune. Light synths, funky bass lines and a light guitar riff keep the energy fun and easy. Even singer Adam Levine, mostly known for a high-pitched voice that borders on whiney, finds a good pitch to keep the song fun. It’s one of the most fun songs to hear this year despite climaxing with the fact that the whole thing is about a girl’s *ahem* sweet spot (“I want that red velvet/I want that sugar sweet/Don’t let nobody touch it unless that somebody’s me”). Adam Levine, master of subtlety.

 

“Hotline Bling” – Drake

For all those times you laughed at his dancing or made a meme from the music video, know this: that’s exactly what Drake wanted you to do. On top of everything else that he did this year (a full mixtape, dropping singles on his Apple Music radio show, a collaborative mixtape with Future), Drake seems to have figured out how to immediately get attention in today’s climate. But let’s put his Internet-culture mastery aside and focus on his continued mastery of rap/R&B jams. “Hotline Bling” is a sober sequel to Drake’s 2011 single “Marvin’s Room,” being a somber jam about one of Drake’s former flames living life without him and he’s not too happy about it. Whereas “Marvin’s Room” was woozy and meant for introspection, “Hotline Bling” is a chilled-out party jam that seems to encourage dancing to it. The tropical beat (once rumored to be lifted from D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” but actually samples Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”) glides through the song without overstaying its welcome. You could hear the music in a tiki lounge drinking mojitos by the beach as the lounge music, even it was just an instrumental on loop. It’s almost perfect music for a guy to be sitting at a bar alone, scrolling through his Instagram feed, seeing photos of his ex living an awesome life without him and remembering the simple times when the only way she got good lovin’ was when she would blow up his phone. Drake sounds surprisingly relaxed when talking about something that makes him seem like a jerk. He sounds jaded (“Everybody knows and I feel left out/Girl you got me down, you got me stressed out”) and is only seeing things from his perspective (“You make me feel like I did you wrong….You don’t need nobody else”). The lyrical content makes Drake seem like a bitter jerk, yet he knows “when that hotline bling,” he thinks it’s still from the girl he lost. It’s amazing that something so danceable and memeable is from a song from a lonely ex. But that’s Drake for ya: the man who turns a sad broken heart into being the coolest thing in the room.

 

“My Way [Remix]” – Fetty Wap feat. Drake

Fetty Wap had four big hits in his breakout year of 2015 and all of them just missed the mark of being enjoyable for me. “Trap Queen,” “679,” and “Again” were all fine but it always felt like something was missing from all the songs, like a special “it” factor to drive it all home. “My Way” was the closest to being good, as Fetty throws bars about being turned on by a hard-to-get girl (“flexing on your ex, I know”). Sure it’s another club banger about how much money one guy has than others (“watch me pull out all this dough….I got deep pockets and I swear my sh*t’s on sink), but Fetty’s voice seems more sincere than most rappers and maybe that’s what people like about him. For those wondering why the remix is here and not the original, it’s because the remix has the “it” factor: Drake. He’s fully turned on by a high-rolling successful woman (“I like all my S’s with two lines through them sh*ts..I know you work hard for your sh*t/You know they gon’ hate/Just don’t play no part in that sh*t”) and sounds like a boss proclaiming it. In fact, where was this Drake on “Hotline Bling” and why isn’t this the role model guy?

 

“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

The best and most modern Michael Jackson song the late-King of Pop never got to make is a double meaning for cocaine that came from a Canadian alt-R&B star turned mainstream breakthrough artist. “Can’t Feel My Face” is another Max Martin joint and, like “Blank Space,” it’s refreshingly simple: a funky bassline and clapping drums with some occasional ominous filler for the opener and the bridge. The focus is all on The Weeknd, and he hits a home run. His vocals are fantastic, both inherently cool and wallowing in the doomed druggy love affair (“And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll be both be numb/And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come/All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love”). When he hits those high notes, it’s a perfect climax to each verse. He knows he’s in a bad romance, but he gets a kick out of it. It’s almost the archetypal love song for 2015: finding fun in doom.

 

“FourFiveSeconds” – Rihanna feat. Kanye West & Paul McCartney

Yeah, bet this was a collaboration you’d never think would happen, let alone work so well. Nothing but an organ, some electronic fading and Sir Paul’s simple strumming in the background keeps the focus all on RiRi and Yeezy as they come clean about being occasional unhinged jerks. “FourFiveSeconds” feels like what a popular music artist feels about the gossip columns and being independent in a time where one’s image is seen more than the person him or herself. Rihanna is beautiful, but don’t take her lightly (“Cause all of my kindness/Is taken for weakness/Now I’m FourFive Seconds from wildin’”) as she sings to the highest heavens. It’s sad that she has to remind us that she’s actually a good singer, what with most of her biggest hits drowned in EDM overkill. Mr. West is no different, continuously stating how he will not be controlled by THE MAN (“See they wanna buy my pride/But that just ain’t up for sale”). Who would’ve thought one of the best songs about rage could be presented in such a restrained musical format?

 

“Drag Me Down” – One Direction

The apocalypse has come, the Seven Horsemen have rode through the desert, the globe is splitting apart and the skies are on fire….I like a One Direction song. Now that they’re a quartet and are supposedly going on hiatus, One Direction decided to go out with one big blast of reggae-tinged pop rock. “Drag Me Down” has a good pace that builds up to a bouncy chorus that manages to come back down to relaxed vibe. What’s more interesting is how it’s easy to identify the four different voices on the song and how they all come together for the second chorus. Sure, it’s another corny love song for all their passionate female fans, but it also feels like a backhanded slap to their ex-bandmate Zayn. Dammit all if they’re down one man, they’ll still pose pretty if it’s the last thing they do. VIVE DIRECTION!!!!!!

Top 10 Albums of 2015

Aah, the end of the year has come. 2015 has been a big year for music on pop radio and everywhere else. But amongst all the mixtape, singles, radio shows and slew of albums, ten stood out as the most enjoyable and memorable. What better way to cap off the year than to count them down. Let’s go!!!!

 

 

10. King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude (Pusha T)

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How boss is Pusha T? In a span of a month (the last month of 2015, mind you) the 38-year-old became the president of G.O.O.D. Music, continued to flex Adidas’ finest new footwear and dropped a full-length album that’s really a tease for his next project (King Push, due next year) but it’s actually one of the best albums of the year. Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude reminds the rap game that Push is one of the meanest MCs alive right now. “M.F.T.R.” has him bouncing along with quick quips (“No retirement plans, no Derek Jeters/ We all know I did it; Rodriguez”) while summing up the entire rap game (“Crutches, Crosses, Caskets”). But Pusha is as self-aware as rap has been this year, and Kendrick isn’t the only one who sees the danger for black people today (“Still a target, but the badge is the new noose/ Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones aren’t enough proof/ So we still lose”). Don’t keep us waiting, Push.

 

 

9. Uptown Special (Mark Ronson)

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If you’re like me and prefer a classic Ray Charles record over Rihanna’s latest, Mark Ronson was probably a saving grace to your music this year. Uptown Special is the Grammy-winning producer’s version of a throwback mixtape; taking the soulful sounds of the 60s, 70s and 80s into the 21st century with new artists. “Feel Right” with Mystikal (nice to have you back, sir) is the best James Brown song the Godfather never made, while “I Can’t Lose,” is a delightful burst of 80s funk. And of course, there’s “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars’ finest moment and the best hit song of 2015 (despite coming out in 2014). The swagger and bounce of the whole record is something sorely missed on the charts this year. DON’T BELEMME, JUST WATCH *CLAP*.

 

 

8. Tuxedo (Tuxedo)

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The team of producer Jake One and R&B singer Mayer Hawthorne turned out to be a match made in heaven in the most flat-out fun album of the year. The duo’s debut outing is everything anyone ever loved about Kool & the Gang, Zapp, Soul Train and the G-Funk that birthed West Coast rap. Stuff like “Do It,” “Watch the Dance,” and “So Good” are the epitome of “get up and dance” music that’s actually fun to dance to. The duo slows it down too, as “Two Wrongs” showcases Hawthorne smooth vocals beyond beyond a discount-Timberlake. More from these two, please.

 

 

7. Surf (Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment)

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Furthering proof the Chance the Rapper is one of the best thing to happen to rap in a long time, this free download mixes sunny jazz with bratty rap and soulful R&B to a near-perfect mix. Donnie Trumpet orchestrates everything like an experience rather than just a handful of test-runs. There’s spacey stuff to zone-out to (“Windows,” “Caretaker,”), stuff to bop around to (“Wanna Be Cool,” “Go,”) and just stuff that makes you feel good without the use of codeine. The best of the bunch is “Sunday Candy,” a joyous romp about the importance of identity told through Chance’s appreciation of his grandma. You won’t find that on any of Future’s mixtapes.

 

 

6. If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (Drake)

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Who would’ve thought Drake could get so pissy and yet sound so great? Released as a surprise back in February as a retail mixtape (or as we used to call them, “albums”), Drizzy started his stellar 2015 by reminding people how he’s a really good rapper. With harder street beats courtesy of Boi-1da, Drake lays out how he’s already reached god status (“Legend”), reminds the rap game that he’s just fine with reminding the haters how awesome he is (“Used To,” featuring an on-point Lil Wayne) and made having woes seem like the most baller thing to have (“Know Yourself”). He makes room for guests like PARTYNEXTDOOR (“Wednesday Night Interlude”), but it’s The Drake Show all the way through. If you didn’t take Drake seriously, 2015 was probably the last chance you’d get to switch teams. Or not, he’s too high at the top to hear the haters anymore.

 

 

5. The Magic Whip (Blur)

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Hey look, a new album from a beloved alternative rock band that was actually awesome! With their first new album in 12 years, the Britpop legends managed to stay true to their colors to please fans (“Lonesome Street, “Ong Ong,” “Go Out,”) and craft a new sound to push forward with (“There Are Too Many Of Us,” “Ice Cream Man,” “New World Towers,”). The presence of guitarist Graham Coxon remains one of the driving forces of the band, fuzzing our the amp one song and gently strumming the next. Singer Damon Albarn is still a relatable introvert nearly 20 years since he debuted (“Is my terracotta heart breaking?/I don’t know if I’m losing you/If I’m losing you again”). Relax Damon, you and the boys have still got it.

 

 

4. Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes)

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After their 2012 Grammy-nominated debut made the world prick up its ear to their grimy yet soulful garage rock, Alabama Shakes decided to take their listeners on a far-out trip. The result is one of the heaviest, yet prettiest rock records of the year. The band stretches out their sound and lets things breathe on the title track, “Guess Who,” and the haunting closer “Over My Head.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped making tracks that punch through the speakers, as heard on “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Future People,” and “The Greatest.” If Etta James ever sang for The Black Keys, it would sound a lot like the Alabama Shakes.

 

 

3. Every Open Eye (Chvrches)

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If New Order was ever led by a feminist, it would sound a lot like Chvrches’ second album. The Scottish trio burst through 2015 with stadium-ready anthems about powering through the tough times and breaking from whatever shell people feel they’ve been trapped in. For lead singer Laruen Mayberry, it could be from a bad relationship in “Leave a Trace,” (“Take care to bury all that you can/Take care to leave a trace of a man”) or from the general boredom of daily life in “Make Them Gold” (“We are made of our longest days/We are falling but not alone”). “Clearest Blue” is like the best song from an indie rom-com soundtrack where Mayberry puts herself out and asks for her partner to meet her in the middle. Somehow Chvrches have taken confessional power pop and electro-alternative and made them meet in the middle.

 

 

2. Caracal (Disclosure)

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Most EDM music today sounds the same, gets boring quickly and has no worth or merit besides throwing your body into a sweaty heap. That said, there are some that see the potential of EDM and expand on it. Two of them are Guy and Howard Lawrence, the British brothers of Disclosure that turned dance music on its head with their 2013 debut Settle. This year they decided to make moodier, thicker and all around groovier music with their sophomore effort Caracal. The album title is named after a nocturnal African wild cat, which makes total sense with the songs sounding like that of a predator: sneaking up on the listener and hitting when it’s least expected. Songs like “Willing & Able,” “Masterpiece,” and “Superego” are slow-burners meant for intimate Netflix and Chill nights instead of sweaty grinding amongst neon lights, a welcomed change of pace in the EDM world. Fear not though, as the Lawrence brothers still know how to make floor two-stepping floor stompers with “Holding On,” “Jaded,” and “Echoes.” Disclosure combine thick bass lines with clapping drums that sync into delicious rhythm. They also have a great rolodex by bringing in the likes of Sam Smith, The Weeknd and Sam Smith to make things sweeter. Disclosure is dance music with REAL feeling put into it and Caracal makes them all the more interesting.

 

 

1. To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

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SURPRISE! Yeah but really, it’s been a long time since an album this poetic and timely has hit the music world. Kendrick’s sophomore effort is the Birdman of rap albums: something entirely different from the norm surrounding it, focuses on tension that constantly moves throughout the runtime, covers multiple topics of discussion prevalent in today’s culture and is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience. While Birdman was fly-on-the-wall for the world of theatre and actors, To Pimp A Butterfly gazes behind the curtain into the mindset of the man constantly being called “the greatest rapper alive.” That title can add a lot of pressure, turning into a drunken self-criticism on one’s own rocket to fame (“u”) or a kiss-off to the entire idea of ranking rappers (“Hood Politics”). Kendrick’s worried about being trapped as well, but from pleasure and pain. “These Walls” praises the trappings of sex (“If these walls could talk, they tell me to swim good….Walls telling me they full of pain, resentment..Me? I’m just a tenant”) and brings it all back to prison (“If your walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late/Your destiny accepted your fate…I resonate in these walls/I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls”). He’s damaged by the power of money (“Institutionalized”), shocked at how different he is from his home (“Momma”), and feels hypocritical partying like a gangster while being the new spokesman for black America (“The Blacker The Berry”). But To Pimp A Butterfly is also the sound of Kendrick finding himself in the midst of the madness, finding redemption in the darkest of times (“i”). He even takes a character known for being whipped and beaten and turns him into a term to state his pride (“King Kunta”). He calls out fakes (“I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of y’all sharing bars/Like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”) but inspires his fellow man (“Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/Look at me motherfucker I smile/ I LOVE MYSELF”). To Pimp A Butterfly deserves to be put in a time capsule; it feels like a snapshot of 2015.