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Best new music 2016

Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, December 2016As 2016 plowed on, it revealed itself as an annus horribilis. Many of the world’s temporarily dormant or subdued evils really came alive this year, and there’s no need to enumerate them here. Music lost more than a few important people, starting early with David Bowie, continuing with Prince and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and culminating, in November, with Leonard Cohen. I remember briefly feeling glad that Cohen actually passed away a few days before the US election result became known. (How’s that for an irrational thought?) We can mourn their loss but be comforted that they lived in an age when everything they wanted to record will likely have been recorded.

As for the state of music, I would say that this was the year when — to my ears, at least — rock officially lost any and all spirit of innovation. It’s now effectively all derivative, incremental and toothless. There seems to be an unlimited supply of young white men with modest musical skills, skinny jeans and high hipster ambitions, all of whom make precisely the same sounds of boring entitlement. Punk, for instance, seems to have become a simulacrum of a simulacrum, the snake eating its own tail.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the most innovative forms of popular music in 2016 were R&B and hip hop. No surprise at all given how North American politics played out this year. It may be a sloppy gloss to call this a new civil rights moment, but Ferguson, Charleston, Black Lives Matter, and more recently Standing Rock highlight the continuing deep racial chasms. The difference in 2016, perhaps, is that now there seems to be a growing movement consciousness again, a renewed sense of speaking out, of standing in solidarity. The same celebrity dynamic that so shockingly played out in Trump’s election victory is also emerging as an equal and opposing force. This year, black celebrities more consistently spoke out in public and produced work that was specifically political in nature. Memorable entries in this category include Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Kanye West (bizarre meeting with Trump notwithstanding), John Legend, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, among many others. Even if we don’t put too fine a point on it, popular music is increasingly interested in the political again, and African American artists are the vanguard of this development.

Musically, a convergence of “black” music (R&B, hip hop) and, broadly, “electronic” music has now become the routine plumbing for most of popular music regardless of who is singing. It is also increasingly difficult to tell “hip hop” from “R&B” (e.g. Drake’s Toronto school of dvsn, PartyNextDoor and Roy Woods is always part mumbly shoegazer rap, part falsetto slow jam). But convergence, it seems, has spurred creativity. The vacuum left by rock’s implosion is increasingly being filled by artists whose perspectives are rooted in “traditionally” black musics. Examples this year include Blood Orange, Esperanza Spalding, Kadhja Bonet, Childish Gambino and Terrace Martin, each of whom have produced records that are as much “rock” or “pop” as they are R&B. Where twenty years ago there were only one or two highly visible black rock bands, there are now dozens. My point above about how R&B, hip hop and electronica are now the plumbing for most popular music also has broader implications. The kinds of production techniques associated with Ableton Live, MIDI controllers and super-cheap high-quality bedroom recording equipment are now responsible for the majority of music produced. The cultural impact of this sociotechnical fact is endlessly fascinating to think about. Music becomes what those making it can afford to make it on. Making music apparently also becomes a more solitary affair, requiring fewer collaborators, patterned on the social media lifeworlds we access from behind our device screens. Frank Ocean’s Blonde is, effectively, a solitary bedroom recording.

So my own listening this year took me deep into R&B, hip hop and electronic music. My interest in certain kinds of jazz carried over from last year — I still see unexpected amounts of innovation in jazz, also propelled by cheaper, better and more widespread recording capabilities. I also enjoy how jazz has now become a new locus for “post-rock”: some of the most interesting jazz releases have a distinct “rock” flavour (they certainly aren’t bebop-derived anymore).

Another development concerns my own listening technology. Prior to late 2015, I hadn’t really committed to any kind of high resolution digital listening, having always thought that MP3s at 320 kbps were “pretty good.” I still think that MP3s — with the right kind of equipment — represent a useful balance between portability and quality. But this year, I discovered that iTunes (even iTunes!) allows for high resolution playback with the right file types and hardware. It’s hard to describe how exactly high resolution digital audio is different; descriptions quickly sound clichéd. For me it conjures up the sound of vinyl without the crackle — rich, round, full, sustainable. I can’t (yet) imagine that this is going to see widespread adoption — I think too few people really care about sound quality, so there will be little demand for it — but consider me impressed.

And with that, I wish you happy holidays and a better 2017. Onward and upward!

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Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid: Listening to Aesop Rock is like observing a fine craftsman blow glass or forge a knife. On the far side of “alternative hip hop,” Rock has been releasing records since 2000 when he emerged, apparently fully formed, as an engaging lyricist and performer, with dark, dense, often funny rhymes and a keen awareness of how to best deliver them with the highest impact. Lately, he has also been producing his own music, and — if anything — this has enhanced his sound, supplying captivating sonic landscapes that perfectly frame his lyrics. Collaboration isn’t ideal for everyone.

Anderson .Paak – Malibu: Paak’s output this year has been breathtaking, both in quality and quantity (see also NxWorries, below). If you haven’t heard him, you may think of him as a sort of heir-apparent to Prince and maybe early Kanye, with the same seemingly limitless musical ease and lack of inhibition. He also has the admirable ability to perform equally well as a singer and rapper. Malibu sounds like the 70s and thus finds itself right in the middle of the continuing trend of productively mining the history of black American music to comment on the present.

Aziza – Aziza: A jazz “super group” of sorts, consisting of Dave Holland (b), Lionel Loueke (g), Chris Potter (sax) and Eric Harland (dr). An amazing record with broad contemporary jazz and African influences: these four have immense power balanced by an ability to showcase the occasional delicate beauty of their material. They are also a crazy tight band that really knows how to lock into a groove. This is wonderfully well recorded, close-miked but with breadth and depth of field. Immersive. I imagine listeners who don’t normally like jazz but are open to prog or instrumental post-rock should find much to like here.

Beyoncé – Lemonade: Much ink has been spilled commenting on this already. I presume you’ve heard it (or at least certain tracks). If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to catch up. It really is as good as everyone said. I admit to initially feeling a certain ennui when I heard Beyoncé had surprise-dropped another digital release, but this one far surpasses her previous one. An album of the personal and the political, perfectly capturing the often troubled, violent, racist zeitgeist of 2016. (The distribution of this is limited — you can get it on iTunes or Tidal or, you know, illegally.)

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound: I like the widescreen eclecticism of this. Dev Hynes is a UK-based singer, songwriter and producer who operates under the moniker Blood Orange. This record ranges widely, also between the personal and the political, and musically between rock, R&B, funk, 80s references, and so on. I am continually reminded of the genre-bending abilities of Prince, or Janelle Monáe, or other similar auteurs. I’ve returned to this again and again. Its shapeshifting nature made that easy. Finding something new to like every time was the pleasant repeat surprise.

Charlotte Day Wilson – CDW (EP): Wilson, who is from Toronto, seems to me to be one of the rising stars of a kind of alternative, arty, slightly old school R&B. This unfortunately rather short record promises a lot and delivers a fair bit (and makes us impatiently wait for more). ‘Work‘ occasionally felt like one of the songs of the year, popping up in unlikely places, like CBC Radio One. Wilson has a dark, mature, powerful voice and doesn’t look anything like she sounds. (She also had a memorable cameo on BadBadNotGood’s latest album. I thought the rest of that record was a bit average, indexing, in a lesser way, the Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way out! (1996).)

Coco Love Alcorn – Wonderland: Alcorn is a Canadian vocalist and songwriter who comes from a “jazzy R&B” paradigm and has now taken a turn into a more folk-y direction. Her new record is focused on her fine songcraft and harmonies. While she mostly (completely?) does her own background vocals, these all sound like pieces that should be sung in a group. The songs aim to uplift, perhaps even inspire. Most are contemporary instantiations of torch songs, spirituals and similar kinds of vehicles; each appears to be freshly written but feels like it’s been around for a long time. I was positively reminded, in parts, of Rhiannon Giddens’ work. Alcorn’s voice is equally powerful. (I will say that I struggled with buying this as it was initially only available from the artist’s own website whose e-commerce experience was rather clunky. I don’t completely understand why independent artists don’t simply use Bandcamp. I see Wonderland is now available — still at a fairly low resolution — via regular distribution channels, too.)

Corinne Bailey Ray – The Heart Speaks in Whispers: This is an arty, extremely pleasant and very subtle R&B record full of air and light that belie its depth. Bailey Rae has occasional “girl group” leanings that conjure up Laura Nyro’s work with LaBelle, or Diana Ross (including Ross’ early 80s foray into a kind of jazzy, commercial funk). I sense that this album’s sound is an important part of this emerging LA R&B sound that also encompasses KING, Anderson .Paak and so on. It’s just at the “Sunday morning” end of the spectrum.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye To Language: A wordless and beautiful record that felt like it was long coming. When Lanois and Emmylou Harris toured Harris’ 20th anniversary of Wrecking Ball last year, he opened the show by himself, mainly on pedal steel with what seemed like hundreds of effects and computers (it was the best part of the concert, unfortunately). This album seems like the logical conclusion of that idea — an ambient wash of pedal steel and effects, but with plenty of melody to keep the ears interested. Like all good ambient music, it surrenders as much or as little as the listener demands.

David Bowie – Blackstar: Bowie was the year’s first sad loss and unfortunately only one of many. His last record is outstanding work and has been much-reviewed elsewhere. It forms part of a number of late-career records that seemed to seek to build a new kind of (post?) rock, serious music that didn’t have to forgo melody, song structure or other conventions in order to be contemporary, tasteful, forward-looking, timeless and satisfying. I sense that Bowie will be remembered by most for his forever-popular 70s albums and singles, but I think his most interesting work was at the end of his career.

dvsn – Sept. 5th: A slightly mysterious, apparently publicity-shy act on Drake’s OVO Sound label (which showcases hard-edged R&B from the Greater Toronto Area). dvsn’s music (pronounced ‘division’) has the same sonics that are central to the whole “Drake and friends” enterprise — hard-edged slow beats that learned much from 90s/early 2000s slow jam, chilly but rich synth pads, music that sounds like it’s signalling “bedroom” but is really a vehicle for sadness. dvsn sounds like part Depeche Mode and part Commodores (the intricacy and care put into the production is head and shoulders above anything even on Drake’s own records, and vocalist Daniel Daley is amazing). Hallucinations is my song of the year. Can’t stop listening to this.

Diane Birch – N O U S: Diane Birch is a bit of a cipher. A wildly talented songwriter and singer who is two albums and now two EPs into her career, she’s also a gifted shapeshifter, provoking a kind of whiplash between projects (perhaps not unintentionally?). This latest EP features a smart contemporary R&B sound, not entirely unlike, say, Charlotte Day Wilson, that takes a little time to fully reveal its many charms. Is there such a thing as “goth R&B”? Maybe there should be.

Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution: I loved this unconditionally from the first time I heard it. Esperanza Spalding, a jazz bassist and vocalist by training and on evidence of her first few albums, had never quite risen above “highly skilled in all ways but perhaps ever-so-slightly boring” (for me). Emily introduces Spalding’s alternate personality (her website actually depicts two different Esperanzas, the afro-sporting jazz bassist currently retired in black & white). Current Esperanza plays electric bass, fronts an impeccable kind of post-rock/post-R&B band and writes fantastic songs full of weird and wonderful Joni Mitchell jazz harmonies and that occasionally remind one of the invention of a young Stevie Wonder. It’s all wildly accomplished, serious and entertaining in equal measure. This feels like the record that somehow encapsulates the year.

Frank Ocean – Blonde: In the year of Prince’s untimely death, many contenders for his crown emerged. Frank Ocean is one of them. Blonde is an intelligent, troubled and highly listenable artist statement that much has been written about. Just like Beyoncé’s album above, there’s just not that much else to say about this, other than that you must hear it at least once.

Jakob Bro – Streams: Jakob Bro, a Danish jazz guitarist, is more or less a new discovery for me. I’m a frequent listener of things released on the ECM label, and this popped up. It’s a “guitar trio,” and it’s very good. In keeping with the last decade or so of Scandinavian small ensemble jazz, it’s not in a bebop idiom but rather more folk-y and ambient than that. Beautiful ensemble playing, captivating melodies, great dynamic range, and very, very quiet. It’s a nerdy, night-time listening pleasure.

John Legend – Darkness and Light: John Legend is at his best when he imagines himself as an organic extension of classic 60s and 70s R&B (Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Commodores, etc.). His voice, a fine instrument with great clarity, nuance and empathy, is “out of time” in that it always sounds like it’s more of that time than any other. This is Legend’s second-strongest record to date (the strongest is his 2010 collaboration with The Roots, Wake Up!, a collection of civil rights era R&B protest songs), produced by Blake Mills who also shaped the sound of Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Colour. Legend sounds sensitive, interested in how the personal and political are intertwined, and optimistic to a fault. Listening to him requires a certain suspension of disbelief. His lyrics are extraordinarily earnest and literal, sometimes at the expense of subtlety and, occasionally, humour, though never lacking self awareness. I’ll admit that this speaks to an aspect of my personality and refuse to make any excuses for it whatsoever. It may not be your thing, though.

Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor (EP): Everyone has been writing about this. Kadhja Bonet’s EP is quite weird, a young black woman’s insanely accomplished self-produced, self-played work that sounds like the Carpenters from the 70s. I see it as another piece of evidence that R&B/”black music” now owns the spirit of innovation in popular music almost completely, and that all traditional genre limits are rapidly disappearing (it’s worth considering that they may only ever have been artifacts of the era of “record labels” and “radio play”). It’s a really cool record, if delightfully odd.

Kiiara – low kii savage (EP): I don’t really imagine this would make it onto anyone else’s best-of-the-year lists. It’s a small EP from an up-and-coming R&B singer/songwriter from Illinois who had a huge hit with lead single ‘Gold.’ What I love about this is mostly the production — another instance of a kind of hard-edged, slow-driving R&B with sleek surfaces (similar to the OVO Sound stable — is this a kind of “Northern trap”?). “Gold” itself (the song) is my third contender for song of the year; it even withstood an a capella vocal group treatment by Pentatonix (without necessarily being bettered). I think Kiiara is another one to watch. Further proof, perhaps, that hip hop informed R&B is the new punk.

KING – We Are KING: The 80s are (still) back, but in new and fun ways. R&B “girl groups” are few and far between these days, but KING (also from the LA alternative R&B scene) are doing a good job of writing thick, interesting songs with complex vocal harmonies and production that sound like someone put Wham!, The Human League and Ashford & Simpson in a blender (there could be no greater compliment).

Maxwell – blackSUMMERS’night: Sleek, beautifully produced, serious R&B played with real instruments. Maxwell is a fine songwriter and vocalist, and the band here is — as Pitchfork said — “so tight it sounds loose.” There is really nothing else in contemporary “grown-up” R&B that reaches this level of quality and timelessness. Echoes of Marvin Gaye. Music with real dynamics, tension, space and through-lines. While I think much of the “innovation” in music right now comes from R&B producers’ increasing mastery of technology (and the corresponding technologists’ ability to make ever more suitable tools), few things compare to real instruments, well played and recorded. (Cf. Esperanza Spalding, David Bowie).

Michel Benita Ethics – River Silver: Michel Benita’s music is calm, mysterious, intriguing. Existing along a continuum between “modern acoustic jazz” and “world folk,” River Silver documents the interplay between his own double bass, a flügelhorn and a koto. This is his debut as a leader for ECM, and the label’s customary spacious acoustic provides a lovely context. I am sometimes reminded of Manu Katché’s work for ECM, which I have loved, and at other times the koto puts one in mind of Andreas Vollenweider, the Swiss electric harpist whose 80s and 90s albums encompassed various world musics, prog rock and jazz.

Michelle Willis – See Us Through: I’ve already written about this in detail here.

Nao – For All We Know: The spirit of Prince is strong in Nao. This debut LP from the young British R&B singer is one of the funkiest things you’ll hear this year. The two preceding EPs already served to showcase a mature talent, someone who couples FKA twigs’ sense of experimentation with a solid background in the history of black dance music, all the while projecting a complete clarity of purpose. For All We Know sometimes hits Daft Punk like levels of funk, making you party like it’s 1999. (Thankfully, it seems to be “1999” at least somewhere every year. Which sounds like a riddle but isn’t.)

Nicolas Jaar – Sirens: Nicolas Jaar, a DJ, producer and singer/songwriter from Chile (now based in New York) has the same sort of seemingly limitless facility with music-making technology that Amon Tobin or Arca have. This, his latest album, bounces entertainingly between ambient, Depeche Mode, experimental soundscapes, and some kind of highly treated slow cumbia/reggaeton (“No” is amazing), all suffused with the melancholia globalization has brought us.

Nils Petter Molvaer – Buoyancy: Molvaer’s work in the past few years has been wildly interesting. The jazz trumpeter arrived at his current run via a successful late-90s brush with electronica, and now makes what I’d describe as a kind of world music informed instrumental post-prog-rock. Drums and guitars are definitely in a rock idiom; the trumpet has a muted, Miles-Davis-of-the-electric-70s tone, and there’s a pedal steel guitar. I don’t think I had imagined jazz trumpet and pedal steel being a viable combination in my wildest dreams, yet here they prove to be inspired in all sorts of different settings. This is really amazing, as are his previous two albums (Switch and Baboon Moon). I imagine that those who miss Pink Floyd would enjoy this. Favourite track is “Kingfish Castle.”

NxWorries – Yes Lawd!: This is Anderson .Paak’s other album this year. This one sees him focus more on rapping and singing, leaving the music-making to producer Knxwledge. It’s lyrically slightly coarser than Malibu but musically no less accomplished. The music’s playable by Paak’s band (as can be seen during his NPR Tiny Desk Concert), so I think Malibu and Yes Lawd! are two sides of a tossed coin — less different than everyone else said.

Solange – A Seat At The Table: Not to be outdone, Beyoncé’s sister delivers an outstanding record of her own. An album-length reflection of what it means to be black and female in the United States today, written and delivered in a way that wouldn’t be credible coming from her sister the superstar anymore, A Seat At The Table is insightful, political and astute. Her writing is in a more traditionalist R&B mode, eschewing big pop hooks in favour of subtler things like jazzy chord progressions. Solange is clearly a skilled auteur, and this is an important artist statement. I admit that it didn’t immediately grab me but took another listen to reveal itself.

Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone – Sélébéyone: What do you get when you blend an experimentally-oriented jazz saxophonist and two rappers — one American, one Senegalese? A surprisingly workable album that sounds like something at the far experimental end of the alternative hip hop spectrum. It has the warmth of real instruments being played but none of the mainstream clichés that other hip hop/jazz crossovers have exhibited in the past. It’s also worth noting that the “world” embrace here is less decoration and more an integral part of what this is. I love music where the good bits of globalization (exchange, availability, access, flow) contribute to a fresh perspective.

Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits: Clearly, I have a special appreciation for “collaborative” work — I like albums that break with pop’s singer/songwriter tradition. Terrace Martin is an LA producer who played an important role in Kendrick Lamar’s seminal To Pimp A Butterfly from last year. His solo effort is widescreen, orchestral at times, perceptively and beautifully produced, mindful of R&B’s traditions. There are songs sung by guest vocalists and instrumentals. It doesn’t sound like it would hold together, but it tells a story from beginning to end. Worth a little investment.

Xenia Rubinos – Black Terry Cat: Black Terry Cat powerfully explores Rubinos’ identity as a black and Latino woman in America today. I think of this as being in a mirror relationship with other albums on my list — the more radical, more independent, more fearless version of what Solange, perhaps Spalding, possibly even Beyoncé are trying to do. “Brown cleans your house, brown takes the trash, brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass.” Musically, Rubinos deploys a punchy bricolage of R&B, punk, hip hop to excellent effect, playing most instruments herself (I am sometimes reminded of My Brightest Diamond, sometimes of Neneh Cherry — both meant as great compliments to Rubinos’ considerable talents). Independent political music at its best.

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