My Favorite Albums of 2016 (pt. 2) by James Brubaker
As promised (though a little late), here is the second half of my favorite albums of the year so far list. The first part featured ten albums, mostly by heavy hitters, all of which are exceptional. This round, I’m just listing some other albums I can’t get enough of. There will be more than ten this time, but the blurbs will be a bit shorter. Happy listening!
ANTI | Rihanna | Westbury Road
After a slew of huge, exquisite songs off of solid but not great albums, Rihanna has upped her game with ANTI. Coming on the heels of a weird, confusing, year-long rollout, ANTI cashed in on all the anticipation with a tight, beautifully assembled collection of songs. From the weird and beautiful retro keys of the too-short “James Joint” to the pop gold of “Work” to the stunning emotional longing of “Higher,” Rihanna has finally given us the brilliant album we always hoped was coming.
blackSUMMERS’night | Maxwell | Columbia
The last time I checked in with Maxwell was, well, almost twenty years ago when Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite was a thing. I loved that album, and still dig it out of my old, trusty, 90’s CD binder from time to time. That said, I was pleasantly surprised when I started hearing new buzz over the last couple of years, and the release of his latest finally reminded me to jump back on the Maxwell train. I'm Glad I did, as blackSUMMERS’night is an exquisite collection of lush, gorgeous R ‘n B. “The Fall” has a subtle swing to it. “Fingers Crossed” is sweet and sexy. Hell, I could go through this thing song by song finding adjectives to explain how warm and wonderful it all is, but instead I’ll leave you with this: blackSUMMERS’night is beautifully produced R ‘n B perfect for curling up on the couch with a loved one on humid summer nights.
The Colour in Anything | James Blake | Polydor
After his perfect EP’s and debut album, and the severely underrated Retrograde, it’s no surprise that James Blake is back with another quietly gorgeous set of songs. Yet another surprise 2016 release, Blake’s rich production and lyrical songwriting is on display. His vocals get a bit lost in the mix at times, and, let’s be honest, Coulour is a bit long and overstuffed, but it’s hard to complain as long as Blake keeps turning out weird, gorgeous pop songs like “Love Me in Whatever Way,” “Put That Away and Talk to Me,” and the Bon Iver featuring “I Need a Forest Fire.”
DJ Koze Presents Pampa Vol. 1 | Various Artists | Pampa Records
Since I first stumbled across Amygdala a few years back, I’ve been a sucker for all things DJ Koze. I love the way he injects his weird sense of humor into his songs, and I can never get enough of the chill beats and trippy production that defines his work. This is a compilation of tracks by artists on Koze’s label and, while the DJ himself is largely absent from the album, he shows the same meticulous curatorial eye that he displayed with his DJ Kick’s installment last year. In other words, Koze has pulled together an impressive array of songs and put them together so they play like the perfect chill party mix. But these songs don’t fade into the background—they’re too good to be just background music.
Emily’s D+Evolution | Esperanza Spalding | Concord
I wrote about this one a few months back for one of our “Shit We Like” columns, and I like it just as much today as I did then, so I’m just going to save myself some time and borrow from that write up, here: Emily’s D+Evolution begins with a bass drum thump and Spalding’s immense voice singing, “See this pretty girl/Watch this pretty girl flow,” and flow she does. On the last word, the band kicks in with a skronky bass and guitar funk riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Brecker Brothers album from the 70’s. Blending fusion with impeccable singer-songwriter instincts and hints of prog rock, it’s tempting to see Spalding’s latest as a sonic tour through the “best of the 70’s.” But no, this album doesn’t drift through its sounds, it synthesizes them, recombines them, and spits them back out as something new. Whether it’s the gorgeous Joni Mitchel-esque jazz pop of “Unconditional Love” and “One” (the latter of which channels Mitchell to extraordinary ends) or the operatic fusion of “Earth to Heaven,” Spalding has put together a wonderful set of songs that are as exciting as they are impressive.
HEAVN | Jamila Woods | Self-Released
I adore this album. It’s easily become one of my favorite albums of the year. Had it dropped a little earlier, it probably would have landed in the first part of this feature. For as much as I love this album though, I’m having a hard time finding words for it. Let’s start with an excerpt from the album’s press release: “HEAVN is about black girlhood, about Chicago, about the people we miss who have gone on to prepare a place for us somewhere else, about the city/world we aspire to live in.” Part of me thinks that that is all you need to know about this album, but know, too, that these songs are joyful, exuberant, stirring, and beautifully conceived. Just—go listen. The album is available as a free stream or download. You have no excuse.
Little Windows Cut Right Through | Aloha | Polyvinyl
I’ve already written a lot about Aloha this year. They’ve been one of my favorite bands for nigh on twenty years, and this new one was a pleasant surprise, mostly because I wasn’t sure if we were ever going to hear from them again—but we did, and the results were exquisite, finding the band exploring a new way forward, full of lush synths and tight songwriting. One listen to “Signal Drift” or “Faraway Eyes” will be all the convincing you need—this is an exceptional album worth your time and cash.
Malibu | Anderson .Paak | Steel Woold
I wrote about this one for an installment of “Shit We Like,” too. Here’s what I had to say: At times delivering slick, sweet soul, as on opening track “The Bird,” summery R & B, as on “Put Me Thru,” or funky grooves as on “Room in Here,” . Paak’s debut LP is a warm, hopeful set of songs. While it’s tempting, as others have done, to hear Malibu as the first true post-To Pimp a Butterfly album, that is, much of the album’s production feels as if its directly descended from Kendrick Lamar’s instant classic, such a comparison does a disservice by placing Malibu in that album’s shadow. Malibu doesn’t deserve to be in any other album’s shadow—this is a fresh, and engaging set of songs that deserves to stand on its own.
Next Thing | Frankie Cosmos | Bayonet
Hey, I wrote about this one already, too. What did I have to say about it?: When I first stumbled across Frankie Cosmos’s (Greta Simone Kline) Zentropy, I was taken with the album’s brevity, its loose, ragged energy, its sense of urgency . . . On Next Thing, the songs are still loose and energetic, but everything feels a bit more refined, a bit more measured. At times, particularly when multi-tracked, Kline’s vocals almost invoke a less-angsty-by-half Liz Phair. But here’s the thing, despite the absence of overt angst, Kline’s songs can be twice as devastating. The deceptive simplicity of songs like “If I Had a Dog” and “Outside With the Cuties” masks some heavy emotional epiphanies and profound moments of truth. We need look no further than the lines “When you’re young/You’re too young/When you’re old/You’re too old” on “What If” for a fine example—the idea seems easy and doesn’t require any heavy lifting to unpack, but the tragic truth of the lines, buoyed by Kline’s airy delivery, are quietly heartbreaking.
Puberty 2 | Mitski | Dead Oceans
On Puberty 2, Mitski delivers on the promise of her previous output with an edgy, nervy collection of songs that explore themes of loneliness and self-destruction. The ironically titled “Happy” sets the tone, with it’s bittersweet lyrics and distorted, saxophone skronk. From there, Mitski steers us through gentle indie pop (“Your Best American Girl”), lo-fi folk punk (the brilliantly titled “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”) and elegant electro pop (“Crack Baby”). Maybe Mitski owes a slight debt to St. Vincent, but comes off somehow weirder and darker. Neither of those are bad things.
Sept. 5th | dvsn | Warner Bros./OVO Sound
dvsn kind of crept up on all of us over the last year or two: few stray songs, full of tantalizing, sex-fueled production and buttery-smooth vocals, working their way out into the world. At first blush, Sept. 5th seems to fall somewhere on the spectrum between The Weeknd’s early albums and Frank Ocean—the sound isn’t nearly as dark as the prior, but the lyrics are far darker than the latter, and that’s part of the appeal—dvsn aren’t necessarily trying to break new ground, but are perfectly happy to dig in deep to contemporary R ‘n B to make something dark, sleek and dripping with sex. That said, the most exciting moments, here, are when the production gets a bit weird, like the 80’s pop inflected “Try/Effortless,” or the trippy “Hallucinations.” It’s hard to say any album, especially one this dark, is sexy in a post-FKA Twigs world, but this one certainly comes on strong.
Stranger to Stranger | Paul Simon | Concord
Who’d’ve thought that in 2016 I’d be putting a new Paul Simon album on a list of albums to be excited about? But here we are—after a miserable 00’s, in which Simon floundered in the realm of bad adult contemporary production and the weakest songwriting of his career, we were treated to a significant uptick in quality on 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, which brings us to this—a tight, beautifully produced album that features Simon’s strongest songs since Rhythm of the Saints. Sure, “The Werewolf” opens the album feeling a bit forced, and the privilege politics of “Wristband” are a bit on the nose, but both are still catchy and fun. For a glimpse into just how poignant and effective this album can be, have a listen to the quietly fierce title track, the elegant folk of “Proof of Love,” or the gloriously fun shuffle of “The Riverbank.” In what’s generally been a pretty horrifying and shitty year, at least we can thank 2016 for giving us the best Paul Simon album in over two decades.