LxL’s 10 Best Albums of 2016

I’m certainly not the first person to say 2016 was full of loss and turmoil, both with losing several music legends and the world experiencing all sorts of violence and tragedy. Some of our picks speak to that turmoil, whether it be speaking to police brutality and racism in our justice system, or the fear and xenophobia against immigrants that has spread throughout the U.S. and around the world. Other picks of ours were a comfort and escape from the madness. Others were just flat-out great albums.

  1. William Tyler – Modern Country

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Fitting firmly in the escape category, it’s rare that an instrumental album makes our list for 2016, but William Tyler’s country-guitar picking is breathtaking and cathartic. I probably listened to Modern Country more than anything else this year.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service

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A return almost 20 years in the making, influential rap trio returned just after the passing of the late Phife Dawg with an urgent, political album for Trump’s America. It’s warm and hopeful, but still cuts like a knife.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar

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In truly prophetic fashion, David Bowie’s last album delivered 3 days before his passing speaks to death, mortality, and the afterlife like a man embracing it. With the help of Donnie McCaslin’s avant-jazz group, Blackstar was Bowie’s most experimental and best album in 35 years.

  1. Solange – A Seat at the Table

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Fair to say, it was a great year for the Knowles sisters…not so much for Jay-Z (see Beyonce’s Lemonade). We had a good conversation over which Knowles sister should make this list, so we sort of split the two, Beyonce on our songs list, and Solange on our albums list, for the more poetic album statement: about what it’s like being black in America and how to persevere when life gives you lemons.

  1. Drive By Truckers – American Band

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Not many people wrote better about Black Lives Matter, anti-immigrant sentiment, and our current political landscape than the old white Southern rockers Drive-By-Truckers. Seriously though, Patterson Hood and his Southern compatriots sound like a band on fire on American Band, almost like Crazy Horse in their peak.

  1. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

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A joyful and unique expression, Chance the Rapper released his 3rd mixtape Coloring Book, which is a celebration of growing up, becoming a father, and expressing faith in a child-like fashion. Few people exert more exuberance and joy about their city, their art, and their life as Chance, and the world is better for it.

  1. Angel Olsen – Woman

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Over her work with folk singer/songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy and her first three solo albums, Angel Olsen’s music has been expanding and becoming more of her own with each album. On Woman, Angel Olsen delivers song after song with her melodramatic voice and compelling arrangements for her best album to date.

  1. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

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Even Kendrick Lamar’s scraps are better than other artist’s best feasts.  Kendrick surprisingly delivered untitled unmastered, the b-sides to our 2015 album of the year To Pimp a Butterfly, and even those made for our favorite rap album of the year. Suffice it to say, I’m not sure any musician is as exciting or talented as Kendrick Lamar right now.

  1. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

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The story behind Skeleton Tree is simply devastatling: Cave’s 15-year-old twin son Arthur tragically died after falling off a cliff near the family’s home. Cave, who has always dealt with death, God, and the afterlife in his music, now had to face it head on. On Skeleton Tree, the mourning and emotion is palpable in Cave’s voice, and the music is simply devastating. But there are moments of tremendous humanity and slivers of hope amidst the tragedy.

  1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

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2016 isn’t exactly the golden age for rock music, but 24-year-old Will Toledo aka Car Seat Headrest delivered the most riveting album of the year, a concept album on adolescence that is sharply written, inventively composed, and full of good-old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll energy.

Honorable Mentions:

Beyonce – Lemonade

Mitski – Puberty 2

Anderson Paak – Malibu

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailors Guide to Earth

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

 

Just Missed:

Wes – Jamila Woods – HEAVN

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Chicago singer, rapper, and spoken-word artist Jamila Woods first became known on Chance the Rapper’s joyful “Sunday Candy”, but she showed what she’s made of in her debut album HEAVN, a beautiful, and personal expression about her life as a black woman in Chicago that also keys on musical influences from surprising places.

Austin – Lucy Dacus – No Burden

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Richmond’s Lucy Dacus debut No Burden was a true surprise: a well-written rock album fronted with Dacus’s classically beautiful voice.

Todd – Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

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Chicago duo Whitney is as soft and soothing as it gets, sort of a 70’s soft rock throwback, which makes this pick extra surprising for former wannabe-punk Todd. I guess he’s becoming a softy in his old age.

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LxL’s Surprise Album Power Rankings

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This spring has been full of musical surprises like no other year. Five major artists announced and released albums as a surprise on short notice, and instead of breaking each of them down in separate reviews, we thought it best to rank and mini-review each album. So here are our spring 2016 surprise album power rankings.

5. Drake – Views

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Surprise Level:

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Since Drake’s 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and his phone jam “Hotline Bling”, people have been anticipating the tentatively-titled Views from the 6 for almost two years. Then on April 4th, Drake finally announced the album with a slightly shortened title, Views. The album finally dropped at midnight on April 28th exclusively in Apple Music.

Best Moments: “One Dance”, “Child’s Play”, “Hotline Bling”

After two years of anticipation of a big Drake magnum opus, Views is certainly ambitious at 20 songs but falls flat. Drake seems stuck in neutral for his past few releases, unable to move forward emotionally or musically.

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The album suffers from being about 8 songs too long and some poor sequencing as well. The album only picks up speed about 10 songs in, when its biggest highlights hit. “Child’s Play” has Drake singing playfully about America’s favorite restaurant, “One Dance” is Drake picking up the dancehall vibe and running with it, and “Hotline Bling” which was tacked on the end of the album to just boost some sales. Mostly Views is severely disappointing.

Verdict: Leave Drake alone on his perch.

4. James Blake – The Colour In Anything

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Surprise Level:

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In November 2014, the neo-soul electronic musician James Blake said he was mostly done with his third album and it would be released in spring 2015. This, of course, didn’t happen. In February 2015, some rumors surfaced that the album would finally be coming out soon but without a date. On April 28th, Blake released some photos on his social media revealing the album title, and then a few days later on May 6th, Blake released the album at midnight.

Best Moments: “I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)”, “I Hope My Life”, “Timeless”, “Choose Me”

James Blake is someone I have been lukewarm on for two albums, but his latest, The Colour In Anything, showcases why he’s one of the most sonically interesting musicians around. Beyond having a smooth and soulful voice, Blake undercuts and contrasts his voice with an incredible range of sonic distortion, electronic dissonance, and range in audio dynamics, going from extremely soft and sweet to an all-out alarming mix of noise.

Blake also knows how to build a hypnotic and arresting album like few others. “Love Me In Whatever Way” is a great example of how James repeats a phrase as the sonic waves build higher and higher before consuming him. “Timeless” showcases his ability to pick a variety of seemingly dissonant sounds that whirl together in wonderful and interesting ways. “I Hope My Life” takes the cold synth-pop of 80’s greats like the Eurythmics and the Pet Shop Boys to great new heights.

Verdict: Give James a(nother) shot

3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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Surprise Level: 

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Experimental rock greats Radiohead are a band that certainly needs no introduction, and a band that is known for experimenting with surprise releases ever since 2007’s In Rainbows when the band allowed fans to “pay what you want” for the album.

The latest release cycle started on May 1st when the band deleted their internet presence entirely, deleting all posts from their social media and taking their site Dead Air Space down. Then the band released teaser videos on May 3rd before finally releasing the first single and video “Burn the Witch.” A couple days later (May 6th), they released a second single and another video, this time the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) video for “Daydreaming.” The same day the band announced the albums release on May 8th, where the album A Moon Shaped Pool, was released on all streaming and download services including Apple Music, Google, and Spotify, which Radiohead and previously criticized and kept their music off of.

Best Moments: “Burn the Witch”, “Daydreaming”, “Identikit”, “True Love Waits”

The best comparison for Radiohead’s latest is 2007’s In Rainbows, where Radiohead created a truly beautiful record. In the same way, A Moon Shaped Pool has plenty of experimentation (primarily from the dissonant strings and orchestration of guitarist Jonny Greenwood) but at its core, it’s pretty Radiohead: Thom Yorke singing tenderly over lush piano and orchestration singing with tenderness and urgency.

Lead track and single “Burn the Witch” was a song made for our times. Over menacing strings, the song drives an arrow through our irrational, witch-hunting, outrage culture which has led to this insane political climate and social media mess we live in. Like much of Radiohead’s music, the album drips with the danger of an impending apocalypse, the darkness lurking right around the corner.

A Moon Shaped Pool is one of their most listenable albums, but also subtly brilliant in its detail. These little touches and flourishes on each song take these songs from good to great. “Identikit”, which was produced in Jack White’s Third Man studios, showcases the sophistication of drummer Phil Selway and each player adds layers of complement and turmoil. “Decks Dark” has almost an operatic tension as the haunting choir is a cloud hovering over Thom Yorke’s voice and piano.

“True Love Waits” is an incredible example of Radiohead’s timing and brilliance. The song was written in in 1995 and has been played occasionally live, but has never found an album home. Now, 21 years later, “True Love Waits” is the perfect, poignant close to Radiohead’s prettiest album.

Verdict: The rock champs are back

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

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Surprise Level: 

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Chicago rapper and pride of the South Side Chance the Rapper released his third mixtape Coloring Book at 11PM on May 12th. The mixtape was initially announced to release soon on April 4th, with Chance announcing the official release date on his live TV debut of “Blessings”, his second single off the mixtape (“Angels” was released and performed on ate night month’s earlier). The album released exclusively on Apple Music for two weeks, giving Apple another leg up towards catching Spotify in the streaming races.

Best Moments: “No Problem”, “Summer Friends”, “How Great”, “Blessings”

Taking some notes from his musical hero and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, Coloring Book is an ambitious step forward for Chance and similarly straddles the secular and spiritual like much of Kanye’s work. Chance, though, leans heavily on the side of spiritual, since Coloring Book is more gospel as the main course with a side of hip hop and R&B. Chance’s mix of the best in hip hop and R&B production into gospel breathes new and fresh life into a genre of music that played an incredibly important role in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll and soul.

Chance takes his child-like faith and boundless joy and puts it on record for all to hear, also showcasing the best of his home community. Turning on the nightly news, you tend to hear nothing but sad stories from the South Side of Chicago, but Chance paints a different story: a talented community filled with hope in the face of adversity, and faith that can move mountains. “No Problem” just jumps out of your earbuds with joy, “Summer Friends” snaps and crackles with incredible production with an assist from Francis and the Lights, and “How Great” somehow takes CCM anthem “How Great Is Our God”, auto-tunes it, adds a bunch of clever bible rhymes (“The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early”) and actually makes it sound cool and not corny. I’ve heard from a handful of people who were Chance skeptics who have said Coloring Book has made them believers.

Verdict: Glory Glory! Hail the new king of Chicago rap

1. Beyoncé – Lemonade

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Surprise Level: 

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Beyoncé released lead single “Formation” right before her Superbowl performance in Feburary, making millions come to the shocking revelation that Beyoncé is black. Beyoncé then announced a mysterious video project on HBO called “Lemonade”, and turns out it was the debut of her new visual album Lemonade. The brilliance of Lemonade  as a visual experience and piece of musical expression instantly made the internet go crazy, as did the witch hunt from Beyoncé’s fan base to find the woman that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé with. President Obama could cheat on Michelle and it would be less of a thing.

Best Moments: “Hold Up”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, “Sorry”, “Freedom”, “Formation”

Beyoncé’s last album was a self-titled surprise release during the holiday season in 2014, another visual album with a different video for each song. Lemonade, is a truly cohesive musical film, as Beyoncé wrestles with her husband’s infidelity in 11 different emotional phases (Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, and Hope and Redemption). Beyond looking as good as Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, Lemonade explores more musical flavors than any album before. “Hold Up” has Beyoncé on the verge of losing it with a reggae-tinged reworking of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” by saying “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you.” “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is Beyoncé finally letting her anger free with a thrashing rock track with the help of Jack White. “Daddy Lessons” is a southern-gospel flavored country tune with singing about her childhood. “Freedom” is an empowering anthem for anyone with obstacles to overcome, and specifically with the help of “Kendrick Lamar”, stands as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s incredibly rare for someone to reach their artistic peak nearly 20 years into their career, but Beyoncé is finally reaching her creative peak, and it’s awesome to hear.

Verdict: Beyoncé accomplished what Kanye couldn’t: making people buy Tidal and not be angry about it.

 

 

The 10 Best Pitchfork 2015 Performances

 

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Pitchfork Music Festival is consistent festival gold in my opinion. Despite me not being able to make it Friday, a torrential downpour temporarily delaying the fest on Saturday, and almost being conned out of a ticket on Sunday, PMF 2015 was no exception. With me as always, was LxL’s own Wes (who was able to attend all three days), and another LxL regular/frequent festival coverage guru, Riley Johnson. We three squashed our mind grapes together, and this list is the winey result:

10. Bully

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I’m trying to think of a better way to start the day; I am. Female lead garage punk at it’s finest.
Continue reading “The 10 Best Pitchfork 2015 Performances”

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

Surf

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment Surf album cover art

How did an relatively-unknown collective, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, get over 10 million song downloads? Well, they made it free for one, giving away the debut album, Surf, on iTunes, but more importantly, the collective includes one of the most exciting young names in hip hop: Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper. And Surf shows anything the playful young rapper touches turns to gold.

Donnie Trumpet aka trumpeter Nico Segal is the ringleader for this project, which primarily includes musicians Peter Cottontale (keyboards), Greg Landfair Jr. (drums), and Nate Fox (producer). Beyond the main contributors and the larger instrumental collective that contributes, the group brings in some heavy-hitters to contribute vocals, from major rap names like J. Cole, B.o.B., and Big Sean, R&B queens Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae, and 90’s hip hop staple and classic character rapper Busta Rhymes. Hip hop has always had a super collaborative approach in terms of sharing the spotlight – as most hip hop albums are littered with guest verses – but to have such a big and communal collective is pretty unusual regardless of genre. When you consider the wide-range of collaborators, it’s amazing how cohesive Surf sounds: one big joyful and psychedelic dream.

Having just seen and reviewed Love & Mercy, the new Brian Wilson biopic, you can’t help here a little bit of the Beach Boys’ experimental, introspective period in Surf: and certainly the title doesn’t hurt either. “Miracle” opens with a breezy vocal harmony before slipping into an intoxicating daze led by Chance, the sort of gospel-infused psychedelic soul that would belong right at home on a D’Angelo record.

“Slip Slide” pulls out the horns and the red carpet for the long-awaited return of Busta Rhymes, who delivers the sort of larger-than-life cartoony flow that made him one-of-a-kind. With the heavy use of horns and occasional marching band vibe, Surf recalls the better parts of Outkast’s Idlewild. “Slip Slide” even includes one of Idlewild’s biggest contributors, the beloved Janelle Monae, who delivers some nice harmonies into the mix. “Warm Enough” appears out of the haze that follows “Slip Slide” with a dynamite verse from Chicago slam poet Noname Gypsy, who delivers every one of her lines with incredible feeling and intent. There’s a sense of care and consciousness for the city in everything Chance dips his toe in.

Like “Slip Slide” and first single “Sunday Candy”, “Wanna Be Cool” serves as one of the only potential singles here. For the most part, Surf is one delirious and hazy ride built for the summer time, even though its lacks any big satisfying summer jam; it’s perfect lazy summer afternoon music. Chance the Rapper shows his flexibility on Surf as well, sometimes punctuating a song with a gentle croon like at the end of “Slip Slide”, sometimes going into his childish and cartoony rap-self like on “Wanna Be Cool”, and sometimes just playing it cool like on “Familiar”. At age 22 and already headlining festivals (like Pitchfork this July), the sky is really the limit for this young artist as long as he keeps exploring creatively and speaking truth.

I mentioned the amount of joy here, and there is some serious church in Surf. Particularly “Sunday Candy” could easily be sung out in churches all around Chicago, turning gospel into love songs like Ray Charles before him. It’s a vibrant singalong perfect to belt out from the pews or your car windows.

If you are looking for something fresh and playful this summer that also has some layers to it, look no further than Surf. And while you’re at it, pay Chance the Rapper’ first two mixtapes a visit.

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Can’t Miss: “Miracle”, “Warm Enough”, “Sunday Candy”, “Familiar”

Can’t Hit: None