This year’s been rather crappy, no? People dying, authoritarian rising, all that jazz. Still, there were enough tunes throughout these 366 days that I could put up my yearly list. So, onwards with the Top 5 (would love to know your favorite albums from this year, btw).
Rihanna – Anti
The best way to describe Anti is that it’s Rihanna’s mirror, a subdued personal whisper with her best vocal work to date. There is the kind of Rihanna you expect from in “Work” and its ability to spill dancehall into the club. But this is a full-listen album. What starts with the electro-cool of “Consideration” ends with the intimacy in the ballad “Closer to You”. The ride between is Rihanna is her badass and vulnerable par excellence worth a good listen.
Anti is a departure to her normal work, that’s undeniable. There’s electro-R&B cuts like “Needed Me” and “Desperado” There’s also the ambition in putting a Tame Impala song on the album and melding it into superbly in “Same Ol’ Mistakes”.
Favorite Song: “Love on the Brain” pushes Rihanna’s voice to her full potential. The spirit of doo-wop and heartbreak conjure this constant shift between a vulnerable hush and despondent howl.
Flume – Skin
His debut was vibrant, the soundtrack of nighttime wonderland and the festival grounds rumbling with sonic glee. Skin brings Flume into another territory, a richer sound that uses the mix of garage, pop and hip-hop sensibilities, making a richer sound than can be expected from a dance album. It’s ethereal and glitchy at times (“Take A Chance”), and brusque and dreamlike in others (“Wall Fuck”).
He takes R&B-infused bass and uses it to make a glitched-out love song in “Say It”. A proof of that previously mentioned juxtaposition is in Kučka’s quiet by hypnotic voice mixed with Vince Staple’s verses in “Smoke & Retribution”.
Favorite Song: “Never Be Like You” is Flume’s attempt at an R&B jam mastered to its finest point. Kai’s voice moves between breathless and immediate, bringing her lyrics of forgiveness the right levels it needs.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
So many hip-hop albums were already crowned AOTY by the time ATCQ released We Got It From Here… but it’s fashionably late release still went toe-to-toe with some of the biggest albums of the year. It’s tough to make a rap album with the bloated socially conscious rap scene that exists today. Q-Tip, Jarobi White and the late Phife Dawg were not held back by this and still made song after song that mirrored the topics of black America over Q-Tip’s signature beats.
And the beats are interesting. They’re modern but are still made from the DNA of the golden age of hip-hop. Does it make it dated? Perhaps, but compare the work on a song like “Melatonin”, which has a vibe similar to those from previous albums, to “Solid Wall of Sound,” which meshes Elton John and Jack White into this trippy space filled with pseudo-patois rhymes. There are so many songs that retain the spirit the group has had since its beginning but don’t sound like they’re phoning it in.
Favorite Song: “We The People…” is perfect “fuck your gentrification” hip-hop. I can sound a bit on-the-nose but that’s the way Tribe’s always been. Q-Tip and Phife trade verses laying out the problems people of color have are having at the moment, over a simple drum-and-bass ride, and it works so goddamn well.
Savages – Adore Life
Never has an album talk about the vulnerability of love sound like it’ll kick you in the face. The London quartet laid bare what it means to love and live as a woman in this world but in a harsh, somber sound. They’re love songs set to the tune of the roses on fire.
Jehnny Beth’s pervasive goth-like haunting captures the dark romanticism, while Gemma Thompson’s and Ayse Hassan’s post-punk burn provide the engine for Adore Life‘s ominous voice. Fay Milton’s drum work brings the necessary urgency on songs like “Evil” and “Sad Person”.
Favorite Song: “The Answer” is love distilled in chaotic form. It starts with a seething riff and Beth’s wail of “If you don’t love me…” before unleashing a volley of violent drums and relentless lyrics on the inquisition of passion. Love is the answer, but the question is turbulent.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Danny Brown, whose album is on my honorable mentions, said something regarding Blackstar that we both share. He said how Bowie died to make the album it scared him. That wasn’t the case for me. I found it beautiful that David Bowie left the Earth on his terms, leaving one last statement and version of himself that we had never seen.
We’d seen the alien, the Berliner, the pop star, the modern reinventor, the elder statesman. On Blackstar we are in the private room with Bowie the Phantom Ascendant. You can hear that on the title track and in his voice throughout. There’s a particularly haunting part on the outro to “Dollar Days” where Bowie says “I’m dying to…” in repetition. In retrospect, it has a stronger meaning we should keep to our hearts.
Favorite Song: “Lazarus” was amazing for two reasons. First, of course, it’s the perfect swan song of a man comfortable with his coming end. Second, it actually makes jazz rock sound modern and relevant.
Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
A Tribe Called Red – We Are the Halluci Nation
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3