In the final part of our look the the best albums of the 21st century, we cover the first part of this decade: the years 2011 through 2014. You’ll have to wait till year’s end to discover our choices for 2015, which is already shaping up to be an incredible selection.
This is an exciting time for music, and the range of styles being explored is vast. We are blessed to live in a time of such creative abundance and innovation; there is great music constantly being created, and we need only find it, open our ears, and enjoy it.
2011: Drake - Take Care
Few artists in recent years have entered into the public consciousness with the same amount of hype and praise as the young Toronto rapper Drake did, after releasing one of the most successful buzz-building rap mixtapes of all time with 2009’s So Far Gone. On that mixtape, Drake borrowed heavily from the coldly digital beats and overall stylistic approach of Kanye West’s influential 2008 record 808s & Heartbreak, and over the top of the futuristic surrounds, he sang, rapped, and wove self-deprecating, self-aware, and yet paradoxically boastful tales of love, money, and the search for fame. Almost immediately following the runaway success of So Far Gone, Drake rush-released his debut studio album, 2010's Thank Me Later, which was a disappointing record that lacked any real innovation and failed to deliver on the young artist's obvious potential. Many were left wondering what Drake would do next, given more time to create and with a bit more experience under his belt.
On the subject of Thank Me Later, while promoting his 2011 sophomore follow-up Take Care, Drake stated:
“I didn’t get to take the time that I wanted to on that record. I rushed a lot of the songs and sonically I didn’t get to sit with the record and say, ‘I should change this verse.’ Once it was done, it was done. That’s why my new album is called Take Care because I get to take my time this go-round.”
It’s odd, then, that the first words we hear from Drake on Take Care are “I think I killed everybody in the game last year, man/ Fuck it, I was on one.” Yet this curious blend of contradictions - soft, hard; weak, strong; melody, rhythm; right, wrong - has always been one of Drake’s biggest draw-cards. Lyrically on Take Care, he fully establishes all of these contradictions once and for all. Largely, the album deals with the themes of failed, strained relationships, and the sense of couples drifting apart with time as the pressures of fame and fortune pull our protagonist away from his home, his heart. Yet there remains a sense of rapture and prideful observation; thoughts from Drake which include surprise and joy at having reached the top tier of the music business. Here’s Drake: discovered by Lil Wayne, promoted as the most exciting prospect in pop and hip-hop, and touring the world, while the loves of his youth are left behind in Toronto. Occasionally he calls late at night, hoping the girls back home don't have new boyfriends in the picture, and yet he knows he is selfishly in the wrong, and he knows he can’t keep falling in love like this, staying in love like this. Take Care is regretful, defiant, and deeply introspective; Drake knows he is not yet fit for a serious commitment to any relationship, and yet he can’t resist the temptations of the road, the allure of finding someone to confide in, and the deeper yearning for something real and solid in his life.
Musically, Take Care is flawless. Revisiting his fruitful partnership with Noah “40” Shebib - the two had been working together since before they made it big - Drake darkens his palette, strips everything back to the bare essentials, and revisits the sound he had first explored on So Far Gone. Again using West’s 808s & Heartbreak as a guide, Shebib brings moody electronic flourishes into the music and dims the lights. There is very little analogue instrumentation, very little major key songs, and very little fast tempo sections. This is early morning after-party music; amidst the gloom there are flashes of orange light like blurry street-lamps on the way home, but the sterile half-darkness of the city is the only constant; the view from a high-up condo window across a sleepless city full of memories.
Recruiting close associate The Weeknd, a roster of fellow musicians from Kendrick Lamar to Stevie Wonder, and left-field electronic experimentalists like Jamie xx, Take Care is a tightly focused collection of songs, where guest spots are used tastefully; it is unusual for an 18 track, 80 minute hip-hop record to have only a handful of features. Drake holds our attention through his masterful songwriting, coherent storytelling, and by progressing along a natural, complete story arc throughout the playing length of the album. There are bonafide hits - Headlines, Lord Knows, the title track - but the majority of songs on Take Care manage to be both catchy and poppy and yet unquestionably experimental, abstract, and dark.
"I’ve been talking crazy, girl/ I’m lucky that you picked up, lucky that you stayed on/ I need someone to put this weight on," he raps on the stunning centrepiece Marvin’s Room, where snippets of a woman’s voice as she answers the phone are interspersed with Drake’s wandering thoughts, pleading excuses, and shameful admissions. Elsewhere, on Shot for Me he directly speaks to two of his exes in the same thought: “You’re mad ‘cause nobody ever did it like me/ All the care I would take/ All the love that we made/ Now you’re trying to find somebody to replace what I gave to you/ It’s a shame you didn’t keep it/ Alisha, Catya, I know that you gon’ hear this.” It’s a wonderfully backhanded way of reminiscing about the good times that they’ve shared, and Drake sounds thoughtful, contemplative, regretful, but unapologetic.
Take Care is an endearingly confessional album; a peek inside the scattered mind of a young man after his world has been upended and he is trying to make sense of the pieces that remain. It also happens to be a stunning display of an artist coming into their own for the first time, and reaching a creative peak that would in the years ahead see Drake become the biggest name in rap music and a global superstar. In all its moody, introspective glory Take Care will always be a landmark record, not only because of what it is in and of itself, but because of what Drake would go on to become.
Honourable Mention: Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
The bleary-eyed San Franciscan rockers Girls came dramatically into their prime on their second album. Their debut record, 2009’s Album, had been a Brian Jonestown Massacre-esque garage rock head-trip, featuring plenty of incredible songs that were largely hidden amidst a long, messy running time. On Father, Son, Holy Ghost, everything is improved upon, from the soulful gospel backing vocals to the fuller, meatier recording quality, and the more mature songwriting.
Sounding like the lovechild of early Fleetwood Mac, late Beatles, and a range of ‘70s progressive rock acts, FSHG looks firmly to the past for inspiration. Folksy guitar, dramatic key changes, long song lengths, and twangy, reverb-laden guitar set the tone from the very beginning. Opener Honey Bunny is lyrically a funny, engaging song that closes with a heartfelt tribute to singer Christopher Owens’ mother; musically, it is bouncy ‘60s rock and roll. Other songs, like Die and Vomit delve into heavy, droning guitar-based hard rock and winding, epic progressive passages respectively. Such songs feel large-scale and grandiose, while the contrast of Owens’ voice - which carries an inalienable human frailty - serves to temper the larger-than-life moments. FSHG maintains a vintage, live concert feel throughout, and if it weren’t for Owens’ unconventional and distinct vocals, we could be forgiven for thinking that we were listening to forgotten songs from some gifted early-’70s rock group.
Throughout the record, Owens delves deeply inward, and the album mostly deals with the pain and regret of failed romance; his lyrics are powerful, private, and forlorn. Standout Forgiveness is long-form folk-come-country-rock, and Owens’ lyrics are pensive poetry: “No one’s gonna find any answers/ If we’re looking in the dark/ And you’re looking for a reason/ To give up,” he sings in his broken, quiet voice, as the song builds to a powerful climax, with pounding drums and the twangy roar of a Fender amplifier. “I can hear so much music/ And I can feel everything now/ And I can see so much clearer/ When I just close my eyes.”
FSHG would be Girls’ last album; Owens and the only other continuous member, Chet “JR” White, called it quits in 2012. Both have since stated that their final record was recorded amidst rising tensions within the group, and listening to it now, it is clear to see what they tried to do on this album: aware of the impending end of their talented band, they ensured these songs would represent the very best of what they could offer. Recorded in classic style, fully fleshed out, and passionately performed, every track on FSHG is a success. This is a wonderful rock album by young men who were determined to honour the legacy of the great acts who preceded them. Girls flew underneath the radar for their entire career; they never broke through, never got the recognition they clearly deserved, and it is a true shame that they aren’t together anymore. Father, Son, Holy Ghost was their magnum opus and a treasure that will endure for those who care to seek it.
2012: Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
A prayer for repentance opens Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album. Echoing, disembodied vocals, a rapid skipping bassline, and slow, out-of-phase drums follow; almost at once, the rapping begins. It is a quiet, totally unconventional start to a modern rap record, but this artist was never like the others: not since Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic - regarded by many as the greatest hip-hop record of all time - had we been taken on such a journey over the course of a rap album.
A concept album that uses answering machine messages, audio snippets that sound like film clips, the occasional sound effect, and a dense sequential narrative to tell its story, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City traces the childhood, youth, and maturation of an artist. Kendrick Lamar was raised in Compton amidst the gang violence, police brutality, and drug use with which South Central Los Angeles has long been associated; his city also happens to have been the historical hub for the majority of the world’s most exciting rap music released during the late ’80s and early ‘90s. Convinced to pursue a lifetime in hip-hop after as a child witnessing the filming of the music video for Tupac and Dr. Dre’s classic west coast anthem California Love, Lamar is a committed student of hip-hop’s complex, contested history. Taking his respect for the pure craft of rap, evoking Nas’ gift for breakneck storytelling, and embracing unconventional, woozy, plaintive beats, Lamar lays out his manifesto on GKMC.
Previous album Section.80 had been an iTunes exclusive that served mostly to establish Lamar as an alternative rap up-and-comer, and to build hype for his first widely released studio record. Following the release of Section.80, Lamar stated that his second album would be a total change of direction; in interim period between records, he had been back home, had revisited old friends and old locales that made dark, troubled memories flood back into his mind. Lamar was overwhelmed, so he did the only thing he could, the only thing he knew how: he started writing.
Lamar chose a photo of himself as a child for the front cover of GKMC (again, in the vein of certain classic records) - that’s him on his uncle’s lap, as the hand around him flashes a Crip gang sign, and a malt liquor bottle sits on the table. The abbreviation M.A.A.D. in the title of the record stands for both “My Angry Adolescence Divided” and “My Angels on Angel Dust”. As an explanation of the latter, Lamar would later reveal:
“That was me. I got laced. The reason why I don’t smoke, and it’s in the album. It’s in the story. It was just me getting my hands on the wrong thing at the wrong time, being oblivious to it.”
These disturbing details give us an insight into the sorts of memories that occupy Lamar’s mind when he thinks back on his youth in Compton. Every lyric on GKMC serves the narrative; it is as though Lamar has in a daze wandered into his local church, sat down in confession and begun to speak - and then he never stops. He simply keeps going, keeps remembering and reliving the trauma of his past: he is chewing the ear off the priest who is listening; someone brings a boombox into the room and Lamar just adapts his speaking rhythm so that he is constantly ducking, diving, and weaving around the otherworldly beats that are being played. GKMC feels like that; like a painful exposé on the horrors of poor black American life, told through the weary voice of a survivor. Lamar made it out of extreme poverty to tell us these stories, and he commands our attention from the first instant.
Early songs like Backseat Freestyle and Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe are funny tracks that carry the humour of childhood, because they deal with a younger, more innocent Lamar; a boy who was proud to live in a hip-hop hub, who used to trade freestyles over rap instrumentals with his friends and cruise around in his mother’s minivan. Lamar luxuriates in the sun-drenched locale of his home and the simple joys of youth, but the subject matter suddenly darkens on highlight The Art of Peer Pressure. Kendrick is a little older now, and at a turbulent and precarious stage for any kid in his neighbourhood; his friends have started taking drugs, getting into fights, scouting out local houses to rob, and looking for girls who are keen for a good time. Now, the rap music he holds so dear is a negative influence on him and his friends; he speaks of how famed Compton rapper Young Jeezy’s first record negatively drives his little group’s actions into more aggressive territory. "We tryna conquer the city with disobedience/ Quick to turn it up, even if we ain’t got the CD in/ But Jeezy still playing and our attitude is still 'nigga, what is you saying?'," Lamar raps, as his group cruise around town looking for trouble. "Pull up in front of the house that we’ve been camping out for like two months/ The sun is going down as we take whatever we want/ I hit the back window in search of any Nintendo/ DVDs, plasma screen TVs in the trunk/ We made a right, then made a left, then made a right/ Then made a left, we was just circling life," he continues, weaving in snippets of his group's conversation as they attempt to perpetrate their crime. Peer pressure has made Lamar cross a threshold; he is no longer a good kid, because the city has won.
Elsewhere, as his spiral into this violent, antisocial behaviour worsens, he asks on m.A.A.d. city, in a voice subtly pitch-shifted higher so he sounds closer to his teenage self: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?/ Or perceive me to be innocent Kendrick you see in the street/ With a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat?/ If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat?/ Would you say my intelligence now is great relief/ And it’s safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep/ With dreams of being a lawyer or doctor, instead of boy with a chopper?” It’s a disturbing moment; Lamar is conscious of the fact that there is very little middle America would not expect him to have done, given what he has said in the previous few songs, and surrounded as he is by criminal gang members, even within his immediate family. Lamar follows this train of thought further, spiraling into manic street poetry, and it is here that we really do see the return of a young writer in the lineage of Nasir Jones, and yet Lamar is still more erudite and verbose, as he weaves twisted webs of incisive, cutting observation: “The Children of the Corn, they vandalising/ The option of living a lie/ Drown their body with toxins/ Constantly drinking and driving/ Hit the powder then watch this flame that arrive in his eye/ Listen coward, the concept is aim/ And they bang it and slide out that bitch with deposits/ A price on his head, the tithes probably go to the projects/ I live inside the belly of the rough/ Compton, U.S.A. made Me an Angel on Angel Dust.”
As GKMC's story progresses, it takes the death of one of Lamar’s closest friends - who drew his last breath as our protagonist looked into his eyes - to wake Lamar up to his situation. On Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst, he writes a verse from the brother of the deceased’s point of view, thanking Lamar for being there to comfort his brother when he passed, and on the next verse the rapper composes a second imagined letter, this time from the sister of a local seventeen year old prostitute who was raped and murdered, and whose tragic story Lamar had already told on Keisha’s Song from Section.80.
Following the death of his friend, Lamar’s father dispenses some much-needed advice, urging his son to avoid the dangerous path he himself went down as a younger man:
“I’m sorry to hear what happened to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did, homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family. Real is God.”
On Real, Lamar recounts the moral, spiritual awakening that followed these traumatic events. “Should I hate street credibility I’m talkin’ about/Hating all money, power, respect in my will/ Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real?” he asks, and it’s clear that his father’s advice was one of the defining moments in his self-awakening maturation; Real is a moving meditation on a value system that Lamar has seen the darkness in. Towards the end of the track, we hear Lamar’s mother’s voice, as she leaves yet another phone message for her son, and we understand more clearly than ever before why Lamar is so intent on unearthing the events of his early life on this record:
“If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man; tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement - and that’s the best way to give back. To your city… And I love you, Kendrick.”
The songs on this record peel off like dark layers, gradually revealing the heart of a man. A kaleidoscope whose colours are all muted; greys, blacks, and browns, all a world a way from the sunny party music to which west coast hip-hop is often stereotyped. GKMC tracks the genesis and evolution of one of modern music’s most distinct and important voices. Profoundly honest, it is a diligent observation, intelligent insight, and clearsighted moral doctrine that cannot help but stand above what preceded it. Kendrick Lamar is one of the few artists who, upon the release of such a project, actually seemed capable of repeating the task and delivering more material of this calibre; in 2015 with his third record To Pimp a Butterfly he proved our faith was well-founded. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City will always remain as testament to Lamar’s passionate rebirth, reawakening, and reanimation of deep, complex lyricism and empowered storytelling in hip-hop.
Honourable Mention: Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
The New Orleans-raised singer Frank Ocean worked as a songwriter for artists like Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, and John Legend, before he joined the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future in 2010. An unlikely fit for the rambunctious, rebellious skater group, Ocean released an acclaimed mixtape named Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011, which saw him rework songs from Coldplay, The Eagles, and MGMT, and mix in original compositions in the form of mature, intelligent pop music.
His highly-anticipated debut studio album Channel Orange was released the following year. Working with longtime friend and collaborator Malay, Ocean played old records for background music in his Hollywood recording studio in order to set the mood for inspiration: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix were among his favourites. Writing and recording the bulk of the songs with Malay, and then recording his vocals alone over the course of a few months, Ocean added live instrumentation (including some tasteful guitar work by John Mayer on Pyramids and White), a few guest rap verses from OutKast’s André 3000 and fellow Odd Future members Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, and additional touches of production from Pharrell Williams.
The title of the record is a reference to the neurological condition grapheme–color synesthesia, and the relative colour Ocean perceived during the summer he first fell in love. Ocean came out as bisexual before the release of Channel Orange, and he plays with gender identity on these songs; often singing from unconventional perspectives, he weaves largely fictional tales full of iconography, real experience, and pure imagination. Dealing with the themes of sex, love, power, greed, and religion, it is a lyrically and symbolically complex record, quite aside from the nuanced and textured musical elements themselves.
The result is a collection of seventeen superb neo-funk, neo-soul, neo-jazz, space pop masterpieces. Wildly inventive, there is a sunny burst of energy every time Ocean sings. He has a wonderful timbre to his baritone voice; it mostly straddles the border between midrange and treble, dipping gently into significant lower notes before frequently sliding fluidly into a melodic falsetto. Ocean pushes the natural constraints of his considerable range to breaking point on Channel Orange, and the results are glorious; every track is beautifully sung, and the instrumentation is deftly played and recorded with absolute perfection. Not since D’Angelo’s classic 2000 record Voodoo had we heard a young popular singer make such a confident, wonderfully composed record.
“A tornado flew around my room before you came/ Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain/ In Southern California, much like Arizona/My eyes don’t shed tears, but, boy, they pour/ When I’m thinkin’ ’bout you,” he sings on the stunning second track Thinking Bout You, adding in a sly lyrical reference to the 1972 Albert Hammond classic It Never Rains in Southern California as subtle strings, washy synthesisers and a slow, echoing drumbeat set the extremely minimalist stage. Thinking Bout You was originally written for Bridget Kelly, and Ocean presents his own, far-superior take on the tune here. It is a knowing tip-of-the-hat from a craftsman who has gained confidence in his own ability, re-claiming a song he once left for others to sing.
There are short interludes between most of the tracks; sometimes of voices speaking, and at other times of music which sounds as though it has been recorded second-hand, as though by holding a microphone up to a radio speaker. Ocean first used these techniques on Nostalgia, Ultra, and it is again effective in tying the album together with a conceptual theme. Though it doesn’t possess a narrative arc per se, Channel Orange nevertheless feels like it should be taken as an entire piece; the tracklist feels purposefully ordered and meaningful, and the individual songs shine brightest when they are played in sequence.
Sweet Life is sunny pop jazz, with Ocean exploring the range of his unusual voice over a funky Pharrell Williams beat. It is a little slice of summer, caught on tape as though by some weird magic. Lost continues in a similar vein, while towards the end of the record, the tone of Channel Orange becomes quieter, more earnest, and more lovesick; Pink Matter is a beautiful string ballad and one of the finest displays of Ocean’s singular gift, reaching a quiet conclusion before André 3000 rides in on the wave of a lumbering funk beat and delivers one of his best guest verses in recent years. The penultimate track Forrest Gump is a wistful, bittersweet tribute to a long-lost love from Ocean’s youth; a touching song that displays Ocean’s songwriting talent in supreme form. It is clear on every track here that Ocean is a complete natural when it comes to crafting instantly-memorable melodies, and there are very few forgettable moments throughout the record's considerable run-time.
The assertive centrepiece of Channel Orange is the ten minute epic Pyramids. A wildly ambitious song that aims to pick up where Prince’s Purple Rain left off in 1984, Ocean spins a tale of kidnap involving Cleopatra over a suspenseful, ecstatic electro-funk first half, until the song dips down into a dark, unsettling hip-hop beat; John Mayer’s guitar plays in the background as Ocean half-raps about a stripper named Cleopatra, working in a club called the Pyramid. It is a conceptually bizarre song, but it works; the music is absolutely irresistible, and the propulsive songwriting and expert production wrap us up in constantly shifting layers of melody, rhythm, and texture. Pyramids is the sort of song one can instantly recognise as a landmark track; Ocean is in his finest form of the album here, and the results are unforgettable. Pyramids' considerable length passes too soon and leaves an indelible impression that the song deserves a considerable amount of replays.
Channel Orange is a bright, happy album; Ocean doesn’t make sad songs as such, and even when he expresses dark sentiments, he has a knack for maintaining a sense of easy accessibility through his penchant for catchy, legitimately-pop melodies. Everything on this record is polished to perfection; Channel Orange shines brightly as a mark of Frank Ocean’s immense talent, and as a beacon of hope for modern popular music in general. For all of the radio forgettability with which we are overwhelmed in the media and on mainstream radio, it takes a musician like Ocean and a creative spark like Channel Orange to show us the light; show us that pop music need not be a four letter word.
2013: Arctic Monkeys - AM
The Arctic Monkey’s fifth studio album AM was an anomaly in many ways. It was the sound of a fantastic live band abandoning a fruitful live-in-the-studio recording approach and successfully embracing a more worked-over, studio direction; it was the sound of a quintessentially British band successfully embracing an almost uniform sense of Americana; it was the sound of a band approaching a decade in the industry and yet reaching a creative peak. A mammoth, towering achievement, comprised of twelve pounding rock anthems for the new era, given to us by the undisputed leading lights of modern rock music.
Lead single R U Mine? was released in early 2012, eighteen months before AM came out; this record was a long time in the making. For the creation of the album, the Monkey’s simultaneously revisited familiar territory last seen on their incredible 2009 record Humbug - by once again collaborating with Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Josh Homme and recording at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree - while boldly exploring new ways of creating and recording sound. Singer and guitarist Alex Turner described the sound of AM to NME in the lead up to the album’s release as such:
"It sounds like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.
It sound less like four lads playing in a room this time. Essentially, that’s what it is, but if you can find a way to manipulate the instruments or the sounds to the point where it sounds a bit like a hip-hop beat that’d be boss in your car, then I think there’s something quite cool about that."
Perhaps this rap influence is most clear on the opening moments of the incredible stadium-filler Arabella. A thumping, distorted funk bassline; a minimal guitar flourish, some rapid rhythmic disco plucking; a simple, driving drumbeat. It’s all right out of Dre’s 2001 handbook, and it is remarkably effective. Though going back to the early days of the Monkeys few could have foreseen these Sheffield lads taking to ’90s American hip-hop quite so, the results speak for themselves on AM. The tight rhythm section of bassist Nick O’Malley and drummer Matt Helders is where we can see the new direction shine brightest; simple and yet devastatingly effective, the basslines are confident, aggressive, and groovy, while the drums are slowed down, hard, loud, and ever-present.
The barnstorming smash hit Do I Wanna Know? sees this rock-solid rhythmic foundation topped off with an instantly memorable, ten ton heavy guitar riff and Turner’s confident, crooning baritone vocal; there are almost no other elements. “Have you got colour in your cheeks?” Turner sings, exploring the depths of his low register, “Do you ever get that fear that you can’t shift/ The type that sticks around like summat in your teeth?” Everything is crystal clear in the mix because the sonic elements employed are so discerningly chosen. Abiding by a newly discovered less-is-more philosophy, the bass guitar is clearer and louder on AM than on the vast majority of modern records, and every note can be picked out at once. Meanwhile, every subtle flourish of Turner’s vocal, and of the tasteful falsetto backing vocals (supplied by O’Malley and Helders) is imminently audible. It is a confronting, bare-bones approach for a band who have occasionally reveled in an over-saturated mix.
Lyrically these tracks are love songs, but decidedly not of the romantic kind; Turner is brash, cocky, and needy, constantly picking relationships apart or unapologetically expressing his thoughts and feelings towards the women in his life. His gift for a bizarre simile or two is still there, but he isn’t telling stories here; the lyrics read more like the stream-of-consciousness perspectives of a ladies’ man.
Yet there are ballads here, too; No. 1 Party Anthem, Mad Sounds, and I Wanna Be Yours are less directional, quieter tracks that explore more earnest themes, though they lose none of the unique spirit of the album. Along with hip-hop, the Monkey’s mix persistent R&B trademarks into AM; Turner cited both OutKast and Aaliyah as influences during recording, and influences such as the late R&B singer carry the quieter moments in much the same way as Dr. Dre's formula assists the hard rock anthems.
AM was an exceptional record, comprised of dark, sexually charged rock songs made for late night parties and half-remembered encounters. It took the band’s strongest elements, and under the guidance of producers Ross Orton and longtime Monkey’s collaborator James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, AM captured an unmistakable L.A. swagger in twelve propulsive rock anthems. Every single facet of each track smacks of attention to detail during the long recording process, and the care taken pays off massively; this is a masterpiece of an album, and by the confident maturation of their sound Turner and company never sounded better.
Honourable Mention: Kanye West - Yeezus
We knew at once that Kanye West’s Yeezus was destined to be the sort of record that is with time revisited, rediscovered, and eventually pointed at in years to come as evidence of the definitive beginning of a movement. Much as 2008’s incredibly divisive and divisively incredible 808s & Heartbreak became viewed very differently when Drake used West’s shockingly original template to launch his career, Yeezus is the sort of record born to be misunderstood in the short term and revered in the long.
Released three years after West’s magnificent magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - three years which had seen the release of the hugely popular Jay Z collaborative album Watch the Throne and the West-helmed G.O.O.D. Music label compilation Cruel Summer - the artwork-less Yeezus was a shock. Recorded largely in West’s Paris hotel loft space, and later - with fifteen days left before the album’s due date - taken to Rick Rubin for emergency revision in his Malibu Shangri-La studios, Yeezus saw West abandon most every preconception of what rap should sound like, and instead wholeheartedly embrace the influence of industrial music, twisted acid house, and experimental, subversive weirdness.
Boasting an incredible 67-name-long list of collaborators, Yeezus is a raw, aggressive record. Opening with a nasally, abrasive snarl of synthesiser that fades into a glitchy, distorted beat, first track On Sight is an abrupt wake up call. "Yeezy season approachin‘/ Fuck whatever y’all been hearin’/ Fuck whatever y’all been wearin’/ A monster about to come alive again," West raps, half shouting. "How much do I not give a fuck?/ Let me show you right now ’fore you give it up," he posits before the song roughly and abruptly shifts into a once-repeated sample taken from a gospel song by the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family, and the message in the beautiful vocal sample is perfect: “He’ll give us what we need/It may not be what we want.” This is West at his most self-assured, taunting, and provocative. On Sight is about as a far from his wide-eyed, melodic early singles like All Falls Down as it is possible to get, and here West revels in the dissonance. The polarising artist is in a particular mindset from the beginning to end of Yeezus, and he is willing to trample on everything in the rule book to serve his art.
“Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you/ Cause kissin’ people’s ass is so unlike you,” West raps on I Am a God, atop buzzy synths and a loud, booming bass rumble. With a hook (if anything on Yeezus can even remotely be called a hook) sung by the Jamaican dancehall artist Capleton (a genre which West borrows from throughout Yeezus), and a sonic palette comprised exclusively of harsh, confrontational elements, I Am a God eventually devolves into a frightening howl; West simply screams - in a wild, digitally altered blast of rage and fear - not once or twice, but again and again. He is consumed by anger, and he lets it out until his visceral cry takes over the entire track; we had never before heard anything like it on a mainstream record.
Every song is directional: the Daft Punk-assisted Black Skinhead is exactly what the title implies: racially-charged punk rap which more closely resembles a Marilyn Manson song than anything seen before in West’s oeuvre, while Send It Up sounds like club music played in a post apocalyptic world, and closer Bound 2 (the only track which carries a hint of West’s former soul-sampling self, and non-coincidentally the only crossover mainstream success) is a tongue-in-cheek, funny, extremely unconventional love song and tribute to wife Kim Kardashian.
Sort-of-lead-single - although nothing on Yeezus can really be described as a single - New Slaves is a brash rebuttal of racism and the prison industrial complex, as - with almost no backing at all - West seems to look us dead in the eye and angrily begin: “My momma was raised in the era when/ Clean water was only served to the fairer skin.” Eventually spiraling into denser layers of thought as he grows wilder and wilder, West gets out of control before another sudden shift; Frank Ocean appears, riding the wave of an obscure and bizarre Hungarian rock sample, and Ocean’s falsetto carries the song out in an entirely different space than that in which it began. New Slaves is a confusing, enigmatic track, full of complex layers of meaning disguised as blind rage.
The centrepiece and defining statement of Yeezus is undoubtedly Blood on the Leaves, the visceral six minute track which ties together a sample of Nina Simone’s version of the near-sacred anti-lynching Billie Holiday classic Strange Fruit and a storming, horn-bass-and-drums trap beat produced by the coveted duo TNGHT. West sings in autotune for the vast majority of the track, weaving together disparate lyrical themes ranging from the romantic betrayal and breakup of a relationship to nostalgic and touching reflections on the death of his mother Donda West, and a fictional tale which visits the hoop-dream of West’s youth to play basketball in the NBA. The entirety of Blood on the Leaves is undercut by the unavoidably political and historical nature of the Strange Fruit sample, and the song is thereby lent yet another lens through which West invites us to view his message as he is singing about the way in which fame can change those around us, and as he simultaneously recalls his childhood: “Before the limelight tore you/ Before the limelight stole you/Remember we were so young/ When I would hold you.” Blood on the Leaves is an utterly chaotic song; the type of artwork which throws seemingly unrelated elements into a bold concoction, and through gifted alteration and presentation, manages to make it all seem connected somehow.
Kanye West is an endlessly inventive artist; creative identities like him only come around once in a generation. Where Yeezus will sit in his canon is yet to be defined, but as an artwork in its own right, it is utterly compelling. Incredibly exciting, new, weird, and potent, in ten songs totaling 40 minutes - West brought in Rubin primarily to cut the record down to size (his early production credits announce “Reduced by Rick Rubin”) - West changed people's expectations forever. He has never missed a beat, and Yeezus is one of West's most convincing statements of pure, focused, staggering vision.
2014: Aphex Twin - Syro
Following 2001’s incredible, sprawling double disc record Drukqs the artist formerly known Richard D. James ceased making music under the name Aphex Twin, relocated to rural Scotland, spent three years constructing his own recording studio, and focused on family life.
Very little was heard from James until, in 2014, a test pressing of a long-lost Caustic Window (one of many of James’ aliases) record surfaced, up for sale by an anonymous collector. The forum We Are the Music Makers launched a Kickstarter campaign to buy the album, after negotitating a deal with James and his label Rephlex Records. Rapidly exceeding their $9,300 target and eventually reaching $67,000, the campaign auctioned off the record on eBay, offered a digital transfer to the campaign funders, and split the proceeds between James, Rephlex, and Doctors Without Borders. James would describe the experience as “really touching, really sweet”, and it served as a catalyst to convince him that the unreleased material he had been sitting on may have had a larger audience than he previously anticipated.
Combining songs recorded as long as seven years ago with more recent compositions, Syro is James’ eagerly-awaited return out of hibernation. Eschewing computers altogether, James recorded the tracks using 138 pieces of equipment from his unparalleled collection of rare and vintage samplers, sequencers, processing units, MIDI interfaces, drum machines, vocoders, graphic equalisers and mixing desks. He also threw in heavily-edited vocal recordings of his parents, his wife Anastasia Rybina, and their two sons.
James described Syro as “[his] pop album, or as poppy as it’s going to get”, which - it must be made clear - doesn’t make it very poppy at all. While these songs do lack the antagonistic aggression of certain earlier Aphex Twin releases, they remain as inaccessible to the mainstream as ever; techno, acid house, acid jazz, jungle and indefinable knob-fiddling alien experimentation collide and create an energetic melange of masterfully accomplished electronic music. James is one of the few musicians who could so deftly manage the task of disappearing for over a decade, only to reappear with an album which continues right where he left off and still sounds utterly ahead of the curve.
James’s music has always carried a distinct element of the indefinable; his work must be heard to be believed. The technique and command of utility is astounding; this is sound that is so well crafted and engineered that at times it suspends belief. Anybody with even a passing interest in the wizardry behind this sort of highly accomplished electronic composition need only look here: grab the album and listen to the masterful, warped drum and bass programming featured at the beginning of s950tx16wasr10 [163.97] (earth portal mix), the hyperactive mania that hits us 3 minutes and forty seconds into CIRCLONT14 [152.97] (shrymoming mix) and increases in intensity over the course of a minute into rabid electronic chaos, or turn your attention to the funky robotic syncopation 2 minutes and forty seconds into 4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26].
Syro is comprised of dizzyingly fast, futuristic music. The songs move at a breakneck pace that doesn’t let us latch on to any one element; before we can focus on something, the sound has changed form, blended with something else, or disappeared altogether. Profoundly enteraining, stimulating, and cerebral, Syro is a veritable feast for brain cells; it is a heady trip into a dystopian war between armies of advanced electronic equipment, where both sides are presided over by a Machiavellian puppet-master unafraid to pull hard on the strings dramatically and without warning.
It is true that Syro is not nearly as technologically or stylistically innovative as some of James’ classic records - Selected Ambient Works 85–92, …I Care Because You Do, Richard D. James Album - but it is the most succinct exemplar of the producer's prodigious talent. James is one of the great treasures of electronic music; a guiding force, a tastemaker, and a mastermind. In that expansive genre, it has been said before that in place of true live instrumentation and performance, there must be the convincing illusion of performance, and electronic music has seldom sounded more organic, alive, and thrilling than on Syro.
Honourable Mention: D’Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah
The sudden, utterly unexpected end to a fourteen year hiatus, Black Messiah is the return of modern R&B’s reclusive, troubled genius D’Angelo. His last record - 2000’s Voodoo - was a classic album, mixing soul, pop, hip-hop, funk, and jazz into a heady brew. Upon its release, the gifted singer was poised for commercial and critical superstardom, and then - he disappeared.
Following the release of the infamous video for the Voodoo highlight Untitled (How Does it Feel?), D’Angelo became increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which he was being stereotyped as a sex symbol. Following the suicide of a close friend, he developed a debilitating drinking and drug abuse problem, dramatically gained weight, saw the end of a long relationship, drifted apart from his family who would no longer speak to him, was involved in a severe car crash, arrested for driving under the influence and for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, and had all funding cut from his next solo album. It was a downward spiral, and a depressing apparent end to an artist who had seemed brimming with talent and potential.
Even after entering Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Centre for rehabilitation in 2005, very little new music materialised. D'Angelo was said to be keen to proceed with his next record, and working in the studio on an imminent release. Two future Black Messiah tracks appeared in demo form in 2007 and 2010, but more information was few and far between. Famed session players Pino Palladino and James Gadson, plus Voodoo collaborator Questlove of The Roots fame, and engineer Russell Elevado were rumoured to be involved; when asked by Pitchfork about the album’s progress in 2011, Questlove described it as:
“[A] black version of [The Beach Boys‘] Smile - at best, it will go down in the Smile/There’s a Riot Goin’ On/Miles Davis’ On the Corner category. That’s what I’m hoping for. There’s stuff on there I was amazed at, like new music patches [keyboard sounds] I’ve never heard before. I’d ask him, ”What kind of keyboard is that?“ I thought it was some old vintage thing. But he builds his own patches. One song we worked on called Charade has this trombone patch that he re-EQ’d and then put through an envelope filter and then added a vibraphone noise on top and made a whole new patch out of it. He’s the only person I know that takes a Herbie Hancock approach, or Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff —the two musicians/engineers who programmed all of Stevie Wonder’s genius-period stuff — approach. That’s the last time I ever heard of somebody building patches. We’ll see if history is kind to it.”
D’Angelo was working obsessively in the studio, clearly intent on crafting the album to absolute perfection. While Black Messiah was finally planned for release in 2015, in late 2014 America exploded in anger over the highly controversial decisions employed in the Ferguson and Eric Garner police brutality cases; the singer was inspired, and the news of the day called to mind many of the themes of empowerment, racial pride, and social justice that are featured on his long-overdue work. So D'Angelo released Black Messiah with little fanfare and almost no preamble in mid-December of 2014, keen to give the world what he thought it needed.
From the opening moments of Ain’t That Easy - some Hendrix-esque guitar feedback, a bouncy funk bassline, and a crisp backbeat - it is clear that D’Angelo’s time in the studio was well-spent. “I wanna give you give you something to feed your mind,” he sings in his signature croon, and it’s a convincing statement. The sonic palette is vast, busy, and fascinating; Ain’t That Easy is refreshingly original soul-funk, and much of Black Messiah continues in the same vein musically. As on 1,000 Deaths, D’Angelo occasionally employs a more psychedelic rock approach, blurring the instruments into a noisy, live performance atmosphere, though the music is never aggressive, while the majority of the record sees the singer sail on calmer seas.
Black Messiah can be overpowering and intense when the band feels compelled to push in that direction, but the majority of Black Messiah is made of calmer stuff. Really Love is a laid back old school R&B cut, with Spanish guitar, sweeping strings, and a fragile D’Angelo taking us through some of the album’s most accessible moments. These songs are never accessible in the sense that they would fit in comfortably on any mainstream pop radio station, as perhaps D’Angelo’s music once did, but they will be a natural fit for those with even a passing interest in what popular music used to be; there is a warm, inviting atmosphere to most of the record, and tracks like Sugah Daddy, Betray My Heart, and The Door are easy songs, with beautiful harmonies that are expertly performed. D’Angelo’s songcraft speaks of soul, funk, jazz, and rock as the genres they were originally intended to be; he possesses a valuable direct line to the emotional core of the music of the past, most especially to the tradition of African American musical heritage.
D’Angelo’s voice has always been completely unique; a wide and elastic register that slides between notes almost subconsciously, pulling melody from the air around and turning syllables into an intoxicating sweet, syrupy mixture. His is one of the most distinctive and impressive voices of the modern era, and many of the pleasures of Black Messiah come from the exemplary musicianship on display from every performer - D'Angelo comprised his backing band The Vanguard from some of the finest session players working today - with every detail rendered in stunning analogue warmth. Recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, the music of Black Messiah just sounds old, classic, real. It is a potent reminder not only of D’Angelo’s marvelous talent, but of the myriad pleasures of great music done well, done right, and done with purpose. Many happy returns.
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