James Blake – The Colour In Anything
James Blake‘s third album The Colour In Anything is a heavy, difficult record to consume. At 17 tracks, for most artists it would be definitely too long. Drake and The Weeknd both suffered this year at the hands of over-stuffed records but Blake doesn’t suffer the same fate. Each song on The Colour In Anything has a place. Each is emotionally profound and uncovers another dimension to Blake’s complicated personality giving a directness to his songwriting that he’s previously never shown us.
On his last two records, you got the feeling he was a producer first and foremost but on The Colour In Anything we’re introduced to Blake as a songwriter. His love for Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is all over this LP in the way he finds simplistic beauty in moments on heartache. On the title track he sings, “And how I told you what I’d do/If one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything,” and immediately every listener grabs for their heart. On closer Meet You In The Maze he concludes, “music can’t be everything.” It’s a nihilistic realisation and yet for the majority of the record, it’s as if music is everything. It’s therapeutic, euphoric and challenging all at once. Where else would Blake channel his heavy thoughts if not for his music?
Blake found a way to blend the producer and the songwriter this year and he did so masterfully. Amongst all the heavy thoughts, I Hope My Life stirs with a club-ready fury, Choose Me climbs a daunting mountain of synths and I Need A Forest Fire flickers with electronic distortion. Both his words and sounds give a window into his complicated mind and we’ve never been deeper in it than on The Colour In Anything. – Sam Murphy
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
“It might be over soon,” are the first words that flood your ears when you put this album on, and as a stand alone piece of music, this album is truly brilliant and great, but with context behind it, it’s one of the best of all time for me.
For any fan of Bon Iver, this album should, at least, mean a lot to you, it was essentially made for you, on purpose. Justin Vernon spoke about not understanding how people could be singing back lines to him about places they’ve never been or people and moments they don’t understand. This album is, for lack of better words a universal attempt, a unification on purpose rather than by accident.
The songs follow all kinds of narratives both lyrically and musically, channelling some of musics greats from past and present. There are easter eggs throughout this whole release in the music and in its truly, pun-intended, symbolic existence.
If you really want to dig into 22, A Million, read this first. – Jack Cain
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Enthusiasm bleeds out of Malibu, Anderson .Paak‘s first record since he fell into the public eye on Dre’s Compton. He’s such a bright and vivacious performer – perhaps the greatest live act this year – and yet you don’t even have to see him live to know that because Malibu shows you. It’s got a vibrancy to it that makes it feel as if it’s playing out live in front of you every time you press play.
Throughout the 16-track effort, we’re drip-fed the different aspects of Paak’s musical personality. Soulful opener The Bird draws you in gently, The Season / Carry Me poignantly tells the story of his childhood using Nikes as the centrepiece and Am I Wrong takes us direct to the dancefloor. All the while, he sets it in California, using retro soundbites to capture the old heart of Malibu. This would feel gimmicky on many records but Paak is an old soul. You only need to hear the howling, gravelly tones of Come Down to know that he’s got a piece of James Brown in there. – Sam Murphy
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Coloring Book is happy. It’s hopeful. It’s the kind of gospel music Kanye West might have made if he didn’t have access to Twitter and married Sumeke Rainey as he promised back in 2003. It’s also incredibly clever: the ever-entertaining revolving doors of guests on Coloring Book are set up to succeed. Doing a song about the mire of record labels? Bring in expert witness Lil Wayne. Feeling alien in the rap game? Lil Yachty and Young Thug on hand to pass comment. And for a sensual candle-burner about a squeaky clean teenage crush? Justin Bieber, of course.
As creatively orchestrated Coloring Book is, the pulse of the project remains with the rapper, Chance. Looking down at his out-of-frame newborn on the cover, the album radiates with the glory of a young man ready to actually embrace his immense potential. Everything is taken up a notch: Same Drugs sounds like another in a long list of Chance songs about drugs, but the first to writhe with an understated pain as it creatively uses familiar language to speak in metaphor about tougher subject matter. Summer Friends is a tender look back that would never have made sense on Acid Rap.
The evolution of an artist is rarely linear, but Chance the Rapper may be the exception to the rule. He raised eyebrows with his unconventional style on 10 Day, he marked his territory as the next to blow on Acid Rap and then beat the hype on Coloring Book.
To catch up, Chance started the year flexing on the Grammys (called them out on Ultralight Beam, they changed the rules, now he’s nominated) and spent it winning every guest verse he appeared on (Girls @, Fool Wit It, Need to Know and the aforementioned ULB, for starters). Chance the Rapper is rap’s Russell Westbrook: entertaining, talented and the guy who does effortlessly does everything better than anyone else. – Reece Hooker
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Hynes doesn’t pretend to have all the answers on Freetown Sound but his astute, genuine and passionate observations make this record comforting to anybody who feels they don’t completely fit in a certain box. Hands Up is a protest song about police brutality but instead of delivering it with a punk-based anger, he approaches it gently, as if he’s gently comforting the victim rather than shouting at the perpetrator. “Are you okay? What’s in your way?” he sings over one of the most heart-breaking melodies of the whole record. He asks many questions on the album, always involving others in the conversation and/or simply comforting the subject of his stories.. After all, he ends the entire album with the question, “does it just feel better numb?”
Freetown Sound is Hynes’ best album to date. It’s beautifully pieced together and while it’s not always completely coherent, part of what makes it so interesting is the way you can jump through Hyne’s head and his many thoughts. While it may not answer many questions it reminds minorities that there’s always someone out there with a similar, worthwhile story to tell. “I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty/I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me,” Haze says on the album’s opener and perhaps this album will provide some with a similar comfort to what Missy did. – Sam Murphy
Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
The Life Of Pablo isn’t Kanye’s best album but it’s endlessly entertaining and so ambitious that it’s hard not to marvel at. He’s gathered together an all-star cast of producers (plus put a spotlight on newcomers like DJ Dogder Stadium) and, even when he takes a background role like on Ultralight Beam, he still remains the protagonist. A lot of the time it’s like he’s simply saying, “look what I can do,” like when he slips a Frank Ocean verse in during the album’s dying moments or adds a testimony that could either be directed towards God or Yeezy himself (“I love him so much because he’s done so much for me.”) As much as his ego and genius statements can get exhausting, you’d have to take this any day over an artist who is simply riding in between the lines. The Life Of Pablo is an edge-of-your-seat type of album. One that has you constantly questioning what he’s going to do or say next and there’s not enough music like that. The whole thing from the album hype-build to its eventual release has been a spectacle and its been addictive to watch. He’s mad as a meat axe but when has any ordinary person made something extraordinary? – Sam Murphy
Rihanna – ANTI
Fractured, messy, confusing – not the results you’d hope for after four year wait for an album. Rihanna‘s has always been a singles popstar. She’s never made anything cohesive nor has she really tried to because she’s survived (and thrived) of four or five singles. ANTI was her first attempt at making a memorable album. It came out of the gates with her least radio-friendly single yet Work and put a focus on mirroring RiRi’s public, no-fucks-given demeanour in her music.
At first it didn’t go well. TIDAL botched the release, Work wasn’t the first single people had hoped for after all this time and the album felt disjointed – spotted with brilliance but too patchy. At year’s end though, it’s proven itself to be 2016’s fine wine. It’s just got better and better. The messiness of the project, from the distorted beat-work of Consideration to the howling of Higher, is a direct representation of Rihanna behind closed doors and any 20-something for that matter. She’s in love and then she’s not. She’s confident and then she’s fragile. Too often, pop music tries to make complicated emotion black and white. On ANTI, Rihanna’s drunk-calling desperately in love (Higher) and then she’s playing the temptress (Needed Me) with a blunt or two in between. Nothing’s perfect and thank God we’ve got Rihanna to champion that.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
It’s hard to think of anyone who was under as intense pressure as Frank to release his album and what’s immediately clear off the first listen is the music is basically unaffected by the pressure. It sounds focussed, insular and measured like it’s been made by a steady hand that was successfully blocking the outside pressure.
For starters, Blonde is no Channel Orange. There’s nothing as epic as Pyramids, no gospel anthem as grand as Bad Religion and nothing as urban as Super Rich Kids. Blonde is beautifully intimate. It’s the work of a songwriter who has honed his craft so tightly that he’s able to externalise his innermost thoughts and still maintain the fear, confusion and lust that swells within him. The follow-up to a massive album like Channel Orange often sees the artist use all their new tools available to them and depict a world much more extravagant than what they did on the predecessor. Sure, Frank’s used all the tools available to him – Beyonce, Jonny Greenwood, Bowie – but he’s kept it personal to the point where he’s able to deliver lines like, “I will be honest, I wasn’t devastated / But you could’ve held my hand through this baby.”
The beginner Nikes, opens like a wide-panned, distorted camera. It gradually zooms in and as soon as Frank’s voice hits we’re given a zoomed-in clarity. That’s where we remain for most of the album – inside Frank’s head.
It’s so personal and yet it addresses this overarching theme of masculinity so poignantly. The imagery of cars are used both in his lyrics and in the magazine and in his letter featured in the zine he says, “Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy.” He takes something that’s so ingrained in the idea of what it is to be a man and then pairs it alongside statements like, “I’m not brave”. Boys don’t cry but they should, Frank’s saying. Frank cries on Blonde. He also laughs, loves, hurts, smokes and celebrates. More uninhibited than Frank’s ever been before, Blonde is a deeply personal yet subtly universal record for anyone that’s ever struggled with the idea of what they should be.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Beyoncé is the biggest musician in the world. She’s a figure of strength, beauty and independence which is why it was so surprising to hear her begin her surprise album Lemonade singing, “You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your lips,” over a gentle piano. Bey has always delivered anthems for the masses. OneAt that promote self-worth and sexiness, activating the masses as their trusty leader. At the beginning of Lemonade she retires from that role though. The unthinkable has happened – Beyoncé’s been betrayed.
Whether it’s so believable because it actually happened or simply because Beyoncé is a powerful storyteller is beyond the point. Lemonade brings someone seen as mortal down to our level. She’s sad, crazy, jealous, angry and then forgiving, all through a soundscape that matches each emotion. She’s a savage on the Jack White-featuring Don’t Hurt Yourself, wickedly crazy on the island-flavoured Hold Up and painfully low on Sandcastles. It’s so personal that at times you feels as if you should quietly close the door and stop eaves-dropping.
And yet, despite it being so personal, bit by bit she becomes that independent leader once more. She gives power and confidence to anyone who feels like their self-worth is secondary, aiming her message particularly at black females. Freedom is a rally-cry and Formation is a middle finger to haters.
Sure, Beyoncé slays, but now it’s not just about her. She only slays if you all slay too. – Sam Murphy
Solange – A Seat At The Table
In 2016, you need a reason to listen to an album for start to finish.
While it may have only physically taken four year to make, A Seat At The Table took a lifetime. Like The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, this is an album that will adequately come to define Solange because it’s so autobiographical but also so universal.
A Seat At The Table proves that there’s still power left in the album format. “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you,” Master P says on one of the many poignantly placed interludes on the record. If the journey Solange takes you on on this record doesn’t resonate or teach or move, this is not for you. It’s a story of her healing. She begins singing, “I’m weary of the weight of the world,” and ends by telling her son, “you’re a superstar.” That’s a pretty simple way of laying out the narrative of the record because it’s far more complex than that.
Throughout, she expertly weaves her story together with the influence of old school soul and R&B. Raphael Saadiq is a masterful guiding hand but he does nothing to dilute Solange’s work. This comes unfiltered, from her head from the sound right down to the visuals. There’s a directness to the lyrical work that hits you from the first listen. “I tried to drink it away,” she sings as she addresses her pain on Cranes In The Sky and she gives it too us straight on Don’t Touch My Hair, “You know this hair is my shit.”
A Seat At The Table is painful at times but through the words of others, pride is rightfully re-instilled in Solange. Her mother Tina Knowles’ interlude is one of the most powerful as she says, “It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black.”
With a Trump-presidency looming and racial undertones coming to the surface in many political systems around the world (including Pauline Hanson here in Australia), A Seat At The Table couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a personal and therapeutic record but there are also many important lessons to be taken for the listener, from the outside looking in. It’s a reminder to be proud and bold and also a lesson, that if you don’t understand – learn. For every moment of weariness for the under-appreciated, there are the proceeding loud, damning keys of Where Do We Go ready to give strength. – Sam Murphy