It's not as though Anna Wise's 2016 EP The Feminine: Act 1 is devoid of sass (a quick look through the tracklist dismisses this thought off hand), but there's nothing here to predict just how dark and sinewy closer Go turns out to be. Ushered in on menacing, pulsating bass blasts, the song rides these nocturnal waves from start to finish despite injecting the song with any number of unexpected instrumentals along the way. It's a titan of the tear-it-all-down-and-let's-go-home variety, with a bevy of tricks that catch your ears completely off guard.
29. Fountain of Youth by Local Natives
Sunlit Youth is an album that's all about grandstanding enormity, so it stands to reason that its finest single moment is also its most towering. Don't let the laid-back sing-a-long of the tune's opening verse fool you; Fountain of Youth goes from 0 to 60 the second that percussion-driven chorus hits, and the whole band rings out like a choir of proud rebels, their chants bouncing gloriously off one another. Those looking to see these guys live in the near future ought to load up on lighter fluid, because those torches are going to be in the air for a while.
A three-headed monster of How to Be a Human Being standouts, I've racked my brain for months trying to decide which of the three has pole position on the album, and yet here we are. Life Itself is the obvious single, a gargantuan slice of pop rock that tones down the exotic elements of their sound in favor of massive chorus drops and a world-conquering percussion pulse. Youth, by comparison, is the more traditional Glass Animals song, a wiggly, forest-tinted oddity that affords lead singer Dave Bayley ample space during its spacious verses before dousing him in a sea of bizarro synths. Then there's closer Agnes, an immense track that bookends the proceedings with the aforementioned Life Itself, but while the opener uses its rousing sounds to whip your ears up into a frenzy, the closer wraps its arm around you and bides you to sway along. Please don't make me choose.
Describing a truly great Pantha Du Prince song almost requires language that stands separate from the words commonly associated with music. Defiantly formless and unpredictable, In an Open Space effects the listener more like weather than sound, a spacious, swirling monolith that contains a startling density of emotion despite refusing to clarify its true meaning. It's dance music that you're not supposed to dance to, electronica with hardly any artificial sounds, and a space-case that proves both clear-minded and forward-thinking. It is not of this earth.
The two major standouts of Kendrick Lamar's surprise 2016 release untitled. unmastered. couldn't come at you from more differing angles, both in terms of sound and content. 03 positively bursts with joy, Lamar rattling through the different pieces of faulty advice that he's been offered as a way of shaking them all off, and rising above the noise. The beat is bubbly, light, and forever charging forth, a perfect foil for 05, whose mellow, wafting sonics belie a thunderstorm going on just beneath the surface. The MC finally gives voice to this internal riot at the two minute mark, leaping out of the blocks with enough fury to leave Usain Bolt in the dust. It hardly matters if the Compton rapper is speaking for himself or playing a character; he's better at speaking for you than you'll ever be.
For one reason or another, you rarely hear an artist even try to pair the sweet with the sensuous, perhaps worrying that one mood and timber might lessen the impact of the other, but Dev Hynes has no such concerns. The standout track from the producer/singer/songwriter's latest feels genuine and heartfelt from the opening moments, guest vocalist Empress Of cooing her lines contentedly, trying less to impress than simply comfort. It's this level of guard-down intimacy that makes the track work, as much a love letter reading of endless devotion as it a track to be shared between two lovers behind closed doors.
Truth be told, nothing on M83's newest album Junk should really work, and there's no greater embodiment of this success-briefly-disguised-as-failure than Go! Band figurehead Anthony Gonzales' voice is nowhere to be found, replaced with the previously unheard of Mai Lan, and cloaked in an unnerving amount of gloss and 80's-leaning melodrama. There's even a damn countdown to the chorus, but all these facets that would prove cloying in the hands of a less committed artist rocket their way over the finish line due to Gonzales' unshakable belief in the path he's chosen to take. Corniness and confidence rarely experience such an intersection, and by the time that predictable-but-heavenly guitar solo rips the last 30 seconds in half, you're right in the palm of M83's hand.
Solo might not be my favorite Frank Ocean track of last year, but it's certainly the most indicative of where he was in 2016. After drumming up an ungodly level of anticipation for his follow-up to 2013's Channel Orange, including one falsely-reported release date after another, you'd be forgiven for expecting the singer/songwriter to come out guns blazing, but Blond is dominated by songs that color slightly outside the margins, refusing to simply hand over the R&B bliss that you want because it's so well aware of what you need. Powered by a remarkably simple organ line upon which Ocean sing-speaks his way up to the pearly gates, it's earnest without being obvious, humorous without being a joke, colossal while still imploring you to lean in closer to glean its many secrets. Just like Frank himself.
The undisputed winner of 2016's "God, I Wish that Song was Longer," award, Whateva Will Be is our first true reintroduction to A Tribe Called Quest's signature game of microphone hot potato in almost two decades. Despite laying claim to four completely different voices and world views, Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Jarobi, and Consequence lock in as though connected at the brain stem, each capable of taking over a verse mid-line without ever slowing the song's steady roll. It's a groovy, seemingly effortless display of their legendary interactivity, and just happens to lay claim to one the the most beautiful vocal layerings I have ever heard on a hip hop song.
"I know some fans thought I wouldn't rap like this again/But the writer's block is over, emcees cancel your plans," claims Kanye West near the end of No More Parties in LA, and he's wholly correct on both counts. While many (myself included) view West's previous LP Yeezus as an out-and-out triumph, it wasn't exactly his bars that kept us coming back for more. LA repositions Ye as an actual rapper, not just a genius producer who happens to indulge in hip hop, by centering almost exclusively on his most favorite subject: himself. Picking up the baton from an ever-impressive Kendrick Lamar, West goes absolutely berserk, almost as self-effacing as he is self-glorifying on a sprawling tangent about everything that's been going on in his life. As with all things Yeezy, those averse to egomania might be wise to stay at home. Everyone else will be busy having a blast.
Sandcastles by Beyonce
Lemonade is an album full of glitz, glamor, and immaculate production, its resounding emotional core distracting the listener from just how polished and decidedly modern the disc is as a whole. Sandcastles, by contrast, is a song that could have existed 100 years ago with nary a change, a simple piano ballad that forgoes even the slightest adornment of bells and whistles in favor of pure, gut-wrenching emotion. Firmly at the depression portion of her stages of grief, Queen Bey offers fragments of her recent history while battling with herself about their meaning, uncertain if the greater strength comes from self-preservation or forgiveness. But all that description is almost beside the point; Sandcastles is Beyonce all by herself in front of lightly-tickled ivories with her soul completely exposed for everyone to hear. In this field, her and Adele are in a league of their own.
A small, almost delicate slice of badassery from a man not accustomed to baring his teeth, I Have Been to the Mountain boasts of all the things that make a great Kevin Morby song, but adds more then a few ominously dark cloud's to the song's vista. There's seemingly unlimited space in the trunk of this song's car, able to cram in plinking pianos, slippery, lightly-distorted guitars, rousing horns, and a choir of wailing angels without ever feeling overpacked. Clocking in at just over 3 minutes, Mountain is like the final stretch of a song three times its size, throwing all its weight into the climax of a track that Morby hardly bothered to properly start. You won't mind.
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