SOURCE: @ariannams #vibeup
Well, 2016 was something. I don’t need to go in-depth about all of the horrible things that happened or regurgitate the “This Year Sucked, but the Music was Great!” cliché. It’s as simple as this: for better or worse, we won't forget it. Because my memories are timestamped by the music I listen to, I look back on the year that was (but wish it wasn’t) the only way I can. Welcome to The 2016 OTY Awards column!
Verse OTY: Chance the Rapper on “Ultralight Beam”
SOURCE: Pigeons & Planes
There’s nothing quite like watching someone turn into a superstar in real time. Before 2016, Chance was a young rapper filled to the brim with potential. He showed flashes of brilliance on Acid Rap, Surf, 10 Day and plenty of guest verses. Was he a breath of fresh air? Absolutely. Was he in the Best Rapper Alive conversation? Nah.
And then this happened:
I was visiting friends in DC when the "Ultralight Beam" performance came on and I still remember the chills: chills that returned after my first full listen of the song, to the five times I ran the song back. Verse OTY has to give you that chill, that urge to memorize the lyrics, the urge to share it with working ears. I mean, look at these lyrics:
You can feel the lyrics, the spirit coming in braille.
Tubman of the underground, come and follow the trail.
I made Sunday Candy, I'm never going to hell.
I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail.
He said let's do a Good Ass Job with Chance 3.
I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy.
Let's make it so free and the bars so hard
That there ain't one gosh darn part you can't tweet.
Just in that one section he accomplishes so many things, including:
1.) Perfectly describing the feeling of listening to this song.
2.) Spitting the most quotable line that credits one of the most important artists of our lifetime, no matter how much he sucks to root for now.
3.) Predicting the future twice: Chance and Chance 3 (pka Coloring Book) are up for 7 Grammys in the first year that noncommercial music is up for the accolades, thanks to Chance. Second, there wasn’t no gosh darn part of Coloring Book not tweeted.
Acid Rap put Chance on the map, but his verse on “Ultralight Beam” made Lil Chano from 79th a star.
Producer OTY: Kaytranada
SOURCE: Pigeons & Planes
I’m a big fan of ad libs, especially for producers. You know the second you heard “Mustard on that beat, ho” or “If Young Metro don’t trust you I’m gon’ shoot” or “Metro Boomin’ want some more, n---a” or “We got London on da track” or even the Pokemon-esque “JUST BLAZE!” that that shit was about to pop. It also gives producers the credit they deserve.
What I like so much about Kaytranada is that his production is so unique that it doesn’t need an ad-lib. The bouncing bass, sharp snare & hi-hat and the woozy sampling above is its own signature. It creates an aesthetic that works for both going out (“Lite Spots”) and kicking back (“Bus Ride”). And this sound works over so many different types of voices: Anderson .Paak’s raspy croon on the classic “Glowed Up”, Syd tha Kyd airy melodies on “You’re the One” and even Chance the Rapper’s “All Night” herky-jerky rap. He even made Craig David relevant again! He made Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” somewhat happy!
I love this guy’s sound, and I'm hoping he’ll be in the picture for years to come. I’d also like to make note that this dude can fuckin’ dance. Here's the video of "Lite Spots" for proof:
Best Non-Best Album OTY: Jack Garratt’s Phase
Chris Ryan of The Ringer made an excellent point about the onslaught of year-end lists on The Watch podcast: with so many of these lists appearing at the end of the year, the list-toppers(the Knowles sisters, Frank Ocean, David Bowie, etc.) have essentially created a new genre called Best Album. Not that these albums don’t deserve claim in their own right, but the idea of having to have a credible top 5 can spoil the listening experience.
Rather than go with Underrated Album OTY category, I’m flipping the script and renaming this category Best Non-Best Album. It goes to an album that may not have received tons of critical merit, but was fun to listen to for the entire year. This is the music equivalent to America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s not moving the pulse of the culture like Breaking Bad or Mad Men but it is always enjoyable to watch. Last year’s Best Non-Best Album was Years & Years’ Communion. This year Jack Garratt’s Phase claims the prize.
The British multi-instrumentalist did a little bit of everything on this beautiful album. He’s credited for vocals, all instruments (which include guitar, drums, piano, bass, synth, you name it), drum programming, production and mixing on the album notes. Given his multitude of skills, this album is delightfully all over the place. His voice ranges from a soulful baritone howl (“My House Is Your Home” is the best example) to a flying falsetto (the chorus of “Fire”). His production ranges from sparse (the haunting vocal loop in “The Love You’re Given” drive my crazy in a good way) to jam-packed (“Chemical”) and flirts with all type of genres. Blues, R&B, electronic, singer/songwriter, and gospel are all in Garratt’s wheelhouse. His lyrics aren’t trascendent (and in cases like “Surprise Yourself” and “Worry”, could use some work), but all other virtuosic aspects of him carry the load.
It’s a perfectly fun pop album, one that shows a lot of promise for his future. He’s already a certified star in the UK. Give him some time to cook and I have a feeling that Garratt will be just as big in the States.
What Took Me So Long to Love This Band? OTY: Glass Animals
I get the same feeling about Glass Animals that I had when I heard Vampire Weekend’s debut album. One band is from Oxford, the other specialized in music for people who wear Oxford shirts, but they’re both quirky, catchy, and highly energetic. Clear differences between the two obviously -- you won’t hear Glass Animals singing about the finest girl at the yacht club --- but you get the point. The band is excellent in so many different ways.
Let’s start with their production. It can be sleek like “Gooey”, which uses chill instrumentals. I'm guaranteeing without looking that this song on many Bedroom Jams playlists on Spotify. Glass Animals can also be funky. They throw a ton of weird percussion at the listener like the Bollywood-style drums in “Life Itself”, the staccato drum machine kicks on “Cane Shuga”, or the literal use of trash cans in the opening of “Pork Soda”. They're taste in samples is great as well. My favorite example is on “Season 2, Episode 3”. The heart of the song is sampled from McFaboulous’ “I Live Above the Hobby Shop”, an excellent song in its own right. The small adjustments made on “Season 2, Episode 3”, such as the harmony loop, auxiliary 8-bit video game sound effects, and strong 808 ideas give the sample new life. It also needs to be said that the John Frusciante-inspired guitar riff on “Poplar St.”, while not a sample, is stellar. Not gonna not love that.
On top of their production work, Dave Bayley's songwriting is really impressive. How to be a Human Being, which dropped this year, is an album of eleven songs each based around a different character or vignette. In “Poplar St.” is essentially “Stacy’s Mom” if they actually did the nasty. But rather than focus on the fantasy aspect of it, the song captures the cruelty of the older woman's intentions with the lines “Just another boy who lived on Poplar street / Tangled up in lust and her exotic needs/ One night Mrs Moore she called collect to me / I don't love you anymore she said and ceased to be / Just another boy.”
On “Youth”, the song is told from the perspective of a mother who had to leave her son in order to give him a brighter future. It’s a heartbreaking story but lines like “Feel your mother at your side / Don’t you know you got my eyes / I’ll make you fly / You’ll be happy all the time / I know you can make it right” reinforce that the decision was made out of love. With the upbeat production that accompanies, it really plays with the listener’s emotions.
I could keep going, but I’ll spare you the time. Glass Animals. Get familiar. Can’t believe it took me that long to do so.
Last Minute Favorite OTY: The 1975
As the end of year lists started dropping and as I began drafting this article in early December, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it received lots of praise from blogs, friends, and coworkers of mine (thanks for reading, Rach!). I had been putting it off for too long, so I finally played it. What an awesome pop album that I'm convinced would be just as big in the 80's as it is now. I'm still in the early listening stages, but I'm glad I'll have something to spin in Jamuary.
Banger OTY: “Yamborghini High” by A$AP Mob
This pick came down to “Yambo” and “Pick Up The Phone” by Travi$ Scott, Young Thug & Quavo. I could only pick one because life isn’t fair and free will is an illusion. I was temped to side with “Pick Up the Phone” for so many reasons. Travi$ Scott (who I used to despise) is seriously gifted; Young Thug is the most exciting newcomer next to Chance the Rapper in the game; Quavo is going the breakout star of Migos unless Offset (who's work on "Bad and Boujee" is so damn good) has something to say about it ; the ad-libs; Mike Dean’s immaculate production. But just like Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption in the 1995 Academy Awards, Banger OTY would've been theirs in any other year.
(Just to clarify, Shawshank is Schoolboy’s “THat Part” in this analogy, Quiz Show is "Really Doe" and Four Weddings in a Funeral is obviously “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. Fuck those guys.)
But alas, "Yambourghini High" is our Forrest Gump. A posse cut in the truest sense of the term. A$AP Mob honor the late A$AP Yams with a song filled with great wordplay, hooks, signature lines, and Hood Pope warbling. Rapping this song makes me feel that much closer to accomplishing my life goal of being A$AP Rocky: “Ya I wake up late/Ya’m outta shape/Ya’m eating crepes/Ya’m sipping wine/Ya she feeds me grapes” are classic bars, at the same time so relatable and so far out of my grasp. A$AP Na$t holds his own with a Juicy J, “Slob on My Knob”-flowing verse. A$AP Ant’s “dibble dabble with the lean/Hi-Tech with the cream cola/As I whipped the yola/Lambo red, Coca Cola” romanticizes hard drug use so eloquently. Then finally A$AP Ferg, The Hood Pope, goes off:
My Jewelry glistening why I’m always chilly
Can't believe a nigga made a couple milli'
'Bout to cop the house way up in the hillies
With a bad bitch in the Bentley
Wood grain with the roof gone
Make a bitch fold like a futon
Gettin' bread like a crouton
Tell me what the fuck is you on.
I have to give “Yambo” the edge for having the trippiest video of 2016. The first time I watched it I had a 102-degree fever and it made me throw up, so shoutout to that.
Guilty Pleasure OTY: "Be Alright" by Ariana Grande
Ari. She gets me.
Disclosure Disciple OTY: Nao - For All We Know
Sam Smith. AlunaGeorge. Jessie Ware. London Grammar. These are just some of the names that Disclosure has worked with before they blew up. Other than Kanye and Drake, I’d argue that the duo have the best ears for talent in music. And while the band started working with bigger acts like The Weeknd, Lorde, and Miguel on Caracal, Disclosure has continued their A&R hot streak. Artists like Lion Babe, Kwabs and Jordan Rakei (whose album Cloak was excellent, highly recommend a spin of his song “The Light”) all made a good amount of noise this year with their album releases. The best work this year from a Disclosure collaborator came from Nao, who dazzled on “Superego” with Disclosure and “So Good” with AK Paul (brother of noted enigma Jai Paul) before that. Her debut album For All We Know was released back in July, but it hasn’t left my Spotify rotation.
So love me, love me tonight
Tomorrow was made for some
Tomorrow may never come
For all we know
Much like the jazz song that inspired the album title, love and urgency are the motifs that carry the For All We Know. Being written, sung and produced almost entirely by Nao, the album has that same 90’s bop and attitude that Miss Jackson had but updated with electronic and funk elements that keeps Jai Paul fans buzzing. The British Grime movement touches every recording on the album, reminding the listener exactly where the artist came from. It’s production is apt for the albums theme, revealing the messiness of love and relationships at each stage. Her voice emulates the pure, angelic euphoria that you can only get from being in love.
Each stage seems to hit in succession. “Get To Know Ya” is the flirty beginning, illustrated by the soaring guitar riffs and vocal modification and loops. “Happy” is the serious courting phase, bubbly but slower than that of “Get To Know Ya”. “Adore You” being the emotional high, “Bad Blood” the emotional low and “DYWM” being it’s lowest. The latter finds Nao on the doorstep of her ex’s flat pleading to get to get back together with her, asking "Do You Want Me?" over and over. It’s the most vulnerable, emotionally devastating song on the record and my personal favorite. All of the racing emotions this album gives to the listener come to a head in the lead single, “Girlfriend”. It’s the song that most closely resembles the work of Disclosure in terms of sonic and emotional movement. From all of the amazing work Nao did singing, writing, and producing For All We Know, it’s clear that Howard and Guy found another star in the making.
Five Best Shows OTY:
5.) James Blake @ Radio City Music Hall
Gotta thank my buddy Dante for hooking me up with tickets to this show. He took a bus up from DC that day and was gone by morning just for the show. It goes without saying that Radio City was one of the most beautiful venues I have ever stepped foot in. The openers — Moses Sumney and Vince Staples — were damn good. And then James Blake took over. His performance of "Limit To Your Love" was hauntingly beautiful, as was pretty much every song he performed that night. He's really something.
4.) Jack Garratt @ The Meadows Music Festival
Keyboard to his left, drum kit to his right, drum machine and mic in front, axe strapped around his shoulder. Although he some early technical difficulties, the remaining part of the set was outstanding. Creating all of his music on the fly and bringing the house down with his moving gravelly voice, Garratt was electric. His Ray Charles cover during the power outage and the mashup of Craig David's “7 Days" and Justin Timberlake's "Señorita” caused me to shout uncontrollably like a fangirl at a Bieber show. Proud moment for the 25 year-old me.
3.) Charles Bradley @ The Beacon
Listen to Charles and his band The Extraordinaires cover Black Sabbath’s “Changes” once and it’ll make your life better. Shout out to Squints for going to that show with me!
2.) Anderson .Paak @ SOB’s
Only 300 people in the house but that didn't stop .Paak from being the best performer I saw this year. He moved on the stage with 2015 Cam Newton-like grace, and the crowd lost it when he hopped on the drum kit. Pure insanity. I’m beyond happy to have seen him this early before he completely blew up. More on that later.
1.) LCD Soundsystem @ Panorama
.Paak was best performer I’ve this year, but this was the best performance. A historic show: their first since they broke up five years ago. I spent 3 days in 97 degree heat waiting for this performance. I could barely walk. I was exhausted. And then they started and I couldn’t stop dancing for 90 minutes straight. It was totally worth it even though I walked with a limp for a few days after. The drop of “Dance Yrself Clean” was the most exhilarating live music moment of my life. Found here around 3:30 in the vid below:
It's not enough to illustrate what that drop felt like, but I'm just glad to say I was there.
Beat Drop OTY: Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
Surprise OTY: A Tribe Called Quest’s “We Got it from Here… Thank U 4 Ur Service”
Tribe is a Porter family favorite. My uncle turned them onto my brother, my brother turned them onto me. I’d argue that, next to Channel Orange, The Low End Theory was one of the most important albums to me in college. The combo of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg — the creative genius and the infinitely lovable juxtaposed to the sports-loving everyman — provided something for everyone. They were just so cool; everything they rhymed, produced, and stood for came with this aura of ease and dontgiveafuckery that I grew to love like so many others did.
I got a chance to meet the group in the summer of 2015. Living on ramen noodles and bagels, I decided to spend $35 of money I couldn't afford to spend to meet the group at a Stussy pop up store. After hours in the blazing sun, I made it into the shop to meet them, all very happy to meet their fans. What I won’t forget was Phife recognizing my UNC shirt I was wearing (intentionally for this interaction to occur), standing up, dapping me up while yelling in his high-pitched voice “YOO CAROLINA? THAT’S MY MAN RIGHT THERE!” We spent a good few minutes talking Carolina hoops before I left with a huge smile on my face. All of the members are legendary, but their kindness reminded me they were human.
The group release of “We Got it From Here… Thank U 4 Ur Service” was the best surprise this year gave us. Phife’s passing hit us hard, but the album gave us the chance to reflect on what we loved about him: the funny wise-cracks (“Fuck your ass cheek bars with rhymes sweeter than scones”), sports references (“Status, Chris Paul and John Wall in the league”), and the combination of the two (“So motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians/Fuck y’all know about true competition?/That’s like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’”). We also get Q-Tip at arguably his best since Midnight Marauders. And Jesus, the features! Busta in “Solid Wall of Sound”. 3 Stacks in “Kids”. Anderson .Paak’s amazing croon in “Movin Backwards.” KENDRICK IN “CONRAD TOKYO”! It was so exciting to the group back togerher, even if it was for the last time. They held their own and put on for their fallen member. It was cathartic listen, and after this shitty year we’ll take that wherever we can get it.
Rest In Peace, Phife.
Disappointment OTY: Desiigner’s New English
This album was all shit talk. I don’t mean trash talk: I mean it sounded like literal shit was coming out of Desiigner’s mouth. It was such a bummer because "Panda" displayed so much potential.
143 OTY: “No Matter Where We Go” by Whitney
I wanna take you out
I wanna drive around
With you with the windows down
And we can run all night.
143, Whitney. Frown when this song comes on, I DARE YOU.
DTF OTY: Anything by dvsn
Definitely don’t share this group's music with mom.
Non-music Creative Project OTY: Atlanta
The lemon-popper wings with the sauce. Black Justin Bieber. The student in White Face. Zan. B.A.N. The secret door in The Club. The invisible car. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G that comes out of Darius’ mouth.
Atlanta is the new Seinfeld and as a day-one Donald Glover stan I’ve never been prouder.
Breakthrough OTY: Anderson .Paak
.Paak’s success was a long time coming. Coming from a broken home, he went from being a marijuana farmer, to homeless with a family of his own, to tour drummer for American idol contestant Haley Reinhart, to Breezy Lovejoy, to Anderson .Paak. After his album Venice drew the attention of Dr. Dre, he performed on six songs on Compton. That changed everything.
At 30 years-old, .Paak finally broke through with Malibu one of the best albums of the year. Dropping last January, the album got me through the winter with rhymes, tight production, and killer melodies. We dove into the album back in February, so to keep it brief Malibu never fails to put a smile on my face.
I saw him perform with The Free Nationals twices, once at SOB’s (read above) and at Panorama Music Festival. He was easily the best performer I saw this year, dancing across the stage and hopping on the drums when you thought it couldn’t get any better. The energy was palpable and it was evident that he won over every crowd member he encountered this year. Did I also mention that he performed over 90 times this year? Did I tell you that he also dropped ANOTHER album — Yes Lawd! with Knxwledge as part of NxWorries — that is considered one of the best beat tapes of this century? Did I tell you he THEN found time to feature on songs with A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Kaytranada, Snakeships, Rapsody, ScHoolboy Q, and Mac Miller? I'm not kidding, he made Mac Miller cool. Yes lawd!
After years of being on the fringe of the music industry, the genre-less, fearless, virtuosic workhorse that is Anderson .Paak changed it forever.
Artist OTY: Beyoncé
She’s no longer just a musician: Beyoncé an icon. The Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley of our generation. There is no pop culture figure outside of Obama who moves the culture like Ms. Knowles. We are not worthy.
Album OTY: Frank Ocean’s Blonde
Four years of waiting for the follow up to Channel Orange. Seemingly insurmountable hype. Hours of my life wasted watching him build that stupid fucking staircase. But it was all worth it in the end: Endless still holds up well, the Boys Don’t Cry magazine is beautiful, and Blonde was the best album of the year.
When I found out that Blonde dropped I raced home, cancelled all plans for the rest of the weekend, listened without distraction until about 3AM that night, and went to bed confused and angry. How could Channel Orange be so instantly gratifying while Blonde was so far from it? Gone were the wild sonic flourishes, notable guest verses (save for the unbelievable Andre 3 Stacks interlude), and conceptual structure of the former album. Blonde makes the listener earn every last ounce of satisfaction. It requires full attention to the quiet, subtle production choices Frank made, whether it be the voice modulation on “Nikes” or the beat flip on “Nights” or the cacophony that is “Pretty Sweet”. For listeners who can get by on enjoying the sound of a record alone, this wouldn’t be enough to enjoy it, no matter how beautiful it sounded.
Blonde requires pulling up the lyrics on Genius, listening to my generation’s best songwriter at his best. In his four years away from the spotlight he has grown up and experienced much more. So have I and so have you. With more real life material and the maturity to be more vulnerable, Frank songs are more directly about his own life. You won’t find songs like “Nights” or “Futura Free” on Channel Orange. That album was more focused on vignettes of unrequited love. Both styles of songwriting are effective, but I find his rawness and vulnerability on Blonde resonant and fascinating.
On a smaller scale, my goodness are the lyrics excellent. They make me laugh like "Said She Need A Ring Like Carmelo/Must Be On That White Like Othello” on “Nikes” and “Hand me a towel I'm dirty dancing / By myself gone off tabs of that acid / Form me a circle, watch my Jagger” on “Solo”. They made me think of old flames like “Wish I was there, wish we'd grown up on the same advice / And our time was right” on “Self Control”. They make me hopeful to find someone who could share love that “will keep us through the blinding of the eyes/Silence in the ears, darkness of the mind” like on “Godspeed”. And it remind me of the times I was most insecure:
I couldn't gauge your fears
I can't relate to my peers
I'd rather live outside
I'd rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here
Maybe I'm a fool
Maybe I should move
And settle, two kids and a swimming pool
I'm not brave. - "Seigfried"
The verse above is hauntingly similar to TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that it captures the feeling of internal anguish so well. In my time of living and loving music, I’ve learned that its appeal is that it gives its listeners a voice they can relate to or aspire to while providing a community to share those similarities and aspirations. Frank, noted for having one of the strongest cult followings, is no exception.
Time will tell whether this proclamation will hold up, but from his three albums of work I find Frank Ocean to be one of the most important voices of our generation. He isn’t the easiest listen, but he surely is the most remarkable.
Names to Watch in 2017: Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Vallis Alps, Well$, SG Lewis, Sam Rui, Aminé, Oliver Tree, Jorja Smith, Bishop Briggs, Sylvan Esso, Khalid.
To be discussed in the coming months. Stay tuned...