Sleigh Bells - Jessica Rabbit
If you are looking for the sound of a party beginning to become unhinged, where someone is about to jump off the roof into a Los Angeles pool, smashing their head on the bottom, then Jessica Rabbit is the album for you. Synthesizers outweigh, yet transition Torn Clean into Lightning Turns Sawdust Gold magically, until the drum and bass kick in and singer Alexis Krauss drags the listener into a party we didn’t sign up for. Something unexpected and fierce, that is the best way to describe the new record from party animals Sleigh Bells.
All of this build up leads us into what is the closest thing to a ballad Sleigh Bells have ever written, I Can’t Stand You Anymore. Krauss’ vocal really shine here, but it is the orchestral backbone of the group, Derek Miller, who does some of his finest work yet, not settling for bombastic party singles and trying for something greater. The formula of the album is not that different from post-rock groups like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, bands whose music is composed on a platform of building and receding in terms of intensity, Sleigh Bells have merely added the vocals those formerly mentioned bands chose not to employ, as well as a pop sensibility that those bands weren’t attempting to compose. Sleigh Bells did grasp the importance of balance in track listing, with songs like Loyal For acting as a reprieve from guitar riddled tracks like Throw Me Down The Stairs.
My overall reaction to Jessica Rabbit is that it is a record of a band trying to differentiate it’s musical approach, but not yet ready to let go of what made them popular initially. It is not the first album I would give to someone looking to get into the band, that still would be 2010’s Treats, but Jessica Rabbit is a welcome sign that Sleigh Bells have long term viability as a band that have something to contribute to pop music that I failed to initially see.
Solange - A Seat at the Table
It’s hard to think about A Seat at the Table without thinking about a few things that happened this year. The first being the release of Beyonce’s modern classic contribution to pop music, Lemonade, and the second being the passing of Prince, whose musical spirit moves the album like a messiah. Solange may be Beyonce’s younger sister, but it is clear her musical influences and artistic spirit is much different than that of her sisters. The psychedelic ballad Weary is the first sign that A Seat at the Table is a very special album, one that bleeds of soul and jazz, but unlike the purple one, Solange seems uninterested in the elements of rock music and rather attempting to reach for gospel and jazz and incorporate these elements into her version of pop and R&B.
It is when Solange puts her foot in hip-hop that things really take off. She invites Lil’ Wayne to join her, and does his best to keep up, but when Solange is asked “Why you got to be so mad?” she tells the listener “I got a lot to be mad about…”Solange speaks to numerous members of society, in a approachable yet hostile manner. Where Do We Go plays like a Womack & Womack B-side with the vocals stripped and Solange brought in to sing until there is nothing left to give. F.U.B.U. (For Us, By Us) is a second line being led by Solange through hallucinogenic streets of New Orleans, and is one of the best songs on A Seat At The Table. It is the yang to Where Do We Go’s yin, a positive anthem for black culture.
Solange has respect for the original R&B stars also, emulating Stevie Wonder on Junie, a funky and joyful jam, with Birdman popping up in the interlude before leading into the closest thing that a club anthem is on A Seat at the Table, the stripped down Don’t Wish Me Well. Don’t Wish Me Well plays as a Peter Gabriel produced Janet Jackson song, an R&B ballad surrounded in poetic electronic gospel-esque music. It is spectacular and one of the main reasons to listen to A Seat At The Table in full, as it is a track that is easy to miss.
Solange has reasons to be angry, she’s worried about the world her child will live in, her hometown being New Orleans, but Solange’s anger is suppressed in my opinion by the fantastic producer and impeccable bandleader Raphael Saadiq, meshing the sounds of 70s and 80s R&B, resulting in a synth-laden, horn-driven, just removed enough to relate to album that knows no equal. Records like A Seat at the Table don’t get made anymore, so be sure to value them while you can.
A Tribe Called Quest - Thank You 4 Your Service
Phife Dawg’s ghost will hang over this, the welcomed return of one of the pantheon of hip-hip groups releasing an unexpectedly essential and relevant album, throughout the albums history. Due to complications regarding diabetes, Phife passed away at 45, leaving many fans with one of the largest what ifs imaginable, especially when given this new record, which is a testament to the classic Tribe Called Quest sound while also incorporating socially relevant and important lyrics, as well as featuring some of the rising guard of hip-hop today.
The return of A Tribe Called Quest is more important to hip-hop then only a select few could hope cause with a reunion. On track four, Solid Wall of Sound, Elton John shows up to play piano. Elton freakin’ John played piano. Very few reunions could bring rock emissaries for contributions, let alone rising stars like Anderson Paak, current leaders like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, indisputable all-time greats like Andre 3000, on and Talib Kweli, and even Jack White showed up for guitar for three songs, those being Ego, The Donald, and Solid Wall Of Sound.
Paak’s vocals can be heard on Movin’ Backwards, an old-school boom-bap featuring what sounds a choir in the background and Paak’s moving addition to an album stuffed to the brim with collaborations. Lamar, a rapper whose style is incomparable to any other, and is known for being the most memorable featured performer on countless albums, often even is better than the artist who is featuring him, does a fabulous job of doing exactly what was needed of him on Conrad Tokyo, and nothing more. Kanye, often the premiere source for music news as of late, is perfectly suited for the Wu-Tang-esque The Killing Season, merely singing the chorus and nothing more.
The title, We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service could easily be construed, and I surely due, as A Tribe Called Quest expressing the gratitude they have for everyone who helped to make what will be remembered as a eulogy for one of the cornerstones of ATCQ, Phife Dawg.
Bruno Mars - 24K Magic
Thus far, it seems like 2016 will be remembered as the year that artists in R&B and chose the make their mark using their preferred genres of music. Bruno Mars seems to love James Brown and Lionel Richie as a child, seemingly, so he chose to make an album that expresses those loves. His capabilities as a front man bleed through the speakers, dragging you in whatever direction Mars wants.
Perm could be found on any 70s era Brown record were it not for the synths that open the song. It is an inherently enjoyable song that anyone with a booty to shake and of a certain age will fall in love with. When he tells me to activate my sex, I wish there was a switch right in front of me. It’s only when Mars begins to perform more low-tempo ballads and attempt to imitate Richie instead of Brown that the album loses steam. Ballads like Versace On The Floor and Straight Up & Down (which seems to emulate Boyz II Men more than anyone else) don’t hit with nearly the same immediacy as his funkier side does, which is a lesson he learns for his next record.
Mars comes back though and punches us right in the face with some more 90s R&B, thankfully with a faster drum beat, and now able to slow down with his vocals instead of remaining at a sluggish pace for entire songs. Is it a perfect album, I wouldn’t say so, but it most definitely is the album fans of Uptown Funk would want in their live constantly. Elements of the album are ultimate musical highs, and when listened to all the way through continuously, Mars’ own understanding of pop hits and heartbroken ballads making up most mainstream hits is assured and clear. I think he will be around for as long as he wants to be.
Childish Gambino - Awaken My Love
Arguably out of any single person, Donald Glover is having the best single year any person in pop culture. Glover created and starred in one of the best TV shows of the year, Atlanta. He was cast as the younger version of Lando Calrissian for another extraneous Star Wars film coming to theaters within the next few years. Lastly, and most importantly to my ears, he released Awaken My Love under the moniker of Childish Gambino, an unexpected and invigorating album of Funkadelic-tinged hip-hop.
The regulating smooth opener Me And Your Mama begins as a disorienting opener, starting smoothly before flying into a stanky funk that I never knew was in the heart of this former 30 Rock writer. The addition of a falsetto that follows in the footsteps of Prince gobsmacks the listener, before falling back into the instrumental groove that opens the album. It is an assured and astounding opener, which bleeds into the Have Some Love. It is a soul song in the tradition of The Staple Singers had they been led by George Clinton instead of Pops Staples. The acoustic guitar featured towards the end of the song does wonders for keeping the listener calm yet involved in the record, and is a reminder to keep positive in times of darkness, socially or culturally.
Each song has some stank to it, yet is merged with elements of other genres that any music listener loves. By the time you reach Redbone, which opens as a seemingly cover of a 4 Tops song and transforms into a vocally instrumentally robotic song that would have fit perfectly on any Prince record. Followed by the sunny California, which almost seems like Glover is struggling to sing, and the trip further down on Terrified, a song which sounds as if it is being sung from the depths of a cave, Awaken My Love evolves in an organically evocative manner the towards its conclusion. Baby Boy playing like a long lost Sly & The Family Stone single, a song so wrought with fear and anxiety that one’s own shoulders begin to intensify, and almost wrapped in connective tissue to with The Night Me And Your Mama Met and Stand Tall. Each of the last three songs are directly correlative to Glover’s own recent fatherhood, making the album a new and personally open expression of his own self-growth.
Awaken My Love is record that 2016 needed, an album that takes the old guard, which Donald Glover has love and appreciation for, but repurposes the old-school soul masters in a new and eminently fascinating way through funk and hip-hop lenses. He is in the prime of his artistic expression right now, and has been given the opportunity to do so through both music and television. We should be grateful for this, as Childish Gambino has found a way to remind the listener of all the good and bad that has gone on in our society, but in a lyrically and tonally fascinating way that envelops its audience. Let us hope that Glover can continue this trend, because I truly love the path he is on now.
Aaron Lee Tasjan - Silver Tears
Aaron Lee Tasjan was once a member of the reformed lineup of the New York Dolls. Just imagine what that experience what that must have been like and how it informed his own creative process for a second. Then imagine him as a singer songwriter in the vein of Todd Snider demeanor that loves listening to Warren Zevon and Harry Nilsson, and you have the song writer Aaron Lee Tasjan. Each song on Silver Tears almost seems as if it would fit on its own separate album, and that is in no way a bad thing. If anything, it speaks to Tasjan’s own ability to take his own copious influences and reinvigorate what is often a monotonous genre to an unexpected endpoint.
Starting with the funky Hard Life , where “people give you loose gravel and call it rock steady” and how “it’s quite a feat how people keep steppin’ on your toes.” There’s much more to the song, a funky groove is laden throughout the song. It’s the kick in the pants the listener needs before the downtempo ballads Little Movies and Memphis Rain, the latter of which will be looked back on as one of the best songs he’s ever written. In the tradition of classic country songs, it’s a song about a lover of Tasjan who just seems to keep circulating in and out of his life. “Silver lining my old friend, come back around again” is something anyone who’s has their heart broken before will resonate with.
As a guitarist for Elizabeth Cook, Tasjan clearly developed his own chops as a performer, and that is no clearer than on his first ode to the blues, Refugee Blues. His solos are fierce and magnificent, and only resonate more when he ‘let’s go and lose’s himself in the refugee blues.” His second song dedicated to the blues, 12 Bar Blues, is a tribute to Nashville, specifically East Nashville, and resonates in the same way Todd Snider and Arlo Guthrie’s best stories, not songs, do.As many of us semi-big city townies have felt before, “I got the 12 Bar Blues, too many bars to choose.” And he’s not afraid to toast to Hootie of Hootie and the Blowfish fame, because “Hootie’s an alright guy, so Hootie’s this one’s for you my friend, shine on you crazy diamond.” He isn’t afraid of fame and what could come with it. Silver Tears is the record an assured and intelligent and relevant song writer makes. In the end though, quoting 12 Bar Blues, “I will sleep tonight, get me feeling alright.”