- Island Def Jam
Let England Shake
The protest song has fallen on hard times in the 21st century, at least compared to the century prior. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake sought to settle that score, steeping raw-boned folk in thick, deep murk while stridently ringing the alarm against empire. Harvey once sang of memory, sensation, and lust; that’s all gone now, luxuries for the innocent. Let England Shake didn’t save the protest song, let alone stop any wars. But it reminded us that a state of red-eyed wakefulness is better than the alternative, and that hopelessness can be transformed into its own kind of hope. —Jason HellerEmbed is unavailable.
Real intimacy is a tough thing to cultivate. To hear Miguel tell it, it’s all about fear—in order to get truly close, fear needs to be acknowledged, and then left behind. It’s a dynamic that propels Kaleidoscope Dream, an album remarkably devoid of that fear on both sonic and lyrical levels. There’s a bravery to his mixture of R&B, funk, rock, and swirling psychedelia, genres strung together by his daring and agile voice; he howls and whispers, begs and pleads, seduces and suggests. But the real courageousness lies in his willing to appear nervous, corny, jealous, and scared. He asks if you still believe in love, implores you to use him, shyly inquires if he’s the only one in your life, invites you to smoke a joint to get over it all. These are normal questions that take a lot of confidence to ask on record, and in asking them, Miguel pulls us into his warm, assured embrace. —Jamieson CoxMiguel: "Adorn" (via SoundCloud)
- Def Jam
Befitting a man capable of the self-mythology required to declare himself the Love King, a bit of R&B mythos: it’s been said that one’s predilection for Love Hate or Love vs. Money, the first two installments of The-Dream’s “Love” trilogy, boils down to a preference between Prince and Michael Jackson. Love King, its final chapter, is harder to pigeonhole. Sure, there’s the requisite Prince worship worn proudly on his slick leather sleeve—never better than on “Yamaha”, the album’s clear showpiece—but it exists unmistakably within the universe of Terius Nash, a precarious balance of pop osmosis, obsessive songcraft, well-timed petulance, and Homeric tug-of-war between heart and dick. Appropriately enough, the album also has the most self-aware moment of Nash’s career: “I’ll never be a pop star, I’m too raw,” on the spectacularly unsubtle “Panties to the Side”. It's half brag, half lament, and it’s not just prescient—it’s liberating. —Meaghan Garvey
w h o k i l l
The nature of Merrill Garbus’ appeal summarized in one line: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” The bold, inventive auteur behind tUnE-yArDs drops that bit of pop culture ephemera in the middle of her brilliant second album w h o k i l l, and the line is an unintentional tribute to the decadent, spiky complexities that comprise her singular vision. In Garbus’ world, every option is on the table—hand-claps, guttural growls, sing-song patter verging on the framework of rap, nursery-rhyme chanting—but there's nuance, too. With Nate Brenner providing low-end bedrock and the assistance of a trusty looping device or two, Garbus approaches a minefield of topics—police brutality, the relation between gender dynamics and sexuality, body-image issues, racial tokenism—and refuses easy answers. She also understands that if you’re gonna shake things up, you'd better make some room to dance around, too. —Larry FitzmauriceEmbed is unavailable.
Overflowing with ideas, Acid Rap is everything and the kitchen sink stuffed into a 54-minute box, its contradictions jutting out at odd angles. Chance was world-building, and that meant a radical inclusiveness. It's the product of a detail-oriented MC whose art is equally a product of agency and accident. He knows his craft backwards and forwards, but he expresses it with the careening enthusiasm of the ultimate multi-tasker. Unapologetically earnest, Chance has an abiding faith in people and love's power. But Acid Rap is also shot through with doubt and a distrust of easy solutions. Eager and enthusiastic, but still reckless and juvenile, he smokes cigarettes like a badge but does drugs like an idealist. Improvisational in spirit yet carefully crafted, it's a record that utilized juke rhythms, a live band, Quincy Jones keyboards, Sun Ra funk, and comfortable Native Tongues boom-bap. It's eager to please, and at the same time it yields to no authority. —David DrakeChance the Rapper: "Chain Smoker"
- Modern Love
Andy Stott’s early singles lurched between micro-genres of techno (tech-house, minimal, dub techno, and so on) like someone blotto at a club. But beginning with the EPs We Stay Together and Passed Me By, Stott brought his productions into deadly focus. His drums turned into bludgeons and the empty spaces filled with blackness and dread; it was dance music closer to Sunn O))) and Merzbow than the type you’d hear at a superclub. Luxury Problems added just a glint of light, which came in the form of Stott’s old piano teacher, Alison Skidmore; she added operatic vocals and wordless sighs which Stott then submerged in his turbid productions. Here, Stott struck a perfect balance between angelic beauty and the body-pummeling beat. —Andy BetaAndy Stott: "Numb" (via SoundCloud)
It was by some misfire of either branding or timing that Frank Ocean was lumped in with emotionally deadened blog-bait avant-R&B, because his freebie debut Nostalgia, Ultra had a whole lot of life in it. The secret of Nostalgia is that it's not actually a genre-defying album. Yes, there’s the Coldplay and MGMT beat-jacks that bookend the album, but the middle was mostly filled out with more organic offerings from radio staples like Tricky Stewart (Beyoncé, Rihanna) and Happy Perez (Miguel). Frank pushed forward through songwriting, not sonics, finding the midpoint between old school instincts and new school content. His narratives are naked and almost psychedelically vivid in the style of the best Prince or Marvin songs, but the themes of Coachella jaunts and fatherless childhoods are decidedly millennial. —Andrew NosnitskyFrank Ocean: "Songs For Women"
- Sub Pop
- Bella Union
Beach House’s early albums were dreamy, but slight; they suggested romance but didn’t have the strength to commit to it. By Bloom, they had, well—let’s say the title resonated across metaphors: floral, sexual, spiritual, developmental. Blame the rhythm section, which seemed to suddenly grow hips, or singer Victoria Legrand, who stalks the album with the certainty of a palm-reader you dread to admit was right all along. “One in your life,” she warns on “Wishes”—“it happens once and rarely twice,” dark cliffs and lightning bolts implied. Like the moon, she looks pretty up there but that doesn’t mean she can’t control the tide. —Mike PowellBeach House: "Myth" (via SoundCloud)
Night Time, My Time
Pop culture history repeats, first as irony, and then as simple truth: “I’ve got a lust for life,” Sky Ferreira sighs, and it’s less reference than resonance, a trace of the past that responds to the urgent needs of now. As with Haim’s Days Are Gone (with whom it shares a producer), the soupy, smeared, and overdriven new wave pastiche pop-rock of Night Time, My Time imagines pasts that never existed. The Jesus and Mary Chain joining Transvision Vamp? Curve kidnapping Cathy Dennis? This slippery retro sound, instantly familiar but resolutely unplaceable, perfectly matches Ferreira's recurrent message, delivered to disappointing lovers and a judging public alike: you don’t know me like you think you do. But even when the singer pushes everyone away, the nagging hooks and intoxicatingly viscous arrangements pull you back in; for once the pop star as car crash in slow motion narrative delivers a soundtrack to match. —Tim FinneySky Ferreira: "Everything Is Embarassing" (via SoundCloud)
Even though it's virtually the same image that appeared on his Klavierwerke EP a few months prior, there's something perfect about the blurred, two-faced portrait of James Blake that also adorns the cover of his full-length debut. Now cast in a cold, soft cerulean hue, Blake had announced his Blue Period—ambitious for a kid barely out of college with only a few EPs under his belt. But after covering so much ground over the course of those releases (CMYK's hyperkinetic pop, the knotting of his own voice and classically trained piano chops on Klavierwerke), he’d earned it.
James Blake is a document of an artist at a creative crossroads—a preposterous claim to make about a debut, if only we weren't talking about a brain that works as fast as Blake's. Instead of doubling down on his more idiosyncratic impulses, he used his big moment to pull back into himself, offering 11 tracks that were crestfallen and complicated, but never confused in their intent. James Blake is a singer-songwriter album at its core, with personal, simple songs fighting against the tug of the bleary, pitch-shifted present and the beat-fractured future. Maybe it wasn't what some wanted from the genre-shifting wunderkind, but from the aching futurist gospel of "I Never Learnt to Share" to the uneasy iridescence of opener "Unluck", Blake's blues proved to be not only definitive, but lasting. —Zach KellyEmbed is unavailable.
Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
A post-rock ensemble with orchestral ambitions and the heart of a squat full of Crass-patched crust-punks: Godspeed You! Black Emperor had no right to exist in the first place, let alone survive long enough to make Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. But they did, and it’s a damn good thing. As the indie world grew in size but shrank in scope, Allelujah! kicked open the airlock, letting the gravity of its vast, ragged sound vacuum the place clean. Then Godspeed filled that void back up with paranoia, wonder, and the transcendental sense that music may yet find a way to fuse with the soul. —Jason Heller
- Mexican Summer
Replica is the sound of ambient music resurfacing: whipping its head around, sputtering for air, delighted at its own physicality. The album seems intent on throwing you off its scent, whether via its ghoulish cover art or its attack-on-memory conception: Daniel Lopatin famously sourced some of Replica’s sounds from old VHS cassettes. So while all signs point to Replica being a treatise on reminiscence and reproduction, it’s an album whose noises and voices feel bodily and present. Replica is the rare album of abstract, manicured sound that hovers instead of retreats. Even “Remember”, which features a sampled voice instructing us to do just that, is an affirmation that memory diving is an active, participatory pursuit. It’s a choice, one that Replica in turn gulps down and spits out, never allowing itself to slip into passivity. —Andrew GaerigOneohtrix Point Never: "Replica" (via SoundCloud)
In 2012, Devon Welsh decided that he should make his and Matthew Otto’s Majical Cloudz records “as simple as possible—down to just the emotions and lyrics.” Simplicity is what gives Impersonator, an LP with sparse, unassuming instrumentation, its power. Welsh has a commanding vocal presence, and when he uses simple loops to embolden the emotions he’s conveying in his lyrics, he demands attention. He stares directly into your eyes and professes his love. With urgency, he tells you that things won’t end well. Sometimes he picks you up, sometimes he crushes you. A few times, he breaks the fourth wall, writing songs about what it’s like to write songs that are this personal. By making himself vulnerable, Welsh conveys that it’s OK for you to feel vulnerable, too. —Evan MinskerMajical Cloudz: "Childhood's End" (via SoundCloud)
- Warner Bros.
Prodigy of Mobb Deep once called hip hop "heavy metal for the black people," but the analogy didn't become reality until the reign of Waka Flocka Flame. His Flockaveli was an all-engulfing affair, with Waka's capillary-popping battle cries and onomatopoeic gun sound adlibs bringing both gangsta rap and headbanging (or, if you will, dread-shaking) back. Much of this success can be attributed to producer Lex Luger, whose infinity thumps and rolling high hats would prove to provide the blueprint for the street rap that followed (and, more regrettably, the strain EDM known as "Trap.") But Flockaveli was also a communal space, a collection of minor posse cuts that afforded Brick Squad bit players like YG Hootie and the late Slim Dunkin the same shine as the headliner. Like most great gangsta rap (and gangs), it was more about loyalty than destruction. —Andrew Nosnitsky
Vampire Weekend’s 2008 debut was precision engineered to inspire music critic hot-takes, stirring up a bonfire of class, race, privilege, and appropriation and leaving it coy and cloudy whether their country club aesthetic was oblivious or tongue-in-cheek. Opening Contra with a horchata/balaclava rhyme slyly threw gas on those flames, but by the end of the record they’d shown their true hand: an updated, musical interpolation of Less Than Zero, simultaneously condemning and participating in rich kid excess. The last two songs, “Diplomat’s Son” and “I Think Ur a Contra”, buttress their lyrical depth by stretching VW’s sound far past chirpy, vocabulary test ska-pop and into the richer territory expanded upon in Modern Vampires of the City, placing Ezra Koenig’s tenor within a sonic backdrop of chip-tune reggae, swirling strings, and unpredictable rhythms that feels lush but hauntingly hollow, a personality crisis in a popped collar. —Rob Mitchum
- Free Bandz
In the last few years, Atlanta rap has spawned both huge street hits and quirky micro-trends that quickly cycle out of style, so there wasn't necessarily much reason to get excited about Future based on his early successes. His established sound was no accident, though, and the uncompromising Pluto proved it. “Same Damn Time” offers a Jupiter-sized turn up, but Pluto is at its best in deep space, when it relies on Future's imperfect croak of a voice and uses the chilling, robotic sounds of Auto-Tune as an effect to heighten emotions. The combination lets pain bleed through on “Permanent Scar”, highlights triumph in “Straight Up”, and draws a stellar picture of love on “Astronaut Chick” and “Turn on the Lights”. Jump-starting the careers of producers like Mike WiLL Made It and Sonny Digital, Pluto wasn't just another Atlanta trend; it reinvigorated Auto-Tune's artistic potential and took the whole city's sound to outer space. —Kyle Kramer
- Italians Do It Better
Kill for Love
Johnny Jewel doesn't just write albums, he tells stories like an auteur filmmaker. Kill for Love is less a big-screen blockbuster than it is an art-house cult classic. With 17 vignettes featuring glittering synth-pop, minimalist Italo, and flourishes of kraut and glam rock, Chromatics' 2012 LP illustrates a disconnected ensemble drama. It's an epic, a near hour and a half of vamps, tramps, lovers, and addicts awash in a metropolis illuminated only by flickering neon signs and dim street lights. Singer Ruth Radelet intoxicates you with cooed lines about bygone starlets and nocturnal passion, as Jewel crafts timeless soundscapes which feel as cinematic as they do immediate and unforgettable. No other album in the past five years evoked such vivid, detailed imagery with a sound palette so pointedly austere. —Patric FallonChromatics: "Kill for Love" (via SoundCloud)
- Def Jam
- Roc Nation
Watch the Throne
To get a sense of how greatly a Jay Z/Kanye West joint album loomed over the public’s imagination, look no further than that album cycle’s most definitive document: Funkmaster Flex’s unveiling of Watch the Throne’s first single, “Otis”, live on Hot 97 the night of July 20, 2011. “For you new rappers, go back to the lab and reassess your whole album and career,” Flex bellowed, sounding more ferociously fired up than ever. “Things have just changed for the summer. It's not our fault, it's yours!” He spun the track back countless times and then paused it to advise civilians to “go into the store right now and put your hand into the cash register for no reason,” citing his own InFlexWeTrust.com traffic numbers: this is more or less how the next 22 minutes proceeded. The resulting album, Watch the Throne, couldn’t top this moment, though it provided many memorable joints: "Niggas in Paris", “Gotta Have It”, “No Church in the Wild”, the bonkers deluxe cut “Illest Motherfucker Alive”. Jay Z and Kanye pulled the Bored Rich Person’s Gambit and made this album because they could, and what they create on Watch the Throne is thrilling fun that now stands as the hallmark for rap world opulence. —Corban GobleJay Z / Kanye West: "Otis" (via SoundCloud)
Wakin on a Pretty Daze
By most objective standards, Kurt Vile's music has grown increasingly "boring"—he hired a real producer and developed an interest in extended guitar solos, drum machines, and phaser pedals. His songs can last up to 10 minutes, and he talks about his kids a lot. At 11 songs and well over an hour, Wakin on a Pretty Daze is presumably where the indulgences of prog-rock and dad-rock align, but even if the terminally chill Vile were the type to be bothered by those critiques, he can only dignify them with a response of, "What's your hurry?" Vile canvasses the astoundingly trivial, the mundane, and the most important shit imaginable, and whether it's ruminating on "Air Bud", a forgotten friend, what it means to be a good father, or the meaning of life itself, these things take time. Vile gives you all the space you need, offering the occasional "whoo!" or classic rawk riff as encouragement, a reminder that all of this wakeful meditation can result in a physical payoff. The guy once said "Life's a while", and on Wakin On A Pretty Daze, he learned to take it as it comes. —Ian CohenEmbed is unavailable.
- Cash Money
- Young Money Entertainment
Nothing Was the Same
"I'm just feeling like the throne is for the taking/ Watch me take it." Drake threw down the gauntlet with that line from "I'm On One", released just before the sun rose on the summer of 2011; a few months later, he would assume it with confidence thanks to Take Care, a sprawling, stylistically broad document of life as an ascendant young superstar. Nothing Was the Same, then, is a record hardened by the pressures of wearing the crown: it’s darker, more muscular, laser-focused. Songs that shed light on a wide spectrum of emotion—think of “Marvins Room”, proud and horny and jealous and lonely, and faded to boot—are replaced with concentrated bursts of feeling, with single-word descriptors: triumphant Drake, nostalgic Drake, lovelorn Drake, paranoid Drake. There are moments of light and charisma scattered throughout the record, of course—this is the work of one of this generation’s great communicators, silver-tongued and agile, confident and self-aware, always making plays for both the bedroom and the block. But it’s mostly the sound of someone reaching a summit and realizing just how lonely it can be at the top. —Jamieson CoxDrake: "Hold On, We're Going Home" [ft. Majid Jordan] (via SoundCloud)