It’s only March, but 2016 has already been bittersweet.
While we’ve been treated to a slew of weighty albums – from heavy hitters such as Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and Rihanna’s long-awaited ANTI to obscure slow-burners like Dreamboat’s self-titled debut and Vanessa Amara’s beguiling You’re Welcome Here – the year has been marred by a slew of tragic deaths.
Earlier this week we lost A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, but before that, Motorhead frontman Lemmy, Beatles producer George Martin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson and of course, David Bowie, all died leaving behind crucial musical legacies. It’s been a year where re-absorbing the past has been as important as digging for visions of the future, and that can stand to give us some much-needed perspective.
So in between re-listening to Tarkus or The Low End Theory, set some time out to check out the following list of urgent, inspiring new records that should help restore your faith in new music. In spite of everything, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Click the album title on each entry to preview or stream each release, and check out our YouTube playlist.
For all the New Aaliyah gobbledygook that gets passed around for every female R&B singer who shirks its pop or traditional conventions, Awful Records’ Alexandria is most suited to the comparison. Often collaborating with Ethereal, the label’s biggest polymath, the duo are their own Super Friends 2.0 and their communion has the same synergy that we heard on songs like ‘Are You That Somebody?’ and ‘4 Page Letter’, albeit with an off-kilter touch. Appearances from Lord Narf and Father help to round out its punch. It is always a family affair with Awful Records, but their tight-knit kinship grows stronger with each release. Promise is this 2016’s first example that they’re going to be tough to top for yet another year.
Not since Future Islands’ Samuel Herring shimmied his way in front of a Letterman audience to viral acclaim has as an artist enjoyed a breakout TV performance as talked about as 30-year-old Californian Paak’s spot on Stephen Colbert in February. It wasn’t endearing dad dancing that caught people’s attention this time around, but rather simply the slink and power of Paak’s effortless D’Angelo worship, swapping between the front of stage and back of a drum kit for a medley of tracks from his recent Malibu release. The performance put a deserved spotlight on that album, full of spiritualist soul-searching and Kendrick-nodding jazzy flourishes. One of the records of the year so far, then – though Anderson may well eclipse it before 2016 is out, with a NxWorries full-length (his collab project with Stones Throw beat-maker Knxwledge) expected to drop this summer.
An album created from samples of the 1988 anime classic Akira, Capsule’s Pride sounds like a terrible idea on paper. In practice it’s as much of a sensory feast as the movie itself, a nine-track blend of trance-indebted techno and ambient interludes that feel loaded with nostalgia whether you’re familiar with the source material or not. It’s a ridiculous experiment that’s gaudy and cheesy as hell, but its total lack of pretension makes it one of the most straight up enjoyable albums of club music for ages.
Now that the shock has subsided, we can say with assurance Blackstar really is among Bowie’s best. More oblique and experimental than The Next Day, the outré jazz arrangements and lengthy song structures busied our attention at first, distracting us from the blow hiding in plain sight. How incredibly Bowie of him, the postmodern rock star who understood so well that his life was also his art, to bow out like that, winking to us on the final song, “I can’t give everything away.”
FACT-favorite Denzel Curry has long been worth looking out for, and Imperial continues to cement his legacy with on-point, off-kilter rhymes that challenge the genre’s status quo. “I don’t fuck with purp, that’s the only reason Yams died”, Curry laments on ‘Gook’ re-focusing the emphasis on hedonism and adding a levity that never sounds preachy. Curry has one foot in the past – the smart Goodie Mob callback on ‘Sick and Tired’, for example – but never fails to sound completely in the moment.
The fusion of Golden Retriever’s fizzy post-Terry Riley modular/horn interplay and Ilyas Ahmed’s subtle, Neil Young inspired folk might sound initially befuddling, but within minutes of Dreamboat’s self-titled debut all becomes clear. Ahmed’s voice is washed into the mix like another plaintive layer of synth, and the dense fuzz conjures up memories of dream pop, drone and noise all at once. Gorgeous but never cloying, Dreamboat is the musical comfort blanket you’ve been waiting for.
Things Our Bodies Used To Have
All the wondrous weirdness that made us fall for Hausu Mountain hits a focal point in Good Willsmith’s psychedelic haze. Comprised of the label’s two founders and one of its best solo artists (TALsounds’ Natalie Chami), the trio conjure their best blend of guitar explorations, tape manipulations and batshit crazy samples yet on Things Our Bodies Used To Have. It’s a record that pulls track titles from Horse_eBooks and samples the McDonalds Halloween cassette, but still finds ways to shower you in passages of immense psychedelic beauty. Those humorous curiosities compliment, rather than distract, from what are simply three very talented musicians working totally in synch. In other words, it’s an album with a song that’ll make you laugh at the title ‘Whales Sing Great Melodies With Fantastic Lyrics’ and then make you cry with the music itself.
It’s hard to retain interest when you’re on your fifth album, but Hollowed is Ital Tek’s magnum opus: a grand, expertly produced electronic odyssey that distills his career succinctly and with a veteran’s restraint. It feels almost like a companion to Kuedo’s influential Severant, inspiring comparisons with Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack but never descending into pastiche. Sometimes you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, you just have to perfect it.
Seven Psychotropic Sinewave Palindromes
A slab of pristine electronic minimalism that comes good on the brain-mulching promise of its title, this cassette by Massachusetts artist Jake Meginsky (aka Vapor Gourds) is proof of the raw power of a severely restricted palette; in this case, just sine waves, square waves, white noise and an 808 kick drum. Less really is more.
A Good Night In The Ghetto
There’s a damn good reason why Bay Area newcomer Kamaiyah was featured in our list of rappers to watch in 2016. Her breakout single ‘How Does It Feel’ conjured memories of vintage Too $hort and Mac Dre while adding a warm ‘90s R&B sheen that gave the track more heart than we rightly deserve. Thankfully the album never dips from this promise, emphasizing her sexuality in familiar tones (‘Niggas’), celebrating the Bay with familiarity and insight (‘I’m On’) and toying with sounds usually exiled to the annals of smooth pop history (‘Break You Down’).
The Life Of Pablo
Before its release, West proclaimed The Life of Pablo a gospel album. There are parts that are readily comprehensible as part of that genre: the choir who pad out opener ‘Ultralight Beam’ and the leads sung by Kelly Price, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and gospel icon Kirk Franklin; the four-year old rebuking the devil sampled from Instagram; elemental lifts from Chicago pastor T.L Barrett’s ‘Father I Stretch My Hands’. But Pablo is also a gospel album by less obvious means. Like all faiths, it has become malleable — an artifact that lives on TIDAL that has changed since it was uploaded, with tweaks to ‘Famous’ and the instantly memeable ‘Imma fix wolves’ declaration. It is Kanye’s sermon and, like it does in church, Pablo continues to have something new to tell us.
It says a lot about Compton king Kendrick’s laser-focus right now that this collection of cutting-room-floor loosies, bundled together and surprise-released in March without mastering, artwork or even song titles, felt more aesthetically considered than many of his peers’ recent attempts at “proper” album releases (sorry, Kanye). Dropped with barely a moment’s notice almost a year to the day To Pimp A Butterfly was unleashed on the world, untitled unmastered. was not only packed with highlights of its own – ‘untitled 03 05.28.2013’ interrogated the language of racial divides over an evisceratingly funky Da Internz beat – but bolstered our understanding of what will be remembered as one of the defining rap albums of our time. TPAB was evidently made with genius to spare – its off-cuts here rage with intensity and invention too good to be totally discarded. So impressive, the internet even glossed over a difficult, though musically sublime, cameo on ‘untitled 06 06.30.2014’ from soul crooner Cee-Lo Green: His since-retracted remarks on sexual assault (“it’s not rape if the person is passed out,” he tweeted in 2015) jar hard with the socially progressive message K-Dot’s work predominantly stands for. But that’s one black mark. Otherwise, untitled unmastered. was a hip-hop power move: Even at his most effortless, on barely finished, scarcely mixed songs, Lamar reigns over all.
Kodak Black dropped this on Christmas Day, but we’d be remiss to leave it out of the list for that reason. The Florida rapper has a refreshingly unique sound, snatching elements of West Coast funk and folding it into a soup of overdriven 808s, machine-gun hats and Boosie-influenced low-slung loops. Institution doesn’t have a single feature spot – a real rarity, especially when the tape weighs in at a generous 24 tracks – but Kodak has the charisma to hold our attention completely throughout. Just listen to ‘Boss My Life Up’ – you shouldn’t need much more convincing.
Parisian producer Low Jack has always been one of the most interesting producers operating at the noisy, degraded end of the techno spectrum, but Lighthouse Stories takes his music into further uncharted territory. Inspired by turntablism, Detroit electro, footwork and ghetto house, the album takes familiar shapes and distorts them not through a wall of fuzz, refracts them through water from the bottom of the ocean. Low Jack’s rough edges remain, but it’s the delicate patchwork of samples under the surface that make this album so memorable.
People forget that no one called movies “noir” in the era that spawned the genre. It was always retrospective, something noticed in a rearview mirror fogged by nostalgia. Its a similar quality that’s fueled the vaporwave scene, a community populated by producers young enough to approach vintage elevator muzak or Home Shopping Network soundtracks with a subversive fascination. Luxury Elite has remained one of the strongest practitioners and with her latest it’s not hard to hear why. Over 20 vignettes of cheesy saxes and rubbery bass thumps, Noir unnerves you with glossed atmospheres and unsettling pleasantness. Throw in the stunning late album peak of ‘Desire’ and it becomes a masterclass in (un)easy listening.
Cologne-based producer Matt Karmil continues a flood of releases on labels like Studio Barnhus and Beats In Space with his second full-length, a crumpled and dusty collection that’s more akin to a beat tape that a house record in its stumbling syncopation and dubby, spooky moods. He’s got another one on the way in a couple of months too.
Taz and May Vids
Mica Levi’s soupy, unapologetic Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill was one of the big surprises of 2014, so we didn’t exactly have to be sold on its follow-up, the comparatively upbeat Taz and May Vids. Hearing Levi attack 2-step (with help from Tirzah) is a real pleasure as she throws wheezing synth blurts and dusty rhythms together without ever losing sight of the genre’s beating heart. The fact that it closes out with an edit from DDS bosses Demdike Stare is just the icing on the cake.
If ever there was a poster boy for Diagonal Records’ eau de wavy-ness, then Alessio Natalizia’s Not Waving would be the beaming, devil-toothed grin from the photograph. Powell and Jaime Williams promised this record would pit “moments of tenderness and beauty” against “manic strobe lighting and drippin’ sweat,” and they weren’t lying – Animals is a confrontational tete-a-tete where Giallo horror soundtracks, jackhammer EBM, red raw punk and acid beats are all tempered by calmer washes of gauzy ambience. A formula that will reliably pump wavy blood through your weary body.
For her eighth studio effort ANTI, Rihanna has almost entirely shirked the high-gloss pop spectacle that is expected of her. There are confounding moments on the album, but it is packed with far more cohesion than any Rihanna has ever before released. Is it as fun? Certainly not. But so much of what Rihanna sings about is not usually rooted in fun. Her mastery of desolation and being torn apart in your own head now has a more distinct sound. She has been distancing herself from the frivolity of ‘Please Don’t Stop The Music’ and embracing starker sounds like ‘Pour It Up’, but here she’s found the synthesis. It is meditative, it can be gutting, but it is distinctly hers, even if you can’t hear her in it at first (or second, or third) blush.
Sophia Loizou does rave archeology with flair on her second album, adding levels of narrative and fuzzy-headed emotion to her Burial-esque application of drones, noise and ambient. Pirate radio deconstructions feel like a familiar wheeze now, but few do it with such a personal vision.
No One Deserves Happiness
The Body’s No One Deserves Happiness is a metal album that wants to be a pop record, or a pop record made by a metal band that just can’t help themselves. It’s also completely brilliant. The fact that they manage to retain elements of metal (crashing, distorted guitars; rolling drums; volume that will puncture your eardrums) while experimenting with 808 rhythms, cooing female vocals and relatively mainstream structures is admirable, that it all works so well is worthy of celebration.
(Entertainment One Music)
Charlene is only Tweet’s third album, following up It’s Me Again ten years after that record’s release. But the hiatus led to a return-to-form for the singer — not to her slinky ‘Oops (Oh My)’ entré, but to the gospel roots that made her fall in love with music in the first place and choosing God over men in the last decade. But Charlene is not entirely hymnal — it is still sensuous even as it eschews romance and lush in its beauty, indebted to more traditional R&B tones. And while it may disappoint fans jonesing for another sizzling ode to late night flirtation, looking deep inside into the complications of giving up love and finding comfort within the soul are what make this record shine especially bright.
You’re Welcome Here
Danish duo Vanessa Amara are known for making their music in churches, but on their latest and best album they don’t seem to stay there. You’re Welcome Here builds on emotional string flourishes and colossal organ drones before filling like a hot air balloon and taking flight. It all crashes and burns in the devastating finale of the last pair of tracks — first with the electronically manipulated destruction of ‘6’ and finally sputtering to a close with the tape-looped fade of ‘7’. Taken all at once, you won’t find a more heartbreaking drone album so far this year.
It’s rare for something positive to emerge from the trauma and bloodshed that is the Syrian conflict, but this thought-provoking compilation is worthy of that tag. Created by electronic music network female:pressure to support the women involved in northern Syria’s Rojava resistance movement, Rojava Revolution is a donation-based release featuring 12 expertly crafted, beat-strewn a/v collages, which are all steeped in a radical political ethos and present disparate, and at times cosmic, journeys in sound. Simultaneously giving a platform to activists and female DJs, artists and producers, including Latvian genre-blender Ksenia Kamikaza and galactic Berliner Sky Deep, this is protest music done right.
Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban
Rome-based label Gqom Oh! gives us a super-fresh overview of Durban’s burgeoning sound, typified by low, dread-inducing drones, beefy percussion and aggy barks and grunts. Highlights include Forgotten Souls’ ‘Sgubhu 6’, which bungs a trance riff into the mix for spooky thrills, and Emo Kid & DJ Bradolz’s ‘IYona’, with its wheezing and hypnotic two-note melody. The whole thing feels essential, though.
Read next: Rihanna’s ANTI is no fun, and that’s no problem.