December is here and the temperatures are dropping. Amazon.com is getting all our money. But more importantly, it’s time for my annual list of favorite (not best) albums that were released throughout the year. Last year I started doing 20 albums instead of 10 but #s 20-11 had only a music video posted. The top ten will have comments by me with a video or two. Also, the titles will be links to iTunes (but please purchase/stream however you prefer). I guess let’s get started.
13. Wilco – Schmilco
So finally, some words. So back in 2002 I watched VH1 before school. I enjoyed the music videos and the variety of music they played. One morning a beautiful voice sang to me over some jazz piano. That moment, I fell in love with Norah Jones. Fast forward 14 years through multiple albums spanning multiple genres (loved them all) and we get to 2016. I saw she was releasing a new album and the first single was up on Youtube. What I didn’t know before watching was she was using this album to harken back to her first jazz-driven album. The nostalgia of 2002, the sultry melodies and tinkling of the keys hit me in the stomach. The album releases and I quickly listened to it. And it’s perfect. It has the structures of the simple jazz pieces she wrote for her first album but the music itself borrows from all the experimentation with country and folk and pop and rock and hip-hop that she has delved in through the years. It blends seamlessly and I can’t get enough. So to the music, here’s the first single,”Carry On,” that knocked me out so surprisingly:
A year after the release of the critically acclaimed and amazingly wonderful To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar surprised everybody by releasing a collection of demos and tracks from the recording of Butterfly. And although it’s supposed to be demos, untitled unmastered. has everything we loved about Butterfly. The experimentations with jazz, funk, soul, etc. are still there. The politically-driven lyrics are still there. The window into Lamar’s psyche is still there. This has to be one of the most solid collections of demos and outtakes from any band/musician. The first track from this album we heard was actually before the release of Butterfly on the Colbert Report. Here’s “Untitled:”
A part of me feels like the Avett Brothers can do no wrong. They just keep pumping out great albums. Songwriting is consistently spot-on no matter what variation their albums take. We’ve seen them go further into country, into punk, into rock, into folk, pop, bluegrass. But they’re still two brothers that love to write the words that need to be written with the melodies that need to be sung. Some fans get hung up on what these words and melodies are placed over. Is the recording too polished? Is there too much drums? What’s with all the extra musicians now? Who cares. Let’s just enjoy the gift of their craft that they keep on giving us. “Ain’t No Man,” the first single:
So one day I came across the video of Ariana Grande playing “Wheel of Musical Impressions” on Jimmy Fallon’s show. It was too good. After it ended, I said out loud, “Well, hell. If she can sing that good, I guess I gotta give her album a listen.” Luckily, she had just released Dangerous Woman so I pulled it up and gave it a listen. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the album was. Even though she’s obviously a powerful singer, she uses that whispery voice a good amount of the time. At first it somewhat annoyed me but listening through the album, I realized it made the moments she really belts it out more powerful. You get the drastic variations in her vocal range. I kept listening to the album and I still love it. I still listen through it about once a week. One of my favorite tracks of her album is the title track, posted below.
I won’t spend too much time on this album because I wrote about it back in May. But I’m still listening to it pretty regularly. It’s just so upbeat and happy. Chance is young, talented and taking over the world. Watch any late night, SNL, awards shows, and you’ll probably see him pop up. Daytime TV? Sure. He performed on Ellen. So since you can read my last blog, let’s listen to a song. Let’s chill the vibe a little with a live performance of the last track off the album, “Blessings (Reprise):”
So everything surrounding this album perfectly encompasses Kanye West as a person. On one hand you have genius production, religious undertones, incredible features and samples that blow your mind. Then on the other: disastrous release, editing songs and changing tracks after the release, obviously misogynistic lyrics and cancelled tour dates because of mental health issues. While it’s not always easy defending Kanye, these dichotomies make him who he is. And his final products always speak for themselves. “Fade:”
So if you’ve been around me at any time over the last year or so, I probably talked to you about the Broadway musical Hamilton. I’ve been obsessed with the cast recording since it released. Halie and I saw the play on Broadway a few months ago. I pre-ordered and devoured the Hamiltome. All this led up to the release of the Mixtape a few weeks ago. Consisting of a few covers by pop and hip-hop stars, a few original songs influenced by the musical, demos cut from the play and covers of other demos, the album has a little bit of something for everybody. If you’ve listened to the cast recording as many times as I have, the covers might seem lacking. But the original tracks influenced by the play are incredible. And the covers of demos make me wish they were never cut. Before we hear a song, let me list a few artists on this mixtape: The Roots, Nas, Usher, Sia, Regina Spektor, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, Wiz Khalifa, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, etc. I know, I know. It’s crazy. Here’s “Wrote My Way Out” featuring Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aloe Blacc:
3. DNCE – DNCE
So November was hard for a lot of people for…obvious reasons. Before that, Philly’s public transportation was on strike so I had to bike to work for a week. So I really needed something to get me through the rest of this year. And DNCE provided. They released the most fun album this year and I can’t stop dancing to it. From the first to the last track. From the upbeat to the chilled. They are all fun. They’re sexy, musical ear candy. Oh, and the lead singer is a Jonas Brother. So do what you will with that information. “Body Moves:”
So some of you might have forgotten about this album because it came out at the beginning of the year but Halie and I jam this an embarrassingly amount of times. Even though it’s a collection of songs Sia wrote for other pop stars that they ended up not using, this album sounds more cohesive than most artists’ releases. From beautiful ballads to infectious pop songs, I just can’t stop listening to Sia sing…anything. My favorite song, “Reaper,” was co-wrote with Kanye:
If you’ve watched any of her music videos, you probably know a little about Maddie Ziegler. She’s the young girl that does all the incredibly weird dancing for Sia. Whether it’s in a video or a live performance, I enjoy watching her dance almost as much as listening to Sia sing. Recently, Sia released a deluxe version of the album with the single “The Greatest,” a song and video honoring the victim’s of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. Watch it:
This should be on the top of every “Best Of” list. It has some of the best songs written in a long time and by far the best songs this year. The album encompasses pop, hip-hop, rock, country. And she does it really, really well. She released a complete visual album to go along with every song and introduced us to the great poet from Somalia, Warsan Shire. She opened her heart and her anger to the world about the pain of dealing with a cheating husband. But ultimately the album just has one incredible track after another. I can’t stop listening. Also, all the features on this album were exactly what each track needed. Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd. Loved it. But let’s get to some songs. In “Hold Up” we get to watch Beyonce walk down the street with a bat. You can guess what she’s doing with it:
Sometimes a whole song is really good but there’s just one small section, one little musical aspect that makes it your everything. For this next song it’s the slight use of horns. They always show up right when you need them. Here’s “All Night:”
And let’s finish this out with the most powerful track from the album. This was the first single and ended up being the last track. To some, this song was controversial but they’re just looking for something to get upset about because I loved it as soon as it was released. I loved the biographical lines, the glimpse into her and Jay-Z’s relationship. Mainly I just loved the brashness of this track, “Formation:”
Well, there you go. Another year down, another list complete. Let me know what you think or what I missed in the comments. Here’s to a great holiday season and a new year. To new adventures!