10) Janelle Monae- The Electric Lady
Sample Track: Dance Apocalyptic
Janelle Monae is an artist that is extremely easy to like but surprisingly hard to love. She’s talented as they come, oozes style and cool yet when she centers her music around being an android (that oh-so mischievous Cindi Mayweather) its hard to nab a genuine human connection. What started with her truly touching music video of “Cold War,” The Electric Lady, a prequel to the mythos of The Archandroid, Monae continues opening up and lets the emotions flow. From the guest-star filled first half to the more somber and personal second half, Monae sings with reckless abandon, having the time of her life, while her near-scene stealing backing band continues to impress with their seamless genre shifting: if not for the lyrical content and (surprisingly) enjoyable skits, the album plays more like a playlist than a true album. Get on your dancing shoes and from the opening strings to the aptly titled closer “What an Experience,” The Electric Lady will show you a damn good time.
09) Chance the Rapper- Acid Rap
Sample Track: So Good (Good Ass Intro)
It’s always exciting to me when the clear line is drawn in between generations of artists. It’s hard to pinpoint, yet when listening to Acid Rap, I get the sense a line is being drawn. I hear the influences of this past generation’s biggest names (Kanye’s soulful sampling, Drake’s inner conflict, Lil Wayne’s scattershot delivery and cracked out vocal plau) but Chance (the Rapper) uses those tools, those artist’s colors and paints his own vivid portrait. The production is 100% soul-sampling goodness while Chance lets us into his inner thoughts. He’s a fascinating character, jumping from bravado boasting to introspective musings, yet Chance never comes off as overly-proud or dull, he just sounds like a kid having a blast at his own birthday party. In a genre that has been slowly breaking away from its tough as nails persona, the childlike play on Acid Rap is a bold new step for the genre. And the fact that the mixtape has been so well-received is a telling sign that Chance has great potential to be one of the dominant voices of the next generation.
08) The National- Trouble Will Find Me
Sample Track: Sea of Love
What more needs to be said about the National. They are one of the best, most solid bands working. With four great albums (their debut is fair) Trouble Will Find Me sticks to familiar territory: beautiful, heartfelt, usually sad, rock songs that chronicle their experience with this difficult earth. Their sound remains the essentially the same, subtle guitars with driving drums underneath, garnished with whatever instruments seem to be lying around the studio pianos…horns…strings…great! throw em in!) What does change, however, are the song structures. Aaron Dessner, the bands guitarist and primary songwriter, has reached such a level of craft that he throws to the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure to the wind, rather using repetition and subtle layering to slowly build their magnificent songs. This playing with structure, along with singer Matt Beringer’s continuously gripping lyrics, make any the National album something special, Trouble Will Find Me being no exception.
07) The Knife- Shaking the Habitual
Sample Track: A Tooth For An Eye
Since their breakout smash “Heartbeats,” the Knife have evolved from writing catchy pop songs to writing more experimental, darker songs. After many years of silence, the Knife bestow us with the strange, gripping racket that is Shaking the Habitual, an album not only heavier in sonics, but also in subject matter. Their sense of anxiety and frustration with the world’s current socio-political climate permeate the album. The Knife’s ear for hooks and danceable rhythms are still here, but the songs were written to serve a greater purpose than three minutes of aural entertainment. During interviews for this album, the Knife discuss how Shaking the Habitual is meant to challenge all aspects of hierarchy from sexual to economical to political. The miracle of Shaking the Habitual is that it wraps these challenging topics into superb songs, songs that move your beliefs as much as your body.
06) Danny Brown- Old
Sample Track: The Return
Before you listen to any of Danny Brown’s landmark Old, listen to the closing song on his mixtape XXX, “30.” It gives us a brutally honest look inside his mind, giving a framework for what is at stake for him on his newest album, Old, the most sonically ambitious rap album of recent memory. It has refreshing variety in production, we got party bangers with blown out bass, we got slower introspections on fame with jazzy bass and snare. It’s shockingly well paced; the songs vacillate in energy and intensity so the album never feels like its dragging (take note future rappers: skits are death). But at the center of it all we have Danny Brown, a pariah-hero with something for everyone. He drops the most memorable, inventive verses delivered in his trademark yelp or a softer, knowing baritone. Danny Brown is a paradox, a hero disguised as a pariah, a consumerist who feels bad about spending all of this money, someone who knows the horrors of drug dealing yet still does a ton of drugs. These conflicts make great stories and those stories make Old the rap album of the year.