Look, there’s a lot of music in the world. And the initial few months of 2016 were kind of gray, stumbling ones. Those are the kinds of months where you latch onto one really powerful good album to help yourself ground down, but maybe don’t have the energy to cast about for all the other gold that’s not as easily accessible. So here is a bit of digging, a bit of dusting off, a bit of diving in. The quicker the pace of the world wide web, the more I want to sit and listen slow. Here are some albums for that.
BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
Ever since Pineapple Now And Laters, BJ The Chicago Kid established himself as one of the most excellent underrated forces in the R&B world. His voice is more divine than the Godhead, his production plush, clattering, and always, always tender. Deeply influenced by a religious upbringing–courtesy of two choir director parents–BJ’s saving grace is finding a fusion of spirituality and sex jams. “Church” will make you want to fuck and wake up in time to sing a hymn in the morning, and your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper Big K.R.I.T. shows up for “The Resume,” a song that turns work into a metaphor for foreplay and satisfaction. In My Mind is full of sizzling, unexpected passion plays that range from shouting out Old Testament prophets to getting Kendrick Lamar rapping about mini skirts. Don’t complain about the dearth of R&B when you’re not even looking in the right place: Bryan Sledge’s mind.
Lucy Dacus, No Burden
No Burden is the debut album from Lucy Dacus, a soft-spoken guitarist with a gentle deadpan that pierces even as it floats, feathery, above the Richmond native’s rubbery melodies. Dacus makes songs that are lithe but sinewy, both delicate and sharp, like a steel blade cutting through a pearl. “Dream State (…)” whirrs lonely and frantic into electronic dissonance, cresting on the tranquil follow-up “Trust.” But the real stunner here is “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” the opener that bucks at anything and everything it its path over a rumbling bass line. No Burden isn’t funny, but it’s sharp and sweet enough to make me laugh out loud; I don’t think Lucy will mind that.
Melaena Cadiz, Sunfair
Melaena Cadiz has a voice like a cheerful growl. Listening to her howl and hum through Sunfair, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to early Joanna Newsom records, and though Cadiz’s vocal style is similar to Newsom’s it is never derivative. Her songs move in a realm of their own; sun-hewed folk that stretches from the dusty and deserted mourners like “California,” to the joyful ache of “The Shape Of Things.” Sunfair is a dreamy, crackling memoir of majestic and tiny moments, spun across acoustic guitars and told in a singular, stunning voice.
Chester Watson, Past Cloaks
The most incredible thing about Past Cloaks is that it’s not even technically new, it’s a collection of songs that Chester Watson wrote and recorded in his early teens, stone cold cloudy raps undercut with lip-curling social commentary and rhymes that slant toward infinity. At first I thought it reminded me of really early Odd Future–like Tyler the Creator on “Yonkers“–but honestly, it’s better. Watson raps over twisted The Wizard Of Oz samples, horn and brass-infused beats by Psymun, and best of all, his own production. Each bar is mesmerizing, half taunting wordplay, half amused allusion, tied together with his slurred, swaggering flow. Remember, this tape is culled from the past; the future starts here.
Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp
Good god did we need some good psych-pop in 2016. Michelle Zauner initially started Japanese Breakfast as a side project when she was feeling stymied creatively, but this burst of gossamer post-punk bliss quickly assumed a life of its own. That’s largely due to the blazing, heart-opening lyrics Zauner pens, like balls-to-the-wall “Everybody Wants To Love You”–which transitions from asking for a number to a marriage proposal in the space of two verses. Spurred on by the firework guitars, galloping drums and Zauner’s endlessly optimistic vocals, the song feels possible. Contrast that with the shimmering desire of “Triple 7,” and the full expanse of Psychopomp snaps into focus: Here are nine tracks of vulnerable, psychedelic songwriting that might unlock the hidden corridors of your heart. And if they do, it’s because Zauner was brave enough to tip toe through her own first.
Santigold, 99 Cents
In a world of bleating lo-fi pop, enter Santigold, hi-fi as fuck and unable to get enough of herself. She spells that out plainly on 99 Cents opener “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself,” sashaying through a fanfare of woodwind and orchestral swells all tied together into a maximalist pop bauble. Throw on 99 Cents and find myself wondering how is this thing not blaring out of every speaker? The rest of the album is similarly bombastic, similarly blazing, similarly brazen. A dollar won’t get you a lot in this economy (Thanks, Obama), but Santigold has not gone down in value even if the world is fast asleep on this retro celebration of diasporic pop.
Domo Genesis, Genesis
As Odd Future sorta splinters, the resulting fragments are turning out to be much more interesting than the gelatinous whole. Nothing proves that more than Domo Genesis’ debut album Genesis–a woozy and weird rap album that draws as heavily on gospel as it does booming ’90s beats. Despite those two influences, Genesis ditches the taffy-slow vocal style that can populate both, and stays slick in the verse and harsh on the flow: “They won’t let me free my mind, then fuck it / I’ll be comfortable dying,” he raps on “One Below.” That song also features his mom, one of many guests on the album that also includes Anderson .Paak, Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, Tyler The Creator, Mac Miller, and more. But unlike some feature-heavy albums, no one overshadows Domo here, and no one distracts from his fierce, soulful ethos. Genesis signifies beginnings, Domo shows up ready to start.
Allan Kingdom, Northern Lights
There is no denying the moment when Allan Kingdom burst across Kanye West’s stage at the BRIT Awards like a bolt of light, invigorating “All Day” with a heat that not even sky-high flame throwers could achieve. Hat tip to Mr. West for consistently bringing these kind of electrifying moments out of emerging artists (word to Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse forever and ever amen), but a round of applause for Kingdom that his follow-up tape holds up to the Ye-inspired hype. Northern Lights is consistent, sharp and bright, a slew of frosty tracks that dance around rap-psych in a way few can ever successfully pull off (Sorry, Cudi). If “Go Fish” doesn’t make you go dumb, you never had any smarts.
Jennifer O’Connor, Surface Noise
Jennifer O’Connor’s Surface Noise came out earlier this month via Kiam Records, the same label who gave us the criminally overlooked lush, slowcore album New Villain by Amy Bezunartea last year. O’Connor operates in a similar space, weaving her personal intimacies into hushed and tender missives that double as lullabies. But these vulnerable ballads contain warnings just under their compassionate exterior. Not all of them have the bite of disappointment though, and her standout track “Falling Feeling” will set your heart tumbling. This is an album that unfolds into deeper and deeper intensity under careful, focused attention–sort of like love itself.
Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit
It’s truly a shame that older country stars are marketed exclusively to, well, older people. Just look at that album cover! I already know I love the record, and it makes even me want to cringe away. So close your eyes, throw on Down To My Last Habit, and sink deep into the well-worn mahogany of Vince Gill’s voice. The man can write a country song, sure, and he produced the album of your probably favorite up and coming country star (No, I will never stop repping hard as fuck for Ashley Monroe), but it’s still Gill’s voice that makes him a force of nature in the country world. You can’t teach honeyed balladry (“Like My Daddy Did”), seared blues strutting (“Make You Feel Real Good”), or the heart-eye emoji lifestyle (‘My Favorite Movie,” a Monroe co-write) that Gill has down pat. You can’t teach it, you’ve got to live it. And Lord, has Gill ever lived. Album artwork aside, his experience has served him well. Let this one play long while you sip some whiskey and wheedle your way into the heart of someone new.
Teen, Love Yes
Teen always sound like they’re going to sputter into full baroque-pop mode, then they blast the whole thing with dynamite and snap their bubblegum pop in your face. Love Yes throws another wrench into this framework, unafraid to warp sweet pop confection into sneering off-kilter surgers. “Tokyo” twirls and teases, but the title track and “Another Man’s Woman” strobed with darker emotions. Love Yes is an emotion on the brink of abandon that keeps pulling you back from the edge at the last second, a pirhouetting pop amaglam suited for spring’s upheaval and summer’s confusion.
Kamaiyah, A Good Night In The Ghetto
It should be pretty clear at this point that your girl (me) rides hard as hell for west coast rap. Earlier this month, 21-year-old Bay Area rap princess Kamaiyah quietly dropped one of the best fucking tapes of the year and I didn’t hear enough people talking about it, so here it is again. This shit goes. I don’t even have anything constructive or descriptive to say about, she is so good that describing it feels rude. Here’s an attempt–“N—-s” makes me wanna be a fuckgirl forever even though I’m pretty happily loved up, the YG feature makes me salivate for that delayed My Krazy Life follow-up, and opener “I’m On” twists a samba into a gleeful Cinderella story stunt track. Listen to the whole thing, because this girl will be everywhere by the time you’ve spun it more than one time.
Glenn Jones, Fleeting
Look, there’s really not a whole lot else to say about American Primitivism. John Fahey is the most famous purveyor of it, but it’s a method of playing guitar that makes the guitar sound like it’s about four instruments at one time. It’s really hard to do, and it is mostly practiced by musicians who are self-taught enough to start adding their own flourishes onto the tradition as soon as they can fingerpick a thing. Glenn Jones is a fantastic player of guitar and banjo, and brings the natural world into his latest album, Fleeting, in a way that many folk musicians love to do. Put this album on for the days when you wish you were sitting outside in the sun with someone you love, and dispel the gloom of your skyrise office, at least for these forty slow minutes. Fleeting is a quiet nod to the communion of melody and the physical world, as though the guitar might root back down into the earth when Jones puts it down. This, it seems, would bother neither party.
Hinds, Leave Me Alone
How many all-girl indie bands have you listened to lately? (Haim doesn’t count) Spanish indie rock bands have you listened to lately? If you answered none to both of those questions, then put on Leave Me Alone and render them both moot with a single record. Turns out if you get four Spanish women to channel their love of Mac DeMarco’s slack-jawed bro chill into an album of their own it comes out way better than what inspired it. No shots, but dang, indie rock sure starts to get interesting again when women are penning the lyrics, huh?
Dylan LeBlanc, Cautionary Tale
Sleepy, damaged psych-Americana from a 25-year-old Louisiana native who already sounds like an old-timer. If that’s not your cup of tea, are you sure you like tea? Cautionary Tale lulls and lows exactly like you’d want it too, if you were out in snug little house on the outskirts of Muscle Shoals. This record wraps itself around you like a blanket, and LeBlanc’s papery tenor getting deep down into the nooks and crannies of your heart. It shimmers, too, like a heat wave or steam off the top of a mug. Not all warnings need be ominous, and this one sure isn’t. After all, seems LeBlanc took his own advice–we can too.
Okay, this is almost not fair because it’s only six tracks which is basically an EP, not an album. But I made the rules so I can break them, and Delia Albert is simply too special to overlook. She operates under the name DVWEZ which, I’m told, is pronounced “Dames.” Who cares whatever she wants to call herself when her voice sounds this incandescent. Aside from the icicle vocals, that also Albert behind the boards, flanked by Chandler Strang and Bells and Robes on production. Throughout Pastels, Albert’s voice burns through the ice, a perfect marriage of desire and resistance.
Emmy The Great, Second Love
Emmy The Great’s luscious and lucid take on love is so calm and steady, you might get the impression that she’s not romantic. No, that’s not it, it’s just that Second Love is full of the wisdom and steadiness that enduring the ache of a failed first love imbues. Here, she knows exactly what she wants, can see through frauds and won’t suffer fools. In Emmy’s world, a swimming pool is just as romantic as a ballroom dance, algorithms and hyperlinks aren’t empty HTML signifiers but possess tangible expressions of feeling, and dancing with a lover is splashier than any high dive. This is a quiet, self-assured album full of synths that glimmer without showing off, and a vocalist who has never needed any frills to set off the unassuming beauty of her mother-of-pearl alto. When you’re this sure, there’s no need for theatrics.
Florist, The Birds Outside Sang
Florist is the brainchild of Emily Sprague, a musician who shares sensibilities and fraternal ties with Frankie Cosmos and Eskimeaux. Each artist is unique in their own right, but they are all members of The Epoch collective, and a loyalty to intense vulnerability, simple beauty, and sweet earnestness comes through no matter which particular artist is up to bat. The Birds Outside Sang is a brilliant mesh of tangled electronic pain and soothing, innocent lyrics that entwine to evoke the simplicity of birdsong, the happy inevitability that, despite it all, we’re still here. That’s something worth singing about.
The Sun Days, Album
Run For Cover is one of my favorite labels of the current moment, and it’s usually in your best interest to check out anything they release. In this case, The Sun Days prove–once again–that the Swedish indie pop scene is full of some kind of musical magic. On album opener “Don’t Need To Be Them” Elsa Fredriksson Holmgren’s voice is like a car driving down a freeway, and the song’s melody is fueled by a similar speeding rush of euphoria. The entirety of their cheekily tilted Album is full of big gushing dream pop that is a little too linear to be fully classified as such, with insistent drums and guitar lines slicing through the helium at just the right moments. Dream rock? Eh, if they’re calling this thing Album, might as well invent a hybrid genre for them.
Your Friend, Gumption
For those who like to swim in seas of noise, get Gumption immediately. It’s all the loops and drones that make you feel like you are under the sea–you’re a real fish–and they slip in and up and over you like waves lapping a shore. Sometimes Taryn Miller’s voice is there, sometimes it’s not, but when it is, it isn’t a focal point. This is ambient dark folk of the highest order, something for the nights when you need an album to ward off the demons without blinding your eyes in brightness.
Murals, Violet City Lantern
After releasing the gorgeous, doe-eyed psych-pop debut A Passing Cloud back in 2012, Murals didn’t release another album for a three year gap–Violet City Lantern makes all that lapsed time make sense. There really is no better way to describe these songs than soft–they’re really soft and gentle, but point toward subtle, flickering warmth, like a sheepskin thrown in front of a fire. These are slow wandering numbers, but most of them clock in just under the three minute mark, so you instead of getting hypnotized, you get to go in and out of the trance. Murals know well, it’s the gaps in between that make you appreciate your time under all the more.