Best Albums of 2016

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With the gradual proliferation of streaming services and curated playlists, for a while it didn’t look likely that the “album” format would survive. Yet here we are, at a time where the biggest pop stars are releasing cohesive, fully developed ALBUMS, in capital letters. I will always have a soft spot for the album as a concept, whether contained on discs of vinyl or within links to Spotify pages. Smash hits lie alongside deep cuts to form one 30-70 minute statement reflecting the artist’s pain and joy, their view of the world, their quest to express the words in their head and the riffs in their gut. Here are my 25 favorite albums of 2016.

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The 15 Best Live Performance Videos of 2016

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To kick off our year-end coverage, I present to you the 15 best live performance clips of the year. Below, you will find a collection of musicians displaying their craft on platforms ranging from emotional reunion concerts, to late night TV, to stripped-down NPR Music office recordings.
 

15. Kendrick Lamar: “Untitled 2” (Live on the Tonight Show)
It’s a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s unfiltered energy and passion that he can draw in the audience with very little additional fanfare. Just Kendrick, a mic, and a lot to say.

 

14. Lucy Dacus (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Lucy Dacus radiates warmth on a night in the streets (and subway stations) of Paris. Dacus pairs insightful lyrics with inviting arrangements in this stripped-down performance. One highlight occurs during her second song, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” when a passerby whispers “Play a Janis Joplin song!”

 

13. Steve Gunn: “Full Moon Tide” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Steve Gunn was made to play his songs surrounded by trees atop old, rusty train tracks. Gunn’s acoustic guitar work is extraordinary as he channels a little Bob Dylan, a little Grateful Dead, and a little Neil Young.

 

12. Britt Daniel: “I Me Mine” (Live at George Fest)
“George Fest,” a tribute concert to George Harrison held at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, happened in 2014 but clips and a live album were released this year. Britt Daniel of Spoon plays a fervent rendition of “I Me Mine,” the last song the Beatles ever recorded in April of 1970.

 

11. Bruno Mars: “24K Magic” (Live on SNL)
No one has more fun than Bruno Mars. I enjoyed “24K Magic” when it came out, but I started really loving it after watching Bruno and his hype men dance through it on Saturday Night Live.

 

10. The Arcs (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Dan Auerbach, known as the frontman for the Black Keys, released an underrated album last year with his side project, The Arcs. Early this year, The Arcs played at the NPR Music office for one of their famed “Tiny Desk” concerts, enlisting the help of a Mariachi band called Flor de Toloache. Auerbach’s bluesy voice really shines over the spare arrangements, but the women of Flor de Toloache steal the show, providing backing vocals along with violin, trumpet, and guitar.

 

9. LCD Soundsystem: “All My Friends” (Live at Webster Hall)
It was thrilling to hear that LCD Soundsystem was reuniting to tour this year, after declaring that they had broken up in 2011. The band played their first show back at Webster Hall in New York City in March, closing their encore with “All My Friends,” an absolute behemoth and roller coaster of a song — easily their best, and probably the greatest song of the last decade. Even though the following clip is a somewhat crude recording from some audience member’s phone, the energy still surges through. I wish I had been there. (And here’s a higher-quality recording of their performance of the same song at Lollapalooza this year.)

 

8. Local Natives: “Dark Days” & “Fountain of Youth” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Local Natives show their harmonizing chops on a slow, gorgeous version of “Dark Days”, one of the best songs of the year. Then on “Fountain of Youth,” one of the guys takes a little dip in the Seine after the performance.

 

7. Beyoncé (Live at the MTV VMA’s)
Beyoncé’s stage presence has always been a sight to behold, and it’s even more powerful with a cohesive narrative like Lemonade as the subject matter. Her performance of a medley of Lemonade tracks at the MTV Video Music Awards combined enthralling visuals, dancing, and Beyoncé’s persistently amazing voice.

 

6. Anderson Paak (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Anderson Paak is a stunningly talented musician, and it shows on this Tiny Desk concert. Paak plays the drums and serves as a confident band leader as he layers his voice over some sumptuous funk/soul/jazz grooves.

 

5. Chance the Rapper: “Blessings” (Live on the Tonight Show)
Chance the Rapper wears his good heart on his sleeve at all times, making it impossible not to love him. On the Tonight Show, Chance is joined by D.R.A.M., Anthony Hamilton, Ty Dolla $ign, and Raury on his earnest mission to have everyone recognize their blessings.

 

4. Bon Iver: “Heavenly Father (A Capella)” (Live at the Sydney Opera House)
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver returned this year with an album full of vocal processing, effects, and studio trickery. But for their Sydney Opera House performance of the group’s one-off track (for a 2014 Zach Braff movie) “Heavenly Father,” the group gathers in a circle and relies solely on their blended voices. It’s mesmerizing.

 

3. Pinegrove (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Pinegrove, the Montclair, New Jersey band led by Evan Stephens Hall, made one of my favorite albums of the year in Cardinal, a blend of indie rock, country and, yes, even a dash of emo. Those of you who know me are probably shocked that I could like anything involving the words “country” or “emo,” but here we are. Pinegrove have stirred something inside me recently and I’ve become obsessed. On the album, the “rock” part of the blend dominates, but in a stripped-down setting like the NPR Tiny Desk concert series, those country tinges shine through a little more. It’s hard for me to adequately express the deep connection I feel with these songs, and this performance in particular — especially when they play “Old Friends” at 4:04, as Hall sings “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”

 

2. Choir! Choir! Choir!: “Space Oddity” (Live at the Art Gallery of Ontario)
David Bowie’s death was almost too much to handle, but people all over the world attempted to process it by paying tribute in whatever way they could. The most affecting tribute to me was a short-notice gathering of an audition-less choir in Toronto to sing “Space Oddity.” One acoustic guitar and a chorus of over 500 voices in perfect harmony. They easily could have made the performance too sickly sweet or cheesy, but it’s done with tremendous taste and restraint. It’s a genuinely moving, chill-inducing memorial to a true legend.

 

1. Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” (Live on SNL)
Kanye is on my “naughty” list right now, but there was no denying the top spot to his Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam” back in February. The funny thing about it is Kanye doesn’t even do much here, but that highlights one of his strengths: he knows talent when he sees it, and he defers to that talent when the song calls for it. A full (and extremely powerful) gospel choir accompanies Kanye along with guests Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, who all absolutely slay their time in the spotlight. The disparate parts all cohere to make a beautiful statement on searching for light.

Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 (+ July 2016)

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The transition from July to August brought vacations and final exams and a LOT to do, so apologies for no previous July edition of Five Quality Tracks. But never fear — after going over the five tracks from August, we’ll double back to July and make up for lost time with five additional tracks.
 
AUGUST

1. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”

Frank is back! It’s hard to believe this actually happened. I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re all living a fever dream and Frank Ocean’s two new albums (yes, two new albums!) will be yanked away from us when we wake up. But my iTunes still has 35 more Frank Ocean songs than it did a couple weeks ago, so it’s real!

Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”

On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to go on top of it. He’s a talented dude.

The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I I I know you gotta leave leave leave.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.

Frank is back. Let’s enjoy it.

 
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Best Albums of 2011

For some reason, Facebook decided by Best Albums of 2011 post broke some kind of copyright, so it (and all of its HTML) got deleted. For those who are interested, here was my list (with a little less pizazz unfortunately).


25. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming


24. Yuck – Yuck

23. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain

22. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

21. Atlas Sound – Parallax

20. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread

19. Real Estate – Days

18. Generationals – Actorcaster

17. Adele – 21

16. The Strokes – Angles

15. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

14. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

13. Cults – Cults

12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

11. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l

10. The Roots – undun

9. Wilco – The Whole Love

8. The Antlers – Burst Apart

7. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

6. Beirut – The Rip Tide

5. Drake – Take Care

4. The Black Keys – El Camino

3. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

2. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Grammy Recap

Did you watch the Grammys? Yeah me neither, but following the live blogs is just as entertaining, if not more so. The big story was Adele’s sweep, winning Album of the Year with her transcendent breakup album 21, and Record of the Year and Song of the Year with 2011 staple “Rolling In the Deep.” Kudos to the Grammys for getting something right, but they’re known to make some pretty laughable choices, and not even so much relating to what they pick as to how they pick them. Let’s go over some of the notable winners–ridiculous, deserving, and otherwise.

BEST NEW ARTIST: Bon Iver

Are you kidding me? Bon Iver made the big time last year with the self-titled Bon Iver, his sophomore album. Key word though: sophomore. Bon Iver’s debut record For Emma, Forever Ago was incredible, one of the best of the last decade. Oh, did I say “last decade?” Yeah, it was self-released in 2007 (before making a wider release the year after). I love the audacity they have to not just nominate him but choose him as the best new artist simply because those fossils finally recognized him. I know I’m belaboring an obvious point, but humor me for a second–take the Shins, for example. They made their last album in 2007, the same year as For Emma. The Shins are finally coming out with a new disc this year and we’re lauding them for “[taking] back their throne”, after “a long hiatus. If the time between 2007 and now is “a long hiatus,” then I’m baffled as to how Bon Iver, around since 2007, is a new artist. (Btw in my opinion, the award should have gone to Nicki Minaj).

BEST RAP ALBUM: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Say what you will about Kanye’s persona (Insert “I’mma let you finish” dig here), but the man is a genius. MBDTF rightfully won as the best rap album, but it’s insane that it wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year. Bruno Mars was nominated. Yeah, Bruno Mars. Badly done, Grammys. Badly done.

BEST POP DUO/GROUP PERFORMANCE NOMINATION: The Black Keys – “Dearest”

So actually the winner in this category was a collaboration between the late Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett, which I haven’t heard and don’t feel like checking out at the moment (no disrespect, I dig me some Amy Winehouse). Actually it’s pretty crazy that it won considering it was going up against “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, “Paradise” by Coldplay, and “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. Anyway, I just want to direct your attention to the other nominee, The Black Keys’ “Dearest.” It appeared on a tribute album to Buddy Holly called Rave On, featuring covers of Buddy Holly songs from Paul McCartney, Julian Casablancas, Florence + the Machine, Cee-Lo Green, and others, including the Black Keys. I’m surprised and impressed that the Grammys dug this track out of relative obscurity to nominate it because it’s a gem. Check it out below:

OK I’m bored. I was thinking of writing more, but the Grammys are useless anyway. If you’re feeling in the mood to reminisce on the best of this year’s show though, just crack out the Adele, Bon Iver, Kanye, and Foo Fighters and have at it.