2016 has been a crazy surprise of a year. The climate of the next few months, and even days, will really be reflective of everything that’s happened since New Year’s Day. To guide your conscious safely into 2017, I’ve collected some of my favorite new albums that in a way are reflective of the times. The following albums surprised me almost as much as the news in the last ten months with their boundary-breaking sounds and evolutions.
Vulfpeck – The Beautiful Game
Vulfpeck has been a part of my life since their epically funky collaboration with Antwaun Stanley, 1612 (Stanley appears numerous times on the new album). Inspired by old session rhythm sections who would put in countless hours in the studio to record pop music and never get much recognition, Vulfpeck’s jams are heavy, funky, and so much fun. The band waited to get the LP game right, releasing 4 jam-soaked EP’s before their 2015 full-length debut, Thrill of the Arts. A year later, the band’s second LP The Beautiful Game hits about as hard. In the usual fashion, The Beautiful Game features a few instrumental jam tracks and hard-hitting poppy vocal features. The outliers in this newest release are the slower numbers. Tracks like The Sweet Science and Aunt Leslie allow the listener some space to breathe where one would usually expect Vulfpeck to bust out meaty bass riffs and melody-driven funk numbers. Any classical Vulfpeck fan won’t be displeased by tracks like Dean Town, 1 for 1, DiMaggio, and Daddy, He Got a Tesla. The quartet of musicians clearly still know how to make their listeners’ heads violently nod back and forth. The appropriately timed baseball-themed single 1 for 1 DiMaggio is clearly this album’s 1612, with nonsensical baseball banter and an off-kilter B3 organ solo by member Woody Goss. Although this LP might take Vulfpeck away from their instrumental roots, their evolution is inevitable, more than welcome, and still as groovy as ever.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
While writing and recording Bon Iver’s 2007 debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon put himself into exile. The frontman holed up in his father’s cabin and kept busy by hunting, writing, and recording. The result is a quiet, passionate, and melodic folk symphony. 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s third full length record, is almost unrecognizable as the same artist. Lead track 22 (OVER S∞∞N) makes use of samplers, vocoders, automated effects, vocal glitching, and more stereotypically electric music techniques. The difference between Justin Vernon’s use of these effects and any electronic producer is his heavy root in folk music. Each autotuned vocal lick has the sensitivity and romanticism of a passionate folk singer. The album continues with touching uses of other traditionally electronic techniques, creating lush landscapes that can even come off as aggressive. The song 1 0 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ begins with a heavy bass synth that can only be complemented by Justin Vernon’s deeply layered vocoder vocals. My favorite track on the album, 29 #Strafford APTS, sounds much closer to an indie-folk standard. Electronic techniques are slowly added back into the mix, with phasing filters, various echoes, textured vocoders, vocal glitching, and even lines of lyrics layered on top of each other. Something about this track and the emotion in the last chorus moved me in the same way as, but more than any other folk song had. All but one of the background instruments are stripped away as Justin Vernon strains through a heavily glitched vocal filter—a disjointed plea in an unfamiliar language.
NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
Yes Lawd! is both the title of this LP, and what many Anderson .Paak fans must have squealed when the album was released. NxWorries is a duo consisting of producer Knxledge and rapper Anderson .Paak. The pair’s first hit single, Suede, launched .Paak into stardom and countless track credits on Dr. Dre’s most recent release, Compton. Anderson .Paak, who grew up playing the drum set in church (and who has mad chops on the kit), raps like he’s a gospel singer first. His soul-drenched rasp channels the deep cuts of the ‘70s. His swagger is nearly infinite. On tracks like Get Bigger / Do U Luv, and of course Suede, .Paak’s delivery is confident and intimidating yet casually smooth. Producer Knxledge is owed credit as well: the entire album has a unique sound mixing soft keyboards, low-passed basslines, and hard loops. Another impressive factor of the cool, funky beats is the hilarity of the skits that break them up. The well-timed, legitimately funny bits of dialogue actually made me laugh on the first few listens. From Anderson .Paak’s hilarious bit in the second half of H.A.N., the Rick and Morty sample at the end of Can’t Stop, and the subtle dialogue at the beginning of Jodi, NxWorries will make you laugh, cry, and jam with Yes Lawd!