It has now been a full year since 63 million Americans decided they wanted an unabashed misogynist, racist, ignorant, reality tv host as President of the United States of America...and got their way, despite tremendously losing the popular vote.
In the 12 months since November 8, 2016, a surprising lot of amazing music has been released. Is this a desperate gasp of creativity before the end of human existence? Has Donald Trump's loving embrace of corruption and white nationalism stirred up such national pain and terror, that earth-shattering art is the result?
Who knows? What is undeniable is, the past year has delivered more amazing music than any year I can remember. It feels like musicians across the spectrum threw caution to the wind; there is a ferocity and urgent humanity powering this music, from the writing to production to singing and beyond.
Below are some of the albums that really grabbed me by the gotcha over the past year.
A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
Head-bobbing beats married to immaculate, socially conscious rhyming is the norm for A Tribe Called Quest, and this album is no exception. It's also at times funny, exciting, and even includes a few party tracks. Multiple songs beg for repeated play, particularly "Solid Wall of Sound," due in no small part to Elton John joining in toward the end of the track. The result is possibly the best ATCQ album they'll ever release...if only because Phife Dawg died earlier in the year.
Neil Young - Peace Trail
This album feels alot like Greendale...though the discerning ear can also trace this album's production style all the way back to Young's self-titled debut album. It's folky yet almost industrial, with distorted harmonicas and weirdly dubbed vocals, matched against otherwise acoustic guitars. It's raw and intense, a biting commentary on topics such as the Michigan water crisis, the mistreatment of America's indigenous people, sexism, and xenophobia.
Kid Cudi - Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin'
Kid Cudi has gone from one of the most original hip hop artists alive, to something beyond definition. Where 2015's Speedin' Bullet to Heaven felt like a manic, psychedelic mix of punk rock and folk music, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin is a more mellow, enlightened journey, while still incredible ambitious. This album is a strong, gorgeous planet from the universe Cudi has created. Tracks like "Releaser," "Frequency," and "Kitchen" feel like soundtrack music to a science fiction movie, while cuts like "Surfin" and "By Design" are uplifting and make you want to dance.
Flaming Lips - Oczy Mlody
This is such a beautiful, funky album, much like 2009's Embryonic (and even 1999's The Soft Bulletin), but less sprawling and with just a shade more optimism. They tackle the ills of this world with love, through focused yet bizarre, cosmic beats that have made The Flaming Lips so cherished over the years. While it can be dark at times, this album doesn't really feel angry, but rather hopeful and confident, as if they truly believe people can make the world a better place simply by working together as a loving family.
Aimee Mann - Mental Illness
Aimee Mann is hands-down one of the best songwriters alive, and this album is possibly my favorite of the year. Sure, it's a kind of sad and slow folk album, but it's so genuine and poetic, there's a sense of profound relief and comfort that comes from being wrapped in these 11 tracks, especially when sprinkled with Mann's humor. From talking about putting on a strong, happy face when life sucks, to the pains of being a hopeless romantic, Mann effortlessly pierces the soul like most artists only dream of doing.
Kendrick Lamar - DAMN
Where 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly felt more like a jazz-influenced affair, Lamar's newest album is a brutal gut-punch of socially conscious rap. Starting with the scrappy "DNA," to the brawling "Element," to the intensity of "XXX," the album grabs you by the start and never lets go. Pounding beats with stories of struggle and survival, balanced with a sense of true love, DAMN is Kendrick's best album to date.
Talib Kweli and Styles P - The Seven
Practically out of nowhere, two of rap's most seasoned emcees gave us an EP to prove rap is only getting better as the years go by. Kweli is essentially hip hop's Bob Dylan, a guy who seemingly has no shortage of brilliant songwriting to share...except, Kweli continues to be more relevant with every song he writes (no offense, Bob!). And, of course, Styles P is a legendary rhymesmith in his own right. All to the tune of some of the most bust-ya-shit-open beats in recent years, this head-bobbing collaboration sets the stage for 2017 to be a great year for hip hop.
Mary J. Blige - Strength of a Woman
This is simply one of the best r&b albums I've heard in a long time. The beats throughout deserve nothing less than to be blasting out of your car on a slow ride through the city...or, you know, to and from work every day through gridlock. From the rising horns and beats from "Love Yourself" to the kaleidoscopic thumping of "Telling the Truth," the sound alone is enough to keep this album in regular rotation. But the core themes of resilience and perseverance, sung in Blige's untouchable vocal range and prowess, make Strength of a Woman one of the strongest albums of the year.
Snoop Dogg - Neva Left
The only problems with this album come when Snoop tries to remind us he's still at the top of the rap game. Nobody in their right mind would doubt that, as he's remained a vital trailblazer and figurehead of hip hop, from hitting the public eye in 1992's "Deep Cover" to this day. Baller tracks like "Moment I Feared," "Bacc in da Dayz," and "Toss It" could easily be outtakes from Doggystyle, though they fit better in today's climate. Snoop is great as always, and continues to keep the bar high for rappers...particularly with "Lavender," a fearless anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement. Snoop Dogg is like the big uncle of rap: he may be a veteran of the game, but he can still compete with the best 25 years later.
Big Boi - Boomiverse
Outkast may have split, but Big Boi continues to make indomitable music comparable to any Outkast record. Whether he's sampling a Japanese trance track to match Killer Mike and Jeezy rhymes in "Kill Jill," making the irresistibly danceable house track "Chocolate," or simply talking about working hard to achieve his dreams in "Order of Operations," his third solo album shows Big Boi is another hip hop pioneer who doesn't seem able to make crappy music. This becomes the summer album for 2017, perfect for long drives or big parties.
Jay Z - 4:44
It would be easy for Jay Z to just sit back, and relax at being a music icon and gazillionaire. Instead, he delivered his riskiest album to date in 4:44. While rap often seems to be veering away from samples, this record is sample-heavy, incorporating bits from Prince, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and beyond. Moreover, his lyrics are vulnerable yet wise, ranging from racism in "The Story of OJ" to apologizing in various tracks to his wife and children for letting them down, and vowing to be a better man. The result is a poignant and powerful record.
Tyler, The Creator - Flower Boy
Nobody straddles the line between beauty and danger like Tyler, The Creator. A musical mastermind, one moment he's doing a love song, the next he's growling "WHO DAT BOY?!" and making an awesome horror film for the song. He continues to fluctuate between busting gangster tracks to bearing his soul, while still producing fresh, unique yet precise beats to guide his universe. Flower Boy is a return to his Odd Future days, while also feeling like he's adding new dimensions to the game.
Dead Cross - Dead Cross
Just when you thought music was calming down, Dead Cross comes along and spastically shits all over everything. This hardcore punk/metal supergroup- featuring Mike Patton (Faith No More), Justin Pearson (The Locust), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), and Mike Crain (Retox)- combine their fury and musical wizardry into one of the most intense, chaotic bursts of madness this world has heard in years. It's roaring and violent, merciless and savage, beating your soul into submission in just 28 insane minutes.
Action Bronson - Blue Chips 7000
2017 will forever be the year I fell in love with Action Bronson. It turns out the hilarious chef/stoner host of several Viceland shows is also one of the best new rappers alive. He's funny and gangsta at the same time, with songs that feel like a throwback to the era of Kool G Rap and Eric B & Rakim: precise, swaggering lyrics juxtaposed with jazzy samples and beats that make you feel like you're roaming lounges in Queens during the 70's. Bronson delivers some of that funky, OG, feel-good shit with a modern flair, ushering in a new era of East Coast rap while constantly paying homage to its origins.
Zackey Force Funk - This Is My Force Funk Sound
Zackey Force Funk is a weird, dance-inspiring mixture of Parliament funk, Devo electro-punk, NWA gangsta rap, and Prince's falsetto vocals. This album is actually a remaster and rearrangement of ZFF's first release from 2009; now instead of a 2-song "megamix," we have 18 gritty, groovy songs about hustlers, gangsters, and street life. It's some of the funkiest music around, and a great introduction into the awesome world of Zackey Force Funk.
Prophets of Rage - Prophets of Rage
The most surprising thing about Prophets of Rage's self-titled debut is how uplifting it is. You'd expect the supergroup of Rage Against The Machine (minus frontman Zack de la Rocha), Chuck D, and B-Real to be a loud, rocking, angry battle cry for revolution. It has plenty of that, but moreover there is a lot of optimism in this record. Even with a song like "Unfuck the World," there is an underlying sense of hope driving the roaring guitars and growls. When you need some hard rocking songs grinding against oppression, it's hard to beat Prophets of Rage.
Jhené Aiko - Trip
True to its title, Trip is more of a psychedelic odyssey than it is a traditional album (and, of course, Aiko made an awesome short film to accompany the album). Aiko's lush, captivating vocals lure you into a whirlwind of poetry, partying, relaxing, panic, and soul-searching, with beautiful, mind-tingling beats guiding you along the path. Where most albums trying to hit the "drug experience" tend to come off a little reckless and apathetic, Trip is more deliberate, focused, and even loving. Don't get me wrong- there are some dark moments- but at the end of this journey, you feel refreshed and alive, as if all is right with the world.
Dennis Baker - The Reptilian Existence
Not since Sparklehorse has an artist delivered such raw, simple yet profound musical poetry as Dennis Baker has with The Reptilian Experience. Though this no-fi record is not a happy album by any stretch of the imagination, the heartbreak and brooding comes from a genuine space, as Baker will occasionally reflect on the powerful joy and love that came before this darkness. For the most part, it's just Baker strumming on a guitar, with the occasional beat or distortion thrown in. Sometimes, that is all it takes to rip out your soul, and hold it before you for examination.
Marilyn Manson - Heaven Upside Down
Marilyn Manson is the king of poppy industrial metal, and nobody keeps making satisfying, socially critical, nightmarish music better than him. This is in no way meant to diminish his talent- the dude somehow keeps writing strong, creative, relevant, and perceptive songs album after album- but you don't typically buy a Marilyn Manson album because you want to be challenged by something new. You buy it because you want to blast catchy, ferocious, guitar-driven chaos as loud as possible, and Heaven Upside Down perfectly satisfies that lust. This is sex dungeon music at its best; grimy, hedonistic, dangerous, and ultimately a lot of fun to rock out of your speakers.
Seven Fields of Aphelion - Keep the Ocean Inside
This second album from the keyboardist of Black Moth Super Rainbow is by far one of the most beautiful, transcendental records of the year. Entirely instrumental (mainly piano and synths), the only vocals are merely another ambient instrument, rather than for lyrics. The result is almost a meditative experience, where the music makes you feel swept away into the depths of the sea. You get caught in the ocean's current, and just let it guide you through an ethereal universe.
Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs - Gems from the Equinox
Gems From The Equinox is yet another reason why I refuse to refer to the past as the "golden age of hip hop," as Meyhem Lauren is another emerging rapper that makes great rap music. No frills or obnoxious auto-tune; just solid rhyming, stories, and swagger in the spirit of Nas, Biggie, and Wu Tang Clan, to some baller, grimy beats. Granted, these particular beats come from the almighty DJ Muggs, a pioneer of the rap world. This marriage brings us that true, raw hip hop that makes you fall in love with the genre all over again.
Indeed, pretty much every record listed here is a powerful reminder that, as bleak as the rest of the world may seem at times, music keeps getting better and better.