In just a couple of years, Arca went from being a relatively unknown Venezuelan DJ to a mega producer. Producer Alejandro Ghersi has added his beautifully uncomfortable blend of noise and electronic dance to tracks by Kanye West, FKA Twigs, and Bjork, giving them a fresh and unheard modern sound. But under the nom de plume Arca, his solo projects push sonic barriers rarely taken by artists whose work often fits into comfortable parameters. As groundbreaking as Underworld, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher were in electronic music in the '90s, Arca is today. Constantly shape-shifting and unsettling sounds reach a peak where they resemble something as grotesque and intriguing as the morphing imagery on the cover. Tackling 21st century gender fusion and politics head-on without in-your-face lyrics and overt messages, his music oozes out of your speakers and confronts you directly as its raw digital sound takes you to unexpected territories. But beyond all the strangeness and static, Mutant follows last year's Xen as some of the most exciting music coming out today. There's nothing quite like it.
From the first notes of his sweet, soulful viral hit, “Coming Home,” you can tell you’re listening to the emergence of a huge new talent. Leon Bridges calls to mind a young Sam Cooke with his heartfelt R&B, produced with analog grit for a timeless sound that feels like a huge breath of fresh air in these days of maximally produced radio pop. You can really here the warmth to Bridges’ voice on the waltzing “Brown Skin Girl,” letting his vocals pour over the guitars and saxes like syrup. But Bridges’ guitars and style are also raw enough for the garage kids, kicking up plenty of dust on tracks like “Flowers” while showing enough restraint to keep things classy. He doesn’t stray much from the template set by his influences, but he doesn’t need to when the resulting music feels so vital. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, Bridges makes what was old sound new again on his remarkable debut.
Between this album and 2014’s double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone , Lucinda Williams is experiencing her second mid-career renaissance (the first, of course, was the release of her fifth album and masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ). On her latest, she inhabits various characters inspired by the Interstate 20 from Texas eastward, painting Southern Gothic shades on rollicking country-rockers and dingey acoustic odes. “Call me a prostitute and a whore too, I do these tricks your wife refuses to,” she sings in a curdled slur on “House of Earth,” which is adopted from a Woody Guthrie novel. Guitarists Bill Frisell lines theses songs with spindly, jazz-inspired lines while Greg Leisz pours Crazy Horse-ish riffs all over “Dust” — the result is a gorgeous blend of grit and grace. Though Ghosts runs long, it never drags, thanks to excellent pacing — “Doors of Heaven’s” gospel-rock comes around at just the right time, while second-half knockout “If My Love Could Kill” shows up with its spine-tingling melody and swampy shuffle when you’re nice and buzzed on Williams’ whiskey-soaked drawl. It’s no exaggeration to call The Ghosts of Highway 20 her best album since 2003’s World Without Tears . Her 12 th album is a highlight in a career full of ’em.
Anderson .Paak has been the go-to guy to feature when artists have wanted their tracks to have a certain something special. His voice is a malleable instrument than can be gravelly or velvety smooth, able to deliver fast-paced raps and pour out soul syrup in equal measure. Though his debut, Venice , drew plenty of attention and acclaim, he’s now been lifted up into the upper echelon of R&B artists working today, thanks to a series of high-profile collaborations with Dr. Dre on his comeback album, Compton , on which Anderson .Paak consistently threatened to steal the show on his six tracks. He takes that opportunity and knocks it out of the park with Malibu , a gorgeous psychedelic swirl of lush neo-soul backdrops and alternative hip-hop tracks, featuring a cadre of high-profile guest apperances (Talib Kweli, ScHoolboy Q, The Game). Gorgeous tracks like “The Birds” evoke the classic soul stylings of a Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Yet he keeps things current on the jazz-inflected hip hop of a track like “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” or thumping banger “Come Down,” keeping in line with the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. As the lines further blur between the experimental and mainstream, vintage and current within hip hop, Malibu masterfully strings these styles together for an accessible, highly listenable album that should make Anderson .Paak a deserved star in his own right.
In the great tradition of Gil Scott Heron and 2Pac, Saul Williams doesn't approach lyrics lightly. He grabs you by the throat and confronts you with the ugliness and aftermath of the post-9/11 world of endless war. Williams himself personally described the album as "connecting the dots between the Arab Spring, the Civil Rights Movement and now" with a fiery and sharp delivery that slams your ears, a complete 180 from his previous dancier album, Volcanic Sunlight . The album's single, "Burundi," is angrily bitter in its furious depiction of an endlessly problematic world with economic issues, empty technological advancements, cruel treatment of young black men by authority figures, and unethical repression of entire groups of people. Warpaint's Emily Kokal supplies a strange harmonic background against the powerful track that adds a beauty to an otherwise tough song. And Williams doesn't go for feel-good positivity or easy answers. He knows that our system is rotten from the core and wants to make it clear that this tough world we live in needs to change. This is our gospel music for a world that always feels on fire; a sonic cataclysm that's something to move to and live by.
After three years and a false start, Grimes aka Claire Boucher has returned with the follow-up to her breakthrough, Visions , and it’s a brightly colored collection of artpop magical realism. The drumline beats and sunny guitars and melodies of “California” and the title track could almost pass for something on mainstream radio, if not for Boucher’s clarion voice cutting through. Similarly, the nimble “Flesh Without Blood” might not be the most original song Grimes has put to tape, but it’s the catchiest and is damn near irresistible. Yet in between those songs we get “Scream,” which has none of the safety of her more accessible tunes, between Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes’ twisting flow and Boucher’s curdled screech. The previously released “REALiTi” throws fans of her more straightforward electro-pop a bone, though it continues with the posi vibes and influences of K-pop and early ’90s house that flow through the rest of the album. Meanwhile, “Venus Fly,” her spacey hip hop duet with Janelle Monae, is a pure delight, coming off like a futuristic art-school spin on the Spice Girls, and “Kill vs. Maim” has the feel of the drama kids taking over a pep rally with Boucher’s yelp simultaneously spirited and demented. Boucher has no use for genre boundaries and is seemingly allergic to negativity, all of which gives Art Angels an unbeatable all-embracing energy. The biggest change from Visions is that Boucher’s personality is more front-and-center; whereas that album could be more cold and cerebral in its in-between tracks, Art Angels is entirely engaging, and even its most digitized moments are stained with blood.
With classical's influence having morphed all sorts of genres, it's no surprise that the worlds of pop, jazz, and prog can do the same for classical. Opening with the composition "Manhattan Intermezzo," Neil Sedaka lets loose as a Copland-esque composer of cosmopolitan joy. Though he's mostly known for his eternal radio standards like "Calendar Girl" and "Oh Carol," Neil Sedaka originally was classically trained musician and pieces like "Manhattan Intermezzo" gives him the room to breathe. The delicate piano and strings fill the air as it gives a warm, nostalgic feeling that recall the best Burt Bacharach instrumentals. Following is Keith Emerson's "Piano Concert #1," originally heard on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Works Volume 1 . It's given new gravitas and polish that the original could have used and a more airy production that gives the piece more depth. It doesn't sound like a rock musician stumbling into more complex territory, but a work that perfectly fits among the great Western composers of the 20th century. Culminating the album is two pieces by pre-rock composers: Duke Ellington's early foray into classical, "A New World A-Comin'," and George Gershwin's eternal "Rhapsody in Blue." Both are shiny-eyed and their enthusiastic fusion of jazz and classical feels like an optimistic view into the 21st century. Under the direction of Paul Phillips, the velvety sound of the orchestra feels inseparable from Jeffrey Biegel's sensitive piano.
Jace Lasek, the singer and lead guitarist of The Besnard Lakes, doesn't go for straight-to-tape grittiness that seems to make up the bulk of modern psychedelia. Working together with his partner, Olga Goreas, The Besnard Lakes are the closest we have to a modern Flying Saucer Attack, albeit it more up-tempo and upbeat. Breaking away from their traditional method of recording, Goreas and Lasek created demos in the wilderness of Saskatchewan before moving into the studio. What initially started off as intimate, acoustic tracks influenced by nature suddenly explode into reverb, spacey glee without losing the closeness or intimacy of their demos. Lasek approaches his own Breakglass Studio with an ear as careful as legends Phil Spector and Brian Wilson to sculpt a sound you couldn't make playing live. Things gets stretched, gooey, and melted as he warps each track into layers so dense they could cause Tame Impala's Kevin Parker to break a sweat. Just when you think you're over space rock, The Besnard Lakes pull you right back.
Matt Berninger of The National and Brent Knopf of Menomena team for an album of light, freewheeling indie pop-rock that allows both artists to show new shades to their talents. Berninger is the famously dour voice behind The National’s sardonic tales and Knopf formerly played keyboards and ran loops for Menomena’s spindly indie-rock and now plays in Ramona Falls. The two at first might seem strange bedfellows, but Berninger in particular sounds liberated—while The National are excellent, there’s an ease here not found in his work with that band (witness his rap-like delivery and lines like “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the colored ‘Fuck Me’ shirt—the green one,” on “I’m the Man to Be”). Knopf employs found sounds, quick keyboard loops, chintzy drum machine beats and skronky guitars beneath Berninger’s baritone on strange, spacious digital orchestrations like “Paul Is Alive.” It takes a moment to acclimate yourself to what exactly is going on in a track like “Need a Friend,” but once you do, the tunes reveal themselves to be slinky post-pop numbers that keep you guessing. Though we doubt either Berninger or Knopf will quit their day jobs just yet, EL VY is at least as interesting and entertaining as either artist’s other bands. And for anyone new to either artist’s work, Return to the Moon is the catchiest thing either has put to tape.
There's no doubt that Baaba Maal is in the pantheon of world renowned and eternal African musicians who broke sonic barriers along with Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, and Youssou N'Dour. He takes clear risks with new sounds and doesn't regurgitate the upbeat post-reggae sound that made him famous. Taking a bit of inspiration from recent popular acts like Bombino and Tinariwen, Baaba Maal transforms his distinctly Senegalese sound by teaming up with a Western producer. Having previously cut his teeth with M.I.A. and Coldplay, Johan Hugo Karlberg adds elements of electronic dance and strips away Baaba Maal's large band to make a sparser, grittier album. Guitars that feel right out of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks blare against a cacophony of vocals and percussion that almost feels disorienting. Maal takes himself out of the optimistic comfort zone for which he's known and is stripped away for a raw sound that feels influenced by hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. But this is Maal's album, and his distinctly soaring vocals steal the show. Against the sparse backdrop of the music, his voice feels more naked and stark than ever before. At 62 years old, the Senegalese pop hero still captures your ear and makes sure you're listening.
Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city , left such an impression that hype for a follow-up has been through the roof. So forgive the Compton rapper if he kind of Beyonce’d To Pimp a Butterfly , teasing singles before announcing a release date and suddenly putting it out a week early. Pulling the rug out from hype and inevitable backlash, it gives us a change to all hear To Pimp a Butterfly at once, in all its glory. Butterfly doubles down on the idiosyncrasies of good kid , eschewing club-friendly tracks in favor of those that cast a light on Lamar’s pure skills as a rapper and wordsmith—always celebrated, yet perhaps distracted by stellar production and good kid ’s concept-album style—as well as his ability to put together a layered and compelling album. Tracks like the “For Free” interlude are showcases for Lamar’s dexterity, while “u’s” desperate, verge-on-tears delivery find him at his most vulnerable —Drake’s never done anything like this. The production across To Pimp a Butterfly , courtesy of such luminaries as Flying Lotus and Thundercat, like those artists’ work (and similarly to D’Angelo’s recently released Black Messiah ), effortlessly melds hip-hop, R&B and jazz on excellent tracks like the off-kilter “Institutionalized” and gorgeous “These Walls” to exist in some mystery middle space, without drawing attention away from Lamar’s star power. While headier tracks dominate the album, Lamar unleashes a couple of huge singles at the album’s closing. At first, “i” could come off as Lamar’s “sell out” track, catchy enough to sit alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” as a crowd-friendly that sands off his rough edges, but it serves as a bit of a breather here, dressed up in The Isley Brothers’ unstoppable “Who’s That Lady,” though Lamar’s lyrics remain deeply dark, exposing his own depression, and a spoken word passage that delves into a discussion on racial slurs adds context. Following the reclaiming of racial stereotypes on the absolutely killer “The Blacker the Berry,” To Pimp a Butterfly ends ultimately feeling conflicted yet triumphant. It’s a deep, complicated work, yet not one that feels the slightest bit overstuffed or overwrought. Kendrick Lamar successfully defies all expectations yet again, on what’s sure to be one of the year’s best albums.
Brooklyn’s Diiv are back after four years with an album that delivers on the promise of their debut, Oshin . Musically, Zachary Cole Smith and co. still dole out shimmering guitar-pop nuggets that surf on waves of reverb and atmospheric distortion. Songs like “Under the Sun” offer a pure rush of new wave beats and summery melodies, even as Smith’s lyrics delve into his struggle with addiction. It follows one of The Cure’s best tricks: sounding lively even at their bleakest. Songs like “Dopamine” are far from numbed out — Smith’s jaunty vocal is as close as he’d let himself get to Tom Petty, while still encased in a fog of reverb. Is The Is Are is a bit sprawling at 17 tracks, and after a dynamite opening, some of its shorter tracks in the middle don’t sink in, compared with the relatively taut Oshin . But that also gives Is The Is Are room to roam and the feeling of some alt-rock record of yore, like a Guided By Voices or Sonic Youth album (speaking of the latter, Smith’s girlfriend, Sky Ferreira, shows up to play Kim Gordon on the breathy “Blue Boredom”). Smith also should get credit for expanding his guitar palette while keeping things trim and stylistically consistent, adding My Bloody Valentine-style bends and distortion to his crisp, Felt-ish tones only when necessary. As layers of heavily distorted riffs close out “Waste of Breath” like interlocking corroded piping (epic by Diiv standards at nearly six minutes), Smith’s talents are firmly re-established. We’re perfectly willing to follow Smith’s meanderings when he lands in such fertile territory on the ultimately victorious Is The Is Are .