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Nobody, not even Justin Vernon, knows what to make of Justin Vernon’s new record, and that’s perfectly alright. Like the rest of us, our Midwestern minstrel is off his feet, keenly aware we’re hurtling into the Anthropocene. And like the rest of us, he knows he’s not magnificent. But that didn’t stop him from pouring his heart and soul of 1s and 0s into this project, achieving unprecedented universality through esotericism. Bon Iver proves itself a sponge of history, lost and rewritten, mining samples from folk shaman Lonnie Holley and twangy balladeer Jim Ed Brown, smelting the past into a slurry of the Now. The silences and pitch-shifted vocals of “33 ‘God’” may alienate some, but that’s exactly the point. Vernon puts forth the most extraterrestrial possible record to still inhabit terra firma.
As I write this blurb, Bon Iver’s cultish omnipotence forces itself down my throat: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” plays over this café‘s sound system, and just outside, a massive emblem of 22, A Million has been muralized against a Minneapolis skate shop. The music of Bon Iver paradoxically stands as the most sincere and most affected soundtrack to these times. The unabashed religiosity of this pop anthem exudes understated grandiosity. Its impenetrable numerology counts down the days to the Second Coming and subsequent Apocalypse. It’s bird shit, and it’s beautiful.—A. Noah Harrison
Malibu‘s big dance number is a seriously modern take on classic party funk, but it’s rendered far more carefully than most of today’s throwback radio hits. While “Get Lucky”, “Uptown Funk”, and “Blurred Lines” all rely on cheery, nostalgic mimicry, Paak’s James Brown yelps and P-Funk vibes serve a vision of the party through the fractures of contemporary society that’s half-celebration, half-social-division and hostility. Too much dance R&B these days is idealistic and toothless; it’ll quote from the ‘60s and ‘70s classics as long as it can sterilize them of all social commentary. “Come Down” shows them how to have their funk and eat it, too.—Colin Fitzgerald
8Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is uniquely suited for these tumultuous times. He’s got rich gospel for when you want to feel restored and replenished (“Blessings” and “How Great”) and pointed political tunes for when you want to get motivated (“Summer Friends”). But sometimes you don’t want either of those options, sometime you just want to flex, and no song this year makes you feel invincible like Chance’s “No Problem”. The instrumental channels the church choir shine that he’s whole-heartedly embraced but cloaks it in filters and bends it to fit trunk-rattling percussion. 2 Chainz’s luxury rap bombast is a perfect foil for Chance, and Lil Wayne’s verse feels positively cathartic for the troubled MC. “No Problem” is far from Chance’s most thematically weighty track, but it was still one of his most crucial, proving that amongst the calls to action and thoughtful prayers there is still room to stunt a little.—Grant Rindner
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“Black America Again”
No-one, not even Common himself, could have foreseen how relevant this record would become as the year events unfolded, particularly as the album of the same name was released the week before the election which shocked the world. Set to a deep and emotive piano line, crunching drums join the mix and Common’s poetic delivery sounds as charged and reinvigorated as it has for years, as he considers the injustices that have long effected African Americans, including police brutality. As the tracks moves towards its close, Stevie Wonder drives the overarching message of positivity that underlies both the track and record as he implores people to rewrite the black American story. At times like these, this message can be drawn even more widely as America and the world head timidly towards times of great uncertainty.—William Sutton
“Burn the Witch”
Thankfully, the not-so-little shop of horrors that is 2016 will soon end. The putrid 2016 US presidential election is over – not that the worst isn’t yet to come on that front. A seemingly interminable conflict rages in Syria. Ethno-nationalist movements are cropping up in numerous Western countries. Looking back on these and other ongoing crises, a track like Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch” makes a lot of sense. Tense, scraping strings, an undulating bassline, and Thom Yorke’s paranoid musings (“This is a low flying panic attack”) form a sonic snapshot of pure terror, notes clustering together like a thunderhead of hornets. On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead’s best LP in a long time, “Burn the Witch” is an oddity; no other track, excepting perhaps the krautrock jam “Ful Stop”, comes close to keeping pace or intensity. Radiohead spends much of its time on the album swirling about in a bleary-eyed, gray soundscape, typified by songs like “Glass Eyes” and the long-awaited “True Love Waits”. But for a few minutes, the band summons a storm of cacophony, and Jonny Greenwood reveals once again his prowess for string arrangements. Unlike any contemporary rock band, Radiohead inspires all kinds of high-minded theorizing, but it doesn’t take much effort to connect “Burn the Witch” to the tumultuous times that surround it.—Brice Ezell
The single version of “Nikes” and its incredible video dropped us into the four years of aesthetic development that Ocean has underwent since his last album Channel Orange. “Nikes” features of Blonde’s dominant traits: treated vocals that tell different perspectives, down-tempo pacing, and beautiful vulnerability about identity and sexuality. “Nikes” sounds like a dream in forward motion—it’s heavy and weightless, becoming wholly human when we hear Ocean’s untreated voice at its stunning midpoint. The sound and visuals evince Ocean as a dedicated researcher and critic of pop culture, someone who is deeply in touch with the moment but radically outside of its norms. Like David Bowie, he’s an artist on an island all his own who visits when he feels up to it, bringing us some of the most rapturous music from a major pop figure in years.—Tanner Smith
Techies, help me out: there must be some computer program that will take your favorite musical moments from a single decade—say, “the ‘80s”—and fuse them together into a single that makes people dream themselves into elaborate romantic scenarios involving hot misfits covertly making out inside janitorial supply closets. UK bedroom producer Mylo achieved this very feat a decade ago with “In My Arms”, a tongue-wrestling mashup of “Bette Davis Eyes” with “Waiting for a Star to Fall”. Now his cute landsmen the 1975 have taken that “in my aaarms” cadence from Boy Meets Girl, made it sound like Duran Duran, changed the words, added more words including “epicurean”, and decorated the whole thing with synth-string hits and what could be a keytar solo if you play your cards right. It all adds up to something better, grander, more generous than whatever your computer program would spit out. After all, if these young gentlemen with their ridiculous hair cared enough to squish together all your favorite ‘80s bits, you must be pretty special now, mustn’t you?—Josh Langhoff
“Your Best American Girl”
Forcing yourself to conform is something a good amount of us can do on a daily basis without tears and pain, but when you really come close to reluctantly abandoning your identity, any melodrama is justified. That’s what Mitski grapples with “Your Best American Girl”, a song that tears the curtain down as it unveils the moans and sheets of distortion that emphatically deliver the song’s core struggle; attempting to tweak your upbring to impress an “all-American boy,” the penetrating uncertainty brought about by ignorant disapproval. For Mitski, it’s no easy task, but the catharsis that comes when the screeching refrain emerges from the hushed verses is as therapeutic as it is theatric.—Max Totsky
In the age of massive streaming services and pocket-sized hard drives that can store tens of thousands of songs, it’s easy to become a cynical, and even lazy music listener. On certain days, you can find yourself clicking ‘next,’ and going through nearly 250 songs, and feeling like you’ve heard everything. But then, a track like Blackstar comes along, and resets your expectations. The sparse, industrial first half is tempered with Donny McCaslin’s jazzy saxophone. Then, it rolls into a not-quite pop song. A repeating refrain “at the center of it all” ties both movements together. And for many jaded listeners, a long-dormant phrase can be uttered again: “I’ve never heard anything like this before.”—Sean McCarthy
Have you heeded the clarion call? Are you in formation? 2016 people demanding your rights, get ready for the backlash, but this time it’s not just some internet trash talk about illuminati. 2017 people are in dire need to slay, slay, slay those albino alligator alt.wrong pigfuckers. They want us to think some cheddar bay biscuits as a post-coital treat is the same as sexually assaulting a cadre of women? That standing on a cop car is the same as murdering unarmed children for Trumped-up offenses? All the year’s political entanglements seemed to find a nexus in “Formation”, a loose-stringed weird pop strand of Bayou birthright elocution inextricably linked to its surrounding visceral visuals- namely New Orleans drowning in a sea of neglect and Panthers invading the imperial Leni Riefenstahl spectacle center of pro-football. Men taking a knee and women raising a fist is the perfect of inversion of scum-American values, lest we not forget that the Black Panthers arose out of a lack of proper defense against tyranny in underserved communities. Bey mostly sings of how capitalistic success has made for the sweetest revenge (making managerial feminism ripe for the Hillary camp), and how white hierarchies and dog-whistles have not diced the proud black roots out of her, but the culture clash has caused “Formation” to become somewhat anthemic for the resistance. Lucky for us, the song Bey, MikeWillMadeIt, and Rae Stummund assembled is also a vanguard, a noise of difference for an alternative mainstream, a 2017 not cowering in defeat but standing in synchronized defiance. Militant pop to militantly pop some Nazi scum.—Timothy Gabriele