It’s finally time for the top ten picks in the Nowhere Bros Albums of 2016 list. These were the ten albums that I got the most replay value out of this year, and will certainly be revisiting in the years to come. Hope you’ve enjoyed the countdown on the facebook page as well as reading our posts here!
#10 – Denzel Curry – Imperial
Two albums in my list left me shivering in a cold sweat after I first heard them, one of those was Denzel Curry’s Imperial. From the very first moments, this project absolutely floored me – opening track “ULT” set the intensity at absolute maximum, showcasing Denzel’s incredibly rapid, booming delivery with near-perfect breath control, matched by an equally aggressive and explosive beat by producer Ronny J, leading into a dynamite anthem of self-empowerment, “Gook”. Only towards the final third does Imperial wind down, closing with the terrific soulful and psychedelic cut “If Tomorrow’s Not Here” which is packed with clever and introspective rhymes, many of which fly by on the first listen as Denzel effortlessly reels off punchline after punchline. It also has one of my favourite hooks of the year: “Let’s all jump out the window / Before your casket gets closed, and your ashes get smoked”. For a 21 year-old, this is a phenomenal effort – and yet, I can’t help but feel that Denzel Curry’s best work is still ahead of him. There may be a few more cold sweats coming my way…
#9 – A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
When I first heard that Tribe were reuniting and subsequently planning to release another studio album, I was immediately sceptical, given the fractured relationship between the group’s members, and that comeback releases after such a long period of time (18 years!) tend to flop more often than not. After Phife Dawg sadly passed away earlier this year, I thought any chance of this album being released was over, but no – We Got It from Here is certainly here, and the Native Tongues champions are once again at their peak. Listening to this album was like rediscovering this phenomenal hip hop quartet all over again – Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed with frequent collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence may have aged in the mortal realm, but their collective aura on the mic and in the studio have not waned in the slightest. If anything, they simply sound wiser, not older – and the same goes for producer Ali Shaheed, who clearly had his ear to the ground during the near two decades of hiatus, utilising samples and beats that stay true to Tribe’s roots in jazz, soul and funk and yet nothing on this album sounds like their classic 1990s output. We’ve already seen that jazz rap still has a place in 2016 – Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who are referenced as “gatekeepers of flow” in “Dis Generation” are living proof of that. But against all odds, A Tribe Called Quest are now firmly amongst the ranks of those 21st century gatekeepers. What a time to be alive.
#8 – NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
2016 was definitively the year of Anderson .Paak’s rise and dominance across the realms of Hip Hop and Neo-Soul, which he bookended with Malibu in January and Yes Lawd! with producer Knxweldge in October, as well as a handful of brilliant features inbetween. Yes Lawd! is wall-to-wall vintage, sensual soul music with superb sample selection and splicing from Knxwledge, expanding on the potential of last year’s appetiser Link Up & Suede EP. The contrast between these two is just about perfect – Anderson croons and flows at a high register, Knxwledge’s choppy beats reside at a murky, lower register – the only exception being the bright and bouncy “Scared Money”, which is incidentally my favourite track. Credit must also go to the Stones Throw label for pairing these two, because in many ways Yes Lawd! is the spiritual successor to that other famous Stones Throw collaboration between producer and rapper – Madvillainy, and in my view both albums are equally impressive and cohesive, due to how well both halves of the duos complement each other. Fingers crossed and prayers to the lawd that the NxWorries relationship extends beyond just one album, because I definitely think it can.
#7 – Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Kendrick Lamar’s collection of To Pimp a Butterfly outtakes are anything but “untitled” or “unmastered”, they’re eight unique and explorative hip hop cuts that chart the Compton rapper’s journey and stylistic progressions in the months leading into and during the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, resulting in what I consider to be a quite brilliant prequel story. We hear Kendrick, with an eclectic and cutting-edge team of producers in tow, experiment with the likes of free jazz, bossa nova, funk and woozy trap beats while jumping across topics ranging from the apocalypse, religion, the music industry, spirituality, social inequality – all these aspects were fully fleshed out in To Pimp a Butterfly but sound just as compelling here, without extra studio flourishes the tracks have a raw, powerful energy that reminds me of Kendrick’s live performances, which is perhaps why he decided to promote To Pimp a Butterfly by performing these various “untitled” tracks across late night television. Whether or not Kendrick proceeds down a similar promotional path for his next album remains to be seen, but as a prologue of thoughts, exploration and experimentation, it doesn’t get much better than untitled unmastered.
#6 – The Avalanches – Wildflower
Sampling is a meticulous, time-consuming craft that requires a high skillset, immense knowledge of music and a degree of creative genius to make something entirely new from several different components. There aren’t many better exponents of high-quality sampling than The Avalanches, whose 2000 debut release Since I Left You reportedly contained “thousands” of samples, yet played as a seamless, smooth conceptual piece that became a landmark album of plunderphonics – the art of heavy sampling to create new compositions. 16 years on and The Avalanches have managed to produce their second effort Wildflower, an album just as rich with detail as its predecessor. It’s glowing with optimism and positivity from start to end, and plays like a swirling, psychedelic Disney soundtrack – there are blaring and stuttering horn samples, sharp string sections, glorious vocal melodies, beautiful electronic flourishes and the featured artists shine and often come off as cartoonish, particularly in regards to Danny Brown, MF DOOM (“Frankie Sinatra”) and Biz Markie (“The Noisy Eater”) which adds to an overall sense of listening to a plunderphonics rendition of Alice in Wonderland. I absolutely adore this album, and along with LEISURE, Malibu and Yes Lawd!, it’s one of 2016’s quintessential summer soundtracks.
#5 – Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
Hellish. Explosive. Repugnant. Psychotic. I’m trying, but no descriptors can accurately reflect this abrasive fucking monster of an album, the fifth by the avant-garde hip hop / top-tier trolls themselves, Death Grips. When I first clicked ‘play’ on the opening track “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” I had a general idea of what to expect – some harsh electronic tones perhaps, MC Ride spitting observational rhymes here and there… but after Clementine Creevy’s frankly shocking delicate vocals faded away, its descent into an inferno of pulsating black metal-style riffs with MC Ride screaming almost directly into one’s eardrum left me in a catatonic state & struggling to keep up with the 500km/h pace of this album. Listening to the second track “Hot Head” is like being strapped face-first towards a jet engine, as swelling, heavily distorted guitars conjure flames to melt your face off, but at least you’re left with enough consciousness to appreciate the synth arpeggios. It’s like they took the memorable hooks and electronic gems from The Money Store and threw them into Satan’s meat grinder, resulting in the best fusion of Hip Hop and Heavy Metal since Public Enemy teamed up with Anthrax. Bottomless Pit is an adrenaline rush from start to finish, and once you figure out what the hell is going on it can be mightily addictive too, much like The Money Store, and it was right up there with the most memorable and enjoyable listening experiences I had this year.
#4 – clipping. – Splendor & Misery
Abstract, conceptual, Lovecraftian sci-fi dystopian narrative albums that challenge notions of anthropocentrism in Hip Hop? Are you fucking kidding me? No, experimental trio Clipping are certainly not fooling around in Splendor & Misery, a 37-minute futuristic concept album that centers around a slave known as ‘Cargo 2331’ commandeering a spaceship and going rogue while coping with the perils of surviving deep space with just the ship’s computer for company. Something as wildly ambitious as this could only come from this group, who are made up of Daveed Diggs, star of the Broadway Hip Hop musical Hamilton, William Hutson, recent PhD graduate who completed a dissertation in experimental music and film composer Jonathan Snipes. Splendor & Misery gets significant mileage from each member’s skillset – Diggs’ fast-paced descriptive rhymes drive the conceptual narrative while Hutson and Snipes’ knack for unconventional sample sources results in a minimalistic atmosphere of static, eerie background noises and the occasional flourish when needed. The upbeat, optimistic closing track “A Better Place” fades out with swelling waves of distortion as Cargo 2331 vanishes into the unknown, and the only comparison I can draw here is to that grand, psychedelic finale in 2001: A Space Odyssey, because there’s no musical counterpart to Splendor & Misery. It’s not catchy, there are no bangers or meaty hooks, but it pushes against conventionality to create something truly compelling, and for that I can’t help but love it.
#3 – Jeff Rosenstock – Worry
Nothing resonates quite like an opening line that goes “Fuck off, the internet”, (“To Be A Ghost…”) which typifies the kind of sardonic lyricism Jeff Rosenstock employs in his third studio album Worry. Much of this album is a well-articulated vent against what has caused Rosenstock significant frustration within and outside his New York neighbourhood – namely urban gentrification, police brutality, social and economic inequality and corporate exploitation, all the while struggling to maintain personal relationships and worrying about the future. And what better vehicle of expression than blistering Punk Rock, something which Rosenstock has been doing exceptionally well for the past decade-and-a-half. This album is an absolute blast of a listen, and with virtually no studio embellishments, it has a powerful live performance aesthetic aided by some brilliant sequencing – I often found myself not noticing when certain tracks ended and others began, especially during the hyper-aggressive Abbey Road-esque medley during the second half. I really can’t compliment the instrumentation enough, it’s a cross between the infectious-yet-noisy pop appeal of Weezer with the raucous-yet-emotive angst of The Replacements. Music publications tell us that guitar music, and punk in particular, is dead – Worry is definitive proof that those kinds of sentiments are bollocks.
#2 – David Bowie – Blackstar
When I look back at 2016’s unusually high number of high-profile and culturally influential artists that have passed, there’s still just one that affects me nearly a year on – David Bowie. His 25th and ultimately final studio album turned out to be an atmospheric, avant-garde adieu – these final 41 minutes of his recorded work are essentially an epitaph, the various coded messages about dying, spirits rising, invisible scars and seeing the English evergreens are beautifully poetic reflections from someone who has managed to transform a terminal disease into inspiration. It’s something we should not have been too surprised about when it comes to Bowie, I suppose – after 5 decades or so as a performer, constantly reinventing and experimenting visually and aesthetically, Blackstar is a product of Bowie’s enormous wealth of artistic ability and experience. Yet it has still managed to set an artistic precedent. The off-kilter, haunting melodies and stunning instrumentation (I urge anyone who has not done so to listen to “No Plan”, “When I Met You” and “Killing A Little Time”, spectacular songs which were recorded during the Blackstar sessions) of subtle jazz flourishes and experimental rock are the perfect backdrop as Bowie makes his final curtain call. It’s been an extremely difficult album to listen to, digest and even write about, but Blackstar is an epic finale, one which will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the finest artistic achievements in the 21st century.
#1 – Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
At its core, music is about expression – and truly great music constructs expression in unique and engaging ways. In Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, the twisted, confusing and chaotic explorations of a man’s descent into madness was the most compelling and disturbing narrative I heard in anything this year. The album introduces this immediately on the aptly-named opener “Downward Spiral” where the journey begins with Brown introducing his demons – paranoia, delusions, insecurity, isolation, suicide – heavy shit for an opening track, and it sets the tone as the remainder of Atrocity Exhibition fluctuates between the highs and lows of the cyclical nature of drug and substance abuse. With the help of UK producer Paul White, the sound of Atrocity Exhibition is like an entirely new terraformed planet in the hip hop universe, full of diverse samples and influences ranging from Detroit techno (“When it Rain”) to Afrobeat-inspired No Wave (“Dance in the Water”) while also managing to stay true to Hip Hop conventionality with pounding Boom Bap in 2016’s greatest posse cut, “Really Doe”. Brown’s lyrical and rapping skills almost defy belief, whether he’s high-pitched and riding the beat, or articulating a comedown in a lower register, or even going completely off-kilter with opening lines like “I’m like Kubrick with 2 bricks and hoes on the strip” (“Lost”) or “Verbal couture parkour with the metaphors” (“Ain’t it Funny”) he never fails to cease being one of the most unique and engaging figures in contemporary hip hop, and all I can do is applaud.