10. This Unruly Mess I've Made - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
I started listening to this album as prep work before their debut concert here in Singapore in September. And I could not stop listening to it for weeks to come! What do I know about rap music to comment?! I just hear this sincerity + sensibilities that make this sophomore album, released independently, sticks. Lots of tender piano chords, clean shining horns, and always the right soulful voices. Fatherhood clearly informed the writing of this album. In Need to Know, he questions consumerism, and articulates his fears as a father with a daughter in a society that objectifies young women. In Ed-Sheeran-collab Growing Up, he gives graduation-speech advice to his future daughter, including a subtle embrace of her sexuality no matter which way she will be (Take your girl to the prom…slow dance with your woman in your arms). Elsewhere, he deals with lighter topics such as dieting for a healthier lifestyle (Let's Eat), scooters (Downtown), or a nod to breakdancing (Dance Off). But the magnum opuses of the album - and there are two, bookmarking the record - are undoubtedly Light Tunnels and White Privilege II. Both see him documenting in detail and in his POV sights and sounds and feelings of what it’s like to actually be at a scene. The former is about his night at his first Grammys and the latter is a stream of thoughts he had marching at a Black Lives Matter protest. The self-awareness and the truths he raises are honest and powerful. Both tracks also see him touching on his position in music. I wish I had my homies with me here but nope, most of the artists I know don't get invited to this show (Light Tunnels). You've exploited and stolen the music, the moment. The magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with. The culture was never yours to make better. You're Miley, you're Elvis you're Iggy Azalea (White Privilege II). But then he quickly undercuts that self-doubt with a satirical story of a mother approaching him, praising the positive influence his LGBT anthem Same Love (mistakenly uttered as One Love) has on her kids. You’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to. Perhaps he is simply growing sure of the path he needs to take, just like the advice he gave his one-year-old in Growing Up: Don’t try to change the world, find something that you love. And do it everyday. Do that for the rest of your life. And eventually, the world will change.
9. Chapters - Yuna
She said I got talent/ And she took me to auditions/ But nobody paid attention/ I was too young for rejection/ Never too young for a passion/ Cause music kept me going/ And I knew one day I would make it/ And my momma said... "It takes time. It takes a little time, baby.” Yuna sings on deluxe album closer Time in a most autobiographical way. And a little time was indeed all it takes for this Malaysian singer-songwriter to be in the big league. Five years in L.A., and album number three, Chapters, already broke into the Top 20 on Billboard’s R&B Charts. Produced partly by Robin Hannibal of Rhye, the album is a commercially attractive smooth-as-silk piece of adult contemporary R&B that needs to reach an even wider audience. Yuna continues to write her story in Chapters by expanding her sound. She harmonises like a smooth operator on Unrequited Love, sounding like this generation’s Sade. She channels Jessie Ware on Too Close, and the late Aaliyah on Best of Me. Your Love could have been a hit by Lights-era Ellie Goulding, and Poor Heart has echoes of fellow countrygal Zee Avi. But Yuna pulls in all together with her polished sound and chic clear voice, an instrument she knows how to use very well. She could go all soft with David Foster’s penned All I Do, and she could come alive with the challenging Mannequin. And then there is the coup of the year. Securing R&B’s king of sexy jam Usher for a duet on the exquisite Crush. Feel a little rush? I’ve got more than a crush on you, Yuna.
8. Joanne - Lady Gaga
From the album title - her middle name so as to demonstrate balance, also her aunt's name to signpost a personal album about family - to her more streamlined songwriting and her stripped back look (well, at least at the start of the campaign before she went all gaga again), Joanne is a calculated move. A carefully calibrated release to reposition herself with Nashville ambitions. The strategy pays off. Although there is no game-changing music breakthrough here, but in the context of Gaga, this set of songs make one's head turns. For me, this album would have been much stronger if she had dared to step out completely. Instead of leaving one foot in Alejandro Gaga (Dancin' In Circles, by Beck no less) in the first half of the record. She must be reminded, every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith. The album really takes off with some guts to depart from track 7 onwards. Million Reasons has proven to be an effective lightning rod for all the accolades and good word of mouth. It is especially strong an entry when performed with a dash of vulnerability and in the knowledge of her recent personal life. Come to Mama by Father Misty John charms with a 70s horn-peppered groove, a large chorus and a larger personality (an accidental anthem for Hillary). Hey Girl, an infectious dream duet with Florence Welch over a Bennie and the Jets' riff, shows that Gaga can do restrain if she chooses to. Angel Down is a moving ode to Black Lives Matter, which on first listen became an instant favourite. Grigio Girls turns a topic about rallying around a friend with cancer into a campfire singalong with such a genuine heart and feel. Just Another Day surprises with an infectious sunnyville Sesame St vibe. Through it all, her singing has never been cleaner, probably a takeaway from doing jazz standards these past years and a credit to producer Mark Ronson. Partnering him is also a very shrewd move; he grounded her thematically, just like how he had cast his magic on Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars. His approach and output is part 60s bohemian, part 70s funk, part country, yet totally contemporary.
7. Mind of Mine - Zayn
So say what you want to say, sings Zayn in his debut solo release, but you cannot deny this boy of his immense talent. His desire to break away from 1D completely cannot be more obvious – naming his album Mind of Mine, dropping his name to a one-word moniker, timing the album launch exactly a year after he left the band, and changing out his sound from template teen-idol pop-rock of 1D to soulful alt R&B. And most of those strategies work. Pairing up with main producer and co-writer James Malay Ho who did Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Zayn unleashes a cohesive album which features his (and only his) strong vocals front and centre, above a bed of slick and sick production. It’s all about the mood, the vibes, the textures. The fluidity of melodies and memories. The album opens strong with first single PillowTalk, It’s You, Before, and Drunk. The chord changes of It’s You is reminiscent of A Different Corner by George Michael – another band boy who found immense solo success. Zayn, a Brit Pakistani Muslim, then boldly introduces to his mainstream fan base an interlude Flower, sung in the style of Qawwali (Sufi devotional music) and in his father’s language of Urdu. The second half of the album contains more tracks along the themes of desire, lust, and frustrations – everything a 23 year old thinks about – with tracks like TIO, Rear View, and Like I Would. And then there is Fool For You - “an unexpectedly Beatles-esque pop ballad” according the NME, with his amazing vocal runs and grand declaration that instantly puts him up another level. Yup, he is definitely not going in that one direction any more.
6. ANTI - Rihanna
ANTI is Rihanna’s eighth studio album, and the first that I finally like. Her message with the release and its title is sharp and clear: she is anti-album, anti-format, anti-release campaign, anti-standard track length, anti-thesis to what every one expects of her. She makes her rules. And she rules the airwaves, with 7 singles in the past 12 months no less, on her own or in collaboration. What a remarkable ambition and an undeniable attitude! In ANTI, She gets away with coverin’ Tame Impala as straight as an arrow on Same Ol’ Mistakes, sampling Dido’ Thank You randomly on Never Ending, and slurring what sounds like gibberish but is actually the dialect of Jamaican patois on Work. Now, Work (work work work work) has been phenomenal. It has slipped into 2016's collective consciousness whether you like it or not, and has just been named the best song of the year by NME's critics, among many other accolades. Besides Work, the other two full-bodied works Kiss It Better (with its 80s rock guitar lines not unlike Prince) and Needed Me (with her defiance spat over an unsettling buzz) have gone on to become the follow-up fodders for radio. Both too are now on many respectable top 100 songs of the year lists. But what excites and intrigues me most is how Rihanna drops further proofs of her marked growth with this pair: Love On The Brain and Close To You. In the former, you get a Rihanna no one has heard before, belting for her dear life with so much soul and snarl over a 1950’s doo-wop organ and soaring strings. In the latter, she delivers genuine heartfelt vulnerability under fluttering piano keys. Then there are those three tracks hovering at two minutes or less each. She reaches her highest note ever in the "drunk voicemail" Higher, lays it all back with the hypnotic James Joint, and slow-jams a characteristically nonchalant Yeah I Said It. All these tracks may sound incomplete, yet her charisma and the melodies are so strong that they already fulfil potentials and leave lasting impressions.
5. Wrong Crowd - Tom Odell
Since winning Brit Critics Choice for his debut album Long Way Down, 25 yo Tom Odell has levelled up and expanded his sound and edge for bigger shows in larger venues. This is a robust record with euphoric choruses, and choke-full of honest songs from a honest boy about … his insecurities. I never believe from the day I met you, a loser like me could ever get you (Jealousy). Wonder will I ever be enough (She Don’t Belong To Me), I’m just the entertainment (Entertainment). A good looking lad, why would he be wearing such low self-esteem on his sleeves?! Paralysed by love, he’s either wishing the girl of his dreams had a little more pheromones for him (Magnetised), or pleading repeatedly for her to love him some more (Here I Am). Still naive, he thought if he tried hard then he couldn’t lose (I Thought I Knew What Love Was). Or he could find somebody his mother would like (Wrong Crowd). Hope finally seeps in through the cracks and shines in Constellations and Somehow, two of this year’s most beautiful ballads. Elsewhere on this deluxe edition with solid bonus tracks, Tom continues to be bold with perspectives (Concrete, Sparrow, Mystery). Fellow piano man Elton John will be proud; Wrong Crowd puts Tom firmly in the right crowd.
4. A Seat At The Table - Solange
So I took away the 9 interludes (too many!) and distilled the album down to the 12 tracks just shy of 45 minutes. What a beautiful and mature collection of songs with interesting beats and in quiet defiance. In one of the highlights Mad, she sang about running into this girl, who asked her why is she so mad. In less than 4 minutes, she went from insisting on her every right to be frustrated at society's inabilities to understand black lives, to realising the need to let go of said anger (Carrying it alone you find it only getting in the way so let it go let it go), to submitting to the reality that she perhaps is not allowed to be mad. (I said I'm tired of explaining. Man this shit is draining.) Listen deeper and past her sweet voice, her social commentary on institutionalised racial discrimination continues strong in Weary (I'm weary of the ways of the world…you know that a king is only a man. With flesh and bones, he bleeds just like you do) and F.U.B.U /For us by us (When a nigga tries to board a plane, And they asked you 'what's your name again'. Cause they're thinking 'you're all the same’). Lady Gaga has sung about Hair as a metaphor for personal identity. Solange takes it further. Don't Touch My Hair is an establishment of boundaries, physically and culturally. Don't You Wait sees Solange asking white fans and critics not to hold their breath for her to write and release another generic new song about love. On an even more personal front, she sings about quitting her demon - I tried to drink / dance it away/ I slept it/ sexed it/ read it away - whatever 'it' may be. The complexity in the simplicity of this album is stunning; this record simply catapults her to the next stratosphere. Don't wish her well, as she sings on one track. Just give her a seat on the table already.
3. A Moon Shaped Pool - Radiohead
23 years is a long time. Half of my life - sings Thom Yorke in a reversed outro in Daydreaming. And the ending of a 23-year-long partnership with his wife in late 2015 would not just be a low flying panic attack, it must have been a full blown devastation that sharply informs the melancholic direction of Radiohead's LP9. Thom likens himself to a pool (of tears perhaps?), not shaped like the moon but shaped BY the moon's feminine gravitational pull. Dependent. Manipulated? Helpless. There are so many personal and intimate tracks here, mostly arranged like he's walking in a daze or across a dreamscape. In the short less-than-3-min Glass Eyes, Thom was at his most unconventional by being conversational (Hey it's me, I just got off the train) and confessional (I feel this love, to the core) about being lost and alienated after the break up. Daydreaming sees him questioning if he has been too much of a dreamer, washed over and over by the piano keys. The dense Ful Stop with its racing beats and the ad nauseam repeat of the last line truth will mess you up discloses how a truth his partner had shared had stumped him (trapped in your full stop) and mucked him up. Elsewhere, Thom tries to cope with the break. Desert Island Disk sounds like a track off TV series Westworld soundtrack (and Westworld did feature a couple of stylised Radiohead songs), but it shares Thom's coming to an epiphany that perhaps different types of love are possible. In Present Tense, with a guitar intro that sounds like Dominic Miller of Sting's band playing and an unexpected choir of angels, Thom shares his technique of dancing as a weapon. Of self defence. Against the present. But it is Identikit and True Love Waits that get me always. Blast the former and feel his pain when he wails broken hearts make it rain, with Jonny Green's guitar riff creeping in slowly but relentlessly to a life of its own. Or play the latter with your eyes closed, and sense your own tears streaming down when he pleads Don't leave, just don't leave.
2. Blonde - Frank Ocean
Blonde must have been an extremely precious album for Frank Ocean. It was to be his all-hyped follow-up to Channel Orange, 4 years after he opened up to the world about his sexuality. And his first on his own - barely two days after he completed his label obligations with Endless. I get the sense he worked and reworked and tinkled some more on this collection of personal and fragile stories over and over for years, distilling them down to their essences with the minimal of arrangements. Soulful and fluid, most songs have multiple sections with completely different melodies to evoke the sense of fragmented memory. Is 'white Ferrari' a car or a form of cocaine? Is that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on that outro, or just Frank Ocean's voice manipulated? No matter, White Ferrari featuring James Blake remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking. I'm sure we're taller in another dimension, but you say we're small and not worth the mention. You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned. It's just a skull, least what they call it, and we're free to roam. The two central themes in this track - getting high, and exploring mistakes made in young love - are achingly repeated thru' out the record. Either because he is shy (Good Guy: Here's to the gay bar you too me to, here's where I realised you talked so much more than I do), or he builds walls (Ivy produced by Jamie xx: I could hate you now, it's quite alright to hate me now), or he’s just not comfortable being seen in the public eye with another guy (Siegfried: I'll do anything for you, in the dark. Nights: After Katrina I had to transfer campus. Your apt in Houston is where I waited. Staying with you when I didn't have an address. Fucking on you when I didn't own a mattress). The album closes with him unexpectedly sampling Beatles and Elliot Smith while reflecting on his life choices (Siegfried: Maybe I should move, and settle. Two kids and a swimming pool. I'm not brave.), and finally letting go of his love, his youth, and perhaps this record in an ethereal Godspeed. A meditative and melancholic masterpiece, really.
1. Lemonade - Beyoncé
It begins with her already on her knees, seeking guidance from the divine upon the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Then straight into her rage, self-doubt, insecurity, sadness and eventually forgiveness and closure. Lyrically and thematically, it is easy to see where her building blocks are from - the blurring of lines between her private and public lives. To keep mum about a lemon incident in an elevator 3 years ago until this sudden release of Lemonade as a response is pure marketing and business genius.
Sonically, there is such a step-up effort in experimentation and mixed genres. She does not want to go down the tried and tested formula of big diva ballads or radio dance hits. Instead, she pulls in numerous indie singer-songwriters to contribute and collaborate. Pray I caught you whispering, pray you caught me listening, the album opens strong with Pray You Catch Me cowritten with James Blake. Hold Up follows with a sample of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and a first verse written by Father John Misty. Don’t Hurt Yourself sees a Beyonce singing with a voice and passion never heard before in a rare and unlikely duet with Jack White. Then middle fingers up, tonight I regret putting the ring on, the defiant Sorry co-worked with new boy in town MeLo-X. Daddy Lessons finds Beyonce delivering a country-twang recap of all the lessons her dad taught her – from standing up for herself to being careful of “men like you”. Tracks 7 Love Drought begins her questioning with my favourite set of lyrics:10 times out of 9, I know you’re lying. But 9 times out of 10, I know you’re trying. So I’m trying. Tell me what did I do wrong? I’ve always been committed, been focused. I’ve always paid attention, been devoted. Tell me, what did I do wrong? Oh, already asked that. My bad. Sandcastles finds her at her most vulnerable, only to be guided by the angelic maker’s voice of James Blake in the next track Forward. And forward this woman goes, with stomper anthem Freedom and the sultry reconciliation All Night, a closure only on her terms. With this construct of a linear 11-act narrative arc, Beyonce singlehandedly rejuvenates the format of the album. Ok people let's get into formation, no other album has been as bold in sound and ambition as this.