Chicago-based soul singer,Jamila Woods partners up with Jagjaguwar and her original home, Chicago’s Hip Hop label Closed Sessions for the proper release of her 2016 album HEAVN. To celebrate this union she’s released a video for “Holy,” as well an unreleased alternative version produced by Dee Lilly. It’s a declaration of self-love and self-preservation. “I wrote ‘Holy’ to remind myself that my worth is not dependent on anyone or anything outside of me. For the video I wanted to represent self-care as a sacred act, to make ordinary daily rituals in bedrooms and bathtubs feel magical,” says Woods. The video for “Holy” was directed by Sam Bailey, a close collaborator of Woods. Jamila Woods has what AfroPunk usually calls that “Black Girl Magic.” You can’t help but fall in love with her and this track.
Hey folks, it’s Luke LaBenne here, writer and host of Ghettoblaster’s Best Song Ever podcast. 2016 was a crazy year, full of surprises, so many musical icons released albums and some of them served as farewells. We saw so many amazing albums from veteran artists and some newcomers who grabbed our attention and quickly became beloved favorites. There were so many great albums that I had the honor of listening to and writing about this year thanks to Ghettoblaster. Some of them really stood out so here they are, my Top 20 Albums of 2016.
20. Okkervil River – Away
The ghost album from the band that no longer exists. After the breakup of Okkervil River, frontman Will Sheff went through a period of uncertainty in which his Grandfather and personal hero passed away. Sheff teamed up with jazz musicians, including yMusic’s C.J. Camarieri who used his grandfather’s old trumpet, fusing jazz with their existing folk rock sound. This album that almost didn’t happen turned out to be a warm and beautiful expression with the emotional weight we’ve come to expect from the rock veteran.
19. Kyle Craft – Dolls of Highland
Former GASHCAT frontman Kyle Craft made his SubPop debut with the right amount of retro and modern influences, from Velvet Underground to Neutral Milk Hotel. Kyle tells vivid, sprawling tales of love and loss akin to Bob Dylan, with his powerful, one of a kind voice and big, Springsteen-esque instrumentals. Whether he’s serenading a lady or lamenting his friend who committed suicide, these songs feel very personal and lived-in, with Kyle’s 27 years of life informing each tune.
Listen: Kyle Craft – Pentecost
18. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
I remember a week where I felt like no albums had come out that grabbed my attention and then later in the week I heard this album and was blown away. British singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka combines the building jams of Pink Floyd, with the vocal force and social relevance of Marvin Gaye. Joining soul, folk, and rock to explore the meaning of love & hate, and express the triumphs and trials of a “black man in a white world.” Much of this album is featured in the Netflix’s The Get Down giving a fitting canvas for Michael’s epic, emotional, and uplifting music.
17. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
Last year, Conor Oberst released an album and did a tour with his punk band Desaparecidos. Afterwards, he was exhausted and ill, so he returned to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska to recover. While there, inspiration struck and he wrote a recorded an album in 48 hours. We see a different Conor then we’re used to, stripped down to just guitar or piano with an occasional harmonica solo. Lyrically, these songs are thick with cultural and literary references that drive home the Americana vibe of this album as Conor looks back over his life and career and considers what lies ahead. What began as a sort of pit stop to regroup turned into some of his most personal and powerful work yet.
16. Frightened Rabbit – Painting Of A Panic Attack
Scotish indie-rock veterans Frightened Rabbit really came into their own with their 2012 album Pedestrian Verse, completing the gradual transition from rougher folkier sound to a more polished indie-rock sound. The National’s Aaron Dessner helped them perfect that sound on this album. Resembling The National and the sound Dessner helped Mumford and Sons achieve last year, these songs are much brighter and catchier than you would assume based on the cover art and title. Lyrically, this album deals with death, addiction, and depression though it has it’s fair share of self-deprecation hope permeates each track. Under the tutelage of Dessner, these guys join the ranks of indie-rock greats and continue to grow with each new album.
Jordan Lee has made music under the name Mutual Benefit since 2009, but this year he reached new heights with Skip A Sinking Stone. While touring, Lee contemplated life and love during long car trips, putting his questions and realizations into words gives this album it’s lyrical power. Backing up his insightful lyrics are grand compositions akin to Sufjan Stevens, that can shift quickly into bare, intimate folk. This album is grand yet isolated, using nostalgia as a means to move forward.
14. Vince Staples – Prima Donna
Last year, Vince Staples established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of Hip Hop with his album Summertime ’06. This year, Vince let us know just how fame was treating him with a mini-album full of 7 heavy-hitting songs about his disillusionment with fame, but his strength and relevance despite it, effortlessly weaving social topics into his personal narrative. Not only is Vince at the top of his game lyrically (with more lyrics that can make Christian moms cry), but he has some production help from the great James Blake, appearances by A$AP Rock and Kilo Kish, and heavy nods to OutKast, even with a sample of Andre’s verse from ATLiens. Every song on this album is fantastic and it comes with a short film to compliment each track.
Watch: Vince Staples – Prima Donna
13. Lambchop – FLOTUS
For Love Often Turns Us Still. The veteran folk-rock band turned a page with their latest album, ditching their folk sound for electronic elements and airy, funky grooves. Kurt Wagner has experimented with electronics in the past, but on FLOTUS he seamlessly rolls them in with traditional instruments, primarily bass and piano, to make a smooth, hazy, and beautiful album. Ending, with an 18-minute “love” song. This album can pull at your heart strings just by the mood and feeling the music creates.
Watch: Lambchop – NIV
12. El Perro Del Mar – KoKoro
After 8 months of “maternity leave” indie-pop artist Sarah Assbring returned with her 5th album as El Perro Del Mar. After visiting a museum with eastern instruments and listening to japanese, chinese, thai, and indian pop Assbring added this eastern influence into her existing style of melancholy pop. This new style emerges on each song always in a new and interesting way. Something about motherhood enabled Assbring to tap into primal truths of humanity make this album very deep and insightful.
11. Beyonce – Lemonade
Lemonade was more than an album. It was a film, it was couples therapy, and it was a cultural phenomenon. Never before had a superstar given such an intimate look at their lives on such a large scale. Not only did Jay-Z’s infidelity bring out some of Beyonce’s most powerful work exploring the nature of love, blackness, and womanhood, but she is also joined by an all-star cast of collaborators like Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, and the aforementioned James Blake. Queen B is at the height of her power and vulnerability making this album dynamic and addictive.
Watch: Beyonce – Sorry
10. Red Pill – Instinctive Drowning
If you’ve read my posts or listened to my podcast then it’s no surprise that Detroit rapper Red Pill ended up this high on my list. Red Pill was one of my greatest discoveries this year and just in time for him to drop his innovative second album for Mello Music Group. With the help of producer Ill-Poetic, he creates an eclectic journey through the life and mind of Chris Orrick a.k.a. Red Pill. Shedding the old school style of dusty samples and venturing into more expansive and experimental instrumentals, so much ground is covered on this album. Whether it’s grand speculation about the universe or small insights into his personal life, we hear a deep thinker whose thoughts and intentions go deeper than his actions. This record is a weighty and philosophical listen with stunning instrumentals and dynamic production, reflecting the complex contradictions in all of us.
9. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
I was anxiously awaiting a rap album from Childish Gambino but he delivered was even better. Venturing into funk and not spitting a single rhyme on the album, Donald Glover has defied our expectations of what he’s capable of. With the success of his FX series Atlanta we can see Glover really coming into his own as an artist. This album feels completely genuine and as a result is his best record to date. With sprawling guitar solos, extensive jams, and call and response vocals reminiscent of old school funk. Glover tackles social issues in a way we haven’t seen him do before, he calls it, “a shared vibration for human progress.” No album released this year sounds remotely like this one.
8. Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust
Sonderlust is the idea that each random passerby has a life as rich and complex as your own. That elusive concept it what K. Ishibashi attempted to capture on his third album. This album had a rocky start, with K. being underwhelmed by the songs he was writing. Meanwhile, family problems occurred and he threw himself into the music. The result is an examination of love, an album that plays like a movie. Produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and featuring a full backing band, string quartet, and some contributions from of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes. This album is the grandest instrumentation and most experimentation that we’ve seen from Ishibashi yet. I recently got the vinyl and put it on and it’s impossible to turn off, each song is so engaging and plays into the next song perfectly.
Watch: Kishi Bashi – Hey, Big Star
2014 saw the comeback of Weezer, one of the greatest rock bands who seemed to have lost their way a bit. Fans of Weezer’s early work had shut out their pop punk sound when it went in strange directions while still permeating the mainstream. Everything Will Be Alright in the end won back many Weezer fans (including myself) and they quickly followed it up with the fourth installment of their self-titled color albums with what will forever be called The White Album. This is the greatest summer album you could ask for, channeling The Beach Boys with nautical themed rock songs as warm as the California sun. Every song is beautiful while being relentlessly catchy and fun. They may have won back their fans in 2014 but in 2016 they’ve assured us that they won’t be straying from our favor any time soon.
Watch: Weezer – LA Girlz
Where does the art end and the artist begin? Can you separate the two? Kanye makes us ask this question all the time. How can I adore someone’s music but disagree with most of their actions in their life? Everybody has to draw their own line, all I know is that ever since 2004 when I listen to Kanye’s music I’m blown away. Though his styles have changed and there’s so much controversy surrounding him constantly, he has a true talent for music. There are moments of shocking vulnerability on this album as well as your typical Kanye ego and braggadocios attitude. The collaborators here are insane from Chance to Frank Ocean, Rihanna to Kid Cudi; so many amazing artist line up to work with Kanye despite all his issues and there is a reason for that. I don’t let the news or blogs or reality shows or even the artist’s actions shape my opinion, I let the music speak for itself.
Listen: Kanye West – Ultralight Beam
The legendary hip-hop group’s first album in 18 years was everything you would hope. Including the late Phife Dawg’s final verses, and an all-star list of contributors including Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Andre 3000, Anderson Paak, and Elton John. Q-Tip masterfully comments on all the major political and social topics over beats that feel completely current while evoking the groups earlier work. From start to finish this album has you hooked, the music is so engaging while leaving room for some experimentation and the lyrics just speak so perfectly to the emotions many people are feeling. Dave Chappelle hosted SNL with ATCQ as the musical guest and he said it’s always scary to make a comeback so it’s nice to know you’re not doing it alone. This is one of the greatest comeback records you could ask for, while adding to the legacy of one of hip-hop’s greatest contributors.
Formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad the Arizona folk-punk band has been making music since the mid 2000s. Their sound was mostly acoustic with folk instruments like guitar, banjo, and standup bass and Sean Bonnet’s wild, cracking voice and unpredictable lyrics. On 2014’s Christmas Island they unveiled a new sound, with the help of one of my favorite rock producers John Congleton. On The Bible 2 we see Bonnet’s lyrics more refined, and the folk punk style perfected. This is the most dynamic album the band has delivered. Congleton likes music that makes him feel a range of emotions, and helps bring out the individual personalities of each song. Weather it’s crunchy punk tracks like “Cody’s Theme” and “My Brain Is a Human Body,” resembling Neutral Milk Hotel, or intimate ballads like “Junkie Church” and the song that brings the album’s core mantra, “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread.” For those of us who feel uncertain in our skin sometimes, these weirdo anthems have relatable lyrics that hit hard. Though they’ve been around for years this album quickly made them one of my new indie favorites.
Watch: AJJ – Goodbye, Oh Goodbye
Forget Blonde. Forget Pablo. Forget Lemonade. Coloring Book was my most anticipated album of the year (and then it was exclusively on Apple Music FML). With 2014’s Acidrap I fell in love with the music of Chance Bennett. I began to respect him a lot after I watched him get a beer bottle thrown at him and tell the person who threw it that he loved them (he did walk off stage after someone threw a second bottle but can you blame him?). After the release of Angels, the birth of his daughter, and his phenomenal appearance on Kanye’s Ultralight Beam it was clear that Chance is growing and maturing. On this album we see Chance on top on the world, yet he remains grounded. In a world where mainstream hip-hop keeps getting darker with melodies drained, Chance injects warmth and brightness into the genre. Tapping into nostalgia in a more productive way than Donald Trump. This album has everything, ballsy hip-hop swagger, brooding trap, and glorious gospel. Not to mention this album redefined what independent mixtapes are capable of accomplishing. Chance has ascended to super stardom with Nike and Kit-Kat commercials, and features on numerous albums including The Hamilton Mixtape. It’s hard not to be a stereotypical hipster and say I’ve loved Chance for years and condemn the bandwagon jumpers, but instead i’ll just say it’s about damn time.
The former frontman of The Weakerthans trades out his rocking for restraint and the result is one of the most beautiful, powerful folk albums of the 21st century. Whether he’s speaking about internet trolls, a departed loved one, or a rehab center he so perfectly captures the humanity in any situation. John is a master of melody so you have some incredible lyrics paired with the most infectious melodies. The lyrics walk the line of being cryptic enough that you don’t understand his specific references, but specific enough that you grasp the mood and the story being told. The albums title refers to a crop that endures the winter and rises in the spring and this metaphor extends to many of the stories on this album. He is great at capturing low points and the clarity that follows. This album just hits you in the heart with every new song, they’re masterfully performed and produced emotional wrecking balls, delivered with a warm and comforting voice.
This album was off of my radar because it wasn’t on Spotify, and it is responsible for 90% of my Soundcloud visits this year. This album did for me what Solange’s Seat At The Table did for many others, perfectly put into words and music the life and struggles of black females. It shows how music can be the most powerful tool to connect with someone who’s life is different than yours, while highlighting the shared aspects of humanity that connect us all. Whether she’s singing a love song, lamenting her departed grandfather, or sounding a battle hymn, she does it with such a warm and steady voice. The music is just so beautiful with production by the likes of Saba and Kweku Collins, combining jazz, folk, and r&b. Much like her Chicago buddies Noname and Chance (who both appear on the album) she taps into the nostalgia of 90’s kids, altering playground rhymes and the Mr. Rogers theme. This album is a smooth and tender tale of love, family, pain, power and resilience.
Today is Women’s Equality Day so for this edition of Past Sounds we are featuring inspiring, daring, and revolutionary women of music spanning many genres and eras. So strap in as we take a musical journey, back in time.
Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (‘Nuff Said) 1968
This year Netflix teamed up with Lisa Simone Kelly, daughter of Nina Simone, to make a documentary chronicling the life of The High Priestess of Soul. I highly recommend watching the documentary if you don’t know about the amazing life she lead. At the time of this recording Nina was already a star but she was incomplete until she turned the focus of her music towards issues of injustice and inequality, and ultimately becoming an essential player in the Civil Rights Movement. In the movie this performance follows Nina talking about how she wanted to help black people connect with their own identity and to be proud of who they are. This song is a medley of two songs from the musical hair that Nina combined to make the message even more powerful. This performance of the song is particularly moving because she switches the lyrics and there is a glorious heartbreaking moment when she belts, “Ain’t got no love,” just before breaking into “I Got Life”. Nina was brilliant, bold, passionate, a phenomenal pianist, a unbelievable singer, and an unmatched entertainer, she set an amazing example for women everywhere. She was one of a kind, an original individual and she loved herself, dark parts and all. Though the message of this song was perfect for the time and the people it was written for, the message of loving yourself just how you are, transcends time, race, and gender. There are people in this world that tell people they are less valuable because of many reasons, whether its their sex or their race or the amount of money in their bank account, and to those people all you need to say is, “I got my arms, I got my hands, I got my fingers, got my legs, I got my feet, I got my toes, I got my liver, got my blood, I got life.”
Dolly Parton – Just Because I’m A Woman (Just Because I’m A Woman) 1968
The same year that Nina Simone was fighting for her rights Dolly Parton took a stand for feminism with this record. The chorus says it all, “My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.” This resonates even today as men can get away with murder (literally) and women are scrutinized and abused for their faults. It can’t be emphasized enough how brave this was for Dolly to do in the 60’s which was in some ways the golden age of sexism and racism. Artist like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn broke the mold of the good country girl who wouldn’t do what men told them, instead they used their music to fight against the idea of being what a woman “should” be.
Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (Pussy Whipped) 1993
You can’t have a list of female equality with Riot Grrrl founder and feminist punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna. I was so close to putting Apt #5 from Kathleen’s solo album Julie Ruin, but then I thought if we’re talking about Kathleen you want to see her jumping around on stage and screaming and being a Rebel Girl. Recently Kathleen talked about how she basically invented the term mansplaining before anyone knew it was thing, so I don’t intend to explain her thoughts and feelings in this song, but I will share some thoughts on her importance to the music world. It’s not hard to find a song about women’s equality in Kathleen’s catalog, just listen to any Bikini Kill song. In this song she sings about a girl who she wants to be(friend) but everything she says about the girl is true of her. In The Punk Singer, the rock doc about her life, her friends and contemporaries say things about her that basically mirror the lyrics of this song. No one had seen a girl look like her, act like her, sing like her, scream like her. Hanna set the stage for feminism as we know it, she was an important player in Third Wave Feminism. She used her music to help so many women who were abused, undervalued, and angry take a stand and fight for the rights and the treatment they deserve. Kathleen’s husband, Adam Horovitz from The Beastie Boys, described Hanna as “a force,” not just for feminism but her musical impact is also unbelievable. She had an effect on so many of her contemporaries, not just the Riot Grrrl bands like Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney, but mainstream successes like Sonic Youth and Nirvana. You can hear her influence on artists like Karen O and modern female lead indie-rock band’s like Sleight Bells and Alvvays. After an 8 year hiatus due to health problems Hanna started The Julie Ruin in 2013 and continues to make incredible music to this day. She is feminist icon and a true folk (actually punk) hero and some of the great female artist of our time would not be the same without her work.
Lauryn Hill – Doo Wap (That Thing) (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) 1998
Lauryn Hill’s lead single off of her seminal solo album topped the charts and got her two Grammys, but the message is still vital decades later. In the song she speaks to young men and women warning them to watch out for guys or girls who are “only about that thing,” whether that thing is sex or money, she urges them not so let themselves being taken advantage of. Ms. Hill tells girls, “respect is a minimum,” and one the most powerful lines in the song is, “It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s in.” Our culture promotes so many things that don’t actually matter and it is so easy for girls to fall into habits that disrespect and undervalue them without realizing the magnitude of their actions. Women are casually mistreated, and especially in black communities the “money takin’ and heart breakin'” mentality is very harmful to women. Lauryn Hill is just one example of a black woman who didn’t stand for it and made her way in hip hop which is a hugely male dominated artform. She is an inspiring leader and especially today the message of this song is desperately need among America’s youth, “Stop actin’ like boys and be men. How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”
Jenny Lewis – Just One Of The Guys (The Voyager) 2014
Former Rilo Kiley Frontwoman and current amazing songwriter and performer, Jenny Lewis, not only has the gift of writing catchy, powerful music, but she is also a badass feminist soldier ( just look at the Che Guevera-esque garb she and her Nice As Fuck bandmates wear). Jenny also has a great sense of humor, which is apparent in this quirky yet powerful, star-studded music video. With the help of Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson, and Anne Hathaway, Lewis mocks male stupidity and insensitivity, speaks of the struggles of being an independent woman, and ultimately celebrates womanhood with the final empowering verse, “I’m not gonna break for you, I’m not gonna pray for you, I’m not gonna pay for you, that’s not what ladies do.” Jenny Lewis is one of the most important and talented musicians working right now, she’s Stevie Nicks mixed with Kathleen Hanna mixed with Joni Mitchell. If you haven’t delved into Rilo Kiley, Nice As Fuck, or her solo work, do yourself a favor and get familiar.
Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier (HEAVN) 2016
I know this one is very recent but a month ago is still the past, and I couldn’t get Jamila Woods out of my head when talking about revolutionary women of music. People talk about Nina Simone and Kathleen Hanna giving a voice to people who didn’t have one, that is exactly what Jamila Woods is currently doing. Not only is her music innovative and addictive and beautiful, but she is speaking for one of the most marginalized groups in our country who should be one of the most celebrated groups in our country: black women. Speaking as a white man, it is so easy to be oblivious to the suffering of others in our society. When I hear Jamila sing a line like, “Look at what they did to my sister last century last week. They make her hate her own skin, treat her like a sin,” I’m reminded that there are people in this world who need music to say the things that others are tuning out. American’s want to be happy, that’s the “American dream,” so we often try to avoid unpleasantness, even though it’s unavoidable. When someone makes a powerful song saying, “this is what I’m living right now in this time, it’s not a history lesson, it’s not 12 Years a Slave or The Help, it’s real life in modern America,” that makes us wake up and pay attention (and if it doesn’t then you’ve got issues). Every line of this song is so powerful and she ends the song by listing women like Rosa Parks and Assata Shakur, designating them, “a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.” It is important for all of us to fight against these injustices, for so long people have gone to extreme lengths to keep women down, “but what they don’t understand is she don’t give up.” If you don’t listen to any other album this year listen to this one. Jamila’s voice is essential in the turbulent times in which we’re living. Jamila is a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.