Photo Illustration: Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
FKA twigs' mixtape Caprisongs is NPR hip-hop and R&B editor Sheldon Pearce's top album of the year.
Photo Illustration: Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
FKA twigs' mixtape Caprisongs is NPR hip-hop and R&B editor Sheldon Pearce's top album of the year.
Photo Illustration: Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Near the start of 2022, Warner Music Group announced a partnership with The Sandbox, "a virtual world where players can build, own, and monetize their gaming experiences in the Ethereum blockchain," with the promise that the Minecraft-like game would serve as a new arena for music and entertainment. Exactly what was being offered was unclear, other than the chance to buy virtual real estate near WMG's digital property. Sony, meanwhile, moved forward on an agreement to bring the artists on its roster into Roblox, staging a "concert experience" on the platform in March starring an avatar of rapper 24kGoldn. Universal teamed up with the avatar company Genies, whose CEO Akash Nigam asserted,"We're not bringing culture to NFTs and crypto. Genies and UMG together are bringing the power of NFTs and crypto to culture."
The gamification of music experiences isn't new, or necessarily bad — and who knows whether these label partnerships will take root in any meaningful way, especially given recent news on the state of Web 3.0 and the metaverse. But in a year when even beloved independent music retailer Bandcamp was purchased by Epic Games, these moves have left me thinking more than usual about albums, and their utility in a digital age that seems disinterested in what they do best.
If the invention of the album made music, an intangible thing, literally tangible, it's fair to say that streaming nudged it back toward the abstract. The most recent digital expansions of music listening, fixated on virtual immersion, would appear to offer a corrective, an invitation to step fully inside the work. And yet, at least as envisioned so far by the Big Three, these experiments never seem to be designed with continuous, intent listening in mind. Events like Charli XCX's June performance on Superstar Galaxy, a virtual Roblox concert promoting a Samsung phone, conjure a vision of artists as intellectual property to be leveraged and music as wrapping paper for whatever's really being sold. (Beat Saber, the VR game that's like Rock Band with lightsabers, might at least point to a retail endgame for labels, as users can buy artist "packs" of songs to slash to; a dozen BTS tracks will run you $14.99.) The way consumption of full albums is trending — down again this year — this kind of thing feels at best like a hedge in a shifting landscape. But if each new digital economy assigns less value to the album as a substantial medium, a thing with its own shape and directive even when floating in the ether, what will its next life cycle be? What is an album's function in purely theoretical space?
For me, the role of the album is to insist upon listening to music as not only an active experience, but an empathic one. Great albums reveal themselves to attentive audiences, who in turn unpack their aesthetic and existential truths. They are immersive on their own, VR be damned. The albums that drew me in this year made narratives of self-reflection: artists working through pandemic changes, coming to terms with elevated profiles or adjusting to new phases in their personal lives. I found resonance in songwriting that wrestled with its own creation, foregrounding the impact on artistry of experiencing everyday life. Sonically, I was struck by sprawling records bursting with ideas — diaspora connectors, convention subverters, explorers of environment and rhythm, improvisation and chaos, composition and control. Cohesion is overrated, but holism is essential. Genre-bending is commonplace, but rare is music with a strong genre identity and a broad understanding of its relationship to other musical forms. These connections tell us so much about the nature of our physical world — and even now, the album remains as sturdy a bridge as ever between this world and the ones we can't touch.
During the first pandemic lockdown in the U.K., the English singer and producer FKA twigs wondered privately about the sustainability of her creative process. Making her 2019 album, Magdalene, a woe-inspired electronic aria, took its toll; she likened the exercise to putting her insides on blast. Restoration came through connection and collaboration — and her splendid, ever-changing mixtape Caprisongs is uplifting in its pursuit of sorority, some of which is found on the dance floor. Produced by twigs with El Guincho, the project is jubilant and inquisitive; it scans Afropop, hymnals, road rap and the club. A diverse cast of characters — local underground artists, mostly — chimes in on a far-reaching mix, but the project feels most intimate when twigs explores dance music as a form of communion and escape.
El Mal Querer, Rosalía's ambitious flamenco-pop masterpiece, seemed to set the bar for her aspirations, transforming the traditional into something not merely modern but chic. Motomami pushes her high-concept pop experiment to daring new extremes, making good on previous flirtations with urbano and rap. Its loose thematicism is lost on me as a non-Spanish speaker, but its genre-bending is exhilarating. Rosalía told the Los Angeles Times that the album is inspired by the miscellany of Tumblr, and it seems to embody the wondrous chaos, discovery and recycling of microblogging. Take its moments separately or together: the mechanical reggaeton of "Saoko," the sweetest song ever to be called "Hentai," the overwhelming semi-auto sass of "Bizcochito," snap music as bolero, industrial cantatas, sampling other samples. Its curiosity is dizzying, breakneck — and beautiful.
Reason to Smile
The British-Ghanain rapper Kojey Radical recorded most of Reason to Smile off the cuff, and that freedom comes through in his verses. He has always been an emphatic storyteller, but here he learns to let his instincts dictate his dynamism, balancing vigor with grace — a mode closer to his origins as a spoken-word poet. The songs here consider Black masculinity, growing up a transplant in the U.K. and how those things inform fatherhood, pulling from grime, R&B and Afro-fusion. He shares those ingredients with artists like Burna Boy and J Hus, who live at similar intersections, but Kojey's music is far more lyrical and to the point, its imagery keener and scope grander. Rare is the statement record that doesn't get bogged down in its own myth-making, but Reason to Smile feels unpretentious in its pursuit of joy.
Meeting with a Judas Tree
Many listeners met Duval Timothy through his ambitious work on Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, but the multidisciplinary artist has been deconstructing things since 2017. Meeting with a Judas Tree continues a recent habit of venturing out into nature (in London, Italy, Ghana and Sierra Leone) to engage with the natural world: The album blends field recordings from his journeys with the playing from various pianos, a Moog Grandmother and a Juno-G. Given his interest in ambience, the temptation arises at first to call these compositions muzak — but they are insistent and enticing, bending the ear until, suddenly, something breathtaking emerges.
As the gothic Southern belle Ethel Cain, the singer and producer Hayden Silas Anhedönia mines Bible Belt fervor and domestic trauma for heartland horror stories. Her haunted, vast debut explores the doom attendant to the American Dream, how its promise is a lure out into the open and an enticement of predators. The songs are epic and dynamic but also dark and faint, swept along by Cain's sullen, spectral voice as she performs with a wonder and a naiveté that make everything in her view feel intimate or tremendous. The album's truly backwater premise — girl runs away from her religious, restrictive home and falls for a cannibal — is facilitated by its slowcore pop sound. She sings so tenderly of what transpires, it can feel as if you're being lulled into the trap with her.
More than anything, this record appeals to me as an encyclopedic, almost archival work. Obviously, there's plenty more to like — its otherworldly vocal displays, nonchalant dance floor politics and meticulous, near-seamless sequencing — but beneath lies an entire history to unearth. Like Homecoming, RENAISSANCE is a deeply considerate celebration of Black musical forms, placing Beyoncé in a lineage of unheralded dance icons. Its components are lovingly shown off: the diva house of Robin S., the Hov ghostwriting, the Syd impersonating, the Kilo Ali sample, nods to Donna Summer, Teena Marie, Kelis and even Right Said Fred. Beyoncé is both auteur and hagiographer here, lauder of legends past and present, and it is that attention to detail that resonates the most.
Roc Marciano & The Alchemist
The Elephant Man's Bones
Since 2010's Marcberg, the Long Island rapper Roc Marciano has carved a path for a certain kind of insular, hardscrabble MC. In that same period, Los Angeles producer The Alchemist has continuously repaved that lane with dozens of albums' worth of gritty, bar-friendly soul loops that seem to uncoil infinitely. The two masters of their respective, intersecting forms reunite here for a collaboration that's delightfully surprising despite its 11 years in the making. The Alchemist challenges Roc with some of his strangest beats ever, craggy numbers that chime, clang and squawk. The rapper responds in kind with casually sinister verses that stagger in and out of pockets. It is an off-kilter, fulfilling entry into New York's racket rap canon.
On ¡Ay!, an alien named Preta, new to Earth, learns of the world's nature and background through sensory glands that allow her to taste the planet's history. You don't need to understand Spanish to feel that alienness, or the album's radical, uncanny sense of discovery. This self-described "bolero sci-fi" is a refreshing take on electronic music's futurist obsession, one based primarily in tropical music. Dalt devises a construct that puts folkloric sounds at the center of an alien expedition, providing a firm foundation for her adventures into the avant-garde. Preta's experimentation seems to mirror the artist's: She experiences time displacement as the slow-moving music clicks around her disembodied voice. As the organless being inhabits a material form for the first time, the trumpet- and bass-led production becomes increasingly congealed. It's an ET probe fascinated with earth's peculiarity.
Open Mike Eagle
Component System with the Auto Reverse
Open Mike Eagle's music is powered by his remarkable candor, a self-effacing monologue that can be incisive and charmingly facetious at once. If 2020's Anime, Trauma and Divorce sought catharsis through confession, Component System with the Auto Reverse — inspired by an impulse-shaping mixtape Eagle made in his days as a college-radio obsessive — feels like rebirth through reflection. There's a DOOM eulogy where he embodies the late rap villain's flows, and he enlists Diamond D of D.I.T.C. for some of the album's cranky boom-bap. In mining the audio of his past, he is able to reconsider everything that got him here.
In These Times
The drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven has the impulses of a great hip-hop beatmaker: His work cuts live takes together into a synchronized rhythmic world, finding a linear path through improvisation. More important, though, is his inclination to recreate. In splicing material until it births something new, he is somehow able to maintain the intuition behind his playing, the responsiveness of the rhythm section and the unscripted connection that gives his music shape and dimension. Constructed over seven years' worth of sessions (with McCraven's drumming deeply enhanced by guitarist Jeff Parker and harpist Brandee Younger), In These Times meets the ideal of his method — meticulously crafted yet warm and overflowing, the endless possibilities resolving before our ears into stunning purpose.
A lot was immediately foisted upon Koffee, the reggae futurist who won a Grammy for her debut EP, Rapture, in 2019. Her anointing as the genre's next great hope is well earned. Koffee's initial sound was a more pop-oriented iteration of the rap-informed dancehall made by artists like Skeng, and in its freshness and exuberance, it's easy to hear the next evolution of Jamaican music. Gifted demonstrates even greater command of her skill for synthesis, nodding to Bob Marley, roots reggae, lovers' rock and even R&B; the music is rousing yet easygoing, bringing a liveliness to the genre's standards without sacrificing its inherent sway. But her beaming, optimistic songs are still best when they imagine homegrown sounds through a pop lens.
Detroit's Quelle Chris is both one of the most consistent and most underrated rappers of the last decade, but he finally comes for his credit with DEATHFAME, an album that is as self-aware as it is uncannily observant. From his position as a career indie-rap denizen, he considers craft and fame, the creators who are willing to die for success and those who die as collateral damage. The largely self-produced music is quietly eerie yet droll, as all the best Quelle Chris albums are, and his bassy deadpan sells sharp considerations on his own place in rap. This world is messy and lawless, and sometimes making it through means embracing anarchy, but the artist is insistent that knowing the truth doesn't mean he has to like it. "I kicked a couple habits trying to live for something / But in the end what's within? Nothing / Big-headed bars be bluffin', I do this for the love and money / I do this for the love of money, anyone say otherwise is broke or frontin'," he raps on the title track, compelling even in his cynicism.
Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet
Deep into Evergreen is a four-song suite offered to a single tree in a forest on Swiikw (Galiano Island), off the Canadian coast. The suite grows from movement to movement, from sharp, grinding strings to beaded, dew-like pizzicato, until it sprouts into something rich and verdant. It is surrounded by other splendid works — Three Essays, influenced by written and digital languages; And So, a more lyrics-focused piece; the Beethoven-inspired work Blueprint; and Cant voi l'aube, a vocal interpretation of a 12th century poem. Together, they expand upon the potential established on Shaw and Attaca's 2019 album Orange, functioning as a stunning ode to the quartet, as a work born of simple, often naturalist ideas, and as music emanating an unpredictable wildness.
The 7th Hand
If there is a point where spontaneity becomes kismet, this album seeks to capture it. The 7th Hand is a continuation of the alto saxophonist's attempts to discover spirituality's place in Black rituals; reuniting his quartet with the intention of making the unit completely improvisational and interconnected, as if overcome with Holy Spirit, Wilkins sees God's influence in the group's unscripted performance, its harmony and fluidity. Throughout the record, the players feel deeply attuned to one another, but it's in the feverish passages of a monumental 26-minute finale that they truly feel in conversation with a higher power.
DOMi & JD Beck
Much has already been made of DOMi & JD Beck as supposed trailblazers for an impudent Gen-Z jazz insurrection, but what is most striking about the duo, and their album NOT TiGHT, is how that irreverence masks a virtuosity that is whimsical and never self-important. That the two only ever entered a proper studio to record Herbie Hancock's piano is telling: They understand and even respect convention, but won't be beholden to it. Instead, these drum and keys compositions are loose yet focused, as fun as they are technical, deeply groovy with the eclectic principles of the lo-fi beat scene. Some of their music sounds like throwback Tyler, the Creator production. Some of it sounds like Adult Swim bump music. But the two musicians behind it never seem too hung up on what it sounds like at all.
I Don't Give a F*** About This Rap S***, Imma Just Drop Until I Don't Feel Like It Anymore
Since his days impressing André 3000 in Divine Council, $ilkMoney has always radiated chaotic energy. Still, his new album (and its blunt title) is the first to capture the full appeal: madcap raps that marry an edgelord's shrugging boredom with the clear-eyed purpose of someone with nothing to lose. There are shroom-fueled conversations with a "giant portal wizard snake," a song that likens Black culture to grub for white elites, all over beats that sound like someone trying to escape the glitzy Vegas casino they've just robbed. But beneath the absurdity is something more sinister: truth. In the mellowed-out finale, as he raps about the death clause above the dotted line on the big contract he didn't sign, the aggression of the title starts to feel more like resignation.
Let's Eat Grandma
Two Ribbons is a vibrant document of reconciliation, working through grief to rekindle a friendship. Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, the duo behind Let's Eat Grandma's experimental pop, have been making music together since they were teenagers, but things have become turbulent lately: Hollingworth's boyfriend died of a rare bone cancer, their friend and collaborator SOPHIE died in an accident, and the pair started to drift apart. The opening half is restorative and cathartic synth music brimming with optimism, but eventually the album dissolves into something more understated — quiet conversations, sweetly sung, as longtime companions work their way back to each other.
Three Dimensions Deep
The Tennessee-born Mark has been on the verge for quite some time, seemingly trying to work out exactly what to say, and beneath the loose cosmic concept of her studio debut is the sound of a searching young artist. She has said that its central theme is "figuring out what's going on," and it does feel expansive in its pursuit of answers, but the music is most potent when she sets stargazing aside to work out more down-to-earth problems. The real magic of the album's three dimensions is in its lyrical and sonic coherence: sample-heavy hip-hop soul for personal songs of epiphany, island- and dance-inflected pop for matters of the club, reflective funk to probe inner turmoil and spacey R&B for headier considerations. Her voice is lithe, and her singing is fluid enough to accommodate the shifts in tone. Even when it can't quite justify its premise, the quality of the songcraft stuns.
After a few years reassessing his youth and remaking his image, the rapper Thebe Kgositsile, who performs as Earl Sweatshirt, shares the most accessible record since his enlightened, lo-fi turn, carrying the lessons of a 20-something veteran and new dad in his sagely bars. Where Feet of Clay, his last post-album experiment, was nearly impenetrable, the verses on Sick! are punchy and idiomatic. Rarely has his rapping been so snappy, or so transparent, and the spiraling, enclosed production from The Alchemist and Black Noi$e reflects the atmosphere into which it was released. Kgositsile is no stranger to isolation, but this music is restless; not closed off, anxious to step outside.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Traveling across the country — to upstate New York, Topanga Canyon, the Sonoran Desert and the Colorado mountains — and enlisting a different engineer in each place, the Brooklyn band turned inward to survey its own sweeping sound. Big Thief has always been a deeply connected group, but its first album without producer Andrew Sarlo would require an even more intense exploration of singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker's revealing songwriting and the ingrown music that shelters it. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, the double LP they emerged with, is immense and panoramic, acoustic folk-rock that comes to include scenic Americana, its freestanding stories drawn together by Lenker's unassuming and enchanted voice.
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