House of Balloons by The Weeknd
From the moment House of Balloon starts, the listener can sense a sinister agenda behind every lyric and every note. The song titles read like a parent’s worst nightmare: “High for This”, “Glass Table Girls”, “The Morning”, and “Wicked Games”, these do little to inspire confidence. The Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, begins his campaign of coercion on “High for This”:
Open your hand, take a glass
Don’t be scared, I’m right here
Even though, you don’t know
Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this
He’s asking an unnamed woman to prepare herself for what is to come, to abandon herself to the whims and desires of the evening and, ultimately, Tesfaye himself. This is essentially what House of Balloons is about: a willing desertion of one’s own agency in the pursuit of a good time. This is an endeavor fraught with peril as suggested by the provocative song titles, the lyrics, and even the music itself. The danger is tangible and yet Tesfaye makes it all seem very alluring. He’s constructed his own Sirenum scopuli except that he lures the young and naïve instead of wayward sailors. But, like any construction that’s based on false pretenses and flimsy material (balloons even?), his creation is fragile and prone to destruction. The good times promised conceal deeper issues that are easily exposed after all is said and done. Tesfaye revels in fun but he also reveals the darker side of our selves when stripped of our inhibitions: the tendency for overindulgence, lust, greed, and ill-advised trust. Conceivably this album is best understood as a warning more than a threat. Because he does so little to hide his maleficent intentions perhaps Tesfaye is warning the more prescient youth against the false promises of tomorrow; those who can’t, or won’t, hear his forewarning are already lost to the night.
Undun by The Roots
“Tales from the streets, life of high crime; / to make it to the bottom, such a high climb” laments Dice Raw, with what may be the best distich in the history of hip-hop, on “One Time”. The Roots have, once again, produced an album that is superlative in every facet. The album follows, in reverse, the narrator through his life as he evolves from an idealistic man with aspirations of a better life to a man who has made several choices in pursuit of that dream that ultimately end in his death. The Roots have always told great stories and Undun is no exception: having allowed themselves to stretch a narrative over an album rather than a single song, they demonstrate their prowess as authors and storytellers. Musically the album is sparse, filled with the sounds of water dropping and minimalist production, often it is only a bare beat and string-section mixed with Black Thought’s ever-sharp lyrics that fill the soundscape; this contributes to the isolationist atmosphere that the album evokes. Most powerfully, the album begins with discordant noise and the sound of a failing heart monitor and ends with a piano-laden exodus that descends into cacophony, these moments represent the subject’s death and birth, respectively. Undun is one of the best albums of the year because it is accessible on a song-to-song basis and it is an album that rewards the patient listener who spends time untangling the tragic narrative produced by The Roots.
Civilian by Wye Oak
Civilian by Wye Oak is an album that tends to stay in the dark, in the sludge, in the blurry grime (that Wye Oak seems to have established) between alternative and folk. As the guitars roar over the explosive drums and Jenn Wasner’s husky voice coos dark mutterings about “baby teeth”, one can’t help but feel that this album finds it source in a dim place. Civilian offers superlative musicianship in addition to its gothic tendencies. Andy Stack, on the drums, keyboard, and back-up vocals, provides a wonderful contrast to Wasner’s driving guitar and throaty voice. The duo has clearly found something special in celebrating the morbid side of life. The dichotomy that exists between the substance of the lyrics and the way they’re presented, that is with such clear glee (as can been seen in their live performances), indicates, perhaps, the deeper message of this album: there is a haunting beauty, even in darkness. With a shining voice and a thunderous percussionist, Wye Oak is perhaps best suited to escort the listener into this darkness, and it never looked, nor sounded, more wonderful.
Within and Without by Washed Out
Washed Out is a perfect name for a band that makes music that evokes the comings and goings of a wave. Using slow electronics beats layered on even slower beats and faded out, echoed vocals, Within and Without delivers the perfect soundtrack for traveling in a strange land. In fact, the single “Amor Fati” and its official music video serve as a sort-of hip travelogue for a young man who is living life and enjoying the scenery. And that’s an important facet of this album; it serves to enhance the environment of the listener through its mellow wanderings, it delivers poignancy to otherwise dull landscapes, which is why it has been called, by some, as “chillwave”, for its ability to render unto its listener a feeling of placidity. Another reason for this album’s high place on the list is that nearly every song is flawless in execution and in relation to its place on the album: it begins with slightly more energetic songs like “Eyes Be Closed” and “Amor Fati” and ends with the sullen, almost-moribund “You and I” and “Within and Without”. Much like a dream remembered from sleep just past, it starts vividly but then fades slowly, achingly, into the nothingness of things forgotten.
:LiveLoveA$AP by ASAP Rocky
For a mixtape that came out of nowhere, LiveLoveA$AP by ASAP Rocky has been praised through the roof this year. Through a mix of laid-back New York flow (The ASAP crew is from Harlem after all), extremely competent production featuring some of the best new producers around (see Clams Casino), and the natural charisma of ASAP Rocky himself, LiveLoveA$AP is easily one of the best rap albums this year. For lack of a better word, the ASAP crew is exciting. They have an energy about them that screams “fuck you, we’re here to have a good time and look good doing it.” Some of the best tracks are produced by the always dependable Clams Casino who gives ASAP Rocky the perfect, winding beats to lay his lazy flow over. “Bass” and “Palace” are both stand-outs that revel in the slow burn of ASAP Rocky’s braggart flow. That being said, in-house beat-maker Ty Beats is capable of making equally brilliant beats as demonstrated by “Purple Swag”: a slow moving jam that extols the use of weed and partying hard. As one of the most exciting new rap collectives (sorry OFWGKTA but these guys seem like real people rather than cartoons), the ASAP crew has delivered on their promise and look to dominate the rap soundscape for years to come.