1. Toni Braxton & Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce
There's something cool about these two, who sold millions of records together 20 years ago, coming back together, as middle-aged divorcees who no longer have blockbuster solo careers, to pool together their resources and make this wizened, wistful, weathered album of duets about everything they've been through. Babyface's aesthetic just continues to get more smooth and elegant with time, there are parts of this that are practically a Burt Bacharach record. And it really works well to foreground their voices and the melodies, the regretful ache of "Where Did We Go Wrong?" and the love/hate simmering of "Sweat." This and most of these other albums are on my running Spotify playlist of 2014 albums I've been listening to.
2. ScHoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Q's last independent album, Habits & Contradictions, really annoyed me, and for a long time I kinda wondered why this scuzzy bucket hat-wearing Tony Yayo type dude was being treated as TDE's next big star in the making. But "Collard Greens" and "Man Of The Year" were really dope singles so I started to accept the possibility that I might dig this album, and I do. Maybe his persona comes across better on this album or I'm just more in tune with it now, but the whole thing holds together well, has that classic west coast gangsta rap coarseness mixed with pop polish, some really interesting production touches that build on the aesthetic of Kendrick's album. "Hoover Street" and "Break The Bank" feel like standouts to me.
3. Phantogram - Voices
I didn't hear Phantogram's first album and for years just thought of them as one of the groups that made Big Boi's last solo album kinda corny. But their current single "Fall In Love," as I already wrote, is pretty much the best thing on alt-rock radio so far this year, just a big ominous pop masterpiece of spiraling strings and blown out bass (my friend Jordan Sargent recently interviewed Ty Dolla $ign, who apparently called it "the hardest shit out"). The album doesn't entirely follow through on the promise of "Fall In Love," and the dude in the group sings on a few tracks that are below par, but it hits a nice mid-album groove with "Howling At The Moon" and "Bad Dreams," definitely one of the best neo synth pop groups on the current mainstream alternative wave, whatever that's worth.
4. Rickie Jacobs - Remember To Smile
I was the first blogger to post any music by Rickie Jacobs way back 7 years ago, and now he's on pretty much every site that posts rap music, so I gotta say I'm proud of dude. His music hasn't even changed that much in that time, he's just focused and stayed consistent with it, one of the best rappers coming out of Baltimore these days and really making a name for himself. This one is dope, up there with last year's Beautiful America EP as one of his best efforts to date. I don't really fuck with that dubstep interlude at the end of "Guy Code," though. Listen to Remember To Smile on djbooth.net.
5. K. Michelle - Still No Fucks Given
A lot of people dropped new R&B on Valentine's Day, including pretty good EPs from Ne-Yo, JoJo and Mya, but the standout for me was K. Michelle's mixtape. Only six months after her big debut album, with its second single still on the radio, she just out of nowhere dropped a sequel to the 0 Fucks Given mixtape that really got her career rolling a couple years ago. It's kind of crazy, you think she'd be saving songs as good as "Put You On Game" and "Pain Killa" and "She Can Have You" for her next retail release, instead she's just tossing an album's worth of tracks like that for free along with some mixtape shit talk and versions of records like "I Love It" by August Alsina (which features the lyric "I love your dick, I talk to it/ I wipe it down, get a towel for it/ I'm crazy as shit/ my hot pocket loves music so conduct, pluck her strings/ so treat her like a mic and la la la la sing"). I love the album, but the fact that she just had this much music to put out right after is really impressive. She's over-the-top, but you can't say she's not talented. Check it out on DatPiff.
6. Shy Glizzy - Young Jefe
I interviewed Glizzy a few months ago, and he was really hard to track down and didn't say all that much when we did finally sit down. But he seems like a good dude and his music is dope, really nice to see D.C. get guys like him and Fat Trel in the national spotlight right now. He sounds really at home rapping with Young Thug and Young Scooter or over Zaytoven and Cardo beats, really gives some context to where he could land in the game, although I dunno if this is the tape he really needs to put him over the top, but he's getting closer.
7. Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights
I've always loved Neil Finn's voice and sense of songcraft and haven't really listened to enough of the various records he's made over the years and always mean to spend more time with him. So hey, new album, good time to catch up. Dave Fridmann is kind of a corny choice of producer, but his 'signature sound' isn't too overbearing here, mostly just sounds like Finn being Finn with lightly modern touches. Also the song "Recluse" hit me pretty hard because there's someone in my life who's basically decided to shut out the entire world, including me.
8. The Caribbean - Moon Sickness
I've seen them live and heard their records here and there, but I've never quite been on the right wavelength with The Caribbean to totally get them the way I love a lot of the D.C. bands they're associated with -- Chad Clark (of Beauty Pill and Smart Went Crazy) often produces their records and is really their most enthusiastic champion, always writing things like this that make me give the band a second look. There's an interesting tension between the seemingly mundane pop/rock arrangements and the surreal lyrics and unexpected melodies, as well as Clark's otherworldly Beauty Pill-like production treatments, almost kind of a Steely Dan thing going on.
9. Cex - Manumit Me
After a few years of sticking his neck out as a singer and rapper, Rjyan has kinda retreated in recent years back into the dense instrumental IDM he started his career with, which is only a shame in the sense that most of the personality and ideas that used to spill out of his records are now basically limited to his Twitter account. Still makes pretty cool-sounding beats, though, and this one kinda goes back to basics with a bunch of old school synths and MPCs recorded straight to 4-track, gives the whole thing the kind of texture and tape hiss you rarely get with this kind of music anymore and that, honestly, I really enjoy hearing.
10. Vertical Scratchers - Daughter of Everything
I was happy to hear that John Schmersal from Enon and Brainiac had a new band, since it'd been over 6 years since the last Enon album. Vertical Scratchers is a guitar/drums duo and kinda strips away all the synths and bells and whistles of Enon while still basically sounding like the jangly pop/rock half of that band's material. Enon's High Society always felt like it breezed through 15 songs pretty quickly, and this album also has 15 tracks but is a full ten minutes shorter, to give you an idea of how short all the songs are here. That also means things often kinda rush past you without getting a chance to leave an impression, and when "Someone" rips out this awesome guitar solo, it makes me wish more songs had moments like that instead of just rushing from verse to chorus and back and then ending.
Worst Album of the Month: Little Mix - Salute
I liked the first Little Mix album well enough, and it seemed like a good sign that they quickly released a follow-up (in the UK last year, and then here this year). I feel like whatever they did well with their retro R&B teen pop schtick to begin with has kind of lost its charm now, or just isn't being executed as well. And "Good Enough" has some of the most laughably over-the-top talent show vibrato I've ever heard.