Monthly Report: March 2016 Albums

1. K. Michelle - More Issues Than Vogue
It's increasingly difficult to find R&B singers who have both pipes and personality -- too often you have to choose between skilled but bland singers, or interesting, original songs with unremarkable vocals. And that's part of why K. Michelle is so essential, with her third great album in a row. She's the only mainstream R&B singer who gets "explicit lyrics" tags on half her songs that don't have guest rappers, but there's a lot of emotion and introspection to balance out the sass and profanity. T-Pain produced and co-wrote the first two tracks, and he makes a surprisingly fantastic combination with K. Michelle, And I dig how her guest spot on the Jason DeRulo album was more in her R&B wheelhouse but their duet here is more about putting her in a Top 40-friendly context. I wish she stuck with the more daring original album title I Ain't White But I Hope You Like, though. Listen to it on my 2016 albums playlist.

2. Esperanza Spalding - Emily's D+Evolution
Like most people, I primarily know of  Esperanza Spalding from winning Grammys and other awards, often in jazz categories, but I didn't really know much of her music. But I should check out her other stuff, I really dig this album, it's very art rock jazz fusion, with production by Tony Visconti, I really dig the unusual twists and turns of the chords and the time signatures, she's really on some other shit.

3. Tate Kobang - Since We're Here
It's been incredibly exciting for me to watch (and write about) one of my favorite Baltimore rappers become nationally famous over the past year. But it's also been frustrating to not be able to really show the people who like "Bank Rolls (Remix)" what else he can do, because most of his mixtapes have been pulled off the internet (Crown Of Thorns is still out there but Live Hazey, Hitler HardawayThe Book Of Joshua and Varsity are all pretty hard to find now). So I'm glad he's finally got a new tape out to capitalize on his new fanbase and show off his versatility. I like that the producers and guests on here are a mix of Baltimore guys (Blaqstarr, Jay Oliver, Freebandz Test, Street Scott) and some of the well known out-of-towners that Tate is now peers with (Rich Da Kid, Nitti Beatz, Chuck Inglish). Listen to it on Soundcloud.

4. Chris Maxwell - Arkansas Summer
19 years ago, the NYC band Skeleton Key released an amazing debut, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloons, one of those absurd '90s major label albums where a weird, unproven band got a big budget to make an awesome record with negligible commercial potential. Chris Maxwell was the band's guitarist (and sang one song on the album, "All The Things I've Lost"), and then he and most of the original lineup left the band for subsequent Skeleton Key records. Apparently, Maxwell went into TV production and has been composing music for shows like "Bob's Burgers" and "Inside Amy Schumer," before finally resurfacing with a solo album. It sounds nothing like Skeleton Key, but it's really pretty lovely, mostly downtempo rootsy songs, occasionally showcasing a warped sense of humor on songs like "Drunk Barber Shaved The World." I like hearing records like this, where a lifelong sideman finally brings out their passion project.

5. The Joy Formidable - Hitch
It can be tough for bands to forge ahead with a career after the buzz that attended their breakthrough has worn off, and The Joy Formidable are now on their third album, not drumming up nearly as much attention as their debut warranted a few years ago. But they're still a fantastic band, and Hitch lets them kinda stretch out from the neo-shoegaze vibe with arrangements that focus on drums or acoustic guitars or synths, even if it's not a total reinvention of their sound circa The Big Roar.

6. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered.
We often hear about all the material artists record and discard in the process of making an album, and sometimes a few of those songs trickle out on reissues or leaks or other records. But it's interesting to hear the outtakes from a great album assembled as their own spinoff album -- a few years ago Bruce Springsteen made The Promise out of songs from the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions, and I'm glad Kendrick Lamar didn't wait three decades to give us this collection of offcuts from To Pimp A Butterfly. Like The Promise, this record is fascinating for how it illuminates the editing process of the original album, but more often than not it makes me appreciate the choices they made. That is to say, there's very little here that I would want to replace a song on Butterfly if I had the choice (and in particular I'm grateful that the recurring "pimp pimp HOORAY" chant was left off the real album). But it's also got a great relaxed vibe and some great verses that make it a pretty enjoyable listen in its own right, I'm glad he finally released a studio version of the song he performed on Fallon.

7. Jeff Buckley - You And I
I was skeptical about the process of another posthumous Jeff Buckley album -- I'm grateful for some of the material that's been released already, and all the great music we've gotten out of his sadly brief career, but I was afraid this was gonna be another redundant collection of odds and ends. But I was pleasantly surprised that You And I are all his early solo demos for Columbia, mostly covers from his Sin-e live repertoire, and it's really wonderful to have this stuff captured in studio recordings. I never realized he covered Jevetta Steele's "Calling You," a gorgeous song I became obsessed with a few years ago, and he also does a very underrated Led Zeppelin song, "Night Flight." These recordings are very casual and unpolished -- at one point he ends a song getting frustrated and says "Shit! Fuck, that pisses me off," even though it sounded great.

8. Boosie Badazz - Thug Talk
This is Boosie's third album of 2016, and a recent interview suggested that his recent cancer scare has motivated to try and release one every month this year. There are a lot of super prolific southern rappers releasing music at an impressive rate these days -- Future and Young Thug have also released multiple projects already this year (and I'm really running out of room to cover them in this space, Slime Season 3 is fine but not as good as I'm Up). But Boosie's run has been a lot more compelling to me because his music's always been really personal and it just feels like he's letting everything pour out now that he had pent up from 5 years in prison, every little moment of his life that he can turn into a song, he does. "Go Away" is probably my favorite off this record, and it's also great to hear a shout out to Young Moose and Baltimore on "Finish U."

9. Jumpcuts - Fiber Optic Bondage
Jumpcuts frontman Andy Shankman also plays in my band Western Blot, and the new Jumpcuts album was produced by my old friend Mat Leffler-Schulman, so I'd heard this record already when it was finished last year, and I'm glad it's finally out. The first Jumpcuts album transposed songs that were written on guitar to synths, and I think there's a bit more actual guitar on this record, but it's still on a dark, brooding electronic vibe with live drums, "Mcnourishment" has been the standout for me so far. Buy it here.

10. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne - Collegrove
2 Chainz and Tunechi have always had this really natural chemistry and a project like this was overdue, although it ended up coming at a time when both are kind of underdogs. But Collegrove is so relaxed and fun that it kind of shrugs off a lot of the pressure their recent solo releases have been under to get their careers back on track. Wayne is still a little adrift, figuring out whether he wants to be Young Thug as much as Thug wants to be him, so 2 Chainz is the anchor of the record, but it's a dynamic that works, the beat selection is great and "Bounce" and "Bentley Truck" and "Rolls Royce Weather Every Day" are standouts for me.

Worst Album of the Month: Lil Yachty - Lil Boat The Mixtape
It might seem silly to defend the noble tradition of Atlanta swag rap, but I've always marveled at how such a commercially fertile scene has made room for a lot of individuality and eccentricity without necessarily garnering much critical acclaim. So when someone like Young Thug becomes a critical darling while also being a pretty serious mainstream star, it seems weird when the press rallies around these guys like Lil Yachty and iLoveMakonnen whose quirky smirky funhouse mirror version of Atlanta rap makes even a fairly outlandish character like Young Thug really seem like a pretty serious craftsman by comparison. When people treat these artists as even remotely equal it kinda makes you wonder if they're missing the point, or if they really just wanna be spoonfed the most cutesy boutique variation of every scene.
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