Monthly Report: December 2016 Albums

1. T.I. - Us Or Else: Letter To The System
I already put this on my best of 2016 list, which takes the politically charged 6 song EP released in September and adds 9 more mostly likeminded tracks for what is easily Tip's best album since 2008's Paper Trail. The songs from the EP are the meat that holds it all together, but I really dig some of the new ones, particularly the track with Charlie Wilson.

2. JuegoTheNinety - True American Gun Lust
Juego really stands out to me in the current Baltimore rap landscape, I feel like there's a lot of gallows humor in what he does, which has come to the forefront more than ever in this project. I'll probably write something more substantial about him soon, in the meantime check this out on Soundcloud.

3. Trunkweed - You Are A Nice Surprise
Trunkweed are one of my favorite newer guitar bands in Baltimore the last couple years, and it really sounds like they're just getting more confident and getting a better sense of their sound on their 2nd studio album. "Offbeat" is my favorite track on here, has a good mix of really pretty melodic guitar with these intense sections where the whole mood of the song changes.

4. John Legend - Darkness And Light
John Legend came into the game with such a bland traditional piano man image that I think some people are still figuring out that he's a pretty interesting guy with some diverse influences, which I thought was shown pretty well on Once Again and Love In The Future. Darkness And Light features a few writing credits from Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney, a couple of indie rock veterans who are a little less current or visible than, say, the indie rockers credited on Beyonce's Lemonade. "Right By You (For Luna)" is my favorite song on here, the string arrangement and upright bass are gorgeous.

5. Jeremih & Chance - Merry Christmas Lil Mama EP
As much as I'd love to hear a 'regular' collaborative project from Chance The Rapper and Jeremih, I also knew that this was kind of a perfect idea from the moment it hit Soundcloud. I always have trouble getting into the holiday season and feeling the spirit and all that stuff, so listening to this on Christmas Eve really put me in the mood, Jeremih and Chance both have this natural gregarious warmth in their voices and the kind of impish irreverent style of Christmas carols works a lot better here than on, say, R. Kelly's recent Christmas album. Plus "Joy" has one of those perfect Chance verses where you get so much detail and life in a few bars.

6. Nine Inch Nails - Not The Actual Events EP
I'm always a little more excited to hear what Trent Reznor is up to these days than just about any of his contemporaries from the '80s/'90s alt rock explosion, because he was remarkably ahead of his time as a producer, and has kept pace with new 21st century tools and approaches. Of course, as a songwriter he's only become more predictable, working from the same narrow band of gloom and rage that Nine Inch Nails has always been based on, but I'm fine with that. The only unusual thing about Not The Actual Events is hearing new NIN songs in the form of a brief EP, which hasn't happened since Broken, and obviously that's such a high bar that there's no comparison. But I like the dark lurching sound of these tracks, hopefully there's a full length in this mode coming this year.

7. Lloyd - Tru EP
"Tru" is a song that I appreciate more every time I hear it, such a disarmingly vulnerable song to hear on R&B radio in the current climate, and King of Hearts was so good that I've been looking forward to finally getting another new Lloyd album after over five years. This EP is a pretty small taster, only 3 new songs aside from the title track and its remix, and it kind of feels like those songs exist to prove that Lloyd can still do breezy radio bangers and not just stuff like "Tru." Of those songs, "Excited" is by far my favorite, but it all goes down pretty smoothly.

8. The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome
It was exciting to hear 2016 releases from guys like David Bowie and Paul Simon who were still willing to try something new that many decades into their careers. But there's also something to be said for folks who stay in their lane, and at this late date I'd rather hear the Stones do a barebones set of blues standards than an ill fitting attempt to stay current like Bridges To Babylon. It really just affirms to their place in the lineage of bluesmen who kept doing their thing until they dropped dead, which really suits the Stones musically more than looking at them as an arena rock band. And I love the flat no nonsense texture of this record and how it feels like Mick Jagger is yelling across the room.

9. The Lox - Filthy America...It's Beautiful
I love The Lox and I've always been impressed by how well they've held up over the years, Style P's solo albums are consistent as hell and Jadakiss can still light up a guest verse as well as anybody, I always thought it was a shame that their legacy isn't as respect as, say, Dipset's. So I had high hopes that everything would fall into place for their first group album in over a decade, and unfortunately it doesn't really hit the mark, from the generic trap beat that opens the record to the weird faux Megadeth album title. But once you get past the clear missteps, there's a good amount of these guys doing what they do best, I love "What Else You Need To Know."

10. various artists - This Is A Challenge
Given the proliferation of dance rap songs going viral and climbing the charts the last couple years, often by artists who never end up releasing full length albums, it was pretty savvy for someone at Atlantic Records to put together a Now That's What I Call Music-style compilation of them. The execution leaves something to be desired -- you may as well put "Juju On That Beat" and "Do It Like Me" next to each other in the running order given their shared Crime Mob DNA, and the new Flo Rida single debuted on the collection sticks out like a sore thumb as a completely different strain of dance rap. And by the end they just pad things out with a whole other generation of tracks like "Cupid Shuffle" and V.I.C.'s "Wobble." And even when the collection succeeds at curating this music, it's still a lot of weird little novelty tracks that aren't much to listen to without the videos and memes that helped make them popular. Still, this is a pretty good snapshot of a strain of popular music that is only going to become more dominant in the next few years.

Worst Album of the Month: The-Dream - Love You To Death EP
Terius made enough essential music at his peak that I try to give his new shot, but it's increasingly clear that he had a 3 year hot streak followed by many more years of outright mediocrity. Last month he released a new solo EP and an EP from his latest protege, Justin Skye, and while I've always preferred his writing for female singers to his solo stuff, both records are pretty weak. And this one, where he sings about "susan so random," among other bad ideas, definitely sticks out as the worse of the two.
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