10. Schmilco – Wilco
As a Midwestern kid growing up in the ‘burbs, I’ve never found my musical identity in one particular genre. City-slickers tend to favor pop, rap and electronic. Country folk defer to their country and rock. And different coasts prefer different strokes. But I’m just about as middle-America as middle-America gets. So anyone who listens to Schmilco might understand why it hits all the right notes for me.
From the opening “Normal American Kids,” Jeff Tweedy and company bath their latest record in the sort of sweet melancholy that youngsters like me so often feel. There’s nothing audacious or entirely exciting about what Wilco is doing here, and it’s nothing they haven’t done before. But the quiet of Schmilco is certainly a nice reprieve from what was, at times, a brash year for music. Even the song titles – many of them only one word – are beautifully plain: “Common Sense”; “Nope”; “Happiness”; I could go on.
If there’s anything that does stand out about Schmilco though, it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity that doesn’t come across in this bold field. It’s a luxury Wilco can afford: younger, upcoming artists have to be new and inventive to brand themselves. And even Wilco finds itself exploring the outer edges of its creativity at times – last year’s Star Wars was evidence of that. But this time around, the group is content to rock deftly between folk and pop with all the ease of a porch swing. The material fits Tweedy’s whispery vocals and the country notes that Wilco tosses in. It’s comfort food for the ears, and it makes me want to sit on my back porch in St. Charles and drink tea while reading a book.
Still, I find Schmilco to be fully capable of soaring. The album’s second track, “If I Ever Was a Child,” isn’t too different from any other songs. And yet, the delicate melodies and aching cries of each chorus resonate deep within my Midwestern soul. Again, it speaks to me on a deeply nostalgic level. In my search for identity between worlds – city vs. country, East vs. West – it’s easy for me to lose sight of the beauty in the life I live. “I’ve never been alone long enough to know if I ever was a child.” When is the last time I considered the blessing of my own life instead of looking elsewhere for comfort? It’s the last time I listened to Schmilco, probably.
Tie-8. Blackstar – David Bowie
Tie-8. You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen
Maybe I’m cheating by declaring a tie at the No. 8 spot. But I went back-and-forth so much with these two records, it seemed an odd tribute/insult to put one above the other. Both legendary artists left behind haunting final statements, and they serve similar but different roles.
I don’t have much of a history with Cohen or Bowie, though I’ve listened to the latter longer. I’ve always known of their heavy influence on the music I love, but I’ve yet to spend an appropriate amount of time with the influences themselves.
Blackstar plays out like a fever dream, and it reminds me of my favorite Bowie songs in simultaneously familiar and new ways. There’s a sense of adventure and playfulness to his writing, even when it’s pretty macabre. “Lazarus” specifically seems to dance around the edges of death, a surreal experience when you realize he wrote it knowing his own was coming. A lot of writers have called it Bowie’s bizarre acceptance of his death, but I like to think of Blackstar more as an examination or interpretation. Bowie was always set on interpreting the world around him in his own terms, so why not tackle death in the same way? Maybe acceptance played a role, but I tend to think it’s more of a sonic influence than anything else. And those darker tones fit right into his always strange and impossible-to-resist touch.
Cohen, on the other hand, seems fully accepting right from the get-go: “I’m ready my Lord,” couldn’t make it any clearer. And yet, Cohen’s trademark drawl doesn’t bow to death as much as it does stand on its own, facing the unknown with resolve. Cohen is speaking into the abyss as one who fully lived. You can feel it in the resonance of his voice. And just like Blackstar, Cohen’s You Want It Darker celebrates life in the unique way that Cohen did: “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” is surprisingly celebratory despite its crawling pace.
2016 wasn’t kind to us in taking away the artists we loved; Bowie and Cohen were just two of the many. But no two artists left us parting gifts like these two titans. I know I said I haven’t spent enough time with their respective catalogs, but with voices so eternal and enduring, I’ll never run out of time to do just that.
7. A Seat at the Table – Solange
Last year, I started some in-depth thinking about the idea that not all culture was made for me as a straight white man. Novel concept, right? I believe Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the inciting record, a dense jazz-rap fusion speaking largely to the exploitation of black artists in America. I love TPAB. It’s one of my favorite records of the decade; but on a fundamental level, I cannot understand it. I can’t identify with many of the themes. There’s nothing wrong with that… but recognizing that not all art is specifically for me became an important idea for me to hold onto. These ideas have been constantly floating around in my head since I first heard Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
The lesser known Knowles sister is getting her due for this masterpiece of R&B, which is nice to see. I’ve long thought she was under appreciated when compared to the star that is her sister. That Beyoncé released her own album this year makes this effort all the more impressive.
Solange’s music has always been much more reserved than Beyoncé’s, but it’s vulnerability that really causes this album to shine. Much of the record speaks of the experience of women of color, specifically African-American women. The constant interludes tell personal narratives while standout tracks (“Don’t Touch My Hair”, “F.U.B.U.”) decisively drive the point home. And while the danger of creating specifically targeted art is isolation, A Seat at the Table is more platform than it is private party, and it’s not as if she’s obligated to invite others to that party. But it’s impossible to not enjoy with the subtle funk influences, the typically smooth and dreamy R&B where she perfectly operates, and the realization that you’re being allowed to experience something that maybe you shouldn’t.
Above any record I heard this year, A Seat at the Table was an experience. I felt like I was reading a challenging book or watching a particularly difficult film. While Knowles isn’t subtle, it does require some work to fully engage with the music. Again, that’s not to the album’s detriment. Merely, it’s a recognition that A Seat at the Table wasn’t made for me, and despite how much I work to mine its depths, some riches are only available for those who know where Solange is coming from. And, honestly, that’s art the world needs more of today.
6. Still Brazy – YG
Over the past year, I’ve developed a growing interest in the history of hip-hop and how different time periods and perspectives have shaped the genre to this day. That’s not to say I’m any sort of expert: my hip-hop literacy is still elementary.
But you don’t need to be an expert to notice the influence of gang life on the genre even beyond the days of Tupac and Biggie. Loyalty, honor, crime: these are all pivotal themes to be chewed on when listening to hip-hop. In past years, I’ve talked about the influence of emerging artists like Vince Staples who serve to contrast the glamorizing of celebrity often seen in the most mainstream rap music. Despite the dominant voices of Kanye West, Jay-Z and the like, rap music is still firmly rooted in horror stories streaked with blood. It’s these roots where YG’s latest and greatest album lives and thrives sonically and thematically.
Still Brazy is gang-related before you even get to the music – the red cover and swapping of the hard ‘C’ sound with a ‘B.’ And the production is boldly pulled from west coast rap of old: it’s a G-funk wonderland. All these influences are presented without a morality clause; sure, you can bring your preconceived notions of gang life to the party, but YG won’t feed them one way or the other. He certainly portrays the scary side of the life he lives with a surprising vulnerability – “Who Shot Me?” recalls a recent instance when he was shot and the ensuing mental fallout. But Still Brazy isn’t about convincing the audience of the benefits and consequences of YG’s lifestyle – they’re simply presented as is. Constant conflict (“Twist My Fingaz”), celebrating success (“Why You Always Hatin?”) and the ever-present fear of oppression (“Blacks and Browns” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder”): they’re all here in equal measure, and the listener is responsible for putting them together to see the bigger picture.
And really, all of this could be lost in the bluster of “FDT” the most politically driven message to emerge from the world of music this year. For the uneducated, “FDT” is shorthand for a certain four-letter word aimed at America’s president in waiting. It’s nothing more or less than pure vitriol… but it’s vital listening at the same time. The sentiment may not be shared by everyone, but YG is using his platform to give a voice to the raging voiceless, a piercing irony when the seemingly voiceless “won” this election season.
Every time I finish listening through Still Brazy, I’m left with the question of how I’m supposed to feel. Musically and technically, YG has crafted a masterpiece in which any fan of rap could find enjoyment. And yet I find the album’s overarching messages abjectly horrifying. It’s a confusing feeling, but one I feel is necessary as I continue investigating the genre I’ve come to love.