niklas kramer’s work as still parade has been headed towards a psychedelic renaissance; the berlin-based songwriter will release his debut album, concrete vision, on june 3rd, a collection of songs that feels like a stark departure from his earliest offerings. on “chamber,” kramer’s lead vocal deftly shadows a syncopated bass line while an indelible groove and cascading synth melodies round out a bucolic, technicolor palette. it’s easily the strongest still parade single offered to date. take a listen to “chamber” below.
the list of our hands-down favorite albums of 2015 will drop tomorrow. to sate your appetite for the time being, digest the work of the following five artists; each offered up a project that informed the tone of music this year, continued to shape their own artistic personae, or contributed heavily to social commentary. a few hit all three categories. links to stream are imbedded in each title; dig in below.
without black messiah, kendrick lamar’s to pimp a butterfly would exist in a very different capacity, or perhaps not at all. d’angelo’s first album in fourteen years so profoundly affected producer terrace martin at the tail-end of 2014 that he immediately began to retouch and rework tracks on lamar’s impending release to integrate its sound into a very similar contemporary social commentary. black messiah exists in much of the same vein as sly & the family stone’s 1971 classic there’s a riot goin’ on and innervisions-era stevie wonder, with near-flawless levels of funk arrangements and intra-ensemble musicianship (questlove and pino palladino contributed heavily; d’angelo’s near-virtuosic vocal abilities and synth construction are incredible in their own right) compounded by a mixture of romantic odysseys and searing examinations of race relations. indeed, d’angelo bumped up the release date of the album he had so painstakingly labored over in direct response to the death of eric garner, the decision in ferguson not to indict darren wilson in the death of michael brown, and the protests that surrounded these events. the urgency of black messiah only became more pertinent, as 2015 ticked off killing after killing of unarmed black citizens at the hands of law enforcement; in forty years, the album will undoubtedly be one of the more salient cultural snapshots of the persisting racism in early twenty-first century america.
after a lackluster outing in 2014, you’d be slightly forgiven for assuming that nayvadius wilburn would post a similar performance this year. but only slightly. the artist better known as future instead turned in a critically-lauded résumé of two solo mixtapes (with a third purportedly on its way before the year’s end), a high-profile collaboration with drake, and his third studio album, ds2. future relies heavily on atlanta mainstays metro boomin and zaytoven to craft the dystopian harmonies that accompany his codeine-laced trap hymns on ds2 as he weaves through chest-thumping accounts of bravado (“i serve the base”) and drug-fueled debauchery (“freak hoes”) to balance out the perpetual bleakness of his persona. future could have hung his head and feebly released snippets of material after failing to live up to his expectations last year; instead, ds2 triumphantly caps off a quest for redemption that has reinstated future as a viable frontrunner for trap’s iron throne. what a time to be alive.
“i’m so new york / i still don’t bump tupac,” himanshu suri brags at the outset of “so n.y.,” the second track on eat pray thug. performing as heems while a member of das rascist and now on his own, suri has made a name for himself with brazen, laugh-out-loud statements like this one, but you can usually bet on there being underlying context. suri embodies a very particular subset of new york identity: coming of age as a brown man in post-9/11 america. on eat pray thug, suri relies on personal anecdotes to drive home the laundry list of domestic injustices faced by residents of southeast asian and middle eastern descent in the wake of the attacks, from forced assimilation (“flag shopping”) to heartbreaking consequences of racial profiling (“patriot act”). the album is a long-overdue narrative in hip-hop, one that is – in a cruel twist of events – still incredibly salient in the face of renewed xenophobia incurred by the attacks in san bernardino and paris.
lana del rey has absolutely no qualms about burning slowly for an entire hour on her third major-label full-length. honeymoon arrives on the heels of last summer’s ultraviolence and sinks even deeper into the realm of full-blown noir, a territory elizabeth grant has been meticulously constructing since the birth of her alter ego. now it’s just flat-out extravagant. the central thesis of “high by the beach,” a rare, trap-inspired moment of momentum on the album, comes off as the furthest thing from ridiculous precisely due to the effortless elegance del rey has slowly woven into her music; cinematic centerpieces “music to watch boys to” and “salvatore” follow this rationale closely as well. it speaks volumes to her artistic growth and confidence that lana del rey no longer has the proclivity for the blatantly provocative. instead, she just buries them in confessionals against a backdrop of polychromatic orchestration.
don’t kid yourself that currents bears any semblance of a revolutionary or landmark album; it doesn’t. but once you put it in its proper place, this year’s model of tame impala does turn into something special. kevin parker’s psychedelic magnum opus “let it happen” was one of the most immediately impressionable tracks of the year; the opening number on currents trudges resolutely through a succession of lush soundscapes before reaching an extended epiphany, but it’s parker’s ability and willingness to extend his odyssey that makes the album truly worthwhile. every wandering, slow-burning moment (ie. “yes i’m changing,” “past life”) is balanced out by adroit slices of straight-up pop (ie. “the less i know the better,” “disciples”), adding a crucial third dimension that’s ultimately responsible for binding currents together.
the mid-1990s certainly could be described as a tumultuous time in the field of music, but i was too busy reading dr. seuss and playing with legos to really notice. my parents raised me on a pretty steady diet of stan getz, dexter gordon, and classical music on npr; aside from the soundtrack to the commitments and a cranberries album, there wasn’t much in the way of current pop music in the house. there definitely wasn’t even a whiff of rage against the machine to be found anywhere; even though they’re fairly liberal, brash politically-charged music didn’t exactly behoove two newly-minted academics working at a state university. that’s understandable.
i don’t recall the precise circumstances that led me to rage against the machine, but i know it was sometime during my junior high years. probably someone older than me was really into radical political ideology and i heard about them through the grapevine, but i can’t be sure. anyways, i never saw my interest in the band as being grounded in politics. at this point in my life i was predominantly listening to linkin park and snippets of commercial radio, but my thirteen year-old self was already growing tired of this mindless repetition. i must have been tempted by the promise that rage against the machine was equal parts rap and metal, two genres i considered myself to be equally familiar with.
i worked mostly backwards through the band’s catalogue because my local best buy was rather poorly stocked, at least in my opinion. i specify with “mostly” because even though a backtracking would indicate that i digested evil empire before their 1992 self-titled debut, that wasn’t the case. my long-standing infatuation with live at the grand olympic auditorium and the songs the band included in their (at the time) final two set lists led me to believe that the bulk of their worthwhile music was contained within the battle of los angeles and that their nostalgic anthems were littered across rage against the machine. by the time i did get around to evil empire, the songs fell flat for the most part and didn’t match up to what my expectations of rage against the machine had become.
as time passed and my musical horizons broadened, i largely left rage against the machine stored away in the fonder sections of my memory. this was the band whose guitarist had primarily inspired me to start learning the instrument and whose frontman had exposed me to a dynamic stage persona as well as the importance of smart lyrics, but other artists were starting to fuel my artistic development in a more direct way and my overall palate was becoming less aggressive. every once in awhile i would revisit the band for one reason or another, but the nostalgic trips never quite measured up to the original experience.
an unforeseen consequence of these forays was an increased immersion in and appreciation of evil empire as a part of rage against the machine’s discography. a hesitancy to accept the album due to its comparative lack of familiarity turned into an understanding of its role in shaping the band’s musical trajectory. while their self-titled debut certainly conformed to the basic definition of rap-metal, rage against the machine took a sharp left turn with evil empire. elements of rap and elements of metal are undoubtedly present throughout the album, but they don’t always work in tandem; rather, evil empire feels more like a hip-hop album with heavy guitar riffs that occasionally crop up.
morello’s guitar playing had to change to fit this mold, and he executed the task by beginning to create the eclectic sound now so commonly associated with him. he forgoes playing a single note on guitar in “people of the sun,” instead choosing to rub an allen wrench across the strings to create a unique timbral effect. even when he does play riffs (which are found nearly everywhere else on the album), they often tend to be narrow and repetitive, essentially creating a live rendition of a sample for de la rocha to rap over. equally important to the sound of evil empire is the prominent role of tim commerford’s bass lines. the clean tone is swapped out in favor of increased amounts of distortion, fattening the overall tone of the band. his opening line in “tire me” absolutely snarls and never loses momentum, while his role in “without a face” helps make the song one of rage’s funkiest.
the lyrics on evil empire can’t go unaddressed, either. while rage against the machine was defined by angst, aggression, and de la rocha’s burgeoning talent as an emcee, its successor reads with a bit more finesse and use of metaphor, and even hints of the pensive reflection and anguish that would later be fully developed on the battle of los angeles’ “born of a broken man” and “maria.” de la rocha voices his support for the zapatista movement, his disdain for cops, and the perils of right-wing radio all within the first ten minutes of the album, but the most powerful aspect of the album is the triptych of songs beginning with “tire me.” easily the most musically diverse sequence throughout evil empire, de la rocha seethes commentary about 1970s foreign policy, gets downright militant about economic disparity, and supplies a first-person account of race relations in the united states.
other musicians may be defined by their political and social activism, but few can manage the variety of topics so thoroughly and effectively explored by rage against the machine. largely devoid of profanity and slightly more subdued, evil empire conveyed this ideology in just as convincing of a manner while employing a heightened sense of musical intrigue. that’s why, even a number of years later, the once black sheep of the band’s discography is now my first stop whenever i feel the need for a nostalgic fix.