The Music We Missed in 2016
Even in an era of diverse jazz piano greatness, John Escreet stands apart. His music is a dark, ruminative panorama, a stark contrast to the pointed rhythmic abstraction favored by current leading lights of the keyboard like Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus), Jason Moran, Myra Melford, Brad Mehldau, or Vijay Iyer. Escreet moved to New York from his native England ten years ago and, after studying with Moran and Kenny Barron at the Manhattan School of Music, established a following for his distinctive style, with sideman gigs for acts ranging from Middle Eastern fusionist Amir ElSaffar to legendary free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker. Parker joins the stellar rhythm team of drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist John Hébert on Escreet's latest recording, which is drawn from two completely improvised concerts in Europe earlier this year. The music moves smartly from episodes of brooding piano trio to austerely elegant sections with all four musicians contributing nuanced inflections. Occasionally the band will discover a thick groove and mine it for its intensity. Each musician has room to shine, but Escreet impresses repeatedly with unique upper-register clusters and innovative sounds throughout. Overall this is music that doesn't try to overwhelm you. Instead it draws you in. — Martin Johnson
New York experimental musician Lesley Flanigan released this song on a two-cut EP of the same name this year. The twenty-minute track begins with a frantic scratching — a mechanical, rough noise that tumbles forward like a panic attack and continues for the duration as an anxious underpinning. Flanigan likes to pair harsh analog noise with soft, beautifully layered vocals, which she distorts until they've become an otherworldly chorus; most of her work uses feedback produced by wooden speakers she makes herself, but after the birth of her first child, conjuring that kind of noise was no longer feasible. Using a recorded beat instead meant she could compose on a laptop as her child slept. Here, her voice builds slowly over the course of the song, shifting into unfamiliar harmonies as the uneven beat rolls on below. It feels like an invocation of all we've been through this year, a reminder of the constant gnawing in our hearts as we floated through our days. Though her vocals are mesmerizing, they never can quite escape the restlessness below. After "Hedera" comes to a close, we're greeted with the sound-bath "Can Barely Feel My Feet," a wonderfully numbing comedown of blurring voice and tones, providing a spaciousness that we will need as we enter a dark future. — Sophie Weiner
When Captain Beefheart said that the "mama heartbeat, that 'bom-bom-bom' " of rock 'n' roll, was "boring," he wasn't advocating leaving all time signatures behind, just obvious ones. The follow-up statement was "I want things to change — like the patterns and shadows that fall from the sun." There is a hint of Beefheart's idea of harmony in the motifs of Baltimore's Horse Lords, and it's literally built into their setup. Inspired by the guitars of the west African nation of Mauritania, Owen Gardner refretted both his instrument and Max Eilbacher's bass to a just intonation scale of his own devising. Inside of that tonality, Horse Lords work loops against each other until you feel rhythms that you don't want to have to count. Once they've set up their grid, they stay within it, finding the change in the way parts align. There are few explosions or huge dynamic dropouts here. If Horse Lords need more negative space, they simply mute three-quarters of the band; "Encounter II/Intervention II" is an extended solo piece for saxophonist Andrew Bernstein, who toggles notes and drags them out into semitonal barks all alone. The joy rises, though, when the band lock gears and roll hard through their chutes and ladders. — Sasha Frere-Jones
Heaven or Somewhere in Between
For pop artists in 2016, releasing an EP was a way to test the waters of commerce in the streaming-music era. For the Los Angeles outfit Kitten, though, the EP Heaven or Somewhere in Between offered a chance for post-major-label redemption—an idea suggested by the religious bent of the album's song titles ("Church," "Heaven") and made fully flesh by Chloe Chaidez, the chameleonic lead singer whose deft navigation of all sorts of high-tension pop genres makes her one of music's most compelling presences. Kitten's 2014 self-titled album featured Chaidez and her bandmates trying on musical ideas to winning effect; the swirling "G#" was my number one song of that year, existing on the precipice of shoegaze while allowing Chaidez to flaunt her whisper-to-a-yawp vocal prowess. On the independently released Heaven, Chaidez struts her stuff with rock-star swagger, accompanied by big guitars and bigger hooks. She fuses the pomp of end-credits New Romanticism with the fabulousness of glam on the Suede-saluting "Fall on Me," swishes through the reverb-soaked riffs on "Church," and melts the icy keyboards on the blippy "Knife" with her love-you-to-death pleas. Heaven or Somewhere in Between might only be five songs, but those tracks showcase Chaidez's pop-star bona fides and ability to wring emotions from even the stoniest listener. — Maura Johnston
This band's name is Norwegian for "stranglehold," and frontman Erlend Hjelvik slings black-metal sludge with the guttural best of them. "1985," the first single from the instantly popular sextet's third and best album, owes far more to glam, Dave Grohl, and Brian May than anything Roadrunner's ever put out (or even anything by Kvelertak fan James Hetfield). The contrast between the lovable Seventies-rock backing and the usual Cookie Monster vocals is jarring, and "1985" has a great, swaggering switch-up of a bridge that demolishes indie competitors like Sleigh Bells or Fucked Up. The rest of Nattesferd is less of a jolt but just as compelling: The runaway-train-on-fire punk of the title track and the stop-start Aerosmith boogie of "Bronsegud" still break away from black metal in their brevity and cleanliness, while the opening "Dendrofil for Yggdrasil" surges forth with the most traditional dissonance (and blast beats) on the record. The closer? Well, it sounds more than anything like Built to Spill's "Broken Chairs." Just imagine this band as the skewer through a few different kebabs of rock circles and eras, and then chow down. — Dan Weiss
Metá Metá is a trio from São Paulo — singer Juçara Marçal, saxophonist Thiago França, and guitarist Kiko Dinucci. Their source materials are a clutch of moves taken from rock and various strains of improvisation, as well as the rituals of Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion that uses music and dance to summon the spirits of deities known as orixás. On their exceptional third album MM3, Metá Metá's flow constantly takes them toward the ecstatic. The final track, "Oba Koso," is a traditional chant to the orixás, rearranged into a circular, nine-minute thrash. "Imagem do Amor" starts with a modest guitar figure that the band enlarges, alternating flurries and near silences that highlight their rhythm section for this album, bassist Marcelo Cabral and drummer Sergio Machado. In Portuguese, Marçal sings about "birth," which a Brazilian source tells me is most likely about reproductive rights, as abortions up to three months were just legalized. (By email, França avoided specifics but allowed that "there's a feeling of despair, pessimism, and anger in some of the lyrics that comes from this turbulent time we're living, this dark cloud of political and social instability.") If we need to channel jazz back into rock via São Paulo, so be it. S.F.J.
Hip-hop has seen a spike in protest music in recent years as police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement permeate news and social-media headlines, but Detroit's Mic Write has been covering socioeconomic issues in his lyrics for years. Now that the rest of the industry is stepping up, he can show them how to do it right. The MC, whose offstage name is Chace Morris, has earned his stripes as an award-winning, fellowship-earning poet, rapper, and educator, and his latest EP, ONUS Chain, further establishes him as one of hip-hop's top wordsmiths. The emotive six-song collection aims to rally like minds and maintain self-love, even as systemic racism attacks people of color through law enforcement, education, and housing. "H.U.D.S." struggles with how to explain police brutality to high school students; on "Wait/Weight," Morris remembers the high school English teacher who accused him of plagiarism: "Black boy that write too well, look how good his paper is." Despite central themes of grief and anger, the record ends defiantly, with "Pledge of Allegiance," where Morris and his crew celebrate life, even when lived in a country determined to make them devalue themselves. — William E. Ketchum III
Seeking an album worth covering alongside Nadya Tolokno's scabrous Pussy Riot EP in the bleak aftermath of Trump's electoral coup, I lit upon an equally radical woman from northern latitudes: Inuk performance artist Tanya Tagaq. At 41, Tagaq has been recording for over a decade. She's teamed up with Björk, won Canada's Polaris Music Prize for 2014's Animism, and had a Joe's Pub gig reviewed in the New Yorker. In the wake of the Polaris, Retribution has been praised south of the border for its fierce intensity, its ritualistic grooves, its unusual sounds, its haunting throat-singing, its frightening global warming lecture, and the dulcet cover of Nirvana's "Rape Me" it goes out on. I'd just add that its ghostly menace and fatalistic rage are focused and magnified immeasurably by our political crisis. Tagaq is a feminist whose core issues are Inuit rights and the climate change that's melting her culture, but they imply a worldview: Her m.o. is to meet extremism with extremism. Playful and jovially profane in conversation, she switches to a performance aesthetic that's both radical and plastic. Retribution is never fun to listen to. But these days that's one more thing that makes it so satisfying. — Robert Christgau
Released through independent label eOne this February, Charlene is the first full-length in over a decade from Charlene "Tweet" Keys. The r&b landscape has shifted greatly over that span, but Tweet goes back to basics here, reveling in velvety-smooth love songs driven by live instrumentation. Lead single "Won't Hurt Me" finds her making peace with the end of a relationship, her delicate voice floating over a simple acoustic guitar melody; "Addicted," meanwhile, is a slow burn about all-consuming attraction and desire. Early on in her career, Tweet made her name as a backup vocalist for the likes of Ja Rule and Missy Elliott, and in an excellent full-circle moment, she joins forces with Elliott on the Timbaland-produced "Somebody Else Will," one of the album's standout tracks. This is the same trifecta that led to "Oops (Oh My)," the radio and chart smash that brought Ms. Keys to prominence in 2002. While Tweet's strain of r&b might not dominate the airwaves the way it did back then, Charlene proves that she can nod to the rudiments while giving the result a renewed energy. — Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
The Feminine: Act I
Let's get the obligatory she-sings-on–To Pimp a Butterfly press peg out of the way. Then let's wonder why one of the year's best debuts didn't make more of a splash considering the Kendrick co-sign. Wise was blessed with an apt surname: As she told an interviewer earlier this year, "Women are great. We're fucking great and I want to talk about us." The Feminine's closing bow, "Go," and its slow-build antecedent, "Girl, Mother, Crone," together form a smart-disco epic upwards of six minutes that unquestionably evokes Frank Ocean's "Pyramids" and arguably excites more than anything on the strong but downtempo Blonde. "Precious Possession" sits comfortably between Tinashe and Dawn Richard's restless post-r&b deconstructions, and the shoulda-gone-viral "BitchSlut" is one of the breeziest, most plainspoken callout tracks ever written: "You think I wanna fuck 'cause I comb my hair/'Cause I'm at the bar next to an open chair." It's impossible to miss the message of "Decrease My Waist, Increase My Wage." We need that sort of talk now more than ever. — D.W.
[Correction: The entry for Horse Lords initially stated that the artist was inspired by the "east African island of Mauritius," when it was in fact the west African nation of Mauritania. We have changed the entry to reflect the error.]