by Jon Hunt
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Only January, and already we’ve got the first masterpiece of 2016, and of course it’s from a black musician (of course if you’ve been paying attention, that is). Malibu is a rich and lush work of R&B that combines smart-ass hip-hop, jazz, classic soul sounds and plenty of futurism into a sweet little maelstrom that sounds like what Stevie Wonder would sound like if he came up now. Anderson .Paak’s last album — er, mix tape, technically — was Venice, a semi-minimalist and scattershot work that sounded like a slightly more psychedelic Frank Ocean in terms of song development (that is, not much). This, though, is about as maximalist as you can get — gorgeous horns, .Paak’s magnificent piano, and a leap in songwriting maturity so astounding it’ll knock you out.
My favorite thing about the album is that it does what I figured would happen right about now in terms of this nifty black music renaissance — it smoothly moves, melodically and cadence-wise, from hip-hop to R&B and back again. Listen to the 2nd song on the album, “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” for what I mean — he raps, he rap-sings, he fully sings, he raps again, he rap-sings — and it makes total sense in the context of the song. And he has a gorgeous voice when he sings and a rap cadence that reminds me a lot of Kendrick (smooth and quick) so it works (unlike, you know, Kanye doing same — I mean, it works fine when he ups the autotune, but you know what I mean). Throw in jazz influences, lots and lots of behind-the-beat D’Angelo bass vibe and you’ve really got something that you haven’t heard before.
Oh yeah — and the other rad thing is that it’s not all slow-ass stoner R&B, either. I mean, sure, some of it is — and it’s great stuff, too, with tunes like the gospel-inflected “The Season / Carry Me” and the sexy “Room in Here” and the wildly psychedelic “Parking Lot.” But some of it just straight slams — “Am I Wrong” is the first world-destroying single of the entire year, all wild disco beats, pulsing synths, cowbell and massive hooks. And “Come Down” is just punishing funk — a bass groove better than anything you’ve heard this year, tons of fuzzy-ass funk guitar, great rap verses, soul shouting and just about everything else you want.
And man oh man, “Celebrate.” If you wondered where Stevie’s songwriting went over the last 20 years, my guess is that was getting transferred over to Anderson, because this tune is the best song Stevie never wrote — it sorta sounds like it’s gonna be a sloppy piece of bedroom soul at first, but man, when that chorus kicks in, that smooth-ass soul chorus, you will be destroyed. Just straight up destroyed. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long damn time, and proof, I think, that complex chord structures and non-1-4-5 progressions are still a thing. I mean, it’s not world-shattering, but it’s just right and smooth and cool as fuck.
Honestly, it sounds like another logical progression from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah — it takes that record’s messy, gorgeous soul salvo and filters it through a nostalgic, modern, psychedelic filter and spits out something that’s like Stevie to D’Angelo’s angry Marvin. It’s a more approachable work for sure, but just as inventive (even more so, maybe) and a brightly-colored kaleidoscope of soul besides. I can virtually guarantee you that a listen to Malibu will make you feel pretty good about where music’s headed, especially R&B and hip-hop.
The Last Conspirators, Hold that Thought Forever
There are a lot of “last bastions” of what I think of as “pure” rock and roll music. In the 60s, it was regional garage rock bands who kept the flame alive with their “three-chord-and-the-truth” neanderthal pounding. In the 70s, it briefly transferred to regional metal bands before flipping over to regional punk bands. And you’ll notice I keep saying “regional” — there’s something about those smaller, never-quite-made-it-huge bands that causes them to continue to be the “pure strain” of the music they’re playing rather than try to fit in awkwardly with modern trend-spotting. And while this might mean they briefly flirt with being out of time, it’s a virtual dead cert that time will eventually catch up to them and find them fully relevant again. It happened with the garage guys for sure, with the metal guys too a few years back (check out how many people love Pentagram!) and it’s happening as we speak with the 80s punks. We’ve got plenty of Minneapolis examples of this, to be sure (see: the recent resurgence of the Flamin’ Oh’s and Suicide Commandos). Meanwhile, across the country, Conspirators guitarist/vocalist Tim Livingston used to front a rather nifty Albany punk band called The Morons who had a killer single called “Suburbanite” that was one of those organ-fueled adrenaline blasts that could only have come out of 1981 (and never quite made it huge). His modern band the Last Conspirators continue to burn the punk flame, and Hold That Thought Forever sounds like it could have come out two or three after their debut single — it’s not as whipass a strain of punk (well, not as fast, anyway) but it’s definitely in the slightly more sophisticated punk wheelhouse also occupied by Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros albums (and still neatly retro the way you want it to be). Plenty of killer songs that are still very much in a super-cool punk-veering-into-rock mode — opener “Perfect Lovers in a Complicated World” is straight-up punk single sweetness, “The Truth and a Gun” is about as garage as you can possibly get, “Blow Away the Sky” is one of those Clash-y fist-raised anthems that you look for on albums like this. I also love the groovy “Addiction,” the tense-as-hell “1302” and the fuzzy/swingin’ “Alright.” If you dig tapping into the main vein of rock and roll — and you should, because it’s the absolute real deal, folks — and you’re a fan of our own regional punk heroes, I cannot imagine you wouldn’t love a brief flirtation with the East Coast version of same. Rock on.
I dunno what Sweden is actually like these days. But I imagine it’s exactly like England was in about 1972 — wandering crews of dudes with long hair and jean jackets and huge mutton chops and bell bottoms and their equally rad female friends with long straight hair and crazy-ass boots and leather jackets, all getting really stoned and playing/listening to/absorbing rad-as-fuck heavy psychedelic doom-metal. I don’t know how it could be otherwise, as the number of awesome heavy rock outfits emanating from that country is absolutely legion these days, and all of ’em are pretty god-damn good, too. Witchcraft were one of the first out of the gate back in 2000, and in the ensuing decade-and-a-half (god, it’s been that long since 2000?) they’ve refined their sound into a kind of odd metal/prog amalgam that’s still heavy as fuck but with lots of wild proggy twists and turns and, well, flutes. Lots and lots of flutes. If you hate flute, you’re kind of fucked, because flute’s all over this thing, but don’t think it’s all frippy Tull frippery — it’s bone-crunchingly heavy as fuck, like on the opener “Malstroem,” or the fourteen-minute epic “Nucleus,” which goes everywhere and the kitchen sink and home for dinner. It’s really good stuff, folks — lots of heavy guitar interplay, some really likable hard rock singing (the warbly mid-70s variety rather than the screamy 80s or doomy modern variety, thank god) and songs about fantasy topics, which is always a good thing. Best: the 15+ minutes of “Breakdown,” which is every bit as weird/wild as anything you’ve heard this year, with plenty of xylophone (!) and sound effects leading into the metal hurricane. Frankly, if Sweden really is like I picture it, it’s a kind of paradise. Great records keep coming out of there, and long may they continue to time travel.