[1] D’Angelo – Black Messiah

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https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/black-messiah/id950764300

In mid-December, when most music publications had already released their respective – and crushingly predictable – year end lists, there were whispers on social media and elsewhere of one more record being dropped on a whim, and from the heavens: Michael Eugene Archer, better known by his stage name, D’Angelo, had announced the release of his new record, something called Black Messiah. This rumor, of course, set his fans agog; the man had never released a bad album. Fuck, he had never released a lukewarm album even. On the other hand, however, he hadn’t released a new set of music in almost 15 years.

And when the record was released, our eagerness rested. The album was incredible. Not only musically, mind you, with a work that gushes magisterial confidence from the drop of the needle to the final crackle — a stunningly dense and funk-laden admixture equal parts Maggot Brain and What’s Going On — but that the record itself actually exists. That it was 2014 and a new D’Angelo LP was out; that the record sleeve and vinyl was something you could, no fooling here, hold in your hands. Because after the release of the utterly fantastic Voodoo in January 2000, in a world still bearing the hangover of Y2K fear mongering, D’Angelo retreated into velveteen darkness. He had resented the fact that he was more known for his strongman physique than his music. His live shows, thanks in part to his near-nude video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” devolved into a platform for people to gawk at him, and so had become something of a recluse.

Stories began to trickle out over the years: he had learned to play the guitar. He had been involved in a nearly fatal car accident. He had been arrested for soliciting a blowjob from an undercover police officer. He was an alcoholic, and in rehab in Los Angeles. These stories though were just that, though – stories, which grew increasingly unbelievable as time went. Like many artists before him, D’Angelo became embroiled in controversy, unable to shoulder the inevitable scrutiny that his fame had wrought.

He had been writing new music, though. In January 2013, Questlove – D’Angelo’s venerable drummer and, seemingly, his spokesperson – told Billboard that they were just “tightening the loose ends” on the new record and that “99% of it is done.” There was word of a 2015 release, perhaps, maybe. With D’Angelo, and his widely known Kubrickian perfectionism, one can never truly be sure.

All of the doubt of a new album changed to certainty, though, as a grand jury failed to indict the police officer accused of shooting eighteen-year-old Michael Brown dead in broad daylight. After the ruling, D called his tour manager, enraged. “The one way I do speak out is through music” he told, “I want to speak out.” In that sense, Black Messiah plays like Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, smartly contextualizing contemporary racial tensions in what cable news insists is a post-racial America. And if D’Angelo wanted for his voice to be heard, this history book of soul music registers his livid roar loud and clear. From the Purple Rain funk of The Prayer to his confrontation to systemic racism on The Charade, insisting “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we got outlined in chalk, D’Angelo threads his many influences together, like not many others can, to create a work that can sit proudly beside them on any record shelf. This album is one that shouldn’t be written about and reviewed at all, but rather heard – played loudly through your headphones, stereo receiver, or wherever, because it speaks to the times we live in better than any piece of writing or news reportage ever can.

-Eric Steingold

We hope you enjoyed this top 10 countdown. Now we will continue to post stand out songs from the Facebook group.

Below is a lengthy discussion that resulted from a member of The Freshest Clams admitting that they didn’t love the Black Messiah. 
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[2] Vulfpeck – Fugue State

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https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/fugue-state-ep/id916004599

Vulfpeck’s summer EP release, Fugue State, starts off strong with the title track, a fusion of tight funk with Bach’s classical fugue influence. Jack Stratton had experimented with classical groove in his recent Vulfmon release “JC Bach Choy,” which is a reinterpretation of Prelude 10 in E minor from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. But “Fugue State,” a Woody Goss composition, goes a step further in cohesively incorporating original funk grooves with fugue lines on the Wurlitzer.

The second track, “1612,” has been pieced together and reworked by Vulfpeck over the past year. A version was recorded during the lost June 2013 sessions with saxophonist Norm Tischler. Stratton brought in this tune as a tribute to legendary arranger Wardell Quezergue and his work on “Mr. Big Stuff.” Antwaun Stanley’s vocals interact with the musical chord progression much like Aretha in her delivery of “Respect.”  “1612” as a random numerical refrain is also reminiscent of Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789.” In many ways, this track is an ode to the classic Stax, Volt, and Atlantic soul recordings. For Stratton and the band, it is also a deeply personal Afro-Semitic achievement to open a soul song with a reference to tzimmes.

Sky Mall,” a Stratton composition, enters into the realm of cheesy funk special effects. Though ultimately, this song serves to showcase Joe Dart’s virtuosic speed, accuracy, and slap-bass technique. “First Place” brings the tempo down for a piano-focused R&B number. The tight, grooving character of the rhythm section behind Stratton’s slow, soulful piano is reminiscent of the lower energy tunes by Richard Tee and Stuff.  The final tracks on the album are an instrumental version of “Christmas in L.A.” and “Newsbeat,” a mellow funk tune that sounds like the closing credits of an ’80s sitcom. It has never been played live.

Fugue State is a major step forward in the tightness of Vulfpeck’s musical arrangements and cohesiveness as a group. The eclectic assortment of styles and influences that come together at the intersection of comedic and classical, Bach and Bernard Purdie, Muscle Shoals and Mickey Katz, are what makes this EP not only a sign of progress for the band, but a fiercely unique funk release of 2014.

– JS

[3] Snarky Puppy – We Like It Here

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/we-like-it-here/id810245592

Snarky Puppy has acknowledged that We Like It Here is the “best thing they’ve ever done.” With a complex blend of jazz, rock, funk, rhythm and blues, Latin influences, and a pinch of hip-hop, this album represents fusion for a new age. The tracks reflect definite dedication to the work of Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, but each song is so diverse in its style and influence. “Jambone,” for instance, sounds like it could be a jazz-infused tune by a jam-band like moe. It includes the best guitar solo on the album, as well as a nod to Hendrix with a tease of his song, “Third Stone From The Sun.” “What About Me?” has sections that could have been pulled straight from Return to Forever album, and other segments that exude a Bela Fleck/Jeff Coffin-style fusion. “Tio Macao” incorporates elements of the New Orleans brass band scene, as well as serious jamming between four percussionists.

Ultimately, Snarky Puppy’s massive ensemble and horn section enable the group to express diverse musical influences within the same song, and are key to the band’s distinctly big sound. Now ten years old, Snarky Puppy has more than 25 musicians in the rotation, including Cory Henry, the Hammond organist and keyboardist for the group. Henry is a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist and producer whose solo album, First Steps, was also a top jazz album of 2014.

Snarky Puppy records all of its albums through live studio sessions over the course of several days. No overdubbing. This not only speeds up the process of recording, but provides a distinct organic feel of collaborative and responsive improvisation, so often missing from modern recordings. The videos of the live studio sessions for We Like It Here are available on YouTube. The album was recorded over the course of four days in Utrecht, Holland.

We Like It Here is defined by serious orchestration and coordination coupled with a feeling of raw live energy, that experience of listening to talented musicians playing off of one another and creating something new in the moment. This environment is something that you can only experience from a performance, and that is part of what makes this fusion album stand out among more polished, overdubbed, sterile-sounding new releases.

– JS

[4] You’re Dead! – Flying Lotus

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/youre-dead!/id908342744

Let’s get this out of the way- You’re Dead! is a weird album. Oddity is certainly familiar territory for Steven Ellison, the man more commonly known as Flying Lotus- he’s built an entire career making incredible deep music that pushes boundaries both sonically and thematically. His body of work has explored everything from human consciousness to the cosmos. But on his 5th LP, he leaves life behind entirely, instead reflecting on the journey beyond- it may just be the wildest ride he’s taken us on yet.

This sentiment is particularly true of the first four tracks: frenetic, fast paced, and featuring the legendary bassist Herbie Hancock, it’s FlyLo at his most experimental. This entropic, nearly free-form jazz is a recurring theme throughout You’re Dead. FlyLo’s greatest strength, however, has always been his ability to send the listener into this deep space, then bring things throttling back to Earth with a hyperfocused, percussion driven melody. There’s no shortage of that dichotomy on You’re Dead either. For every (strong) dose of acid jazz, there’s a song like “Never Catch Me” (the album’s standout featuring Kendrick Lamar), where it’s impossible to miss everything coming together. With Gospel piano intonations, soaring backup vocals, and a perfectly offbeat verse from Lamar, it’s a classic reminder that as bizarre as his music can get, FlyLo is always in total control. It’s also the album’s longest song by almost a minute, as most of the tracks seem to be no more than quick thoughts or ideas. To be granted as long of a look into Ellison’s mind as “Never Catch Me” provides is not just a rare occurrence; it might well be the most complete song he’s ever produced.

Despite You’re Dead serving as a vehicle for FlyLo’s continued experimentation and progression, some of its finest moments come when he leans heavily on his fundamentals. In a post-Dilla world, many have tried to emulate the late superproducer’s ability to craft emotionally resonant beats, but few have done so as successfully and as effortlessly as Ellison, especially with respect to his earliest works. It’s welcoming to hear him return to this style, which was largely absent from his previous LP, Until the Quiet Comes. “Coronus the Terminator” echoes 1983-era FlyLo not just in its simplicity, but also in its beauty- pained harmonizing, analog instrumentation (courtesy of Thundercat, FlyLo’s frequent collaborator), and so much texture that you can almost feel the song spilling out of your speakers. Meanwhile, you can hear flashes of Ellison’s Los Angeles on tracks like “Turtles,” filled with warmth and his trademark percussion, which chugs along like a train moving through a jungle. You’ll find these slower, shorter songs often require the most attention; you can pick up on new aspects every time you listen, a hallmark of great production.

You’re Dead! is another masterpiece from one of the most creative visionaries active in contemporary music. Is it clear what message Ellison is trying to send about the afterlife? No, but his questions are rarely easy to answer. This is music that challenges you to think and, even moreso, to feel. One thing you can be certain of? If death is anything like this album makes it out to be, then we have a lot to look forward to once we’re gone.

-Andrew Reiver

[5] Fuego – Phish

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/fuego/id876113007

This album deserves a little backstory.

Halloween 2013 was a night that I will never forget. Phish, the Vermont-based group that has taken the reigns as the leader of the JamBand genre in the post Grateful-Dead era, did something no one was expecting.  Every Halloween that Phish happened to be playing a show, they would don a “musical costume” and cover another band’s entire album from start to finish. They had done this 6 times since 1994, covering classic  albums like The Beatles’ White Album, The Who’s Quadrophenia, and The Velvet Underground’s Loaded. But on October 31st 2013, Phish fans walked into The Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to a huge surprise. Phish would debut their own album that they had been secretly working on.

The album that they played that night was actually a work in progress. After the show, they added a song, nixed 3, and changed the album name to Fuego. Needless to say, the studio version was highly anticipated, but it lived up to the hype. The band hired legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, KISS, Alice Cooper, and many more) who absolutely stepped up to the plate and turned these incredible songs into a cohesive album.

The album starts off with the title track which could only be described as Fuego, or any other translation of the word fire. The first 2 minutes start off with a great rock anthem, similar to the classic riffs of KISS and AC/DC. Then at 2:13, the song quickly takes a turn for a drum-and-bass led groove that explains why Phish can consistently sell out huge venues–their fans like to dance. The song seamlessly weaves back and forth between the anthem and “jam” sections, and ends with a calm composed section that Ezrin really develops into a soundscape.

The Line is a fun jingle accompanied by funny lyrics about Darius Washington, Jr. who chocked at the end of the game and missed two of three free throws while playing for the University of Memphis against Louisville in the 2005 Conference-USA tournament. Songs like Devotion To A Dream and Sing Monica prove that Phish are still incredible song writers that can elegantly sprinkle a little pop on their tunes. Ezerin really struts his skills on tunes like Wingsuit and Waiting all night by adding layers of perfectly complimenting sounds. It’s incredible to hear the power of incredible producing. These two are among my favorite studio songs, which I would never had previously said about “slower” songs.

Then there are gooey funk songs like Wombat, 555, and Halfway To The Moon. These you gotta check out. I remember seeing Wombat when they debuted it live, and it was the only song that everybody instantly started dancing to. I mean you can’t not groove to that bass line. Overall, this album is definitely among the top Phish studio albums, and it’s great to know that after 30 years, Phish is still extremely inspired and determined to scratch their creative itch.

-JD

[6] Juice – Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/juice/id907720380

“You want me to start it like that?” So begins Juice, Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood’s 2014 reminder to the world of the great things that happen when you combine one of the most prolific jazz guitarists of the 21st century with the most exciting avant-jazz-funk trio of our time. Continuing a collaboration that began with 1998’s A Go Go, MSMW take listeners on an adventure through jazz, funk, and even some rock n’ roll for good measure. The album consists of six originals, including Latin-tinged standout Juicy Lucy, and four completely inventive covers. The band re-works the iconic riff of The Doors’ Light My Fire for the guitar, reggae-fies Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, and closes out the album with a beautiful, almost lullaby-like cover of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. Throughout the album, Scofield’s instantly recognizable guitar lines weave in and out of the pocket set by Billy Martin and Chris Wood, and his interplay with John Medeski’s organ is stellar throughout. While perhaps not as boundary pushing as some of MSMW’s previous releases, this does not take away from the pure joy one experiences when listening to these four music veterans, collaborating at the top of their respective games.

-Evan Weber

[7] Run The Jewels 2 – Run The Jewels

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https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/run-the-jewels-2/id927052864

Killer Mike and El-P are currently in the midst of one of the all-time great runs in hip-hop with 2012’s R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike (produced entirely by El-P), 2013’s Run the Jewels, and this year’s Run the Jewels 2. Killer Mike and El-P had set almost unrealistic expectations for Run the Jewels 2 with the great success of last year’s Run the Jewels album. Yet, here we are, expectations passed with flying colors.

El-P’s production is as wild as ever with thumping bass, blaring synths, and booming drums (with some help from Travis Barker). No other album this year will sound harder blasting from your car speakers. While both Killer Mike and EL-P have their strong bars, Killer Mike is the lyrical master here. Lyrics focus on strong social commentary, protest, and classic braggadocious rhymes. The album also features a strong guest verse from Rage Against the Machine frontman, Zach de la Rocha, on one of the album’s highlights, “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck).” He sounds completely revitalized, spitting rhymes like “I’m miles ahead of you, you can sip my bitches brew.” Other highlights of the album include Killer Mike’s first verse on “Early” where he details extreme police brutality that feels all too common, given recent tragedies. In his verse on “Crown,” he admits his guilt in dealing coke to a pregnant woman. Additionally, female MC and former Three 6 Mafia member Gangsta Boo steals the show on “Love Again” where she manages to outdo both Mike and El in one of the raunchiest verses in recent memory.

Listening to the album, it is clear that Killer Mike and El-P love working together. They are already rumored to be getting back in the studio together next month to begin work on a Run the Jewels 3 record. Look for them to be in more top ten lists at next year’s end.

– Benjamin Eidman