So far, 2016 has already given us the much-anticipated debut solo album from Zayn Malik, the first Rihanna album since 2012 and the follow-up to Grammy winner “The Heist” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. None of them were good, but at least five others were.
“Blackstar,” David Bowie (Jan. 8, Columbia Records)
According to co-producer Tony Visconti, “Blackstar” was always meant to be David Bowie’s “parting gift” to his fans (Bowie died of liver cancer two days after the album’s release). As swan songs go, it’s as self-aware as an album can be. Like Warren Zevon’s own final release, Blackstar offers hints of its artist’s passing, but — unlike “The Wind,” which offered very literal interpretations of death — Blackstar explores death through allegory and strange lyrical imagery, with Bowie often likening himself to a prophet or a god moving on to a different plane of existence. Given the quality of this art rock project, it’s hard to argue with his metaphor.
“Emily’s D+Evolution,” Esperanza Spalding (March 4, Esperanza Spalding Productions, LLC)
What makes the fifth album by multi-instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding so engaging is the sheer breadth of her influences. Bossa nova, neo-soul, R&B, alternative rock, funk and riot grrrl-style punk (mainly in the Sleater-Kinney guitar riffs) all come together to form something both lush and confident, and Spalding’s smooth voice should place her squarely in contention to provide the title theme for the next James Bond film.
“Malibu,” Anderson Paak (Jan. 15, Steel Wool)
The year 2015 saw the release of Dr. Dre’s third, long-awaited studio album “Compton,” and unfortunately, while perfectly functional, the album failed to come close to its predecessors, as well as justify nearly a decade and a half of radio silence. However, if anything positive came out of it, Anderson Paak would be that very thing. After rising to prominence with an impressive six features on “Compton,” Paak’s Malibu was his breakout album. Gorgeously vibrant production swells under Paak’s voice: delicate, raspy, and often reminiscent of Chance the Rapper — and, in some of the more energetic tracks (“Come Down” in particular), Paak’s vocals breach James Brown territory.
“Untitled Unmastered,” Kendrick Lamar (March 4, Aftermath Entertainment)
“Untitled Unmastered” doesn’t aspire to anything higher than the compilation of various leftover tracks that are — as the album’s name implies — both untitled and unmastered. Still, it undoubtedly proves one thing: Kendrick Lamar’s trash is better than a lot of rappers’ treasures. A sizable portion of the tracks echo the jazz/funk fusion that served as the backbone for 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (presumably, these tracks were cut), and Lamar fans will recognize two of the tracks as having been performed on “The Colbert Report” and “The Late Show.” Perhaps even more than “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “Untitled Unmastered” declares Lamar’s kingship over modern hip-hop, because it shows that even his less-confident material holds immense value.
“Varmints,” Anna Meredith (March 4, Moshi Moshi Records)
Sparkly and glitzy, the electronic instrumentals on Anna Meredith bare shades of both synthpop and dream pop, with the sporadic vocal tracks evoking Ariel Pink’s monotonic delivery. Meredith — a graduate of the Royal College of Music — is smart about giving her songs a proper pace and progression while avoiding the pitfall of repetition into which lesser art pop acts fall. “Varmints” works because it feels as composed and musically interesting as anything Meredith would have produced with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.