From a certain perspective, Los Angeles musicians had a tough time this year scoring in the big leagues.
To extend the baseball metaphor, while competition from Toronto (Drake, the Weeknd), Houston (Beyoncé, Solange), London (Adele), Chicago (Chance the Rapper) and Columbus, Ohio (21 Pilots) advanced their positions across 2016, Los Angeles was forced to rely on Maroon 5 and recent acquisitions such as Sia and Kanye West to make a go of it.
Which is to say, it was an off year in the commercial realm.
Bubbling beneath those league leaders, though, were a dozen songs by area artists that helped define the sound of the city. A few were delivered by household names, a few by others who will be in a few years and yet others are defiantly uninterested in such folly.
Combined, these songs offered a snapshot of L.A. music in a tumultuous year.
YG and Nipsey Hussle, “FDT” (digital download). The unprintably titled protest against the president-elect became a rallying cry for anti-Trumpers across 2016, but little did Compton rapper YG know when he issued it in March that his invective against Donald Trump was directed at a future president.
Chanted at protests and booming from car stereos, YG and rough-riding Crenshaw colleague Nipsey Hussle’s rant was so hostile that it drew the interest of the Secret Service.
KING, “The Greatest” (King Creative). Until this year, Los Angeles-based R&B vocal trio KING hadn’t issued a record in nearly five years. Never a household name in the first place, few seemed to notice that they hadn’t split or given up.
They didn’t. Rather, they were working on tracks such as “The Greatest,” a buttery groove that recalled MTume’s great seduction song “Juicy Fruit” and Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Released independently, “The Greatest” earned a lot of ears via streaming site playlists, where it segued well with similarly smooth jams by Solange and Tinashe. It also landed a Grammy nomination in the urban contemporary category.
Kanye West, “No More Parties in L.A.” (G.O.O.D./Def Jam). With a beat built by the respected Oxnard-raised producer Madlab and featuring a searing collaborative verse from Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, West drew from two deep wells to craft this ode to his adopted city. “Mulholland Drive need to put up some [expletive] barricades,” raps West, a first-world problem if there ever was one.
Silver Lake Chorus, “Heavy Star Movin’” StarRo remix” (Six Degrees). This Grammy-nominated remix of a Silver Lake Chorus track connects a number of far-flung locales. It was written for the L.A. chorale group by members of the Flaming Lips, and recorded for the Chorus’ self-titled 2015 album.
Then the Japanese producer StarRo, affiliated with the hot L.A. beat crew Soulection (Highland Park), remixed it, slicing and dicing the Chorus’ vocal arrangements and turning it funky. The result: a left-field — and much deserved — Grammy nomination in the remixed recording category.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “Arthropoda” (Western Vinyl). Analog synth composer Smith keeps a studio in Glendale, where she spins ethereal synthetic sounds and weaves them into intricate tapestries. The result on “Arthropoda,” from her album “EARS,” is a song whose vocal and instrumental frequencies wash across the rooms like an incoming tide, as thoughtfully rendered as they are relaxing.
Terrace Martin, “Turkey Taco” (Sounds of Crenshaw/Rope A Dope). The ascendance of young Los Angeles producer-saxophonist Martin as a heavy on the city’s jazz and production scene has done much to advance a new L.A. sound, one that draws on the liquid sound of the late producer J. Dilla and Flying Lotus’ wobbled rhythms as much as it does the classic post-bop of John Coltrane or Miles Davis. It makes sense that Kendrick Lamar, YG, Snoop and dozens of others have used his productions.
Martin’s 2016 album “Velvet Portraits” didn’t get much press, but it made up for it with a surprise Grammy nomination in the R&B album category. The record features contributions from vocalists including Lalah Hathaway, the Emotions and Tiffany Gouche, so it’s certainly an R&B album, but it’s a wild one that features slow jams, experimental funk and wobbly beat music. “Turkey Taco” is the last.
Thee Oh Sees, “At the End, On the Stairs” (Castleface). Excepting a reunited Slash and Axl Rose in Guns ‘N Roses and the perennial success of alt-rock band Silversun Pickups, L.A. rock in 2016 seemed almost an afterthought in mainstream America. On a whole other trip altogether, though, the ever-prolific, sublimely inventive psychedelic rock band Thee Oh Sees ruled the so-called underground with two albums this year.
An electrifying live band, singer-guitarist-visual artist John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees relocated from San Francisco a few years back, set up a home base and studio in Highland Park and seems to be building some sort of mini-empire.
If that’s the case, his creation is hiding, in the words of one of the band’s most beguiling guitar songs, “At the End, on the Stairs,” from “An Odd Entrances.” If this creepy music is any indication, though, something may be hiding beneath them too.
Ceci Bastida, “Un Sueño (feat. Aloe Blacc)” (Nacional). This rough-and-tumble dance pop track connected two regional kindred spirits — the Tijuana-born, Pasadena-based Bastida and the Laguna Hills-born soul singer Aloe Blacc. A protest about the 2014 kidnapping of students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, the song’s the title track from Bastida’s “Sueño” EP. In addition, Bastida has been touring with the hot cross-border, cross-genre project Mexrissey, which channels songs by Britpop band the Smiths through the filter of regional Mexican music.
Anderson .Paak, “Am I Wrong?” Between his soul-rap album “Malibu” and his collaboration with producer Knxledge as NxWorries, the Oxnard-raised, peskily punctuated .Paak was this year’s most versatile breakout. A surprise best new artist Grammy nominee, the multitalented .Paak has a rasp in his voice, raps as well as he sings and lights up the stage. It’s all there on “Am I Wrong?,” a track with production that feels filtered through a Rick James jam by way of Dam-Funk.
Vince Staples, “War Ready” (Def Jam). California hip-hop keeps getting weirder and more experimental, and Long Beach rapper Staples’ “War Ready” is real, real gone. A track from his “Prima Donna” EP, it features an intro by Outkast’s Andre 3000, a verse by New Yorker A$AP Rocky and a threadbare beat from British singer-producer James Blake.
Best is Staples’ way around a rhyme. With lubricated flow, he lays out cussed couplets about the plight of his peers: “Heaven, Hell, free or jail, same …/ County jail bus, slave ship, same …/ A wise man once said that a black man better off dead/ So I’m, war ready.”
For tips, records, snapshots and stories on Los Angeles music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit