As one of our most exciting times of year (which we refer to as the Season of Lists), the Nextbop staff relishes the end of the year to declare our favorite releases from the last twelve months, noting a moment in time and reminding folks (out there reading and amongst ourselves in the staff) of what great music was out there and maybe to catch up on what you may have missed, taking special appreciation for congruence as well as dissent, and realizing all of this means there’s just so much music out there to enjoy (and seemingly more and more of it every year).
10. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine (Mello Music Group)
Jean Grae and Quelle Chris and are a hip-hop couple that seemed destined to make an album like this. Everything’s Fine is, unsurprisingly, about how nothing is at all. The opening skit introduces the subject matter by having depressed characters using the phrase to half heartedly refuse to speak on their troubles. “Gold Purple Orange” is a fantastic anthem for the individualistic, with Quelle commenting on the fallacies of generalizations and Jean diving into her childhood. The song has smooth laid back beat with absolutely beautiful horns. Although the group does thrive in the lyrically upbeat and comedic, “Breakfast of Champions” is a quality performance from the other side of the spectrum. The song tackles black american trauma – the emotional exhaustion and physical danger that comes with living in a country where police brutality is the norm. The duo is a witty as they are poignant.
9. Kali Uchis – Isolation (Rinse / Virgin / Universal)
Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis steps firmly into the spotlight on Isolation, a wonderfully produced album that delivers from front to back. Opener “Body Language” immediately pulls the listener in with a nice bossa nova rhythm and beautiful flutes that respond to Uchi’s singing. “Just A Stranger”, a song with a great bass line and a show stopping hook, is almost impossible to sit through without dancing. “Your Teeth In My Neck” is similarly addictive, with tight rhythmic interactions between the bass and drums. The steady groove and catchy verses of Uchis and Jorja Smith make the first single, “Tyrant”, another standout song. Anyone who has an interest in pop or R&B should check this record out.
8. Black Thought & Salaam Remi – Streams of Thought, Vol. 2 (Passyunk Productions / Human Re Sources)
Black Thought is one of the best rappers of all time. This series of EPs is further cementing his status in the upper echelon of hip-hop lyricists. Salaam Remi provides production that fits that Philly MC near perfectly. The musical style here is reminiscent of classic blaxploitation films, with the combination of live drumming, organs and fuzz guitar that form the opener, “Fentanyl”, making this immediately apparent. The album’s finest moment is “Conception”, which has Thought at his best over gorgeous soulful production.
7. Elza Soares – Deus É Mulher (Deckdisc / Polysom)
Elza Soares’ previous record, A Mulher do fim do Mundo, was clearly the beginning of a new chapter in her career. The singer, who has been putting out records since the sixties, had never really done anything like it. It’s not a sound that would be expected of a Brazilian artist in the late stage of their career. There is nothing that comes close to easy listening bossa nova here. This album rocks – literally and figuratively. The sound of Deus É Mulher builds on the novel approach of her previous album. The music has a unique, dark and at times experimental edge to it, with Soares’ harsh voice being a perfect match to the sound of her band. Standout moments include the languid “Língua Solta”, which has a near-hypnotizing combination of lush strings, smooth bass and electric guitar. Three tracks later, “Um Olho Aberto” has a quirky horn driven rhythm and progresses interestingly during Soares’ lines, adding intricate guitar lines in the middle of her verses. One has to wonder whether there is anyone else putting out records this adventurous in their eighties.
6. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs (Tan Cressida / Columbia)
Earl has already released a couple of quality albums, but on Some Rap Songs he has found an aesthetic that fits his raps perfectly. Although bleak lyrics are still present, there is a big shift in style from his past work. On the production side, things are much less clear – in a literal sense. Earl ditches the gloomy, cleaner beats of his previous record and focuses on a very Madlib and Donuts-era Dilla influenced approach. The album is full of short lo-fi tracks with dusty sample loops. Earl adjusts accordingly, notably approaching the mic with a much more fluid flow. At times he opts to leave more space between words or rap slightly less technically than he would have in the past. It feels less calculated and more natural than before. The result is 25 minutes of what is surely Earl’s best work yet.
5. Saba – Care For Me (Saba Pivot, LLC)
The stark difference between Saba’s debut, Bucket List, and Care for Me shows just how much can change in a couple years. While Bucket List was a solid, often upbeat and playful debut LP, Care for Me is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum. Saba’s sophomore effort is a poignant and mellow album that, more than anything, is informed by loss. He skillfully deals with grief, fear, insecurity and troubled relationships throughout the ten tracks. “Prom / King” and “Heaven All Around Me”, which both deal with the recent death of his cousin, best friend and Pivot Gang collaborator, Walter Long, Jr (dinnerwithjohn), are the rapper’s most compelling songs to date.
4. Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan)
In the short time between their debut and their sophomore effort, Idles have already managed to expand their post-punk sound. The fire is still there – a two guitar propelled attack anchored by a rapid rhythm section – but Joy as an Act of Resistance is not as consistently relentless as their debut, Brutalism. However, this should not be read as a negative. The change in Joy has brought a wider emotional range to the band, who have arguably managed to surpass their stellar debut. Joe Talbot continues to sing with the passionate delivery, biting social commentary and sarcasm that made him such an interesting frontman throughout Brutalism. There are a slew of songs here that could easily be candidates for the Bristol band’s best. “Colossus” builds epically, beginning with a relatively skeletal arrangement, adding heavier drumming and more active guitar riffs until it finally explodes with energy in the final minute and a half. “Danny Nedelko” is a catchy pro-immigrant anthem that refreshingly focuses on both the typical (“a Nigerian mother of three”, “a Polish butcher”) and the atypical (“Freddie Mercury”, “Mo Farah”) instead of falling into the common trap of exclusively centering the latter.
3. Armand Hammer – Paraffin (Backwoodz Studioz)
There is a unique, brooding energy to Armand Hammer. Often grim and rarely direct, Elucid and Billy Woods spend Paraffin stringing together abstract, bleak verses over brilliantly ghastly beats. The rapping is top notch and the production can be startinglingly alive. Waves of white noise, static and a sly horn sample weave through “Rehearse with Ornette.” “Hunter” also shifts throughout, starting off eerily minimal and eventually morphing into a menacing atmosphere filled with echoing horn samples. Elucid’s sinister second verse is a stunner. Both Elucid and Woods have various quotables that include biting commentary on the treatment of Black Americans (“to be seen and not seen at the same time is a mind fuck, black buck”, Elucid on “ECOMOG”) and their now typical sense of dark humor (“by the end the feds WAS the panthers”, Billy Woods on “Fuhrman Tapes”). This is essential left-field hip hop.
2. Julia Holter – Aviary (Domino)
Aviary is a trip. It’s pretty much impossible to put in a box. Shades of classical music, jazz, experimental pop and influences that date back to the middle ages all converge on one another to create a truly unique canvas. The album bears little to no resemblance and is in some ways the antithesis to Julia Holter’s previous recording, Have You In My Wilderness, which was generally arranged in defined verse-chorus-verse structures. Aviary is Holter’s longest and most dense work to date and is inarguably not an album that will be loved by everyone, but those that do agree to the deep dive may find that it’s the aural equivalent to an enchanted forest. It’s an expansive project with nothing that could be mistaken for an artistic compromise. There is a wide variety of stylistic approaches on display here, with the mesmerizing spacious atmosphere of “Voce Simul” and the lush trills of the strings throughout “Words I Heard” both being highlights.
1. Noname – Room 25 (Independent)
A lot changed for Fatima Warner, who raps as Noname, in the years after her debut, Telefone. The mixtape brought a huge increase in recognition, a successful tour and a move to L.A. to focus on the creation of her next album. The experiences of her new life are what power Room 25 – moments of self assurance, love, longing, acceptance and critiques of American society. The album is arguably her best yet, with Phoelix taking the jazzy, neo-soul influenced production to the next level and Noname’s pen-game being sharper than ever. Highlights include “Prayer”, a song with an unsettling second verse in which Noname focuses on the ills of police brutality by rapping from the perspective of a police officer. “Ace”, an addictive posse cut featuring Smino and Saba, is another standout moment. The rapper is extremely moving during “Don’t Forget Me”, where she puts the changes in her life and her mortality into perspective.
Brian Kiwanuka is a writer‚ attorney and music nerd but not in that order. He digs Armand Hammer‚ Alice Coltrane and Stevie Wonder and occasionally subjects his friends to detailed rants about music. You can check out more of his writing on 93 Million Miles Above.