Brian Kiwanuka’s Favorite Non-Jazz Albums of 2017

Maybe it’s not saying much, as I feel like I have been coming to this conclusion often yearly, but there were some truly fantastic records released this year. It would be a bit dishonest if I didn’t mention that as someone who fell in love with music through hip-hop, the genre is definitely the one that I keep up with the most. Left-field hip hop – the more lyrically abstract and experimental stuff – had some releases that I’m sure I will be consistently returning to. In regards to other genres, I discovered the music of a singer/songwriter from Peru who, with just two succinct albums, is now one of my favorite current musicians. Speaking of singers/songwriters, another one of my favorites also dropped a great album this year. Check out my top 10 non-jazz records of 2017 below.

10. Rapsody – Lalia’s Wisdom (Def Jam)
Rapsody’s stock has definitely risen since her show-stopping feature on “Complexion” of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – but she has always been on the grind. From the rapper’s Kooley High beginnings until now, Rapsody has always been refining her craft, and Lalia’s Wisdom is strong evidence that she is currently at her best. The beat choices here tend towards the more organic, containing live elements, primarily drums and Rhodes keys, which often interact to great effect with vocal samples and vocalists. Rapsody offers great, conscious lyrics, tackling topics like police brutality and blackness on songs like “Power” and “Nobody”. The emcee also writes great love songs in the soulful “Knock on My Door” and “A Roller Coaster Jam Called Love”. Whether she is launching an impressive lyrical attack (“You Should Know”) or just having radio-ready fun with it (“Sassy”), it’s all quality.

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9. Julia Holter – In The Same Room (Domino)
In The Same Room is a live album composed of various tracks from the singer/songwriter’s previous albums, including Have You In My Wilderness, Loud City Song and Tragedy. What immediately stands out within the first song, an eerie rendition of “Horns Surrounding Me” is the quality of the recording. Recorded in RAK Studios, the record sounds gorgeously organic. Holter’s voice, the string section, and the bass – especially in pizzicato – sound amazing and noticeably benefit from the production here. The version of “In the Green Wild” here arguably surpasses the original recording, the second half featuring additional vocal work and keyboard work from Holter. The jazzy “Vasquez” is fantastic, the improvisational middle portion of the song beautifully moves from musically sparse to crowded, with Holter vocally joining in on the improvisation. Although there are no new tunes here, this is not to be missed – Holter is in top form.

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8. Natalia Lafourcade – Musas (Sony)
Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade has been making great music that mixes elements from pop and more traditional forms of Latin American music like Latin American Folk, Bolero, and even occasionally Bossa Nova. Backed by Los Macorinos on Musas, instead of pulling certain elements from Latin American traditional music, the completely acoustic album blatantly presents itself as such. The record abundant with gorgeous guitar playing, be it the driving folklore rhythm of tracks like the opener “Tú Sí Sabes Quererme” or the light playing in songs like “Qué He Sacado Con Quererte” – a standout track with a great string section. Highlights include when the magnificent Omara Portuondo trades lines and combines with Lafourcade on “Tú Me Acostumbraste” and Lafourcade’s performance on the brilliant bolero “Soledad y El Mar”.

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7. Quelle Chris – Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often (Mello Music Group)
Rapper Quelle Chris may remind listeners of what would happen if one mixed Quasimoto and Open Mike Eagle together. The way he presents his lyrics – the casual delivery that is often accompanied by light humor and a wide array of references, makes this a record that is likely to be enjoyed by fans of the previously mentioned artists. It’s packed with guest features, with rappers like Roc Marciano and Jean Grae contributing with great verses. Production wise, the LP is can be mellow, jazzy, upbeat and at times even psychedelic. Highlights include the beautiful and forlorn “Popeye” and the hilarious “”I’m That NI#%A”.

6. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group)
Self-titled “art-rap” lyricist Open Mike Eagle has returned with a record that is his most heavy and personal yet. On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Eagle digs into his past – his childhood in the now destroyed Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago – and creates what may be his best album to date. Destruction is a theme that appears often, but the harrowing “My Auntie’s Building” is perhaps the best example, where the rapper desperately asks where else in America, but the projects, will people literally “blow up yo’ village”. “How Could Anybody (Feel At Home)” is another highlight, with Eagle spitting one of his best hooks to date (“Everybody’s secrets inspire all of my scenes/I write in all of my fantasies and I die in all of my dreams”) over a dreamy, psychedelic beat. It’s an extremely clever, creative and above all, moving record that is consistently high quality. I covered this album in more detail

5. Charlotte Dos Santos – Cleo (Fresh Selects)
This is a stellar debut from Norwegian singer Charlotte Dos Santos. Dos Santos, by way of her gorgeous voice, walks in and around the structures of classic R&B and Neo-Soul. Although it is undeniably soulful, there is definitely a medieval influence throughout the record – “King of Hearts” with its opening ominous keys and chant-like vocals, being a great example. Dos Santos covering Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” – adding in her lyrics of the deterioration of love is another album highlight. Despite the fact that the EP is very influenced by the past, due to the high production value, the feeling that Cleo is something modern – and mesmerizingly well done – persists throughout, making Dos Santos a musician to watch out for in the future. I covered this album in more detail here.

4. Milo – Who Told You to Think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! (Ruby Yacht)
On his latest record, Milo continues with the abstract poetic rapping style that has defined his career. The difference here is that, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is his jazziest – most Madlib-esque – record yet, and he sounds more than at home here. His esoteric rhyme style, with a delivery that ranges from the almost deadpan (“pablum // CELESKINGIII”) to the animated (“magician(suture)”) never falters throughout the album’s 43 minutes. Standout moments include “call + form (picture)” where the rappers uses Monk’s keys to describe emotion (“It’s a kind of hopelessness, a loneliness/A color I only ever heard played by a nigga named Thelonious”) and the surreal, piano filled and Elucid assisted “Landscaping”, where he briefly expresses himself through cartoons (“I’m Muriel crying “Eustace” in that building lobby/Oh, and my Courage is such a cowardly dog”). I covered this record in more detail here.

3. Armand Hammer – ROME (Backwoodz Studioz)
This is unapologetically experimental and pro-black hip-hop. The group, composed of the often lyrically cryptic rappers Billy Woods & Elucid, could perhaps best be compared to Cannibal Ox, whose Iron Galaxy is a dark, dystopian-esque underground classic. However, to reduce them to a simple comparison would be doing the group a disservice, as sonically and lyrically they are quite different, but they do have some things in common – being creative and forward thinking. Highlights include “Pergamum”, where Billy Woods delivers a chilling take on Tupac’s career (“Tupac went to art school but look at the grave that they dug him”) and “Tread Lightly”, which has Elucid ruminating on the dangers of being black in America (“alarm clock is black children playing in the park – every nigger is a star/ crowdfunded constellation burned keloid scar”). All 44 minutes of this fantastic album come highly recommended to fans of artists like Aesop Rock, MF DOOM and El-P. It is also notable that both rappers released fantastic solo projects this year, Valley of Grace (Elucid) and Known Unknowns (Billy Woods), which also easily make my top 10 albums of the year, but are being left off of this list in the interest of variety. I covered ROME more detail here.

2. Tyler The Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
To say this record was a shock would be an understatement. That is not to say that Tyler the Creator has not delivered quality albums and songs in the past – it’s clear that he is a very talented rapper and producer. However, with Flower Boy, he has created his best written, most personal, and above all, most beautiful record to date. Flower Boy is an album about romance, depression, isolation and coming to terms with oneself. It’s about coming out, which Tyler masterfully covers on “Garden Shed”. “Boredom” is also stunning, everything is great – from the rappers frustrated bars to little things, like how Corrine Bailey Rae’s voice follows the instrumental at the beginning of the second verse. “911 / Mr. Lonely” is another highlight, with a fantastic bridge sung by Steve Lacy and great, desperate lyrics from Tyler.

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1. La Lá – Zamba Puta (Independent)
Even though peruvian singer/songwriter La Lá’s sophomore record only lasts for 25 minutes, it uses each of them to their maximum potential, inviting countless repeat listens. The range on display here is impressive, with “La Felicidad”, a beautiful ode to her mother and “Bebés” a jazzy song dedicated to her son, both being album highlights. The range is not just in terms of musical styles, with the singer occasionally leaving her native Spanish to sing in Portuguese (“Cornamenta”) and English (“Espejo adolescente”). She cleverly tackles machismo and gender-stereotypes with her well written lyrics and compositions in the tongue in cheek “Primor” and the gorgeous duet with her brother, “Linda Bler”. This is easily my favorite record of the year. I covered “Zamba puta” and La Lá’s interesting path to the world of music for Sounds and Colours.