Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly
Arguably the leading contender for album of the year honors amid stiff competition, Kendrick Lamars tour de force of a third studio LP is a modern-day masterpiece in every sense of the term. The unparalleled power and introspective poignancy of the effort derives from its uncanny ability to simultaneously stimulate the cerebral, the visceral, and the corporeala rare feat that few albums ever made have managed to pull off successfully. Upon its release back in March, soulheads Yvorn Aswad contended that To Pimp A Butterfly is not so much an album as it is a very public conversation with Black people, Brown people, poor people, and indeed, all who have ears to listen. Whether you relate to Lamars messages directly or indirectly, the multidimensional and intricately orchestrated To Pimp a Butterfly is vital, soul-affirming music that must be heard by one and all.
Notable Tracks: Alright | i | King Kunta | These Walls | The Blacker the Berry
Bilal | In Another Life
Arriving nearly fifteen years after his seminal debut album 1st Born Second, Bilal returns with his fifth studio LP sounding as fresh, confident, and impassioned as ever. Produced by the supremely gifted sonic adventurist Adrian Younge (who makes another appearance in this best-of list) and featuring contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., and Kimbra, the 12-song set is psychedelic soul at its very finest, gracefully straddling the line between old- and new-school inspirations. And while the strength of the Philly-bred singers vocal chops have never been up for debate, In Another Life showcases his dynamism and versatility beyond standard neo-soul fare, particularly evident on the heavy-rocking Lunatic and jazzy I Really Dont Care. Bilals sound has always been founded upon substance and sophistication, but Younge amplifies these qualities in crafting one of the most consistently rewarding listening experiences to emerge this year. Indeed, In Another Life has all the makings of becoming the Soulquarian alums career pinnacle, and thats quite an impressive feat considering his already stellar discography to date.
Notable Tracks: Bury Me Next to You | Lunatic | Pleasure Toy | Satellites
Joey Bada$$ | B4.Da.$$
If you keep even the most casual of tabs on the underground hip-hop scene, youve been familiar with Bed-Stuy, Brooklyns Joey Bada$$ for a few years now, due in large part to his solid 1999 and Summer Knights mixtapes. But for many, his debut LP provides a welcome introduction to the 20 year-old emcees precocious rhyming skills. Unfairly criticized by some for being too derivative and nostalgic, Joey succeeds in balancing the throwback mid-90s vibes with more contemporary fare throughout the album, as he explores the trials, tribulations, and ultimately, the joys, of following his musical passions. Propelled by an impressive production roster that includes DJ Premier, The Roots, the late great J Dilla, Freddie Joachim, and Statik Selektah, B4.Da.$$ is the sound of a promising young wordsmith developing his musical identity on wax and paving the path for even greater achievements to come.
Notable Tracks: Escape 120 | On & On | Paper Trail$ | Piece of Mind | Teach Me
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Hiatus Kaiyote | Choose Your Weapon
If you enjoy unconventional music that challenges youin a good waythen Choose Your Weapon belongs in your collection. A progressive potpourri of stylesfrom soul to funk to jazz to breakbeat and beyondthe sophomore LP from Australian quartet Hiatus Kaiyote demands to be played multiple times, so as to repay the listeners dedication by gradually revealing its myriad sonic nuances and delights. Reminiscent of Jill Scotts commanding presence, lead vocalist Nai Palm is a dynamically versatile singer who skillfully navigates the many twists, turns, and pivots embedded throughout the albums nonlinear compositions. So-called experimental music often has a tendency to sound contrived or forced, favoring innovation at the expense of pleasure. But in the case of the inventive Choose Your Weapon, the results of Hiatus Kaiyotes ambitious experiments simply sound superb.
Notable Tracks: Borderline with My Atoms | Breathing Underwater | Jekyll | Shaolin Monk Motherfunk
BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah | Sour Soul
On paper at least, the unorthodox pairing of three scholarly Canadian jazz musicians and the Wu-Tang Clans master storyteller Ghostface Killah might not make intuitive sense. But take one listen to the excellent Sour Soul and youll recognize just how natural and stirring of a collaboration it is. In fact, the formation of BADBADNOTGOOD in 2010 was largely inspired by the intense passion for hip-hop shared by group members Matthew Tavares (keys), Chester Hansen (bass), and Alexander Sowinski (drums). Taking cues from the Blaxploitation film soundtracks of the past, the trios haunting leftfield grooves supply the perfect soundscapes for Ghostfaces super-charged rhymes to shine. An enchanting listen that only gets better with each subsequent spin.
Notable Tracks: Food | Gunshowers | Nuggets of Wisdom | Ray Gun | Sour Soul
Leon Bridges | Coming Home
Youd be hard-pressed to find many R&B artists working todaylet alone those featured here in this columnthat dont infuse some modicum of vintage soul within their music. But few embody the retro-soul sound and aesthetic as devotedly and unabashedly as the 25 year-old Texas-bred crooner Leon Bridges does. Propelled by a balanced mix of earnest doo-wop ballads, melodic gospel hymns, and gently swinging-and-swaying jams, Bridges meticulously crafted debut LP sounds as if it was made fifty-five years ago, and it sounds divine. While its obvious that Bridges has mastered the throwback style to glorious effect, it will be interesting to observe if and how he embraces less nostalgic, more contemporary fare as his career invariably progresses.
Notable Tracks: Better Man | Coming Home | Lisa Sawyer | River | Smooth Sailin
Georgia Anne Muldrow | A Thoughtiverse Unmarred
Since unveiling her debut EP Worthnothings in 2006, the progressive and prolific Georgia Anne Muldrow has released sixteen albums, two EPs, and one mixtape, by my count. Thats right, twenty different projectsall worth exploring and enjoyingin just ten years. While her previous works and collaborations have certainly incorporated elements of hip-hop, A Thoughtiverse Unmarred is the Los Angeles natives first rap album explicitly billed as such. A self-proclaimed seeker and truth-teller, Muldrows eloquent rhymes are as provocative and incisive as any top emcee in the game today. An album primer explains that beyond identifying worldly inequities, this record details one womans quest to improve things for herself, her children, and everyone else. Its about finding universal truths, while staying true to ones essencetranscending the hate and slowly starting to heal. Indeed. But make no mistake, the album is far from just an intellect-stroking head trip, as producer Chris Keys inspired beats make this a thoroughly engaging listen from first song to last. If youre like me, once you enter Muldrows provocatively profound Thoughtiverse, youll never want to leave.
Notable Tracks: Fifth Shield | Great Blacks | Pop Iconz | Tungsten Babalawo
Robert Glasper | Covered: The Robert Glasper Trio Recorded Live at Capitol Studios
Unquestionably, two of the most thrilling records of the past five years arrived courtesy of the Robert Glasper Experiment. Boasting an impressive roster of collaborators and an abundance of absorbingly futuristic compositions, the genre-bending and Grammy Award-winning Black Radio (2012) and Black Radio 2 (2013) introduced the acclaimed pianist to a broader hip-hop and neo-soul devoted audience. Heres hoping that many of Glaspers recent converts have taken it upon themselves to dig deeper into his recorded repertoire and discover the four excellent jazz piano albums he delivered between 2004 – 2009. Released just two weeks ago, Covered revisits the acoustic trio structure found on those earlier LPs, while simultaneously incorporating echoes of the more iconoclastic spirit that defined both Black Radio efforts. Featuring rousing reinventions of songs by Radiohead, Bilal, Kendrick Lamar, Joni Mitchell, John Legend, Musiq Soulchild, and Jhené Aiko, Covered is an exhilarating return to Glaspers musical roots and compelling testament to the unassuming beauty of his ever-expansive musical palette.
Notable Tracks: I Dont Even Care | Reckoner | So Beautiful | The Worst
Linear Labs | Los Angeles
Producer extraordinaire Adrian Younges second project to crack this midyear list (see Bilals In Another Life), the critically-acclaimed Los Angeles was released without much fanfare and has flown a bit under the promotional radar. No matter, as this is one of the most intriguing and ultimately rewarding albums youll hear this year. While Linear Labs directly refers to the audiophile record label imprint that Younge founded, it also represents an ambitious philosophy of songcraft dedicated to making music only recorded to analog tape with no digital plug-ins and fully composed music in an era of mass-produced drivel. In simpler terms, Linear Labs makes music that sounds awesome. This commitment to superior sound quality was first manifest last year on Souls of Mischiefs excellent Linear Labs LP There Is Only Now, and Younge continues his noble mission on the Los Angeles compilation. Showcasing tracks slated to appear on forthcoming Linear Labs releases, Los Angeles is a cohesive and gripping 10-song set bolstered by stellar contributions from Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab fame), Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Souls of Mischief, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, among others. Have I mentioned that it sounds awesome?
Notable Tracks: Feel Alive | Memories of War | Return of the Savage | The Last Act
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Slum Village | YES!
Nearly fifteen years to the day since Slum Villages first official album release Fantastic, Vol. 2 hit store shelves, the Motor City trio dropped their impressive eighth studio LP YES! to the collective delight of their committed fanbase. The 12-song set features the rousing rhymes of T3 and Young RJ, the production wizardry of the late great J Dilla on nine tracks (four of which are co-produced by Young RJ), plus stellar collaborations with De La Soul, Bilal, Phife Dawg, Black Milk, Jon Connor, BJ the Chicago Kid, Illa J, and J Ivy. Comfortably straddling the line between old-school and new-school hip-hop sensibilities, YES! is proof positive that Slum Villages knack for crafting memorable tunes shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Notable Tracks: “Expressive” | Love Is | Right Back | Too Much | Where We Come From
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Wyles & Simpson | Wyles & Simpson
Arguably the most obscure of the fifteen artists featured in this listat least to those of us statesidethe dynamic English duo of Abigail Wyles and Holly Simpson make shimmering, elegant electro-soul of the most enthralling caliber. When I first heard the groups seductive lead singles Light and Dark and Stormy Skies earlier this year, I was unequivocally hooked and eager to hear much more from them. My curiosity was handsomely rewarded in the form of their dazzling eponymous debut album, which Ive played in heavy rotation for a few months now. Wyles elegantly soulful vocals juxtaposed with Simpsons mellifluously moody soundscapes makes for an intoxicating pairing that you wont be able to resist. Wyles & Simpson is the kind of under-the-radar album youll want to tell all of your friends about, not because you crave the credit for being among the enlightened first-to-know, but rather because you wholeheartedly believe in its brilliance and want others to indulge in it right along with you.
Notable Tracks: Impermanence | Light and Dark | See Im Calling | Stormy Skies
Van Hunt | The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
Ohio Players. Zapp & Roger. Slave. Lakeside. Heatwave. What do these legendary bands have in common, beyond their shared penchant for crafting memorable soul-funk? All are connected in some way, shape or form to the underrated Dayton, Ohio music scene. Thankfully, Daytons rich musical legacy is alive and well today, due in large part to the immensely talented singer and multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt. While Van Hunt unquestionably draws inspiration from the forefathers of the Dayton sound, he injects his own unique personality and voice throughout his music, and nowhere is this more evident than on his gritty yet gorgeous fifth studio LP. The Fun Rises first half of the 14-track set is defined by a handful of multi-layered, midtempo funk grooves, and the Fun Sets latter half is comprised of more subdued and contemplative ballads. With Van Hunts versatile vocals and confessional narratives shining bright throughout, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is a thoroughly imaginative and inspired effort that provokes your mind, body, and soul in equal measure.
Notable Tracks: If I Wanna Dance With You | Pedestal | Teach Me a New Language | Vega (Stripes On)
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Shamir | Ratchet
One of the more idiosyncratically charming artists youre bound to hear this year is 20 year-old Las Vegas native Shamir Bailey. A nominee for BBC Musics prestigious Sound of 2015, Shamir describes his playfully countertenor voice as “not feminine, not masculine. It’s a happy medium … I feel like if the world was more like that, our problems would be gone.” A melodic mélange of house, funk, soul and pop, Shamirs envelope-pushing debut full-length is vivacious, buoyant and quite simply, wonderful. Without a doubt, Ratchet is the most fun youll hear on wax all year from an arresting artist that will surely continue to evolve in exciting ways in the years to come.
Notable Tracks: Call It Off | Head in the Clouds | On the Regular | Youth
Oddisee | The Good Fight
During the past 13 years, the workhorse Oddisee has released a few dozen recordings spanning studio LPs, EPs, compilations, mixtapes, and guest cameos. The Good Fight is the glorious culmination of the DC-bred, Brooklyn-based Oddisees unparalleled work ethic and reinforces that the quantity of his output has in no way compromised his steadfast commitment to making quality music. While the LP keeps Oddisees underground cred and independent spirit fully intact, its also more universally accessible than any other album he has released to date. Oddisee explains that The main objective of this record is not about a struggling artist in the underground. It is about the things in life that are worth fighting for. The things that you don’t mind fighting for. The things that are so good that it doesn’t feel like you’re fighting. It just feels like something you must do. Replete with lucidly introspective rhymes that glide atop breezy, rhythmic melodies, The Good Fight is a career watershed, to be sure. And we all should be grateful to Oddisee for fighting the good fight to keep great music alive.
Notable Tracks: Counter-Clockwise | Thats Love | Want Something Done | What Theyll Say
Andreya Triana | Giants
Following guest vocal spots on Bonobo, Flying Lotus, and Mr. Scruff tracks, Andreya Triana debuted in 2010 with her excellent Bonobo-produced Lost Where I Belong LP. Gestating for nearly five years, the London-bred singer-songwriters sophomore album is a revelation, one that warrants a substantially wider audience than she has cultivated thus far. Loosely reminiscent of such vocal powerhouses as Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, and Lauryn Hill, Trianas bewitchingly beautiful voice is unquestionably the main attraction here, though her songwriting acumen should not be undervalued. A good portion of her contemplative lyrics revisit her upbringing in South East London and reflect her observations of modern-day London existence. Triana explains, I’m always on the lookout for inspiration and living in London its everywhere. I keep a book of ideas, words and phrases and it’s always interesting to look at life through other peoples point of view. With sparkling soundscapes courtesy of producer Matt Wales, theres zero filler to be found across the albums 12 tracks, which combined amount to one of the years most graceful and consistently gratifying efforts.
Notable Tracks: Everything You Never Had, Pt. II | Gold | Lullaby | Paperwalls | “That’s Alright With Me”