This was the year of the EP, at least it was for me. You see, I’ve mostly found myself digging through my Internet sources for works by underexposed and underappreciated Black women since I decided to kick off my radio show dedicated solely to them. What I’ve found are a few real gems. Of course, I got my hands on some other artists who have made some excellent music this past year. A few stood out a bit more than others, but this isn’t to say there wasn’t more great music other than what I’ve listed here. Also, I’ve included a couple of artists who have definitely broken into the mainstream this year, but they were just too good to pass up. So I present to you my favorite albums and EPs of 2015. (And yes the Hamilton soundtrack is among them, but I won’t list it here.)
Alabama Shakes/Thunderbitch – Sound & Color/Self-Titled
The Alabama Shakes has probably had the most success as far as breaking through to the mainstream this year. Frontwoman Brittany Howard has shown herself as a force with which to be reckoned as the lead vocalist and guitarist of the Shakes and her side project, the rockabilly-inspired Thunderbitch. The performance of “Gimme All Your Love” on Saturday Night Live is already iconic as far as I’m concerned. In all, Sound & Color took the Shakes in a very different musical direction than their debut Boys & Girls from 2012. But it works.
The Arcs – Yours, Dreamily.
I had no idea what to expect when I found Yours, Dreamily. from what I assumed was a new group. Well new to me at least. Then I gave it a listen. Yeah it was an immediate hit with me. Then I found out why I liked the sound. The Arcs are a side project from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Impressively, the album was recorded in just two weeks with the rest of the band: Leon Michels, Richard Swift, Homer Steinweiss, and Nick Movshon. Not surprisingly, The Arcs have a sound similar to The Black Keys, which works for fans.
Andra Day – Cheers to the Fall
Andra Day’s name was a little familiar to me by the time People magazine happily streamed her album on its site the day it dropped. Andra’s voice graced the Nina Revisited album that had already been on rotation for quite some time. However, her cover of Nina’s “Mississippi Goddam” just did not do her justice. Cheers to the Fall is an excellent album that showcases Andra’s full range with selections like the bouncy “Mistakes” to the stoic and beautiful “Rise Up” featured in that now famous Serena Williams commercial. Andra has one of those voices that makes her a standout, so I think she’s on her way to becoming one of the most well-known vocalists of her generation.
Bilal – In Another Life
Bilal’s 1st Born Second is one of the top neo-soul albums of all time. Yet because of circumstance, I haven’t heard another full album of his until this year’s In Another Life. The good news is Bilal’s talent holds up after all this time. The album actually feels like the entire progression of neo-soul since it emerged in the mid-90s with its blend of rock, R&B, funk and jazz. He kept the mellow style that made his work so easy to listen to and shows that the artists who came up under the neo-soul label are not passé and do indeed have staying power despite the mainstream’s indifference.
Bleed the Pigs – Mind and Matter/split w/Thetan
Thanx to discovering women like Militia Vox, Sophia Ramos and Alexis Brown of Straight Line Stitch, I found I really do like heavy metal. Add Kayla Philips of Bleed the Pigs to that list. Not only did she pen a great essay about being a Black woman in metal during the time of Ferguson, but she also made some great music with her Nashville band. The 2-track EP Mind and Matter combines with the later LP the band shared with fellow metalheads Thetan gave us a little more of the thrash metal band that keeps on giving.
Bosco – Boy
I’m sure Bosco is one of those artists I found out about because of Afropunk even though there’s nothing punk about her. In fact, her EP Boy exudes a softness throughout its electronica-infused tones over her soft, airy vocals. When I decided to feature her on the BSC, I had trouble choosing just one track from the 6-track EP. Boy is one of those EPs that shows how well an artist can put together a solid album from start to finish. Her ambient sound is perfect for those chill moments whether it’s about relaxing at home or setting a mood.
Bridget Perez – Excréments: Premiére Pression
Speaking of ambient, electronica-fused music, Bridget Perez’ Excrements: Premiére Pression is one of the best of the year. Also with six tracks, the EP feels like the DJ mix during grown and sexy night when everyone’s still chilling with their drinks while working up the nerve to hit the dance floor. It’s so much more than that though. She reflects on various aspects of love, sex, spirituality, injustice and other ideas over her hypnotic tracks. Bridget has spent years making music and producing, so she has only given us a start of things to come in her career.
Cassandra Wilson – Coming Forth by Day
Okay everybody knows Cassandra Wilson and probably isn’t surprised to find that she released an excellent album of Billie Holiday covers to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the icon’s birth in April. Cassandra has never delivered anything less than excellence throughout her entire career and Coming Forth by Day is no exception. While she calls on the likes of Billie and her other foremothers in her work, her work never feels like a throwback or stuck in the past. She is one of those singers who can only be described as sublime.
Charm Taylor – The Road Within
It looks like Afrofuturism influences so much of the music I like these days. Charm Taylor is no exception. I first heard of her as the singer with the New Orleans group The Honorable South then found that she had just released this solo album soon afterward. Charm’s solo work departs from her work with the group in that it focuses much more on futuristic sounds and womanist themes that celebrate the carefree Blackgirl as well as acknowledges her challenges. With The Road Within, Charm has put together an album on the level with any of Meshell Ndegeocello’s most creative works.
Danielia Cotton – The Real Book
Thanx to a great blog on Tumblr called blackrocknrollmusic.tumblr.com, I have come across many awesome Black women in various genres like roots rock and folk. Danielia Cotton has worked with all these incarnations of rock and expands her repertoire with this album of covers. Seriously, she puts an excellent take on Bruno Mars’ “Gorilla” as well as Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Then of course there’s the track that brought me to Danielia in the first place: “Sideways.” Cover albums can be a bit risky, but Danielia is one of those artists who knows how to make a song her own regardless of who wrote it.
Deqn Sue – Snack
I had no idea what to expect when I clicked on Deqn Sue’s Tiny Desk Concert, the acoustic series from NPR. I was completely blown away by her energetic performance and quirky style. The fact that she draws from vaudeville as one of her inspirations could quickly become novelty or passé, but she makes it work. From personifying racism as a “crazy bitch” in “Bloody Monster” to using snippets of recognizable samples in “Aspire,” Deqn Sue (pronounced DEE-kuhn) has created one of the most unique and fun voices with this five-track EP.
Ego Ella May – Zero
Ego Ella May released one of my favorite EPs last year and gave us a little more this year with the three-track release Zero. If I have one gripe with this EP, it’s this: it’s far too short. While the track “Tea and Sympathy” gives us a wave to ride with this mellow smoothness, I just wanted a little more. Still, Ella doesn’t skimp on the quality and is perhaps working on bigger things for the next year. After all, she managed to give us EPs for the previous two years. Zero just makes us wonder what’s in store next time around.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone
Yeah I know this one will show up on a few best of lists in some of the major publications, but you have to completely miss the genius that is Erykah Badu if you didn’t like this mixtape. No, Erykah can do no wrong in my eyes when it comes to her music. The phone theme running throughout the album reminds us of the analog girl in a digital world we fell in love with almost 20 years ago. Even more impressive, she put the mixtape together within a matter of days and did a blitz of publicity before and after dropping the album on Thanksgiving night.
The Foreign Exchange – Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey
Admittedly, I had never listened to a complete album by The Foreign Exchange before now even though I have enjoyed the music of theirs I’ve come across for the past few years. However, this album is just another example of the beauty in the collaboration between the American rapper/singer Phonte and his Dutch partner Nicolay who produces their work. Their blend of electronica, hip hop and R&B is still a winning combination more than 10 years after the two began collaborating over Okayplayer message boards never having met in person.
Gary Clark, Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
I’ll admit: I figured I’d like this selection from Gary Clark, Jr. before I ever heard it. I’ve watched him perform on Austin City Limits and heard various tracks from his previous album Blak and Blu as well as his selection “Freight Train” from the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack. Gary is more than a guitar virtuoso. He has an affecting voice that haunts you and calls on several musical traditions from years past and makes them contemporary. Unlike many other artists who recall Americana in their work, Gary fits in with the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz who play with genre, subverting it until it becomes something wholly original.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – A Thoughtverse Unmarred
Georgia Anne Muldrow has been a favorite of mine since I finally caught up with her last year. In fact, her work was a huge motivation for starting the Black Swan Collective. She has released some of the most consistently good albums over the past 10 years and A Thoughtverse Unmarred is no exception. This is Georgia’s first rap album and she shows that her skills are as adept in spitting a verse as it is when she sings, creates beats and produces her own work. And her unabashed blackness is also so affirming. Really, check out “Great Blacks” among the album’s 12 tracks.
Ibeyi – Self-Titled
I was blown away last year when Ibeyi released the video for their single “River.” Not only was the track a beautiful standout among last year’s releases, but the visuals accompanying the single were some of the most compelling and haunting I’ve seen in a while. However, we had to wait until February for the release of the full album. It was worth the way. The French-Cuban twins come from a jazz background and use it to its fullest on an album that combines that influence with music from African traditions.
The Internet – Ego Death
Last year I fell for the charms of a quirky little single called “Dontcha” off the strength of a simple visual to go along with the single. That was when I found out that a name I’d heard for a while, Syd the Kid, was part of a collective of Black weirdos called The Internet. They returned with an excellent album this year with Syd front and center. Ego Death is everything awesome about alternative R&B. The combination of musical genres and influences perfectly match the lyrics and give us outcasts a great soundtrack.
Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
I must admit I’ve heard about Jazmine Sullivan for years but never bothered to check out her work. However, once I decided to start working on the Black Swan Collective, I decided to revisit many of the women I had passed on when I began cutting out contemporary R&B singers during the early naughts. Jazmine had recently released her album and I must say I got one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Not only does she have a great voice, but she uses it to explore grown-ass woman issues, a perfect representation of the complexities of Black womanhood in all its facets.
Jules and the Jinks – Self-Titled
Jules and the Jinks is one of those groups that is very hard to define. In fact, they’re so hard to define that I had trouble deciding how to best represent them on the show. Their EP starts with a rousing and fun throwback number (“Make You Cry”) only to find itself shifty to saxophone-driven R&B ballads for three of the five tracks. This isn’t a bad thing at all. The EP only shows a bit of the range of this group. Hopefully, Jules and the Jinks have much more than this sampling in store.
Junglepussy – Pregnant with Success
Junglepussy has worked her way into becoming one of my favorite artists this year and after getting three singles from her this year, she finally released her debut album Pregnant with Success. It was an immediate win for me. While her earlier singles made her one of my go-to carefree Black girls, her album showed me she was so much more, incorporating lessons she learned from her mother with her honest perspective. Pregnant with Success is the Black womanist rap album I’ve been waiting on for years and Junglepussy is now my patronus because of it.
Kelela – Hallucinogen
Let’s be honest: if FKA Twigs had darker skin and a stronger vocal range, she would be Kelela. I’ve been addicted to her track “The High” since last year and was ecstatic to find it included here. However, Kelela is just now finding more of a breakthrough with her EP Hallucinogen, filled with hypnotic electronic rhythms that perfectly compliment her smooth, soothing vocals. For those of us who love Afrofuturism, Kelela helps us create the soundtrack. This 6-track EP is far superior to many long-player albums released this year and hopefully shows that Kelala has the staying power needed to make an impact on the music scene.
Lianne La Havas – Blood
Don’t be fooled by the name of the album. Lianne La Havas’ Blood is all beauty, much like the singer-songwriter herself. Lianne gave us an eclectic album with Is Your Love Big Enough and does the same with her latest offering. From the infectious celebration track “Unstoppable” to the Sly and the Family Stone inspired “What You Don’t Do,” Lianne shows that she can still mix it up in style yet offer a wholly consistent and connected album. This is definitely one of my favorite Blackgirl magic albums of the year from one of my favorite carefree Blackgirl artists.
Lizz Wright – Freedom & Surrender
Speaking of Blackgirl magic, Lizz Wright released an album this year as well! Lizz can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned and Freedom & Surrender is no blip in her consistent winning streak as far as her albums go. However, where her earlier albums seemed to have an overall genre theme (jazz, folk, blues then gospel), her latest offering feels much more eclectic in its overall style, mixing and blending influences rather than letting one rise above the others. Furthermore, the overtones of “traditional” music makes it perfect for our current political realities. It’s perfect for Lizz and I hope it gains her even more fans.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew
I’ll admit it: I just thought Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were cute when I first saw them. I mean how many grown ass men do you see performing with their moms? I watched their performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series and immediately loved this duo. Skeleton Crew is a folk album rooted in bluegrass and country. With Black women and men including Valerie June and Gary Clark, Jr. reclaiming this part of our musical legacy, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear find themselves in good company and enrich our musical repertoire with their harmonies.
Mélat – It Happens So Fast
Obviously, I got my fill of ambient music this year. Everybody’s making it! At least I enjoyed it. Mélat’s It Happens So Fast is no exception. However, unlike some of the other trance-inducing EPs I heard this year, this 5-track EP has more of an ominous mood with dark undertones. Interestingly, the last track on the EP, “Day Trip,” has an old school grown and sexy vibe that departs from the rest of the album. In a way, the track is a huge reason why It Happens So Fast stands apart from similar production styles that seem to have permeated the current music scene.
Mizan – Dark Blue
I probably first heard of Mizan from The Fader or some other hipster-type magazine that I must admit are good at staying on top of new music from Black artists. Which is awesome because Afropunk shouldn’t be the only alternative outlet for artists like Mizan. Her 5-track EP Dark Blue feels a bit more eclectic in style but consistently keeps the mood the title suggests. While Mizan fits in with the current musical landscape, she also stands out from it with lush musical production and piano-driven tracks such as “No Fool” along with nice lyrics from her pleasant voice.
Nao – February 15
You might have heard Nao’s track “Zillionaire” in one of the Samsung Galaxy commercials this year. Hopefully, this type of exposure will bring more people to the British singer who released her EP February 15 this year. One of the best things about Nao is that she’s happy go lucky and hopeful. And in our age of the carefree Blackgirl, we need our happy-go-lucky soundtrack. With the exception of “It’s You,” the EP is bouncy and upbeat and hell even this one is joyful. February 15 takes Nao in a slightly different direction than her previous EP So Good, but she remains consistently good in putting together a solid effort.
The Night – Scream Into…
Thanks to an expanding social circle, I got back into heavy metal this year. Fortunately, I found a few groups that featured some awesome Black women including this Portland band The Night. A friend found their lead singer Raven and shared their work and I’ve been a fan ever since. Scream Into… is a 5-track EP of heavy metal goodness. Of course, I wish there had been more, a full album, but this will have to do. Fans who came up on 80s heavy metal and survived Metallica-drenched metal in the 90s will actually enjoy this one.
Nikki Hill – Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists
Much like women like Lizz Wright, Nikki Hill makes you wonder how such a big voice can come from such a small person. I was ecstatic to come across her work, especially seeing more Black women like her, Brittany Howard and Imani Coppola reclaiming early rock. Where retro soul takes on more of the lush sounds of productions like Motown, Nikki’s work is grittier, calling to mind the likes of Betty LaVette, Betty Wright and Irma Thomas. Nikki takes you back to the Chitlin Circuit and shows that Black women have always been at the root of rock and roll.
Nneka – My Fairy Tales
I don’t listen to as much reggae as I’d like. I’m kind of addicted to the rocksteady sound from the 1970s. However, Nneka’s offering this year, My Fairy Tales, has an infectious blend of reggae and “world” styles belying her Nigerian heritage. It doesn’t hurt that Nneka’s voice remains as soothing and cool as ever while she tackles a range of subjects including Boko Haram. She has come a long way since 2006’s Victim of Truth and has managed to remain one of the truest voices in music after almost 10 years. (And yeah it’s beside the point but she does look like Tip from Home was modeled after her.)
Oshun – Asase Yaa
Oshun is one of those groups I just happened to come across at some point and the name felt familiar – not because I knew them but because of its Afrocentricity. As it turns out, Oshun is a Yorùbá Orisha, the goddess of love and sweet water. With my growing interest and acknowledgement of ATRs, I now had some music to help me find that connection. Oshun’s music is both afrofuturistic and traditional, creating a bridge across generations and borders. Their work brings to mind the poignancy of Donnie’s The Colored Section, updated and more grounded in spirituality and womanism.
Purple Ferdinand – Love Unbound
Much like my favorite track off this EP, Purple Ferdinand’s Love Unbound has a smooth, dreamy feel that perfectly captures the type of music that dominated my palate this year. However, that hypnotic snap that saturates lots of this music is rather absent, leaving the listener to nod and sway more freely, not on command. The 4-track EP is warm and inviting, perfect for a relaxing evening during this chilly winter as well as a cool summer day when the breeze hits just right. She is definitely one of the artists I’m watching and hoping to hear more from in the upcoming year.
pUrPlE wOnDaLuV – tHe eTeRnAl pEaCe eP
I was ecstatic when I came across this artist, mostly because I saw right away that this is a new moniker for Musiq (Soulchild). Whether this is a permanent naming or side project is irrelevant: this EP is pure excellence. I still haven’t found out if this is a collaboration with 21-year-old wunderkind Gwen Bunn, with whom I just got acquainted a few weeks ago, but it is a great evolution of Musiq’s style. The track “Save Your Monster” grabbed me by the neck and made me pay attention to the elegance of Musiq’s voice again and reminded me why he has endured since the early 2000s.
Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn
Just as I’m happy to see Black women retrieving roots rock and metal, I’m also glad to find them retrieving Americana. I’ve loved Rhiannon Giddens since her tenure with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and this year she released a solo album. Tomorrow Is My Turn showcases Rhiannon’s strong voice as well as her awareness of the roots of Black/American music. Like Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, her music feels intimate and connected to a past that refuses to die and is much needed in today’s climate. Rhiannon makes us want to slow down in a world moving far too fast.
Roxanne Tataei – Grey Area
Roxanne Tataei has one of those voices that just gets to you. And if I’m gonna be honest, I’m a little irritated that her debut EP Grey Area only has three songs. Three! However, I have to concede that Roxanne exceeds expectations with only a trio of songs. Neither one sounds like the other but each brings something distinctive to Roxanne’s vocal abilities. She snuck up on me this year, much like she sneaks up on the listener with the buildup from “My Weakness” to “Sweet Poison” while traveling across “Love You Like I’ve Never Loved” along the way. Roxanne is definitely one to watch.
Ruby Amanfu – Still Standing
I have few words that can aptly describe the beauty of Ruby Amanfu’s voice. I know that “sublime” is one of those words though. Like many, I first heard her as a guest vocalist on Jack White’s “Love Interruption” and eventually looked up other work from her. Well, about a week before Still Standing dropped, I just happened to check YouTube and found she had released a couple of singles in anticipation of her new album. And it was even more than I hoped for. I defy anyone to not get chills from the opening track “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” That perfect mix of country, folk and alternative suits Ruby and shows why she is one of the most gifted singers of this generation.
Sampa the Great – The Great Mixtape
Sampa is one of those finds from Afropunk that got it exactly right. Not surprisingly, the mixtape is perfect for those of us into Afrofuturism. However, Sampa is a breath of fresh air for those of us who want to see more Black women in control of their music like Georgia Anne Muldrow and the aforementioned Gwen Bunn. She has the creative presence of Erykah Badu and Muldrow’s consciousness, making her a great voice for the movements currently taking place. Check out standout tracks like “Beatrice” and “Revolution” to get a taste, but The Great Mixtape is best taken as a whole.
Sample Answer – Good Boy/Textile Baby
I immediately fell in love with Sample Answer when I came across the single “Good Boy.” In fact, I knew from the start it would be one of my year’s favorites. Then I found the rest of the Good Boy EP and decided this Irishman was definitely on my A list. However, Sample Answer released two EPs this year, the aforementioned and Textile Baby. Both are reminiscent of 80s and 90s folk rock… or maybe just Canadian folk a la Danny Michel. In any case, Sample Answer is Ireland’s answer to Kimya Dawson. And that’s just not a bad thing at all.
Strange Froots – Strange Froots The EP
With that name, this group had to be woke right? Well, yeah they kinda are. They’re also kinda hella young. This group, comprised of three teens gave us one of the best EPs of the year. Interestingly, their lead single “Green Apple” with its bouncy indie rock vibe sounds nothing like the other four tracks. In fact, most of the EP has an indie R&B feel that shifted out of neo-soul in the 10s. Yet these four young ladies remain wholly original and already have a solid sound. Let’s just hope that this offering is only a sample of things to come for this breath of fresh air.
The Suffers – Make Some Room
I think I first encountered The Suffers on one of my favorite Tumblr blogs, blackrocknrollmusic. The visuals for the title track “Make Some Room” has its charms, but luckily the disappointing ending did not keep me from taking an interest in the group. I know they have already gotten comparisons to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings as they have a very similar sound. However, this outfit from Houston has its own charms and shows that there’s room in the retro soul arena for more than one. Of course, I wish there was more here because these four tracks only give a small taste.
Syna So Pro – Loop Talk Vol. 2: Two Riffs and Some Heartache
I first heard of Syna So Pro through the same friend who tipped me to The Night. However, Syna So Pro belongs in a class with musicians such as Reggie Watts who are essentially one-man bands. I bought all three of her available albums and found that Loop Talk Vol. 2 is simply the culmination of excellence since 2009. There’s no genre or category to hold her, just a unique sound she manages very well. Syna So Pro was one of the primary inspirations for me to go ahead and start the Black Swan Collective because I need more talent like hers to shine. (Note: This video is a track from Loop Talk Vol. 1 since none of the tracks from Loop Talk Vol. 2 are available on YouTube.)
Teedra Moses – Cognac and Conversations
Admittedly, Teedra Moses’ name sounds familiar but I can’t think of anything I’ve ever heard of her before. In fact, this is a late entry because I never heard of the album Cognac and Conversations before seeing it listed in an NPR list of most overlooked R&B albums of the year. And definitely Teedra presents an album that belongs in a class with the likes of Jazmine Sullivan and Elle Varner: grown ass Black woman music. Unlike much of the alternative R&B that has finally made it to the mainstream in the past few years, Teedra’s sound is unapologetically rooted in the tell it like it Millie Jackson school of thought.
Thundercat – The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
Thundercat had me from the first notes of “Them Changes.” That familiar Isley Brothers drumbeat suddenly twisted and made into something else. Then that whacked out video with samurai in a garage and… you know what you just watch the video and judge for yourself. Thundercat’s EP is far too short but also perfect in its execution. No wonder he and Flying Lotus make such a good combination in their collaborations on this EP and the supergroup Woke. As a guitar virtuoso, Thundercat is very much needed in a bland mainstream musical landscape. Now lemme go find his previous albums Apocalypse and The Golden Age of Apocalypse.
Various Artists – Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone
Like many others, I eagerly awaited the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? However, before I saw the film, I was surprised with Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Feeling Good.” Then Google Play offered the rest of the compilation for free. Not only did we get some of Ms. Hill’s most extensive work in years, but we also got goodies from Alice Smith, Jazmine Sullivan, Andra Day, Mary J. Blige and more. It takes a hell of an artist to cover Nina Simone well and Ms. Hill and company did Nina proud. Such a perfect way to celebrate Nina’s legacy and continuing impact.