I don’t know the person who said it, but this tweet is the best description I can think of: this year was a terrible movie with an awesome soundtrack. Or something to that effect. In a year when we lost Natalie Cole (technically 2015), David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Glenn Fry, Sharon Jones and… Prince… we lost Prince…, it’s easy to lament the genius we lost rather than celebrate the genius we might have gained. In that spirit, I am going over some of the artists and their albums and EPs that contributed to the year 2016’s awesome soundtrack. I tried to focus on talent that might not appear on the lists of bigger publications, so albums like Rihanna’s Anti, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here and Frank Ocean’s Blonde are all awesome but absent here. There will be some overlap, but this list is overrun with Black Girl Magic and Joy.
Adesuwa – Air Light
I love Denitia Odigie in all her incarnations and she started this year giving us the chillwave tone we needed in what would be a long winter called 2016. Recording this project under here middle name, Denitia’s voice is always buttery smooth and soft, perfectly complimenting whatever music style she chooses. From the beginning with “One Only” to the end with “Firelight” of this five-track EP, Air Light takes us out of the stratosphere and to a whole new level of consciousness to give us just a few lovely moments reprieve from this terrible experience called everyday life.
Adia Victoria – Beyond the Bloodhounds
I’ve spent lots of time this year thinking about my Southern heritage this year, more so since I wonder how it informs my growing spiritual beliefs. Music goes a long way toward this exploration and Adia Victoria’s music has been essential to it. With tracks like “Stuck in the South,” “Howling Shame” and “Dead Eyes,” Adia has spoken to me on a spiritual level that only Black women speak. She is one of my witchy sistren in my mind and this album was most definitely a fave this year with its gothic soul sound and Adia’s own enigmatic voice.
Ah-mer-ah-su – Eclipsing
From the funky, hand-clapping march of “Boom Crash Bang Clang,” Star Amerasu announces herself as the “Trans* Poptronica Princess composer” or “Siren Witch Poptronica Princess” she is. In March, she released her EP Eclipsing, her own brand of “witch house” enchanting as it is lush with her rich voice and introspective lyrics. She brings her interdisciplinary experience to this project, part of her effort to “make Amerasu famous” plan, as the name of her website declares. Her roots in folk and choral music shine through and make it one of the most unique entries in indie electronica music this year.
AlunaGeorge – I Remember
AlunaGeorge has been on my radar since the emergence of the tracks that eventually became Body Music, so I anticipated their return this year with I Remember after we got a few teaser tracks months before the release of the album. Aluna Francis’ syrupy sweet vocals work well with George Reid’s electronic R&B tracks, making them feel like what we would have gotten if Amel Larrieux and Bryce Wilson had stayed together and given us more Groove Theory. This sophomore album runs the gamut of chillable (“My Blood”) to danceable (“Jealous,” “I’m in Control”) in its explorations of futuristic R&B and pop.
Anthony Hamilton – What I’m Feelin
Ari Lennox – Pho
Ari Lennox’s Pho was a couple of months old before I finally got to it and gave it a listen. I should have picked this up a lot sooner. I feel like I’d listened to her work previously as I often come across mixtapes and EPs through a number of channels, but to my surprise, Pho is Ari’s debut effort and she makes an impression. She effortlessly blends an old school aesthetic with a contemporary sound that makes her stand apart from many of the new artists dropping singles and mixtapes on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and other outlets.
Awa Ly – Five and a Feather/Here and Everywhere (with Faada Freddy)
I’m sure Awa Ly is someone I came across as I looked for music for the Black Swan Collective. I must have been impressed enough with whatever single she was promoting to find the entire album. And I have no regrets. Five and a Feather is a nice entry of indie acoustic jazz-tinged pop with a sprinkle of whimsy, just the type of music I love and often shows up on playlists I make for indie films that do not yet exist. Awa’s sound is just the nice shot of mellow we often need to deal with the harshness that made this year such a drag. Following it up with the Here and Everywhere EP, a collaboration with Faada Freddy in which the two create the same track with various artists around the world, later in the year was a nice topping.
BJ the Chicago Kid – In My Mind
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – Call It What It Is
It’s no secret to anyone that I had a crush on Ben Harper in college, especially with his album Burn to Shine, which I still have on rotation to this day. This year, he released a new album with the band he spent the 90s with and returned to form after projects such as Fistful of Mercy, his other band The Relentless 7, Charlie Musselwhite and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Call It What It Is finds Ben even more political than he has been in the past with responses to the state of the Union over the past few years.
Betty Davis – The Columbia Years 1968-1969
Betty Davis has been a hero of mine since the early 2000s when I first encountered her work. Her distinctive growl and blatant sexuality was a revelation for me. However, the label Light in the Attic Records has unearthed some of her earlier work before her official debut album, the self-titled classic. This earlier work showcases a young Betty around the time she was writing for other artists like The Chambers Brothers. She hadn’t yet developed her sex kitten persona, but we do see the beginnings of her star power with this album. Now we just need that documentary…
Black Milk & Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions
Brandee Younger – Wax and Wane
Butcher Brown – Virginia Noir
Chloe Charles – With Blindfolds On
When I first heard Chloe Charles “My Child” and played it on the show, I made note to go look her up later. When I did, I found that she had a previous EP, little green bud, released before Break the Balance, where the track appears. However, I also found she released the album With Blindfolds On this year. Chloe remains consistent with the effort in her introspective lyrics and quiet musical melodies to accompany her soothing voice. With her works, she has become one of my witchy sistren to whom I turn when I need to get in my witchy feels and leave it all behind for a while.
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers
Corinne Bailey Rae did something most people didn’t do this year: she released a full CD-length album, clocking in around 75 minutes. The Heart Speaks in Whispers is a reminder for many of us who still appreciate the work it takes to produce a quality full-length album in an era of EPs and LPs that are the length of 60s records. Nothing wrong with either, but Corinne is still an artist who can provide a long body of work that you find worth sitting with for the entirety without getting bored, especially not with standout tracks like “Been to the Moon” and “Green Aphrodisiac.”
Dawn – Redemption
I love Afrofuturism. I devote a music playlist to it every year. With Dawn Richard, I’ve found another name to add to my annual celebration. She spent much of the year dropping singles like “Renegades” and teasing us for what was to come with her finished album. Finally in November, we got Redemption, a futuristic follow up to last year’s Blackheart and 2013’s Goldenheart, the first installments of her Redemption trilogy. Dawn continues to stray further from her Danity Kane legacy and carve out her own as a talented creator in her own right and a prominent voice in dance/electronica music.
denitia and sene. – love and noir.
After giving us a tease with her project under her name Adesuwa, Denitia Odigie returned at the end of the year reunited with her parnter Sene on their sophomore effort to remind us she really can do it all. Even after her work with Air Light and his work on the show Luke Cage, it appears the two of them will always find their way back to each other. And we all win when they do. With tracks like “hundreds.” and “witchu gone.,” the duo reclaimed their place atop electronica’s elite and keep pushing the boundaries of this genre dubbed “alternative R&B.”
Ella Mai – Time/Change
Ella Mai released not one but two EPs this year: Time and Change. Similar in themes and style, Ella is here to deliver some good old fashioned “everything goes wrong in my love life” R&B that a lot of us grew up on and quite frankly still listen to no matter our situation. However, Ella has more than a whisper-thin voice and plenty of attitude that puts her in line with soul divas of old. Taking us through going off on her man, staying with her man, putting the other woman on blast, Ella keeps us in those messy relationships we all love to hate, especially if we’re not the ones in them.
Emeli Sandé – Long Live the Angels
Believe it or not, Emeli Sandé managed to top herself after her excellent indie pop album Our Version of Events. I was late coming to her and only recently listened to that album this year. However, it left me anticipating Long Live the Angels when word got out about its release. Emeli brings more of what made her first effort a standout and expands on it, stepping out of the folk and pop reminiscent of 90s Lilith Fair acts that colored Our Version of Events. With this release, she moves closer to her other contemporaries out of the UK like Corinne Bailey Rae and Laura Mvula, who both also released great albums this year.
Eryn Allen Kane – Aviary: Act II
After releasing Aviary: Act I last year, Eryn Allen Kane followed up with the second installment, Aviary: Act II. The second offering is just as good as the first, giving us a companion piece to an excellent work that showcased Eryn’s vocal prowess along with her musical abilities. When so much of the music I listened to goes for trap or other inexpensive production techniques (which is okay if done properly), Aviary: Act II stands out and makes of grateful for the artists who have the means to do more. From the gospel-tinged “Sunday” to “Dead or Alive,” Eryn brings it all.
Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
Esperanza Spalding has always been a been whimsical in her style and presentation. Her music has finally caught up. With a live performance for NPR, Esperanza showed us a less serious side of herself even though the album itself takes her musical prowess as serious as her art deserves. However, it’s less jazzy and classical than much of her previous work. Esperanza rocks, funks and takes on other genres from the opening of “Good Lava” and leads us on one of the most epic music journeys of the year, reminding us of why we fell in love with her from the beginning.
Flavia Coelho – Sonho Real
Hadassah. – Oakmere Drive
Harsh Crowd – Better
H.E.R. – H.E.R., Vol. 1
I kept tracks from this EP off the show for one reason: I did not know for sure if H.E.R. was a Black woman. About a month after this effort dropped, the artist was revealed to be Gabi Wilson, with whom I am not familiar. However, it turns out Gabi is a child prodigy who went behind her record label’s back to present a reinvented Gabi. While not as drastic as a reinvention as Rhianna’s good girl gone bad, Gabi makes it clear from this EP that she is no longer the child her fans once knew. Hopefully, this is only the first step in Gabi taking control of her music and career.
Imani Coppola – Hypocrites
I eagerly awaited the release of Imani Coppola’s newest album Hypocrites. And then I missed it the first couple of weeks of its release. Bad fan! At least I was not disappointed as I rarely am with Imani’s work. She still brings that trademark wit and genre-defying style to an album that feels like a companion piece to her previous outing, The Glass Wall. She also still addresses her own identity issues (“Mixed Nut”) as well as issues that many more of us can relate to as artists, humans (“I’m an Artist” and “I’m the Shit”). With her music, Imani shows that she can never be called a hypocrite.
Indigold (Ivy Sole) – Home/Eden
Izzy Bizu – A Moment of Madness
From the opening of Izzy Bizu’s “Diamond,” it’s tempting to compare her to Andra Day. The same pitch, the same old school meets new school vibe, the same inspirational lyrics. Yet Izzy is very much her own artist. She doesn’t rely as heavily on 60s aesthetic and production techniques as singers like Amy Winehouse did for her work, but she does not shy away from that influence either. Izzy’s style seems to be where neo-soul meets retro-soul with a touch of surf rock and walks away as something that only fits into the contemporary much like Andra.
Jamila Woods – Heavn
With the single “Blk Girl Soldier,” Jamila Woods gave us all the anthem we needed in our summer of discontent. With the album Heavn, she gave us the Blackgirl release we needed to continue the healing process. Much has been made of the Chicago native since her debut and she joins the new school of Chicago artists currently making waves throughout the industry. Heavn includes guest spots by perhaps the most heralded of the group, Chance the Rapper, as well as other newcomer Noname, who’s own debut Telefone also gives us a dose of Black Girl Magic that made this year bearable.
Jesse Boykins III – Bartholomew
Jimetta Rose – The Light Bearer
Johnnyswim – Georgica Pond
Karun – Indigo
Kelsey Lu – Church
Kelsey Lu’s presence entrances you, enchants you. So does her music and her voice. When the cellist dropped her video for “Morning After Coffee,” I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit, more so when I saw the visuals for “Dreams.” These are only two of the tracks that make up the exquisite EP Church, Kelsey’s debut. With this effort, Kelsey has shown herself to be adept not only as a skilled musician but also as a visual artist. In our EP era, she has created one of the most cohesive works and probably given us only a hint of what she is capable. And yes this is my church.
King – We Are King
We have anticipated a full album from King since they debuted their three-song EP years ago. We finally got it with We Are King. From the opening of “The Right One” to the last notes of “Native Land,” King took us on an epic mellow musical journey of flawless harmonies and production perfection we don’t get enough of these days. Just goes to show that when you allow artists to take their time and perfect their craft in their own time, they will do the opposite of disappoint. King gave us the grown ass Black woman music we’ve needed since the peak of neo-soul.
Klein – Only/Lagata
Lady Moon & the Eclipse – Believe
Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
Laura Mvula offered lush arrangements and lovely, soaring vocals with her debut album Sing to the Moon. These elements are not missing from The Dreaming Room, but Laura does show more of what she can do in the studio. With tracks such as “Overcome” and “Phenomenal Woman,” she encourages us to dance and celebrate who we are, not simply reflect while we admire the beauty of her voice (although we still do that with every track on this album). With The Dreaming Room, Laura gets even more personal than she had with her previous effort and still makes us relate.
Little Simz – Stillness in Wonderland
Lizzo – Coconut Oil
Big girls of the world unite! Lizzo has come through with some anthems that celebrate and elevate. I missed her the first time around with her album Lizzoworld and eventually copped Big Grrrl Small World but eventually caught up with her when she released “Good as Hell” from the Barbershop soundtrack. It reappears on Coconut Oil among five other bangers including the funny but accurate “Phone.” Lizzo offers a good time in a year we desperately needed some happiness, celebration and fabulousness. This short but sweet EP shows that Lizzo knows how to evolve with the time and make music to move to.
Macy Gray – Stripped!
Macy Gray is an underrated genius as far as I’m concerned. Critics have tried to dismiss her as a kook from the beginning. However, she has been consistently good with her album releases since On How Life Is. Her album Stripped! falls in line with the softer sounds that has colored her more recent work including Covered and her remake of the entire Talking Book album. Her latest work belies a maturity hinted at in her earlier work and shows that Macy is still among the best of our late 90s, early 2000s artists with staying power.
Mal Devisa – Kiid
It’s hard to put Mal Devisa’s Kiid into a category. That’s what makes it such a beautiful album. Just when you think the album is a freewheeling acoustic joint a la indie folk about two steps away from depression, Mal hits you with some experimental hip hop for good measure. She is one of my favorite discoveries of the Black Swan Collective and she is the type of creative genius I enjoy seeing in Black women. Tracks like “Everybody Knows” bring it just as hard as “Dominatrix” and show that she has a little something for everybody, especially those of us who like having their eclectic tastes fulfilled all in one place.
Malia – Letting Go
Mayaeni – Basement Kid Mixtape – Hip Hop Series/Elocution
Ever since she dropped a semi-acoustic cover of Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” I’ve considered Mayaeni one to watch. Not simply for giving an acoustic spin to one of the all-time greatest rap songs of the 90s but also for refusing to switch the gender of the object of affection. Well, as nice as that three-track mixtape was, she followed up a few months later with Elocution and showed that she has even more range than her re-imagining of Pharcyde. From the rock edge of “Shooter” to the vulnerability of “Break Me,” Mayaeni shows she truly does have the range.
Mayyadda – Blue
Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component
Miles Davis & Robert Glasper – Everything’s Beautiful
I’ve been a bit infatuated with Robert Glasper ever since I saw that one of his project’s name was The Robert Glasper Experiment. With album titles like Artscience and Black Radio, you knew he had to come with it. With this latest experimental piece, Everything’s Beautiful, Robert remixes and refixes Miles Davis, putting it in a new context that Miles himself would have approved of. Bringing along the likes of Bilal, Laura Mvula, Stevie Wonder, King, Erykah Badu, Ledisi, Hiatus Kaiyote and Georgia Anne Muldrow for perhaps the year’s best collaborations, Robert presents a perfect musical experiment and cements his place as one of the most original creatives working today.
Moor Mother – Fetish Bones
I won’t lie, I wanted to hear this based on the title alone and also because I could not figure out if this is the same artist as Moor Mother Goddess (she is). Moor Mother’s Fetish Bones creates a more experimental vibe, disconnected and sometimes discordant sounds that reflect the Black experience since its permanent existence on Turtle Island. Not unlike the first project I heard from her, Vague Audio Mixtape, showing that while the name may have a slight change, her vision and creativity remain the same. She embodies the spirit of her foremothers while leading the way to an uncertain future.
Muddy Magnolias – Broken People
I don’t know what I expected when I first encountered Muddy Magnolias, but I do know I have no regrets with taking a chance on them after previewing the album on NPR’s First Listen. With the likes of Valerie June and Brittany Howard, I’ve been glad to see more Black women reclaiming country and roots rock. With her musical partner Kallie North, Jessy Wilson brings a wonderful blend of soul and folk that puts them right in line with any country-rock outfit worth its salt. Even John Legend, who joins them on the track “Leave It to the Sky,” knows what’s up with this new duo.
Nao – For All We Know
Nao is one of those artists you just know is gonna make it. When I found her EPs from last year, I could not wait to hear more work from her. Hearing her work in a Samsung Galaxy Note5 commercial and during an episode of How to Get Away with Murder cemented my prediction. Nao presents electronica that is both fresh and reminiscent of the innovative stylings of Roger Troutman. Nao also has one of those voices that perfectly compliments her chosen musical genre and style, much like Aluna Frances of AlunaGeorge, although Nao at times pays homage to her contemporaries and shows a bit more range.
Noname – Telefone
This year was a good year for Black girls making music for Black girls. Noname added her name to the ever growing list of Black women using the current state of the industry to make music their way and announce that their experiences matter. While deeply personal, many of us find their work relatable and have someone to go when we need to be in our feelings. Along with artists like Jamila Woods, Noname is becoming one of our Chicago faves when we need our Blackgirl anthems. Telefone is that album full of mellow rap that differentiates itself from our current overrun of trap.
OBie Mavuso – Cosmic Fire
Oceans of Slumber – Winter
No voice has captivated me more this year than Cammie Gilbert of Oceans of Slumber. After getting acquainted with their EP Blue, I eagerly awaited for the arrival of their full album Winter. I was not disappointed. Their prog metal style perfectly suits Cammie’s yearning and soulful vocals and takes the group in a new direction. Even those who aren’t into metal or are newly acquainted will find that Oceans of Slumber have hit their stride and Cammie is among the best of vocalists of any genre whether crooning an original composition like “Devout” or covering The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”
Oddisee – The Odd Tape
Phoenix Martins – 47
Princess Nokia – 1992
Quay Dash – Transphobic
Black trans women brought it this year and Quay Dash has added her voice to the ever evolving QUILTBAG presence in music and other arts. This year, she offered her EP Transphobic, a short but sweet journey into her genius. Quay raps clever lyrics that make you look twice at your speakers like “Did she really just say that!” However, her lyrics are rooted in her experience as a Black trans woman living in New York, something she addresses head on with “Queen of NY” while giving listeners a chance to shake ass and acknowledge her place among rap royalty.
Quiñ – Galatica
Ravyn Lenae – Moon Shoes
“Experimental” or “alternative” R&B has gained traction over the past few years and probably makes up the majority of R&B I listen to these days. I can add Ravyn Lenae to that list with her take on alternative R&B. Moon Shoes has a mellow vibe, dreamy and otherworldly in its delivery as the title implies. The title track with its wintry feel blends into the following track “Blossom Dearie” with ease and almost feels like one continuous track progressing to another. But the entire album does offer you the softer sounds you just might need to take your mind off this, well, year.
Rayana Jay – Sorry About Last Night
Sam Lao – SPCTRM
Sammus – Infusion/Pieces in Space
Those of us in the first generation of home game consoles totally get Sammus. Not that others don’t, but the marriage of hip hop and videogames is as natural as peanut butter and jelly when you think about it. However, this is only Sammus runway and landing pad as she broke out in a big way this year, releasing both an EP, Infusion, and an album, Pieces in Space, in the same year. Sammus takes on everything from what it means to be a Black female geek to mental health. She put to words and beats what so many of us have internalized for so long and gave us an outlet. Two of them in fact.
Santana – Santana IV
Santana is one of my all time favorite artists of the classic rock era. The Woodstock era band produced three flawless albums that only got better with each outing. This year, Carlos reunited surviving members of the group and returned to the Afro-Cuban sound that made Santana one of a kind. Santana IV picks up where the group left off before the group split in the 70s to pursue other ventures. The cry of Carlos’ electric guitar, the percussion, the vocals, it all comes together again and reminds me of why I fell in love with the group in the first place.
Santigold – 99 Cents
Santigold does not know how to make a bad album. Period. 99 Cents creates a trilogy of original, daring works that defy the boundaries of genre and sound and place Santigold among one of the most creative music artists of our time. The reflections on the state of the music industry (to which the album title refers) are also not lost among Santigold’s knack for clever lyrics over danceable beats. Seriously, you can put on any of her albums in the club, let them play from beginning to end and never be bored. Not to mention her awesome visuals with “Banshee” featuring controversial artist Kara Walker…
Sarah White – Laughing at Ghosts
Sassy Black – No More Weak Dates
I can’t lie: I was a bit distraught when I found that Sassy Black announced her solo work because I took it as the end of THEESatisfaction. However, it appears they may simply be taking time apart to work on separate endeavors. In the meantime, Sassy has given us one of the year’s best with No More Weak Dates in which the title track shuns dates that include an excursion to the weed man. Everything that made Sassy great with THEESatisfaction is here and shows that each woman was most definitely an individual creative force in her own right.
Skunk Anasie – Anarchytecture
Special Interest – P.R.E.P LOVE UNITY RESPECT
Strange Froots – Blossom This Froots for Thought
I was still listening to “Green Apple” from Strange Froots’ 2014 debut EP when I found out they had released another this year. Blossom This Froots for Thought expands their musical vocabulary and allows them to continuing maturing in both their tastes for genre and lyricism. After all, the girls are still teens even though their capabilities may lead you to believe otherwise. Also, they may have gotten their start as an Afropunk discovery (which they seem to acknowledge with “Afro Punkass”), but they show the influence of hip-hop artists including Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott with this latest outing.
The Suffers – The Suffers
I will forever reflect on Kam Franklin’s vocal resemblance to Sharon Jones and not just because we tragically lost Sharon this year. Kam has a strong voice and makes herself heard over a full band that includes a horn section and old school musical perfection. She growls and demands over tracks like “Gwan” and coos and seduces with tracks like “Stay.” In any case, The Suffers have shown themselves to be one of the tighter outfits in music today and I just bet they put on a hell of a live show. For now, their excellent self-titled album will have to suffice.
T i K ▲ – Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid/Carry On
Tarica June – Stream of Consciousness Vol. 1.5
Tasha – Divine Love
Tennin’ – Hybrid
Tweet – Charlene
yaya bey – The Many Alter-egos of Trill’eta Brown
Admittedly, it’s not easy what to make of yaya bey’s exquisite outing, The Many Alter-egos of Trill’eta Brown. Possibly because the album is part of a larger project including a literary work with essays, short stories, poems and artwork. She definitely belongs in the company of Moor Mother as well as the likes of poets including June Jordan and Audre Lorde, whom she obviously draws from with her multimedia biomythography (or perhaps a written collage). With tracks entitled “Celie Jr,” “Buck McDaniels” and “An ode to trill’eta brown (magical),” the EP feels like a blues reflection on a Black woman’s experience.