There can be no denial that this year belonged to Janelle Monae. Having followed her career ever since a MySpace friend shared a video of a performance of “Happy Violet All-Stars” at a hotel (which culminated with Janelle jumping into the pool), I have been a fan and am so proud that her 10 years of hard work have seen her become a cultural icon. However, we all know that I try to focus on indie and under-represented artists, so Dirty Computer won’t be on my list. But there are many other albums released this year that deserve as many of the accolades given to higher profile artists, so these are the albums and EPs that made an impression on me this year.
Annabel (lee) – From This Side/I Came Across a Dreamer
I have been enamored with Annabel (lee) since their first album Solitary Places. After two albums, the duo presented us with two three-track EPs while they work on individual projects still to come. In the meantime, we get more goth jazz goodness.
BbyMutha – BbyShoe/Muthaz Day 2/Muthaz Day 3
Bbymutha has been a favorite since her 2017 anthem “Rules” and has been on a roll since then. This year alone, she released three EPs. Yes, THREE. All this while wrangling two sets of twins.
Bettye LaVette – Things Have Changed
I mostly knew Bettye LaVette from her 60s soul hit “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” However, earlier this year, I listened to an interview she did as she prepared for the release of her latest album, a collection of Bob Dylan covers. I’m an avid believer in “Black girls do it better,” and LaVette puts her stamp on the songwriter’s work beautifully.
Big Freedia – Third Ward Bounce
So the world is finally catching up to Big Freedia. After more well-known artists used her voice for several hit tracks this year, many who had been long-time fans did the work to make sure she got the attention she deserved. And Freedia rewarded us with a lively EP that only gives a small modicum of what she brings to New Orleans, bounce music, and any party.
Big Joanie – Sistahs
I’ve been a fan of Big Joanie for years and an admirer of Stephanie Phillips’ work for women in rock. After a few EPs, Big Joanie finally released their first full-length album this year. All the work has paid off with a solid album that is both enjoyable and at times poignant.
CupcakKe – Ephorize/Eden
CupcakKe has had a busy year, bookended with her January release Ephorize and the November follow up Eden. All the while, she released singles and visuals to show why she is by far one of the more superior rappers on the scene right now.
Ebony Bones – Nephilim
Ebony Bones can never make a bad album to me. This year’s offering is no exception, especially as she appears to focus even more on her role as a composer and producer. With lush production assisted by the Beijing Symphonic Orchestra and the Bones Youth Choir, Ebony shows she is all about creating a coherent and unique album.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – Overload
When it was announced Georgia Anne Muldrow would be joining Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, I knew she would fit right in her new label home. And I was right. Not only does she keep her own unique craft she has honed over the years, but she has also evolved her sound.
High Priestess – High Priestess
With my work for the Black Swan Collective, I rarely listen to anything these days that do not involve Black women. High Priestess was one of two exceptions this year. What can I say? I find slow prog heavy metal pretty irresistible.
Joi – SIR Rebekkah Holylove
My love and respect for Joi Gilliam has grown exponentially over the years as I finally caught up with her work and keeps growing the more I listen to her latest work. She’s another artist I feel is incapable of making a bad album, and she shows her influence and longevity in yet another brilliant project.
Jose James – Lean on Me
Jose James is the other exception to the “artists who aren’t Black women” who had an album I loved this year. But to be fair, I found it because of his collaboration with Lalah Hathaway. While their duet for “Lovely Day” is a standout to me, his entire album of Bill Wither covers is done beautifully and respectfully.
Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen
I think I first heard of Kadhja Bonet when I listened to her lovely throwback song “Remember the Rain.” However, I was blown away earlier this year when I first caught it on NPR’s “First Listen” series and have kept it in rotation ever since.
Kam Franklin – Nu Metals
I’ve loved Kam Franklin since I first discovered The Suffers and likened them to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. So of course I followed her to her solo EP that changed course with her take on revamping four rock songs, among them “Freak on a Leash” by Korn.
Leikeli47 – Acrylic
Leikeli47 has been doing the damn thing for quite some time now, and as much as I’ve been enjoying her singles, I still wasn’t prepared for just how good her concept album Acrylic would be. But with this album, she has put herself in league with the best of the new class of lyricists on the scene today.
Macy Gray – Ruby
I still feel Macy Gray is underrated considering she has been consistently good since her work with the Black Eyed Peas. And in the year before the 20th anniversary of On How Life Is, she’s shown that she can still make an album that’s deceptively heavy under great musical arrangement.
Malina Moye – Bad as I Wanna Be
Malina Moye proudly leads in a group of Black women guitarists who have been emerging for quite some time. This year, she finally released her latest EP and reminded us she’s not one to play.
Mayyadda – Holding Space
Mayyadda is one of those artists you listen to on those days you need to fill the dark spaces. Something to keep you company when it’s just you and your thoughts. While much of her work can feel heavy, it’s also filled with beauty.
Mal Devisa – Shade and the Little Creature/Mystery Tsrain/Animal Equation
Mal Devisa has had a hell of a year. It seems she’s recovered from a sudden illness that left her hospitalized earlier this year and had a lot of music to get out of her. Not only did she release two albums on the same day, but she also released an EP four days later. And each one crosses and blends genres in ways to take you on as complicated a ride as her year must have been.
Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism
There aren’t too many artists besides Meshell who have been as daring while remaining interesting and innovating without compromise. So this year, when she decided to release an album of covers, it should have come as no surprise that she would give the finger to genre and expectations and come up with gold. With Ventriloquism, she shows how a cover can be revamped almost beyond recognition while still paying tribute to the originators.
Militia Vox – The Villainess
After years of waiting, metal legend Militia Vox finally got to release her much-anticipated solo album. And after that wait, she did not disappoint. And she still plans more to come with the album next year so…
Nao – Saturn
I don’t remember how I first came across Nao’s early EPs but do remember hearing her track “Zillionaire” in a commercial soon after. Since then, she’s been consistent with the quality of her work and gave us one of the year’s best albums with Saturn. I mean, she teased us with a string of singles first, but she was worth it.
Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics
While she didn’t make us wait 18 years this time, Neneh Cherry did take four years to craft her latest album and remind us why she is one of our legends. From the visuals of “Kong” and “Shot Gun Shack” to the lyrics of tracks like “Natural Skin Deep,” Neneh shows why it’s always a good idea to let artists take their time.
Noname – Room 25
Noname is part of an awesome creative collective of artists coming out of Chicago right now who are completely fucking up the game in a good way. And of all of them, Noname showed just how strong of a creative force they can be on albums. The lush production is so dreamy and relaxing, you just may do a double take at some of the sly lyrical wordplay peppered throughout the tracks.
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Everyone knows Cammie Gilbert is one of my strongest musical crushes right now, so I was ecstatic when Oceans of Slumber teased their new album last December with visuals for their track “The Decay of Disregard.” However, we had to wait until March for the rest of the album. But at least that gave me most of the year to revel in all this prog metal goodness.
Ravyn Lenae – Crush
In disclosure, I’d forgotten Ravyn Lenae released an EP this year. It deserved much more fanfare than it got, especially as the young singer-songwriter has been consistent with her work since she first emerged at 18. With Crush, she keeps it going and shows that she is definitely capable of greater things.
Shea Diamond – Seen It All
I have been enamored of Shea Diamond since I first heard her in 2016 and anxiously awaited her debut EP. She was finally able to release it this year and all I can say is wow. That voice is searing whether she sings about her personal desires in “American Pie” or bragging about her beauty in “Keisha Complexion.”
Sunny War – With the Sun/Particle War
It seems that every year the universe gives me at least one Black woman with a great folk/Americana album. This year it was Sunny War. And elegant and deceptively varied album, With the Sun establishes Sunny as one of the premier voices of acoustic sounds while Particle War finds her collaborating with Particle Kid.
Tasha – Alone at Last
While Noname gave us one of the best rap albums this year, she’s not the only one from Chicago who’s making the city one of the most crucial hubs of Black creatives this decade. Tasha’s latest release Alone at Last shows us a softer side and also reminds us of another Chicagoan keeping it real while keeping it soft, Jamila Woods. But Tasha has her own style and own voice that she uses to great effect.
The War and the Treaty – Healing Tide
I had no idea before this year that Tanya Blount has been doing roots and folk music for quite some time now. However, as Tanya Blount Trotter, she, along with her husband Michael, have created something special together. There’s love for each other and for humanity that shines through, particularly with the power of Tanya’s vocals.
Witch Mountain – Witch Mountain
Witch Mountain has something in common with Oceans of Slumber: I paid attention to neither until they revamped themselves with a beautiful, charismatic Black female singer. And although the outfit has been around for about 20 years, their new addition, Kayla Dixon, does them well, giving me the kind of prog metal I love.
Witch Prophet – The Golden Octave
Ayo Leilani has been doing the damn thing for almost 10 years now whether she’s creating under her own name, Witch Prophet, or her collective 88 Days of Fortune. So no surprise that this year, her album The Golden Octave was among the best I heard this year. She continues to progress in her sound and work with others who are just as innovative as she, showing that Toronto has cultivated an incredible cadre of artists of color.
Yazmin Lacey – When the Sun Dips 90 Degrees
SoulBounce has been my friend this year. And perhaps one of my favorite discoveries through the outlet has been Yazmin Lacey. Her neosoul-laced work reminds me of the subgenre I grew to love in the late 90s and early 2000s without the hotepness. Just comes to show that our British counterparts are indeed paying attention.
Honorable Mention: Tierra Whack – Whack World
At first glance, you might miss that Tierra Whack’s 15-minute video is indeed an album. With 15 songs at one-minute each, she gives little nuggets to show us just enough of what she can do. As much performance art as it is an album, Tierra has a place in the Afro-surrealism realm that gave us a lot of unique images and stories in pop culture this year.