This year in music has been a good one, at least from where I stood. Of course, in keeping up with the show, my list is predominantly Black women, and what can I say? The ladies never disappoint. So here are my favorite albums and EPs of this year.
Adia Victoria – Silences
Adia Victoria quickly became one of my favorites a couple of years ago with her debut EP then subsequently the first full-length project. She returned with her sophomore album this year and proved to be one of the captivating artists of the year. Silences is a consistent album, beautiful and haunting that definitely resonated this year.
Alice Smith – Mystery
Any time Alice Smith releases new music is a good thing. This year, after finally giving us a studio version of “House of the Rising Sun” last year, she returned to grace us with a new EP. The title track is only a taste of the flawless seven showcasing not only Smith’s incredible and distinct vocal style but also her versatility in both blending and eschewing genre.
Alpha Maid – Spy
Alpha Maid has been one of my favorites since their track “Sublime” became a constant earworm of mine and one of my all-time favorite songs. The five-track Spy EP helped me focus on their other work and appreciate the evolution of Leisha Thomas’ style and musical genius.
Angélique Kidjo – Celia
I was first introduced to Angélique Kidjo more than 20 years ago on Sessions at West 54th. I started to figure out then that she was a musical superstar and see that she has lived up to that perception ever since. And now with her homage to another legend, she makes connections all across the African diaspora while paying tribute to the queen of salsa in her own way.
Brittany Howard – Jaime
We’ve all loved Brittany Howard since we were introduced to the Alabama Shakes, so it’s no surprise that her debut solo album has cemented her as one of the most important music artists to break out this year. Her work with the Shakes, Thunderbitch, and Bermuda Triangle is all great, but on this album, affectionately named after the sister Howard lost in her teens, tackles subjects she may not have been able to with her other groups.
denitia – Touch of the Sky
I fell in love with denitia (odigie)’s voice a couple of years ago when she was still part of denitia and sene. She kept going as Adesuwa and then eventually denitia and has shown that no matter the incarnation, she is more than capable of producing quality work that best shows off that voice.
Imani Coppola – The Protagonist/Unsung
Anyone listening to The Black Swan Collective knows that it was started to pay tribute to artists like Imani Coppola. As one of my all-time favorites, of course, I was ecstatic to see she was planning on dropping another album this year. And The Protagonist didn’t disappoint. Delightly eclectic but also poignant, the album includes so much of what we’ve come to expect from Imani whether she’s doing it solo or with Little Jackie or Pussy Story. And as a bonus, a best of collection of sorts was also released this year, so in addition to this latest album, we can now get an overview of the past 20+ years of Coppola’s career with Unsung.
In the Next Life – 4FriendsInARoomWithAGun
I’m still trying to figure out how I ended up directed to In the Next Life because I can’t for the life of me remember. However, I’m glad I stumbled across this rock group because despite the title, the album is sometimes irreverent and fun in addition to being dark and moody.
Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
Jamila Woods has emerged as one of the premier talents out of Chicago recently and continued being a shining example of the type of talent coming from the city with her sophomore album. With tracks named after influential Black Americans, Woods both pays tribute and also falls in line with their legacies as she creates her own.
Kelsey Lu – Blood
To put it nicely, Kelsey Lu is one of my art heaux favorites out of the past few years. Her EP Church is still in rotation and part of the soundtrack for my witchy inclinations. However, with Blood, she shows she is perfectly capable of putting together a great album and continues to provide me with music I personally find soothing and perfect for those times of meditation and reflection.
Lafawndah – Ancestor Boy
Speaking of meditation and reflection, Lafawndah’s Ancestor Boy proved to be a pleasant surprise, a random find from one of the music publications I have listed on Twitter. I had no idea what to make of her at first, but the album is so consistent and mellow that you can almost lose it in the background if it weren’t so engaging.
Leyla McCalla – The Capitalist Blues
Leyla McCalla has had a good year and is one of the artists who shows up twice on the list as part of a supergroup I’ll get to later. However, here as a solo offering, The Capitalist Blues shows that Black women picking up banjos and playing roots music are not at all divorced from contemporary realities and, in fact, often sing about them with just as much urgency as a rapper.
Lion Babe – Cosmic Wind
After a string of singles throughout 2017 and 2018, Lion Babe finally decided it was time to put out the album. And it’s actually quite solid despite not including many of the singles they had released since the previous album. Lion Babe was definitely a light and fun offering when we needed to dance and party.
Little Simz – GREY Area
Little Simz has been consistently good for the past few years and one of my favorite contemporary rappers, especially after her turn with Gorillaz last year on their track “Garage Palace.” Her flow is great, and quite frankly the UK accent gives a bit of flavor. This album is definitely one full of our Black Girl empowerment anthems, celebrating us in all that we dare to be.
Lizzie No – Vanity
Lizzie No is one of those artists I wouldn’t know without outlets like NPR Music. I’m sure her country/folk sound falls in line with what the critics there enjoy. However, so do I. Her album Hard Won was a favorite of mine, and this follow up is no exception. Like many artists, Lizzie plays a bit outside the genre of her debut but keeps those roots at hand for a solid second effort.
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Lizzo has had… a year. I would say it was a good year despite a lot of the pushback. So good of a year that I went ahead and retired her music from the show. But I will say that her breakthrough album has plenty for those times you need a boost in your mood.
Mavis Staples – We Get By
Having finally discovered Mavis Staples by the ‘90s, it should come as no surprise that she has become one of my most revered artists as of late. To see that she’s still very much embodying the spirit of music she was doing more than 50 years ago and with such excellence is inspiring. And to top it off here, she works with another artist I discovered in the ‘90s, Ben Harper. Together, they made a beautiful piece of work.
Mereba – The Jungle Is the Only Way Out
I’ve been a fan of Miriam Mereba since her debut project Room for Living. Before the release of this album, she’d continued releasing singles, which finally culminated into the new album and a short film this year. Like many of the artists I somehow stumbled across as indie over the years, Mereba has branched out from that debut and explores past the acoustic offering from a few years ago. And it works.
Moor Mother – Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes
Moor Mother may have been one of the artists I first came across when I took a strong interest in afrofuturism, finding her imagery as stark as her music. And as much as I liked her album Fetish Bones from a couple of years ago, I have to say that she managed to top herself with this new work. Often categorized as noise, Moor Mother’s album definitely lives up to the title as a sonic experience unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, and it’s worth the journey.
Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
When I first found out Rhiannon Giddens was releasing an album with some fellow Black female folk artists, I might have freaked a bit. And from the first release, the amazing “Mama’s Crying Long,” I highly anticipated this release from February. Along with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, Giddens continues to reclaim the place of Black women in folk and roots music, and the four of them made one of the most incredible musical experiences of the year.
Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee
What can we say about Raphael Saadiq that hasn’t already been said? He’s been the keeper of soul throughout his entire solo career and capped a great year with one of NPR’s best Tiny Desk Concerts of all time. He never disappoints, so, of course, this album is no exception as a testament to his excellence as one of our generation’s greatest singers, songwriters, and musicians.
Rapsody – Eve
Following the cue of Jamila Woods, Rapsody presented us with an album with tracks inspired by Black excellence. However, in this case, Rapsody focuses on Black women. In a year in which many have tried to use her as a cudgel against other Black women rappers, she celebrates Black women and Black womanhood and includes collaborations, the track featuring the one and only Queen Latifah being on standout.
Rhiannon Giddens – there is no Other
This was a great year for Rhiannon Giddens. In addition to her exquisite work with Our Native Daughters, she not only released this excellent solo album but also announced plans to write an opera. Well, until that opera comes, we can enjoy this collaboration with Francesco Turrisi in which Giddens expands her work of celebrating and preserving Black American folk traditions to explore folk music from various other countries worldwide.
Sampa the Great – The Return
I got heavily into Sampa the Great this year even though I’ve had her music for quite some time now. So, of course, it felt like fate that she would release another album this year right as I was getting reacquainted. The good news is, this outlet seems to have brought her further into the spotlight she so richly deserves.
Santana – Africa Speaks
Carlos Santana has been one of my favorite classic rock artists to enjoy his longevity. As much as I love Woodstock era Santana, his contemporary work should also be acknowledged as well, particularly with albums such as this in which he celebrates African heritage and styles he has performed throughout his entire career. This is a solid work coming off last year’s collaboration with the Isleys and nearly 50 years after the original group lineup changed rock music.
Shingai – Ancient Futures
Shingai Shoniwa has been a favorite since I found out about The Noisettes years ago. Now doing it solo, Shingai keeps that joyous infection from the group and infuses it into this work that, as the title implies, takes more of a cue from afrofuturism and a calling on the ancestors. In addition to the EP, she also released a short film with the music and has given us only a taste of what she’s capable and what she’ll bring to the musical landscape.
Solange – When I Get Home
Admittedly, I came two years late to A Seat at the Table, but when I did, it became a weekly ritual. So when Solange released When I Get Home at the tail end of Black History Month and beginning of Women’s History Month, I had more material for my weekly exercise/meditation. And along with the visuals accompanying this album, Solange has shown she is one of the most creative voices in music and art right now. I often joke to my friends she’s living my ideal art heaux life, but she really is mixing the personal with the political in ways that shows the nuances, complexity, and beauty of Black life.
Spellling – Mazy Fly
When I encountered Spellling’s “Haunted Waters” last year, I knew I had something for my seasonal playlists. However, I didn’t know when she released her album earlier this year it would be among my favorites. There is an eclecticism that somehow comes together and works with Spellling’s music and makes it among the most unique to be released this year.
Sudan Archives – Athena
Sudan Archives has been a favorite since I first encountered “Queen Kunta” a few years ago and can’t get “Come Meh Way” out of my head. So, of course, I highly anticipated her debut album and was not disappointed. While she goes beyond the looping she used to expand her sound and try new things, she still keeps that creative edge that drew many of us in from the beginning.
Sunny War – Shell of a Girl
I think it was last year when I first heard of Sunny War and finally found a new contemporary folk hero. There’s something very honest and unpretentious about her, which for me is what makes the best folk singers and singer/songwriters who draw on their own experiences to create. With her latest album, Sunny keeps it all open and raw, inviting us in to see it for what it is. And it’s beautiful.
Sylvia Black – Twilight Animals: Originals and Covers for Tortured Lovers
Whether Betty Black or Sylvia Black, this woman knows how to make an album an experience. I almost missed this album when it was released in October, but I fell in love at first listen. Black evokes a cabaret/burlesque experience through sound with Lydia Lunch, and I long for a stage show to go along with it.
Tank and the Bangas – Green Balloon
Tarriona “Tank” Bell has had an extraordinary rise since she and her group won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert a couple of years ago. After releasing a few singles since then, Tank and the Bangas finally released their debut album. It’s definitely been one of the more sonically interesting journeys of the year but well worth the trip.
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Watchmen: Volumes 1, 2, 3
If you’d told me 10 years ago that Trent Reznor would be behind some of my favorite film and television scores and soundtracks, well, it might have made sense on some level, but I might not have believed it. Yet here we are. Reznor and Atticus Ross just work well as a team and have become one of the best film and television composition teams working today. Each volume of the Watchman score emphasizes it and does its job of taking you back to the show.
Vagabon – Vagabon
Vagabon is another of those voices that captured me pretty much since the beginning, so I was thrilled to see that her latest album started to catch a bit of traction with many of the music gatekeepers. Her voice is soothing and her sound mellow, just enough of a lullaby to calm you but forceful enough to keep you engaged. She uses this very well throughout this solid album.
Willow – Willow
I used to make fun of my niece for listening to 10-year-old Willow Smith but turns out that joke was on me. Barely 19, Willow has shown she has greater musical acuity and talent than anyone her age has any business having. But one of the best things about her work is the combination of old soul wisdom and youthful hopefulness that she manages to blend.
Yola – Walk Through Fire
Yola’s first single “Ride Through the Country” spoke to me in a way nothing else did. So I couldn’t wait for her debut album and found it to be every bit as good as I expected it to be. In a way, it warms my heart to see this British woman getting the spirit of country because I feel the diasporic connection, the respect of country’s Black roots when many would like to forget or pretend it isn’t there. Yola doesn’t.