No matter how the year went, we can always find some hotness that went down in the music world. There were plenty of mainstream successes as well as some newer artists who had an incredible breakthrough year. You’ll see some of them here, but mostly you’ll see artists I got to know through the Black Swan Collective and others I feel might have been overlooked on all those other esteemed Best of the Year lists. Also note that even though they aren’t here, Jamila Woods, Imani Coppola, and Little Simz all re-released their albums from last year. So hope you catch up with some awesome but overlooked artists and be reminded of a few of your faves. Apologies for anything that didn’t embed properly, but there be links.
Amerasu – Rebecca
Sometimes the demons aren’t really demons. Sometimes you gotta embrace something that others see as a weakness to keep you strong. That’s how Star Amerasu begins her EP Rebecca with the track “Klonopin.” While Rebecca takes you places, it’s more than a fluffy ambient piece although it does evoke a mood. It elevates. It also mellows and balances, much like the drug in question of the EP’s opening track. Amerasu continues what she began with her EP from last year and shows she has what it takes to stand out from Top 40 banality.
Annabel (lee) – The Cleansing
I’ve been absolutely enchanted with Annabel (lee) since I first heard their 2015 debut By the Sea… and Other Solitary Places last year. Haunting and atmospheric, Shelly Ellis has a voice perfectly complimented by a musical background that calls to mind the old Hammer horror films from which she draws much inspiration. This was one of my most anticipated albums this year, and I was far from disappointed with the finished product. With a hard to pin down sound, no one else sounds like Annabel (lee), making them a unique and original pleasure in indie music.
Charlotte Dos Santos – Cleo
Pigeons and Planes is becoming one of my go-to pubs to find outstanding Black female music talent. Charlotte Dos Santos is one of the reasons why. After familiarizing myself with “Red Clay” and the album’s title track, I listened to the entire album, and I must say Charlotte is one of my favorite discoveries from this year. Not only does she capture the creative spirit of contemporary R&B like Daniel Caesar and Moses Sumney, but she also incorporates that 70s aesthetic that made the neosoul children some of the best artists of their generation.
Cold Specks – Fool’s Paradise
None of Cold Specks’ three albums sounds like the others. Yet Al Spx, aka Ladan Hussein, always remains identifiable in her sound, particularly with her rich, haunting voice. She puts it to great use on her release this year, celebrating her Somali heritage throughout these gorgeous 10 tracks. She also lays bare her soul, exposing all the trauma and heartbreak that also helped inspire this beautiful work from an artist who always brings her A game.
Daniel Caesar – Freudian
I was directed to Daniel Caesar by my friend and podcast partner Didi. I immediately realized why. While Daniel Caesar has apparently been making a name for himself for some time now, he came out of left field for me. Freudian is a gorgeous addition to contemporary R&B. Not since Donnie’s The Colored Section has a man created something that resonated so perfectly and purely with me. Actually, this year there was two… stay tuned…
Denitia – Ceilings
Denitia Odigie never disappoints whether she’s Denitia, Adesuwa, or denitia and sene. Well, there might be one small disappointment with the Ceilings EP – it’s only four tracks. All good tracks though, and this is the best thing about an EP, no filler and no tracks to skip over. Just Denitia’s smooth as buttah voice over those ambient electronic tracks that have served her so well in the past.
Exit Eden – Rhapsodies in Black
I love when random Twitter encounters lead me to something cool. And a random Twitter encounter pointed me in the direction of Exit Eden, a heavy metal supergroup of sorts consisting of four female artists from different countries. The collaboration works and their album of covers puts new spins on several pop culture staples and newer hits. And the covers work as much as this grouping. Exit Eden gave me something I’ve been looking to enjoy again for quite some time: a heavy metal girl group.
Goapele – Dreamseeker
I’ve had to admit that I let Goapele’s talent slip by me after I failed to connect fully with her debut album. However, when her track “Power” and a couple of other singles came across my desk, I had to revisit her and check out Dreamseeker. What I found was the reason Goapele had the staying power to keep her in the game for nearly 15 after her debut. She’s shown her prowess as a vocalist and a talent for the type of songwriting that’s both deep and accessible.
Gorillaz – Humanz
Gorillaz is one of those groups that when you first encounter them, you’re guaranteed to stick around to see what they do next. After catching singles from them over the years, I was finally ready for my first full album, particularly after leading with the incredible collab with Benjamin Clementine, “Hallelujah Money.” The first time I listened to Humanz, I kept looking back at the playlist to not only see the name of the songs but also the names of the many collaborators who contributed to one of the most creative albums of the year. Had I not been a fan already, Humanz would have been the deciding factor.
H.E.R. – H.E.R./Volume 2
When H.E.R. emerged last year in a cloud of mystery, it had just the effect she wanted: speculation about her identity and music judged on its own merit. This year, H.E.R. returned not only with the second volume to follow up her EP, but she also put together a full album that combined volumes one and two of the self-titled EPs as well as included new tracks. The result is one of the best alternative R&B albums within the past few years much less this one.
Ibeyi – Ash
I didn’t realize Ibeyi had an album set for release this year until the day of the album’s release. Probably a good thing because I don’t know if I could have stood the anticipation of what I knew would be excellence from beginning to end. And on their second album, the Diaz twins did not disappoint. Ash continues the work Ibeyi began on their first self-titled album and show even more growth beyond the already beyond their years maturity displayed in their debut.
The Isley Brothers, Santana – Power of Peace
I’ll never understand why I hesitate to get into a Carlos Santana album unless I’m already certain my mind will be blown by the flawlessness. Well, this year I found out that Carlos can still make a great album, especially when he’s recalling Woodstock era Santana. But this time, apparently he and Ron Isley got along so well after working together on last year’s album, they decided to do it again on an entire album with a great assist from Cindy Blackman Santana, who makes this album just as much hers as theirs. With that, Power of Peace becomes one of those albums that shows some artists just know how to make good music in any era.
Jidenna – The Chief/Boomerang EP
After a nearly two-year build up, Jidenna finally released his debut album The Chief. All that development paid off with a solid album then followed it months later with a bonus EP Boomerang. The Chief expands on the persona of the first artist to present an album from Janelle Monae’s Wondaland collective. What we get is the first voice of a Black collective out of Atlanta reminiscent of the artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Jlin – Black Origami
It might be a cop out to call Jlin’s Black Origami avant garde, but even though she is squarely within electronic music, she somehow manages to defy that category but is called footwork. Jlin comes from a hip-hop house tradition with roots in the Midwest that takes an Afrofuturistic approach. With her follow up to her debut Dark Energy from 2015, Jlin becomes a creative darling of music journalists who pride themselves on breaking the hot new artists. Not that she needs it.
Jungle Leez – Supanova
Unfortunately, I missed Jungle Leez when she debuted around 2013. However, after a few EPs, she brought her cosmic soul back with this short but sweet album Supanova. Her sound is early 2000s throwback but still contemporary, alternative R&B with a rock edge reminiscent of Res’ How I Do. Just one of those good album listening experiences we used to get from a solid but undersung artist who understands vocal nuance.
Kelela – Take Me Apart
No doubt Kelela has been one of my favorite artists for some time. I’ve followed her since her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. Her 2015 EP Hallucinogen let me know we were dealing with a talent unlike anyone else on the scene right now. And this year, Kelela did with Take Me Apart what I hoped she would: she broke through. Kelela has finally shown once and for all that she’s a force within the contemporary R&B landscape that not only creates her own way but also in her own time.
Kona – Uncanny
Kona got me with a cute video for her track “Working Woman.” Then I found the rest of the EP was no disappointment. Like a lot of indie music these days, Kona’s Uncanny is laid back, easy on the ears but has a strong enough vibe to make you move it you want.
Lalah Hathaway – honestly
Confession time: I’d never heard an entire Lalah Hathaway album until her live album in 2015. Even though she always stayed rooted in contemporary R&B, I associated her more with traditional R&B and jazz. So I was surprised to find that honestly is firmly rooted in the here and now but not at all disappointed. Lalah shows she has been one of the most versatile and capable vocalists in the game since the early 1990s and shows no signs of hanging it up any time soon.
Ledisi – Let Love Rule
Seriously, I hoped the title track from Ledisi’s new album would be a cover of the title track of Lenny Kravitz’s first album. Well, it wasn’t, but I was far from disappointed. Ledisi is one of those vocalists who knows how to get under your skin and appreciate each and every chill that runs through it. Her latest album brings us that grown folx R&B that demands appreciation and a bit of reflection on life, love, and soul.
Lizz Wright – Grace
I’m convinced at this point that Lizz Wright is incapable of creating a bad album. Simply incapable. Lizz has run the genre gamut from jazz, folk, blues, and gospel among others, but here she performs an album of covers and gives them a reworking worthy of her Southern heritage and that honey-dipped voice that shines gold on all it touches.
Lizzie No – Hard Won
Finding Black women who perform folk/country-adjacent is always a welcome thing with me. I’m not sure how I came across Lizzie No, but her album Hard Won and its title track speaks to that Southern girl in me, the one who grew up on stories of lone wanderers who had the privilege of indulging their wanderlust and “find themselves.” Yet somehow, Lizzie’s ruminations of anger, grief, and other subjects feel like an escape while confronting the worst of the realities we live in as marginalized people, a safe space to scream, cry, and mourn.
Lorine Chia & Romero Mosley – When Morning Comes
I liked Lorine Chia immediately when I first saw the video for the single she released early this year “Feeling Groovy.” While that track comes from an EP she released last year, Introduction to Sweet Noise, she followed up this year with this collaboration with Romero Mosley, When Morning Comes. While Lorine has her own style, she shows similarities in style and tone as another great singer/songwriter/producer/beat maker Georgia Anne Muldrow. And with this latest outlet, she adds to the already impressive repertoire she’s been building for the past five years.
Mabel – Bedroom/Ivy to Roses
I hate to harp on the fact that Mabel McVey is the daughter of Neneh Cherry, but I must point out that she learned well from her mother. Releasing two EPs this year and becoming a known face and name on the UK charts must have highlighted her year. And I dare say she did it of her own merit. Both Bedroom and Ivy to Roses provide more than a hint of Mabel’s creative capabilities and establish her as an artist to watch further grow and develop.
Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
I try not to feel guilty when the first complete album I hear from a legend comes late in their career. Yet with Mavis Staples’ latest album, I have to ask myself what I’ve missed throughout the long and varied career of the R&B/soul legend. Apparently, this is her third collaboration with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and I’ll say to his credit that his respect for the music comes through in Mavis’ performance.
Maxine Ashley – Paranoid
Maxine Ashley released her EP Paranoid early in the year. Fortunately, her evolution of trip hop brings this short but sweet outing to the forefront of the many hopefuls giving us good music on Soundcloud. Doesn’t hurt that Maxine has a stronger range than many yet has a voice that is radio friendly enough without being bland.
Mayyada – eightynine
Mayyada brings that perfect blend of folk and rhythm, the kind of music you might have heard at Lilith Fair if Black girls with acoustic guitars were valued. She makes anthems for the stereotypical carefree Black girl who wears flower crowns in her hair while sitting barefoot in a field playing her guitar for the woodland creatures and birds. And, well, I’m into it.
Minnie Riperton – Perfect Angel Deluxe Edition Reissue
Everyone knows how much I love Minnie Riperton. I’d been planning my audio essay for her as early as May. However, what I didn’t know was that this year would bring an estate-approved deluxe reissue of her second solo album Perfect Angel. Even those of us who have listened to this album ad naseum will find something new to respect in the bonus material featuring alternative versions of each track. It’s like listening to the album in a whole new way and reminds us why Minnie’s music has endured so long after her much too early passing.
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
So that second album from a Black man that feels just as good as Donnie’s The Colored Section? Aromanticism by Moses Sumney. I’ve heard several tracks from him over the past couple of years and watched his progress. By the time he did his NPR Tiny Desk concert, I was a fan and fell in love with the album. Aromanticism is one of those concept albums that seamlessly ties together and shows a kind of artistry that is difficult to come by in our age of EPs and singles.
Nicotine – Nicotine’s Famous Honey: An Open Letter
I forget how I came across Nicotine, but oh am I glad I did. Sometimes you just hear something so flawless and meant for you that you have to thank the music globs. Nicotine’s Famous Honey: An Open Letter is the public declaration of love gone wrong you remember from your academic days when you hung out at the coffee shop on open mic night. At least the first track is. But the entire EP keeps the public confessional spirit right up to the closing.
Purple Ferdinand – Rain or Shine
While “In My Dreams” remains my go-to track for Purple Ferdinand, I was pretty excited when I saw earlier this year that she’d dropped another EP. Even more so when I found the short but sweet work manages to run a number of genres from indie pop to quiet storm R&B. Purple Ferdinand is another of our alternative R&B artists who shows why its moving more into the realm of contemporary R&B we might actually hear on mainstream outlets.
Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
While Black women have yet to reach the heights of commercial success as their male counterparts in the rap game, they have consistently shown that they are among the most talented and innovative in the genre. Fortunately, Rapsody has been one who has managed to garner mainstream attention after two EPs and the release of her album Laila’s Wisdom this year. This year proved to finally be her breakout year of critical acclaim from rap fans and music aficionados in general.
Ravyn Lenae – Midnight Moonlight
Ravyn Lenae has been one to watch since she debuted with her album Moon Shoes last year at only 18 years old. She returned this year with Midnight Moonlight, continuing to impress as an up and coming creative force in alternative/indie R&B artists coming out of Chicago. With the carefully crafted short but sweet EP, we continue to watch the evolution and development of a young artist.
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Every since her tenure with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has been one of the most prominent voices of Americana. With Freedom Highway, she continues that tradition and cements Black women as the center of roots music. Only her second solo album, Freedom Highway captures Rhiannon at her best paying homage to the silenced, retrieving them from the depths of a history that tries to bury them while reclaiming a genre that likes to forget its early innovators.
Ruby Francis – Night Time Therapy
Ruby Francis is one of those artists I came across in the course of doing the show and in the back of my mind remembered they made an impression somehow. In revisiting her EP Night Time Therapy, I remembered why. These four tracks are fine soft alternative R&B pieces fitting perfectly under the title of the album. Just the thing you need for a quick fix of peace to compliment the quiet.
Sampa the Great – Birds and the Bee9
I was first introduced to Sampa the Great in 2015 with The Great Mixtape. Since then, she’s done a few singles here and there, but she finally released a new mixtape in early November. Sampa’s poetry roots show strong on Birds and the Bee9 but so does her steady flow, which reminds me a bit of an artist I wish had broken through in the 90s, Simple E. And with this mixtape, she takes on the theme of spirituality and the self, something near and dear to my heart. In the same league as her contemporary Little Simz, Sampa is definitely one of the British women in rap to watch.
Sampha – Process
I’ve joked that Sampha’s voice sounds like someone just broke up with him five minutes ago, but he had to go on and perform anyway. As much as I like that joke, I do love Sampha’s voice and his music even more. Process sees him finally giving us a full-length album, one hinted at from previous works and collaborations throughout the years. Topped with an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Process firmly establishes Sampha as one of the most distinct voices in alternative R&B, one not afraid to express vulnerability.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Soul of a Woman
Sharon Jones’ passing last year was a devastating loss. However, on the first year anniversary of her passing, Sharon’s band released her last album posthumously. And as with everything Sharon did, it’s nothing short of the Blackest excellence. Soul of a Woman completes a career cut short but nevertheless full and every evolving while remaining steeped in an older music tradition. Sharon would be proud.
Sudan Archives – Sudan Archives
Sudan Archives is one of those artists I knew I’d like right away. The violinist made a strong impression with her track “Queen Kunta,” so I waited for more material. Eventually, we got the release of her self-titled EP. Like Syna So Pro, she uses looping to make herself a one-woman band, effectively keeping creative control over her work, giving us a solid and connected piece of art worthy of her artistic vision. And her EP works as an introduction to what we’ll get when she decides to create even more.
Syd – Fin/Almost Never Home
Let’s be honest: Syd’s Fin is one of the top albums of the year along with Kelela’s Take Me Apart and Ibeyi’s Ash. Her tenure with The Internet (which is not over!) gave Syd the room she needed to find her stride and develop an album fitting for her voice and her knack for songwriting. Then on top of that, she celebrated her upcoming tour with a three-track EP Almost Never Home later in the year. And considering her work with Sampha and Quin among others this year, it’s safe to say that Syd has made herself a valued entity in a music industry that barely deserves her.
Tawiah – Recreate
Tawiah quietly snuck up on me with her single “Queens” off her EP Recreate. After listening to all five tracks, I immediately looked up her debut EP In Jodi’s Bedroom. Tawiah fits into that collective of artists like Terence Nance who creates work you can’t quite label but it was made for you anyhow. She expresses the openness of a folk singer, albeit one who puts as much fire into political anthems as she does vulnerability in her more personal outings. Tawiah is definitely on my stay tuned and watch list.
Thundercat – Drunk
I’ve been a bit enthralled with Thundercat ever since I first heard “Them Changes” last year. So I was not a bit surprised when I found his album Drunk as one of my favorites of the year. Thundercat’s latest album is oddly uplifting, perhaps because the quirkiness overshadows some of the darker themes addressed in the album. He truly belongs in the class with contemporaries such as his collaborator Flying Lotus as well as other collaborators Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.
Torraine Futurum – Colonial
Torraine Futurum released her debut album Colonial at the beginning of the year. Twelve months later, it’s still better than a good majority of album releases this year. Torraine paints dreamy landscapes with her music, speak-singing at times in a melodic voice that’s as sexy as it is calming. This album has some of the most calming, laid back vibes I’ve heard all year.
Vagabon – Infinite Worlds
Of all the artists I “discovered” this year, I don’t think any of them has blown me away as much as Vagabon. From the first time I listened to “The Embers,” I knew I’d found one of my kin. I immediately found her other work, a collection of live tracks from the Infinite Worlds album, an Audiotree live session, and a previous EP, Persian Garden. Vagabon is another one of those “if Lilith Fair were touring today and had a Black female lineup” artists that I’ve grown to love over the course of the year and my tenure with the Black Swan Collective.
Valerie June – The Order of Time
Valerie June is one of those artists who made me appreciate my Southern, Tennessee roots even more. Yet The Order of Time reflects Valerie’s move from the South to New York. The album feels more upbeat than the darkly sublime Pushin’ Against a Stone. But Valerie continues to grow and take chances as an artist, exploring her fuller range and making music on her own terms.
Various Artists (88 Days of Fortune) – Cosmic Melanin
Ayo Leilani, aka Witch Prophet, has been providing a space for queer Toronto artists known as 88 Days of Fortune for more than eight years. And in that time, they’ve dropped several dope albums. This year was Cosmic Melanin, an outing that included Stas THEE Boss and Sassy Black (both of THEESatisfaction), Nappy Nina, Gifted Gab, and Latasha Alcindor among others. I expected nothing less than excellence from this, and that’s what was served.
Violents & Monica Martin – Awake and Pretty Much Sober
I have no idea of the future of PHOX, who captured me with their self-titled album in 2015, but I can’t say I was disappointed to see Monica Martin front and center of her collaboration with Violents. While her work with PHOX drew inspiration from a plethora of influences including alternative, indie, folk, and even polka (it seems), Awake and Pretty Much Sober appears to draw more from alternative R&B, which also works with Martin’s soft but capable vocal stylings. Hopefully, this means more opportunities for her to branch out.
Vlooper – Queendom
I’m still not sure how I first encountered Vlooper except to say that I’ve had a couple of her EPs in my collection for some time and apparently I keep going back. Well, with her Queendom EP, Vlooper has become part of the Montreal beat making scene, and the result is an ambient mixtape as weighted as it is airy. She finds herself in line with those like her hero J Dilla, to whom she paid tribute with an album in 2011, and fellow artists JLin. So no matter how I found Vlooper, I’ll definitely stick around to see what she does next.
Weaves – Wide Open
Seems like everything I love comes out of Toronto these days. And Weaves is one of the only rock groups who made my radar this year. This is not at all in small part due to lead singer Jasmyn Burke who has all the charm and swagger of a rock frontwoman. More than that, Wide Open is just an enjoyable album, a pick me up in my own musical landscape that admittedly is a bit mellow and laid back these days.