As one of our most exciting times of year (which we refer to as the Season of Lists), the Nextbop staff relishes the end of the year to declare our favorite releases from the last twelve months, noting a moment in time and reminding folks (out there reading and amongst ourselves in the staff) of what great music was out there and maybe to catch up on what you may have missed, taking special appreciation for congruence as well as dissent, and realizing all of this means there’s just so much music out there to enjoy (and seemingly more and more of it every year).
11 tie) Armand Hammer – Paraffin (Backwoodz Studioz)
There is a unique, brooding energy to Armand Hammer. Often grim and rarely direct, Elucid and Billy Woods spend Paraffin stringing together abstract, bleak verses over brilliantly ghastly beats. The rapping is top notch and the production can be startinglingly alive. Waves of white noise, static and a sly horn sample weave through “Rehearse with Ornette.” “Hunter” also shifts throughout, starting off eerily minimal and eventually morphing into a menacing atmosphere filled with echoing horn samples. Elucid’s sinister second verse is a stunner. Both Elucid and Woods have various quotables that include biting commentary on the treatment of Black Americans (“to be seen and not seen at the same time is a mind fuck, black buck”, Elucid on “ECOMOG”) and their now typical sense of dark humor (“by the end the feds WAS the panthers”, Billy Woods on “Fuhrman Tapes”). This is essential left-field hip hop.
11 tie) Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)
Good breakup albums can evoke in the listener a deep sense of pain, longing, regret, and as many adjectives you can think of that describe heartbreak. The best breakup albums, however, can evoke these emotions in listeners that haven’t dealt with a breakup or the emotions that come with it for years. Historian is one of the best albums of this nature in recent history. And while Historian is by no means a cheery affair, Dacus does a phenomenal job at finding wry humor even in her most desperate times (“Am I a masochist? Resisting urges to punch you in the teeth, call you a bitch, and leave?) and contrasting them with empowering lyrics about self-worth (“Forget you ever saw me at my best. You don’t deserve what you don’t respect”). A tough listen, but a necessary one.
11 tie) Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (Sub Pop)
I Love You, Honeybear was just three years and narcissist who uses every part of his buffalo-sized ego Josh Tillman was seemingly doing fine with his new marriage up until he, literally inexplicably, torpedoed it (hopefully temporarily). Yet in the process of him sequestering himself off in a New York hotel for weeks, he worked out his issues by making this collection of raw yet still snarky songs full of the bombast and puckish wit that continually wins his listeners over time and again.
6 tie) Julia Holter- Aviary (Domino)
Aviary is a trip. It’s pretty much impossible to put in a box. Shades of classical music, jazz, experimental pop and influences that date back to the middle ages all converge on one another to create a truly unique canvas. The album bears little to no resemblance and is in some ways the antithesis to Julia Holter’s previous recording, Have You In My Wilderness, which was generally arranged in defined verse-chorus-verse structures. Aviary is Holter’s longest and most dense work to date and is inarguably not an album that will be loved by everyone, but those that do agree to the deep dive may find that it’s the aural equivalent to an enchanted forest. It’s an expansive project with nothing that could be mistaken for an artistic compromise. There is a wide variety of stylistic approaches on display here, with the mesmerizing spacious atmosphere of “Voce Simul” and the lush trills of the strings throughout “Words I Heard” both being highlights.
6 tie) Damien Jurado – The Horizon Just Laughed (Secretly Canadian)
Of the wonderful 17 albums that Damien Jurado has released over the past 20 years, this is the most sharp witted, cohesive, and frankly pound-for-pound overall best in his discography. Every single note and every single word is in its perfect place. Nothing is overdone, nothing wasted. Jurado is an extremely passionate songwriter, and one who has always had the unmatched ability to paint a sincere, gorgeous and intriguing portrait of the Pacific Northwest. This album contains the back-to-back tracks “Over Rainbows and Rainier” and “The Last Great Washington State”, which are arguably two of the best songs he has written. In a way, this album is a rumination on leaving what’s comfortable, whatever that is, and one that will strike a chord with anyone who is a fan of the subject matter or indie folk in general.
6 tie) Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer (Bad Boy Records)
Janelle Monae broke her latest album down into three acts. “Songs one, two, three, four—that’s the reckoning. That’s you feeling the sting of being called nigger for the first time by a white person. Feeling the sting of being called bitch by a man for the first time. Feeling the sting of being called queer or a faggot by homophobic people. It’s reckoning and dealing with what it means to be called a Dirty Computer.” The most successful albums in any genre seamlessly fuse accessibility with creativity. Monae’s record is incredibly heavy lyrically, but it is also chock full of bangers. Monae has been honing her craft for years, and this is easily her best album to date, as well as one that perfectly encapsulates the fact that prejudice still not only still exists, but is everywhere, despite how much we try to convince ourselves that we are society that is post-racial, post-homophobic, and post-sexist.
6 tie) Jean Grae and Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine (Mello Music Group)
Truly a best of both world’s record, Jean Grae shows off her wittiness and verbal dexterity and sonically the album is solidly classic Quelle Chris. This record is, back to front, the catharsis needed for current political and social moment. Far from being a straight diss to the current groups in power, Everything’s Fine challenges many of the conceptions about how we got to this fraught place. And it’s funny.
6 tie) Jerry Paper – Like A Baby (Stones Throw)
The smooth sadness of Jerry Paper’s music is hard to let go. These are woozy songs that want to live in rotation, like they’re perfect only because they’re already projected into a warped world. Of course, he made this alongside BADBADNOTGOOD’s Matty Tavares as a co-producer, so that refinement of that perfectly approachable sound was a foregone conclusion. The album just works.
3) Mitski – Be the Cowboy (Dead Oceans)
Mitski has found tranquility in pain on her fifth release on the Dead Oceans label. Even at its starkest moments, where Mitski appears to feel so small in the world, on record, she has never sounded so huge. Taking her minimalist work on older albums to her guitar and piano driven more recent albums, to her work with full orchestras, Mistski merges all of the above to create a full, lush record of tender love songs that work equally well in a small club or a crowded stadium. A true turning point in her career, this is a great time to turn yourself onto her work if you haven’t previously.
3 tie) Jorja Smith – Lost and Found (Famm Limited)
Smith’s debut full-length album takes the Bristol sound of the early 90’s and smoothies it over with a healthy dose of mainstream pop. Much of Smith’s vocal execution hardens to the era of torch singers, but backed by a beat-driven arrangements Lost & Found makes its way into modern classic territory.
3 tie) Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage (Fat Possum Records)
Melody Prochet’s sophomore album is fuzzy, incomprehensible if you don’t speak French, and enveloping. The brevity of the album just makes each song like a dessert you can’t help but gorge yourself on, like macarons. The drums are crisp, sharp, and piercing. The guitars are psychedelic and bending. Yes, the remnants of the influence of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker are still here in the sound from her previous album, but Prochet has moved beyond this to make a work distinctly her own that’s just as fun as she emerges as a woman with things to say, even if you may not always speak her language.
2) Saba – Care for Me (Saba Pivot)
An introspective, fully-rendered meditation on life, fame, and his own changing circumstances in a world and city that stubbornly refuses to let him escape some of the worst parts of existence. This album showcases possibly the best storytelling of the year musically. Saba proves on this record that he is the Chicago area rapper producer to keep an eye on.
1) Noname – Room 25 (self-released)
A lot changed for Fatima Warner, who raps as Noname, in the years after her debut, Telefone. The mixtape brought a huge increase in recognition, a successful tour and a move to L.A. to focus on the creation of her next album. The experiences of her new life are what power Room 25 – moments of self assurance, love, longing, acceptance and critiques of American society. The album is arguably her best yet, with Phoelix taking the jazzy, neo-soul influenced production to the next level and Noname’s pen-game being sharper than ever. Highlights include “Prayer”, a song with an unsettling second verse in which Noname focuses on the ills of police brutality by rapping from the perspective of a police officer. “Ace”, an addictive posse cut featuring Smino and Saba, is another standout moment. The rapper is extremely moving during “Don’t Forget Me”, where she puts the changes in her life and her mortality into perspective.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.