Words by Brian James
Brian James is a former co-host of the Best Song Ever podcast and contributor to Off Shelf as the Bar None and Singles Club columnist. He has been a music nerd for a long time now and obsessively keeps ranked lists of his favorite albums throughout the year, determined by an Excel spreadsheet that churns out a rating for each album.
Every so often Ka emerges as a Sage and delivers tomes to his devoted followers in the form of minimal, hushed hip hop albums. He’s been doing so on a more frequent cadence as of late and A Martyr’s Reward, his most recent offering, may be the strongest work of his career. It’s not an album for the impatient, it takes its time and it takes time to sink in; however, those who heed the call and put forth effort will be greatly rewarded.
Back toward the beginning of April, I hit play on L’Rain’s song Two Face, having no idea what to expect and was absolutely floored. It is, without a doubt, my favorite song released this year and Fatigue does not disappoint. Discordant jazz blends with gospel, R&B and so many other sounds it’s hard to keep track of. Again, this is an album that takes effort and goes strange and beautiful places, but keeps getting better each time you listen.
8. Navy Blue – Navy’s Reprise (Freedom Sounds)
Navy Blue is my nomination for artist of the year. Not only did he release this top 10 album, he also produced the amazing album Half God by Wiki, as well as Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon’s Beautifully Black. Navy’s Reprise is the best of the bunch, featuring amazing beats, lyricism and flow. The music is really beautiful and pretty light considering it fits in nicely in the lofi hip hop scene.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is truly an instant classic hip hop album. It will undoubtedly stand the test of time and be talked about for decades to come. Everything on it is pitch perfect, even the strange spoken word interlude scenes add an interesting dimension as the album tells a compelling story of the life that Little Simz has lived. It’s theatrical, catchy, hard hitting and has so many varying styles and flows it’s ridiculous. This is definitely an album that shouldn’t be missed.
Michelle Zauner is having a fucking year! Not only did she release the incredible album Jubilee, which is nominated for multiple Grammy awards, she also became a New York Times Bestselling Author with her memoir Crying in H Mart. Jubilee has been on countless year end lists already and for good reason. It’s a beautiful and emotional album with some absolute bangers to boot. Also, Be Sweet is definitely one of the absolute best songs of the year with a super fun music video featuring Missy from Mannequin Pussy, which you can watch below!
For his latest album, Damu the Fudgemunk was invited to comb through KPM’s music and sound library, which contains over 30,000 original recordings of non-commercial music. These are often used in TV, Film and commercials. It’s really a crate diggers dream and it was not squandered by Damu at all. Conversation Peace is an astounding listen and walks an incredibly fine line as it pays homage to Golden Age Hip Hop, while sounding fresh, psychedelic and futuristic.
It’s really hard to describe Xenia Rubinos’ album Una Rosa. It feels steeped in personal history and classic musical elements, yet also otherworldly. Auto-tune crashes into crystalline synths and classic melodic structures, creating a truly unique universe of sound. Xenia’s voice is a showstopper and she utilizes it in several different, interesting ways. Operatic singing, quasi-rapping and so many more iterations add a depth that no other artist could bring to the table. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an album quite like this or if I ever will again.
JJJJJerome Ellis helped me understand the true power of music. The Clearing acts as an empathy bomb, a pure document of understanding, a thesis on the power of Blackness, music and dysfluent speech and so much more. It’s also an amazing collection of jazz-trap-electronic music that is fascinatingly unique. JJJJJerome puts forth the theory that his glottal blocks (stuttering) his Blackness and his music have the power to open time portals to help gain power and strength from his ancestors. That his glottal blocks are actually clearings that open these portals up and are in direct defiance of notions of time instilled by white culture. It’s all laid out clearer and better in Shy Thompson’s astounding Pitchfork review, which is probably the best album review I’ve ever read.
2. JPEGMAFIA – LP! (OFFLINE) (EQT Recordings)
JPEGMAFIA has been pushing experimental hip hop forward like few artists around today. He’s released some really amazing artistic albums over the years, but LP! stands as his strongest album to date and the absolute best hip hop album to be released this year. There are two versions of the album as a result of some label drama, so be sure to check out Peggy’s true vision, which can be found on Bandcamp.
This album truly sounds like some long lost Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which was never made because it was too amazing to exist for mere mortals. In some other form of existence I have seen the centuries old musical version of The Turning Wheel. As I listen to SPELLLING’s amazing album I’m transported to a plane of existence where I can see the scenes that have never been made. This really is the best, most beautiful, strangest and most artistic collection of songs released in quite a while.