There’s been a bunch of strong contenders released this year with some big names throwing their releases into the ring alongside some emerging stars. These are the albums that get my vote, in alphabetical not preferential order.
Aaron Abernathy: Dialogue
Last year’s Monologue didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but this year Abernathy is right on target. In a year where American political life has resembled a horror flick, and where racism now appears to be making a presidentially approved resurgence, he’s not the only artist to adopt a more serious tone. Opener Daily Prayer sets the gospel tone, but lyrically Abernathy is not trying to use religion as pure escapism, parts are uplifting for sure, but there’s righteous fury in Generation and equal parts despair and resilience in Human Actions Matter. Hard to pick a highlight, but the quality of his voice is pure and righteous on The Forecast which opens with a quote from civil rights hero James Baldwin.
Ill Camille: Heirloom
It’s so frustrating to me that there have been so many incredible releases from female artists that have been largely overlooked this year. AGAIN. It seems that mainstream radio/music press outlets can only handle one or two women per year. This year whilst the attention focused on Rapsody and Princess Nokia, there were a ton of other quality albums. Heirloom is Ill Camille’s third full length release and by far and away the most coherent. Benefiting from production by the mighty Georgia Ann Muldrow, this is quite simply lovely. In particular, check Almost There with additional vocal from SiR.
There’s something about this release that puts me in mind of Digable Planets. This is a ridiculously catchy 7 track EP. Black Xcellence is a Trojan horse of a track, wrapping the lyrical fury at the cultural appropriation of blackness in a summery soulful vibe. 5 Deep reminds us of a time when MC’s employed wit and lyrical dexterity as the braggadocio weapon of choice. Funny, sexy, and melodic.
Dizzy Wright: State of Mind 2
Second album released this year, and the better of the two. Every track on this has something to recommend it. He’s got a distinctive style and on this record along with so many of his peers he has recognised the need to engage with the political world in these disorientating times. Unlike some though, he resists the temptation to preach. I’ve rated him for time but this is the most complex and complete release to date. Highlights include Flatline and Gold And Silver Circles.
Ghostnaut & Dualib: Sideways
Sadly overlooked, Ghostnaut is a production force to be reckoned with. Vocal contributions include Coin Banks, Mr. J. Medeiros, Jetpack Jones and Raashan Ahmed. This is a laidback, jazz-tinged EP tailor made for bumping your headphones as you stroll through the city on a sunny day. It also works in winter. Highlights are the opener, Raindrops, and the melancholic Sometimes.
Illa J: Home
The first release from this album, Sam Cook, is one of the best tracks released this year IMHO. The rest of the record took a little while to grow on me but if you haven’t given this a chance yet, I’d urge you to give it a few more spins. Drawing on some classic soul samples, Illa J shows off his ability to sing as well as rhyme. This sounds like an artist standing on the shoulders of other’s who’ve shrugged off the constraints of the genre recently (Kendrick Lamaar/Anderson Paak etc) and who’s now able to sound more like himself. Highlights include Snow Beach and Detroit Bad Boys.
Kinkai: Mellow Mermaids and Malibu
There has been so much goodness emerging from the creative maelstrom happening in Manchester’s home-grown scene. And I think that the multiple cross-collaborations are creating a distinct and unique vibe. At the forefront of that sound has been producer Kyl Asgill aka Kinkai who, on this 10 track release, shows that he is going to be a pivotal figure in 2018. Some of the tracks have been around in various formats before (you may have heard Roll the Dice, or Treasure featuring the ludicrously talented young gun KSR) and much of the record has the laid back stoner vibe I’d come to expect (and that is no criticism). However, Wavy Jones Locker is a warning shot across the bows of anyone foolish enough to think that he only has one style. An immense track.
LOYLE CARNER: Yesterday’s Gone
By the time the album finally dropped it’s fair to say there were few surprises for fans who (like me) had seen him live more than once and picked up all his earlier releases, but he deserves a mention in the annual round up. Surely one of the most accomplished young artists on the UK hip hop scene who (along with collaborator Rebel Kleff) really does know his history and who brings honesty, self-deprecation and the most energetic and uplifting live performances you’re likely to see. If you missed his live performance with the London Gospel House choir, and the only credible cover of Tribe Called Quest you’ll ever hear, go scour the internet right now. (When you’ve finished reading this list!)
MAURICE BROWN: The Mood
For me personally, 2017 will go down in history as “the year I stopped hating jazz”. Largely, I suspect, because of the renewed affiliation between contemporary jazz and hip hop artists spearheaded by the likes of Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and trumpeter Maurice Brown. If, like me, you like your jazz light on discordant rambling solos and heavy on the razor sharp horn sections, then this album’s for you. There’s a couple of guest slots here but you don’t really need ‘em. Highlights are The Mood, complete with awesome retro sultry/slutty percussion and Journey Exotique.
MEGA R.A.N.: Ready to Live
Never sure why Mega R.A.N. passes slightly under the radar – if you’re a fan of lyical dexterity and solid boom-bap beats with a side order of wit, you can’t go wrong with his back catalogue. A prolific artist this wasn’t his only release this year but for me, the tribute to B.I.G. is the best by far. Check out Story to Tell, one of many takes on the Trump phenomenon and one of the most eloquent.
Moo Latte: Sketchbook
I don’t think you’ll hear anything else like this this year. After some interesting beat tapes and collaborations with Flow Theory amongst others, the Polish producer with African roots currently living in Copenhagen draws upon a whole world of stylistic influences to produce Sketchbook. Honestly, the opener, Pilot, was probably enough to secure a place in the list. But the rest is equally compelling. Mainly instrumental, Manchester based Woddy Green adds the only vocal on the brilliant Niggamantric which definitely has something of the wavy sound that I’m starting to associate with that city (see above).
I know absolutely nothing about NuphZed, totally new to me this year, but this EP on Brighton’s excellent YogoCop label snuck into my headphones somehow, and I’ve been nodding along to it ever since. What’s not to like? Understated flow, boombap running through the beats, and high quality production throughout.
RUBY IBARRA: Circa91
I’m listing the albums in alphabetical order, but honestly, I think this could be the best album I’ve heard all year. Ruby Ibarra has been on my radar for a couple of years, but I couldn’t find many playable releases: only low-res collaborations or poorly mastered tracks on soundcloud. There was something about her delivery, though, that made me keep watching out for something better and good god, here it is. This is that rare thing in our attention-deficient era: it’s a complete album that will offer more rewards the more you listen to it. Princess Nokia got props for speaking to the US Latino experience this year (as did Nitty Scott) but this album is so rich and so varied in texture, it blows the others away. Play it again and again and marvel at how she shifts from the hard-edged bass heavy Roll Call and bonus track YUH to pure golden era boom-bap on tracks like The Other Side, Welcome or The Realness.
SADAT X: The Sum of A Man
The most distinctive delivery in hip hop I’ve sometimes wondered if he’ll be forever overshadowed by the Brand Nubian’s back catalogue. Here, he enlists the mighty Diamond D on production and delivers the best solo album of his career to date. I defy you to listen to opener The Devil is Near without snapping your neck, and it’s not possible to listen to Always Be My Lady without humming that soul hook for about four days.
SAMPA THE GREAT: Birds and BEE9
Sampa is, in real life, absolutely tiny. But her talent is huge. Should you get the chance, see her live set for a masterclass in commanding the stage. She’s been very busy this year with a trio of singles with UK hero Estelle, a couple of live tours and a bunch of guest spots with fellow Australian’s and frequent collaborators Remi and Silent J. Towards the back end of the year she dropped this album showcasing her unique vocal delivery that can snap between sweet and sharp in a syllable. This is a great record from start to finish but if you need an introduction to greatness start with Protect Your Queen or Black Girl Magik.
SON OF SAM: Cinder Hill
Any self-respecting hip hop head needs this. Live instrumentation and a guest list that is basically just a list of all the best hip hop MC’s still walking the earth. The only criticism is an irritating lack of female voices but if I got annoyed about how women are routinely overlooked in hip hop I’d never listen to anything. The range here is incredible. For me, highlights are Quelle Chris telling the strangely tragic tale of Phenomenal Don, probably the four-hundedth ode to NYC Sadat X has penned, Across the Bridge, and the contributions from J-Live and Masta Ace.
SPEECH DEBELLE: Tantil Before I Breathe
A return to the fray from the previous Mercury Prize winning artist who’s been sadly quiet since then and who, I suspect, still isn’t getting the respect she deserves possibly because it’s hard to place her in any kind of category. I Heard Pac is a gentle spoken word piece over heart-breaking orchestration. Level is catchy and light-hearted, and has had me dancing round my kitchen on many occasions, most recently about an hour ago thinking about this list. No War No Peace is percussive dance floor filler with a serious edge. A great release and hopefully not her last.
THIRD ROOT: Libertard
Anyone who doubts that hip hop is not at the forefront of the resistance in the States and beyond needs to pull their head out of their crevices and listen up to this. It is fair to say that the album as whole doesn’t necessarily break many boundaries but Bullet for the Truth is one of the best tracks I’ve heard in an age and, I realised, one of only two tracks I’ve played twice on my radio show this year. This, and Soul Force, are unmissable.
TokiMONSTA: Lune Rouge
I had no idea, until this was released, how much adversity the producer has had. I was just wondering why she hadn’t released much since the incredible Put it Down (with man of the year Anderson Paak) a while back. Apparently she suffered a catastrophic brain injury and has used music as a tool to recovery. She has clearly not lost any of her edge and ability to take a gentle melody and inject just enough edge to keep things interesting.
I concentrated on EP’s/Albums for my “best of” list but there are a number of tracks that can’t be overlooked:
J.Chambers: Gone ‘Til November
Listeners to my radio show will know that I have a lot of time for the young Mancunian who’s been developing his craft for a couple of years. On this release, with guest support from Doc Brown, he reins in his flow a little to deliver one of his most accomplished tracks to date. Honest, self-reflective, and catchy as hell, I’ve found myself humming this many many times. It’s a taste of things to come.
Dillon: Let the Horns Blow
Listen to this without wanting to dance? Not possible. Here’s how you combine humour and bragging with razor sharp lyrical flow and lay it all over the most ridiculously infectious horn-laced track. If you are looking for a record to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step look no further.
Kona: Air Ballin’
A lovely soulful number with a little lyrical edge that you’ll keep coming back to.