Round ups and “best of” lists are staples of music sites, so it’s not like it hasn’t been on our minds that we need to offer one, especially after missing the 2011 edition. Yes, life gets in the way, but we figured we at least had all of January to get one posted. Now, since tonight marks the 2013 Grammy Awards, it seems like it’s now or never.
It’s particularly important that we highlight some of these albums given that the Recording Academy decided to drop the “urban alternative” category in 2011. It was a problematic category, to say the least: You’d often find it populated with R&B artists who hadn’t charted high enough to make it into any of the main categories for black music. The net result was that few truly alternative black artists got recognized.
So here we go: Our list of 15 albums–in no particular order–you should’ve heard last year. What you’ll find among these albums: Some we reviewed or wrote about, others were just on constant rotation.
1. Cody ChesnuTT — Landing On A Hundred
As we noted, Cody puts to shame “so much of what tries to pass these days as soul music.” It’s a confident, welcome return after a several year hiatus between albums.
2. MuthaWit featuring Boston Fielder — P.M.S. Junkie
Boston Fielder and his band take the listener through a “post-punk-jazz satire, a pointed critique of our consumerist culture undergirded with pulsing, headnodding polyrhythms.” Favorite tracks: “Celine In America” and “Two-Fisted God”.
3. Imani Uzuri — The Gypsy Diaries
Imani brings a clear artistic vision and a powerful voice to the continued exploration of her musical, spiritual and emotional wanderings. And, as she reminds us in “Dream Child”: “. . .all who wander are not lost.”
4. Gary Clark, Jr — Blak and Blu
I’m just so impressed with all of these creative people I’m meeting lately, many of whom are under 30. Case in point: Bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. He’s getting a lot of well-deserved hype because he’s the real deal. I always loved “Bright Lights, Big City” but honestly I’m done after the guitar-heavy “When My Train Pulls In”. Like, on some hand-to-the-sky done.
5. Kokayi — Pro Deo et Patria
The multi-hyphenated MC tells his truth and artfully so. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not, but confidently steps out and shares life as he sees it. Ah, refreshing!
6. Death Grips — No Love Deep Web
The noise-rap duo caused a ruckus when they (supposedly) went against Sony’s wishes and leaked their own album. But beyond all that hype, there’s an energy, a fury, in MC Ride’s stream-of-consciousness presentation that simply can’t be denied. My favorite track: “Artificial Death In The West”. Listen below:
7. Kamara Thomas & The Ghost Gamblers — Earth Hero
Since stepping away from her role holding down the low-end in southern rock trio Earl Greyhound, Kamara Thomas has moved on to her latest incarnation: fronting what she calls the “interstellar Americana” of Kamara Thomas & The Ghost Gamblers. If this band’s any indication, roots music is alive and well and it’s living in New York City. What’s really engaging about this 7-song EP is that you’re peering into the lives of people who are reflecting on, and reckoning with, the choices they made. For better or worse. And that’s something we can all relate to. Hear “Lily Gloriosa” when you get the chance.
8. P.O.S. — We Don’t Even Live Here
A hip hop punk anarchist’s manifesto laid out over great beats. In fact, this is the most head-nodding fun you’ll have listening to someone call bullshit on not just standard hip hop paradigms, but our entire consumerist culture. Bravo, Mr. Alexander. Standout tracks: “Bumper”, “Fuck Your Stuff” and “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks and Bats”.
9. Michael Kiwanuka — Home Again
This British singer’s retro soul vibe is really irresistible. It’s the melancholy that suffuses the album that’s so beautiful. He’s been compared to Randy Newman, Bill Withers and Otis Redding. And he’s not even 30! “Worry Walks Beside Me” is a favorite.
10. Cadence Weapon — Hope In Dirt City
Another left-of-center MC, the former Poet Laureate of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has produced “his own brew of psychedelic soul, old school rap, IDM (intelligent dance music) and mutant disco, and it injects freshness into the copycat hip hop landscape.” Check out the album’s title track here.
11. Gregory Porter — Be Good
Not too long ago on Twitter, I told people there are four male vocalists they must get to know this year: MuthaWit’s Boston Fielder, Michael Kiwanuka, Jose James and Gregory Porter. Of these four, we’ve already talked about two and the third, Jose James, well, you’ll have to wait till next year since his album just dropped on January 23 of this year. The last, Porter, has a full, warm and commanding voice that stands out in a sea of high-in-the-chest singing men in more popular genres. One listen, and you immediately hear his training, artistry and talent. Favorite track: “Real Good Hands”.
12. The Roots — Undun
I have to admit: I was a bit intimidated at the prospect of writing about this album. After all, it’s The Roots who, upon looking back at their career to date, demand to be taken seriously. Add to that the fact that there were a lot of thoughtful pieces about this album and, after reading them (my mistake), I wondered what else I could add. But Undun is an impressive album, one that tells the story about a young man growing up in a tough, inner city environment and, given the choice between leading a productive life and a life of fast money chooses the latter. Though a sad ending ensues, the album takes the glamour out of the drug-dealing life by portraying the desperate and sometimes mundane choices that have to be made. This is the rare concept album and it succeeds in holding your attention from start to finish. Heavy rotation tracks: “Tip The Scales” and “The OtherSide” (below).
13. Meklit Hadero & Quinn DeVeaux — Meklit & Quinn
An album of mostly covers with some originals, this collaboration between two Bay Area artists is an intimate and thoroughly enjoyable listen from start to finish. They offer an inventive take on Talking Heads (“This Must Be The Place”), yet are able to honor the spirit of Neil Young’s original song (“Music Arcade”). And they slow down Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her” and lean back into the groove, making a version much more akin to Michael Jackson’s rendition than Stevie’s original.
14. Just A Band — Sorry For The Delay
The third album from Kenya’s “super-nerdy electropop art collective” feels evenly split between uptempo numbers for house parties, rave-ready IDM and contemplative, mid-tempo jams about the ups and downs of relationships. Favorites include “Looking For Home,” “S-W-E-E-T” and “A While,” to name a few. In fact, here’s “A While” for your listening pleasure:
15. Corey Glover — The Pledge
There are, in fact, singular voices in our midst. For example, Sandra St. Victor has one. And when you think of The Family Stand–and all due respect to Jacci McGhee–there’s really no one else who could front the group she founded with Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith. Similarly, if there’s someone other than Corey Glover who has the vocal chops to lead a group cultural critic Greg Tate likens to Coltrane’s Classic Quartet doing rock, then tell me who that is. That said, no list of male vocalists is complete without Corey. So, we’re going to amend that earlier list (see the blurb on Gregory Porter’s album above) and urge you to get Corey’s solo album. The lead singer for the boundary-breaking Living Colour returns (finally!) with a long-awaited follow-up to 1998′s Hymns. Not only do listeners get the gift of his voice, but also the treat of an album that was produced by The Family Stand’s V. Jeffrey Smith. Bottom line, you can be assured of great sound and great songwriting. Yes, there are a few Family Stand covers (“Little White Little Black Lies,” “Sweet Liberation” and “What Must I Do”) and Corey offers fresh takes on all. And then there are other standouts like “Come Home” and the bonus track “Addiction”. Take a listen to “Come Home” below:
The album is available exclusively via PledgeMusic.