We’ve made it to the last brackets of round 1! These polls include the most recent of femcees to compete, only making their mark in the music world within the past 7 years. I will admit that I am a pretty big fan of a handful of these ladies, but I’ll try not to let my bias slip into view too much. Also, the brackets below have been adjusted to include the veteran winners of round one, so check out the updated page, and get to voting!
(1) Iggy Azalea vs. (16) Little Simz
Aside from being one of the most criticized rappers of late, Iggy Azaelia managed to nab the #1 seed here because she’s also the most acclaimed. I don’t want to underestimate the Florida-based Aussie, and I will fully admit that “Fancy” is one of my fave videos, but I also admit that I am very excited that your vote-in choice, Little Simz, might have a real shot here. Straight outta London, Simbi is a soft-voiced poet with impeccable flow. She has yet to blow up in North America, but I have a feeling her current tour is going to help boost her status. She recently did a Tiny Desk Concert (my favourite office furniture related series).
(9) Sasha Go Hard vs. (8) NoName
Two very different Chicago Femcees get to face off here. Sasha Go Hard is one of a very few female rappers associated with a south-side style of trap known as drill music. As a drill artist, Sasha is an aggressive rapper addressing the violence in her city with graphic imagery that doesn’t sugarcoat. Meanwhile, Noname has been combining her rap with jazz and R&B and gospel to reflect on her city and country. She hasn’t made music videos as far as I can tell, but she’s gained popularity as a longtime collaborator of Chance the Rapper, before releasing her debut LP, Telefone, last summer.
(5) Azealia Banks vs. (12) Nyemiah Supreme
Even their pictures make me feel like this match-up is extra appropriate! Unfortunately Azealia Banks‘ reputation for online rants and beefs threatens to overshadow her talent as a rapper, but whether it’s in a song or on twitter, the girl commits to her ideas and energy, no matter how outlandish. Nyemiah Supreme is quick to self-identify as the most underrated female, but I will let you decide that. She brings a fun energy and attitude, looking like she’s down to party long after she’s finished performing.
(13) Lizzo vs. (4) Young M.A.
Well yeah, if it wasn’t real before now… both of these fresh femcees have been blowing up more recently, although they’ve been hard at work for years. Lizzo has been the front-woman of a handful of collaborative indie projects like Grrrl Prty, The Chalice, and Ellypseas, before releasing her first solo record in 2013, Lizzobangers. I love her because of her energy, body positivity, fantastic sense of humour and optimistic outlook. Young M.A. took the world by storm with her extra-viral “OOOUUU,” which has been referenced, covered, and remixed more than I can keep track of. She is a proud Brooklyn butch lesbian who does not hesitate to rhyme about her two greatest loves – hennessey and women. I love her because she is unapologetically her badass self. I don’t even know how I WANT this to go.
(3) Tink vs. (14) Sammus
Tink builds narratives using rap and vocals as interchangeably as Lauryn Hill. She’s been steadily giving us mixtapes, including her Winter’s Diary series, and is expected to release her first LP by the end of this month. Another master storyteller, Sammus weaves her PhD level vocabulary with a wide range of pop culture references to make nearly everyone feel included at some point. I have no idea what to do here, folks. Good luck.
(11) Gifted Gab vs. (6) DeJ Loaf
Along with her crew from Moor Gang, Gifted Gab is keeping the Seattle hip-hop scene alive and well, with her Queen-Latifah-inspired flow over remarkably simple and catchy beats that draw even more attention to her clever lyrics. Detroit’s DeJ Loaf has a particularly chill, melodic delivery, treading the fine line between rap and r&b. She’s been steadily growing with recognition since making XXL’s 2015 Freshmen Class – the same year as Tink.
(7) Angel Haze vs. (10) Lee Mazin
Angel Haze can rap at a rapid-fire pace while processing deep personal content. Hmmm, actually that is a phrase I could use for Lee Mazin too. Come to think of it, these two rappers remind me a lot of each other. My love of Angel Haze began when they came out as queer and remade Macklemore’s “Same Love,”and has only strengthened with every release. I guess Philly-based Lee Mazin is mostly known for her spot on Sisterhood of Hip Hop, but her freestyles are exceptional.
(15) Princess Nokia vs. (2) Rapsody
Princess Nokia is the rapping alter-ego of Wavy Spice aka Destiny Frasqueri, as well as her collaborative project with OWWWLS. Their two mixtapes are eclectic without losing focus, drawing on numerous styles and cultures of influence, with an attempt to reach across difference and musically represent humanity as a whole. No bigs. You may have heard of Rapsody since she showed up on Kendrick Lamar’s epic rap opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, but she has been releasing her smooth wordplay as a solo artist since 2010. In her words, she’s “still that rapper that your favourite rapper is scared to rap after.” So good thing she’s up last on these brackets.
These polls are going to close fast, so get your voting done before the end next weekend and then watch out for the second round!
It’s time to vote for the younger, upcoming femcees. Most of these women have been producing music for the past decade, proving themselves as the next era of hip hop women. I’m finding many of these early match ups much more difficult than those of the veterans. Let’s see who you love the most in this quadrant.
(1) Nicki Minaj vs. (16) Amil
Somehow I don’t think Nicki Minaj needs much of an introduction. Whether you hate her or love her, you most certainly heard some of her many commercially successful verses, especially considering she has the most Billboard Hot 100 entries of any female MC. This is partially due to her versatility; you’ll find Nicki making mainstream pop, gangsta rap and EDM club bangers. Amil launched soon after going on tour with Jay-Z in 1999, collaborating with HOV himself and a handful of other ROC Nation affiliates, and then in 2000 releasing her first LP, All Money Is Legal.
Remember, you’re voting for Amil and not Beyoncé. 😉
(9) Ms. Jade vs. (8) Jacki-O
We are still waiting on Philadelphia’s Ms. Jade to release a follow-up to her 2002 LP, Girl Interrupted, but she has made a partial comeback via mixtapes, proving her ability to stay current. Although she has been doing her own thing, the beginning of her career is tightly linked with her collaboration with Timbaland and Missy’s crew. Jacki-O is from Miami, and is all about sexuality and confrontation. Her flow is in your face with a laid back vibe, while often taking lyrical shots at other femcees. Jacki-O stayed busy from 2002-2011 before retiring from hip hop for religious reasons.
You can skip ahead to Ms. Jade’s verse at about 1:40
(5) MIA vs. (12) Khia
MIA is not only aTamil-British rapper, but also an experimental punkish/electronic/hip hop artist who also happens to design her own album art. Her music and videos, marked with deep political interest and engagement, break every stereotype and rule of musical genre and sound like absolutely no one else. Khia spent her early years in Philadelphia, but since moving to Tampa she has been considered a legend of Southern rap, mostly due to her super-sexual chart topper, “My Neck, My Back.” You can check out either femcee’s NSFW tracks in the links above, while the songs below are a bit less controversial.
(13) Dessa vs. (4) Rah Digga
This might be one of the hardest match-ups this post. Rapper/poet/singer Dessa has been busy doing all three since 2005 when she joined the Minneapolis-based indie hip hop collective Doomtree. Since 2010 she’s been putting out solo records as well, and is gaining a whole new audience with her appearance on The Hamilton Mixtape’s song “Congratulations.” Also she has a Tiny Desk Concert that’s great. Although Rah Digga joined Busta Rhymes’ Flip Mode Squad in 1998, and had done some recognizable features before the new millenium, it wasn’t until 2000, when she released her first solo record, Dirty Harriet, that her name rose to fame. She comes off tough without looking like she’s trying, making her one of the most talented and influential femcees of the decade.
Dessa’s verse is just after the 1:20 mark.
(3) Remy Ma vs. (14) Lady Luck
Brooklyn’s own Remy Ma is a protege of Big Pun and continues to work with Fat Joe and other Terror Squad members. Her only solo album from 2006, There’s Something About Remy, was widely successful, but her 8-year stint in prison delayed her still-anticipated follow up. Since being released a couple years ago, she’s been nominated for a Grammy and made hip hop news for diving into a harsh feud with Nicki Minaj – one of the most fun in a long time. Hopefully that anger is fuel for an album. Lady Luck is a battle queen, known for her set up and punchlines as she disses her opponent. She has a way of making everything she says rhyme with her smooth flow on her mixtapes. More recently, she’s been working on her own production company, co-owned with her girlfriend. Not every match allows us to watch the two femcees go head to head, but Remy and Lady have a history of battles you can watch here and here.
(11) Snow The Product vs. (6) Diamond (&Princess)
Your Vote-In pick, Snow Tha Product, was tied with Lady LeShurr for the first week of voting until she surged ahead to take 56% of the votes. This young Mexican is building her reputation on her social consiousness and Latina perspective, as well as her quick-paced rhyming skills. I had a difficult time deciding whether to have Diamond with or without her early partner in crime, and as you can see, I left that decision to you. The two femcees were as connected as Salt-n-Pepa during their time with Atlanta-based Crime Mob, but since 2007 Diamond has made a name for herself as a solo rapper. Some call her the Queen of Trap, and she continues to release mixtapes, most recently in 2016.
(7) RaSheeda vs. (10) Sa-Roc
RaSheeda has been releasing albums fairly consistently since 2001, with her recognizable vocal lilt and tone often paired with bold, bass-heavy beats. She’s stayed in the spotlight with both her appearances on Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta, and her hip hop duo with Kandi Burruss, Peach Candy. Representing a whole different side of Atlanta, Sa-Roc is known for her spiritual and philosophical consciousness. Her name gives homage to Mother of the Mic, MC Sha-Rock, who just missed being on this list not because of lack of influence, but due to lack of video recordings. In her own words, Sa-Roc’s voice is “honey coated, with a lil bit of gravel in it.”
(15) Lil Mama vs. (2) Trina
You may remember Lil Mama from her 2008 single “Lip Gloss,” released from her debut album, VYP (Voice of the Young People) when Mama was only 19 years old. The song has probably haunted her ever since, but it didn’t stop her from playing Lisa Lopes in the TLC Biopic in 2013, and finally putting out a solid, reference-filled (and more mature) mixtape in 2015. She goes up against Miami queen Trina. Since getting her start with rapper Trick Daddy, all 5 of her studio LPs have had commercial and critical success, causing XXL to name her “the most consistent female rapper of all time.” She carries herself like a true diva, dressed in confidence and sexuality, demanding attention with any feature verse she offers.
Check back this weekend with the final quadrant of round one! Peace,
Hopefully you’ve already had the chance to vote for the first batch of femcees from the NE quadrant of the brackets, but if not, those polls will remain open until the end of the week. Check them out here. As a quick reminder, here is the link to a PDF of the complete brackets – we’ll be voting today on the femcees of the SE bracket.
And now for the next batch of polls. Like the last post, the following femcees are classic veterans in the game, having begun their career before the year 2000. They represent nine other U.S. states as well as one from London, England. Let’s get to know them a little bit.
(1) Lauryn Hill vs. (16) The Sequence
Lauryn Hill started out as a singer in the rap group Tranzlator Crew (which eventually morphed into the legendary Fugees with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel), but quickly decided that she wanted to rap as well. After meeting rave success with the Fugees’ two full length LPs, in 1998 Hill released her first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which is widely acclaimed as one of the best albums of the decade, and the first album from a female rapper to find a spot on the Billboard 200. The Sequence was one of the first all-female hip hop groups, and the first ever recorded female rappers. They began as cheerleading friends who translated their hype to the new and upcoming genre of rap in the late 70s and early 80s. Although they don’t have as much material as others, they serve as a reminder of women who paved the way for virtually everyone else in these brackets.
(9) Shawnna vs. (8) Monie Love
Before going solo and recording a couple of albums in the mid 2000s, Shawnna broke into the hip hop world with her duo Infamous Syndicate. She is known for her rapid fire style and explicit sexual content and imagery. Monie Love initially rose to fame in the late 80s as Queen Latifah’s protege, but quickly made a name for herself with the Native Tongues collective as one of the first popular British rappers. She has a light, bouncy flow that allows her to tell stories with humour and pointedness.
(5) Missy Elliott vs. (12) J.J. Fad
Missy Elliott is a legend for both her flow and her visuals, arguably having as much influence on the art of the music video as Michael Jackson himself. In the late 90s she rose to fame alongside her childhood friend/collaborator Timbaland, contributing to a new Southern hip hop sound that would shape the second half of the decade. JJ Fad, originally an all-female group of five, rose to fame with their hit “Supersonic” as the trio pictured above. Although they disbanded in the early 90s, they are often credited with paving the way not only for female hip hop groups, but also for the classic Compton group NWA.
(13) MC Trouble vs. (4) Queen Latifah
Who knows what MC Trouble could have done if she lived to see her 21st birthday and the release of her second album, which was in production when she died of a seizure in her sleep. Her rhymes are heavy and low and often combined with the upbeat R&B flavour of New Jack Swing. Queen Latifah is of course now internationally known as not only a rapper, but an actress and singer as well. Even if we strip away her years of success in television and film, Latifah is without question one of the most important pioneers of the genre, with many of her verses focusing on important topics such as equality, racism and domestic violence.
(3) Eve vs. (14) BO$$
Even before reaching legendary status as the First Lady of Ruff Ryders, EVE was working with other Philly-based hip hoppers like The Roots, and was even featured on a Prince track. Although she took a 10-year break from putting out LPs, she remained prolific, featuring on pop and R&B tracks every year. Many of us feel conflicted about the harsh and talented gangsta rapper BO$$, who was labeled a fraud only a couple years into her career. While focusing many of her verses around growing up in the projects of Detroit, it was discovered that she in fact grew up middle class, even attending a prep school. Due to the value of authenticity in hip hop, this was not going to fly. Still, it’s impossible to deny that her style and ability were good enough to fool the industry for a couple of years.
(11) Mia X vs. (6) Da Brat
Whether singing or rapping, Mia X’s vocals are smooth, and provide a contrasting sound to her No Limit collaborators, whether it be Master P or the Gangsta Twinz. She is Southern through and through, representing New Orleans. Chicagoan Da Brat began her career after winning a local rap contest and meeting her longtime production collaborator, Jermaine Dupri. Although her debut album, Funkdafied, was critically and commercially successful, Da Brat became especially known for her featured verses, allowing herself to take a softer, more pop-friendly tone than she does on her albums.
(7) Gangsta Boo vs. (10) Yo Yo
Gangsta Boo was known as the only female member of Memphis-based rap group, Three 6 Mafia. Even after leaving the group in 2001, she has held her own as a solo artist, more recently focusing on mixtapes and feature verses, but continuing to do her thing. Yo Yo busted on to the scene as Ice Cube’s protege on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted in 1990, and built a reputation for calling out sexism in hip hop. She continued to produce regular solid albums throughout the decade, making herself a staple feminist rapper.
(15) Nikki D vs. (2) Left Eye/Lisa Lopes
These might be the two most underrated femcees in the tournament. After signing with Def Jam in 1989, Nikki D never managed to break out of the one-hit-wonder trope that was her biggest single to date, “Daddy’s Little Girl” (which is embedded below). Her aggressive feminism was unfortunately more than her label knew what to do with. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes is a hip hop legend for her work in the 90s with TLC, and we were stripped of her potential deeper solo catalogue when she died in a car crash at the young age of 31. Her playful and clear articulation combined with her mastery of the beat makes her flow stand out next to any colleague – male or female.
You’ll have to wait until the weekend for the Freshmen polls to open, but in the meantime, vote and share the veterans of Femcee Madness!
One of the most apt tweets I’ve read in the past month was from Emmy Kegler: “2016 has been, for almost all intents and purposes, a garbage fire. But a couple of things have been really great and I wanna collect them all.” Nearly all of my better-than-garbage-fire moments of 2016 have been musical, and these are some highlights of my collecting.
Making a list of songs from a year is incredibly challenging, especially from a year that has been far more interested in providing us with fantastic albums. Please do not hear that as a complaint – far from it! I am so happy that the art of an album is alive and well in our digital world. It’s just that a plethora of great albums makes for a myriad of memorable songs.
In order to make this task of choosing 16 songs somewhat more possible, and to allow for profiling a few more artists, this list does not include songs that are featured on records that have made my 2016 Albums list (although there might be the odd, but justifiable exception). Enjoy exploring some new music or comparing your own lists with mine! Let me know what I missed in the comments or on twitter @PlayListedPod. If a song does not include an embedded video, make sure to click the link in the title to hear it for yourself.
#16 Dang! – Mac Miller featuring Anderson Paak (from the album The Devine Feminine)
This song has very quickly become my feel-good track of the last several months. I have never given Mac Miller a real chance before (being a white rapper and all), but his playful, goofy verses match perfectly with Paak’s laid back vocals. I find it especially satisfying to dance to while cooking or doing dishes.
I need at least one guilty-ish pleasure every year, and I’m still not 100% sure whether I spin it at parties for anyone other than myself. It’s basically Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” reimagined, but I think the Kent Jones version is slightly less terrible lyrically, and far more catchy. Plus it will forever remind me of some amazing teens I met this summer in Pennsylvania who taught me the dance (which you can always find me doing behind the turntables).
I first listened to this song early this year as I was helping a friend put together a break-up playlist – the track fit perfectly, but I forgot about it for a few months (probably sometime after Lemonade took control of all my listening time). “Worry” manages to marry the bitter and sweet of moving on from a relationship in both its lyrics and melody, over a chill beat that works for nearly any occasion.
I love this collaboration so much that I’m shipping James and Justin… at least for the sake of a collab album. I have to be careful what playlists I add this song to, because it stops me in my tracks whenever and wherever it’s playing. The ethereal quality is perfect for reflecting upon regrets, distant memories, and other big life questions and feelings. Best listened to from fetal position.
There is a reason why after only a few months of this track going viral, more than 10 other rappers, including Nicki Minaj and 50 cent, have already been part of remixes. “OOOUUU” has quickly become a phenomenon, and there is something very refreshing about having a lesbian rap the gangsta anthem of the year.
Anderson Paak’s debut was the hardest not to include in my Albums of the Year list. Instead I’ll focus on the track that stands out to me the most, which is this groovy love song about wanting to spend alone time with the girlfriend. And not to distract from the brilliance of Paak himself, but The Game’s verse here is on point.
#10 The Greatest – Sia featuring Kendrick Lamar (from the album This is Acting)
Warning: the video above does not contain the Kendrick Lamar verse, which means you should probably go listen to that later too. Still, the video seems like the best way to fully experience this song as both an energetic dance/work-out track and a touching homage to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June. Maddie Ziegler and Sia together demonstrate how we can pick ourselves up in the face of tragedy and threat, and move forward in joyful protest.
I never thought I’d be playing so much Drake at parties, but now that I’m in Toronto and Drake is pretending he’s from the Caribbean (perhaps to woo his longtime crush?), I’m almost convinced. With one of his best samples/featured vocals from Kyla, this song is straight-up contagious.
#8 Find Me – Sigma featuring Birdy
Don’t ask me to differentiate between the song and the music video, which features everyone’s new favourite 12-year-old actor, Millie Bobby Brown. Does anyone else imagine Eleven singing this from the Upside Down? All I know is that since watching this beautiful and dramatic video, all I need to do is listen to this song in order to feel all of my feelings again.
I tend to be a sucker for songs named after beverages, but it’s a done deal when said song introduces me to a falsetto as smooth and strong as Gallant’s. Once I started paying attention to the lyrics and asking whether he’s comparing love for a woman or his struggle with faith and doubt to addictions, I’m completely slain.
#6 Good As Hell – Lizzo (from the EP Coconut Oil)
If you have had any conversation with me in the past several months, you’ve probably heard Lizzo’s name once or seven times. She seems to specialize in self-confidence anthems, and this is my favourite, although “‘Scuse Me” is also a contender. In my job searching this fall, “Good As Hell” and the rest of the Coconut Oil EP became my interview prep soundtrack, and I highly recommend it for any kind of boost you need.
This was a song that 2016 needed – a rally cry to keep on keeping on, while most likely borrowing from Maya Angelou’s biography title “All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes,” in the outro’s refrain. Mvula is a queen, and although her album The Dreaming Room didn’t make the same kind of impression on me as her debut in 2013, Sing to the Moon, I will always anxiously await any projects she undertakes.
Every once in a while I put TLOP on, but every time I’m reminded that it’s all downhill after this opening track. Not that there aren’t a couple of other great songs, but as an album this is admittedly Kanye’s most unfinished and scattered collection so far. But oh, the hope “Ultralight Beam” creates, reaching deep into gospel and providing space for one of Chance’s best feature verses yet. I think it’s proof that even as Kanye continues to spiral, there is still some connection to his own humanity and brilliance, despite his angry ego.
There is something beyond special about this track, and that something is a kind of holy trinity of Hundred Waters’ spooky earnest prayer-song and the pure joy of Chano mixed over the contagious drums of Skrillex’s keen ear and imagination. This song has become a mantra for me whenever engaging with folks who tempt me to violence.
There are very few songs that have had the kind of effect on me as this song, Frank Ocean’s cover of Aaliyah’s version of the Isley Brothers’ “You Are Love.” I cannot do anything, even write this blurb, while this song is playing. It’s like Frank’s falsetto has a magical spell that whispers to me: “No typing, No eating, No thinking… Ok, I guess you can breathe a little bit.” I recognize that this experience is due to a number of factors. Like so many of you, I spent a lot of time anticipating the visual album, Endless. Nothing could have prepared me for beginning with this. Sometimes it still takes a couple tries to continue the album past “At Your Best.” Endless indeed. *Warning – the link above is a slightly lower-pitch version that ends up also being remixed. If you have access to an Apple Music link, that’s the best (and only legal) way to have a listen.
#1 Formation – Beyoncé (from the album Lemonade… sort of)
No surprises here, ironically, since this song was initially such a huge surprise to everyone. Do you remember where you were when this song/video was released? It shocked and stopped the world, and was yet another example of Beyoncé refusing to play by music industry rules. Instead of releasing it as a single or even a video on her website, “Formation,” was shared as a private youtube link, individually via email, until everyone knew about it whether they had managed to see it yet or not. Then of course, she performs her brand new song – never mind that it is full of very explicit southern, black, female pride – at the Superbowl halftime show. World stop. Carry on.
I’m not even going to write about the video because there are articles upon articles already out there, analyzing scene for scene. I’ll just say that the song prepared us for Lemonade in the way that I think the spirit of Lemonade prepares us for the work of “Formation.” Although the song is intricately connected to the album, they have been, and are meant to be experienced separately. This song is simultaneously a dance track, a marketing campaign, a protest march, a rally call, a think piece, and an anthem – and it’s damn good at each and every role.
Time for the rest of the list – here are my top 8 albums of 2016! If you haven’t yet seen my choices for #16-9, you can find Part 1 of my albums list here.
For the most part, you’ll have to find your own way to listen to the albums – most of them are available on all the major streaming services – but in case you’re new to the artist, I’ll post at least one video link from a track on the album. Enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter @DaniceCarlson. Happy Holidays!
#8 Telefone – NoName
Many of us Chance the Rapper fans have been following this long-time Chicago collaborator (formerly NoName Gypsy) for a while now, so when news came of her debut LP, it took me exactly zero minutes to download Telefone. And it’s even better than I imagined it could be. Not only does she show up with what she does best – a gentle flow of honest and poetic wordplay – but she brings in other Chicagoan artists, like Saba and Eryn Allen Kane, for some help with hooks. This album feels like a graceful and deeply mature version of adolescence, still holding on to childhood but constantly hit with daily doses of tragic reality, all in the localized context of her unsafe yet “happy” city of Chicago. My only complaint is that at 33 minutes Telefone is entirely too short, but I usually just end up listening to it twice in a row. It’s hard for me to pick a highlight, but if I had to I would say the tracks “Yesterday,” “Reality Check,” and “Shadow Man.” You can listen to the whole thing for free below via Soundcloud.
Released in late January, this whole album was my jam for the first quarter of 2016. You could find me spouting comparisons to Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope over a beer on the regular. Rih Rih sets up her Anti-expectations album (her first for label, Roc Nation) with the very first chorus: “I got to do things my own way darling, will you ever let me, will you ever respect me? No.” And so she does things her own way, and it is as glorious as it is, at times, surprising. While she’s been showing her badassery for some time, ANTI expresses the whole gamut of emotions, including some Amy Winehouse-style vulnerability on “Love on the Brain.” As much as I still love watching what the Drake-featured song “Work” does to a Toronto dance party, my highlights from this record are “Needed Me,” and “Goodnight Gotham,” and the first track that I quoted above, the SZA assisted “Consideration.”
#6 22, A Million – Bon Iver
Having fallen deeply in love with Bon Iver’s first two albums, I was nervous about 22, A Million – especially when they released the tracklist that featured a little more math than I feel comfortable with. It strays sonically from what I’ve come to expect from the band, but since my very first listen I’ve been absolutely mesmerized. Like Radiohead, what manages to remain in Bon Iver’s ever shifting and evolving music is an atmosphere that accesses emotional language beyond words. It seems that as Justin Vernon experiments more and more with heavily filtered and produced sounds, his own voice ironically becomes clearer and more easily understood. So although this album is more electronic and even, at times, robotic, the songs themselves never lose a sense of human intimacy… which is exactly why I would like to make another comparison to Radiohead, but I’ll let you make that connection on your own. The opening/title-ish track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” seems especially relevant at the moment, and with a perfectly fitting sample taken from Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” it holds on to some hope at the beginning of the record. My other choice tracks include “8 (Circle),” – which sounds a bit more like something from their self-titled album – and “33 “God”,” which is embedded below in a video of the live release.
Before moving on to the top 5, I just want to say that this is the most ridiculous top 5 I can ever remember. #5-2 were some of the hardest spots to settle on, and for a while I considered making a 4-way tie. Seriously, so good. Ok, now that you’re a bit more prepared for how great I think these albums are… on with the list!
#5 A Seat at the Table – Solange
Musically, conceptually, and as a package, A Seat at the Table is flawless. The scaled back production leaves room for the light piano and nearly counter-melodic bass lines, creating what sounds like conversation between the instrumentation and Solange’s soft yet powerful vocals. I have trouble remembering a time when I so loved the use of interludes, in which she uses personal and generational voices (such as her parents, and No Limit label founder, Master P) to delve deeper into a broader experience of being black in America. Each interlude has echoes and hints of songs to come, allowing for smooth transitions between dialogue and melodies. Without question, “Cranes in they Sky” and “Where Do We Go” are two of my favourite songs of not only the album, but the year. Solange sings of strategies and questions that are both timeless and particularly pertinent, and offers songs as signs of healing and possibility without an ounce of naiveté, making ASATT one of the most hopeful collections of the year.
#4 Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
If you are not yet a Chance fan, I simply don’t know what to say to you. It seems like every time he puts out a new single, I forget about everything else that’s out there. His rhymes are clever and playful and full of joyful energy. Chance has managed to do what only Kanye has come close to doing – he has married hip hop and gospel music in a believable way that stops just short of preaching. Praising, sure, but it’s hard to sound judgmental when you take a “Smoke Break.” The Kanye and Kirk Franklin featuring opener, “All We Got,” is like part 2 of The Life of Pablo’s “Ultralight Beam,” similarly bringing the choirs together, literally and metaphorically, to begin the album. Sometimes I imagine it’s like the start of a hip hop pageant – you can hear a delightful chaos of all the participants warming up their instruments and finding their way to their rightful places in the church. Then suddenly, the album is off with a bang, and while it takes some time for wistful reflection (on “Summer friends”), it’s an animated celebration of life and creativity, bringing in a whole team Chicago collaborators, BJ the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods, NoName, Saba, and even the Chicago Children’s Choir. He released one of my favourite tracks, “Angels,” early, and it made my songs list of 2015, so that is obviously still a highlight, but I would add “Same Drugs,” with its extended Peter Pan imagery around growing up and apart, and the closer, “Finish Line/Drown.” “How Great,” and even “Blessings,” are nearly too much for this semi-post-evangelical, but both tracks have verses that are pure FIRE. Oh, and “All Night” has been my favourite non-Beyoncé track to spin at any and every party I’ve thrown this year.
#3 HEAVN – Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods’ debut solo LP is phenomenal. Lyrically she shows off her skills as a poet and a spoken word artist, but the music never sounds like an afterthought. Woods defies genre, playing with folk, hip hop, hymns, r&b and lullabies to create a sense of childhood and nostalgia for everyone, even quoting Paula Cole’s Dawson Creek theme song on “Lonely, Lonely.” Like Solange’s ASATT, HEAVN makes use of the interlude/skit in really effective ways; they mostly consist of black women leaving voice recordings talking about their experiences. One of these interludes describes how black children playing outside is proof of the resilience of black people, and it’s hard not to hear that as the underlying theme and image of the entirety of HEAVN. It seems so fitting that Woods played a grandmotherly voice on Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” because on every track she says pointed and difficult wise words like only a grandmother can get away with. Also, like Chance and NoName, Jamila is deeply rooted in the city of Chicago, and regularly reflects on how her hometown has shaped her, not willing to give up any memories, no matter how painful. Speaking of memories, there is plenty of tribute on HEAVN to black women who have already gone ahead, paving a path of resistance, resilience, and healing. Every song on this record is pure art, so I hesitate to name specifics lest you only listen to only one piece of the puzzle. Especially since you can stream or download the whole album for free from Soundcloud.
#2 Blonde – Frank Ocean
Like most of Twitter, I was anticipating this record HARD. Blonde (spelled with masculine on the album cover and feminine in your digital music player) was the second album released in a matter of days, breaking his 4 year streak of silence. For those in need of refresher on the timeline, the visual album, Endless was released only for Apple Music first. It was relieving and beautiful, but when he surprised us with this second album, Blonde, it felt like summertime Christmas. Yet, while I’m happy to loudly defend any album on this list, I’d rather not talk about Blonde much at all, but just experience it alone, loudly over headphones. The album feels laced with subtle knowing glances and inside jokes, along with tornados of feelings and regrets. Frank manages to weave so many real-life tensions right in the music, as songs regularly referencing recreational drug use surround a lecture-interlude about the danger of drugs and alcohol, and descriptions of booty calls are directly before homages to Trayvon Martin – one of many young black men shot and killed by a cop. It’s these uneven, and at times, stream-of-consciousness transitions that make this album sound so very beautifully human. So many moments stop me in my tracks – “Pink & White,” “Nights,” “Solo,” and “Godspeed” are all regular reminders to keep your eyes open to the beauty and life around you, even in the pain and heartache. “Nikes,” is the only video released from this album so far, and just as a warning this is NSFW.
#1 Lemonade – Beyoncé
To some extent I feel sorry for every other album released this year, because Lemonade is so much more than album of the year. It has been nothing less than iconic. For the third time now, Beyoncé has made what I was certain was the defining album of career; first with 4, then in 2011 with her self-titled visual/audial masterpiece, and yet somehow she managed to outdo her only real competition – herself! – with this beautiful masterpiece. With Lemonade we have stories within stories. At surface level, it continues the ongoing drama of Bey’s personal life with husband Jay Z. “Is he cheating on me?” is the question posed early on, and the guiding emotion of the first half of the record. While on one level this is a story of reconciliation between two people, every song seems to beckon more characters in to the narrative using both lyrics and genre. By time time we reach “Daddy Lessons,” we’ve heard the expected pop and R&B with some hip-hop nods, as well as straight up rock-and-roll in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” when all of a sudden we get a deep-fried, New Orleans style, country song that asks us to consider not only Bey’s relationship with her husband, but also her relationship with her father. Suddenly it’s no longer just about a celebrity power couple, but reaches beyond them to the socio-political importance of all relationships within every community. It’s about the hard emotional work that all mothers and wives inevitably do, and particularly the burden that black women carry for the people they love. It’s about listening to one another’s stories and holding each other up. It’s about doing the personal inner work in order to “get in formation” and stay ready for whatever comes your way. It’s about taking whatever random tart fruit you’re given and making the absolute best damn summer beverage you possibly can. Even more than that, it’s about not taking some white fangirl’s word for it and paying attention for yourself.
As many of you probably know (or could guess), I’ve been hosting mini “screenings” of Lemonade at my house about once a month since its release in May. I might get in trouble for making even a light comparison to The Holy Bible, but I think our reading of media like Lemonade is only made richer when we watch it with others. Each and every person I’ve watched the film with has provided new insights and questions. While I prefer to experience Blonde in private, it’s my belief that Lemonade is best when shared.
As happy as I am with this list, I was forced to leave out some truly fantastic collections. Honourable mentions go to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled, Unmastered, Anderson Paak’s Malibu, and Nao’s For All We Know. I’ve been also working on a list of 2016 songs that will purposely look at those not already featured on albums here, so check that out in about a week’s time. This year doesn’t seem to be getting any better, but I hope our collective reflecting and listening will prepare us for all the work left to do as we approach 2017.