Happy New Year to readers new and old. This was a good year for music on the low. For folks with taste, it looked horrible on the mainstream side of things, but if you’re to any degree proactive about finding good music on your own, you know some dope projects dropped this year that you won’t catch on the Grammy nominee list or on the radio. Here’s to hoping you find something here you didn’t get a chance to check out and are able to hop on iTunes or Spotify and show some love.
This isn’t a list that appears in any particular order or that says what everyone should have been listening to. It’s a list that describes, out of what I heard this year, what moved me specifically.
Lord Steppington :: Step Brothers
I’m an Alchemist fan and will listen to almost any MC he sits down with. However, with Step Brothers, Alc steps up as both a producer and an MC in his own right, matching wits with the very formidable likes of Evidence. While Evidence clearly is the more seasoned of the two, Alc manages to not be completely eclipsed, injecting enough humor to make you forgive his stilted delivery. The beats here are what boom-bap should sound like in 2014…true to the culture and original sound without coming off as dated. Rare, obscure samples abound. This is definitely a record that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out.
Black Messiah :: D’Angelo & The Vanguard
This is one album that made me glad I waited to put this very list out there. I’m definitely not a person who thinks calling something classic on day one of its release is acceptable, but I’m also a person old enough to recall hearing classics for the first time and remembering how they made me feel. Black Messiah is very much alive. That’s major when you’re talking about current R&B, a genre that barely contains what D’Angelo has done here. This album is organic and flies against the ultra-sleek, soulless alternative-R&B that’s been taking over the genre of late. This is an album that reminds us of the standard we’re supposed to be expecting from soul music. While it may not be accessible as his debut, or Voodoo for that matter, one must keep in mind that D’Angelo made those albums as a relatively new artist and wasn’t the elusive, near-mythical figure he is today in rhythm & blues. Here, D’Angelo shows he has grown significantly since he was the guy who made “Sh★t, Damn, Motherf★cker” back in 1995 (which was a great song but obviously represents a much younger incarnation of the artist). Messiah simply delivers.
Voices :: Phantogram
Phantogram is the kind of act whose music could very well get lost in the sauce, considering the fact that their music is well-suited for climactic teen drama backdrops or copping over-priced coffee at your local indie cafe where almost everyone has earphones on listening to their own stuff anyway. However, if you are fortunate enough to take a more dedicated listen, the duo known as Phantogram takes a painstaking approach to crafting what they call “street beat”, a decidedly edgy brand of atmospheric pop. Don’t get too caught up in genre-labeling, though, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter come together to show that they’re a group who are students of music, with the sounds on Voices ranging from alternative to R&B but never being easy to pin down. Songs are grandiose without feeling over-produced or cold. Phantogram doesn’t come off as girly as, say, Haim, because the production has more of a backbone to it, which is Carter’s influence on the sound refusing to be drowned out by Barthel’s commanding vocals.
36 Seasons :: Ghostface Killah
This album was the only thing that could have made up for the disappointment of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album. The tracklist alone made any rap fan old enough to have facial hair damn near blow up, with guest features from the likes of Kool G Rap and AZ. There’s something to be said about a major veteran MC deciding to reach out to fellow vets to get on tracks as opposed to getting a bunch of flash-in-the-pan upstarts who might get more attention for the project. Invest in this.
Your Old Droog :: Your Old Droog
It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s Your Old Droog shocked the hip-hop world this year when he revealed himself to be a young Ukrainian-American MC and not Nas, as some believed him to be. The Nas comparisons were lost on me, however, as Nas’ music hasn’t excited me the way that Droog’s EP and subsequent full-length did in many, many years. I also didn’t hear anything but a vague similarity between Droog’s voice and Nas’s. The unique thing about Droog is that he seems to revel in the strange, as evidenced by his odd moniker (“Droog” being a Russian term for friend) and creative references.
Hood Billionaire :: Rick Ross
A lot of people are probably surprised that this album made my list, but I’ve been a fan of Ross’ music since his first album…he just stopped moving me some time ago. With Hood Billionaire, although there are some fumbles (all of them collaborations: Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and K. Michelle, respectively), Ross manages to sell the caricature he’s made himself into with pure zeal and gusto. Rick Ross thrives in the box he’s supposed to fit in, which is deliciously irresponsible declarations that grate on the nerves when you want something deeper, but are just right when you just want to wild out for the night. Ross’ music makes you feel ten feet tall and, when we’re looking at appreciation of music, isn’t making you feel something what we should be looking for?
Barrel Brothers :: Skyzoo & Torae
This is by far one of my favorite projects that dropped this year. You can read my full review on Kevin Nottingham, but in a nutshell, this was a top shelf offering and shame on you for sleeping on this if you did.
Clear Lake Forest :: The Black Angels
The Black Angels make the kind of music you expect to hear during a 1970’s period drama during a drug-use montage. The drowsy vocals and plodding percussion on many of the songs seem to come from another time…in a good way. This EP is nowhere near as good as their debut album, Directions To See A Ghost, but such is the case I find for rock bands that I enjoy.
Dominican Diner :: Timeless Truth
It doesn’t take long listening to Timeless Truth for any fan of Queens rap to recognize the influences these two Corona/Flushing MCs take from The Beatnuts. As a Beatnuts fan, I appreciate the fresh energy brought to the sound by two newer MCs, joining the likes of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson in ushering in a new era of Queens boom-bap. Buy it here.
NehruvianDOOM :: MF Doom & Bishop Nehru
DOOM doesn’t fail at what he does. As king of his own novelty sub-genre, it seems like an unlikely pairing for him to reach out to a teenage wunderkind like Bishop Nehru for an entire project. However, the youngster shines on his own, managing to impress without coming off as an over-reaching amateur over DOOM’s lavish productions. While it’s clear that Nehru’s wet behind the ears, his fresh voice juxtaposed with DOOM’s at times weary, grizzled-vet delivery makes for some seamless chemistry.
Tough Love :: Jessie Ware
From the moment I saw the video for “Running”, I was transfixed on Jessie Ware as an artist. It seemed like I was getting a concoction of Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Sade all wrapped up within the potential of one artist. Once I heard her use a particularly menacing Big Pun vocal looped on the song “100%” (“..carving my initials on your forehead”), I was an instant fan. Following behind the acclaimed debut Devotion, Ware shows the same top shelf musicality on this sophomore effort. Ware reminds us that it’s okay to expect more out of pop music, adding a level of sophistication that’s mature without aging the sound. This album feels…expensive.
Silk Pyramids :: Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild
Artists like Meyhem Lauren are the punch in the face that rap needs in the era of hip-hop-themed reality dramas and Twitter beefs. While his flow doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Lauren flourishes when it comes to being outlandish when it comes to describing his lifestyle or inserting gruff ad-libs here and there.
Furtive Movements :: Armand Hammer
While it’s very dense, I’m the kind of person who enjoys that every now and then from a rap album. Every rap song doesn’t need to be fully understandable from listen one. Adding some complexity over some solid production is, to me, guaranteed replay value.
If There’s A Hell Below :: Black Milk
I have to admit I’m almost ashamed I didn’t really check for Black Milk before this year. I’m a stickler for names and his seemed to put a bad taste in my mouth, literally. Quirks aside, I forced myself to check out some of his features and ultimately stumbled upon his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below.
The Living Daylights :: Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth
Last but definitely not least, Willie The Kid’s project with producer Bronze Nazareth was a work of art, similar to last year’s Aquamarine. This was slept on for no good reason.
The Sweet Spot Vol. 3: Higher :: Maiya Norton
While it isn’t a mixtape, album, or EP, the third installment to DJ and music aficionado (and also fellow Howard Bison) Maiya Norton’s mix series deserves some recognition as one of the most moving projects I heard this year. A self-described “old soul”, Maiya presents an amalgamation of 1970s funk, soul, and psychedelic jams that together create a soothing landscape that a person could get lost in.
The following are albums I appreciated, but not as much as the ones above, for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, they’re worth checking out and they all contributed something authentic to the year in music, hip-hop and otherwise.
Pinata :: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Cilvia Demo :: Isaiah Rashad
Pre Magnum Opus :: Tragedy Khadafi
Is This Art? :: Michael Christmas
RAP :: SHIRT
Mega Philosophy :: Cormega
Cadillactica :: Big K.R.I.T.
Directors Of Photography :: Dilated Peoples
Run The Jewels 2 :: Run The Jewels
As usual, many thanks to the readers who keep supporting the site, to everyone who bought merchandise and repped Front-Free in public, and to my friends and family. Shout out to Ebony.com and Kevin Nottingham for published pieces I wrote this year outside of Front-Free and a special shout to UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress for allowing me to sit on a panel based on one of those articles, discussing the effects of drugs on hip-hop culture with UCLA’s best and brightest. It’s been a dope year for me personally and I have nothing but great expectations for 2015. Let’s get it.