With all the year-end "best albums" lists coming out, I've been thinking about my personal favorites of the last year.
Those lists cover a lot of my favorites, and so do the top-selling albums of the year. Some examples include "Astroworld", all of GOOD Music’s exciting back to back to back releases ("Daytona" was my favorite), but I wanted to focus on the less talked about albums this year.
Would you rather be underpaid or overrated? - Jay-Z
With that in mind, I've made two lists:
- Four of my favorite albums slightly outside the mainstream
- Four low key releases I think deserve more praise and listeners
So without further adieu, let's dive in!
The Big Four
First off, here are four of my favorites albums of the year, in order of release date.
"CARE FOR ME" - Saba
April 5, 2018
"CARE FOR ME" made Saba my favorite "new" artist of the past year. I say "new" because I completely slept on his "Bucket List Project" and somehow never registered his features.
I'd only heard him on Chance the Rapper songs. Prior to hearing "Care For Me" I probably couldn't have pointed out his features besides "Angels". I actually had a hard time believing the joyous Saba on "Angels" was the same Saba as on this dreary, but ultimately triumphant album.
Sidebar: I wish Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment's "Surf" album included the featured artists' names on streaming services. I appreciate the surprise feature listening experience but I recently went back and added feature names after realizing I had no idea Saba was on "Surf".
"Care For Me" didn't get as much press as I hoped but I heard it thanks to the Chance the Rapper feature on "LOGOUT" as well as Saba's strong fanbase. In the spirit of paying that forward, I encourage anyone reading this to check out "Care For Me" if you check any albums from this post.
After hearing the album I was also lucky enough to see Saba on tour. I haven't decided if this video is terrible, or accurately captures the unexpected level of excitment at his show, judge for yourself:
I thought this album would certainly be my album of the year but 2018 was amazingly strong to my personal tastes. Any of these four albums could have been my album of the year in many other years. Read on to see which was my favorite.
"KOD" - J. Cole
April 20, 2018
First off, I know I said I'd focus on projects outside the mainstream, but I had to include "KOD".
As someone who lost interest in J. Cole around the "Born Sinner" era ,this album brought me all the way back.
As a fan since "The Warm Up", I was slightly dissapointed in "Cole World: The Sideline Story" but I still found a lot to like on it. I don't know if it's because I was finishing college and falling out of his demographic but after "Born Sinner" I was in no hurry to listen to "2014 Forest Hills Drive" and I skipped completely over "4 Your Eyez Only".
I think "KOD" 's artwork is what pulled me to check out the album most. I've noticed that trend more and more lately. Whatever it was, I was hooked after the first listen. I love the short concise album format, the repetive hooks and the "modern" (cliché J. Cole commentary) production on this record.
On top of that, "KOD" got me to go back and appreciate "4 Your Eyez Only" too, which was like getting two Cole projects in one year.
"DROGAS WAVE" - Lupe Fiasco
September 21, 2018
Like "KOD" did for J. Cole, "DROGAS WAVE" also seemed to revive my support for another past favorite artist, Lupe Fiasco.
I loved "Tesuo & Youth" but hadn't been following Lupe very close since then. I skimmed "DROGAS Light" a few times but couldn't get too into it besides "Jump".
Ironically I actually saw Lupe Fiasco perform in Ventura CA a month before "DROGAS WAVE" released and wasn't a fan of the performance. I'd seen Lupe before and was excited to see him in a small venue but unfortunately the crowd energy wasn't there and it showed in Lupe's response. I wouldn't have predicted he was a month away from dropping an album I'd love so much.
Before going further, my main (possibly only) complaint is that the album's "concept" was poorly communicated. The album is supposed to be a double disc but it's a "single" disc on streaming services. Other double discs have two distinct track numberings starting from track 1, 2, 3, etc. "DROGAS WAVE" just displays as 24 straight tracks.
Lupe heavily discussed the concept of the album, quoted below from a Billboard interview:
"It’s about a group of slaves on a slave ship on their way to Africa to the West Indies and they are thrown off the boat. But they didn’t die. They stayed alive and they lived under the sea. And they dedicated their lives to sinking slave ships -- so they became this super, underwater force against slavery. It’s like a super-deep story that I am building on different fronts. But that’s the main idea and the source material for the album."
This concept carries through disc 1 (tracks 1-9). A valid criticism on release was that the concept falls apart throughout the album. I was personally disappointed on first listen because I was captivated by the concept but ended up hearing less lyrics related to it as the album continued past track 9.
After learning the concept was most focused on tracks 1-9, I could not stop listening to the project. I also didn't mind the length once I had a track number to mentally divide the project on.
The first part is a great concept album and the second part is full of vintage Lupe sounds as well as fresh new Lupe.
I know I said my one request was for readers to check out Saba's "CARE FOR ME", but my second request would be to re-listen to "DROGAS WAVE" with the double disc separation in mind, even if it means listening in two separate settings if 24 tracks sounds too daunting.
"Pieces of a Man" - Mick Jenkins
October 26, 2018
"Pieces of a Man" came out of no where for me. If I didn't already know Mick Jenkin's "Jazz" and it wasn't one of my favorite songs ever, I'd consider Mick Jenkins and Saba neck-and-neck for my favorite "new" artist of the year.
I don't know how I never listened to Mick Jenkins' "The Water (S)" off the strength of "Jazz", but it made "Pieces of a Man" a great proper introduction to Mick Jenkins.
I have to thank Kaytranada's production for getting me to check this out. I was late on this album, but the Kaytranada produced singles "Understood" and "What Am I To Do" caught my ear as soon as I heard them.
While "KOD" and the GOOD Music summer releases' concise tracklists appealed to the distracted, less focused music listener in me, I'm so grateful "Pieces of a Man" was a true long play. It feels like I'm in a different atmosphere listening to it from front to back.
My one complaint here is that there's no vinyl release; it's got a perfect grainy sound for vinyl. I'd love if this got a special vinyl release via Vinyl Me Please a la Saba's "CARE FOR ME", but until then I'll keep my fingers crossed.
Lastly I want to highlight four more low key releases.
Forgive me for including Vince Staples in this section, but it was a shorter project that I think deserved more ears, not based on his popularity.
"Type-3" - Higher Brothers
February 27 , 2018
If you’ve heard of Higher Brothers, odds are it was via the viral "Rappers React" reaction video to their meme-friendly "Made In China" music video or their "WeChat" music video.
For curious listeners wanting to go a level deeper, "Type-3" is a great introduction to the Higher Brothers; it’s a 4 track EP that showcases each member.
My personal highlight is "Nothing Wrong" which showcases DZ aka Know Know’s singing and melody talents. As a more lyric focused listener, Higher Brothers in general has helped me understand and appreciate hip hop where the lyrics aren’t the focus or primary draw of the song.
"Anything." - Kota the Friend
February 15 , 2018
I discovered "Anything." after seeing Kota the Friend perform live. In fact he was the opener at the Lupe Fiasco concert I mentioned earlier. Kota’a performance ended up leaving a bigger impact on me than Lupe’s, which made "Anything." a must listen.
If you want calm laid back traditional boom-bap hip-hop with optimistic feel-good (for the most part) lyrics, please play "Anything."
Despite my appreciation of artists pushing more experimental sounds (read critically as "mumble rap"), Kota is such a breath of fresh air.
Enjoy some footage of his effortless flow from the concert I attended:
"FM!" - Vince Staples
November 2 , 2018
"FM!" is another short but sweet project in this great year of EPs.
My biggest surprise on this project was Kenny Beats. Even though you hear the DJ tags of all the up and coming and establish producers, I’ve started to filter them out as I get older. This project being solely produced by Kenny Beats gave me a huge appreciation for his style and I look forward to more producer/rapper projects in this age where shorter projects are more feasible than they were in the CD/physical media era.
One of my favorite artists of recent years, Vince delivers as usual.
My third request is to please read this Shea Serrano piece on "FM!" for a deeper perspective.
"Looking at Space from a Submarine" - Dijah SB
October 19 , 2018
Dijah SB is an amazing artist out of Toronto. If Kota’s "Anything." was my lazy afternoon soundtrack, Dijah SB’s "Looking at Space from a Submarine" was my kick-back night vibes soundtrack.
I learned of her from her post describing the album's Lupe Fiasco based inspiration:
So, Lupe is one of my favourite artists in the world, and on his EP "Pharoah Heights" he has a song called "Pyramid" where he spits "looking at space from a submarine"
That line always sat with me and gave me such a vivid visual and I wanted to expand on it. So I linked up with my boy Legin and we created a 6 track EP and tried to tell a story about the journey of being in the depths of the ocean, which is my lowest point, but seeing space and wanting to be out of that submarine and free to float and do whatever the hell I want. A lot of it is about my journey as an artist and also dealing with mental health and a lot of the other crap that comes along with being on this earth as an artist and trying to break free from where you feel you’re stuck from.
She also breaks down each track in that link.
The concept and album art drew me in but the music kept me. Speaking of the album art, she had some fire merch for the project on her Twitter although I’m not sure if it’s sold out. I’m looking forward to what she releases next. Despite "Looking" being a shorter project, it’s plenty to hold me over until her next one.
The Wrap Up
That's it! Thanks for taking the time to get this far and I hope you enjoyed it!