Published Dec 11, 2018
5. Charles Bradley
One of the great pearls of wisdom Gang Starr's Guru gifted us before his passing was the key to longevity as a vocalist: it's mostly the voice that gets you up. So for all the pummelling drums, funky horn blasts and compelling cover song choices on Charles Bradley's posthumous Black Velvet, as ever, it's the man's voice that pulls it all together and yanks us in.
A cocktail of well whiskey, bummed cigarettes, heartache and only two hours of sleep, Bradley's voice serves as a big, loud, bluesy conduit for raw emotion. The Menahan Street Band puts in overtime to fill in the blanks, and make this 38-minute salvage of the best Bradley left ring out like a proper musical statement, but they're smart enough to get out of the way of the Screaming Eagle of Soul, who opens with a wail and elevates from there. And, man, when Bradley belts out a peppier, deeper "Heart of Gold," you wonder if his voice was the one best suited for Neil Young's classic song.
4. Georgia Anne Muldrow
Georgia Anne Muldrow has been a prolific vocalist in the Los Angeles music scene since 2005, with over a dozen albums and myriad collaborations to her credit. Yet, she seemed to step off the path a bit leading up to Overload, taking an uncharacteristically long pause after 2015's hip-hop oriented A Thoughtiverse Unmarred. Sure, she was still working behind the scenes, but the break between realizing her own releases seemingly recharged her creative mojo, the sharpness of her artistic vision, her je ne sais quoi.
Whatever it was, this year's Overload saw her return to top form, delivering the perfect album for her first full-length on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label. Speaking truth and spreading love, she revelled in her cerebral funk fusion, future jazz, hip-hop, psychedelic soul, neo-R&B goddessery. While many would sound swamped under all those influences, they're but patches on a warm quilt to Muldrow, whose Overload exudes the strength and style of Erykah Badu, Nina Simone and SassyBlack.
3. Kali Uchis
"But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye in the land of opportunity and palm trees."
That single passage from Kali Uchis' sultry track "Miami" sums up the ambition that drives her throughout her debut LP, Isolation.
Born in Virginia to parents from Pereira, Colombia, Uchis speaks to an immigrant perspective of the American Dream. She herself has hustled: at age 17, she spent months working on music while living out of her car. Now 24, she vows to live fast, never die, take your money, and raise the price. But she never loses sight of the American Dream's vampiric reality, calling out exploitative labour and social and wealth inequality on "Your Teeth in My Neck."
Uchis is resilient, a no-nonsense boss of her own destiny; her fantasies of riches are frames in the storyboard she has meticulously laid out for her life. Album guests Kamasi Washington, Damon Albarn, Kevin Parker, Tyler the Creator, Bootsy Collins and more contribute to a sound that dances between R&B, bossa nova, doo-wop, funk, hip-hop, love-struck balladry, reggaeton and Brazilian jazz, which Uchis sings in English and Spanish. But with self-assured skill and poise, she manages to stand out even amidst Isolation's most venerated contributors.
Leslie Ken Chu
2. Jorja Smith
Lost & Found
Twenty-one is a tender age for such a soul-baring and poised album as Lost & Found. Hailing from the West Midlands city of Walsall, Jorja Smith had a most impressive 2018, contributing to the Black Panther soundtrack and nabbing a Critics' Choice at the Brit Awards ¾ and her debut album impressively lives up to its hype.
Smartly eschewing any high-profile guest appearances, the one-time barista emerges as a singular artist over Lost & Found's 12 lustrous tracks. Given Smith's melange of soul and jazz, with a sheen of pop appeal, the comparisons to Amy Winehouse or Adele are expected but ultimately disingenuous, given hypnotizing cuts like the title track and "On Your Own," on which she reveals a lyrical candour and vocal maturity beyond her years. Smith's also a stunningly perceptive storyteller when she turns her focus outward; "Blue Lights" is a heartrending take on police brutality and racial profiling, while her freestyle on "Lifeboats" attacks privilege and the refugee crisis with an adept bite. Lost & Found was Jorja Smith's propeller into stardom, but its authenticity makes her ascent all the more satisfying.
1. The Internet
Distance makes the band grow stronger — after releasing their acclaimed album Ego Death, the Internet bandmates took a three-year hiatus to explore their own solo ventures. Then, having purged whatever freestanding brilliance had been brewing in their respective heads, the group reconvened on Hive Mind, a soulful, cohesive effort on which each member pushes their respective limits.
True to the album's name, Hive Mind showcases the band's collective intelligence; no one artist stands out, meaning they all do. Throughout the record, Christopher Smith's playful, sometimes furious drums punctuate Steve Lacy's poised and bluesy guitars. Patrick Paige II's bass moderates the temperature of the album; without saying a word, Paige subtly dictates the mood of each track and his bandmates happily follow his lead. Matt Martians' spacy, futuristic synths provide balance: the Internet reach to the past for heavy doses of funk and touches of disco throughout Hive Mind, but Martians' futuristic flourishes keep the sound contemporary and fresh. All of their efforts provide a plush foundation for Syd's feathery, come-hither vocals to stand on.
Ultimately, though, it's the selflessness the band display that is the hero of this project. Each artist is performing at their best but is happy to complement, rather than outshine, the others. It's refreshingly free of ego and plays like a jam session between friends. Laid-back and grounded in old-fashioned musicianship, Hive Mind is a feel-good album that not only stands out in 2018, but is sure to transcend time.