As each year goes by I see more and more music blogs overlooking hip hop instrumental albums. It’s disappointing to see as many of them are just as intricate and conceptual as albums with lyrics.
We’ll always have Donuts, Endtroducing…, and Petestrumentals, but producers around the world are serving up platters of straight up instrumental caviar across the web… yet they are largely unnoticed. (To begin your journey start with Bandcamp.com.)
The year is almost over and while bloggers tend to wait till the last minute to deliver their “year end lists” I’ve taken the liberty of giving you my top 10 instrumental albums of 2016 a month early. Being lost in a sea of debate, criticism, and a lot of hate is not something I want to be a part of. Music is subjective. Let me repeat: MUSIC IS SUBJECTIVE. There is no “album of the year,” as we all have different criteria for what makes an album great. Even music critics aren’t the end all be all (no matter what they say.)
So, to wrap things up…these are MY favorite instrumental albums of the year (in no particular order besides the first.) All of these projects have been listened to way more than a handful of times in order to give my best recommendations. I have spent a good long time on this so you can get a backstory on the artist/album, my personal experience with finding it/listening to it, and hyperlinks to do your own exploring. All of this is for the love of music. And, quiet honestly, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
You saw this coming. Nxworries, the duo that is artist Anderson .Paak + producer Knxwledge dropped a damn near classic album this year in Yes Lawd!
Anderson .Paak blossomed in 2015, and has completely taken over 2016 with his album of the year nods with sophomore offering Malibu, a passionate performance at the Grammy’s and the January announcement of his signing with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. He’s played sold out shows, was on the cover of XXL as a 2016 freshman and even did a short documentary with Noisey.
While Anderson has had more of a publicized success story, Knxwledge has gained credibility in the underground circuit releasing an unheard of amount of instrumental projects in the last 6 years alone. He finally got his big break producing Momma off Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
These guys have a lot to offer the music world seperately, but when they come together for an album you know they will deliver. We got a taste of it in last years Link Up & Suede EP, but when news broke of their full length, social media went bezerk.
Yes Lawd! is my absolute favorite instrumental inspired album of the year. Knwledge is at his best because he has found a sound that works impeccably with Anderson and sticks to it. We could label YS as “church music” or “music for the soul” and I don’t doubt it is both of those things. But more than that, it is a modern take on the classic one producer one artist album.
The album is littered with instrumental gems that are best appreciated with multiple listens. Although .Paak is all over the album, credit must be given to Knwledge who, on Yes Lawd! has shone brighter than the this year’s most popular artist success story.
3 Essential tracks: Livvn, What More Can I Say + Suede
Thelonious Martin – Late Night Programming
They call him King Thelonious in the Chi, and for good reason. He graduated with a music business degree from my alma matter Columbia College in 2015, has worked with established artists like Vic Mensa and the SaveMoney crew, and has done high profile work with huge (yet indie) hip hop label Closed Sessions.
For quiet some time now Thelonious has grabbed the attention of rappers, producers, and other music industry professionals by collaborating with a slew of artists throughout the country. Included (but not limited to) are Action Bronson, Curren$y, Mac Miller and Ab-Soul.
Every interview with this guy details how much he has studied the art of sampling, his idolized producers and other genres of music. He released his 2014 debut album, Wünderkid which proved to be a huge moment in his career. He more than delivered, but there were features on most of the album not completely making it his own.
The most pivotal moment of his music career has been the release of his sophomore LP, Late Night Programming. Yoh, from DJBooth, made an excellent point in his recent write up of the album. He writes:
his 2014 Wunderkid debut album featured heavy hitters like Mac Miller, Curren$y, Smoke DZA, and Ab-Soul. The album was successful, a strong combination of soulful instrumentals and stellar rap verses, but it was missing something, it was missing Thelonious’ presence
Late Night Programming is 1000% Thelonious. When I heard Afternoon Swim for the first time I knew Martin had grown exponentially as a beatsmith. It’s a 2 minute and 30 second song but its split up into pieces that somehow sound cohesive. As you can read in Yoh’s piece, Late Night Programming is an ode to Adult Swim, which has continued to heavily influence his music. Little pieces of the show are dispersed amongst tracks, keeping the theme upfront. LNP flows extremely well. It’s an easy bumper front to back and is a contender for my favorite album of the year.
3 Essential tracks: Afternoon Swim, Late Night Financial + Up Too Late
Nate Charity – Colors
I can’t stress this enough: This is a criminally underrated album. I’ve never heard something like this coming out of Texas. Nate Charity is a duo consisting of Nate Coop and Charity Evaughn who linked up at a Space City Beat Battle. A bit about the event via The Houston Press:
Four times a year, not counting the annual championship, 16 music producers whom you very likely do not know show up at a venue. They get paired up against each other, play a snippet of their music for one minute, then listen as a more successful producer whom you also very likely do not know tells them what was good and what could’ve been done better. That better-known producer then decides which contestant gets to try his beat against someone else.
Their claim to fame is the beat they produced for Designer, Lil Dicky + Anderson .Paak’s XXL Freshman Cypher. The instrumental was only a portion of what they were capable of, and they proved that with Colors. The opening track, Black Magic, is a fitting title as Nate + Charity somehow put tiny strings of sounds into one complete track. Just like Thelonious, Nate Charity uses this strategy throughout the EP to incredible effects.
The next track, Crimson, starts with a warpy backdrop and then the drums hit. A high pitched chorus follows and then we get another loop. It’s equal parts angelic, dynamic, and powerful. Indigo has a jazzier sound with small elements of rock and electronica. Emerald Island is glittering, (no pun intended) ambient, and all encompassing. I listened so intently for the full 15 minutes that is Colors, that I had a bit of an out of body experience sitting in front of my computer at Starbucks. Nothing could deter me from finishing the EP. Whenever I need some time to contemplate, reason, or make an important decision, I know Colors will be there to stimulate my mind.
3 Essential tracks: Black Magic, Indigo, and Purple High
Zen Zan – Island Life
Lets take it back. 2015. Every hip hop fan out of Chicago was rooting for music group Hurt Everybody. The trio was made up of Supa Bwe, Carl (now Qari) and Mulatto Beats.) They played countless shows all across the city. Nothing could stop them. Then suddenly, in the beginning of the year, the group disbanded and everyone was pretty bummed. The disappointing news hasn’t stopped me from playing their music (especially 2K47) or checking out their solo endeavors.
Why do I bring this up? My introduction to these guys was their song In Seoul off their 2014 debut full length project Hurt Everybody EP. I wasn’t accustomed to the instrumental I was hearing. I was captivated by its sound. Somehow I found out it was co-produced by Zen Zan (along with Supa). I immediately memorized the name.
I checked Hurt Everybody’s social media accounts very often in that time and I kept seeing his name on some of my favorite loosies from the group. There was Thot Goddess, Stay Awake and Majin Quwop. I finally looked him up on SoundCloud and came across a handful of his tapes. All of them were played through on the spot.
You have to act quick on his projects as he has since deleted all except Island Life, which happens to be a contender for instrumental project of the year. Zen dubs it “electronic” (at least on SoundCloud) but the moment you pay opening track Aloha, Honolulu you will hear uptempo jazz, horns, and hip hop drum kits. Zen was smart to name the EP Island Life as it could easily be the soundtrack to a vacation in Hawaii. It plays like a steady stream, one song moving on to the other seamlessly, yet the songs aren’t repetitive or boring. You’ll hear something different with each cut.
There are laid back funk grooves in Tequila Sunrise, full brass band backings in Far Out O’ahu and bass that will knock the coffee right out of your hands. It’s somber, chill, and inviting.
3 Essential tracks: Aloha, Honolulu Far Out O’ahu + Pineapple Express
Air Tech Sani – Exotica
I’m a big fan of bass bumping, earth shattering, hard knocking beats. I flock to them. Not every song with this type of production will sound good, but I do admit I give high energy tracks more leeway. I preface with this because one of the best instrumental projects of the year is a soothing ambient LP titled Exotica. Shocking to say the least. I was introduced to Sani 2 years ago when he dropped his (very) full length album, Genesis. It was 21 tracks of “whats going to happen next.”
Genesis was lively and enjoyable, so when Exotica came up on my TL I automatically hit play. As soon as I did I entered a dream like state that was hard to come out of. Indigo was an automatic favorites as it reminded me of a lullaby…almost out of a Disney movie. Not cheesy in any way; but more magical, creative and dreamy.
Castor was a bit more uptempo and contained a mix of instruments that I never thought would work together. Trust me: they do. It’s short, but a sure highlight. Ice Blue gives off a boom bap style with some cooing vocals that are probably sampled pieces. Bonus track Canna brought the entire project together. If an instrumental could be catchy, Canna would be it. Slap a talented vocalist on there and you’ve got gold.
There is one song on his SoundCloud page called Anytime which is a collaborate piece between himself and an artist named Via Rose. It’s actually very nice; I hope Sani reaches out to more people if he cares to.
3 Essential tracks: Tea Tree, Ice Blue and Canna
Jaro – La Rouge
Earlier I spoke on the talented trio that was Hurt Everybody. My intro on producer Jaro will start in a similar vein. I discovered my absolute favorite Chicago group, Beach Jesus, back in 2015. Lets just say my mind was frickin’ blown when I heard Snake Ladies. My brain almost erupted when I heard it live at Portage Theater and I am horrified that the footage I captured has since been lost.
Beach Jesus is made up of vocalists Chandler London (who now goes by Chandy) and Jessiath along with multi faceted producer Jaro. Jaro has had his hands in all of Beach Jesus’ projects including my top 10 album of 2015, Two Weeks Vacation. This was Beach Jesus’ first full length project which came out sounding wonderful.
This year Jaro has given us two solo EP’s titled La Rouge and La Bleue. La Rouge stands to be my favorite of the two. It is a full sounding project although it’s only 5 tracks deep. Jaro challenged himself on La Rouge as it sounds more cinematic than his previous work. This can be heard especially on opening track Moonlight. Featured artist Sean Deaux provides soothing vocals, but it is Jaro’s powerful and rising keys that sent chills down my spine.
He goes into a melodic pop number in Medusa enlisting Aura and Cae Jones for help. I especially enjoyed purely instrumental cuts Be My Love and Unlike You. Unlike You uses Ciara and Bow Wow’s early 2000’s hit “Like You” as the central piece. Just let that sink in.
Jaro has continuously provided epic beats for Chandy, Jessiath and a growing number of other artists, but La Rogue proves he can make one of the best instrumental projects of the year all on his own.
2 Essential Tracks: Moonlight and Unlike You
Odd Couple – Liberation
Liberation just dropped, (3 days ago at the time of this publication) but I’ve listed to it front to back 4 or 5 times since. The album has continued to play in the background every time I write.
I didn’t know if I was going to include Liberation in this list as almost every song has at least one feature. After listening 2 times through it was easy to see that Odd Couple’s skillful beats are what carries the LP through. Had this been a compilation piece with various producers dispersed throughout, the album wouldn’t have impacted me as much.
Liberation has gotten placement on Pigeons and Planes, Spin, The Fader and even a review on Pitchfork (with a rating of 7.2 which is impressive for the publication’s almost impossible standards.)
Yes, the verses and vocals are very impressive, (especially Qari and Kweku Collins on Palms) but it is Odd Couple’s ability to bring all these artists together that has given the project critical acclaim.
Liberation’s greatest asset is Odd Couple’s insane ability to find pockets for artists to enter into. The second song, Palms, showcases this best. Songs like Visions and Hereditary knock the most. It makes sense as Joey Purp, Kipp Stone and GLC have a great track record with that type of production. Songs with Jamila Woods, Webster X and Rich Jones are softer and a bit hazy, yet everything is placed properly. This has been the best year Chicago has ever seen for hip hop music and Odd Couple has continued the quality output.
3 Essential Tracks: Palms, Visions, and Blinded
Oddisee – The Odd Tape
If you are a fan of hip hop, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of multi talented artist and producer Oddisee. His discography is crazy, but his first (arguably) big look was his mixtape Traveling Man which was released on Mello Music Group. It dropped in 2010 and by the end of the year made best album lists across the web.
Since then he has dropped 5 studio albums, 5 mixtapes, 2 EPs, and has produced for the likes of Joey Bad$$, Homeboy Sandman, Has-Lo and many more. 2016 has been a great year for Oddisee as EP Alwasta was polished and one of his best projects to date. His biggest accomplishment this year has undoubtably been the release of his instrumental project The Odd Tape.
The Odd Tape sounds perfect. Literally perfect. Every drum kicks at the right time, cymbals and guitar licks step in when needed and the sequencing on the LP is impeccable. It almost takes on an obsessive quality as Oddisee definitely spent long nights perfecting each song.
Tracks 1-5 play as a jam session…spontaneous and carefree. Then On The Table hits and we are suddenly in a convertible driving through the city on a warm summers night. An oddball is thrown in with Out At Night, which happens to be one of my favorite tracks on the album. The closing three are the highlight of The Odd Tape and have been replayed quiet a bit on my end.
3 Essential Tracks: Out At Night, Long Way Home + Still Sleeping
Mounika. – Seagulls EP
Seagulls came out two weeks into the new year but has created a huge stir in the BandCamp world. Hundreds of people have paid for the newest EP from the French producer. She got her start in 2013 by putting out The Wake Up EP which has some nice boom bap and electronic infused tracks. When I first heard it I mentally gave it a thumbs up and moved on, not sure if she could deliver a stand out piece. All this being said, Mounika works her ass off. Her compilations are filled to the brim, often spanning 20 tracks or more.
Things picked up with Basket Sound (2014) Born To Be Beats (2015) and part 2 and 3 of the Basket Sound Series but nothing has come close to the absolute masterpiece that is Seagulls. She’s been using samples throughout her projects, but Seagulls is the peak. I honestly don’t know all of what she chops up…it would take a good while to figure it out without directly asking her.
Be prepared for some down tempo grooves. Some tracks are super slowed down, others are more impactful. I’m not going to say much more about this as I think it is best described by actually listening to it in it’s entirety.
3 Essential Tracks: Other Woman, All I Want Is You, In The Rain (Outro)
DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
The GOAT DJ Shadow dropped an album this year…did you really think I wasn’t going to include it? I think we can all agree nothing will ever top Endtroducing… but The Mountain Will Fall is a fine offering. Sonically there is way more diversity, from the dark and muddy song Suicide Pact to country guitar licking Nobody Speak (with Run The Jewels) to experimental Depth Charge. I appreciated the album more so because DJ Shadow was adventurous and didn’t give us exactly what we all wanted to hear (Entroducing… Part 2.)
3 Essential Tracks: Nobody Speak, Bergschrund, and Mambo