15. Cautious Clay – Deadpan Love [The Orchard]
The most frequently used word to describe Cautious Clay‘s (Joshua Karpeh) music is “sophisticated”. Critics have noted the felicity with which he combines jazz-inflected instrumentals and a refined R&B vocal style with urbane production techniques to create something self-consciously chic and stylish. He always sounds cool, as in hip, even when he says he’s unsure how to act, think, or feel. The Brooklyn via Cleveland artist sounds at home in the complex, city streets of cultured society.
The music itself is always infectious. The melodies share a slithering under-tempo that makes everything from lyrics about eggs with toast on the side to the color of one’s clothes seem fraught with deep meaning. The subliminal message has an erotic aura. Just like the right outfit can make one look sexy without necessarily being revealing, Clay dresses up his songs to bring out his best qualities. He’s a sophisticated man about town in 21st century America. – Steve Horowitz
14. Georgia Anne Muldrow – VWETO III [FORESEEN Entertainment / Epistrophik Peach Sound]
The latest iteration of Georgia Anne Muldrow‘s VWETO series (meaning “gravity” in Kikongo) builds on the success of the previous two with a 17-track clinic on creating rhythmic frameworks that wow you with their complexity and propel you into movement.
Discussing the conception and evolution of VWETO III, Muldrow expresses a desire to build music that creates its own environment: one of her influences was “an Isaac Hayes LP where even the reverb had grain and texture”. These tracks are “intended for movement” and should “be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period to get the things you need”. The long introspective period of the past year is proof that Muldrow didn’t start baking bread in her downtime off tour, but rather an intricately varied beat tape that elevates itself into the status of a proper album by creating its own atmosphere. – Richard Moriarty
13. serpentwithfeet – DEACON [Secretly Canadian]
Josiah Wise’s new album DEACON is an exhilarating listen. The artist – known as serpentwithfeet – has created a soulful, beautiful record that gives listeners an intimate glimpse into his romantic, sentimental heart. Deacon is a gentle and swirling melding of atmospheric and moody sounds: cloudy, ethereal synths waft, subtle beats skip, a guitar strum, and angelic voices float effortlessly. He looks to the 1980s and the 1990s when crafting the record; there are some nods to New Romantic sounds as well as Boyz II Men-esque harmonies throughout. Yet, Deacon sounds contemporary and modern, and the past echoes don’t date the record.
Part of why DEACON is so remarkable – aside from its obvious musical merits – is that it’s a rare record highlighting Black queer love. Although pop culture and music have become more inclusive in the last few years, it’s still provocative and powerful to hear such an honest, bracing tribute to same-sex love. Wise’s lyrics though poetic and allegorical, are also explicit in their telling of Wise’s queer identity. DEACON delivers on the fantastic promise that Wise’s earlier work – most notably his debut LP soil – has shown. He brings a creative, eccentric, and intelligent sound to alternative soul. – Peter Piatkowski
12. Ray Blk – Access Denied [Island]
After listening to Ray Blk‘s first full-length studio release, Access Denied, it’s clear that it was worth the wait. After biding her time, the singer has unveiled a gorgeous album of sultry tunes, dreamy vocals, and memorable beats and hooks. It’s a sensual album that belies its modern sheen – the synths warm and inviting instead of icy or robotic.
The album opens with “Blk Madonna”, a great way to introduce Access Denied. It’s a powerful song about empowerment. Though Ray Blk sings about wishing to be the “Black Madonna”, she finds strength in being herself, ruminating that “Everyone would tell me I couldn’t go the distance / Chocolate skin, you don’t fit it in, you’re a statistic.” But she is triumphant, noting that “every time I be on stage, they go ballistic.” Produced by her childhood friend, MNEK, the complex boast track works because though her pride shines through, she also chooses to be emotional, characterizing her success and self-confidence as hard-won and earned. – Peter Piatkowski
11. Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant [Brainfeeder / Ninja Tune]
When Naomi “Nai Palm” Saalfield, Hiatus Kaiyote‘s lead vocalist, sings in “Red Room”, “It feels like I’m inside a flower,” she does so with a lilt and sway that’s beguiling, intriguing, and enticing. It’s as if the Australian band (also consisting of bassist Paul Bender, keyboardist Simon Mavin, and drummer Perrin Moss) built the entire stretch of Mood Valiant to encapsulate that inside-of-a-flower feeling. Nai Palm’s vocals perform all sorts of Simone Biles-like feats of fancy, ranging from soaring and searing high notes to depth-plumbing lows.
The soul of this album resides in its cleanest and purest composition, “Stone Or Lavender”. Reminiscent of Nai Palm’s 2017 solo effort Needle Paw, “Stone Or Lavender” is a stunning ballad of piano and strings. It’s easy to imagine the busier tracks that comprise Mood Valient having similar humble origins, constructed perhaps from piano chords and a simple melody before being adorned by musical accouterments.
Yet, these embellishments add exciting flourishes, employing a soul-meets-funk fusion that undulates and fishtails (opener “Blood and Marrow”) with rumbling percussion beneath cascading and escalating piano steps (“Rosewater”). The music falls all over itself to match the journey Nai Palm’s voice is navigating. “Get Sun” knocks and bumps, “Sparkle Tape Breakup” juxtaposes a warm delivery against a delightfully cold rhythm, and Hiatus Kaiyote make chaos sound like beauty in “Chivalry Is Not Dead” and “All the Words We Don’t Say”. As the rhythms lurch forward like the cartoon Soul Train locomotive, the lyrics capture emotions that defy easy expression. Such emotions can only be communicated through the artistic amalgam of a well-crafted song. – Quentin Huff