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Ordinarily, I might chalk up to having these many new artists coming from the same city as coincidence but it feels like Chicago’s music scene is the midst of some kind of glorious moment right now. Musically, the Jamila Woods, NoName and Chance projects share much in common but it’s also about collaboration since every artist above has worked with at least 1-2 other people.

Woods’s “HEAVN” is suitably sublime, given its name, and there’s so many layers of meaning at play here. It’s about love rising within and against violence, history, tragedy, resistance and liberation. All that and an amazing polyvocal hook plus a Cure shout-out for all the ‘80s kids.

The NoName album sounds like it was made with a roomful of children’s musical toys and I mean that as a compliment in the best possible way.

I didn’t love Chance’s Coloring Book as much as others but it had these moments of transcendent magic, especially the on “How Great” when the track shifts from the gospel choir to the sample crafted from their singing. Plus, it made sense to throw it into the mix here, paired with “Ultralight Beam.” I feel like I’ve said this elsewhere but I don’t think The Life of Pablo will improve with time (not to least of which is because of Kanye’s antics) but “Ultralight Beam” stays stunning.

I think we can all agree that 2016 could have used more Kendrick yet even between two tracks, he still managed to leave quite the impression. “Untitled 06” owes as much to Cee-lo as it does KL but together, they create a groove so good that it’s hard to believe this was left on a cutting room floor originally. Meanwhile, Kendrick’s verse on the “THat Part” remix mandolins your mind so thoroughly that you may need a guide to follow every rhyme he layers in there.

I don’t have much more to add that I haven’t already said except to repeat that the very existence of this album feels like a miracle and a gift. This track, in particular, will have me bouncing well into the new year and beyond.

Technically, “Might Be” should be listed as a “discovery” since it’s two years old but as much as I thought Malibu was a solid effort, no Paak song got more rotation from me this year than “Might Be,” after I heard it on Wynter Mitchell’s “Summer of Wynter” playlist earlier this year.

But in terms of current R&B jams, Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White” had me zoning out like practically no other song this year. Even if I agree that Blond felt form-less at times, sometimes, vibe > songs.

Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” goes in a completely opposite direction: a big big sound that wants to raise the roof, burn it down and then get everyone to pitch in to rebuild it. How this wasn’t a smash hit of the summer, I’ll never understand.

But let’s just be real: Beyonce managed to find some next level of dominance that I would never have guessed was possible unlike “Formation” blew in and up. I very much want to see how artists like her and Kendrick perform (literally and figuratively) over the next few years.

 It feels somehow wrong to laud 2016 as a great year for retro-soul considering we lost both Sharon Jones and the Frightnrs’ Dan Klein but the sheer quality of output from stalwart labels like Daptone, Big Crown and Timmion was undeniable.1
I’m sneaking the Jack Moves into the 2016 column even though the album came out in ’15 simply because I didn’t come upon it until this year. “Being With You” sounds like some kind of lost track from the Sylvers II album and in general, I loved the group’s take on a particular style of NY/NJ ’70s R&B.
Charles Bradley continues to emote anguish better than almost any other but “Things We Do For Love,” my favorite song off of Changes, was lighter in the tone. He almost sounds…happy here. 😉
The Frankie Reyes is an example of how the simplest of ideas can yield amazing results. Even in an age of digital patches for everything, there’s something to be said about the unique qualities of vintage synths.
Even if The Frightnrs’ album is haunted by the loss of Klein, the world needs more rocksteady grooves and I hope the group continues to deliver in that vein.
Who knew there was a Bolivian-Finnish tradition in music-making? Bobby Oroza is second-generation in that and I suspect we’ll be hearing more from him for the future. (BTW, am I the only one who thinks Oroza and Reyes should collabo?)
Hands-down, this new Lee Fields album is the best thing he’s released with The Expressions since their first collaboration on My World (maybe better) and “Never Be Another You,” is just one of a slew of incredible tracks off of there.
Had to end this with a nod to the late Sharon Jones with the sole new song off of the soundtrack for Miss Sharon Jones! I suppose the title feels bittersweet now but the spirit behind it is what matters and until the very end, Jones’s willpower and vibrancy stayed shining.
  1. I should also acknowledge that some of these imprints are branching into non-soul releases like The Shacks on Big Crown or The Mystery Lights on Daptone. Makes sense and I hope they continue to do so even if my first and forever love will be for their soul output.