Best Baltimore Albums, Songs, and Releases from 2016 by Jordannah Elizabeth
It takes a very special kind of artist to create in Baltimore City. Every day, no matter what color or creed, musicians have to push up against walls of traditionalism and bigotry, to stare in the face of insurmountable poverty, while digging within themselves to create sonic narratives that are acutely and unabashedly true to themselves.
These are the 10 Best albums and pieces of music I’ve encountered this year. This list is diverse and eclectic, and though this list is written with sincerity and love, it is not necessarily an endorsement.
I adore these albums and soundscapes. I adore Baltimore music and all of its artists because of their bravery, avid determination to break molds of what pop, hip hop, indie and contemporary music should be and because everyone this year has done their best to tell some version of their truth.
I believe the least we can do is take a listen.
Abdu Ali is the hardest working young man in the city and we all know it. He’s had a whirlwind year of epic shade equally intertwined with transcendence as Ali opened for FKA Twigs this summer. Mongo is a mixtape doused with references to Black spirituals like “Take me to the Wata” and presents itself as a musical manifestation of his LGTBQI and civil rights activism.
Let’s make sure that above all else that we understand that Abdu is a great producer and lyricist. Mongo is very well mixed and mastered, sounding better than many major studio records I’ve heard this year. “Sirens” which features local musicians Al Rogers Jr. and Joy Postell stands out on the album as it is a harrowing look inside of Rogers Jr. and Ali’s personal trials, pains and will to continue on in life with strength and individualism. We really need to salute Abdu and continue to make sure he knows his art is incredible, noticed and appreciated.
As a cheerleader for the underground, I have had no choice but to give a nod to a band that would most likely have come and gone in Baltimore without much of a whisper. Strange Times People Band is the sophomore album performed by a combo of unlikely experimental musicians featuring Caroline Marcantoni on vocals, Dan Breen on bass, Jen Kirby on drums and James Johnson on synth.
This album is truly one of my favorite albums of the year as this wildly unique collection of songs is just as well curated and precisely executed by its vocalist and instrumentalists as it is extraordinarily unusual and off kilter. This is album is a great example of how improvised music can actually come out sounding well formed, decisive and digestible. Frankly, I just like the music because it’s weirdest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
Cloud Hands is the independently released follow up to Heumann’s 2015 debut solo album Here in the Deep (Thrill Jockey). It didn’t make much noise as it was released locally in cassette format through 20/20 Records and dropped on Bandcamp without much promotion. Cloud Hands is an instrumental album showcasing Huemann’s looped, distorted and echoed portraits of his unique guitar style. His work is in the vain of Dead Meadow’s Jason Simon, but also upholds a sensitivity like James Taylor. You get to hear this record teeter between the brink of heavy psychedelia and subtle if not nearly indistinct morsels of stylized traditional guitar composition. It also teeters between emotional and cerebral, so you really just have to flow with the record and allow it to balance you out, not the other way around.
Ami Dang completely gives herself over to Uni Sun as this album crashes like a pop music tide against a black sand beach of traditional Eastern music. Uni Sun is a complex album that challenges your audible senses and understanding of what pop music should be.
Dang has the bravery to be unique and take the pastiche of experiences she’s had in her life to create a soundscape that is representative of self actualization, her own brand of musical and emotional intelligence and the sonic imagery of a multinational narrative. Uni Sun is not black and white, and we should commend Ami for taking her own route and creating a record that tells her personal truth and sounds very cool.
Natural Motion seems to be about following the ebb and flow of nature and how it affects our personal, daily lives. The opening track, “Return to Life” pulls you in with the lyrics, “In the end there’s a full moon rising, return to life in the evening time.” Other Colors’ music is very chill and a little bit loungy. Natural Motion a great album to listen to when you want to calm down the atmosphere of a chaotic vibe in a room full of people, or if you want to turn your personal time into a dreamy linear day of chores and journaling. You don’t have to be loud and thrashy to get your point across. Natural Motion is an indie album that has depth, introspection, and a nice earthy vibe.
Post Pink’s I Believe You, Ok is such a great album. Out of all the albums this is hardest one to describe because this Post Pink’s sophomore record exudes an attitude that fills every pore of your sensual aura that it makes you want to to love everyone and kick things over at the same time.
If you don’t want to make love and kick things over, this is not the album for you. It’s filled with micro punk songs, cramming eight songs onto a 7 inch record. Songs like “High” and “Night Beat” stand out in this quirky and confrontational album. I Believe You, Ok has become a favorite of local listeners, show attendees and music critics alike.
I randomly ended up on stage with with TT the Artist at the Crown earlier this summer holding a sign over my head saying “DON’T CALL ME A BITCH, YOU CAN CALL ME A QUEEN! (the sign was provided by a nervous young women who begged me to step in for her as she had an emergency to attend to at… 1 am.) I remember performing on stage to the best of my ability and thanking God I’d shaved my underarms and had the energy to outdance the 22 year olds in the front row. Only for Baltimore. TT was on tour promoting Queen of the Beat, and yes, I was dancing to the third track on her album, “Queen.”
TT the Artist is a perfectionist and this album boasts pristine production. She raps, “I make this look easy, I do it with style, you need to bow down and give me my crown…” And nothing could be more true. She makes creating incredible hip hop with style and humility look easy. The massive 1 hour and 17 minute, 22 track album, Queen of the Beat is a work of art and should recognized as such.
When I listened to Animal Collective’s Painting With, I thought, “It’s Animal Collective doing Animal Collective better.” We rarely reward seasoned artists for fine tuning their sounds and making more refined albums.
Painting With is of course, intricate but there’s an intention in the sound that exudes persistence and a need to sort of musically “top themselves.” I like that. I think Painting With is off-putting and far out and that’s what Animal Collective is all about. They never compromise and just go harder, creating atmospheric music that makes you feel like you took a bad dose of … everything. Brilliant.
Small Axe covers Liz Phair. I’m into it. Esha Kallianpur and Alex Homen created an anti folk version of the monotone pop star, Liz Phair’s 1994 track, Whip Smart. Covers are interesting because when you put anything in the hands of minimalists, you never truly know what’s going to come out. Small Axe slowed the song down, giving it a more somber tone and making sure their own signature spin overtook the original track.
Joy Postell is a powerful, empowering and penetratingly wise artist and this is evident in her 2016 release, Consciousness. Like Abdu Ali, Postell references great musicians of the past as influences for the music she makes today. “I’m not a preacher but I had to let it out, in the name of those before me like Nina Simone and James Brown, I’m black and proud yeah yeah I’m black and proud.”
Not only does Postell do that, but she chooses to make declarations of truth that are not popular, that are not easy to hear, but beg every day to be sung, rapped, spoken and heard. I am thankful for Consciousness, that it attains reality but in the form of an amazing R&B/Soul release.
Author Jordannah Elizabeth is an author, music and arts critic, editor and folk soul musician. She is the founder and director of the literary nonprofit organization, Publikprivate.org and the author of a “Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As” published by Zero Books. Follow her @lovejordannah.