What a year for music. Beyoncé reigned supreme, Solange powerfully commanded her seat at the table, Skepta went stratospheric, Frank Ocean finally came through, and Kanye released the record that — quite literally — kept on giving. But here were a plethora of other records that may have flown under the radar, yet deserve as much attention as the rest. From Moodyman to Trim, i-D presents the alternative albums that you need to hear before the year ends.
Trim, 1-800-Dinosaur Presents Trim
While the battle was waged over which MC should win the Mercury — Skepta or Kano — there was one grime album that was hugely overlooked this year: Trim's 1-800-Dinosaur offering, released via James Blake's 1-800 label. Featuring production from Airhead, Happa, Bullion, and Boothroyd as well as Dan Foat, Klaus, and Blake himself, the record is a real triumph both artistically and personally. The man who has released over 14 mixtapes and four EPs to date finally released an album 'proper'. Trim's commanding presence on the mic makes for an utterly absorbing experience as he works through internal struggles and explores ideas around isolation and loneliness via sophisticated wordplay that requires repeat listens to fully appreciate.
Track to check: "Before I Lied"
Kano, Made In The Manor
It might have missed out on the Mercury, but Kane Robinson's first offering in six years was a terrific trip down memory lane. Recalling grime's metamorphosis from jungle to garage via the estates of East Ham, Plaistow, and Bow (and the soundsystems of Kingston, Jamaica), Kano salutes the scene in so many ways. "Three Wheel-Ups" has been reloaded around the globe, "Garage Skank" provided perhaps the best one-liner in grime this year, while "This Is England" is perhaps the most poetic portrayal of east London ever made. 'I'm from where Reggie Kray got rich as fuck/ East London, who am I to mess tradition up?/ Jellied eels, pe and mash, two pints of that Pride on tap/ Polo top, pair of Stans, flat cap and a Burberry mac.' In our interview with Kano earlier this year, the MC talked to i-D about the album, as well as about the evolution of himself, the manor, and the scene.
Track to check: "Three Wheel-Ups"
Princess Nokia, 1992
If you blinked on September 5, you may well have missed out on some serious hip-hop gold. "Tomboy" furiously leads the way on nine-track EP 1992, which features rapper Destiny Frasqueri laying things down loud and proud. We fell hard and fast for her effortless flow and sweet production selection. "Brujas" sees the 24-year-old explore her Afro-Latinx identity and spiritual heritage, while "Kitana" further cemented this NYC rapper's place in the hall of awesome. Don't you fuck with her energy.
Track to check: "Brujas"
Sunflower Bean, Human Ceremony
Keeping rock n roll alive from across the pond, Sunflower Bean is killing it. Human Ceremony was written in the basement of drummer Jacob Faber's parents' house, was recorded in just 11 days, and marked the band's first time working with a producer. With all of the skills, confidence, and general brilliance of a band way beyond its years, Sunflower Bean released a debut record of beautiful psychedelic rock at it's finest. We highly recommend you catch the trio live sooner rather than later. Just like Lou Reed said: "you make an album and then have the rest of your life." Julia Cumming, Nick Kivlen, and Jacob Faber are living theirs right.
Track to check: "Come On"
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
A graduate of the same musical school as Kendrick Lamar, .Paak (who's also a protege of Dr. Dre) delivers a delightful and delighting blend of funk, rap, soul, gospel, blues, and jazz on his third album. Opening with saxophone-framed "The Bird," and closing 18 tracks later with triumphant "The Dreamer," ('This is the music that you gotta feel/ Gave you the truth before I got a deal'), Malibu is a most immersive listening experience from beginning to end. Featuring ScHoolboy Q, The Game, and Talib Kweli, the record's melodic, musical, and lyrical quality is incredibly high. It's not a note or word surplus to requirements, despite the fact Malibu is stuffed full of both. Punctuating the record with his own turbulent story, the church-raised former weed farmer and previously homeless father of one manages to move effortlessly between rapping and singing, hip-hop and R&B. .Paak inahabits each world as though he were borne in and of it. Like his compadre Lamar, .Paak's message is that of fighting the odds and beating them. Again like Lamar, he ensures the sonics set alight his accompanying story. If Malibu is .Paak's good kid, then roll on his To Pimp A Butterfly.
Track to check: "Come Down"
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Carrying over the jazzy 80s elements of 2013's Cupid Deluxe, Freetown Sound is a layered record full of samples and field recordings touching predominantly on black masculinity, religion, and rather topically, migration. These issues intersect on Devonté Hynes's third record as Blood Orange to form a touching and very important piece of social commentary. The album, says Dev, is about "being black in England, being black in America… my movement to this country at the age of 21, the same age that my mother moved from Guyana to London, and my father from Sierra Leone to London." Though deeply personal, Dev describes it as "probably the most relatable thing I've ever done." i-D recently met with Dev at a New York bookstore to talk about how the album is more a personal manifesto than a specific political message.
Track to check: "Best To You"
Giggs, The Landlord
Released independently, The Landlord is Giggs's most successful album to date. It hit #2 in the UK charts and helped him land his first London show… ever. There are so many incredible moments on the album, from Swifta Beata's "501" (featuring the almighty Casisdead) and Donae'o's "Lock Doh," he may be known for talking the 'ardest, but the father of two has also never been afraid to show a softer side. Some of the album's most powerful moments are Giggs's reflections on loneliness, fear, and betrayal. The album's "Intro," "Just Swervin'," and (at a push) "The Process" — in which he talks about the cycle of relationships — enforce the fact that Giggs is so much more than merely a former Peckham Boy. Sure he can be menacing on the mic, but sometimes he's just a big old softie.
Track to check: "501" Ft. CasIsDead
67, Lets Lurk
Lacking any attempt at the occasional charm or lightheartedness you might find from Giggs or Section Boyz, 67 is determinedly dark. The five-piece appear to revel in its sinister spoken word set to the darkest of drill. LD, Dimzy, Asap, Money, and Liquez are possibly the closest thing south London has to Chief Keef or Lil Durk. Although the group's road life may be a thing of the past, it's what concerns and informs 67's menacing music most. Using a plethora of inventive allusions to reflect on road life, take time to dwell in 67's subterranean soundscape, and you too will be sucked into the outfit's sinister vision of south London.
Track to Check: "Lets Lurk" ft. Giggs
Soft Hair, Soft Hair
If, upon listening to this record when it emerged on October 28 via Weird World, you thought: 'hang on a minute... this sounds a bit like Connan Mockasin holed away in a Manchester council estate with Sam Eastgate of Late of the Pier/LA Priest back in 2006 and proceeded to make sweet musical love to Eastgate while getting sick and tripping out,' you'd be both very perceptive and very correct. Inspired by "an exotic sexy world of soft-haired mutant lizard people dreamed up many moons ago," Soft Hair's vocals hit the highest highs and lowest lows as the synth bubbles along atop a seductive bass. Read our interview with the dynamic duo here.
Moodymann, DJ-Kicks Compilation
Reclusive DJ Moodymann mixes 30-odd tracks over 80 minutes for the 51st offering from the long-running and altogether exemplary DJ-Kicks series. Refuting all expectation of tempo or genre, the Detroit house and techno guru instead curates a truly wonderful, unexpected lineup of records that seem to have two things in common: all of the soul and lots of the love. Opening with the languorous sax of Yaw's "Where Will You Be" before segueing sweetly into Cody ChesnuTT's sublime "Serve This Royalty" from his understated — and underrated — 2002 offering The Headphone Masterpiece, Kenny Dixon Jr. assembles a loving lineup of uplifting anthems. From alt-soul and R&B, he switches into alt-electronica, with tracks by Jai Paul and Flying Lotus. Disco kicks in towards the middle, as he picks up the pace with Fort Knox Five's "Uptown Tricks." But the tempo never stands still; Moodymann is far too magical a mixer for such mediocrity. Between the Shining-esqe piano riff of Anne Clark's "Our Darkness" or his own bluesey-house edit of Joeski's "How Do I Go On," the compilation closes as it opens — discerningly, and with love.
Track to check: Cody ChesnuTT, "Serve This Royalty"
Tove Lo, Lady Wood
We knew the second album from Swedish pop thing Tove Lo would be good as soon as we heard lead single "Cool Girl," the first known example of a song accurately capturing the power of an eye roll emoji in aural form (check it out at 1:48). Released, as was the way in 2016, alongside a Lemonade-esque accompanying film, it featured crashed cars, gasoline, and some scenes of a sexual nature that bothered YouTube. No idea what was going on, but we liked it.
Track to check: "True Disaster"
Butterz, Grime 2016
Featuring both the obvious hits and the underground picks, producers Elijah and Skilliam skillfully select the year's high-points in grime. With over 40 tracks from Trim, Footsie, Kano, Wiley, D Double E, Prez T, Swindle, Spyro, and C4, the pair have helpfully provided a bluffer's guide to the scene in 2016 without watering down either the essence or greatness of grime's glory year.
Track to check: Frisco ft. Skepta & Wiley, "Raving Tonight"
King, We Are King
One of the standout shows at this year's Iceland Airwaves was by little-known L.A. three-piece named King. With fans including Prince, Solange, Dev Hynes and Kendrick Lamar, chances are neo-soul queens Anita, Amber, and Paris (the latter two are twins) won't remain an inside secret for too much longer. Magically mellow and absolutely full of pure, sweet groove, We Are King is loose funk and silky soul backed by the trio's own impressive musicianship. King's members write, play, and produce every single part of the record. Pitched somewhere between Sade and Jill Scott — with inflections of Floetry and Stevie — each track revels in a sense of stillness, languid ambiance, and wondrous harmonies. Yet it never once drifts into dullness. It may all seem simple, but is in fact a thing of sophisticated wonder. King really does rule.
Track to check: "Supernatural"
Garbage, Strange Little Birds
21 years after the release of its eponymous debut, Garbage returned with album number six: Strange Little Birds. A brand new record of trademark twists and turns, loud and quiet, it is, to put it simply, the band's best in fifteen years. Strange Little Birds marks a welcome return for Shirley Manson and co, and is a reminder of a time when Manson was the no-nonsense Scottish lass with the throatiest laugh in music — an icon in boots who exerted a charismatic hold over a generation and bagged a James Bond soundtrack in the process. Go gaga for Garbage and read our interview with Shirley here.
Track to check: "Empty"
After ten years, Parisian dance duo Justice possesses the same level of Gallic cool on its third LP Woman that made it the most exciting prospect of the great French Invasion of the mid-noughties. Justice — who road to fame on the back of Europe-wide hit We Are Your Friends in 2006 — seem to have retired the leather jackets and skinny black jeans when we met atop a trendy east London hotel last month. But the kind of easygoing insouciance practiced by messieurs Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay remains very much de rigueur. "We're releasing a third album and, of course, there's no hype anymore, we're not a new sensation but there's no rejection either," said Xavier. "Justice is just somewhere out there, part of the musical landscape." They can speak French but, these days, they just let the funky music do the talking.
Track to check: "Randy"
Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
Norway's very magick J.H. succeeded in crafting a record with blood powers running through its core and female vampires skulking in the shadows. Their heavy breaths echo throughout Blood Bitch, disconcerting and beautiful. Taking inspiration from lo-fi horror films, Hval is all about the supernatural and goes where others won't with this cinematic wonder. Not one for the office stereo unless you want to creep out those who aren't in the know.
Track to check: "Conceptual Romance"
Text Hattie Collins, Frankie Dunn, and Matthew Whitehouse
Princess Nokia shot for i-D's 35th Birthday Issue
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois