To my delight, there is a wealth of curated lists of great music from the last year, spanning across genres and levels of popularity. Albums from established artists like Tyler, the Creator and promising up-and-comers like black midi appeared on various year-end lists, but some of my favourite albums from this year didn’t seem to circulate much at all.

I wrote this little piece to share some of my thoughts on these albums, most of which draw from jazz, soul, and blues influences. I also selected a few tracks from these few albums and put them together in this Spotify playlist. The playlist consists largely of instrumentals and, even when vocals appear, they often act as just another instrument rather the the song’s main reason for existence. Hope you enjoy!

Bridges and Superbloom by Kiefer

This year, Kiefer released two EPs — Bridges and Superbloom — as one cohesive project that clearly showcases the pianist’s musical ideas and mastery of the keyboard. On these two EPs, the accompanying instruments meld subtly into the background, allowing Kiefer and his keyboard forward into the spotlight.

The song “Be Encouraged” is my personal favourite. On this track, Kiefer alternates between a short, soulful motif that he repeats like a mantra and a sequence of gorgeous harmonies that he delicately lays out as the base for his improvisations. He repeats the main melody of the song over and over, as if he were emphasizing the first part of his pithy motto: “Be Encouraged and Encourage Others.”

The Loop by Shafiq Husayn

After experiencing Joe Armon-Jones’ dazzling keyboard solos live at an Ezra Collective gig earlier this month, I got the chance to ask him what music he’d been listening to lately. From the various artists in the realms of jazz and soul that he recommended, Shafiq Husayn stood out.

Crowded with appearances from some of the heftiest names in contemporary R&B, jazz, and soul music, including Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Bilal, & Anderson Paak, The Loop delivers track after track of slow-burning grooves laden with vocal harmonies, glittering synths, streaming horns, funky bass lines, and swinging drum loops.

In this album, Husayn weaves together a tapestry of eclectic yet cohesive musical moments from slivers of home studio recordings of jam sessions with friends, dating as far back as 2012. The album pays a worthy tribute to soul, jazz, hip hop, and R&B music of preceding decades in the form of further musical innovation.

Cypress Grove by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes

Produced by Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame, Cypress Grove presents the minimal yet full-bodied sound of Mississippi blues figurehead Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.

One of the album’s highlights is its very first track, “Hard Times”. Throughout the song, Holmes’ voice and acoustic guitar take turns resolving a strolling, bluesy riff, descending again and again to the same, inevitable place. It sounds like Holmes plucking sympathy out of his guitar.

Auerbach deserves credit for bringing robustness and polish to the country blues veteran’s vintage sound. Like the cover art, the album’s production offers a vivid snapshot of the artist by framing and colouring his straightforward, traditional approach.

Pareidolia and NUNU by Clever Austin

In Pareidolia and NUNU, Clever Austin, drummer of the acclaimed Hiatus Kaiyote, created two albums brimming with dynamic yet meditative instrumentals.

In “Higher Plains” on Pareidolia, Clever Austin carves out a pensive groove, hones it, and moves on to the next; each musical idea progresses organically onto the next like thoughts in a wandering mind.

Even more so than Pareidolia, NUNU is an intimate record of musical ruminations. Fans of the acoustic moments in Nicolas Jaar’s discography might find similar joy in Austin’s repetition of soft, thoughtful piano lines. On “B5”, the contemplative mood grows with the barely audible sound of light friction between neighbouring piano keys, as Austin moves them carefully in and out of place. You can imagine yourself sitting silently in the artist’s dimly lit personal studio, watching him sketch out a musical idea.

Shiroi by Mansur Brown

Mansur Brown, a major contributor to the acclaimed 2016 album Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal, took a strong step forward as a solo artist in 2019 with this debut album. In Shiroi, the guitarist creates a dreamy yet lively atmosphere by bringing together the sounds of jazz, funk, and electronic music in an imaginative, refreshing way.

Overall, Brown impresses with a balanced and focused album. Most tracks feature a hypnotic mesh of garbled electric guitar and bustling percussion, but maintain a spacious, inviting atmosphere. Even though the album loses a bit of its edge halfway through, due to its limited sound palette and repetitive use of song structure, it promises much of Mansur Brown’s future work. It’s no wonder the talented young guitarist managed to enlist heavy-weights Thundercat and Robert Glasper for his solo debut.

Honourable Mentions

In addition to select songs from the few albums above, I included songs from these three albums in my Spotify playlist:

All Trash, No Love by Billy Uomo

Coping with romantic heartbreak, Uomo somehow translates his sour, dejected mood into sweet, funky, and soulful bedroom pop.

Zdenka 2080 by Salami Rose Joe Louis

After ditching her career as a scientist to pursue her artistic career with Brainfeeder Records, the experimental songwriter releases another enigmatic collection of colourful, meandering, and subdued compositions.

You’re so Fine by Papa Bear & His Cubs

Re-released in 2019, the two songs by this family band are a blissful mix of old soul and gospel from the 60s.