20. Akiba by Akiba
The album art to Akiba features cool retro colors, 80’s technology, and absurdities like cherry palm trees and a walking television. For all of its throwback references, though, it has clearly been put together in a modern computer program like Photoshop. Akiba’s music embodies all of this aesthetic, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s as sarcastically shallow as its cousins in the vaporwave movement.
Akiba pools together colorful synths, atmospheric guitars, electro beats, and shoegaze vocals in a familiar but distinct combination of electronic rock. It sometimes throws in an extra unexpected element, too, as with the trap-styled hi-hats on “Bombshell” or the cold open to “Failure Cresh”, which recalls every fantasy soundtrack from the 1980’s.
Admittedly, some songs are more memorable than others, and the understated vocalist is sometimes at odds with the more energetic cuts. All in all, though, Akiba has developed a signature brand with its debut, and it’s one that is as danceable as it is dreamy.
Recommended tracks: “Alan Kulwicki” / “Rosebell”
19. Benjimanji by Benjimanji
The opening track to Ben Whitfield’s quirky solo debut is literally just about moving to England and drinking tea. The chorus to “Earl Grey” says “drop all the bombs you like so long as I have my tea”, which hints at a possible socially-conscious angle but is more than likely just an indication of how attached the narrator is to his tea. Benjimanji is best listened at surface level, but that’s part of the charm of an album this unabashedly, uniquely fun.
Benjimanji’s use of synthetic instrumentation adds an element of plastic kitsch that feels oddly appropriate. Whitfield has an interesting approach to harmonies, too. His backing vocals don’t quite support his leading ones the way they’re expected, instead crowding a bit into the spotlight. However, what could be taken as an amateurish imperfection proves to be an earworm of a thumbprint.
When combined with topics ranging from romance to extraterrestrials, his sound creates a world distinctly his. Benjimanji doesn’t adhere to trends, but rather exists outside of studio subtext, finds muses in the weird, and brings an offbeat, sunny-eyed voice to an often stale genre.
Recommended tracks: “Good Feeling” / “The End”
18. Pale Blue Dot by Oberon
Oberon is nothing if not macrocosmic. The spacesuit-wearing four-piece tackles the entire life cycle of planet Earth on its epic sophomore record, Pale Blue Dot, and it’s the perfect muse for the group’s sound.
Standing somewhere between progressive rock and metal, the Ada band takes the listener on a largely instrumental journey. Occasionally, vocals help with the timeline, but for the most part, the album is in speechless awe of the majesty of the universe.
It isn’t a perfect album in the way many ambitious works aren’t. The practical lyrics don’t reach the lofty tone of the concept, and for its towering hour-long length, the LP starts to run out of steam just as it hits its third act. The latter is mostly due to the longest tracks hitting toward the end, though, and indulgence is practically mandatory for a project like this.
By the time the album bookends its epic voyage with the famous Carl Sagan quote, a wistful guitar bids adieu to the pale blue dot in a poignant epilogue of which Oberon has earned every second.
Recommended tracks: “Upon the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres” / “From the Sky”
17. Era of an Emcee by L-Smooth
If there is an award for “greatest” rap artist, millions have already laid claim to it. Ego is so watered down that it has become cliché, so it’s refreshing when an artist throws down a gauntlet without already calling the match.
Enter L-Smooth, who talks a big game in his intro and title track, backs it up with deft verses, but stays grounded enough to acknowledge that most people have never heard of him. On the brilliant “Pillow Cases”, he throws his bid in for that award, but in the lines “Fly to Oklahoma, might just find the greatest / I ain’t afraid to say it”, he does so with self awareness. Later on the track, he raps about how his role as a father takes priority over hip-hop stardom. This is characteristic of a behind-the-curtain tone echoed throughout the album as the emcee splays tropes like fashion (“Jordans”) and cars (“Weekend Clean”).
He strips hip-hop of its image until only words and music remain. While his instrumentals are fine, L-Smooth dominates this playing field with his smart rhymes and abundant wordplay. To be fair, he frequently struts in puffed up claims of greatness, but in the context of Era of an Emcee, it’s not so much a checkered flag as it is a smoking gun.
Recommended tracks: “Pillow Cases (feat. Shylah Vaughn)” / “Plateau”
16. Tame by Foxburrows
Foxburrows are presently on an intermittent hiatus, but just before the band split up geographically, it put out this glorious knotted oak of an LP. As this blog’s review stated back in May, “The glimmering musical treatment plays like a constant light at the end of the tunnel, and the transfixing beauty that is molded into the project gives a sense of purpose to a direction-seeking narrator.”
Tame is full of existential anxiety, and though the narrative is cryptic about the specifics, the tone is impossible not to grasp once clued in to it. The lyrics are heavy, coming from a place of duress. The purging of this angst comes through in longform indie rock arrangements that acknowledge traditional song structure while frequently pushing away from it.
The performances are solid all around with swirls of atmospheric guitar and keys providing a light fog without losing sight of the band’s exceptional lead vocalist, who singlehandedly grounds the album. In many ways, his lyrics and vocal stylings are the trunk of Tame, and the music is the lofty foliage, branching out into the sky for live-giving light.
Recommended tracks: “Waves” / “Fourvel”
15. Hush Hush by Josh Sallee
On the intensely downbeat Hush Hush, Josh Sallee takes a dark turn from his last major release, 2014’s Know Society. Where that album saw the popular rapper riding a confident high with swift, dexterous flow and musical variety, Hush Hush narrows in on personal depression. Even when surrounded by overwhelming doubt and despair, however, Sallee still presents his thoughts with self-aware grandeur. The very start of the album depicts his own demise in a sly but grave sample of a reporter relaying the news of John Lennon’s death.
Sallee is as electrifying as ever when he spits on the new LP, but he brings a new shade of emotional angst that gives his flow an edge it didn’t have before. When he isn’t drained and crestfallen, he strains his voice box with raw sobs of heartache. The accompanying beats are overcast and help contextualize the album’s sulky core. With exception to the optimistic final track, Hush Hush commits to its depressed mood, John Lennon samples and all.
Like Lennon, Sallee can’t shake his ego even when he’s criticizing it, and the novelty of his unusual approach to rapping here starts to wear thin on repeat listens. What’s left, however, is a sturdy framework of good rhymes, clear direction, and skilled performances. It isn’t perfect, but Hush Hush boldly and commendably tries something different with some brilliant results, and it shows its creator maturing into a more cohesive, more conceptually minded artist.
Recommended tracks: “Pressure Ft. Cassie Jo Craig” / “Damn, I Feel Good Ft. Deus”
14. These American Blues by Levi Parham
Driven by great, old-fashioned songs, Levi Parham’s These American Blues is a collection of poetic, homegrown muses set to an organic mix of blues and Americana, as the title suggests.
Parham’s earthen, soothing voice sits comfortably in full band performances that boast upbeat piano, pedal steel guitar and organ. There are some excellent backing vocals and harmonies, too, that only take the spotlight when the occasion calls for it. Elsewhere, they sit so far within the mix that they are felt instead of heard.
The tracking also does a solid job of working the various angles of Parham’s sound into an easily digestible but occasionally unexpected playlist. For instance, it puts the upbeat “Central Time” at the end, following the slow and thoughtful “Your Blue Eyes Give You Away”, which would normally be the closer on any other record. In this context, Oklahoma ode “Central Time” becomes something of an end credits sequence to a theatrically-paced album.
Even though his label debut ended nearly as soon as it started—his conscience in light of this year’s Dakota Access Pipeline recently prompted his departure—it was a brilliant go and will likely help the songwriter in finding major work elsewhere in no time.
Recommended tracks: “Steal Me” / “Wrong Way to Hold a Man”
13. Jaguar Jesus by J French
Self-produced and light on features, Jaguar Jesus largely ignores the collaborative nature of many hip-hop records in favor of a true solo effort. J French lays down smooth, intelligent rhymes against jazz and soul samples in an expert celebration of the basics.
In “Up There”, French says “I like my women dark and my music bright, my love blind and people tellin’ me I’m losing sight.” He backs up this mantra with a dozen laid-back jams that avoid bells and whistles. He also takes a throwback approach to choruses, which don’t rely on guest vocalists or dumbed down lines drilled ad nauseum in pursuit of a hook. Instead, when he does use them, his choruses are brief and concise. Jaguar Jesus is all about the verses.
The topics about which French raps are mostly just self boasting with occasional nods to girls, but even in his most cliched of ideas, he brings a fresh spin of wordplay and authenticity. His production work also carries a distinct fingerprint that helps his LP reach a high level of cohesion. The album is a clear-cut effort that doesn’t try to be anything other than simply great hip-hop, and J French more than succeeds with Jaguar Jesus.
Recommended tracks: “Reign” / “Sure”
12. Wilder Side by Carter Sampson
It’s been a flagship year for Carter Sampson. In addition to releasing the most acclaimed album of her career, she also toured Europe extensively, where she has become something of a hit. Some folks around here may only know her as the leader of Rock and Roll Camp for Girls OKC (which itself had an incredible year), but people in places like The Netherlands call her the “Queen of Oklahoma”. While that title was hypothetical in its song of the same name when she released it years ago, it has since become somewhat prophetic. Her popularity overseas proved high enough to demand an additional two albums from the heartland songstress–a Christmas album and a compilation of her own body of work.
It all started back in January with Wilder Side, which boasts laid-back folk anthems of independence that could only come from a voice seasoned in the matter. On the title track, Sampson sings, “I’m always putting love together to take it apart.” She never chides herself for it, but neither does she quite have closure about it. Her “wilder side” keeps her restless yet free, and the way it affects her life is a big bag of mixed feelings.
From “driving all night just to be alone” to finding someone to “wash my sins in the Medicine River”, she is bothered but far from broken as she explores the aftermath of overcommitted relationships. While other topics like church and tornadoes show up in the tracklist, the running theme is self. While her identity sometimes comes with experiences of mixed results, she questions it only to better understand it. Wilder Side is warm and upbeat, but its unmistakable backbone is what truly makes it throne-worthy.
Recommended tracks: “Wilder Side” / “Everything You Need”
11. Hospital Music by Young Weather
Like its title implies, Hospital Music is full of therapeutic expressions of a troubled heart and mind, laid out with the healing power of poetry. The owner of said heart and mind is Dustin Ragland, local jack of all musical trades. His solo project, Young Weather, comes in many variations, but he has zeroed in on an exhilarating blend with this album, the best in his catalogue. Indie rock meets electronic sequencing on Hospital Music, so it might surprise some to find rich lyrics mulling over the human state and spirituality.
Take “Absolutions”, which ends with a haunting yet beautiful few lines that say, “Breaking the bread of His body / And counting the pulse of His bloody wrist / I’m always praying for solutions / But His only answer is a silent kiss”. A thought like this shouldn’t pair so well with such a danceable groove as what appears on this cut, but what bridges the two is Ragland’s earthen vocal delivery. It bares in honesty a perspective that is wise yet questioning, reflecting a running theme through Hospital Music. Belief and understanding are not the same thing, and the world has a funny way of pitting them against each other within ourselves.
Recommended tracks: “Sane” / “Absolutions”