Since I started this column, I’ve aimed to broaden and elevate the definition of a beat tape. I wanted to ensure that any record labeled as such isn’t written off as somehow inherently lesser than an “instrumental album.” Ideally, each column has illustrated just how thin that pretentious distinction has always been. The albums I’ve selected as the best of the year accomplish this feat, and more. Some prove that the power drums and the right sample will remain undiminished forever. Others present wholly original compositions, the instrumentation looped or played in concert with the rest of the arrangement. And others, of course, operate in the middle, preserving the formal elements of the beatmaking past as they incorporate them into forward-thinking productions. In short, all of these records affirm the richness of instrumental beat music—its history, its immersiveness, and its ability to encapsulate our world while creating new ones.
Happy Little Trees
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
If there were an award for indie producer of the year, I would cast my vote for Kenny Segal. The L.A. artist deserves commendation for the breadth and quality of his 2018 output. In addition to releasing Casual Horns, Dog with the Jefferson Park Boys and the third installment of his Kenstrumentals series, he produced standouts on milo’s budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies and Armand Hammer’s Paraffin. Lastly, he released his brilliant solo debut, Happy Little Trees. Only a slight departure from his other work, the album perfects and expands Segal’s distinctive sound. The organic instrumentation, the warm static and hiss, the crunchy percussion—he weaves all of these elements into open, sometimes jazzy, and often bittersweet instrumentals that evoke an undeniable wistfulness. Happy Little Trees, like the best Segal beats, make you nostalgic for a time and place you may have never known.
Compact Disc (CD)
L.A. producer City Girl recently announced that she will be “working less” to address several health concerns, a few of which, unfortunately, are ear-related. She also expressed how disheartening it was to make this decision. Ideally, she takes comfort in the fact that she released three impressive records in 2018: Time Falls Like Moonlight (April), Neon Impasse (July), and Celestial Angel (October). While each offers a unique amalgam of tranquil, layered, and softly thumping chillhop, Celestial Angel is the most diverse and progressive of the trio. Utilizing everything from acoustic guitar to synth and piano, the album is a dreamy and tender, suited for rainy days and quiet evenings. As poignant as it is subtly propulsive, Celestial Angel moves beyond the rote drum loop and sample formula, creating a world and expanding the boundaries of chillhop.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Happysad, the second LP from L.A.-based pianist/producer Kiefer Shackelford, is the more emotionally arresting and accomplished follow-up to his Leaving Records debut Kickinit Alone. Kickinit Alone succeeded in capturing the feeling of isolation. Happysad, however, offers greater emotional depth and complexity. No matter how upbeat the melody or how hard the drums, Kiefer finds the right notes to convey an undercurrent of irrepressible sadness. For those who know this polar struggle well, Happysad is as cathartic as it is head-nodding. While many talented producers work in the realm of jazz-heavy instrumental hip-hop, few of them approach the musicianship Kiefer displays on Happysad (e.g., the soloing on “FOMO”). Fewer still are capable of erasing the divide between jazz and hip-hop entirely.
Women of the World
Each year, you can find at least one new list with a headline like “Female Producers You Should Know Right Now.” While these lists are necessary, there still seems to be a dearth of articles profiling one woman producer at a time. Inner Ocean’s Women of the World is an excellent beat tape and extensive list of women producers whose music and lives warrant individual attention. Curated by Australian producer Sadiva, whose rainy, string-accented head-nodder “DB FLYP” opens the compilation, Women of the World’s 29 tracks span more ground than a capsule review could cover. Whether it’s the expansive and meditative knock of baechulgi’s “acceptance,” the soulful samples and almost Latin rhythms of Audio Samurai’s “Silly,” or something else, you’ll find several beats that resonate with you. Ideally, you’ll be hearing more about the women who made them very soon.
Compact Disc (CD)
GOD.DAMN.CHAN’s Slush blends the many iterations of beat music that emanated from Low End Theory into a glinting, quasi-psychedelic cocktail. That brightness appears on tracks like the bouncy-yet-smooth, saxophone-heavy “Groovybby” and its equally jazzy counterpart “sUpa Ugly.” “SLUSH,” on the other hand, is the trap equivalent of walking through a casino on mushrooms, the ricocheting bells, screaming sirens, and chest-rattling bass approximating the feeling of watching the neon rows of slot machines melt into clanging, viscous waves of light. There are strands of other percussive genres (e.g., the footwork-like freneticism on “Deuces”), and CHAN manages to pull from them all without imitating. Slush augurs well for the beat scene’s temporarily uncertain future.
The unrelenting cheer of some Christmas music can feel forced, false, soulless. You feel like you’re being sold something during the season of buying. Jonwayne’s Yuletide Bangerz reimagines the songs you’ve heard blaring from department store speakers while waiting in ungodly lines, turning them into beats that hit harder than a Tim Allen in The Santa Clause falling down a chimney. On tracks like “Mistletoe,” he selects the cheeriest instrumentation from the source material and pairs it with crashing percussion, adding a grit that makes the jubilance feel genuine. Elsewhere (e.g., “Son of Turboman” and “Carol”), he turns the inherent eeriness of Christmas songs into beats that are alternately thundering and haunting. Throughout, he maintains a delicate balance of levity and gravity. Melancholy samples temper the clips from Christmas comedies that are woven throughout the tape (e.g., “Purple,” “No Santa”). While Yuletide Bangerz wouldn’t exist without the samples, the record feels more honest than any of the original songs. Even at when it knocks the hardest, it considers the many complex emotions we feel during the holidays.
Quickly, quickly should appear on every “Artists to Watch” list for 2019. Over Skies, the 17-year-old Portland producer’s debut on Ta-Ku’s Jakarta Records imprint 823, is an assured record that announces the arrival of a singular voice. His suites move seamlessly from somberness to exuberance. They capture the moments when dense, grey clouds obscure the sun and then move on to reveal its light once more. It’s a scene that inspires an indescribable combination of melancholy and hope, a feeling that perhaps only someone familiar with Portland’s climate can convey. On “Ghost,” for instance, solemn keys give way to jazzy funk, sitting somewhere between Penthouse Penthouse and BadBadNotGood. And on “Swingtheory,” he weds downtempo hip-hop and R&B rhythms with freaked synth chords and corsucating electronic glitches. Quickly, quickly’s range is broad, but Over Skies never moves out of his distinctive atmosphere.
Sometime in the ’00s “boom bap” became a pejorative similar to “backpack,” a shorthand for an older style of rap production that some considered simplistic and/or regressive. Vermont producer Es-K has debunked this misconception on dozens of beat tapes and in his work with rappers like Steele of Smif-N-Wessun. His album Koan uses the dry, concussive drums of his earlier work as the bedrock for open, downtempo beats of piano-driven jazz (“Stopwatch”), synth-heavy modern funk (“Moonlit”), ambient and electronic atmospherics (“Beachfront”), and more. Koan isn’t a riddle so much as it is the answer to the question, “What does a great boom bap album sound like in 2018?”
While indebted to beat scene forebearers Shlohmo and Teebs, Somni’s Bloom strikes a unique and delicate balance between gloom and wonder. Often downtempo, Bloom amplifies that despondence with brilliant vocal manipulation and distortion. At times, it’s as though you’re listening to someone rewind and splice together voice messages from an ex or recently a deceased family member. To temper this sadness, Somni pairs soft strings and organic sounds (e.g., wind and twinkling chimes) with beats reminiscent of everyone from Dilla to Burial. It’s like the San Francisco producer is giving us license to wallow while also pushing us to move on, to get outside. For me, listening to Bloom is like going for a hike to during a depressive episode and finding that the warmth of the sun striking your skin cures you, if only for a moment.
Vinyl LP, Cassette
Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD) remain the foremost architects of cloud rap production. Ethereal and expansive, their beats give you the feeling that, with the right soundtrack (and maybe some weed), you are not bound by the laws of physics. Anthropocene Blues, the first album from BSBD’s Young God under the name Televangel, operates in the same rarified altitude on a darker day. With fuzzy and reverberating guitars, gloomy synth chords, shimmering bells, and earthquaking bass, among other sonic elements, Televangel creates soundscapes that feel as vast and majestic as the sky and as emotionally fraught as your saddest memories. But Anthropocene Blues, like many great blues albums, doesn’t celebrate misfortune. It scores the pains of life as a means of catharsis, a way searching for a better, possibly brighter day.