Adventures In 2011: Top 10 EP's & Mixtapes

Thursday, December 22, 2011

So we begin the rewind...

It seems to me that the 21st Century will be known for making the EP/mixtape into an artform. In it's 'prehistoric' days EP's were merely "bonuses" (see Songs In The Key Of Life) and rarely made entries into the charts. As for mixtapes, they were either bootlegs that you got from that shifty cousin of yours who had 'connections' and if you were making one it was mostly a series of thrown together songs on a cassette tape for long road trips---not for public consumption.

Mixtapes and EP's roles in music have shifted as they have become the alternative for the burgeoning up-in-comer who need lots of listeners, a dollop of hype, and a little luck. They're also the safest (and possibly cheapest) mechanism for a veteran artist to skirt around the binding ties of their record label and just have a space to create, while also keeping their listening public enthralled till the full album (and possibly finances for it) comes. It seems that freedom of musical speech has taken on a whole new perspective with these "mini-albums" and at times these EP's and mixtapes are so finely crafted that they even best what folks call an 'album'.

In 2011, there were about a zillion mixtapes and EP's that appeared and some stood out from the pack. From the veterans to the up-in-comer's giving an appetizer to what's ahead---these are my ten favorite EP's and mixtapes this year.

10. Nikka Costa - PRO*WHOA
Nikka has always strutted at the beat of her own bongo and has consistently stayed true to herself within her music (I'll just forget about that mis-step of "Ching-Ching-Ching", mkay). Hence why I will always have some sort of appreciation for her. Though she may not be the first or funkiest 'Vanilla Child' to bust on in with the greatest of ease (those hat tips go to Janis Joplin and Teena Marie, respectively), but Nikka comes awful close as strutting in their shoes and carrying the tradition. PRO*WHOA is a different avenue concept-wise for Nikka as she (unlike others on this list) really doesn't need an EP to prove anything, but for in this case, the EP gives her a chance to really condense her sound into a neat and feisty package. Hearing the likes of "Nylons In A Rip" and the jam-packed "Stuff" is Nikka furthering her rebel yell and wanting us to tag along with her for the raucous ride. She gives simple enough initiative in "Head First" with the lyrics: "let's dive on in and explore, head first". We'll gladly do, Nikka. [Download]

9. 14th - Hide Yourself
With no pretentious agenda, 14th just makes effortless melodic romps that hint at a 90's UK Garage state of mind. It's really that simple. Then yet it's not, because how in three songs and a remix can you sound so rich, copious, and intelligent? Well, they've done it. Whether they are joyously soaking in the neon glow of the nightlife ("Chimes") or in an introspective vortex where brood n' doom collide ("Lights Off"), this Brit duo knows their music craftsmanship. The title track is purely what is to come and what to expect from them---so naturally this is just a warm-up, but a delicious one at that. While their are other touted cats of the melancholic beat movement of dub-step that will have every music blogger creaming over their groove this year, I have to say that 14th ranks above the rest because there's a lot of heart and soul at play---and that wins in the long haul. [Download]

8. Muhsinah - Gone
DC darling Muhsinah confessed that Gone was comprised while in 'a place of emotional vulnerability' and is it ever. As if you're listening to a friend who has 'been there-screwed up that', Muhsinah guides you through a hurricane of trials and errors, but with a defiant fist pump of 'I will survive' lingering with each pang---and the sentiments are felt. When hearing the persistent march of "Stop & Go", the bleached punk thrust of "Stop", and the title-track with it's skittish video game bleeps, you're convinced that a raw nerve was hit as it's her most heaviest material. Released as a double package (a "2XEP", so to speak, as it's divided into the concepts of 'Urban' and 'Suburban') and wholly written, produced, performed, and recorded by Muhsinah, Gone further displays why she's one of alternative Soul's best kept secrets---and why she's a secret that needs to be spilled. [Download]

7. Theophilus London - Lovers Holiday
Timez Are Weird These Days was a misfire, a tart disappointment to those who believe Theophilus London is a capable contender to the Hip-Hop pocket. However you want to slice it the album spotlights the fact that the Brooklyn-ite works better as a mixtape/EP artist. Further evidence is Lovers Holiday which was also released this year as a basically an appetizer to Timez and actually goes above and beyond it in less tracksWith guest spots from Solange, Sara Quinn (from Tegan & Sara), and Devonte Haynes, Lovers Holiday isn't as sprawling as past mixtapes/EP's like I Want You or This Charming Mixtape, but it's strength rest in it's conciseness. In five tracks we learn of London's penchant for coked out 80's electronics, his hipster quality (giving him Kanye Jr. appeal), and his spirited attention to production. Really you're not focused on London's ability to flow (which is limited at best), but to the production, as songs like the urgent and brilliant "Strange Love" and syrupy crawl of "Flying Overseas" give awareness to that fact. London has an idea, actually many, but he needs to refine them like he does here on Lovers Holiday. This is just step one. [Download]

6. Robin Hannibal - Bobby
Robin Hannibal must need a body double to do all the work he's done in the past couple of years. He's 1/2 of favorite Quadron, as well as a part of the Boom Clap Bachelors and Parallel Dance Ensemble (among others) and being at the production end of those side-projects. So how did he find the time to craft Bobby? One can wonder, and be grateful. Bobby is pretty darn engulfing, with it's industrial minimalist ambiance and meaty drum hooks that don't rupture the ice glides of melodic charm. Tracks like "Amends" and the percussive "Transit" stand-out but put into focus that Robin's coos and chopped up vocal blats give the impression that the ghost of Michael Jackson possessed him, and this whole set is a reflection of that spirit of 'what-could-have-been'...To get off the Unsolved Mysteries air of it all, Robin clearly knows what he's doing here, which makes it ever the more unique. [Download]

5. Florrie - Experiments
Something supercalifragilisticFUN this way comes.... There are a number of blondes in the Pop biz, but don't gripe about it, just make room for one more as Florrie isn't the typical blonde singer/song writer/DJ/model...and what ever else looks good after a slash. Okay, maybe she is, but put her in a room with smart Pop 'blondies' like Robyn and Annie, and she's in very good company. Formally a drummer with the collective Xenomaina, Florrie has unleashed the sugary suite beast known as Experiments which in six tracks is fluid and unscrupulous. There are Pop stars of the current who take themselves way too seriously, leaving little room to have fun with whatever they've created. When hearing "Begging Me", "Speed Of Light" and the flashy brilliance of "I Took A Little Something", you know Florrie is enjoying Pop music and all of it's flexible elements. Contagious it is. This is what you want from Pop music, and thankfully Florrie gets it. [Download]

4. Beth Ditto - Beth Ditto EP
Gossip's feisty front-woman has always been a step above her peers, and with her confident persona, this shimmering disco ball of sound fits her. It also gives a nod to the frosted pink nails of 1980's Freestyle (hello Debbie Deb, Expose and Shannon!) as well as Madonna in her hungrier days when she was telling everybody to "dance and sing and get up and do your thing". Responsible for this sleek machine is the UK outfit Simian Mobile Disco as they drive the production on four cosmic climbs that are seamless and sharp. "Open Heart Surgery" and "I Wrote The Book" being the standouts as they stick to the paunch and circumstance of what makes a killer dance track accessible. Another reason for consumption is Ditto's slinky and soulful vocal delivery which has her being detached from her usual riot grrl growl---and all for the better as she morphs into a tried-and-true diva. This EP is purely a reflection of where Ms. Ditto is going for the future proving point that rhythm can mix with constraint and class in the electro-pop market. [Download]

3. Emily King - The Seven EP
Dropping East Side Story in 2007 was a big mistake. Mistake in the sense that Emily King released such a finely crafted set that listeners were clamoring for more right off the bat---yet a four-year wait was installed, and well, four years away in Music Land is sort of first world torture. You can blame the greased palms of the music industry (and cue her record label---the now defunct J Records) for putting fans through sort of a misery sphere, yet joy comes in the morning, or rather, a June morning, when King released The Seven EP. It's a grand return to form and further establishes that maybe ample time off provides supreme results. Like East Side Story, how you listen to Seven is a cinch. You just pop it in and let it play from start to finish, being the elegant back-drop to your day. You're easily persuaded to do so with tracks like the fluttering of "No More Room", "Sides", and the string-infused "Down", which have Emily back and refined in her classic Soul vibe. Here is a real artist exploring, and we're gladly doing so along with her. [Download]

2. Daley - Those Who Wait
Breath of fresh air. Daley, like most of the up-in-comers on this list, isn't really doing anything "new"---he's just doing it better. Comparing him to Justin Timberlake (whose been a hack thespian for ridiculously too long) and Robin Thicke (whose just now getting back in folks good graces after a case of mistaken identity) is an simple thing to do, as they have similar musical scope (okay, they are white boys with soul), but Daley really wipes the floor clean of all of them with his debut mixtape, Those Who Wait. What an introduction it is. Strapped with his falsetto and a keen sense of musical direction, Daley doesn't pander around, and flourishes with originality especially when he's doing exercises like "Let It Go" and "Smoking Gun" that have me giddy for him being the next George Michael (there I go again...). He holds his own with Marsha Ambrosius on the gorgeous, "Alone Together", and even revitalizes Maxwell's "Pretty Wings" while Madonna's "Like A Virgin" is stripped of it boopsey tripe and sounds almost relevant again. Though it's nice that he's a new kid on the block, but bets are on Daley to come into the new year in full force. I'll put them down, and wait.[Download]

1. KING - The Story
When you have a flourish of buzz for just three songs---you're doing something sensationally right. KING, a trio of ladies from the City of Angels, got the Internets all-a-flutter when The Story emerged in the throws of Spring. Hype is usually an exercise that tends to never pan out, but for KING heavy backing by the likes of ?uestlovePhonte, and Miss Badu herself led many to fall under their spell instantly. Still, the music spoke for itself. The Story is so simple, effortless even, yet, embodies more on three tracks than some albums try to concoct on ten. Attention to detail is what makes "Supernatural", "Hey" and the title track, such bewitching merges of Pop and electronic Soul---and in a class of their own. Let's see where 2012 will take these ladies. [Download]


  1. I think it is a shame that ten years after her American debut ("Everybody Got Their Something"), Nikka Costa is the victim of label mismanagement.

    This goes back to what I was saying about "The Trio" (Duffy, Adele, Amy) getting the blue-eyed glory when you had someone like Nikka kinda working the vibe so great & hard before hand. Especially when you consider Mark Ronson produced her first long player. Ah well. I don't usually do EPs or mixtapes. The former I'll humor if it physically available. Regardless, nice list.-QH

  2. Thanks :)

    I see your point about Nikka, QH, and I truly agree with you that she is a victim of terrible label mismanagement. I distinctly remember when 'Everybody' dropped she was an opening act for...Britney Spears. Who's bright idea was that? Talk about night n' day.

    I also say the difference between Nikka and "The Trio" is American vs. British market---plus timing. We had that conversation about how we Americans can be when it's something completely not "mainstream", and Nikka is a bit more than a 'pop' star. So I truly agree she was marketed all wrong. I think Nikka is fine where she is. She's got a sizable fan base and her music has always been fresh. I like her being the "smaller venue" artist. When I went to see The Roots and Estelle, Nikka was there promoting 'Pebble To A Pearl' the same night, and the line to see her was just as long.

    Also nobody's checking for Duffy as that last album she released was piss poor. Apparently she's also voiced quitting singing and well, nobody was shedding tears. So you're safe with that, LOL! 'Rockferry' was pretty good to me, just that "Mercy" and its rabid popularity ruined it as it was the only song only everyone listened to---and that was the mistake.

    I think you should try to get into the EP and mixtape pot. A lot of them are free of charge or for mere dollars---which saves money on my end. I also think with these 'mini-treats' is where the real artistry lies. For a musician, the profit is not monetary---it's listeners. Plus sometimes the material on a mixtape is better than an initial album. (To beat a dead horse that I've yapped about before, lol) Cee-Lo's mixtape was actually better than the 'Ladykiller' album---probably because he was free from record label/marketing restraints and could just create.

    I highly recommend Florrie, King, Emily King, Beth Ditto, and Daley to you. Daley's mixtape is actually free---and it's well worth a download. The rest are cheap purchases in physical forms. Let me know if you take those journeys!

    Whoa, I didn't mean for that to be a long ass comment! Merry Christmas! :)

  3. Great list Jennifer - there are some here I too count as my favorites --Emily, Daley, 14th, Muhsinah (she's working on funding for an expanded Gone Deluxe) and others that I hadn't heard of that I will definitely check out. Two other singers whose EP's I really liked are Lianne La Havas (her free Live in L.A. and then Lost and Found) and Sharlene Hector (Expressions.) Plus I was excited about Tawiah's new EP "Run" since hopefully it means a full album is on its way. Amenta also had her own neat take on electronic soul with Sacred Places that I think is worth checking out.

  4. My favorite mixtape from this year:
    1. Back for More by Ayah


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