Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Best Albums of 2009 Pt. 2

The caveat for these sort of things is always that you overlook things until other people's lists come out or a few albums get completely left off completely. In regards to the former, iTunes (whose album browse feature controls my life) published their electronica "Best of 2009" retrospective and I spent an hour getting belatedly put on to King Midas Sound, Mungolian Jetset, Martyrn and 2562. I still haven't listened to them, although King Midas Sounds seems the best of the four so far, so they're not ranked. The latter being the Fever Ray, Antony and the Johnsons, Cobalt, and Animal Collective records. I just never got motivated to listen to the Fever Ray and Antony and the Johnsons records the whole way through, since Fever Ray didn't interest me as much as The Knife did and I like the idea of complex and impeccably arranged adult pop/singer-songwriter stuff by in practice I prefer Antony Hegarty in the context of Hercules and Love Affair.

There's a reason the only Rufus Wainwright song on my iTunes is his cover of "Hallelujah".

The Cobalt record I didn't even know about because I've almost completely abandoned /regressed from metal for hardcore. Shit, I'm willingly listening to Integrity (2003 Integrity, not that boring 90's shit) and mulling over seeing Disembodied play with the Acacia Strain for Christ's sake. So aside from the real obvious releases (deathcore bands still trying to prolong their garish graffiti-merch and energy drink fueled place in the sexting underage zombie that is "scene", beardXcore and beardXsludge, sad old hats like Megadeth and Mastodon) I was caught unawares at the surprising array of non-Lamb of God/God Forbid/Gojira/whatever shitty Dethklok-approved retard rock is being pushed by MetalSucks that ended up on a bunch of the more reputable (i.e. shitty, but forgivably and understandably shitty) best of lists. Looking at SMN or MetalSucks or Decibel or Brooklyn Vegan, my instinct is to both check out the stuff I hadn't heard and also shit all over it. This is evident in Cobalt being the only metal album that blew up this year that I actually bothered to download.

The Animal Collective this is just me being a dickhead, which is I guess is my default position. I really used to like this band. And this isn't one of those "NOT TR00! YALLZ SOLDS OUTZ!" missives, or irrational revulsion towards Vampire Weekend (i.e. my own personal race/class issues) it's just the same way we all feel about Beyonce; "Sure she's still good but she's everywhere and I can't give a shit anymore." This happened with me and Radiohead somewhere around the Thom Yorke solo record. In Rainbows is good, but I waited a year to listen to it because I was fed up with both the cult of personality around the band and the equally as annoying reactionary contrarian stance who promoted a revisionist "they were always crap" talking point. "Who Could Win a Rabbit" won me over 6 years ago, and Strawberry Jam is one of my favorite albums, but if it wasn't for the Grizzly Bear record coming out as a buffer for all the critical deepthroating going on I would have Kennedy'd Panda Bear myself to save my sanity. So I still haven't gotten past the first track of the album and how they aren't wont to "care about material things" and whatever. I'm still more content to experience the record via HIPSTER RUNOFF than I am to sit down and be objective, so that shit will not be on this list, either.

(I should add, though, that as of writing this I noticed I repeated DJ Paul on my list, so his slot in the top 30 will prolly be taken by one of the albums I just mentioned.)

And now, more pissing into an ocean of piss.

The following albums are fucking varying levels. The only real way to rank something this subjective is to do it my the number of songs I didn't delete from the record. The previous two years' lists were done this way, but I deviated this year when it came to Jay since The Blueprint 3, like the CuDi album, was a record of theoretically good tracks hampered by shitty execution. So that had to be taken into consideration when you get albums with comparatively well-executed songs themselves bogged down by filler. So the judgments were the most arbitrary and subjective that I've ever made in my 17 or 18 years of making inane lists, explaining why I could only like half of an Amerie album but put it a shitload of notches above Jay or even Meshell.

So as opposed to my two previous lists, where the top 10's order was absolutely meaningless save for my number once choice, most of the top 30's order is completely malleable depending on mood and the passage of time.

And with that preface, I present the Aristocrats:

30. Amerie- In Love & War
The complete opposite of the image/content red flag that I got from the Clipse record. I'm not sure exactly what X-Man Amerie is supposed to be on the cover but it seems fair to guess that she's either Shadowcat, Dazzler or Jubilee.

Amerie's actual music has always been really well-produced, but she's had Kelis-esque issues in getting records actually released in the U.S., even with two past hit singles as clout. It seems weird that someone who succeeds in being both "model pretty" and "acceptably black" while satisfying the whole OMGAZNSRHOT category for the sexually immature would have ongoing issues in maintaining a pop career, but like the Q-Tip record, there might be some actual logic behind this; Amerie's voice. Amerie's voice is thing and occasionally shrill and straining, and frequently, like on the first four songs she sounds like she's trying to hard. This is a shame because the same sort of 60's soul breaks that informed "1 Thing" are on the first 1/3 of a record where Amerie doesn't consistently come off like someone in her twenties who has been doing this for a while, but like someone still trying to figure out an approach like say, "grunge" chanteuse Cassie Steele. Sometimes, like on the Sly and the Family Stone-ish "Higher", she sounds like Dangerous-era Michael Jackson, trying to force anger rather than actually portraying or conveying it through all the gritted teeth and mic spittle.

Despite this, the awkward verse-to-chorus transition in "Why R U" and a pretty underwhelming first track in "Tell Me Love Me", the rest of the record is really fucking good. Rather than keep going with the funk-rock thing that she spends the first four tracks focusing on, she returns to her natural talent, fluttering like a bird over car-ready hip-hop/R&B tracks that follow the Mary J. Blige formula that there is no rap or R&B song that cannot be sampled and improved upon/fucked with. "Why R U" itself caught my ear when it came on one of the only two video channels worth a shit in my twenties, BETSoul/Centric (the other being VH1 Classic), and came on strong with light flourishes over the kind of early 90's boom-bap that KRS would not only loved but prolly has already rapped on. "Pretty Brown" is a gorgeous Trey Songz duet that really improves upon it's sample source of a jheri curl/House Party-era Mint Condition track that itself starts off cool but ends up lagging. Shit, the hooks are there, as is the requisite Fabolous (who means well but as a rapper can eat three dicks) feature ("More Than Love"), the slow-grind/broken condom jam ("Red Eye"), and the forlorn break-up anthem ("The Flowers"). If at this point, with what to me sounds like four solid singles, Amerie can't catch a break on radio then the problem just might not be the music itself, but her.

29. Absu- Absu
I was simultaneously expecting this record to be great and crap. I got into Absu after the entire band fell apart and Prosciptor had a leg injury, so to hear that the band was being resurrected without the band's main songwriters, Shaftiel and Equitant, wasn't contributing to any sort of high expectations. In fact the 8 year delay between Tara and Absu had built up their reputation in everyone's mind to the point that the eventual resurrection of the band and their Myspace and the deluge of press that came with their tour and album plans kind of ruined the excitement about the band. In fact, this album was the most acclaimed metal record of the year at first only to be then promptly forgotten by the time all the beardo correspondents were putting together their end of year lists.

A lot of people outside the press met this album with mixed feelings. All the speed of Tara had been dialed down and replaced with textures, even though the drumming was just as ridiculous as before. Where Absu was a really fast thrash/speed metal band before with black metal imagery and vocals, they actually sounded more overtly like a capital "B" black metal band now, although more like the sort of rock-based kind you get with anything associated with Aura Noir or Darkthrone in 2009 (i.e. fun).

Actually, a good way to think of the album is Sigh minus the cheese and typical Japanese weirdness. Or maybe I'm just saying that because of the introduction of synths and string parts onto the record.

At first I was just as decidedly mixed about the record. It sounds amazing production-wise and there's a ton of cool ideas and flourishes throughout the album, sounding very much like a band that, if they weren't at least having fun writing and recording everything, they were certainly inspired. In fact, 3:36 into "13 Globes", there's a really busy bridge with measured a wah being used as a dynamic filter, what sounds like a large church bell, a choir synth patch, and what may or may not be (I haven't learned the album yet) jazz chords. Or at least sus chords. Not to mention the renaissance fair-sounding segue in "...Of The Dead Who Never Rest In Their Tombs Are The Attendance Of Familiar Spirits Including: A.) Diversified Signs Inscribed B.) Our Earth Of Black C.) Voor". This is now a band that will run samples that sound like a touch-tone phone ringing in the middle of a verse and time what sounds like digitally processed "haha"s to coincide with snare fills. It seems kooky and prog out-of-context, but in black metal, especially the least Norwegian sounding kinds, it sounds perfectly in place, especially during the 8-year metamorphosis from a cult band with anemic album production to a band that has the label backing to almost sound as glassy as the Bat for Lashes record. The band that most typified a whirling dervish now had full piano solos, not to mention songs mid-paced enough to actually play piano solos.

The new Absu disappointed me at MDF, where they were out of their element outdoors in the May sun looking very much like Texans who very much took themselves extremely seriously. Absu were always ridiculous in the best, most appropriate and entertaining of ways, but the shades and the shrieking of extended liner notes to their own songs put me off to catching their first NY appearance in years the following summer at B.B. King's Diabetes Write-Off/Gospel Brunch and Metalarium. (Although had it been less than $20 and I hadn't been unable to find work, I would've definitely gone). I probably should've gone, because B.B. King's would've been a better setting, if not seeing them with better sound and atmosphere (and the loyal attention of smelly Mexicans and faux-heshers alike.)

The album itself runs a little long at 54 minutes, and "Magic(k) Square Cipher" never goes anywhere, but Absu is not only good enough to allay fears about the band falling off, but to be pretty much the best metal album of the year.

28. Pissed Jeans- King of Jeans
(The following is going to have a discernible dip-off in writing quality)

Good rock records are fucking rare. And not this amorphous butt-rock AOR Hinder bullshit or Canadian butt-rock AOR Nickleback bullshit or pathetic post-grunge fatXcore Seether/Evans Blue bullshit or flaccid and droopy prolapsed/coke-numbed colon botched implant post-glam Ed Hardy white trash VH1 labret/monroe piercing stripper rock bullshit either. And definitely not The Killers. I mean actual rock music. And not when the uninformed shrug off any discussion of metal subgenres by saying "It's all just rock music maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan." either.

I mean the sort of stuff that actually has some recognizable connection to bre-Bush rock music, after it got so white and noisy that it lost it's "n' roll". To me, this sort of stuff existed in pockets after tough-guy hardcore became the normative sound of punk rather than the standard. It has always thrived in Sweden, through Swedish hardcore and the Hellacopters and Hives. They got it pretty right, as foreign takes on dead American genres do. In the U.S., you got the catchier "alternative rock" bands, the noisier "alternative rock" bands, some industrial, the less metal sludge bands, and whatever was left of the pre-86 hardcore bands. Not that everything after that falls outside my definition of rock music, it's just the stuff that wasn't impotent, drab, riffless, colorless unfun JNCO mope-chug out and out sucked. Rock, like the "punk" in "pop-punk" is clearly just to denote the instrumentation and approach, but has no bearing on describing the sound (i.e. like calling Grizzly Bear a rock band). DFA1979, Eagles of Death Metal and QOTSA were some of a few bands I could call "rock" acts without a caveat or a long treatise like the one I just wrote.

I feel weird even writing this because rock a a perpetual Porygon of fail is such a given that it feels silly to be in 2009/2010 even discussing what "rock music means to me", casting aside a bunch of bands and then cosigning the shit out of Pissed Jeans.

I've never listened to Flipper. Never got around to it. Even after multiple viewings of "American Hardcore" years after I read the book in high school. And I hate post-Dez Cadena Black Flag. Black Flag was cursed with great singers who were shitty frontmen and, in Rollins, a great frontman who was a shitty (live) singer, so as much as I like Damaged, everything they pretentious shat out post-Unicorn records save for "Slip It In" just seemed dumb and boring. There was an unsettling air of douche to everything that they produced from '84-'86, mainly emanating from Rollins himself who until middle age seemed like a total jerkoff (Strange how he didn't harass the well-deserving Gene Simmons on his IFC show but skewered the fuck out of a clueless and smart-mouthed midwestern kid on a cable access show in the 80's for having the nerve to ask him questions). Pissed Jeans often get compared to Flipper and post-Damaged Flag, and I guess that's about as apt as the Jesus Lizard comparisons.

The record itself is better than I was expecting it to be, and only "Human Upskirt" fails to do anything worthwhile since writing fast song's is not what this band does well. They do two things: lurch and retch. They lurch on tracks like "Goodbye (Hair)" and "Request for Masseuse", the former which sounds a lot like Bleach-era Nirvana, a comparison that gets lost in all the other appraisals of the band. The retching is all of the herky-jerky, shorter, almost Melvins-y songs that dominate the record and get broken up by overly specific rumination on banal things that would be obnoxious if they weren't so good. Although they're still obnoxious, but only if you don't enjoy this sort of thing.

27. Death (Detroit)- For the Whole World to See
Does this count? I mean, everyone who heard it this year heard it for the first time ever, so it's technically a new release despite being 34 or so years old. Anyway, this record should've never been unreleased for how long it was. It's not that the actual music is some previously unheard or ingenious thing, it's that it's an awesome NY-style 70's punk record put out pre-Bad Brains that finally gives both the Black Rock Coalition/Afropunk heads and their vocal detractors (like Daryl from the Bad Brains himself) something new to wax ethnocentric about besides Living Colour and etc. Plus, most importantly, it's just a really really good album, a well-written mid-point between 70's rock and 70's punk the same way Blank Generation is. 

26. Brand New- Daisy
This band has never put out a good album until this record. No matter what kinds from Long Island and upstate and Alternative press try and tell you. The Devil and God are Raging Inside of Me had its moments but that was more of a lead-in for this, which actually does what that album was threatening to do but existed in too much of a referential space to other bands in the genre and some of the indie rock that came out in 2006. Deja Entendu is about as much of a classic as Worship and Tribute is, i.e. a record made up of two or three good songs that are probably chosen as singles and a shitload of uninteresting/bad filler that inevitably gets feverishly canonized by teenagers because teenagers, as the scene-as-fuck pink women's large Nightmare Before Christmas hoodie I gave to my ex-girlfriend 5 years ago attest, have shit taste.

"Ape Dos Mil" is my shit, though.

And the first Brand New album was the kind of really busy pop-punk (with the occasional campfire jam) bands write when they come in way after a genre has had it's last gasp.

This, on the other hand, was a complete surprise. Taking the influence from other bands in the AP scene/Modest Mouse that appeared before, everything on this record seems a lot more interesting and well-written. It's a grower, none of the songs particular jump out on first listen as the most individual thing you've ever heard, but over time the dedication to building 6 and 7 minute long songs with frayed-to-hell fuzz guitars and watery, palm muted verses pays off. Even though the opening track "Vices" is predictable as an intro if you've at all listened to any alternative-for-teens, emo or metalcore record in the aughts and don't find the whole creepy sample-to-loud freakout thing interesting and "Be Gone" obnoxiously misinterprets stuttering a vocal over a drop-tuned blues vamp as being in tune with the album's experimental bent and not dumb and distracting, the rest of the album delivers. The fact that "Bed"'s chorus isn't the sort of loud-quiet-loud thing you'd expect shows that at a point when their commercial appeal is at it's lowest and least relevant, bands from high school, like Brand New, Zao, Thursday and Poison the Well, end up delivering their best stuff. The best rock bands have patience, even if they're fast. That patience comes from a confidence that what you're doing is good enough that you don't need to rush ideas and abandon parts or do what more popular acts do. And this is a record that is no less intense for its tendency to simmer into a rage rather than lamely shout it at you.
25. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
I spent most of late November making and trudging to appointments in Bay Ridge to find out whether or not I have a stomach disease/disorder. Not that Camera Obscura make necessarily uplifting music, in fact you could easily slit your wrists to this shit, but I got into My Maudlin Career towards the tail end of a year of stress and disappointment, many my own fault. It has the same effect on me as the Percocet I took for a headache two months ago; it creates a bittersweet fluff cloud of numb, depressing joy that only Scots could produce. Walking a stress-fully obtained stool sample to an insurance approved lab in south Brooklyn on a colder-than-usual Friday afternoon is somehow less shitty when Tracyanne Campbell is cooing to you about suicide and achingly unrequited love over irrepressibly 70's pop arrangements. I can't sit through it the whole way through because around the 3/4 mark the songs get a bit samey and less rewarding, but the peaks themselves are narcotically high.

24. Baroness- Blue Record
When I said Absu was the best metal album, I meant that. Baroness couldn't be more of a rock band if they tried. They also couldn't be more indebted to other acts. Leviathan-era Mastodon was always an obvious note; when I gave Rec Record a cursory iTunes browse two years ago, I was put off from it and the band because it really sounded, down to the guitar parts, like Mastodon-lite. But there's also lots of Alice in Chains in "Steel that Sleeps the Eye", a lot of Queens of the Stone Age in "Jake Leg" (around the :44 mark), and a ton of Torche in all of the vocal parts, which share the same harmony/dual tracking-style that pops up all over In Return and Meanderthal. The key thing about all four of these reference points is that these are all bands with metal influence but none of them is at all a capital "M" metal band. And the playing on this record is very much the playing of a really well-worn, talented rock band, not say, Crowbar or something non-beardo. There are no forays into "extreme metal", no ridiculous double-bass workouts, but a lot of dual-lead guitars, which is more of a hard rock staple than anything else, and one the band is really fucking good at employing. Like Thin Lizzy good.

You can tell when someone's been playing their instrument for a while, because they know how to tastefully employ every trick, every trill, every tremolo pick, every chicken-pick, into their music. When I saw Baroness open for Converge and the Red Chord in 2008 I commented that their music was boring and generic sludge rock but their were a hell of a live band and really blew me away with how well they played. I said all that they were missing were the songs to be a great heavy rock band (for beardos), and now they've actually got the songs. Although there are odd parts. One, the song titles are all terrible and whatever "art" Baizley (the sludge equivalent of Jake Bannon in terms of freelance visual art work) and the rest of the band think they're employing, their pretension misses the mark when they name shit things like "War, Wisdom and Rhyme".

Clearly you have beards. But tell me something else about yourself besides your slavish dedication to rote 00's sludge tropes like referencing booze, animals and war.

Two, "O'er Hell and Hide", which is the most 90's song I've heard this year, just for sticking in extraneous vocal samples, sound effects, and disco sections in an instrumental track. Not necessarily bad, but distracting in that it makes me pine for that awesome Malevolent Creation techno remix album that was put out against their will 10 years ago. Also, "Blackpowder Orchard" doesn't have the effect they think it has. In general, if Baroness put an instrumental or interlude on their record, it's bound to be jarring and ill-fitting.

Still. Beards.

23. DOOM- Born Like This
I'm not even sure if I'd really put it this high. I hate DOOM over Jake One tracks, they don't really mesh as well as when he goes in over TV soundtracks, Dilla tracks or cheese, reverb-drenched (no Phil Collins) 80's R&B. Still, this is the only album that could make me actually sit through a Slug verse in 2009.

I struggled to like more than three tracks on Vaudeville Villain in 2008. I didn't like Madvillainy when it came out 4 years ago (though that's changed). And I remembered one of my favorite high school teachers, the one who put me onto the Violent Femmes and the Dead Milkmen, having MM...Food but not being that interested in it. But around the same time I downloaded Born Like This, I copped Operation Doomsday from the Chinese internet and got converted. And in that, I realized that, like Redman to Ludacris, DOOM's southern analog is Gucci Mane. They're both idiosyncratic rappers with unique and divisive styles, almost impenetrable enunciation and are most likely to be unappreciated for their lyrics because of it. And like The State vs Radric Davis, Born Like This, at a scant and kind of diverse 40 minutes, is a good entry point for anyone put off by past works.

22. Converge- Axe to Fall
I love this band. But I'm sick of them.

I don't love bands. I love albums. I have a belief system I molded around the time I graduated high school/entered college that bands will only disappoint you. Bands will get old, get shitty, replace their best/your favorite members, appear on Tyra, release terrible records, give too many interviews and reveal themselves to be stupid or have embarrassing political opinions, you name it. But albums don't get your hopes. If a band only puts out one good record (like The Streets), there's no loss. You appreciate that album, don't get caught up in ridiculous cults of personality or hype-driven superfandom, and move on to the next one, which you should as a rational fan of good music and not privileged dickheads with Telecaster's and gauged earlobes.

There are only five people who I am slavishly a fan of and have broken this rule time and time again for, based on the appendix of the previous rule, which is that once someone's made three or more good albums, I'll allow myself to be a fan of them and not just their records. They are TV on the Radio, Jonathan Richman, Ghostface Killah, KRS-ONE, and Converge. That's it. Everyone else can eat dicks.

Especially the Black Dahlia Murder, who destroyed my childhood when they released Nocturnal.

Now this is not a bad record. Actually it's great. Problem is, like a significant other or your own life, consistency is boring. This is the 5th great Converge album in a row, and at this point I'm bored with how good it is. This makes no sense at all, except for the fact that this is the only band that I've ever actually liked this many records from. 3 is a nice round number, it encompasses 6-7 years of musical/lineup changes, lyrical maturation, new approaches and etc. Every good artist can be summed up in 3 really good albums and then the rest of their oeuvre can be told to fuck off without anything of value being discarded. Chances are, you can download or ween the good songs on the 40 or so uninteresting Bob Dylan records from various collections. Jonathan Richman was like this. KRS-ONE and Ghostface, were not, even though KRS's 5 albums can be whittled down to the first two BDP records and Return of the Boom Bap, while Ghost, who is on 167 song on my iTunes, including 140 solo album songs, is at his best on Ironman, Supreme Clientele, and these days I'd say more Pretty Toney than Fishscale.

When Forever Comes Crashing has its missteps (mainly "Ten Cents", which doesn't seem like it was a good idea), but these last four records, save the filler on No Heroes are great. But as opposed to that record, which had to grow on me, I immediately liked Axe to Fall, it's just not that exciting to me. Some of the tracks feel too samey and too familiar despite the change in sound to reflect more of the denimXcore bands on Deathwish rather than anything that'd remind you of Rorschach. It's still good, and it's still a pretty visious hardcore record, but, like Ghostface lately, it feels like Converge-by-numbers, despite the two closing tracks which are pretty and mature in a way you wouldn't expect from the band.

21. Grand Puba- RetroActive
I wasn't kidding during that mid-year list. Until the last Sean Price solo album comes out, this is the oldhead album of the year. I had to put 2000 on the backburner until I got 2009's albums over with it, but not surprisingly Puba's just as effortlessly good as he was on the brief snippets of that record I heard. Sonically, it hits that bass-y (literally, there are actual basslines, not a dull 808-by-way-of-SunnO))) buzz) 90's rap spot that is like catnip to me and is stylistically and content-wise really similar to De La's Stakes is High, minues the Dilla beats and Mos Def feature. At 11 tracks, Puba seemed to realize it's best to avoid overstuffing a record by a 40-something rapper and just try to avoid filler. It pays off on a record that manages to tackle familiar topics with a sense of humor and talent for wordplay that's rare in NY rap now.

20. Dizzee Rascal- Tongue 'N Cheek
It's weird to even bring up grime now, but it was one of the first outside-the-mainstream things I got into around 2002/2003. I never got too invested in it past Wiley and Dizzee and an unhealthy fascination with the interstitial music on "Da Ali G Show", but had I a good internet connection and time to tear myself away from the Official AFI Message Boards and Livejournal, I prolly would've. But the fact that that's in the past isn't just apparent to me and the record-buying public, but Dizzee as well, who started moving away from grime around 2007's Maths + English. And now, still somehow successful and still incredibly young (famous for 7 or 8 years but only 24 years old), he's decided to stay relevant by essentially putting out a dance record.

And somehow it's the best thing he's done since Boy In Da Corner.

I though "Bonkers" was stupid the first time I heard it (it is, but it grows on you) and it's unnerving to have Dizzee rap over Tiesto, Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden, facilitators of fun times for drunk girls and eurotrash everywhere, beats. But considering that grime was the least organic, most hyper-modern and digital take on rap until ATL producers started making trance-rap it's not really that much of a stretch to hear Dizzee over less fractured and off-time drum patterns. Plus, there's not only a little bit of everything on here (electrohouse, Baltimore club breaks, British rap and bullshit, two-step/garage, 90's house, and even one grime throwback), but it's done better than it has any right to be. Without all the frenzy and advanced level beats, Dizzee raps are revealed to be as occasionally lacking and cliche as they've always been, but the samples, beats, and hooks all hit their mark, lacking any of the bland spots of Showtime or Lily Allen-related filler of Maths + English

19. Maxwell- BLACKsummer's Night
My family agrees on few things musically. We all love "Return of the Mack" by Mark Morrison. We all though Patra was a bit much (a lil' too slack), and all love Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. It's weird, because it was all we would listen to with each other in my aunt's car from 1996-1999 and is one of the few album's from my childhood besides Thriller than I still enjoy. But everything after that album sort of got the gasface from me. I like embrya's first single, but other than that he fell out of anyone's mind for most of the decade, save for the video for "A Woman's Worth" that got nominated at the VMA's in 2000 or 2001 I think. Soon R&B was going to get even more rap-influenced and neo-soul would stop pushing units, so no one thought the dude would not only come back 8 years later after there was a public "who cares?" when word that his label was refusing to release his new music, but to come back so good and so successfully. His video somehow ended up on the 106 & Park countdown, "Pretty Wings" got radio play, and he caused every XX chromosomed human watching the BET awards to gush during his performance, a performance that, now in his 30's, had a pronounced 70's soulman quality that's nearly-absent from all the Chris Brown-ing that's the archetype still.

Plus, the album, the first in an endearingly pretentious and difficult to Google trilogy, is really fucking good. Like most high-falutin' conceptual soul/R&B singers, he sometimes misses the mark, like some of the forced vocal grit in "Cold", but the harmonics throughout "Pretty Wings", the weird 2002-era rock guitar parts tastefully thrown into "Help Somebody" like it was a Res or Meshell Ndegeocello song, and the affecting simplicity of the guitar-and-voice arrangement in "Playing Possum" make the 8-song (including one album-ending instrumental that recalls the Baroness one except good) record stand above the two albums that preceded it. Not only is it a record that somehow sounds exactly how you'd imagine Maxwell sounding live, excessive cymbal splashes and drum fills and horn outros and all, but Maxwell has mastered the high art of soul singing: putting a cry in your voice in a way that doesn't make you sound like a bitch, something that most post-high school rap and bullshit kids can't even fathom.
18. HEALTH- Get Color
When I was in high school and got a new computer to replace the one I destroyed with free internet porn and GameBoy ROMS around 11th grade our new computer had iTunes, which seemed a lot cooler than Winamp to me, and less tainted by all the scene/Irving Plaze/Hot Topic bullshit I still associate with Winamp. Around this time I only put a few songs on the iTunes, as I didn't have an iPod yet and didn't have a reason or the patience to put all 200 something albums on there. So I just put Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Peaches on it and listened to that when I wasn't listening to metalcore, Mastodon and Cannibal Corpse my senior year of high school. Trent Reznor's lyrics were always awful, but there were two songs from Pretty Hate Machine that I obsessed over: "Sin" and "That's What I Get". From the Ministry best of I had bought from Sounds in St. Marks, I kept playing "Thieves", "Stigmata", "Just One Fix" and the live version of "So What". The live version of "So What" was my favorite because I was an extremely raw nerved, moody kid. Never really depressed, just moody and really pretentious.

At the time, those 6 songs and the Berlyn cover from the Peaches album evoked this really poisonous, brooding notion of sex to me. I was coming out of a goth aesthetic into a scene one at the time but I still retained this image I got from SNL and movies I watched as a pre-teen of fake vampires biting each other and doing blood-play and blah blah blah. I always pictured desperate, intense people (who probably looked like Bauhaus) just miserably humping like dessicated rats, all platelets and AIDS scares and bad poetry. Things were always bleeding white back then for some reason, and Davey Havok seemed cool for a minute there. When I listened to this HEALTH record for the first time riding the shuttle bus from Jay street at 2 or 3 in the morning, I got that same vibe again. Even though it's Pitchfork-approved and from California, two things that normally turn me off of everything from bands to healthy living, I haven't heard something this goth in a while. Or at least the idea of goth I imagined, cultivated, and abandoned six years ago. But I mean that in the best way possible. When I think of goth I think of Bauhaus in "The Hunger". When I think of "The Hunger" I think of gaunt, sophisticated, cocaine-addled people. When I think of that I think of blood impurities and disease and needles. And when I think of that I think of HEALTH. Not everything is necessarily a song. Save for "Die Slow" and "Severin", the tracks kind of just force feelings of of the ambiguity.

Basically music for goths to hump like rats to.

17. Magrudergrind- S/T
When I said Absu was the best metal record of 2009, I meant that shit. Because this is only metal if you still can't differentiate your death from your black. There's not much I can say about an awesome band that wantonly samples Mobb Deep on interludes, was produced and engineered by Kurt Ballou and Scott Hull respectively, writes songs so good that people are pretending to care about powerviolence, and whose album cover collage includes Biz Markie and stigmatas.  

16. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavillion
Again, you get tired of consistency. Despite what I said in the intro for this post, I gave it a shot and I'm not going to pretend that it's not good or outright refuse to acknowledge it like the Panda Bear album, but despite the .3 points Pitchfork adds to ever successive Animal Collective jawn, this doesn't seem better than Strawberry Jam, just longer.

15. Rick Ross- Deeper Than Rap

The musical equivalent of a leisure suit. The raps? Nimbler than they should be, even though he can't seem to focus enough to make sense half the time. The beats? Gorgeous. Like a bejeweled coffin at a New Orleans funeral. If you told me these were Barry White demos I'd believe you. I downloaded this on a lark and in an effort to objective, but I got completely sucked into it. It's not until track 9 that it hits anything close to a lull, and though the latter half of the album doesn't reach the dizzying Pacino-esque levels of the first, it's still good enough that even Ghostface had to jack for beats.

What does that say about the state of rap that someone who is clearly a clown and who self-ethers himself on every occasion and whose every move and word rings false and the epitome of Chris Rock in CB4 could not only be successful but effortlessly put out such a decent record?

Probably nothing, which is even less that what Rawse says of worth on this album besides "crab meats".

Hand Nas these instrumentals and see what happens.

14. Ryan Leslie- Transition
Only different from the Maxwell album in it's era. This is very much a 2009-era R&B album while Maxwell's is a bit of a throwback. Both records are weird and quirky in their own ways, including the arrangements, instrument flourishes, and production choices. Leslie's album sounds too much like radio R&B and sometimes beats sounds a little cheap. His lyrics, like everything about him from his website to interviews, leave no detail to the imagination. The dedication to odd little nuances and matter-of-fact details is a lot like the Pissed Jeans album, except over 7th chords and what sounds a lot like a MIDI bass. Those details get you lyrics like "So I get the finest clothes I can find on retail/And I try to pay attention to every single detail/I just want to find a girl who looks good with no makeup/And when I find her I'll promise I'm never gonna break up", which is weird in it's transparency. Leslie doesn't bullshit if he's being a lout or being shallow, which is as refreshing as the fact that after a couple of listens tracks start popping out, besides the immediately awesome single "You're Not My Girl". "Is It Real Love" is pretty from a distance, and "Sunday Morning" is a disarmingly specific paean to hanging out with your girlfriend on a Sunday night. If Leslie wrote a song titled "Ketchup Panties", best believe the song would be about ketchup panties.

13. The Flaming Lips- Embryonic
I didn't think I'd ever care about this band again but somehow they slyly release a dark, damaged and trippy headphone record that's more focused than anything they've released this decade and somehow restores some measure of cool they lost in between the Chemical Brothers collabs and fur-suited yiffing.

Plus along with the Pink Zeppelin/Led Floyd heaviness we got to see Wayne Coyne's asshole this year, which is something.

The only reason the album isn't higher is because it's definitely an album-oriented thing and I haven't experienced it the whole way through enough to gauge it versus listening to the other records on here the whole way through. This should probably be higher, but that's the beauty of the top 30's ranking being immaterial.

12. Vivian Girls- Everything Goes Wrong
Even as I'm typing this I could bump this record down to like 20-something and not really mind. As I'm listening to it right now, I really like it and I'm not bullshitting when I say it reminds me a a girl-pop version of Husker Du, at least in terms of the feel of the songs. Plus it represents my belief that even though the sound was done before, the albums that were produced by those bands were never as consistent of good as the ones being made now. I'd rather listen to Vivian Girls than any of the early 90's indie bands they sound almost exactly like, and that's kind of what matters.

Plus you can't help but appreciate that they're up there with DOOM and Gucci in terms of divisiveness.

11. Ghostface Killah- Ghost Dini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
I've voiced my opinion on this record and its bad rap before, but suffice to say this is a consistent Ghost album, if not better than The Big Doe Rehab. People just seem to be staunchly anti-R&B unless it's ironic, weird, or has gaudy trance-synth arpeggios. The only flaw is the auto-tune on "Baby" and the inclusion of a terrible Ron Browz bonus track.

10. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
Something I didn't quite keep in mind when I first started listening to this album is that when I got into the original Cuban Linx around my sophomore year in college, I listened to it for maybe two months before I realized I loved it. I was still only a year or two in me re-immersion into rap so I assumed that my rap pedigree would cut down that time when it came to its sequel.

Really, it took longer. NY rap albums the last couple of years can be a tricky enterprise. Even if the beats are on point and not on some Dipset low-budget shit, you still have to contend with bored, past-their-prime, or trying-way-too-hard rappers whose rapping leaves a lot to be desired. 8 Diagrams and The Big Doe Rehab made me wary of anything Wu-related, and as did the fact that besides Ghostface, the only Wu members putting out quality albums were GZA and Masta Killa, and even those albums weren't amazing or anything, just remarkable in their consistency. Considering Rae had already dropped two pretty terrible records, so he was the last person I expected to succeed on his much-delayed promises of releasing not only a good album, but one that would be the 2009 equivalent of the first.

But in a year where even U-God dropped a good album, clearly there's more reason to be optimistic than not to be. The kung-fu samples seem to forced and referential, "Catalina" and "About Me" are awful and ruin the feel of the album (not surprising because Dr. Dre has been coasting on reputation and not quality for a while), and Rae's voice never rises above "Xanex-flow" in his middle-age, eschewing any chances of anything as wild as "Criminology" to appear again. Still, Rae managed to put together an album with songs that jump out only after repeated listens and songs that immediately stand out as successors to Cuban Linx in both construction and fell ("Have Mercy"). There's no real discernible plot, but there wasn't one in the first album, either. Just denser-than-dense adjective-rap and a slavish dedication to thematic repetition. Considering the underwhelming Clipse album, this is the premier coke rap with a hardbody middle section that didn't really reveal itself until I was roaming the stacks towards the end of the semester with studio production headphones on, catching every click and bounce on "Surgical Gloves" and "Broken Safety". Really, it's exactly what I thought it would be at the most, a combination of the good Masta Killa (in terms of approach and consistency) and GZA (in terms of how digital it sounds) albums from the decade on steroids. Even GZA himself wakes up from his vocal coma on the most 90's rap sounding thing I've heard in a while, "We Will Rob You". Without the Dre cuts, this could've easily been the rap record of the year.

9. Mos Def- The Ecstatic
I expected even less from Mos than I did from Rae. Around December '06 my roommate Jordan and I were trying to figure out what was going on with Tru3 Magic, a stillborn album that was either released with little to no notice and fanfare to escape his deal with Geffen or was just inherently as poorly thought out as some of the more aimless moments on The New Danger. Either way, it had been three years, and up until this year, there was no activity on his label site, which was especially frustrating during the run-up between '04 and '06, and his Myspace was never updated. In that time, he'd said some ridiculous divisive shit on Bill Maher's show, acted in a ho-hum Bruce Willis flick and an uninteresting Michel Gondry movie, but nothing much musically save for some stray freestyles over Jay-Z beats.

When this album did come out, at first it was underwhelming. On first listen it seemed like Mos was off his game and was being overwhelmed by Madlib's beats which, though some of them were old from being used as music for Adult Swim bumps, were pretty spectacular. And after a while I realized that with it's short track list, short runtime and short track length, Mos had essentially followed in the footsteps of his favorite rapper and made a DOOM record. This album reeks of Stones Throw and undie rap cool, and after a couple of listens, the DOOM influence not only becomes clear, but it starts merging well with Mos' extant half-mumbly, Kemet-jocking, pro-black art-rap style. His raps take more patience to appreciate than they did 11 years ago, but it's miles above all the vague pseudo-gangsterisms he was employing all over The New Danger or the pretentious navel-gazing that ruined the already fractured Tru3 Magic. The reviews are accurate, he's finally got a handle on the singing-and-rapping thing, throwing in slick sing-song the way Nicki Minaj would on songs like "The Embassy" and "Pistola". There's a swagger, an international feel, and a sense of humor all of this album that had been missing from Mos' records for most of the decade, suggesting that either the climate or Mos himself had changed so much that he could make a record that actually sounds like he had fun making it.

8. Gucci Mane- The State vs. Radric Davis
So last year there were two kinds of rap albums released, the consistent and enjoyable formalist rap record that struggled to be reverential and modern-sounding at the same time (Q-Tip's The Renaissance) and the wild and divisive new-school rap album that couldn't care less about said formalism (The Carter III). Last year I picked the former over the latter as the best rap record just because I thought The Carter III was exciting but just tried to please too many people, had too many dud lyrics, and just didn't hold up as well as the Q-Tip album. This year, it's the opposite. This list is littered with really good rap records, but save for the Mos Def album, nothing is really as immediately enjoyable as The State vs Radric Davis.

Over the year, I've vacillated from outright ignoring Gucci to downloading Back to the Trap House and getting converted by the first 5 tracks on the album, especially "I Know Why". Listening to Gucci at first there was a overwhelming feeling that he wasn't saying anything and that what he was saying I could barely understand from how thick his accent is. I've been listening to Southern rap for a long time, so it's not as if I can't Rosetta Stone foreign dialects, but Gucci in particular just had sounded like he had such a heavy mouth that it was hard to judge him on lyrics. From last spring up until the release of The State vs Radric Davis, though, I continued to ignore Gucci. Really, I spend a lot of the year in a bubble isolated from anything popular, so I didn't catch most of Gucci's features or the bubbling hype. When the Cold War Series mixtapes came out, I downloaded them to get familiar, but I didn't enjoy listening to any of the five mixtapes I got from him. Something was missing.

Like DOOM, I didn't think much of him past his unique flow and cadence and didn't get indoctrinated until that one record came out that made everything else stand out more than it did before. For DOOM it was Operation Doomsday, for Gucci, it's this album, which, save for a momentum-killing commercial R&B middle section, succeeds where most Southern rap albums fail.

It's hard to convince Gucci's detractors that he's good. The lyrics are an uphill battle because his topics are extremely limited, but then again, so is every rappers. Unless someone's pursuing Dadaism, most song lyrics can be neatly divided into a couple of categories, and Gucci's dedication to introspection, selling coke, girls, jewelry, getting fucked up, money and cars isn't really alien from anything else in rap. But who else kills songs thematically like "Lemonade", "Heavy", and "Volume"? Like I said about Nicki Minaj, I'd take a younger, invigorated rapper than sounds like they're having fun over old reliable ones any day. And Gucci never sounds like later-period Raekwon or GZA; he's always attacking the track, existing within the beat like a young Bun B but with a regal air to him. There's a noticeable haughtiness to Gucci when he works with words to find more and more new ways to approach really tired subjects. The beats themselves are all great, triumphant post-Jeezy tracks that come across a lot warmer than Jeezy does, maybe because Gucci actually raps and tends to ease all these really menacing sounding trance-trap beats with hook upon hook upon hook.

Something the record has in general, both due to the production and due to Gucci, is a tendency to have enough parts to each song to feel less like the average staid beat and some with actual song structure. Gucci throws in multiple hooks and refrains, but still has the patience to let breaks ride out, to not say dumb shit where he should be quiet and let things flourish or develop. Even R&B cash-grab section has it's moments, with "Bad Bad Bad" and "Sex in Crazy Places" being the only of the four tracks to not become endearing with repeat listens and the latter being kind of just unforgivably terrible.

Gucci does what you're supposed to do: Be entertaining and make good music. Everything else is pretension. There are moments, like "Volume" where he starts off saying something great like "I pull up in a four-door Porsche set-trippin'/Three young dreadhead niggas ridin wit me/I don't think they like me and I don't like 'em neither/But if they move wrong I wet up they wife beater" but never finishes the thought. He can turn an extended diamonds-as-fruit metaphor into one of the best songs of the year, but he doesn't follow up on a stanza that could've lead to a great storytelling track or verse. Maybe the next two installments of The State vs Radric Davis will have more of that but I don't see the quality matching that of an album good enough to make me enjoy Soulja Boy and Wacka Flocka Flame rapping.

On the intelligence thing, there's a fallacy about speech equating intelligence. Byron Crawford brought this up recently that some of the dumbest people he's ever had to deal with spoke perfect English, but because the stigma is that heavy regional accents and colloquialisms aren't the norm in the language that they more than just seem "ignorant" or "stupid" but actually demonstrate ignorance and stupidity. Not to imply that Gucci's a genius either (that year-long bid he's doing for parole violation is testament to that), just to remind to stupid is as stupid does.

7. Space Ghost Cowboys- The Sad Album
I might be blinded by my own attendance at every Purchase gig they've done, with a small room full of friends and fans who know every word and song, sweatily swaying to what sounds like Julian Casablancas fronting a drunken, manlier Pavement. But I have full faith that my celebration of this band and this album go farther than college ties when I say that if there was any justice this band would be much bigger, being reviewed on Pitchfork and getting praised outside of our incestuous circle of fellow musicians and hangers-on. Go to their Myspace, go on iTunes, and buy their album from ShackAttackRecords. Unless you don't like earnest and quirky mope-rock, then, you know, I understand. 

6. Neon Indian- Psychic Chasms
Like the HEALTH record in that it's more about the mood than actual songs (though there are a few), Psychic Chasms often sounds like Discovery-era Daft Punk covering Wings' "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" in a 1990's retail outlet store.

5. Memory Tapes- Seek Magic
Alan Polomo made a comment on Pitchfork about not wanting the fact that his stuff sounds like listening through music through a tape recording of a TV playing a VHS take primacy over the actual music. If you listen to it enough, it doesn't, the songs are clearly there and the production technique is just that. Memory Tapes, whose record was a little more rewarding when it comes to this sort of thing, took that further since, for all the pretension and half-kidding rend pieces, Memory Tapes is essentially the Hercules and Love Affair album stripped of that album's fidelity and dedication to Bjork-y queerness."Bicycle", "Stop Talking" and "Graphics" are essentially the same kind of disco-friendly genre-jumping dance music that Hercules and Love Affair and Cut/Copy made last year, just sonically distant. Memory Tapes is odd, though, because this aspect seemed really unnecessary. After enough listens, it becomes clear that the album would've played out better had the volume and equalization been the same as those two acts' albums to bring out the fact that this is a really great dance record hidden behind an indie-friendly digital masking. "Plain Material" benefits from the "chill" treatment, but really everything else seems a little hampered by it.

4. Wavves- Wavvves
I don't think anyone who got into Wavves this year expected to like Wavves. There's just too many things about Nathan himself that are off-putting and grating. But the songs are there, and for all the hipster gossip and drug-cocktail tantrums it's probably the best rock record to have been released in a while, sounding tossed-off, effortless, and ingenious like good rock should.

3. Bat For Lashes- Two Suns
Natasha Khan makes the record that I wish Bjork still did. She's certainly taken up that mantle visually, although sonically she reminds me of a mix between the better moments on PJ Harvey and TV on the Radio records, or at least PJ Harvey with a better range singing over early TV on the Radio songs. In fact, tracks sound a lot like each of those artists, with "Two Planets" sounding like Bjork, "Travelling Woman" and "Moon and Moon" sounding like PJ and "Good Love" sounding like TVOTR. Immediately noticeable influences aside, it's a gorgeous album, husky, morose and sometimes danceable like an episode of Fat Albert.

2. Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest
What can you say about this record that hasn't been said about the Taj Mahal, the Sistine Chapel or Kim Kardashian? There's no reason to talk about this album any more than it already has been, except to say that it's takes multiple listens to get into, is painfully pretty at times and is studiously arranged.

Also, everyone in the band looks funny.

1. Sa-Ra Creative Partners- Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love
Probably the most slept-on record ever. EVER. If you Google it, you'll notice it was barely reviewed, with the most notable one being a glowing Spin write-up. There's really very little missing from this record, which is edgy in the 70's, Richard Pryor "I'm going to say whatever I want, no euphemisms" way, and opens with a samba song. There's Parliament and Dilla-isms all over the record, and whereas Flying Lotus just has Dilla's clunky drums, Sa-Ra filters later Dilla weirdness through a George Clinton lens. There's warmth, soul, and coke-informed strangeness all over the record, from each background blip to the melodies and vocal deliveries, and it's hard not to love an album that ends with a 7-minute concept song about a future where a guy  let's his daughter go to a cosmic ball that essentially boils down to a 4 minute jazz solo piece. Everything is awesomely trippy, even moreso than the Flaming Lips album, and the quality of the record belies the throwaway Sa-Ra production leftovers vibe that their bland and egalitarian moniker and status as crew behind recent music by Farnsworth Bentley and Erykah Badu signed to and subsequently shelved by Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music imprint. It's everything a good movie should be, sexy, violent, beautiful, drug-fueled, vulgar, gentle, and there's some jazz, electro and samba thrown into just for fun. Simply, it's the densest and most varied and rewarding 71 minutes of music released in a minute.


Anonymous said...

Dude, that Martyn lp is a killer. I left it too long after the hype died down. Any mention of 'jazz dubstep' and it's straight in the bin. i only just listened to it a month or 2 back. FUCKING HELL!!! Blew my head off. 2562 also, come a long way since 'Aerial'. King Midas, hmmm still getting my head round KM in chilled out mode.
ere try this out
Dusk and Blackdown Vs Grievous Angel "Music Margins:Redux"

Btw. Nice blog.

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