Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Best & Most Interesting Albums of 2009

Let's commence with the ground rules:

#1: This is by no means comprehensive
#2: See Rule No. 1
#3: No bitching about how I didn't include Rebirth, since why the f*&! would I

That said...

DiBiase, Up the Joystick EP
Some random producer was probably not the first person to try blending arcade sounds with hip-hop when the once-ubiquitous "Cocoa Brovaz vs. Super Mario Bros." mash-up was making the rounds on Napster back in the day, but no one with the exception of maybe Random (on Mega Ran 9) has done it better than Watts, Calif.-based DiBiase. He wrings some soul and street out of Marios Bros., Tetris, Mega Man and others. You may have to hunt around a little for it, too, but he's got a sick Castlevania beat, "Castle Vee Re-Up," with Black Milk.

KenLo, Craqnuques (Orange)
Each year I seem to get introduced to new beatmaker from Africa who catches my ear. In '09 it was Ethiopian producer KenLo, whose Craqnuques series (it translates to "crack necks") effortlessly blends the old and new into an abstract stew of dusty-but-digital hip-hop.

El Michels Affair, Enter the 37th Chamber
I'm starting to notice that a lot of my favorites from 2009 are instrumental affairs. That includes the El Michels Affair, who put an old-school funk-soul spin on classic Wu-Tang beats from "C.R.E.A.M." to "Cher Chez La Ghost."

Oddisee, Diamond District EP
D.C. producer Oddisee is comin' up for sure. Back-to-back quality releases in 101 and 102 preceded this free-download EP that was chock full of throwback bangers. On top of that, guest rapper X.O. dropped One-One-Ten last week which is at the top my early "Best of '10" list!

Chester French, Love the Future
I was initially unimpressed with Chester French, รก la their Jacques Jams mixtape. But Love the Future is an accomplished piece of pop musicianship that is technically impressive while maintaining a quirky edge. It's probably a little over-the-top to make Beatles comparisons, but in terms of blending modern music with experimental pop sounds, the synth-and-horn shuffle of "Neal" and the lap-steel solo that transforms "Fingers" from orchestral pop to mutant country swing bear shades of the White Album.

Lindsay Mac, Stop Thinking
A classically-trained musician, Mac's sound is a bouncy, poppy brand of energetic propulsion, with the tinny strumming of an acoustic guitar replaced by the much fuller-sounding plucks of her cello, which is accompanied by guitar and bass players Jason Petrin and Stephen Webber and a host of guest instrumentalists playing everything from bass clarinet to a turntable. And while her arrangements and occasionally-snarky lyricism definitely call to mind Ani DiFranco, Mac's tunes also seem to have bit of Dixie-Chickish buoyancy, from her cello cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird" to the rag-timey feel of the meter-shifting suite "Cry, Cry, Cry."

Two Man Gentlemen Band, Drip Dryin'
Try to imagine an old-timey vaudeville musical act on uppers, with Beck's lyrical sensibility, and you're beginning to approach the comical madness that is the Two Man Gentleman Band. Bassist Fuller Condon and banjo player Andy Bean - who in the past has peppered his lyrics with historical references to match the music - put together a feel-good screwball party record that celebrates microbrews ("Fancy Beer"), the joy of a well-cooked bunny ("The Rabbit Foot Stomp") and the simple pleasure of a "Croquet Playing Girl."

Paolo Nutini, Sunny Side Up
Ushering in summer, Nutini's latest is the perfect warm-weather soundtrack. Reminiscent of Paul Simon and sounding a little like Don McLean, Nutini kicks things off with a reggae groove ("Ten Out of Ten") and continues on through a dozen endlessly optimistic tunes, ranging from the New Orleans stomp of "Pencil Full of Lead" to the fluttering flutes of "High Hopes." Sunny Side Up is the perfect record for that drive to the beach.

Mos Def, The Ecstatic
Black on Both Sides was great... but then he was in the MTV remake of "Carmen"... then he released a "rock" album... then he released the nearly-universally-bludgeoned True Magic. So The Ecstatic has a lot to answer for, and boy, does it ever. Enlisting the help of Stones Throw siblings Madlib and Oh No, along with Mr. Flash, Preservation and, natch, a beat grabbed from the late J. Dilla's catalog, Mos flows effortlessly from one track to the next. Several of the album's best beats ("Supermagic," which video game fans will recognize from a skateboard-game commercial whose title escapes me; "Auditorium"; "Wahid") are culled from Madlib and Oh No's time digging through Indian and Turkish vinyl, and upping the tempo ("Casa Bey," "Quiet Dog Bite Hard") is no problem for Mos, who really makes rhyming sound effortless and easy to understand.

Cornershop, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast
Cornershop, formed in England by Tjinder Singh and his brother Avtar, has always focused on hippie-dippie psychedelic-tinged rock, with bits of hip-hop, electronic and Eastern music thrown in for good measure. Judy Sucks a Lemon, however, is very much a throwback to the days of carefree folk-rock music. If you're looking for deep songwriting or any kind of cogent narrative, seek ye elsewhere: the largely-nonsensical lyrics are pretty much a jumping-off point for the band's freaky folk jams, which are the real appeal.

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
Can Rae and Ghost recapture the magic they weaved with the crime-narrative how-to that was the original Cuban Linx? No. But they can come damn close. Reminiscent without being deliberately backward-looking, the sequel fires on all cylinders. It could be argued that some of the tracks are overly simplistic, but it's more a case of the producers selecting spare, slightly-sinister samples that provide a nice bedrock for Raekwon's best verses in years. New Wu" is the crown jewel, a moody soul choir sample and old-school drums that have Method Man and Ghost flowing like it's '93 all over again. Rae selects a pleading Dilla beay for the ODB tribute, "Ason Jones," and "Pyrex Vision" cops an old DJ Premier beat for 55 seconds of boom-bap throwback.

Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement
Raphael Saadiq set the standard with The Way I See It, giving his record an early-Marvin-Gaye feel that had old-school soul fans dumbing out. Amy Winehouse showed a flair for combining those sounds with modern pop and hip-hop, but then she got all cracked-the-fuck-out and is mainly known for being foolish. Mayer Hawthorne, though, has it down to a science. Strange Arrangement is lights-down-low, blue-eyed soul that floats on a cloud. The title track is a perfect example of this great record's throwback aesthetic.

Los Lobos, Los Lobos Goes Disney
A Chicano band covering "Heigh Ho!" is a recipe for utter disaster. Or, well.... it should be. But it totally isn't. Cribbing some of the lesser-known (but still surprisingly recognizable) songs from the Disney musical-film catalog, Los Lobos put together that extremely rare record that kids, parents and grandparents can all listen to and enjoy.

Fresh Espresso, Glamour
This Seattle-based group has an excellent ear for incorporating just the right type of synthesizers, bells and whistles to give Glamour a Kanye-esque feel, but with more fun and less pretentiousness. Tracks like "Show Me How You Do" and the excellent "Lazerbeams," which chops up Pink Floyd's "Any Colour You Like" showcase P Smoov and Rik Rude at their best, blending pop, hip-hop and the perfect amount of experimentation. "Glamour" is the sound of an exciting new voice in West Coast hip-hop.

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