You guys, I have a feeling that 2010 is going to be awesome. The World Cup AND the Olympics are both happening, for one thing. And apparently, it’s also the year we make contact! That should be pretty sweet, right? Contact with that space baby?
But hey, forget all that and let’s talk about the albums I got that were released in 2009. There is a trend across the albums on the list: That they mostly have weak moments, but are redeemed by incredible moments. I will now list and review/make fun of them below:
1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (1/20)
Rock stars complaining about the tough life of rock stars is par for the course in the canon of pop music. It seems hard to make music about the kind of trivial, every-situations in life, and not too many artists choose to write songs about it being too hot to go outside, or being worried about becoming a parent. But Animal Collective find the joy and magic in these moments of minutia, and they do it extremely well. The music here is all shimmering electronic stuff helped by the beautiful vocal harmonies, and tends to reject the clunkiness of most electronic music. There are a few moments where the album drags with too much repetition or melodies that don’t quite catch the ear very well. But the ones that land are in the majority and land amazingly.
2. Theophilus London – This Charming Mixtape (1/23)
When our favorite music expert Scholar over at Souled On posted a track from London, I had to find out more about this dude. I found this mixtape, a combination of dance tracks hip-hop and remixes (“Ain’t No Sunshine” and a piss-take on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”), and while nothing on it measures up to the song I had heard (the addictive downer “Humdrum Town”), it’s all good and points to a bright future for the hipster rapper. Though not as all-out-fun as that other BK hipster dance-rap darling Spank Rock, London’s lyrics have more depth, and still manage to fit some fun in there too.
3. J Dilla – Jay Stay Paid (6/2)
Jay Dee has been experiencing a steady stream of posthumous releases since his February 2006, but Jay Stay Paid sets itself apart, partly due to the co-production of beat monster Pete Rock and Dilla’s mom, Ma Dukes. It’s the very definition of a loving tribute, and the result is pretty impressive, if a little spotty in some areas. Thing is, even the weak points show just how innovative and unique Dilla’s beats were. On stand-alone instrumental tracks like “I Told Y’All,” listeners get to hear just how powerful they are too. You almost wouldn’t want someone rhyming over certain tracks, but then you get to “Reality TV,” on which Black Thought deconstructs his girlfriend’s love of reality shows — in a nod to GZA’s “Labels” — using the names of all the offending shows in the lyrics. Definitely not phoning it in. In fact, none of the luminary MCs on the album phone it in, which is a testament to the amount of respect Dilla gets, even after (maybe especially after) his death. But the real joy here is hearing Dilla’s work, which without projects like this, might have been unheard forever.
4. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (6/9)
Listening to this album, you get the feeling that Mos made exactly the music he wanted to make. Nothing sounds like a concession, and that calculated risk pays off big. You also get the feeling that he intended it to be an album that represented the era. Many of the beats come from that musical explorer Madlib, whose Southeast Asian explorations from his Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4: In India make a couple appearances (“Movie Finale” on track “Auditorium” below) and reflect Mos looking towards the East, just as the world has become more focused on world events in the area since 9/11. The album itself dwells, almost lives, in the state of world politics today — almost as if he set out to make an album which would encompass it all, to express a world consciousness even. And there’s a lot of material here towards that effort (an intro in Arabic, the Middle-Eastern flavor, a tune in Spanish, and lyrics about everything from unemployment to insidious US world influence), including hints of other eras (quotes from Malcolm X and Fela Kuti). The beats are some of the most extraordinary and unique on any major hip-hop release I can remember, from the mentioned Madlib and his brother Oh No and a few other more indie-ish producers (including a comparatively tame Dilla track), and they’re not all perfect, but they’re all interesting, and the album holds up as a pretty great document of our times.
5. Alex Goose – The Blueprint 3 Outtakes (8/1-ish)
Here’s another tip from Scholar (seriously, if you’re not reading him, what are you waiting for?). He posted the track “Dear Daisy” a while back and I fell in love. And finding out that there’s a whole album of beats by Alex Goose? Call me on board. As Goose says on the mixtape’s website, he was asked to submit beats for Blueprint 3, but was informed that none of them were going to be used. So he posted the whole album online for people to download free. Occasionally, you can hear why a certain beat wouldn’t make a great one to rhyme over (too busy, no breaks for lyrics, that kind of thing), but even those are good to listen to on their own. SO much better than the weak ones on the actual album (covered below). I tended to like the beats on American Gangster more than those on Blueprint 3, mostly because I tend to prefer horns and live instruments to synthesizers, so it would stand to reason that I would like Goose’s tracks more than the ones that ended up on the real BP3. Hopefully a lot of people perked up their ears for this (the site says over 10,000 downloads in the first week, so that’s good) because I’d like to hear a lot more like this.
6. Yim Yames – tribute to EP (8/4)
I like covers a lot. So much so, that I used to have a weekly feature here at hahamusic posting just cover songs. Jim James of My Morning Jacket does a great job with his six-song tribute to the songs of George Harrison, who in the liner notes, he calls “A beacon of good light unto the world.” His choice of songs is great, including my favorite Harrison tune, “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album, and a couple that I’d never heard before (“Behind that Locked Door” and “Ballad of Frankie Crisp”). James’ sparse and quiet orchestration suits the choices beautifully, making the recreations feel intimate and lived-in. I actually found myself preferring this version of “Love You To,” Harrison’s first real foray into Indian music, from Revolver. James’ melancholy mountain-music reinterpretation with plenty of beauty, more than the droning original. It’s a suiting tribute to a too-often forgotten songwriter.
7. Phish – Joy (8/25)
I am an unabashed fan of Phish. They’re yet another of those bands who get a bad rap because of the culture that grows up around their music (The Grateful Dead being the best example — insufferable hippies tend to overshadow the amazing tunes). So when Phish reunited, I was happy. And when I heard that their new album was their best since Billy Breathes (my favorite of their discography), I was even more happy. I even went out and bought the album without hearing a single note of it. And yes, it’s a good album! It’s not nearly as good as Billy Breathes, but it’s good! A quick detour: In his four-star review of Joy in Rolling Stone, Will Hermes describes the song “Sugar Shack” (one of my favorites on the album) as “metareggae.” “Metareggae”? Not only is that pretentious, but it doesn’t mean anything, especially as applied to the song . Sub-Pitchfork drivel. Anyway … Hermes’ review also says that if you don’t like Joy, you probably won’t like Phish’s music, which I think is probably pretty true. Joy has all the Phish staples: The spacey songs, the jokey songs, the guitar rock songs, the 10-minute-plus jam songs. The lyrics aren’t as good as they could be, relying on super-simple rhymes and cliches (“When we were young, we thought life was a game/But then somebody leaves you and you’re never the same” from the title track), and the music occasionally veers into the radio-friendly rock of Trey Anastasio’s solo albums. But overall, it’s solid. And the songs that are great — “Backwards Down the Number Line,” “Sugar Shack,” “Light” and “Time Turns Elastic” — are more than enough to balance the ones that aren’t. All in all, not a mistake to buy it blind.
8. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt II (9/8)
I think I discussed this album in my daily life more than any of the other albums on this list. Hugely anticipated, hyped with occasional teasers, Raekwon has been overdue for a hit. And he put it all into this one. There’s so much in this album, and parts of it are the best hip-hop I’ve ever heard — no exaggeration. Seriously, if you feel your love of hip-hop waning, flip to “Canal Street” and wait for around the 0:55 mark. When that beats drop, just let yourself fall back in love with it, because it will happen anyway– don’t bother putting up a fight. Yes, Chef Raekwon’s long-awaited follow up to his breakout album, which had been stirring since 2007, is damn good. It satisfies on both beats and lyrics, and though it’s not perfect, the good clearly outweighs the bad. The production mostly shines, with RZA, Dilla (damn, what a year for him) and others killing it track after track. Dr. Dre contributes a couple (“Catalina” and “About Me”), and while they’re okay, they’re nothing special. I found myself wishing that the hook on “Catalina” wasn’t sung by Lyfe Jennings. That R&B hook thing doesn’t exactly suit the album, so when it pops up (“Cold Outside” kind of approaches that too), it sounds really out of place. If the hook had just been spoken, maybe by Rae himself, it would have been perfect. RZA gets it exactly right with the hook on “Black Mozart,” one of my favorite songs on the album. And of course, the lyrics. Raekwon is writing some of the best lyrics in music today. Forget interesting, that doesn’t even cover it. The way he phrases his gritty stories, you’re left floored and impressed. No one out there writes better crime lyrics than him, except maybe Ghostface, who also kills it on the album. In the same way that you’re rewinding DOOM’s songs to re-hear his punchlines and phrasing, you can’t help but hit repeat on this album.
9. Jay-Z – Blueprint 3 (9/11)
Ok, so the worst thing about Blueprint 3 (and there’s a lot to choose from) is that it’s really really boring. The couple of tracks that have anything interesting going on are wildly different from the rest of the album — which is just track after track of 80’s/future synth-based beats — with Hova phoning it in with uninteresting rhymes. How many times do we have to listen to Jay rap about how he used to sling crack and how New York is just super neat and how he’s the greatest MC in the world (ego trip, ego trip)? Even the couple of songs that keep your attention for more than two minutes have nothing to do with his performance. “Empire State of Mind” holds up (even after hearing it everywhere, all day, everyday for the past four months) because of the beat and Alicia Keys. If the song hinged on the raps, it would be terrible. The lyrics are terrible. Similarly, “Real as It Gets” is cool only because of Young Jeezy sounds like he actually wants to be there, unlike Jay-Z. Once Jay gets on the mic, all the energy drains right the hell out of the song. If even you sound bored, why should we want to listen?
10. The Dodos – Time to Die (9/15)
Here’s how it works when Charlotte recommends something to me: I will say, “Oh yeah, maybe I’ll check that out” and then not check it out at all. Then, months, sometimes years later, I’ll come across the artist or album or whatever that she recommended in a different way — maybe it’ll be the song on a commercial, or see it in the ‘used’ section in a cd store, etc. And then I’ll listen to it and become obsessed and have to apologize and grovel and so forth. So I’m trying to get better about this, starting with the new EP from The Dodos. I took the advice and listened right away, and I’m glad to say that, as usual, Charlotte was very right. The Dodos’ music is interesting and catchy, with a really cool set of instruments (guitar, drums and vibes) and after listening to the album, I had trouble falling asleep because I would have one song and then another stuck in my head all night. So thanks for the recommendation, Charlotte!
11. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (10/13)
The Flaming Lips have always been a little weird — self-proclaimed weird even. I mean, the documentary about them is titled The Fearless Freaks. At the same time, their career arch has been curving more towards pop normality, coming closest with their last one, At War With the Mystics. So it seems like an abrupt departure that they would come out with the collection of songs on Embryonic, which are very very weird. Think of Pink Floyd as a garage band with a ton of electronic music toys, and that almost covers it. This is probably the album I’m most conflicted about this year. Like I did with Joy, I bought Embryonic sight-unheard. I’m a HUGE fan of the band, and I figured I could trust them enough to put out a quality product. That’s an interesting trust we put in artists sometimes. Anyway, the album about half satisfies. It’s a little rough, and for a lot of the tracks, it sounds like the band has become allergic to melody, with Wayne Coyne talk-singing the lyrics. This is frustrating for a fan who really likes Coyne’s voice and the melody the band writes (me). At their best, The Flaming Lips write music that’s beautiful and profound and kicks ass — and maybe half of the music on this album meets those standards. The other stuff mostly seems a little rough-draft-y, or like the “I Can Be a Frog” (with Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), novelty song-ish. Finishing the album (which took me a couple tries), you start wishing that they had spent a little more time working on the tunes, but at the same time, you’re glad that half of the album isn’t too polished and worked on too.
12. BLAKROC – Self-Titled (11/27)
There’s a ton to praise about this album, a project put together by Roc-a-Fella co-founder Damon Dash, but let me just get one thing out of the way first. How weird is it that this guy NOE is on it? When I first listened to his tracks, I thought, “Oh, that’s clearly Jay-Z. I wonder why he’s using a different name. I guess the beef between him and Dash is over.” But it’s NOT him. It’s just a dude who sounds just like him. Exactly like him. And isn’t as good a writer as him. Anyway, the album started with Dash discovering the band The Black Keys and falling in love with their music, and pairing them with some hip-hop folks. And damn, he’s got some good instincts. The Black Keys kill every single track on this album, and leaving off a couple, their collaborators do the same. The few that don’t really gel aren’t really the fault of the participants (Q-Tip just doesn’t have a voice suited for hard rock, and Mos Def wilts for some reason on “On the Vista”), and the ones that work (God, Raekwon can do no wrong) outweigh them by tons. Get this album. Get it.
So those are the albums I got this year. Looking them over, it’s fair to say it’s been a pretty damn good year for music. Here’s a couple other great moments from this year:
Goodie Mob perform “Soul Food” with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon. Good gravy, so good.
And have a happy New Year’s kids. See you in 2010!
posted by Adam