Huh. I went from thinking I might have trouble coming up with ten, to having twice that. These are, more or less, all of the new albums I listened to and liked this year (or at least the ones that could be considered "mainstream-ish"), so I figured I'd just write 'em all up. Somehow, I did not hear the newest Ice Cube record, and that is lame. But I did hear all this stuff. Please argue in the comments.
20. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger - Acoustic Sessions
I am a sucker for Sean Lennon, so I was pretty excited when I heard about this project, which is a stripped-down collaboration with his model girlfriend. I wasn't excited about the girlfriend part, but the dude is always stingy with the output, so I was eager to hear it. In the end, their lovestruck-ness may have blinded them when it came to the viability of a few of these tracks, and some of the lyrics are high-school-poetry-level faux-intellectual garbage, but their voices do sound nice together. But, man - is it mellow. Have to be in the mood for it.
"Jardin Du Luxembourg"
19. Kurupt - Streetlights
I started out really keen on this album, and then, as usual, tracks like the idiotic "I'm Drunk" and the base-level "All That I Want" (spoiler alert: all they want is to bang chicks and never see them again) brought my enjoyment levels down to where I feared they might end up. Still, tracks like "Face Down" and "I'm Burnt" feature the Young Gotti spitting nutso lyrics over click-clack beats that he doesn't usually mess with, and the resulting sound is dope. The long-lost Xzibit even shows up on "In Gotti We Trust," and it turns out he can still rap. Snoop Dogg phones in his guest spots (shocking), but it's good to hear him and Kurupt on the same track regardless.
18. Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier
The shortest song on this record is just over four and a half minutes, and the longest - the epic closer "When the Wild Wind Blows" - clocks in at eleven. Maiden has set the bar so high for themselves at this point that a beastly, meticulously crafted track like the monstrous "Isle of Avalon" doesn't even sound particularly challenging. As usual, if you strap the headphones on and take the time to listen to what each individual member is doing, it's mind-blowing. Bruce Dickinson has sounded more enthused on previous efforts, but this record is really more about the instrumental breaks that he affords the band. And they can still get the job done.
"Isle of Avalon"
17. Klaxons - Surfing the Void
Clearly, this record wins album cover of the year. Heck, that's why I listened to it. I remember hearing Klaxons a few years back and not really giving a shit about them, but this one hooked me. I can't rock it repeatedly, but cuts like "Echoes" and "Flashover" are solid jams that work well on all sorts of levels. Apparently I was never aware that this band was so noisy. I dig the fuzz, the rumbling, and the loud-ass drums that drive the whole thing. It ain't for everybody, and honestly, I'm surprised I like it. But I do.
16. Inspectah Deck - Manifesto
At this point, wondering if Deck is ever going to put out the solo album we all feel he's capable of isn't an argument worth having. It's not going to happen. He's notoriously unable to decide on an angle from which to attack, and it's repeatedly dampened the effects of his previous joints. The good news here is that he seems to be tired of trying to cross over, and these 20 tracks are more or less just-don't-give-a-fuck straight rapping. There's a few suspect cuts thrown in ("Luv Letter," anyone?), but hard-ass tracks like "Gotta Bang" and "9th Chamber" more than make up for it. Get pissed, Deck. Get pissed.
15. Robyn - Body Talk
I saw Robyn doing "Cobrastyle" on Letterman a few years back and thought it was crazy awesome madness. I heard a few more of her tracks at the beginning of this year, and thought they were solid enough. I finally downloaded the entire record for my wife and ended up liking a lot more songs than I ever thought I would. Her duet with Snoop Dogg on here ("U Should Know Better") is hilarious and badass, and songs like "Fembot" and "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do" are just too ridiculous not to like. And I like to watch her dance. Take that as you will.
"U Should Know Better"
14. Nocando - Jimmy the Lock
Nocando did a guest spot on Busdriver's last record, and I thought the dude was a nut then. After hearing this record, it's confirmed. The dude's a kook. Though you can tell he cut his teeth freestyling - his style has that one-step-ahead feel to it - the lyrics on this record are too crafty and sharp to be spit out nonchalantly. Though you can't always be sure what he's talking about when he starts out, he almost always comes back around, and even kicks some linear verses that mix the whole thing up. It's almost unintentionally abstract, and it all feels effortless. Cool shit.
"Two Track Mind"
13. K-X-P - K-X-P
When it comes to albums I shouldn't like, this one has everything going for it. It's instrumental. It's electro-ish. It features some serious warble and wave when it comes to the synths, of which there are many. But I'll tell you: If you're looking for a great instrumental record to rock in your headphones while you're putting in work, dicking around on the internet, or driving in the dark, this one really makes a damn fine soundtrack to whatever spaced-out shit you might be mixed up in. Layers and layers of sound, and nothing seems to stop it.
12. Atmosphere - To All My Friends, Blood Makes The Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP's
I Thought When Life Gives You Lemons was a bit of a stinker, and though this record continues to hammer on the same hardscrabble tales of woe that that record overworked, it's also evened out with tracks that aren't so damn dark and depressing. I fully understand why Slug wants to go to that place, and he's damn good at wrenching feeling out of tracks like that, but it's really nice to hear some upbeat bounce beats on this album. Not my favorite thing they've done, but I think it's getting back to the shit of theirs that I really dig. And "Until the Nipple's Gone" is not only a great song title, it's also a sweet-ass track.
"The Best Day"
11. Method Man, Ghostface Killah, & Raekwon - Wu-Massacre
If this album wasn't borderline EP-length, the fact that it sounds like a work-in-progress might not matter so much. As it stands, it has its shortcomings. It also has three of the best MCs in the world busting raps over roughneck beats that mostly work well together, and other than two pointless skits that reek of marijuana-induced inclusion, the whole affair is surprisingly filler-free. What's here is dope as shit. And I guess that's all that matters. I hope they do another one of these, because this thing needs finishing, proper.
10. Eminem - Recovery
I was going to be pissed if Eminem never made another record like this, and for a while there, it seemed like he wasn't going to. Relapse remains one of the oddest comeback records ever committed to wax, and if that's what he had to get out of his system in order to get to this batch of songs, then who are we to poo-poo his scatterbrained serial killer fantasies? That shit's nowhere to be seen on this record, and neither is that grating accent that never made sense to anyone. Get this: dude just raps his ass off on this thing. Not sure why it took him so long to figure out that that's all anyone ever wanted. This LP's not on par with his early stuff, but it's his best record since The Eminem Show, easy.
09. Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
It'd been a while since I'd checked in with the Fanclub, but I guess that's partially because they've only put out two records in the last decade. Not surprisingly, their approach hasn't changed a whole lot, and also not surprisingly, their ability to write hooks that get lodged in your noggin for afternoons on end hasn't declined a bit. These tracks are mostly soft on the surface, but like all of their best songs, it's more about the relationship between the melody and the chord changes than what kind of vibe they're going for. The fact that this band has three songwriters has always astounded me, because they never sound out of sorts. But come on guys: three songwriters and you only drop a record every five years? Get it together.
08. The New Pornographers - Together
Being the most reliable band in indie rock seems like it would be a cross to bear, but The New Pornographers just keep cranking out records that, if they weren't so damn good every time, would have a much bigger deal made about them. Aside from the always-annoying Dan Bejar contributions ("Silver Jenny Dollar" practically screams "b-side"), this record is pop-rock the way it should be done, with big - but not too big - arrangements carefully placed around a couple of lead vocalists who will never be mistaken for anyone else. A.C. Newman may never get enough credit for all the damn fine songs he has written. Don't get me wrong: he's gotten plenty. But the dude needs more.
"Your Hands (Together)"
07. M.I.A. - /\/\/\Y/\
Still trying to figure out why people had so much beef with this record. Yeah, it doesn't sound much like her first two, but if you were looking for predictable, this clearly wasn't the lady to be placing your bets on. Admittedly, it took me a few listens to figure out what the hell was going on with this thing, and honestly, I may still be piecing it together. But after listening to it twenty times, I realized, if nothing else, I've just never heard an album like this before. It's so heavily fractured in parts and so sweet-poppy in others that it all feels on the brink of collapsing the entire time it's playing. But mostly, I just love the shit out of the beats on this thing. They're flat-out crazy, and I hear new bits every time I listen to 'em.
06. Vampire Weekend - Contra
The backlash is in full swing with these guys, but blah blah blah. People wouldn't have so much to talk about if there wasn't so much depth to these records. There. There's another thing you can dispute. Seriously: whatever. I can see why folks don't like Vampire Weekend, but I also think those people are missing out on some really fun rock music that probably doesn't deserve to be overanalyzed as much as it is. Who gives a shit where these guys are borrowing sounds from? The songs are intricate, the lyrics are smart as shit, and the whole thing is caked with preppy weirdness that is just far too over-the-top to be the least bit genuine. Yes, "Holiday" is a bit ubiquitous. But when you're getting sued for your album cover image, you gotta pay them lawyer fees with some car commercial dough. And I still contend it's a great song. And come on - they hang with RZA!
"Giving Up the Gun"
05. Sleigh Bells - Treats
Well, this one caught me off guard. But as soon as I heard the opening fuck-all machine gun hammering that leads off "Tell 'Em," I was intrigued. As the record progressed, I became genuinely interested. Now I've listened to this thing fifty times and I still enjoy the shit out of it. This is another one of those I-can-see-why-people-hate-it sort of bands, and that's cool. There is some dirty hipster bullshit element to this, but I find myself not caring. A good song is a good song, and if blaring noised gets mashed up next to pretty vocals and it all works out, I'm never against that. Describing this band has proved impossible for all rock critics, too, and that's always a good sign.
04. The Soft Pack - The Soft Pack
Four dudes with guitars and some really great songs. I enjoy that. They're also conspicuously devoid of any sort of fashion sense, and that's always a good sign. "Answer to Yourself" is one of the best songs I heard all year, and though it threatens to become a little too feel-goody, it never crosses the line, instead opting for a vibe that's more insistent than the friendly-advice angle that it seems to initially be pushing. This is a strangely forceful band, and though their sound is really nothing new, they're damn good at what they're going for, and that's more than most bands can say. Just a damn fine record. Still pissed I missed them when they came through town semi-recently. I will regret that.
"Answer to Yourself"
03. Superchunk - Majesty Shredding
Where in the hell does this band get off taking a break for a decade and then returning sounding like they never left? This album is, first of all, awesome for just existing. No one would have blinked had there not been a Superchunk record this year. But it's mostly awesome for being a tremendous addition to an already stellar catalog. Songs like "My Gap Feels Weird" and "Crossed Wires" sound like they could have been recorded in '98, and in this case, that's a really good thing. Mac sounds almost exactly the same, and the rest of the band sounds just as noisy-melodic as they always have. Rock solid.
"Digging for Something"
02. Ghostface Killah - Apollo Kids
Wait, so, when is Ghost going to start sucking? I wasn't a huge fan of last year's Ghostdini, but it wasn't terrible. Now he's back with another record that is flat-out awesome. Jesus, even Busta Rhymes can't bring this thing down. In fact, his verse on "Superstar" is actually pretty good. Yikes. The Game and Joell Ortiz allow the quality to dip a little on "Drama," but when you hear U-God, Raekwon, and Cappadonna wreck shit on "Ghetto," all is forgiven. No skits, no filler, just wall-to-wall beats and rhymes. Ghostface is unstoppable. And if you don't follow him on Twitter, you're missing out.
01. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
The only thing that could have made this record any better would have been the inclusion of Andre 3000. And since that was apparently some unavoidable legal hogwash, Big Boi gets a pass there. And while I don't really care for Jamie Foxx and whoever that is doing the hook on "Follow Us," nothing can really stop the rest of this madness. Big Boi is such a unique voice in hip hop, and though I'm not sure that he's been necessarily overshadowed by Andre in the past, he's definitely always been categorized as the "streetwise" one, or maybe even painted as the straight man. Fuck that. Big Boi's a nut too, and he gets all sorts of crazy on this thing, busting raps that no one else could even begin to come up with. Speakerboxxx was one thing, but this is in another league. Beats, rhymes, the whole deal. Well worth the wait. I can't stop rocking it.