Putting together this list made me feel old, if for nothing else than the median age of the artists on it. I think a certain amount of closed-mindedness is healthy for any critic, because it's a fool's game to think you can keep up with every genre and every new media darling or come up with anything worth saying about it aside from announcing that you're aware of its existence. But my "stick to what you know" philosophy sometimes results in a closed circuit, like this year when I rarely ventured far out of the specific kinds of mainstream rap I like, the specific kinds of indie rock I like, and all manners of Bmore shit
And I'll be the first to admit that the abundance of artists on this list that I've been listening to for years and years isn't due to all of them miraculously making late-career masterpieces in the same year. With a few exceptions, most of these records wouldn't even be in the top 3 albums by the people that made them (the exceptions are generally people who have 3 or fewer albums that I own). A few relatively young rappers and a couple of newish indie bands made the cut, but they're surrounded by a lot of geezers. I think the indie zeitgeist passed me by a long time ago, probably before I even wrote for Pitchfork 6-7 years ago, and my tastes have only lined up with it sporadically (Ted Leo, maybe a couple other bands kinda sorta?), so since then I've just kind of politely ignored it, especially these days since I have little to no interest in dance music. And unless some indie rock mp3 blogger kidnaps me and forces me to listen to The Knife or Hot Chip or whatever and I actually enjoy it, I'm not going to go out of my way to check out the shit getting all the plaudits.
This list is also very much a result of the crunch time I referred to back when I posted the October draft
of this list, which is dramatically different from the end product (come to think of it, so are my ballots for the City Paper
, which I only submitted a few weeks ago). I always get to about that point in the year where I'm really afraid of my list coming out weak and full of stuff I don't really like, usually because I didn't hear enough but this year more because I copped a lot of albums I knew would probably be subpar for the purpose of reviewing them, which is one of my resolutions to do less of next year.
Maybe I'm being too apologetic here for my own tastes, which I shouldn't be, because I do stand by my opinions. But in general, I like a lot and love little. I've never had a review published with any rating higher than a B+ or 8.0. Some days I'm not sure what a A+ or 10/10 album sounds like or if I've ever even heard one, but that's fine with me. I neither expect nor particularly want perfection from art. The whole critical industry, but particularly in these "best new music"-obsessed times we live in, depends on the idea of a certain number of jaw-dropping masterpieces being released every year, and I've just never bought that. If you're doling out breathless hyperbole for every fifth album you hear, odds are I'm going to assume you're easily impressed or are desperate to inflate the status of anything you like and gain tastemaker points. Maybe there have been a bunch of 9.0-worthy albums in 2006, but if the top-ten lists I'm seeing are an accurate representation of them, it's mostly stuff that wouldn't appeal to me regardless of quality, and that's OK. I don't need some amazing album I can listen to every single day, I just need enough albums I can listen to now and then to fill up my days.
And oh yeah, I'm doing this list from the top down. Enough of that pretending there's some suspense to vertically counting down a list if you're posting it all at once. You know that people can just scroll down right away if they want to, right? 1. T.I. - King
(Grand Hustle/Atlantic)T.I. - "You Know Who" (mp3)
When was the last time the best-selling rap album of the year was actually one of the best albums released? Has that ever happened before? I mean, I guess it took a weak year in sales for that to happen, but it's still kind of nice that for once it wasn't some bloated Aftermath shit. 2. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
(Geffen)Sonic Youth - "Lights Out" (mp3)
Sonic Youth are my favorite band of all time, so unless they start making subpar albums like NYC Ghosts & Flowers or some other band starts doing remotely the same thing remotely as well (and no, Trail Of Dead and Blonde Redhead do not count), they're always going to be at or near the top of these lists. Rather Ripped
might actually benefit in the long run from being the first SY album in the last decade that I didn't listen to way too much in the first few weeks of its release. After being initially underwhelmed, songs like "Lights Out" and "Jams Run Free" very gradually hooked me. It kind of annoys me that they do most of their touring so soon after releasing an album these days, I think their only show within a reasonable distance of me this year was less than a week after the album's release, and even if I wasn't broke at the time and went, I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as if I got to see them play this album live after having a few months to digest it. 3. The Roots - Game Theory
(Def Jam)The Roots f/ Wadud Ahmad - "Take It There" (mp3)
Might be the best-sounding rap album of the year, in terms of production, which I really never expected from them. It's a shame that A-list MC's only seem to fuck with The Roots when they're playing SNL or Unplugged or the Grammys, because I would love it if they had done some nasty beats like the ones on Game Theory
for some of this year's big 4th quarter releases. Shit, if will.i.am can do it, why not ?uestlove?4. Parts & Labor - Stay Afraid
(Jagjaguwar/Brah)Parts & Labor - "A Pleasant Stay" (mp3)
I'm not in the habit of boosting indie rock bands whose members travel in the same blog
circles as I do (no Mountain Goato), but Parts & Labor's earlier stuff was reccomended to me by Mat
a couple years ago and I liked what I heard enough to check out their new one this year. I love how there are these really catchy, well written rock anthems lurking just underneath the blanket of squealing noise. 5. Birdman & Lil Wayne - Like Father, Like Son
(Cash Money/Universal)Birdman & Lil Wayne - "Ain't Worried Bout Shit" (mp3)
Let's address, for a second, the developing trend, exemplified by the Clipse last year and Dedication 2
this year, of mixtapes placing high on a lot of year-end lists. My feeling is that this has more to do with critics rallying around artists in years when they didn't put out retail albums than with the supposed amazing transcendence of these mixtapes. Which I think is a little goofy as it is (I mean, c'mon, it's like bigging up a live album or b-sides comp as the album of the year), but the thing is that Wayne did put out an album this year, and it was better than Dedication 2
or any of his other recent mixtapes. Granted, it's not on the level of Tha Carter II
and probably won't be as good as Carter III
, but in the time in between, this is what I'm rolling with. The beats are almost uniformly great, and Birdman is pretty decent as far as non-rappin' CEOs go, no more distractingly the weak link now than he was with the Big Tymers. And Wayne only doing half of the verses isn't exactly stingy, since that's about the rate a lot of rappers do on guest-heavy solo albums. But really, the main thing for me is that as good as mixtapes can be, sometimes better than the corresponding artist's album, I still think of them as not-year-end-list material, at least the ones that are heavy on freestyles and remixes. A great rap album, in my mind, is the product of original lyrics and original production, not an MC cherry-picking the best beats of the past few months and plugging new words into the flows already created by the artist who originally bought the beat. This might get me labelled a "rockist" (oh no!), but I think of that as secondary creativity, like what "Weird Al" does or, hell, what music critics do, building on someone else's work (this opens up a can of worms about stuff like sampling, but I'm going to be a hypocrite and ignore that). So even if Dedication 2 is the best mixtape of the year, which it might be, I still enjoy Like Father, Like Son more (no homophones
), and respect it as an album way more. 6. Nas - Hip Hop Is Dead
(Def Jam)Nas - "Money Over Bullshit" (mp3)
I've never had any special reverence for Illmatic
-- I mean, I like it, I respect its importance, but it seems like its impact is very much of its era, and I'm not going to pretend that I was some old school head whose mind was blown by it back in 94 and not a kid who just digested it as part of the entry level rap canon years after the fact. The under-achieving contradictory Nas is the only Nas I've ever really known, and I accept him for who he is. Street's Disciple
was my shit, all the bad ideas and stiff delivery is part of the package, I know what I'm getting into when I hear a new Nas album. And I like this album in the same way (although I have to say I was disappointed that "Where Y'all At" was left off the album). I'm kinda tired of all this hating on the production, too. Like, picking beats is definitely not Nas's strong suit, but the problems with his later albums have nothing to do with Salaam Remi or L.E.S., and I'm not sure that the results he'd get from working with Premier or Just Blaze would be any better (the whole Nas/Premo working together thing has been so overhyped at this point that I just want them to get it over with and fuck already, like a will-they-or-won't-they sitcom couple). 7. Jon Auer - Songs From The Year Of Our Demise
(Pattern 25)my Stylus reviewJon Auer - "You Used To Drive Me Around" (mp3)
Like I kinda predicted back when I reviewed it, as bland and unimpressive as the album is on one level, the craftsmanship of the songs is strong enough that I ended up loving it anyway. 8. Ray Cash - Cash On Delivery
(Columbia)my Stylus reviewRay Cash - "Fiends, Fiends, Fiends" (mp3)
Ray Cash gets this year's Ebony Eyez Award for a major label flop on my list that noone else I know copped or acknowledged at all beyond the single (as opposed to, y'know, flops that every critic and their cousin raves about, like The Clipse). Ray sometimes comes off as kind of T.I. copycat, but unlike Young Jeezy, he can actually rap. This is one of those rare rap albums where, though there aren't many great songs, there isn't a single wack song, you can let it play all the way through. 9. Portastatic - Be Still Please
(Merge)Portastatic - "You Blanks" (mp3)
As much as I love Superchunk, even the mellower later stuff (Cup of Sand
got a lot of spins around here), it's pretty dumb that I waited this long, 5 years since it became Mac's primary outlet, to bother copping a Portastatic album (shit, I think until maybe a year or two ago I thought the band name was Portastic). There are some charmingly meta lyrics ("all my songs used to end the same way," "I know my voice is like a sickly shrew/ if I could sing a song of sweetness and light for you/ oh honey that's just the first thing that I would do"), and while I could do with a little less violin (apparently the strings haven't left since they came in a decade ago), it's really a wonderful little album and nothing's sounded better to me in the middle of the night lately. And though I'll probably never listen to Merge bands like Spoon and the Arcade Fire, I'm happy they're popular enough to give Mac the kind of well deserved retirement fund that few indie lifers get these days. 10. Asobi Seksu - Citrus
(Friendly Fire)Asobi Seksu - "New Years" (mp3)
This is an album I kinda stumbled across that I probably wouldn't have sought out on my own, when I kinda grabbed a random stack from the Stylus promo pile, although someone else ended up reviewing the album for them. It really grew on me, not really for the whole "nu-shoegaze with a Japanese chick singer!" thing so much as the fact that a lot of their songs have massive jangly 80's college radio hooks that remind me of stuff like "Melt With You" and "Just Like Heaven." 11. Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
(Atlantic)Lupe Fiasco f/ Matthew Santos - "American Terrorist" (mp3)
I'm not crazy about him, but I can't deny that he's got some nice lyrics. The production's pretty good, too, generally. But, I mean, it doesn't really matter to me that he's a nerdy skateboarder, but it's a shame he takes it as a cue to sing like Pharrell on a bunch of the hooks, which kinda kills some of the songs for me.12. Young Dro - Best Thang Smokin'
(Grand Hustle/Atlantic)Young Dro f/ Sunshine - "Getting Rich" (mp3)
I won't belabor the point that Young Dro is a much better rapper than you'd expect of someone whose name starts with "Young," has a hit song about leaning instead of dancing, and is dismissed as, in the parlance of our times, a "weed carrier" for committing the unforgivable crime of being only the 2nd most famous rapper on his label. Mostly because Noz
already said it better than I could've. But the beats are generally solid (if there's any kind of meritocracy within Grand Hustle, Lil C earned at least a couple spots on T.I. Vs. T.I.P.
with his work on this album) and Dro's rhymes are incredibly dense with metaphors and wordplay. And unlike most punchline rappers these days, dude is actually funny
(I mean, c'mon, they're called punchlines for a reason). I didn't get this album at Best Buy, but I did unwittingly pick up a used copy that has 2 "Best Buy exclusive" tracks tacked onto the end of the CD, and one of them, "Getting Rich," might be my favorite song on the album. 13. John Legend - Once Again
(G.O.O.D. Music/Sony Urban)John Legend - "Another Again" (mp3)
There are few genres where the sophomore slump is a more common affliction than in neo soul. You could rack up plaques and Grammys all over the place with one album, and then get kicked to the curb as soon as you drop the follow-up (just ask Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, Macy Gray, India.Arie, etc.). Time will tell if John Legend will fall victim to that phenomenon to any extent, but he at least did his part by making a better and more varied album than his first. 14. Styles P. - Time Is Money
(Ruff Ryders/Interscope)Styles P. - "Leave A Message" (mp3)
It would've been nice if this dropped in 2005 like it was supposed to, especially since at 12 tracks he probably got discouraged and stopped recording any new songs after the first couple delays, but better late than never. 15. The Evens - Get Evens
(Dischord)The Evens - "Cut From The Cloth" (mp3)
This is only a couple spots higher than their debut was on my list last year, but trust that I like it probably twice as much. They're finally starting to expand their palette and sound like their own band, distinct from Fugazi, instead of sounding vaguely like the Instrument
soundtrack with a chick singer. I wanted to pick up that Joe Lally solo album too, is that any good? 16. Prince - 3121Prince - "Love" (mp3)
What I heard of Musicology
sounded kinda boring, but this felt a little more like a real comeback, even if doesn't touch 80's Prince (but then, what can?). Really it's just a lot of fun to hear him fuck with some nasty drum machine beats again, and the smoother funk stuff is kept in balance. 17. Field Mob - Light Poles And Pine Trees
(DTP/Def Jam)my Stylus reviewField Mob - "Blacker The Berry" (mp3)
The forced zaniness of Field Mob's personas used to grate on me ("Sick Of Bein' Lonely" might be the most irritating pop rap confection of the past decade that wasn't popular enough to annoy through sheer overexposure), but I've come to realize that that same goofy quality is responsible for their most entertainingly outlandish punchlines. My hope is that at some point Smoke will get his turn as the rapper we get to hear on every remix for a year, because his flow is insane. 18. Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
(Constellation)Carla Bozulich - "Evangelista II" (mp3)
I spent most of this year broke and as anxious and depressed as I've ever been, and I still wasn't able to connect much with an album as bleak as Evangelista
, which probably says more about my naturally upbeat disposition than anything else. But Carla Bozulich
remains, as I discussed here a couple months ago, one of my favorite rock vocalists, and hearing her blood-curdling scream over a scorched earth orchestra of doom was one of the most frightening and extreme listening experiences I had all year. 19. The Raconteurs - Broken Boy Soldiers
(V2)The Raconteurs - "Intimate Secretary" (mp3)
It took the existence of Wolfmother for me to realize that, at least as far as screechy indie imitations of Robert Plant go, Jack White isn't that bad. And in tandem with Brendan Benson, who I've always had a soft spot for, he's finally made an album I can not only tolerate but enjoy. 20. The Who - Endless WireThe Who - "Mike Post Theme" (mp3)
The oldest geezers on this list by far, and while there's a lot of reasons to not care about a new album (like, say, carrying on after the deaths of one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time), Townshend and Daltrey have made too much music that I love for me to not want to hear what they're doing in their twilight years, even if it's not going out on a particularly high note. They sound as old as they are on here, breathless and faded, but the mini-opera second half features a nice surge of energy, and I love that Pete still has enough of a sense of humor to write a song about Mike Post
.21. Rhymefest - Blue Collar
(J Records)Rhymefest - "All I Do" (mp3)
In spite of the bad ideas with Mark Ronson's fingerprints all over them that hinder this album (Strokes samples, Citizen Cope guest spots, ODB singing "Build Me Up Buttercup"), Rhymefest is a really engaging performer. And honestly, I'm rooting for the dude just because I can actually relate to a conscious rapper that talks about how most people are stuck in shitty jobs instead of dealing with abstract armchair politics or obsessing over the small percentage of the population that deals or does drugs.22. Trick Daddy - Back By Thug Demand
(Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic)Trick Daddy f/ Jaheim and Trina - "Tonight" (mp3)
The big-duh irony of the title is that Trick Daddy has never been in lower demand than he is right now, maybe because it's been a couple years since his last album and the field of Southern hip hop is a lot more crowded than it was when he rose to prominence, maybe just because this is the first album since his first that doesn't have a fairly big single (hell, it debuted on Billboard at #48, compared to the last album hitting #2 on the chart). So because of the lack of buzz, I went into it with low expectations, and while it's definitely a little one-dimensional compared to his last couple albums (no inspirational kid songs or bass jams), it's still pretty solid. What does he need to get noticed, a Gangsta Grillz
? "Tonight" encapsulates one of my favorite things about Trick Daddy, which is that even when he makes a girl song with an R&B singer, it's so ridiculously filthy and sexually explicit that there's no way it could be cleaned up for radio. 23. Two Dollar Guitar - The Wear And Tear Of Fear: A Lover's Discourse
(Smells Like Records)my Stylus reviewTwo Dollar Guitar - "Lying And Cheating" (mp3)
I wish I could rate this higher, since I may be, in all likelihood, the biggest Two Dollar Guitar fan in the world, but it doesn't quite hit me like Tim Foljahn's best work and I'd prefer to hear this stuff with a full band. 24. Donald Fagen - Morph The Cat
(Reprise)Donald Fagen - "What I Do" (mp3)
It's kind of frustrating how indistinguishable a Fagen solo album is from a Steely Dan album (hell, SD toured this summer when this album came out), but I like this better than Everything Must Go
or Two Against Nature
so I guess I'm OK with getting my Dan fix sans Becker these days. 25. Jay-Z - Kingdom Come
(Def Jam)Jay-Z - "Prelude" (mp3)
OK, before anyone accuses me of being a Captain Save-A-Hov for including this on the list at all, even down at the bottom, bear in mind that I'll be the first to admit that this is probably dude's worst solo album. And it doesn't exactly stick out like a sore thumb here anyway, considering that almost a dozen entries on this list are by people who've made at least 4 or 5 better albums. But even in his hobbled state of whiny flows and beat selection that's sometimes almost impossibly bad relative to the his options, "Trouble," "Kingdom Come," and even "Beach Chair" are still better than 99% of the shit that's ever come out of Dipset. Duds and near misses
These are albums that I considered including but pissed me off for some reason or another, and yes, that means I think these are actually less enjoyable than Kingdom Come
- Justin Timberlake - FutureSex/LoveSounds
It's amazing how quickly some artists cycle from pop pariah to guilty pleasure to critical favorite. In 2002, I'd been impressed enough by "Gone" and "Girlfriend" that I was rooting for Justin to make the leap to straight up R&B successfully, but when I watched him debut his single on the VMA's, most of my friends that I was watching it with just sneered derisively and made jokes. A year later, I was at a party with some of those same people and they were listening to Justified
and talking about how great it was. I guess that's what you call a paradigm shift. But some of my goodwill for Justin started to evaporate at about the moment he announced the horrible title of this album and released one of my least favorite singles of the year, "SexyBack." Still, "My Love" was great enough for me to give the album a chance. And honestly, it's pretty OK, even if Timbaland, in his sudden resurgence as a hitmaker, still sounds as creatively burnt out as he did a couple years ago when he was firing blanks like "Headsprung" (and it seems increasingly clear, anyway, that Danja is doing most of the work and Timbo just shows up at the end to beatbox so that people don't doubt that it's him). And I really can't respect this as an R&B album, not as much as good but less overtly 'adventurous' efforts from John Legend, Jaheim, Shareefa and Ne-Yo, when every other song is a shameless Prince rip. The album's probably better than it would've been if the Neptunes were his go-to producers again (supposedly Pharrell opted out of working on the album in protest of Jive at the height of the Clipse ordeal), but Justin has still made more great songs with them (at least 7 by my count, including "Girlfriend" and "Signs") than he's made with Timbaland so far, including this album. At the moment it seems less filler-heavy than Justified
, but that probably won't be the case once all the singles have run their course.
- Killer Mike - I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind
Another entry in the overrated-ass mixtape sweepstakes. Is it just me or is this annoying as hell to listen to? And I don't just mean because it's long. Not to be some herb who complains about universal rapper shit like namedropping their label constantly, but I swear dude says "Grind Time Rap Gang" every 10 seconds, like he just went back and filled in every empty space in the vocal track with that phrase. Shit is maddening. And dude used to sound, well, like someone named Killer Mike, now he sounds like a woman with one hand on his hips, complaining about a bunch of boring bullshit, even when he's dissing other rappers.
- My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade
I wanted to like this as much as Three Cheers, but honestly if you're gonna throw around this many classic rock signifiers in earnest, you should have the tunes to back it up (see also: The Hold Steady). There are some great songs in the second half ("Disenchanted," "Teenagers"), but it's all too little too late.
- Shawnna - Block Music
I was surprised to see this album on 2 other people's ballots in the City Paper
poll. On one hand I was kinda glad because she is overrated, but I was pretty underwhelmed by this album.
- Young Jeezy - The Inspiration
Popular rappers frequently make crappy "Candy Shop" type singles that you hate for its pandering, but "I Luv It" is loathsome simply for its laziness; recycled "Trap Star" chorus, recycled "What You Know" beat (hey Jeezy, stop reminding us that you're in the same lane as T.I., it only throws the disparity between his talent and yours into stark relief), and sloppy ass lyrics that barely ever actually rhyme even at the end of lines. There are a few admittedly pretty good songs on here, but the whole thing is just so suffocatingly witless that it's a chore to listen to.
- Lil Wayne - Dedication 2
See the rant above, re: Like Father, Like Son. It's good but, dudes, calm down. "Georgia... Bush" isn't that clever.
- Junior Private Detective - Erase
Up there with Asobi Seksu as one of the best generic indie albums I heard this year, but it just fell a little too flat to stick with me.
- Juvenile - Reality Check
Disappointing only because "Holla Back" might be the most awesome song I heard this year and barely anything else on the album isn't terrible.
Labels: hip hop