Thursday, December 31, 2009

This month on the Baltimore City Paper's Noise blog I had live reviews of Always Dope with Kane Mayfield of Mania Music Group and Troy Brown and Trace Blam @ Red Maple and Jumpcuts and Mother Nature's Son and Free Energy @ the Metro Gallery.

Narrowcast's Top 50 Albums of 2009 (Part 2)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
2009 was a hugely eventful year for me personally, which probably means that the music I listened to this year will have some added resonance in the future, and that’s a good thing since this was a pretty great year for music too. Only the top 4 records here ended up with spots on my top 100 albums of the decade, but that number’s only so low because the year wasn’t over yet when I finalized that list; this might be one of my favorite years for albums in a while.

1. Electrik Red - How To Be A Lady: Volume 1 (Radio Killa/Def Jam Records)

2009 will go down as the year when The-Dream could do no wrong, but let’s be honest: he wrote some real turds this year, many of them singles for huge stars like Rihanna and Mariah and Ciara. And somehow, he also wrote an incredible, damn near flawless, hilarious and seductive and endlessly listenable album for a no-name girl group that ended up selling only 5 thousand copies in its first week and completely disappearing from the public eye immediately thereafter, aside from its small, loyal cult of critics and R&B nerds like me.

2. DJ Quik & Kurupt - BlaQKout (Mad Science/Fontana Distribution)

In a year when West coast rap was supposedly revitlized by a ‘jerk’ movement that basically sounded like a more bored and boring version of ATL snap music, a couple of old-ass Cali gangsta rap vets went and made an actual fun creative party record with more colorful beats and off the wall concepts than any album from either coast in a while.

3. Nels Cline - Coward (Cryptogramophone Records)

I love that after dozens of albums with countless of different bands and collaborators, one of the most varied and inventive albums Nels Cline has ever done is the one that’s just him in a room with his guitar. The gentle balladry of “The Divine Homegirl,” the chugging riffage of “Thurston County,” the jarring drum loops of “Onan Suite: V. Seedcaster” and the fluttering acoustic improv of “X Change(s)” all hang together as a singular, damn near perfect body of work from one of the world’s greatest living guitarists.

4. Jarvis Cocker - ”Further Complications.” (Rough Trade)

Of all the people that have, could or should use Steve Albini’s ultra-dry recording style as a musical statement or career move, it never would’ve occurred to me in a million years that one of them would be a fey, bespectacled Britpop icon heading into middle age, nor could I have expected it to turn out so good. But all the dirt under the fingernails that Cocker’s been detailing in song for the last couple decades finally has a sonic equivalent in his music, and amazingly it works just as well as a lot of his slick synth pop did. The two 6+ minute epics that close the album, “Slush” and “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong),” are what fully take this from a good record to a great one.

5. Eleni Mandell - Artificial Fire (Zedtone Records)

Eleni Mandell’s previous albums traded heavily on a sleepy-eyed charm and Tom Waits-ish noir atmosphere, and really she could’ve kept making records in that vein forever and they’d all be good. But this year, she and her band’s guitarist Jeremy Drake strapped on electric six-strings and turned out something off a rock record, with staggeringly great results. Every single time I listen to this I have a different favorite song, whether it’s the gorgeous “Personal,” the smoldering “Two Faces,” or the astonishing This Years Model-era Elvis Costello-style raveup “Cracked” that closes the album.

6. Maxwell - BLACKsummers’night (Columbia Records)

It’s all too easy to typecast Maxwell as the standard bearer for old fashioned R&B in this crazy modern era, the old neo-soul albatross still dangling from his neck, especially with “Pretty Wings” and “Bad Habits” being virtually the only songs with live drums on a lot of radio stations this year. But to his credit, he doesn’t sound stuck in the past, and even though I have no idea what he was listening to when making this album, there’s something about tracks like “Help Somebody” and “Love You” that feels firmly 2009, so crisp and fresh and new.

7. Sonic Youth - The Eternal (Matador Records)

I would never accuse Sonic Youth of making the same record over and over, but the similarities between their last four are perfectly welcome because they’re all so good. And the uniformity of sound makes it easier to pinpoint what’s uniquely enjoyable about each, and in this case it’s the especially sharp chick-a-chick texture of Thurston’s rhythm guitar parts, and the surprisingly danceable groove that Mark Ibold brings to the bassplayer spot, something I only realized once I heard them play the album live, and now can’t ignore every time I listen to the record.

8. Lil Boosie - Superbad: The Return of Boosie Bad Azz (Trill Ent./Asylum/Warner Bros. Records)

A few weeks ago when Lil Boosie did an interview throwing his label under the bus for fucking up his album, mainly by throwing the CEO’s talentless son Lil Phat on no less than 5 songs, it was the rare occasion when airing out that kind of dirty laundry seemed completely justified and appropriate. This is a great album from one of the South’s best and most prolific MCs of the past few years, and it’s a shame that it quietly stumbled out of the gate after a 3-year wait, bogged down with a bunch of shitty guest verses. But those don’t really stop this from being pretty much the Boosie album I’d been anticipating all that time.

9. 8Ball - Memphis All-Stars: Cars, Clubs & Strip Clubs (8 Wayz Ent.)

8Ball and MJG release independent projects, solo albums and EPs and wide-ranging compilation projects like this, virtually every year that come and go with little notice. And that’s a shame, because this one in particular has some of the best beats, the best collaborations, and most of all the best atmosphere, of any rap record I heard this year, letting a little bit of that Memphis blues’n’barbecue dripping over a classic Ball & G sound that’s influenced so many current popular artists that it can’t help but feel contemporary and relevant to all the listeners out there who have no idea it exists.

10. Gucci Mane - The Movie 3-D: The Burrprint (DJ Drama)

It’s hard to really say what Gucci Mane’s best release was in a year that included a retail album, 6 official mixtapes, and countless unofficial ones, and in a way I feel like this isn’t the most representative one of his appeal since it feels a little darker and a little more trap-oriented. But it also has the best title and cover, and the greatest number of songs I like.

11. Birds And Arrows - Starmaker (307 Knox Records)

A little husband-and-wife duo from North Carolina that I caught live a few months ago that just about knocked me out, and left me anticipating an album that I’m pleased to report sounds just like their live show, with gorgeous twangy guitars, propulsive drums, great male-female harmonies, and songs that I can’t stop listening to.

12. Jeremih - Jeremih (Def Jam Records)

“Birthday Sex” had many pegging Jeremih as a sleazy The-Dream or R. Kelly wannabe, but the more I listen to his self-titled debut, the more I hear a joyful sweetness in his high voice that more often brings to mind Raphael Saadiq or, dare I say it, Stevie Wonder. That he’s lending that voice to more contemporary material like the bragging “Imma Star” or the sleazier sex songs might make those comparisons seem heretical, but it’s that contradiction that makes him interesting, and makes the love songs so disarmingly effective.

13. DJ Paul - Scale-A-Ton (Hypnotize Minds)

The list of collaborators for Three 6 Mafia’s next album (Flo Rida, Slash, ICP, Tiesto, Rodney Jerkins, Dr. Luke) is proof positive that they lost their damn minds after the Oscar and are determined to crash and burn with the most misguided attempt at pop crossover in rap history. But this year they also churned out solo albums by Project Pat, Lil Wyte, Juicy J and DJ Paul that were all far more true to the traditional HCP sound, and the latter in particular has some incredible beats and is just full of Paul’s awesome knucklehead hooks.

14. Say Anything - Say Anything (RCA Records)

It’s maybe a little bit corny when the refrain “you can do better, you can be the greatest man in the world” turns into “we can do better, we can be the greatest band in the world” by the end of “Do Better,” but the thing is, I really think Say Anything still do have a shot at maybe being the greatest band in the world. This might not be the album that puts them there, but it proves they’ve still got the genius spark of Is A Real Boy that could do it someday.

15. Freeway - Month Of Mania: The Mixtape (no label)

In December 2008, when Freeway gave away 31 songs for free on his website, most people thought he was blowing his load and just squandering all the material he had on a web stunt. After dropping nearly 100 more songs during 2009, it’s clear that wasn’t the case, but that initial opening salvo remains a highlight from his continuing flood of new material. If you like one Freeway song you pretty much like them all, and I’m glad there’s so many lately.

16. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (Jagjaguwar)

I’m almost resentful of all the love the reunited Dinosaur’s new records have been getting, since they’re not really any better than the J Mascis & The Fog stuff from the beginning of the decade and it’s all really about the name. That said, J is ridiculously consistent, and even though the mix and the guitar sound on this record are kinda fucked and really hindered my enjoyment of it at first, this album is as full of riffs and choruses that’ll worm their way into your brain as any other he’s made.

17. The-Dream - Love Vs. Money (Radio Killa/Def Jam Records)

Even though I obviously much prefer the Electrik Red album, and would generally rather hear The-Dream write songs for other artists than sing them with his weird queasy high voice and sleazy persona, I gotta give it to dude, he made a solid album, “Right Side Of My Brain” and “Take U Home To My Mama” and “Mr. Yeah” are so great.

18. UGK - UGK 4 Life (Jive Records)

I bumped this up a few spots on the list just in the course of listening to the album this week. I think I kind of decided early on that it wasn’t quite as good as Underground Kingz and didn’t give it a lot of attention after that, but really this is a pretty great record, certainly one of the best posthumous rap records ever.

19. Paramore - brand new eyes (Feuled By Ramen)

I’m seeing this on a lot more year-end lists than the superior Riot!, which was in my top 10 in ‘07, and for that I’m tempted to be a corporate rock snob and accuse other critics of being johnny come latelies. But you know what? This is a damn good record, too, and I’m glad Paramore are starting to get some of the respect they deserve.

20. Playboy Tre - Liquor Store Mascot (DJ Swatts)

The trend of press-savvy traditional Southern rappers getting buzz through critics and blogs instead of radio and clubs was a weird one in 2009, if only for the way it made fans reconsider what they think of as ‘legitimate’ means of getting a listener’s attention. But while I could give a damn about Pill’s gimmicky YouTube videos for his utterly generic songs, Playboy Tre is one guy out of this wave that I’m keeping an eye on and enjoying for his kind of downtrodden, self-deprecating sense of humor on this mixtape.

21. The Lonely Island - Incredibad (Universal Republic Records)

For a long time I was pretty hot and cold on the SNL digital shorts, and thought maybe these guys were leaning too hard on the lol white guys rapping schtick (and including “Lazy Sunday” and “Natalie’s Rap” on the album doesn’t help in that respect). But considering how much they made me laugh with both this and Hot Rod throughout 2009, I gotta give it to the Lonely Island, they’re pretty effective at what they do and have a flair for escalating every premise beyond its initial joke.

22. Gucci Mane - The State Vs. Radric Davis (So Icey/Asylum/Warner Bros. Records)

“Spotlight” isn’t the only garbage R&B song and constant Mike Epps skits stop this album in its track worse than they ever did on T.I.’s King, but for the most part Gucci avoids the mixtapes-to-album growing pains of Tha Carter III and turned in about as solid a major label record as any rapper did this year, and “Lemonade” and “Classical” and “Worst Enemy” are up their with the best of his ‘09 mixtape output.

23. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II (EMI Records)

Nostalgic Wu Tang stans have vastly inflated this album’s worth as anything other than a way to trumpet your taste in ‘90s hip hop on a 2009 list, but I’m not gonna act for a second like there aren’t some bangers on here, “10 Bricks” especially.

24. Keri Hilson - ...In A Perfect World ( Records)

I probably expected too much of this album before it dropped, and felt a bit underwhelmed when it finally did. But months later, I gotta say it’s really pretty solid, a couple generic Timbaland duds aside, and has got a good number of non-singles I still bump for an album that’s had so many hits.

25. Demi Lovato - Here We Go Again (Hollywood Records)

I don’t like this as much as her ‘08 debut Don’t Forget, which I also heard for the first time this year, but this is still a pretty killer pop/rock album, particularly for “U Got Nothin’ On Me.”

Narrowcast's Top 50 Albums of 2009 (Part 1)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

26. Deleted Scenes - Birdseed Shirt (What Delicate Recordings)

One of the benefits of covering local live music the last 3 years is that I end up hearing a lot of great bands from all over that happened to play in Baltimore the same night I was seeing a local band. And that really started to pay off this year when a lot of those bands released good studio albums, among them Deleted Scenes from Washington, D.C., who I’ve ended up seeing live a bunch of times because they play with Baltimore bands so often. And I was pleasantly surprised when their full-length debut got a nice big rave review from Pitchfork, and not surprised at all when I ended up loving the album myself, which is kind of a standard issue 2009 indie rock album but has too many great songs (“Fake IDs,” “Ithaca,” “Mortal Sin”) for me to possibly front on.

27. The Alchemist - Chemical Warfare (ALC Records/E1 Music)

With producer albums and too-many-cooks posse cuts more commonplace than ever, it takes an actual great producer with a strong sense of his own sound and what rappers work best with it to make an actual good album out of such a slapdash formula. And while this is still scattershot by nature, it’s still a pretty solid listen that features one of my favorite songs of the year (“That’ll Work” with Juvenile and Three 6 Mafia) and one of the only decent verses Eminem dropped this year.

28. Superchunk - Leaves In The Gutter EP (Merge Records)

Touchstone indie bands usually have to stay away and broken up for a good long while to reap the rewards of big reunion tours and fawning press. Superchunk will never experience that, both because they never officially broke up, and because they never let much time pass without some archival live release or compilation or an occasional show. Still, this little EP was the closest thing they came to a new album in almost 8 years, and as much of a little morsel it was, with four songs and a demo (and “Misfits and Mistakes” was already released in 2007, and I saw them play “Knock Knock Knock” at a show way back in 2003), it was still, along with the “Crossed Wires” 7” a few months later, a slight return I was extremely grateful for. If they just keep trickling out EPs and singles for a few years without ever dropping a heavily hyped comeback album, I’d be just fine with that.

29. Two Tongues - Two Tongues (Vagrant Records)

This album feels a lot less significant to me than it probably would if it didn’t come out the same year that Max Bemis’s main band, Say Anything, made a much better album, but I still played the hell out of “Silly Game.”

30. Young Jeezy - Trappin’ Ain’t Dead (DJ Folk)

‘09 was mainly an off year for Jeezy, in which he made videos for every other song from The Recession, upstaged Jay on his own album, reignited and then backed off from the stupid old Gucci Mane beef, and appeared on the worst singles ever released by Kanye, Rihanna and DJ Khaled. But somewhere in there, he also made his best mixtape since Trap Or Die.

31. The Bird And The Bee - Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future (Blue Note Records)

Inara George is someone who initially interested me for all of her associations with people I like (she’s in a group with Eleni Mandell, is the daughter of Lowell George of Little Feat, and is married to the guy who directed Zero Effect and Walk Hard). But this year I was charmed by her own work on this coy little electronic-tinged indie pop album, which features a strangely affecting ode to David Lee Roth called “Diamond Dave.”

32. Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Hear Music/Universal Records)

One tends to think of Elvis Costello’s huge and rapidly expanding discography as always bouncing between extremes, from one genre to another. So it was interesting to realize this year that if you look past the classical album, the live album, the Allen Toussaint album, and so on, the last 3 albums of new songs that he’s released all mark sort of a natural progression in one direction, with the roots rock of 2004’s The Delivery Man and last year’s Momofuku kind of leading the way toward the acoustic Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. I’m not always the biggest fan of Elvis in this particular mode -- King Of America may be his most overrated album, if you ask me -- but here it all comes out very relaxed and comfortable in a way that his ‘genre’ albums rarely are.

33. The Mean - Meet Us Here (self-released)

Another great band that I kind of stumbled upon one night when they were passing through Baltimore is Philadelphia’s The Mean, a six-piece band with three singer/guitarists, each with his own distinct voice and songwriting style, who finally got around to capturing the songs from their great live show on record.

34. Ryan Leslie - Ryan Leslie (NextSelection/Casablanca/Universal Records)

Ideally, a cobbled together collection of the best of the two albums R-Les released this year would be better than either. But if I have to choose, I’ll take the self-titled debut over Transition.

35. Heartless Bastards - The Mountain (Fat Possum Records)

I checked out this album solely on the strength of Tom Breihan comparing them to the Geraldine Fibbers, which in my book is always high praise. And while they don’t totally live up to my unrealistic expectations based on that comparison, I am enjoying this record more and more on its own terms. I think I like this more in spite of Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals than because of them, though, there’s something kind of forced and deliberately old-timey about her delivery that reminds me of, like, Chrisette Michele.

36. Evangelista - Prince Of Truth (Constellation Records)

Speaking of the Fibbers, Carla Bozulich released the third album from her Evangelista project this year. And while I can’t help but think of it as a disappointment compared to Hello, Voyager, which was in my top 10 last year, everything Carla does has some worth to me, and “You Are A Jaguar” is pretty killer.

37. Freeway - The Calm Before The Storm (Benja Styles)

I’m still sorting through Freeway’s prolific 2009 output, and I’m not totally sure what my favorite of the four albums and mixtapes he released in the last 9 months really is. But at the moment I’m going with this mixtape he released in October, which has this relentless momentum and just keeps going banger after banger, kicking off with the incredible doubletime flow “When I Rap.”

38. Pearl Jam - Backspacer (Monkeywrench Records)

Although I was initially bummed that this album doesn’t totally live up to how good the lead single, “The Fixer,” is, I’ve really started to warm up to it, particularly after their appearance on “Austin City Limits.” It being 20 minutes shorter than Riot Act really makes it easier to forgive Backspacer’s comparable shortcomings, too.

39. Prince / Bria Valente - LOtUSFLOW3r / MPLSoUND / Elixer ( Records)

6 months before Pearl Jam, Prince also made me drive out to Target for the purpose of buying an album. And while a triple CD only stands to make a mockery out of the hit-to-miss ratio Prince has been on the wrong side of for decades now, I have to say that there’s plenty to enjoy on here, particularly on MPLSoUND, which is the drum machine and helium vox concession that the ‘80s Prince fans have been begging for for years but didn’t seem to appreciate much once they got it. The Valente album, far from the dead weight many critics made it out to be (or assumed without even giving it a fair shake), featured my favorite song out of the whole set, “Another Boy.”

40. Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend (ATO Records)

I was thinking that nothing from this album had wormed into my subconscious like a lot of songs from his first three solo records (or the two Raconteurs albums), but my iTunes play count on “Poised And Ready” doesn’t lie.

41. Rhymefest - The Manual (Scram Jones)

In 2009, mainstream hip hop was saturated with Kanye wannabes, soundalikes and cronies, while one of the few rappers in his circle who’s a vastly superior MC quietly put out a mixtape that was better than his debut album, or for that matter Kid Cudi’s album or whatever other bullshit G.O.O.D. Music is getting ready to put out.

42. The Entrance Band - The Entrance Band (Ecstatic Peace!/Universal Records)

A heavy blast of the kind of retro psychedelia that I usually don’t have much time for, and probably wouldn’t have picked up if they hadn’t blown me away opening for Sonic Youth over the summer, a couple months before releasing their album on Thurston’s vanity label.

43. The Disciplines - Smoking Kills (Second Motion Records)

Although I’m forever willing to argue that The Posies were a far more interesting band than their power pop also-ran status would suggest, Ken Stringfellow did most of his eclectic branching out in his solo career, from intimate lo-fi on 1997’s This Sounds Like Goodbye to twangy country rock and blue-eyed soul on 2001’s Touched, to piano balladry on 2004’s Soft Commands or Afropop on 2006’s EP with WaFlash. In light of all that, his decision to team up with a band full of Norwegians for a stripped-down garage rock record seems almost regressive, but then it’s not even as tuneful as the Posies at their rawest. Still, Stringfellow is one of my favorite songwriters out there, and he gets out a couple good tracks here and there.

44. Gucci Mane - The Cold War: Guccimerica (DJ Drama)

The Cold War series was a big weird gambit that didn’t seem to pay off for Gucci’s career in any concrete way, other than inspiring a bunch of hipster remixes, but one of these three short little EP-length mixtapes ended up being one of my favorite things he released this year.

45. Daniel Francis Doyle - We Bet Our Money On You (We Shot JR)

Doyle is a guy from Texas who does this weird stage show where he records guitar loops, then plays drums and sings to them with a headset, and it all comes together amazingly well. The trick isn’t as impressive on record without a visual element, but it’s still a pretty engangly idiosyncratic sound.

46. Fishboy - Nom (Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records)

More Texas weirdos that I spotted on tour in Baltimore a couple years ago, when they were playing a crazy rock opera called Albatross: How We Failed to Save the Lone Star State with the Power of Rock and Roll. This follow-up is shorter and less ambitious, but still captures some of what I found so charming about his band live.

47. Fabolous - Loso’s Way (Def Jam Records)

Let me see if I can get this straight: Rick Ross makes a generic but efficient identikit Def Jam album with R&B singers on half the songs, and gets a bunch of “masterpiece!” and “album of the year!” raves, but when Fab does the same thing a few months later all anyone does is gripe. It’s because Fab is actually a good rapper and people expect better from him, right? Not that they should, but if anyone’s going to shit out a cookie cutter R&B rap album, I’m gonna listen to the one with some good rhymes.

48. Lil Boosie - Thug Passion (no label)

Boosie’s ‘08 mixtape Da Beginning was probably the one record I most regret not putting on my year-end list last year, and while Thug Passion isn’t quite as essential as that or the retail album he also released this year, I don’t wanna make the same mistake twice.

49. They Might Be Giants - Here Comes Science (Idlewild/Walt Disney)

Likewise, this is in part a corrective for the fact that Here Come The 123s should have been on my ‘08 list.

50. Meat Puppets - Sewn Together (Megaforce Records)

I’m not really that sure how much better this is than Rise To Your Knees, but as I said in regards to the Pearl Jam album, it really benefits from being 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor.