I'll also briefly acknowledge the inherent ridiculousness of doing a top 50 albums list -- I think it makes total sense for my singles list to be that long, but here I know it's a bit gratuitous since I probably listened to somewhere between 100 and 200 new albums this year, and many of them were local Baltimore things that weren't really eligible for this list. But I like to treat this space as kind of a yearbook, to catalog virtually all of the really notable releases I enjoyed in 2010. I'll be posting each of the 50 albums one at a time throughout this week, 10 a day (although that schedule may bend a bit if holiday travel makes it a bit hairy), and you can follow me on Twitter as I unveil each choice:
50. ROVA Saxophone Quartet & The Nels Cline Singers - The Celestial Septet (New World)
My favorite living guitarist is prolific enough that Nels Cline appears on this list just about every year, but 2010 was an especially productive year for him. Without ‘spoiling’ too much, I can mention that he has 4 albums on this list (two of them double albums!), and had so much music getting released throughout the year that I almost missed this one back when it was first released months and months ago, and was motivated to catch up on it when I found out the amazing news that the Singers and ROVA are playing at the Windup Space in Baltimore in a few weeks. Cline has worked with so many different combinations of musicians and instrumental configurations, but even as much as he always has one foot in the jazz world, he’s never done a whole lot of projects with horns, and probably none as heavy on them as this one. Cline’s inimitable, instantly identifiable guitar playing style pops up here and there, but for the most part he and the Singers are working as a backing unit for the saxes. The last section of the 25-minute! “Whose To Know” is especially great.
49. Lil Boosie - Incarcerated (Trill Entertainment/Asylum/Warner Bros.)
Boosie’s been making some of the best paranoid miserable desperate music in mainstream rap for years now, but it doesn’t really give that music any particularly resonant or exciting context for it to now be released on an album called Incarcerated while he’s in prison and may be in there for the rest of his life. It’s mostly just depressing to consider why he’s there, and how much his musical and career potential is being squandered. But I am glad that his label saw fit to drop this album anyway, and though it’s not as strong as Superbad or some of the mixtape/underground releases that preceded it, there’s some pretty good shit on here.
48. Pimp C - The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones (Rap-a-Lot)
Like his protege Boosie, Pimp C had an album released this year that he wasn’t really around to help assemble, but for the even sadder reason that he’s, well, dead. Although it’s definitely not as enjoyable as UGK 4 Life, there’s something perversely fun about listening to Pimp C talk shit from beyond the grave, particularly the extended spoken outro of the last song, “Massacre.”
47. Rasputina - Sister Kinderhook (Filthy Bonnet Co.)
Maybe it’s because I saw Rasputina live before ever hearing their records, but they’re now fixed in my mind as a great, funny, charismatic, unique live act but not a band that I really want to listen to at home all the time. Still, as far as the records I’ve heard, this is a good one, and “Holocaust of Giants” is pretty memorable.
46. The Superions - Destination... Christmas! (Fanatic Records)
Fred Schneider from the B-52s doing a Christmas album is the kind of unabashedly goofy idea that possibly only I could love. But really, I have a playlist of weird contemporary Christmas music that I put on every year around this time, and it was nice this year to have something else to jam to, “Crummy Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Those Bells” are just ridiculous.
45. Ciara - Basic Instinct (LaFace/Jive)
I’ve always kind of preferred The-Dream/Tricky Stewart projects with female singers over his own albums, but it can be unpredictable which ones work and which don’t -- I wouldn’t have necessarily expected his somewhat anonymous girl group Electrik Red to make an album ten times better than the one he made with Mariah Carey. Ciara’s somewhere in the middle, and seemingly right in his aesthetic sweet spot, and it can be surprising when they do fall flat, but there are enough songs here where they knock it out of the park that I’m enjoying it more often than not.
44. The New Pornographers - Together (Matador Records)
I’ve been enjoying random scattered New Pornographers tracks here and there for the past decade or so, but Together is the first record they released since I actually started listening to entire albums by them. As far as lavish power pop goes, they never entirely hit the spot like a lot of other acts do, but there are some really nice songs on here, particularly “We End Up Together.”
43. The Roots - How I Got Over (Def Jam)
The Roots have done a pretty good job over the years of making albums that are distinct from each other and subtly subvert the stodgy image the band hasn’t been able to shake since the mid-’90s (although they’re rarely as daring or expectation-defying as ?uestlove seems to think they are). How I Got Over, however, doesn’t boast any kind of fresh sonic signature beyond the abundance of annoying, slightly out of place white hook singers, and it kind of sounds like the chameleonic band that works up special covers on network TV every weeknight now takes a little more comfort in just sounding like themselves when they can. I wish the Peedi Peedi cameo lives up to the ones on the last couple albums, though.
42. Fabolous - There Is No Competition 2: The Funeral Service (DJ Drama)
Fab’s been kind of plugging away year after year, killing the remix circuit, dropping verses on R&B singles, and scoring the occasional solo hit. And 2010 was hardly his best year, since he caught a little of that grocery bag rhyme trend from Drake, but at least he dropped a mixtape instead of an album full of boring crossover stuff, and it was more entertaining than not most of the time.
41. The Bird & The Bee - Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall And John Oates (Blue Note Records)
Greg Kurstin has kind of quietly become a ubiquitous producer and session player on an absurd number of major label alternative and pop albums in the past few years, so it was interesting to hear him apply his densely textured and playfully bright sound to the singles of hitmakers as venerable as Hall & Oates (although oddly enough, the album’s sole original composition, “Heard It On The Radio,” reminded me more of Dr. Luke’s production on Katy Perry’s summer radio hits “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls” than anything by Hall & Oates). The other half of The Bird & The Bee, Inara George, hardly has a voice as big or as soulful as Daryl Hall, the joy in her performance comes from the smoky charm of her performance on “Sara Smile,” or the way she joyfully tackles the melodic twists and turns of “Private Eyes” or “I Can’t Go For That.”
40. UNKLE - Where Did The Night Fall (Surrender All)
It amuses me that 12 years ago, UNKLE emerged as some kind of international fancy techno think tank with DJ Shadow as its most illustrious member, and now one of the guiding creative forces behind their latest album is the bassist from the little Baltimore bands Lake Trout and Big In Japan I’ve been going to see live forever and the whole album kind of has a brooding Lake Trout feel and features other Baltimore people like the singer from Celebration.
39. Sade - Soldier Of Love (RCA/Epic)
The kind of shockingly hard-edged title track and lead single where what made Soldier Of Love the first Sade full-length I checked out, but of course I wasn’t expecting a whole album like that, and was in no way disappointed to find that it was unique among the sumptuous slow jams the band is more known for.
38. JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys - Fidelity! (Rocket Science)
Chrissie Hynde’s first album ever outside the Pretenders banner sounds, unsurprisingly, a lot like later Pretenders albums. But this raspy JP guy makes a good foil for her, and there are some memorable songs on here, particularly “If You Let Me,” which is one of the most addictively anthemic rock songs I heard all year.
37. Linkin Park - A Thousand Suns (Warner Bros.)
I’ve always thought the earnest, clumsy incoproration of hip hop into their synth pop nu-metal added the right little bit of camp value to Linkin Park that made their better hits more fun than punishingly dour, so I was wary of their gradual dialing down of Mike Shinoda’s rapping in recent years and the epic pretensions of the lead single “The Catalyst.” In a weird way, though, their hip hop influences shine through in more fruitful, if more subtle ways than they ever have on this album, from the banger that provides the foundation of “Waiting For The End” to “Robot Boy,” which is basically a schmaltzier version of T.I.’s “What You Know.”
36. The Toadies - Feeler (Kirtland)
In the late ‘90s, my brother and I probably said to each other, or thought to ourselves, at some point: “hey, what happened to that band that did ‘Possum Kingdom’? The album was pretty good, why haven’t they made a second one?” As it happens, they did, and it was rejected by Interscope, and after a going back to the drawing board and releasing a couple other albums over the last decade, they finally went back and re-recorded those unreleased songs from 1997. And I may not love it as much as the 15-year-old me would’ve, but I do like it.
35. Raheem DeVaughn - The Love & War MasterPeace (Jive/Zomba)
DeVaughn’s last album, 2008’s Love Behind The Melody, was a pretty long, diverse and ambitious R&B album, so the follow-up being a vaguely political double album was just kind of asking for trouble, and indeed it isn’t remotely as enjoyable or consistent overall. But where I thought DeVaughn’s label paring the album down to a single disc and making the 2nd disc available as part of a ‘deluxe’ edition would be a merciful act of restraint, it turns out that somebody fucked up and left all the really great songs -- “Hopeless Romantic” and “Lose Control” in particular -- on the bonus disc. I still wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying to digest all 2 hours, though, there’s some really bad songs and a bunch of Cornel West interludes that nobody needs to hear more than once.
34. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
I consider myself to be a pretty loyal music fan, who sticks with favorite artists over the years and gives every new album a fair shake. And I think there’s a lot of evidence of that in this list, new albums by artists who are undoubtably past their peak, or at least not at a particular high point at the moment, that I’ve listened to and found the good in. And that’s pretty much how I feel about this album: I’ve been a Kanye fan for a long time, and I think this is a decent album with some songs I really enjoy (at the moment “Blame Game” and “Lost In The World” being my favorites) but nowhere near as good as his first two albums. , Because most music critics seem to see this as his flawless 5 star masterpiece, however, I feel like I’ve kinda taken on the role of tearing down this album and telling everyone they’re wrong. That’s not a role I really like to play a lot, but seriously, this album’s just OK, don’t see what the big deal’s about.
33. Scarface - Dopeman Music (Facemob Music)
Every year or two, Scarface makes noises about retiring from rap and then makes another record, usually either a solo album for Rap-a-Lot or some kind of group or compilation project to give some shine to old friends or new proteges. Dopeman Music is ostensibly neither, his first ever mixtape, but it leans toward the latter, with half the tracks featuring anonymous but inoffensive sidekicks like B. James or Monk Kaza. Obviously, it’s not as essential as a proper Face album would be, but it’s not too far off, with typically weighty words when he is rapping and a solid beat selection -- at the moment I’m really loving the thumping drums and organ licks of “Hustle Game,” and the way Scarface just raps his ass off for 2 minutes and then it’s over.
32. Ne-Yo - Libra Scale (Def Jam)
BET’s “Top 25 Countdown,” where they give a rapper or singer a Saturday afternoon to show all their favorite videos (do they still do that? probably not), always gave a kind of unpredictable window into the artist’s tastes. For instance, a few years ago Ne-Yo predictably filled his countdown with Michael Jackson and Prince videos, but leaned much more heavily on the Dangerous/Diamonds & Pearls era than their ‘80s peaks, which I’m sure comes down to when the guy really came of age and fell in love with music. But that’s something that sticks with me on this, probably his most heavily MJ-indebted album. The first two singles are still duds, but somehow they work in the context of the relatively brief 10-song album, and help foreground the killer deep cuts like “Genuine Only” and “Know Your Name.”
31. The-Dream - Love King (Radio Killa/Def Jam)
For the last few years, Ne-Yo and The-Dream have been kind of running neck and neck as R&B’s two reigning songwriters-turned-stars, even if their respective music and appeal are pretty vastly different and it’s ultimately just easy to compare and contrast them as two hyphenated talents with hyphens in their names. I’ve always generally preferred Ne-Yo, but both waned commercially and creatively this year, and ultimately it was The-Dream who came up with a (slightly) more satisfying album, from the unabashed Prince retro of “Yamaha” to the bonus track gems “Sorry” and “Veteran.”
30. Young Jeezy - Trap Or Die II: By Any Means Necessary (Don Cannon)
Jeezy’s last album, The Recession, was damn near a classic, but it wasn’t exactly a commercial blockbuster, and in the two years since then he hasn’t kept his buzz up very heavy -- his biggest radio hit of the year, “Lose My Mind,” was so abrasive and bleak for a club banger than Def Jam seemed scared to launch his fourth album with it, and so he wound up 2010 with his release date still hanging in the air. And it’s a shame, because Jeezy’s still at the top of his game, as evidenced by the fact that his biggest mixtape of the year, nominally a sequel to his 2005 breakthrough mixtape, felt more like a follow-up to The Recession with simply massive hooks and killer original beats.
29. Elvis Costello - National Ransom (Hear Music/Universal)
King Of America was a one-off genre experiment among many at the time, but Ol’ Declan’s been sinking deeper and deeper into rootsy Americana for a few consecutive albums now, and in the context of such a capricious career it feels more like a groove than a rut, mostly because each time around he feels more comfortable, more light on his feet, and more adept at selling goofy trifles like “A Slow Drag With Josephine.”
28. The Living Sisters - Love To Live (Vanguard)
A harmony group featuring a couple women whose main projects I enjoy, Eleni Mandell and The Bird & The Bee’s Inara George, the Living Sisters teeter on the edge of a kind of goofy, campy retro, but the strength of the twangy tunes and the likeability of their voices makes it more of a refreshing diversion than an obnoxious novelty. And I liked to rock my son to sleep while listening to “Cradle.”
27. Nels Cline - Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone Records)
Nels Cline’s second double album of 2010 (!) featured one of the most lavish ensembles he’s ever recorded with, and it’s kind of an unusual treat to hear his inimitable guitar playing have to compete with a cornucopia of equally intriguing and appealing instrumental textures.
26. The Posies - Blood/Candy (Rykodisc)
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow’s drive to keep expanding the parameters of the Posies sound, and make the band’s post-reunion albums stylistically distinct from the music of their ‘90s heyday, is something I have to admit I find more admirable than enjoyable -- I’d love to hear one of the greatest contemporary power pop bands do something with a bit more power than most of Blood/Candy has. But seeing the band rock out these songs live helped me warm up to some of the album’s more experimental, ornate or downright twee indulgences.
25. Trans Am - Thing (Thrill Jockey Records)
Pretty much everything you read about Trans Am talks about them crafting parodies of or homages to their influences, of doing things with a tongue in cheek, and sometimes I wonder how much that’s come from their playful interviews and promo photos and occasional goofy song titles/lyrics. Because most of the time when I’m listening to their music, particularly the largely instrumental material on later albums like Thing, all I think about is what talented and creative technicians and musicians they are, and how seriously they must take this stuff to come up with these crazy textures and knotty rhythms. I’m not laughing or wondering if they’re having a laugh when I’m jamming out to “Naked Singularity” or “Apparent Horizon.”
24. Medications - Completely Removed (Dischord Records)
Though they’re somewhat from a different generation or at least run in different circles, I kind of group the Medications and Trans Am albums together mentally as two D.C.-based bands who I love for combining an aggressive post-punk pedigree with proggy complexity. The third Medications release was in some ways a much mellower and more studio-bound recording than their earlier EP and album, and I do miss some of the hooks and dynamics that made me love songs on those records and the album by the similar precursor Faraquet, but hearing the songs from Completely Removed live a couple times this year, first at an insanely rocking Medications show and then at a one-off Devin Ocampo solo gig, really helped me warm up to the album and appreciate it for what it is.
23. Fat Joe - The Darkside Vol. 1 (Terror Squad/E1)
Fat Joe is one of mainstream rap’s most tenacious minor stars of the past decade, using affiliations and trend-jumping to keep in the spotlight and occasionally land a fluke hit on his own merits. But being so consistent with his own bark and his ear for serious east coast bangers that it’s hard to begrudge him for, having found that the well of R&B hits had finally run dry, doing a calculated ‘return to real rap’ album that just fucking knocks too much to knock it as a cynical exercise in courting his hardcore fanbase.
22. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk (V2 Records)
I’ve always been into Mark Lanegan’s voice and what little I’ve heard of his solo and Screaming Trees music, and been intrigued by the idea of a member of Belle & Sebastian writing songs for him, but I didn’t get around to checking out one of their collaborations until this latest one. And it really is just some beautifully written and performed music, hitting a nice rich vein of dusky Americana that’s just dark and varied enough to not feel too predictable or overdone.
21. Jonathan Richman - O Moon, Queen Of Night On Earth (Vapor Records)
Jonathan Richman’s been writing songs for about 40 years now, without significantly changing up his sound or songwriting style for the majority of that time, particularly in recent years, that it’s kind of slowly becoming more and more remarkable how he manages to continue saying new things, coming up with clever ways to comment on life and human nature that resonate with me and make me wonder how his mind works that he can think of all these things nobody else has written songs about yet. The man is a national treasure, seriously.
20. Mike Watt - Hyphenated-Man (Parabolica Records)
Like Jonathan Richman, I basically consider Mike Watt a national treasure. Though the legacy of the Minutemen has loomed large over Mike Watt’s career over the past 25 years, in that time he’s restlessly pursued a wide variety of sounds with dozens of collaborators. And that’s why it’s so frustrating that his most overtly Minutemen-esque record since the demise of that band has flown almost completely under the radar in the American indie rock world he helped build the foundation of, and has so far only been released in Japan, available in the U.S. by import or less legal means.
19. Gucci Mane - Mr. Zone 6 (DJ Drama)
On a narrative level, Gucci Mane’s 2010 kind of felt like a rerun of his 2009 with diminishing returns: starting the year in jail, getting out and celebrating with a flood of mixtapes and guest verses, finishing the year off with an album performing below expectations and his freedom and career momentum once again in question. Just because it was a little less exciting to watch him go through that cycle again doesn’t mean that he still wasn’t probably the most consistently worthwhile rapper with a mainstream profile this year, and this mixtape probably offered the best collection of his 2010 output, from his paradoxically woozy doubletime flow on “Dats My Life” and “Stove Music” to the massive hooks of “Makin’ Love To The Money” and “Long Money.”
18. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (Universal Motown)
The sequel to 2008’s dark, strange masterpiece New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is hardly an equal to its predecessor, but in some ways it is a very welcome and appropriate yin to its yang (or yang to its yin?). The more relaxed grooves, identifiable samples and somewhat more earthbound lyrics on many of the songs made it feel almost too accessible and easygoing, but songs like “Agitation” and the fantastic bookends “20 Feet Tall” and “Out My Mind, Just In Time” were inspired and otherworldly enough to imbue the whole thing with that ineffable Badu magic.
17. Jaguar Love - Hologram Jams (Fat Possum Records)
When Jaguar Love lost their drummer and replaced him with a drum machine halfway through touring for their great 2008 debut Take Me To The Sea and started working up new songs with a self-proclaimed "Daft Punk meets New Order meets Black Flag" vibe, it seems like everyone who'd embraced the first record started quickly backing away from the band, including Matador Records and Pitchfork. And while Hologram Jams is definitely not as good as its predecessor and closes with a regrettable cover of "Piece of My Heart," its shrill shiny hammering sound grows on you, and I knew this album had to be at least somewhat high on my list simply for the fact that "Evaline" is one of my most played songs of 2010.
16. The Nels Cline Singers - Initiate (Cryptogramophone Records)
Last year’s solo exploration Coward was a great palate cleanser in the context of Nels Cline’s catalog, an interesting new isolated context for his guitar work outside of the Singers, the trio that’s been his primary creative outlet for the last decade. So I wasn’t sure how eager I was to return to Singers territory, when they knocked me over with a double album of a studio disc and a live disc that both summarized and surpassed everything they’d accomplished before.
15. Freeway & Jake One - The Stimulus Package (Rhymesayers)
In 2009, Freeway released over 130 songs in a variety of different formats, leading me to try to curate a list of the best of them. In 2010, he released maybe half as many songs, which is still a lot, but they were on a much more manageable and easy to follow group of full-length albums, mixtapes and collaborative releases, and he saved me the trouble of seperating the wheat from the chaff by having most of his best songs this year on his most high profile release of the year, The Stimulus Package.
14. Ted Leo/Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks (Matador Records)
Ted Leo might be my single favorite album artist of the last decade, and pretty much every time that he's released an album it's been in my top 5 at the end of the year. So this being at #14, as high as that is, represents kind of a big fall from grace; The Brutalist Bricks is by some distance my least favorite Pharmacists album. But where the jangly power pop songs kind of ran surprisingly hollow for me this time around, the more jagged, punky songs like "Mourning In America" and "The Stick" ended up grabbing me more. And one of the reasons Leo remains a great live act is even the songs I'm not too into here sound good in concert.
13. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)
Even at their best, I don't really hold Outkast up as the pinnacle of modern rap or southern rap or anything, so one half of the group doing a good solid Outkast-style thing isn't an event for me the way it's been for some critics this year. Still, it was nice to finally see this thing get released after all the hemming and hawing -- Big Boi really is a great MC and shouldn't have to work so hard to get people to pay attention when Andre's not around. And he's just having a lot of fun on this record and while there aren't a lot of songs I love, I pretty much like whatever track I'm listening to at any given moment.
12. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang (Side One Dummy)
This album hews so closely to the formula they perfected on The '59 Sound that even if it was an overall better set of songs -- which it may be, I'm really not sure -- it's hard to really feel the same enthusiasm about it. Still, these guys are onto something and it's fun to watch them keep building a catalog of these big wistful rousing rockers. "The Diamond Street Church Choir" might be my favorite song of the whole year.
11. Casual Curious - Casual Curious (self-released)
I saw this band from North Carolina play an amazing set for a tiny crowd in Baltimore over the summer, and grabbed the self-titled album they were giving away on CD-r at the merch table, and even left a tip because I thought they were so awesome. Then, I couldn’t get the CD to work in any player I had, and found a download link for the album on the band’s Facebook page. As far as I know barely anybody knows about this band and the duo lineup that made this album and played the incredible I show is apparently not even going anymore, because they seem to have a new bigger lineup. But this is the kind of hidden gem I live for, just a great idiosyncratic DIY mix of synths and drums and vocals, memorable songs, creative production. The songs don’t sound as huge here as they did live, but I hope they come back to Baltimore to play sometime.
10. Yelawolf - Trunk Muzik (DJ Burn One)
Like most white rappers, he sometimes plays up the whole culture clash thing a little too much with stuff like that eye-rolling verse about Lynyrd Skynyrd and Beanie Sigel, but Yelawolf was still easily one of my favorite up and coming newish MCs of 2010 just for bringing back the slippery effortless doubletime flow so few young rappers even attempt anymore. Although the major label Trunk Muzik 0-60 EP sounds great and keeps a lot of the best songs fron this, ultimately I prefer the original mixtape.
9. Floored By Four - Floored By Four (Chimera Music)
The members of Floored By Four (Nels Cline, Mike Watt, Yuka Honda and Dougie Brown) are responsible for a total of 5 albums on this list, a whole 10% of my top 50. And I'm not sure if I necessarily like the first self-titled album by their supergroup together more than all their other great records in 2010, but putting this in the top 10 seemed like a good way to symbolize how much good music they provided me with this year. And the album really is fun, full of Cline's wiggy guitar leads, Watt's thudstaff and occasional spiel, Honda's textured organs, and Brown's thunderous backbeat.
8. Superchunk - Majesty Shredding (Merge Records)
For a lot of people, it seems like Superchunk releasing their first album in 9 years was just a reminder that the band still exists, and can still be as good as they remembered way back in the '90s. But for me, it was something I'd spent those 9 years waiting for, as I'd obsessed over the band's back catalog and snapped up every new song that trickled out on a single or EP, including a couple that ended up on this album. So it's really just kind of gratifying and relieving to just see them come back and be appreciated like this.
7. Waka Flocka Flame - Flockaveli (1017 Brick Squad/Asylum/Warner Bros.)
The many people I know who raved about this album were also the people that thought that "O Let's Do It" and "Hard In Da Paint" were great songs, which I pretty strenuously disagreed with, so I went into this album highly skeptical. But this is one of the most consistently enjoyable and well paced major label rap albums in recent memory, even if the star and most of the many many guest rappers are kind of just shouting random bullshit. Really, the shouting is what helps keep the energy so high, and the whole record is just one huge banger after another. Even those singles I always turned off when they came on the radio sound better in an album context.
6. Styles P. & DJ Green Lantern - The Green Ghost Project (Invasion Music Group)
Styles P. kind of lucked into appearing one of the biggest rap hits of the year, but "B.M.F." aside 2010 was kind of just another year for the underrated LOX rapper to kind of keep trudging along just above the undergound (while Sheek Louch for some bizarre reason got signed to Def Jam). And his album-length collaboration with probably the best producer to ever get his rep as a mixtape DJ lived up to the project's pedigree and provided the best no-frills east coast rap record of the year.
5. Nice Nice - Extra Wow (Warp Records)
In 2003, I was blown away by a live set by this Portland duo, but the album I bought at the show, Chrome, wasn't that hot and I kind of filed it away and all but forgot about Nice Nice. Then 7 years later, kind of out of nowhere I find out they're signed to Warp now and released this great record that totally follows through on the promise of that live show and shows what an amazing variety of sounds and textures these guys get with just drums and one guitar. It's kind of like having a one-night stand with someone, and then running into them years later and starting a real relationship.
4. Jazmine Sullivan - Love Me Back (J Records/Arista)
Jazmine Sullivan’s 2008 album Fearless was a promising debut from an R&B singer with a big voice and a bravely diverse production palette -- it also got nowhere near my top 10 that year because so many of the songs collapsed under the weight of her histrionic oversinging or simply weren’t as fun to listen to as they were bold or offbeat. Love Me Back, on the other hand, is an absolute joy to listen to, every little homage and genre exercise congealing beautifully into a unique whole and Sullivan’s voice remaining commanding but never overbearing.
3. My Chemical Romance - Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (Reprise)
Even though they committed big time to 2006's The Black Parade and it was a critical and commercial triumph for them, I get the feeling that My Cheical Romance kind of hate that album as much as I did, and spent a lot of the last 4 years trying to run in the opposite direction for the follow-up, first with a simple stripped-down rock record, then with the kind of splashy silly anthemic return to the goofy speed goth emo power pop of the band's first two albums. But regardless of why they got there, this is a great return to form for them, exactly what I'd hoped they'd come back with.
2. Diddy-Dirty Money - Last Train To Paris (Bad Boy/Interscope Records)
Sean Combs has been the single most instrumental figure in blurring the line between hip hop and R&B since the early '90s, when he was putting Biggie on smooth Isley Bros. samples and having Mary J. sing over "Top Billin'" drums. But it wasn't until the last few years, when he gave up the pretense of being a rapper entirely and started a group with a couple girl singers, that he was ready to make Last Train To Paris his masterpiece. This album is just a marvel of production, almost every song is an epic groove with some kind of memorable vocal that either digs deep into vulnerable emotion or says something hilarious about making love on marmalade. A huge collection of the biggest rappers and R&B singers of the moment show up, and they’re pretty much all consistently given better beats and better songs to work with than anything on their latest albums.
1. Butch Walker & The Black Widows - I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart (One Haven Music)
Butch Walker is kind of a journeyman songwriter who played in a one hit wonder (Marvelous 3) and then kind of got into writing hits for pop stars (Avril Lavigne, Pink) and occasionally other alt-rockers (Weezer’s “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To”). I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart is the first album I’ve checked out by him, and I have no idea if it’s his best -- song titles like “Pretty Melody,” “Temporary Title,” and “Stripped Down Version” almost make this seem like a collection of throwaway tunes from a guy who’s generally got bigger gigs on his plate. And yet, it’s one of the most vibrant and infectious pop/rock albums I’ve heard in years, full of warmth and humor and hooks and riffs in just the kind of combination that I enjoy the most.