1. YG - My Krazy Life
This is really how major label rap debuts should be -- dropping at the exact moment where radio has already bent towards what these guys have been doing for years, so all they have to do is be themselves, in a relatively presentable but not at all sanitized way. Mustard's sound has gotten a little repetitive on radio singles, but putting together a full-length project he arranges enough variety within the formula that every track is distinct. I love how there's a few songs that are only 2 minutes long, and feel kinda like vignettes within the album's narrative but still totally knock. I'm generally not a fan of the TeeFlii and Ty Dolla $ign ratchet R&B stuff, but their piano-driven tracks work in the context of the album and bring a little melody into the picture right at the point when the album could use it. YG has never been the strongest rapper but he holds the whole thing down better than I expected him to, his voice has settled into this affable, conversational croak. All of these that are on Spotify are in my constantly updated 2014 albums playlist, by the way.
2. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
In my opinion, Pharrell's bad ideas have outnumbered his good ones pretty consistently for almost a decade now, even in 2013, as much as I liked his big comeback hits. And I didn't really care for "Happy," so I didn't know what to expect from this album. But man, it fucking works. The Hans Zimmer strings, the pure smile-inducing good vibes of songs like "Brand New," the relatively low number of the usual Pharrell lyric misfires (OK, "Hunter" is pretty bad), it's all so beatific and warm and enjoyable. "Freq," the hidden track with JoJo in the middle of the album, is a nice surprise, better than the listed song at the beginning of the track, "Lost Queen."
3. Carla Bozulich - Boy
It's funny that two of my favorite albums of the past month are called G I R L and Boy, huh. But anyway... Carla Bozulich is one of my all-time musical heroes, largely for her work in the '90s with The Geraldine Fibbers, as well as Mike Watt and Scarnella and Ethyl Meatplow (here is a career overview post I once wrote about her, which I once got a nice e-mail from Carla herself about). After those wide-ranging projects, she's settled into something of a late career groove, with the 2006 solo album Evangelista and three subsequent albums released under the group name Evangelista. So Boy is actually her first album presented outside the Evangelista 'brand' in over a decade, although it has a lot of the same sounds and collaborators as those albums, presented in a slightly more accessible package: 10 songs, all in the 3-5 minute range. Given the way some of the other recent albums were so unforgivingly dark and shapeless in parts that it's nice to hear this stuff in the form of concise, often rhythm-driven songs. "Gonna Stop Killing" is especially great, and the title's resemblance to her 2004 live release, the I'm Gonna Stop Killing EP, makes me wonder how long that song's been kicking around.
4. Future Islands - Singles
My Wondering Sound feature on Future Islands was a lot of fun to put together and they were really good guys to interview, and I listened to the album a lot while working on it, but only now that the article done have I really gotten a chance to start just enjoying as an album and figuring out what I think of it. It's funny but before I just kinda took advantage of Future Islands as a band that everyone in Baltimore knew was good and I didn't feel much need to write about or advocate for them, but now that they're tipping into a wider level of fame it's pretty exciting to watch unfold. I think my favorite thing about this album, in relation to their other albums, is the increased guitar in the mix, the riffs on "Doves" and "A Dream Of You And Me" really make those songs pop and in a way make the basslines stand out more too.
5. Kevin Gates - By Any Means
Gates released two of my favorite rap records of 2013, and I'm glad that he's back at it and releasing more consistently good music. The weird Atlantic Records offshoot APG that's released his last couple albums, however, recently got some light shed on it in this Young Thug story. And even though it's ostensibly refreshing to see a major label create an incubator imprint to regularly release music by a promising rapper with a relatively small but growing fanbase, I kinda wonder whether this is actually a good move for Gates or if it's keeping him in the kind of middling niche he's in when it'd be great to see him break out and become a major star. This is a strong record, though, "Stop Lyin'" and "Arm And Hammer" are dope and it's kinda cool to get guys like 2 Chainz and Plies to bounce off of Gates since he sometimes lacks in the kind of over-the-top personality they have.
6. King Los - Zero Gravity II
Los's rise over the last few years has been one of the most exciting stories in Baltimore hip hop that I've ever followed, and sometimes it's hard to separate the success of his career from the music. The last few tapes have been good, and he remains a breathtaking rapper on a technical level, but more than that it's just been fun to see what kind of numbers they do on the big mixtape sites. At the moment, it's hard to tell if this will surpass the last one, Becoming King, but between the guest list being less impressive than that one, and Los announcing just before the tape dropped that he's leaving Bad Boy Records again, I don't know, it feels like the buzz has deflated a little bit. Hopefully I'm wrong, maybe this is the beginning of a different phase of his career, still rooting for dude. The flows on "Don't Get In My Way" are great, cool to hear him still playing with his voice and finding new approaches.
7. Spencer Owen - Blue Circle
Spencer is one of my internet homies from way back that I've reconnected with on Twitter more recently, I dug an album he put out last year and this one is even better, kind of a subtle, groove-driven pop/rock record with some goofy, playful moments here and there.
8. Marsha Ambrosius - Fvck & Love EP
Her first album was pretty huge on R&B radio, but like most non-superstar singers, Marsha Ambrosius seems to be caught in label limbo waiting for a single to pop off big before she can get a release date (and I really liked that recent single with Ne-Yo, shame it didn't do anything). So she went ahead and dropped a 6-song EP out of the sky recently, and it's really really solid, would love to have a whole album of this caliber right about now. Oak (of Oak & Pop) does a track, Eric Hudson does a track, Ambrosius self-produces some of it, it's all on that really airy moody sex music vibe she does pretty well.
9. Blaqstarr - Trinity EP Vol. 1
When I sat down with Blaqstarr for an interview late last year, we talked about a lot of projects in the works, but I'm still surprised by how much has been happening already so far in 2014. In January there was the first Blaq-Files EP with re-recorded old tracks, in February there was a single and video with Common that I didn't really care for, and then at the end of March he dropped this EP with 3 pretty dope new songs. It's in the kind of melodic midtempo style of a lot of stuff he's done since he's branched out from Baltimore club music, but I like it more. One reason I dig these songs is that they feature a lot of slowed down Baltimore club drums -- "YOU" is co-produced by Rod Lee and has the same slowed "Think" break that Rod did for Bossman's "Oh," and "Release Yourself" has a variation on some classic Blaqstarr club drums.
10. Say Wut - Clarion Bang EP
Another one of my favorite Baltimore club producers from way back who just put out a few songs on a new EP. This is more in his traditional club sound, lots of synth horn riffs and high energy vocals, but he always manages to put some fresh sounds in there to distinguish it from his older stuff.
Worst Album of the Month: Young Money Entertainment - Young Money: Rise Of An Empire
Given the ridiculous star power of the YMCMB roster, it's really just hilarious to watch them try to leverage that over and over to try and give some shine to the dozen or so total losers on the label. One Drake song, one Nicki song (and to be honest, I don't really fuck with either), and then so so so many verses by Lil Twist, Gudda Gudda and somebody called Euro. I didn't think they could make a worse album than the Rich Gang record but shit, here it is.