Merry Christmas everybody! It's been a cold, snowy, slow paced Christmas day for me, so I ended up finishing the list a little early. I hope you enjoy, and I look forward to the rest of your lists:
10. Erykah Badu- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
As some of you may know, I was initially turned off by the messy, nonsensical politics of this album, and for someone like me for whom lyrics are an important part of the experience of listening to music, this was a problem that almost made me dismiss New Amerykah altogether. (I'll spare the lecture right now about why it makes no sense for someone like Badu, who ostensibly subscribes to a radical left-wing revolutionary worldview, to shout out to Louis Farrakhan in a song). But over the course of the year songs from this album kept popping up on my iPod shuffle, and it started to make an impression on me. Sonically, there's just nothing else like it: it's full of lush, rhythmically interesting, complicated arrangements, with a sound somewhere between 70s soul, laid back Tribe Called Quest style hip hop, and whatever spaced-out weirdness it's Badu's whim to explore on any given song. I still have some mixed feelings about it, but it's innovative, interesting, and weird enough that in the end I couldn't leave it off the Top 10.
9. Kanye West- 808s & Heartbreak
We've blogged this one to death already, but I think this album was a brave departure for Mr. West, who explored new sonic territory and a new emotional vulnerability with mixed but ultimately unforgettable results.
8. Nikolay and Kay- Time:Line
I loved this hip hop collaboration, which was beautiful and sadly overlooked. More of my thoughts here.
7. The Tallest Man on Earth- Shallow Grave
I talked a little bit about this guy a week ago. As I've sat with the music for a bit, I'll sum it up by saying that lyrically these songs are full of strange, unexpected, awesome metaphors and turns of phrase, and they're all sung in nice melodies by a great, expressive voice. You can't ask for much more than that.
6. In The Heights- Original Broadway Soundtrack
I found this musical irresistible. Admittedly, it was a little too sentimental for me in some ways, but that was counterbalanced by great songs played with an exciting fusion of musical styles. And if you're the kind of person who'd get a kick out of a rap battle between a graffiti artist and a somewhat conservative shopowner which ends with the shopowner rapping: "Shut up, go home, and pull your damn pants up!"...well, you're just shit out of luck if you're going to go looking for that anywhere else.
5. Wale- The Mixtape About Nothing
This is a young MC to watch. Start paying attention now, while he's still releasing stuff this good for free!
4. Bonnie "Prince" Billy- Lie Down in the Light
Will Oldham hits another high point with what is essentially a collection of love songs: he sings of his love of women, God, and blowjobs with sincerity, understated melodies, and lyrical curveballs that make repeat listenings extremely rewarding. Hands down this is his best work since I See a Darkness, and in the end I may actually prefer Lie Down in the Light.
3. Lil' Wayne- Tha Carter 3/The Leak EP
Lil' Wayne remains a bit of an enigma to me. This year he made a weird, obscene, often brilliant pop album, and a weird, hilarious, often brilliant EP, along with continuing his endless string of free internet releases, not to mention his ubiquitous guest spots on other people's albums. Sometimes he shouts misogynist nonsense, sometimes he writes beautiful love songs; sometimes he glorifies senseless violence, sometimes he writes heartfelt odes to the troubles of his native New Orleans; sometimes he writes shameless, stupid, pop crossover sex songs, sometimes he spits dense, hard-to-follow wordplay over bizarre unorthodox beats. I can't get a handle on what to think about the guy, except that without question he's a very talented artist doing the best work of his life, and I can't stop listening.
2. Bob Dylan- Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
When most people of his generation still play this kind of blues/country/old-time rock n' roll, more often than not it sounds worn out and tired; when younger people play it it sounds like they're aping an old style and paying homage to the past; when Dylan plays it, it still sounds alive, and vital, even elemental. It occurs to me when listening to this that Dylan is perhaps the last person living who will ever make this style of music sound so damn good. Listening to this collection feels like poring through a whole fading chapter of fantastic American music, and I hope Dylan sticks around and keeps making music like this until he finally keels over at the age of 120.
1. The Roots- Rising Down
It's an absolute mystery to me why this is getting no love from the critics on the year end lists. Maybe it's just old news that the Roots are one of the greatest hip hop acts of all time, but DAMN this is a great album. And aside from being impeccably produced, moving, exciting, terrifying, and a sonically unique tour-de-force of hip hop beats played on live drums and guitars, it's also incredibly well constructed as an album. Transitions between songs are well considered and purposefully arranged, and there are even a couple of almost Kid A (it keeps coming back to Kid A!) style mini-songs that serve as a sort of connective thread between the full length songs. And for those willing to brave the depths and darkness of this album in one sitting (as I was personally reluctant to do at first), after a harrowing journey you're rewarded with a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel, as the song "Rising Up" swoops in to lift you up just as you're unable to take another dark, scary banger. I'm still unable to process the fact that a band capable of such disturbing, emotionally charged art is going to become Jimmy Fallon's house band...but if it offers them some financial security while they keep making incredible albums, I hope it works out well for them.