Top 10 Albums of 2009

Wow, I know this is over a week late and anyone who would care has already read like a million top ten lists…. But mine’s the best! Without further ado, here are The Top 10 Albums of 2009, replete with long-winded and pedantic reviews by yours truly. Beware, not for the faint of heart!

Top 10 Albums of 2009

10) UGK – UGK 4Life

“Back from the dead” are some of the first words you hear ooze from Pimp C’s mouth in between non-sequitur adlibs of Southern gangster slang on the “Intro” to UGK 4Life. Unfortunately, these words can be interpreted on a literal level as this album marks the first since Chad “Pimp C” Butler, one half of the legendary Houston duo, died on December 4th 2007 due to complications of sleep apnea coupled with an accidental overdose of codeine cough syrup concoctions.

Thankfully, despite the posthumous nature of this release, the music is never overbearingly self-memorializing, nor does it attempt to capitalize on the increased marketability of a dead recording artist. Instead, fans and critics can both be satisfied with an hour of fully realized, previously unreleased UGK tracks that are seeped in the group’s original brand of hard hitting and refined sleaze raps drenched in country twang. The two MC’s come together like two strands of hip-hop DNA in symbiotic unity on “The Pimp & the Bun”, while tracks like “Da Game Been Good To Me” and “Swishas & Erb” are reminiscent of their awesome 2007 double album, Underground Kingz. Akon and Snoop Dogg are among the handful of featured guests that never steal the spotlight but boost the core pair’s stylized swagger. Ultimately, the album is not flawless like the 1995 classic, Ridin Dirty, but it makes a very solid addition to the UGK catalogue. The ever-present Bun B closes UGK 4Life, and his voice on the “Outro” is comforting. I can only hope this suggests continuity, not closure, for the Underground Kingz.

9) DOOM – Born Like This

MF Doom, now using the moniker DOOM, has been consistent with his output ever since his early years in the seminal old-school hip-hop group, KMD. However, sometime around the middle of the decade after his collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse, The Mouse and the Mask, he slowed down noticeably and his live performances were described as somehow sketchy and unauthentic. Now, however, the verbose MC hip-hop fans love to love is back and it’s clear that he’s not fucking around. This album is massively dope and features DOOM spitting some of his best lyrics since 2004’s MM… Food. He uses cinematic samples to jarring effect on “Cellz”, warbles experimentally through auto-tune on “Supervillainz” while “That’s That” is right up there with any classic DOOM tracks. This album is definitely not to be missed, but to the DOOM neophyte I would have to recommend Operation Doomsday.

8 ) Dinosaur Jr. – Farm

During the pre-Nirvana era of underground American rock, Dinosaur Jr. were one of the loudest and, in my opinion, best bands on the scene. Their 1980s recordings on the SST label are essentials in the canon of alternative rock. However, after bassist Lou Barlow left the band in 1989 (to form Sebadoh, another amazing band), the group suffered and became largely the vision of singer and guitarist, J Mascis. To the delight of many fans, the original line-up got back together in 2005 and released an incredibly strong reunion album in 2007, entitled Beyond.

Farm is the follow-up that proves the successful reunion to be no fluke. This album is right up there with the group’s best material, perhaps just shy of reaching the gloriously distorted and angst-ridden heights of their classic 1987 record, You’re Living All Over Me. The band crashes through 12 songs, producing the enormous sound that only the best power trios can achieve. Overall, the music is guitar driven and, boosted by the bass and drums provided by Barlow and Murph, Mascis’ solos burst through the stratosphere with a dizzying amalgamation of power-pop shredding and extended jamming. The single, “Over It”, is definitely a stand out track and the video is quirky and charming, featuring the boys goofing around on skateboards with such youthful joy, you’d think it was 1987 again.

7) Japandroids – Post-Nothing

This young band from Vancouver consists of Brian King on guitar and vocals and David Prowse on drums. Japandroids were virtually unknown when they made their full-length album debut, Post-Nothing, on the Canadian label Unfamiliar Records. The band was given a serious boost when the taste-making (albeit much maligned by some) website, Pitchfork, lauded the album and deemed it worthy of the highly selective “Best New Music” category. Too often, bands don’t live up to this kind of hype. Japandroids, on the other hand, are totally worthy of every word of praise pretentious music critics might send their way. The music is punk, sparse and highly infectious.

On the track “Young Hearts Spark Fire” King sings in his sincere yelp, “We used to dream/Now we worry about dying.” The line is one of the most poetic and simple summations of the human condition I’ve heard in a long time and the effect of powerful emotional catharsis is invigorating.  My only complaint is that, as far as I know, their tour has not yet made a stop in Kingston (although I caught there show in Toronto and it was invigorating).

6) Gucci Mane – The State Vs. Radric Davis

2009 was a tumultuous year for Gucci Mane, full of ups and downs. He was released from prison in March only to be sentenced back to the pen in November. Aside from his legal troubles, however, 2009 was also the year in which Gucci’s meteoric rise to the upper tiers of rap stardom took place. Over the course of the past 12 months he has released a dizzying array of mix tapes that were astonishingly consistent as much as they were prolific. His unique brand of turn-of-phrase gangster rap is now firmly established and his remarkable creativity and work ethic has redeemed the critical and commercial failings of his first official album, 2007’s Back to the Trap House.

The State Vs. Radric Davis is Gucci’s second official album and the final jewel in his crown (perhaps watch or chain would be a more apt analogy) for 2009. The music perfectly captures Atlanta’s slow style while showcasing Gucci’s lyrical abilities as well as multiple sides of his persona. Some high profile guests include Lil Wayne and Cam’ron on “Stupid Wild” while the excellent production is courtesy of such big names as Bangladesh, Drumma Boy and Mannie Fresh. I love how Gucci can seamlessly flow between overly ostentatious brags about bling and the trap lifestyle to introspective self-awareness. “Lemonade” paints a picture of excess in the color yellow and had me seeing nothing but said color for weeks after my initial listen, whereas “My Own Worst Enemy” confronts his demons and his beef with Young Jeezy adroitly and maturely. For anyone who doubts his lyrical abilities, I challenge them to listen to the verbal acrobatics on “Classical (Intro)”, and for an example of his sense of humor, one need not look further than the recurring interludes in which he converses with a fellow inmate at the cell toilet, a perverse prison version of a water cooler conversation.

5) Girls – Album

The lead singer of Girls, Christopher Owens, was born into the notorious Children of God cult. He has since detached himself from these ominous beginnings and has managed to write an indie pop album that is overflowing with emotion. Sun-kissed Beach Boys melodies coupled with the androgyny and laid-back despondency of the millennial hipster aesthetic make this one of the most enjoyably accessible releases of the year.

The album, aptly titled Album, is carried by the strength of its two singles, “Lust For Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace”. The former is a perfect illustration of the band’s androgynous qualities. There is even an XXX version of the video that features one man singing into another man’s microphone, if you know what I mean. Male listeners should not be threatened by this overt homosexuality because the song is awesomely catchy and addictive. “Hellhole Ratrace” is a more melancholy song but no less satisfying with equally desperate and dreamy qualities. The video compliments this with a languid depiction of a night filled with drinking and smoking. When Owens croons, “and I don’t wanna cry my whole life through / I want to do some laughing too. / So come on, come one, come on, come on laugh with me,” only the most soulless among us remain unaffected.

4) The xx – xx

The xx are definitely a hype band across the board of music criticism, but for very good reason.

3) The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

The Flaming Lips are now entering their fourth decade of making music, and they sound as fresh as ever. Embryonic is an amazingly creative album that stretches the limits of psychedelia and experimental rock music. The collection of songs play like a concept album about space travel but really it’s just the Lips harnessing the atmospheric beauty of the cosmos and channeling such headiness into a sonic manifestation. Either that or, as suggested by the album’s title, this is music that captures the magical process of birth. In actuality, I think it’s a little bit of both and that makes for a very powerful listening experience.

The songs can be intentionally grating, like the opener “Convinced of the Hex”, but also have the ability to do so while retaining a certain head-nod inducing quality, as on the closer “Watching The Planets”. There are beautiful lullabies like “The Impulse” where Wayne Coyne sings through a vocoder over ambient keys with minimal percussion. Songs like “Evil” and “If” are in the same vein as previous Flaming Lips ballads and serve as touchstones of accessibility and humanity amidst a temperamental sea that fluctuates between aggressive waves of jagged experimentalism and a wash of encircling sound. At the end of the day, despite all the avant-garde within, this album is still Rock music. The ability to experiment at the same level as the best free-form Jazz musicians while maintaining a Rock aesthetic is what makes artists like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and even acts like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd so great. Embryonic proves that The Flaming Lips are of this high caliber of artists.

2) Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II

“North Star (Jewels)”, the last track on Raekwon’s classic 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, segues seamlessly into “Return of the North Star”, the first track on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II. This is the first indication of the authenticity of the long awaited sequel, another timeless album to add to the Wu-Tang cannon. Chef Raekwon along with the other members of the Clan (except for U-God) and East Coast MCs like Jadakiss, Styles P, Slick Rick and Beanie Seagel paint verbal pictures of unapologetic criminality with cinematic vividness. Meanwhile, a host of top-notch producers handle the beats including the late J Dilla, Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Marley Marl and, of course, RZA, the resident Wu-Tang production guru.

Three tracks are taken from the extensive Dilla vaults, the two most noteworthy being “House of Flying Daggers” and “10 Bricks”. The former is the second track on the album and features plodding drums laden with RZA-esque strings. In the first verse Inspectah deck “… pop[s] off like a mobster boss/Angel hair with the lobster sauce…” and he captures the commanding air that each MC brings to the table – as remorseless and unfaltering as mafia dons. In the latter, a single tortured guitar note whines over a boom-bap knocker of a drumbeat while Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna flex their well-honed skills on the microphone with play-by-play descriptiveness.

Ghostface’s ferociously jacked up flow is definitely the most complementary to Raekwon’s understated and reserved deadliness. The best example of this is when the two converse in the dense behind bars plotting of “Penitentiary”. Another standout track is “Pyrex Vision”, the calm soundtrack to cooking crack, on which Raekwon is the only performer accompanied by a chilled out guitar loop provided by Marley Marl. The song clocks in at a mere 55 seconds, short lived and glorious just like the high of the song’s subject.

Overall, the instrumentals on this album are in tune with RZA’s pioneering East Coast meets Shaolin sound, except for the two contributions by Dr. Dre who is a pioneer in his own right but from the opposite coast. The best Dre production is “Catalina” which features a polished and, in the invented words of Raekwon, “multi-expensive” sounding beat. Hand claps, a catchy piano loop and cymbal crashes surround the abundant negative space. The sparseness and pockets of groove allow Raekwon to spit his packed rhymes clearly and effectively.  The glossy Dre tracks serve as a welcome interlude to the rest of the album’s impenetrable Wu-Tang attack mode.

1) Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion


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