The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 15 - 6
Progressing through the list (the first part of which can be viewedhere), the changes taking place in music become more apparent. The best releases of 2009 aren't just those that took the decay of post-recession society and made something interesting and relevant from them, but were those that started to pry away at the considerable limitations placed on music itself.
Some of this is straightforward. This past year saw, for example, female emcees pushing themselves back to the center of hip-hop in a way that hasn't happened for several years (Rita J., Kid Sister, etc). Other of these changes necessarily end up in more nebulous realms. Increasingly, the best music released nowadays is that which doesn't fit neatly into any category--be that by mashing together genres in a way that hasn't been done before or by creating something seemingly out of the ether (how exactly do you describe Black Moth Super Rainbow's sound?).
Still others are those whose relevancy is much more direct: those who struck that chord somewhere between sonic reflection and direct protest. Given our rapidly changing times, finding a concoction of these two ingredients that sticks is a tall order. But these are some releases that got the balance damn near perfect.
15. Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring
The past few years have seen some impressive contributions from the rising sub-genre of "indie-folk." Fleet Foxes come to mind. But with their sophomore The First Days of Spring, Noah and the Whale have certainly raised the bar. The simple story of a man falling out of love suddenly becomes epic throughout this album's tracks. There is a notable difference from this album and their 2008 debut Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, specifically with the absence of former member Laura Marling. Significantly, this is the breakup that lead singer Charlie Fink is referring to throughout. The opening title track starts out with a slow, plodding earthiness before giving way to a mournful, almost transcendent string arrangement. From there, hope and despair play off each other in an evolution that is painful yet relatable--underlined by the lyrics' straightforwardness. The personal intimacy is so prevalent here that it verges on making the listener uncomfortable. But that's the challenge, and it's rare that a group can challenge their audience with such simple artistic tools at their disposal.
14. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II
The original Cuban Linx is considered one of the great rap masterpieces of the '90s (if not in all of hip-hop). So how the hell do you do a sequel? For one, make sure that you have the rest of your Wu-Tang crew at our back. For another, dip into some of J Dilla's many unused beats. And then there's remembering what made part 1 so damn good in the first place: the cinematic and vivid lyricism, the panoply of guest appearances and collabs, the utter refusal to tone it down. OB4CL Pt. II follows a similar theme to the original Cuban Linx, a hardened tale of underground mafiosos, drug trafficking and cold brutality... oh, and don't forget to pepper in the kung fu references. It might be easy to think that all this amounts to a throwback, but you'd be wrong to think so. The unleashed nature of this album, the cutthroat desperation is remarkably well-fitted for these times. Trouble has been brewing in the ranks of the Wu-Tang Clan for some time now, no doubt egged on by the relative disappointment of 8 Diagrams. Some might even have been wondering if they'd lost a few steps. But Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt II shows that when they work together they still have what it takes to create something urgent and ultimately just as relevant as fifteen years ago. It's like they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
13. The Thermals - Now We Can See
Like the best garage-punk groups, the Thermals have a penchant for catchy hooks performed in a charmingly sloppy way. Their three-chord arrangement played in delicious lo-fi has made them one of the more notable of these groups recently. This doesn't mean, however, that singer Hutch Harris expects so little from his lyrics. Their previous album, 2008's The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was a scathing, sarcastic rebuke to fundamentalist Christian conservatism at a time when the philosophy seemed to be running the country. With that side of America being delivered a hard blow over the past year (though I don't mean to exaggerate--the tea-baggers are indeed influential), Now We Can See traded in the political outrage for a broader kind of existentialism. Most songs are written from the point of view of--get this--the recently deceased. Contrast titles like "When I Died" and "When We Were Alive," and you start to get the picture. Some might interpret this as a step back--though Harris still manages to get in a few barbs against environmental destruction and human greed. More broadly, though, in a time between celebration and very real and scary unknowns, this is an album that reminds one of what it is that makes life worthwhile... a prescient message in a time when that can be easily forgotten.
12. Black Moth Super Rainbow - Eating Us
Our favorite neo-dada sonic weirdos are back and ready to profane with their sound-making all that we hold sacred! There might be something futile in trying to read too much meaning into Black Moth Super Rainbow's music--like some of the best art it's best viewed as an amorphous totality--but there's a distinct feeling that anything held dear in yesteryear is little more than kindling for their fire. The images conjured up by their filtered, twisted sounds tap into those primally buried parts of yourself that you're not supposed to really remember... then gleefully violates them. (the first time I hear them, for example, I was somehow vaguely reminded of watching cheap Sesame Street knock-offs on a wood paneled TV while my uncle complained that Reagan was too liberal--don't ask me why!) The problem is that the sounds are too numerous and too manipulated for any real coherence to bubble up. This kind of slipperiness is more full-frontal than ever on Eating Us. The whirring buzz of songs like "Tooth Decay" or "Born On a Day the Sun Didn't Rise" are ethereal and esoteric at the same time. This is an album that loves to confound and remind its listener that nothing is worth so much reverence today as the will to undermine what's "acceptable."
11. Dead Prez and DJ Green Lantern - Pulse of the People
Dead Prez have been working on their forthcoming Information Age for some time now. There's no hurry though; thePulse of the People mixtape packs a wallop. The biggest reason for this is straightforward: the Evil Genius himself, DJ Green Lantern. Green's intricately crafted, blazing-hot beats mesh incredibly well with DP's firebrand lyrics. M1 and stic.man are almost outshone here. Their straightforward and stark portrayals of racism, poverty and economic collapse--in other words, everyday life--are given a great lift by Green's beats. Veering between flashy club-sounds and organic, street-based grittiness, these sounds serve as a perfect reflection for the group's "Revolutionary But Gangsta" outlook, which is here in spades of course. Tracks like "Don't Hate My Grind," "Gangsta, Gangster," and "$timulus Plan" (by far one of the best anti-banker songs released since the bailouts) are immensely effective in communicating an urgent message that runs counter to much of the bootstraps-based mainstream dialogue on race and poverty that still persists in the Obama era. More than forceful platitudes, though, Dead Prez and Green Lantern have produced a slice of militant hip-hop just as suited for the dance-floor as the demonstrations.
10. Kid Sister - Ultraviolet
"Pro Nails" has had heads salivating for Kid Sister's long-delayed debut for about two years now, and it's worth the wait. The Chicago native's distinct "glam-hop" has carved a niche where the shimmering sounds of pop are rooted by an earthy, everyday sensibility of hip-hop. But while the juked-up beats play with a poptimist glitziness, there is a gravelly brashness couched in them that links into Kid's deliciously everyday subject matter. Singles like "Control" show this off: scraping together all the cash to give yourself the night out you deserve. Other writers have commented on this unique collision--the review in the Chicago Reader put forth that her music is the first hip-hop that can safely be labeled as "post-recession," and this seems about right. It's a blend that mimics the contradictions running through ordinary folks' heads right now: that our own stories are also worthy of validity, and ultimately deserve the same kind of importance that the industry has until recently only seen fit to crown on the unattainable lives of the Justins and Britneys of the world.
9. Royksopp - Junior
Junior will be complimented in 2010 by (of course) Senior. The two albums are somewhat meant to be polar opposites--Senior will be autumn to Junior's spring. We'll have to wait until the former's release for final judgment on how effective the combo is, but standing on its own, Junior is quintessential Royksopp. Everything unique that we've come to love from this Norwegian electronic duo is prevalent here. If the shiny, bouncy twinkle of "Happy Up Here" doesn't cheer you up then, well, you need therapy. But as we know, Royksopp are far from one-note. "The Girl and the Robot" makes the act of introspection seem like you're peering into a never-ending, shiny metal cavern. Even "Royksopp Forever"--a track whose sound is as dripping with bravado as its title denotes--brings their flare for the dramatic alive in a profoundly organic way. While most electronic acts seem satisfied with fading into the realm of movie soundtracks and marquee appearances at second rate night-clubs, Royksopp have never stopped believing in the seemingly never-ending creativity of the sound-clip and the mixer. With over ten years under their belt, they are among a handful managing to hold such broad influence over a new generation of electronic artists--and that's a good thing for music's future.
8. Wale - Attention: Deficit
One of the most anticipated hip-hop debuts over the past couple years has been Wale's Attention: Deficit. After an undeniably impressive handful of mixtapes, the DC emcee has finally dropped it, and it doesn't disappoint. In this robust, go-go infused album, Wale has teamed up with some notable names--from Mark Ronson to TV On the Radio's David Sitek--to bring a batch of tracks that manage to be universal and painstakingly specific at the same time. His own brand of swagger is pulled off deftly on tracks like "Chillin'" (featuring, of all people, Lady Gaga), but that doesn't stop him from tackling some real meat with unbelievable clarity. Most mentioned among these has been the track "90210", which no critic seemed unwilling to bring up in their review. Little wonder why too--few rappers (especially men) have dared to even take on issues like bulimia and women's body image, let alone with such urgency without sounding wack. Mix this kind of thoughtfulness and vulnerability with his iron-hard flow, and you have a debut album that not only finally puts DC on hip-hop's map, but whose style is as unique as its appeal is broad.
7. Death - ...For the Whole World to See
Death's one and only release was dropped over thirty years ago. So why is its reissue worth mentioning right now? For one thing because it is now gaining more attention than it ever got the first time around (the attention it deserves that is), and for another because it has forced many to shift their ideas about the roots of punk. More than five years before Bad Brains, these three black kids from Detroit were playing fast, loud, confrontational rock 'n' roll that almost certainly had hippies scratching their heads. Keep in mind that this was still a few years before "punk" had come to prominence. The manic energy of songs like "Freakin' Out" and "Politicians in My Eyes" were well ahead of their time. Save for a few other groups that had their heyday in the late '60s (the MC5 for example), nobody had really managed to channel their outrage in such a potently heated way. It was a formula that, as urban centers began to crack at the edges in the early '70s, would begin to take root--just as it is today. It's one of the years happiest accidents that this album was rediscovered.
6. Rita J. - Artist Workshop
If Kid Sister is pushing the door open for the new generation of young, independent-minded female rappers, then Rita J. has stepped through with style. One can't doubt her independent spirit. "Body Rock," equally influenced by trance music as by soul, is a cool, confident tribute to her fellow femcees urging them to be strong and not cave to the adverse pressure the world puts on their shoulders. It's hardly a revolutionary standpoint--Lauryn Hill did it damn well. But with Lauryn in self-imposed exile, and with other artists like her increasingly drowned out over the past decade, rap's been long overdue for a comeback of Hill's breed (Jean Grae notwithstanding). Assured, intelligent and keenly aware of the world around her, Rita may be the artist we're looking for--provided the music biz doesn't blackball the independently released Artist Workshop as "unmarketable." The buzz since the album's early November release has been impressive, however. And rightfully so: this is a remarkable debut. With any luck, it's only a sliver of what's to come both for Rita and others like her.
Next week: the top 5 albums of 2009!
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in SocialistWorker.org, ZNet, PopMatters.com, CounterPunch and Razorcake.org.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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