Passion of the Weiss is one of my favorite weblogs out there. It's consistently witty, insightful, creative, and educational. Plus, Jeff is a swell guy. But when I read his picks for the 10 best hip hop albums of the half-year, I had to disagree. With about half of 'em.
But mostly, when I read the list I realized--holy crap! It's August! The year is almost half over and I haven't made a retrospective list yet! That's what bloggers do! It's our entire reason for being: Constantly categorizing and taking inventory!
Also, since this is the first original post on my new site, I thought this would be a good way to let new readers know what my tastes are. If you hate these records, you'll probably hate this blog. But if you dig 'em, then this might just be a new corner for you to hang one.
So, here's: The 10 Best Rap Albums of the Year and the 10 Best Rock Albums of the Year. So far. Regular readers know I keep a running tally of every album I've heard this year that impressed me enough to note it. You can find that tally here. So these are the creme de la creme.
THE 10 BEST ROCK ALBUMS OF THE FIRST HALF OF 2008
10. Tie: The Grand Archives-Self Titled (review) and Blood on the Wall-Liferz (review). Both strong records, but polar opposites of the indie spectrum. BOTW makes rugged music with soft edges, Grand Archives makes light pop with intelligent lyrics. Two great tastes that go great together!
Miniature Birds-Grand Archives
Hibernation-Blood on the Wall
9. The Rural Alberta Advantage-Hometowns.
The Rural Alberta Advantage are a Canadian indie-rock/Americana trio with a sound not unlike Centro-Matic. I found them thanks to a reader submission, but I've been unable to learn much about them. Far as I can tell, they're unsigned. Which is a damn shame, because their debut record, "Hometowns," is adventurous, full of hooks, and a pleasure from start to finish.
The opening track, "Ballad of the RAA," is electronica-meets-country, a refreshingly different take on what has become the pretty standard indie genre of Americana. Lots of folks discuss the huge influence of Brian Wilson on indie rock, but one can make the argument that Van Morrison and his successors (Counting Crows, e.g.), have been an equally important force, and Rural Alberta Advantage clearly borrow heavily from the latter. But other cuts, like "Drain the Blood," dump the electronica and instead go for earnest, overwrought vocals. Then "Luciano" comes on with fuzzy punk and blurry drums. Yet every song is instantly familiar, and completely accessible, as all great pop should be.
This album will keep you guessing, but will never leave you behind.
Don't Haunt this place
Sleep All Day
In the Summertime
8. Diacon-Panthers-Make It Feel Better (review). Right after I wrote about a href="http://www.diacon-panthers.com/">Diacon-Panthers , they got signed by an indie label, so I have a kind of sentimental attachment to them. Plus, they fucking rock. Perfect for a party in a college basement.
"Days of Wonder" starts out like grungy psychedelia, along the lines of Black Mountain, until, after a long and fascinating it descends into the sonic mess that characterizes the rest of the album: Indecipherable vocals, jangling guitars that seem to fight each other as often as they harmonize, and a drummer who apparently snorted all the speed in Knoxville. This is a group who seem to constantly battle any sense of melody or harmony. Even when they slow down, like on "Actress," the vocals have a nasal, "Blind Melon" quality that's jarring. In fact, jarring is probably the best word for this Americana Punk band. This band, and others like them, are the reason I got into blogging in the first place.
When It Comes To The Night
7. Black Mountain-In the Future. I'm sure I'm not alone in this: Black Mountain's sophmore album, In the Future, was one of my most anticipated albums of 2008. Their eponymous first album was an amazing collection of rough-hewn psychedelia (they call it "psych-and-prog-spiritual" in the press release). Southern grunge with extended jams and obscure lyrics: Sort of a Drive-By Truckers for the Deadhead set. "In the Future" does not disappoint. "Stormy High," the first song, is a raucous singalong that's as good as anything off their first record. "Angels" gets a little lighter, with it's bright falsetto. "Tyrants" is the first extended jam on the record, a nearly 8-minute opus that erupts out of a whisper-quiet opening, like Black Sabbath covering the Foo Fighters. "Stay Free" is almost pastoral, a sweet surprise on an otherwise fairly grimey album. (If it sounds familiar, that's because it was featured on the soundtrack to Spiderman 3.)
6. Tilly and the Wall-o/untitled third album (review). “o” sounds a little bit like the great album I always thought Tegan and Sara had in them, but they never quite made. Here, Tilly and the Wall have made their most accessible (and in my view, their best) album yet. As well as one of the best records I’ve heard all year. Like many great records, TATW’s third release, sometimes called “o” because of the artwork on the cover, has no official title. I’m not saying it’s as great as The Beatles' "White Album” or Metallica's "Black Album,” but it is for this band what those albums were for those bands: A signal of a movement for the band, a change, and a big step forward. It is a delightful, impassioned, and completely unashamed retro smorgasbord: “I Found You” feels like The Cars; “Tall Tall Grass” could have been written by any of the late ‘80s folkies like Tracy Chapman; “Too Excited” is the Go Gos with tap dancing; and all along the way there are bits of Sinead and any number of ‘80s legends. This is an album not afraid to show its influences without relying on clichés. It's what music should be: A celebration.
5. Calvin Badness-Go To Your Room (review). It's pure, shameless, unabashed powerpop. But it's the most fun I've had discovering a new artist this year.
Just on T.V.
4. Hold Steady-Stay Positive (review). Back to an indie label, and as strong as ever. I just can't get enough of this band. Go to my review, and you'll find a whole live show with much of the new record on the setlist.
3. Thailand-The Remote Controller (review). This is an EP, so I recognize that it's kind of like cheating--the band could release a full-length of this EP and filler. Kinda like what The Black Kids did earlier this year, when their indie EP was bought up by a label and threw a bunch of boring and/or crappy songs around what had already been on the EP. But Thailand's first album was simply phenomenal, so I've got nothing but respect for the band and I'm giving them slot 3.
2. My Morning Jacket-Evil Urges. MMJ's "Z" album was the best album of the year, way back then, and Evil Urges earns a place on the shelf. A fantastic album showing the amazing range that Southern funk can have when it is organically linked with jamband sentiments and a great 1970s record collection.
1. Frightened Rabbit-Midnight Organ Fight (review). I have listened to every song on this album at least six times already, and I only reviewed it in June. Extraordinary, catchy, deep, moving . . . I can't imagine that a better album will come out this year.
Keep Yourself Warm
What, no Vampire Weekend? That's right. Although I like the afrobeat nerd album, it just doesn't have enough in it for me to put it in the top 10.
THE 10 BEST HIP HOP ALBUMS OF 2008 . . . SO FAR
I gave Jeff Weiss shit above, but truth be told, I haven't heard several of the albums on his list. And picking just 10 to be the best is never an easy task. I'm saying this now in order to get mercy later. These are my picks for the 10 best hip hop albums of the first half of '08.
10. Santogold-Santogold. Say what you want: She's M.I.A. the pop version; she's Diplo's latest fucktoy; her flow is pure pop; whatever. She's managed to put out a female voice in hip hop, which is hard enough as it is, but this one is capable of being both conscious and mainstream, at the same time. In this way, she pulls off what M.I.A. never could. This is an album I wanted to hate, but dig more and more every day.
9. Living Legends-The Gathering. “Too many rappers overrated” begins the title track of “The Gathering,” the long-awaited new release from the Living Legends collective, and truer words were rarely spoken. It’s rare that a group of this size contains so much talent. The best known (and smoothest) of the group, is Murs, but the rest of them are underground legends in their own right: The Grouch, Luckyiam, Eligh, Scarub, Sunspot Jonz, Aesop (not Aesop Rock), and Bicasso. You also may have heard of their earlier groups, which included Mystik Journeymen and 3 Melancholy Gypsies.
Each member of the crew spits bars on every single one of the seven tracks, making every tune a pass-the-mic exercise in various styles, so it’s never tedious, never repetitive, never boring. You might think that this would make for overstuffed tunes, but there’s not a weak link in the bunch. All of the verses are funny, tough, and even occasionally moving. The production is top notch. The hooks are fire. I’m told this EP is just a prelude to a proper ’08 full-length. I can’t wait.
She Wants Me
8. SoloMan Spectrum-Soundtrack 2 Life. More than a few tunes on this record don't hold up. But those that do are fresh and hilarious, like Ludacris for the underground set. Even if the entire album was crap, “My 10th Drink” would be worth a ten spot. It’s got all the humor of the best D12 tracks, but without all the lame verses by anyone who isn’t Eminem. But the rest of the album isn’t crap. Much of it is inventive (“when life loses it’s meaning again/it’s just me and my pen”), crude (“she got 100 niggas DNA left in her throat”), insightful (“opposites create something so positive”), consistently surprising (“ask Pink Floyd, you’re just another brick in that wall”), and often laugh-out-loud funny. One of the most notable things about the record, in fact, is the paucity of guest shots—the only cameos here are by Serum (the other half of Mekanical Mystik, SoloMan’s duo). SoloMan is presenting his first solo project, and he's not afraid to perform almost all of it without backup. And how many rappers you know can pull off putting beatz behind Gregorian chants? On the strength of just over half of the songs on this album, it gets my vote for being in the top 10.
7. Short Bus Alumni-Mr. T’s Revenge. Atlanta's Short Bus Alumni's debut, "Mr. T's Revenge," is best called nostalgic new jack. It's chock full of references to old school, but never uses a simple 808. The beats will definitely move modern butts, but should also appeal to Hip-Hop purists and older listeners. Although the group hails from Atlanta, SBA don't get bogged down with that Southern sound. It's six members are intelligent, versatile rappers, who can be witty without being profane, gritty without being foul, and can make party music without speaking down to their audience or relying on the lowest common denominator. On Brick Records, mostly produced by Raydar Ellis.
Short Bus Alumni "Dope Sh!t" - Brick Records (Clean)
Short Bus Alumni "Go Team Go" - Brick Records (Clean)
Short Bus Alumni "Yes We Are" - Brick Records (Clean)
6. Joe Budden-Mood Muzik 3.5 (For Better or Worse). I recognize that Buddens isn't for everyone. He specializes in self-revealing, dark and sometimes depressing stories about his own tragic personal history--sort of like Eminem, but not over the top. You have to get version 3.5 to avoid the shouting DJ.
Still My Hood (Produced By Wyks)-Joe Budden
5. Nas-Untitled/N. Nas steps up, and over, Chuck D. to become the angriest political rapper ever. Couple that with an appearance on Colbert, and you've got a fly album. It's hard to listen to all at once--so much negativity, so little humor--but I have to give respect to an O.G. who is willing to grow in his artistic message and purpose. Even if I don't believe for a minute that he really wanted to name the album "Nigger" but that got nixed by the record company. That whole conflict seemed manufactured. But if it was, I can't think of a nicer way to get advanced publicity. He managed to do it without creating beef!
4. Tanya Morgan-The Bridge EP
The EP in advance of the full-length. Not since Tribe Called Quest's first album have I heard a band so able to mix message with hot beat.
3. C Rayz Walz & Kosha Dillz-Freestyle vs. Written (review).
A new Jewish rapper meets an underground rapper with years of street cred behind him. Give it a chance. It's amazing stuff.
I Love Jews
2. The Clipse Present Re-Up Gang. More of the same, and I'm still not sick of it. Another mixtape about selling drugs and ruling the corners. And the rest of the gang gets better on each mixtape.
1. Foul Mouth Jerk-Streetlight Music. You may not have heard of him before, but underground New Jersey rapper Foul Mouth Jerk began coming up in the 1990s, and his pedigree includes the O.G. crew GFE. He’s done shows with talents like Talib, Mos Def, and Run-DMC. He’s even recorded with the Atomic Dog himself, George Clinton. And he just released his fourth solo record, titled “Streetlight Music.” So why don’t you know who he is?
The reason may be that he’s stayed true to the underground ethic of hip hop, grinding and playing clubs, which may be why folks like Murs and Grandmaster Caz (from Cold Crush Brothers) agreed to appear on the record. It’s got that late ‘90s underground feel: Smart lyrics, scratches, samples from BDP (and plenty of other old school legends), and simple beats that stress swing over hook. The single, “Small Town USA,” featuring Masta Ace, is extraordinary. But so are tracks like “NJ Transit,”
featuring El Da Sensai of The Artifacts, and “Tryin’ To Eat,” a coming-up-on-the-scene cut. The verses are the kind of tracks you need hear over and over, because the lines are complex enough that you can’t catch them on the first or second listen. He’s witty, deep, and innovative. On being poor, he says he’s got “a broken computer/with so many viruses/it can’t even tell what time it is.” After noting that “drug dealers are people, too,” he tells of a junkie who “quit f-ing with that LSD and ecstasy/ever since they raised the penalty/it ain’t worth the energy.” And on the political track “The Decider,” he simply samples George W. and lets the man speak for himself. Not too many rappers have a dis track for the President. But more should.
FMJ just dropped one of the most interesting hip hop albums of the oh-eight. Check it out.