Last year, I did a list of 25 albums and probably could have stretched it to 30. There was just that much great music.
This year, not so much. I initially had a list of 20, but it felt like a stretch. So I cut it back to 15 because I really wanted to highlight great albums, not good or decent albums.
Choosing one album out of the four strong albums Smoke E released this year was hard. Each had their own charms, a real testament to Smoke's ability to make them fairly distinguishable projects. But I chose Throwback because it truly is the most complete, clear-eyed album of the four releases. He's dialed back a bit of the sexual innuendo that was on the other albums and he's set out to really make an album that could have been released in the 1990s that is also of the moment. He has succeeded.
Key tracks: New Life, I Ain't Goin Nowhere
Tim'm West is a pioneer of homo hop (gay hip-hop), having co-founded the Deep Dickollective. In Security is his third solo release and it's his most potent, personal work to date. For the most focused dude in the game, the album manages to be even more direct and to-the-point than his previous work. He goes from reflective (Against The Grain and Stutter) to social commentary (Nappy) with ease. Homo hop benefits greatly from an elder statesman who is positive without being didactic or condescending.
Key tracks: Stutter, 3 (featuring Deadlee and Last Offence), Fakery (featuring Tru)
Last Offence has been in the homo hop movement for about two years and already has leaped to the head of the pack with his dexterous, witty flow. Lasto is the kind of guy who redefines how you look at other artists. He's singular, focused, and completely comfortable with his approach to rhymin'. Not For Non-Profit is ostensibly a mixtape (available for free download on Lasto's Myspace page, along with his EP from last year). But it really is an album covering all the usual topics (sex, haters, life, coming out) with the kind of ingenuity that homo hop desperately needs, even elevating the rhymes of all of his guests including Bry'nt and Nano Reyes. Other gay rappers may not be gimmicks, but Lasto makes them sound like they are. He's just that good.
Key tracks: Fresh As I Wanna Be, Rokurboy, They Don't Like Me
Slaughterhouse is a supergroup of largely underappreciated rappers (Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Royce Da 5'9, and Crooked I) who make songs about how dope they are, how no one can fuck with them, and how the game needs them. Luckily, they are pretty dope – particularly Joell Ortiz, who elevates every song here – so the boasts go down lovely. With only a few well chosen cameos (from the likes of Novel and Pharoahe Monche), Slaughterhouse is a lean, insular enterprise designed to work because of the interplay of the four emcees. And it does.
Key tracks: Onslaught2, Microphone
Blackout! 2 manages to be exactly what you wanted and yet, nothing like you expected. It isn't that Meth and Red lack for energy, they just find deeper, funkier grooves with which to display that energy. Both men have entered that place where they are so supremely confident in their place in hip-hop that they just make music for the pure love and fun of it. And luckily, they have never sounded better, particularly Meth who sometime around the release of 4:21…The Day After began to live up to early promise.
Key tracks: A-Yo (featuring Saukrates), Dangerous Mcees, I'm A Dope Nigga, Diz is 4 All My Smokers
Mos Def is the Prince Rogers Nelson of hip-hop, the uncompromising-est of uncompromising emcees. And The Ecstatic is just the latest trip through his wildly eclectic mind. Maybe it's all the fast food hip-hop we've had to suffer through this decade, but The Ecstatic with its brazen mishmash of genres, left-of-center sonic elements, and densely complicated lyricism is getting the kind of response that Mos' older work just never quite got. Maybe it's because The Auditorium is dope and Casa Bey makes you nod your head so hard you get a headache. Actually, I think we just catchin up.
Key tracks: The Auditorium (featuring Slick Rick), Casa Bey, Priority
Russell Taylor is one of those singers who is perhaps too sensitive and in touch with his emotions for the mainstream. Confessional is one of those albums that takes you through the mind and heart of a man for whom love is hard because he loves so damn hard. But Russell is not your typical acoustic-fetishizing soul man, the man can definitely get funky wit his, utilizing electronica-inspired elements more ingeniously than anyone else this year.
Key tracks: Another Life, Way I Feel, The Way It Is
The Art of Noise is a collection of leftover tracks from Raheem DeVaughn's last two studio albums. The funny thing is – nearly every single song on here is better than what was on those albums. And it presents a much sharper picture of the artist that Raheem DeVaughn wants to be – a 21st century urban griot. Evidently, not something that J Records wants to sell to you. Luckily then that Raheem is frustrated enough in the studio system to give us these gems for free.
Key tracks: Cocaine Dreams, Pieces of Clay, Planet Body Rock
Epiphany is ostensibly Chrisette Michele's record label-blessed commercial coming out party. And with Ne-Yo at the helm, it has some of that sheen. But Chrisette doesn't just elevate writer-for-hire material. Writers for hire write for her (something they'd do well to remember working with other artists). As a result, Epiphany really does showcase the fact that Chrisette Michele is a singular vocalist who, if the label stays out of her way, could become one of the great voices of her generation.
Key tracks: Fragile, Mr. Right, Blame It On Me, Epiphany
This collection of unreleased and alternate versions of Jackson 5 material is nothing short of revelatory. Everything here is brilliant and makes you wonder what the hell Motown was thinking. And while Michael is front and center, there are a couple of songs that give Jackie and Jermaine an opportunity to prove what capable vocalists they are as well. Listening to this album really gives you a picture of just how versatile the brothers really were, and also makes you wonder what might have happened had Motown elected to let the brothers be soul men instead of pop progenitors.
Key tracks: Man's Temptation, Butter Cup, I'll Try You'll Try (Maybe We'll All Get By)
With Turn Me Loose, Ledisi's trip into more mainstream R&B with production by the likes of Chucky Thompson and Raphael Saadiq, Ledisi proves that she really can do anything. And the reason for this is that she doesn't try to be a jazz singer who sings R&B, she really does approach each song differently and finds the right vocal approach for her that makes the song work. Ledisi has always been that rare artist who makes you feel how much she enjoys singing. And her love of the craft and respect for each and every producer here is really why the album is such a winner. In this way, the album feels nothing like an experiment or self-indulgence and everything like a bad-ass singer who knows how to let her hair down and have some fun.
Key tracks: Trippin, Love Never Changes, Turn Me Loose
Chico DeBarge's album is the year's most pleasant surprise, a revelation from start to finish. And part of what makes it work is that, yes, Chico exorcises some demons from his past, but without any self-indulgent overly introspective music that you can only enjoy intellectually. Rather he explores addiction as a concept, particularly in relationships and his experiences give him the ability to make keenly perceptive observations about live and love. In other words, he makes great, timeless music. It's the kind of album that makes you wonder why you didn't pay attention to the artist before. Addiction is nothing less than the fulfillment of nearly two decades of promise.
Key tracks: Slick (Addiction), I'm Okay, Oh No, Do My Bad Alone
Devil's Halo finds Meshell exploring the everydayness of pain, love, loss, and isolation. Here she is more interested in how these things occur very naturally and, in the process, she succeeds in getting to the heart of what it means to live and feel. This is an album that is all about texture, each song evoking a very different, very specific emotion or situation with startlingly expressive detail. It is Meshell's most emotionally potent work and will probably fight forever with Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape for status as her greatest work.
Key tracks: Crying In Your Beer, Slaughter, Tie One On, Love You Down
Raekwon has succeeded in exceeding every single fan's expectation for his sequel to the seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Everything that made the first album work is deepened here as Raekwon, at the top of his game, shows track after track that he understands intuitively what this album is supposed to be, both for fans and for his own artistic ends. And the result is the finest hip-hop album of the year and one of the greatest albums of the decade.
Key tracks: House of Flying Daggers (featuring GZA, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah & Method Man), The New Wu (featuring Ghostface Killah and Method Man), Ason Jones, About Me (featuring Busta Rhymes)
Maxwell's album is the finest album of the year because not only is it accomplished and enjoyable for its entire running length, but because it so cannily upends everything you think you know about Maxwell. His observations are keener, his musicality is looser and more assured, and his voice is dirty and rough when it needs to be. In short, Maxwell is becoming more comfortable making whatever is in his head match what he puts on record, becoming a more complete artist of his own design. And we are just along for the ride.
Key tracks: Love You, Pretty Wings, Bad Habits, Phoenix Rise