Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2005: Year In Downloading

Ask, Matt, and ye' shall receive. I've actually had this list close to finished for like the last few days now, but for one reason or another (class, work, girlfriend... OK, so like three reasons), I hadn't posted it. Until now. My 15 favorite albums of last year are as follows:

15. Living Legends "Classic" - Being 8 members deep plagues most group albums not released by the Wu-Tang Clan, but the Legends pulled it off well on "Classic" with great chemistry. Each crew member brings their A-game and they all vibe off of each other well, especially Sunspot Jonz, who is otherwise the most difficult of the group to stomach (check his updating of "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight" for proof). "Blast Your Radio" and "Down For Nothin'" are the two brightest examples of why the Legends' reputation has been so strong for so long. The only downside to this album is the synth-heavy production, which is a far cry from the more instrumental sound of their earlier work.

14. Bun B "Trill" - Bun is best known as one-half of UGK, who are best known for their verses on "Big Pimpin'". With partner Pimp C awaiting parole, both dropped solo albums this year. Pimp's was pretty good, but Bun had the advantage of being blessed with bigger-name producers and a huge guest list, considering the number of guest spots Bun himself has made lately. Most of the collabos work well, such as "Get Throwed" f/ Pimp C, Young Jeezy & Jay-Z, "Trill Recognize Trill" f/ Ludacris, and "Pushin'" f/ Scarface & Young Jeezy (dude's popular). And the few that don't work (Jazze Pha, kill yourself) aren't because of Bun, who proves himself as one of the best lyricists out of the ever-growing Southern rap scene; if anything, this album's major weakness is too little Bun. The album's highlight is the 6-minute "The Story", where Bun breaks down the label politics that have plagued UGK's commercial career, hopefully no longer.

13. Zion I "True & Livin'" - Though not as good as 2003's "Deep Water Slang", another strong release from the group, further establishing what is becoming their trademark sound. Tracks like "So Tall" and "The Bay" bring back memories of Arrested Development, the now-defunct hip-hop group, not to be confused with the now-defunct FOX comedy (wow, I guess naming something "Arrested Development" automatically guarantees that it won't last long). Who remembers "Tennessee"? Trick question -- EVERYONE remembers "Tennessee", it was one of the best songs of the '90s. I really didn't say much about Zion I right now, but hey, those that know... know.

12. Little Brother "The Minstrel Show" - Hard to believe that Little Brother is on a major label (Atlantic) considering how little promotion this album got. I'd guess it's due to the title -- I wouldn't expect much of the American public to warm up to an album with a blackface-inspired cover. It's too bad because the title is fairly misleading -- rappers Phonte and Big Pooh don't spend much time criticizing the current state of hip-hop, rather they spend more time presenting themselves as average dudes with above-average MC skills over 9th Wonder's soulful and drum-heavy production. Most of 9th's beats, like "Hiding Place" f/ Elzhi of Slum Village and "Say It Again", work around old vocal loops in the same vein as Pete Rock or Kanye West, and sound just as polished. Plus, he supposedly makes 'em all on Frooty Loops -- let that be an inspiration.

11. Three 6 Mafia "Most Known Unknown" - I could deal Mike Jones the first 20,000 times he shouted his name, but every time since then is killing me. Paul Wall might be the only white MC who doesn't make his race an issue in his music, but he still isn't doing anything original. I don't like either of those guys, but if their sudden popularities help Three 6 Mafia get some recognition, I guess I'll just have to tolerate 'em. Both make guest spots on "Most Known Unknown", as well as Young Buck, 8Ball & MJG, Slim Thug & Project Pat. But the true stars are the unknowns themselves, as DJ Paul & Juicy J's production is solid throughout -- everyone knows about "Stay Fly", and "Poppin' My Collar" and "Don't Violate" bump just as well, and "Half On A Sack" may have the best chorus of the year. Everything lyrically inadequate about this album is made up for with Juicy J's verse on "Roll With It":
"A playa drinkin' 'makers, Maca, cranberry vodka/
Wearin' a mink coat that's furry as Chewbacca/
I seen your main girl and a playa had to stop her/
Her name wasn't Silkk but her face was The Shocker"

10. Lil' Wayne "Tha Carter II" - I didn't really check for the 1st "Carter" last year, but if Lil' Wayne was willing to make a sequel, it must've been something significant. Wayne's style nowadays is much different from the 15-year old who ripped "The Block Is Hot" (classic, by the way) back in '99. The Jay-Z influence is evident in his flow, and the fact that he calls himself "Weezy F. Baby" (Jay went by "William H. Holla" back a few years ago) and has put out 2 "Carter" albums (hmmm, whose last name is that?) should further solidify that. But to Wayne's credit, his lyrics and cleverness ("I see she wearin' them jeans that show her butt crack/My girls can't wear that/Why? That's where mt stash at") keep him from appearing as just another clone. The opener "Tha Mobb" is 5 minutes of non-stop, no-chorus rhyming. Wayne also strays away from the prototypical Southern sound at times, such as on the way-nice, reggae-tinged "Mo Fire".

9. Cage "Hell's Winter" - I was in Downtown last month and heard this album blasting out of the Urban Outfitters on State Street. Not until I heard that would I have ever believed that a Cage album would become the soundtrack to shopping for fake-retro T-shirts and Napolean Dynomite merchandise. Cage's discography includes a song about killing his stepfather, a song about killing himself over an ex, and work on multiple side-project theme albums concerning topics such as porn, crooked cops and PCP, respectively. "Hell's Winter" could be viewed as toned-down compared to Cage's earlier work, but could also be seen as more mature, dark and vivid without being over-the-top. The DJ Shadow-produced "Grand Ol' Party Crash" is for the President Bush-despiser in all of us.

8. Think Differently Music Presents: Wu-Tang Meets The Indie Culture - The idea for this album, to put a bunch of independent MCs from all areas together over Wu-Tang beats (most provided by Wu-Tang affliate Bronze Nazareth), couldn't have been carried out much better. The album's supporting cast is a who's who of the underground scene: Sean Price, Cannibal Ox, Planet Asia, Del, Aesop Rock, J-Live, and Scaramanga just to name a few. The only questionable aspect of this album is the fairly-random combinations of 3 or 4 MCs on some tracks, making for nothing more than just verses over dope beats (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but could be better). When the combinations are more focused, the results have better direction, like "Lyrical Swords" f/ GZA & Ras Kass, and the RZA-produced "Biochemical Equation" f/ RZA & MF Doom.

7. Danger Doom (MF Doom + DJ Danger Mouse) "The Mouse & The Mask" - This was one of the few albums I've bought in a while, and when grabbing it off the shelf and taking it to the register, I couldn't help but feel everyone looking at me, wanting to pull me aside, grab me by the collar and say, "Jesus, man, you still watch cartoons?" That feeling was reaffirmed after my 94-year-old great uncle, God bless him, chastised my older brother on Thanksgiving for staying on an episode of "Family Guy" a little too long while clicking through channels. Well, not only do I watch cartoons, but I sometimes smoke weed while watching 'em, and I buy albums about 'em too. MF Doom continues his string of making good music with anyone nearby, this time with Danger Mouse, who I've grown to like after not really feeling his infamously-illegal "Grey Album". Master Shake's phone calls trying to get on the album are the icing on the cake. If "The Mask" f/ Ghostface is any indication of what Ghost and Doom's collaboration album due out next year will sound like, than I'm extremely happy.

6. Kanye West "Late Registration" - Confidence is a good thing. Whether you're an NBA player, a musician, or a supervisor at a copy shop (these are hypothetical examples, of course), you want to put forth your best effort, strive to be the best, and, to some extent, believe that you are. But there's a fine line between being confident and being gassed, and that line IS Kanye West. Regardless of what he might proclaim in front of a microphone and camera, "Late Registration" is not the best album of the year, mainly because it's not even the best hip-hop album of the year. It's not even the best album of his career. I can appreciate the greatness and award-worthiness of songs like "Roses", "Heard 'Em Say", "We Major" f/ Nas and a few other tracks which would certainly help contribute to album being considered "classic". But if Kanye wants to further back up his claims of being the greatest ever, he needs to be able to have more of his albums to himself (13 credited guest spots over 16 songs, not counting skits or the European-release-only bonus track "We Can Make It Better" f/ Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, Common & Rhymefest, which was better than most of the album), as well as realize that he's not immune to making bad songs. If only there was some way he could lose his voice but not have it prevent him from rapping.

5. DJ Muggs vs. GZA "Grandmasters" - This is the best album released by a Wu-Tang member that doesn't have "Killa(h)" as the second word in his stage name since 1999. The reason is its combining of one producer and one MC. Other recent Wu-Tang albums weren't necessarily lacking because RZA wasn't producing every track, but more so because a bunch of different dudes with different sounds (sometimes very shitty sounds) were producing each track and the album isn't cohesive. Muggs' production is his own twist on the Wu-Tang sound -- little more dramatic, more rock-influenced, but still dark and gritty. GZA, meanwhile, puts forth some of his best shit since "Liquid Swords". Though "Destruction Of A Guard" and "Exploitation Of Mistakes" are throwbacks to the mid-'90s, the best track is "Queen's Gambit", where GZA tells a story by name-dropping every NFL team (I counted 30) over an ill piano loop.

4. Sean Price "Monkey Barz" - One-half of underrated (and probably forgotten about by now) hip-hop duo Heltah Skeltah, Sean Price's solo debut is rugged, raw, dirty, grimey, whatever you want to call it. No glitz and glamour, nothing close to a club hit, not groundbreaking, just tight beats and dope lyrics from start to finish (the only skippable track is the bonus track, which if you skip over, will only end the album earlier). I could talk more about Sean Price, but I don't think I could say anything that this picture doesn't already say times 10.

3. Beanie Sigel "The B. Coming" - Much like Bun B's album, there are a few more guest spots than necessary on here, possibly to attract more sales, or perhaps to fill the gaps on what would be his pre-prison bid album. But Beanie makes the most of the time he allotted, putting forth some of his most personal music to date, letting loose his anxiety and emotions on tracks like "Feel It In The Air" and "Change Gonna Come". And while the guest list is a bit overwhelming, it's well constructed with respectable artists like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Bun B (dude's also popular), Redman, Twista, and, most surprisingly, Brand Nubian, all of whom Beanie shows great chemistry with. "The B. Coming" is an eclectic mix of songs that makes the questionable move of attempting to appeal to many different tastes, but in the end, it actually succeeds.

2. The Game "The Documentary" - Apparently, there's one thing 50 Cent puts ahead of his money, and that's his pride (which is probably worth a few million, anyways). So, when West Coast upstart The Game chose not to become another "G-Unit Toy Soldier" and diss people just because 50 said so, he was tossed from the crew -- DESPITE the fact that Game's album was their best release since "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'", musically and sales-wise. 50's claims of co-writing all of Game's hits and giving up beats for Game to use on "The Documentary" came off as cries for help to compensate the fact that "The Massacre" just wasn't that good; whether or not all that talk is truthful, someone needs credit for this album because it was solid from beginning to end. If Game is able to put together a gold mine of production equal to that of "The Documentary" (Kanye, Dre, Timbaland, Just Blaze, etc.) for follow-up, 50's assistance will prove to be not that important. All of Game's name-dropping was a bit excessive, but his presence as a talented MC was definitely there (i.e. last verse on "No More Fun & Games"). And by the way, now that Tony Yayo's flopped, can someone start printing shirts saying "Imprison Yayo Again"?

1. Common "BE" - The biggest affect the internet has had on music isn't the rampant downloading (rather, that's the biggest advantage), but more so the additional hype an album will get when it has leaked weeks, sometimes months, before its official release. Such was the case w/ Common's album, which I actually waited to hear in the midst of everyone calling it a classic. As a result, I listened through every second waiting for something, ANYTHING, that I could be overly critical about and use to tear the pre-release hype to shreds. That moment never came. For everything that Kanye West has made himself out to be publicly -- pompous, groundbreaking, the greatest, extremely jittery before criticizing our President -- he made a wise choice by keeping his production simple, yet still dope, and not overshadowing Common's lyricism, which had been one of hip-hop's best kept secrets for far too long. So why won't Kanye get off his high horse and campaign for THIS to be "Album Of The Year" -- it's not like he didn't contribute to it, and it's definitely more deserving. Oh, and a tip from past experience: next time you drink too much, end up throwing up, and have trouble passing out, listen to "Faithful". It's like medicine.

Honorable mentions (and a few dishonorable):
-- Edan "Beauty And The Beat" - Very good album -- "nerd-rap" with an old school appreciation. Probably Top 15-worthy, but I was convinced that it came out in 2004 until I finished this list. Basically, I wasn't lazy enough to write up all this shit, but I was lazy enough to change it.
-- The Perceptionists "Black Dialogue" - Solid album, and they rocked it at Coachella. "Memorial Day" is more anti-Bush fun.
-- Pimp C "The Sweet James Jones Stories" - This album has an ill '70-blaxploitation vibe, on some Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye type-shit (check "Young Prostitute", the song or the real thing). Half-way through, it starts to drag and get repetitive. On the bright side, Pimp C's parole was granted last month.
-- Juelz Santana "What The Game's Been Missing" - His improvement shows, but if this really is what the game's been missing, then all the game's been missing is more of what it already has.
-- AZ "A.W.O.L." - The DJ Premier-produced "The Come Up" and "New York" f/ Raekwon & Ghostface stand out, maybe a bit too much.
-- Cormega "The Testament" - This was 'Mega's circa-1995 Def Jam debut that never got released 'til now. The datedness of this album works at times to its advantage at times, but Cormega is such a better MC now than he was back then.
-- Young Jeezy "Thug Motivation 101: Let's Get It" - A few of my favorite songs from this year featured Jeezy on 'em, and while he wasn't the reason why I liked those songs, he didn't keep me from liking 'em either. He raps a bit too slow for someone who's not lyrical at all, but he's tolerable in small doses.
-- Damian Marley "Welcome To Jamrock" - The last name may have a little to do with his popularity, but it's nice for a reggae artist to have made it big in the wake of the reggaeton revolution that just won't go away.
-- 50 Cent "The Massacre" - On his debut, he killed Ja Rule's career, and on his second album, he dropped at least 3 songs which sounded like they were ripped straight from Ja's terrible catalog. No wonder he's taking shots at Nas and Jadakiss on this go-round -- he probably wants to bite off of respectable rappers for his next album. "The Massacre" had some joints, but at 21 songs, it was about 7 too long.
-- Memphis Bleek "534" - So it's pretty much accepted that Bleek is only good for a half-album's worth of good songs, and a half-album's worth of dookie. If only he could put all the good songs at the beginning, so I could find the perfect spot to fall asleep while listening.
-- Young Gunz "Brothers From Another" - Definitely the worst album I actually wanted to hear this year. I didn't really have much expectation for their 2004 debut "Tough Luv", but it was surprisingly nice. That in turn gave me high expectations for "Brothers From Another", which was hot garbage.