Right off the bat let me tell you my top ten is more than just ten albums. No, it’s not because I don’t know how to count, it’s because this was an incredible year for hip-hop, and music in general, and I thought it only right to shout out at least a few extras. Yeah yeah, I know, it’s a recession, you can’t buy everything. That’s cool, but it’s always nice to have more options, right? With that in mind here are a few albums there were great, but didn’t quite make my top ten. They’re the NCAA bubble teams who’s fans totally have legit arguments for being in the tourney even though they were the last one’s bumped from the bracket.
Apathy – Honkey Kong
Del The Funky Homosapien – Golden Era
Now on to the top ten, which is actually a top 11, but that will be explained later. BONUS – you can download my #1 album for FREE.
10) PremRock & Willie Green – PremRock & Willie Green
PremRock has always had one of the most incredible voices in NYC’s hip-hop scene, and Willie Green has always been one of the best producers in that same scene, so it only made sense that eventually they’d work together. The fact that they created an entire album together is something hip-hop fans should be thankful for. A fantastic, true school, hip-hop album, PremRock and Willie Green’s self-titled project falls under the heading of a “definition” album. By that I mean if someone ever asked you what good hip-hop sounds like you could play it and it would define it for them. The only thing better than hearing this album is seeing them perform it live. If you get a chance to, do it!
9) Notar – Devil’s Playground
When you mix hip-hop and rock together you sometimes get a horrific mess that makes 3OH!3 sound like Beethoven. When it’s done correctly, however, you get an artist like Notar, who seamlessly weaves the two genres together on his full length debut, Devil’s Playground. I think the real key to the entire thing is that Notar doesn’t let one definition of “rock” dominate the album. There are high energy songs, but also slower, ballad-like tracks. The ebb and flow creates a much better listening experience than if he had just used one form of rock. Rhyme-wise Notar is incredibly on point. He honed his skills in some of NYC’s toughest freestyle spots and it definitely shows. This is one Devil’s Playground you’ll want to play in.
8) Theophilus London – Timez Are Weird These Days
It’s hard to admit this, but Theophilus London is one case where the hipsters got it right. Dude is just dope. London has a great flow, and his sound is a really cool mix of hip-hop, dance, and soul. There’s also an 80s pop influence in his work. I actually thought he was a European artist the first time I heard him. Maybe his last name had something to do with it, but I think the decidedly Euro feel to his music also led me to that false conclusion. This should tell you a lot about his vibe – he’s not hung up on traditional American genre categorizations. Timez Are Weird These Days is a fun, funky ride worth taking.
7) Sketch Tha Cataclysm – IRDIFGM 2
I’ve been a fan of Sketch Tha Cataclysm’s work for quite a while now and I have to say, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his previous albums, Indie Rappers Do It For Gas Money 2 is a huge step for him. The musicality is on another level and many of the songs have potential crossover appeal. I’m not saying they aren’t decidedly hip-hop, just that songs like “Re-Introductions Aren’t Necessary But Fuck It,” “Love Is,” and even “Get Over You” could reach a wider audience. Remember how The Fugees’ Blunted on Reality had “Mona Lisa” and “Vocab” to attract those who might not realize they like hip-hop? You have that vibe with this album. It can easily be a gateway album. By the time folks will have gotten to “IRDIFGM” at track nine it will have made them a fan of hip-hop and Sketch.
6) Everlast – Songs of the Ungrateful Living
Everlast has created his own unique position in the music world as the guy who can croon throaty, political, blues songs as a solo artist, and cocaine fueled raps as a member of La Coka Nostra. Both are fantastic projects. This year’s blues release, Songs of the Ungrateful Living, features Everlast at his best. After criticizing then president George Bush on 2008’s Love, War and the Ghost of Whitey Ford, Songs of the Ungrateful Living sees Everlast taking a few shots as president Obama. The most in your face being “I voted for some change and it’s kinda strange / now it’s all I got in my pocket.” As a whole this is a fantastic storytelling album based in the present day as Everlast, who once ordered us to “Jump Around,” has become the unlikeliest of generational griots.
5) Us3 – Lie, Cheat & Steal
A lot of people thought Us3 disappeared off the face of the earth after their 1993 smash Hand on the Torch. The only disappearance they made, however, was from the US airwaves. They’ve been pumping out great albums, eight of them, in fact, over the past 18 years. Their eighth, this year’s Lie, Cheat & Steal, features Us3 mastermind Geoff Wilkinson laying down some fantastically funky/jazzy beats for emcees Oveous Maximus and Akala to rhyme over. The result is a soundtrack to the revolution that’s currently going on in the streets of London, on Wall Street, and all over America. Thought provoking, and toe tapping, Lie, Cheat & Steal is the kind of hip-hop album that’s a throwback to when the music could make your body move while the lyrics simultaneously made you think. It’s something very few can accomplish, but Us3 did to perfection with this.
4) Jonny October – The Wheelhouse
Jonny October came out of nowhere for me, which is odd since he currently resides in Brooklyn and I work with A LOT of Brooklyn emcees. I first saw J.O. a handful of months ago at a show in Connecticut. I dug his performance, but I didn’t realize how much I dug it until I saw him perform at the same spot again a few months later. The music was still familiar to me, and it felt really good. To create that kind of connection with only one listen is really impressive. Jonny October is a storyteller and The Wheelhouse showcases that ability perfectly. Throw in the fact that he has production by J.J. Brown and guest appearances by the likes of Louis Logic and Homeboy Sandman, and all signs point to Jonny October being something special, which he is. When you look at him you may not instantly think “emcee,” but once you’ve heard him you’ll probably be like me and wonder why you hadn’t heard of him before.
3) Astronautalis – This Is Our Science
Much like Everlast is an emcee who doesn’t necessarily rap all the time, Astronautalis is a hip-hop artist who raps far more on stage than he does on his albums. That being said, with This Is Our Science Astronautalis has finally captured the frantic energy of his live shows on CD. Effectively mixing the melodic and the manic, This Is Our Science is an album that showcases what hip-hop can do when boundaries are stretched by a really talented artist. Sure, some purists will say he’s singing a lot of the time, but as he’ll point out, the lyrics are still structured in hip-hop rhyme form. In other words, it’s a hip-hop album that even non-hip-hop heads can enjoy. At times even throatier and bluesier than Everlast, Astronautalis finds ways to aim for, and hit, the heart or jugular depending on which song you’re listening to. Heck, he’s so talented he even has the ability to hit both at the same time.
2) IamOMNI (w/ Tricky) – IAMOMNI
When you put a dope rapper with one of trip-hop’s greatest innovators you’re going to get one of two things – an unlistenable mess, or a sonic orgy of greatness. With IAMOMNI we get the latter, as producer Tricky masterfully crafted beats that allow the poignant lyrics of IamOMNI (formerly Omni) to shine, and then build to the breaks where the beats shine on their own. In an extreme rarity, both artists end up stealing the show at the same time. Lyrically, IamOmni is at his thought provoking and empowering best on IAMOMNI, and musically Tricky maintains the level of excellence we’ve all come to expect from him. I had no idea this full on collaborative effort was going to happen until it arrived in my mailbox, but I can tell you this, it’s been in rotation ever since the day it arrived. In an era when few artists understand how to be both unique AND dope, IamOMNI and Tricky manage to walk on that thin line as if it was the size of a six lane highway.
1-A) Dessa – Castor, The Twin
I’m beginning to feel like a broken record when talking about Dessa. The owner of last year’s #1 album on this list (A Badly Broken Code), she really is one of my favorite artists. Dessa’s latest, Castor, The Twin, is a re-imagining of her previous work. The album features lyrics fans have heard before, but the music accompanying those lyrics has been completely reworked with all new compositions and live musicians. With the reworking of the music came some major changes to the way Dessa delivers her lyrics. Some songs have been slowed down, some include more singing, but all of them are f*cking fantastic. I almost didn’t put this album on the list because the lyrical content isn’t new, but the music is so vastly different, and it’s so damned good, it would have been wrong to shut it out. Even if you own A Badly Broken Code, Castor, The Twin is totally worth the investment. This is Dessa we’re talking about here. She might very well be the most talented artist in not just hip-hop, but music, today.
1) Toussaint Morrison – Toussaint Morrison Is Not My Homeboy
It’s very rare that I hear a hip-hop artist that I feel makes hip-hop for me. I hear plenty that make fantastic hip-hop music that I enjoy, but to affect me on a personal level is rare. Toussaint Morrison managed to do that with Toussaint Morrison Is Not My Homeboy. From the first moment I heard the album’s opening song, “Chrysler 300,” there was an honesty and relatability that instantly drew me in. Combine that with Morrison’s killer flow, fantastic lyricism, metric ton of pop and fringe culture references, and dope beat selection (it’s technically a mixtape), and I knew I was listening to a winner. It was the same kind of feeling I had the first time I spun Tech N9ne’s Absolute Power. I hit repeat after the first play. Will this album hold up as well as some of the other albums on this list? I have no idea, but I know this, it gave me an amazing feeling of discovering something awesome the first time I heard it, and that’s something that makes an album truly unforgettable.