1. Madvillain: Madvillainy

This album represents two hip-hop geniuses at their innovative best. Madlib’s crate-digging creates some truly magnificent beats like “All Caps” and “Accordion,” and MF Doom’s wordplay is stunning. This is one of those rare albums that is completely unique and creative, which is something that is distinctly lacking in rap music today. “Madvillainy” is the best thing I’ve heard since Ghostface Killah’s “Supreme Clientele” in 2000. I was absolutely blown away.

2. Kanye West: The College Dropout

Kanye’s debut was a reminder of why hip-hop got so popular. Combining pop appeal with witty, amusing rhymes and some really banging beats, “The College Dropout” is a tremendous listen, packed to the top with great singles. Hits like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” eventually got played out by the media, but gems such as “Get ‘Em High” and “The New Workout Plan” are excellent songs in their own right. Where many artists would put filler, Kanye added even more heat. The result was one of the truly great commercial releases in recent memory.

3. Masta Ace: A Long Hot Summer

“A Long Hot Summer” is an exceptional extension of his earlier “Disposable Arts.” The mic follows the former Juice Crew legend throughout a heated summer as he tries to get a record deal. There are several standouts, the most notable of which is the exquisite ode to life “Beautiful.” The most remarkable thing about Masta Ace in 2004 is his hunger. He is still incredibly passionate about rhyming, and it shows on this wonderful release.

4. K-Os: Joyful Rebellion

K-Os, a native of Ontario, delivered a dynamite follow-up to the recent “Exit.” Starting off with the rousing “Emcee Murdah” and never letting up, “Joyful Rebellion” makes excellent use of K-Os’ many talents. Live instruments and an incredibly diverse collection of songs enhance the replay value, but the most important element of this album is K-Os’ voice. He sings and raps his way through the twelve tracks, and every word is heartfelt. His “Love Song” alone makes this one a must.

5. MF Doom: MM Food

While not the journey “Madvillainy” is, “MM..Food” is another great effort from the underground’s favorite emcee. Several classic Doom cuts overshadow the album’s suspect length (15 tracks with four skits). Building on the concept of food, Doom cooked up a marvelous official follow-up to 1999’s “Operation: Doomsday.” A pinch of outside production and guest shots add just enough spice.

6. The Gift of Gab: 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up

In many cases, branching off completely from your group results in disaster in hip-hop. Ask EPMD, the sum is usually greater than its parts. Gift of Gab proves to be the exception, though, as he teamed up with producers Jake One and Vitamin D for a superb record. If anything, Gab outdid his Blackalicious work on the mic with impeccable inflection and rhyme structure. The producers certainly held up their end of the bargain as well. This is a step forward for Gift of Gab, where most would take a step backward.

7. Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album

The savior of the Wu joined Method Man at Def Jam, and his first release was this excellent record. Ghost recruited lesser-known producers again for this effort, and once again they turned in admirable performances on “The Pretty Toney Album.” Ghost’s rhymes are at their imaginative best, and he jumps from shootout to love ode to just plain singing, as seen on “Holla.” The sped-up soul samples are used to perfection on “Save Me Dear.” Ghost moved up to the big-time, but he’s still the same ol’ Ironman.

8. Foreign Exchange: Connected

This album is just plain beautiful. Nicolay’s backdrops are a wonder to behold, in all of their understated glory. Little Brother’s Phonte shares mic duties with many of his Justus League friends, but every song is driven by the jazziness of the beats. “Connected” is a very worthy indirect follow-up to Little Brother’s “The Listening”.

9. De La Soul: The Grind Date

In their 16th year of existence, the True Originality delivered their 7th full-length, and it doesn’t disappoint. Throughout the concise twelve tracks, Pos and Trugoy provide updated versions of their carefree brand of rhyming. The guest list of Flavor Flav, Ghostface, Common, and MF Doom and producers Madlib, Supa Dave West, 9th Wonder, and Jay Dee help the trio out, but “The Grind Date” is distinctly De La Soul.

10. Brother Ali: Champion EP

This nine track EP is essentially an extension of his debut “Shadows on the Sun.” Brother Ali is a superior, versatile emcee, and doesn’t falter here. Ant’s production is similar to the work done on Ali’s debut, so the overall sound isn’t much different. Whenever an EP is this good, it leaves a hint of disappointment when all is said and done, but Ali covers plenty of ground in such a short space.