Alex Sheremet’s Top 10 Albums
I’m listing these in no particular order. I suspect my list will be a bit different than others’ – there’s a lot of apparently great material I didn’t get a chance to listen to this year. But, then again, I did (apparently) listen to what counts: the good stuff, with a handful of surprises.

1. Vast Aire – Dueces Wild

Although this list is in no particular order, Vast Aire tops the list, for emphasis. I suspect he’s been underrated – you know, above-average reviews for something that turned out to be, at least in my view, quite good. He’s witty, plays with different styles, and runs against some excellent production throughout. “The Dynamic Duo,” “Back 2 Basics,” “Shu,” and “The Man Without Fear” – the last being strangely ambiguous – are highlights for the above reasons.

2. Q-Tip – The Renaissance

It’s like “Kamaal the Abstract,” only better, if not musically, then rap-wise. Q-Tip doesn’t seem to age, physically, or artistically – he changes, but is never outdated. Most rappers have a 2-3 year shelf life in terms of quality; Q-Tip hasn’t lost much in about two decades, though. Moreover, “The Renaissance” offers a lot of stylistic variety – just see the difference between “Move,” and the title track. Art, via technical strength, and conceptual breadth!

3. Elzhi – The Preface

I hadn’t heard of this release until recently. “The Preface” is only one of Elzhi’s (premature) claims for greatness – the less ‘official’ stuff is often just as good. The production features nice samples, witty lyrics, and all-around good ideas. Elzhi has mastered both battle rhymes and conceptual material, which is rare, and is versatile in every respect. No platitudes, either.

4. Deerhunter – Microcastle

If anyone hasn’t seen a copy of the magazine, “Under the Radar,” now is the time – they feature in-depth reviews of and interviews with good indie bands, as above. “Microcastle” is part indie, part trip pop, with some innovative (and formulaic) instrumental combos, with – as good art should be – rewarding multiple listens. Just check the Beatles-esque vocals on “Twilight at Carbon Lake,” or the unexpectedness of “Nothing Ever Happened.”

5. Portishead – Third

The more I listen to Portishead, the more I see where Joanna Newsom gets her vocal style from. Anyway, after 10 years, “Third” is a good way to come back. “Machine Gun” is an especially eerie feast, and one of the best tracks Portishead ever made – muffled, muddy vocals against some lo-fi drums and metallic bangs, a creative arrangement that turns out well. But, I doubt you can get the Jimi Hendrix reference out of your head. “Third” is pretty damn consistent.

6. C.R.A.C. Knuckles – The Piece Talks

Ahh, Blu from “Below the Heavens” – often, the rapping isn’t as good (and, at places, isn’t as average!), but the production suits Blu easily. Check “Love Don’t,” which noisily zooms against Blu’s voice, or the old-school feel of “Buy Me Lunch.” But, at least it retains something different.. some of the stuff here is decidedly NOT hip-hop, or, perhaps, hip-hop-like, but Blu & Ta’raach (his partner) can navigate whatever style pretty well.

7. Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP

Don’t you love folk rock? “Sun Giant EP” is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time, along with Joanna Newsom and some older stuff from Eastern Europe, the latter via Stalin-era bootlegs and once-illicit videos, thrown on Youtube.. “White Winter Hymnal” has that winter feel, without degenerating to bathos – a gentle guitar, and some seemingly ‘inappropriate’ (wrong!) instrumentation near the middle, which contributes to the strangeness. On whatever song, the vocals overlap, run against some great compositions, and fulfill any melody-lover’s needs.

8. Man Man – Rabbit Habits

I guess melody is big in 2008 – here, it’s even more attractive than some of the stuff on “Sun Giant EP,” above. “Rabbit Habits” has some rough vocals, aptly thrown against an understated piano, and a slightly grating trumpet. “Whalebones” is folksy, jazzy, humorous, and melancholy – but, no melody is sacrificed. A very tightly-made album, and certainly one of the most enjoyable – if not necessarily best – things I’ve heard all year.

9. Delta Spirit – Ode to Sunshine

“Trashcan” starts rough. It moves to pure pop. “Streetwalker,” one of the best songs here, does this, too. A pattern? Perhaps, but that’s a good thing – Delta Spirit knows how to control different styles, while keeping it in the realm of melodious pop. But, unlike a lot of the stuff on this list, it’s not uniformly good.

10. GZA – Pro Tools

Actually I don’t think GZA is a great rapper, or as good most people seem to think. I think he can be monotonous, uninteresting, and not even witty. Sometimes. On the other hand, his production is usually great, and we have albums like “Pro Tools,” where he’s not even trying to do much else but vocal monotony, yet strangely manages to make it quite good. Just look at “0% Finance,” whose monotony – and occasional detours – makes sense. “Paper Plates” is an inadequate 50 Cent diss, but adds a nice symbolic touch.