It’s the end of the year, and as you peruse the RapReviews staff’s year end top ten lists I’m going to give you exactly what you expect from me – a mix of the underground and the obscure. You’re not going to find the usual suspects that litter most year end lists here (although Homeboy Sandman qualifies as a “usual suspect” for my list since this will be the third year in a row he’s graced it), but you ARE going to find a host of talented artists that may have flown under your radar in 2010 that definitely deserve your listening time. With that being said, here are my top ten hip-hop albums of 2010.

10) Side Effect – Cabin Fever

I like when my people put me on to artists and Side Effect is someone my Philly contingent was really high on, so I gave him a listen. From the first track on Cabin Fever I was hooked. Side Effect is a straight spitter. Playing no games with his music, whether he’s bragging or telling a story, he catches the beat and destroys it every time. Side Effect is an artist, and Cabin Fever is an album, for hip-hop fans who remember when lyricism was an art form. He also has some production that’s neck snap worthy, making Cabin Fever one of my favorites of 2010.

9) Zion I – Atomic Clock

Zion I have been a prominent name in underground hip-hop since the late 90s. Their 2010 release, Atomic Clock, is their best effort yet. A soulful hip-hop album that put me in the same kind of state of mind I used to be in while covering shows at the old Knitting Factory in NYC, Atomic Clock is hip-hop for people who love hip-hop. You can feel the “Golden Era” influence, but it’s by no means the hackneyed copycat wannabe type of music that we’re become accustomed to from artists who attempt to channel the “Golden Era.” In fact, I’m not even sure Zion I are trying to channel it, they just have that vibe naturally, which is what makes Atomic Clock so authentic and great.

8) Foul Mouth Jerk – The Oldest Trick In The Book

Much like the previous two albums listed, Foul Mouth Jerk’s The Oldest Trick In The Book is hip-hop for hip-hop heads. I know we hear a lot of artists and albums described in that way, but in Foul Mouth Jerk’s case, as is the case with the previous two albums, it’s absolutely true. A while back I wondered what happened to rap music; it turns out it’s residing in Asheville, NC. Personally, as a 32 year old who loves the advancement of hip-hop music, but also still spins the classic albums I grew up on and rocked out to in high school and college (92-00), I love how Foul Mouth Jerk combines the best of both of those words with The Oldest Trick In The Book. The album has a classic rap feel to it, yet doesn’t sound dated. He can switch up from rapping about cyphers, to rapping about the stories of the people sitting next to him, all the while making you feel what he’s saying. When I’m in the mood for what I call traditional rap music, The Oldest Trick In The Book fits the bill.

7) Billy Drease Williams – Good Morning Amy

When artists attempt to make a positive, inspirational, album they usually fail miserably by either coming off preachy, or corny. With Good Morning Amy Billy Drease Williams side-stepped those musical land mines to create an album that, at it’s core, is simply great to listen to. I don’t know how anybody else feels, but personally I think it’s nice to have a hip-hop album that you can play in front of anyone that you also respect the lyrical and musical content of. We can’t say that about too many records, but Good Morning Amy is true feel good music that hits the mark every time.

4 – tie) Coole High – Futuristically Speaking

When I say “future hip-hop” some really horrible thoughts may come to mind. Put all those fear away. Coole High’s future hip-hop utilizes his top notch production skills to create a vibe that’s true to Coole’s laid back musical style, but also futuristic without resorting to corny sound effects. I can imagine this is the music that would be playing in the lounges and clubs Judy Jetson sneaks out of her parents house to chill at (you’re welcome for that visual). In addition to his skills behind the boards, Coole is also one heck of a lyricist who can hit you with lines so dope, and so multilayered in meaning, it’s well worth it to take the time to give his work multiple listens to get the full impact of everything he’s saying.

4 – tie) Tah Phrum Duh Bush – Luminous Dark Alleys: The Insomniac Works

Luminous Dark Alleys: The Insomniac Works is less an album and more of a complete immersion into the mind of Tah Phrum Duh Bush. With 15 songs on the CD, 14 original and one remix, and an accompanying 100+ page book which features a chapter dedicated to each song that further explains the inspirations behind them, Tah’s 2010 effort sets the bar for artist revelations. The music of Luminous Dark Alleys: The Insomniac Works is fantastic. Tah has always been lyrically gifted, and with this album he finds a way to have the listener memorize his sometimes complicated choruses after just one listen. “Randomatic Idiosyncratic” is a perfect example of this. The book provides the kind of added insight most artists are either too afraid to reveal, or aren’t adept enough to.

4 – tie) Homeboy Sandman – The Good Sun

It seems every year Homeboy Sandman comes out with a new album and every year you find him on my list. The only difference this year, with national distribution and a stint as a coach on MTV’s Made, is that he’s finally on a lot of other people’s lists, as well. Am I taking a second to pat myself on the back in a “you heard it here first” sort of way? Yes, but at least I’m honest about it. Sandman’s latest, like his previous efforts, shows a nice amount of growth while still being in true Sandman style. At times fully utilizing his quick flow and his quick wit, with songs that require repeat listens to even hope to catch half of what’s going on, to more metered rhymes when he wants to make sure his point gets across, Sandman still does it all. Plus, he’s the only rapper in 2010 that name dropped Marquis Grissom in a song, and for that alone he deserves to make every list (I wonder if MLB Network loves hip-hop?).

3) Lee – Naked

There’s something about Lee’s music that has always spoken to me. I dug The Square Egg, the band he fronted, but his solo work has always had an added personal nature to it that I, the vast majority of the time, completely relate to. Whether he’s discussing the starving artist lifestyle, or his thoughts on love and God, I always find myself saying “amen” to everything he’s talking about. Naked is a double album, and in true Lee form it’s equal parts singing and rapping with a huge band backing him. There’s a lot of heart and soul in Naked, and although I’m going on and on about how much I relate to it personally, I think there’s something on it for everybody. In fact, it may even tap into places you didn’t know you had. I know his music has done that for me.

2) Pigeon John – Dragon Slayer

Pigeon John’s Dragon Slayer is an album that snuck up on me and totally took me by surprise. I expected a good hip-hop album from the LA Symphony veteran, but Dragon Slayer turned out to be a lot more than that. Pigeon John sings for the vast majority of the album, and the vibe has a classic pop/soul feel to it. I know that sounds like a strange combination, but think of a more pop version of Raphael Saadiq’s solo work and you’ll start to get the idea of the feel of Dragon Slayer. As it jumps from deep lyrics to the occasionally humorous joint, Dragon Slayer slayed me from the first spin.

1) Dessa – A Badly Broken Code

I dig every album on this list, but when it comes to #1 nothing was really close to Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code. A Badly Broken Code is one of those albums that has a huge impact the first time you play it, and the impact only becomes greater with each spin. Dessa can sing with the best of them, and spit with the best of them, as well. Always melodic, and aggressive when she needs to be, I feel like A Badly Broken Code is the album everyone wanted Lauryn Hill to make, but she never did (perhaps that’s an unfair comparison since their styles differ, with Dessa being much more poetic, but you catch my drift). Everything about this album will stand the test of time as even right now at the end of 2010 I have it penciled in as one of the best of the decade. If you get the physical version of the album it comes with the lyrics, which is great since Dessa is also a poet.