Since it’s the long weekend and people will be reflecting, as well as pondering the few summer weeks we’ve got left, it’s a good time to proffer my choices for the 10 best albums of the year so far. I blurbed the first five, and offer links and clips for the bottom five, lest this turn into a 3,000 word post, but if you want more opinions (as if there were a shortage!), hit me up on Twitter. On with the show…
1. A$AP Rocky – Long Live A$AP (Columbia)
The moment when â€œtrapâ€ became a thing was bewildering. Being a person who is not young, I remember the sniffy attitudes critics took toward the instrumental hip-hop coming out on Ninja Tune and Mo Wax back in the day. A lot of that stuff has held up about as well as the rest of what was being played on college radio, which is to say it hasnâ€™t (Pizzicato Five, where are you). Trap is basically the same thing â€“ a deracinated, feeble imitation defined by what it can never be â€“ and quite a lot of it will be forgotten. Strike the alt-hop thing from the history books, though, and we wouldnâ€™t have DJ Shadowâ€™s Endtroducing or Dr. Octagonâ€™s Octagonecologist, two of the most inspired albums of the 90s. And while Iâ€™m sure the time is not long before woozy, cotton-swab-muffled ambient sounds and skittering hi hats make me want to put a pillow over my face, Long Live A$AP is the disc that will be my â€œyeah, but what aboutâ€ exception to the rule.
What I love about A$AP Rocky, first and foremost, is that his persona is a kind of hyper-aggressive, hyper defensive stance designed to scare you worse than the average thug does (thereâ€™s no storytelling or boasts of arms-length mafia style hits, heâ€™s going to kill you and your family â€“ “hit yo children with that Smith an…”) while simultaneously daring you to call him on his arguably effeminate displays (â€œI be that pretty motherfucker,â€ one of about a dozen boasts about his looks and his fashion sense; thereâ€™s also his drug dependence issues, breaking the dealers-versus-fiends dichotomy). Thereâ€™s never any question of whether heâ€™s vicious enough, though. Amorality and narcissistic disconnection are his trump cards, the tattoo across his chest saying heâ€™s got nothing to lose. The way he spits is its own kind of threat â€“ other rappers make a point of sounding laid back and magisterial, but Rocky is all about the bark. “My whip white but my top black / and my bitch white but my cock black” is as aggressive as one of Jay’s best put-downs, and delivered with a syncopated flow that makes you linger over every consonant. We can hear it; all of him is consistent, and sharp; an ice pick aimed at your ribcage and a forceful grip on your girl.
As a pure lyricist, heâ€™s no Nas. Heâ€™s more of a Pimp C, full of caustic wit and contempt, his diction as much a part of his appeal as his wordplay. Some critics find that leaves his record sounding thin, but personally, Iâ€™ll take a great actor over a decent poet any day. And if he is an actor, heâ€™s a damn convincing one. If he ainâ€™t smoother and scarier than Vincent Price, heâ€™s the closest one.
2. Jeremiah Jae and Oliver the 2nd – RawHyde (Bandcamp, click here to buy)
Built on dialogue samples from the old wild west TV show, Rawhyde is less of a concept album than a platform for Jeremiah Jae and Oliver 2nd to sling some rock-hard tough guy rhymes. The MCs compliment each other nicely; Oliver’s a nice battle rapper who makes the most of the concept (“I’m Wyatt Earp, twistin wild purp”) while Jeremiah Jae is his spaced-out comrade in arms. Even when mostly just sticking to the script, Jae’s rhymes are evocative:
The street desolate, the heat present
on the hip of the citizen
Police heist on the bank with your women friend
Rank next to Dillinger
Ace on the cylinders
And the dusty boom-bap beats have a casual, Madlib-esque quality that makes this perfect for just riding around town on whatever steed you choose. Extra points for Jae’s CanCon shout-out: “My shit gravy like poutine.”
3. The-Dream – IV Play (Def Jam/Universal)
“I make love to my girls / I get high with my n******.” That chorus right there is basically The-Dream’s manifesto, and IV Play is evenly split between the kind of stuff you can play when your girl is around, and the kind of stuff you better have headphones for (or jam with your boys in your car). But it works. After briefly veering too far toward The Weeknd / illangelo territory with his 1977 album, IV Play is a bit of an aesthetic retrenchment towards 00s R&B. As an artistic statement, though, IV Play might be his best solo work yet, from the breathless lust of the title track or “Pussy” to the romantic duet with Kelly Rowland “Where Have You Been,” and the unexpected but wholly appreciated blues turn with Gary Clark Jr, “Too Early.”
4. Bitchin Bajas – Krausened (Permanent)
Bitchin Bajas is Cooper Crain of the solid four-piece Cave and Dan Quinlivan of the criminally underrated Mahjongg, and they have a new album, Bitchitronics. I’ve only listened to it once but so far, so excellent; that said, I doubt that drone-oriented LP isÂ going to supplant this more obviously Krautrock-influenced EP, Krausened. That’s not a slam; I can certainly understand why a band wouldn’t want to remake the same thing, and it’s pretty hard to vary the motorik beat-plus-floaty-keyboard template that Neu pioneered. The amazing thing about Krausened is that Crain and Quinlivan nail the template while still making it their own. Sure, that’s the “Hallogallo” drum pattern the drum machine is playing, but there’s also a cheeky bossa nova rhythm going on, while the synths shimmer kaleidoscopically in the background. And it’s telling that, when the beat comes in or drops out, it’s not as though the track gets any less hypnotic. Maybe Bitchitronics will get on this list after I’ve let it sink in, but for the moment Krausened is Bitchin Bajas’ most intense, deftly controlled and mesmerizing achievement.
5. Justin Timberlake – 20/20 Experience (RCA/Sony)
I haven’t thoroughly checked out the Robin Thicke disc either, though Blurred Lines is much more chart ready than anything on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. I doubt, however, that Thicke’s album is as ambitious as JT’s, or as successful in its aims, whatever the critics are saying. 20/20’s not a jaw-dropper the way Justifed was, nor does it have the hit potential of FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s definitely more defined by risk-taking. There’s no SexyBack Part Deux here, just a bunch of soulful extended jams â€“ none of them shorter than 4:39 â€“ with a real disco-era Motown/Tamla vibe. There’s Smokey here, a little Eddie Kendricks, some even more discotastic MJ than even “Rock Your Body”, a smidge of Shuggie Otis perhaps. But tunes like the gloriously slick “Spaceship Coupe” or the grown-up horn hits of “Suit and Tie,” to me, bring to mind Marvin Gaye circa Midnight Love, an album whose time has come. 20/20 plays around with all kinds of sounds that few other artists would touch, mostly because they’d be afraid to make something so radio-unfriendly, even something as funky as this. It’s the record I would not have expected or even hoped for JT to make, and a sweeter surprise for it.
6. Jay-Z – Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc Nation/Universal)
7. Matias Aguayo – The Visitor (Comeme)
8. A Tribe Called Red – Nation II Nation (Tribal Rhythms)
9. VA: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 (Night Slugs)
10. Kobo Town – Jumbie In The Jukebox (Cumbancha)