A friend of mine asked for a hundred, but I wouldn’t want to rob you of my brilliant commentary, so I cut it to 20. Also, most of what I listened to in 2009 came out before 2009. Thoughts on that sometime in the near future. A lot of reading to be done here, so I don’t want to bog you down with more words. Which I’ll do soon anyway. Because I love words. Fuck Kanye, people still like to read. I think. I hope? Just read! (Album covers beneath entries where available)
20. Meridian Sound (Part Three) – Lushlife – A pleasant and borderline beautiful song from a talent worthy of your attention. “Meridian Sound (Part Three)” is a perfect encapsulation of late night life in a city, a light, airy production that approximates the the dream-like feeling of drifting past city lights after a great night. Lushlife’s skills on the boards and on the mic are admirable, adding to the enjoyment. Reminds me more of one of my favorite crooners, Jens Lekman, than anything going on in Hip Hop at the moment.
19. Microphone – Slaughterhouse – Listen, there’s nothing remarkable about this song. The beat is fairly pedestrian, a typical Alchemist on autopilot production. Royce, Budden, and Crooked I all provide serviceable verses. But Joell Ortiz. Oh Joell Ortiz. He eats this one. So “Microphone” is on this list for the line I rewound more times than any other in 2009:
“Too many critics tend to be silly
Too many frogs go ribbit but never leave lillies
I get it poppin like a nine milli
Now I’m havin a whale of a good time, I’ma Free Willy”
Peace to everyone else.
18. Teflon – The Mars Volta – You know what? I can’t really defend my love of the Mars Volta. They’re ridiculous, overwrought, and completely over the top. And those are all the reasons I love them. “Teflon” is one of the less absurd hard rock chimeras from their recent release Octahedron, but that makes it no less exciting. High octane rock that soars with Prog passion, even if its lyrics make no sense.
17. Tight Rope – Brother Ali – Perhaps Ali is the only truly great “conscious” rapper left. “Tight Rope” weaves three tales of the precariousness of identity and the difficulty of having a foot in two worlds over a typically soulful Ant production. Ali seems to truly get inside the mental states of his subjects on “Tight Rope,” in a way typical of authors and not of rappers. His attention to psychological detail lends remarkable depth to a track that warrants repeat listens.
16. Chop It Up – Lil Scrappy – Enjoying Scrappy is about appreciating the slow menace that lies in his flow. It’s the reason he’s so entertainingly threatening on Lil Jon’s “What U Gon Do” (a classic in my opinion, but for some the words “classic” and “Lil Jon” would be like the combination of gasoline and an esophagus…you know, not really a good match). Buoyed by a beat that seems like a dark take on T.I.’s shimmering “What You Know,” Scrappy delivers a convincingly confident performance. It’s nothing original, but it has weight, which is more than can be said of creations by some of Scrappy’s lesser brethren.
15. Imperial – Cunninlynguists ft. Freddie Gibbs – A simple, skeletal banger from the Kentucky boys and one of 09’s hottest talents, Mr. Gibbs. Kno’s organ groove isn’t quite as full and breathtaking as any of the production on Dirty Acres, but it’s definitely funky enough to bore itself into your head. Deacon and Gibbs both come through with dope verses about nothing in particular. Just dope rapping for it’s own sake, a pleasure in and of itself.
14. I Look Good – Chalie Boy – This one’s just a fun feel good jam. Melodic rap at it’s finest over a simple Southern beat. I’m not sure “I Look Good” even requires analysis, it’s about looking good. It’s about enjoying yourself and that’s enough to make this one of my favorite jams of the year. Chalie don’t wanna hurt nobody, he just want’s to groove and get a little love. Songs like this and my love of Yelawolf/G-Side/Rich Boy etc. give me license to flaunt my East Coast bias. Because, at the end of the day, I recognize there’s something undeniable in the way a large portion of the listening population responds to Southern Hip Hop. Oh, and also there’s some dope shit coming from the South. That always helps.
13. Misunderstood – Krizz Kaliko – A fine slice of old school Soul spliced with Midwest fast rap. Kaliko is one of Tech N9ne’s disciples, but his mixture of singing and rapping him places him closer aesthetically to an artist like Mos Def than Tech N9ne. A very entertaining mixture of thick organs and bouncy retro guitars.
12. Guest House – Ghostface ft. Fabolous – Ghost in detailed story-teller mode, further proof that he’s still one of the sharpest in the game. Points off for using a J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League beat that was on Officer Ricky’s Deeper Than Rap, but that was apparently due to a label snafu (something about the label asking Ghost to use the beat). It’s also fine because the beat is dope. Fabolous turns in an unexpectedly dope performance as the Fios cable guy bonin’ Ghost’s wife. An entertaining rap take on the tried and true Ron Isley/R Kelly “oh shit I just caught you with my girl in my gigantic house” formula.
11. Exhibit C – Jay Electronica – In many eyes, should have been #1. Will probably top the lists of most champions of “conscious” rap, whatever that is. This is an event that could have ended up being transcendent, but turns out to just be pretty good. Good enough for repeat listens at least. Just Blaze does his Just Blaze thing and makes a beat that sounds like a Blueprint reject. Jay makes the most of it and does his learned man’s Sean P. It’s not the important moment that it should be, the climate is all wrong–it’s no longer 1999. Make no mistake, my critique only comes because I expected so much after all I’d heard about Jay. Dope turn of the century Hip Hop that’s still better than most of what dropped this year. And of course, there is some method to my madness, because Jay says this: “They call me Jay Electronica…fuck that, call me Jay Elechanukkah, Jay Elecyarmulke, Jay Electramadan” and then a whole bunch of shit that’s too fluid/incomprehensible to transcribe (I believe much of it is in Arabic, and therefore completely incomprehensible to me). But after hearing that it was a wrap, didn’t really matter that the rest of the song wasn’t incredible. Second most rewound segment behind the aforementioned “whale of a good time” line by Joell Ortiz.
10. I Wish – Yelawolf ft. Raekwon – So much digital ink has been spilled in support of Mr. Wolf around these parts, you probably expected him to be #’s 1-20 on this list. “I Wish” is his sole entry. It’s the track that announced him to me as a talent to watch. Rae’s verse is decent, but Wolf provides a succinct road map to his style, detailing life in his native Alabama in his confrontational, image-heavy style.
9. Coochie – BlakRoc ft. ODB & Ludacris – This song would be higher on the list if everything on BlakRoc didn’t sound so god damn the same (the songs aren’t bad, they all just sort of blend into the year’s most exciting set of tracks to listen to while you’re doing something else). Regardless, it’s always nice to hear new ODB material, particularly when it’s actually dope. This is ODB at his insane finest, talking about pussy the only way he knows how (example: “then she thought about it twice and said I could hit it again, and I been waitin for this moment since I got out the pen!” We miss you, Ol’ Dirty). About the only person who talks about gettin ass in a more entertaining manner than ODB happens to join him on the track, as Ludacris rides the Black Keys’ dirty funk groove to perfection. A strange addition next to earnest contributions by Monch, RZA, and Mos Def, but easily the standout track from one of 09’s most pleasantly surprising albums (because if you had told me I’d enjoy an collaboration between Dame Dash and the Black Keys at the beginning of the year, I’m not so certain I’d have believed you).
8. Gazillion Ear – DOOM – All the reasons I love DOOM and Dilla in one convenient location. The bassline is thick and addictive, proof that even from beyond the grave Dilla is still better than most producers (I’ll also let it slide that the Giorgio Moroder sample that forms the middle portion of this beat–the change up–was rocked to much better effect by Outkast, simply because repetition is a small price to pay for such a dope product on the whole). DOOM does his DOOM thing. At this point, if you don’t like him, “Gazillion Ear” won’t change your mind. It will likely reinforce what you already know: that DOOM marries strange images with a flow that teeters on the brink of arrhythmia. And those who love DOOM love the alternation between awkwardness and buttery smoothness with which (seeming) non-sequiturs fly over the beat. Born Like This may not be as spectacular an album as it seemed at first, but “Gazillion Ear” still holds up as one of the year’s best.
7. My Crew – Saigon & Statik Selektah – Just a banger. Another glimpse into why it might just be worth waiting around for a real Saigon album. It’s not that he’s such a spectacular rapper. He’s merely an enticing personality who knows how to ride a beat better than many of his East Coast counterparts. “My Crew” gave me in 2009 what “Stocking Cap” provided me as a senior in high school: good, fun gangsta music that pretends the East never fell from grace and the Surge of the South never happened. So, in other words, my East Coast bias in a nutshell.
6. Bad Habits – Maxwell – Also known as “Pointing Out Why Soul Sucks in 2009.” Maxwell does everything right on this one. The live instrumentation, the sprawling run time (a healthy 5:52), the soaring vocals, and the knowledge that the listener not only has time to hear the band play but we WANT it. This has all the jammy qualities of some of the best late 60s/early 70s soul with a nice clean sheen of 2009 recording technology. And yet through what could have been another wrote ballad bursts the genuine vocals of Maxwell, who elevates the lush background to the highest heights of Neo Soul enjoyment. Like Erykah Badu’s “The Hump” and Foreign Exchange’s “House of Cards,” this makes you wonder why the children of the mid-90s Neo Soul revolution have not made better on the promise of their forebears. “Bad Habits” is a glimpse of what was and what still could be.
5. Wild Young Hearts – The Noisettes – I’m a sucker for revivalist soul and an even bigger sucker for it when it includes guitars and catchy choruses. This one just wouldn’t leave my head, so I couldn’t put it any lower than 5. The rest of The Noisettes’ music is largely pedestrian, a set of fading copies of “Wild Young Hearts.” “Wild Young Hearts” is a copy (not a literal copy, but a doppelgänger of style and ideals) but it’s a damn brilliant, brightly colored copy.
4. Drop – Rich Boy – I’ve written about “Drop” before and I have a gargantuan piece on Rich Boy coming soon. Nothing nastier came about in 09. “Drop” is “A Milli” filtered through Polow da Don’s aesthetic sensibilities, meaning familiar but just different enough. A vaguely middle eastern vocal accompanies the lowest, foulest 808 around and hand claps–all though the 808 boom was probably all that was needed. And Rich Boy snarls his way to victory, sounding more scornful than triumphant when he talks about his fleet of expensive cars. It’s refreshingly dangerous, even if it borders on being utterly ridiculous. But that mammoth flow and nasty drawl keep it all together.
3. House of Flying Daggers – Raekwon ft. GZA, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface, and Method Man – Welcome to Wu Bangas 101. A lesson in classic Wu Tang style. Dilla cooks the bird, the clansmen bring the trimmings. The beat bumps and everyone shines, but Ghostface (as he does on much of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II) steals the show: “I’m an old mummy my gold weigh as much as King Tut”*. It’s not complex, it’s not even particularly original, but it’s like a burger made with Kobe beef by Daniel Boulud. It’s still a burger, but it’s made with the finest quality ingredients by one of the world’s finest chefs. “House of Flying Daggers” is Wu essence cooked to perfection.
2. Slaughter – Me’Shell NdegeOcello – A head scratcher perhaps. Most of you probably don’t know who NdegeOcello is. Your loss. Her album Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape is one of the great overlooked releases of the early 2000s. NdegeOcello always delivers music that is an amalgam of styles and influences and yet entirely her own. “Slaughter” is no different. Starting with a few whispering notes rising from silence, “Slaughter” begins like ethereal lounge music. Stuttering drums and NdegeoCello’s slight vocals temporarily enforce this vision. Then the chorus explodes, as unexpectedly as anything I’ve heard this year, all blaring brass and bass, crashing drums and guitar notes. And all this alternates briefly, slipping off into silence again in 2:38 seconds. It’s utterly original and entirely unforgettable, two things that can’t be said of even the #1 song on this list. There’s a reason for that.
1. 10 Bricks – Raekwon ft. Cappadonna and Ghostface – Raekwon was obviously going to be #1. He’s the only artist on this list who has accounts for more than one entry (and he’s featured on an entry as well). “House of Flying Daggers” was, as mentioned, the stomping return to form Wu fans were afraid wouldn’t be possible on a current Wu Tang release. But “10 Bricks” could stand up to any song, on any Wu Tang album. Period. I’ll argue that one for the next 10 years. “10 Bricks” is a gargantuan, angular banger that inspires captivating performances from Rae, Cappadonna, and Ghost–particularly the latter two. Cappadonna’s verse is serviceable, and probably the best thing he’s done since the original OB4CL. Because Cappa was always a second rate Ghost, serviceable means a pretty good Ghost verse delivered with a different voice. Entertaining non-sequiturs abound. And then there’s Ghostface…Ghost is a different animal on this album altogether, but he sounds wholly possessed on “10 Bricks,” announcing triumphantly that the “Cuban Link dynasty has emerged.” And I believe him. I believe every word of it. Why? Because it’s like a father telling a his five year old son something: the kid listens because it’s his father. These guys are the fathers of much of my Hip Hop fandom and have influenced the way I listen to Hip Hop and music in general. “10 Bricks” was like a hero returning home after we’d all believed him to be dead, it was a joyous surprise that warranted lengthy celebration (in this case, extended plays). Raekwon wasn’t trying to make relevant music, he was trying to recapture the glory his fans so desired, and I’m not sure any other song on OB4CL II accomplishes this goal as “10 Bricks” does. This is food for my soul and so it had to be #1.
Honorable Mention: “Pon de Floor” – Major Lazer – I didn’t listen to this song all that much, but I saw its power in a room full of drunken, half-naked college students. Do not underestimate this one. It will cause damage. A great jam to throw on when the action on the dance floor approaches a fever pitch. Just watch the video and witness the transformative power of “Pon de Floor.” Also be sure to search Youtube for “daggering” videos.
I hope you hated the list. I hope you get mad at me for not including Drake/Wayne/whoever you like that didn’t catch my attention. I hope you write your own lists in the comments. Or on your blog. I’m not even sure why I put this in numerical order. A lot of these could probably be switched. The takeaway is, however, that this list could have been much longer. In many cases these songs serve as surrogates for the albums from which they came. So expect a top albums list soon. Good music still exists!!
*King Tut is referenced twice on OB4CL II, making it a frontrunner in the competition for most unexpected reference used to explain one’s wealth. Next year, show Ramses II some love.