Technically, top lists of the past year get something like a 10-day deadline in to the new year before the law says you just can’t publish them anymore. So I thought I’d sneak this one in under the radar while time still allows me. These are not necessarily the best albums of 2009, but they are definitely the albums I enjoyed last year, all of which came out last year. Probably for the first time in my life, hip hop and rap have dominated my personal list over my usual tastes, which tend to lie in rock and pop-rock. What can I say; it was simply not a great year for the latter.
1) Troubadour – K’naan:
What can be said about one of the best hip hop albums ever made? Well that’s my opinion at least. From a guy whose childhood unfolded on the warring streets of Mogadishu, K’naan probably has more street-cred than anyone out there in the rap game. Coming to Canada as a refugee and learning English through hip hop and rap songs, it is almost impossible to seperate K’naan’s life story from his music – a story that is immersed deeply in every one of his songs, especially in Troubadour. From the crowd-pleasing “T.I.A.” (short for This is Africa) – a track that has him putting every rapper in their place with a line like “you real, but my ‘real’ is ten-fold”, to the beautifully-woven elegy “Fatima”, about an unrequited childhood love, lost somewhere in warn-torn Somalia – K’naan is sure to remind every listener of where he comes from and how is lyrics emerge from memories rather than fanfare. The self-named Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan’s flow is unstoppable on tracks like the indulgent but politically-conscience “I Come Prepared”, spitting out lines like “Africans love them some B.I.G. but Tupac is official HNIC, and my job is to write just what I see, so a visual stenographer is what I be”. But K’naan is most politically-charged on “Somalia”, an ode to his home country where he asks “So what you know bout the pirates terrorizin’ the ocean?/To never know a simple day without a big commotion/It canâ€™t be healthy just to live with a such steep emotion/And when I try and sleep, I see coffins closin'”
The song “Take A Minute” is likely the highlight of Troubadour, where K’naan reflects unmercifully on his past and his learning to give unconditionally, drawing inspiration from the likes of Mandela and Ghandi – “How did Mandela get the will to surpass the every day, when injustice had’em caged and locked in every way?” – as well as his mother, with tear-jerking potent lines like “Mother thinks it’ll lift the stress of Babylon/Mother knows/My mother she suffered blows/I don’t know how we survived such violent episodes”. Needless to say, Troubadour is a powerful tour-de-force for anyone who appreciates what hip hop is truly about.
2) Battle Studies – John Mayer:
One of my favorite albums of the year came out very late in the year. Mayer is arguably one of the best guitarists out there and his shift from mainstream pop witnessed on his first two albums, to a more blues-rock sound provided spectacular results in his career with the emergance of “Continuum” that saw beautiful tracks like “Gravity”, “Stop this Train” and “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”. Now, Mayer shifts his focus to a more introspective concept album that revolves around heartbreak. If it’s any measure, half the songs ever produced in world history are about heartbreak, including Mozart’s greatest hits. But Mayer puts together an album that is a gradual journey from the bad to the good. It’s most notable tracks may be singles like the U2 sounding “Heartbreak Warfare”, where he sings album-defining lyrics like “clouds of sulphur everywhere/bombs are falling everywhere/its heartbreak warfare” – as well as the carefree lead single “Who Says”. But Mayer’s most daring musical moves come on songs like the dark “Assassins” or the introspective “War of my Life”, the latter of which is a little closer to Mayer’s comfort zone. “Do You Know Me”, a song that plays a beautiful spanish riff on a classical guitar may very well be one of the best tracks to close an album with on a more optimistic note.
3) Rated R – Rihanna:
It’s not easy to survive a case of abuse that is made so public and to go on and create an album that ignores it. Instead, Rihanna does the exact opposite and take on her personal life and her public stint with abuse (from a guy who released an album right around the same time Rated R came out, talk about bad marketing). She takes a left turn somewhere and goes dark, dark and darker. Not just lyrically, but musically – you always know a song is dark when an electric guitar simmers viciously in the background of most of the songs. “Russian Roulette”, the lead single, is a definite nod to her personal life and is just as dark as similar tracks on the album, including “Stupid in Love” and “Cold Case Love”. Rihanna’s most uplifting songs, melodically-speaking, are arguably “Fire Bomb”, an angry track with a sweeping chorus that soar above an addictive guitar riff. She gets reminiscent on “Photographs” but experimental with carribean beats on “Te Amo”. Without a doubt, it’s a dark album that begs to be listened to, several times over.
4) The Ecstatic – Mos Def:
The mighty Mos Def returns with one of the best albums of 2009 in my opinion. Hip hop has never sounded better and more fluid than on this Brooklyn-proud rapper’s album, The Ecstatic. Like all his other albums, Mos Def starts it off with the standard Islamic call Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, and follows it with Malcolm X’s famed 1964 speech to students at Oxford University. It sets a tone that kicks off the first track, the furious “Supermagic”. But Mos Def shows his teeth on the unstoppable “Quiet Dog Bite Hard”, where he rhymes over driving clapping “There it go like simple the plainness/The prominent bassness/Zulu arrangement/Rockin’ amazement/Fly gold, radiating from heaven to pavement”. Then comes the powerful narratives of “Life in Marverlous Times”, where Mos recalls his past and his present, forging unforgettable lines like “we are alive in amazing times/delicate hearts, diabolical minds/revelations, hatred, love and war/and more and more and more and more/and more of less than ever before/it’s just too much more for your mind to absorb”. True. There are times when The Ecstatic is a bit too much more for one’s mind to absorb from a poetic mind like Mos Def’s. But the whole album is a reminder to the listener that no matter what is happening in the world today, one thing remains true: we are living in marvelous and far from boring times.
5) Relapse – Eminem:
He went away for a long time and came back fully-loaded just to remind everyone that regardless what one might think of him, he will likely go down in the history books as one of the greatest rappers. Relapse is Eminem’s rehab album, recounting lyrical content that includes his prescription drug abuse, his alter-ego’s (Slim Shady) fascination with serial-killing, rape, incest, child-abuse and other family-friendly topics. At times, Eminem is silly and even formulaic in his constant celebrity mocking (“We Made You”) and the targeting of people like Mariah Carey and Nick Canon on “Bagpipes from Baghdad” and, of course, Christopher Reeves on “Medicine Ball”. But regardless of the content, tracks like “Stay Wide Awake”, “3 am” and “Hello” are undeniable reminders of Eminem’s rapping skills, while tracks like “Beautiful” are eloquent reflections of the self. In the end, Eminem gets credit not only for his skills, but for delivering an incredibly honest album that targets one person in particular: himself.
6) Cradlesong – Rob Thomas:
It’s not an album that’s made a lot of “best of 2009” lists out there, but what Matchbox 20 famed frontman Rob Thomas creates here is a killer pop rock album. There are no flirtations with latin music as experienced with his overly-popular Santana tune, “Smooth” – this album sets out to produce nothing less than hard-hitting songs that sound very familiar, yet entirely new. On the crowd-pleaser “Her Diamonds”, Thomas sings about his wife’s life-long illness in one of the most radio-friendly pop-rock songs written in years, and follows it with the sweeping-chorus of “Mockingbird” where he sings lines like “You and me tried everything/But still that mocking bird wont sing/Well man this life seems hard enough/Well maybe we aint meant for this love” . Meanwhile, “Someday”, “Gasoline” and even the title-track “Cradlesong”, are mainstream drops from mainstream heaven. And that is perhaps what’s so great about this album, it screams mainstream, and then shrugs its shoulders and says, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that sometimes. True.
Notable Mentions: This is War by 30 Seconds To Mars, Manners by Passion Pitt, The Blueprint III by Jay Z, No Line on the Horizon by U2, Ellipse by Imogen Heap
Thomas’ Cradlesong was one of the most underrated records of the year. Pop/rock perfection from the opener to the closing song, there’s not a track that I skip. How he got skipped over at the Grammy Award nominations absolutely baffles me.