Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ghostface: Hip Hop Hero

The close of 2006, hip hop's annus horribilis, has been dominated by some pompous outpourings most of which have originated from the New York offices of Def Jam Recordings, most of which have left a bad taste in the mouth.

Jay-Z stalled as the album that was supposed to save hip hop proved a patchy affair, blighted by multi-tracked divas and ill-advised collaborations with celebrity friends. And no one made more noise about so little than Nas.

He arrogantly announced the genre’s demise with “Hip Hop Is Dead” and sat back to watch the ensuing debate clock up priceless publicity. Then, when it came to delivering his case for the defence, his self-satisfied detachment from the art for which he once set the bar let us all down again. Like hip hop’s answer to Sting, Bono or McCartney, we may have to finally accept that he’s never truly coming back.

But the very late arrival of Dennis Coles aka Ghostface Killah's second great LP of 2006 – "More Fish" the title of which misleadingly implied it would be little more than outtakes from the first – proves that great hip hop remains an art requiring total immersion. And total immersion was our reward when we slipped on the headphones. Neither Ghost’s first bonafide classic of 2006, "Fishscale", nor "More Fish" could have been made by MCs sitting behind the top desk at a record label or coldly surveying hip hop from atop a building as Nas claims in “Black Republicans”.

Ghost's hunger this year has been insatiable, exploiting his simultaneous reputation as the holder of the true Wu mantle and the enviable backing of the aforementioned Def Jam Recordings to stake, if not his claim to the commercial recognition he deserves, then at least a legacy cast in stone.

2006, then, was Ghostface’s year, the true saviour of hip hop and proof of its continued vitality and relevance. Let’s hope he stays hungry in 2007.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Top 25 Albums of 2006

Beck – The Information (Polydor)

Finally, Beck Hansen unites the folk/pop art strands of his career with one layered and rewarding record, helmed by producer Nigel Godrich.

Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia)

Likely to top every Dad-rock list going this year, Dylan continues to defy expectations. Whilst Neil Young lapsed into self-parody, his songwriting remained timeless.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Letting Go (Domino)

Announced by one of the year’s finest tracks – “Cursed Sleep” – Will Oldham delivered another great record, beautifully arranged and produced in Iceland by Valgeir Sigurosson.

Booka Shade – Movements (Get Physical)

A unique voice in a sea of sameness, like their contemporaries the German house duo recall primetime acid house but give things a groove that appeals across the board.

Cassy - Panorama Bar 01 (Ostgut)

A dispatch from Hard Wax staffer and Berlin club regular Cassy, this mix soundtracks the club many rate as the best in the world, blending minimalism with deep house.

Cat Power – The Greatest (Matador)

Produced in Memphis with a selection of soul greats and often rather too polite by her usually raw standard, the highpoints are nonetheless some of the finest of her career.

Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (RCA)

As ringtone rap ruled all around them, brothers Pusha T and Malice stripped their rhymes back to an intense and uncompromising core. The Neptunes delivered beats to match.

Comets On Fire – Avatar (Sub Pop)

Figureheads for long-haired psychedelic noisemakers everywhere, the Santa Cruz band provided a focus for the scene as they added new textures and pace to their sound.

Cut Copy - Fabric Live 29 (Fabric)

Artfully pieced together on their computers, Aussie duo Cut Copy’s mix compilation for the Fabric Live series brilliantly summarised the vitality of the indie dancefloor.

Dabrye – Two/Three (Ghostly International)

Detroit’s Tadd Mullinix added MCs like MF Doom to his machine-tooled hip hop with great results and still found time for ace dance projects on sister label, Spectral Sound.

Dudley Perkins – Expressions (Stones Throw)

Once known as MC Declaime, Dudley Perkins’ transformation into a stoned soulman is welcome if he continues to release such effortlessly funky records with producer Madlib.

Ghostface – Fishscale (Def Jam)

The year’s best hip hop LP, this appealed across the board with a list of collaborators including Pete Rock, J Dilla, MF Doom and a cast of the Wu-Tang’s finest.

Hot Chip – The Warning (EMI)

It was definitely Hot Chip’s year in the UK - even if they failed to scoop the Mercury - with “Over And Over” apparently the track with the most repeat plays in our office.

Islands – Return To The Sea (Rough Trade)

Formed from the ashes of Unicorns, Islands kept Arcade Fire fans busy with a wonderfully inventive LP. Carelessly though, they’ve since managed to loose a member.

Isolee – The Western Store (Playhouse)

A compilation of Rajko Muller’s untouchable 12” releases, this proves just how far ahead of his German contemporaries the stripped-down house maestro always was.

J Dilla – Donuts (Stones Throw)

Simply the most soulful dispatch of the year, a life-affirming collection of hip hop instrumentals completed by the late J Dilla from his hospital bed. Timeless.

Joanna Newsom – Ys (Drag City)

It was inevitable that the critics would splutter superlatives but in small doses this ambitious record justifies the hype. One day they’ll call it freak folk’s Astral Weeks.

Spank Rock – YoYoYoYoYo (Big Dada)

Ingeniously channelling the Bmore Bass sound of their hometown Baltimore into a hip hop equal parts Autechre and Young MC, Spank Rock claimed party LP of the year.

Sparklehorse – Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Capitol)

Gorging on Beatles back catalogue and hanging out with Danger Mouse clearly injected pop nous in spades into Mark Linkous’s usual template. The results are wonderful.

Trilok Gurtu – Farakala (Frikyiwa)

Not just our token world music offering, this album produced by Frederic Galliano with musicians in the Malian village of Farakala rides on graceful, weightless grooves.

The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics (Warners)

Damn them! Another fantastic record that mines influences from prog rock to 70s AOR without once loosing its eccentric magic. The live shows are wearing a little thin though.

Thom Yorke – The Eraser (Rough Trade)

A treat for fans of Kid A as Yorke reverts to similar electronica territory whilst also keeping the songs as central to proceedings as the usual Radiohead fare.

Various – The Roots of Dubstep (Tempa)

While everyone lost their heads over the Burial album, this survey of the last six years proved how much more fun it was before all those Blokes started taking it so seriously.

Vetiver – To Find Me Gone (Dicristina Stair)

A member of Devendra Banhart’s band, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic proved himself a fine songwriter in his own right with an album that’s more Americana than freak folk.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)

A fine return to the business of noisemaking, this merits inclusion for 10 minute opener “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” alone.