Finally breaking into the Top Ten with three sprawling somewhat-personal album picks and an all-hip-hop singles list.
This epic album from the Wu-Tang Clan's greatest MC artist comes at you in movements. In the first third, Ghostface proves he can spin gripping drug-trade yarns better than any new jack while never once trying to convince you he didn't long ago rise above that world. The middle third is pure show-off: Luther Ingram-sampling endorsement of child abuse Ghost remembers as good parenting, Willie Hutch-driven battle of the sexes, explosive Pete Rock-produced rave-up. The final third he goes all "Old Jeezy" on us, bringing deep-soul wisdom and moral center to a newly resurgent subgenre (coke-trade rap) desperately in need of it. Throughout, you get a dense collection of grimy crime stories, offbeat boasts and exhortations ("Y'all be nice to the crackheads!"), soaring '70s soul samples, random bursts of reality (our hero opens one song kicked back at the crib watching Larry King Live), and extravagant production that splits the difference between Bomb Squad and Kanye West. If you're not a pretty serious hip-hop fan, you might struggle to find a point of entry. If you are a pretty serious hip-hop fan, you can get lost in it. Thirteen years after the debut of the posse classic Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and 10 years too late, here's the best Wu-Tang album since the first one.
Sample Song: "The Champ"
Single: "All Falls Down" — Kanye West (2004)
Far from Kanye's biggest hit, but his deepest and most provocative.
Hedonistic utopian Eugene Hutz opens Super Taranta! on a leap of faith: "There were never any good old days. They are today. They are tomorrow. It's a stupid thing we say, cursing tomorrow with sorrow," the Gogol Bordello frontman spits on "Ultimate," kicking our collective sense of dread square in the teeth. From there Hutz and his Brooklyn-based "gypsy punk" ensemble embark on an epic journey to re-imagine rock-and-roll via a crosscurrent of Eastern European melodies riding on violin and accordion riffs and to reposition America as the pluralistic, multicultural society it is. How appropriate in this election year that the best rock band in America is a group of immigrants who mock assimilation and taunt our (or anyone else's) patriotism. How glorious it is that they do so with raucous wit, rootsy party music, and such a magnanimous spirit.
Sample Song: "Ultimate"
Single: "Forest Whitaker" — Brother Ali (2003)
Maybe hip-hop's sunniest and most truly righteous blast of pure braggadocio. Hilarious title.
On his band's justifiably celebrated opus Southern Rock Opera, Trucker Patterson Hood composed musical Grit Lit on a macro level — "The Three Great Alabama Icons," "the duality of the Southern thing," etc. On this sharper, prettier, deeper follow-up, his regional ardor is conveyed in offhand details, such as opening a song with the line "Something 'bout that wrinkle in your forehead tells me there's a fit 'bout to get thrown." Musical life partner Mike Cooley cribs his boogie riffs on "Marry Me" directly from the dread Eagles but then uses them to put across a lyric that band would never touch: "Rock-and-roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies." And newcomer Jason Isbell proves to be the finest writer of working-class folk ballads on the planet. You don't expect an album about destroyed lives, failed marriages, and legacies of violence and regret to be invigorating. But this one is. And you don't expect modern-day trad-rock bands to make records that rival the best of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. This one did.
Sample Song: "Marry Me"
Single: "It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop" — Dead Prez (2000)
One of my favorite cultural moments of the aughts is from Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Chappelle, on the roof of a Bed-Stuy daycare center with a megaphone, dropping some lyrics from this anthem. Super fun video!: