3. James Carter
Chasin' the Gypsy
Just like, um, the Insane Clown Posse, every rocker's most beloved jazz cat simultaneously released two separate discs this year. And not only does Carter's "tribute" to Django Reinhardt (which characteristically turns out to be Carter's salute to none other than his own fine self) predictably outrock them doughy palefaces, it also unpredictably outrocks Carter's own fusion-minded Layin' in the Cut, which is no laggard itself. Resent his glitz and wallop all you want, but there's no dodging the fact that no one explores the tonal range of the saxophone so intrepidly without abandoning melody completely.
The Marshall Mathers LP
It's said that the standard defenses for hip-hop offenses are contradictory--you can't be both keeping it "real" and just indulging in "fantasy." Well, okay, let's pretend we live in a world where misogyny and homophobia already exist, where said vices are, in fact, rampant--the pathetic tools acquired by small fry who regularly dodge arbitrary acts of violence intended to humiliated them. (I know our grown-up, middle-class simulacrum of polite society hides such raw power dynamics; to witness such turpitude firsthand, I suggest a visit to your local high school.) The Marshall Mathers LP is an unsparing, complex, scary, and hilarious vivisection of the white male pathology: the fear of being called a faggot, or the fear of being a faggot, or the fear of being too ugly, or the fear of being too pretty, or the fear of not having anyone weaker than you to bear the brunt of your insecure rage, or the fear of suddenly realizing you can take out your insecurity on anyone and that doesn't make you any more secure. Very real fantasies, I'd say.
5. Del the Funkee Homosapien
Both Sides of the Brain
Del's First Avenue show this summer was a revelation, a glimpse into a genuine underground phenomenon. That packed house united a bedroom community who keep in touch electronically with an artist who has had little mass public exposure since most of his fans were in their teens. Judging from his first disc to receive nationwide distribution in over half a decade, he deserves that love. Del's voice is unique in hip hop: gently amused rather than snide, battle-hungry but never belligerent. Unflappable in his skepticism of poseurs and braggarts, he seamlessly integrates his capacious cranium's street lobe and bookish core.
The Sophtware Slump
Haven't you heard? Bombast is all the rage, with countless arty types putting the phony back in symphony while envisioning the end of the world. Jason Lytle is a subdued exception, an old-style indie twiddler, resistant to massive soundscapes because they'd be way too much work. Confronting anomie with all the good humor one smart-ass can muster, he constructs robot pals who die of loneliness, sets up camp in a "Broken Household Appliance Natural Forest," and ends up stranded on the moon squinting at his loved ones through a telescope. He's the future, your future.
How disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent people are denying themselves the tawdry pleasures of the best "pure" disco album that Madonna has churned out since her first full-length. I mean, if you don't grasp that "Cosmic systems intertwine/Astral bodies drip like wine" is a joke, her electronically processed "I like to singy singy singy/Like a bird upon a wingy wingy wingy" should be all the wink you need. I especially like the way Madonna stares at her guitar on the back cover like she's trying to figure out where the on button is.
8. Lucy Pearl
Every year, critics who are uncomfortable with technology or the f-word select an honorable, safe, bourgie retro-soul concoction to overrate. But we'll get to D'Angelo in due time. This selection of unassuming come-ons marks Tony! Toni! Toné! alum Raphael Saddiq as the most lithely soulful boyIIman of his age. From his initial "Kissing you is not enough for me" onward, he makes sex sound like fun and games, even when he's dissing your kin on the self-explanatory "Can't Stand Your Mother." (Sorry, Ms. Jackson...) En route from En Vogue to her solo career, Dawn Robinson doesn't flub any of her lines along the way.
The Death of Quickspace
Is it just wishful listening on my part or is this all-but-unacknowledged selection of moody, tuneful drones the guitar record of the year? Rather than sculpting riffs and effects into drafty cathedrals of gloom, former Faith Healer Tom Cullinan stretches bare melodies past the breaking point, allowing those inclined to scrutinize each melodic component that rises from the flow and slinks back underneath. Anyone with a long enough attention span to hang in there is sometimes rewarded with a third chord, a shift in tempo, a lyrical coda. Sometimes not. Underneath, a hypnotic forcebeat chomps forward like a combine shredding a patch of daffodils.
10. Rokia Traore
Malian neo-traditionalism--a phrase that probably means zilch to you and doesn't fully register with me either. Oh, I know what it means: Rather than using the chintzy drum machines that have overrun West Africa, this sharp young woman digs into the past for sustenance. But what does it sound like from this great a cultural and geographic distance? Just an uncommonly nuanced and hypnotic take on Mali's already hypnotic, nuanced wash of strings and xylophones, plaintive voices and easeful polyrhythms. Gorgeous, with translated lyrics worth reading.