Well hello, kids. I've been as busy as ever trolling the internet for new stuff to listen to for the past 3 months, and below you will find the releases I enjoyed the most out of what I found. It doesn't matter if it came out in 1973 or last week. If I first heard it in the past 3 months, it's here. There are a lot of good candidates for my year-end list included. Let's roll.
Anti-Lilly & Phoniks – Stories From The Brass Section
THIS, my friends, is about as true of an emulation of jazzy mid-90s’s boom-bap as you’ll ever find. HUGE props are owed to Doc Browne for notifying me of its existence. It’s quite rare that I get scooped on finding great hip-hop like this, and when it’s this fucking great, it’s even more surprising. At least half of this is outstanding, including tracks “Blue In Green”, “Respiration” (an ode to the Black Star & Common joint), “Descension”, and “Young G”, thanks mainly to producer Phoniks being the only post-2010 beatmaker who nails the sound I love as well as Doc Browne does. Be sure to check out Phoniks’ bandcamp site and other projects as well. None of them top this, but they’re still far better than most hip-hop of the day.
Water Canvas – At Least
I forget the other 90’s emo bands that were referenced in the post that alerted me to this band, but it definitely has elements of Texas Is The Reason embedded within. This is a really good EP that has at least one great song (seriously, check the chorus on “Memorial Drive”) and a strong potential to be a grower.
Banner Pilot - Souvenir
One of the most consistent bands in modern punk rock have returned triumphantly with what may be their best effort yet (only time will tell if it tops Collapser for me). Their ability to cultivate and tweak their core sound results in pretty much the perfect amount of change for me from album to album. It’s just enough to sound fresh every time but still familiar. I’m sure their ever-present themes of upper Midwest gloom and the weary perseverance it takes to get through it helps my love for their music. Unfortunately all I can find for listening is a single YouTube video that’s the whole album. Fortunately the whole album is good, but if can access individual songs elsewhere, my top recommendations would be “Effigy”, “Dead Tracks”, “Heat Rash”, “Fireproof”, “Shoreline”, “Colfax”, and especially “Letterbox” and “Matchstick”.
Willie The Kid & Lee Bannon – Never A Dull Moment
The title of this 2010 EP is apt, and it’s a shame I wasn’t aware of it sooner. I really love the way Willie is representing Gun Rule aka G-Rap aka Grand Rapids, MI. He seems dedicated to his lyrical craft, and I can’t help but geek out when those lyrics include him rhyming “venison” with “Jenison” when rapping about being in camo out in the West Michigan suburbs. Lee Bannon is a decent producer from Cali, and for me this is his most enjoyable work. Lead-off track “News Flash” is a banger with a beat that’s got the perfect bounce to offset its repetitiveness.
Banquets/Nightmares For A Week – Split LP
I’m sure NFAW are nice lads and all, but I really don’t understand their music or what the appeal could be. Accordingly, this release is all about Banquets for me, and you should by now that I, in turn, am all about Banquets and their catchy punk-tinged rock. Their five songs here would’ve all been welcome on last year’s self titled effort (my #2 LP of 2013). So naturally they hit my ear perfectly and travel through my aural nerves to the brain, which directs the facial muscles to smile, the leg/foot muscles to tap, and the arm/hand muscles to fist-pump. “Matters” and “Come Home Ragged” are my two favorites here.
Koss & A.G. – Natural High
DITC veteran A.G. teams up with Euro DJ/producer Koss on this EP, and frankly I think this is the best thing A.G. has been a part of since 1995’s Goodfellas with his longtime cohort Show(biz). I haven’t had enough listens to pick out favorites, but you really can’t go wrong with any of the songs…if you can find them to stream, that is. This might be the most poorly promoted and scarcely available release of the year so far. I can’t even find where to buy it. Accordingly, I offer you the few tracks I could find for your listening enjoyment.
Dikembe/The Jazz June – Split 7”
Dikembe put out Broad Shoulders in 2012 (my #3 LP) and will be following it up later this year with Mediumship. They have put out three splits in between, with this being the third. “Healer of the Pride” is on the more low-key end of their repertoire and falls in the “really good but not great” category for me. It certainly whets the appetite for the full length though. The Jazz June experienced very limited success in their original run during my first college era, and I think part of their obscurity can be tied to never nailing down a fan base because they were one of those bands that jerked their listeners around from album to album, although thankfully they never pandered. They pretty much nailed it on 2000’s The Medicine, a Midwest emo banger if there ever was one, but I never enjoyed anything else of theirs. That’s why it’s kind of a surprise that I like their track here as much as I do, especially since it’s closer to quirky indie rock like Pavement (I think) or Archers of Loaf than anything I’d usually listen to. It wouldn’t have made this list on its own, but it’s nicely tacked on to the solid Dikembe track.
MindsOne & Kev Brown - Pillars
It’s a damn shame that this is only an EP because it definitely leaves me wanting more. Kev is the producer and MindsOne is an MC duo. I was very into Kev Brown’s sound in the mid-00’s when he really started picking up steam & popularity, but in the latter part of that decade and the early part of this one, I can't recall hearing much I liked from him. Beginning with Sean Born’s excellent Behind The Scale album in 2012 (my #16 LP for that year) , on which Kev did all the production, he began to re-emerge as one of my favorite producers. This EP solidifies that resurgence, with “Pop (ft. Homeboy Sandman)” being my #1 highlight.
Luca Brasi – By A Thread
This group of lads from Tasmania came into my awareness thanks to a Facebook post from Australian band Paper Arms (creators of my #7 EP & #21 LP of 2013). They don’t have the gravelly vocals quite like PA do, but they still fall under the punk rock umbrella (probably skewing more toward the mid-tempo pop-punk designation) with vocals still on the raspy/brash side of "normal". A lot of the aesthetic, tempos, guitar work, and vocal cadence remind me of Transit’s Keep This To Yourself, although I really can’t say its quality comes close to that almost unmatchable personal classic. There are also shades of parts from the few Listen & Forgive songs I like. This is another album where all songs are good while none are really sticking out yet. Gun to my head, I’d say try “Death Rattle” or "One Set of Rules" first. Oh, and I should probably warn that dudes’ accents are thick, but I find it refreshing and endearing.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata
Want to hear some of the best hip-hop production of both the year and of Madlib’s career? Hell yeah, I know I do. Want to hear somebody rhyme over it who often sounds like a mentally challenged middle school student from the South (despite being from lovely Gary, Indiana) championing thug life and being proud of what a society-ruining degenerate he has been? Want to hear him say his brilliant catch phrase “beeeetch” over and over? Yeah, I’m not that hot on that part of it either. He’s a grossly overrated tool in the vein of 2Pac, and people use the same rationale of “he raps like a thug but occasionally has some insight you wouldn’t expect from a total moron” to tell you why you should love him too. It’s the Special Olympics conciliatory scale of appreciation. "Look, he only knocked down half the hurdles! Great job, buddy!" But the fact that this album appears here is a testament to two things: 1.) When Madlib is on, he’s fucking ON, so much so that I’d probably even listen to Eminem wannabes from Flat Rock or Cedar Springs rap over it, and 2.) My inability to listen to (most) instrumental hip-hop for more than a few minutes without getting bored. Thankfully for those of you who can do that, there’s an instrumental version of this available. And if you want a really good laugh, I dare you to try to listen to Freddie’s previous full-length ESGN (the G stands for “gangster”, get it? lol omg #trill). I didn’t pick out any tracks because, despite Freddie, it’s a pretty enjoyable listen all the way through, even if I need to break it into chunks because of him.
Souvenirs – Tired Of Defending You
I first heard this band via their 2011 EP, Sadder Days, which was promising but very uneven (and had fucking great cover art). They followed it up with this in 2013, and somehow it unfortunately slipped under my radar until about a month ago. That might’ve been due to an unconscious bias because this came out on my favorite label in music today (fuck you and your shady/incompetent business practices very much, 6131!). It’s an engaging take on 90’s emo- & indie-influenced rock, with more emphasis on the brooding, moody side of that sound. I can’t pick a particular track, so just listen to the whole damn thing and like it.
J-Live – Around The Sun
I’ve come full circle on J-Live in his career. His debut, The Best Part, was phenomenal. After that his releases seemed to get progressively more dull (production-wise at least; his lyrics have ALWAYS been on point), and I stopped paying much attention until 2011’s S.P.T.A. (my #11 LP) when he really fully returned to my radar. This album is an extension of that return, although right now I don’t dig it as much as S.P.T.A., but that could easily change. “Top of the Food Chain” is my favorite joint so far thanks to it sharing a sample with one of my favorite DJ Premier-produced songs ever, but “Money Matters” is also great lyrically.
People Under The Stairs – 12 Step Program
Nothing pleases me more than when a favorite group of mine rebounds after a misstep or two and re-adapts the sounds that made me love them in the first place. This a total return to form for one of the most consistent hip-hop groups of the previous decade. They’re never going to wow you with their lyrics, but they’re adequate. Their strength has always been in the production, thanks to Thes One’s sublime instrumentals. The only track I don’t like on this is their Nintendo ode “1 Up ‘Til Sun Up”, and that was the first song they put up for preview. Accordingly I was expecting another flop like their 2011 effort Highlighter only to be very pleasantly surprised by songs like leadoff “Roundabouts” (I have no idea what context it holds, but I love the goofy ass intro with the guy talking about his bath water being ready), and the absolutely magnificent “The Strand” which is already one of my favorite songs ever by them.
Low Cloud - Dust Collection
This is the second and final EP from this solid Grand Rapids gravel-gargling slow-punk band who sadly broke up recently (as did the band they share two members with, Cain Marko). This type of sound is my bread and butter, and they do a simple but enjoyable take on it. All six songs are good but there are no real standouts.
Pawz One – Face The Facts
I don’t know where the hell this dude came from (left field for me), but this is a very good boom-bap hip-hop album that sounds like it came from a vet with 3 or 4 albums under his belt. He’s no Black Thought on the mic (speaking of which, maaaaaan was that new Roots album a transparently poor effort), but he gets the job done, and multiple producers provide an adequate to great sonic backdrop. For me the highlight is “My Night”.
Blu – Good To Be Home
This double album can get a bit monotonous at times (there’s maybe 5 songs I’m bored by but none that are awful) but overall I think it's a pretty comprehensive representation of the best parts of the West Coast hip-hop sounds of the 90’s and early 00’s. I haven’t listened enough yet to have favorites, but posse cut “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” might be a good place to start.
Skyzoo & Torae – Barrel Brothers
This is a very solid slab of New York boom-bap by a couple of guys whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not floored by the album overall, but I am floored by how Sean Price consistently destroys on his guest appearances, as he does on “All In Together”, my highlight here.
Gameday Regulars – It’s Hell In The Hallway
When it comes to gravel-gargling beard-punk voices, you can’t get much rougher than this dude. I know it turns a lot of people off, but it’s music to my ears, naturally. This 2011 EP isn’t as strong as the Nobody Likes A Quitter EP from 2013 (which I’m liking more with each listen), but it’s still worthy of your attention if you’re into this type of punk.
Odys – Start From Scratch
This is just some kid from Germany remixing some staples of 90’s boom-bap by the likes of Gang Starr, Sean Price, Mobb Deep, Common, Artifacts, Fugees, Mos Def and Big L. Usually these projects comes across like “OK, that’s kind of a cool twist but it just makes me want to listen to the original”, and I never listen again. But there’s something different about this kid’s beats that holds my attention. Peep it.