Saturday, April 11, 2015

Music Worth Checking Out: 2015, 1st Quarter

I'm a little late, but the fact that I even found time to do this post at all is remarkable. I'm very much looking forward to my return to (semi-)normal human life in June. Thankfully my being so busy has not made a big dent in my ability to check out new music, and I have a bevy for you this time around. Let's stop dicking around and get to the music....after I post my standard disclaimer.

This blog is really not meant for public consumption, although I appreciate every random reader from across the globe. The intended audience for this, which informs the way I write and describe/compare the music, is composed of the friends I’ve accumulated in my 35 years with whom I’ve shared mutual enjoyment of music in the past. My purpose here is to attempt to foster or rekindle that facet of those relationships. Still, thanks for reading, whoever and wherever you are.

Sore Eyelids - For Now

These Swedes blend straightforward midwest emo with shoegaze and a dash of melodic punk, and after following them loosely for a few years, I think they've finally hit stride with this EP. Don't worry, xenophobes, they sing in English and there's not much accent to be detected. I don't really have a favorite off this, but "Waste" is probably a good representation.


tide/edit - Foreign Languages

Shout out to my main man ET for turning me on to this sweet instrumental band that is sure to please fans of Vasudeva. This one is very solid all the way through.


Better Off - I Think I'm Leaving

I can't believe this came out in 2013 and I had no clue as to its existence prior to a couple months ago. It's a really good mix of all my favorite emo, rock, and mid-tempo pop-punk sounds of the past 15 years or so. There are a couple skip-worthy tracks, but there are also highlights like "The Price Is Never Right", "A Fool Walks Into A Bar", and "Next Step Out The Door".


Strung Out - Transmission Alpha Delta

I shouldn't need to tell you much about these elder statesmen of metal-laced punk. You already know whether you like Strung Out, and if you do, you're going to fucking love this album. Time will tell if it's up there with Exile In Oblivion and Agents of the Underground for me, but songs like "Rebellion of the Snakes" and "No Apologies" make a strong case.


Joyce Manor - Never Hungover Again

This band has been one of punk's buzz darlings of the past few years that has never appealed to me. However, all the fawning praise over this release made me begrudgingly give them another chance, and my reaction was, "Wait, this band sounds like this? Some of this is actually pretty damn good. I had a completely different sound in my mind." I have yet to go back in their catalog to see if my memory was off or what, but I swear this is a departure in the pop/catchy direction for them. You won't find me buying their t-shirts or proclaiming my love for them (since I only like about half of this), but hot damn do songs like "Catalina Fight Song" and "Falling In Love Again" float my boat. The junior high lyrics ("I think you're funny/I like your friends/I like the way they treat you/I've got some money/That we could spend/Not that you're like that") are an unfortunate circumstance that occasionally make me cringe, but then another awesome part comes in to make me forget again.


Rarity - Alive In Your Eyes

The cover art made me weary, but thanks to my homeboy McG, I gave this harder edged pop-punk band a try and enjoyed most of it. The interlude tracks are kind of pointless, making this a 3-song EP that won't bowl you over but shows promise.


Reservoir - Cicurina Vol. 1

I had the pleasure of seeing these guys play their moody midwest emo in a basement in Lansing a couple years ago, and they absolutely slayed and made me a much bigger fan. Sadly, I feel their recorded content has always failed to capture that extra oomph they have live, but this EP is the closest they've come yet. Check the build and payoff on opener "Breathe Disaster" to see what I mean.


Brigades - Crocodile Tears

I had the pleasure of seeing Such Gold rip through a bunch of new material (and I mean fucking rip) last weekend but was too busy to check out the opening acts before deciding I was too busy (sic) to arrive early enough to see them. It turns out that was a mistake, as this band and Tommy Boys (see below) should've been very enjoyable. These guys play a good mix of melodic hardcore and pop-punk, even if they don't really do anything to distinguish themselves. I've only heard this twice so far, but it seems pretty even throughout. Some of it actually reminds me of Story Of The Year when they weren't that embarrassing.


Tommy Boys - Tommy Boys

This trio play a noodly, airy, and jerky (rhythmically) style of upbeat emo that's pleasing to the ear. I especially regret missing their set. I heard it was pretty damn good from all-around solid dude Steve from Bike Tuff (buy their vinyl, and get one for me too), and he knows what's up, so check this out on both of our recommendations.


The Regiment & Sinitus Tempo - S.O.U.L.

This is probably the best release yet from Detroit duo The Regiment. The production is pure Golden Era jazzy boom-bap, just the way I like it. You really can't go wrong with any of the first four tracks here.


Mello Music Group - Persona

Remember how awesome hip-hop compilations used to be back in the day? Stuff like Soundbombing (particularly Vol. II), Eastern Conference All-Stars, and New York Reality Check 101 were peppered with classic material. I read an interview with Mello's owner where he said he was trying to bring that element back to hip-hop culture and make the compilation important again by snatching up some of the artists' best work in the form of exclusive tracks. I have to admit much of their roster is lost on me (I only like about half of this), but they also have some of my favorites of recent years. Mello and Ill Adrenaline Records are definitely the best two labels in hip-hop today. Highlights here include Oddisee and Phonte's (of Little Brother) first ever collaboration (why did it take so long?) "Requiem", the eerie "You First" (ft. Rapper Big Pooh, also formerly of Little Brother), and Oddisee's solo joint "Word to the Wise".


Little Vic - Loosies Collection Pt. 1

This kid frustrates the shit out of me. His first EP, a solid if unspectacular effort, came into my awareness thanks to an assist from DJ Premier way back in 2008, but he hasn't had another proper release since. His mixtapes have been uneven, but then there are songs that are just absolute bangers. And the trend is usually that whatever songs he produces himself are great, and when he uses outside help the results are very mixed and often duds. He's really an incredibly talented boom-bap producer and sounds like he puts time and thought into his lyrics, even when he's going bragadaccio. How about you just listen to "Endings", "Crockpot", and "Let Alone" and see for yourself? Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the absolutely awful DJ drops at the beginning of most tracks. Try to block it out. It's not DJ Clue bad, but it's bad.


BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul

Speaking of being frustrated, I definitely expected more from this album. It's nowhere near bad, but some of it's a little boring. Still, "Ray Gun (ft. DOOM)" is a sure winner, and after all, it's Ghost on the mic. It's definitely cool to hear him over live instrumentation.


The Cenobites - The Cenobites LP

Here's a Kool Keith project from 1995 that I somehow ignored until 20 years after its conception. It's definitely not his best work but is leaps and bounds above anything he has done in the last 10 years. Just watch out when Bobbito grabs the mic. He makes Lil' Wayne's lyrics sound like a TED talk.


First Light - Fallacy Fantasy

How this 2013 release from two of my favorite Hieroglyphics crew members escaped my radar is beyond me. Opio and Pep Love put together an album that's solid throughout even if there's nary a "great" track to be found.


Joey Bada$$ - B4 Da $$

Here we have the long awaited and much hyped debut from the prodigal son and leader of the PRO ERA crew, who represent the youthful revival that the boom-bap world has desperately needed. While I think this kid has enough talent and an ear for beats that could've made this even better, it's still a great album. When he makes Gang Starr references like "things get severe for everybody everywhere/this my moment of truth right here" and shouts out my favorite album of all time, I swell with hope for the future. Those lines are indicative of a wisdom in his lyrics that belies his age, and that gives me hope that he can maintain his popularity without "playing (him)self to have mass appeal" as Guru once stated. My favorite tracks here are the DJ Premier-produced "Paper Trail$", "Save The Children" (compliments of another killer Statik Selektah beat), "Piece of Mind", "No. 99" (a fantastic re-appropriation of the vibe of ATCQ's "Scenario"), and "Hazeus View". My only real complaint is that this album is grossly top-heavy, but that's not a big bitch at all. This will definitely be on my 2015 year-end list.


Red Pill - Learning To Punch

Remember how I said Mello Music Group has some artists I really love? Well here's one of them, a Detroit (Redford) native who is one of the best I've heard at conveying the realities and frustrations of modern life from the strikingly honest perspective of a struggling artist. Check the Oddisee-produced "Smile" to see why this kid has me excited for his full-length, which I have yet to hear.


Kenn Starr - Square One

Here's yet another Mello Music Group MC worth your time. He hasn't put out an album in 9 fucking years, so this is a welcome return. His crewmate Kev Brown provides some great instrumentals, and Black Milk comes through a few times as well. "Game To Deliver", "Product of the Basement (Remix)", "Lesson A", and "The Movement II" are all standouts. Don't pass this one up, boom-bap heads.


The Four Owls - Natural Order

And finally we have The Four Owls from England, whom I never would've checked for if not for the DJ Premier cut "Think Twice" (video). That song, plus "Feels Great" and "Control", made me realize these guys are much more than their headscratcher of a gimmick, with the owl masks they apparently always wear. When you're listening, that aspect obviously doesn't matter, and the bottom line is that these guys actually have pretty good lyrics and even better production most of the time. Give 'em a chance.


Before I go, allow me to state that I was pretty disappointed in the new Title Fight, J-Live, Big Shug (yes, even the DJ Premier songs were at least slight bummers), and Diamond District's remix album March on Washington Redux (seriously, the Diamond D remix is fucking terrible). Action Bronson was OK and actually a little better than expected. Apollo Brown & Rapper Big Pooh (another Mello release), the You Blew It 7", and Fashawn were fairly solid. And finally, Somos' new track on their latest split (with Have Mercy, who have fallen off a cliff for me) is a new favorite. And that's pretty much all that's worth mentioning. Thanks for reading, and may the Schwartz be with you until next time.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My Favorite Music of 2014

Hi, everybody! 2014 was yet another year in which I listened to tons and tons of new music. I disliked a bunch and liked even more, but did not have time to get as intimate as I’d like with most of it. Work can be blamed for some of that, and my obsessive study habits and dedication to obtaining my second degree (and first one I actually want to use) also required huge time investments. It’s probably also worth noting that despite how much of a blithering idiot I think Howard Stern the person is, I still listened to every minute of his show due to the value in his unmatchable, incredibly insightful interviews (belying his lack of intelligence, reasoning ability, and comprehension skills in almost all other areas of life) and his irreverent way of looking at the oddities of human behavior. The ongoing sagas of people like Sal The Stockbroker, Ronnie The Limo Driver, Bigfoot, and Beetlejuice entertain me endlessly. Also, I would be remiss to not mention the genius of Fred Norris behind the boards, dropping the most perfect sound effects in the most perfect of spots, almost without fail.

Still, I think the biggest reason for not being able to spend the time with each release is that I feel some sense of duty in combing through as much music as possible so that I can inform you about it in hopes that you might find something you like and tell me about it. I crave interaction with people about music, and nothing gives me greater joy than talking with a friend about our mutual love for an album or band, especially if I was the one responsible for turning them onto it. To those of you with whom this scenario has unfolded, thank you from the depths of my beard. It means a lot to me that there are a few of you who take my words, efforts, and suggestions to heart, and for that I am forever grateful. You keep me going.

Now, before we get to the countdown, I feel the need to restate the purpose and intent of this blog. This is really not meant for public consumption, although I appreciate every random reader from across the globe (and shout out to Zorak out there in space, my most distant reader). The intended audience for this, which informs the way I write and describe/compare the music, is the friends I’ve accumulated in my 35 years with whom I’ve shared mutual enjoyment of music in the past, and it’s my desire to foster or rekindle that facet of those relationships.

I also want to say that I regret that listening to so much music prevents me from knowing the lyrics and nuances like I used to with most music. My feel for hip-hop is largely production-based these days, although I can still tell the general difference between embarrassing (Troy Ave, Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ B, etc.), marginal (G-Dot & Born), and truly talented (Your Old Droog, yU from Diamond District & The 1978ers, Ghostface, etc.) lyricists.

I started doing quarterly blogs this year so my readers could better keep up with new stuff throughout the year rather than being barraged at the end. Accordingly, I’m not doing an Honorable Mentions section this year because pretty much everything that was covered in those blogs but isn’t included here should be considered an Honorable Mention.

I’ve done my best to find streaming audio links. I don’t have any personal use for Spotify, but I’m sure you can find most of this there. I’ve thought about getting a Spotify account just to make playlists to distribute to you guys, but I think I put in enough effort already, plus I don’t want to contribute to the attitudes of laziness and disinterest in valuing music, which services like Spotify and Pandora only serve to foster.

And finally, let me state for the record up front that I don’t care when it came out. This is my list, and it’s called “My Favorite”, not the more pompous “Best of”, so your end-of-year list rules do not apply. If it did not enter my awareness until 2014, it’s eligible. OK, sorry faithful readers who know that already, but a couple labels/bands have re-posted my past lists on facebook with comments like “It’s cool to see ____ on this year-end list even though this guy doesn’t realize it came out the previous year”. Also, I don’t care if it’s a mixtape or an official album. Both make the cut.

OK, in honor of Kasey Kasem’s corpse still rotting above ground in Norway, let’s get on with the god damn countdown!!!


15. Fel Sweetenberg – The Invisible Garden

Here’s some very solid boom-bap from a dude who I need to look into more. He’s from Camden, NJ, one of the poorest and most violent cities in the US, and his perspective on it is genuine. I found out he put out an album in 2010 or 2011 that’s being reissued, and I hope the production is at least as good as that found here. It’s pretty consistent throughout.

14. Koss & A.G. – Natural High

This dude Koss is a Belgian DJ/producer who is apparently incredible at production but terrible at getting his fantastic EP’s properly marketed. He put out another one with El Da Sensei (from Artifacts) that completely slipped under my very sensitive radar when it came out. A.G. is a vet who has been putting out albums with his partner Show(biz) since 1991 and is a founding member of Diggin’ In The Crates Crew. These are all solid tracks, although you can’t hear all of them unless you buy it because I cannot find a full stream anywhere.

13. Supastition – Honest Living

Thanks to production solely from relative newcomer Croup, this EP is probably Supastition’s most consistently enjoyable work. His constant struggle between giving in to the quicksand of the self-destructive “I don’t give a fuck” ghetto mentality and striving to be successful enough to escape the ghetto show a vulnerability that’s often lacking in hip-hop. The title track is dope, as is the rest.

12. Low Cloud – Dust Collection

It really sucks that Grand Rapids has now lost both Low Cloud and Cain Marko, which shared 2 members. Furniture City post-hardcore is now noticeably lacking. It kind of makes me want to move back to Grand Rapids and dust the old drum set off to jam with these guys. The gravelly vocal style will turn most people off, but it’s my bread & butter. I like this one from beginning to end but don’t quite love any particular song.

11. 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.

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10. Souvenirs – Tired Of Defending You

These guys have a new album coming out soon. The first single sounds like they might’ve fallen flat on their faces (just like Muscle & Bone and Have Mercy before them) thanks to what appears to me to be a newfound emphasis on minimalism and simplicity. That makes me value this even more. 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 February 2014. That might’ve been due to an unconscious bias because this came out on my least 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.

9. Pep Love – Dolla Daily

The Hieroglyphics crew had a pretty strong year, and for my money this is probably the best 2014 release from any of the crew members. (Can Del the Funky Homosapien please come back from space and give us some solid boom-bap just one more time before he dies? Please & thanks. That new Deltron was garbage.) Pep is a very spiritual and forward-thinking guy, which can lend itself to cheesiness sometimes, but I like his take on the world, and his backing soundscape has never been better. Check out “Chilley Lime (ft. Tajai)” or “Just One” to see what I mean. Opener “Y.O.L.O.” is probably my least favorite, so don’t judge it by that one. In searching for a video off this, I discovered that I completely missed an album that he & Opio did together in 2013 under the group name First Light. Gotta get on that immediately.

8. Water Canvas – At Least

Here’s some faithfully replicated and updated 90’s emo/indie rock for your sorry ass. They remind me of when fellow UK band Basement was enjoyable. I also hear some Benton Falls, Engine Down, and The River Bed-era Small Brown Bike creeping in there too. Check out “Memorial Drive” with its big swaying beat and shouted chorus, and if you don’t like it, I can’t help you. You’re truly reprehensible.

7. Gameday Regulars/Guerrilla Monsoon – split 7”

This is a trans-Atlantic split, featuring GR from New York City and GM from Brighton, England. GM are a more straight-ahead mid-tempo melodic punk rock band who didn’t really turn my head but are enjoyable nonetheless. Gameday, on the other hand, is a band I can really sink my teeth into, and I’ll tell you more about them in a few spots.

Listen (GR)
Listen (GM)

6. Hassaan Mackey & Kev Brown – That Grit

Kev Brown had a fantastic year and finally appears to have overcome the productivity block that used to hold him to a new release every 2-3 years. His production is even better than ever too. Mr. Mackey sort of resembles Marshawn Lynch , both in appearance (I know, that might be a stretch – maybe it’s just the hair) and the beastly way in which he attacks his profession. My favorite jam here, in which Mackey tears through Brown’s instrumental with nimble ease, is “Hassaan Be Rappin’”.

5. Prawn - Settled

Prawn has been one of the most consistent emo/post-rock bands of the last 5 years, and they were extremely prolific in 2014, putting out a full length (see below), this 7”, a split 7” with two songs, and a split 12” with another two songs, with no songs used twice. I probably could’ve put the split 7” at the bottom end of this list, but this is definitely my favorite of the non-LP stuff. It features two songs that were intended for the full-length Kingfisher but had to be cut due to them needing to keep it a single LP. Apparently the track sequence had to be altered from the original intent too. These two songs, which I like equally, would’ve fit perfectly with the rest of the LP, and I’m very glad they decided to release them this way for Black Friday Record Store Day.

4. Park – Jacob The Rabbit

At this point I think I can probably count on one hand the number of my favorite 90’s/early 00’s emo bands that haven’t gotten back together (not complaining at all). Given all the lineup issues this band had during their original run, they were one of the last I would’ve ever expected to resurface, but damn am I glad they did. They certainly have not lost their touch, and if anything I think they’ve stepped up their immediacy and energy for these 3 songs. They’ve also upped the creativity ante, as this EP accompanies a pretty cool short story (no, seriously – I usually have little interest in concept albums and the like, but I actually found value in having read the story before hearing the songs) that lends more meaning to the lyrics and overall feel of the songs. Leadoff track “Lepus Fugam” is my favorite here.

3. Gameday Regulars – Nobody Likes A Quitter

If you can’t handle glass-gargling vocals over fairly straightforward melodic mid-tempo punk rock, stay way, but if you dig Hot Water Music’s Fuel For The Hate Game and/or Caution, you will probably like this. It has the grit of the former with some of the catchier elements of the latter, albeit without the intricate rhythm section work. This is another 2013 release that I missed until I read other people’s 2013 lists, but I’ve been a full-on Gameday fan ever since I heard this for the first time. Beyond the split that’s three spots above this, don’t miss their previous EP It’s Hell In The Hallway as well. As for this particular 7”, “Kids of the Cove” is the ass-kicker.

2. Banquets/Nightmares For A Week – split 12”

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 know 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.

1. Doc Browne ft. Warren Lotas & PJ Phinney – Mixtape Vol. 1

Yes, quality boom-bap that’s faithful to the original elements is still being made in 2014. Much of it is still being made by aging veterans from the 90’s and early 00’s, but it’s perhaps even more inspiring when people born in the 90’s are creating it, signifying that it refuses to be choked out by the stutter hi-hats and ignorant trap rap that is dominant among the lowest common denominators of the music-buying public. Thanks to modern studio technology, many artists who collaborate on projects are never in the same room together, and that’s the case here with Doc and the two emcees. Lotus & Phinney sound like two lyrically ambitious young dudes who have some worthwhile life experience to season their still-developing rhymes (check the struggle raps on “Patience”) while Doc’s beats sound like he’s been worshipping at the thrones of Premier and Pete Rock and studying their craft for eons. The results are impeccable, and I consider all four of these songs to be 4 stars or above. Rumor has it that this may be a one-off, as the collaborators have lost touch, and that’s a damn shame considering how great this is.



25. Opio & Equipto – Red XX

Here’s further evidence of Hieroglyphics’ strong year, as ¼ of Souls of Mischief hooked up with indie San Fran MC Equipto for their second collaborative release (the previous being 2011’s Red X Tapes). This is an improvement on their sound, although some of the production is irritating to my ears. Still, strong songs like “Understand” and closer “Love It All” help it kick off the LP countdown.

24. Bronze Nazareth – Thought For Food, Vol. 3

This is the first of two albums on this list that were entirely produced by Bronze, and in my opinion he’s the most reliable and enjoyable Wu-affiliated producer these days (not that the competition is stiff – did you hear the garbage/bore-fest that A Better Tomorrow is?) with his jazzy, soulful boom-bap. Michigan hip-hop has never been in better hands. “Blenderz” is my highlight here.

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23. Skyzoo & Torae – Barrel Brothers

These two burst into the awareness of most hip-hop fans thanks to the Premo-produced single “Click” b/w ”Get It Done” back in 2007. They’ve done features on each other’s solo stuff since, but this is their first long-form collaborative effort, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when comparing this to their solo efforts. This is what I think of when I think “New York City hip-hop”, and thankfully it’s pretty much free from any radio chasing or the obligatory Southern bullshit bounce track. The production is pretty even throughout. It’s rarely sub-par but also rarely great, so on the strength of a fantastic Sean Price appearance, I’d have to say “All In Together Now” is my favorite track.

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22. Your Old Droog – Your Old Droog LP

For quite a while after this dude’s self-released debut EP surfaced in June 2014, he stayed in the shadows and let the music speak for itself. The move was probably calculated, as I’d have to assume he knew that he sounds almost exactly like Nas, and he knew there’d be a way bigger buzz around it if nobody knew who Droog was. Instead, it seemed like everybody who heard it was absolutely convinced it was Nas with some vocal effects. The voice is very close to Nasir’s, and the flow and cadence are eerily similar as well, so I get where everybody was coming from. However, this is certainly not Nas, but is obviously someone who studied at Nas’ throne for many years and honed his rhyme ninja skills to near expert level before he exited the dojo and put his music out to be judged by the public. The kid really has undeniable rhyming skills. The production is pretty good throughout, but there are no songs on which it really wows me though either. It’s laced with samples from rock, soul, jazz, and funk, and it mostly would fall under the “boom-bip” (sic) category with nary a hard snare to be found. Maybe that’s why I’m not going gaga over it. Still, this is an incredibly consistent effort from front to back, and I’d suggest starting at the top and letting the whole thing ride through your brain. The stream link below is for the EP, but the LP is basically just the EP with some bonus tracks, so you can hear most of the LP at the link.

21. CJ Fly – Thee Way Eye See It

I’m a pretty big fan fan of Joey Bada$$’s PRO ERA crew so far (in spirit even if I don’t think everything they do is great), of which CJ Fly is a member. They really seem to have their heads screwed on straight as far as what the essence of hip-hop is and what goes into creating it from the heart. They tread the thug line lightly most of the time, and their rhymes generally contain enough insight or introspection to carry value. Sadly Joey’s Summer Knights was nothing special, but I have high hopes for his early 2015 full-length B4 Da $$ (based on stuff like “No. 99” and in spite of the hi-hats in “Curry Chicken”). As for this FREE mixtape, I’d recommend “FlintRock”, “Loco Motives”, and “Side (ft. Buckshot of Black Moon)” but stay away from “Q&A” because it stinks like doo-doo.

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20. Diamond District – March On Washington

The trio of yU, Oddisee, and Uptown XO are responsible for my third favorite hip-hop record of 2009, their debut In The Ruff. Since then, each has released numerous solo and group projects, most of which were a mixed bag but always had some gems to behold. Oddisee has unfortunately developed a synth fetish which rears its ugly head and almost ruins an otherwise fantastic song like “First Step”, as well popping up in a few other spots. Still, cuts like “Erything”, “Say What You Mean”, and “Bonus Flow” (borrowed from Oddisee’s last solo effort), plus yU’s superior MCing, keep me coming back for more.

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19. Cormega – Mega Philosophy

Thanks to production solely from Large Professor that is his best cohesive work in years, Cormega has the perfect backdrop to become a wiser, more introspective MC with greater conviction and more thoughtful lyrics than ever before. “Industry” (as well as its two non-album remixes) takes aim at the business environment surrounding the profession and how the ignorance of the new generation of rappers and their followers fuels the beast. “Honorable (ft. Raekwon)” is one of the top hip-hop songs of the year. Although 2 out of the last 3 songs are a little lackluster, the short length of this thing is really its main detriment. It definitely leaves me wanting to hear more new stuff from both ‘Mega and Extra P.

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18. Paranom & Purpose – Life Outside The Frame

On this collaborative effort, Purpose mostly takes a break from MCing to stay behind the boards and provide all the production (he performed the opposite role over Confidence’s production on my #7 LP of 2012). Dude is certainly a multi-talent. He also participated in my #11 LP of 2013 as part of his Tragic Allies crew who partnered with Tragedy Khadafi for the Seven G.E.M.S. project. Paranom provides the vast majority of rhymes and employs the honest, introspective style I prefer these days, which follows in line with his 2013 LP Five Seasons, my #20 of 2013. My favorite tracks here are “Dayz Go By” and “I Remember”.

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17. EdO. G. – After All These Years

It’s not often that an artist creates his best album 23 years into releasing them, but I strongly believe Ed-O from Beantown has achieved exactly that. He’ll never wow you with his lyrics or delivery, but he drops plenty of old man wisdom in a straightforward fashion. With noteworthy production from Pete Rock (3 songs!), 9th Wonder, and Marco Polo (as well as a few unknowns nailing it), it’s an extremely enjoyable listen to nod your head to. “The Anthem” and “Make Music” are outstanding.

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16. You Blew It! – Keep Doing What You’re Doing

Do you prefer your emo with minimal moping but not too much anger either? Well, look no further, because these young chaps have managed to punch up their sound with more energy and groove than Grow Up, Dude. It’s a very consistent listen with no standouts and no duds. I think most people that dig Braid and Everyone Everywhere would dig it. Get down.

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15. Gnarwolves – Gnarwolves

These young chaps have chops and teeth (figurative, though possibly literal, I don’t know) that belie their goofy band name. Plainly and simply, they rip. Some parts remind me of the early Rancid stuff that sold me on punk rock in the first place, while the raspier parts bring to mind the more straight-ahead punk songs that Hot Water Music has peppered throughout their career. This one is another consistent listen with no songs that stick out that far above the rest, but there are also no turds in the punch bowl. Everybody circle pit!

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14. People Under The Stairs – 12 Step Program

Man, these guys had me scared that the shark had been jumped after their previous LP Highlighter was a pretty major disappointment and then the first single they released for this came off cornier than a post-Thanksgiving shit (please tell me there was a corn dish on your table, if not you were robbed). Thankfully, that ended up being the only song I really don’t like from this. On the other hand, “The Strand” is one of my favorite things they’ve ever done. “Roundabouts” is pretty damn good too, and the goofy intro is entertaining. I’d love to know the source of that clip. These guys will never bowl you over with their rhyme skills, but if you’re just looking for an enjoyable boom-bap listen with a nostalgic West Coast flavor, then look no further.

13. Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth – The Living Daylights

It’s such a cool thing to finally have fully professional sounding, well-crafted boom-bap emerging from my hometown of Grand Rapids, where nearly 20 years ago a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron was cruising the streets, blasting stuff nearly nobody had heard of by relatively obscure (at the time) artists such as Jay-Z and Common Sense. It’s even cooler that it’s Wu-Tang related, and frankly Bronze and Willie are representing the Wu ethos better than the Clan itself these days. Willie does an incredible job straddling the line between philosopher, observer, and materialistic gangster, managing to never go over the line on the latter and turn me off. Bronze lays out a near-perfect backdrop of soul- and jazz-laden hip-hop with lots of neck-snapping snares and hard kicks for Willie to weave his lyrical cinematography into. “Avalon (ft. Roc Marciano)” is damn good, but my favorite track is “The Guilt” (see video below) where Willie paints pictures of street violence from the atypical perspective of understanding the motivations of those who perpetuate it but also taking note of the toll it takes on the community and the senselessness of it all. I’ll never understand how he got his first big exposure through a Lil’Wayne affiliation. I’m so glad he took a completely different direction from there.

12. Statik Selektah – What Goes Around

A musical artist harkening back to the sounds of his earlier years is so rare that it’s almost like there’s some unwritten law against it, as if somehow one can’t be creative without continually moving toward a more widely accessible sound. Granted, Statik has always managed to drop some Golden Era sounds on tracks here and there for other artists’ albums, but his last couple producer albums  (namely 2011’s Population Control and 2013’s Extended Play, neither of which made my lists for those years) have been gravitating toward more of a mainstream sound. I remember him stating that he was “taking it back” to his jazzy roots (his debut, Spell My Name Right is a personal classic) but thinking, “Yeah, right. I’ve heard that a million times before. I’ll believe it when I hear it.” Lo and behold, dude was not bullshitting. This is a jazzy boom-bap tour de force. It’s so incredibly consistent across its 20 tracks (and don’t miss the hidden track featuring Kool Keith over the only decent production he has touched in over 10 years), with only two tracks falling slightly below 3 stars on my scale. (Granted, I did edit “Carry On” to cut off just before Freddie Gibbs’ verse starts because he really does irritate me that badly.) Given the expansive guest list (41 different MC’s by my count), the lyrical quality is all over the place, but do not miss Black Thought putting on an MCing clinic as usual on “The Imperial”. My favorite tracks are “My Time”, “Heltah Selektah”, and “The Chopper”, which is funkier than a hangover shit. By the way, how the hell are there not more music videos for this? I guess maybe it’s tough to get everybody together in one place to shoot one.

11. Such Gold – The New Sidewalk

I see people using the all too widely appropriated term “pop-punk” to refer to this slobberknocker of a punk fucking rock album, and it's quite annoying. It would have been more appropriate for anything they did before my #1 LP of 2012, the stupendous Misadventures, but this is a step in a much more technical and ambitious direction. It also annoys me to no end when bands continually shift toward a teenage radio-rock sound/audience and people feel the need to defend it as "growth" and "maturing". My friends, THIS is a prime example of what it really means to inject growth and maturity into your sound, not pandering to make your music more digestible by the lowest common denominators. Bravo, boys. In fact, this thing has so many layers that I'm still working to peel back and examine them almost two months after its release. I will definitely say that fans of Propagandhi (no, they don't sound exactly like them and the comparison is admittedly coming from a non-fan) and Strung Out (I'm 100% in on that one) should definitely give this an honest shot. Just go right for opening tag-team "Engulfed In Flames" and "Faced".

10. G.Dot & Born ft. EdO. G. – Confidence presents…

This fucker is STACKED with awesome production thanks to Confidence. Between him, Purpose, and Doc Browne, my ears think it’s 1994 and I’m watching Yo! MTV Raps again (but with no fucking garbage E-40 videos). This album leans more in a direction akin to Group Home’s Livin’ Proof, where the production is light years ahead of the lyrics in most parts, but GOD DAMN are these some tasty beats. The videos look like they might be awful though (I didn't dare watch because I love this so much), so be careful not to ruin a good thing and bail quickly if you have to. My outstanding tracks here are “Grammer’s (sic) Strong” (but spelling is not, apparently), “Manhunt”, “It’s Real”, “Class Is In Session”, and “Confidence”.

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9. Ghostface Killah – 36 Seasons

The most consistent Wu-Tang Clan member by a mile thankfully blessed us with this extraordinarily well produced concept/story album, which helped dull the sour taste and earache induced by the Clan’s A Better Tomorrow (check the AV Club review for more on how I feel about that). The production is handled by The Revelations. I haven’t been exposed to any of their previous work, but this is certainly a favorable first impression. Add some nice guest spots by fellow vets AZ and Kool G Rap, and you have one hell of a hip-hop album.

8. 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 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 quite matches that almost unmatchable personal classic. There are also shades of parts from the few Listen & Forgive songs I like. I ended up listening to this almost daily for a month earlier this year and really grew to love a lot of the songs, including “Benthos”, “Get Sad, See Mates”, “Death Rattle”, “Here’s Looking At You, Kid Rock”, and “Two Snakes”. I was lucky enough to get this LP for Xmas, and thankfully it made its journey across the Pacific in fine shape. I’m eager to hear what they come up with next.

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7. The Great Explainer – The Great Explainer

If you’ll humor me that beardcore (or beard emo/punk) is a term that can be applied to the trademark sound of early to mid-era Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike (among others like Fuel and Leatherface), then allow me to state that if the size of the beard were directly proportional to the voice, this dude would look like Rip Van Winkle. Unfortunately for my analogy, he does not have a beard, and he doesn’t look like this voice could possibly come from him. He has an unmatched rumble that gives his words weight and impact, and I can’t help but wish he could donate half of it to (ex?) Polar Bear Club frontman Jimmy Stadt. The post-hardcore thunder the band creates matches the voice. I think this is a great album that could build perfectly toward a really fucking awesome follow-up. My favorites here are “Shadowcaster”, “Phrases & Logos”, & “Untitled”.

6. Anti-Lilly & Phoniks – Stories From The Brass Section

Here we have my favorite hip-hop LP of the year. Anti-Lilly is a much better MC than name chooser, but for me Phoniks’ incredible take on the jazzy Golden Era sound is the best I encountered this year, and it’s 90% of why I like this so much. Considering what Confidence put together on the G.Dot & Born LP, that’s high praise. It’s so good I’d almost listen to Eminem’s cartoon voice over it (almost). About half of this is outstanding, including tracks “Blue In Green”, “Respiration” (an ode to the Black Star & Common joint), “14 Till” (an ode to the Souls of Mischief classic), “Descension”, and “Young G”. 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.

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5. Sport – Bon Voyage

Major props to the writer of this blog for bringing this excellent band from France to my attention. Don’t worry, xenophobes. They sing in English. For the record, I am absolutely in love with my entire top 5, and all 5 of them got serious, agonizing consideration for the #1 slot. This one is generally faster emo-punk showing influence by practically all of my favorite late 90’s & early 00’s bands like Braid, Latterman, Hot Water Music, & Small Brown Bike, and the overall energy here is god damn great. Parts also remind me of the Algernon Cadwallader style. My favorite songs are “Reggie Lewis”, “Florence Griffith-Joyner”, “Ulrike Maier”, “Doris Sams”, and the tremendously triumphant “Jacques Mayol”, which is in my third favorite song of the year.

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4. Somos – Temple of Plenty

I initially hated this album for what it’s not, but I quickly grew to love it for what it is. Make no mistake, the loss of energy and aggression (compared to their demo) was quite disappointing. However, when examined completely on its own, this is an example of yet another young band coalescing a wide range of my favorite sounds of the last 20 years into a very cohesive record that brings to mind Alkaline Trio, Park, Name Taken, Jimmy Eat World, Texas Is The Reason, The Swellers, Balance & Composure, and Moving Mountains (Waves era). Thankfully the rhythm section maintains some groove and urgency even if the overall feel of the music isn't as crunchy as the demo. It also strikes me as a sound that could’ve been the bridge between Transit’s Keep This To Yourself and the third of Listen & Forgive that I enjoy. I really like what I’ve picked up from the lyrical themes as well, especially the assessment of the pointlessness of average adult working life in the modern age on “Dead Wrong”, my favorite song from this. I also thoroughly enjoy “Familiar Theme”, “Domestic”, “Lives of Others”, and “Distorted Vision”. Given their continual progression toward a lighter sound, as evidenced by their split with Sorority Noise later in the year, I’m lead to believe I’ll be jumping off the train soon, but I’m thankful to have this stop along the track of their career to remember and cherish.

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3. Prawn – Kingfisher

Other than the band at #1 below, for me Prawn has to be the most consistently great emo-related band making music in the last 5 years. They also have a heavy atmospheric post-rock vibe in many parts. I can only think of two songs they’ve made that don’t float my boat, but never before have they laid out a work of art so fully realized and congruent unto itself. The fact that they had to rearrange the tracks from their original order and then chop out the two songs from the Settled 7” to make this fit a single LP makes it even more remarkable how well this baby flows together. The drummer is especially exceptional to me. He reminds me of Kevin Ratterman from Elliott in that he often finds a way to weave a more dynamic drum pattern into parts where most people would play it safe, yet somehow instead of sticking out like a sore thumb, it actually makes the song for me. Check the beat he lays down during the verse of “First As Tragedy, Second As Farce” (my favorite song of the year). It’s exactly what I would want to play if someone presented me with the guitar and bass and said “play something to this”. My other favorites are “Dialect of…” and “Thalassa”.

2. Banner Pilot – Souvenir

What a banner year (pun intended) it has been for some of my most loved bands to become even further adored by releasing their best work yet….or damn close to it in this case. Even after letting this marinate for months, I still can’t decide whether it beats 2009’s Collapser. It’s probably a moot point, as I’d score both of them 10/10. If you don’t know by now, Banner Pilot is a pretty straight-ahead melodic punk rock band from Minneapolis who can paint as vivid of a picture of the struggles of Midwest winter life (and the people it affects) as anyone. It’s gritty, world-weary, worn out, guttural, and visceral yet sometimes hopeful.  Their ability to cultivate and tweak their core sound results in pretty much the perfect amount of change (minimal) for me from album to album. It’s just enough to sound fresh every time but still familiar. I’m hoping they continue to stay this dependable as long as they’re together, and for fuck’s sake, I’d love to finally get a chance to see them live. They somehow never play Michigan. As for favorite tracks, I realized I would be better off telling which tracks I think are good but not great, and then you can assume the rest are exceptional. Those would be “Modern Shakes”, “Hold Fast”, “Springless”, and “Summer Ash”. The other 8 songs all get me going.

1. gates – Bloom & Breathe

Here we are at the end of the road. In an incredible year for truly great music, this is what I found most enjoyable. Given how much I loved their previous two EP’s, I had extremely high expectations for this. That type of unbridled anticipation almost always results in some level of disappointment, but not here, my friends. This baby managed to exceed and astound from the moment I first heard the first song they played live from it (“Born Dead” – LISTEN to those fucking drums!). I also had the pleasure of seeing them after the album came out, and once again they impressed. They are incredibly tight and have a commanding stage presence, largely thanks to animated guitarist Ethan Koozer, whose energy and passion is always on full display. Singer Kevin Dye really put some serious work and pain into constructing the lyrics, as there are revolving themes about life and repeated phrases throughout the album. It’s really a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it shows just how impactful the right mix of post-rock and gut-wrenching (but not sappy) emo can be. They even turn up the intensity with a little bit of unprecedented screaming near the end of “At Last the Loneliest of Them”. On the other hand, my second favorite song of the year, “Low”, is one of their most mellow and subdued, but it still manages to be very impactful. “Not My Blood” (5 stars all the way), “Bloom”, “The Thing That Would Save You”, “Born Dead”, and “Again At the Beginning” are all exceptional as well. I get such joy from listening to this that I genuinely feel sorry for those who can’t feel it. I want at least one of these songs played as my survivors dump my ashes into Lake Superior. Could there be any more melodramatic of a statement for me to convey how I feel about this? I think not, and there you have it.

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Before I go, allow me to note that one of my former favorite hip-hop groups, the Doppelgangaz, put out a woefully uninspired and disappointing album called Peace Kehd, complete with mainstream pandering via use of trap rap production. Seriously, listen to this shit and tell me it doesn’t make you cringe. I found it so revolting that I never even opened my pre-ordered vinyl and sold it as quickly as I could. The new Weatherbox and Dikembe were also highly anticipated and fell flat for me (although this song fucking rules), but nothing like the steaming pile of Doppelcrap.

OK, I think that’s all for this year. I really hope I will have time to do the quarterly blogs again for 2015, but if you know what my life will be like for the next 6 months, you’ll understand it might not be possible. Anyway, I wish you all a safe and happy new year (more happy than safe), and above all, thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking your precious time to check this out. It means the world to me. Aus out.