Another decade ends, the decadence continues. What a confusing and misleading year, in so many ways, but still we all heard some incredible music (right?). Let’s get into the Top 10 Albums 2019, but first a few honorable mentions.
Thom Yorke put out an album, Rapsody tapped into something awesome. Tha God Fahim and Mach-Hommy deserve a shout. Willie The Kid continues to throw Michigan Molotovs into the fire. Producer Heather Grey may be the underground’s next-up. I’ll be checking for more Billy Woods in the 20/20. From what I hear, someone named Lizzo had herself a year..
Detroit artists had some memorable offerings. Producer Dixon Hill and the venerable Guilty Simpson put forth a tight session on Actus Reus. This is one of the best songs of 2019:
Q-Tip executive-produced Danny Brown’s fifth studio album, uknowhatimsayin¿:
The Griselda Records camp was prolific yet again, solidifying a management deal with Roc Nation ahead of records dropping on the Shady imprint in 2020. Conway The Machine, Benny The Butcher and Westside Gunn all continued their mixtape runs. More on that later, but for now check out one of several heavy hitters from Benny’s The Plugs I Met:
On to the Top 10.
10. Night Lovell, GOODNIGHT LOVELL
There were some stellar mainstream rap songs in 2019, but nothing that could really sustain a full-length. For the purposes of this list, mainstream is defined by urban radio standards. For my lone semi-mainstream album of the year, I chose an artist showcasing a darker side of the Great White North. Ottawa’s Night Lovell steeps his music in the theater of the macabre. You could say this about a lot of trap-ish entertainers (Denzel Curry or even the late Juice WRLD), but Lovell strikes a more visceral note with his deep monotone voice and spooky sonics. Check out “BAD KID”:
9. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
This year’s list is skewed almost entirely towards hip-hop. Here’s one exception. This year has been pretty much one Sisyphean task after another so it’s fitting the talented multi-instrumentalist—he’s murder on the glockenspiel, I hear—and songwriter landed on this Top 10. Bird ain’t just whistling Dixie here:
8. Black Moon, Rise Of Da Moon
There’s no way to recreate the feeling of the backpacker hey-day (’93-’96). The yellow label on a Duck Down record from that era signaled a stamp of quality. Black Moon has never been able to eclipse their 1993 debut, Enta Da Stage, but this is just their third attempt at it with their last record coming 16 years ago (Total Eclipse). While there may have been any number of better records in 2019, this one was a moment of joy for the old-heads..and this jam was a motherfucking jam:
7. Conway The Machine, Look What I Became
Griselda Records’ staggering yearly output is always consistent. They are the blooming branches from the Mobb Deep/Roc Marciano/Sean Price crime-rap tree. Muddy East Coast grit to balance out the predominant glam/lean/Rx drug-rap originating mainly from the South. Conway outlays his difficult past on “Bell’s Palsy,” a short interview clip. His content makes sense when considering the violent framework he survived. LWIB plays more like an EP but the production from the likes of Daringer, Muggs and The Alchemist gives it a textured, full-length feel. Detroit had a hand in this one, too, as the scrambled god Eminem features on “Bang.”
6. Your Old Droog, Transportation
YOD dropped two albums in rapid succession (then went full No Limit by dropping a third, Jewelry, on Xmas Eve Eve). The first, It Wasn’t Even Close, had ill artwork and impressive features (DOOM, Mach-Hommy, Wiki, Roc Marciano), but Transpo was a fuller album in sonics and rendering. This guy, who is not Nas, is the only rapper you could ever like that has hated on everything from drugs to sex. Producer Mono En Stereo, take a bow, for stamping the album with amazing samples and drops from everything to Norm MacDonald to some bugged-out guy talking about white boys in a hood bodega. This is a dope album, no sorrys.
5. Quelle Chris, Guns
Native Detroiter Quelle Chris left behind the sublime MIsery of Detroit for the illusory sun showers of LA some years ago. He’s not always the most bombastic or assuming artist, but anyone who really is a head wouldn’t say he’s under-the-radar either. His projects are cerebral fits of whimsy generally backed by his own expertly sculpted beats. This album is no exception, it’s a masterfully crafted meditation on mass shootings, race, fear and loathing in America. There’s also a really dope song about recreational drug fun time. You should check the shit out:
4. Khruangbin, Hasta El Cielo
Missing the boat on Khruangbin until this year is nothing less than a cardinal sin. One could argue they didn’t really break through until 2019, but their debut and arguably best album (The Universe Smiles On You) dropped in 2015 followed up by 2018’s no-less-impressive Con Todo El Mundo. Here is a group that effortlessly blends disparate styles (Texas soul, Southeast Asian psychedelic funk and rock, Middle Eastern grooves, Latin-diaspora textures and instrumental hip-hop basslines and stylings). The Khru’s shine reached a peak when they sat in with Wu-Tang. Bassist Laura Lee is an amazing talent, guitarist Mark Speer is a drop-dead amalgamation of so many iconic axe-men—echoes of Stevie Ray Vaughan to Hendrix to Eddie Hazel and all points funky and technical in between. All while drummer DJ Johnson keeps it moving perfectly on the one. It’s all invariably and eminently fantastic vibes, so while this selection is a dub version of Con Todo, everything about their music is expansive and inviting. You could say I’m into them. Try it, you’re gonna like the way you feel:
3. Gang Starr, One Of The Best Yet
There was nothing so bittersweet as a “new” Gang Starr album. What a joy to hear Guru on a record again, and it was quite a trial for DJ Premier to even make it happen. While Primo was able to access Guru’s lyrics vault, the man is no longer able to add to it, and for that, we mourn. Premier had to construct beats around Guru’s vocals which must have been painstaking; only a producer of his quality could marry these old vocals to new compositions so organically. Guru and Premier always brought out the best from each other, and nowhere is this more evident than on “Family And Loyalty” featuring J. Cole. The song audibly glistens with the unique love and energy that only authentic hip-hop can generate. The only song that disappointed here was “Hit Man” featuring Q-Tip; I’m not going to dis the legend, but if you know what Q-Tip’s angle was on the hook, please enlighten me. Without this and perhaps the R&B-infused “Get Together,” this album coulda been No. 1 to me. Nice to hear ol’ Bumpy Knuxx and Big Shug on a top-drawer Primo beat again as well:
2. Schoolboy Q, Crash Talk
Schoolboy Q has proven to be one of the most durable and thorough lyricists of the modern-day. Simply put, this was the hardest record that came out this year. Q was in a zone on this session and everything is pretty much tight work (we can excuse the radio jam “Chopstix” because it’s catchy and really not that bad a jam at all). If you needed a soundtrack to shadowbox a demon or twelve, this was that go-to lick. I mean, how does this track not make you go frigid face:
Then you had a delightful pitched-down re-hash of Royce Da 5’9″s classic, “Boom.” Dope:
The album clocks in at just under 40 minutes. It’s a quick and efficient masterwork that demands revisits. No one really dares throw around the word classic in hip-hop anymore (unless we’re talking Kendrick or ATCQ’s final release), but Crash Talk tiptoes into that territory. While there’s no real filler, there are a couple tracks that get skipped. Not a downgrade, just asshole critic stuff, and yes, under our snowflake skins, we’re all still critics, if we’re being honest.
1. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana
It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Falling firmly in the best category was the return of MadGibbs. In an era of short-thrill streaming, this one is an exquisite end-to-end burner.
Let’s jump in here:
It’s no surprise to hear Madlib chopping the righteous shit out of a rare groove, but it hits so splendidly different every time he does.
This duo is hip-hop synergy at its finest. While still rugged as ever, Gibbs has found new nuances in his wordplay and storytelling. Straight sound boy killing here:
I mean Mike Pence could probably find a way to ride that beat, but we have to marvel at artists who are at the height of their capabilities. It’s no wonder big names like Black Thought, Killer Mike, Pusha T, Anderson .Paak and the one Yasiin Bey jumped in on this session.
Spilling excessive ink at this point seems foolish when you can just listen. It’s number one on this list for a reason:
The cards read here and this album as close to a royal flush as works of art come these days.
Inshallah, I’ll punch up a Decade’s Best list tout de suite. Would love to see your lists in one form or another. Be so bold as to drop a comment here or on any relevant social media.
If you’re reading this, it’s not too late. Here’s to a more focused and redemptive 2020.