A few months ago I did a list of the best albums of the pre 90’s era, fully intending to go ahead and proceed in logical order, a 90’s list and then a dubbo’s list.
For whatever reason here we are at the end of 2009 and no follow up, so at the risk of throwing things out of whack here is the best albums of the dubbo’s. The 90s will have to wait until next year, if that makes sense.
This decade saw me attend more live shows than any other, it also allowed the completist in me to go back and discover the back catalogues of many of my favourite groups, (Thanks Ebay!).
Another wrinkle that being a music snob bought was that I stopped listening to music critics altogether, goodbye Rolling Stone magazine, your 1 through 5 * rating system means nothing to me! The reason for this? Instead I often found an artist/group that I liked and branched out:
De La Soul (Easy one admittedly)
De La Soul is Dead was one of my first hip hop tapes, while it didn’t have many guest artists on it the group proclaimed them members of the Native Tongues:
As was A Tribe Called Quest, in 1991 they released The Low End Theory, still one of the All Time best Hip Hop albums.
Around this time Q-Tip guested on the Beastie Boys Ill Communication album, in a related incident Busta Rhymes guested on The Low End Theory, and shortly after was everywhere with Woo-Ha!
To complete the example, I own every De La album, every Beastie album, every Tribe album and every Busta album until the most recent. (Sorry Busta it seems you have lost the plot.)
So rather than worry about what a critic might think I decided in the most part to let the artists that I was already a fan of identify other potential targets, think Amazon “Guys who bought this stuff also bought this stuff” style.
This tactic alone has helped me find Cee-Lo, Blackalicious and PJ Harvey to name a few. (PJ has also since fallen off.)
This selection process was far easier than the pre 90s edition, there was really only one album that I was unhappy not to squeeze in somewhere.
I used a highly scientific technique of coming up with a short list using the iTunes Release Year tab and simply scrolling down handpicking albums in contention.
Once I identified the potential albums, seventeen initially I went to the CD cabinet and dragged them out.
As I don’t even know my own taste sometimes I simply split the albums into 8 categories:
1/ Number of songs (Excluding skits, intros and outros).
2/ Number of songs that made the iPod.
3/ % of songs from album to iPod. (Any song ** or less gets cut from my iTunes.)
4/ Number of *** songs.
5/ Number of **** songs.
6/ Number of ***** songs.
7/ Any absolute dogs on the album.
Without realizing it at the time this process actually made things a lot clearer for me, when I am clicking the * rating on the iPod I rarely think of the source album, only the song in question, it was surprising to see some of the results.
The main criteria initially was the % of songs that made the iPod, having a 20 song album where half the songs are cut doesn’t bode well, so we had a couple of early casualties, every album with 100% inclusion was automatically in this list, and looking at the titles I can happily justify each one.
The second screen was the number of ***** star songs, a great album needs at least one absolutely amazing track, preferably a couple, again this ruled out a couple of albums.
Finally my last screen was the overall strength, in this case having more **** or ***** star tracks than simply creeping in with a bunch of *** star efforts.
So all that pointless theorizing aside, here are the results.
Top 10 (10 to 1 with 1 being highest ranked.)
Unkle are an odd story, when they came out with Psyence Fiction in the late 90s it was seen as a bit of a vanity project for some talented but somewhat unlikely partners, and although it had a few great songs it was a bit thin and had some legit filler tracks. I bought it at the time and again was happy enough with the good tracks but I can hardly say I was salivating at the prospect of album #2.
That was a pretty huge mistake in hindsight, as Never, Never Land proved one of the unexpected finds of the decade.
More a victory of tone and theme than substance, Never, Never Land works far better when listened to in it’s entirity than as a random series of tracks. The album starts off after a brief intro that samples a great underrated movie in The Prophecy with the exceptional Eye for an Eye, aslow building track that really kicks into gear around the half way mark. From there on there is good song after good song, and although there are no more straight up amazing songs for the rest of the album it all blends together seamlessly and holds tight to the vision that the Unkle team were working towards.
The follow up War Stories went in another direction entirely, and in its own right is an album that is almost as good as Never, Never Land. It relies more on a traditional guitar, bass and drum alignment, which is odd as NNL is more synthetic and relies more on keyboards and programmed tracks.
I was lucky enough to catch Unkle live a couple years back, at the time they were promoting War Stories which was admittedly an album far more conducive to a live band. I already had War Stories and liked it but I wasn’t totally sold as it was such a departure, but after seeing it live I am a convert and will happily the drop my magic beans on whatever they come up with next.
Another album I wouldn’t have put money on making any such list before listening to it. Before finding fame with that Pommy producer in Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo was best known as the fat guy from Southern hip-hop group Goodie Mob, who despite a couple of good songs and the solid Still Standing album always stood in the shadows of Outkast and never really found any commercial appeal. So after some internal ruckus Cee-Lo decided to go it alone and came up with a couple of awesome solo albums, this and Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine.
Cee-Lo is probably a better singer than a rapper, his soulful voice is likely why Gnarls Barkley is so popular and has sold so many damn copies to a mainstream audience. But he is a solid rapper too, and his slightly higher and raspy voice is unique in the rap game and a welcome departure from the myriad of gruff deep voiced same-olds.
The album leads off with the awesome bass-heavy Bad Mutha, which is cranked to a level on my stereo higher than almost any song except for Roots Manuva – Witness. Far from being the only highlight on the album he follows up with the single Closet Freak, then shortly after Super Chicken, with a brilliant four song stretch in the second half of the album from Gettin’ Grown, Bass-Head Jazz, Microhard through Follow Me.
Though the final few tracks are solid and close the album off nicely it would be hard to keep up that hectic pace.
With 16 songs the usual knock on rap albums is the number of filler tracks, but here I can’t really come up with anything that would improve the album by being removed. The follow up album is almost as strong as this was, yet due to low sales levels Cee-Lo was dumped as a solo artist after its release.
I went out and bought the Gnarls Barkley, everyone knows Crazy is a great song and the album has a couple other nice tracks, but for my money both Cee-Lo solo albums are far superior in every way, but perhaps lack the commercial edge and kickstart that the Gnarls album had on the back of Crazy.
Cee-Lo’s two solo albums are most definitely worth checking out though and they both remain in high rotation in my house even now.
Thank God the Black Eyed Peas disbanded after this album, I would have hated to see them introduce a surgically enhanced, too much eyeliner wearing harpie just for commercial appeal.
What would be next, using clumsy samples, terrible repeated hooks and other sellout tactics including that annoying vocal tone effect?
What’s that you say? They made more albums? They sold a shitload of those albums to unsuspecting kids? They’re huge pop stars? They have made a star out of some chick named Ferg… (Hands over ears) “No, not true! La-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaa!! I’m not listening, I’m not listening!”
Right, as none of the above happened (Just like Rocky 5) let’s deal with the high water mark of the BEP, Bridging the Gap. A great album from start to finish, tasteful guest appearances in the main, including making Macy Gray seem like a non-insane person, for one song at least.
While even I admit that initially Fergie was a film-clip upgrade, her vocals are terrible and her “sass” pointless, the BEP had a good thing going,
Falling Up and Joints N Jams were two awesome songs from their otherwise moderately OK first album. Then came BTG, Weekends was another step up, Request Line was solid, Get Original featured a great cameo from Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and there was a thick vein of quality tracks and almost no filler.
The album sold a bunch of copies too, sure not stupendous-platinum, but enough for gold teeth and hair extensions for the funny guy who stands in the background of the film clips, has a face like a horse and gets around 2 lines per album, like all of the Pussycat Dolls aside from the singer.
Memo girls and Horseface: Doing the splits and wearing lingerie is appreciated in the film clips, but on an album we can’t see it, enjoy your backup dancing stardom, that’ll surely last into your mid-thirties.
Anyway rant aside Bridging the Gap is a good album, if like me you hate BEP now. Go and find this, it surely doesn’t suck.
The Hives are hard to define, they make 2 minute songs that are all guitar, drums, bass and screaming vocals. Many songs admittedly do sound very similar initially, and the frenetic pace and screaming, almost gurgled vocals sometimes can confuse and bewilder the listener as to what the hell that guy is on about.
Like a rookie sportsman though where playing a few games at high intensity allows everything to slow down and come into focus while they adapt to the pace, with The Hives that means sitting down and letting the album run through a few times, and at a running time of about 28 minutes that isn’t too hard.
This will allow you to realize that Main Offender is an awesome song with a distinctly singalong chorus, that Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones is a 90 second blitzkrieg of pop punk goodness, that while listening to See-Through Head and Missing Link you can practically see the spit fly.
Then, and only then will you understand that The Hives make song after song at a consistent high level, which must be extremely difficult given the constraints of the so called “punk” genre.
I myself made the same mistake by writing off the Black and White album last year, saying it was a step down, now a couple years on I can see that aside from a couple of missteps on the second half of the album, the first ¾ holds up very well now.
(I wanted to put Veni Vidi Vicious in here just so I could talk up “I Hate to say I told you so” for the nth time, Tyrannosaurus is simply a better album… just.)
Probably the most commercial group, definitely on this list until BEP sold out totally. Coldplay know what their strength is, big arena pop rock and mushy ballads, but when they get it right, as they totally did on A Rush of Blood to the Head the results are very strong.
I bought Parachutes for some reason I am still not sure of now, perhaps I had a few extra bucks burning a hole in my pocket while standing in a music shop. Regardless it a good lead off track, the anthem Yellow and a couple of solid songs over the course of the relatively short album.
Based on these strengths I decided to give the follow up a try, especially after the initial reviews were so positive, and boy was I happy I did.
Politik is a brilliant lead off and represents the rest of the album nicely, repetitive beats and simple riffs around gradual builds in verse to strong choruses. The only times that the album loses pace are when they sensibly decide to splice in a ballad, most notably In My Place, Warning Sign and the masterful centrepiece of the album The Scientist.
Out of everything on this list tis is by far the most commercially successful and most widely heard, so it probably needs the briefest description.
This is sort of the perfect storm for Coldplay, the first album Parachutes was good but just not in the same league, and the albums since have been a real step down from both. I still think Coldplay are capcable of something special that is both commercial and actually good, but perhaps they have gotten a little fat and lazy.
Coldplay were very hungry when they made this album though, and the result was one of the best mainstream albums that I can recall in the last 20 years.
I love Hip-Hop, without actually doing the numbers I’m pretty sure my dubbo’s hip-hop CD purchases outnumbered everything else combined. I also have a pretty good ear for what will be good, and what will be Jay-Z rubbish. Only rarely do I pick up on a group long after they have been around, and even rarer are the times that I will buy an album that I regret immediately upon listening, (The Coup – Party Music being exhibit A).
What was a surprise was this particular album, the lead single is called A Little Samba, and on first listen it is catchy but comes across as more of a Bloodhound Gang B side. In short it could be viewed as nothing more than a novelty track, with a couple of chuckles and some clever wordplay but nothing pointing to greatness.
I’ll admit it. I only bought Journey to Anywhere because it was on sale, if it was a $30 new release it probably had no chance of ending in my CD rack. I may have come back to it down the track on ebay or something similar, who knows? What I will say is that when it comes to so-called inoffensive hip-hop, that being albums with minimal profanity and a lack of bravado or trash-talk, you simply won’t find much better than this.
From start to finish this is just brilliant, the wordplay and lyrics exceptional, the production solid and on the best tracks horn heavy, and the interplay between the two rappers Dizzy Dustin and Andy Cat entertaining and largely positive.
Apart from the afore-mentioned A Little Samba which features the fake braggadocio of a couple guys making stuff up to impress, we have other standout tracks that are equally clever and amusing, the great first verse of Pick Up Lines is extremely clever, and I still laugh 6 or 7 years on when “Queen Elizabeth” says “A Little Bit” in the bouncing Eye on the Gold Chain.
Far from just a chuckle fest though Journey to Anywhere introduces all the massive strengths that Ugly Duckling possess when at their best, amusing lyrics, great repeated hooky choruses and strong production by Einstein. Introduckling, Journey to Anywhere and Visions are all great tracks in their own right, and the less than amazing songs never reek of being simply filler.
UD made the mistake (in my eyes) of following this with a weak concept album in Taste the Secret, and then Bang for the Buck was good but not great, and the less said about the lazy Audacity the better. Regardless of all that though Ugly Duckling can claim one of the best pure hip-hop albums in a long, long time.
One last thing too, this album has the highest replayability of almost any album I can think of. I can, and have put this album on repeat and then just let it go two and three times through before I even think about switching things up. That is a pretty good sign that there isn’t even one dud track that makes you move to the FF button.
PJ Harvey is just like Tricky in that she is musically bipolar. I can’t think of any artists that can produce such brilliance, follow it up with almost unlistenable trash, only to then come back with something special. (Tricky went from the sublime Maxinquaye, and the great Pre-Millenium Tension, only to come back with the abysmal Angels with Dirty Faces. He then redeemed himself with Blowback and Juxtapose, only to then release the horrible and worst of all lazy Vulnerable, Knowle West Boy receives partial credit, but that aside it is hard to justify such incredible highs and trashy lows from the same guy.
PJ is very similar, her early stuff wsas more punky and not really to my taste so I’ll ignore that. I borrowed To Bring you my Love from a mate and was taken from the first track, so I went out and bought it and Is this Desire?, which is notable only for the one decent track in A Perfect Day Elise, and around a dozen other shitty songs.
I very nearly wrote her off as a one hit wonder right there, but after a couple of solid reviews grabbed Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
My review: Amazing. Not a single dud track, and everything on it is at least great, at best sublime. Without exception the best album I own by a female artist.
Which is what maes what followed so very sad, Uh-Huh-Her is wall to wall boring and bland, and White Chalk is just fucking awful. I can’t for the life of me think of what may have happened between the release of Stories in 200 and everything that has come since, suffice to say I am not planning on purchasing anything she comes up with from now on.
Back to Stories, simple tracks, straight-ahead vocals and smart lyrics. Every song stands well on their own, but the duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has its nose in front of Big Exit, This is Love and We Float as perhaps being the standout. Even the so called hidden track is a really good song.
PJ must have a curl in the middle of her forehead: When she’s good, she’s very, very good but when she is bad she is pretty fuckin’ horrid!
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is very, very good.
You may never have even heard of Cannibal Ox, don’t feel bad precious few have. The Cannibal Ox line-up changed frequently from the formation of the group, rappers and producers came and went, which must be hard to remain focussed and consistent. To back this up Cannibal Ox only released one album proper, this one. (They had a live album and a remix album, which really only rehashed The Cold Vein, so I don’t count them.)
The Cold Vein is a little different to almost everything else I’ve ever heard, and even without the brilliant production it would stand strong on its own merits. The two rappers, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, are two guys I admittedly had never heard of before this album, and have never heard of since, but their strong gritty lyrics, solid wordplay and occasional humour just work here for some reason.
But it is the production that slams you back in your seat the first time you hear it, El-P is the guilty party here, and his staccatto beats, vaguely demonic background choirs and obscure samples somehow make this the most unique album perhaps in my entire collection, (but without a doubt this list).
Aside from the above it is really hard to explain the appeal of The Cold Vein, it’s after all just another hip-hop album featuring a bunch of guys you never heard of. It never sold a bunch of copies or got a single on any form of mainstream radio that I’m aware of.
The only reason I heard it in the first place was after I read a best of list I thought I would look it up, and only because it was the only CD on the list that I hadn’t even heard of. If you find yourself reading this for some reason and think that sounds like me with this dumb list. If that is you, and you are even an occasional plan of hip hop I urge you to look it up.
Not to name drop, but the first time I heard this was in a bar in San Francisco in about 2001 when I was on hols. We were waiting for the tour bus and Please Forgive Me came on the jukebox. About half way through the song I tried, without being too conspicuous, to sidle past the jukebox to see who was responsible for the track. After seeing the name and album I went out the next day and bought it, but I didn’t have a CD player on the trip, only a mini-disc player. (They’ll never go out of style right? About 3 albums on one disc, amazing! Glad I invested early.)
So as we had too much damn stuff to pack for the return trip we decided to post a box of miscellaneous stuff back that we wouldn’t have to lug around for the remainder of the tour or leave out from the final packed items. The few CDs I had snapped up at that point were with them, from memory that included a Tricky EP, a Soul Coughing CD and this.
So we return perhaps a month later to Oz and settle back in to everyday existence, only our package hadn’t arrived. Weeks pass, still no sign and in truth 90% of the items were unnecessary trinkets and baubles that no-one in their ordinary mind would purchase, so it wasn’t a big deal.
So what we have here, is an album I bought because I heard one snippet of one song in a bar, (when I had perhaps my third or fourth beer in my hand), that I hadn’t heard or thought of since. I open the package and look at the vague, non-descript cover you see above and think “What was I thinking?”
Then I put it in the tray and press play, and it’s never been too far from the play button since, either in disc form or on the ‘ol iPod.
The songs speak for themselves, This Year’s Love, Please Forgive Me, Sail Away, My Oh My and of course Babylon, and everything else is solid and filler free.
David hasn’t been quite as strong since but is always consistent and listenable, his earlier raw stuff is even better than recent albums and shows just how easily and often he was able to bash out awesomely catchy tunes.
It could be argued that this came out in the 90s, with the original release arriving in 98, but it was really only when the album was for some reason re-released on the back of the success of Babylon on radio in 2000 that anyone heard of it. So for that reason I am allowing it into my dubbos section.
David Gray is as good and consistent as anyone in the music industry today, and although he is commercial and has a loyal fan base I can’t work out why he isn’t just a little more successful, when dipshits like Lady Ga-Ga and Jessica Simpson have profitable careers.
Perhaps if you are dumb enough to like either of the above-mentioned you might be dumb enough to see past actual good music, and Mr Gray only knows how to make the good stuff.
No surprises here, this was my favourite album of the decade before my long winded pointless screening system pointed it out.
Several years ago (pre-broadband), I made my first foray into downloading music, using the example at the start of the list I am pretty sure it was De La Soul who mentioned PUTS in one of their songs that lead me to wonder who these guys were.
Long story short, I decided to hunt down a couple of tracks, the first couple had an old school vibe but were very catchy, so I dug deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until I found everything that I could. I burned the results to a crappy blank rewritable CD that was already skipping and for the next week or so every time I got in the car I listened to that disc.
Then I went out and purchased everything that PUTS had made to that point, and I have also purchased everything that they have made since.
(Exactly how I discovered the Hives by the way.)
Also, since Carried Away, their most recent album is my favourite album of this year, I think it is safe to say that PUTS are one of the last remaining true hip hop groups out there creating worthwhile music, so I suggest you might look them up for yourself.
O.S.T. though is where it begins and ends, 20 songs, (2 of them sub-minute interludes), every song at least solid, with most great and a couple transcendent.
Precious little bragging, profanity only when justified, flawless production, excellent drum loops and no commercial samples, this is awesome stuff.
Double K is a brilliant rapper and by all accounts the main producer, but in my mind Thes One is very underrated as an MC, with his staccato delivery often giving a sense of urgency that counterpoints Double K’s more laid back flowing style.
7 or 8 years on from that initial online discovery, I still drag this out frequently and let it roll. I can see 7 or 8 years from now that won’t change.