2012 is almost here, but not without another obligatory year end list to close it out. Welcome to “Alex’s first annual top hip-hop albums of the year-which-should-have-no-bearing-on-what-you’re-favorite-albums-of-the-year-are list.” There were a number of great albums released this year from both indie and mainstream artists alike, so here’s a look at what stood out for me.
11. The Family Sign - Atmosphere
I never thought I’d rank an Atmosphere album at the bottom of a year-end hip-hop list, but with tracks like, “She’s Enough” and “Bad Bad Daddy,” as well as a small, but noticeable decline in some of Slug’s lyricism, I couldn’t bring myself to rank it above any of the other albums on the list. In saying that, The Family Sign, was still a better album than most released this year, and will continue to get multiple spins from me.
Standout Tracks: “Millennium Dodo” and “The Last To Say”
10. Cole World: The Sideline Story - J. Cole
J. Cole took us for a ride, giving us a small glimpse of his life from before being signed, the day it happened, and where his life is at today with his #1 debut album. Cole World is a promising debut for the Roc Nation artist, bringing us a range of beats and storytelling that will capture you from beginning to end.
Standout Tracks: “Lost Ones” and “Nobody’s Perfect (feat. Missy Elliott)”
9. Oneirology - CunninLynguists
Thoughtful lyricism, and perfectly sampled beats are standout aspects of Oneirology. Experimentation complimented the group perfectly on this album, where they take us for a look into the subconscious and dreams. Listen to it more than once, and take more from it than you did the first time; Oneirology is sure to go down as a classic in the CunninLynguists catalogue.
Standout Tracks: “Murder (Act II) (feat. Big K.R.I.T.),” “Shattered Dreams,” and “Embers.”
8. Watch The Throne - Jay-Z and Kanye West
Everyone heard this one. I don’t need to say anything. WE IN FRANCE!…I’m just sayin’. Standout Tracks: “New Day” and “Welcome To The Jungle”
7. Bad Time Zoo - Sims
Minneapolis MC Sims delivers audiences themes of ups and downs, trials and tribulations of life with complex rhyme-schemes and beats perfected by Doomtree comrade, Lazerbeak. Messages of hypocrisy found in today’s society are delivered without sounding preachy, and Sims tells tales of just surviving, coping and sometimes desperation without coming across as self-pitying. Bad Time Zoo is a long-awaited follow up to his first release in 2005, Lights Out Paris, and was well worth the wait. Standout Tracks: “Hey You” and “When It Rolls In”
6. October - Paul Thompson
Paul Thompsonbrings lyricism and storytelling to the forefront of his work, and as a result he gave us October, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite albums…no, not just of the year. Paul brings many different characters to life on the album—it’s almost impossible not to grow attached to each of them. Cryptic in nature and laced with vivid imagery, October is a must listen. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of Paul next year, and if his releases in 2011 are a foresight of things to come, he could very well land on 2012’s year-end list. Standout Tracks: “A Delicate Balance” and “The Raven Pt. 2 (feat. Z)” [Free Download here]
5. Together/Apart - Grieves
Grieves put all the struggles of life into Together/Apart and although he often raps about hard times he dealt with the past two years, most of the album is surprisingly hopeful. Most importantly, the greatest message presented to listeners in the album is the fellowship music creates with all of us.
Standout Tracks: “Sunny Side of Hell,” “Tragic (feat. Brother Ali)” and “Bloody Poetry”
4. No Kings - Doomtree
No Kings may very well be Minneapolis rap collective Doomtree’s most collaborative and experimental record to date. 5 different MCs, all with their own brand and unique style, somehow manage to mesh perfectly, creating an album of introspective material, packed with metaphors and in-your-face beats. With so many voices and styles, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the album could be cluttered and non-cohesive, but rest assured, No Kings avoids all of that and compliments each MC’s style wonderfully. Standout Tracks: “No Way,” “Little Mercy,” and “Bolt Cutter”
3. Undun - The Roots
The Roots offer audiences their first concept album of their catalog, and the result is one of the most brilliant and touching of their career, with Undun. It’s a fluid soundtrack of the life and death of fictional character. Although there would be no complaints from me if the album was a little bit longer, lyricism is at an all-time high, with Black Thought spitting classic lines, paired with complimentary features and ?uestlove’s knack for unique and emotive beats; Undun is a must listen album of 2011.
Standout Tracks: “The OtherSide (feat. Bilal Oliver & Greg Porn)” and “I Remember” (But don’t listen to it unless you do it from beginning to end. Let this album tell its story.)
2. Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them - Blu & Exile
West Coast MC, Blu and producer Exile give audiences a startlingly brilliant (and free) album, released just this December, although it was recorded in 2009. The album is unmastered, but when you have lyrics and storytelling as good as Blu, paired with Exile’s next-to-flawless beats, that hardly seems to matter. When two creative minds, the caliber of Blu and Exile mesh, the product is a timeless piece of art. Hip-hop lovers and doubters alike, you need to listen to Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them. You’re missing out on something special until you do. Standout Tracks: “The Only One,” “She Said It’s Ok” and “Seasons” [Download here]
1. Castor, The Twin - Dessa
If you’ve been searching for an album with a hint of philosophy, teeming with melancholy, and songs perfectly relate-able to the human experience, Dessa’s Castor, The Twin was made for you. The album is comprised of 10 zealous rearrangements of previously recorded material, and a new, advanced single from Dessa’s album slated for release in 2012. Dessa has made (another) truly timeless album, and although they’re lyrics we’ve heard before, the reworked material gives the audience an entirely different listening experience. Amazing how the “same” songs can take you somewhere completely new. Lyrically, musically and creatively, no one is touching Dessa right now. If she keeps putting out work this solid, I’m certain she’ll be monopolizing the top of many year-end lists to come. (I almost didn’t even put Castor on the list, mostly because hip-hop is too limiting of a description for the album, and because 10 of 11 tracks have been heard before, but then I realized…this was the best hip-hop record released this year. Who am I to deny that?
Standout Tracks: “Mineshaft,” “Dixon’s Girl” and “The Beekeeper”
What are your favorite hip-hop albums of 2011?