In case you missed it, I’m challenging myself to listen to 50 albums in ten genres of alternative music that I don’t know enough about, in an attempt to make myself some kind of alt-music Voltron. Last time I introduced the list of 50 alternative hip-hop albums, as curated by the marvellous Geoff Owen of thaknows.net. So, let’s plough in, and see how long it takes me to trip over my own white privilege.
1. Aesop Rock - Labor Days: Before we get started, can I just say just how aesthetically pleasing it is to be approaching a list in alphabetical frickin’ order. It’s lovely. A thing of beauty. Anyway. It’s about five tracks into this that I realise I’m going to be in trouble with this challenge, at least if it’s all as good as this. How the hell am I going to bring my own special brand of caustically cynical musical revue to the party if it’s all this good? Rock’s complex cuttingly political rhymes sit over fantastic beats, and it’s really bloody good. I’d take Aesop over Kid any day of the week.
2. Armand Hammer - Race Music: Well, this is dark. A lot more sonically challenging than Aesop Rock, it’s a dense, angry album, full of tales of violence and sex that never resort to clichés. It’s a bit hard to get through, but rewarding nonetheless.
3. Astronautalis – Pomegranate: A complete stylistic about turn, this is exactly the kind of thing I guessed I’d be listening to, all indie inflections, gentle beats and dextrous lyricisms. In fact, I just had to check I hadn’t grown a backpack while listening to it. In what’s becoming something of a theme here, it’s fantastic.
4. Atmosphere - God Loves Ugly: I mean, for Pete’s sake. This is even better than the ones that have gone before it. What the hell is the 50th album on the list going to be like? Relatively stripped back sonically, this is just good old fashioned beats and lyrics, but so much more than that at the same time. I feel like I’m falling down a deep well of understanding, into the waters of a genre I only have a surface knowledge of. Suddenly my ability to recall all the rhymes on the first House of Pain album, or know that Jay Zed’s 99 Problems is actually a cover from Ice-T’s Home Invasion album feel woefully inadequate.
5. Billy Woods - History will absolve me: Oops, look, the bar just went up a notch again. Woods is one of Armand Hammer, and while this retains the lyrical brilliance displayed on Race Music, this is a bit more… accessible would be the wrong word, but it’s definitely more fun to listen to.
6. Binary Star - Masters of the Universe: Finally, an album that’s not going to rock my world to the core, reassemble all the atoms in my body, or have me question whether I should just give up listening to all other music so I can go live in a Kibbutz and listen to nothing but hip-hop until I think I’m finally caught up. Problem is it’s not bad; it’s just not ‘oh-god-help-me’ good. So how the hell am I going to make jokes about that?
7. Blackalicious – Nia: You see that review I just gave? Consider it copied and pasted here. This is perfectly fine, and the rapping is great, but the production doesn’t really do much for me, and the whole thing is just a bit tedious.
8. Blu & Exile - Below the Heavens: Aha! I knew there’d be some toxic dreadfulness somewhere on this list! This is horrible, a cloyingly self-aggrandising, misogynistic serving that somehow manages to be both wince-inducing and really fucking boring. The production is insipidly commercial, and while Blu is a competent rapper, he’s just saying a hell of a lot about nothing at all.
9. Blueprint – 1998: This is much better. Evoking a pivotal year in hip-hop in its title and its sound, this has an old-school sound with a modern sensibility. Blueprint’s vocals have something of a cartoonishly gangster quality, but his lyrics are outstanding. A very strong album.
10. Brother Ali - Shadows on the Sun: Now we’re cooking again. Generally, if I’m scouring Wikipedia while listening to an album it means it’s either not very good, or it’s bloody brilliant. Either I’m desperate for something to say about it, or I’m reading through articles desperate to dive deeper, while setting up playlists for later so I can tear through the artist’s back catalogue. This album was definitely the latter.
11. Buck 65 – Vertex: Very weird. This is definitely a lot more out there than anything else on the list so far, it’s part instrumental lo-fi beats, part terrifying soundscape. The lyrics range from mumbled weirdness to something approaching a late night talk radio DJ. It’s very, very unsettling. I loved it.
12. Busdriver – RoadKillOvercoat: After the last album I feel like I’ve walked from Night Vale and right into the best party ever. This is brilliant. Busdriver’s rhymes leave me feeling a bit dizzy with their dexterity, and the beats are absolutely slamming. Oh Jesus, I just wrote that the beats are slamming. Me. A 37 year old white English man. I’m very much out of my depth here. I mean, I know a thousand ways to describe guitar tones, but I’m starting to grasp here. Slamming.
13. Cage - Movies For The Blind: Oh, fuck this, seriously. If that Blu & Exile album was self-aggrandising and vaguely repellent, this is hateful in its attitude towards, well, pretty much everyone. There’s nothing wrong with anger in music, but this is, well, hateful is the only word for it. Grim.
14. Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein: Fourteen albums in before I reach the point where I can listen to an entire album and have it make no impact on me at all. That’s not bad going, historically speaking. I don’t remember disliking this particularly, but nothing about it stood out in any way, either.
15. Cecil Otter - Rebel Yellow: No such worries about anonymity here. As part of the Doomtree collective (Mr Otter, no me, although wouldn’t that be something?), I’m already more than familiar with this album, a fantastically laid back and mellow album full of Otter’s incredible poetic rhymes, this is album I can listen to on loop for aeons. Quite how we’ve not had a proper follow-up to this yet is beyond me.
16. Chance the Rapper - Acid Tape: A very quirky one, this one. It’s quite polished, but Chance’s extremely oddball delivery makes it a very engaging listen, even when he strays in to the lyricism of the idiotic. Good fun.
17. cLOUDDEAD – Ten: Well this is very odd. Part hip-hop, part electronica, part indie weirdness, part bag of smashed crabs, this is a very bizarre listen. It all sounds constantly like it’s about to fall apart into nonsense, but somehow never does. A very intriguing listen.
18. Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus: This is incredible. A wee bit of research tells me this was a seismic moment in hip-hop in general, let alone on the alternative side of the street, and it’s not hard to see why. Incredible lyrics, brilliant performances and a stunningly effective, stripped down production style from all-round Godlike-genius El-P. One of the best albums so far, and I’m definitely having more fun than I have on any of the other challenges I’ve done.
19. Danny Brown – XXX: Note to Cage, this is how to make a debauched and honest look back on your life without coming across as an utter prick. Obscene, hilarious and delivered with enough winks you’d think Brown has a tick, this is very funny, very honest, and very good. Brown has an amazing voice, able to range from comic screech to defiantly pissed off growl on the turn of a coin. Beats are pretty great, too.
20. Deltron – 3030: After the intense party vibe of XXX, this is a nice change of pace, a laid back sci-fi hip hop odyssey. If that concept doesn’t excite you then you’re probably reading the wrong site, to be fair. Deltron’s monotone delivery hides an intensely intelligent commentary and some terrific lyrical world-building, all sitting over laid back beats and other-worldly sci-fi sounds. Great stuff.
21. Dessa - A Badly Broken Code: Sometimes you get into an artist and get to bathe in the luxury of knowing that you’re into something that little bit too niche for the mainstream, something that feels just too plainly crafted to your tastes to be for the hoi-polloi. It’s what drives people to dump a band when they blow up – it’s just somewhat disappointing to find your tastes aren’t that special after all, even though you know it makes you a bit of a hipster douchebag to dump them. Other artists, well, you just can’t work out how the hell they’re not the biggest artist on the planet. So it is with Dessa, a spoken word poet who melds her heart-rending lyrics with a melancholy pop sensibility. Absolutely stunning.
22. Edan - Beauty and the Beat: Oh look, it’s another brilliantly crafted piece of brilliance. It’s as though asking someone deeply invested in a scene is going to lead to a well-thought-out list that’s going to be very hard to take cheap pot-shots at. Oh well. This sounds absolutely fantastic, a real meld of sci-fi sounds, old soul, jazz, sampled classics and thick beats with Edan’s own brilliant rhymes over the top. Ridiculously good.
23. El-P - Fantastic Damage: Speaking of incredible production…. Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of modern hip hop will know of El-P, a man so horrendously burdened with talent that he makes the rest of us look like the plebeian wastrels we all so undoubtedly are. The beats are razor sharp, and the lyrics even sharper.
24. Eyedea & Abilities - E&A: A collaboration between a turntablism champion and a rapper able to spit incredibly complex rhymes, this is kind of exactly what you’d imagine it would be. It’s really bloody clever, but an occasionally tough listen, a mental workout akin taking your brain for an hour on a wonky treadmill, which isn’t a bad thing.
25. Hieroglyphics - 3rd Eye Vision: This seems to be an apt place to end this leg, an album that only exists because of the stupidity of the major labels at the tail end of God’s Own Decade, the 1990’s. They dropped Del the Funky Homosapien and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew around the same time, so they clubbed together and proved to the rest of the hip-hop community that they didn’t need the majors after all. The result is this slab of old-school mastery, a true collective filled with different voices, all laid over jazzy, laid back beats.
So that was the first leg. Basically you should probably just go listen to all these albums, because they’re almost universally brilliant.
Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.