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. I’m halfway through the list of 50 alternative hip-hop albums, as curated by the marvellous Geoff Owen of thaknows.net, and I’m desperately trying to work out how to do this when there aren’t any bad albums for me to be mean about. Let’s see if I can work it out this time.
26. Homeboy Sandman - The Good Sun: Any fears that this list might have been front-loaded with all the good stuff last roughly thirty seconds into The Good Sun, when Homeboy Sandman’s growled, insistent lyrics and throbbing beats beat me squarely about my head. As the man himself says, he makes it pop but it’s not pop. Still, you wonder why, with a scene so fertile and brilliant as hip-hop has, everyone’s running around listening to egomaniacs in big fur coats, rather than this stuff.
27. Illogic – Write To Death 2: Starting with a jazz sample and an urgent flute loop, this descends into a sonic oddity with off-kilter sounds buried under the beats, before morphing into a dork, throbbing take on the old-school sound. Illogic’s lyrics are urgent, intensely political, and the whole thing comes together brilliantly. So, am I going to hate anything on this list?
28. J Dilla – Donuts: Totally not what I was expecting from the cover, this is an album of instrumentals from one of the most respected producers out there, and the end of a very sad tale. Still, I can’t say this grabbed me much, although neither did it offend over the course of its running time.
29. J Live - The Best Part: Another one that falls into the column marked ‘perfectly competent and nowt wrong with it but I’m not going to be scouring Discogs to try and find a rare vinyl version even though I’m a despicable hipster and that’s just the kind of thing we do’. I know what you’re thinking, my column widths must be HUGE. Well, I’m all about the girth. Sorry, what were we talking about again? Oh, yeah. I liked this, but I didn’t love it, to paraphrase the X Factor’s resident sociopath.
30. Jean Grae – This Week: While it’s nice to hear a woman’s voice to break up this very testosterone-led list, this does absolutely nothing for me at all. There’s a very mid-90’s commercial hip-hop feel to this, and Grae’s vocals just don’t pull me in in the same way that, for instance, Dessa’s did earlier. Again, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was actively bad, but it’s certainly not up to some of the other quality on display.
31. Jedi Mind Tricks - Violent by Design: This is really dark, but very compelling. Stylistically not a million miles away from Wu Tang, the lyrics on this wouldn’t seem out of place on your average grindcore album. Once again, this doesn’t quite hit some of the other highs on this list, but it’s a compelling and entertaining listen. Could do without the rampant homophobia, though.
32. Kemba – Negus: And we’re back in the realms of the absolutely incredible. Released just this year, this is a caustic examination of race in America today, but sonically inventive and lyrically dazzling. Might well make its way onto my best of the year list.
33. KMD - Black Bastards: Another searing examination of racial intolerance, originally recorded in 1993 but not released until 2001, when it finally got an indie release. One look at the title and the cover, and you can understand why a major label wouldn’t have touched this. Which is a damn shame, since it’s fucking brilliant. Angry, yet playful, this feels like the logical next step from Public Enemy. Stunning.
34. Latryx - The Album: Very old-school in feel, this mixes a classic sound, replete with soul samples galore, with a fresher sound, and really well-constructed rhymes. Quite laid back, this is great.
35. Lootpack - Soundpieces: Da Antidote: Another throwback to a more classic hip-hop sound, and again that’s no bad thing. Great rhymes, great beats. Just great. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME???
36. Madvillain – Madvillainy: Looks like this leg is going to be a potted history of MF DOOM, who started in KMD, then launched into the consciousness with the next album, then recorded this, a collaboration with Madlib. Like KMD, this is a clash of different styles and sounds, with DOOM and Madlib’s verse sprinkled over. It feels defiantly anti-commercial, with nary a catchy chorus in sight, and it’s chuffing great.
37. MF Doom - Operation Doomsday: Well, you can consider me a full-on convert to the world of DOOM. I mean, I knew it’d be good, and it is. It’s all good. Everything on this list. It’s so good that I’m reaching once more for my big book of descriptive hip-hop terms. There’s thirteen more albums to go on the list and I’m sure they’ll all be chuffing amazing, and I’ll have to try and tell you why they are, and you’ll realise I’m a fraud, and you’ll ask for your money back. Bah! Curse you, Geoff Owen.
38. milo - so the flies don't come: Even by this list’s standard’s this is impressive. With a really stripped back soundscape, Milo’s dextrously delivered poetry is front and centre here, demanding your attention, drawing you into the words and the lyrics. The themes of race, art, and hip-hop itself are served up in a mix of spoken word, terse one-liners and more conventional rap, all over beats that hardly qualify for the word. Absolutely brilliant.
39. Mos Def - Black on Both Sides: I’m more familiar with Mos Def’s patchy acting career than his music, which is a damn shame, because this is fantastic. Dripping in soul, oozing cool, with a vocal delivery that sounds easy like Sunday morning despite its incredible complexity. Really very good.
40. Mr Lif - I Phantom: Another excellent album, although by this point I’m really starting to experience beat fatigue. Lyric fatigue. As I’ve learned many times over, this level of exposure to new music, and especially that of a similar style, can be mentally draining, and wear down your ability to judge things correctly. Well, I say I’ve learned that, clearly I haven’t because here we go again. This is good, though. I think.
41. Open Mike Eagle - Dark Comedy: This is, I know, one of Geoff’s favourite artists, which means I’m very pleased to have enjoyed this as much as I did. Otherwise it might have gotten a bit awkward, especially since he spent all that time making this list for me. Thankfully, this is brilliant, especially lyrically, where Open Mike’s mix of wit and whimsy, introspection and examination make for a very compelling listen.
42. P.O.S. - Never Better: This is the album I’m most familiar with on the list, seeing as I’ve scrobbled tracks from it 280 times, according to last.fm. There’s a reason this this: It’s fucking brilliant. I love Stef’s lyrics, the beats are, frankly, ridiculous, and there’s such a huge variety on here that you never get bored. Stunning.
43. Quasimoto - The Unseen: Um, say what now? At first I thought this must be some kind of joke, given that the vocals are delivered almost entirely at a helium-high pitch, but apparently no, that’s the whole thing. It’s a weird album as a result. The rhymes are great, the beats are really laid back and stoned out, but the whole thing sounds fucking ridiculous, and by the end I just really wanted it to end.
44. Sage Francis - Personal Journals: If I’ve noticed any threads on here beyond the fact that I should really just listen to whatever Geoff Owen tells me to listen to, it’s that when rapping meets poetry it can be really bloody good. First Dessa’s excellent rhymes, and now this. Sage’s lyrics are so dark, funny, personal, clever, insightful, and play out over really great beats and hooks. I really, rally loved this.
45. Signor Benedick the Moor - El Negro: Possibly the most wildly inventive album I’ve come across on this list, and that’s saying something in itself. Sonically it ranges from a more traditional sound to swelling orchestral movements, to post-rock jams, with several other destinations on the way. Lyrically, it’s even more adventurous, ranging from ruminations on Shakespeare, to trips to space, to the politics of being mixed-race, to an obsession with death. Absolutely captivating, although the fact that it was done by someone under the age of 21 is faintly depressing to this old man.
46. Soul Position – 8 Million Stories: After the excellent but somewhat draining El Negro, this is like a glorious palate cleanser. Blueprint’s rhymes are as well thought out and thought provoking as on his solo album earlier in the challenge, but the soul-drenched production of RJD2 is so summery, so gorgeous. What a surprise, an album that I absolutely love.
47. The Coup - Steal this Album: There’s funny, and then there’s caustically, wince-inducingly funny. This veers between the latter and expertly-crafted social comment with such ease that it’s enough to give you whiplash you’ll only feel later, when you try to get out of your chair. The music is solid enough, but the lyrics distinctly elevate it.
48. The Infesticons - Gun Hill Road: This is a frustrating listen; at times the rapping is great and the production is great, but then it slips back into the murk of mediocrity for the next track. It’s a hugely uneven affair, and never really grabs me like some of the other albums on the list, despite its obvious highlights. Judged against the rest of this list, it’s a bit of a chore.
49. Themselves - The No Music: Along the same, slightly esoteric lines as The Infesticons, this is much more direct, much more consistent, and much better. There’s a real menace to the music, a trip-hop inflected oddness that is perfectly offset by the fantastic rhymes, and supplemented with any number of Lynchian odd voices. Really good.
50. Viktor Vaughan -Vaudeville Villain: Not a bad place to end up, given that Viktor is yet another pseudonym of MF DOOM, making this DOOM’s third album on the list. I would get mad at Geoff Owen for such a blatant disregard for the ‘one album per artist’ rule, but MF DOOM is brilliant, so fuck it. Once again DOOM’s wit and dexterity mark him out as singularly above pretty much anyone else working in the same post-Wu Tang gangster oeuvre as he does. The production is great, and the whole thing is basically as excellent as this list has been.
Boom! 50 albums done. Easily the most entertaining leg of this challenge, I feel very much educated, enriched, and engorged by beats. I’ll admit that I doubt I’ll be listening to much hip-hop for a while, but this has been great. What else have I learnt? Well, if you’ve got someone you know who has a profound love for a genre, they’ll probably put together a much better list than someone being paid to do so and straining to prove how cultured they are. I may well try and get some more of my much-more-knowledgeable-than-I friends to do some more of these lists, because this has been great.
Right, what’s next? Oh, British indie.
Until next time.
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.