True confession: I sometimes find that I have downloaded a slew of buzzworthy new music and let some of it go unnoticed for weeks at a time. The only bonus is that sometimes my iPod and I get to share a thrilling moment of discovery when one such song comes up on shuffle. This is how I “discovered” my profound love for Vampire Weekend’s 2008 self-titled release when “Oxford Comma” surprised me on a particularly hum-drum (also freezing) bus ride through downtown Minneapolis. This is also how I discovered The XX. Shuffling through dozens of tracks I’d heard enough times to know by the first few notes, then “Islands” came on. It seems that 2009 was somewhat dominated by “chillwave”, but nothing made quite the same positive impression on the scene as The XX. I was immediately drawn to the rough-around-the edges sound. The electronic buzz that lends to both the instrumentals and vocals a slightly homespun, basement-tinkering quality. With a drum machine in place of an actual drummer, the minimalist, bass-heavy tracks point out the power that simplicity can have. Like the xylophone that twinkles over “VCR” or the almost danceable beats of “Night Time”, the tracks each contain a unique element of focus, pushing it to center stage without pushing it in your face. The vocal harmonies, a blend of female prettiness and male roughness, quietly emphasize the lyrics throughout. The almost conversational quality of “Stars” shows how adept they are at combining a few small elements into something so great. This was a huge year for the young (like, they’re 20) British band. Despite losing keyboardist Baria Qureshi in November, I expect they will continue to dazzle with quietly powerful magic in the future.
With Us Brother Ali solidified himself as one of the most dynamic and best story-telling emcees in hip hop. As a follows up to The Truth, on which Ali discussed his son, divorce, and being homeless, Us discussed issues of rape, homosexuality, race, and slavery. Many story-raps today stick to the same drug braggadocio, and hood life anthems. On “Breaking Dawn,” Ali sing-songs about a son of a slave owner who’s been abandoned because he has leprosy and then taken in by slaves only to discover he doesn’t fit with them either. This is real hip hop. While Ali is directly discussing racial barriers, he’s also providing insight on his own life as a white albino rapper. As on “House Keys,” or “The Travelers,” Ali is providing stories for understanding, not preaching. I hate to say it, but this type of introspective, and insightful hip hop is hard to find these days. Few emcees have as much ability to write personally, socially, and poetically as Brother Ali, making Us one of the best albums in 2009.