By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Lair of the Minotaur, The Ultimate Destroyer (Southern Lord): If you open your album with "Juggernaut of Metal" and close with "The Hydra Coils Upon This Wicked Mountain," you'd better bring it like a goddamn apocalypse in between. Indeed, Lair of the Minotaur stomps its collective iron hooves up and down the craggy slopes of Mount Olympus, pulping skulls and grinding various mythological figures to powder with its thrashy, ancient war metal meets filthy black metal overload. Oh, and "Hydra Coils" is vicious and exhausting, a running battle fought in black-and-white at slow-motion, nightmare speed the perfect end for a grisly Minotaur outing.
Katharsis, World Without End (Southern Lord): A chaotic, bleary, cacophonous riot of an album, purely evil and brilliant. A swirling fog of distortion and catacomb-grade reverb, the vocals and guitars hiss wickedly, the drums thud and snap like a distant murder and this makes Hellhammer sound polished. And yet there's a sophisticated intelligence to the composition, as songs shudder towards the ten-minute mark with malicious intent. Genuinely disturbing and thrilling, a black mass by and for the deranged. Lovely.
Melvins, Houdini Live: A Live History of Gluttony and Lust (Ipecac): So they're more post-punk than metal. What do you want? Dale Crover remains one of the world's brilliant percussionists, Buzz hews the strangest riffs out of congealed tar, and limited-edition bassist Trevor Dunn unkinks the Gordian Knot in God's balls with his seismic intro to "Night Goat," the Melvins' most claustrophobic and sensual love song. If this was the only song on the album, the Melvins could have called it a century. Instead, they gang-cuddle us with a smooth 'n' sweaty "Set Me Straight/DCH," a reverse-cowgirl "Joan of Arc" and, in fact, the whole dang Houdini album, done-over and done louder. They should change their name to Menschvins.
Ahab, The Call of the Wretched Sea (Napalm): As Mastodon re-imagined Moby Dick as the prog-metal Leviathan, German trio Ahab takes Melville's big hit and transforms it into a sprawling doom album. Daniel Droste's guttural vocals roar with a grinding Teutonic dourness, bass lines groan like hawsers stretched taut in a Cape Horn gale, and the rhythms yaw as songs surface and dive like the mighty cetacean who inspired it. Wretched Sea is not a perfect album, but it's a powerful album, compelling in its alien nature and gargantuan proportions and it blows the hatches off Mastodon's flashy, pacy and ultimately sterile album. This is the one for people who've actually read Moby Dick.
Hot Chip, The Warning (DFA/Astralwerks): Hot Chip released many remixes this year, each a variation on a theme from The Warning. With each twist of the kaleidoscope, a new twinkly melody shone inside the British band's pleasant bedroom-disco songs. The Warning brims with quiet innovation, a brilliantly understated celebration of '80s and '90s dance and rock that could only have been made in 2006.
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (Interscope): With Fishscale, the Wu-Tang Clan's most verbose member squished the wannabe crack dealers and bitch-slap rappers like a bug. "You wanna talk about crack rock?" he seemed to say. "Let's do it." The result was like Proust tackling the game. You're inside a brain, and every nook of the crackhead's life is examined, from how to cook it to how to deliver it to how when you're riding in the backseat eating a filet-of-fish on the way to murder a competitor you might accidentally drip tartar sauce on your brand new shoes. Damn.
Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City): The yin to Ghostface's yang, harpist Joanna Newsom writes about mountains, meteors and "rowing along, among the reeds." And if the two musicians seem to be from other planets, they at least share a love of the yarn. In Newsom's case, her second album, arranged by West Coast string-genius Van Dyke Parks, consists of five acoustic songs, each a continent of its own. Ys moves from one to the next like tectonic plates shifting beneath the ocean, and is utterly beautiful.
Apparat and Ellen Allien, Orchestra of Bubbles (BPitch Control): The weirdest techno record of the year has the requisite thump and driving bass lines, but where much electronic music follows a template laid down by Kraftwerk 30-odd years ago hop on the Autobahn and start driving Orchestra of Bubbles is like running errands in Ellen Allien's Berlin. Lots of twists and turns of melody, noisy car crashes and the occasional detour through a quiet, rhythmic park.
Glenn Kotche, Mobile (Nonesuch): To identify Kotche as "Wilco's drummer" is to minimize his work as a composer. Released by Nonesuch, Mobile is more akin to the label's Nonesuch Explorer Series of the 1960s than its recent foray into pop and rock. A singular work by one of America's foremost percussionists, Mobile consists of eight instrumental rhythmic excursions that draw from Steve Reich and the Ramayana Monkey Chant alike. Randall Roberts
The Future of Hip-Hop Lupe Fiasco:In his video for "Touch the Sky," Kanye West dresses up like Evel Knievel, puts the mack down on Pamela Anderson and gets rebuffed by the gorgeous Nia Long. Oh, and he flies a rocket ship. Over the Grand Canyon. Of course. But none of the gaudy baubles in Kanye's mad-genius treasure chest can outshine the performance of guest emcee Lupe Fiasco, whose sixteen bars are the track's truly special effects. That's absolutely not a knock to Kanye, who brought conscious rap way into the mainstream, challenged an inept president and made it cool to rock pink polo shirts. But Lupe Fiasco can easily match (or even best) Kanye's lyrical skills, and the 25-year-old Chicagoan leaves bluster and braggadocio behind when he steps to the mic. "Kick, Push," a love letter to skateboarding, achieves the neat trick of sounding totally fresh simply because it's soold-school; the cinematic strings and laid-back flow give the song a timeless, endless-summer vibe. And "Kick, Push" is just the first single the rest of the tracks on Lupe's Food & Liquorare equally inventive. Not one to shy away from any topic, he rhymes about everything from domestic abuse and genocide (the excellent, Kingston-influenced "Hurts Me Soul") to zombie gangstas ("The Cool"). Food & Liquor debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 200, thanks to early critical buzz (the album leaked on the Internet months before its release) and to the star power of Lupe's producers (Jay-Z, Kanye West, fellow skateboard aficionado Pharrell Williams). This is easily the best hip-hop album of the year, made by a smart rapper with far more talent than bravado. "They call me Lupe, I be a new day," he rhymes on "I Gotcha." Not quite: Try a new era.