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Hip-Hope Won't Stop
Between the trash-talking, ass-whoopings and chain-snatchings, 2008 has definitely been an interesting year in hip-hop. Although many artists' albums never quite garnered the same attention as their personal lives have, fans of the genre still had plenty of good music to go along with all the controversy.

Although he slipped under many people's radar this year, Ice Cube's Raw Footage spent a lot of time in my car's CD deck. You might think Cube had lost his edge since his foray into making family movies, but that's not the case: Footage retains his gritty, West-Coast style, and manages to keep it relevant. Also worth checking out is Little Brother's And Justus for All. Its soul-sample-driven music is layered with what I call "grown-folks' rap," which means no stripper anthems or ridiculous dance fads. I'm currently listening to Q-Tip's latest offering, The Renaissance. I was a little skeptical at first, but it's winning me over. Honorable mentions go to T.I.'s Paper Trail, Nas' Untitled and Bun B's II Trill.

During a recession, what better way to forget about your financial worries than with free mixtape downloads? Royce Da 5'9" released The Bar Exam 2, which shows how far the Detroit emcee has come lyrically since his dismissal from Aftermath Records — Exam is easily one of my top five albums of the year. Chamillionaire's Mixtape Messiah 4 is a decent effort, and the track "Internet Nerd's Revenge" is the funniest rap I've heard since Weird Al parodied "Ridin' Dirty." Atlanta's B.o.B is in position to hit it big with his debut album next year, and in the meantime Who the F#*k is Bob? leaves the impression that he may one day be the next Andre 3000 (a similarity he admits on the album). If you 're looking for something different, try Charles Hamilton's Sonic Hamilton. The album samples heavily from Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, which made me want to dust off my old Genesis and ditch class. On the local scene, Tef Poe, Gotta be Karim and Wafeek all have music available for free download.
— Calvin Cox


Dreampop a Roll
It's generally a good bet that working with Brian Eno will be a positive decision for your band. But in Coldplay's case, the pairing helped it craft one of 2008's very best albums, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. Now, Coldplay's no stranger to creating big, roomy soundscapes (and the production quality on its previous albums wasn't lacking), but Viva is atmospheric in a more developed and focused way. Eno's contributions are subtle but essential — the dismal organ and pulsing hand-percussion flourishes on "Lost," the spacious, swirling "Chinese Sleep Chant" and the uplifting chorus and bouncing piano stabs of "Lovers in Japan" all find the band at its most interesting, in terms of challenging arrangements and sonic exploration.

Portland, Oregon's the Helio Sequence made one of the most stylistically diverse records of the year with Keep Your Eyes Ahead. It hints at everything from reverb-drenched shoegaze to danceable indie pop to Bob Dylan — often in the same song. But the noise-laden post-rock explorations laid down by vocalist/guitarist Brandon Summers and former Modest Mouse drummer Benjamin Weikel are often juxtaposed with sparse, folky acoustic numbers that highlight the simplicity of Summers' heart-wrenching lyrics.

Bon Iver's stark For Emma, Forever Ago is a solitary and soulful outpouring of emotion that's my favorite album of 2008. Recorded mostly by vocalist/guitarist/producer/mastermind Justin Vernon in a cabin in remote Wisconsin, Ago is simply beautiful. It feels like winter (more specifically, like rural, snow-covered loneliness) and rests on introspective lyrics that are more like conclusions than complaints, more like healing admissions than self-loathing laments. The dynamic "The Wolves (Act I and II)" commences with Vernon's stirring falsetto whispers and delicate strums. Harmonies then gently lift the song toward its second act: a pulsing crescendo of spastic percussion and intertwining vocal lines. But the power found in these epic moments wouldn't exist were it not for Vernon's perfect use of eerie, spine-tingling, hypnotic space in his arrangements.
— Shae Moseley


O, Canada!
It may be the end of the world as we know it for record labels, but musicians feel fine. While labels scrambled in the wake of an industry that has fallen like a Saddam Hussein statue in central Baghdad, the artists who actually make the music seemed to greet the forces that tore it down as liberators. With the conventional radio-rock mold demolished, artists celebrated their newfound freedom to break the hit-single rules. Take Canadian popsters Tokyo Police Club, for example, and their fantastic debut full-length, Elephant Shell, which melted Strokes efficiency with Colin Meloy wordiness and the sort of heartstring-pulling that only our neighbors to the north seem to be able to execute.

Most important, the group presented its densely structured tunes in the form of propulsive song-nuggets, opting to embed hooks into skulls with power-drill speed rather than repetitious hammering. One can only suspect that if Tokyo Police Club had existed five years ago, the temptation of mainstream crossover success would have inflated the band's arrangements with additional choruses, bridges and (gasp!) guitar solos. But by cutting the fat, the band makes economic pop for the Internet age, keeping the defiant spirit of indie rock alive while simultaneously catering to the ADD-riddled music enthusiasts who download albums faster than they can listen to them. And with only one of Elephant Shell's eleven tracks reaching the three-minute mark, Tokyo Police club may have inspired more repeat listens per listener than any other act of the year.
— Ryan Wasoba


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