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The Best Music of 2008

Rachel Swan's Top 10.

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Ambrose Akinmusire, Prelude to Cora

One of the most promising musicians to emerge from Berkeley High's Jazz Ensemble in recent years, Ambrose Akinmusire proves on his debut album that he's not only a captivating bandleader but a meticulous composer as well. He chose to work with Barcelona-based jazz label Fresh Sound, which is lesser-known but well-respected among heads. Prelude to Cora has a real Fresh Sound feel, too: hypnotic chord changes; bustling rhythms with weird accents; abstract, contemporary harmonies. Akinmusire makes wonderful use of opera soprano Junko Watanabe, who drifts around the band like a phantasma in "M.I.S.T.A.G." ("My Inappropriate Soundtrack to a Genocide") and "Dreams of the Manbahsniese." His band is killing to boot, featuring tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and a rhythm section led by drummer Justin Brown and pianist Aaron Parks. It's a well-crafted prelude, suggesting better things to come. (Fresh Sound)

Jean Grae, Jeanius

Even a bruiser like Keisha Cole couldn't match the violence of Jean Grae, whose raps always bear the hint of some past wound. Both a gifted writer and an incisive provocateur, Grae has a soft, velvety voice that contrasts the brittleness of her lyrics. On Jeanius she offers a fascinating character study, particularly with the bad-diary-day rap "My Story" (about an abortion), and the sensual ballad "Lovethirst." Best of all, Grae finds new, creative ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the rap industry (Sample lyric: Controversy works and plus I got a pussy/But even with that people scared to push me/Who's a pussy first?), reminding us time and again that she's a grown woman struggling to create real art in a medium that's stuck in adolescence. Buoyed by 9th Wonder's production, Jeanius is, song-for-song, a thoroughly stunning album. Why we're not hearing it on the radio is anybody's guess. (Blacksmith)

Illa J, Yancey Boys

Whether by dint of natural ability or his upbringing in Detroit's soul music scene, hip-hop producer J Dilla was by all count fabulously talented — he didn't just lay chords over a kick and snare, he actually played through changes. Thus, it's no surprise that Dilla's meteoric rise persists nearly three years after his untimely death. Yancey Boys is the latest in a spate of posthumous releases, featuring beats from the Dilla catalog retooled and set to vocals by Dilla's younger brother Illa J. Naturally, the album mostly succeeds on the merits of its melodic production style: Songs like "Showtime" and the glitchy ballad "Sounds Like Love" are simply wonderful. Though Illa J remains, for the time being, in his older brother's shadow, he'll likely become a legend in his own right. Illa's odd bar flows make him stand out as an exceptionally musical rapper, showing that indeed, those Yanceys are no joke. (Delicious Vinyl)

Q-Tip, The Renaissance

When Q-Tip first tried to consolidate his career as a solo artist, his material didn't measure up to what Tribe was producing in the early '90s — Amplified was kind of a sinker. That said, the emcee carved out a niche for himself with this year's The Renaissance, which shows a mature production style and, more importantly, a marked curiosity about jazz and soul. Over the past decade Tip forged connections in the New York jazz scene and culled from a pool of talented musicians, including bassist Derrick Hodge and keyboardist Robert Glasper. As a result, his beats now incorporate live instrumentation, obscure funk samples, and background vocals by such crooners as D'Angelo and Norah Jones. Tip's flow is vibrant as ever, with mild syncopation and that signature nasal tone that sounds like he's just getting over flu season in Brooklyn. But if you turned the vocals off, The Renaissance would still slap. (Universal Motown)

Jazmine Sullivan, Fearless

While Jazmine Sullivan's stage performance is not without its kinks, her ability to deliver on record is indisputable. Her sudden climb up the ranks of Top 40 R&B shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, Sullivan's acumen and vocal range give her an edge over many less-gifted starlets. To put it plainly, she's a better singer than Ashanti, Keisha Cole, and the similarly raspy-voiced Lauryn Hill. On Fearless she dabbles in different styles — reggae on "Need U Bad," gospel on the tour de force ballad "In Love with Another Man," a hooky girl-group format on the bonus track "Switch" — but keeps her song structures tight enough that you can sing along with most tracks. Best of all, she has interiority: Despite its title, Fearless is chock-full of confessional songs about Sullivan's insecurities, which, on the whole, render her a more fully fleshed character than you'll find elsewhere in R&B. Sullivan's personality keeps her music interesting. Her poppy song structures make it timeless. (J Records)

The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale

The same formula that propelled local group the Pack into stardom also worked for Illinois duo the Cool Kids. But where the Pack faltered — losing steam before releasing their ill-timed 2007 album — the Cool Kids somehow made it work. Characterizing themselves as "the black Beastie Boys," emcees Antoine "Mikey Rocks" Reed and Evan "Chuck Inglish" Ingersoll combine an '80s party jam delivery with rattletrap beats that are so so lo-fi, they're practically no-fi. Their songs revel in braggadocio (mostly about shoes, wireless communication devices, and accessories, and sometimes about the glory of being "self-employed") but the production is choice. The Bake Sale starts off with a slinky snare-and-cowbell track and ends, nine tracks later, in almost the same place — with the beat and lyrics only slightly altered. Evidently the Cool Kids are ahead of their peers in realizing that fewer adornments make for better music, in hip-hop. (Chocolate Industries)

Aaron Parks, Invisible Cinema

Another Fresh Sound release — and this one, as they say in the jazz world, is really a banger. Twenty-five-year-old pianist Aaron Parks has all the dexterity of three-handed boy wonder Eldar, but as a composer he's much more sophisticated, opting for darkly romantic chord changes (he cites Radiohead as a source of inspiration), intricate rhythms, and a mood that's often taut and dramatic. The track that kicks off Invisible Cinema — a concise, elegant song called "Travelers" — has drummer Eric Harland playing a tense, driving rhythm that places the accents on every sixth note, while Parks gurgles around him with ribbony piano runs. It's exciting. (Blue Note)

Ise Lyfe, The Prince Cometh

Ise Lyfe's first foray into hip-hop, with the 2006 do-gooder album SpreadtheWORD, was a little rocky. But this year he ironed out the rough spots. The Prince Cometh not only shows that a background in spoken word makes for a very intricate rap style (Lyfe's closest analogue would be the east coast rapper Nas), it also indicates that some poets might produce better work if they shifted to hip-hop as a medium. At his best moments, Lyfe uses literary techniques (poetic enjambment, vivid metaphors, a fusillade rap cadence that strains against the 4/4 bar pattern) that give his songs an air of sophistication. His strongest tracks — "Oakland Stand Up" and the Last Poets tribute "Whitey's in Iraq" among them — have a protean form that's wedged between spoken word and hip-hop, but retains the best qualities of both. (7even89ine)

Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It

It's no accident that Raphael Saadiq dons coke bottle glasses and a vintage sports jacket on the cover of The Way I See It, suggesting that he did the photo shoot right after raiding Eddie Kendricks' closet. Saadiq goes all-the-way Motown on this new joint, right from the opening bars of "Sure Hope You Mean It" — a sweet, flirtatious love song with a shuffling tambourine rhythm. Save for the bonus track with rapper Jay-Z, it's a throwback to the bubbly doo-wop choruses and mildly syncopated rhythms of the '50s and '60s, complete with a deliberately crusty recording sound. Yes, Smoky Robinson did it first, but Saadiq throws in a couple innovations of his own, such as the gorgeous bilingual vocals of Rocio Mendoza on classic low-rider ballad "Calling." Saadiq has everything that a contemporary R&B artist needs to create a perfect throwback album: the lilting looks, the lilting faslsetto, the chops (he plays several instruments himself), and the acumen as a composer. Hence, The Way I See It is thoroughly well-conceived. (Columbia)

Faye Carol, Faye Sings Lady Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday

The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol stars on four current albums with incredible stylistic range, from 1930s straight-ahead (on Mal Sharpe's Firecracker Baby) to prison songs and spirituals (Howard Wiley's Angola Project) to an orchestral suite (Marcus Shelby's Harriet Tubman). She rounds off the list with her own tribute to Billie Holiday, featuring a knock-out quartet (Shelby on bass, Wiley on sax, Darryl Green on drums, and Carol's daughter Kito Gamble on piano). Recorded live during last year's one-night-stand at Yoshi's, Faye Sings Lady Day puts a contemporary spin on standards like "God Bless the Child" and "Willow Weep for Me," which sounds extra bluesy in this rendition. Carol's band has a looseness and dexterity that only comes from musicians who've played together for decades, so their group dynamic sounds more like a dialogue than like several soloists trying to outdo each other. Best of all, you get to hear the audience laugh and jeer at Carol's stage antics, so listening to the album is tantamount to being in the room with her. Well, almost. (Gamble Girls Records)

Faye Carol, Faye Sings Lady Day: A Tribute to Billie Holiday

The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol stars on four current albums with incredible stylistic range, from 1930s straight-ahead (on Mal Sharpe's Firecracker Baby) to prison songs and spirituals (Howard Wiley's Angola Project) to an orchestral suite (Marcus Shelby's Harriet Tubman). She rounds off the list with her own tribute to Billie Holiday, featuring a knock-out quartet (Shelby on bass, Wiley on sax, Darryl Green on drums, and Carol's daughter Kito Gamble on piano). Recorded live during last year's one-night-stand at Yoshi's, Faye Sings Lady Day puts a contemporary spin on standards like "God Bless the Child" and "Willow Weep for Me," which sounds extra bluesy in this rendition. Carol's band has a looseness and dexterity that only comes from musicians who've played together for decades, so their group dynamic sounds more like a dialogue than like several soloists trying to outdo each other. Best of all, you get to hear the audience laugh and jeer at Carol's stage antics, so listening to the album is tantamount to being in the room with her. Well, almost. (Gamble Girls Records)

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