Album reviews and revised Top 20 list

Posted: December 30, 2010 in Album Reviews

Last week, I jumped the gun and presented my top 10 albums of the year list. I should have known I would get gift cards o’plenty (thanks Mom, Dad, Carl, Stephen and Tyler!), and while I used most of those to buy older albums that aren’t available in stores now, I picked up three new albums and all three are excellent. So after my reviews of these gems, I’ve included an updated top 20 list and that’s my final answer, Regis.

Diddy and friends have crafted a rare gem: an album with emotional resonance and dancefloor appeal.

Diddy/Dirty Money, Last Train to Paris: One of the most pleasantly surprising albums of the year, also one of the year’s best. I was never a big fan of Diddy, Puff Daddy, Sean Combs, insert name here, as a rapper, but the guy has always been a great judge of talent (helping launch the careers of Jodeci and one of the best rappers of all time, the Notorious B.I.G.), and he has re-emerged with an hip-hop/electrodance/funk/R&B outfit Dirty Money, consisting of former Danity Kane singer Dawn Richard and singer/songwriter Kalenna Vick. Together, they’ve put out a thrilling concept album, Last Train to Paris, chronicling a stormy transcontinental Diddy romance. Diddy and other male R&B/rap superstars such as Usher, T.I., Drake, Rick Ross and Swizz Beats tell Diddy’s side of the story, while Richard and Vick’s excellent singing on most of the album’s chorus lines provide the unidentified woman’s perspective.
Actually, this is what Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks could have been if he had used other singers rather than his annoying Autotuned voice. Diddy, who doesn’t rap on every track (or at least doesn’t have a prominent role on every one), has the good sense to let the real singers do the singing, and while his rapping skills will never land him on any greatest of all-time lists, they are better than expected and keep the story arc moving along nicely.
The music was produced by many hip hop/dance luminaries, yet has a cohesive flow as many of the songs blend together seamlessly. At times the music has a Eurodisco or Techno feel, while others have more contemporary hip-hop sounds. No song sounds the same, and there really isn’t a bad track here, which is a triumph as many hip hop albums have their share of filler alongside great singles. Highlights include “I Hate That You Love Me,” “Shades (featuring Lil Wayne and Justin Timberlake), “Hello Good Morning (featuring T.I. and Rick Ross)” and the wonderful “Coming Home.” This is the rare album that conveys raw emotion yet sends you running to the dance floor at the same time. Excellent work by Diddy and crew.

Sod rating: ****

Nicki Minaj is a budding rap superstar, and her debut is outstanding.

Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: The much-anticipated debut album from budding rap superstar Nicki Minaj doesn’t disappoint, delivering the hype depicting Minaj as the great hope for female rappers everywhere.
Minaj had already become an underground sensation on the mixtape circuit, before a major-label bidding war was won by Young Money Records (Lil Wayne and company). Throughout the last year, Minaj has guested on other stars’ albums, taking a star turn on Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” and literally stealing the show on Kanye West’s “Monster” (no small feat considering the track featured Jay-Z as well).
On her major-label debut, Minaj shows her versatility as a rapper and singer, as she is quite gifted on writing and belting out an excellent hook (see lead singles “Right Thru Me” and “Your Love”). But she’s equally adept at going toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Eminem on Roman’s Revenge – where she pits her alter-ego Roman Zolanski against Em’s Slim Shady- and Kanye West on “Blazin'”
Lending a helping hand and a sample of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” produces the catchy “Check it Out”, and Minaj also adds a few inspirational tunes to budding female rappers, telling them not to give up their dream of making it big in the male-dominated rap game.
Along with the emergence of Drake, Minaj shines as rap’s great hope for the future. Let’s hope she builds on this outstanding first effort.

Sod rating: ****

Vampire Weekend continues to expand their sonic palette on their thrilling sophomore effort.

Vampire Weekend, Contra: This album was released in January, and despite glowing reviews, I didn’t pick it up until yesterday because it was on sale for $7.99 at Best Buy. Vampire Weekend is a group of indie rockers from Columbia University, and their sound is hard to characterize. They employ plenty of world beats on this offering, reminding me of Paul Simon’s forays into world music on his albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints.
Singer/lyricist Ezra Koenig has an easygoing voice, a bit similar in style to the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. The title of the album is not only an homage to rebellion (like the Nicaraguan Contra uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980, but also the classic Nintendo video game Contra, so you gotta love that!)
The ten songs fly by, as the album clocks in at just over half an hour, embracing many genres such as ska and even rap. African rhythms are prominent on several tracks, so a number of instruments not usually featured on Western albums are used here.
Vampire Weekend has established themselves as one of the most unique pop/rock bands out there and given their young age, they should keep delivering on their enormous promise for years to come.
Highlights include “Holiday,” “Horchata,” “I Think Ur a Contra,” “Giving up the Gun,” and “Run.”

Sod rating: ****

Updated Top 20 Albums of the Year list
20. Mojo, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
19. Slash, Slash
18. The Oracle, Godsmack
17. Hurley, Weezer
16. Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon
15. The Adventures of Bobby Ray, B.O.B.
14. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Big Boi
13. Stone Temple Pilots, Stone Temple Pilots
12. Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj
11. Sea of Cowards, The Dead Weather
10. Rise Up, Cypress Hill
9. A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park
8. Thank Me Later, Drake
7. Contra, Vampire Weekend
6. Last Train to Paris, Diddy/Dirty Money
5. Recovery, Eminem
4. The Promise, Bruce Springsteen
3. The Suburbs, The Arcade Fire
2. Brothers, The Black Keys
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West


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