Top 50 Albums of 2006 (15-11)
A man seemingly at odds with the current hip-hop landscape, Lupe Fiasco manages to come across as both thrillingly new and ineffably old school on his brilliant debut release. He seeks to renounce the sexism, drug-taking and general crass largesse of the current hip-hop scene but clearly wants to be a part of it. Maybe his endgame is change through subversion, but it makes for Food & Liquor being a bit of a conceptual headfuck.
There are tracks that hark back to hip-hop's true golden age in the rose-tinted 'Kick, Push' and 'Sunshine', but he can get pretty scabrous at times, dissing Jay-Z's entrepreneurial streak and his name-checking of John Gotti, but he's thankful that Hova gave him a leg-up after all. 'Daydreamin'' rips the oldest, most tired sample in the book in The Gunter Kallman Choir's 'Daydream', but his nous and skill on the mic injects it with enough verve and vitality (with the help of Jill Scott) that brings to mind his mentor. He also fancies himself as a bit of a Mos Def in the strain of consciousness that runs through the album. In fact, he could fulfill the promise that Mos doesn't seem to want to, if the searing 'American Terrorist' is anything to go off. At his best, Lupe was better than a lot of mainstream rap acts this year and the fact that he's a walking contradiction could end up working in his favour. If he decides to keep the sleevenotes to the inlay booklet in future (the woeful 'Outro' is ten minutes of shout-outs and production credits), he might yet make the classic that he clearly has in him.
The general feeling when people got a hold of Hell Hath No Fury was one of relief; Pusha T and Malice were obviously glad that it was finally out there and the fans that had waited and waited and waited wouldn't have had much to complain or be disappointed about. This is one of the best kinds of hip-hop albums, or, in fact, just albums in general, in that it's a lean, 12-track beast that practically defines 'all killer, no filler'.
Hell Hath No Fury highlights what makes Clipse one of the great rap duos of our time (in fact, OutKast aside, they're pretty much peerless); the rhymes are concise, ruthlessly direct and brutally delivered and both Pusha and Malice can be as unshowy as often as they are unconventional. Never stooping to hurried or slurred delivery when the lyrics need to be heard (as Clipse really want the world to know how they see it), it results in a bleak, claustrophobic, eminently 'street' but inclusive gangsta masterpiece. Sonically, it's also easily one of the year's best-sounding records, with The Neptunes pulling twelve of the best productions they've delivered in years out of their arses, from the thick, resonant steel drums in 'Wamp Wamp (What It Do) to the compressed, nasty Blade Runner synths on 'Trill'. A complete success on all fronts.
13. Burial - Burial (Hyperdub)
I'll be the first to admit that, up until a few months ago at least, I knew absolutely nothing about dubstep. I could probably fathom from the subgenre's moniker that it was a more dubbed-out version of 2-step (a genre that I'm also pretty ignorant about), but beyond that, I've got nothing. So I was slightly blindsided by the brilliance of Burial's debut record. He came out of nowhere, even for the dubstep hardcore, to craft something that whilst at a remove from the dubstep that's come before, paves the way for bringing the bass-heavy, club-specific music to a wider audience and, more importantly, works better in the living room than it does in a cramped back room.
Burial sprinkles the bass rumbles and clipped, skippy percussion with highly evocative samples, both vocal and atmospheric noises. A keening reggae croon peppers 'Broken Home', while wind howls mournfully in the background, while 'Night Bus' samples the incessant pitter-patter of urban drizzle to act as the beat. If all this sounds just too foreboding and despairing for you, the hope and warmth definitely shines through in the glinting synths and the romanticism injected by the samples. It's not faultless and Burial will probably make better albums, but as a glimpse towards where this exciting genre is heading, it bodes very well indeed.
12. Boris - Pink (Southern Lord)
There was talk among hardened Boris fans of Pink being a bit of a piss-take; an album made purely because they wanted to show people that they could do a full record of technicolour, full-bodied, Melvins-style sludge rock, rather than focusing on the more esoteric, droney black metal that they'd perfected. This record is more akin to Black Sabbath than Sunn O))). If Boris' heads are down, it's because they want to shake their hair, rather than stare into the abyss, while serving up mogadon rumbles.
While the purists may be irked by the bluesy elements of the loose, groovy 'Afterburner' or the shoegazing bent of opener, 'Farewell', there were fewer more unalloyed pleasures than the heads-down rawk of the likes of 'Pseudo Bread' or 'Woman Of The Screen' for those who like their music loud, nasty and high octane. The accompanying EP, Akuma No Uta showed us more of the same, which points to Boris giving it some for the foreseeable future. Long may they rock.
11. Man Man - Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu)
While no-one other than the five members of Man Man were ever quite sure just what Six Demon Bag actually was, one thing it wasn't was weird for the sake of being weird. A rootless morass of sounds and shapes that plays with the listener in that just when you think you've got a handle on where it's coming from (a bit of Beefheart here, a bit of Zappa there, some Tom Waits thrown in for good measure), Man Man pull the rug to leave you bewildered as to just what the hell these guys are on.
There's a certain internal logic to Six Demon Bag that belies its willing freakishness and means that you totally buy each and every curveball they hurl your way. So, for every high-tension wigout like 'Tunneling Through The Guy' or 'Push The Eagle's Stomach', you get surprisingly tender noirish torch songs like 'Van Helsing Boombox' and 'Skin Tension', or practically straight (for Man Man at least) poppy tunes like 'Spider Cider' and 'Ice Dogs' (featuring the best girl group shoo-be-doos of 2006, sorry The Pipettes). The beauty of this remarkably offbeat album lies in its honesty and sincerity, despite the fact that on the first few listens, it's misinterpreted as wilfully strange. Man Man don't do fake. You can see it in their eyes.