Best Albums 2004 (21-25)

25. Nas — Street’s Disciple

Illmatic remains a classic, and like much venerated art, a little stiff in its precision. Less hemmed in by true-crime convention and underground beat aestheticism, Nas’ true comeback never lets art interfere with expression. He’s right about the source of the Bush family fortune, wrong about avoiding the voting booth, and either way integrally engaged with his culture. Sex and violence are mostly recollected in tranquility by a family man who views “Getting Married” as an experience that’s raw both emotionally and physically. Among a crew of producers outdoing themselves, Salaam Remi helms the two defining tracks: “Thief’s Theme,” with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” rumbling underneath, and “Bridging the Gap,” with Olu Dara a just-strong-enough link between Muddy Waters and Nasir Jones.

24. Ratatat — Ratatat

No matter what Young Churf boasts between tracks, rock this is. Electronic rock, sure. Laptop rock, if you like. Rock that couldn’t have been made before indie musicians had internalized hip-hop convention, mos def. This peaks early with “17 Years,” dominated by Mike Stroud’s is-that-a-guitar? solo, and the repetition and accretion model that synth-player/ bassist/ producer Evan Mast lays down is spare enough that a co-worker once wondered when the vocals on these Cure songs would kick in. But great instrumental rock LPs are rare, and great instrumental rock LPs that aren’t built on improvisation are outright flukes to be cherished.

23. Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends — The Pros and Cons of Collaboration

Neko Case’s onetime singing partner is a lot less famous than her fellow Corn Sister, and a lot drunker too. But Mark doesn’t pursue the alcoholic oblivion so many bad songwriters crave–she cultivates the altered perceptions and feelings of a good buzz, and she’s got a raucous enough back-up band to accompany her romps. Her taste isn’t infallible–she crushes out on “Vincent Gallo,” and “The Wine Song” rules out suitors based on their drink of choice. But I prefer her honky-tonk jams to the stylized abstraction of her pal’s performances, and prize her Canadian perspective on “Yanksgiving”: “I know it’s America, but it sure is fun.”

22. African Underground Vol 1: Senegal Hip-Hop

The search for great African rap, in its way, mirrors the quest for the primordial source of the blues. Combining an academic’s fascination with folkways and a label head’s lack of interest in authenticity, Ben Herson champions the field recording as underground mixtape, providing an influx of fresh beats that no African region has yet to mass produce. Nothing particularly “Senegalese” about Herson’s funk, though with Wolof’s ideally rap-suited gutturals dominating, the tracks sound plenty “West African.” Both Trikont’s Africa Raps and The Rough Guide to African Rap offer a broader range, but to date, there’s been no better African hip-hop LP. At least not recorded in Africa–K’naan awaits.

21. Devin the Dude — To tha X-treme

Could an MC be any less x-treme than this easygoing Houston stoner? The title of his previous disc, Just Tryin’ ta Live, summed up his persona better; here he details some of the obstacles that vex that existence. And much as he loves his weed, the troubles it causes him speak louder than any cracked-egg-on-a-PSA-skillet. His race may invite police hassle on “Go Fight Some Other Crime,” his wayward dick may cause his lady to skedaddle for a studly Jamaican on “What?,” but Devin’s smoked-out perspective doesn’t exactly help him navigate either scenario. Good thing he keeps his head when it matters most–on “Briar Patch,” whose Brer Rabbit reverse-psychology is recommended to the gat-averse.

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