Best Albums 2009 (16-20)

20. Raekwon — Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. 2

No MC represents the changing fortunes of the Wu-Tang dynasty quite like Rae. The original Cuban Linx established that solo Wu joints could be solid artworks rather than hodgepodge advertisements for each rapper’s persona. But fourteen years is a long damn time. In the interim, Ghostface has handily upstaged his former tag-team as a solo rhymer, and Wu quality control has slipped some (though less than commonly believed). But from “House of Flying Daggers” on, Pt. 2 feels like old times, with appearances from every Wu MC except U-God (he couldn’t make time?) and a heartfelt ODB tribute, “Ason Jones.” Until you check the fine print, you might not even notice that RZA’s down to two production credits. And the funny thing is, “House of Flying Daggers” is an exhumed Dilla beat.

19. Art Brut — Art Brut vs. Satan

Eddie Argos will try anything once, even conventional verse-chorus songwriting. Having followed that detour to a dead end on Art Brut’s second album, It’s a Bit Complicated, Argos doubled back to rediscover his natural métier: standup rants with punk accompaniment. Where before he trumpeted his ambitions, he now proclaims a litany of stuff he likes: “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes,” riding the bus, the Replacements, shitty-sounding records. Chastened but still brash, Argos remains a proudly anti-pop people person even if his songlets will never be half as universal as “Happy Birthday” — which I bet couldn’t win a plurality among the record-buying public these days either.

18. Rokia Traoré — Tchamantche

Last time out she collaborated with Kronos Quartet; this time she covers “The Man I Love.” Traoré isn’t just courting First World audiences — whether consciously or instinctively, she’s specifically eyeing the NPR/Starbucks demo. She’s a singer-songwriter in the Western sense, complete with acoustic guitar, introspective lyrics, and a voice that’s remarkably delicate by Malian standards. This particular First Worlder isn’t always sure what to make of those lyrics: “Tounka” calls for Africans to stay where they are, and “Zen” makes me glad she sings in Bambara. But the guitar and voice still sound as smart as they do gorgeous.

17. The xx — The xx

Their low-affect sparseness un-piqued my curiosity at first. But eventually I heard that their apparent melancholy wasn’t even necessarily sad, and that the empty spaces flattered their minimal décor, especially Romy Madley Croft’s thin, dangling guitar lines. Few singing pairs have sounded like they need each other quite like Croft and Oliver Sim do. Not that they cling to one another or boldly express solidarity. Instead, two fragile voices gather strength from one another’s presence, most obviously when they conceptualize their bond — on “Infinity” (“I can’t give it up/ To someone else’s touch”), the mutual pep talk “VCR,” and the shut-in anthem “Islands” — but even when the lyrics say otherwise.

16. Brad Paisley — American Saturday Night

Times are so tough that Paisley can sell middle-class comfort — time off for fishing, nice underwear for your gal — as an escapist fantasy. I’m a little warier when he peddles neoliberalism as progress: the title track confuses the trade deficit with the melting pot, and “Welcome to the Future” finds equal reason for optimism in black presidents and the latest electronic gadgetry. Still, he balances his beer-commercial manhood with a celebration of his wife’s independence, an imagining of his newborn son’s eventual revenge, and two great songs about being dumped. Not just the best album yet from country’s biggest male superstar, but the best mainstream country record from a guy since…  No Fences? Something Special?

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