Dorian S. Ham

When people hear that you’re into music, inevitably the two things you’ll always hear are, “What are you listening to?” and “Why isn’t there any good music out?” The first question feels like trying to sum up your life in 20 words or less, and the second question is just laughable. For an industry that’s dying, there sure is a metric ton of records being made. And for people who try to say that there’s more crap than cream, I just feel sorry you. From the bottom of my bulging hard drive to the glossy stacks of CDs on my desk to the piles of vinyl I keep tripping over, I can’t help but come across new great records. The problem with an exercise like this is that you keep on remembering just one more record. So for the 10 in the list below, there could be an additional 10 and probably more. Honestly, if you can’t find new music, you’re not even giving the minimal amount of effort. Here’s a hint for you: you’re on the internet, and even more importantly, you’re on a music website. So dig in. And with that, let’s look back at 2009.

High Fives

The rise of slightly skewed pop records: Little Boots, Florence and the Machine, and a host of Swedish and British artists aren’t shying away from the “pop” label. The results are records that are more interesting than your paint-by-numbers instrumental post-rock records.

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon: If you’re not watching the show or catching it online you’re missing out on one of the best showcases for music on television. With the Roots as the house band, you’d expect that they’d join in with the hip-hop musical guests, but I don’t think anyone would imagine that they’d pair up with artists as varied as Paul Simon, Christopher Cross and Dirty Projectors. And to further highlight what you’re missing when you’re not watching, Jawbox recently reunited to do three songs for Jimmy Fallon in celebration of the reissue of For Your Own Special Sweetheart. They’re not touring; Fallon just asked them if they’d do it. Awesome.

Dubstep: I can’t get enough of it. I spend many an hour on BBC Radio1 scribbling down names and making contorted faces of appreciation for this bastard offspring of drum ’n’ bass, speed garage and grime. And now that American hip-hoppers are trying to jump on the bandwagon, I can only assume that it’s soon gonna start sucking anyday now.

Columbus, Ohio: This has felt like a banner year for Columbus bands. I’ve probably bought more local records this year than I have in awhile. So let me shout out the Reciever, Greenhouse, Wing and Tusk, Paper Airplane and Zero Star, just to name a few. It just feels great to know that more times than not you can go out and hear great music.

Top 10 Albums

Lady Sovereign

There really shouldn’t be a reason why this record exists, let alone is so enjoyable. After burning herself out trying to conquer America with the Jay-Z approved Public Warning and after the slow death of the grime scene, Lady Sovereign seemed destined to be just an answer in Trivial Pursuit: The ’00s Edition. Instead, she regrouped, added singing to her repertoire and released Jigsaw on her own label. The rhymes are as sharp as ever, and the singing adds a vulnerable layer that suits her well.

World Painted Blood

Slayer is the gold standard for aggressive metal, and this record shows that they’re not giving up the crown without a fight. Sharp and focused, they ignore trends and stick to the classic formula of brutal guitar work and pointed commentary. While the production may hamper the sonic punch, it still can’t damper one of the best records this year.

The Lonely Island

Really? Yes, really. Underneath the punchlines and silly visuals, Lonely Island, which features Sal’s Andy Samberg, has constructed one of the best pop records of the year. The production is rock solid and the songs work like John Henry, even minus the video you keep posting to your FaceSpace page. And tell the truth, you’re singing “I’m on a Boat” right now!

Mos Def
The Ecstatic

Who knows what goes on in the head of Mos Def? After the unfairly maligned The New Danger, it seemed like his music career was becoming more of an afterthought. And releasing the underbaked True Magic did nothing to dispel that notion. So it came as quite a surprise when he released The Ecstatic. While so many hip-hop albums are content to be a collection of singles, this is an album that works as a whole. It’s kind of messy, there aren’t any traditional hooks, and the songs are generally really short. Frankly, it’s like a Guided By Voices album. And as long as the quality stays this high, I welcome Mos becoming the hip-hop Robert Pollard.

Major Lazer
Guns Don’t People... Lazers Do
Downtown/Mad Decent

Putting Diplo and Switch together was definitely one of the most no-brainer combinations of the year. After working together on MIA’s second record, most importantly the Grammy-nominated “Paper Planes,” even Mr. Magoo could see that the pair had great chemistry. Guns Don’t Kill People... Lazers Do, credited to a one-armed zombie vampire killer named Major Lazer, is one of the most fun records put out this year. It’s a respectful, yet twisted, take on dancehall and a collection of dance jams that would make even Dick Cheney shake his stanking ass.

The Prodigy
Invaders Must Die
Take Me to the Hospital/Cooking Vinyl

Upon my initial review of this record, I liked it but was confused at the repackaging of ideas. It felt like “The Prodigy Do the Greatest Hits of the Prodigy.” But I kept playing the record, and the more I played it, the better it sounded. It’s not subtle, but there’s something about repeated plays that helps Invaders Must Die make sense. It’s like a fistfight in a phone booth: bloody, messy and you hope you can get out in one piece.

Jarvis Cocker
Further Complications
Rough Trade

As one of the poster boys for Britpop, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker couldn’t be blamed if he just wanted to crank out “Disco 3000” or “Even More Common People.” Instead, on his second album as a solo artist, he’s found new life with this collection of no fuss, stripped down rock tunes. It’s messier than Pulp and way more direct, both lyrically and musically, but it’s still the same guy who can deliver a complete character study in three minutes. Only difference is that the amps have more occasions to scream.

Fist of God
Dim Mak

Easily one of the most head-scratching records of the year, Fist of God is an aggressive record that’s part electro, part freestyle and part R&B record. John Legend is one of the featured artists for heaven’s sake! It should have been a mess, but instead it’s an exhilarating romp across party lines. After a record like this, who knows where MSTRKRFT will go next, but it’ll be a hell of a ride.


With an almost eight-year silence following Maxwell’s last album, Now, it seemed a pretty safe bet to think that he wouldn’t be returning to the music scene. After countless release delays and some eyebrow-raising rumors, no one could really expect that the album was actually going to drop. But much to everyone’s surprise, BLACKsummernights actually did exist and entered the charts at number one. The first part of a proposed trilogy, the album shows Maxwell with no sign of ring rust. Where he could have just dropped a collection of smooth baby-making tunes, Maxwell instead goes relatively lo-fi for modern R&B and delivers really smart arrangements that show his ability to make even the most bitter break-up songs sound like candidates for a bride and groom’s first dance.

Flotation Walls

With more than 25 musicians listed in the credits and five years in the making, if there’s one thing for sure, the latest album from the Columbus-based Flotation Walls doesn’t lack ambition. The result is an impossibly gorgeous collection of songs about life, death, love and mortality that will stick with you long after the album ends. At turns both funny and heartbreaking, Nature was worth the wait. You should probably buy copies for yourself and everyone you know.

Top 10 Singles

10. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi”
I’ve tried to resist the machine that is Lady Gaga, but there’s no denying that, minus all the theatrics, at her core she writes some rock-solid pop songs. And this one had me clicking replay at an alarming rate. I really could have picked any of her singles, but something about the low-key wistful nature of “Paparazzi” really worked for me.

9. DJ Hell, “The DJ”
This may be the funniest song of the year. Over DJ Hell’s menacing techno backdrop, secret dance music enthusiast Daddy gives an eight-minute, profanity-laced rant about how DJs need to take more chances in the club and not be afraid to play the long version. It’s amazing, hilarious and epic.

8. Rick Ross (featuring John Legend), “Snow Days”
Rick Ross cannot rap very well. His success is kind of mind-boggling. Yet he somehow can put together tracks like this. It just bubbles along and is instantly contagious. The song is just irrespirable, and every time I hear it, I can’t help but do a two-step—even if I’m sitting down.

7. The Lonely Island, “On a Boat”
Yeah, at this point everyone has quoted this song to death. But let’s not ignore the fact that it manages to simultaneously make fun of the amped-up T-Pain song while being a T-Pain song. Still, one doesn’t cancel out the other. And let’s not forget that there are more quoteables than an episode of Jersey Shore. It’s kind of scary when comedians can make better hip-hop tracks than some legit rappers.

6. NASA, “Way Down” b/w ”Electric Flowers”
The NASA record was a let down, but these two songs hit the nail on the head. “Way Down,” featuring RZA, John Fusciante and unsigned artist Barbie Hatch, is a tense and moody love song with a “Curtis Mayfield meets Portishead” vibe to it. And while RZA drops a really short verse, it manages to actually be on topic and the perfect coda, an anomaly in the world of hip-hop cameos. Sadly, the best song on the record, “Electric Flowers,” again with RZA as well as the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, was cut from the final release in favor of a Kanye West–Santigold collaboration. It’s a shame as it’s the perfect bookend for “Way Down.” The song is tense and claustrophobic with an almost painful longing. Quietly stunning.

5. Dirty Projectors, “Stillness Is the Move”
I’m super late to the party that is Dirty Projectors. And it took some YouTube investigation and a cover by Solange Knowles to find out what I’ve been missing. “Stillness Is the Move” is a strangely groovy and vocally intricate track which suggests that indie rock and R&B can join together without any awkward ironic overtones.

4. Bat for Lashes, “Glass”
“Glass” evokes everything dramatic and over-the-top about the early ’90s. There are epic female vocals, a stampede of drums and a tension that seems on the verge of breaking, but never quite does. It would sound great along side some 4AD artists. In lieu of that, it’s the perfect entry into the world of Bat for Lashes.

3. Keri Hilson, “Turnin’ Me On”
One would imagine that after being stuck in label limbo for the better part of the year, this record had to have a good reason for its shelving. Instead, this sassy minimalist track, which features a cameo by the ubiquitous Lil Wayne, is so effervescent it’s shocking it wasn’t one of the biggest hits of the year. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but why must every song be Neil Armstrong?

2. Major Lazer, “Pon de Floor”
Too many times to count a supergroup is a major letdown. At worst, it’s a compromised dilution of the traits that make each artist great. Or it just can never live up to the hype in your head. So it’s with no minor relief that Diplo and Switch have delivered with “Pon De Floor,” a glitchy electro/dancehall track with Baltimore club undertones. Not so much a call to the dancefloor as it is a demand to totally lose your gotdang mind, tossing self-control to the wind. If you’re not dancing when this song comes on, you may be a zombie vampire, in which case, the good Major would like to speak to you.

1. The Gossip, “Heavy Cross”
After the surprise success of “Standing In the Way of Control,” people began to look at the Gossip a little differently. In the place of bluesy punk rock were sleek dancefloor jams belted out with authority. But what would they do for a follow-up? The answer is “Heavy Cross,” a tightly wound, tense, slow-building track that explodes into a hard soul shout custom made for unapologetically strutting and singing into a hairbrush.

Favorite Reissues

Michael Jackson, Hello World: The Motown Solo Collections
Compiled and released before Jackson’s untimely death this summer, this collection digs deeper than the handful of Jackson 5 songs that everyone goes to. It’s an essential look at the pop craftsmanship that existed way before Jackson became Mr. Thriller, a.k.a. the King of Pop.

Death, ...For the Whole World to See
This record is the missing link between Hendrix, Bad Brains and Iggy Pop, a link so missing that most didn’t even know it existed. I’m not sure how any of it happened, but kudos to Drag City for letting the Hackneys’ sonic story be told.

Beastie Boys, Check Your Head and Ill Communication
If you’re going to reissue your old albums, this is how you do it. These re-releases of two of the most influential records of the ’90s are crammed full of B-Sides and long lost remixes that are an excellent snapshot of the fondly remembered Grand Royal days.

Favorite Concerts

5. Greenhouse, Skully’s Music Diner, Columbus
I’ve seen Blueprint and Illogic, the two members who make up the newly redubbed Greenhouse, many times. In fact, I saw them perform a few weeks earlier, but this show, in celebration of their newly released EP, Electric Purgatory: Part One, found them in a particularly intense, aggressive mode. Spitting songs from their respective solo catalogs and the Greenhouse menu, they performed as if this was the last time they’d ever do this. They could have phoned it in, but instead proved why live hip-hop can be an exciting prospect.

4. The Breeders, Newport Music Hall, Columbus
Due to a birth in the family, the Breeders were down a bass player before their Columbus show. So who do they call in but former bass player Josephine Whigs, who hadn’t played with the band in almost 12 years. It was an out-of-leftfield, near-perfect reunion of the Last Splash edition of the band, and they lived up to both the hype and the memories.

3. Jay-Z, Value City Arena, Columbus
There’s a reason why he’s the biggest hip-hop artist in the world. Backed with a live band, Jay-Z showed how a professional takes care of business. And after a two-hour set, there were still big hits that he didn’t touch. Amazing.

2. Charles Walker and the Dynamites, Skully’s Music Diner, Columbus
A soul-stirring taste of the old school that really had no reason to be that good.

1. Cursive, The Summit, Columbus
Nursing a throat that was blown out by midset, Tim Kaiser and Cursive turned in a roof-raising church revival of a show.