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Top Ten

The Year in Local Music

Uli Loskot

Top Ten 2006

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Posted 12/13/2006

This was hard. A shit-ton of Baltimore bands, singers, rappers, and bang-on-some-pots-and-pans'ers released albums this year. With the advent of CD-R labels, hip-hop mixtapes, and MP3 downloads, large quantities of music hitting our desks and ears in any one year isn't so surprising anymore. (Just ask our mail carrier, our credit card company, and our overloaded hard drive.) But something about 2006 felt different; maybe it's because so many of those local releases were so damn good. Whittling things down to a Top 10 was straight-up Sophie's choice: Something great was gonna have to get cut.

Forget the mentions in The New York Times or the MTV News spots: Local music in Charm City is still a cussedly idiosyncratic thing, not quite ready for prime time and sometimes all the better for it. If Daniel Higgs' gnarled psychedelic folk and Blaq Starr's incongruous mix of banging beats and creeped-out, minor-key melodies share anything other than geography, it's how little each sounds like anything else, in or out of city limits. This unshowy, natural diversity is the kind of thing that makes you proud to live somewhere, even if it doesn't make where you live an easy "sell" to folks hawking lifestyle magazines. Not that the outside world hasn't been riding B-more's jock--and hard--this year.

We're not saying that other cities don't have unique musical treasures, though ours are certainly cooler. But Baltimore is downright overrun with musicians making music because they've got that proverbial special noise in their heads that they've gotta squeeze out, whether it's a rapper on the grind or a rock band in the garage or someone soldering together his own circuit boards. And if you can find anything in New York or Los Angeles that sounds like club music or Leprechaun Catering, we'll be very surprised. But if you ever find any club music that sounds like Leprechaun Catering, holler at us. This year's City Paper Local Music Top 10 was compiled from suggestions from Jess Harvell, Bret McCabe, Jason Torres, and Al Shipley. No votes were cast and final dictatorial control was in the hands of the music editor, so complain to him if your favorite got left out. (Jess Harvell)


Frank Klein
1
Daniel A.U.I. Higgs Ancestral Songs (Holy Mountain) There sure has been a lot of bullshit released in the last few years in the name of the simple acoustic guitar and the lone human voice, and most of it has been the work of young folks (pun sadly intended) trying to play way above their weight class. But with his second solo album, Lungfish frontman Daniel "Arcus Incus Ululat" Higgs proves that if you're gonna strip away the volume and the affect from your music, you better have some bloodied flesh and raw nerves underneath. Music and voice are locked into such mantra-simple yet harmonically complex long-form explorations--whether spinning fuzz-saturated guitar ragas or twanging the most cosmically tweaked Jew's harp this side of, well, anything--that the result is nothing short of truly modern (and truly ancient-sounding) devotional songs for a world where "religious music" means, like, Christian ska. (JH)

2
Blaq Starr I'm Bangin' (Starr Productions) No Baltimore club producer got more dancers rockin' off this year than Blaq Starr. But his sound is an odd one, even by club music standards: sinister synths, his eerie, almost androgynous singing, and beats that are often nothing more than an insistent kick-drum pulse. I'm Bangin'--a mixtape sold on Starr's web site (www.blaqstarr.com) and at his DJ gigs--features unstoppable anthems like "Ryda Gyrl" and "Hands Up Thumbs Down" (later remixed by rappers D.O.G. and Deuce Tre Deuce, respectively) alongside some jams that are just too fantastically weird for K-Swift to play on the radio. (Al Shipley)

3
Lo Moda Gospel Store Front (Creative Capitalism) The sneaky thing about this undeniably arty local sextet is that it's really a sophisticated exercise in letting the rhythm hit 'em. It's elemental parts--Scott Braid's steady, standing Moe Tucker-ish drum pound, Jeff McGrath's low-end bass throb, and spices from Christian Sturgis' fluttery guitar wrist flicks, Raili Haimila's viola drone, and Gillian Quinn's keyboard atmosphere backing Peter Quinn's microphone gymnastics, which flip from chanted abstraction to pinched yelps--sound like repetitive Reichian minimalism if taken individually. Together they swell into a pulsating, hypnotic presence that follows you around like a shadow. (Bret McCabe)

4
Skarr Akbar The Bidding War Starts Now (Akbar Enterprize) The Bidding War Starts Now is not just Skarr spitting his usual venom over some industry beats and a few cool originals. It's a showcase of his shameless dedication to creating lyrical visuals of dazzling ultraviolence that would give Alex DeLarge goose bumps. As much as people complain about violence in hip-hop, Skarr keeps the body count climbing. It's just his thing: body parts and blood and bullets and brains and other grisly bits of metaphorical madness. Of his many releases this year, this mixtape serves as a reminder that if the bidding war hasn't actually started yet, it shouldn't be long now. (Jason Torres)

5
Death Set To (RabbitFoot) A bristling quarter-hour or so of electronically addled pop punk, the Death Set's debut EP was the year's best bet for those who like things short and squeaky and squealy and sing-along friendly. Like Redd Kross rewired for a generation raised on cracked software and internet-attenuated attention spans, Death Set's rattling, tinny drum machines, ray-gun guitars, and walkie-talkie fidelity vocals are the reason moms everywhere restrict their kids' sugar intake. Not quite a substitute for its equally terse and way-sweatier live gigs, To still manages to make the old and cranky feel young at heart. Or maybe just like you're about to have a heart attack. (JH)

6
Leprechaun Catering Male Plumage (White Denim) Dear sir: Please add this codicil to the will of Bret McCabe requesting that something off Leprechaun Catering's Male Plumage be added to the DJ playlist for his open-bar wake prior to cremation. Any song will do--the deceased does suggest side two's "Hippy Id" to be played when the flames are actually lit. He understands that such dance jigginess melting into improvisational weirdness isn't to everybody's taste, but he's paying for it, so just follow the damn instructions. He merely wants the soundtrack accompanying his body's return to carbon to be as ecstatically drunk on life as this. (BM)

7
Ogun and Profound Oil and Water 2 (Real on Purpose Entertainment) Gruff, blue-collar everyman MC Ogun and greasy-talking, ironically named Profound tag-team once again for volume two of their Oil and Water mixtape series. The contrast between their two very different styles works even better this time around, with Ogun's thoughtful, introspective, and no-frills approach to the mic matched by the fly-guy charisma and "money/cash/hos" lyricism of Profound, who shows major growth from volume one and almost completely steals the show. The majority of OW2 finds the two sparring over hot industry tracks, but is rounded out by a few original beats. And the two bonus tracks--"Bmore Shit" with Tim Trees, Little Clayway, Comp, Mullyman; and Shellbe Raw, and the DJ P-Funk dis track "Truth Serum"--are just sick. (JT)

8
Cex Actual Fucking (Automation) After ripping his playful early Cex persona to shreds on 2003's self-destructive Maryland Mansions, Rjyan Kidwell laid low for a couple of years while re-imagining his long-running solo project as an IDM jam band. The end result, Actual Fucking, is as enigmatic and bleak as Mansions. But the additions of vocals by Kidwell's wife and Sand Cats band mate, Roby Newton, and dexterous live drumming by Mike Shirazi and Cale Parks, in place of glitchy breakbeats, gives Actual Fucking the approachable humanity and replay value that's been missing from Cex's records since he stopped rapping about dodge ball. (AS)

9
Shellbe Raw Do You Like It Raw? (self-released) In a town where tough, gritty, and aggressive pretty much define local MCs, Shellbe Raw--aka D'Ionna Willis--is a refreshingly versatile personality. Willis agilely moves from hard rhyme to smooth talk, sometimes within the same song. It's what makes her mixtape such a beguiling journey the whole way through. Sure, she can spit the hard grind ("This Shit Right Here") and bring out the banging cuts ("Put It on the Floor"). But she also sounds chill in a bedroom purr that shifts into the woozy on the discombobulating "Drunk Song" with Ogun, adding extra dimensions to her mic presence that any local MC should take notice of. (BM)

10
Wzt Hearts Heat Chief (Hit-Dat) Our 2006 Best Album continues to deliver the goods months later; Wzt (that's "Wet" to you) Hearts have hit a sweet spot we barely knew existed before they came along, situated somewhere between Fenneszian flurries of atmospheric distress--imagine a musical equivalent to those green, yellow, orange, and red bit-mapped blocks that move across a Weather Channel map tracking a storm--and the muscle-straining and vocal chord-spraining drums and screams of rock. Heat Chief is the kind of album that, in an era of easy laptop financing and total lack of quality control, reminds you how much life is still left in "noise," "glitch," or whatever other names you want to pin on this singular racket. (JH)

The Next 10 (in alphabetical order): Beach House Beach House (Carpark); Dirty Hartz It Is What It Is Mixtape Vol. 2 (Dirty Hartz Entertainment); Ecstatic Sunshine Freckle Wars (Carpark); Harrius Enter the Cotton Ring (Ehse); Karmella's Game The Art of Distraction (Speedbump Recordings); Labtekwon Hustlaz Guide to the Universe 2.0 (Ankh Ba); Misery Index Discordia (Relapse); Ponytail Kamehameha (Creative Capitalism); Supa DJ Big L The Reality Season 1 (Unruly Records); Various artists Architects Recording Studio Presents Street Radio 3 (Architects).

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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