The Year in Local Music
A nice mix of already heavily lauded records and sleeper gems, this year's local top 10 astounds for its breadth. There's no easy "the year of..." here. If it's the year of anything, it's the year of Baltimore's corners, from lo-fi keyboard tinkering to groundbreaking hip-hop/Baltimore club collaboration to bombast-loaded jazz to grindcore experimentation--everything's as restless and prototypical as we expect from the City That Fidgets All Night With Sound Files. This year's list is compiled based on suggestions from Raven Baker, Michael Byrne, Bret McCabe, Al Shipley, and Raymond Cummings. If a local album was nominated on a ballot for the national music top 10, that was given due weight on this list.
One of the originators of Baltimore club, DJ Booman, remembers Labtekwon as one of the first MCs to try rhyming over the music's frenetic breakbeats in the early '90s. But it wasn't until 2006 that the two got together to fuse Lab's abstract lyrics to Booman's club tracks on record with the killer singles "Sex Machine" and "Hammer Dance," and it then took another two years for their full length collaboration as the 410 Pharaohs to surface. Fortunately, the album is well worth the wait, throwing club music hook master Jimmy Jones into the mix to help balance Lab's usual food for thought with the perfect amount of mindless repetition. Whether the Pharaohs are updating Jones's classic "Watch Out For the Big Girl," or making introspection danceable on "No More Sorrow," 410 Funk is that rarest of things: a party record with enough cultural significance that it belongs in a museum as well as on the stereo. (Al Shipley)
It's always gratifying when the world embraces an artist that Baltimoreans have known was bound for greatness. In 2006, we watched, stunned, as Ponytail's riotous Kamehameha failed to get the attention it deserved. Finally, this year, with the release of Ice Cream Spiritual, everyone started praising Ponytail to the skies. Even The New York Times jumped on the ecstatic, art-student bandwagon, although the paper did have to post a correction, after referring to Ice Cream Spiritual as the band's first album. And you know what? This latest foray into high-pitched caterwauling, high-energy guitar, and high-intensity psychedelia deserves every laudatory word it's garnered. (Judy Berman)
The rapper formerly known as Eyekon broke in a new stage name on his second album, but more importantly, he found his niche. Not quite a hipster sneaker pimp, or a humorless conscious MC, E Major has struck upon a fertile middle ground that allows him to display both playful rhymes and a nostalgic streak in equal measure, grabbing hooks from A Tribe Called Quest and Baltimore club legend Miss Tony over lush soul-sampling beats. And before things start to feel just a little too slick and melodic, he hits you upside the head with the blunt piano loops and boom bap beats of "We Got It Going On." (AS)
Vibe music is seldom this easily digestible. Zomes, the solo project of erstwhile Lungfish guitarist Asa Osborne, accomplishes a lot with very little: simple keyboards/electric organ; spare, tocking beats; looping equipment; and lo-fi dissonant fuzz. There are no vocals and his instrumentation is so often just three- or four-note progressions--lucid melodies that feel like a finger brushing the back of your neck--interlocked and set into repetitions that vary subtly, if at all. The simplicity is shocking; you might consider this record a collection of mantras. At the very least, Zomes is outstanding for its ability to totally reset your brain for 40 minutes. (Michael Byrne)
It sounds so easy: Slow and unshowy tempos kneaded along by polite percussion, shimmering keyboards and murmuring guitars, smoky female vocals gauzed with reverb like a scarf over a lamp, and voila, atmosphere uber alles. But if it was so easy, there'd be more memorable examples, and Beach House's sophomore release wouldn't be the special, special thing that it is. The duo's musical settings have increased in polish and lushness since the debut, but the real great leap forward here is in the melodies Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally wind around one another. This is art of seduction. (Lee Gardner)
There's a fetching bloodlessness to Slow Light, the latest from Towson-based lo-fi duo Rosemary Krust. It's as if its sound is missing a few key chromosomes, but in a good way. Katherine Plummer's knuckle-drag struummm and dead-eyed vocalese convey pathos as it often actually feels. And the pair's detours into tape-loop limbo and out-and-out noise mirror the sketchy sidestreets extreme depression wanders down. Sure, there are antecedents to this sort of slack-jawed navel-gazing--see Two Dollar Guitar's Let Me Bring You Down and Burned and Buried for numbing sinkholes that'll make you wanna stay stuck in the couch for, like, forever and a day--but Plummer and drummer/vocalist William Hardy inject textural variety and rudimentary experimentation into the type, making it more downer tourism than straight downer. Their distress is our vicarious, muffled bliss. (Raymond Cummings)
Why hep young jazz cats and crate digging hip-hop producers constantly searching for the latest great funky strut haven't erected a monument to Gilchrist, Baltimore's best-kept beat secret, is a constant mystery. Until then we get to celebrate having Gilchrist and his peerless New Volcanoes ensemble in our own backyard, and with Soul Progressin', this lithe unit takes skittish hip-hop tempos and breaks and seamlessly integrates them into the group's rhythmic constants of funk and contemporary swing. Few jazz albums move with this much infectious joy--hell, few pop records pull it off--and in "Come Get Some," Gilchrist fires off one of the slinkiest, dolled-up-broad-staring-you-down-from-across-the-street attitudes of the year. (Bret McCabe)
Wilderness seems like a little island in Baltimore's music community; there isn't a scene or trend that goes along with what this band is doing. And, really, what could you connect this to? There's a feeling of enormous pressure behind this music--like, it just doesn't have any choice but to be--that feels strongly punk in spirit, but the glassy, chiming guitars rolling on and on, loudly, in chilly yet sorta triumphant ethereality feel like postrock at its most transcendent. And, good god, James Johnson's voice sounds like it's booming off the walls of the Grand Canyon, howling obtuse free-associative statements of protest. It's crushing and overwhelming and delivers a punk release that feels like an exorcism must for the possessed. (MB)
Brainy electronic duo Matmos tend to work in service of a muse, with previous releases themed around rats, civil war, and off-beat gay icons. For Supreme Balloon, Matmos took inspiration directly from its gear, composing the album on an impressive array of synthesizers. The first half is unabashed, retro-futuristic pop with touches of German new wave, capped by the Turned On Bach-esque chamber ditty "Les Foiles Francaises." The second half shifts moods with the titular track, a 24 minute-long, Tangerine Dream-style opus of slow-building warm twiddles and the tinkling lullaby airiness of the aptly-named "Cloudhopper." (Raven Baker)
To find the misery index of an economy, add the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. To find Baltimore's Misery Index, add technically delivered blast beats to explosions of raw sound. With Traitors, MI resurrects a genre long inflicted with mediocrity--grindcore--and nails it to the door of invention. Brimming with dynamic speed and vocal ingenuity, they reach a next level of complexity which borders on cosmic perfection. Lyrically, Traitors is a clear call to arms, with socially charged songs like "The Arbiter." Couple that with the old-school breakdowns found on "Black Sites" and you've got the year's best in head-bashing goodness. (Christina Bumba)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201