The Best Music of 2009 

Our critics recommend the year's best in folk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, rock, R&B, and more — both here and abroad.

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Del tha Funkee Homosapien & Tame One, Parallel Uni-verses

It wasn't obvious that Jersey rapper Tame One and Oakland's Del tha Funky Homosapien would work well as a pair. Tame is the catchier of the two — the one who could have a successful mainstream career if his rhymes weren't so smart and his beats weren't so underground. Del, on the other hand, has such an inimitably lethargic, sneering flow that it seems odd to pair him up with anyone. And yet, the two of them have amazing chemistry and really complement each other. Parallel Uni-verses really gets started with "Flashback," a string of old-school references (to Blowfly, Salt-N-Pepa, and the slang expression "bobbin' and weavin'") that touch on pop culture of the 1980s, historical events, and both rappers' individual pasts. Producer Drum & Knowledge contributes some complex and layered backing tracks, combining the required snare and high hat with spy-movie horn lines, jazz bass, and — in "We Taking Over" — a smear of violins. In many songs, the beats riff off the rhymes, and vice versa. It demands multiple listens, but the payoff is terrific. (Gold Dust Media)

Ledisi, Turn Me Loose

A look back at Ledisi's career is like tracing a zigzag. She started out playing hip-hop-driven soul, then forayed into jazz, then returned to soul but sang in an older style. Collectively, her albums are more of a sonic commentary than a linear trajectory. This year's Turn Me Loose is Ledisi's second effort since getting "discovered" in mainstream circles, and it's a large improvement on the more pop-oriented Lost and Found. Listen to the stubborn lyrics and gristly bass lines of the title track, or the heartbreak song "Alone" — a simple R&B waltz that Ledisi adorns with her moody, vibrato voice — and you'll hear a singer in her element. Ledisi had a hand in writing and producing most of the tracks, and it often sounds as though she's singing to someone in particular. Thus, "Please Stay" is a little more plaintive than a typical song about seduction, and "I Need Love" sounds more pained than your average heartbreak ballad. Most songs feature live instrumentation, with ensembles that include guitarist Errol Cooney and drummer Teddy Campbell, both of whom are stars in their own right. At the end of the day though, it's big-voiced Ledisi who makes the tunes crackle. (Verve)

The Nice Guy Trio, Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio

It's not often you hear a horn player with as much emotional range as Darren Johnston. There's no question he's capable of round, fat tones and brassy bombast, but he can also play delicately for most of an album — as he does on Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio, and still give the music a lot of texture and personality. His songs are full of every type of intonation that exists in the horn world, from long slurs and trills to quick, explosive blasts and careful staccato putts. More interesting, yet, are Johnston's compositions, with their unobvious melodies and weird mish-mashings of instruments: The Nice Guy Trio comprises Johnston on trumpet, Rob Reich on accordion, and Daniel Fabricant on bass, plus a slew of guests. In all, the album contains five tracks by Johnston (the most beautiful is "Simple Life"), three by Reich, one by Fabricant, one by Charles Mingus, and one by Ornette Coleman (just to give you a sense of their influences). Recorded at Oakland's New Improved Recordings, it has a real bedroom studio sound that befits the tunes and the band's sensibility. (Porto Franco)

Donald Bailey, Blueprints of Jazz Volume 3

When he cofounded San Francisco record company Talking House, Marc Weibel had the brave — if somewhat unprofitable — idea of recording a few unsung jazz artists among the indie rock acts on his roster. The series, called Blueprints of Jazz, features three albums, including one by drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey. Bailey's record stands out in particular, partly because it's only his second album as a leader (he made his first in the 1970s, featuring harmonica instead of drums), and partly because Bailey lives right here in the East Bay. With a quintet that also features freewheeling tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, it combines technical sharpness and imagination with a history that's alive and palpable. Pope wrote or co-wrote most of the tunes, though the hippest ones are a blues by Bailey's Philly pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali, and a waltz by Donald's brother Morris, which has a real behind-the-beat, syncopated feel. It closes out with Bailey playing the old ballad "Blue Gardenia" on harmonica. He gives the tune a sweet, moody cast, recalling the late jazz singer Dinah Washington. It's like visiting a ghost from the past. (Talking House)

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