Kanye West (Rap/Hip-Hop)
The College Dropout (3/4)- 2005
Prior to the release of his first studio album, Kanye West was an in-demand producer for both mainstream and underground rap artists, and for good reason. West was certainly one of hip-hop’s finest beat makers, producing classics like Talib Kweli’s “Get By” and radio hits like Jay-Z’s “Izzo.” On The College Dropout, Kanye shows more of his production skills, making each beat unique and memorable. Unfortunately, Kanye’s rap skills aren’t anywhere near that of his production. He raps the single “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which would be impressive if he didn’t actually sound like a producer trying to rap with his jaw wired shut. There are, however, moments that save the vocals on The College Dropout from being a complete waste. Common and Talib Kweli show up on “Get ‘Em High,” which is not so coincidentally one of the album’s highlights. Jay-Z, Mos Def, and Freeway also lay down some quality verses, and even Kanye himself steps it up at times. “Jesus Walks” is easily the lyrical standout, and it’s not surprising that the song was co-written by Rhymefest. For the most part, Kanye West proves to be a mediocre emcee and a below average lyricist, but The College Dropout is saved by the man’s clear production talent and some quality guest spots.
Late Registration (2/4)- 2006
Despite the occasional moment of sincerity, Kanye West’s second album behind the mic is mostly filler. As an emcee, Kanye only seems to be getting worse, and his lyrics are mostly terrible. The saving grace of The College Dropout was its beats, but Late Registration isn’t quite up to Kanye’s usually high production standards. The beats often sound like leftovers from his first album, and despite its commercial success, there really isn’t much here that can be praised.
Graduation (2.5/4)- 2007
The beats are great, the rapping is mediocre, and the lyrics are poor. Yes, that describes each of Kanye West’s first three albums, but it especially applies to Graduation. The beats here are undeniably creative, especially the Daft Punk-sampled “Stronger” and the standout “Flashing Lights.” Still, Kanye hasn’t improved much as an emcee. His flow is average at best, and Kanye has difficulty sticking to one lyrical concept. His moments of conscious lyricism are always contradicted seconds later by filler lines about, as N.W.A says, “bitches and money.” Despite Kanye’s efforts, Graduation is only listenable for its beats, and it’s a shame this talented producer couldn’t save those beats for a better emcee.
Kataklysm (Death Metal)
Prevail (2.5/4)- 2008
For the most part, Kataklysm is one of the better modern death metal bands. They are very proficient at what they do, and also manage to be a rare extreme metal band that has enough brutality to please death metal fans while also being one of the more accessible bands in the genre. It's safe to say that while Kataklysm is not an especially unique band, there are a very solid one does enough to separate themselves from much of the death metal pack. While Prevail is not a bad album, it doesn't do a whole lot to separate itself from the rest of the death metal pack. It's not that Prevail isn't Kataklysm at its best, as one could argue that the band at its best is when they find that hybrid between brutality and accessibly. From that perspective, Prevail is both a brutal and accessible death metal record, but it unfortunately isn't much else. This is no more and no less than the average death metal album, and while Kataklysm do make subtle changes to place them ahead of most extreme metal acts, nothing on Prevail places Kataklysm ahead of their past selves. This is yet another solid death metal album from Kataklysm, but it's also a familiar one that is both safe and forgettable.
Katatonia (Alternative/Doom Metal)
Dance of December Souls (3/4)- 1993
Katatonia’s debut is the only doom metal album in their discography, yet it remains one of the most influential in the genre. Both the band and genre would improve over time, but this is still an example of solid doom metal.
Brave Murder Day (3.5/4)- 1996
No longer able to growl after a serious throat operation, Katatonia vocalist Jonas Renkse hired his good friend Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth to do most of the harsh vocals. Renkse takes care of the clean vocals, but it’s Akerfeldt’s growling amidst an atmospherically haunting soundscape that makes Brave Murder Day such a great record.
Discouraged Ones (3.5/4)- 1998
Discouraged Ones is the second Katatonia album to feature Mikael Akerfeldt’s harsh vocals, but this time Renkse’s rapidly improved clean vocals are at the forefront. The songs here are far more melodic than on Katatonia’s first two albums, and it makes for a surprisingly darker album. The album’s only major flaw is the lyrics, which become more apparent due to the clarity in Renkse’s voice, but that’s balanced out by the sheer emotion and dark ambiance of both the instrumentals and the surprisingly solid vocals.
Tonight’s Decision (3.5/4)- 1999
This is the first Katatonia album to really mesh with Renkse’s clean vocals. It’s a bit inconsistent, but outstanding when it's at its best.
Last Fair Deal Gone Down (4/4)- 2001
Last Fair Deal Gone Down is a nearly flawless record that features one beautiful melodic tragedy after another. Despite being one of the most mellow albums in Katatonia’s discogrpahy, it ends up being one of the most depressing. There are no individual elements that stand out as particularly extraordinary, but Jonas Renkse’s haunting vocals work perfectly with the tragic lyrics and atmosphere instrumentals.
Viva Emptiness (3.5/4)- 2003
Viva Emptiness takes the style of Katatonia albums before it and turns into something accessible and almost catchy. Amazingly, the songs on Viva Emptiness are just as dark and melancholy as anything else Katatonia has done. Many of Katatonia’s best songs can be found on this album, but so can some of their worst, and that filler along with inconsistent lyrics are the only things that keep Viva Emptiness from perfection.
The Great Cold Distance (4/4)- 2006
It’s not nearly as heavy as Katatonia’s other work, but that doesn’t stop The Great Cold Distance from reaching greatness. It' shows a different side of Katatonia, but it’s the outstanding songwriting that makes The Great Cold Distance such a compelling listen, and everything comes together to create the type of surreal experience that can only be found in a Katatonia album. This is an oddly accessible record that takes the listener through and emotional journey full of darkness and despair and leaves them stunned.
Night is the New Day (4/4)- 2009
Before listening to this album, make sure to familiarize yourself with everything Katatonia has done in the past. Once you experience Night is the New Day you will never be able to look at Katatonia the same way. This is the album that Katatonia have worked towards their entire career, and it’s a magnum opus if I’ve ever heard one. Since my first listen many months ago, I’ve struggled with just what to say about this album, and I still can’t put the experience into words. Do yourself a favor and give Night is the New Day your full attention. It is without a day one of the finest album released in 2009, and my personal pick for “album of the year.”
Killah Priest (Rap/Hip-Hop)
The 3 Day Theory (3/4)- 2010
After releasing what seems like an endless amount of poor mixtapes and albums over the last few years, it would be easy to write off Killah Priest. This Wu-Tang affiliate showed incredible potential on GZA’s classic Liquid Swords, but that was back in 1995. Since then, Priest has been more miss than hit, especially when it comes to choosing producers. That makes it all the more surprising that The 3 Day Theory is actually worthwhile. The beats are interesting for a change, the guests are varied and plentiful, and Killah Priest actually sounds interested in what he spits. The lyrics are much more personal than anything Priest has done in some time, as he reflects on his past and his love of hip-hop, and his voice is lit with the passion of veteran artist finding love for his craft again. The 3 Day Theory is a very solid album as a whole, and while not every verse hits the mark there’s a lot more good than bad. This is one of the better hip-hop albums of 2010, as well as one of the year’s biggest surprises.
Kid Cudi (Rap/Hip-Hop)
Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2/4)- 2009
Kid Cudi gets credit for being ambitious, but ambition can only go so far. There comes a point where ideas need to become music, and that’s where Kid Cudi falls short. Occasionally Cudi pulls off minimalist efforts like the single “Day ‘N’ Nite" but most of the album is full of good ideas that simply aren’t executed well at all. The problem is that Kid Cudi just isn’t a talented enough MC. His flow is basic, his singing is mediocre, and the songs he’s written require far more skill than what Cudi has to offer.
Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (2/4)- 2010
It’s interesting that Cage is featured on Kid Cudi’s sophomore album, as Cage’s Depart from Me is exactly what The Legend of Mr. Ragerreminds me of. Much like last year’s Cage album, this is slow melancholic hip-hop/indie rock hybrid from an artist learning to create music without drugs. Cudi is clearly a creative artist, and there are as many interesting ideas here as on the first Man on the Moon, an album ripe without potential and largely devoid of execution. However, Cudi still isn’t a good rapper or a good singer, and his talent limits what he can do with his creativity. Cage’s aforementioned Depart from Me executed similar ideas in a much more effective way, in part because Cage is a strong enough emcee to pull of different types of rap. Cudi isn’t. Man on the Moon IImakes for a frustrating listen because of this. There are plenty of talented emcees who don’t have the creative mind of Kid Cudi, but without flow, coherent lyrics, or a singing voice that doesn’t rely on studio effects, his ideas fall flat.
The Killers (Alternative Rock)
Sam’s Town (1/4)- 2006
Maybe I just “don’t get it,” but there’s very little about this album that isn’t grating to my ears. Brandon Flowers’ vocals are the epitome of awful, the lyrics are garbage, and there’s nothing catchy or enjoyable from a pop standpoint. Sam’s Town is a pseudo-intellectual pop album that fails at being enjoyable or artistic. Truth be told, it’s just terrible.
King Diamond (Heavy Metal)
Give Me Your Soul…Please (2.5/4)- 2007
At this point in his career, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend any of the newer King Diamond albums. Give Me Your Soul… Please is no exception, and it would probably be a stretch to say it’s better than any of the other mediocre albums this legendary musician has released in the last five or ten years. Despite that, King Diamond deserves a lot of credit for his willingness to experiment and not just release the same recycled material every few years. Those expecting the same level of darkness of Abigail or “Them” will likely be disappointed, but those looking for nothing more than another King Diamond experiment that gets more right than wrong should find something to like here. What’s important is that Give Me Your Soul… Please is a concept album that’s dark enough to get it’s story across, and it’s worth recommending to fans of King Diamond that already own his best work.
The Dusty Foot Philosopher (3.5/4)- 2005
The Dusty Philosopher certainly has its faults, but it’s worth listening to purely for the incredible stories of hardship that this Somali rapper tells. Add in that the music itself is a unique combination of classic hip-hop, alternative rock, and traditional African music, and the result is a unique and often inspiration album. K’naan is exactly what hip-hop needs right now.
Death is Silent (4/4)- 2010
Kno, best known as the producer behind the underground hip-hop group CunninLynguists, refers to himself on the haunting track “Graveyard” as the “emo Primo.” While “emo” is used almost sarcastically, Kno’s description of himself isn’t far off. His talent as a producer rivals DJ Premier, although Kno’s beats are of darker nature and often drift closer into DJ Shadow territory. Needless to say, the beats on Death is Silent are fantastic. Each beat is layered with clean samples building and changing in the most interesting and subtle ways. Kno uses slow keys, vocal samples (often from films), and instruments that come and go at the most opportune time. Everything is simple, and yet few producers can achieve such beauty in their beats. Kno’s attention to detail is astounding, as every element of his beats is used to absolute perfection. Everything is so clean, so smooth, and so beautiful.
However, Death is Silent is more than just beats. Kno also raps on just about every track, and he is aided by some welcome guests. Deacon and Natti from CunninLynguists have multiple verses, all of which rival their best from A Piece of Strange and the Strange Journey albums. The immensely talented Tonedeff also shows up for a verse, as does Tunji from Inverse, Thee Tom Hardy, and Substantial. It would have been interesting to get a verse or two from someone outside of the usual CunninLynguists guests, but considering the quality of the verses it’s hard to argue.
Even Kno himself delivers some great verses. His flow is often methodical, coming across at times as a poor man’s Evidence, but he stays on beat and holds his own. In his lyrics, however, is where Kno truly shines as an emcee. He crafts his wordplay with the same attention to detail that he gives to the beats, creating the same type of “every word is necessary” lyricism that have been perfected by underground artists like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock. Kno’s lyrics are often stories, told vividly and even deceptively. He’ll start out with something typical and then take it a completely different direction, forcing the listener to go back and think about every line that has built up to the end. Rhythm of Rain might have his best verse, and is a perfect example of Kno’s deceptive wordplay. What starts out as a sexual metaphor turns into one of the darkest and most beautiful verses imaginable. Again, Kno’s mediocre flow may turn off some listeners, but those willing to dig deep into the lyrics will find that Kno’s talent is not restricted to beat making.
Death is Silent is a monster of an album, dark and beautiful in equal measures, and is absolutely essential to any fan of hip-hop. This is one of the best albums of the year, and it earns my highest recommendation.
Korn (Nu-Metal/Hard Rock)
Follow the Leader (2.5/4)- 1998
Follow the Leader was one of the better albums to come from the nu-metal genre, but it doesn’t deserve a pass just for that. This is an album with many flaws, beginning with its pathetic attempt to be as immature as possible. The lyrics are vulgar for the sole purpose of offending and creating controversy, and the band tries too hard to sound angry and rebellious. Korn also tries to implement some from of hip-hop into every track, but it almost always feels forced and sloppy. However, when Korn settles down and just plays straight-up hard rock (such as on “Freak on Leash”), they actually aren’t all that bad. Follow the Leader is split between immature garbage and solid hard rock tunes, and while I have a hard time recommending the album, it’s hard to deny its influence and status as one of the best albums in its genre.
Korpiklaani (Folk Metal)
Tales Along This Road (3/4)- 2006
This is ridiculously over-the-top folk metal. It’s fun, frantic, and for lack of a better term, just plan awesome. Tales Along This Road really isn’t different than other Korpiklaani albums, but that’s far from a bad thing.
Tervaskanto (3/4)- 2007
Tervaskanto is a good fun folk metal that should please anyone amused by songs about wolves, Vikings, and ale. It’s hard to deny the band’s talent, and it’s somewhat of a breath of fresh air that they don’t take things too seriously. Tervaskanto isn’t a comedy by any means, but instead an album that sounds fresh and fun. Unlike many of their peers, you don’t need to embrace yourself in the music to be able to enjoy Korpiklaani. Tervaskanto is fast and fun and it should be an enjoyable experience for any folk metal fan that doesn’t take their music too seriously.
Korven Kuningas (3/4)- 2008
Korven Kuningas isn’t a drastic departure from Korpiklaani’s formula. In fact, there is little here to distinguish Korven Kuningas from other Korpiklaani albums. Still, Korpiklaani’s formula is not one that needs a lot of tweaking. Korven Kuningas is another fun folk metal album that never takes itself seriously, and it’s one that fans of the band will almost certainly enjoy. If you’ve yet to discover Korpiklaani’s unique brand of folk metal, Korven Kuningas is a good place to start. It’s a fun album with a unique sound, and while it won’t be anything new to fans of Korpiklaani, it’s still a folk metal album that’s hard not to like.
Kyuss (Stoner Rock/Metal)
Blues for the Red Sun (4/4)- 1992
Before he became a household name as the frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme was the guitarist for the legendary stoner rock band Kyuss. Their 1992 classic, Blues for the Red Sun, is sentimental piece of stoner rock history. The sludge riffs, howling vocals, and “desert rock” ambience come together to create what is still a prime example of stoner rock at its finest.