This Week’s Best Albums: March 30, 2010

This Week's Best Albums

Kenan Bell: Until the Future (Sonata Cantata)

Now available on iTunes, the debut album of Kenan Bell is remarkable for many reasons.

Most importantly, Bell’s presentation of live-band, indie- and electro-inspired hip hop is a unique blend of rhymes and style. However, Bell’s young career is just as noteworthy for other reasons — namely that he’s a former grade-school language-arts teacher who has achieved a remarkable level of buzz without the presence of an established label.

His EPs and remixes (including rapping over Pink Floyd and Peter, Bjorn & John) are a minor Internet sensation, and the acclaim has led to a featured song in the NBA 2k10 video game — all before his debut has become available.

The buzz is deserved, however, as Bell’s band eschews samples to blend melodic guitars and buzzing bass lines with synthesizers and fat beats. His verses often riff on the same rhyme, but his flow and originality prevent things from going stale.

Bell says that he makes hip hop for people who “know their Basquiat as well as their basketball,” and he’s as quick to reference Bo Diddly as Dungeons & Dragons. Some will tie his success to the ascension of indie rap, but regardless, Bell’s popularity seems destined to continue growing.

Kenan Bell: “TGIF” (featuring Aceyalone)

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Daniel Bernard Roumain: Woodbox Beats & Balladry (Thirsty Ear)

Haitian-American violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain is a man of myriad talents, combining classical training with rapid-fire rock beats, DJ scratches, electronics, and funky bass lines.

Though his “highbrow” pieces can be dramatic, orchestral affairs, Roumain accurately portrays his music as “more to do with Prince than (Niccolò) Paganini,” and his résumé includes seemingly incongruous credits such as commissions by Carnegie Hall and an arrangement of a Lady Gaga song for American Idol.

Roumain has hooked up a few times with DJ Spooky, most recently at the Vancouver Olympics, and he has worked with other famed composers such as Philip Glass and Ryuichi Sakamoto. These great musicians surely seek Roumain’s technical talents, but his compositional skills are just as special.

Woodbox Beats & Balladry is a highly dynamic album, calling upon elements of IDM, piano balladry, and Vernon Reid-style wailing on top of Roumain’s standard amalgamation. It’s an outstanding album whose adventurousness perfectly fits the 21st Century.

Daniel Bernard Roumain: “Sonata for Violin and Turntables, Part 4”

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Black Francis: Nonstoperotik (Cooking Vinyl)

In 2007, indie-rock icon Charles Thompson — best known as Frank Black — reverted to his original Pixies stage name to release Bluefinger, a solo album inspired by Dutch musician and artist Herman Brood.

Since that time, Thompson has remained busy in many ways, including more dates with the reunited Pixies (as well as plans to record a long-awaited fifth album). He released a solo EP and created a score for The Golem, and Nonstoperotik — perhaps surprisingly — is his first full-length since Bluefinger.

Like the title, much of the lyrical content is blatantly sexual, though much of the musical backdrop does not convey a typically erotic or sensual sound. The results of Thompson’s straightforward vocals are mixed, and pretty tracks such as “Rabbits” seem more suited to be instrumentals.

At other times, Black’s voice reflects a passionate yearning, such as in the driving rock sounds of “Dead Man’s Curve.” The eponymous track is a gentle piano and string ballad, and accompanying instruments crop up throughout the disc — one that, like previous efforts, may create mixed feelings among Black Francis fans.

Black Francis: “Dead Man’s Curve”

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Mulatu Astatke: Mulatu Steps Head (Strut)

Dubbed the “father of Ethio-jazz,” composer Mulatu Astatke came to prominence in the 1960s, helping to usher in an intercontinental fusion of genres.

Last year, Astatke garnered rave reviews for his collaboration with The Heliocentrics, a UK collective led by percussionist Malcolm Catto that concocts funky, trippy hip-hop pastiches. The pairing was outstanding, but Mulatu Steps Ahead — Astatke’s first solo album in more than 20 years — is no less skilled, only different stylistically.

His instrument of choice is the vibraphone, and though the glistening mallet instrument takes the lead with aplomb when necessary, it is far from being the focal point of Mulatu Steps Ahead. Smoky brass motifs and cool woodwind solos are accentuated with piano chords and intermittent fiddling, and the disc never loses its jazzy, funky feel.

Different instruments, such as the West African kora, make cameos, but no matter the orchestration, Astatke finds a way to make it graceful and collected.

Mulatu Astatke: “Green Africa”

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Honorable Mentions

Deru: Say Goodbye to Useless (Mush)

(Jedi Mind Tricks presents) Army of the Pharaohs: The Unholy Terror (Enemy Soil)

Tomasz Stanko Quintet: Dark Eyes (ECM)