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The Best Free Albums of 2009

The new year is almost here, and with it comes a maelstrom of “End of the Year Lists.” Here on Ex-Spectator, I’ll be rolling out a few “End of the Year”/”End of the Decade” lists. Today’s list: The Best Free Albums, EPs and Mixtapes of 2009.

Since Radiohead made the pay-what-you-want model so notable with the digital release of In Rainbows back in ’07, a number of artists have flocked to the ‘net to give their music away for free or at a cost determined by the individual. Add in the continual prevalence of mixtapes (notably without the physical cassette), and you’ve got an unbelievable amount of free, legal music at your fingertips. Though it’s easy to access this music, it has created a bit of a problem that the Chicago Reader’s Miles Raymer pointed out in an article on Gucci Mane’s most recent mixtapes: Too much music, and never enough time to listen to it all. Add in the fact that most musicians don’t have the same Internet presence as NIN or Girl Talk, and some musicians may never get that proper due.

In the spirit of the “Best of the Year” lists, the following are ten great free albums, EPs and mixtapes from 2009. Though I wasn’t able to listen to every single free album from the year, these ten stuck out:

tabone10. Tab-One – The Tabloids

Kooley High MC Tab-One dropped this great album packed with old school flavor and smooth rhymes. But, what might stand out best alongside the funky samples and slick beats is “Iron & Rhyme,” a track that has the best use of an Iron & Wine sample out there.

decompnorthcarolina9. Decomposure – North Carolina

This Canadian electronic musician tends to create themed albums packed with intricate samples. This year’s North Carolina is no different: Decomposure went to North Carolina and recorded a song a day, and each song is identified with the day it was created on. Beyond the potential gimmickry of the act of making this music, Decomposure has managed to put together a taught, complexly crafted little EP of great pop songs.

illinoize8. Tor & Sufjan Stevens – Illinoize

Another day, another mash-up project. What sets Tor’s Illinoize project apart from so many others is the way the selected Sufjan Stevens songs manage to work so well as the instrumental for some sick hip-hop tunes. Who knew Aesop Rock’s bulldoggish flow would work so well with the kind-hearted indie troubadour?

appetite7. Appetite – The Ambiguous Garment

Appetite is one of those “quirky” musicians you could only find by scanning every music blog out there. And thank goodness Impose found this guy. Appetite’s anti-folk and odd electronic experimentations meld into a thoroughly entrancing voice.

theFREEhoudini_cover6. Themselves – theFREEhoudini

Themselves had been away while Doseone and Jel were working on Subtle records. So, before the release of this year’s CrownsDown, Themselves decided to release a 39-minute mixtape with a slew of guest MCs. But the real stars of this mixtape are Doseone and Jel. The mix’s oft-jittery instrumentation and Doseone’s abnormally fast and frenzied flow made this tape a pleasure to listen to.

snowing-fuck-your-emotional-bullshit5. Snowing – Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit

While “emo” had been stuck in its hair metal phase the past few years, a number of musicians have done some great work raging against the My Chem machine while providing original viewpoints of the ambiguous-at-best genre. Among these acts is the new Pennsylvania-based group, Snowing, who’s Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit EP propelled itself to the top of this list with a pocketful of catharsis. Five tracks of music inspired by Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring and many other second wave emo acts, this little EP stood out so well among the numerous non-free indie albums of the year.

walebacktothefeature4. Wale – Back to the Feature

The third part of a trio of free mixtapes, Back to the Feature may not live up to the oddball brilliance of The Mixtape About Nothing, but its certainly got a mind of its own. It’s mixtapes like Back to the Feature that upset so many critics when Wale dropped Attention Deficit. That’s because when you’re dropping go-go infected tunes produced by some of the most agile and creative producers around and packed with Wale’s lyrical virtuousity, it’s hard to pay attention to major-label controlled releases.

shinobustrangespring3. Shinobu – Strange Spring Air

Full disclosure: I’ve been chatting with Shinobu frontman Mike Huguenor for several months for a little book I’m working on. (A project that I’m way behind on as well.) But, the reason I’m friendly with Mike is Shinobu’s Strange Spring Air: The minute I heard “Teachers Get Tired,” I knew they were a band I not only had to include in my book, but one I needed to pay attention to. And thank goodness I did. Their indie-inspired brand of punk fits in well among the likes of The Weakerthans, Cap’n Jazz and Ted Leo.

no ceilings2. Lil Wayne – No Ceilings

Take the instrumentals of some of the hottest hip-hop songs of the year and then have the most unpredictable MC in the game rhyme over them. How can you go wrong? To hear Lil Wayne get all weird over Jay-Z’s “DOA” or Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say” is the kind of thing you’ve got to appreciate simply for its existence.

growercoverOrangeSwimmercoverDeadKidsdeastro1. DeastroGrower/Orange Swimmer Red Summer/Dead Kids

Detroit electronic-rock musician Randolph Chabot has had quite a prolific year. He’s expanded his bedroom project, Deastro, into a full-blown band, released the solid Moondagger and dropped three free EPs. What makes Grower, Orange Swimmer Red Summer and Dead Kids so notable is how Chabot and co. have been able to make a solid string of songs EP after EP. With songs like “Grower,” “Hunger Pains” and “Orange Swimmer” it’s impossible to turn these recordings down.

Runners up:

V/A – Short Attention Span

Weird Tapes – Get Religion

Wiz Khalifa – Burn After Rolling

Park Ranger BarkwoodWe Are Not Brothers

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