Monthly Archives: January 2010

Best Albums 2000 (6-10)

10. Madonna — Music

Well, after “American Pie” the skinny bitch owed us for damn sure. So with the reins passing from Yahweh to Mirwais, she simplified, sifting only the schlockiest sound effects from the latest electrodance trend which, ever so conveniently, was sonically akin to her one true love, disco. Fans who prefer Madonna the conceptualist to Madonna the songwriter might give the nod to Erotica, that other fully realized full-length which so neatly bookends her decade as an album artist. I get its appeal. But I’ll take music over erotica any day.

9. Quickspace — The Death of Quickspace

Where Tom Cullinan’s former band, Th’ Faith Healers, chugged with frictionless motorik precision, here the guitarist grinds gears. His sprawl unspools freely as banshee cutie Nina Pascale yowls her way across the moors, and if ain’t the creepiest electric British folk since Satan gave Sandy Denny her fatal shove then my name’s Tam Lin. Wish I’d caught them live–those Faith Healers reunions were killer.

8. Del the Funky Homosapien — Both Sides of the Brain

With a fine weirdo side-project (Deltron 3030), a featured Gorillaz cameo, and, above all, this exuberant overflow of lyrical imagination, Del really did seem poised to dominate the decade–or at least his own tiny underground corner of the same. But if he was the kind of guy with the drive to dominate, he wouldn’t be the casual wordslinger who prevails here. Instead he mostly disappeared till 2008, returning with an offhand boast that he’s been on “cruise control,” after what I’m sure was a quite content decade pissing away his “Clint Eastwood” residuals away on the latest video games. I bet deep down he’s a happier guy than Jay-Z.

7. Rokia TraoreWanita

This Malian diplomat’s daughter is gifted with a gentle soprano that’s all but wispy by the earthy standards of West African women, with a lilt that’s as eager to please as it is modest. And yet, just underneath a prettiness that’s never brittle is a supple toughness that her translated lyrics bear out. Hard to say what her folkish African neo-traditionalism represents back home, if anything, but she reminds me of middle-class Western women who take up baking and knitting in their twenties, re-imagining the expressive craft of their grandmothers as both a bourgeois comfort and their gendered birthright.

6. The Go-Betweens — The Friends of Rachel Worth

A mere admirer of this cult band’s esteemed 80s LPs, I love these Aussies’ aughts unconditionally. Falling into each other’s chord changes with assured ease and simple familiarity, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster professionalize an approximation of a skeletal, semi-acoustic indie-pop aesthetic, and Janet Weiss on drums don’t hurt.  Reunited and middle-aged, the duo rummage through their past–Forster’s specific details so intently focused they don’t require context to gain emotional heft, McLennan’s more generalized yearning befits his blithe melodies–and end on a superb note of rock criticism, as “When She Sang About Angels” distills Patti Smith’s charismatic je ne sais quoi.


Papa Roach – “Last Resort”

Released: 9.18.00

Peak: #57

All dour reserve and sleek surface, the Deftones were the millennial aesthete’s post-grungers of choice. But if “Change (In the House of Flies)” offered putative evidence of life after nu-metal to alt-snobs, to some of us, their low-affect alienation intimated a fate worse than Korn. Since when should teen angst be cool and tasteful? If it can’t be funny (tho it can, right Gerard?), let it at least be awkward.

Papa Roach, they had your awkward. Purged of rampant bully-envy or vulvaphobia, theirs was the message that Art Brut’s Eddie Argos would later distill from his little brother’s record collection: “Why don’t our parents worry about us?”  Jacoby Shaddix, then dba “Coby Dick” was not one for “letting go”–even named the band after a step-grandpa who’d killed himself in ’96. (Just think of the sad showtunes such a fate would have wrung from the Arcade Fire.) But family psychodramas cause real pain, after all, and sometimes rising above just ain’t enough. Sometimes it’s hardly an option.

Not that I’d have fallen for “Last Resort” without an assist from Xzibit. These schlubs, along with the less awkward wimp-to-power advocates Limp Bizkit, were sandwiched between Mr. zbit and Eminem on the Anger Management Tour, and I’ll say one thing for rock–it sure fills a basketball arena. From the first moment their guitars cut through the mid-range vacuum left by the rapper’s bass rumble and high-end chirp, I got it.

“Last Resort” is the great single Ozzy had too many “ideas” to create, a “Suicide Solution” for kids who hadn’t yet given up work on the problem. At the same time, it’s Nirvana minus the punk sheen and jagged poetic obscurity. From its a capella intro, punctured by “Back in Black” chords, through that OCD riff racing up and down, this is the rock equivalent of nervous pacing and nail-biting. As Shaddix splits the diff between rapping and ranting, his lyrics echo from within the depths of a depressive’s lack of perspective, the personalized self-dramatization of a generational problem. And the chorus comes as little more than a release of a tension, reaching out for simple reassurance: “Wish somebody would tell me I’m fine.”

But dudes who can accurately channel adolescent confusion eventually think they can understand it, and these guys were born to misinterpret psychotherapeutic lingo as an excuse for self-pity. Papa Roach got predictably whinier with age, reaching a nadir on the hilarious “Scars”: “My weakness is that I care too much.” (Try that at your next job interview.) They didn’t kill themselves, though. And good for them, seriously.

Ludacris feat. Shawna – “What’s Your Fantasy?”

Released: 9.12.00

Peak: #21

Is there any filthier-sounding word than “lick”? Not “fuck” or “pussy,” that’s for sure–them’s just playground pottymouth, their impact diluted through gratuitous overuse. But the hard “k” cutting short that liquid “l” has a fleshy lewdness to it, as does the tongue itself, a moist muscle slab flexible enough to squish into all sorts of nooks and orifices, dragging along the most intimate, most easily offended senses of taste and smell. Those are only the mildest connotations that “What’s Your Fantasy?” summons with its chorus of “Lick lick lick you from your head to your toes” (even her hair? her corns?). And in the process, it blasted away certain racial stereotypes about who’ll put whose tongue where too.

Yet, for all the song’s physicality, it’s unclear how much of the action here occurs solely in Luda’s mind, as he’s even carried forward from one scenario to the next not just by his imagination as the necessities of rhyme (“Horseback and I’ll get my reins / School teacher let me get my brains.”). Most “adventurous” pop sex limits itself to the probable–for instance, 112’s drab “Anywhere,” which suggests the shower and kitchen as exotic love-making forums. Just ’cause Luda probably will never experience an on-field orgasm as the Falcons kick a field goal doesn’t mean he can’t get off on the idea of it.

Bangladesh’s crazy busy production is pretty phantasmagorical itself. The percussion consists almost entirely of snare, sometimes doubled up with a crash cymbal, with a teletype synth imitating a hi-hat. And that shifty arabesque, with a plate of bass synth rising up from below, creates a polymorphous, non-phallic feel that ties in with the woman-friendly sex-play: After he lists his ideas, after all, Luda asks for her fantasy. (On the remix, Trina, Shawna, and Foxy Brown spell out their prerogatives more specifically–“lick me from my ass to my clit” and so forth.) Not coincidentally, “What’s Your Fantasy?” also initiated Ludacris into that select club of MCs–L.L. and Biggie come immediately to mind–who convince me they get any more pleasure from fucking than they might from taking a dump.

OutKast – “B.O.B.”

Released: 9.6.00

Peak: #69 [Hip-Hop/ R&B Songs]

In a decade that sought post facto prophets, a song called “Bombs Over Baghdad” would inevitably tempt listeners to trace tomorrow’s detours in yesterday’s tea leaves. But the intuitive clamor to hear OutKast’s ingenuity as a glimmer into the unforeseeable, a “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” scored for acid-rock guitar and demented gospel choir, is not to invest Dre and Boi with mystical powers but rather to shortchange their awareness of the surrounding world, what you could call (to snatch back a term from mostly lesser lights) their consciousness.

Like much of Stankonia, “B.O.B.” slams with the sensory overload of a hip-hop that remained alert throughout the 90s, as pimps huffed second-hand jeep fumes and backpackers retreated into tongue-tied formalism. Not that there weren’t excuses for disengaged art — the one-two punch of political sanctimony and moderate prosperity had tuned plenty of us out, and the soundtrack of the thinking person became Kid A, that collective dive into the inarticulate, an anti-U2 that only existed in the space between your headphones. Racism, besieged neo-liberal summits, and those all but forgotten bombs, sporadically blasting over Baghdad were dumped into the “ye shall always have with you” bin and forgotten.

Not that Andre 3000 and Big Boi attempted to translate their pre-millennial tension into simplified cant. The impressionist lyrics defy exegesis, with undisclosed threats stomping through “like a million elephants and silverback orangutans” and a sudden storm, summoning both biblical apocalypse and nightly news images of Hurricane Floyd. Both MCs mention touring, and “B.O.B.” unrolls with a sense of life as glimpsed, on the move, through hotel TV sets–Dre even claims to have overheard the title in a CNN green room. And make what you will of the Morris Brown College Gospel Choir chanting “Power music.  Electric revival,” or, as the internet appears to prefer, “Bible music.”

Rarely has chaos been assembled from so few elements. A whispered count-off, over an ominous carillon intro, announces a simple four-four that breaks into angry snare rolls. But the empty spaces throughout are clogged with synth odds and ends — that arpeggio that doodles over Boi’s verse, that spastic guitar poking in from the edges, and everywhere the drums, the drums, the drums, the drums. As Timbaland tweaked the artier potential of drum ‘n’ bass, OutKast revived the hard slamming snares of jungle, which was, perhaps, not a timely move. In fact, after the success of “Rosa Parks,” “B.O.B.” registered as a “failed single.” Then the bombs dropped in earnest, and it got to mean whatever we wanted. Maybe not prophetic, but for sure ahead of their time.

Madonna – “Music”

Released: 8.21.00

Peak: #1

Musically, the three great pop superstars to come of age in the ’80s–Michael, Madonna, Prince– were above all solipsists and sensualists. (Note to quibblers: Bruce was a rock superstar, and of a generation earlier at that.) Their arresting visual styles, their facility with deploying an array of symbols in ways that suggested meaning without pinning it down (abetted by the efforts of cultural studies stenographers), and above all their massive success–all overshadowed the fact that these three were musicians before they were celebrities or even entertainers. And as with Prince, the artistic high points in Madonna’s forties came when she re-immersed herself the only thing she loved more than herself–a discovery we can only regret that Michael was too far gone to make.

The more the actual lived 80s shrink in our rear view mirrors, the more the defining hit of Madonna’s heyday seems not the image-making “Like a Virgin” or the dynamite electro hits that predated it, but the home-alone rumpshaker “Into the Groove,” which contemplates dancing with yourself more fully than Billy Idol ever did. With that track, Madonna answered every parent who wondered why the kids didn’t jitterbug in couples anymore, conceptualizing dance not as mating ritual, but as solitary self-expression, an intimate relation between you and your mirror.

“Music” is more social than that, and more utopian. Like “Holiday,” it dreams that the solo dancer’s epiphany of self-possession can be multiplied communally on the dance floor–Madonna always did take the chintzy spiritual bromides of disco to heart. Fortunately, the song’s homier than all that: I love the way “Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on, I wanna dance with my baby” deflates the superstar pretenses of DJ culture.”Music,” then, is a “return to roots” by the sort of phony who isn’t supposed to have ’em.

The begrudging, backhanded compliments that became de rigeur among non-fans once Madonna’s success was undeniable (“She’s a smart businesswoman, I’ll give her that”–fuck off already) ignored her true gift. Like any pop impresario who outlasts her immediate moment, Madonna had a great ear, and an ability to synthesize disparate elements in way that amplified the most pleasurable bits of each. In addition to Mirwais’ French disco, “Music” also reminds us of the oft-overlooked First Age of Autotune at the turn of the millennium (Cher’s fault, iirc). Oh, and those pastel cowgirl hats.  As for that line about “the bourgeoisie and the rebel,” I dunno–maybe she just felt obliged to reassure Camille Paglia that she’d held on to a pretension or two.

M.O.P. – “Ante Up (Robbing-Hoodz Theory)”

Released: 7.25.00

Peak: # 74 [R&B/ Hip-Hop Songs]

Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame are just thugs who wanna have fun in a hood already marked as a war zone back when its Jews bypassed Prohibition and that’s nowadays so blood-steeped the U.S. Army trains reserve medics in the county hospital. “True player-hater[s]” and proud, gawd bless ’em, the Mash Out Posse had been terrorizing neighbors and reminding unwary visitors to stay the fuck out of Brownsville since they went legit with “How About Some Hardcore?” But only when propelled by the most skull-pulverizing track of DJ Premier’s career did they bring their plan for wealth redistribution into full effect on any fool flashing gold in the poor side of town.

The sheer joy of “Ante Up” is a trickier achievement than you might think. Excess testosterone release might seem an inexhaustible pop resource, but the pleasures of a sausage party are far fewer than believed by muscleheads and the pencilnecks who love them. Not that most g’s could be bothered with anything more than huffing and puffing. As concocted in L.A. bull sessions, post-Dre gangsta wallowed in smug cool, its sweetest dream, as encapsulated in Snoop’s very own porno, the receipt of a leisurely blowjob while diddling on some handheld video game.

The stuff of stunted adolescent imaginations, in other words. When thuggery migrated back east, name-brand closet-cataloguing was a minor leap forward, as rhyming a la mode at least required some attention to detail, even if only labels and price tags. But an  accumulated slum rage sought mainstream venting, and, in the case of M.O.P., the rage didn’t need much to egg it on, just some introductory scratching to build up the anticipation, then four ascending horn (?) blasts outta Sam & Dave’s “Soul Sister Brown Sugar.”

Unlike too much crunk foolery, M.O.P.’s bluster didn’t come up short on mic skills, and they weren’t about to fritter away their ill-gotten gains at some tittie bar. As for the proper classification of “real niggaz,” I respectfully leave that question to those whose identities it directly impinges upon. But “Ante Up” poked holes in the designer logic of big-money rap. I mean, who should you be more afraid of: some Big Willie flossing out in the Manhattan limelight, or some frenzied lout who’s “900 and 99 thou short of a mill”? And for those lamenting the rampant commercialism of hip-hop, they had a simple message: Don’t hate the player–kidnap that fool.

Best Albums 2000 (11-15)

15. Merle Haggard — If I Could Only Fly

In a decade of C&W comebacks that read better than they sounded — Jack dolling up Loretta, Dolly trying to prove that wigs have roots, Kristofferson failing to camouflage tunelessness as aged wisdom — Merle eased back in the game with no big concept, unless giving up on radio airplay and signing to Anti- counts. Free at last to do as he liked, he rambled from folkie strum to western swing to straight-up honky-tonk, and outsang every surviving old-timer but Willie to boot. And if Hag’s not immune to nostalgia, he’s sharply aware of what made the old days seem good: You were a helluva lot younger.

14. Lucy Pearl — Lucy Pearl

A Raphael Saadiq fan from the days Tony Toni Tone still had its !!!s, I came to appreciate the contemporary sprawl of Instant Vintage with time, and instantly fell for the concise soul archaeology of As I See It. But when it’s time for ’00s Saadiq, I come back to this one-off “supergroup.” (Granted, Ali Muhammad and Dawn Robinson are comparatively Zan and Jayna.) Overly subtle or tasteful for some, and I’m not usually much for subtlety or taste myself. But the relative shapelessness of this mood music is genuine achievement for a formalist like Saadiq, and the mood itself is classy without being fussy–a synthesis that’s typically eluded quiet stormers since Smokey named it.

13. Yo La Tengo — And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

Punk had a baby and they called it indie rock–old history, that. Through the 90s, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and family friend James McNew domesticated their noisy spawn while indulging in his tantrums. Here they tuck the exhausted babe in early and tiptoe off to the living room to layer subdued tone colors into pillowed whispers of tune all night long, swapping memories both personal (“Our Way to Fall”) or musical (George McRae’s “You Can Have It All”). And then, with “Night Falls on Hoboken,” we all doze off together.

12. Fatboy Slim — On the Floor at the Boutique

Way to upstage yourself, Norman. Most Fatboy fans had already gobbled up this all-you-can-eat beat platter, available as an import since ’98, long before its official U.S. release. But its belated bow nonetheless cast a shadow over the clever but diffuse official release Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. Extending a seamless groove from “Apache” through “The Rockerfeller Skank,” he convinces dilettantes like me that the propulsive unfamiliarities in between constitute integral chapters in the history of modern dance music. And though Cook adopts the Jungle Brothers’ “I never worked a day in my life” as his credo, that doesn’t mean he’s above expending effort; it’s just that when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

11. The Handsome Family — In the Air

Rennie Sparks is the rare folkie with a greater curiosity in how folk tunes work than in how they feel. She pops the hood to tinker with folk’s admixture of those two great strains of American narrative, the Gothic and the realist, and as a result, her songs feel like folk songs, rather than merely reminding us of folk songs. And husband Brett’s deadpan melodies are just indelible, seemingly stolen from the vast storehouse of songbook yet never quite corresponding to the tune you think you recall. A sentiment like “Darling, don’t you know it’s only human to want to kill a beautiful thing” may be funny, but it ain’t no joke.

The Baha Men – “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Released: 7.25.00

Peak: #40

I come neither to praise the Baha Men nor even to critique them. My sole duty is to acknowledge them, with the appropriately slack-jawed respect due such a gonzo force of commerce. Some pop songs devour their moment whole, inflecting events in our lives with shades of irony or deepening catharses or simply providing background color to our memories. But not “Who Let the Dogs Out?”–instead mainstream consciousness instantaneously swallowed it whole.  I doubt you can remember the first time you heard this song, any more than you can remember the first time you heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2.” Regardless, I doubt you first heard it on the radio. Just check out that chart peak above–“Who Let the Dogs Out?” was never a hit. It was always already just kind of there.

Such a feat was hardly accidental. The song began as a regional hit, when Anslem Douglas recorded it for the 1998 Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. (That oughta reel in all the Bakhtin fans out there.) It reached the ears of Steve Greenberg, known then for discovering Hanson, known now as the svengali of the Jonas Brothers. In between, he was stuck with the Baha Men, whom he encouraged to record “Who Let the Dogs Out?” for Rugrats in Paris. More importantly, Greenberg hired a team of sports marketers to peddle the tune directly to sports stadiums–first Mississippi State, then the Mariners, then the world.

The world has not always been happy with its subsequent subjugation. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” consistently tops “most annoying song” lists, a sad fate for its perky blend of electro-hop and tourist reggae. That direct marketing of the chorus hook means the rest of the song, is mostly unfamiliar. we rarely have an opportunity to sing along to “Get back Scruffy/ Get back you flea infested mongrel,” let alone the part where all the doggies are told to hold their bones. I doubt that George Clinton would be proud, but he should be.

Like all the great musical questions — “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” or “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” or “How Do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul???” — the correct response is not forthcoming. True wisdom comes in pondering the question, rather than seeking an answer. But if you don’t enjoy loosing five canine barks in Pavlovian response to the Baha Men’s inquiry, then I bet you don’t know all the words to the Oscar Meyer weiner song either, and I say to hell with you.

Kandi – “Don’t Think I’m Not”

Released: 7.18.00

Peak: #24

Before she was a real housewife in the ATL, Kandi Burruss played a major role in crafting a new bottom-line-minded R&B persona, unimpressed by then-fashionable boudoir fibs and gratuitous cash-flashing. True to the memory of Gwen Guthrie and the earthy realism of the old-school blues women, this new girl was sassy minus the cute, materialistic a la “It’s Like That,” often wronged and often eager to equal things up with a retaliatory schtup. In short, she was determined not to someday play the part of Mary J. in “Not Gon’ Cry.”

Burruss’ beginnings as a singer and songwriter were far from promising. As Jermaine Dupri’s answer to En Vogue, Xscape merely showed that JD should have asked someone to repeat the question, and as their lead songwriter, Kandi seemed unlikely to rise to the level of hackwork. But she went on to co-author that ultimatium of no romance without finance, “No Scrubs,” not to mention Pink’s “There You Go,” and both “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bug a Boo” for Destiny’s Child, often in collaboration with her then-boyfriend, the now-undersung producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs.

On “Don’t Think I’m Not,” Kandi established a tradition of female revenge tunes with a melancholy undertow to them. (Blu Cantrell must’ve definitely listened up.) While you’re out cheating, she’s out getting hers, making a right out of two wrongs. If lines “I catch a bone while you’re dogging me” leave nothing to the imagination, Burrus’ voice had a trebly suppleness that betrayed more regret than she’d put in words. Leading in with an unaccompanied harpsichord synth (a She’ksperean trademark), this is an arrangement rather than what the cognoscenti call a track. The verses coast along a casual drum-thwock, then the drums perk up for the chorus, and cut off suddenly when the verse returns. And that string outro is a classy touch.

The follow-up, “Cheatin’ on Me,” demonstrated that a sharp eye for detail benefits both a jealous woman and a good songwriter. (“Trojans come in three/ But one is gone.”) And Burruss’ debut Hey Kandi! still sounds solid. It was considered a failure, though, and Burruss spent the rest of the decade penning album tracks for stars and wannabes alike. Though I’m not about to start checking in with Bravo to find out how Kandi’s faring these days (I suspect drama), I will say that her follow-up album, B.L.O.G., is due next month. Where once she made art about how she was willing to get her hands dirty, the lead single “Fly Above” tells us how she maintains maximum airspace between herself and the “haters.” Rick Ross is involved somehow. Ugh.

Matchbox Twenty – “Bent”

Released: 7.4.01

Peak: #1

In 2000, Matchbox 20 celebrated its newfound success by renaming itself matchbox twenty. I’ve yet to hear an explanation for this momentous defiance of AP style, but there are audible differences between the two, um, incarnations(?) With “Bent,” the first single from Mad Season, the casually Hootie-fied jangle of the band’s debut gives way to high AOR drama, with a confused riff attempting to pluck itself out of a sonic cavern while a drummer slaps it about from underneath. And that’s just the intro–it only gets busier from there.

If “Bent” was bigger, dumber, and more dysfunctional, so was Rob Thomas. And that was cool–I prefer my adult contemporary habitués to be disgruntled rather than ingratiating/facile or soulful/over-expressive. Let me illustrate by way of Santana duets. Thomas’s “Smooth” was an irritation, right down to that “or else fow-git abowwt it” that I’ve just embedded in your cerebellum for the next hour.* But the love-me-or-leave-me orneriness of “Smooth” at least triggered a response, which is more than I can say for Michelle Branch’s calorie-free “The Game of Love” or that Chad Kroeger tune that I have no memory of at all.

“Bent” is also where Thomas stops placing his neuroses in the mouths of babes. Previously, fabricated lady nutjobs strained his everyman patience, whether shouting “I wanna push you around” at him or waking him at “3 A.M.” with needy, aquaphobic rants. But “I’m so scared that I’ll never/ Be put back together” isn’t just a great couplet (if you can overlook the fact that a bent object doesn’t require reassembly, which, obviously, I can); it’s Thomas fessing up to his almost infantile insecurities. There’s nothing here as bluntly childish as “If You’re Gone”‘s classic sulk “I think you’re so mean,” but the candid high-maintenance of “Could you sympathize with my needs/ I know you think I need a lot” is a tiny crawl forward for the big baby. (And more palatable than, say, the sexist condescension of Train.)

Thomas may not be a sympathetic character, but at least give the fucker credit for not trying to be. What other mainstream quasi-hack would even risk a line like “I’m jaded/ Just phonin’ it in”? He’s just a pop craftsman of the old AM school, updated for the modern office space, and if Loser’s Lounge, or some analogue thereof, lingers another decade or so, they’d best be celebrating this lunk. And I will sing along.

[This isn’t the real video obviously. But I wish it was.]

* Per wikipedia: “The song had a Latin beat and became an example of Thomas’ lyrical talents.” Also, I’m not entirely sure the cerebellum is the memory part.