Monthly Archives: February 2010

Best Albums 2001 (16-20)

20. Clinic — Internal Wrangler

Never quite got the love for these icy Liverpudlians–from their surgical masks’ imposed anonymity to Ade Blackburn’s impenetrable bray, their sub-Brechtian barriers to emotional identification worked all too well with me. No mystery to their appeal, though. Just as the Ramones stripped rock ‘n’ roll of a couple decades’ cumulative baggage, Clinic whittled indie rock down to its formal essence. Since indie rock’s pleasures are rarely formal or essential, the perverse pleasure here resides in reducing an unkempt, verbose tradition to pure sensation, the cool discipline of a Velvets-Can-Fall groove that’s fun, fun, fun till daddy takes the scalpel away.

19. Aesop Rock — Labor Days

You don’t hear too many concept albums about work–most artists just want to make it out of their day jobs, not make art out of them. Ian Bavitz not only resented the demands on his time that economic necessity exerts, but articulated those demands poetically enough to justify his sense of entitlement: “We’d rather be supporting ourselves/ By being paid to perfect the pastimes/ That we have harbored based solely on the fact/ That it makes us smile if it sounds dope.” Granted, the MC’s commitment to the artistic prerogative probably explains his increasing lyrical obfuscation in the years since. And his gruff aphorisms might have sunk beneath their own complexity without Blockhead’s mild globalist touches smoothing over Def Jux in-house doom-funk clatter.

18. Baaba Maal — Missing You . . . Mi Yeewnii

This side of the great Youssou himself, Maal may well be Senegal’s most transcendent male vocalist, or at least its most gorgeous. Still, aside from the high-energy Live at Royal Festival Hall (1999), his ’90s output clicks with me no more often than N’Dour’s ’80s stuff; both bodies of work intentionally sought the attention of folks with significantly different priorities than my own. But this simulated field recording, captured by night in the griot’s native village, charmingly refuses to transcend its roots, with background chatter and crickets and other assorted whatnot left in to add ambience. Not ambient detail–ambience.

17. New Order — Get Ready

Still no clue why, after an eight-year snooze, they thought the new millennium breathlessly awaited a disc of pop shoegaze rave-ups, even (?) with Billy Corgan aboard. But if they’d lost a step rhythmically, their bass hooks curl under the wash with such friendly familiarity that all’s forgiven. And for all the rebellious yearning of “I don’t wanna be/ Like other people are/ Don’t wanna own a key/ Don’t wanna wash my car,” Bernard Sumner has never sounded more the normal bloke. “I’m gonna live till I die/ I’m gonna live to get high” distills the essence of a band seeking out not grand peaks of sublimity but vast stretches of comfort. Which may be why they kept it together longer than Ian Curtis lived. Peaked more often too.

16. Aceyalone — Accepted Eclectic

For all undie rap’s ominous P.K. Dick-ing around, the scene’s true heroes were those plainspoken reporters who resisted the pursuit of poesy or pussy to scrutinize the frustrations and joys of the everyday grind. This Project Blowed cofounder’s earlier abstract lyricism impressed but never moved me; his hearty realism lodged right in my gut and hasn’t shifted since. There probably wasn’t a day I lived in NYC that my brain didn’t inwardly nod along to “Five Feet” (“If there is one thing that everyone needs/ It’s they’re goddamn space”). And there were more than a few I found solace in the mantra: “Yeah, I’m healthy, I’m alive, I can’t complain.”


one last thing

While I’m gone, feel free to introduce urselves in the comments.

oh, hey . . .

MN Bar Exam is tomorrow and Wednesday, so no posts this week. More 2001 albums over the weekend, and then back to 2001 singles on 3/1.

Best Albums 2001 (21-25)

25. Jay-Z — The Blueprint

“If I ain’t better than B.I.G./ I’m the closest one”–uh, if heads insist, though notice he didn’t drop that line on the Eminem track. But really, doesn’t anyone else wish the greatest MC of our time was a little more, I don’t know, engaging? Biggie covered more emotional ground in two albums than the G.O.O.T. has over the course of a career, if only because Jay’s all-but-exclusive subject is his own greatness. And yet, for all my bitching, this, far more than his two limp sequels or that honorable victory lap The Black Album, is S. Carter’s ’00s testament. He lives or dies by the hook, true, but he also knows to buy the best. Which makes him an artist only a puritan could strictly boycott, and a star only a Yankee fan could truly love.

24. Aaliyah — Aaliyah

Let’s not get crazy here. At twenty-two damn years old, she had plenty of growing up still ahead–not to mention plenty of time for label problems to sidetrack her, for celebrity to disorient her grounded homegirl sensibility, for shifting public tastes to reduce her to a minor pleasure like, oh, Keyshia Cole or somebody. Still, almost a decade later, her ascension to womanhood is unparalleled in its ease of ego, in the self-possessed yet unassuming fashion in which she proves herself more than just a gem for Tim to set. Straight-up modern R&B albums like this were why fools like me though we didn’t need Jill Scott and Erykah Badu to class the joint up–and why fools continue to tell themselves that Amerie or Ciara are their equals.

23. System of a Down — Toxicity

Yes, questionable motives contributed to the critical acclaim, with “we do too like metal” and “Look! Armenians!” eventually feeding into 9/12: The Quest for Significance. Still, as someone professionally compelled to weigh in before The Big Day (though a half-star light of what I should have) I can attest that Serj Tankian won me over despite the questionable pedigree of his worldbleat and his even questionabler loose talk of “self-righteous suicide.” Humanity’s answer to Frank Zappa, Serj is typically an even-headed spaz, whether spewing statistics against the prison-industrial complex or lecturing a groupie about self-respect. And whatever cultural heritage inspires their bouncy thrash, the band earns their arty plateaus.

22. Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez — Cachaito

Too bad “Cuban dub” suggests some misguided Bill Laswell project, because the most rhythmically challenging of all Buena Vista Social Club affiliates is no more “jazz” than it is descarga, and if specific tracks do slot themselves into specific subgenres, their bottoms are too busy to do so neatly. This sui generis turn from Cuba’s greatest bassist refused to point toward a tradition the way dad Orestes or Uncle Cachao once had–that would have required rappers or something. Instead, Cachaito just stretches out, with classy brass from Pee Wee Ellis and Hugh Masekela, a smokey pan-Caribbean B-3 from Aswad’s Bigga Morrison, and nary a Cooder in sight.

21. Michael Jackson — Invincible

I understand if the rancid swirl of autobiography and hype still put you off, but it’s beyond me how anyone beyond Quincy Jones’ immediate family could prefer Bad for purely musical reasons. Listen past the usual goop about The Children and The Planet and The Media (no worse distractions, really, than your standard R&B clichés) and you’ll hear a ballad master who’s finally located a hook or two sturdy enough to support his sentimentality. And the top-shelf Jerkins and Riley jams seemed a touch out of date in ’01, but time heals all anachronisms. This genius left far too little major work for me to permit tabloid scumbags or his own train wreck of an existence from claiming this minor shimmer of brilliance.

Jay-Z – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”

Released: 6.22.01

Peak: #8

Few pop stars grow more likeable with fame–typically their aggregation of arrogance undercuts their appeal. But arrogance was integral to Jay-Z’s appeal from the jump, and his aesthetic project has been to endear a wider audience to that ego, even as his noblesse distaste with drug-game grubbiness solidified his thug cred. And from its gracious intro forward, “Izzo” may be his most charming pop moment, a joyfully inclusive victory procession that invites us to share in its triumphant mood.

Any ghetto hard ass who samples Annie obviously has some designs on the broad beating heart of the mass public, but “Hard Knock Life” strained to oversell Jigga as street urchin. Kanye West’s Jackson 5 reworking, however, makes for a more organic ghetto anthem–“I Want You Back” summons, rather than fabricates, childhood memories, and so, with its “Double Dutch Bus” overtones, does Jay’s pig latin transliteration of his divine name. That beat kicks in, and next thing you’re reminiscing about cooling off under the spray of a fire hydrant and chilling on your neighbor’s stoop and a whole bunch of other shit you ain’t never actually done.

There’s plenty of credit to divide between Kanye and Jay, but props are also due the grand jury who’d evaluated the evidence that Jay stabbed record exec Lance “Un” Rivera. Their indictment interrupted Hova’s smooth club life routine of model-boinking and Kristal-swilling and may have pressured the MC to plead his case directly to the people. Suddenly, he was boasting, “I do this for my culture,” and collecting reparations for his people in the form of royalties. (Personally, I’m curious to see just how much the Roc paid out to the Cold Crush Brothers.)

Jay didn’t come naturally to the pop song as PR spin–all his “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” jabber with R. Kelly was sour and defensive. But “Izzo” mastered that maneuver. I’m unaware of a follow-up single addressing his subsequent plea of guilty to a misdemeanor charge (sentence: three years probation). All that remains in the public memory of that incident is Jay’s chorus: “Not guilty/ Y’all got to feel me.” Art may imitate life, after all, but that doesn’t mean it has to copy it down word for word.

The Shins – “New Slang”

Released: 6.9.01

Peak: Did not chart

How cloying, we clucked, how earnest, for Natalie Portman to claim that a silly little indie-pop tune could “change your life.” By which we meant, of course, how unenlightened of that elfin naïf to suggest that a band as ordinary as the Shins could do that. Maybe if her headphones had bled “Idioteque” or “Get Ur Freak On,” we’d let it slide. But this modest guitar-bass-drum shuffle? Please.

By which we meant, of course, fuck Zach Braff–always an unimpeachable sentiment. And by “we,” of course, I mean “you.” Old enough not to feel the sting of how its mythmaking got my life wrong, I could enjoy Garden State for what it got right. And the idea of indie rock as a signal from some distant, non-suburban world is one thing Braff nailed (along with the inability of so many post-collegiate Jerseyans to afford moving out of their parents homes).

Re-rewind time a spell–not just far enough to erase Scrubs from existence, but to predate the ease of downloading that made any curious music fan a potential omnivore–and remember the effort it once took to listen past the suburban static of mainstream Top 40. (The preferred term these days is the less anachronistic “chartpop,” but I’d rather be mistaken for a geezer than a Anglophile.) With its vague contempt for current circumstances and no less vague yearning for something better, “New Slang” hovers prettily to the left of the dial as a beacon of unthreatening strangeness for kids still stuck at home.

And though James Mercer’s collegiate deadpan does indeed suggest more intelligence than it expresses, that’s no cause to give him more grief for portending the current wave of genteel indie-folk earnestness than beloved drips like Elliott Smith or the Beck of Sea Change. If his jumbled, idiosyncratic imagery masks just how mundane his emotional circumstances actually are, “I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find” is direct enough to invite identification, if not to you-know-what your rhymes-with-strife. Like his modestly talented competition, Mercer has to smack a tune dead square on the nose for it to linger. Here he does.

Petey Pablo – “Raise Up”

Released: 5.22.01

Peak: #25

When it comes to hometown pride, hip-hop’s always talked a good game, even if plenty of MCs’ local chauvinism seemed an excuse to slug it out over turf with some equally provincial rivals. Petey Pablo doesn’t drop a lot of local color into his rhymes, aside from a prodigious list of “all my little bitty overlooked hick towns” and shared memories of him and his buddies rapping along to radio hits. But Petey does grunt with palpable love for North Carolina, his Mystikalian grunt representing an everyman good nature rather than throbbing demonic phallus.

“Raise Up” is as crunk as Timbaland gets, which, since he loops another pilfered orchestral Arabesque into the groove, ain’t all that (though you barely notice the exoticism in context of Petey’s whoops). Tim’s endorsement of a major label Dirty Southerner may have been the trackmaster’s way of reminding us that he and Missy were representing VA long before the gold rush for rhyming rednecks was on. Regardless, I definitely prefer Tim’s taste in good ol’ boys to Lil Jon’s (or Nashville’s) (or the U.S. electorate’s).

“Raise Up” spawned two incredible remixes: The “All City” remix, an extended series of city/state shout-outs, and the “USA Flag Remix,” which was the warmest, most joyous of all 9/11 responses. Its hearty command for listeners to spin the U.S. flag like a helicopter came at a moment when I needed reminders that patriotism and xenophobia weren’t necessarily a package deal. Petey’s follow-ups, “I” and “I Told Y’all,” serve largely as reminders of what non-hit grooves Tim can crank out when product comes due. But their good-natured ego, heard in connection with “Raise Up,” reminds me that behind all today’s posturing remains the old hip-hop dream of hearing your existence acknowledged in the mass media.

Later that year, Timbaland would devise a similar, even trickier downhome worldbeat jam, “Ugly,” for Bubba Sparxxx. A great one, sure, but I prefer the straightahead bleat of what amounts to a macho dance craze–hollering at dudes, not women, to show their titties. So do as the man says: Take your shirt off, twist it ’round yo’ head, spin it like a helicopter.

City High – “What Would You Do?”

Released: 5.1.01

Peak: #8

City High could have been custom-designed for me. I’ve always gone on about the idea of pop as conversation, of disparate voices–male and female, black and white, young and younger–articulating their prerogatives wrt sex and money and personal identity. And these three Wyclef-shepherded teens vented, ever so slightly, the judgmental morality-play structure of TV talk shows to let in a breath of moral ambiguity. Each problem vignette had a slight twist, often gendered–“15 Will Get You 20,” f’rinstnace, warned women against jailbait, and on “Why” it’s the guy who takes the stronger stance against post-breakup sex. And they’re from my very own home town of Willingboro, NJ.

Rapper/songwriter Ryan Toby begins “What Would You Do?” with a suitably Afterschool Special question: “Boys and girls, wanna hear a true story?” And if the confrontation that follows isn’t factually true, it’s a damn sight realer than most gangsta ish or teenpop melodrama. At a “real wild party” with his boys, Toby encounters a junior high acquaintance among the evening’s entertainment, and the double-standard-bearing jerk criticizes her for stripping. Claudette Ortiz, the gal in question, retaliates that she needs the cash to feed her fatherless little boy.

Of course, as the internet hammers home every day, “conversation” more often means talking over, past, or around than to one another. And “What Would You Do?” deliberately refuses to resolve its issue. Ortiz’s explanation is definitely more appealing than the sanctimonious Toby’s bootstrap self-motivation speech, but while she may get to sing the chorus, he’s allowed to lecture over the bridge, which breaks unaccountably into Dre’s “The Next Episode.” During the final chorus, you can envision the whole cast turning to face the TV screen to ask what YOU would do.

City High’s follow-up, the Ortiz showcase “Caramel,” was a sharper girl-power tune than India.Arie’s “Video,” if only because it was franker (“I ain’t a virgin that don’t mean I’m having sex with ya”). And though the trio went the way of Melky Sedek after that, I originally thought the City High saga had a happy ending, with Toby (now a working pro songwriter) happily hitched to Ortiz. But there are some online murmurs that Ortiz recently gave birth to another man’s baby. I don’t know any details (what if CH third-wheel Robbie Pardlo was the dad?) but sounds like that story would make a great song for City High 2.

Blu Cantrell – “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)”

Released: 4.24.01

Peak: #2

If nothing else, I hope this list proves what an incredible moment for female R&B the earliest sliver of the decade was. From sassy kiss-offs like Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” and Olivia’s “Bizounce,” to all-purpose assertions of simulated self like Mya’s “Free,” Lil Mo’s “Superwoman,” or Nivea’s “Don’t Touch My Radio,” R&B teemed with second-tier divas, just famous enough to fulfill a fan’s widescreen fantasies, close enough to ordinary to invite reasonable identification. And their sheer number lead to a healthy diversity of opinion.

Still there was plenty of common ground. This era’s heroines regularly called men on their shit and, not coincidentally, often focused on the economic realities of being a woman. The general consensus was that financial autonomy was the way to go, but even here,  Pink’s “Most Girls” and Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” used that means to differing ends: “true love” vs. booty calls. In this context, Alicia Keys’ strictly non-pecuniary musings on “A Woman’s Worth” were a sad retreat to idealized romance.

The Blu Cantrell of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” had taken the more traditional female route to financial security, but when the man who was supposed to provide for her “slips up,” her rage trumps prudence. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” marks another contribution to R&B feminism from Dallas “Unpretty” Austin, moving on since the dissolution of TLC, and Austin’s weirdly arranged orchestral loop, landing on an wobbly woo-woo-woo-woo, is what draws you in to the track. But the song’s continuing appeal rests in how the vicious nonchalance of Cantrell’s infidelity-spurred spending spree ebbs to reveal a palpable hurt and regret as she moans that “It’s a shame we have to play these games.” Try as they might, R&B women have a hard time making themselves as callous as the men who fuck them over.

As for Cantrell herself, she kept her career alive for a spell with the Sean Paul duet, “Breathe,” produced by Dr. Dre, and the ragga-powered “Make Me Wanna Scream.” But the music industry has never been a comfortable home for past-prime ladies, and as the industry contracted, a scant few superstar names came to stingily dominate the latter half of the decade. In 2008, Cantrell, having shed two dozen pounds for the reality show Celebrity Circus, posed nude for Playboy. She’d turned down a cover back in 2003 when her career was still going full steam. What’d I say about economic realities of being a woman?

Babyface – “There She Goes”

Released: 4.17.01

Peak: #31

When it comes to the Neptunes, I’m agnostic if not apostate. Something in the snide assurance of their mastery rankles–when they team with Jay-Z on a track like “I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It 2 Me),” the ‘Tunes’ tunes come off as shiny and cold and well-designed as the fender on a new Benz, and just as inviting of a hocked loogie. Elsewhere, the precision of their reconstituted funk thrums with a mild neurosis, in need of a Justin Timberlake to synthesize its rhythmic jerk into sexual excitement, or else a Mystikal to send the works tumbling into full lunacy.

Then there’s Kenny Edmonds, such a smooth fella he could make a ghetto house seem classy. “There She Goes” is nothing fancy, just a precise, funky, masterful R&B groove, by Neptunes standards practically a throwaway, But “nothing fancy” is the state which every Babyface hit aspires to–for him, in fact, this is some insistent, high-energy shit– and rarely do collaborators strike such a balance between two disparate aesthetics. The production elements fit together perfectly, as when those staccato chords seem to release a spray of electronic confetti; even Pharrell’s falsetto, which would come to grate as it accumulated delusions of stardom, blends right in.

Essential to Babyface’s charm is its underlying consolation that he views affluence as a means of assuring comfort rather than excess as a means of exerting power. A bourgeois illusion if you insist; maybe we are indeed all pimps and hoes. But he called a later album, and its attendant hit, Grown & Sexy, and would that more R&B singers didn’t view those adjectives in eternal opposition. In an age of pop relativism, where somebody somewhere can be located who claims to hear emotional grit in the most overblown wind-tunnel divas or to discern a persona in the most anonymous ingénue, Babyface occupies a spot all his own: Dude may be the last critically underrated R&B hit-maker.