Monthly Archives: March 2010

Shakira – “Underneath Your Clothes”

Released: 4.18.02

Peak: #9

As our introduction to the oddest Latin crossover star since Che, “Whenever Wherever” was less than ideal–the sort of ethnically charged dance-rock novelty that assimilated all too readily to the pop ebb and flow. But “Underneath Your Clothes” tinkered with the architecture of power balladry too forthrightly to fade into the background. The production–slow-building, damn nigh magisterial–rises from tactile finger-squeaks along guitar strings to the bridge’s triumphant toodle of Magical Mystery horns before falling again for to croak its coda of why Shakira deserves hot sex: “For being such a good girl.”

The message of “Underneath Your Clothes,” as I said at the time, is that “regular attendance at Mass entitles you to feel up the son of Argentina’s deposed president and to rip off a Bangles melody. (She’s right on both counts.)” Now, eight years later, with Shakira Antonio de la Rúa still indefinitely engaged, living together on his private Bahaman island, what’s there to add?

Well, “Underneath Your Clothes” has established itself as a ladies-first companion piece to John Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland” (a song which, incidentally, no woman of my acquaintance can stomach.) But if Mayer can’t shrug off his privileged legacy–it’s the ol’ male gaze employing its colonial hands as agents of objectification–Shakira reclaimed the worthy poetic trope of the body of the beloved as landscape. “As every voice is hanging from the silence/ Lamps are hanging from the ceiling/ Like a lady tied to her manners/ I’m tied up to this feeling” ain’t Donne, but it ain’t bad. And she bolstered those metaphoric bits with sweetly direct sentiments like  “Because of you, I’m running out of reasons to cry.”

Shakira’s voice–Cher as tutored by Alanis, freakier than either–remains the dividing line even today. Either the way she liquefies on “territory” tickles your brain or summons up images of frisky livestock. But if she gets you just right, you’re swept along a flight of epic intimacy that’s every bit as breathtaking as climbing the Andes to count the freckles on your beloved’s body, or her video’s dramatic moment of shirt-knotting.


Nelly – “Hot in Herre”

Release: 4.16.02

Peak: #1

The first time I heard “Hot in Herre,” alone in my car, I laughed out loud twice. The deadpan response “I am getting so hot/ I wanna take my clothes off” stirred up my first giggles, and Nelly’s bedroom imitation of his seducee (“Girl I think my butt gettin’ big”) topped them off. Perhaps no R&B hit had skirted this near the parodic since you reminded R. Kelly of his car, and Kells was never as playful as Nells. Who else would think of a penthouse roof as a place to feed birds? And who knew this was the beginning of the end?

Well, the signs were all there. Nellyville was a mild downer after Country Grammar, with the great Jason Epperson largely relegated to album tracks. (Now that Nelly was a proven commodity, he couldn’t trust no-names with big singles.) Even “Hot in Herre” owes less to the Neptunes’ artful tweaks than to Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” and, more importantly, to Nelly himself–subtract his leapfrog flow and the remaining funk is glibly pro. Where once his beats juiced his rhymes, now Nelly was the primary engine driving his tracks forward, and no MC can carry that kind of weight forever.

Like any entrepreneur weaned on a biz where growth was all, Nelly went on to diversify (acting, energy drink, clothing) and to engage in the rap’s most ostentatious form of conspicuous consumption: the accumulation of duet partners. First came successful yet lackluster pairings with not-Beyonce and that guy Taylor Swift sang about, each suggesting a range broader than he actually possessed. Then he floundered on the overbooked Brass Knuckles–collaborating with Fergie and Chuck D on the same disc is the kind of achievement Sugar Ray would have been proud of. (The Mariah and Bruce and Janet cameos Jermaine Dupri boasted about beforehand would not have helped matters.)  How sad to watch the onetime life of the party reduced to obsessing over his guest list.

Maxwell – “This Woman’s Work”

Released: 3.16.02

Peak: #15

Kate Bush’s faerie-goth spirit has always led me to anticipate elliptical lyrics; when I hunker down and listen closely I’m often disarmed by her relative straightforwardness as a writer. I mean, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of Wuthering Heights more directly than Bronte did (even if that kinda undermines the ingenuity of the novel). And “Running Up That Hill” is really just about swapping orgasms, innit? (Well, maybe not “just.”)

Bush wrote “This Woman’s Work” specifically for the movie She’s Having a Baby–wrote it to correspond with the visuals–and the only way she could have been more less metaphorical about it would be to sing “Kevin Bacon’s in the hallway worried/ Elizabeth McGovern and the baby might die.” Just as Bush makes art out of contract work, she literalizes a timeworn figure of speech with “I know you have a little life in you left” as the woman ejecting that “little life” from her body.

Those same lyrics make, if not more sense, a different and equally valid sense coming from a man, re-emphasizing the father’s helplessness and alienation from this particularly feminine situation. Also, there’s no getting around it–part of the pleasure of Maxwell’s cover is the parlor-trick quality of the feat. It’s fun to hear a virile black dude not so much transform Bush’s ethereal swoop as inhabit it, even preserving some of her intonations.

Granted, Maxwell’s higher register is a bit above-the-waist by classic R&B standards anyway. Often skeptical of his arrangements (fussy), his sense of beauty (non-corporeal), his rhythms (implicit), and his eccentricities (unearned), I can’t deny that his m.o. works here. The contrast in vocals, between the otherworldly falsetto that prevails and the Prince-like middle register into which he drops, makes the song his gorgeous own. Too bad it didn’t spark a trend: Imagine Usher attacking, say, “Army Dreamers.” As it is, “Thie Woman’s Work” stands alongside Futureheads’ “Hounds of Love” as, to my knowledge, the only successful male Kate cover.

Best Albums 2002 (21-25)

25. The Hives–Veni Vidi Vicious

These nattily suited Swedes and their imaginary svengali may never have dropped le bomb or converted Yanks to kilograms, but they did as much to k.o. “pure” garage revivalism as Jack White’s left hook. Realizing that rock-is-back hype could never be justified, the Hives reveled in it instead. Their Sonics-Stooges-Voidoids trajectory allowed for a Jerry Butler cover, which had Chris Dahlen in Pitchfork warning the youth, “Your parents might dig this album as much as you do.” (Those old people with their soul music.) When the Hives failed to change the world in some unspecified way, true believers got the feeling they’d been cheated, never realizing that was half the fun.

24. Missy Elliott–Under Construction

Who else could’ve jammed corny-ass stop-the-violence/come-on-people rhymes as hard as this? Who else could make like a spokesperson for hip-hop without looking like a swole-headed tool? Who else could have pulled off a song called “Back in the Day” in 2002, for cripesakes? “Work It” still puts in overtime, “Gossip Folks” brushes off haters without resorting to that tired epithet, and “Can You Hear Me” is a less-than-gag-inducing tribute to R&B’s fallen princesses. For once, the guest spots–Jay, Luda, Meth, Beyonce–signify not commercial desperation but community outreach. Also, that Timbaland guys makes real good beats. No, Missy’s not the most consistent hip-hop album-maker of the decade. But that’s only because Ghostface finished stronger.

23. Pretty Girls Make Graves–Good Health

Every cynical shit should have a go-to set of earnest punks to keep him honest, and for a spell these Seattle kids were mine. Less tight-assed (looser-assed?) than Fugazi, less prone to boy-rage than At the Drive In, and though you probably liked both bands more than I did, you’ve got to admit that both left room for growth. As Nathan Thelen’s guitar worked the postpunk changes the times demanded, Andrea Zollo’s riot grrowl resisted them. And like all the best earnest punks, they mistook their bad vibes for cynicism, rather than impatient idealism. Do you remember what the music meant? Well, do ya punk?

22. Hakim–Talakik

I don’t know much about sha’bi–certainly not enough to distinguish this Cairo star’s streetwise jeel from its more genteel forbears. But I do know that jizz-flunk maestro Narada Michael Walden wasn’t exactly born to break Egyptian pop stateside. (He was born to produce Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us,” God save us all.) And yet. This crossover bid lacks the non-stop thrills of the two-disc The Lion Roars-Live in America, but Hakim compensates with outreach, bridging worlds old and new with little more than accordion, percussion, and enthusiasm. (Oh, and maybe some help from Trans-Global Underground.) The cultural hybrids aren’t always as perfect as the duet with merengue star Olga Tanon on “Ya Albi.” But sometimes imperfection is just what global fusion needs.

21. Silkworm–Italian Platinum

Because they sing what they know (“I never thought I’d leave this place/ It has so much storage space”). Because bassist Tim Midgett consistently voted for his band in Pazz & Jop. Because his ballot never placed their records above a suitably modest fifth or sixth. Because Steve Albini was put on earth to record this particular strain of plod ‘n’ bash. Because one of the 90s’ most adequately middling bands got their asses in gear once they realized no one made records they liked anymore. Because drummer Michael Dahlquist is in the cool part of rock and roll heaven, where they don’t let the annoying famous people in. Because indie used to sometimes rock, dammit.

Britney Spears – “Overprotected”

Released: 3.12.02

Peak: #86

“I’m a Slave 4 U” was an unsatisfying introduction to Act III of the ever-impinging adulthood of Britney Spears. If only the song had left a little more to the imagination, and allowed us to hear “U” as the audience to which Britney was indentured, or the public image in which she had been imprisoned. Or if only it had left a little less to Britney’s stunted imagination–she knows only one way to prove she’s not the little girl that all you people look at her like she is. The Neptunes’ high production values only served to make the exhibition ickier.

To follow up that cum shot as coming-out party, however, professional handler Max Martin scribbled down a minor act of rebellion. “Overprotected” offers a case study in what happens when the identity crises of adolescence are commercially postponed until young adulthood. When claiming that her decisions belong to “no one else but me,” Britney ends on what may be her most defiant and egregious distention of the long-e sound ever. And if “Overprotected” thumps along to a beat far less ingenious than even the Neptunes’ filler (nice try, Jerkins), that just befits a song about realizing there’s more to life than dancing.

Despite its terrific title, the third single from Britney, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” (another Martin product) was a blah ballad. Set alongside “Slave,” Britney seemed suspended between the two forms of adult female agency pop had come to recognize: entrepreneurial porn star or Celine Dion understudy. Now that Britney’s life has reached no unhappy ending (at least yet), despite her years of acting out in public, the reassuring backing chorus of “Overprotected”–“You’ll find it out, don’t worry”–feels even more resonant. Looking back, now, we can see that Britney had nothing to lose but her chains.

Big Tymers – “Still Fly”

Released: 3.12.02

Peak: # 11

Hip-hop materialism is an easy target for critics, especially of the white middle-class stripe. When said palefaces yearn for the days of Public Enemy and rap that “meant something,” I suspect they miss Chuck D’s politics less than his austerity. (They also ignore the fact that Public Enemy still exists.) Me, I’ve never known or cared much about cars or clothes, and many a name-brand inventory has glazed my ears over. Still, I presume that “gator boots with the pimped out Gucci suits” look quite smart, and I’m sure that both the E-Class Benz and the 430 Lex are fine modes of transportation, because when it comes to excess, I trust the Big Tymers.

Cash Money label head Bryan Williams, a.k.a. “Birdman,” a.k.a. “Baby,” can be a microphone chameleon. He’s more vicious in the company of Clipse (“What Happened to that Boy”), more street beside Lil Wayne (“Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”), more boisterous when surrounded by his full gang of Cash Money Millionaires (“Bling Bling”). But alongside prolific beatmaster Mannie Fresh–who here devises some complex dramatic scenario about hydraulics and stereo equipment I’ve never quite gotten to the bottom of–Baby sounds lovable and slovenly.

Warbling a wobbly sea shanty of a chorus misprised from the Gilligan’s Island theme, the duo kisses off middle-class fiscal propriety in the fine tradition of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up,” though at a more leisurely pace. At first, “Stay Fly” seems a satire of hood rich flossers who blow their gas money on minks, piss their rent away on rims, and cagily keep possessions in they mama’s name. But these two MCs not only identify in full, they make ruining your credit sound more exciting as slinging crack. Maybe the coarsening effect consumerism has had on the black community is no joke. But prigs who bristle at the gauche material fantasies of the underprivileged are why the Big Tymers are entitled to treat it as one.

Alan Jackson – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”

Released: 2.2.02

Peak: #28

After the collapse of the Twin Towers, a September 11 mega-anthem loomed even more inevitably than the siege of Baghdad. With the efforts of the super-famous either premature (McCartney’s “Freedom”) or belated (Springsteen’s “The Rising”), the vacuum soon filled with vague patriotism (Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly,” Daniel Rodriguez’s “God Bless America”) and even vaguer vagueness (the All-Star Tribute’s “What’s Going On” and the timeless message that it’s mean to scare celebrities). And at this moment, Alan Jackson’s previous weakness as a Nashville chart topper–an inveterate niceness that compromised his adoption of a sturdy persona–became his greatest strength.

Jackson always sounded like he’d make a better neighbor than he did a superstar. But being polite to your admirers at Fanfest is one thing; advocating mass decency in the face of disaster and burgeoning hatred proved a genuine public service. Its Corinthians quote heartfelt, its inability to distinguish Iraq and Iran both candid and humble, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” made the “healing” process we heard so much about seem a genuine social reality. Jackson acknowledged but ultimately rejected the rage that would later fuel Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and its distressingly accurate presumptions about our national character.

But “Where Were You” never left me sobbing on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; “Drive” has more than once. That emotional response has nothing to do with actual life experience: I half-remember my dad trying to teach me to drive stick once or twice, but that was hardly formative. (And I know for sure he never taught me how to drive a boat.) Like most exercises in nostalgia, “Drive” traffics in the sort of memories we like to imagine ourselves having. But Jackson etches his reminiscences in vivid specifics — the secondhand ’75 Johnson with an electric choke and rotten transom, the afternoons dumping trash alongside Thigpen Road out of the ’64 Ford flatbed — rather than hinting at some hazy prelapsarian past.

In fact, “Drive” looks to the future. Jackson underlines the truth that memories connect us to our elders, and remind us how it feels to have been cared for, so that we can connect as elders ourselves, and care for others. And, yeah, I can’t help but like that in the closing verse, Jackson happens to be teaching his daughters to drive the Jeep. At a time when those trumpeting American superiority made the greatest case against themselves, Jackson quietly made our culture seem genuinely worth defending.

Pink – “Don’t Let Me Get Me”

Released: 2.19.02

Peak: #8

I don’t know exactly what L.A. told her, but Alecia Moore was never no damn Britney Spears, not by a long shot. In her initial manifestation as spunky R&B malcontent, Pink and her au courant stutter-stop beats competed not with the blonde teen idols, but with the various one-named (usually black) smaller fry like Mya and Monica who trailed in the wake of TLC and would never be Beyonce. Most all comparisons between Britney and Pink, in fact, date from Pink’s dismissal of them here. Shows just how smart she was to bring the matter up.

And yeah, maybe that proves Pink’s newfound image was “all a pose,” for those as flinch at such playacting. But much as I sympathize with those full-on misfits who feel that mass-marketed non-conformity belittles their uniqueness, my greater sympathies rest with those not-quite-misfits whose anguish is relieved when pop music assures them their everyday turmoil isn’t unique. I reserve undiluted antipathy for latter day Debbie Gibsons like Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, well-scrubbed honor students waving songwriting credits as indicia of their “real,” sexless girlhood.

Pink’s co-writer here, Dallas Austin, has never, to my knowledge. been a teenage girl. But though Linda Perry was interminably backslapped for aiding Pink’s makeover, Austin did most of the heavy lifting on Missundaztood. co-writing “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Just Like a Pill.” Summing up her new persona in couplets (“Teachers dated me/ My parents hated me”) and fighting a daily “war against the mirror” that’s epic enough to deserve those big drums and arena-pop guitar solo, Pink allows her contradictions to ripen into genuine neuroses, primed for public purgation. After a half-decade of manufactured pop rebellion for boys, this shit comes across as a veritable Title IX.

Tweet – “Oops (Oh My)”

Released: 1.15.02

Peak: #27

Every beatmaster has his own strengths, so let’s just put it this way: The Neptunes could never have scored as steamy an exercise in female self-pleasure as “Oops (Oh My).” No need to be all hypothetical about it either: “I am/ Get-ting so hot/ I’m gonna take my clothes off” is a far coo from “Oops, there goes my shirt,” even if each murmur sounds the involuntary product of a hypnotic swoon. The male gaze of “Hot in Herre” set the scene for the decade’s strip-club chic, though few subsequent hits in this vein would feature Nelly’s flirty charm.

But no one crafts “female” grooves like Timbaland–the discrete elements of his tracks fold inward, drawing the listener toward the productions’ open spaces. The constant throughout “Oops” is the bass drop followed by a four-beat drum like a knock at the door. As the track builds, those delighted guitar squiggles come to echo Tweet’s self-exploration, and the syncopated voices–first high-pitched (female?) then low- (male?)–envelop the singer’s own voice.

Its female intimacy renders “Oops (Oh My)” particularly inhospitable to a male guest rap. Missy fits in as Tweet’s whispery alter ego. But the great Bubba Sparxxx sounds like an ad for his own record, and as for the un-great Fabolous, any woman who could disrobe, let alone climax as he conducts his egocentric spelling lesson must have a hair trigger clit. (“Oops, there goes my kids all over your face, oh my” — jerk off on your own time, scuzz.)

Besides, revealing the identity of Tweet’s phantasmal suitor fucks with the song’s conceit, and makes nonsense of her mysterious query “Who could this be?” “Oops (Oh My)” is a safe-sex ghost story, as Tweet’s recollected desire (possibly) generates a demon lover who (possibly) appears as Tweet’s double. Creepy stuff, and hot. And as Tweet’s self-pleasure grows inseparable from the pleasures of the track, “Oops (Oh My)” makes explicit just how much R&B that pretends to seduce its listener is ultimately masturbatory.

Best Albums 2001 (1-5)

5. Basement Jaxx — Rooty

Remedy strained house’s formal constrictions; these drunken two-step beats stagger and swerve with an ingenuity far dafter and punker than the competition. Techno Jawas scavenging Euro-soul droids from the scrapheap of 20th century club life, Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe trafficked in self-aware sleaze like the full-blooded Prince fans they are with none of the snotty epater that electroclash would jizz itself over. “Romeo” sets the bar impossibly high, “SFM” is an overdue feline answer to “Atomic Dog,” and “Where’s Your Head At?” out-yobs Norman Cook at his own game. “A slide show of the past they think is missing from the now,” Sasha Frere-Jones called it in the Voice. Still missing now.

4. Manu Chao — Proxima Estacion: Esperanza

As worldbeat heroes go, Chao’s first impression is a touch lightweight, both in the buoyancy of his melodies and the skip-lilt of his reggae. But that’s just your inner puritan dictating aesthetic terms–effervescence this wholly felt can’t be earned, only snatched as a birthright, and this Paris-born Barcelona resident (dad Galician, mom Basque) comes by his rootless cheer honestly. Sun-baked, smoked-out, tuned-in, his frisky lope allows the ten-piece Radio Bemba Sound System to roam from ska to Europop to whathaveyou as blithely as Chao drifts from Arabic to English to French to Galician to Portuguese to Spanish. And if “Next Station: Hope” strikes you as a hokey title, it’s named for an actual Madrid metro stop.

3. The Coup — Party Music

Funk not “beats,” politics not “protest,” the former a livelier variant of the Oaktown bounce that Dre profitably deflated, the latter as staunchly leftist and militant as PE, but a quantum more humanist. Oh, and did I mention the jokes? Integral to the funk and politics both. Capital and its attendant ism may have plenty to offer hip-hop superstars, but consumers who suspect the excess ain’t trickling down to them anytime soon are directed toward “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” which does not include hijacked commercial flights (and doesn’t explicitly exclude execs in do-rags). Long-distance dedication to my niece: “Princesses are evil/ The way they got there was they killed people.”

2. The White Stripes — White Blood Cells

Maybe Jack White’s lyrics didn’t specifically address the non-sibling drummer he divorced, but the more he faked his past the more likely we were to hear them that way. White’s shaken faith in old-fashioned monogamy raises the question left unsolved ever since: Is the Edmund Burke of garage revivalism a principled romantic bucking slippery modern mores or just a prematurely old fart who fetishizes artistic and philosophic limitations? Answer as you will–I’m not about to second-guess the greatest rock singles act of the ’00s, a minimalist art project disguised as an arena rock band and pretending to slowly metamorphose into the reverse.

1. Bob Dylan — “Love and Theft”

Oh, he saw it coming all right — if by “it” you mean a generic American vision of apocalypse as gnomic slapstick, a gag he’d run with ever since he pretended he was faking the folk. The aural shadow play into which Bob crept on Time Out of Mind was a masterful impersonation of “Dylan” the canonic wise man; L&T’s one-liners, shored up imagist shards, and quick-stepping blues shuffle resurrected Dylan the comic wise ass, the true incarnation of his genius, and made good on his ’90s foray into roots archaeology. “You’ve always got to be prepared/ But you never know for what”?  That would’ve been good advice even if 9/11 had just been another release date.