Monthly Archives: April 2010

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Hey there. No more posts this week — fallen a bit behind, and it’s time to catch up. There’ll be an albums post this weekend, and then, next week, on to 2003.

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Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me a River”

Released: 12.28.02

Peak: #3

The female fan that romantic pop has come to fashion over time is one demanding motherfucker of a construct. Never satisfied to hear that she is the unique object of her beloved singer’s adoration (I mean, honestly, how dumb do you think she is?), she also demands bitter stories eviscerating those lesser women who have wronged her. There’s never been a surer route to a girl’s heart than putting some other dumb broad in her place.

And smug little pussyhound that he is, Justin Timberlake hasn’t clung to his position as the only boy-bandling anygal still bothers to get wet over by underestimating the female capacity for despising one’s fellow woman. What’s more, it works for him. Justin hurts gloriously, eliciting sympathy with an ease that shows up Usher as a clumsy self-pity-partier. If “Cry Me a River” cries out for nothing less than Phil Spector comparisons, I’ll take the wounded purity of Justin’s falsetto over Bill Medley’s aching baritone any day.

Thing is, when you’re as famous as Justin, we can fact-check your emotional complaints. And when your video stars a doppleganger of your no-less-famous ex, and you weasel unconvincingly out of having intended its storyline as an accusation against said ex, and when you’re the while enjoying a contemporaneous rebound with Alyssa Milano — well, no matter how believable your vocal pain, you need a damn good producer.

When it comes to “Cry Me a River,” none of my ideological or biographical reservations could dislodge a single brick from Timbaland’s grand cathedral of resentment even if I wanted them to. Having recently explored his minimalist side, Timbaland here plunged into full-blown orchestral paranoia, complete with ghostly voices and guitar arpeggios stopping dead in mid-air. And in case you forgot he was an auteur, Tim reworks the synth riff and electro-tongue-clicks of “Are You That Somebody?”

Still, “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around” is another story altogether. Get out of there with those gratuitous ellipses.

Christina Aguilera – “Beautiful”

Released: 12.24.02

Peak: #2

The 2002 skankification of Christina Aguilera could have been enough to frighten the most permissive parents into keeping their daughter’s genie securely corked within her unrubbed bottle till she hit thirty. That once cutely flirty bare midriff had exposed itself as an insidious gateway fashion, the first loop in a spiral downward to a display of pierced, chapped, greased nudity. “Dirrty” was no spectacle of empowerment, but of sexual maturity devouring a young woman from within. And yet, such is art, but had “Beautiful” come at any other moment in Christina’s career, its platitudes would have rung hollow: Oh, how nice, the tiny little blonde thinks you’re pretty on the inside.

No one else but Christina was meant to sing “Beautiful.” And this sentiment comes from a guy who values her slim contributions to pop just slightly more than Celine’s and slightly less than Mariah’s, and would trade the lump sum even up for, say, my fifth favorite Britney song. Personally, I’d have preferred if Pink had convinced Linda Perry (then hoarding the song for herself) to let her record “Beautiful” for Missundastood (so long, “My Vietnam”). And the Clem Snide rendition, personalized by Eef Barzelay’s ugly-duckling voice, is a caring envoi from another generation. But my own tastes are irrelevant up against the needs of mass culture, for which Christina was ideal.

Compare Chaka Khan’s far smarter version. She digs into the song so fiercely that even Kenny G’s melodic wriggles almost make sense, but that requires her to pay more attention to lyrics about “debris” and “doom,” and unfinished puzzles that Perry likely thought profound, than any grownup ought. Christina’s style, by contrast, emphasizes performer over song, even though she scales back on the lazy pyrotechnics and hovers mostly in her husky mid-range. No other ballad has proven itself so well-suited to Christina’s limitations as an interpreter, and her drive to over-expression conceals the song’s greatest fib of all: Of course words can bring us down. If not then words couldn’t bring us up either. And then what good would inspirational pop do us?

Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows”

Released: 11.26.02

Peak: #51

Of all nu-metal’s sins, its greatest was to foster a nostalgia for grunge. If you asked a high school kid in 2002 his favorite kind of music, and he said “rock,” you could be pretty sure he had the shittiest taste of anyone in his class. Aside from the pressures of gender-class-race, or some kind of brainwave-flattening hormonal imperative, what possible reason could there be to prefer Saliva or Disturbed to Britney or Justin, to Eminem or Jay-Z–hell, to Toby or Kenny? Maybe that’s loading the deck, but the choice hardily becomes sensible if you substitute Jessica or Mandy, Ja Rule or Fabolous, Rascal Flatts or, erm, Emerson Drive.

Forget the Nirvana leftover “You Know You’re Right,” which sounded like half-assed Tool, or Kurt’s drummer fusing P.J. Harvey and the Violent Femmes with “All My Life.”  Queens of the Stone Age stood out from the Active Rock wasteland as the only popular band of the ’00s that demand to be written about in the language of a second-rate Creem hack–you know, balls-out, no bullshit, ROCK AND MOTHERFUCKING ROLL. In fact, Josh Homme is responsible for the most bullshitless hard rock since Motorhead, with both vocals and instrumentals pruned free of preening. And “No One Knows” was a model of hard rock efficiency. (And of hard rock recycling–its riff had been kicking around for half a decade.)

“Stoner rock” has always seemed a limp categorization for any band, though lines like “I journey through the desert of the mind” and “I drift along the ocean/ Dead lifeboats in the sun” do make it tempting. I prefer Homme’s own term, “robot rock,” and its connotations of precision, persistence, and craft. After all, bullshit is a key ingredient of lots of great rock, and Homme’s achievement isn’t that he strained all poo lumps, but that something essential remain after the purification.

Avril Lavigne – “Sk8r Boi”

Released: 10.28.02

Peak: #10

In a world where snooty ballerinas rule the school, feared and desired by all, and where cute boys with skateboards are despised and ridiculed, one raccoon-mascara’d brat stands up for what she believes in. Avril Lavigne is… Not-Britney.

“Sk8r Boi” is ridiculous. Its plot jumps and jerks like someone dropped and broke a bad John Hughes movie, then reassembled it in the wrong order. (Too bad Paramount’s plans for a feature film based on its lyrics fizzled out.) But Avril herself was ridiculous. Not because she wasn’t “really” a “punk,” but because she really was the kind of tomboy who hates to hang with the girls. Say what you will about Britney, but she saved her (very) occasional vitriol for the boys who earned it. Avril is about as un-sisterly as pop stars come, and though she never stooped to the level of Pink’s “Stupid Girls,” she actually could make it any more obvious, as “Girlfriend” proved.

TRLings with a grudge against cheerleaders may have loved Avril because she dissed thongs in Rolling Stone, because her videos were about fucking shit up at the mall, because she wasn’t Michelle Branch (at least not till “I’m With You.”)  But for grown-ups, Avril’s pleasures were largely musical. In other words, her pleasures were provided by the Matrix–the members of which I have determined through careful research have actual names, and produced fewer hits than they threatened to at the time.

I was once taken in by the slick craft of “Complicated,” though my reservations about a mid-tempo pop country song about being yourself have grown over time. But I remain enough of a sucker for the central gimmick of mall-punk–the repeating riff with the changing bass note underneath–that I still give in to the not-quite-headlong rush of “Sk8r Boi.” Anyway, fuck ballerinas. They think they’re so great.

Jaheim feat. Tha Rayne – “Fabulous”

Released: 10.29.02

Peak:#28

Maybe because “Fabulous” broke while I was living in Chicago, something in Jaheim Hoagland’s weathered voice rang stoically Midwestern to me, suggesting one of those grimy white-skied days in mid-winter when the sun skirts around the horizon instead of rising. Actually, Jaheim was a protégé of North Jersey’s own Kay Gee, of Naughty by Nature; the strings and piano on “Fabulous,” lifted from Harold Melvin’s “Wake Up Everybody,” accentuating the Philly soul edge to Jaheim’s voice, might have tipped me to his eastern origins.

Jahiem’s not quite in Teddy P’s class–prior to “Fabulous,” his string of journeyman singles barely skittered past my ears as they edged over from R&B to pop radio–though stylistically he stands up against the more critically favored Anthony Hamilton or John Legend. And as a child of hip-hop, the middle class aspirations of the Gamble/Huff machine would likely ring corny to his ears. Where McFadden and Whitehead could be preachy (at one point during “Wake Up,” we are admonished to “Stop using the dope!”), Jaheim is big brotherly, not advising change so much as self-esteem, with Kay Gee’s girl group, Tha Rayne, imitating schoolchildren to spell out “U-N-I-T-Y” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” alongside him.

Like “My Block,” “Fabulous” gestured toward a new ghetto for-lack-of-a-better-word realism, replacing flashy fantasies of escape with celebrations of the everyday, chuckling at the cultural idiosyncrasies of inner city life. (“Spend up all our dough on them chromey thangs/ Name our kids some funny names.”) The first verse introduces us to a hard-luck ex-con and a girl aching to grow up too soon; second verse reveals the couple as the singer’s own soon-to-split dad and struggling single mom. A tough start, to be sure, but the implication is that Jaheim turned out all right. Then again, just last week, cops busted Jaheim in his hometown for speeding while smoking weed. Again. Charge that to the game.

Freeway feat. Jay-Z and Beanie Siegel – “What We Do”

Released: 10.29.02

Peak: #97

For all his mic expertise, I’m convinced that Jay-Z’s great legacy will be as a fairly gifted A&R guy. Long before his ascension to Def Jam, Jay expanded Roc-a-Fella from a state of mind to a creative machine with a sense of sonic branding less common in MCs than in producers. Just Blaze and Kanye weren’t just the slickest up-and-comers–their styles complemented each other and established a genuine Roc house sound. Beanie Siegel was no slouch as a number-two, and though I’m not gonna go so far as to rep for Bleek, between drafting the Diplomats and letting Kanye on the mic, Jay had himself a nice little farm system.

Granted, those dudes could be a smidgen smug for my tastes. But with his “fuck a Bentley or a Lexus” lack of posturing and his trademark ghetto-Amish beard, Freeway was the one Roc MC I could all-out root for. “What We Do” samples Creative Source’s “I Just Can’t See Myself Without You,” exactly the sort of lush 70s mush Just Blaze exists to transfigure into greatness, and it’s a production that plays to Freeway’s strengths as an MC. Despite his puppyish eagerness, reminiscent of Ghostface in timbre and cadence, he rides the beat with a fairly traditional deliberateness, and so that rising string swell, cut short by that sharp drum fill, perfectly suits his urgency.

Far from upstaging Freeway, his guest labelmates highlight the collaborative instinct in an MC who’s among rap’s finer team players. Sorry, there’s just something about Freeway just gathers up hackneyed sportswriting jargon like a magnet to iron filings. So let me end by saying that though his ’09 song-a-day publicity stunt offered fewer gems than you’d hope, as did The Stimulus Package, both proved him still deserving of the ultimate sports cliché: The kid’s got heart.

Best Albums 2002 (6-10)

10. Cornershop — Handcream for a Generation


Tjander Singh is like that freshman-year girlfriend you’re embarrassed to run into after college because she reminds you what a sucker you once were. Ultimately, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time contributed about as much to postcolonial pop as Odelay did to hip-hop, true. But significance was never Singh’s thing, and his beatwise indie has proven a durable record of the lovely delusion that was the post-grunge 90s. Here he charms his way through a series of texturally varied two-chord vamps; stick with him and occasionally he’ll toss in a third, while chomping up bits of house, bhangra, and Noel Gallagher’s guitar. It’s all roots music to Singh–you could call it Britannica.

9. Desaparecidos–Read Music/Speak Spanish


Forget “When the President Talks to God.” A concept album paralleling the suburbanization of Omaha and the deterioration of a relationship–that’s the kind of political analysis Conor Oberst was born to wrap his bitter little brain around. Flaunting his Weezer influences and emptying his pockets full of poesy, Oberst offered the first inkling that he might just be both smarter and dumber than his fans in all the right ways. Yes, Bright Eyes’ Lifted… may have been his proper debutant moment. But there will always be a New Dylan impressing grown-ups with his logorrhea. How often do you get to hear Robert Smith threatening to enlist at a zoning commission hearing?

8. The Streets — Original Pirate Material


Mike Skinner would later come to coerce more character from his rappity sing-song, especially once grime’s ascendance freed him from misrepresenting UK hip-hop. He’d bolster his garage beats with beefier choruses, too, and construct more detailed narratives to boot. But with the rave reverie “Weak Become Heroes” establishing his underdog sympathies, Skinner both bestowed and generated empathy from the start with his “cult classic, not bestsellers,” and not coincidentally, proved himself adequately clued-in about male cluelessness, without acting like that earns him a get-into-bed-free card. Yep, you probably overrated his originality at first, but that’s no reason to slight his talent today.

7. Youssou N’Dour–Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du réér)


After spending the bulk of the ’90s in Dakar, perfecting a studio that may well be his home continent’s finest, the greatest singer on earth initiated his mature period on Nonesuch in 2000 with Joko and hasn’t misstepped since. This was his “acoustic” move–you know, that back-to-your-roots thing stars pull around this point in their career, in quotes because Africa’s go-to synth-man Jean-Philippe Rykiel’s drizzling electronics. But Senegalese strings (kora, xalam, riti) predominate, and drums both hand and trap combine for rhythms less breakneck and more pliable than the m’balax norm. Fools who still hold Peter Gabriel against him should start to catch up here, and so should their kids.

6. Spoon–Kill the Moonlight


Britt Daniel justifies the austere precision and lyrical puzzles of his most tightly coiled song-set by writing what he knows–the rewards and exigencies of a self-chosen life at the bottom of the cultural food chain. With triumph out of the question, he and his aciturn friends sell themselves short but feel fine as they swap inside jokes, welcome pretty girls to the city, and, being indie rockers, let reverse snobbery befoul their taste. (C’mon Britt, Stripes over Har Mar, easy.) As I bet Daniel’s TV licensing residuals alone testify, being screwed over by Elektra was the best thing to ever happen to him.

Transplants – “Diamonds and Guns”

Released: 10.22.02

Peak: Did not chart

Tim Armstrong and Travis Barker were hardly slumming when they teamed up with Skinhead Rob Aston. Barking and biting with indiscriminate rage, Aston was some kind of rock and roll original. As with Eagles of Death Metal, Transplants was an admirable instance of established musicians hoisting a talented eccentric buddy to prominence. And as musicial project, Transplants promised such a crazy fusion of every music that dared call itself hardcore–punk, rap, metal, whatever–that their failure to fully deliver may have been a blessing in disguise.

Aston’s energy didn’t exactly guarantee geopolitical acuity, and as someone who still can’t quite parse Rancid’s “Rwanda,” I’m pretty sure Armstrong wasn’t the guy to clarify matters. Still, not only was this Rancid/Blink-182 supergroup on to the existence of blood diamonds before hip-hop or Hollywood, “Diamonds and Guns” sought to tie in the plunder of wealth to the way structural violence spread out across two continents.  If they did so confusedly, sometimes incomprehensibly, like a stoned punk kid telling you what he thought Traffic was about, well, that sounds more interesting than at least half of Traffic itself.

In other words, “Woo hoo!” Transplants isn’t my favorite Rancid spin-off–the first Lars Frederickson and the Bastards disc remains a scruffy rush–and to call it my favorite Blink side project is saying next to nothing.  But it sure energized the busmen on holiday here. When Armstrong snarls “It’s a wicked world we live in,” you can hear his relief in expressing the outlaw side his day job requires him to sublimate into punk solidarity. And Barker is freed from the speedy spasms of Blink to pound the song home.

Alas, in the ultimate irony for a skinhead, Garnier Fructus used this track’s mutant “Hey Bulldog” piano riff and demented “woo hoo,” shorn of all lyrical content, to soundtrack its commercials. As the Clash sang on “Death or Glory,” he who shaves his head will later sell shampoo.

R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)”

Released: 10.22.02

Peak: #2

R Kelly is the most naturally talented male R&B singer of his generation, as if we needed further proof that there is no God. Not that Kelly doesn’t “deserve” his gift–history is rife with talented scumbags, and some have sung R&B. Yet while Kelly can synthesize those strains of R&B that black folks adore and white folks ignore (the Isley Brothers, Donnie Hathaway, Frankie Beverly) without even trying, that doesn’t stop him from trying too hard anyway. Too often, he lays on the overheated playa’s palaver instead of keeping it cool, as though he lacks some essential quality–either respect for his abilities, or a faith in them–that allows the truly great to stay out of their damn way.

Kelly is at his best (as the Isleys would say) when he just lets his patter flow, and he’s never been better than “Ignition (Remix).” Take, for instance, his compulsion to compare women and motor vehicles. Those metaphors aren’t meant to hang together. They’re just tossed-off icebreakers from a charmer who’s confident that once he’s engaged your attention he’ll get you back to his room and [double snare hit] you. In much the same way, he graciously ushers us into what he claims is a sneak preview of the remix, but which magically blossoms into the song itself.

Like “Work It,” “Ignition” was blocked from the number one slot by a lesser hit–in this case, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” But as definitively of-its-moment as that lock-jawed doof’s party-rap was, “Ignition (Remix)” is a more pleasurable night on the town. Unfortunately, the same man who shines so effortlessly here was also capable of “The Greatest,” the vague uplift of which makes Nas’ “I Can” sound as practical as What Color Is Your Parachute?, and “Heaven I Need a Hug” which sought refuge in the ultimate enemy of soul: self-pity. And that’s not even to get into his sex grinds. It’s almost enough to make you wish there was a God.