Monthly Archives: May 2010

Best Albums 2003 (6-10)

10. Junior Senior — D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat

These kitschy Danes were apparently an important transitional moment for a generation of uptight indie kids in overcoming dancephobia. For the rest of us, they were just fun fun fun, self-conscious but never self-serious, whether outlining their statement of purpose on “White Trash,” treating sexual orientation as a chummy joke on “Chicks and Dicks,” or instructing you what to do with your feet and/or coconuts. Jesper Mortensen and Jeppe Laursen never developed the wild junk-shop range of the B-52s. But at a time when a standard sex shtick was to gross us out,  they played their sleaze for a different kind of gag.

9. Ramiro Musotto — Sudaka

The title’s an anti-immigrant slur, recontextualized as neatly as the field recordings that the Argentine-born, Brazil-based Musotto accumulates and tweaks. The best ethno-techno typically thrives on the tension between electronic and acoustic, but Musotto places both elements in harmony. He identifies with the junkman whose patter he captures on  “Botellero” because he’s got a thing for the cast-off and humble: the burble of street commerce, Indian warrior cries, ceremonial spirit chants, Brazilian percussion, even a little masterful twiddling of his own on the single-stringed berimbau. After a lesser follow-up, Civilizaco & Barbarye, Musotto died of pancreatic cancer last year, at 45.

8. Bubba Sparxxx — Deliverance

Warren Mathis’ hick-hop persona would have been rewarding enough as a mere excuse for Timbaland to scoop up samples from the Yonder Mountain String Band or Area Code 615. But as current events set those of us in the NE Corridor scouting for southern men who’d kept their heads amidst the down home jingo jingles of ’03, Bubba proved a decent fair weather ally–clever, good-natured, funky. Can’t expect consistency from any good ol’ boy who admits “loved some Jimmy Carter but we never even voted,” and he went on to bigger-not-greater things with the goofy-fun “Ms. New Booty.” But having greatness thrust upon him was good for his art. So was Timbaland.

7. Yo La Tengo — Summer Sun

Introducing that wondrous rarity, the underrated Yo La Tengo album. Maybe your willingness to eavesdrop on the less discordant interplay between Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley depends on how beguiling you find their marriage as a symbol, but like Ira told the kids once: If it’s too quiet, you’re too young. With a classy cache of avant-savants–Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell Jr, Sabir Mateen, William Parker–supplementing bassist James McNew, “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo” and “Let’s Be Still” are genuinely improvisational where more vaunted (and noisier) projects noodle and nod. Probably the only indie rock band whose jazz record I’d anticipate, flutes and all.

6. KaitO U.K. — Band Red

Coed quartet submits to brief tune spasms, records maybe 30 songs, deserves more attention, disappears. Not to be confused with the similarly named electronics firm or similarly named Japanese DJ. Also not to be confused with retro-grrrl Erase Errata or twee-prog Deerhoof, both lacking the inspired amateurism of these art-punk tantrums. RIYL LiLiPUT half as much as frontwoman Nikki Colk. Or electric guitars.


Bettie Serveert — “Wide Eyed Fools”

Released: 9.8.03

Peak: Did not chart

Anyone can be a weirdo at twenty-five–kind of sad actually if you aren’t. But let’s see you hang on to your quirks till the far side of thirty. That’s where real bohemian lifers watch their sensible acquaintances drop off, either parlaying their cool into niche opportunism or bailing entirely out of enlightened self-interest, and where the kids coming up behind whisper “grow up already.” “Wide Eyed Fools” smartly charts the trajectory and the trade-offs of such a life choice–if a choice it is, rather than the inevitable fate of a certain personality.

In their ’90s heyday, Bettie Serveert could have stood to weirden up a notch. Carol Van Dijk was cutely and apologetic about her tomboyishness, and the rambling jangle of Peter Visser’s guitars probably wouldn’t have upset Hootie fans. But alt was short, and life is long. Visser listened hard to his V.U. LPs and emerged barbed and gnarled, Van Dijk simplified her name to Van Dyk and complicated her outlook on life, and if anyone born after 1980 gave Bettie Serveert a second thought it was to lump them in with college-rock has-beens like Buffalo Tom. (Case in point: Has anyone besides Joe Keyes at eMusic has noted Karen O’s vocal similarities to Van Dyk?)

The “prefab world” Van Dyk snubs in the lyrics to “Wide Eyed Fools” takes in anyone who’s slotted themselves an accepted slot–not just Justin and Britney, but the Strokes and the Stripes, maybe even you. Yet, musically, the song cleaves sharply between arty and pop. The verses are all guitar scrawl, keyboard drone, and rat-a-tat cymbal, but the chorus busts upward with a sureness that reminds us just how conventional a band Bettie Serveert can be when they want.

Lumidee — “I’ll Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)”

Released: 8.4.03

Peak: #3

So, yeah, dancehall again. I suspect that one reason Jamaican music made broader inroads into U.S. R&B about now is because dancehall itself was enjoying one of its periodic creative spurts back home. (Then again may be the circular reasoning of a U.S. R&B fan–“creative spurt” = “sounds like music I already like.”)  Regardless, the irony is that one factor that aided dancehall’s success was that it sounded less “Jamaican” than usual. Dancehall 2003 owed much of its quality and its rhythmic oddity of owed to the season’s prevailing riddim, “Lenky” Marsden’s Diwali.

We’ve already heard those Bollywoody hand claps surface as the template for Sean Paul’s “Get Busy.” And that riddim added a choppy undertow to Wayne Wonder’s smooth pledge of devotion “No Letting Go” as well. But my favorite U.S. Diwali usage was this summery love fantasy. Lumidee was a one member girl-group, her pleasantly off-key yearning bringing out the casual, front-stoop quality. As with so much R&B, I prefer the rapper-free versions, though I’ll take Busta (who had his own go at Diwali with “Clap To This”) over Fabolous latest rhyme about how lucky women are to have him.

Lumidee did leave us soon enough–her tuneless take on “She’s Like the Wind” made Patrick Swayze sound like Eric Carmen. But Diwali abideth. Since its acceptance was due in no small part to Timbaland’s global influences, which softened the market to this sort of exotica, it only seemed fair that the riddim became the go-to sound for dancehall imitations such “Pass the Dutch,” and can even be heard at the root of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Maybe Lenky’s greatest achievement is that the hand-clap — as basic a rhythmic element as you could name — now sounds distinctively “Jamaican.”

Sean Paul – “Like Glue”

Released: 7.1.03

Peak: #13

Foxy as he might have been, Sean Paul was a curious crossover star. If all you knew of dancehall was Dutty Rock you might be forgiven for suspecting that Jamaica’s biggest export was nothing more than awkwardly sung R&B. To say that Sean sings flat is unfair to him and to a style where strict melodic accuracy takes backseat to a commanding vocal tone. And fortunately for him, the melodic rap style that 50 Cent and Aftermath were pushing ensured that hip-hop itself increasingly resembled awkwardly sung R&B.

At first, Sean Paul seemed manhood’s answer to Ashanti, doin’ his ting on duets with Beyonce and Blu Cantrell and fated to life on the wrong side of the “feat.” But pop events had conspired to make a genuine dancehall star inevitable. The music landed beat-first in the U.S., with Timbaland and the Neptunes plundering its tricks to give R&B a global electronic sheen, but it was too late for relative old-timers to capitalize. The appeal of Shaggy’s comic novelty had expired, and if Beenie Man was destined for full-fledged chart success we’d have known by now.

And so, Sean Paul. “Gimme the Light” was a lively weed-blazing anthem, and “Get Busy” integrates the ubiquitous Diwalli riddim (which we’ll return to soon enough) into a more conventional R&B track. But “Like Glue” captures his ragged charm most vividly. It’s more sing-song than Sean’s other hits, allowing for more wobbly vocal movement and pidgin lyrics I can barely grok. The most valuable sound effect is that scratchy organ that comes in, though where would he be without those electronic lip-farts? Wherever Ashanti is these day, I suppose.

Beyonce feat. Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love”

Released: 7.1.03

Peak: #1

Hard to believe that this monster horn blast had been collecting dust for over thirty years, ever since 1970, when the Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” stiffed. Sometimes a songwriter or an arranger just doesn’t quite grasp how to capitalize on a killer hook. But Rich Harrison, who’d later top himself with Amerie’s “1 Thing” (and then, apparently, fade into the pop ether), builds on the energy of that brass, and transforms the drum loop so it feels like go-go avant la letter. Now that’s how you start a damn solo career.

Or, you know, re-start. Beyonce’s first lone turn in the spotlight, “Work It Out,” showcased Neptunian electro-funk at its most retro rococo, and marked on of the few moments Pharrell and Chad were genuinely too arty for the charts. Before that, of course, there was the all-too-singularly named Destiny’s Child. All girl groups are make-believe exercises in female solidarity, but some exercises are more make-believe than others, and the inevitability of Beyonce’s solo career consistently clouded the chart success of an act apparently held together by quotation marks.

Not that Beyonce is on her own on “Crazy in Love”–after the stunted coming-out party that was “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” here she stands alongside her beau publicly. And Jay, relegated to the role of B’s hype man, spits the rare guest rhyme that doesn’t sound like he’s balancing his checkbook. Granted, considering how crazy about the lug she confesses herself to be, you’d think he could spare a compliment or two. Then again, how could he compare to her frenzied infatuation? “Crazy in Love” not only marked Beyonce’s subtle retreat from the faux-sisterly, ignoring her friends’ doubts (“who he think he is?” they mutter). Celebrating the loss of self-control as exhilaration, as liberation, as victory, it’s where she redefines he opposite of “whore”–from “virgin” to “diva.”

Best Albums 2003 (11-15)

15. Lightning Bolt — Wonderful Rainbow

Noise rools, but that hardly makes it a genre–just another element of music, its uses multifarious but hardly limitless. And my resolution thereto is unswayed by public displays of affliction that recall the candle-wax on bare skin of suburban-basement goth as well as instrumental forays that need a GPS even more desperately than “post-rock” did. But bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale, lacking the luxury of guitar squall, fall back on a no-nonsense melodicism that hits more destinations per minute than some soloists can reach over the course of an LP. Ride the Sky was a solid punch in the gut, but when I need to get wrecked, this is where I place my skull.

14. Fannypack — So Stylistic

Maybe not every last Roxanne Shanté and L’Trimm fan is a middle-aged dude, but surely we can assume that Matt Goias and DJ Fancy did not aim Belinda, Cat, and the fabulous and barely legal Jessibel at these gals’ same-sex peers. Which isn’t to say that the men couldn’t help the little girls understand a thang or two about fame, shopping, and how to brush off aggressive creeps. As for the would-be star, Jessie’s 25 now, I believe, and I suspect that makes her closer to the age of the “middle-aged lady” they ridicule for her frontal wedgie in “Cameltoe” than any of us would like to admit.

13. Weakerthans — Reconstruction Site

John Sampson declaims like a less strident John Darnielle, his moralism so carefully reasoned I sometimes forget that his forthright melodies are constructing a song cycle about love and loss. But so long as his narrators–the cat determined to cheer up his glum owner, the Antarctic explorer lunching with Foucault, the Winnipeg native dismantling his hometown with a loving acidity that’d do Guy Madden proud–seem no more conscious of that fact, where’s the harm? Nothing inherently pretentious about love and loss, after all. Happens to simplest of us.

12. Festival in the Desert

As international trends go, I prefer the Balkan revival and its diasporan gypsy hybrids, but Saharan desert blues has been the world music industry’s great commercial find over the past decade, hands down. I’ve loved individual albums from Tartit and Tinariwen and Toumast, but none accentuates the strangeness of Tuareg traditionalism as strongly as this all-Mali round-up. Surrounded by Bamako ringers like Oumou Sangare, old pros like Ali Farka Toure, and even festival ringmaster Robert Plant and his ace guitarist Justin Adams, all that ululating and clattering and plucking hammers home its insular distance from any previously marketed musical tradition. And that most certainly includes the b-l-u-e-s.

11. Dizzee Rascal — Boy in Da Corner

In the deepest recesses of the internet, wishful rumors circulated that grime would supplant crunk, cutely reminiscent of the days when the NME warned of Gene’s impending U.S. takeover. But if the U.K. gold rush of aught-three turned up less color than advance scouts promised, this debut remains a pure nugget. At its heart is the excitement of a talented kid as he stumbles across a brand new beat: a coreless electro-funk from a series of hand claps and whip-cracks that slash across unmoored new-wave synth melodies, video-game motifs, and pseudo-classical patterns. When Dizzee decides to prove grime is hip-hop by letting Billy Squier lay his big beat down on “Fix Up Look Sharp,” the experience is as vertiginous as hearing Sonic Youth play a twelve-bar-blues.

Dizzee Rascal – “I Luv U”

Released: 5.26.03

Peak: Did not chart

Dylan Mills is Britain’s greatest MC. Poor Dizzee deserves a less qualified compliment than that, a genuine plaudit, not the condescending head-pat reserved for America’s greatest cricketer or, say, France’s greatest MC. The idiosyncratic nature of his limited competition (Mike Skinner, Lady Sov, Roots Maneuva) only makes his accomplishment that much more remarkable–in a culture where no definitive rap style predominates, there are no giants whose shoulders provide a novice an artistic boost.

A mere eighteen and sounding it, Dizzee may have fronted as hard as any U.S. thug–the “three magic words” of his song title, he says, are “for the birds”–yet his high-pitched yelp added a comic urgency of his spastic delivery, and there was a Jamaican edge to the way he rolled his tongue around street patois that grew often no less confusing once you deciphered it. (“Captain Rusko with a crossbow” = wha?) The plot of “I Luv U,” Jeff Chang says, is of “two teens in a high-stakes stalemate over an unwanted pregnancy.” But that synopsis, if literally true, straightens the cryptic density of Dizzee’s piled-on syllables into something more straightforward than what we hear. Unlike anything since early Wu-Tang, the initial impenetrability of these rhymes was essential to their appeal.

And the electronic chaos through which Dizzee ricochets renders luv more of a battlefield than Pat Benatar or Jordin Sparks combined; rather than a war zone lit with romantic incandescence by bombs bursting in air, we’re spun about by the unseen sniper-shots of a particularly disorienting RPG. And here’s where Dizzee the producer earns extra cred. The U.K. MC crown may be a low-hanging fruit, but it’s no small feat to lay claim to the hottest electro-beats in a land where frantic, funky blips are mummy’s milk.

The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army”

Released: 4.21.03

Peak: #76

Jack White lives in a world where guitar heroes transcend the petty confines of genre, beguiling the intelligentsia with their artistry while their heft clobbers the masses. The identities of his fellow trickster warriors in It Might Get Loud say it all: Jimmy Page, who alloyed his art-rock in a metallic sheen, and the Edge, who camouflaged arena-rock in new wave textures.  So of course White started out punky, sitting in his little room and fending off the infectious corpuscles of commerce. But lest you take the scrappiness of  White Blood Cells too literally, White named its bloated, bloozy follow-up Elephant. Dinosaur must have seemed too obvious.

Still, guitar heroes can’t always transcend the iron bonds of history. White was surely working some crypto-mythic Harry Smith hoodoo with the lyrics of “Seven Nation Army.”  But as Crusades revivalism stirred the heartland and Bush scrounged up his own five-nation invasion force to chant down Babylon, language this biblical and martial couldn’t ferret its meaning away in a private burrow. And so arises the image of Jack White as desert jihadi, standing down the Coalition of the Willing like a paler and butcher Peter O’Toole, a vision as impossible and yet perfect as that of Robert Plant leading Viking hordes down upon Britannia’s green fields.

Wild children who think daytime fellatio and an in-the-red blood alcohol content are hallmarks of decadence are always reminding us that Rock needs to “stay dangerous.” I’m not sure “Seven Nation Army” is what they mean. But that ominous down-tuned hollow body, its riff clicking into place with Meg’s metronomic boom-chick, taps into the sort of apocalyptic vibe that rockers often sound foolish attempting to summon. Jack just sounds … well, heroic.

Blur – “Out of Time”

Released: 4.15.03

Peak: Did not chart

Damon Albarn could be contemporary white male Britannia’s greatest gift to pop. When it comes to world music, Albarn not only “appreciates” rhythm, as did (do?) his globally minded UK predecessors like Sting and Peter Gabriel–he cultivates an actual sense of it, and he’s got good ears rather than mere “good taste.” His reasonable distrust of celebrity and liberalism has never soured into reclusive pessimism–he’s worked almost strictly in a collective setting. If only he didn’t always sing like Damon Albarn.

Smart lad, Albarn makes something of that sob his larynx nurses–never strictly joyless, he can stir up a fine comic sad-sackery, as though whiling away the time after pirates set him adrift off the Gold Coast in a DX-7. And even this shortcoming bespeaks his good sense–unlike his lesser elders, he’s too decent to fake a soulfulness beyond his grasp. Still, taken more than a song at a time, his melancholy saps your strength. Even the rappers on the Gorillaz albums sound as though they’re forever fleeing his marshy drawl. No wonder Albarn’s most consistent effort over the past decade, Mali Music, entrusts vocals elsewhere.

In other words, Damon’s what we used to call a singles artist, faring better at stark snapshots than panoramic vistas. Awash on an increasingly disorienting arrangement by the Group Regional du Marrakech “Out of Time” is the dour miniaturist at his most lovely and expansive. The lyric suits his low-affect pessimism perfectly, with a chorus whose fatalism be heard as quotidian, existential, geo-political, or all at once, with that glockenspiel accent on the chorus ever so lightly hammering the last four nails in our coffin. Now if only he could transform his commitment to rhythm from a show of intelligence into a reason to live, Albarn might become a genius yet. Maybe he just hasn’t met the right girl.

Coldplay – “The Scientist”

Released: 4.15.03

Peak: #18 [Modern Rock]

The biggest band in the world should have been a lot worse. That simple fact makes it possible to hear the rank, gooey sentimentality we’d fear in Coldplay’s music. And yet, listen to the band’s three biggest hits–a huge, emotional anthem about a color; a huge, emotional anthem about time; and a huge, emotional anthem about, well, “The Speed of Sound”–and a far more idiosyncratic flaw emerges. Coldplay are awash in abstract sentimentality.

Chris Martin would hardly be the first talented wimp spurred by oversensitivity to seek refuge in the clinical approach to life. His most straightforward love ballad, “Fix You.” is an apparently non-ironic ode to codependency that all but takes a cardiologist’s perspective on matters of the human heart. No wonder Martin prefers singing about Big Concepts. He’s always seemed mildly embarrassed by his resonant voice, his good looks, his ease with the hook, his dopey in-concert Bono moves, and he once admitted that Radiohead “cleared a path with a machete, and we came afterward and put up a strip mall.” Coldplay’s music radiates that sense of unworthiness, that discomfort with just how little effort being in a mere pop band requires.

On pure sonics, “Clocks” may be Coldplay’s masterpiece, fusing Radiohead’s sense of detail with U2’s sense of scale. But “The Scientist.” an attempted rewrite of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” that turned out to be an improvement, is a more humble, humane effort, a pop formalist’s confession of emotional inadequacy. Over the soft plod of persistent piano, Martin sings as though afraid his voice will bruise his lover. And when he levitates into his limp falsetto on “No-body said it was ea-sy,” the whine encapsulates his dilemma: explaining how you feel is infinitely harder than writing a song that makes millions feel exactly as you want them to.