Monthly Archives: July 2010

Best Albums 2004 (11-15)

15. Jaojoby — Malagasy

Eusèbe Jaojoby is the King of Salegy, a Madagascar pop style that nudges traditional 6/8 rhythms up near a frantic 300 BPM threshold. He’s not a particularly prolific recording artist–I can’t spot any releases since 2004. And he became so much stronger a bandleader in the four-year interim between his 2000 disc Aza Arianao and Malagasy, with his highlifey basics filled out by synths imitating accordions and some judiciously blatting horns, that I can’t guess where his music’s at six years later. I’m there if he ever tours stateside again, if only to watch the be-sandaled old guys worldbeat shows invariably attract try to rev their hippie skank up to meet the drummer’s demands.

14. The Fever — Red Bedroom

On this mostly forgotten New York band’s first full-length, the pop-garage organ rock is less dense and spazzy than the five-song predecessor Pink on Pink, from which it lifts one of two essentials (“Ladyfingers,” not their cover of “The Glamorous Life”). I prefer Chris Sanchez’s Voidoid-oid guitar to Geremy Jasper’s R. Hellish yelps, a prejudice that the follow-up, In the City of Sleep, sans Sanchez, bears out.  In fact, I wish the guitarist’s chromatics dominated here almost enough to check out the alternate versions later packaged as Red Room: The Jasper vs. Sanchez Remixes. Fortunately, the band rocks tautly enough to keep me from sifting through such arcana.

13. Thelonious Monster — California Clam Chowder

On his first Thelonious Monster album in sobriety, old-time indie lowlife turned Dr. Drew sidekick Bob Forrest names each song for another artist: e.g., “The Oasis Song” (“If you agree that things are not/ The way they could be or the way they should be or the way you want them to be/ Let’s get together and change the world.”) Forrest can be a crank for sure, lamenting how post-punk revivalists cheapened Joy Division for him and mocking Beck’s haircut. But he’s a crank struggling to live in the present rather than lose himself in the past–in other words, a better role model than lots of far more successful cranks.

12. The Libertines — The Libertines

I hate morality plays–not every youthful good time should end in penance, and lots never do. But where Up the Bracket, neither ripped nor roared quite as devil-may-carelessly as advertised, the bad boys of Britpop-is-back face their comeuppance in high style. This document of a band barely keeping it together careens as precariously as any rock and roll on disc. And though the self-mythologizing might grate if I’d lived with them as tabloid pop stars rather than esoteric imports, from this hemisphere the elegies to their own good-looking corpses are rather touching.

11. Madvillain — Madvillainy

Doom lives or dies by the verse–the couplet, even–so it can feel arbitrary to pick a favorite song, let alone a favorite disc. If you dig his quizzical mushmouth and TV-stoner sensibility, you’re not gonna hate anything he drawls. So at judgment day it comes down to beats. Only Danger Mouse’s toon coloration has backgrounded Doom’s flow as fittingly as Mad Lib’s jazzlets, and the spoken-word samples here are less obtrusive than Danger Doom’s Adult Swim in-jokes, with Doom slouching toward a beatnik poetry that he can really stroke his chin to.


Kanye West — “Jesus Walks”

Released: 5.25.04

Peak: #11

Atheists and agnostics had reason to be restive in 2004, and the boot stomps of “Jesus Walks,” summoning simultaneous images of Bush’s Christian soldiers and Deep South chain-gangs, with that spooky children’s chant underscoring its martial thrust, did nothing to comfort us. “We at war,” Kanye declares–against terrorism, racism, and ourselves–shortly before Curtis Mayfield, from beyond the grave, repeatedly exclaims “Niggers!” in a sample snipped from his own ghetto prophecy: “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.”

Christianity is the biggest pop culture phenomenon in the United States by far. American Idol, the Super Bowl, Presidential elections–all scrawny competition as regards breadth of reach or depth of influence. It’s inextricable from our cultural and political life. If you think it’s condescending to treat religion as entertainment, you devalue entertainment– many artists derive strength or inspiration from some form of faith, however loosely they define that spiritual source. Many more, unfortunately, locate in Christianity a shortcut to the overblown sanctimony that makes for the worst kind of pop.

Kanye’s hardly immune to sanctimony: Even if some clueless exec did say he could “rap about anything except for Jesus,” quoting it here just smacks of the typical Christian persecution complex that fuels middle American resentment. But fundamentalist orthodoxy has hardly crippled anyone who claims to need Jesus “the way Kathy Lee needed Regis” or quotes Adam Sandler in the face of his adversaries. Walking alongside his own personal Jesus, Kanye espouses a faith that’s quintessentially American in its vagueness. And as a reminder that Jesus walks with the hustlers and the hos, “Jesus Walks” relocates the roots of Christianity in existential doubt and confusion and fear, not the innate holiness of its believers.

Jay-Z — “99 Problems”

Released: 4.27.04

Peak: #30

The mystic spirits may instruct him otherwise, but Rick Rubin was not put on earth to produce Tom Petty records. And though some of us might wish otherwise, Shawn Carter was not put on earth to rhyme about anything other than his own sweet, skilled self. “99 Problems” is less a creative collaboration than a joint formal exercise, in which both men demonstrate mastery over the musical elements they’ve recycled throughout their careers. In the process. Rubin and Jay both prove why they don’t need to do this shit anymore, and why they’re entitled to repeat themselves if they so chose.

Rubin seems to deliberately pluck originality out of familiarity here, piecing together some of rap-rock’s moldiest clichés–Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” and Mountain’s “Long Red”–into a fresh beat. Similarly, Jay hijacks the two-line chorus from Ice-T’s “99 Problems” (and, a bit more obscurely, drops an LL quote into his rhyme) as he riffs off the past, working what you could call the “problem” genre of platinum rap.

In the original “99 Problems,” Ice and Brother Marquis catalogue the (presumably) unproblematic bitches they’ve accumulated. Jay, more wisely, focuses on his non-bitch-related problems, dazzling in the concision of the writing, each verse lasering on a single topic. (Kool Moe Dee would be proud.) First verse: business related problems, from critics to radio to advertisers. Second, a flash-back to old time police run-ins, capped by a virtuoso dialogue with a redneck sheriff. Third, the legal problems that face him if he confronts his foes. (Bonus points for not dubbing any of his adversaries “haters.”) Being the best ain’t everything. But sometimes it’s more than enough.

Usher — “Burn”

Released: 4.13.04

Peak: #1

Usher Raymond is the biggest black R&B star of his generation. He’s also the most self-obsessed, and that’s no coincidence. In the age of the mack, with even serial monogamy too great a challenge, a man can only be sensitive about one thing: How much of a toll fucking around takes on his conscience. Usher may acknowledge a male shallowness his R&B predecessors papered over with fancy promises, but in doing so he often confuses self-pity and self-knowledge and undercuts any pretensions to candor.

Confessions, with its hits inextricable from the star’s “real life,” was the ideal blockbuster for an age in which celebrity gossip had just begun to crowd out all other forms of cultural commentary. “Yeah” may be more fun at wedding receptions than “Celebration,” but it still blames club-goin’ hos for leading Ursh into temptation. And “Confessions Part II,” in which the singer knocks up his “chick on the side” and focuses on how hard it is for him to confess to his “real” love, demonstrates a sociopath’s level empathy toward the other two points in this triangle.

And yet, as with so many Usher’s hits from the image-defining “U Make Me” onward, both songs are redeemed by the detail of their narratives, which suggest a three-dimensional emotional response to a situation that’s realistic even if unsympathetic. But “Burn” goes a step beyond this. The first verse is a more callow “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”; by verse two, the tool already regrets his decision. But in both cases, the only solution is to let the pain burn itself out. Constructed from Usher’s deteriorating relationship with Chili Thomas by Jermaine Dupri and his go-to hack accomplice Bryan-Michael Cox, “Burn” may be the most strictly Usher-centric of Usher hits. It may also be his most universal.

Akon feat. Styles P — “Locked Up”

Released: 4.12.08

Peak: #8

Akon is as soulful a male R&B singer to have blown up this past decade, his thin but pure tenor distinguished by a slight choke and traces of West African keen. The fortunately named fellow (“a con,” get it?) is no full-stop virtuoso, no font of personality either–if he were as artfully sympathetic as Ne-Yo or as plain funny as T-Pain he’d hardly have earned his hook-crooning crown as Nate Dogg 2K. And he’s not “soulful” in the weathered fashion of a deliberate throwback like Anthony Hamilton, but in a more general sense; at his best, the undercurrent of pain in his voice taps into something communal and historical, rather than isolated self-pity.

Yeah, he’s probably a jerk, as the gallant Bill O’Reilly (along with tireless women’s rights advocates Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham) noted–and Akon’s mealy-mouthed, self-righteous, and inadvertently hilarious response “Sorry, Blame It on Me” didn’t help none. (“I was on tour with Gwen Stefani” is one mighty lol-some excuse for slacking on damage control.) And yet, in the bulk of his singles (the only place most of us will ever encounter the guy), Akon is often gentlemanly, if not downright square, more at home commiserating with an accelerated Bobby Vinton’ on “Lonely” than he is instigating sex jams like “Belly Dancer” or the playful “Smack That.”

The image-making “Locked Up” remains Akon’s career high. While much of hip-hop culture sexes up incarceration, “Locked Up” understands prison as a punishment rather than as a rite of passage. Producer Knobody is a strange case–he masterminded “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Still Not a Player,” but precious little else. Here, though, he musters strings, circuitous keyboard, cell door slam, and a mad stressed Styles P for a dose of repetitive claustrophobia that does its tiny bit to scare the kiddies straight.

Kanye West feat. Syleena Johnson — “All Falls Down”

Released: 4.6.04

Peak: #7

In 2004, a rapper working a new twist on hip-hop anti-materialism seemed less likely even than a rapper working a new twist on hip-hop materialism itself. There are always new products to accumulate, after all, but only so many words that rhyme with “incense.” Kanye West came up with both on the same track, and seemed like an honest broker in the process, expressing more sympathy for the “single black female/ addicted to retail” than most of the liars who make bank off her, and more insight into her weaknesses than the assholes who bait her as a bitch.

Kanye’s rhymes about commercialism cut deeper than the norm because he implicated himself, rather than following the long left-bohemian tradition of blaming the existence of capitalism on women who wont fuck them. And if his weird bias against higher education may derive from his own insecurrity as a middle-class nerd, he convincingly locates the self-hatred at the roots of consumerism in the specifics of black history. What’s even more disappointing than Ye’s subsequent descent into jerkoffery, then, is that he diagnosed the causes of that egomania from the start. Chalk that up to the limitations of self-knowledge. Or maybe the ineluctable lure of capital. Or maybe just the guy’s inherent jerkoffery.

Kanye’s disjointed flow is at its most ingenious and charming here, as he mispronounces “Versace” and mis-rhymes “herrre” and “hair” with “career.” And the song and video resuscitated two of the ’90s’ premier examples of black female beauty–Lauryn Hill’s voice and Stacey Dash’s ass. Anyone can dig in the crates, but it takes smarts to salvage a snippet of L-Boogie from her disastrous Unplugged disc (a little something-something called “Mystery of Iniquity” unworthy of your acquaintance), and props to Syleena Johnson for mimicking that adrift icon so expertly. But that truncated vocal sample does leave the question open: What exactly happens when it all does fall down?

Best Albums 2004 (16-20)

20. Mory Kante — Sabou

This overdue acoustic move from Salif Keita’s successor as lead singer for the Rail Band was less a “return to roots” than an adaptation to prevailing trends. A neo-traditional wave had swept Afropop over the past decade, and since the discofied Afro-fusion that Kante had struck gold with on “Yé Ké Yé Ké” in 1988 had grown corny, said wave was his to surf back to prominence. Though his kora playing takes center stage, avec beaucoup balafon, he still fronts a dance band, with unflagging tempos. And he fulfills his griot obligations with titles that translate as “Bad People” and “Sorry” but sound like exhortations to party people regardless.

19. Björk — Medulla

Since prevalent trends and arisen opportunities have shaped her career trajectory, it’s easy to forget that she’s Pop Art before she’s art-pop. At essence she’s neither a dance anti-diva nor even a textural electronics whiz, but a clever chick with a funny voice. So when time came get back to her roots, a moment that befalls the cleverest, she went a cappella. And since a pregnant woman never solos alone, why not bring in Mike Patton, Robert Wyatt, and Rahzel to make the music with their mouths too? Volta was more explosive, Vespertine more intricate. But this is her conceptual peak.

18. Jill Scott — Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2

Scott may just be the sanest R&B mama ever to invite you under the covers–as much to keep warm as to fool around, though she knows full well how often one leads to the other. If Who Is Jill Scott? addressed her personal experiences, its success must have assured her these were hardly as idiosyncratic as they might have felt, and so this follow-up is for the likeminded audience she’d reached. They can surely use the self-esteem booster “Golden,” identify with the detail-chocked “Family Reunion,” and agree that no man who fails to respond to the demands of “My Petition” is worth the name. Distrust the poetess in her, that clichéd SPOken word RHYthm she rides. But trust the woman.

17. Capital D — Insomnia

I’ve always taken unseemly pride in how far Chicago indie-rap has lagged behind its frozen neighbors up north. But All Natural has always been a hell of a label, and events that silenced brought out the fighter in Capital D. Proudly Muslim, proudly bookish, proudly proud, Cap D doesn’t “connect the dots”– that’s busywork for conspiracy bullshitters. He just states what’s in plain sight, and at least his received ideas come from Chomsky rather than Jadakiss. Underlying each lyric is a single bulletproof moral: Don’t trust rich people–a message the rich always remember to try to make us forget.

16. Franz Ferdinand — Franz Ferdinand

In 2004, rock was, as they say, back. Lusting after beautiful dance whore “Michael” and working only “when we need the money” Alex Kapranos and his fellow arty Scots were rock stars in it for the pleasure than the conquest. Their guitars are as choppy, prickly, and erotic as their lyrical quips, and the urgency of their postpunk cross-rhythms remind me that the sexual frenzy of Blondie’s “Atomic” struck a deeper chord with the British than back at home.

Scissor Sisters — “Take Your Mama”

Released: 3.29.04

Peak: Did not chart

From the jump, the Brits loved these adorably homo-sexy art-poppers, who charted eleven consecutive U.K. singles, whatever such persistent success signifies on that inscrutably poptimist isle. Back home, though, the Scissor Sisters mostly attracted friskier indie kids; even in the age of iTunes, that meant passing as album artists, despite the fact that this band expresses itself best one single at a time. To date, nothing they’ve done tops their initial string of four (British) hits: the foot-stamp “This will be the last time/ I ever do your hair” of “Laura” may be their finest lyrical moment; for sheer audacity, nothing tops their imitation of the brothers Gibb reinterpreting “Comfortably Numb” as a club kid lament; and “Mary” is flat-out pretty.

But “Take Your Mama” is their giddiest romp, with Jake Shears and the boys ditching his Dixie chicken to get down with the honky cats in the backroom. Rather than coming out to mama after wedding plans got kerplooey, her “best son” drags the biddy out on the town to immerse her in his blast of a lifestyle. Accepting as a given the superiority of gay boys as party pals (“All the girls they seem to like you/ Cause you’re handsome/ Like to talk and a whole lot of fun”), “Take Your Mama” is also the closest that the Sisters come to declaring their big theme: middle-American mamas and big city queers get off on the same boisterous crap.

And so they do. Unfortunately ’70s Elton hasn’t been common ground for housewives or queens for some time, both of whom have moved on to drearier forms of schlock. Maybe the band realized this, since they’ve been content to simply bend straight-up disco on their two subsequent albums. Their latest (British) hit, “Fire With Fire,” is the sort of bland uptempo number Elton would still be writing if he hadn’t settled into a successful dotage hiring himself out as the a beard that homophobes sport to disprove their bigotry. Do we really all just have to get along?

Art Brut — “Formed a Band”

Released: 3.29.04

Peak: Did not chart

Essential to the myth of rock and roll is a belief that anyone can do it. Still, as Robert Christgau once pointed out, that doesn’t mean just anyone can do it. (Streisand and Nixon, he stated, could not “sing rock.”) The DIY ethos, at best, battles encroaching passivity and generates an atmosphere of possibility. At worst, it encourages willful amateurism and know-nothing proletkult. (There’s a similar confusion when it comes to U.S. democracy–the idea, in both cases, is to increase the talent pool, to more broadly define “talent,” not just to let any dipshit run the EPA or form Wavves.)

“Formed a Band” bristles with this nascent possibility. The guitars bend prickly postpunk toward their minimalist ends as though to say that forming the Gang of Four was more revolutionary than anything Jon King actually sang. Yet for all his pride in the mere existence of Art Brut, frontman Eddie Argos doesn’t quite sign on to that sentiment. As with most quotable rock raconteurs, the printed lyric doesn’t do Argos full justice–the hook is in his delivery, in the nuance of what he insists is “not irony” and “not rocknroll,” but his singing voice, as he leapfrogs over DIY ideology with optimistic humor to express rock’s messianic impulse as well.

And there’s the kicker. Argos wants not just for Israel and Palestine to “get along,” but to be the man who writes the song–“more universal than ‘Happy Birthday’–that causes such rapport. Not for him Craig Finn’s modest “I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ So I started a band.” (Falsely modest, but still.) Much as Argos likes to mock the Bonos and Chris Martins of the world, he knows where they’re coming from. Maybe the secret to rock and roll is that anyone really can do it, but only if they’re not satisfied with being just anyone.

Gretchen Wilson — “Redneck Woman”

Released: 3.23.04

Peak: #22

Wilson’s carefully crafted everygal populism made me squirmy enough with a Yalie cowpoke running the country. Once an even more synthetic embodiment of the titular heroine’s qualities ran for VP, I suspected the whole shebang as some AEI-funded plot. (It didn’t help that Wilson, predictably, stumped for McCain-Palin, rocking out on “Barracuda,” to Heart’s principled chagrin.) But conspiracy theories are unnecessary when capitalism does all the heavy lifting itself. Music Row, like other conservative power bastions, empowers women in symbolic ways to fend off the potential for feminist demands. Hell yeah?

Lotsa baggage here, so I try to convince myself I prefer the breezier “Here For the Party,” with its freewheeling goal to “get me some” and proud “the boys say I clean up good,” or even the Loretta-like “Homewrecker.” But “baggage” is just another word for “resonance,” and that’s what pop is meant to accumulate. Unlike Toby Keith, Wilson’s shitkickers boogied rather than plodding–the way the snare lands between “red” and “neck” and “woman,” and then “high” and “class” and “broad,” announces “Redneck Woman” as an anthem that’s built to last. And unlike lib’rul-or-ain’t-they? Big ‘n’ Rich (the latter of whom co-wrote “Redneck Woman”), she doesn’t flaunt her eclecticism. Let’s just avor the irony that a woman who considers Tanya Tucker, Charlie Daniels, and Hank Jr. the essence of country sounds like she learned her stuff from Natalie Maines.

Of course, she’s open-minded enough to own posters of “Skynyrd, Kid, and Strait,” (though I fear she prefers Johnny Van Zant to his wiser, deader brother) and to testify in Congress in favor of adult education funding. So figure “Redneck Woman” as an expression of pride in who you are–personally, I got nothing against identity politics, and I’m not much for the “Barbie doll type” or “designer tag[s]” myself. I accept Wilson as my equal, ask that she’d do the same for me, and am curious how she believes the 13.8% of redneck women living below the poverty line back home in Pocahontas benefit from cuts in federal spending.