Monthly Archives: August 2010

Bruce Springsteen — “Devils and Dust”

Released: 3.28.05

Peak: #72

It’s been a disheartening couple of decades for Springsteen fans. Well, for this fan anyway. The true diehards forever seeking redemption in the sweeping gesture–they shall not be moved, no sir. But tramps like me have been bummed to witness a good man’s struggle for significance at the expense of his art, his refusal to shrug off the prophet’s mantle and just rock out, and the toll that a star’s obligation to fan expectations mercilessly extracts. The hollow uplift of “The Rising” may have trumpeted his ultimate re-entry to the Promised Land, but like his post-80s highlights — the ambiguous brotherly love of “Streets of Philadelphia,” the PBA-defying empathy of “American Skin (41 Shots)” — “Devils and Dust” proved that SPringsteen had more to say about wandering in the wilderness.

Bruce doesn’t strip down to true Nebraska essentials for “Devils and Dust”; instead he fakes the folk a la Tunnel of Love, well with help from underrated collaborator Brendan O’Brien, whose ability to reconfigure the wall-rattling vibrancy of the E-Street Band was the best thing about The Rising. There’s real drama to this arrangement: the track builds to a harmonica solo that, for once, doesn’t merely signify “roots,” then the drums (session man Steve Jordan, fwiw, not Max Weinberg) kick in double-time without kicking out the jams. And if Bruce can’t shake that faux Okie Dylan impression, at least he uses it with some nuance here.

Lyrically, Springsteen’s often fatal knack for vagueness serves him well here, and he evokes the whirl of uncertainty that envelops his narrator with a quickly sketched scene of doubt in a desert war. Even “We’re a long long way from home, Bobby/ Home’s a long long way from us” is more than a glibly tweaked commonplace. His foxhole philosophizing has got heft, too, acknowledging the appeal of the “righteous stand” even while it undercuts reliance on faith. “Fear’s a powerful thing” is no great revelation; contextualized by a phrase like “what you do to survive kills the things you love” and contemporary American politics, though, it hits home.  Eternally faithful that human reason and decency will overcome fearful superstition, Bruce suggests to Americans that they were more in doubt about their certainties than they suspected. I’d love to see him proven correct someday.


Amerie — “1 Thing”

Released: 3.22.05

Peak: #8

Rich Harrison’s star loomed high in 2004. Seeking to capitalize upon the success of “Crazy in Love,” the potential super-producer hit upon a simple idea–sample beats rather than hooks. Not a new idea. After its productive fling with James Brown in the ’80s, hip-hop had abandoned this quaint maneuver in the ’90s, first when Dre found it more profitable to reconstruct P-Funk licks in-studio, then when Puffy made the big money hook de rigeur. But the message of R&B from way back has been that beats can be hooky in themselves, as “1 Thing” was a timely reminder.

Harrison sampled a break from the Meters’ “Oh, Calcutta!” where Ziggy Modeliste’s drums face off against Leo Nocentelli’s guitar. With a few small additions (bongo, cowbell, cymbal), he translated New Orleans funk into a peculiarly weightless approximation of D.C. go-go — “a song without a center, without a floor or ceiling,” as Douglas Wolk smartly put it — and just when you’ve regained your bearings, a weird synth bit creeps in from underneath. And that anti-grav disconnectedness felt apt post-Katrina, with its sense of tradition unmoored and a-tumble.

Amerie’s contribution here shouldn’t be underrated. When she broke through a few years earlier, with “Talkin’ to Me” and “Why Don’t We Fall in Love,” she’d flashed an ingénue’s sensuality, flirty rather than post-coital. But whatever’s got her trippin’ here ain’t his smile, and she expresses a lust those early hits kept in check. And then? Well, Amerie’s follow-up album was released overseas only; the critical raves for her 2009 comeback In Love and War outpaced its sales figures. Harrison was absent from that disc–he already seems to have jettisoned into the ether reserved for potential super-producers who don’t hit it out of the park each at-bat. Even more unjustly, Amerie may soon join him there.

Best Albums 2005 (21-25)

25. Of Montreal — The Sunlandic Twins

Kevin Barnes always led the most diffuse of the Elephant 6 bands — not experimental like Olivia Tremor Control (ugh, that name) or expressive like Neutral Milk Hotel (id.), just unwilling (unable?) to follow any but the most circuitous route from one hook to the next. And yet, on his way to deciding he led a glam-dance band after all, Barnes’ hooks started falling into place. Androgynous tops twee any day, but I prefer this transitional bit of craft to his later incarnation as (oh, I give up) “Georgie Fruit.” Anyway, don’t let those convoluted song titles fool you — “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)” was jingly enough for Outback Steakhouse.

24. Run the Road

File under hadda-be-there, sure–“there” meaning not just the London scene itself (where I wasn’t) but its online outposts, which found in grime’s made-for-mp3 squelch their aural ideal. But if you want to hear why we thought the UK’s most exciting hip-hop to date had legs, this cross-sections a scene with a deeper bench than most. One reason Dizzee merely leaps and bounds over all others, rather than dominating entirely, is that he brings his b material. Other reasons include Lady Sov’s greatest hit, Mike Skinner’s greatest remix, and plenty of less lights thrilled at being heard for the first time.

23. Stevie Wonder — A Time to Love

Look, unless you count one symphonic exploration of the vegetable kingdom way back in ’79, the guy hasn’t put out a bad album since wresting creative control from Motown, and only a couple “not-bad”s weren’t actually “pretty good.” That’s something like forty years, a track record no pop musician even approaches. Sure he plays it safe, but set aside comparisons to his own visionary past and there are plenty novel melodic, textural, and rhythmic nooks to enjoy. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” calls Christianity’s bluff. “So What the Fuss” has Prince on guitar. “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” takes a refreshingly moralistic hard line against cheaters. And New Jacks who find his love songs saccharine deserve to choke on R. Kelly’s piss.

22. Africa Remix: Ah Freak Iya

Just one genuine “remix” here, as Diddy would understand the term: Oumou Sangare’s “Djorolen,” tweaked to good effect by some unmentioned producer. But a mix nonetheless, Pan-African in scope without flattening regional differences, setting elders alongside upstarts without pretense to cross-generational continuity. Afro-pop as dance music? Not so strange a concept. Afro-pop as contemporary dance music? A harder sell. Seven of these sixteen cuts are as recent as 2004; just one predates 2000. If you’re still leery of my other African recommendations, check this out and proceed. At least you’ll know what you’re missing.

21. Stars — Set Yourself on Fire

Orbiting the Broken Social Scene center of gravity from a reasonable distance, frost-flecked kewpie-temptress Amy Millan and subdued Smiths fan Torquil Campbell impersonate ex-lovers who reunite for a strained chamber-pop waltz, small-talk their way around “I love you,” and mutter regrets behind each others backsides during a chilly reunion fuck. Their ad hominem against Bush (“He Lied About Death”) fits the mood because their pique seems motivated by personal resentment against his endangering their fragile little world rather than by political principle. All they want is one more chance to be young and wild and free. Is that so wrong?

The Game feat. 50 Cent — “Hate It or Love It”

Released: 3.15.05

Peak: #2

Man, has “featuring” ever been more true? Without the wired-jaw monotone of Curtis Jackson (for whom my grudging appreciation has never once intensified into love or hate, song title be damned), the putative artist here would be left roaming in circles around those killer Trammps’ horns in search of a clue. I hope, though, that Cool & Dre would’ve had the good sense not to waste “Rubber Band” on such a knob and gone straight to Mary J. Blige, whose later take on the same track, “MJB Da MVP,” I wish I liked enough to give the nod instead.

Sometimes I feel like the whole of mid-decade hip-hop was a Jimmy Iovine conspiracy to make 50 Cent seem charismatic, and for such a purpose, the Cali chump who slapped his name on this single sure served as a better foil than Eminem. I’m not sure that suspected plot is more or less insidious for having worked. Brandishing a smug pride in his limited imagination, 50 set the emotional and sonic borders of his era’s chart-hop, beyond which only the most intrepid MCs ventured, and “Hate It Or Love It” distilled his cramped, crabbed spirit into a celebration of material triumph as undeniably as “Mo Money, Mo Problems” had distilled Biggie’s far more generous soul.

The Game, though–shit but dude had nothing to say, and he rhymed like it too. His verse on “Hate It or Love It” drops some street crime clichés, sleepwalks through “What’s Goin’ On,” and ends on a semi-pro-life shout out to moms for not aborting him. As for the rest of The Documentary, its pointless name-dropping (Game’s original title was Nigga Witta Attitude Vol. 1, though fortunately we have laws to prevent that) hitting rock bottom when he equates his fantasy of “fuckin’ an R’n’B bitch like Mya” with the dreams of MLK. Sometimes one great hook can carry a no-talent past his limitations–but no further. After his later falling out with G-Unit, Game has been left with only a few straggling supporters. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he bragged, which makes one thing he got right.

Common feat. Kanye West and the Last Poets — “The Corner”

Released: 3.1.05

Peak: #42 [R&B/Hip-Hop]

Few rap subgenres are as maligned as “conscious rap.” Haha, just kidding — every rap genre is maligned by somebody, often deservedly. If “conscious,” like “emo,” can be a barely cloaked dig at a performer’s masculinity, well, those who hate the hustle on principle are always willing to overrate good intentions, so unwarranted hate and praise neutralize each other. More worrisome for us well-wishers is the ease with which that tag takes in not just social consciousness (admirable) but the mystical kind (foolish).

You can hear that clash on consciousnesses on “The Corner,” in the contrast between Common’s earnest street-level reportage and the elder Last Poets jabbering poetically about Stonehenge. Yet much as he tries to observe rather than preach, even Common slips into rhymes are more evocative than descriptive, and when Kanye pleads, “I wish I could give you this feeling,” he unwittingly encapsulating the biggest problem with conscious rap — listeners should feel the same as you, rather than being moved by your artistry.

That’s always been Common’s dilemma. With his phlegmy voice and deliberate rhymes, he’s always come across as a guy who values rather than articulates deep thought. Beginning with his image-establishing, high concept allegory “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” he’s sensed something missing from the music he loves, but he’s struggled to supply that missing essential.

And when he’s succeeded, as on “The Corner,” that triumph has been musical. Common has always kept a “neo” firmly affixed to his trad, seeking out productions that reference black musical tradition without going all Sha Na Na about the past like Jurassic 5. Five years earlier it was Dilla and James Poyser pillowing “The Light” in au courant lushness. On “The Corner,” Kanye interweaves Stax and Motown samples to simulate the bustle of street life the lyrics grope toward depicting. But let’s not forget that Common himself is part of that music–the way he masterfully strings a series of long “o” sounds through his first verse contributes to the vitality of “The Corner” as surely as Kanye’s beat.

Tori Alamaze — “Don’t Cha”

Released: 3.1.05

Peak: #53 [R&B Singles]

Great pop music is often made with the worst intentions, so a troupe of back-up dancers that hires its own singer isn’t de facto undeserving of success. Nicole Scherzinger certainly made more wholesome use of the Pussycat Dolls than did the many starlets who, hoping to neutralize their own objectification with a campy, retro wink, established the Dolls as Young Hollywood’s favorite burlesque act. And that the PCD version of “Don’t Cha” leapfrogged past its superior Tori Alamaze predecessor to megahit status was hardly some great miscarriage of pop justice. No one believes Tori could’ve been a superstar, after all. (Well, maybe one person.)

But make no mistake–the Dolls’ version was worse. Alamaze’s “Don’t Cha” is better, dirtier, rhythmically as well as lyrically. If a click-track could sing, it would sound something like the Pussycat Dolls, although with less audible effort to cling to the beat — the Spice Girls were En Vogue by comparison. Every voice on the PCD’s “Don’t Cha” may very well belong to Nicole Scherzinger for all I know; regardless, Cee-Lo’s original back-ups are sexier. And that Busta Rhymes was brought in to provide irrelevant noise just adds insult to injury. For all the time and capital invested in the Pussycat Dolls’ success, we deserved better.

Maybe some professional blanding was necessary to make “Don’t Cha” a bona fide hit. The lyric’s storyline is a bit complex, with the singer eventually resigning herself to her temptee’s fidelity. And both Sugababes and Paris Hilton rejected “Don’t Cha” before Cee-Lo brought his tune to Alamaze. But as it passes from Tori to Nicole, the song undergoes a sad transformation, replacing a possibly real woman’s filthy come-on with what some loser imagines his favorite porn star cooing as he rubs one out. No, actually I don’t. But thanks for asking.

My Chemical Romance — “I’m Not OK (I Promise)”

Released: 1.17.05

Peak: #86

“Emo Goth” is a snazzy tag, especially if you want to scare grown-ups (and who doesn’t?). But hell no Gerard Way ain’t either. He’s too funny about his insecurities, for starters, as the knowing cluelessness of “Well, if you wanted honesty that’s all you had to say” establishes at the very beginning of “I’m Not OK.” And My Chemical Romance know how to rock and roll. Goths “rock” maybe–back and forth, in one place, like sulky thumbsuckers–but as a rule they lack the real frenzy to get out of themselves, practically the only remnant of its black roots that white rock retains at this late date.

Addressed to some damaged gal who jumps out windows and regrets letting her boyfriend snap nude pics and demands absolute attention from her non-sexual male friends, “I’m Not OK” both harnesses and satirizes that frenzy. Rather than telling the headcase off as a crazy bitch, Gerard just shrugs, “You wear me out.” He’s not OK either, after all, and so he’s written the flipside of the breakup song where the guy insists he’s all right even though he’s heartbroken. The gothier “Helena” may have been bigger hit — nifty video for that one — but I bet an MCR show sees more uncontrollably pistoning teen heads during this number.

Olds desperate for to place the present within their own limited context talked about MCR as “this generation’s Nirvana,” but Gerard has no interest in Kurt’s communitarian wail, and My Chemical Romance have no qualms about arena shtick: “I’m Not OK” contains the harmonized guitar solo from Boston, the Bob Seger-style clap-along, a melodic bit swiped from Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” and (corniest of all) the Billy Corgan whisper to a scream. If anything, My Chemical Romance are this generation’s Green Day, offering defiance as an alternative to despair. And given the trajectory of last gen’s, not a moment too soon.

Chemical Brothers feat. Q-Tip — “Galvanize”

Released: 1.17.05

Peak: Did not chart

Welcome to Q-Tip’s lost decade. His 1999 solo bow, Amplified, re-introduced an MC not just resigned to hip-hop’s new glossy pop reality, but full-on ready to embody it; yet his proposed follow-up, Kamaal the Abstract, hedged its bets. After kindly suits sidelined that mess (an ambitious mess, sure, but so’s John Boehner), Tip spent the better part of the 00s elbowing his way back into the game. His 2008 lite jazz-rap comeback, The Renaissance, was the retreat-to-form of a guy whose moment had passed — not the moment of “conscious rap,” which Tribe had outlasted anyway, but the moment when major labels would invest in non-blockbuster rap albums.

In the dead center of that hiatus, Tip poked his head up to collaborate with a duo whose moment would seem to have passed even more definitively than his own. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons personified the mass-bludgeoning club-funk of Big Beat as definitively as anyone this side of Fatboy Slim, yet they soldiered bravely into an inhospitable decade, establishing their un-pop bona fides with the acid dissolution of Come With Us, as abstract in its way as Q-Tip’s jazzy low-end. It was apropos of nothing much at all, then, when the Brothers set aside their usual rockish taste in collaborators to let a real MC on their mic.

Just as Tip twists commonplace exhortations into originality (“Put apprehension on the back burner”) Rowlands and Simons syncopate an unremarkable beat into a frenzy with a flurry of sharp handclaps. And with the West fretful over having seen its own blocks rocked, completing an anticipatory “the time has come to” with a robotic “push the button” made for a cheeky threat–especially with the Moroccan strings, sampled from Najat Aatabou’s “Hadi Kedba Bayna” (“Just Tell Me the Truth”), repeatedly gathering into a three note punch. Not as galvanic as “Block Rockin’ Beats,” maybe. But “Galvanize,” and not “Block Rockin’ Beats,” is the jam that leads their 2008 best-of Brotherhood for a good reason — even if that reason is to show that the Chemical Brothers haven’t been in steady decline. Because, you know, they haven’t.

Top 40 Albums — 2004

1. Rilo Kiley — More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute)

2. Youssou N’Dour — Egypt (Nonesuch)

3. Kanye West — The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

4. Mountain Goats — We Shall All Be Healed (4AD)

5. Courtney Love —America’s Sweetheart (Virgin)

6. Streets — A Grand Don’t Come For Free (Vice/Atlantic)

7. Sonic Youth — Sonic Nurse (DGC)

8. Hold Steady — Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss)

9. M.I.A. vs. Diplo — Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1 (no label)

10. Air — Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks)

11. Madvillain — Madvillainy (Stones Throw)

12. The Libertines — The Libertines (Rough Trade)

13. Thelonious Monster — California Clam Chowder (Lakeshore)

14. The Fever — Red Bedroom (Kemado)

15. Jaojoby — Malagasy (World Village)

16. Franz Ferdinand — Franz Ferdinand (Domino)

17. Capital D — Insomnia (All Natural)

18. Jill Scott — Beautifully Human (Hidden Beach)

19. Björk — Medulla (Elektra)

20. Mory Kante — Sabou (Riverboat)

21. Devin the Dude — To tha X-treme (Rap-A-Lot)

22. Carolyn Mark and the New Best Friends — The Pros and Cons of Collaboration (Mint)

23. African Underground Vol 1: Senegal Hip-Hop (Nomadic Wax)

24. Ratatat — Ratatat (XL/Beggars)

25. Nas — Street’s Disciple (Columbia)

26. The Ponys — Laced With Romance (In the Red)

27. Modest Mouse — Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

28. Tinariwen — Amassakoul (World Village)

29. Travis Morrison — Travistan (Barsuk)

30. Tegan and Sara — So Jealous (Sanctuary/Vapor)

31. Rokia Traoré — Bowmboï (Nonesuch)

32. The Roots — The Tipping Point (Geffen)

33. Junior Boys — Last Exit (Kin/Domino)

34. Todd Snider — East Nashville Skyline (Oh Boy)

35. Arto Lindsay — Salt (Righteous Babe)

36. Caetano Veloso — A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch)

37. Mos Def — The New Danger (Geffen)

38. The Drive-By Truckers — Dirty South (New West)

39. Prince — Musicology (NPG)

40. Mirah — C’mon Miracle (K)

Top 40 Singles — 2004

1. Britney Spears — “Toxic”

2. Kanye West —”All Falls Down”

3. Gary Allan — “Nothing on but the Radio”

4. Jay-Z — “99 Problems”

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Maps”

6. M.I.A. — “Galang”

7. Franz Ferdinand — “Take Me Out”

8. Nina Sky featuring Jabba — “Move Ya Body”

9. Modest Mouse — “Float On”

10. Kelly Clarkson — “Since U Been Gone”

11. Ciara —”Goodies”

12. Gretchen Wilson —”Redneck Woman”

13. Kanye West — “Jesus Walks”

14. Julie Roberts —”Break Down Here”

15. Christina Millan —”Dip It Low”

16. Maroon 5 — “This Love”

17. Fabolous: “Breathe”

18. Art Brut — “Formed a Band”

19. Daddy Yankee — “Gasolina”

20. Scissor Sisters — “Take Your Mama”

21. Usher — “Burn”

22. Annie — “Chewing Gum”

23. T.I. —”Bring Em Out”

24. Rachel Stevens — “Some Girls”

25. Akon — “Locked Up”

26. Mousse T featuring Emma Lanford — “Is It Cos I’m Cool?”

27. Lee Ann Womack — ”I May Hate Myself In The Morning”

28. Keyshia Cole — “I Changed My Mind”

29. Switchfoot — “Meant To Live”

30. J-Kwon — “Tipsy”

31. Rahsaan Patterson —  “So Hot”

32. Terri Clark — “Girls Lie Too”

33. Ludacris — “Splash Waterfalls”

34. Bright Eyes — “Lua”

35. Petey Pablo “Freek-a-Leek”

36. Lady Sovereign — “Ch Ching (Cheque 1, 2)”

37. LCD Soundsystem — “Yeah (Crass Version)”

38. Ying Yang Twins — “Salt Shaker”

39. Miranda Lambert — “Me and Charlie Talking”

40. Wiley — “Pies”