15. Prince — 3121
Like lotsa wunderkinds, Prince one-upped himself into a corner too soon and suffered for having fooled us into equating his relevance and his genius. But none of his ’90s albums were embarrassments, and maybe if he hadn’t been so bitchy about rap stealing his thunder he’d have noticed R&B sneaking back in from the rear long before. This comeback is a cut above most of its predecessors because electronics edge out slick Tonight Show funk. But just in case you’re afraid he’s now all-about-the-music, on “Lolita,” (who’ll “never make a cheater outta” he) his new devotion to Jehovah encourages to work a mature twist on his seduced naïf persona. His best since Blood on the Tracks.
14. Regina Spektor — Begin to Hope
Why do so many piano girls sound like they were home-schooled by unicorns? Is it the imposed isolation of all those fingering exercises, or just fealty to the legacy of faerie godmother Kate Bush? Regardless, the quiddities of this sisterhood can surely cohabitate with pop smarts, and if Spektor’s latter musings about crafting macaroni computers dispelled any hopes she’d toughen up into Fiona, her perspective has always been more down to earth than Tori’s. At her best, on “Fidelity” or “On the Radio,” she offers women and girls of a similarly whimsical nature advice on how to adjust to life in a material world. Hint #1: You’ll need love. Hint #2: Love won’t be enough.
13. Congotronics 2
I love African music more for the chime of its guitars, the percolation of its melodies, and (maybe most of all) the urbane elegance of its singers than for the density of its polyrhythms. So while Konono No. 1’s distorted likembes did offer a new sonic wrinkle, Congotronics struck me as a sop to Western primitivists at worst and as unduly ambient at best. But this compilation, which contextualizes Konono amidst like-minded peers gathered in the city from throughout central Africa, showcases an unlikely music scene in full flourish. Certainly fresher than most of the soukous emerging from Kinshasa, not to mention Paris.
12. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins — Rabbit Fur Coat
Sure, I’m smitten — intellectually and artistically, that is, though sure she’s cute. If I sometimes miss Blake Sennett’s guitar and Rilo Kiley’s overall gestalt, well, a gal’s gotta do, etc. — Lewis toys with both autobiography and country-rock more explicitly than her regular gig permits. And on “Handle With Care,” her taste in faux Wilburys invites telling comparisons: Lewis addresses politics less bullheadedly than Conor Oberst, God less compliantly than M. Ward, and her romantic hang-ups less obliquely than Ben Gibbard. Sings better (and bigger) than any of them too.
11. Girl Talk — Night Ripper
From what I gather, the rap against Greg Gillis is that his novelty mash-ups don’t enhance the meaning of their constituent parts–we’re not forced to hear familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. An even radder critique is that a copyright outlaw has a duty to more directly subvert the corporate IP stranglehold. Instead, Gillis crafts the party record that the tough guys whose rhymes he jacks refuse to, and that’s subversive enough for me. Or meaningful enough. Fun enough, anyway. If actual pop music were this playful, we wouldn’t even need subversives.