Monthly Archives: October 2010

Best Albums 2006 (11-15)

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.


John Mayer — “Waiting on the World to Change”

Released: 8.1.06

Peak: #14

John Mayer is smarter than you think and dumber than he wishes. Mayer senses the complexity of those interpersonal relationships that pop necessarily simplifies, but each time he tries to add a thoughtful lyrical wrinkle to a commonplace he trips over his own dick. “Daughters” could have been an anodyne celebration of little girls; instead Mayer seems to encourage good parenting so that he won’t have to date crazy bitches. And yet, in spite of himself, dude offers accidental insight into the privileged yet conflicted perspective of the straight white male.

Mayer’s weakness and his gift is an inability to mask his less flattering side, so of course he leads off his anthem of political alienation with “Me and all my friends/ We’re all misunderstood.” (Something about that double “all” really hammers the self-pity home.) And yet, he’s on to something, a collective sense of disempowerment that affects the entire electorate. Privileged straight white males may derive undue benefit from our political system, but they’re still mostly powerless to change it.

Mayer would have been forgiven if he simply revived  “A Change Is Gonna Come” or some other fond Boomer memory. Instead, he sacrilegiously adopted a Curtis Mayfield template to diagnose a political anemia we prefer to deny. We’d rather join Greg Kot in condemning the way “Waiting on the World to Change” “advocates” passivity, or, like Pitchfork, which similarly panned the song, we prefer to celebrate the implicit passivity of a hermetic, post-verbal indie aesthetic. “We just feel like we don’t have the means / To rise above.” Do you honestly feel otherwise?

New York Dolls — “Dance Like a Monkey”

Released: 7.25.06

Peak:  Did not chart

When the three surviving members of the New York Dolls reunited for a festival appearance in 2004, their prime comeback moment had passed. Not that I could tell you when that might have been. The peak of Rock Is Back, a couple years earlier, with the Strokes and the Stripes and the Hives making the world safe for electric guitars and tight pants? Possibly. Definitely not back during the grunge years, when the punk du jour was too shaggy and metal. (Besides, David Johansen was still cashing in on his Buster Poindexter shtick.)

Maybe there really wasn’t a good time, so just as well that they waited till they were ready to answer Morrissey’s calls. (Yeah, we all have our part to play in this crazy world.) Shortly after that reunion gig, bassist Arthur Kane died, leaving just Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain to record the first Dolls studio album in more than three decades. And though I wouldn’t say “Dance Like a Monkey” picks up exactly where they left off–that’s way too pro for a Johnny Thunders solo, and Johansen hasn’t kept his voice in as good shape as his figure–the rhythm section sure swings like old times, funking up the “Lust For Life” beat, tossing in jungle noises and doo-wop ooh-ooh’s.

The lyrics make confetti of creationism while filling in some Biblical gaps to answer the longstanding question “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?” (Of course Cain hooks up with an ape-lady–what other women were there to pick from?) And maybe some other punk could have come up with “Ain’t gonna anthropomorphize ya.” But would anyone else rhyme that with “Or perversely polymorphosize ya”? David Jo didn’t come here looking to settle the debate on evolution, after all. He’s just lookin’ for a kiss.

The Roots — “Don’t Feel Right”

Released: 6.20.06

Peak:#48 [Hip-Hop/R&B Singles]

“You Got Me” aside, the Roots have never been much of a singles band. For better or worse, their groove builds to full effect at album length–as you might expect of a drummer-helmed band, they guide their own rhythmic progress more effectively than the radio or iPod shuffle can integrate their individual tracks into the mix. (Though they’ve been successful in less-than-likely ways on the charts–“Stay Cool” really hit number 31 R&B? Hurm.)

Always commercially averse, then, the band hardly went for the pop jugular with its Def Jam debut, Game Theory. If signing the Roots was Jay-Z’s big payback to the conscious rap crowd, they embraced their role as hip-hop’s ascetic hair shirt — the album was as hard as a North Philly sidewalk’s busted chunks of concrete and even less inviting. And yet, this intense burst was the crew’s finest single-shot of the decade. bolstered by hardly subtle samples from Kool & The Gang (“Jungle Boogie”) and Ohio Players (“Ecstasy”), the claustrophobic rise and fall of a simple piano riff, and a funky clavinet (redundant?) breakdown.

At a time of resurgent crack-rap, “Don’t Feel Right” was a worthy counterbalance. Always an under-sung MC, Black Thought excels at the stressed-yet-thoughtful pose. Here, he acknowledges the changing nature of racism is a post-civil-rights world — “The struggle ain’t right up in your face/ It’s more subtle” — while seeking to “school these bucks” whose lifestyles the prison-industrial complex feeds off. But the real emotional hook for me is singer Maimouna Youssef’s accentuation of “feel” rather than “right” in the chorus, capturing the sharp gut-ache that suggests something’s missing from life, rather than pretending to know what it could be.

Taylor Swift — “Tim McGraw”

Released: 6.19.06

Peak: #40

Nostalgia is a disease we expect to afflict the aged. And so, not quite coincidentally, is country music. But nostalgia’s first wave arrives — and crashes down hard — in adolescence, with the initial awareness that things end instigating that preemptive mix of celebration and self-mourning you’ve surely seen in a very special high school graduation episode of your favorite nighttime teen soap. As for country, its cross-generational appeal is now almost as ingrained as its nostalgia. And yet, it awaited Taylor Swift to sate the teenybop market with the age-appropriate idol its numbers have earned.

A welcome addition to the fine tradition of songs-about-songs, Swift’s first single, “Tim McGraw,” isn’t really about “the haunting power of country music,” as Swift told Country Weekly, and you needn’t have loved or even heard a McGraw song for it to catch you up. “Tim McGraw” is about the enduring power of any listener to imbue any music with personal meaning. Even if, as Swift says, it’s about McGraw’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothin'” and her first boyfriend, Tim is just incidental, a metrically convenient trio of syllables for Swift’s exercise in romantic nostalgia. In any case, mission accomplished: When I think “Tim McGraw,” I now think “Taylor Swift.”

Maybe it’s that slide acoustic guitar lick gently nuzzling against the verses the makes the song seem sweeter than it is. But from the start, Swift hushedly recognizes that her boy’s line about the way her blue eyes shine is “a lie.” The last verse is a tart kiss-off, too, with Taylor boasting that (what else?) he’ll hear her on the radio one day. The video makes the story clearer, as the dude, sitting in his truck, wipes away a tear as he listens to the radio. “Tim McGraw” isn’t just an exercise in prospective nostalgia, an opportunity for young girls to moon over a love they’ll someday lose. It’s a song about making boys cry. And that, ladies, is something to look forward to.

Peter Bjorn and John — “Young Folks”

Released: 6.3.06

Peak: Did not chart

That slightly off-pitch whistling you hear is the easy lilt of collegiate pop in all its preciously blinkered post-adolescent glory. Where too many of their peers merely embody that sensibility, though, Peter Bjorn and John expressed its mild but undeniable pleasures with a fair bit of insight. “All we care about is talking,” their prospective lovers harmonize, celebrating that moment when you and some cute young thing conflate conversation with romantic epiphany. Such moments come during in the earliest age that you believe yourself to have a “history” (you don’t), that you are reinventing yourself (you’re not), that you two alone stand outside of the world’s cliquish jabber (maybe, just maybe…).

And yet, those impressions are no less psychologically true than countless other pop sentiments, and pretentious crushes are certainly no less powerful than any others. “Young Folks” encapsulates that experience musically as well: the rushed drumming mirrors the adrenaline spike that accompanies such an encounter, while the offhand interplay between Peter Moren’s sinus-clogged yearning and the flat Moe Tucker coo of the Concretes’ Victoria Bergsman drifts along with a forced casualness that pretends not to notice the hormonal surge underneath.

All that talk about the gap between the “young style” and the “old style” inevitably brought to mind the growing fissure between X’ers and Millennials, semi-imaginary as such generational shifts always are. Actually, Peter Bjorn and John would have more to say about maturity elsewhere: I’d direct young folks in search of a life lesson to the lyrics of “Objects of My Affection,” about how a profounder sense of self can compensate for whatever edge is lost with age. And, in fact, I bet it’s easier for old folks to recognize their former selves in “Young Folks” than it is for the song’s titular subjects.

Christina Aguilera — “Ain’t No Other Man”

Released: 6.3.06

Peak: #6

The more Christina Aguilera strives to mature as an artist, the more childlike she seems. Twenty-five and married when she cut “Ain’t No Other Man,” Aguilera nonetheless explodes with the naive enthusiasm of a teenage girl imagining how an orgasm will someday feel. And not self-consciously so either—that big bluesy growl lets you know that the silly thing imagines she’s acting all grown up. And that lack of awareness masquerading as emotional intensity has always been an essential element of her appeal to the NARAS elders who anointed her the “talented,” long-term Britney-alternative back when such questions were still pertinent.

And so, the rebellious spell of “being herself” on Stripped, complete with Pussycat Dolls fling and dyed hair, was as brief as it was predictable. Aguilera snapped back to the fold with a Mercedes commercial, a Herbie Hancock duet, and Back to Basics, an excuse to play dress up, in wardrobe and vocal affectation alike, disguised as an artistic challenge. To gauge just the depth of Aguilera’s appreciation for the culture she celebrates, note how “Back in the Day” rolls into a giant ball of Music everything that black people recorded before Christina’s birth. The egregious rotogravure-pop of “Candyman” alone was enough to make me forgive I’m Breathless after all these years—at least Madonna was in on the joke.

And yet, “Ain’t No Other Man” helps me understand why Irving Azoff does dote so on the girl. DJ Premier’s track simulates funk the way Christina simulates soul, binding the loose bounce of its source material, Dave Cortez’s “Happy Soul,” so that it pops with maximum efficiency. And Christina’s naivety is her strength–not her awareness of the past, but her obliviousness to it, rings through in her voice. To top it off, I’m amused rather than offended by reports that Aguilera lent Primo Al Green and Aretha discs to listen to for inspiration. Adorable, no?

Camera Obscura — “Lloyd I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”

Released: 5.15. 06

Peak: Did not chart

Great indie-rock bands grew scarcer as the decade wore on, yet great indie-rock singles grew slightly more abundant. That’s no paradox. The iPod era emphasized the importance of “tracks,” and the potential for licensing (to film, commercials, TV) ballooned as the indie kid massive came to envision itself as a marketable audience. An indie “hit” became more possible, maybe more necessary, within this new commercial climate. And Camera Obscura scored some of the best.

These bookish Glaswegians had already made the requisite connections–Belle & Sebastian’s Richard Colburn once drummed for them, and Stuart Murdoch produced their debut LP. And they crafted decent little albums in the B&S tradition: tuneful and wry and folkish and overeducated and wistful and bored, with singer Tracyanne Campbell possessing the finest of indie deadpans. They won my attention with the album title Underachievers Please Try Harder, then rewarded it with this enthusiastic answer to Lloyd Cole’s jab at collegiate asceticism “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?”

If Cole saw heartbreak as an antidote to the cold moralizing of adolescence, for Campbell it’s the jolt needed to free her from self-obsession, as it can well be at the right time of life. “Lloyd I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” begins hesitantly, with a deliberate, churchy organ intro, before its plucky little guitar hook plunges into a chiming Technicolor jangle of brass and strings. And in one of those nice parables of professionalism we often hear in pop, both music and lyrics parallel indie’s relationship with the wider commercial world, with the cost of escaping subcultural solipsism, as always, a willingness to endure the inevitable broken heart that is success.

Lupe Fiasco — “Kick, Push”

Released: 4.18.06

Peak: #78

There are better ways to dissipate your critical energies than by differentiating the “real” from the ersatz, whether you’re sorting through Americans or hip-hop. So far be it from me to consider the Midwest “realer” than either coast. But I will say that Chicago’s middling successful rappers more consistently pepper their rhymes with recognizable, mundane detail than superstars to their east and west. And “Kick, Push” is the ideal example of how Midwestern realism distinguishes itself from that of other regions.

At first, Soundtrakk’s swooping strings (less “Backstabbers” than “Nights in White Satin,” sad to say, though dig that discordant resolution) seem to clash with Lupe’s plainspoken sensibility–and skating may not seem the most promising extended metaphor anyway. But the orchestration sets up “Kick Push” as a fantasy of the everyday, the daydream of a romantic after Phil Spector’s own ears, and a skateboard subs nicely for a motorcycle in what amounts to a “Born to Run” for city kids who’ll never see the open road that leads out of town.

In the course of his rambles, Lupe’s sk8r boi finds a girl with her own board and her own mind, and dodges run-ins with some surprisingly polite security guards. At its most romanticized, “Kick, Push” is still less corny than supposed tough guys who whine about their stress–though if you require additional grit, the more downbeat “Kick, Push II,” closes off the full-length Food and Liquor somewhat less hopefully. The song’s ultimate value is its expression of life as something to be lived rather than won. I’ll never be quite as annoyed by those dumb kids clattering in the streets again. And I can’t say I’m disappointed that we’ve placed a transplanted Midwestern realist in the White House. Coasss…

Gnarls Barkley — “Crazy”

Released: 3.23.06

Peak: #2

There’s no more frustrating experience as a critic than to encounter a hugely popular work that you recognize as “good” but which denies you emotional access. There’s plenty of beloved pop that I despise but the appeal of which I recognize. There’s plenty of pop (beloved or otherwise) that I adore, even if I can’t always express why it floors me. And then there’s “Crazy,” a weird, compelling trifle, instantly accepted as a classic in disparate quarters, that’s served as an aesthetic brick wall for me to pound my skull against for half a decade now.

Danger Mouse is the problem. As I complained earlier in this series (when I promised I wouldn’t include “Crazy”–oh well), his track “sits there in all its inert glory, awaiting a pat on the head for being so well-crafted.” The electronically abbreviated intro beats announce that this will be an exercise in clinical precision, a threat made good by the snap of that fine-edged bass into the drum patterns, the carefully layered weightlessness of the spaghetti western samples, even the controlled entropy of the track’s closing sputter.

That’s not even to get into its limitations on Cee-Lo. The off-the-dome feel of his lyrics generates an air of unpremeditated honesty, as though we’re hearing unfiltered series of recollections. And he’s a soulful enough singer, though you can cease already with the spurious Al Green comparisons (the only heresy whose profession I consider damnable). Somehow, I sense, the strength of “Crazy” for some must rest in how the neatly trimmed track constrains the life pulsing with in it, in the masterful display of sonic quirk in the service of limiting a song’s exuberance.  And yet …

And yet it’s a pretty damn good song, after all, and I refuse to play heroic contrarian just ’cause the best-of-they year/ best-of-the-decade chorus overestimate the depths of its soul or its historic importance. Sure I could be dismissive and complain that lots of fogeys liked “Crazy” ’cause it was retro. But that’s not why they loved it. And just ’cause I can’t tell you why they loved it doesn’t mean I can’t like it, at least a little.