Monthly Archives: November 2010

Ciara — “Promise”

Released: 10.16.06

Peak: #11

Blame Janet Jackson. Her pedigree required her to feign autonomy on Control–would you want to be mistaken for Rebbie, never mind LaToya? Ever since, any R&B girlie desirous of a career rather than merely a hit has been compelled to prove herself more than the sum of her beats. But though such imitations of self-expression make for an silly rite of passage, they don’t always make for bad pop–at least so long as the beats remain.

Ballads are, as always, trickier territory, often demanding more of a self than their singers have to express. So Ciara deserves credit for pulling off this mid-tempo pledge, though Polow da Don’s production deserves more. With those liquid, reverberant beats, the lyrics probably imply a capital P for “You can be my prince,” even if the electro-echo recalls Missy’s early-00s Prince imitations rather than the original item. The song shows off limitations of Ciara’s voice, sealing her off in an uncomfortably pinched area of her register. But such low-wattage, all-too-human frailty came as a relief up against the prevalence of powerhouse diva theatrics.

Much he same could be said for follow-up “Like a Boy,” which predated Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” but relied less upon wind-tunnel melodrama. But the lead single, “Get Up,” may as well have been called “3,4 Step,” and it’s unlikely fans of Ciara: The Evolution. zeroed in on tracks like “I’m Just Me” (aren’t we all?), let alone its various “revelatory” interludes. By the time of Fantasy Ride in 2009, the industry’s renewed interest in artifice led to the creation of her own larger-than-life persona, “Super C.” And yet, can you really be a superhero if no one really cares to uncover your secret identity?

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Best Albums 2006 (1-5)

5. Beyoncé — B’Day


Her Eminence owed us this, after the hits-plus-filler expedience of Dangerously in Love (What hits, I know! But what filler, I sigh…) and a reunion that undermined Destiny’s Child’s already wobbly foundations of sisterhood. Trim and concise, especially in its non-bloated un-“Deluxe” version, B’Day (till recently, a friend thought it was pronounced “bidet”) lacks the self-abnegating geisha supplications her independent women can ill afford to mimic, as well as the ego-ballooning declarations of Beyoncedom that are more unseemly in a superstar than in an up-and-comer. And she hasn’t let a reportedly happy union hold her back from casting necessary aspersions on the ways of the opposite sex, or from allowing us to imagine that some just might apply to her lesser half.

4. Bob Dylan — Modern Times


Less funny than “Love and Theft,” therefore less definitive, but with even more theft and love than its predecessor. Drawing inspiration from Confederate poet Henry Timrod as he muses about Alicia Keys is the sort of perversity we’ve come to cherish from the old con. But as with all Dylan’s greatest albums, the lyrics are only as powerful as the music that carries them, and here his boys unfussily retool Americana like the ace working band they are. Looks like all those fanatics who awaited the next great Dylan album for decades have had their last laugh on the rest of us. Personally, I was grateful for Bob’s minor misstep with Together Through Life–a third perfect album in a row and we’d have to start revising our histories of the ’60s.

3. Sonic Youth — Rather Ripped


Jim O’Rourke is unmissed for the same reason he was barely noticed — the architectural essentials of their sound have hardly changed since they stopped mistaking noise as end rather than means in the mid-80s. Skeptics may or may need convincing by what may or may not be their finest set of songs in years but is quite certainly their songiest. Fans like me consider that sound spacious enough to allow for perpetual exploration, and consider songcraft as suitable a vehicle for such forays as any. Either way, their best since Sonic Nurse.

2. Tom Zé — Estudando O Pagode


Musically, Zé is Brazil’s answer to Monk, a traditionalist so idiosyncratic you might mistake his innovation as rebellion, his equivalent of the pianist’s precisely placed dissonant chord the zig-zag riff that darts forward, then hovers suspended momentarily like the Coyote over a canyon. But he’s also Tropicalia’s great conceptualist, and his exploration of the samba subgenre pagode doubles as a three-act operetta, tackling the relationship between the sexes with a focus on how machismo undermines male humanity. If your Portuguese is a little rusty and you’re wondering if it’s supposed to be funny, the featured instrument is a kid’s toy made of fig leaves that sounds like a kazoo.

1. Ghostface Killah — Fishscale


I dig Ghost for his dense, deft wordplay, his willingness to risk absurdity for the sake of the well-turned rhyme, as showcased to its most amazing effect on Supreme Clientele. But I love Ghost for his heart and for the immediacy of his narratives, and here, whether reminiscing over childhood whippings, teaching us more about kilos than Schoolhouse Rock had in mind, or teaming with Raekwon on “R.A.G.U.,” he’s never sounded more himself. Sure Doom can rhyme exquisite nonsense ad infinitum, sure Missy can ladle her sassy self over the hottest beats till you’re limp. But it can never be marveled over enough that the most consistent sui generis MC in the game is also its best storyteller.

Robin Thicke — “Lost Without U”

Released: 10.3.06

Peak: #14

I suppose the decade’s second-greatest white R&B singer would serve as potentially disturbing fantasy fodder for women of a certain age, given that uncanny resemblance to his uncannily fatherly dad. But for 80s babies with no such baggage, RT offered a less hectic JT alternative. Not only is Robin less impressed with his own cuteness than Justin, whose DNA is irrevocably imprinted with boy-band-iness, but, maybe because he doesn’t piss his talent away on SNL, he’s released four albums in the time Timberlake’s squandered on a mere two. No wonder Weezy loves him — kid’s got a work ethic.

“Lost Without U” is that surprising rarity — a celebration of loving sex. Not acrobatic sex, or intricate sex games, or whatever other carnal convolution stands in for physical intimacy on most R&B tracks. And as a producer, Thicke makes so much from so little. The track is essentially a pair of acoustic guitar chords simulating a bossa nova, interrupted by that double-time cymbal fill, and held together by Thicke’s remarkably unstrained falsetto.

He makes even more from a needy lyric — not just a desperate “How does it feel?” (lifted from D’Angelo), but “Tell me how you love me/ And how you think me sexy.” As bald a plea for attention as Thicke offers up, though, he doesn’t whine. And judging by the video, which co-stars his foxy wife/ high-school sweetheart Paula Patton (the hot lesbian teacher from Precious), Thicke’s doing all right for himself.

Lily Allen — “LDN”

Released: 9.25.06

Peak: Did not chart

A blithe rumination on both the effects of mood on perspective and the Potemkin-deep charms of gentrification, Allen’s first single sliced through the faux prosperity of the times with a cheery, cheeky irony. If the chin-up revenge fantasy “Smile” is a bubblier “Since U Been Gone,” kicking some slob of an ex when he’s down, “LDN” targets broader duplicities. Depending on your attitude, “Everything seems nice/ But if you look twice/ You can see it’s all lies” stands as a fair epitaph for urban life in the ’00s, or for pop music in general.

Mark Ronson may have gotten the publicity for pulling together Alright Still, Allen’s debut album, but credit’s due Future Cut, a.k.a. drum ‘n’ bass producers Darren Lewis and Tunde Babalola. The duo sampled Lord Kitchener’s “London Is The Place For Me,” and calypso’s carnivalesque satire jibes well with Allen’s ironies. She’s always less bitchy than bratty, as demonstrated in the “LDN” video, where she annoys a “Tough Grade,” record clerk with her exaggerated trainspotting.

Allen was touted as among the first of MySpace’s gifts to pop, but she was an internet-era heroine in a deeper sense as well. Just as jilted dudes could post nude pics of their exes, the exes could lash back with exaggerated bad-sex anecdotes. And so, she quickly inspired the sort of weird backlash that the anonymous nature of online commenting facilitates. As for what makes otherwise smart people hate her, I believe has a bit to do with her dad being a shitty comic and a lot to do with the fact that she’s a mouthy young woman. I’m no Anglophile, but we should have such smart publicity whores in our country.

Justin Timberlake feat. T.I. — “My Love”

Released: 9.12.06

Peak: #1

We now know that Michael Jackson will never stutter and coo his way across a Timbaland track, even if some future posthumous splicing creates that illusion. So at least the super-producer who began his career by extrapolating an entire rhythmic language from “Wanna Be Starting Something” found a sympatico collaborator in Michael’s finest descendant. Like MJ, JT’s a rhythmic singer, and he’s learned more musical tricks from hip-hop than those new jacks who cop its wardrobe and misogyny but continue to ape a tired ’70s boudoir wail.

By 2006, Timbaland, per those ageist dipshits who think every artist has a finite creative span, had “fallen off” (the most pernicious concept hip-hop has introduced into the critical lexicon this side of “hater”). But his fling with global beat had run dry, and so Tim revisited his old style. Working here with Danja, he augmented the clickety “Are You That Somebody?” beatbox with a weird giggle, while staccato synth slabs curl back underneath the chorus to state the melody. “My Love” is as monumental as “Cry Me a River,” and a few degrees warmer.

There’s nothing virtuosic about Justin’s falsetto, but there’s plenty plaintive, and his performance brought sexy back more effectively than “Sexyback.” What Timberlake lacks are Michael’s essential neuroses, his ability to embody awkwardness and grace within the same moment. That bodes well for Justin’s life and career, perhaps (and just might have something to do with him being white), and if that means he will always simulate second-hand weirdness, sometimes that’s enough.

Oh, and T.I.? Well, he holds his own. Like he says here, “a stand up guy.”

Unk feat. André 3000 & Jim Jones — “Walk It Out”

Released: 9.6.06

Peak: #10

Video maybe didn’t kill the rap star, but like MTV before it, YouTube destabilized and invigorated the contemporary popscape. The Chicken Noodle Soup, the Superman, the Aunt Jackie, the Lip Gloss–beginning in 2006, instructions abounded on how to jerk your body to a new breed of teenybopper crunk, as the new video site allowed kids to share their interpretation of the steps with the world. If only someone had thought to pass along an updated “Land of 1,000 Dances,” or at least a new-fangled “Nobody But Me,” that’d’ve been a hell of a ringtone.

“Walk It Out” was among the earliest of these new crazes, and qua song near the head of the pack. Lyrically, calling for the west, south, east and north sides to walk in out in rapid succession is hardly in the class of “Chicken noodle soup/ With a sodar on the side,” but clearly a notch above “Let it rain, now clear it out.” And if Unk is no great shakes on the mic, he did construct the track, distinguished by a tinny synth riff resembling a sped-up slasher flick theme.

On the official remix, Andre 3000 steals the track from Unk (“Your white tee, well to me, look like a night gown/ Make your mama proud, take that thang 2 sizes down”) and Jim Jones hands it right back. But rhymes aside, the remix is longer, and therefore preferable, because there’s more time for it to be walked out. And that was just the first ripple “Walk It Out” would create in out cultural pool. Girl Talk made good use of the track, Lil Wayne owned it on Da Drought 3, and everyone from SpongeBob to the Teletubbies was made to walk it out on YouTube. “Walk It Out” grew from a song to the sort of  participatory group endeavor that terrifies copyright misers.

Best Albums 2006 (6-10)

10. Tom Waits — Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards


Few cults have ever invited cynical commercial exploitation so greedily–completists would treasure the last few strands of Waits’ smoked-down butt-ends. So more power to him for refusing to slop together some half-assed rarities comp. Instead, misplaced old cuts are sorted in with enough new recordings and re-recordings to present an illusion of inexhaustibility that his regular releases dispelled years ago. The definitive testament of an oddball whose insouciance has only grown richer as he’s worked harder to conceal just how hard he works.

 

9. Todd Snider — The Devil You Know


The snarky yet empathetic leftism of a professional drifter that cohered on 2004 East Nashville Skyline here darkens and perks up even further. The show-stealer is “You Got Away With It,” which pins down what (policies aside) many of us found so reprehensible about George W. Bush. But Snider’s heart is in songs like “Looking for a Job,” about not caring if you lose one, which humanize rather than mythologize his fellow lowlifes. And the title track’s increased velocity doesn’t represent the freedom of nothing-left-to-lose but the lack of control into which “a war goin’ on that the poor can’t win” has plunged too many.

 

8. Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra — Boulevard de l’Indépendance

The kora is too beautiful an instrument to be entrusted to the tastes of western music buyers, who discern some soothing New Age air of the Celtic in its crisp pluck. (That goes double for the ones who cast Grammy ballots.) And yet, Diabate’s best recordings have been collaborative products with very different westerners (Taj Mahal and Damon Albarn) and here, a third–Pee Wee Ellis and his ingeniously Africanized horn charts–helps adapt a virtuosity beyond my understanding to a big-band setting with an air of grace beyond my expectations. Traditional in its way, and yet unlike any other West African pop.

 

7. The Coup — Pick a Bigger Weapon


No matter what hip-hop tells you, most black folks work shitty jobs. Like, shittier than dealing. Like, maybe shittier than yours. So for all the acuity of his rabble-rousing (“Head (Of State)” puts Bush and Hussein literally in bed), I like Boots Riley best when he’s explicitly anti-work, as on “I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day In Bed With You,” or equating a less glamorous criminal strain with anti-capitalism on “I Love Boosters!” And even “Babyletshaveababybeforebushdosomethingcrazy” is weirdly optimistic when you think about it. Yes, “revolution” is a tired word, bandied about as carelessly as “love.” Riley reminds you why some folks think it’s no less necessary. And he hardly considers love unnecessary either.

 

6. Love Is All — Nine Times That Same Song


The world can never have too much punk saxophone, querulous girlie chirping, or tunefully sprung impatience, if only because the world has far too little X-Ray Spex. Where their peers found in postpunk an excuse for fussy complexity, these Swedes found an excuse for enthusiastic amateurism, and Josephine O. wriggles through the din rather than darting her way to the top, with those lyrics that emerge (e.g., “I keep the one I love/ In the freezer”) assuring you there’s plenty wit submerged below. At times, it’s as though the band members are only coincidentally playing the same song. Nine times, in fact.

Dixie Chicks — “The Long Way Around”

 

Released: 8.29.06

Peak: Did not chart

It would have been poetic justice had the Dixie Chicks rebounded from their PR battle against the country music industry with their best music of their career. Instead they recorded their worst, and predictably enough, too, unless you still dream that great pop springs primarily from the wells of poetry and justice. The Long Way Around coughed up only two notable tracks, despite Rick Rubin vibing in the production booth, and despite outside songwriting help from numerous pros. (Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, Dan Wilson — hmm, maybe cordon “despite” off in quotes.)

Those two songs were severely self-referential. The more awkward “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the bigger hit, channeling everything limp and genteel about the NPR-left the Chicks now courted into a thoughtful exercise in self-pity, where the situation instead called for a curt “fuck off.” But the title track promised something else. A sequel of sorts to “Wide Open Spaces,” “The Long Way Around” follows the girl who left home to find herself still ISO as middle-age beckons. Natalie Maines herself was an ancient 32 years old at the time.

Though references to the Chicks’ recent struggles threaten to reduce the tune to mere autobiography, the emotional note that prevails is its naked sense of security postponed. Yet another reason to regret the band’s split with Nashville. If anyone needed a reminder that not every girl marries her high-school sweetheart, it was the young girls who once flocked to Dixie Chicks concerts. And if anyone needed a reminder that non-conformity is fueled less by courage than by stubbornness, it was the cowboy-manques they’d marry too soon.

Carrie Underwood — “Before He Cheats”

Released: 8.06

Peak: #6

American Idol has “given back” very little to the pop world it so brutally devastated. And if “Since U Been Gone” were mine to surrender, I’d gladly trade it in to erase that steroidal Star Search from our collective conscious. Why can’t a country so viscerally xenophobic ever develop a healthy distrust of the damn British, always the greatest external threat to the vibrancy of American pop culture? Given mainstream country’s affinity with the worst kind of leather-lunged mawk that wows the Idol electorate, I had no higher hopes for Carrie Underwood than for hunky Bo Bice. And when she followed up “Jesus Take the Wheel” with a Diane Warren tune (albeit one Marshall Crenshaw beat her to), I was almost ready to forgive “Because of You.”

But from its jaunty piano roll to its slash-and-burn fiddle, “Before He Cheats” harnesses the AI high-wattage aesthetic as force for good. As per the Nashville norm, Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear are better at imagining the floozy’s limitations (her inability to pound shots and weakness for “Shania karaoke”) than for the shortcomings of the jerk himself. And though the wronged woman believes she “might have saved a little trouble for the next girl,” most likely, the jackass will be careful next time not to date such a psycho bitch. But what carries the song is what sets Underwood’s voice apart from her competitors–that she takes pleasure in its soaring power, rather than offering vocal intensity as proof of sincerity.

Underwood has since shaped up into a fairly reliable female country star–like Faith Hill if her pulse wasn’t battery operated, or a less eager-to-please Martina McBride. I can even stomach her she’s-leaving-home ballad, “Don’t Forget to Remember Me.” (I know, I know, but I like that it’s mom-daughter, rather than dad-daughter, and told from the kid’s POV.) But she hasn’t topped “Before He Cheats,” and she won’t. I’m no licensed psychoanalyst, but do you think it’s a coincidence that the two best singles from Idol winners bade farewell to dysfunctional relationships?

Rich Boy feat. Polow da Don — “Throw Some D’s”

Released: 8.15.06

Peak: #6

In 2006, crack sales were low but crack nostalgia was high. Often, crack nostalgics seemed high themselves, touting some dim jabberjaw who’d landed a big-name producer as the future of the game, rationalizing drug-talk as metaphorically apt, or evasively spotlighting beat technique. As with any lame trend, a few exceptions (Clipse, Ghostface) wrested art from the jaws of cliché. File most of the rest under guessyouhaddabethere.

But with his mildly charming excitement about his new ride overwhelming his pro forma street boasts, Rich Boy was too harmless to hate. I just hope he paid for that Cadillac he’s so proud of upfront, because not a syllable here suggested a long career for the poor sap. Rarely does a producer upstage his titular MC, but by working a simple melodic variation on his own verse, Polow (no microphone fiend himself) did just that.

In keeping with ’06 chart rap, “Throw Some D’s” was little more than a beat and catch phrase. But that gruff chorus of encouragement was perfectly fitted to Drumma Boy’s stutter and bump, and the track itself was hardly static–the keyboard evolves into an unexpectedly perky calliope by the song’s end. Besides, if nothing else, this song would inspire the brilliant “Report Card,” in which Soulja Boy takes one look at his grades–all Fs–and responds to his teacher (how else?) “Throw some Ds on that bitch.”