Monthly Archives: December 2010

Amy Winehouse feat. Ghostface — “You Know I’m No Good”

Released: 3.6.07

Peak: #77

Maybe I’m an old sober crank, my objections to “Rehab” too personal to interest recreational users. But I’ve heard too many hopeless addicts insist that love will solve their problems to get off on that sad, recycled mirage as a wholesome pop conceit. I say better to go the full Ke$ha and celebrate your blotto hijinx for the heckuvit than to hide your track marks behind your honey’s back. And to top it off, that tune’s rehabbed soul is (in its worthy, British way) kinda jive.

By contrast, “You Know I’m No Good” maps the self-sabotaging delusions of the substance abuser down to the last telltale carpet burn, striking that precise balance between self-loathing and ego overdrive. Built up from a simple rare-groove simulation and sleaze-lounge guitar, with the Dap-Kings’ horns tiptoeing and peeking around corners, “You Know I’m No Good” oozes deceit. Winehouse retches with the pangs of being caught out, that sick gut-wrench when reality reasserts itself in the person of Ghostface, whose outrage cuts through the moral fog of Winehouse’s rationalizations. (Plus, the image of Ghostdini in rolled up sleeves and a skull t-shirt does set the imagination a-reeling.)

What ultimately set Winehouse apart from the Adeles and Duffys and other quality retro U.K. birds of the moment wasn’t just the acuity of her phrasing, and not her side-career as a tabloid regular either. It was a willingness to acknowledge her demons as of her own summoning, and yet beyond her control. The blues can be a source of strength in hard times. Like so many white troublemakers before her, Winehouse has sought obliteration there instead.


Lil Mama — “Lip Gloss”

Released: 3.6.07

Peak: #5

Serious art form that it is, hip-hop would prefer that you trace its lineage to Jamaican toasting, the Last Poets, something weighty and cultural and footnotable in an undergrad research paper. But rap owes its vitality no less to double-dutch rhyming than to its manlier antecedents, a fact the music’s vexed relations with teenpop only augments–plenty of rappers hit big in their teens, but most, understandably, want to appear older.

Lil Mama was among the exceptions, sounding every bit her seventeen-year-old self. And that hand-clap beat by Nappy Roots producer James “Groove” Chambers was custom-made for an era of new teen dance crazes. “Lip Gloss” is even better than that dog’s song of the same name (“I keep putting on lip gloss/ And you won’t kiss me”), and though she’s angling for the boys’ attention, she also offers instruction to the jealous girls about how to “upgrade” as well.

Lil Mama wasn’t strictly a one-hit-wonder. “Shawty Get Loose,” which depended too heavily on the always engaging T-Pain and the always unnecessary Chris Brown, cracked top-ten U.S.. though I prefer the kid-friendly “G Slide (Tour Bus)” (#8 in New Zealand!).  Maybe her skills didn’t quite earn her the “Voice of the Young People” title her album touted, but hers was among the better of the forty-some “A Milli” freestyles, and her guest spot on the remix of Avril’s “Girlfriend” was fun. If only her debut album had been a touch stronger, or we lived in a world where “College” could have been a hit. Instead, she’s a ridiculously somber judge for America’s Best Dance Crew, bouncing out uninvited on the VMA stage to “join” Jay and Alicia for “Empire State of Mind.” Teen-hop is a cruel mistress.

Best Albums 2007 (21-25)

25. Blitzen Trapper — Wild Mountain Nation

Hootin’ and hollerin’ with a fervor as isolated as the internet permits, these Portland hippies are among the decade’s better examples of what’s gained by not moving to Brooklyn. Imagine an alternate universe where Pavement rather than Uncle Tupelo had pioneered alt-country, where Elephant 6 bands were weaned on Moby Grape, where Animal Collective wrote songs. By their follow-up, Furr, BT had learned to color within genre lines, but here Eric Earley just yells go and guitars race off in all directions in search of their roots, only to be distracted by rivulets of melody instead.


24. Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007

What could post-punk possibly mean to a pre-punk culture? Given that my experience of modern China is largely filtered through James Fallows, Jia Zhangke, and TV coverage of the Olympics, I couldn’t begin to guess, let alone vouch for the accuracy of PiL drummer Martin Atkins’s cherry-picking of the Beijing scene. But these bands pound the source material to suit their own hungry, angry, unclear purposes where more accurate Western imitators bog down in affectation. Volumes 2 and 3 went on to betray the scene’s limits, but if any U.S. city coughed up this vibrant a single disc compilation, you’d hear so many cries of Next Big Thing you’d think it was 1994.


23. Busdriver — Roadkillovercoat

Regan Farquhar’s title doesn’t pun off P.E. in vain: an abstract black nerd can discomfit trap music pushers as truly as a dwindling white birthrate does your Limbaugh-dittoing uncle. Like lots of underground rap weirdoes, Busdriver can mistake logorrhea for an end in itself, though his preference for jokes over dystopia justifies the means–his convolutions are often enjambed but rarely abstract, his dreaming to walk the bare moon from his air balloon grandiose in the most homely way. And lest you doubt his commitment to obscurity, his big name guests are Abstract Rude and Daedelus.

22. Ponytail — Kamehameha

With noise-rock yet another creative contingent quick to equate artistic merit and testosterone poisoning, the trebly spasms of this bass-less Baltimore art-noise quartet were a welcome exception. Deerhoof comparisons are just lazy: The surfy twin-guitar runs of Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong simulate spontaneity where San Fran’s crit-darlings puzzle over quadratic equations, and where Satomi Matsuzaki merely applies a patina of twee exotica to Deerhoof’s tracks, Molly Sigel’s versatile tantrums are an integral element of the noise, inspired by the first-wave of post-punk women yet no less sui generis than her godmothers.

21. The-Dream — Love/Hate

Likeable and sexy is a hard combo to score in contemporary R&B; tack on funny and you’ve got a nigh-impossible trifecta. So if Terius Nash is jerkier, lumpier, and cornier than ladies deserve in a pop sex ideal, credit the guy for never offering himself as anything more than a suitable Mr. Right-Now. “Umbrella” only hinted at how deep his arsenal of playful nonsense syllables runs, and if his brain doesn’t sell his ass to you, Tricky Stewart’s snare poings and synth stabs, which drag Prince into the 21st century, should seal the deal.

Randy Newman — “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”

Released: 1.30.07

Peak:  Did not chart

By 2000 or so, Randy Newman had grown so successful at his day job that most under-thirties, even smart music obsessives, knew him solely as a composer of homely Disney ditties and perennial Oscar winner. (Though that’s maybe preferable to when “Short People” had typecast him as a kooky novelty artist.) But if there were two Randy Newmans, and two Randy Newman audiences, their voices and perspectives were less easily separated. The tone of “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” swings between exasperation and resignation, but its vocal baseline is a commonsensical drawl hardly distinguishable from that of the avuncular tunesmith who soundtracks Toy Storys.

“A Few Words” was an event of sorts for Newman, released with some to-do as a single on iTunes, its lyrics published on the same Times Op/Ed page where middlebrow historians were unironically asking “Are we Rome?” Newman answers such speculations bluntly – “the end of an empire is messy at best” – but offers consolation with a litany of those rulers more inept and cold-blooded than Bush/Cheney. (Newman on the Spanish Inquisition: “I don’t even like the think about it/ Well, sometimes I like to think about it.”) And the musical ironies are equally sharp: the jaunty, wide-open swing that lovingly mocks our fantasies of rugged individualism, the two-note frills that follow “Hitler” and “Stalin,” and the interpolation of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” when Randy gets personal.

Maybe the Times was right to edit out Newman’s digression on the Supreme Court and his observations on the ethnicities of Scalia, Alito and Thomas. (Note to Randy: I could totally find two Italians as tight-ass as the two justices in question, especially with regards to the “homosexual agenda,” in the Scalitos’ hometown, Trenton.)  Tangential as it is, though, Newman’s complaint about dying before the current reactionary judges also reminds us what the much-disparaged Boomer sense of entitlement remains good for. Sometimes we still need to hear the rage of ’60s-reared liberals, old enough to remember what America once promised domestically, and who understand how a lack of political commitment, rather than market-driven inevitability, has undermined our prosperity. When Newman complained to Pitchfork that his taxes were too low, I just wondered how many smart music obsessives out there are too young to feel as betrayed as they should.

“The Sweet Escape” — Gwen Stefani feat. Akon

Released: 1.1.07

Peak: #2

Oh, I don’t know, maybe I am a fan. If nothing else, Gwen’s commitment to superficiality means her taste in 80s pop is better than that of yr average slavish retro dude, not to mention yr average reluctant pop sellout. She loves chintz for its own sake, not for its resale value on the pop market. And so, only the phoniest guitars will do, only horns goofy enough to have given Paula Abdul second thoughts. And she somehow coaxed Akon into imitating a cartoon hyena working in a coal mine.

I admire how “The Sweet Escape” earns its hijack of my favorite minor Madonna hit, “True Blue,” deploying ’80s gloss the way Madonna used girl-group sass – to represent an ideal fantasy getaway from the everyday. The lyric is as though John Lennon accepted all the blame for romantic stagnation in “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Gwen even gets off a good line or two: She’s been acting so cold, and “stank” as “sour milk,” because you left the fridge open.

For some reason, Stefani’s second solo album was less lauded than the first. The same media fans who holla’d back two years earlier found the Sound of Music yodeling on “Wind It Up” OTT. (I think the intervening emergence of Fergie somehow doused critical delight in overly faux dollies.) I just hope that twenty years from now, some clever gal constructs a similar nostalgic fantasy from retro ‘00s autotune. It may well be Gwen Stefani.

Beyoncé — “Irreplaceable”

Released: 12.5.06

Peak: #1

Beyoncé contends that the travails of her mistreated Dreamgirls character “inspired” the music on B-Day, and how fitting that a genuine star should alchemize worthwhile pop from (and simultaneously one-up) a rank pile of Motown clichés bowdlerized into stank showtune clichés. Anyone who prefers Jennifer Hudson’s maudlin slog though “One Night Only” to Beyoncé’s Diana-gone-disco version obviously appreciates casual sex and pop music with the kind of begrudging high-handedness that’s worse than outright dismissal.

As so often in this era of craft by committee, just how much of her own “inspiration” Beyoncé bestowed upon “Irreplaceable” remains an open question. The Norwegian songwriting collective Stargate originally intended a country song (hence the acoustic guitars?), then planned to pitch Chrisette Michele, at which point apparently Ne-Yo and B entered the picture. That origin story may account for the ways that “Irreplaceable” wedges Beyoncé into uncharacteristic vocal patterns, such as the pained “another you” that stretches upward before her voice sprawls out across the title boast. Not coincidentally, it’s her finest vocal performance since “Say My Name.”

The intertwining between finance and romance is a recurring theme in Beyoncé’s hits, and on “Irreplaceable” as on so many others, independence is reserved for the honeys making money. Demographics and economics being what they are today, a Beyoncé fan could well find herself in a (far) downscale version of this scenario. But she’s always trod the thin line between self-esteem and self-importance; with “Diva” (“a female version of a hustler”) and “Halo” (because really, why shouldn’t every song be “Bleeding Love”?) she committed herself to the wrong side of that divide. With all due respect to the YouTube devotees who spent hours learning the “Single Ladies” dance, “Irreplaceable” may prove to be her last great hit.