Monthly Archives: February 2011

Best Albums 2007 (1-5)

5. Lily Allen — Alright, Still


The latter half of the past decade saw no shortage of U.K. birds alighting on our shores, hungover from thwarted desire. But where Adele or Duffy or whoever mooned for a sonic ’60s when broken hearts were oh-so-simpler things, Lily Allen strolled confidently in front of a retro-fabricated backdrop that just accentuated what a modern gal she was — cheeky, I think they call that such attitude over there. A drag, yeah, that just two years later, on her grown-up follow-up, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she was already wondering if God was one of us, though I guess no one can make a career out of telling off dudes who deserve no better. After all, they’re too well-connected.

 

4. Rilo Kiley — Under The Blacklight


What I admire most about Jenny Lewis and her boys is their quaint insistence that major label cash can be put to aesthetic use–with Mike Elizondo and Jason Lader finessing the edges, this sorta-’80s tribute sounds like nothing so much as Tango in the Night. Lewis drifts through post-post-hippie L.A. decadence, amused by rather than oblivious to consequences, as blithely as Blake Sennet’s underrated sound-effect guitar encapsulates the essence of a genre in a lick or two, whether Merseybeat or Muscle Shoals. Note to those who consider the concrete directness of Lewis’s lyrics “shallow” (gosh!) as though lyrical opacity and depth were synonymous: “When you get uptight/ It’s such a drag.”

 

3. Lil Wayne — Da Drought 3


Weezy’s mushmouthed Martian shtick was worlds beyond cred-grubbing, beyond caring, beyond cool, a commercial cop-out and an aesthetic statement both. The best of his many mixtapes is the rap equivalent of a blowing session, its syllabic ingenuity reminding us why we used to call ’em rhymers, with off-the-dome misogyny and gunplay too self-evidently pure formal shitting around to offend. Doodling comments that I loved in the margins of professional beats I liked, Wayne offered a parodic subversion more MST3K than “Weird” Al,  Maybe the low standards he has since set for guest-rap cash-ins are no less subversive in their bitchy way, but they’re way less fun. And I thank him for turning me on to his “nigga” Robin Thicke — “Wait… that nigga ain’t no nigga, huh?”

2. Gogol Bordello — Super Taranta!


You really want to bring the Pogues up, punk? God love him, but Shane McGowan’s brawlin’ ‘n’ bawlin’ cartoon paddy just accentuated how cheap nostalgia and cheaper booze have crippled Pan-Celtic culture. Contrast “Wonderlust King” Eugene Hutz’s “There were never any good old days,” and the non-coincidental superiority of polyrhythmic Gypsy churn to light-footed Gaelic reels when it comes to one-world free-for-all fusion. Whether sharing his “Supertheory of Supereverything” or enduring the tedium of an “American Wedding,” Hutz insists that anarchy needn’t be a path to self-destruction. And if he never ducks history, he never invokes history as an excuse either. He just, you know, makes it.

 

1. M.I.A.  — Kala


She saves her biggest hooks for last: a sore-thumb Timbaland finale salvaged from the sessions meant to make her career, and “Paper Planes,” the global super-heroine boast that actually did the trick. But the heart of the decade’s sonically richest LP is Maya’s collaboration with fidget-house omnivore Switch, whose integration of Tamil film music, Burundi drums, and Blaqstarr’s spare Baltimore hip-hop has the same overheard feel as her verbal quotes from the Pixies and “Roadrunner” and the Clash. A third-world Barbarella too cool to model Rocawear, M.I.A. channels her voice into melodic rivulets with an amused confidence too warm to ever come off ironic or smug. Hello her friends yes it’s her.

Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em feat. Arab — “Yahhh!”

Released: 12.31.07

Peak: #48

Nothing has undermined my faith in America’s young people quite like the sad fate of “Yahhh!” Soulja Boy selflessly offered our children an interjection — “Yahhh, trick! Yahhh!” — the absurdity of which should have perplexed parents and teachers nationwide throughout 2008. “Yahhh!” is even more fun to blurt than its obvious forerunner, Lil Jon’s “Yeeeah!,” and it’s easier too. Aging rappers, uptight bloggers, and unrepentant rockists should have been stamping their collective virtual feet in collective virtual outrage. Seriously, kids, why did this not become a thing?

An even worthier “Crank That” follow-up than the make-believe ballad “Soulja Girl,” “Yahhh!” is also a brilliantly succinct and ridiculous complaint about fame. Ludacris’ “Get Back,” to choose just one similarly themed comparison, was too hung up on venting an adult’s frustrations with the inconveniences of celebrity to be much fun. But Soulja Boy was young enough to realize that the upside of people always getting in your face is that you get to take pleasure in blurting “Get out my face!” at those autograph hunters, ugly girls, and doo-doo-head dummies. (Though I do think he takes it a step too far when he freaks out on the “king” of his fan club.)

An artist’s ability to uncork a “Yahhh!” has as much to do with temperament as with age. So a sourpuss like Drake would never think to yelp “Yahhh, trick! Yahhh!”; instead, his uptight debut felt as chronologically appropriate as the Beatles filming Let It Be would have at the height of Beatlemania. Soulja Boy never confuses self-esteem with self-seriousness, or ceases to find his own fame hilarious. As a bonus joke, the “Yahhh!” video tacks on the Rich Boy parody “Report Card”: getting all Fs in school, Soulja Boy tosses the grades back on the teacher’s desk and chants, “Throw some Ds on that.” And as a last message to his fans, he somberly concludes, “Listen to Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em — Stay in school” —  then breaks into an A++ grin.

Ryan Leslie — “Diamond Girl”

 

Released: 12.04.07

Peak: #95

“Diamond Girl” is the third and least instantly memorable hit song by that name. Hear just its first three notes and Seals and Crofts’ limp 1973 processed cheese slab will melt into your brain’s deepest mnemonic recesses. The unyielding vocal hook from the 1986 Nice n Wild freestyle track pounds its entrance into your memory: “You’re! My! Di-Mond Girl!” But Ryan Leslie’s sly debut single handily betters both, thanks to a killer synth trick that’s wholly of its time, and repeated ad infinitum–an extended, phased chord followed by an upward flight of notes along the keyboard.

Cassie’s original producer lacked the considerable buzz behind his solo move that accompanied The-Dream’s debut, but Ryan Leslie and Terius Nash are similar creatures of 21st century pop. They share an impresario’s affinity for the spotlight but lack the charisma to command it. A decade earlier, they might have been satisfied grunting approval on their protégés’ tracks, but each man’s talent and connections secured a shot at stardom that his personality alone would never made undeniable. Happily, for fans of meritocracy and R&B alike, both men made something of their opportunity. If you thought “Me & U” was as good as “Umbrella,” even though it wasn’t, you just might think “Diamond Girl” is better than “Shawty Is Da Shit,” which it is.

Leslie knows better than to overwhelm his prize synth hook with sonic distractions; he makes sparing use of the ugliest bass this side of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and a dramatic cymbal roll. He’s less adept at keeping his own personality out of the way. It’d be nice if the singer could tell his diamond girl just what makes her shine, rather than persistently selling himself. But at least Leslie improves upon the titular conceit his predecessors lazily accepted at face value: his lady’s not precious like a diamond, she’s worth claiming with a diamond ring. Not the most progressive of sentiments, sure, but just compare S&C’s dim “Oh my love, you’re like a precious stone,” or Nice n Wild’s “You fit right on my finger/ I’m so proud to have me in you/ I persist to enjoy all your gifts.” I mean, eww.

Britney Spears — “Piece of Me”

Released: 11.27.07

Peak: #18

Britney’s luded 2007 VMA sleepwalk capped as humiliating a stretch as any modern celebrity has successfully weathered. This was the year our girl shaved her head, ducked in and out of rehab, wilded out on paparazzi with an umbrella, ducked in and out of court — a year lots of us reasonably guessed she might not outlive. I was glad I had no professional responsibility to follow her ordeal in depth, because I’d just have trafficked in old-guy rants about the rancid media-celebrity dynamic at the core of pop culture. To perform “Gimme More,” an insatiably blob-like throb of all-consuming masochism, as though half-assing a tech rehearsal — how perfectly unflattering a reflection of our spiteful, automated desires.

Then came “Piece of Me,” and Britney was exciting again. Simply by refusing to play the victim, she juiced up a lyrical genre that had choked on its own self-pity ever since Michael first whined “Leave Me Alone.” With a sigh of “Another day/ Another drama,” she goes about business as usual, even while casting a more defiant gauntlet at media foes than even “My Prerogative” — the Bobby Brown original, I mean, not Brit’s faint Xerox. Her titular taunt was also an invitation to the carving knives, to give ’em give ’em more, to deliver on the introductory promise of “It’s Britney, bitch” that “Gimme More” ducked out on.

Bloodshy & Avant are hardly the geniuses of Miike Snow fans’ dreams, but as producers they know how to shape the sinister undertow of Britney’s fame: Sub-woofer bass and malfunctioning synth tweets, a chain clank suggesting both S&M and a railroad gang, and above all, those heavily treated vocals. “Piece of Me” is as druggy as dance pop comes, as druggy as early ’70s Stones, back when Mick was wondering whether on-stage suicide could sate teenage lust. Three decades of celebrity dysfunction, Britney knows that blood would just get the little fame-whores going. And yet, she recognized that the key to post-millennial stardom is to never to leave the crowd wanting more, to revel in mass hatred and adoration alike.

Justice — “D.A.N.C.E.”

Released: 11.5.07

Peak: Did not chart

 

Michael Jackson didn’t redefine pop stardom so much as refine it. His greatest performances distilled components from Broadway, Hollywood, Motown and the Chitlin’ Circuit into a composite realization of what it meant to be an American star. It’s not just that it’s impossible to imagine a Justin Timberlake or Usher (or, ugh, Chris Brown) existing without his example. It’s not even that Michael laid down certain rules that these guys felt compelled to follow. It’s that any for male singer born after the mid-70s, becoming a pop star meant becoming your own version of Michael Jackson.

Jackson’s most enduring legacy may have been to enshrine the artist-as-dancer at the center of pop music. Fitting, then, that the ultimate MJ tribute recording from his final decade alive would be a tribute to his physical grace: “The way you move is a mystery” sums up the inimitability of his movements as well as you could ask. And better than any of MJ’s disciples could have–clunky Frenchmen Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, dba Justice, specialized in a baroque dance music that’s custom-made for homage purposes. On “D.A.N.C.E.,” the assembled bits — disco string blats, squelchy super-low-end bass plinkety keyboards — don’t accumulate into a single thrilling sound, but rather stand in isolation to remind us how sounds have thrilled us before.

“D.A.N.C.E.” acknowledges that Michael existed foremost as an image from our collective childhood by 2007.  The squelchy radio dialing at the start (lifted from Skee-Lo’s “I Wish”) sets a nostalgic tone, and the childish voices sound as though they learned (are learning?) English from the M.J. lyrics they quote. Just as the song’s gracelessness is its charm, its foreignness is a reminder to Americans of how his popularity overseas continued to grow as he was reduced to a parody here at home. And though Michael didn’t die till 2009, “D.A.N.C.E.” hardly feels like a premature eulogy. For most of us, Michael Jackson is no more dead now than he was in 2007–or do I mean, he was no less dead in 2007 than he is today.

Brad Paisley — “Letter to Me”

Released: 10.27.07

Peak: #40

I am and will forever and always be a sucker for the “message to your former self” song. It’s such a hacky genre exercise–basically a Mad Lib lyric where the songwriter inserts a few proper nouns and recognizable commonplaces. That makes it an ideal vehicle for country music, and doubly ideal for Brad Paisley, with his gift for embodying cliché so powerfully it feels like universality instead. “Letter to Me” not only fills in those blanks lovingly and expertly — there really was a Mrs. Brinkman, and we all should have studied Spanish and typing — but it came along around the time that his gift threatened to become a curse.

Paisley is far more of a homebody than Garth Brooks ever was, with none of his predecessor in platinum’s cravings for rodeos and illicit passion. But to compensate for his innate domesticity, Paisley had come to nervously overplay his sitcom husband tendencies by the time of 5th Gear, his weakest LP aside from the Christmas record and the disc of instrumentals. Sure, he was most often satirizing his own clueless masculinity, and I’ll take his comic timing over Tim Allen or whoever, but that doesn’t make the gender essentialism of “I’m Still a Guy” any less reactionary. And I think I already griped about “Online.”

Even more than the playful barroom flirtation of “Ticks,” though, “Letter to Me” was the necessary reminder of Paisley’s range, and, surprisingly, it’s Paisley’s singing that kicked it up a notch. Typically, his lack of vocal flash comes off as plainspoken directness. Yet here his performance reveals surprise nuances, in particular that falsetto lift in the chorus on “goin’ right.” Along with that sad background fiddle wending between his lines, Paisley’s voice, it imbues a genre exercise with real empathy. After all, teenagers can never be told too often: “These are nowhere near the best years of your life.” Like the popular campaign says, “It Gets Better.” For lots of straight kids too.

Mary J. Blige — “Just Fine”

Released: 10.16.07

Peak: # 22

Over the course of her career, Mary J. Blige has returned obsessively to a single question: Can a strong woman overcome her penchant for unhealthy relationships and continue to make emotionally challenging art? Once you settle into an apparently loving marriage, commit to sobriety, and make “no more drama” your mantra, after all, you may have little lyrical recourse to anything beyond vapid bromides. In the 00s, Mary embodied, and fought against, those tiny lies lurking beneath the surface of even some of the greatest R&B: Strong women are invariably miserable, and female misery fuels aesthetic achievement.

That’s a serious enough challenge that I forgive her detours: The more evasive than celebratory upbeat R&B of Love & Life, and The Breakthrough‘s slip into the soppy (“Be Without You”) and the grandiose (“One”). Granted, those sidetracks would have peaked a lesser career. But the reconstituted Mary J. Blige really hit her ’00s stride with in 2007. Growing Pains grooved with an awareness that life was still plenty complicated, plenty emotionally rich, even without “drama.” And “Just Fine,” on which she releases herself from the grind of self-improvement, is Mary’s greatest burst of recorded joy.

As produced by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, “Just Fine” is strewn with pleasurable details: A snappy little keyboard hook that dimly recalls Steely Dan’s “Peg,” that course vocal off-harmony on the latter choruses, the handclaps propel the song before the beat hits that excitable tangle of cowbells, the unexpected horns that swell up at the bridge. Throughout, you can hear a star production team of reveling in their moment of pop ascendance. More importantly, you can hear Blige pledging herself to stay rhythmically up-to-date, a goal that supercedes mere commercial expedience — in the best R&B tradition, it’s her way of committing to the present. After all, like the lady says, you know she loves music.

Best Albums 2007 (6-10)

10. Soulja Boy–Souljaboytellem.com


This kid’s bubblegum rap commits to its repetitive, dumbfounding simplicity with a focus you’d all admire if it sold fewer records. Not to keep mentioning his critics, whose own arguments are simpler and more repetitive than any of these beats or rhymes, but let’s face it — Soulja Boy wouldn’t be half as much fun if he didn’t annoy petty aesthetes who think rap is fucking jazz or something, because then his music wouldn’t have succeeded on its own terms. Which is, yes, to piss-off old folks of all ages. He fills in the gaps around the transcendent “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” with touches of brilliant just-enough-ness: the recycled “yooooou” of “Soulja Girl,” the teen-only fascination with gadgetry “My Sidekick,” the gross-out coinage “Booty Meat.” Did he create the timeless art to which future generations will return? Who they?

 

9. Against Me! — New Wave


It’s heartwarming, in our hyper-knowing age, that accusations of “sell out” can still resonate with at least one cloistered subculture, but Tom Gabel makes an unconvincing poster boy for crass commercial calculation. Not only does the earnest bleater consider Butch Vig the key to mainstream rock success (in 2007!), but he considers mainstream rock success the key to controlling the media (in 2007!!) “White People for Peace,” which doubts the efficacy of “Protest songs in response to military aggression” while still singing them, apotheosizes the heroism of this bullheaded ambivalence. If Gabel didn’t have a prayer of reaching the kids in a world that considers Green Day “important,” that doesn’t undercut the message — or the medium.

 

8. The Apples in Stereo — New Magnetic Wonder


Like the steampunk paraphernalia of The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone, the power pop minimalism of Velocity of Sound, or his Powerpuff Girls affiliation, Robert Schneider’s newfound ELOisms operate as an organizing principle rather than an aesthetic. Schneider’s Beatley knock-offs leapfrog effortlessly past his competition, because they’re not mere historical re-creations, but rather the best musical form for his willed optimism to take. Like his guitar pop itself, that sunny futurism is purposely back-dated, rather than naïve and received, and that deliberateness makes it braver and more necessary than it could ever have been in the ’60s.

 

7. LCD Soundsystem–Sound of Silver


James Murphy’s keynote mood is elegiac–sometimes literally (the cryptic “Someone Great”), sometimes figuratively (the aging scenester’s lament “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”), sometimes musically (the pop-Reichian masterpiece “All My Friends”). Even his anthems haunt the best part of the night–near dawn, when everyone’s weepy in premature mourning over the still-lingering party. A Gen X overachiever (and ashamed of it), Murphy’s message is that he’s not so sure that he hasn’t outlived his moment even as it’s begun, or that life isn’t better in Ibiza or Berlin, or he’s not totally wasting his time or ours.

 

6. Miranda Lambert — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend


Whether earning her title by cock-blocking a man she no longer lays any claim to or nestling a twelve-gauge in wait for some abusive bastard, Lambert doubles-down on your standard-issue Nashville revenge fantasy so vehemently that Carrie Underwood may as well be singing about her stuffed animal collection. Not only does Lambert write ’em good (usually with help from Travis Howard), she knows how to pick ’em–who’d have expected that Gillian Welch had an alcoholic barnburner like “Dry Town” in her back catalog? And for balance, she regrets her pride (“More Like Her”) and her lust (“Guilty in Here” without subduing either. Dear Nashville: This sold. A lot. More please.