Monthly Archives: March 2011

Best Albums 2008 (16-20)

20. Lil Wayne — Tha Carter III (Deluxe Edition)


His day job finances his mixtape hobby — that’s how I excused this initially disappointing official product. But with the hype since faded, I can hear the wiseass tweaking a post-millennial pop sound he can’t be bothered to redefine. As a single, “Lollipop” sucked (heh), but Static Major’s chilly production generates a weird fascination when mixed in with showoff moments (“A Milli”), displays of soul (“Tie My Hands”), and outright comedy numbers (“Dr. Carter”). As for the Autotune, it allows Weezy to experiment even more wildly with his vocal timbre. A classic? What a dumb thing to expect from such an irresponsible genius. But the slippery lil motherfucker sure put a bunch of good music in one place. Too bad his day job finances his ill-conceived rock dreams.

 

19. Love Is All — A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night


Quite a decade for female Swedish singer-songwriters, huh? I prefer Josephine Olausson to kittenish Lykke Li or gothic Karin Dreijer Andersson or even synth-pop self-starter Robyn, all of whom share little more than citizenship. Olausson’s the least ambitious of the lot — this follow-up could’ve been called Eleven More Times That Same Song — thereby indulging my lazybones socialist fantasy that the dream of the ’90s is alive in Gothenburg. In true indie-rock fashion she’s energized by her petty discontents — couldn’t sound more excited to scream “I’m bored to death of all this shit!” One day she’ll meet a nice guy and run out of romantic snags to blurt about–she’ll show you. Oh, she’ll show you all.

 

18. Abe Vigoda — Skeleton


Hailing from the same communal L.A. punk scene as No Age, whose beauty they can approximate but whose dissonance they avoid, these kids are younger, more enthusiastic, less thoughtful. There’s sometimes a gamelan shimmer to Michael Vidal and Juan Velazquez’s guitars, sometimes an Afropop chime, and when they aren’t darting off in opposite diagonals from Reggie Guerrero’s drums, they’re rising vertically with him in unison. There are lyrics too, but the vocals they foolishly pushed to the front on future releases are here but another inarticulate melodic element.

 

17. dj/rupture — Uproot


Worldbeat optimism posits music as a universal language that allows us to experience our common humanity. Electronic pessimism offers a party kid’s hangover as the definitive existential truth of modern life. Spooky electro-collagist Jace Clayton shows up both lies: He refuses to romanticize the angry and disenfranchised voices that rise up from the bottomless echo of dubstep here, which testify to a terror-hold-the-ism more elemental than any first-world paranoia. Rhythm will not save us–we all kinda knew that. Rupture suspects that it might not even keep us dancing fast enough to forget we’re doomed.

 

16. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 — Seun Kuti + Fela’s Egypt 80


Like everyone before him who’s ever mistaken Afrobeat for a genre, rather than simply the-music-Fela-made, Seun lacks his father’s vocal authority. Unlike every Fela follower before him, Seun has his father’s band, including MVP drummer Baba Jasco. Where Fela’s anger manifested itself as regal disdain, his youngest son’s protests ring with a proud human’s intolerance to injustice, and on these seven tracks (each under 10 minutes–a time span Fela might have deemed unduly terse) he speaks with as much as to Nigeria. Nuff respect to Tony Allen, Antibalas, and Seun’s well-intentioned brother Femi, but this is the only essential Afrobeat disc recorded after Fela’s death.

 

Ne-Yo — “Closer”

Released: 4.15.08

Peak:#7

Nobody sings quite like Michael Jackson. I don’t mean he’s can’t be imitated — the sobs and catches that his drippier performances overtaxed are grist for even the weakest parodists. I mean he is, for the most part, not imitated. His most prominent soundalikes, sister Janet and El DeBarge, are neither of them true imitators; we’ve certainly never heard anything comparable to the 90s’ legions of strident Stevie clones. Maybe singers recognize it’s nearly impossible to sound like Michael without sounding too much like him.

Ne-Yo’s own debt to MJ manifested itself gradually, his pleasant, anonymous warmth of tone finding its own contours in the grain of Jackson’s voice. Lacking both his model’s magic and his affectations, Ne-Yo’s approximation typically served him best on romantic ballads, partly because Jackson recorded far too few. But it found its fullest effect on “Closer,” where Ne-Yo hints at the exhilarated sexual terror into which Michael could tap, while refusing to allow his anxieties to assume the shape of the castrating she-demons that haunted Michael. (Nor, I should note, are Ne-Yo’s women predatory crotch-jumpers who imperil the fidelity of self-serving studs, as in Usher’s “Yeah.”)

There’s plenty of conflict in the production too. “Closer” is a struggle between two guitars, with that reverbed “Eye of the Tiger” electric ceding ground to those digitally pristine Stargate acoustic arpeggios, then surging back in for the chorus. The rhythm, a slinky two-step beat that gives way to a straight ahead hand-clappy house four-on-the-floor, adds to the tension. Yes, all this drama resolves on the chorus, as Ne-Yo’s voice blends into a synth melody with cyborg grace. Michael would have maintained the tension, because he was a genius. Ne-Yo doesn’t, because he probably likes sex more than Michael ever did.

Jason Mraz — “I’m Yours”

Released: 4.15.08

Peak: #6

Worst things first. I officially lost patience for Lil Wayne’s ET-phoned-in 16-bars around the time I heard him not just biting but misquoting 50 frickin’ Cent on a remix of this very song. I doubt that Mraz, Weezy and third-party Jah Cure (who at least has the decency to sing as though he knows something is amiss) ever met–I wouldn’t be surprised if Mraz was ignorant of the whole project, or I would be surprised if Wayne remembers recording his spot. The pairing was so misguided that the remix didn’t even surface on the Mraz EP, Yours Truly: The I’m Yours Collection. In fact, the only audible evidence I can find online is from a Romanian video site. Downright Orwellian.

For years, Mraz’s annoyance factor was way out of proportion to his actual fame. On his breakthrough, “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” the kid sounded like he wanted to run through the halls of his high school and scream at the top of his lungs that he’d just heard this awesome John Mayer song. Nobody was falling for singles like “Geek in the Pink,” on which he pledged to “save you from/ Unoriginal dumdums / Who wouldn’t care if you come/ -plete him or not.” (Lit, call your lawyers.) “Mr. A-Z” (his epithet, not mine) thought himself not just a clever wordsmith but a nerd funkateer, and you wanted to tell him he’d get more play (in the sack and on the radio) if he’d just chill some.

Funny thing is, Mraz did just that, trading in his cockeyed red trucker hat for a short-brimmed fedora and dashing off a carefree acoustic ramble that spent 76 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, topping the 69-week stretch of LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live.” (During a vacation a full year after its release, our rental car radio seemed incapable of picking up another song for the length of Oahu.) Sure, that jive scat bridge sounds lifted from “Rocky Racoon,” and when he lands on “Scooch on over closer dear/ And I will nibble your ear” you want to lock him and Regina Spektor in a room together to see who makes whom puke first. But the melody is so unforced, almost childlike, it shows up the shoeless idylls of Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown as the shameless tourist traps they are.

Estelle feat. Kanye West — “American Boy”

Released: 4.15.08

Peak: #9

Enthusiasm is corny. More than a decade since Dre made “Been There, Done That” gangsta rap’s very own “Where’s the beef?,” blasé indifference remains a core hip-hop sentiment. Rappers and R&B singers know to survey the glitzy worlds that their newly attained wealth has opened to them with the jaded eye of the practiced consumer. So maybe only an wide-eyed outsider like Estelle could properly enthuse over the options that affluence makes possible. In “American Boy,” the U.S. is an exciting tourist destination, as glimpsed from the perspective of a young woman who’s only heard it described in rap songs. Estelle could almost play the girl in T.I.’s globetrotting “Whatever You Like.”

“American Boy” sets up Kanye, in full foot-in-mouth mode, as the titular clod, rhyming “UK” with “you, K.” and “bloke” with “bespoke.” While his contemporaneous public appearances and the self-absorbed sexism of 808s and Heartbreak had cemented his status as a heel and whiner both, here he exhibits the boyish appeal (enthusiasm, even) that first won us over. And he’s not the only Yank to benefit from “American Boy” — safe to say that will.i.am, suavely sampling his own track here, has never enjoyed such critical acclaim for a production (or anything else). .am’s high-stepping beat and gauzy keyboards set the mood, updating Estelle’s UK-style R&B traditionalism for a hip-hop audience.

But Estelle, previously all but unknown in the U.S., is the star here. She’s a real presence, bringing personality rather than mere celebrity to the track. Her ever-so-slight vocal gruffness undercuts any naivete we might suspect on her part, and she drops a slight Jamaican “w” into “boy” without affectation. And though she’s classy enough not to like her boy’s baggy jeans, there’s nothing prissy about her hope that “I’m-a like what’s underneath them.” Note also how the qualifier “American” implies that she’ll have other boys as well, lest Ye get too full of himself. Not much contemporary pop can be called “charming,” but “American Boy” fits the bill.

Black Kids — “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You”

Released: 4.7.08

Peak: Did not chart

One upside of returning to amateur rockcrit status in late 2006 was that I no longer had to track those convolutions of taste that the internet had accelerated. “Official” mixtapes, mp3 leaks, and widely circulated demos made everybody a potential insider, democratizing the sour one-upsmanship that’s always poisoned pop criticism. Now anyone so inclined could complain that the commercial release of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine wanly insulted its leaked predecessor. And anyone willing to scour the web for alternate versions was likely so inclined, given the obsessive collector’s innate Gnostic prejudice in favor of the obscure over the widely available.

The most inexplicable backlash of ’em all met these bright, race- and gender-mixed Jacksonville power-poppers. Their self-released demo EP had been gleefully received online. A year later, the Black Kids released Partie Traumatic, and their former boosters at Pitchfork posted a photo of sad puppies apologizing and a 3.3 rating in lieu of a review. What happened? Did someone mix them up with the Cold War Kids? Was Bernard Butler that shitty a producer? The print press was happy with the finished album; pans emerged from websites known only to the snooty aggregators at Metacritic. With no real explanation of the about face, we were left to assume the default narrative — the “industry” had fucked things up (again).

I’d heard and enjoyed the demo of “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You,” but it sounded like just that, swamped in indiscriminate reverb, with popgun drums weirdly mis-mixed. The Butler-helmed version fixes all that, and offers more prominent fake-funk guitar, which nicely compliments those background cheerleaders shouting “Dance! Dance! Dance!” like they were auditioning for the Go! Team. But as with the original, the selling point (or dealbreaker) is Reggie Youngblood’s devious gender-fucking and refusal to follow his crush’s commands with platonic obedience. Youngblood’s “You are the girl that I’ve been dreaming of ever since I was a little girl” is pure pick-up line, just as the androgyny of real-live British New Wavers in the ’80s had been. As such, he’s sure to disappoint those new wave girls who thought Robert Smith was pouting in earnest, not to mention those boys in mascara who thought imitating Robert Smith was a good way to score with new wave girls. Well, they had to learn sometime.

Lil Wayne — “A Milli”

Released: 3.11.08

Peak: #6

Their careers overlap so closely you can forget that Jay-Z (born 1969) and Eminem (born 1972) spring from a much different generation than Lil Wayne (born 1982). The first MCs to become undeniable pop superstars, Gen-Xers Jay and Em shouldered their pioneers’ burdens about as adroitly as we could reasonably ask. Coming up, for them, the big challenge was mainstream success; once achieved, the next goal was … to find a next goal. Jay, viewing the hustler’s life through a smudged ’70s lens, indulged in that Superfly dream of one last big score funding a dignified retirement; Em jerked erratically between sententious pronouncements and drug-numbed horrorcore. Both men have since settled into the traditional role of the aging rock star: providing broad anthems of mass uplift.

 

Contrast their individual triumphs with Wayne’s success and you’ll hear the difference between “making it” and “getting away with it.” Wayne was free to initiate a new, suitably Millennial rap paradigm: king as trickster. Work when you want, fuck with expectations, owe nothing to nobody. Like that transitional ’00s rap superstar, the willfully thick 50 Cent, Wayne could toy with smugness, indifference, even laziness in his persona, and cast these traits as a form of rebellion against hip-hop orthodoxy. (Compare T.I.’s lean suavity and eagerness to anoint himself Jay’s Southern analogue–a throwback to classic standards.) Eminem only parodied those he deemed his pop lessers; Wayne trolled the rap game itself.

 

And how better to goose the slick state of chart-rap than to hit big with an offhanded ad lib. “A Milli” wends in and out of coherence with a freestyle’s looseness, and specific lyrics — questioning foes (“What’s a goon to a goblin?”), exhibiting a strange fascination with hair (Sicilian and Nigerian), displaying a marked confusion over female biology (“a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed”) — matter less than the overall swerve and careen of the performance. Wayne doesn’t flow here — he splurts and clots and drools and drips. He scuffs his consonants with a fake patois, and compresses or distends vowels with glottal violence. He shifts rhyme schemes with virtuoso irregularity, and exits to a stifled giggle fit.

 

“A Milli” was something like a phenomenon, summoning umptillion freestyles from rappers keen to reflect its glory, few genuinely notable, all contributing to the song’s achievement. Who could blame them? That lush introductory string swoop and abbreviated cocktail piano tinkle was like a curtain rising on a bare stage, and the beat itself was MC-flattering in its sparsity: handclaps, rat-a-tat drum fill, resonant bass drop, and vocal sample from “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” screwed to an ominous baritone stutter. All the more reprehensible that producer Bangladesh had to fight to get his share of the profits. That ain’t being a new-school trickster, Wayne — that’s just being an old-school industry dick.

MGMT — “Time to Pretend”

Released: 3.3.08

Peak: #109

“Synth-pop” must have been too easy a tag, because MGMT’s debut, Oracular Spectacular, trailed fancy adjectives in its wake like “prog” and “psych” instead. But classifying a sound, that’s just marketing. Classifying a sensibility, on the other hand, that’s a matter of aesthetics, and Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser are indie rockers right down to their quizzical, twitchy hearts. Each of their early singles enveloped the world in electronic quotation marks–or maybe just defaced it with a strike-through–while feigning sincerity the form of an adorable chintziness.

Exhibit A: “Time to Pretend,” the apotheosis of the longstanding indie-rock impulse to resist, ironize, and obsess over success, updated for an era in which our fascination with celebrity had metastasized throughout even the remotest cells of pop culture. (Exhibit B: MGMT waited to apotheosize the longstanding indie-rock impulse to resist, ironize, and obsess over sex until their follow-up single, “Electric Feel,” which suggested a dance mix of mid-80s Fleetwood Mac. Priorities!) The ping-pong synth rhythm of “Time to Pretend,” rising from an electronic ooze only to sink back down, kept pace with a treadmill of eternal recurrence, and its hook, sounding like rubbed-together balloons, suggested a sham celebration.

There’s no principled aversion to fame here, just a wide enough vision to acknowledge the trade offs that come with “making it,” particularly the loss of “the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.” “Time to Pretend” splits the difference between fantasy and irony, and then, for good measure, both ironizes its fantasies and fantasizes about its ironies. Irony was never the either/or equation troll-guy-realists insisted back during its ’90s heyday, but rather a way to deepen and expand your relationship to the world. Not that I’m gonna fight those old battles here–you irony-haters have long since got plenty mouthfuls of the sincerity you cherished, and good luck keeping it down. But “Time to Pretend” understands that no matter how achingly you phrase your imagined sensitivities, in the future, everyone will pretend to be famous for fifteen minutes–again and again and again.

Vampire Weekend — “A-Punk”

Released: 2.28.08

Peak: #106

Ezra Koenig has one of those bright voices that compel critics to describe a songwriter’s work as “literate” when they think they mean literary but really mean middlebrow. The most common recent recipient of that shorthand praise is the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, whose lyrics reincarnate Sting as the most annoying kid in your grad seminar. Meloy’s pretensions might rankle less if his idea of the “literary” didn’t end circa Kipling, or his poetic sensibility could distinguish between murder ballads and bad Swinburne impressions, or his fans didn’t love him for those pretensions.

Koenig’s not that sort. Though he gets a lot of Paul Simon comparisons (because, you know, Graceland) his writing style is more akin to Steely Dan. Their sensibilities differ– Columbia and Bard are different worlds, and it sure ain’t the ’70s out there–yet like Becker and Fagen before him, Koenig surrounds a surfeit of detail with an absence of context for lyrics that are all foreground and no background. So a song like “Oxford Comma” takes the shape of a dorm-room argument, flitting trivially from mentions of Dharsalama to Jacobean tragedy to “Get Low,” but never clues us in to the real substance of the dispute. Why would you care about something dumb like that?

Similarly, “A-Punk” is structured as shaggy dog story about “Johanna” and “His Honor,” giving the appearance of narrative without the causal connections. Uprooted imagery — a flood of raincoats glimpsed through a city window, a fairytale ring split in two, a trove of turquoise harmonicas — contrasts with prosaically evocative place names like Sloan-Kettering and Washington Heights. Similarly, those wafting flute-like synth parts offer a faux-pastoral contrast to the spazzy post-ska upbeat and plucked one-world guitar. It’s all very Imagist, no? But Koenig crams his fancy pants poetic technique so snugly into this tunefully trifling musical casing, you could almost mistake “A Punk” for some hungry, forgotten new-wavers of yore scratching for a hit. He’s that sort.

M.I.A. — “Paper Planes”

Released: 2.12.08

Peak: #4

M.I.A.’s big hit wasn’t meant to be like “Paper Planes.” A Def Jam acquisition committed to a Timbaland studio date, Maya certainly owed the capitalist maw some more immediately digestible morsel — even if she wasn’t being groomed as the Indian subcontinent’s answer to Nelly Furtado, as Robert Christgau gloomily divined, it’s unlikely that Tim had anything as unruly as prime Missy in mind. Thanks to visa issues, though, M.I.A. had recorded most of an album before she ever reached the States– including a Diplo collaboration that only took off commercially a full year after critics had tumbled for Kala, soundtracking the brilliant trailer for David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express.

Musicians and markets alike would transform “Paper Planes” to suit their purposes. Of the major “remixes,” only the DFA tampered substantially with the track itself (to no good purpose), though those four amazing shotgun blasts were shorn for pop airplay. T.I.’s appropriation of “No one on the corner’s got swagger like us” lead to that amazing Grammy moment of a mega-preg, ladybug-suited M.I.A. upstaging rap’s biggest names. Africa’s apostle to the indie-rockers Esau Mwamwaya jacked it for the Pitchfork-friendly “Tengazako,” though, in a decision clouded by sheer rap-ism, that site preferred the Diplo remix, with Bun B and Rich Boy attempting to spell out M.I.A.’s gangsta-capitalist ambiguities.

The original remains a genuine international player’s anthem. “Paper Planes” doesn’t just sample “Straight to Hell” — it answers it. As indirect beneficiaries of the imperialism they lamented, Joe Strummer and his boys could only sympathize with the plight of the forgotten brown kids who come with the scenery when you own a big chunk of the bloody third world. “Paper Planes” gives a voice to those now-grown babies, arming them with forged papers and guns–or at least with rebellious fantasies. As long as borders remain porous enough to allow capital to pass through, third-world hustlers will migrate likewise. Some will murder you, some will let you go. And your racist ass can’t tell ’em apart. So like the lady says, no funny business.

Best Albums 2008 (21-25)

25. Ne-Yo — The Year of the Gentleman


All R&B cats pander. If Ne-Yo’s more shameless than most, his compulsive flattery pays aesthetic dividends: The more precisely he describes the targets of his adoration, the sharper his songwriting. On “Miss Independent,” a professional lady’s ability to pay her bills on time gets him hot, while “Single” goes all to all the gals whose boring-ass men wouldn’t come out to the club. And “Why Does She Stay” is so heartfelt a profession of unworthiness you might even forget to ask why he doesn’t just shut up and do the damn dishes already. Just when the pedestal-propping gets too much, “Mad” enters into an argument with an actual, un-idealized woman.

 

24. Nas — Untitled


His beats aren’t always the freshest, but they’re effective musical settings for a 35-year-old singer/songwriter adapting that lyric-first style to hip-hop rather than folk/rock. (They’re more focused than the music on the over-hyped DJ Green Lantern Presents: The Nigger Tape too). Whether calling out O’Reilly and company, admitting that “Fried Chicken” is killing him, or contradicting Pac about whether America is indeed ready for a “Black President,” Nas grapples with world events as he perceives them, and despite a paranoid rebel’s tendency to credit mysterious cabals and extraterrestrial intervention, Nas’s missteps show more heart than most of his peers’ great leaps forward. Sure, his politics can be confused, if not outright foolish. But they’re never doctrinaire. Also, he has politics.

 

23. Titus Andronicus — The Airing of Grievances


Any band that follows “No Future Part One” with “No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future” knows how to play punk nihilism for laughs. Patrick Stickles blurts callow, often funny questions about God, parents, love and mortality as a grand phalanx of four (or more) guitars chases him through compositions sprawling enough to allow room for a fancy hammer-on mid-section and a harmonica-wheezing intro that totally rips off Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.” And “Titus Andronicus” encapsulates their worst fears. Prior to a singalong chorus of “Your life is over,” they list off the creature comforts death denies you: no more cigarettes, sex, drunkenness, and — what? “No more indie rock!”? Jeez, these guys aren’t kidding around.

 

22. Toumast — Ishumar


Tuareg desert blues was the decade’s most reliable motherlode of newly recorded Afropop. Thriving on nuance rather than novelty, favoring group creation over star power, the circular guitars and trancey call-and-response flirted with all-sounds-the-same. But if practically any Tinariwen, Tartit, or Erin Finatawa disc you happened upon would expose you to this music’s essential pleasures, Ishumar does likewise while sounding ever-so-slightly less all-the-same than the rest. Between the distinctive guitar licks of Moussa Ag Keyna and carefully arranged touches of French producer Dan Levy, you can almost pretend this is pop music.

 

21. Santogold — Santogold


It says less about the singer than the times that Santi White struck some as an oddball pop revolutionary. With help from old M.I.A. hands Switch and Diplo, Santogold (later, for legal reasons, Santigold) and musical partner John Hill sublimate the professional frustrations of an industry malcontent into a defiant posture of individual creativity, providing just enough context for their neo-new-wave. Ingenious vocal affectations temper tuneful abrasion, and angular electrobeats dare you to mistake ’em for R&B. That Santogold’s hits came to nest so comfortably within TV commercials says even more about the times–at the very least, that “oddball pop revolutionary” is an under-marketed brand.