Monthly Archives: August 2011

Best Albums 2008 (6-10)

10. Sleeping in the Aviary — Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel

Indie-rock’s logophobia has grown so chronic that even singer-songwriters, who you’d think would man the last bastion of rock verbosity, are now given to inarticulate moodscapes. Elliott Kozel’s got plenty more to say than his much-lauded fellow Sconnie Justin Vernon, mostly about mortality and girls, and thankfully he’s messier about getting it all out too. Superficially Kozel resembles Conor Oberst, as much in the gang’s-all-here supporting blare of his band as in his folkie Robert-Smith-as-Dylan whine, minus the poetic excesses. And while I don’t hear Jeff Mangum myself, if all those Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons online get the kids to listen, well, bring ’em on.

 

9. Roots — Rising Down

Critical consensus (if such a thing still exists, or matters) may contend that it’s been downhill for ?uestlove and crew since they shed their early trappings of fusoid fuzz and the escapist nostalgia it represented. Me, I’m with Nate Patrin’s espousal of them as “intelligently aggressive firebrands.” More supple rhythmically than Game Theory, just plain more substantial than The Tipping Point, Rising Down is their hardest reminder to date that cities are far more than just white hipster playscapes. And with Black Thought but one voice among a dozen rappers here, they offer the broadest panorama of black male perspectives on disc since prime Wu-Tang.

 

8. No Age — Nouns

Randy Randall’s prickling riffs and Dean Spunt’s blunt barks emerge more clearly on the duo’s first genuine LP, and that newfound clarity accentuates just how much darker their lyrics are than their squall. On the paranoid “Teen Creeps,” the kids coming up behind them aren’t actually quite nice at all, and even the apparently sunny “Here Should Be My Home” has a dark undertow. Rather than trying to spook the squares with loud noises, or out-ugly the competition in a race to the bottom, Randall and Spunt summon compensatory beauty from the depths of their dissonance.

 

7. Erykah Badu — New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War

Retro for sure, her stoned doomsaying, acid guitar, and keyboard reverberance hearken back not just to Funkadelic but to turn-of-the-century R&B. Turn of the 21st, that is, when weirdoes like Erykah offered a muzzy organic alternative to the machine-tooled contemporary beats that have become only more oppressive and inhumane since. During that same time, she herself has grown stranger, more cryptic and confused, submerged within a sensibility well-suited to the year that gave us both a black president and a resurgence of old school racism. Hardly fool enough to resort to Ice Cube’s slanderous three Ks, she inserts herself into the name of a homeland she too hears singing — not that she’d ever be so assimilationist as to quote the dead white male who first claimed the same.

 

6. Orchestra Baobab–Made in Dakar

The continued existence of Senegal’s greatest Afro-Cuban ensemble might have seemed less newsworthy in ’08 than their first comeback had six years prior. But a working band can achieve a consistency that a reunion act lacks. With five singers on board and various guests sitting in, that consistency’s hardly a given, but the center holds thanks to the stabilizing presence of lawyer and lead guitarist Barthelemy Attisso and the dominant voice of original saxman Issa Cissoko. Even the title is less generic than it seems – these three oldies and five new cuts were all recorded at Youssou N’Dour’s Xippi studios, the jewel of Senegal’s revitalized music scene.

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Darius Rucker — “It Won’t Be Like This for Long”

Released: 11.3.08

Peak: #36

Apparently, to become the biggest black country star since Charley Pride you’ve first got to become the biggest black rock star since … Hendrix maybe? Ever? Neither of Darius Rucker’s ascents to the top seemed as world historical as it might have. Miffed at the revelation that R.E.M. and the NFL had so many fans in common, cool people defensively mocked the Hootie and the Blowfish front man for failing to be appropriately black. And when Rucker released Learn to Live a decade later, the same folks shrugged that Nashville was the ideal final destination for such a square anyway.

Like Rucker’s first country hit, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” a reservedly regretful song about leaving a busted relationship, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” centers around a semantic subtlety too mild to be called wordplay. The antecedent for “this” shifts over time, referring serially to life with a squalling newborn, a clingy preschooler, and a defiant teen; the narrator stoically imagines his future nostalgia for each trying bit of upheaval. Rucker makes raising a child sound incredibly easy, just a matter of exercising patience and allowing the kid to develop. He and his song doctors, Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, have the same light touch with lyrics, eschewing verbal dazzle for specific description.

Rucker’s sentimental groan, which once strained brusquely to keep up with the Vedders, now sounds downright understated by Nashville standards, as though he realizes the competition can’t be out-muscled. Compare Rucker’s performance here with Trace Adkins on “You’re Gonna Miss This,” also written by Gorley, and, as the title suggests, addressing the same subject with a similar conceit. Where Adkins issues weighty warnings about failing to live in the moment, Rucker humbly accepts the difficulty of doing so. As in the Hootie days, Rucker never really comes across as a world historical kind of guy. He just sounds like a decent, ordinary southern man, which, in country music no less than in rock, is achievement enough, regardless of race.

Ron Clark Academy Students — “You Can Vote However You Like”

Released: 10.24.08

Peak: Did not chart

Novelty tunes age poorly — for proof, listen no further than Weird Al’s own downscale version of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” Like most pop only more so, a novelty sinks deeper into its specific birth moment the more time passes, until age reduces it to a mere historical signifier. And yet, emerging from a presidential race that produced time-sensitive kitsch as ephemeral as Obama Girl’s videos and as epochal as Shepard Fairey’s posters, “You Can Vote However You Like” sounds no more dated to me than any of my 249 other selections. Rather than reminding me of warm feelings I once had, the exuberance of Ron Clark’s students stirs up the same warm feelings it did at the time.

As civics lessons go, “You Can Vote…” is more CNN than PBS, its lyrics recycled campaign slogans and allegations, with a chorus — “Obama on the left/ McCain on the right” – from which critics at either political pole would dissent. Still, not only have adults sung about politics much more stupidly, but the shouted debate here is downright articulate and lucid by Hardball standards. Politics has always been a form of entertainment in American culture; like too many of its fellow forms, though, it’s suffered at the hands of packagers who deem “entertainment” and “triviality” synonymous. The excitement with which these kids exclaim “We can talk politics all night” suggests that such a conversation can be fruitful, good-natured, and enjoyable.

“You Can Vote…” owes plenty of its vim to the tune it cops from the original “Whatever You Like.” T.I.’s charming bid to leave the trap behind for good casts the MC as a sort of mack Willy Wonka, laying out a spread of earthly delights for some lucky lady over a smoothed out Jim Jonsin beat. But the video, which recasts the song’s upscale excursion as a fast food cutie’s daydream, comes closer to exposing rap’s promise of luxury as the scam it is, even when T.I. drops a $100 tip (pun intended?) to pay off his guilty conscience. So yeah, I support T.I.’s desire for a legit life, but I support Ron Clark more. Besides, I like hearing happy kids shout. What, does that make me some kind of monster?

Jazmine Sullivan — “Bust Your Windows”

Released: 9.16.08

Peak: # 31

All two-timing jerks are pretty much the same, but every scorned woman is furious in her own hellish way. OK, usually she just smashes up the guy’s car, or at least ’00s pop would have us think so. But even then, there are variations. Where Carrie Underwood was all suburban cowgirl grit and righteous swagger on “Before He Cheats,” Jazmine Sullivan’s scorched voice on “Bust Your Windows” betrays no evidence of triumph or even catharsis. No one – not the man, not Sullivan herself – has learned a lesson here. 

Sullivan’s first single, “Need U Bad,” with its Missy Elliott-retooled Tapper Zukie hook, claimed her contemporized retro-soul turf, and much of the second-best 2008 album called Fearless lived up to its promise. With Salaam Remi concocting the sort of aural psychodrama with which he’d helped Amy Winehouse make her name, “Bust Your Windows” surpassed it. An introductory string flurry diminishes into a cross-current of smaller whirlwinds, which then build to challenge those background voices that wail like ghosts of Motown past. And the homely snap and handclap beat, redolent of front stoops and playground games, contrasts sharply with the ominous canted orchestrations that tiptoe underneath.

Sullivan’s got a voice that sounds tougher the more she expresses vulnerability—so much so that I had to listen closely to notice that the scars Sullivan fears will never heal are on her heart and not her hands. (I know, like fists can shatter tempered glass, right?) While her burred melismas and fetchingly flattened harmonies recalled a less reedy Lauryn Hill, Sullivan lacked a superstar’s self-regard. She hurt more in the spirit of those turn-of-the-aughts, wracked divas-next-door who trailed in the wake of Mary J.  And the very human scale of her pain was a counterbalance to pop gargantuanism that the late ’00s very much needed.

Pink — “So What”

Released: 8.19.08

Peak: #1

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but I suspect that people call themselves “rock stars” far more often than they ever did back when actual rock stars roamed the earth. With “Rock Band,” wielding an electric guitar has become as much an exercise of fantasy as mowing down zombies – wanting to be David Lee Roth when you grow up must now be as unimaginable as wanting to be Mario. To “Party Like a Rock Star” means to embody some kind of ’70s cartoon of excess, to imitate some mythic being from the past, in the way actual rock stars used to pretend to be cowboys.

 Maybe Pink’s claim on “So What” to be a “rock star” is meant to distinguish her from mere pop celebrities like table-snatching Jessica Simpson. (I prefer the first draft’s “The pilot took my private jet and gave it to Haylie Duff”–now that would sting.) Maybe her fans are more likely to interpret her “rock moves” as signs of badassery than authenticity. Either way, rock this does. That “na-na” opening/ chorus and staccato roller-rink keyboard ring out as though from the Offspring single of my dreams. And, for the latest knot in those strands of autobiography and persona she’s been entangling since she first disregarded L.A. Reid’s advice, she tells off a “tool” of an “ex” who she felt so bad about separating from IRL that she put him in her video.

Though this survey has covered seven years between Pink singles, she’d hardly fallen off. In fact, she had as consistent a run as any teenpop survivor. She actually did play at being a rock star in 2003 on “Trouble,” with help from Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. And even once her self-assertion grew so spiteful she around sympathy for her targets – not just those “Stupid Girls” responsible for the world’s ills, but the hapless slob who buys her a drink in “U and Ur Hand” – she sounded like no one but herself. Sadly, “So What” was the last party she got started. On “Sober” she was one of those self-involved newcomers who holds a meeting hostage (tell it to your sponsor, hon), and in the new decade, her hits leapt with ungainly desperation from one bandwagon to the next. “Glitter in the Air” borrowed Ke$ha’s favorite accessory. “Raise Your Glass” quoted the Joker two years too late. And “Fuckin’ Perfect” was the most deluded of all pop’s new self-esteem anthems.

Santogold — “Lights Out”

Released: 8.11.08

Peak: Did not chart

When we last met Santi White, way back in 2001 (or March of last year, depending on how you measure these things), she was an A&R refugee helping Philly alt-R&B gal Res out with “Golden Boys,” a backstage indictment of the hip-hop industry. In the seven years following, White kept alive in a contracting industry, recorded a couple punk records, and developed no more respect for her peers. Her biggest hit as Santogold, “L.E.S. Artistes,” was a backstage indictment of the alt-rock industry.

“L.E.S. Artistes” took a less righteous stand than “Golden Boys” – everyone expects downtown hipsters to be full of it, after all, even if bitching about the Lower East Side in the age of Williamsburg was a nice retro touch – but its defiant spite was no less universal. Just as high school kids and rap umptillionaires’ alike feel beset by haters, we all feel superior enough to the phonies who surround us to identify with White’s standing up for “the things that I believe” in the face of the petty machinations of the music business.

That sour dynamic can be kind of a drag, though. Not so the more playful treachery of “Lights Out.” Here, Santi’s “the one you can’t account for,” a trickster insurgent assaulting the power supply, reinterpreting “Life During Wartime” as a giggle. The breadth of White’s taste compensates for the narrowness of her ingenuity – you know those slightly out of synch guitar and drums recall some almost-was haircuts of early MTV, but not quite which. And for once her vocals, which have too precisely echoed M.I.A. and Dale Bozzio elsewhere, are, if not original, kaleidoscopic enough in their influences that you can’t hyperlink every last inflection. Sounding like herself sure freshens up White’s shtick – retro new wave as a means of self-expression. So does the fact that she’s a black chick.