Monthly Archives: September 2012

Best Albums 2009 (6-10)

10. Micachu and the Shapes — Jewellery

Though this trio’s acoustic guitar noise has spooked a few timid souls, its tuneful clamor should put off no one passing familiar with basic indie dissonance, nearly as trad a musical element by now as the 12-bar structure or the flatted fifth. Producer Matthew Herbert steadies the band’s inspired amateurism; at times — when “Lips” stumbles inadvertently onto bhangra, for instance — it’s like hearing No Wave accidentally (maybe unknowingly) inventing pop music. And humanizing (if not normalizing) it all is Mica Levi’s boyish-not-mannish voice.


9. Nellie McKay — Normal As Blueberry Pie–A Tribute to Doris Day


Like her spiritual peer Rufus Wainwright, McKay seemed doomed to never progress much beyond a flawed debut that might have aged better had she (or he) outgrown its youthful excesses. But even more so than Rufus’s, McKay’s brilliance has always felt inextricable from a non-rock sensibility, and her acting chops allow her misinterpretation of the first American virgin to handily trump his Judy Garland tribute. By uncovering a distinctively Middle American sensuality rooted in Day’s exaggerated normalcy, McKay also finds a novel approach to the musty old American Songbook.  And she was smart enough to leave “Que Sera Sera” to Sly Stone.


8. tUnE-yArDs — BiRd-BrAiNs

On paper, Merill Garbus sounds like the kind of “free spirit” you’d carefully avoid at parties, protests, and grad seminars: a former puppeteer with a ukulele who studied African singing styles and expresses herself with an outsized voice and eccentric typography. Oh, and did I mention she loops her own drums? And yet it’s her free-spiritedness that sells an avant-clatter that appealed to but didn’t quite gel for me till I caught her live, where she proved to be the best imaginable version of the kind of person she can’t help but be–for starters, the kind of person whose willingness to differentiate between self-pity and self-scrutiny allows a lyric like “What if my own skin makes my own skin crawl” to hit home.


7. K’naan — Troubadour

Not sure what makes K’naan’s NPR-ready backstory any cornier than your favorite goon’s made-for-Hot-97 bildung — maybe that he’d like to play culture hero to his fellow Somali refugees rather than just snap his upwardly mobile claws at those below him in the barrel. As on The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the first single-artist African rap record worth recommending, his flow bears the influence of Eminem’s (rarer than you’d think) and his beats suggest Africa without necessarily adapting its music. “What’s Hardcore?” one-ups his competitors while belittling the competition itself, “Waving Flag” is a bona fide anthem, and “If Rap Gets Jealous” gets a re-recorded manhandling from Kirk Hammett. Plus, Chubb Rock. I love Chubb Rock.


6. Amadou and Mariam — Welcome to Mali

There are more gifted West Africans offering themselves up for Western consumption, but few with this savvy duo’s knack for crafting albums. Damon Albarn jolts them into his inaccurate idea of the present on “Sabali,” while K’naan chimes in from another desert on “Africa,” but unlike Dimanche à Bamako – which was often like a Manu Chao record featuring Amadou and Mariam — this isn’t about the guests. Marc Antoine Moreau, who produced the duo’s earlier music, helps them expand the bluesy, somewhat touristy core of their sound without sacrificing intimacy. I just wonder if they sound as cute to French speakers when they pledge their love on “Compagnon de la Vie” as they do in English on “I Follow You (Nia Na Fin).”


Iyaz — “Replay”

Released: 7.7.09

Peak: #2

The verses are little more than voice and handclap. The chorus is the sort of tune you’d whistle offhandedly and forget, rendered somehow unforgettable, its lyric updating the hoary conceit of the beloved as a inescapable melody with the homely and timely comparison “like my iPod stuck on replay.” Pop music’s charms rarely come so guileless anymore.

Not that the 22-year-old British Virgin Islander singing “Shawty’s like a melody in my head” is some outsider naïf who stumbled across fame. Keidran Jones hustled plenty before he became the protégé of the weirdly popular Sean Kingston. And yet, compare the airy effortlessness of “Replay” to Kingston’s clumsy “Beautiful Girls,” which, despite undue assistance from Lieber/ Stoller and the singer’s digitized Caribbean lilt imbuing the word “suicidal” with puppy-dog yearning, failed to create as breezy a vibe.

“Replay” producer J.R. Rotem was also behind the forced retro lope of “Beautiful Girls.” Rotem, after crafting a great Rihanna hit, had made his name by servicing scumbags like Rick Ross and Plies; he later lazily reworked Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” into “Whatcha Say,” Jason Derulo’s bald apotheosis of post-Usher manslut self-pity (“I don’t want you to leave me/ Though you caught me cheatin'” and so forth). He owed us, then. And here the overall sparseness of his track sets up nice decorative bits: squelchy synths, orchestral synths, washy synths, and bros who chime in with a supportive “Hey!”

Iyaz would later score a minor hit with his Janet-jacking follow-up, “Solo,” and he’s gone on to collaborate (if that’s what you call those forced exercises in synergy that have come to dominate pop) with Miley and Demi and Travie. He may have a long career of callow work-for-hire stints that neither you or I notice ahead of him. But for three minutes, Iyaz was able to approximate the feeling of awe for another human being that love can inspire, and without being either neurotic or possessive about it. That’s no small thing. You could say that his best moment is behind him. But the whole point of “Replay” is that such moments can go on and on. Na na na.

Phoenix — “Lisztomania”

Released: 7.7.09

Peak: #111

For obvious demographic reasons, music critics overrate the importance of indie rock. Even so, the critical consensus was absurdly indie-heavy in 2009, a watershed year for a certain strain of Pitchfork-approved post-collegiate pop that beat a genteel retreat from its punk heritage. Skeptics tagged this movement’s frontrunners with the dismissive (and supposedly clever-by-fiat) abbreviation GAPDY, casting a net wide enough to take in hibernating aesthetes Grizzly Bear, stoned menagerie Animal Collective, wan Frenchmen Phoenix, avant-glee-clubbers the Dirty Projectors, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ triumphant new-wave-is-back move. Don’t ask me if either the consensus or the backlash mattered much. For obvious reasons, music critics also overrate the importance of music critics.

Notably, these darlings fared no worse in the “singles” portion of Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, usually the domain of poppier blacks and women, than they did in the “albums” tally. This success was indicative of some lazy habits among insular critics (as Chuck Eddy noted), but it maybe wasn’t wholly undeserved either. New Indie had managed to spit up some distinctive stand-alone songs in a weakish year for chartpop. And yet…

Animal Collective’s “My Girls” voiced an honest desire to balance material security and spiritual freedom — and yet, I hope whoever it is that’s struggling to learn to clap while watching Nova reruns finds a cozier place to raise his daughters than the bottom of that well he’s singing from. The Dirty Projectors “Stillness Is the Move” was catchy enough to elicit a cover version from Beyonce’s arty little sister Solange — and yet, I wish the awkwardness with which David Longstreth pairs lyrics to melody would conjure up more amateurish charm and less arch willfulness. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero” was a vital celebration of transcendent anonymity — and yet, it leaves me wanting to hear the rest of It’s Blitz! as well. As for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” a frilly operetta number that mistakes Hal Blaine fills for math-rock, that prissy falsetto is almost enough to make an effete pencilneck like me buy Vikings season tickets.

Which leaves us with Phoenix. Thankfully, “Lisztomania” gives up far more mania than Liszt (you never know with Europeans), though the spazzy energy that’s its key asset doesn’t quite obscure the nifty bits assembled here: a bass fill here, a guitar commenting melodically there, everywhere a two-note keyboard bit reminiscent of “Friday on My Mind.” What’s more, “Lisztomania” is a triumph of dynamics: when guitar and drums drop out on the chorus, and the electric piano plinks on, Phoenix achieves the same emotional effect that ’90s alt-rockers strove for when they blasted into a loud chorus. And if the lyrics never quite evoke the interrupted flirtation and a pop phenomenon they hint at, I like how “jugulate” is introduced purely for the way it sounds.

Then again, Pazz & Jop voters preferred the less exuberant “1901,” which is probably indicative of nothing other than how tastes are even more arbitrary than usual when it comes to content-free indie fluff.