Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scott M's improbably long top 10 list

Let's get down to it.

10. Sleigh Bells:

Sleigh Bells certainly aren’t the first band to marry incredibly abrasive tracks to catchy melodies and a sweet voice (Alexis Krauss is up there with Cosentino and Janelle Monae for my favorite voice discovered this year). But as opposed to most noise pop, which I don’t particularly care for, there’s something ingratiating about the clattering percussion and highly distorted, highly compressed guitars. I also like the fact that, as I’m typing this, the album is causing my cat to flatten her ears against her head like she might have to attack the speakers. It hasn’t prompted her to move from her perch next to me, but she is on her guard. It seems somehow apt.

9. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire never want for scope or sentiment (n: an attitude or opinion; the feeling or emotion conveyed by words as distinct from the words themselves) on their albums, and so the emptiness of suburban sprawl seems like a logical choice. And as a logical choice, it works. But I have to admit; the album’s placement on the list is as much a nod to the fact that I LOVE the band’s albums after a while as an indication of how much I like it now. That is, I know that it took me about five months to like all of Funeral, and a similar amount of time to like all of Neon Bible, so I’m guessing in a few months and a dozen more spins it’ll click in a way that it doesn’t quite yet. I like it now, but I know I’ll love it sooner rather than later.

8. Girl Talk: All Day

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the quality of mash-up albums owes as much or more to the people who wrote the original songs as the DJ playing Dr. Moreau. Crap music is crap no matter what you do with it. But I’ve been to enough parties where the amateur DJ fancies himself on a par with Gregg Gillis because he has as much wax in his ironic moustache as he does on his turntables at any given moment to think that there’s a real skill in creating an enduring playlist that retains appeal beyond the immediate need to shake one’s moneymaker. There’s a playfulness and humor and even emotion to the juxtapositions in All Day that makes it work every time I listen, not entirely unlike a favorite TV episode where I know all the jokes and character beats but watch it again and again anyway.

You can also make the argument that there’s no progression to Girl Talk’s oeuvre, and that’s also at least partially true. If you asked a naïve listener to, for example, guess the chronology of The Beatles catalog based on how they sound, they’d get it more or less right. I’m not sure you can do that with Girl Talk- Night Ripper, Feed the Animals, and All Day are all pretty same-y in how they are constructed and end up sounding. But if you’ll indulge me in a food analogy, mash-up albums are like hamburgers. They’re not haute cuisine; they’re mostly constructed to satisfy base, immediate needs. And however you specifically adorn them, they’re basically the same thing every time. But- and here’s the key- bad ones are a horrible, terrible experience. Good ones, on the other hand, are a reliable comfort you enjoy returning to. Such is Girl Talk.

7. Best Coast: Crazy For You

This album hits a ton of my pleasure points. It’s sunny and the melodies owe a huge debt to the Motown/Spector schools of girl-group pop. It has the honest, naked emotion and low-fi sound of Exile in Guyville (minus about 90% of the raunch). Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Bethany Cosentino has a clear, pure Neko Case-like voice that cuts through the music like a clarion, unable and unwilling to be subsumed by the reverb that drenches it throughout the album. I cannot convey how stunned I am by how her voice comes across- reverb is generally used to make the singer sound far away and isolated, but on speakers or headphones it still sounds as if she’s right next to me. Instead of sounding like she’s on the opposite end of an unfinished hallway from the microphone it’s more like having a conversation in a racquetball court- the echo is more incidental.

6. Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty

Okay, stay with me here- is Outkast the new Uncle Tupelo? Uncle Tupelo was a critically acclaimed act that had two focal members (Farrar and Tweedy), both of whom were seen as good artists in their own right and essential contributors to the whole. But, when Uncle Tupelo broke up, an examination of the discography led most people to believe that Farrar would have the better career; he was the innovative one and a more accomplished songwriter while it was assumed Tweedy would put out good, if unspectacular albums. Fast forward fifteen years and the critics were wrong. Tweedy led Wilco to be one of the best, most capital-I Important bands of his era. He pushed the envelope sonically, expanding outwards from Summerteeth through the indescribably superlative YHF and into A Ghost is Born and beyond. If you’re reading this blog, chances are I don’t need to go further. Meanwhile, Farrar’s Son Volt had a very good debut album, and nothing of real note after that.

For comparison, let’s take Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as a pair of solo albums, as Outkast intended. Now, to address the elephant in the room, neither Farrar nor Big Boi have had anything quite so good as “Hey Ya,” a pop song that would make Plato scream about how Forms aren’t supposed to exist in any material sense. But The Love Below is secretly not that great an album otherwise. Sonically innovative, yes. But not really great, or even good (“Roses?” Really?!). Meanwhile, Speakerboxxx has no fewer than six songs I listen to often. It sounded a lot like Outkast, but not quite. Now Sir Lucious Left Foot… continues that forward progress. It’s front-to-back good, with multiple high-water marks (“Daddy Fat Sax,” “Shutterbugg,” and “Tangerine” to name three). It’s similar to what he’s done, but the production is subtly different. It’s not all as densely packed as proper Outkast tracks, with different production and sampling tricks instead of, on top of, and generally in addition to the stuff that attracted everyone to the duo in the first place. The album is great, and sets up higher expectations for the next one. I’m pushing this in part because I desperately want to hear what Big Boi’s YHF would sound like. I’m also pushing this in part because, on the infinitesimal chance that Andre 3000 reads this and cares what some white Jewish academic thinks, he gets of his ass and proves me wrong by releasing a damn solo album already.

5. Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this album, beyond the fact that I love it. It’s endlessly varied, with sonic rabbit-holes to tumble down at every turn. I get that it’s part two of a planned multi-release opera about android-human love (or so I’m told). Just typing that makes me think “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.” But the album resits being laughed off like an overwrought and ponderous Styx rock-opera. It’s too thoroughly well constructed to be dismissed. Even if you go into the album skeptical, “Cold War” will slap you so hard you’ll have a handprint on your cheek. If Beyonce or Rihanna decided they wanted that song, it would reside comfortably atop the Billboard charts. It’s also a reminder that as sex- (and to a lesser extent, love-) obsessed as funk and R&B have traditionally been, they are versatile genres that can support the wild and/or far-reaching ideas so long as the groove is good and the voice has passion.

4. LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

I hope that this isn’t the last LCD Soundsystem album. I know a lot of people don’t care, because it’s not as if James Murphy is retiring. But LCD Soundsystem was always more of a band than it’s given credit for. Murphy may be the lyricist, but the music is always credited to “LCD Soundsystem.” And the music is as much why the album(s) are great as Murphy’s wry, funny, pointed, moving lyrics. This album also seems to find the band really hitting its stride after (and this is not a knock on either) the singles-and-filler debut and heavily indebted Sound of Silver (“Get Innocuous” is more-Eno-than-Eno, while “New York I Love You” sounds like a piano cover of something that got bumped from a Velvet Underground album). Much like some bands continue to surprise, some bands continue to top themselves. And though nothing on this album quite matches the “Someone Great”/”All My Friends” pairing, the work as a whole is somehow even better. Beyond that, I’m at a loss for words. This is just simply a good album, and the best yet from the band.

3. Robyn: Body Talk

I am unabashedly, unashamedly pro-Robyn and have been since I spend a month (and $25) tracking down an import of her previous album because I didn’t want to wait to see if it would get an American release. So if you’ll permit me to climb up on my soapbox for a moment…

In an ideal world, Robyn would be one of the biggest pop stars in America right now. Really, the only female artist who compares is Beyonce. Both women boast a cannon of ungodly catchy songs that proffer an image of the artist as a strong individual whose womanhood is at once essential and incidental. They’re sexual without being whorish. If you’re not down with who they are, they don’t need you. OK, so Robyn is more dance music than modern R&B, and Robyn writes the majority of her songs while Beyonce only some. But- as unqualified as I probably am to assess this- they are strong role models. And I am qualified, at least in my own mind, to point out that they are responsible for infinitely better music than most other solo artists, female or not. Robyn makes Katy Perry sound less coquettish and more like a harlot- compare “Daisy dukes bikinis on top/Sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle” with “Keep at me all you like/I came to dance not socialize.” Taylor Swift rakes it in peddling heartbreak, but she sounds like (and is) a high-school naïf compared to the Swede. “You Belong With Me” and “Dancing on my Own” express similar sentiments, but Robyn’s effort would eat Swift’s simply because it was bored.

I don’t mean to focus on Robyn as a woman- to compare her simply to other female solo artists glosses over the fact that her music is great on its own terms. But in music female solo artists seem to exist in a semi-hermetic environment, where they are as much pin-ups as singers and as much role models as artists. If this seems uncouth, remember that Susan Boyle has a good voice. The shock value came from the fact that she’s an ugly, forty-something spinster, a circumstance that has nothing to do with art. End of rant.

2. Vampire Weekend: Contra

This seems to be every kind of second album at once, depending on what you wanted it to be. Is it more of the same as their debut? Neither “White Sky” nor “Diplomat’s Son” will disabuse you of that notion. Are they expanding their sound while retaining keen pop instincts and a distinctive style? I submit for your consideration “Giving Up the Gun.” Did you want them to alienate those annoying teen robots who put the album on their i-Pod sandwiched between Coldplay and Katy Perry because MTV deemed them worthy of attention? Then you must have loved “Cousins.” If you were one of those teen robots, “Taxi Cab” is probably one of your two favorite tracks. Do they annoyingly co-opt musical styles that over-educated white boys have no business using? The horns on “Run” must have really pissed you off. If you thought “Oxford Comma” epitomized how pretentious and over-hyped they were, then “California English” will make you nod knowingly.

I don’t know if the band is necessarily as polarizing anymore as they were doomed to be (at least at first) from the music-critic hype. Personally, I think enjoying Vampire Weekend is similar to enjoying pizza or a good back rub- they’re just pleasurable experiences that don’t really speak to any part of an identity. Koenig is a solid songwriter who knows his way around a hook. They’re more sonically adventurous than the average band, but mainly so because Americans seem to forget that much of the world makes music that isn’t essentially descended from European classical music via American folk and blues (and don’t be mistaken- VW’s music is firmly rooted in these I-IV-V chord traditions). Contra is just really good music, and it would be with or without their self-titled debut. It can be analyzed musically, and it can be analyzed culturally, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s some of the best kind of music, the kind that just seems to exist a-contextually.

1. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Honestly, I’m not sure what I can say about the album or the artist that hasn’t been beaten to death, then revived using extraordinary measures just so it can be beaten to death again. So let’s just agree that “Kanye West” is sine qua non for Kanye West’s music. He’s emotional, fragile, narcisstic, funny, and inventive, an inveterate navel-gazer and someone who- not unlike the best football coaches- refuses to stop thinking about possibilities; the fact that something might work means its worth trying not once, but until it’s right or all possible permutations are exhausted. I don’t know how many people would think to have Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver on the same track (or even album), but I do know that if I had to pick one person to make it work I’d pick West. Cracked recently had an article that had probably the best take on Kanye I’d seen in a long time. The gist, if you don’t want to click over, is that because he plays out his neuroses so publicly people forget he’s a great musician. They then compare him to Brian Wilson, who was similarly crazy but much less public about it. I don’t know about the relationship between madness and genius, but Wilson and West both opened up their heads and exposed that madness in ways that made for sonically and lyrically interesting music. Frankly, if Kanye turns out to be Brian Wilson at his core, I wouldn’t be shocked.

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