Monday, August 31, 2009
Stankonia (Outkast) (2000):
The rap duo’s fourth album continues a stretch of mind-blowing consistency that is only rivaled by Radiohead and Bjork since the last decade of popular music. Outkast don’t do music, they reinvent it and Stankonia features all the giddy funk tricks that we’ve become accustomed to. Here are the Hendrix-esque guitars tripping electric magic everywhere. Here is George Clinton-led dirty funk in irresistible hooks and verses. Toss in the afro centricity of Sly Stone and the cheeky sexuality of Prince and we have a strong contender for best rap album of the decade. Outkast are not necessarily the first to sift all these angles together but they are the first and best and coalescing them all into one solid, irrefutable outfit. Certainly, no other track—save, perhaps Radiohead’s 2+2=5---can top B.O.B in relevance this decade. A shape-shifting funk track that morphs endlessly, toasting goodies a mile wide. Ms. Jackson chronicles a real-life situation with synthesized funk and So Fresh, So Clean slows it down for mere bragging rights. Humble Mumble features a frantic Erykah Badu and Red Velvet became the proto-type future rap acts would mimic for years to come. The album does feature an excessive amount of skits, eight in total, but the P-funk style holds everything together.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Twin Cinema (The New Pornographers) (2005):
The Canadian/American super-band’s (A.C Wonder, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, ect.) third album was a great champion of the indie pop-meet-power pop marriage that proves so tricky for so many other bands. The true measure of their growth here is the boisterous hyper-ballads especially when Case assumes vocal authority (the majestic The Bleeding Heart Show and Three or Four. Of course, anyone in collaboration with Bejar has to take a backseat to his madcap brilliance. Jackie, Dressed in Cobras is all his, a fast-tempo romp. He leads the troupe through Broken Breads as well but alongside some taunt guitar work by Kurt Dahle. In fact, the most stunning thing about Twin Cinema is not anything musically achieved but more so the realization that it was no longer an AC Newman-led collective. The strands of this change settle comfortably for now but one can deduce that if they continue to banter power pop around this nicely then they can unearth even more gems.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Medulla (Bjork) (2004):
Never one to contentiously rest upon her fabled glory, Bjork decided in 2004 to rediscover the main tool of her fame: her lovely voice. Medulla is yet another daring concept from the Icelander that works wondrously. The 14 track opus is a capella in intent but within even such a defined space Bjork has redefined set boundaries for pop music yet again. With a wide array of musicians to help her produce maximum gains—Kelis, Robert Wyatt, former Roots member Rahzel and Mike Patton---she further distanced herself from the ensuing pack of odd geniuses working today. Where is the Line rumbles along with Rahzel’s amazing beat-boxing juxtaposing Bjork losing her bearings amid a Mario Bros-like production. Mouth’s Cradle positively relishes the challenge of collusion of which Bjork still has no true equal. Even the less experimental stuff here—the gorgeous ballads (Who Is It, Desired Constellation and especially Oceania) sparkle with her star-shine even if they are enigmas. Enigmatic yes but there we go again downplaying the significance of an artist to challenge their listeners. Here is Bjork toying with the very flimsy strand of fascination we have for her and continuing an artistic evolution that, up to this point, had nothing or very little resemblance to her genius from which it all derives.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco) (2002):
Though I can’t be counted among the legion of critics who love Wilco, I can appreciate the ground-swell of the reception to the band’s fourth album. Delayed time and time again, Jeff Tweedy’s alternative country musings hit the gut hard and refreshingly like a rebellion because finally, thankfully, the band tripped into the electronic age. Bands that pride themselves on longevity sometimes struggle with change and after a patch of purple Wilco could have continued being everyman’s band and careened through the good life. Yet, things changed after 9/11 and Tweedy looked within himself to unspool some of his most personal feelings and plugged in. It had consequences immediately: their label (Reprise) refused to release it, fearing that such an experiment wouldn’t be successful and the two split. In a move that preceded Radiohead, Wilco then offered the album free through their website and the rest is history. It remains the highlight of their career and best selling album (nearly 600,000 copies in America). Despite the upheaval though, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a record about being in love, not in the classical romantic self but simply loving life and an appreciation of it. Before it was cool to reminisce, Wilco was doing that on tracks like Heavy Metal Drummer, an ode to Kiss. Even better are Tweedy’s slow burners like Radio Cure which expresses the lingering for a lover while away so specifically and Jesus, which is a renewal of faith. The last track is Reservations, which swells memorably and sadly but with a twinge of self-belief. Maybe Tweedy knew all along this project was fated to be definitive of his career and for that he stuck to his guns and we can all acknowledge that perseverance.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Return to Cookie Mountain (TV on the Radio) (2006):
In the final analysis, it is this album, and not the two it sandwiches, that will come to define the TV on the Radio experience this decade. Though Bowie championed their debut’s cause, it is here that he contributed and though critics lapped up Dear Science by rote, it still doesn’t cover as much ground and really just benefits from its predecessor. One can bandy Bowie’s name around to define the middle group the band covers with pop/rock but predominately this is the sound of Prince if he had leaned in on the heavy stuff. And who has not been wondering when the next Prince would come along? In Tunde Adebimpe we’ve found the next best thing and his band proves that no one does swagger quite like them. At just under an hour, Return to Cookie Mountain wastes little time in establishing itself. I Was a Lover is a slow-burn that samples Massive Attack’s Teardrop to beautiful effect. The track sounds like electronic poetry being slowed for a saddened heart. Wolf Like Me is the undeniable hit, a track that captures the restless, beast-like energy that pulsates through rock music and the youth who live by it. A Method features a simple percussion loop but fierce backing vocals by Kyp Malone and Adebimpe. These three tracks help to identify what is so enduring about the album and the band; a uniting force that draws so many different listening ears to one central figure or moment in time, just like Prince and Bowie in their prime. This is for all the freaky folks uniting and getting their cookie genetic make-up groove on while sipping cool-aid and taking shade from the sun in designer glasses.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
New Amerykah Part One (Erykah Badu) (2008):
If life indeed imitates art then the cover of Badu’s fifth album is very telling. A big-ass afro of writhing figures is being figuratively pomaded by Badu who has both fists out sporting the bling that has come to define American hip/hop. New Amerykah Part One therefore is a cultural statement, one that targets the African-American experience through critical lenses. Whereas her previous records centered through neo-soul expressions, Badu’s change of direction from here on would be more pointed social commentary. Unlike others though who sacrifice funk for politicizing, Badu ups the cheese through producers like Madlib and Mike ‘Chav’ Chavarria. Juxtaposing message and music can be tricky but Badu has spent the last twelve years doing just that. The opener, Amerykan Promise, twins the evil of commercialism and black exploitation. Healer documents succinctly the state of hip/hop being the driving force of the American dream. The track serves as a warning as well as guarded celebration. The Cell derides the effect substance abuse has had on the black community (momma hopped up on cocaine/daddy on space ships with no brain) while Twinkle exquisitely rebuffs hand-outs for blacks looking excuses not to do better for themselves (they say their grandfathers and grandmothers/work hard for nothing/and we still in this ghetto). It is very heartening to hear Badu tackle these issues as her male counterparts are more concerned in the accumulation of street credo to effect change besides she has done in this decade what none of them have managed so far: she has grown up.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The first decade of the 21st century is nearly up so it's time to start looking back at the albums that shaped our thinking. It's a lot of recollection but here are my picks at the best 100 CDs in no particular order.
Kala (M.I.A) (2007):
If her grimy debut (Arular) helped launch Maya Arulpragasam into public consciousness, then her sophomore cemented her spot as the one to watch. By the one of course I mean that tag of the pre-eminent pop visionary of the day… that label we lovingly bestowed upon another cool, non-American with a weird name, Bjork Gudmundsdottir. The two women are inextricably linked by this record, both pre and post-release. Bjork saw the firepower long before we did and embraced it even as Kala was the closest sonic document to her own masterpiece ten years before, Homogenic. Both albums work within a known pop frame to bring forth results that resemble everything around yet itself not being imitable. M.I.A brings an evolutionary process to this though, a kind of battle-weary toughness that finally had won its way to the spotlight. Whereas Arular was a rallying cry that critics embraced but wondered if it was a bluff, Kala rode into town, positively glowing with confidence and Maya’s own special brand of experimentation. Armed with producers such as Timbaland, Switch, Blaqstarr and Diplo, she drove head-first into the varied sounds with her pastiche method. Steel-pans queue up on the soca-driven Bird Flu. Grime and umree roll out on Hussel and Boyz respectively. Even Bollywood isn’t spared as both Jimmy and the brilliant opener Bamboo Banga are soaked through with Hindi references. Elsewhere, it is her use of sampling and sharp jabs at the many assertions of her character that lifts tracks like $20 and Paper Planes into the stuff that will be ripped off for decades to come.