Albums – 2011
I posted this on an Ann Powers-instigated Facebook discussion on blue-eyed soul: “Daryl Hall comes about as close as anyone did. What separates him from his forebears — white and black — is his sourness. Forget the songs and listen to his timbre; the guy is almost incapable of projecting warmth (even on “One on One” he’s turned on by the sex games, not the object of desire).”
On Laughing Down Crying, the solo album he released a few months ago, Hall compensates for the extinction of the musical landscape in which he and partner John Oates scored countless hits by singing in as open-throated a manner as we’ve heard since the early seventies. Writing and playing almost every song himself, Hall sounds unexpectedly lithe and confident; if he used Pro Tools or other laryngeal enhancements I’m going deaf (maybe hosting “Live From Daryl’s House” helped). A few years ago the arrangements — strummed guitars and the occasional discordant keyboard embellishment — would have sounded pedestrian, but remember H&O’s Do It For Love and how embarrassingly those two forgot the virtues of counterpoint and harmony. Hall remembers again. He also reacquaints himself with his nasty side, which for a lot of us who aren’t Robert Christgau is precisely what we loved about this rich bitch girl. On “Wrong Side of History (So Cold)” he even writes a conceit I haven’t heard in a pop song before. If you find a used copy of Laughing Down Crying, pick it up.
1 tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l
2 PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
3 Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne
4 Wild Flag, Wild Flag
5 Tom Waits, Bad As Me
6 Adele, 21
7 Destroyer, Kaputt
8 Drake, Take Care
9 Bon Iver, Bon Iver
10 Shabazz Palaces, Black Up
1 Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” * **
2 Beyoncé, “Countdown” **
3 Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”
4 M83, “Midnight City”
5 Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”
6 Azealia Banks, “212″
7 Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”
7 Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”
9 Adele, “Someone Like You”
10 Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”
10 Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers”
If I didn’t love the record, I’d be boiling with resentment now as critic after critic fell into line. But it’s my favourite album this year too, as much for its command of mood as for its lyrics—the horrible placidness and resignation of “Hanging In The Wire,” or the title track’s haunted music hall strut. In a year where “atmosphere” was a euphemism for cocooning oneself in production—and there’s my answer to Maura’s Bon Iver question—Harvey’s greatest achievement may have been to summon up the dislocating and uncanny with not much more than an autoharp, a skiffle beat and a handful of samples.
Polly Harvey’s songs, of course, weren’t anti-war, simply about war—or that was the theory, since her collage of voices built up into an indictment anyway. But whatever resonance they had with the year’s events was mostly coincidental.
9. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
The former leader of beloved nineties hip-hop trio Digable Planets shares the mic with fat-bottomed beats instead of confreres Doodlebug and Ladybug, and his intelligence and alliterative wordplay get the aural update he deserves. Here’s hoping he gets a commercial one soon.
8. Marsha Ambrosius – Late Nights and Early Mornings
Like Jill Scott, she overdoes the masochism — more burning less yearning next time, please. In the latter category she offers “Far Away” and covers her own “Butterflies,” which Michael Jackson recorded as a great late-period hit. As for the former, there’s the sigh-anchored title track and the gentle, lovedrunk “Your Hands.” Ambrosius’ R&B hit boasts an enviable command of composition and dynamics; she gives songs their precise emotional weight. If the pop audience didn’t take, blame her label for not pushing the daft “Hope She Cheats On You (With a Basketball Player)” up their noses.
7. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
Expert, polished, and well-timed, 2008′s much-praised The Way I See It was too close to necromancy to my ears. Stone Rollin‘ is where the Tony! Toni! Toné! auteur brought off a sui generis hybrid: R&B prog, with Mellotron flourishes; and the slashing rhythm guitar, tautness, and closely miked drums of what Al Shipley, in an excellent call, someone conversant with the Yardbirds and the Who. Each track bursts with ideas, tended by Saadiq, a multi-instrumental threat whose high, pinched vocals are finessed by the material (he should hire someone else to drum though). I don’t have any idea what Saadiq does next. Someone put him in a studio with Avey Tare and talk sense into the boy.
12. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Another Harvey album reliant on a craftsmanship gimmick: White Chalk was her piano album, Let England Shake her autoharp one. The other striking thing about LES is too original to tag a gimmick: a song cycle about war and its discontents, which is the clue to why the album is superb without risking greatness. An album “about” England, “about” war without being suffused with them. She offers hints and portents over impressive backdrops; she’s never sung this well, but with so little sense of what the material demands.
11. Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Her singles are events. Her album tracks are killers: the male chorus rising and falling as it sings GA-GA over the chorus of “Bloody Mary,” the guitar squeal in “Bad Kids,” another male voice squeaking “Wake up and turn around!” in “Governmental Hooker,” and the nonsensical, Nutrasweet-fueled rush of “Hair,” a far cannier anthem than the title track. She inspires people, I’m told.
Longer thoughts about Born This Way shortly after its release here.
EDIT: Ned as usual made salient remarks.
10. Diddy Dirty Money – Last Train to Paris
So buzzed was my circle by the December 2010 release of Diddy’s best album that lots of us squeezed, prodded, and pinched ballots to accommodate it. A year later and Diddy’s version of a 1965 Motown revue sounds fresh, each guest benefiting from the fecund environment: Usher (“Looking For Love”), Trey Songz (“Your Love”), and Justin Timberblake (“Shades”) give their most enthusiastic performances in years. Meanwhile the name above the marquee finally earns the billing: he’s the impresario and ringmaster, reveling in a vision of Euro-inflected R&B and hip-hop that is the aural equivalent of neon lights shining on puddles and Metro stations at dusk. Get your hands on the extended version: songs like “Sade” (the band not the author) work just like B-sides should.
Today’s installment. I hope to post updates for the rest of the week.
20. Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What
Skeptical about this album six months ago, I left two songs on my iPod to remind me of its strengths: the title track/ sequel to 1972′s “Paranoid Blues,” with Simon replacing the chow fong with homecooked chicken gumbo and anchored by a chugging, stuttered guitar riff; and despite the way in which its chorus baits memories of “Under African Skies,” Graceland‘s only horror, “Dazzling Blue,” beholden to beauty under the glare of CAT scan eyes and the realization that love is destiny. Now even the prayers and tone poems belong. So does the guitar — acres of Simon and Vincent Nguini’s best picking ever. An album I look forward to rediscovering in the coming months.
19. Wire – Red Barked Tree
“Comeback” is a gauche description to use for a band whose nervy conception of itself encompasses equal parts silence and profligacy. In their third or fourth return to the guitar-bass-drums format, Wire construct discrete sonic terrariums; the production and mix are as warm as a heat lamp, which makes these songs more unsettling — the operative word for Wire. As I wrote in January, Wire are the most worthwhile reunion project, outside the Go-Betweens, of the last fifteen years.
18. R. Kelly – Love Letter
Not the first late-2010 release you’ll see on this list. R. Kelly’s latest aims for the thick textures and straightforward arrangements of what he thinks is classic R&B but really produces the best Ne-Yo record since 2008. No “Ignition” here, but you will dig sons and grandsons of “Step in the Name of Love.”
17. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Pungent, static, often boring, the former Smog leader is a natural standup comedian. The timbre of his bullfrog voice makes me laugh aloud — a good thing on an album on which the average track exceeds five minutes.
Neither practioner of wimp-o-matic eighties electro recidivism produced a first-rate album this year, but having just gotten to Holy Ghost’s I prefer its articulation of incoherent angst, one guitar guitar squiggle at a time, over Junior Boys’. I doubt Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel figured out why they wanted Michael McDonald on the climactic “Some Children”; when he steps up to the mic after a minute and a half of tepid Mr. Coffee beats, helium synths, and slap bass, he sounds like a polar bear groggy from the interruption of its nap. I wonder whether DFA purposely sabotages its best tracks by smothering them in layer after layer of laryngeal afterthoughts.
Of course she loves concepts — she’s even pretty good at delineating them in song suites and such. She’s even better at coaxing all manner of aural wickedness and mystery from samplers — “Waking the Witch,” “There Goes a Tenner,” and “Get Out of My House” are miracles of Fairlight programming commensurate with imaginative daring. But when she sits at the piano and sings “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush projects a yearning so committed that instead of recoiling from the embarrassment I marvel how she manipulates octaves and harmonic shifts.
This gift, manifest in 1978′s “The Man With The Child in His Eyes” and as recently as 2005′s “A Coral Room,” is still there in the new 50 Words For Snow. It still pokes its head out of Steve Gadd’s subtle rolls and fills; it still creates a suspense as palpable as breath on glass in the thirteen-minute long “Misty,” a saga whose literalness puts Joanna Newsom’s epics to shame. But in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” she tries to reconcile a story with melodramatic underpinnings and austerity, and despite another luxurious Bush vocal (note the quicksilver ease with which the stress falls on the line “I’ll tie us to-GET-her”) it’s a mite ponderous. Elton John, who sounds like a man held hostage, doesn’t help. Unfamiliar yet with the album’s longeurs, I was skeptical about “Wild Man” when The Singles Jukebox reviewed it last month; it sounded too obvious a choice for single. I was right: it’s one of two tracks below eight minutes and, importantly, with a hook: a high, scraping organ line and the epicene harmonizing of Andy Fairweather Low.
Bush fans will complain that her music won’t be sullied by commonplaces like hooks, which is fair — I rustle through most pieces of music requiring a program book and my complete attention. But for listeners for whom Bush’s piano trills and subtle arrangements — like the whisper of a string arrangement on “Snowflake” — are exactly what propel her past the flotsam of modern pop, for those listeners for whom Scott Walker and Mark Hollis are touchstones, 50 Words For Snow is an exquisite package, a masterpiece of concentration bordering on the ascetic. A good dictionary lists many denotations of “batty,” most of which apply to Kate Bush; this is a woman who imitated a donkey’s bray and wrote a juicy song about music tasting like a pomegranate inside out. Perhaps Elton, Low, and her son Bertie (on “Snowflake”) brought the frisson she could no longer generate in a band format. As for me, I’d like to think Stephen Fry assumed that reciting fifty words for snow was going to be a knee-slapper.
Drake’s Thank Me Later might be too dull to review fully, but I’m too busy with lechon and turkey to address this.
Two weeks ago I posted a tentative list of the year’s best albums. Here’s the singles list, nothing cemented in place, of course.
Britney Spears – Till The World Ends
Diddy ft. Swizz Beats – Ass on the Floor
Beyoncé – Love On Top
Nicki Minaj ft. Ester Dean – Super Bass
Katy B – Movement
ASAP Rocky – Purple Pills
Frank Ocean – Novacane
Toby Keith – Somewhere Else
Miguel – Sure Thing
Blake Shelton – Who Are You When I’m Not Looking
Lady Gaga – You & I
Joy Formidable – Whirring
Nicki Minaj ft. Eminem – Roman’s Revenge
Billy Currington – Love Done Gone
Ke$ha – Shots On the Hood of My Car
Steel Magnolia – Bulletproof
Florence + The Machine – What The Water Gave Me
Taylor Swift – Sparks Fly
Brad Paisley – A Man Don’t Have to Die
Reba McEntire – If I Were a Boy
For months one of our students has proselytized on behalf of J. Cole — “the best rapper in the game,” he claims. Jermaine Lamarr Cole, whose name reminds me of a late nineteenth century, aggressively bearded Supreme Court justice’s, is observant and introspective when duty calls. On tracks like “Lost Ones,” he has the empathy to play the part of the woman sick to death of guys running out on her — that is, he doesn’t subcontract it to Keyshia Cole or some other soul sister. He produces and arranges most of his own beats, sometimes with a flair for symphonics (the swelling brass on “Breakdown”). So why does Cole World – The Sideline Story sound tentative? The only verse I can remember after playing the thing four times is the one about “brains blown like Cobain,” whose tastelessness is the point. He includes bluster like “Rise and Shine.” He’s either too dumb to hear how the grossness of “God’s Gift” undercuts “Lost Ones” or I’m not giving him enough credit for shrewdness; this leaden misogyny represents what Cole thinks the game demands. Is that why he buried the crypto-apology “Never Told” in the last third? Stay tuned.
Ecumenicalism can look like “Song of Myself” or it can look like a list; in an irritable mood “Song of Myself” looks like a list. The ease and precision with which Miranda Lambert slings polysyllables in Four The Record’s “All Kinds of Kinds” shows how she continues to grow as a singer, but the gallery of small town grotesques sounds like a creative writing assignment. Don Henry and Phillip Coleman place big checks next to every example of provincial weirdness: the housewife drinking Ritalin, the congressman who wears dresses on Friday night. We’ve heard this already: in “Takin’ Pills,” one of the more glib contributions to Lambert’s extraordinary Pistol Annies project with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe; and of course 2007′s “Famous in a Small Town,” which concentrated on the singer’s attitude towards the people responsible for the rueful catch in her voice and the tug of the acoustic melody.
On “All Kinds of Kinds,” “Fastest Girl in Town,” and “Better in the Long Run,” Lambert suffers the consequences of hiring out the songwriting. I don’t oppose the move as a principle: Lambert has done wonders for Gillian Welsch, John Prine, and Loretta Lynne, and Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin’s “The House That Built Me” got her the mainstream country audience that had eluded her. But she stumbles on the borrowed tropes; in places she sounds like seventeen-time Grammy Award winner Miranda Lambert, a professional music bizzer, vaguely sinister. As on Revolution, respite comes in the middle stretch, a trio of unvarnished performances: the epithalamion called “Dear Diamond” that honors Blake Shelton more than a collaboration with her new husband three songs later; a honkytonk throwaway called “Easy Living”; and first single “Baggage Claim,” which I already claimed rescues a chord progression from PJ Harvey. Lambert wrote or co-wrote all three.
What ailed Revolution was zealous mixing and sequencing, not songs, her punkiest to date, from the pearly “Maintain the Pain” to the way in which she rides title metaphor and chiming guitar licks in “Me and My Cigarettes.” Unusual for the digital age, Revolution defined “sleeper hit.” After a tentative start it’s quietly become her most successful album — the one that made her the star Crazy Ex-Girlfriend quite didn’t (her 2005 debut Kerosene made several skeptics I know think Lambert wanted to knock the Redneck Woman crown off Gretchen Wilson’s head). Two #1 singles more than a year after its release, another pair of top fifteens — nothing to sneeze at. Fueled by Revolution and the Pistol Annies project’s successes, Four The Record should do fine, but to my ears it’s a holding pattern record like its predecessors weren’t. She’ll be back.