One quarter of the year finished…

Herewith, the best albums and singles I’ve heard this year. Although I haven’t seriously considered their order, it will take an impressive tectonic shift to dislodge the first three albums. As for the singles, I doubt I’ve heard a sequence of more impressive country singles in a quarter.

A final note:  DeBarge may have released his album at the tail end of last fall, so I’m going to use this and my not buying it until January as an excuse to mention it.

ALBUMS

DJ Quik – The Book of David
Destroyer – Kaputt
Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
Marsha Ambrosius – Late Nights and Early Mornings
Wire – Red Barked Tree
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Nicholas Jaar – Space is Only Noise
Mountain Goats- All Eternals Deck
El DeBarge – Second Chance
Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
tune-YARDS – w h o k i l ll
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Beyonce – 4
Poly Styrene – Generation Indigo
Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Junior Boys – It’s All True
Pistol Annies – Hell on Heels
R. Kelly – Love Letter
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Serengeti – Family and Friends
Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See

SINGLES

Britney Spears – “Till The World Ends”
Diddy ft. Swizz Beats – “Ass on the Floor”
Miguel – “Sure Thing”
Nicki Minaj ft. Eminem – “Roman’s Revenge”
No Age – “Fever Dreaming”
Blake Shelton – “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking”
Toby Keith – “Somewhere Else”
Marsha Ambrosius – “Far Away”
Reba McEntire – “If I Were a Boy”
The Joy Formidable – “Whirring”
Nicolas Jaar – “Keep Me There”
Dionne Bromfield ft. Diggy Simmons – “Yeah Right”
The Kills – “Satellite”
Eric Church – “Homeboy”

Singles Jukebox 4/26

The Miguel single – slow, lilting – is one of the year’s best, reminding me of Mario’s “Let Me Love You.”

All singles graded on a ten-point scale. Click on links for full reviews.

Miguel – Sure Thing (8)
Eric Church – Homeboy (7)
Chris Young – Tomorrow (6)
Gretchen Wilson – I’d Love To Be Your Last (6)
Lady Gaga – Judas (6)
Travis Porter – Bring It Back (4)
Beyonce – Run The World (Girls) (4)
Chris Brown ft. Benny Benassi – Beautiful People (3)

Barbeques and heartbreak: DJ Quik’s “The Book of David”

Jayson Greene, illuminating on the new DJ Quik, one of the year’s best albums despite its length:

On the surface, The Book of David feels more straightforward. A rich stew of warm disco, grown-and-sexy R&B, and classic g-funk, it sounds engineered to waft out over barbecues. But it’s also riddled with idiosyncrasies: songs that dissolve into deep-dub fade-outs, vocal samples that pop up in unexpected places, astonishing statements of raw heartbreak and anger. It’s as weird as it is crowd-pleasing…

Return of the natives: White Material

Watching White Material, I thought, “Well, duh, of course Isabelle Huppert would play the lead.” As the matriarch of a coffee plantation in an unidentified east African country who will not accept that the white ruling class’ days have ended, Huppert sticks that famous marble-like chin and lower lip into the viewer’s eye. The casting of Huppert is all too easy. She’s neither obstinate nor indomitable, just mad, and her performance doesn’t suggest any slippage. Claire Denis’ movie is the last chapter of the book she began in 1988’s Chocolat, in which she also captured the languid pace of colonial life through the eyes of an alert little girl who may grow up into a woman like Huppert (whose own relations with her black help are solicitous and uncondescending). No French director since Bresson can match Denis’ ear for sound: rustling grass, lolling cows, running water, rifle reports. But her fondness for lacuna can turn her pictures into thesis statements for unfinished college essays. It wasn’t the case with Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and 35 Shots of Rum.

White Material actually moves faster than usual, which is a pity; it’s an odd mix of pinched and arty, as when Denis photographs blood in a bathtub in all its luscious scarletness. The relationships between key characters are elided. While Huppert’s marriage to her impatient ex (Christopher Lambert, channeling Nick Nolte) rings true, the power structure created by money and patronage, through which indentured labor, villagers, and mayor benefited, is sketchily delineated. What happens to their insolent whelp of a son (Nicolas Duvauchelle ) is less clear: after a terrifying run-in with young feral natives, he shaves his head, poses like Gregoire Colin from Denis’ earlier Beau Travail, and goes native like a Paul Bowles character? “This is his country. But it doesn’t like him,” the kind but powerless ex-mayor tells Huppert at the picture’s conclusion. He also contributes one of the picture’s examples of gnomic wisdom: “Extreme blondness brings bad luck. It has to be pillaged.”

Obsessed with You: Poly Styrene R.I.P.

An unconfirmed rumor reports that she finally succumbed to cancer. Inspired by an prolonged wrestling match with tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l s (that’s the last time spelling it correctly will cost me brain cells), I spent a couple of days last week playing Germ Free Adolescents, the album on which Poly Styrene pledged troth to the world of day-glo, aerosol, hot pink pants, and other elements of kitsch culture. “I am a cliché,” she yowled in a voice that was anything but. This was the real punk rock: taking concepts about identity with which Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music had played earlier in the decade and reveling in every trash conceit rejected by rock cognoscenti. She wanted to be a poseur, in the best sense; poseurdom helps you shop for identities, to assemble one from plastic beads and hiring the future bassist from Loverboy. Styrene’s progeny — from Romeo Void to Liliput/Kleenex to L7 to Sleater Kinney — took the x out of sex too many times to fully honor her legacy.

From her Facebook page: “Slowly slowly trying to get better, miss my walk along the promenade. Would be so nice to sing again, and play my new album live. Its nice to have something positive to look forward to, Love Poly X.”

EDIT: It’s true.

“If the story has to end too early, then its coda will contain a triumph”

Martin Amis on his beloved comrade Hitchens:

Whereas mere Earthlings get by with a mess of expletives, subordinate clauses, and finely turned tautologies, Christopher talks not only in complete sentences but also in complete paragraphs. Similarly, he is an utter stranger to what Diderot called l’esprit de l’escalier: the spirit of the staircase. This phrase is sometimes translated as “staircase wit” – far too limitingly, in my view, because l’esprit de l’escalier describes an entire stratum of one’s intellectual and emotional being. The door to the debating hall, or to the contentious drinks party, or indeed to the little flat containing the focus of amatory desire, has just been firmly closed; and now the belated eureka shapes itself on your lips. These lost chances, these unexercised potencies of persuasion, can haunt you for a lifetime – particularly, of course, when the staircase was the one that might have led to the bedroom.

As a young man, Christopher was conspicuously unpredatory in the sexual sphere (while also being conspicuously pan-affectionate: “I’ll just make a brief pass at everyone,” he would typically and truthfully promise a mixed gathering of 14 or 15 people, “and then I’ll be on my way”). I can’t say how it went, earlier on, with the boys; with the girls, though, Christopher was the one who needed to be persuaded. And I do know that in this area, if in absolutely no other, he was sometimes inveigled into submission.

The most felicitously written paragraphs concern themselves with the limited imagination of the atheist and the final expiration of the Hitch, consigned to join the cosmic dust:

The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.

Singles Jukebox 4/21

The most exciting week to date: lots of great R&B singles and a better than average album track masquerading as single from my favorite electronic album of the year. Considering the excellent prose expended for its sake from colleagues I respect, Martina McBride’s “Teenage Daughters” will get a second hearing from me this weekend. It won’t be the first time I under/overrated a single, especially after it goes into weekend iPod rotation.

All scores based on a ten-point system. Click on links for full reviews.

Mary Mary – Walking (7)
Dionne Bromfield ft. Diggy Simmons – Yeah Right (7)
Nicholas Jaar – Keep Me There (7)
Cee-Lo Green ft. Wiz Khalifa – How Many Lights (6)
Panic at the Disco – The Ballad of Mona Lisa (5)
Flux Pavillion – Bass Cannon (5)
K Michelle – How Many Times (6)
Martina McBride – Teenage Daughters (4)
Snoop Dogg – Wet (4)

Krugman: “That’s why we have medical ethics”

I don’t think much of Paul Krugman as a stylist or Sunday talk show guest (why is he so tame and shifty-eyed?), but he’s been terrific lately at pointing out the ways in which our country remains inexorably divided by economic interests. In his latest blog post he takes on a particularly venomous myth: that medicine is a business.

Good grief: Rabbit Hole

In which a Connecticut couple as white as china (Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman) find life empty after a teenager (Miles Teller) hits and kills their son with his car. The opening scenes draw us into American Beauty land; when a neighbor’s foot crunches on one of Kidman’s immaculate botanical creations, we expect her eyes to cross and her hand to reach for the nearest wire hanger.

The movie, directed in an uncharacteristically flat manner by yes-that-John Cameron Mitchell, isn’t bad; within its limits as a psychodrama, it doesn’t tarry longer than necessary. Mitchell gets off a couple of sharp, uncondescending jokes at the expense of a “grief therapy” group to which Eckhart and Kidman are devoted (“It’s Rage Day,” one whey-faced member reminds them). As the mother who’s smarter and quicker than her neighbors and relatives, Kidman is incisive and alert; it’s some of her liveliest work in years. She’s especially effective when confronted by the grief cliches mouthed by Eckhart (e.g. “I thought it was a way to get back on track”).

But if the performance and the movie don’t impress themselves (it’s a less vulgar Margot at the Wedding and a staider Rachel Getting Married), blame Mitchell for taking his cue from an actress whose rigidity is so complete that it’s as if she lost interest in engaging cast members; Kidman is the Joan Crawford of the Upper East Side. For the scene in which Kidman watches Teller leave for the senior prom, the score goes batshit, with strings so deafening that I thought Anton Sanko had strapped violins to an atom bomb and dropped them in my living room. As for Eckhart, Mitchell allows him moments in which he reminded me how good he is at righteous fury, but his post-Neil LaBute career has been an apology for playing entitled WASP smugness so well. Here he’s another earnest white dude who tries to seduce Kidman with Al Green but with just enough moxie to use a recent album (2008’s excellent Lay It Down, for the curious). Sandra Oh wins Soto’s tri-annual I Wish award: as a woman herself struggling with grief, Oh’s pokerface and unexpected bubbles of lunacy were so well-timed that I wished she and Kidman had switched parts.

One cast member deserves a separate paragraph. As Kidman’s mother, who herself survived the death of her son by clinging to the religious platitudes that Kidman has discarded, Dianne Wiest is magnificent in three scenes. I can’t praise her enough. It reminds me of what Vanessa Redgrave did with her small role in the inert Atonement: she takes an ordinary woman and fills her to bursting.

Decaffeinated consciousness: TVotR’s “Nine Types of Light”

Discos best provide the space in which to conflate apocalyptic hysteria and desire, but this hasn’t stopped Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and recent Britney, not to mention Prince and the Frankie Goes To Hollywood of “Two Tribes.” I suspect TV On the Radio demand the conflation because this art-rock collective can convincingly evoke neither hysteria nor desire. Despite the pulpiest titles of this serious band’s career (“Keep Your Heart”? “New Cannonball Run”? “Caffeinated Consciousness”?), Nine Types of Light indulges what Ulysses‘ Buck Mulligan called moody brooding, with tempos to match.  With Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s vocals mixed high, there’s no escaping Meaning and Significance. “Appetites and impulses confuse me,” Adebimpe confesses in a no-shit-Sherlock moment on “Second Song,” so sincerely that he forgets the rhythm guitar part and phased piano part competing for attention. The disco falsetto in the chorus comes too late to appease both appetites and impulses. Malone’s impressive programming skills manifest themselves here as bleating clutter (the electronic effects on “New Cannonball Run” are right out of Security-era Gabriel). There may be more horn sections than on an Earth Wind & Fire record, but Maurice White can keep his kalimba: not when TVotR can pluck at a banjo on “Killer Crane.” No songs match the skittery fury of Dear Science‘s “Red Dress” and “DLZ.” The latter, their apex to date, mates keening harmonies, a relentless rhythm track, and all kinds of minor chord ominousness to the most absurd political lyrics this side of The Cranberrries (“Never you mind, DEATH PROFESSOR!”), but it never stops flinging musical punches. The most graceful moments on Nine Types of Light peek out of the sulphuric air, like “Will Do,” a long song whose lovely chorus follows a series of verses as awkward about delineating pragmatic love as any since Bowie sang “Such a wonderful person/But you got problems” in 1977. I’m probably in the minority. TVotR opened for, I think, Mates of State in 2004: one  of the worst concerts I’ve ever seen. Talk about clatter and clutter. The crowd, responding to “Staring at the Sun” and an embryonic version of “I Was a Lover,” marveled, though, tingling with the sense that they’d witnessed an I Was Here moment. These guys either miscalculate their strengths or know exactly to whom they’re selling themselves. But no way will this follow Contra to Number One.