Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Once again it's on! It's the...
Quarterly Report

I should make the quick disclaimer that I still haven't heard all the records I wanted to hear in the past three months. So Brother Ali, Wiley, Junior Boys, 8 Ball & MJG, Jason Forrest, AC Newman, and Secret Machines will have to wait until October, when I will be the millionth person to blog about them.

Top 5 Albums

1. Ghostface - The Pretty Toney Album. I know I said a lot of nice things about Kanye earlier in the year, but there's just no way dude can compete with this fucking beast, this vein-popping, sweat dripping mic-ripping monster. Ghost's force and intensity are pretty much unparalleled in hip-hop history; he is one of the great ones, and this is his best album. A lot of people look at "Tush" and "Ghostface" as unnecessary commercial concessions. Bullshit, I say. The former is a blazing sex jam, and I'm not one to hate sex. The latter is simply a hot plastic synth beat, and Ghostface can do crazy things with one of those (remember the "Special Delivery" remix?). The other criticism is that he leaves off all his best mixtape work. Well, I haven't heard most of that stuff, so I can't say, but what's left doesn't sound like dregs to me. (Anyone want to tell me which mixtape I should cop? Hit me up!) "Run" is probably the most thrilling track in years. "Save Me Dear" just sparkles. The rest... I just can't come up with enough good things to say about this album. Too many incomprehensible skits. Other than that, pure gold.

2. The Hold Steady - ...Almost Killed Me. I miss the keyboard whizjets and unifying storylines of Craig Finn's work with Lifter Puller, but the Hold Steady album adds up to something powerful. Now Finn has an expert rock band, well schooled in every aspect of crowd-pleasing bar-band theatrics: the out-of-nowhere ringing guitar riff, the Clarence Clemons sax solo, the slow build. This sort of orthodox chuggery might seem like an odd fit for Finn's dense, tangled, refractory lyrical fragments and his rough nasal blurt, but Finn is the great poet of the suburban lowlife life, and he's made an album that his characters would love. You'd love it, too.

3. The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free. What else can I say about this album? How about this: my brother called me from New York last month all breathless. Him: "Dude, have you heard the new Streets album? I just bought it and listened to it for the first time and oh my God..." Me: "Dude, I know." I don't quite get all the pieces of the story (must be the whole English thing), but the part where he's playing with the ashtray and peeling the beer label? The swoosh when the E kicks in? The second part of "Empty Cans"? Dude, I know.

4. Devendra Banhart - Rejoicing in the Hands. My top three albums of the past three months (which are also my three favorites of the year thus far) are all dense with text, which isn't something I expected. But I love the specificity of the lyrics these guys come up with, the way they can evoke feelings not just musically but by describing the room they (or their characters) are sitting in, the contents of their pockets, the mosquito bite on their upper arm, whatever. Devendra Banhart is the furthest thing from this. I have no idea what he's talking about. His lyrics, his voice, and his music all seem to have emerged mysteriously out of the fog of an imaginary past, a hazy Narnia kind of thing. He looks and sounds like a muppet version of a dustbowl folksinger, but his arrangements are vaguely Eastern in their circularity, and the whole thing ends up being oddly but extremely comforting. There are all these new folkish bands in Baltimore, and I just got done writing an article about them. One guy I interviewed (Walker from Walker and Jay, heads) said that he believed the function of the artist in uncertain times was to ground people, to make them feel sane. I don't know if he's right, but a lot of this stuff is doing the trick. And Devendra is the best of these guys, so act like you know.

5. Erland Oye - DJ Kicks. This was a hotly contested spot. Sorry, !!!, On Air Library, Espers, and Ratatat! Better luck next time! This isn't a party record, obviously. It serves pretty much the same purpose as the Devendra Banhart album, which is to lull you into a blissful coma and occasionally slap you upside the head with a catchy-ass little part. Oye doesn't mix or beatmatch, doesn't take you on a journey, doesn't even particularly make you want to dance most of the time. He sings, which is cool but not incredible or anything. What he does beautifully is cultivate a mood, a hazy glossy swooshy 15-dollar-drink bleepy-bleep disco mood. Incidentally, how do you pronounce this guy's name? I've been saying "oh-yay", but I'm not sure that's right.

Top 5 Singles

1. Nina Sky feat. Jabba - Move Ya Body. You know it and I know it. This song is like ice cream on a hot summer day. Nicole and Natalie are breezy, proud, confident, sexy, utterly in control, completely owning a ridiculously hot beat. As David Drake has noted, the "can you feel the beat" part is lovely. The deal-maker for me is the gloriously redundant synth line at the end, which totally just repeats the chorus. Oh my God this song rules.

2. The Streets - Dry Your Eyes. I don't mean to get all emo on you dudes but the "there's things I can't imagine doing, things I can't imagine seeing" bit got me right here, completely tapped into the feeling of floaty helpless fear you can sometimes get when you give yourself entirely over to one person. Mike Skinner talks in the "dude talking on the phone to a girl" voice, a little bit whiney and mumbley, which is perfect for the song. And it has a hook! Apparently Chris Martin was supposed to sing the hook but didn't because of contractual weirdness or something. Fuck you, Capitol Records! Let the boy sing! (You guys know I really like Coldplay, right? I totally do!)

3. Mr. Vegas - Pull Up. Yes, the Coolie Dance rhythm pretty much owns the summer, but it's not like Diwali last summer. I didn't even realize that "Get Busy" and "No Letting Go" had the same beat until I read it somewhere. Coolie Dance is instantly identifiable; that ridonkulous bongo disco spazzout thing is just to great for any engineer to bury it in the mix. Nina Sky sounded cool and comfortable over the beat, but Mr. Vegas sounds frantic and horny, like he's trying to impress girls by running all over the place trying to keep up with this crazy thing. Hey! Hey, ladies! Look at me!

4. Yung Wun feat. DMX, David Banner & Lil Flip - Tear it Up. It seems like the most natural, obvious thing in the world to combine crunk with Southern black college marching band music, but as far as I can tell the only precendents for this track are Bubba Sparxxx's "Overcome" and the part of Drumline where the evil marching band comes out with Petey Pablo. It's a shame DMX doesn't rap on this; he sounds great on the amped-up chorus, especially when he yells "aaah-AAAAH!" Swizz Beats, of all people, produces, and the mix is weirdly muddy and grimey. David Banner spits game to your wife and robs your house and walks away with the track in his pocket.

5. Lil Scrappy - No Problem. That piano! Lil Jon sounds like he's flipping the Goblin/Argento score for the original Dawn of the Dead, and those synth stabs are straight-up Night of the Comet. The video might (brilliantly) bite Training Day, but this is zombie movie crunk. The track isn't nearly as over-the-top as most Lil Jon productions; it's spare, eerie, low-key, and unsettling. Scrappy keeps it underhanded, sounding more like Willie D than Bone Crusher or whoever.

Honorable mention: J-Kwon - Hood Hop. What Lil Jon is to Timbaland, the TrackBoyz are to Lil Jon, stripping his music of all flourishes and idiosyncrasies and stripping it down to its bare essence, an industrial boom-snap pulse. The only TrackBoyz productions I've heard are this and "Tipsy", but holy shit. J-Kwon is just fine and all, but can you imagine what Scarface or Jadakiss or Brother Ali would do to a beat like this?