Friday, January 02, 2009

The Quarterly Report

Apologies to Devin the Dude, Deerhunter, Illa J, and really nobody else. This is the first Quarterly Report I've done in forever where I wasn't being paid full-time to write about music, so I didn't hear as much. I still haven't heard, for instance, those new Plies and Fall Out Boy albums. Plus I was trying to get my year-end lists in order for like the past month. And beyond that, I didn't hear all that many albums or singles that really got me amped, though I'd rather blame that on my own general ignorance than on any kind of general shittiness in the music being made now. Still, some really great stuff over the last couple of months.

1. Taylor Swift: Fearless. This album doesn't need my help or anything; it's at two million sold as I'm writing this, and it'll probably end up outselling Tha Carter III. And that's appropriate enough because, the more I think about it, this thing is probably actually better than Tha Carter III. If nothing else, it's sure a whole hell of a lot more consistent. This thing just glitters, and Taylor herself makes a super-likable pop star. She's got these ridiculous hooks, but she's always dealing with everyday situations, moments that always feel like the apocalypse when you're in high school but look petty and ridiculous later, and she's fully committing to them, selling these sentiments rather than giving them the sort of distance that most pop-country singers can't help but add in. Plus her singing style is this hushed, conversational thing that makes the whole thing so completely approachable. Also: I'm about to be a dad, so I really hope "The Best Day" turns out to be one of thoese really special indelible songs to me even though it isn't really already, if that makes any sense at all. Honestly, we can't justifiably expect big-ticket pop music any better than this. This is just how it's done. To put things in perspective, there's a Colbie Callait feature on here, which would be a total obnoxious WTF moment in anyone else's hands. But here she's just doing these hushed, pretty backing harmonies, and it ends up sort of ruling. Side note: Taylor was on the Ryan Seacrest/Dick Clark New Year's thing last night, something I'm enough of a loser to know. I didn't see her perform, but I did see her up on that platform for the countdown, standing next to Seacrest and Lionel Ritchie and the fucking Jonas Brothers again. She's really starting to make a habit at showing up at the same kinda public events as her ex-boyfriend and then staring angrily or sadly at him while she sings breakup songs. Don't know if that happened last night, but she and that one Jonas were definitely standing as far away from each other as they could on that platform, and everyone except Lionel Ritchie looked really uncomfortable. This is just starting to get weird. Anyway, I wrote about this album here.

2. Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak. It's the Travis Bickle thing: You don't have to think he's a good guy to get sucked in by all that raw, all-encompassing anxiety and maybe to recognize some of your own tendencies in the goofy-ass way he reacts to the world around him. Kanye West's situation, his mother's plastic surgery death and everything else, is so unbelievably removed from anything any of us will ever experience that empathy almost becomes beside the point. And so what he's given us here is this document of a famous, talented person completely losing it and falling apart and lashing out at someone who I can't imagine deserves it. But a lot of the language he uses, a lot of the below-the-belt punches he throws, are exactly the same sort of petty bullshit that we mortals tend to throw around in stupid fights, so it all hits close enough to home to unsettle. And even when all that assholism fades away, which it eventually does, you're left with one hell of an iPod album, perfect for walking around in the dead of winter trying not to freeze, pretty great for driving at night too, all those rippling synthetic textures clicking and whirring and bleeding into each other. Kanye knows how to make the internal aesthetic drama in these songs work for him, like the buzzing doors-opening noise in "Robocop" or the prolonged pause before Jeezy roars onto "Amazing." Certain songs here come off so freaked and slimy that I just end up listening to them over and over obsessively. Which I guess is like how you don't have to like Travis Bickle to acknowledge that he looks fucking badass when he gets his mohawk shaved in and goes to war. I wrote about this album here.

3. Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life. So it's a hardcore album with seven-minute songs and horn parts and woozily layered guitars and weird instrumental interludes. But it still doesn't make sense to call it hardcore-prog because that would mean it was the Mars Volta or something, and it's not. It's still got the life-affirming sugar-rush hooks that hardcore needs, but they're given classic-rock heft and big, thick production, and so you don't even notice that the seven-minute songs are seven minutes unless you're staring at your iPod or whatever. That whole thuggish reductive pound really shouldn't work with all those choral-sounding backing vocals and squiddling synths, but they do, so the songs must be really fucking solid in the most meat-and-potatoes sense. And it still scans as total facepunch pit material, mostly because Pink Eyes has one of those full-blooded Roger Miret barf-scratch-blurt voices and you sort of can't believe it's coming out of an actual human being. A little while ago, I wrote about Jay Reatard that it's pointless to make circa-81 hardcore pastiche if you're not an authentically terrifying person, if you're just some dude. Well Pink Eyes isn't just some dude. I don't know if he's really a terrifying person or not (still haven't seen them live), but he sounds like one, which is what matters. And he's still not making circa-81 hardcore pastiche. And so maybe this is one of those albums like Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come, this thing that tries to be pretentious but never gets there because it's got too much righteous VFW-Hall intensity working for it.

4. Scarface: Emeritus. Face makes his fuck-you-I-quit album, and it doesn't sound too different from his last album because every Scarface album could conceivably be a fuck-you-I-quit album. Hopefully he makes a whole assload more of them. That sonorous grumbling over gorgeously workmanlike Rap-A-Lot thump will never, ever get old, and Scarface is the only rapper currently working who I can imagine making great rap albums when he's, like, 80. He already doesn't give a fuck about dating himself as a really old dude: "I'm primetime, bitch, like Deion." And all that stuff about kids these days not respecting life, about wanting to give up on the struggle at every turn, will always resonate. Also, the Nottz beats on here bang real hard, "Forgot About Me" in particular, and K-Rino's verse on "Who Are They" is hilarious. I wrote about this album here.

5. Gang Gang Dance: St. Dymphna. GGD have always been my favorite band in that whole after-Animal Collective wave of nodded-out woodlands dissolve-rock bands, mostly because of the live shows where they found ways to weave actual beats into their whooshes. And now they've finally, finally made an album that reflects the starry-eyed thump of those live shows, even if it doesn't attempt to document those shows or anything dumb like that. But this is just as evocatively, sleepily pretty as anyone could've hoped, and it does it with video-game bloops and random synth noises and some British rapper as much as it does with reverbed-out guitars and squeaky voices. This album is somehow both what I wish Animal Collective sounded like and what I wish Flying Lotus sounded like.

6-10. Q-Tip: The Renaissance; Mt. Eerie & Julie Doiron: Lost Wisdom; Parts & Labor: Receivers; Clipse: Road to Till the Casket Drops; Love is All: A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night


1. B.O.B.: "Generation Lost." That whole XXL Freshman 10 thing was so weird and ill-conceived that it's tempting to lump all those guys together. They do mostly wear tight clothes and evince smug superiority and keep a steady string of Nah Right posts supplied, but they are most certainly not all created equal, and to my mind B.O.B. is the prime example. It's not that B.O.B. doesn't fit with that whole new batch of hipster-rapper types; it's that he does all the same stuff those other guys do, only way better. "Generation Lost" is just gorgeously understated, totally fleshed-out and intuitive even when it's being obnoxious. B.O.B. does all kinds of shit that would irritate the piss out of me if virtually any other rapper did them; he complains about the state of rap, he rhymes "rap" with "crap" like he was somebody's dad, and he says he's going to "rap about aliens and sing about stars" like that marks him as something other than a total trend-humper in the Era of Wayne. But he implicates himself as much as anyone else, and he never quite gripes. Rather, he's jerking back the curtain here, letting us in on the process while he tries to find a way out of the thugged-out feedback-loop. And it's messy and sort of embarrassing, but I think that's really endearing, like how college dudes endlessly rationalize the dumb shit they say. Plus the beat is this addictively airy thing, with those pianos and Enya-sounding string-plucks, and his voice is warm and conversational and technically sound enough that all those Andre comparisons make sense. Another B.O.B. track so highly recommended that at first I had it ranked alongside "Generation Lost" as a tie: "Middle of the Day," a bordering-on-country stoner lope like Devin's "Nothin' to Roll With," that's about the most breezily melodic thing I heard any rapper do this year. This could just be wishful thinking and blind Dungeon Fam fandom talking, but if this kid actually gets a chance to make albums, I think he'll eclipse every one of those dudes on that goofy-ass cover several times over.

2. Killers: "Human." So yeah, that chorus lyric is exactly the sort of confounding, syntactically muddled nonsense that's built to end up on worst-lyrics lists, especially since most dancers I know are already human anyway. (Exception: the dancing robot buddy thing from the Sharper Image that my friend Nat used to have.) But the overwhelming dumbness of that lyric fades with time, and the ticcing synthed-out build of that intro never, ever gets old. It's amazing to me this thing isn't showing up on all the same year-end lists that "Mr. Brightside" beasted; it's hammy joyous widescreen synthpop of the exact same vintage, and I just wish to God the rest of the Killers album sounded anywhere near this good. In let's say eleven years, those guys are going to release an all-time pantheon greatest-hits album, just watch.

3. Leona Lewis: "Run." Hey, I get to list this song again! I've got this hopeless weakness for huge, expansive, nonsensical British or fake-British alt-rock anthems (see above), and the Snow Patrol original just slayed me. Gary Lightbody's a good singer and everything, but Leona Lewis is a great one, and she goes a little light on the Mariah-type runs here so she can just belt out that melody. Plus there's a gospel choir at the end, which is still further catnip for me. And it's not like I'm all that stressed about this version fucking up the sanctity of the original since the original, as far as I could tell, meant just about nothing. I'd love to see this song and the Mary J. Blige version of U2's "One" become the basis for some new mini-genre of powerhouse R&B chicks just wrecking these alt-rock power ballads. Like, can we get Keyshia Cole to sing "Bittersweet Symphony"? Please?

4. Raconteurs: "Old Enough." So there's this new rock radio station in New York, and it's got Matt Pinfield as its morning drivetime DJ, which is only marginally less painful than it sounds. And yet it's still a compulsively listenable thing, a sort of vaguely cool AOR station that plays Zeppelin and Springsteen and AC/DC but leans more toward, like, Spoon and the Hold Steady than Staind when it comes to new stuff, though I have heard Staind on there and they play the living hell out of that fucking awful "Sex on Fire" bullshit. And so this slice of ridiculously badass funked-up fiddle-driven Southern rock somehow flew right by when I first heard the Raconteurs album, but that station played it over and over, and I've always been happy to hear it, even though I'm not sure it ever became an official-ish single or anything. (Jack White re-did it with a bunch of authentic bluegrass types, but I'm not too interested in hearing that.) This is basically what I wish all Raconteurs songs sounded like: super-competent kickass bar-rock with occasional weird production touches and big harmonies and White's pseudo-Plant yowl powering the whole thing.

5. Beyonce: "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." Well, yeah. This is almost too obvious, but super-simple brilliantly executed big-money pop always wins. The beat is, like, "Grindin"-level rudimentary almost, and so the thrills all come from the vocals, which only sort of adhere to the verse-chorus-verse structure, more often swinging along from peak to peak. Practically the whole thing is a chorus. Even the bridge is a chorus. And since I'm already married, I don't have to get all wormy and uncomfortable when it comes on, so that helps.

6-10. Young Jeezy: "Who Dat"; Q-Tip: "Move"; Jamey Johnson: "In Color"; Jay-Z: "Brooklyn (Go Hard) [feat. Santogold]"; Joey + Rory: "Cheater, Cheater"

New Year's Resolution: I need to redesign this blog and update that link bar; most of those blogs aren't even still around.