The Quarterly Report: Best New Albums

clipse-hhnf-cvr.jpgGot my blog screaming cock-a-doodle-doo, fuckers

In the past three months, the record industry, in its infinite wisdom, has treated us to an onslaught of big-name rap releases, somehow banking on the idea that it could jumpstart the industry's ailing engine by bringing a couple of big albums out every Tuesday. It remains to be seen how all those big albums will end up selling, but the whole culture of leaks and knee-jerk reactions sped up to such a feverish pace that it was hard for full-time music critics to stay on top of anything; for people who habitually pay actual money for rap albums, it must have been dizzying. Complicating things, a whole lot of those big-name albums weren't actually any good. But there was still plenty of worthwhile stuff in that tidal wave, and I'm still finding new stuff in these albums now that I've had a couple of minutes to let this stuff breathe and hear it with fresh ears. On top of that, there was plenty of good non-rap stuff coming out. Three of the albums in this quarterly report ended up in my year-end top ten, and one of them just missed it at the last minute because I figured out how much I loved the Celtic Frost album.

1. Clipse: Hell Hath No Fury. I didn't see Borat until it had been out in theaters for two or three weeks, so I'd already read a couple of reviews and heard friends talking about it, which meant that I already knew half the shit that happened in the movie. I still laughed hard, but there was a slow inevitability to everything, and I kept thinking about how much better the movie would've been if I'd gone in with my mind blank. I was afraid Hell Hath No Fury would be like that. I'd been waiting for it since the video for "The Funeral" came out and the working title was Hell Has No Fury. I'd seen it delayed time and again to the point where it was anyone's guess whether the thing would actually come out. I'd seen friends go to listening parties and report back rapturously. I didn't think there was any way this thing would live up to my astronomical expectations. But the album sounds like Malice and Pusha T took all that time to obsessively write and rewrite their lyrics, taking out every extraneous word and honing the cold precision in their voices. They don't say anything about money or guns or drugs that we haven't heard before, but they do it with such a writerly economy that it feels new. The beats must be a few years old, since the Neptunes just aren't making them like this anymore; those gleaming, skeletal constructions sound like circa-88 Marley Marl with a few layers of lacquered sci-fi synths strategically added in just the right places. The album works so magnificently because Clipse responded to record-label pressure with punk-rock defiance, doing whatever they could to make it less commercial rather than more. There's something perverse about the way these Virginians consistently identify themselves as East Coast rappers rather than Southerners at a time when Southern rappers are the only ones getting air-time. But Hell Hath No Fury doesn't have anything to do with Boot Camp Clik or Three-6 Mafia; it's a dystopian world of their own creation.

Voice review: Zach Baron on Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury

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2. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America. The reason I love the Hold Steady is Craig Finn's unrelentingly great writing, which sweeps up shards of images and memories from broken lives and turns those lives into something epic and noble and tragic. So maybe Separation Sunday will always be my favorite Hold Steady album because it's the one that went for unified cinematic sweep and made it impossible for me to do anything other than listen when it was on. I can't really make predictions, though, since the Hold Steady has put out three albums in three calendar years and I've loved them all. This one starts to take the focus off Finn, finally, and puts it on the towering classic-rock churn that the rest of the band works up. The production is cleaner and more focused, and Finn's unhinged bray is deep enough in the mix that I had to read the lyric sheet to get some of what he was saying. He's writing songs with choruses now, and that's a big part of the reason why their live shows still keep getting better: now we've got big lines that repeat a couple of times, so we can hold our beers up and sing along. Instead of going for one huge novelistic story, Finn's given us eleven discrete short stories, all of which take place in the same universe but none of which really overlap. I miss the huge arc of it, but now we're all a little more free to hear those hammering pianos and screaming guitar solos, and those things are pretty great too. Even moving away from the stuff that I love about the previous records, this band still does amazing, moving things. I've interviewed Finn a couple of times, and he's sort of an acquaintance now, so I should probably stop writing about his work altogether, but his band is great enough that I just can't shut up for long.

Voice review: Chris Ott on the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America

3. Z-Ro: I'm Still Livin'. This album pretty much exclusively deals with darkness: disgust, dejection, alienation, paranoia. Z-Ro's voice is deep and full, and he's always somewhere between a snarl and a sob. Musically, it's the sort of slow, drizzly organ-funk that Rap-A-Lot's house producers haven't switched up since the early 90s, mostly because their muddy brew is still as effective as it ever was. But for such a sad piece of work, I'm Still Livin' bursts with warmth and humanity. Z-Ro is more emo than emo, and there's a support-group openness in his confessions, like he wants us to know how he feels because he trusts us. And there's also a musical openheartedness; he swipes hooks from Luther Vandross and Spandau Ballet and Pat Beneter and, um, Beethoven. And he's a truly magnificent rapper; even his double-time verses have an unforced singsong lilt, and he sounds better singing hooks than the anonymous R&B chicks who come in to assist on a couple of tracks. He says a lot of sad, pointed stuff about how he's not rich or famous even though he deserves to be. Gripes like that are always borderline intolerable coming from rappers, but Z-Ro is actually right, and I mostly just feel bad for him even though I know I'll never write anything this affecting.

4. Long Blondes: Someone to Drive You Home. The Long Blondes come from the Northern English city of Sheffield, just like Pulp. And they share a few other traits. Blondes frontwoman Kate Jackson sings in an arch, pointed, self-confident sing-speak, just like Jarvis Cocker, and both of them come off something like rumpled aristocrats. And they both deal in finely observed, close-to-home character studies. But there's also a big difference between them: Cocker was always a bit detached; even when he included himself as a character in his own songs, his own voice was hidden behind a couple of layers of question-marks. But Jackson is always right there, trapped in her scenarios and screaming and clawing to get out. She observes herself just as trenchantly and mercilessly as the other people in her life. Maybe more so. And there are other, more obvious differences. Pulp were mostly male; the Long Blondes are mostly female. Pulp played swoony velvet cabaret-pop, and the Long Blondes play full-bore primary-color jagged-guitar pop-punk, like Elastica with better drumming. And it took Pulp something like fifteen years before they put out their first great album. The Long Blondes hit it out of the park their first time up.

5. Young Jeezy: The Inspiration. Something occurred to me listening to all these albums back-to-back: The people behind the top four albums all conceive their music as elaborate word-delivery systems. The emphasis is on the lyrics, and the music does whatever it can to highlight those lyrics while still working as music. That's not the case here; Jeezy digs a little deeper into his monolithic persona than he did on his first album, but I still get the distinct impression that he doesn't give a fuck about his craft as a writer. The pleasures of The Inspiration are so physical that they're almost tactile. The bass in Shawty Redd's beats is so strong and immersive that even my iPod earbuds can pick up the lows, and his synth dirges are even slower and more gothic than last time. Jeezy multitracks his voice until he sounds like an army of clones running screaming over the tracks. And even if he doesn't put a lot of effort into his words, they actually do work as self-help motivational tools; getting money is now my new year's resolution.

Voice review: Roque Strew on Young Jeezy's The Inspiration

6-10: The Game: Doctor's Advocate, Beach House: Beach House, The Blow: Paper Television, Pitbull: El Mariel, Lil Wayne & Young Money: Lil Weezyana.

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