The Quarterly Report: Best New Albums

futuresex.jpgThe other thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them

After a dismal first half of the year, we've had a whole lot of great albums over the past three months. Of the ten albums on my last quarterly report, one or maybe two would make this list, which means I pretty much love every album here without reservation. I'm pretty amazed that I couldn't find room for TV on the Radio or the Roots or Plan B or the Mountain Goats or Christina Aguilera or Andrew WK or Bob Dylan or Gorjira. I still haven't heard the new semi-official Killer Mike double album thing, but judging from the tracks I've heard, it'll place pretty high on the next quarterly report at the end of the year.

1. Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds. The best case of the good guys winning since the Pistons won the NBA finals in 2004. This album makes "Cry Me a River" one of my favorite singles of the decade, feel like a dry run. Timbaland and Timberlake pilfer whatever they want from the last twenty-five years of pop music: New York disco, Chicago house, woozy-grandiose Coldplay adult-contempo, Memphis rap, everything Timbaland himself has already recorded. And they pile it in layers that drip and splash on each other like overlapping waterfalls. My favorite song on the album is "My Love," where those skidding synths bubble up through waves of dip-dodge drums and unearthly multitracked harmonies while Timbaland mutters encouragement. But my favorite sequence comes immediately afterward, when the wide-eyed club transcendence of "Love Stoned" slowly eases into the immensely satisfying emo sweep of "What Goes Around" before Timberlake says fuck it and comes up with the goofiest pickup lines in all of history on the fake Three-6 track "Screwed Up" while the real Three-6 shows up and provides moral support. It's all tricky and showy and expensive, but it also works as total comfort food, Timberlake's voice inhabiting those grooves with more ease and resonance than it's ever had. There's so much going on in these songs that I'm going to be digging new sonic curlicues out for months. The whole thing falls off a bit at the end, of course, but the sheer warmth and elegance and self-assurance of these tracks couldn't really be sustained over this entire long-ass album; it's just not possible. The fact that Timbaland and Timberlake can invest themselves so completely in something this weird and jittery and then see it go on to be one of the fastest-selling albums of the year is a truly beautiful thing.

2. Lily Allen: Alright, Still. They're both pop music, both actually popular in some of the same parts of the world, but you can't get lost in this one the way you can in FS/LS. Allen doesn't create her own world; she just skips happily through ours, talking shit and paying bills and riding her bike with her eyes closed so she can feel the wind on her face. The one sad song here is bottomlessly pretty, but it doesn't register as actual sadness the way "What Goes Around" does; Allen is way too confident and full of herself to let some dude get her down like that. And "Take What You Take," her big-pop Natasha Bedingfield moment, is joy itself, a blindingly bright stomper with multitracked vocals that probably wouldn't sound all that different if someone had actually sprung for a gospel choir and little flecks of acoustic guitar that catch sunlight like broken glass on a sidewalk. Those are the two back-to-back extremes, and everything else occupies a very comfortable middle ground: midtempo tracks that pick up little bits and pieces of pop ephemera (dusty golden-age rap drums, humid fake-ska horns, synth blips) while Allen hurts people's feelings without ever letting the smile leave her face. Allen reminds me a bit of Neneh Cherry or M.I.A. in the way she sounds so effortlessly cool no matter what she's singing about, acting like nothing could possibly ever affect her even if it could. But unlike those two, she takes that blank remove and weaves it through her lyrics, keeping everything simultaneously bitchy and playful, checking her reflection every couple of seconds. And she fits beautifully into this regular-dude British pop continuum that always somehow comes out more interesting than American pop's regular-dude continuum. They get the Specials, Neneh Cherry, Pulp, the Streets. We get Soul Asylum. It's not fair.

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Voice review: Frank Kogan on Lily Allen's "LDN"

3. Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor. I've cooled on Lupe a bit since I first wrote about him a few months ago; he doesn't always have a great ear for beats, and he's exactly the sort of conflicted dude who claims to be working against the pop machine but also makes a big point of letting you know that someone fucked up his first-week numbers. But he's just a magnificent rapper, quick and smart and warm and as in love with words and word-sounds as Cam'ron or Lil Wayne or Pusha T. He goes on extended-metaphor rampages and makes them sound like they mean anything even if they maybe don't, and he does it all with this melodic lilt that keeps his work endlessly listenable, even the throwaway mixtape stuff. "Kick Push" is one of the prettiest songs I've heard in a long time, a blast of sunlight that exposes most rappers' barking-over-drums styles as the painful examples of aesthetic laziness they are. I could really give a shit if he's here to save rap, something that's never needed saving. But I love the way he darts in and out of the margins, the way he's willing to be allusive and impressionist rather than concrete or specific. He plays with rap like it's one of those Japanese robot-toys he loves so much, and he loves rap even when he's disappointed with it; I can relate. Even his saddest songs have a joyous glow, like he's still getting used to the idea that he's making his living by piling words on top of each other, which is maybe why he wastes the album's last twelve minutes on an interminable laundry list of shout-outs that I'll never listen to again. I interviewed Lupe this morning (it'll be up later this week), and he told me that Reasonable Doubt is one of his favorite rap albums ever but that he doesn't love every song on it; it has a core of maybe eight songs that shine through everything. He figured that as long as he had eight impeccable songs for himself, he'd be fine. He has his eight great songs, and I'll name them for you if you want.

4. Trae: Restless. Restless is the opposite of Food & Liquor in damn near every way: it's dark and hard and cold and depressive and sometimes oppressive. But Trae is an incredible rapper just like Lupe; the way he burns through his verses on the opener "Real Talk" is breathtaking. He's got a thick, bluesy rasp, and it sinks all the way to the pocket of every track, so it always sounds like it's bubbling up between the song's cracks, filling its spaces. Lyrically, he works the repentant-gansta cliche hard, and he does it better than anyone this side of Scarface. There's a heartfelt grit and a sad desperation in his voice on "Dedicated 2 U," the one where he offers genuine and moving thanks to everyone who's ever helped him (family members, not record execs). Musically, the album fits completely with Houston rap traditions, damaging and melting its sugary hooks until their beauty sounds cold and alien; the streaky violins on "Swang" and the gurgling sandworm bass on "Cadillac" are thick and hazy enough to bend sunlight. The songs are long; they unfold at their own unhurried pace, pushing their grooves until they become hypnotic mantras. And the specter of death hangs over everything. Songs about dead friends take on a ghostly weight when those dead people's voices show up a few songs later.

5. Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways. This one's also about death, and it's even more bleak and shattering than Trae's album. Cash had been singing about and living with death for a long, long time, and here he seems to greet it with a weird sort of relief, sighing and comfortably settling down for a long, long sleep. He sounds tired and ready but scared and sad and fragile. Cash famously recorded this album during the brief little window between his wife's death and his own, and so it makes sense that he'd be obsessed with death, singing about it, directly or indirectly, on every single song. His voice is weaker and more trembly than ever before, but it still has that rich barrelhouse husk. There's been plenty of criticism about how Rick Rubin only took a part of Cash's persona into the American albums, how he left out all the funny, beery, insolent joy of prime-era Cash and instead reinvented him as this proto-goth Old Man Death. But then, Cash turned out to be an amazing Old Man Death, and that voice can carry archetypal portentous warning and make it sound like something eternal and true. "On the Evening Train," the song about waving his wife's casket goodbye at a railway station while he holds their baby and hears her voice in his head, tears me to pieces every time I hear it.

6-10: Mastodon: Blood Mountain; the Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love; Junior Boys: So This is Goodbye; Bonnie Prince Billy: The Letting Go; Rhymefest: Blue Collar.

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