The Quarterly Report: Winter's Best Albums
Ears of corn, heads of lettuce
Happy new year, kids. List fatigue or no list fatigue, it's time for another one of these guys. As with 2006, the 2007 fourth quarter was jammed tight with small-time major-label rap records, records that had to be tax write-offs. And a lot of those records were great. We may never again see rap albums sell the way they once did, but that sort of adjusted expectation won't necessarily be bad for the music. Most of my favorite rap records come from rappers playing to their various bases, and that's what many of the best of them did this year, though the record that tops this list comes from a mastermind rap producer who reached way beyond his base and failed spectacularly. Apologies to Project Pat, Britney Spears, Witchdoctor, Burial, Trae, and Cass McCombs, all of whom could've made this list but didn't.
1. Wu-Tang Clan: 8 Diagrams
Even during a time when nobody expects rap albums to sell anything, this one was a commercial flop of titanic proportions, outsold in its first week by Bow Wow and Omarion and motherfucking Birdman, and many of its principal players were publicly backing away from it long before that. And now Wu-Tang is touring without RZA and pointedly neglecting to do a single 8 Diagrams song onstage. All that's a shame, but none of it erases this grim, mysterious triumph of a record. Because, really, 8 Diagrams isn't all that weird; it's heavy with eerie downbeat boom-bap and sneery threats and familiar rasps, stuff that these guys have been doing forever. But, OK, yeah, it's also pretty weird: reverbed-out guitar-curls, left-field old-man rants, a Beatles sample that comes up totally warped and distended. But the weird/not-weird stuff is almost beside the point; this album gets its emotional punch from the voices at work here: eight bruised and damaged veterans, their anger and disappointment as fully internalized as their unreal technical skill and writerly grace, coming back together to do what they do. It's an aural Wild Bunch.
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Wu-Tang Clan's 8 Diagrams
2. Band of Horses: Cease to Begin
Everything All the Time, the 2006 debut, snuck up on me hard after a few months; it did indie-style bombast perfectly. But Cease to Begin is a much smaller and more comfortable album in scope and sound. Instead of big guitar vroom-chugs and expansive howls, we get unobtrusive pedal-steel twinkles and contented sighs. This is total musical comfort-food, a record that pulls as many cues from assembly-line Nashville country as it does from Garden State indie but which remains pretty distant from both, pulling satisfying and familiar tonal warmth from both but sounding mellower and more intuitive than either typically matters. Cease to Begin has a sort of yearning languor to it; it's like an old dog asleep in a sunbeam, kicking its legs because it's probably dreaming about running. I wish all alt-country sounded like "Detlef Schrempf."
Voice review: Garrett Kamps on Band of Horses' Cease to Begin
3. Radiohead: In Rainbows
The commerce-flouting audacity of the album's internet release was always going to overwhelm whatever music it might contain, but it's pretty amazing that Radiohead managed to make its big fuck-the-industry statement on the back of an album that shirks the band's artier tendencies altogether, going instead for the low-risk high-reward spidery fuzzpop that the band's been distancing itself from for the better part of a decade. The vocals are still airy and borderline indecipherable, the time-signatures are still complicated mathematical lurches, and the sentiments are still as enigmatically dystopian as ever. For Radiohead, though, this is a total meat-and-potatoes move, and its pure, unmolested prettiness is what keeps me coming back. The dread is still there, but the warmth eclipses it. In Rainbows is an album that actually makes me feel better after hearing it, which, considering the personnel involved, might be the most audacious thing about it.
Voice review: Rob Harvilla on Radiohead's In Rainbows Voice review: Bret Gladstone on Radiohead's In Rainbows [Disc 2]
4. Jay-Z: American Gangster
The concept-album thing was a bit of a red herring, but if Jay needed that concept of a concept to get him back to fighting weight, fine. American Gangster worked so well because it represented a way out of the old-rapper track: Jay got to reimagine his youth, or what he's always presented as his youth, but he got to bring hard-earned wisdom and expensive production to this picture of a younger, more violent self. Because the beats are warm and orchestral pieces of 70s soul ephemera, he never sounds outdated; instead, he's out of time, existing in a sort of dreamlike cinematic haze. And his lyrics work the way they always have: giving old rap cliches new life by expressing them in all sorts of dazzling intricate and complex ways in a voice so conversational and easy that those complexities aren't immediately apparent. And when he snaps out of his reverie, as on "Hello Brooklyn 2.0" or "Blue Magic," he brings with him some of the ferocity that he'd been remembering on those other songs.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z's American Gangster
5. Scarface: Made
I wouldn't have thought so at the time, but The Fix stands in retrospect as a happy album, even with all its talk about death and addiction. "On My Block" was a contented dedication to the neighborhoods that birthed Scarface, and "Heaven" was an honest-to-God love song. Made, the years-later follow-up, is made of darker stuff. When Scarface is in a humanist mood here, he talks about incoherent nihilistic politics on "Who Do You Believe In" or the painful disintegration of a relationship, maybe even the relationship from "Heaven," on "Go." And when he's feeling rough, he lets loose with some shit like this: "I got a black book and I ain't got no names in it / 'Stead, I keep the pictures of the craniums I done caved in." (He follows that one up with "Naw, I'm playing," but still.) And then there's "The Suicide Note," the crushed meditation on the friend he didn't save. Throughout, Face's rumbling voice meshes beautifully with the organic thump of the Rap-A-Lot production stable. Even on a small album like this, Scarface sounds like he's got the world on his back. It's sort of devastating.
6-10. Ghostface Killah: The Big Doe Rehab, Cam'ron: Public Enemy No. 1, Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals, Gowns: Red State, Freeway: Free At Last.
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