Eat a star
If you’ve been reading this blog for a minute now, you know the drill. This is my favorite stuff, and I certainly don’t make any pretensions toward objectivity. I’ve already written full entries about every single album in my top five, so I probably repeat myself here a few times. Usually when I write these things, I use this space to name all the albums that almost made this list but didn’t. I can’t really name too many that came close this time, though: the After Dark compilation, Justice, Hilary Duff, T-Pain, R. Kelly, the A-Trak mix, maybe a couple of others. Mostly, though, this has been a pretty underwhelming three months of music, and a lot of the albums I was hoping to like didn’t turn out that well. But this entry isn’t about the stuff I don’t like; it’s about the stuff I do. I really like all of these records.
1. Lil Wayne: Da Drought 3
Lil Wayne in the new Fader: “I had an iPod full of Prince from my manager, and I sat and really listened. And like, this ninja can’t sing! Ninja just got a distinctive-ass voice. He’s the type of ninja where you could just take him out the music and put him on the McDonald’s line like, ‘Can I take your order?’ And you’d be like, ‘What the fuck is that?‘ Same thing happened with my voice. I knew I was unique, so I started practicing what Prince do.” Wayne is wrong about one big thing: Prince can sing, just like Wayne can rap. But Wayne is right about everything else, and these days he’s really figuring out everything that can be done with a truly bizarre voice, a deranged-frog gurglecroak. That singular delivery combined with his free-associative psychedelic lyrical streak combines to form something mesmerizing and immersive; it’s like he’s talking in his sleep but it still works as pop music. Every aspect of Wayne’s appeal has its precedents, but if anyone else has managed to pile all this stuff into such a heady brew, I haven’t heard him. This might be the sort of thing that I shouldn’t be saying out loud, but I firmly believe that this run that Wayne is on right now is something we’ll be talking about decades from now. And it’s weird that he would be finding new gears at a time when rap really does seem to be stuck in a rut in virtually every way, but Wayne takes the boundaries and limitations of the genre as it exists commercially right now and uses them as a playground, never crossing those boundaries but finding a million little ways he can fuck around within the rules, sort of inventing his own rules in the process. He’s on a completely different planet right now, and Da Drought 3 may be the longest and deepest exploration yet of that new headspace. It’s a mixtape, so he’s mostly not beholden to marketplace concerns. He can add hooks if he feels like it, or more often, he can ignore that impulse completely. And he can follow threads wherever his muse leads him: keeping every line of a song in the same rhyme-scheme, serenading Ciara, repeatedly comparing himself to robots and aliens and monsters. He’s creating his own universe right now, and it’s really exhilarating to watch him do it.
2. Dizzee Rascal: Maths & English
Dizzee is another great example of what a rapper can do with a singular voice. From what I’ve heard, his hyena yelp is pretty much completely its own thing even when we’re talking about grime or London rap or whatever, and it has a way of collecting all the chaos in the tracks around him and giving it focus and purpose without losing any of its urgency. On Maths & English, he doesn’t really say anything we haven’t heard a million other rappers say before, but the way he twists his voice around these beats is just devastating. The whole time, Dizzee sounds angry and lost and confused but fierce and proud and determined at the same time, and the album’s beats find ways to mirror that mood. These beats sound like they’re about ready to shatter to pieces at any given moment, but they always keep their shape. Maths & English isn’t really a grime album. A few of the tracks certainly use that genre as a jumping-off point, but they also use a half-dozen other strains of dance music: jungle, dancehall, hardcore early-90s rave shit, etc. Dizzee and his producers arrange all the sounds from those disparate scenes into music that absolutely works in a straight-up rap context, giving those styles a slow central boom that most of them didn’t have before, and so UGK sound totally at home on “Where Da Gs” even if the music is some weird twinkling synth shit that really shouldn’t work for them. Musically, the album may switch up genres pretty often, but it only loses its knife-edge power once (the Lily Allen song; it’s a shame about that one). And even as it piles together all these different sounds, Maths & English never sounds like a connect-the-dots affair; it might have the token club-tracks, but it never lets up. It’s pretty telling, I think, that most of my favorite rap records of the year (Prodigy, the Wayne mixtape, Dizzee, Turf Talk) come from artists who have either temporarily and voluntarily stepped out of the commercial race or who have really no chance of breaking into it in the first place anyway. Rap might be in chaos at the moment, but that chaos seems to come from the pressure, either from labels or from the artists themselves, of performing in a marketplace where nobody has any idea how to succeed anymore. When the marketplace becomes less of a concern, great things can still happen.
3. Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The best Nashville country albums sound like they could be greatest-hits albums. They don’t have to cohere into steamrolling artistic statements. They don’t have to reveal the inner workings of the performer’s soul. They don’t have to push the genre into unexplored territory. They can do all those things, but all those things are secondary to the central mission, which is to collect about forty-five minutes’ worth of impeccably produced, scientifically written summer-anthem pop-songs, songs that will resonate with as many people as possible. By that standard, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the best country album I’ve heard in years. The sound is sparklingly clean, and the hooks come flying at a dizzying rate. This isn’t necessarily complicated music, but it aims itself at my pleasure-centers with a vengeance, and it almost never misses. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also works beautifully as a work of persona-creation. Miranda Lambert’s built herself an image as a sort of beer-chugging tough chick, and the album’s hard, sneery, percussive country-rock songs are so great and so convincing that when she drops her guard and lets out a sad and thoughtful ballad like “Desperation,” it just destroys. Also, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but her bass player has a mohawk.
Voice review: Edd Hurt on Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
4. White Stripes: Icky Thump
Listening to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend back-to-back with Icky Thump, a few things occurred to me. Nashville country has become a sort of repository for hooks and swagger and euphoric thud-riffs and dumb jokes, all of which have gradually disappeared from mainstream rock since the rises of mewling post-grunge and brutally bright MySpace emo (and, for that matter, the rise and fall of rap-metal). So it’s pretty amazing that the only major-label rock band who have managed to bring back all those tropes are these inscrutable punk-schooled weirdos. Icky Thump sounds pretty great next to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, partly because the White Stripes and Miranda Lambert are working from the same basic sets of noises and pushing them in different but complimentary directions. With a few tweaks (no nonsense lyrics, no spazzed-out noise-guitar solos), three or four of the songs on Icky Thump would fit perfectly well on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay a major-label rock record these days. Icky Thump seems to be the moment where the White Stripes embrace their rock-star destinies without sacrificing any of their peculiarities. That’s a tough trick to pull off, especially when those peculiarities run so deep, and maybe that’s why the new Bon Jovi album sold more in its first week that Icky Thump. But it’s still pretty incredible how these two have managed to carve out space for themselves in a mainstream-rock universe that has no room for playfulness from anyone else. The White Stripes are headlining Madison Square Garden later this month for the first time ever, and I’m really excited about it. From the way Icky Thump sounds, that’s where they belong.
Voice review: Nate Cavalieri on the White Stripes’ Icky Thump
5. Kathy Diamond: Miss Diamond to You
This album might be part of the recent string of Italo-disco revival records, but for me the key to Miss Diamond to You is something that I pointed out here and Riff Raff pointed out here: Maurice Fulton, the album’s producer, did some work for Crystal Waters back in the early 90s. Listening to Miss Diamond to You, it totally makes sense. You can hear plenty of echoes of opulent, uber-slick early-90s disco-house: Crystal Waters, Deee-Lite, Black Box, Lisa Stansfield. Except all those records have been completely slathered in reverb, stretched-out and smothered, given the Animal Collective treatment. And so here we have a record that’s completely adrift in weed-smoke haze but that still works as boutique-ready dance music. Miss Diamond to You is a texture album. Its hooks don’t rush up and grab you; they slowly bloom, ebbing and cresting with unhurried grace. Diamond’s voice is just one more element in the mix, and it’s hard to even notice when it comes and goes; sometimes; there’s so much echo on it that it barely even sounds like a voice. On “Until the Sun Goes Down,” that voice doesn’t even come in for the first half of the song. The first couple of minutes are instead given over to an extended percussive breakdown, but that breakdown sounds as warm and fluttery as the rest of the record, since Fulton records those drums so they’ll sound as pillowy as the bass-pops and synth-sighs elsewhere on the record. But all these blunted layers of sound still have a definite pulse, and I’d love to hear what this would do to an actual club around three in the morning.
6-10. Turf Talk: West Coast Vaccine (The Cure); Simian Mobile Disco: Attack Decay Sustain Release; Dan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings; Tim Armstrong: A Poet’s Life; Bjork: Volta.