Do shit like the Macarena
The big problem with putting this list together was figuring out what the fuck to do with Kanye. For at least a week, I figured I’d put Graduation at the top, but listening to it back-to-back with Kala and Underground Kingz a couple of times, that just didn’t seem right at all. But my response to Graduation really changes just about every time I hear it, so no guarantees that I’ll agree with this placement tomorrow. The past three months have really been pretty great for albums, and there are a lot of records that would’ve made the previous two lists but got cut this time. Apologies to the Coughee Brothaz, A Place to Bury Strangers, High on Fire, and Oakley Hall, all of whom made albums well worth your money.
1. M.I.A.: Kala
A few years ago, Trina released a single called “Told Y’all.” It was on the All About the Benjamins soundtrack, and it didn’t really go anywhere, but I loved it. The track was built from this relentless wall of drums that just wriggled and writhed and pounded and twisted itself into just about every configuration imaginable. But Trina didn’t sound even a little bit intimidated by the onslaught. Instead, she remained totally unflappable, delivering gum-snap put-downs with the exact same matter-of-fact panache she brought to every other track she was doing back then. I always thought her approach on that song was oddly inspirational: when you’re faced with that sort of roiling chaos, you just steel yourself and dive in. And I hear something similar in Kala. The album is heavy and harsh and evil as fuck. Even the vaguely pretty bits like “World Town” and “Paper Planes” come with gut-churning low-ends. The beats, coproduced by M.I.A. herself along with Switch and Diplo and Blaqstarr and Morganics, steal bits and pieces from various disparate forms of dance-music (disco, soca, Southern rap, bhagra, plenty of stuff I probably couldn’t even name) and turn it into a sort of unforgiving party-music Esperanto. It’s saying something that a pretty good Timbaland beat is easily the flattest and most predictable moment here. But M.I.A. sounds blithe and unaffected throughout, like she’s totally at home in this moment, her voice drifting cooly over all the tumult like she couldn’t imagine singing on anything else.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on M.I.A.
2. UGK: Underground Kingz
This could’ve been UGK’s moment of triumph. The South is ascendent, Pimp is out of prison, and they’re finally about to get out of the Jive contract that’s kept them locked down for a decade and a half. But other than the unalloyed joy of “International Players Anthem,” still my song of the year, Pimp and Bun sound like disappointed parents here. And that works out for us, since these guys do disdain better than anyone else. Pimp has the weirdest voice. He always attacks tracks hard, but he’s not overtly guttural. Instead, he slides up under the beat at the beginning of the line and gradually increases in volume and emphasis until he’s just croaking; it’s amazing that he hasn’t totally fucked up his vocal chords like DMC did. Bun, by contrast, is all effortless rumbling mastery; even on the shitty Jazze Pha tracks, he radiates authority. And both of them seem totally disgusted with rap circa 2007. But their problem isn’t with the proliferation of ringtone-based tracks and drug-rap narratives, the latter of which they helped bring about. Instead, they strike out against online rumor-mongering and some ill-defined idea of fakeness. And so Underground Kingz works as something of a corrective, steeped in rap history. Younger guests pop up, but the guest-roster leans more toward fellow legends like Willie D and Too Short and Big Daddy Kane. And the beats, from Pimp and from producers who Pimp has directly influenced, are built from the bluesy, organic materials that UGK has always used. And so Underground Kingz is a musically reactionary and conservative album. It’s also overlong and diluted at more than two hours. But it’s a fierce and deeply felt work from two masters of the form, and it sounds amazing on car speakers.
Voice review: Dave Stelfox on Underground Kingz
3. Kanye West: Graduation
I’ve been through the same process with every Kanye album so far. On first listen, the sheer musical expansiveness has been enough to make me dizzy; I barely notice the lyrics until the second or third listen. And then the clunkers start getting stuck in my head and annoying the piss out of me: “Gnarls Barkley meets Charles Barkley,” “if the devil wear Prada,” etc. It takes a while, but eventually those clunkers somehow become endearing and fade back into the context of these huge and ambitious albums. Kanye is just as self-aware as he is pompous, and so those terrible lines almost work as moments of self-sabotage, Kanye deflating his blown-up ego or at least letting his dumber impulses do the deflating. That’s something that doesn’t happen with, say, Fabolous albums; there, the clunkers remain clunkers. So maybe I’m giving Kanye too much of a pass for his dumb lines. I’ve probably spent more time thinking about Graduation than I have with any other album this year, and for a while I was going to put it at the top of this list. But that didn’t seem quite right; Graduation has more scope than Kala or Underground Kingz, but Kanye’s craft isn’t quite on the same level. It’s understandable; UGK has been the same group for what seems like forever, whereas Kanye is always in the process of becoming, of forcing his style into some new place before he has a chance to get comfortable with his immediate surroundings. In a way, Graduation fixes the missteps of past albums. He’s tightened up the length, eliminating the skits and most of the filler. And his new fascination with house-music has gone a long way toward solving one of his oldest problems: his weak drums. When he’s relying on those clipped electro tones, his tracks have a whole lot more punch. And he’s also allowed a really appealing and interesting sloppiness to creep into those tracks. “Drunk and Hot Girls” and “Flashing Lights” and “Good Morning” are all somehow murky and off-kilter; maybe that’s a latent Dilla influence creeping up on him. But those tricks still resonate as pop, and “Stronger” is one of the few tracks from this year that will absolutely get burn at my wedding reception. Graduation is a really fucking impressive piece of work all around, but I still get stuck on the little things sometimes. Still, I wouldn’t be shocked if it ends up topping my year-end list.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Kanye West’s Graduation
4. Against Me: New Wave
New Wave is sort of the flipside of Kala. The music is straight-ahead and strident, the accumulated effect of decades of amped-up punk and theatrically blue-collar rock and protest-music felt in virtually every note. This isn’t the sort of music that usually accommodates ambivalence or grey areas; it’s gang-yell singalong stuff. But throughout the album, Tom Gabel is totally wracked with doubt and guilt and self-hatred, the sort of feelings that come along when you’re an anarchist folk-punk singer who signs with a major label. The entire album, it seems to me, is Gabel’s relentless self-examination, wondering whether signing was the right decision or not. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, he was absolutely right, since New Wave sounds fucking great: gleaming guitars, enormous choruses, sudden moments of unexpected beauty like the ringing, crashing prechorus to “Borne on the FM Waves.” But I understand that guilt and uncertainty, and it makes for more interesting fuel for this band’s music than the unalloyed self-righteous rage of Gabel’s earliest work. The album might sound simple, but this is complicated stuff.
5. Baroness: Red Album
Usually when metal bands reach for expansiveness, they fundamentally change the music so it barely sounds more like metal anymore. Isis, for instance, is closer to Mogwai than they are to Sabbath, and Isis’s untold legions of followers are closer still, while Jesu, while heavy as fuck, is basically just not metal anymore. And then there’s Opeth, who swing between amazing bursts of riffage and eerily calm new-age folk stuff and whose songs are all fifteen hours long. Baroness manage to find some middle ground without sounding like any of those bands. Red Album is absolutely a metal album in all the best ways. Baroness have managed to retain the deeply satisfying crunch and growl of the best doom and married it to a huge and devastating melodic sensibility. The part where the drums first kick in on opener “Rays on Pinion” earns Red Album a spot on this list just by itself. During the album’s second half, things get a bit more muddled; the band fucks around a bit too much with time-signatures and incremental riff-changes. But the moments where everything opens up and then slams down sound like absolutely nothing else. If I ever drive through a desert during a thunderstorm, I hope I have this record with me.
6-10: Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; Angels of Light: We Are Him; Black Lips: Good Bad Not Evil; Young Bleed: Once Upon a Time in Amedica; Jens Lekman: Night Falls Over Kortedala.