You stand corrected
First quarters are traditionally show, and in certain respects this one was no exception. I didn’t, for instance, hear a single good rap album, though I did hear a few mixtapes worth talking about. Still, looking at my list, it’s pretty amazing how many great records I’ve heard over the past three months; 2008 is shaping up to be a year worth remembering. Apologies to Foals, Fuck Buttons, Erykah Badu, Crystal Castles, Blood on the Wall, and Young Dro, all of whom came close to making this list. It’s also worth noting that Da Beginning, the new Lil Boosie mixtape, would’ve probably ended up high on this list if I’d been able to spend a little more time with it.
1. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
Yeah, go ahead, get mad. But find me another youngish band within the entire chaotic sphere of indie-rock whose hooks are this sharply slippery, whose beats are this effortlessly, precisely sidelong, and whose sense of self is this fully realized and deeply entrenched. Even if you don’t care about the particulars of the Ivy League layabout world they profess to inhabit (and I still have basically no idea what a mansard roof is), Ezra Koenig has managed to conjure an image of that world with the same sort of artful specificity in, say, the portrait of the bullet-torn Virginia on display in this list’s #4 entry. And VW’s Afropop fixation works less as cultural imperialism than as a move away from yelpy jagged indie-rock status quo and towards the sort of angrily clever and defiantly polished early-80s new-wave sophistipop that only Spoon gets right anymore. I get the same rush from the snap back into the beat on “A-Punk” and the lovelorn half-articulate chorus on “Bryn” that I got the most well-placed and searingly self-pitying pop-punk choruses when I was 15. Another album like this one and maybe it’ll be possibly to rave about these guys without coming across defensive.
Voice review: Mike Powell on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend
Voice review: Julianne Shepherd on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend
2. Disfear: Live the Storm
So: scuzzed-up galloping old-school hardcore, all thunderous bass fuzz and claustrophobic peals of feedback and riled-up gang-chant choruses about how completely wrong the world is (with special bonus Dawn of the Dead quotes!), cranked out by a band two decades deep into this basement-show crustcore shit. Except now two fifths of this band consists of Swedish melodic death-metal legends, and they’ve got the throat-ravaging fuck-the-world screams and the triumphantly cheeseball guitar solos to prove it. Someone in my comments section compared this to NOFX, “except they sound more sober and shout a lot.” He’s right, and that’s a good thing. If you went to the sorts of VFW-hall punk shows I went to in high school, this is your superhero music. Certain nights, this album feels like it was specifically concocted in a lab to make me want to get smashed on cheap whiskey and scream incoherent cusswords at passing cop cars. If some high school kids somewhere are using Live the Storm to soundtrack dumbshit high-school hijinks, there is some justice in the world.
3. Kelley Polar: I Need You to Hold On While the Sky is Falling
I pointed this out in an earlier entry, but the first part of this year has been absurdly rich in streaky lovestruck whiteboy synthpop and disco. What sets Kelley Polar apart from his contemporaries (Hercules & Love Affair, Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier) is also what vaults him past them, at least for me: a sense of ambition that verges on pretension. Polar is a Julliard-trained violinist and a part-time neoclassical composer whose delicate dance tracks come drowned in layers of impressionistic strings and overbearing conceptual stuff about space and art and the trancendental oversoul or whatever. This should make him unbearable, but instead it has the paradoxical approach of rendering him flawed and approachable, an actual human being rather than Hot Chip’s cartoon Urkel lovermen or Tellier’s French-pimp stereotype. Polar sings in a matter-of-fact Bernard Sumner downbeat murmur, and he renders ideas in the sort of plainspoken language that at least lets us know he’s taking them seriously. And his tracks are about lush, gorgeous disco-house of the highest order, his gushy synths and airy strings and twitching drums all pushing each other toward something bigger and dreamier.
4. The Re-Up Gang: We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 3
A few days after I wrote about this mixtape, Malice contacted me to talk about my writeup. In particular, he wanted to clarify a line I’d called cheesy. When he says, “Here I am standing with open arms like Journey,” he apparently means that he’s standing with guns, which fair enough. The line still stands as being a bit (likably) cheesy to me, but it says something that this guy cares so much about his lyrics that he’ll reach out to a writer just to make sure nobody’s misunderstanding him. I get the feeling that all three guys in this group feel the same way. These lyrics bear the marks of obsessive rewriting, lines in notepads scribbled out, rhymes tightened, everything extraneous eliminated. Mixtapes don’t get this hard vividness by accident. After enough listens, it becomes apparent that Vol. 3 isn’t quite touching the greatness of Vol. 2. The voices don’t have the same urgency, there’s a bit of Drama-sanctioned filler, and the scarcity of flipped recent beats means the tape doesn’t give that idea that these guys are twisting the best stuff on the radio to their will. But that sense of writerly competition, of four great rappers collectively pushing each other, is still very much there. And Vol. 3 has its own merits; I’ve never heard anyone describe the feelings that come when a great album flops commercially the way Malice does here. And then there’s “Scenario 2008,” where all four guys hit the ground running and never let up, one of the best things they’ve ever done.
5. Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
This one caught me by surprise. This Philly art-metal trio has been kicking around the DIY-show circuit for a minute now, cultivating a rep for fusing jittery malfunctioning-laptop IDM with mathematical grindcore, and nothing in that description looks remotely like anything I’d listen to voluntarily. But even if there’s a little blip-scream insanity at work here, Board Up the House finds them more into huge, thudding dirges with huge, terrifying Dario Argento synth-drones and bloodcurdling screams and crushing walls of stoner-metal guitar. Board Up the House is a remarkably pretty album, certainly not what I was expecting, and the way the band leaps abruptly from moody downbeat synth atmospherics to expressionist hardcore pummel carries this sense of deep sadness that I wish I could describe better. Now that Trent Reznor is no longer beholden to any major label contracts, this is the type of music I want to hear from him, not the drizzly video-game-soundtrack mush he’s currently churning out.
6-10. Black Mountain: In the Future; Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride; High Places: 03/07-09/07; Grand Buffet: King Vision; Hercules & Love Affair: Hercules & Love Affair.