Dead blog posting
Hey, we’re not going on strike! So that means you get a couple more days of me posting like a lameass after all the goodbye festivities. For real, though, I can’t even begin to say how much I’m loving all this attention. Hated-on has been my default setting for years running now, and the idea that people are actually consistently reading and liking what I’ve done here is a no-joke mind-blower. So onto my favorite running feature, the one where I rank my favorites from the (in this case, particularly fertile) past three months. The top three here could’ve come in pretty much any order depending on my mood; every one is, I think, a total masterwork. Apologies to Prodigy, Torche, AZ, M83, Dark Meat, Santogold, Three 6 Mafia, Nine Inch Nails, Scarlett Johansson, Spiritualized, Wale, and Bun B.
1. The Hold Steady: Stay Positive
Ranking this one is a bit tricky, since it only really half came out during the three months we’re working with here: digital release was a couple of weeks back, physical retail will be a couple of weeks from now. And that means I’m writing this one up without access to a lyric sheet, which is always what puts these things over the top for me: seeing Craig Finn’s splenetic rants laid out on paper in all their forceful elegance. The Hold Steady has been slowly beefing up an already-huge sound over four albums now, and this one just bursts: harpsichords and guitar solos and saxophones and pounded pianos. It’s also the one where an indie-rock band playing classic bar-rock gets self-consciously weird, which paradoxically has the effect of moving them closer to classic-rock than to standard-issue indie; suffice to say Wolf Parade isn’t trying anything like the talkbox solo on “Joke About Jamaica.” At this point, we basically know what we’re getting with Hold Steady albums: spastically yammered stories about debauched fuckups over titanic, triumphant bar-rock. Boys and Girls in America, the last one, was dominated by these moments of total exhilaration and freedom that come with being a drunk punk kid in a mid-sized city, crewing up and losing your mind and finding a place in the world. Stay Positive has a few moments like that, but it’s more about what happens when you lurk around that scene for too long, when you become the creepy older guy and you watch your own life, along with the lives of everyone else who’s stuck around, fall to pieces. Except the band’s swaggery chug, which gets more epic with every album, turns that general sense of unease and dread into something grand and near-transcendent. My favorite moment, the one that resonates the most and encapsulates the album most completely, comes near the end of “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” this album’s most sweeping tears-in-beer power-ballad, the one about knowing you can’t help this girl but knowing just as well that you’re powerless to let her go. On the breakdown: “This guy from the North Side comes down to visit / His visits, they only take five or six minutes.” Cue blazing guitar solo. There’s magic in that moment, but there’s also a bottomless well of pain, and it knocks me dead every time.
2. Lil Wayne: Tha Carter III
This was a tough decision. Tha Carter III is something I’ve been waiting for a long time: Wayne’s ascendance to absolute stardom, an actual straight-up album from a guy who seemed like he’d be happy kicking stoned, unhinged mixtape freestyles for the rest of his life. This is Wayne’s moment. Right now, middle-schoolers across America are reciting his beyond-silly nonsense on school buses, and that’s a beautiful thing. But Tha Carter III has tracks that I skip: “Comfortable,” “Mrs. Officer,” the second half of “Don’t Get It.” Stay Positive doesn’t, and that difference is enough to decide who gets #1. What’s interesting to me about that is that, weird as they are, those skippable tracks are Wayne’s attempts to fill in the blanks, to make album-tracks that pander to specific audiences: the girl song, the fuck song, the half-baked political song. But Tha Carter III has become the colossus it now is largely because it exploded that received conventional wisdom, going heavy into Wayne’s swampy misfiring brain rather than trying to translate his style into some imagined pop audience. I love the story about 50 Cent calling Hot 97 on the day Wayne’s numbers came out, saying how baffled he was at this thing. Because right now Wayne’s challenging ideas of rap stardom, glorifying messy compulsive stoned insanity rather than the hard focus-grouped control that somebody like 50 evinces. Wayne seems like he barely knows what’s going on half the time, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a rap star give off that sense. And yet the album isn’t the unfocused autotuned mess that the last couple of mixtapes had me fearing; it’s Wayne channeling his dizziness into something purposeful and ferocious, into actual songs with hooks that kick hard, finding a balance between punchline-drunk delirium and world-conquering confidence. And plus there’s that Fabolous verse.
3. Portishead: 3rd
I sure didn’t see this one coming: A group best known for essentially inventing a particularly dated form of languid fuck-music (really great and sad languid fuck-music, but still) coming back years after we’d all stopped waiting with a vengeful burst of absolute dread, cut with the sort of analog synths that used to drive B-movies when B-movies were better. Someone fucked up the release date here: this stark, evil bad-vibes stew is most assuredly not summer music. If today found me in a January frame of mind, 3rd would be my #1, no question. Even with its seasonal displacement, though, 3rd is still a towering achievement, a singularly assured tightrope-walk between luminous beauty and clanking, sputtering hate. More than ever, Beth Gibbons’s voice sounds like a ghost in the machine: a thin, ethereal spectre floating above the churning groove. Those tracks, meanwhile, ditch the dusty, comforting boom-bap of old for a forbidding form of psyche-rock, a hugely compelling marsh of Black Sabbath slow-burn doom-gurgle and Kraftwerk ticcy sparse repetition and John Carpenter drone-apocalypse. For the past couple of months, I’ve been putting 3rd on whenever I’ve been too stressed to function, not because it alleviates the feeling but because it enhances it, turns it into something total and immersive. It’s a dark world unto itself.
4. Cut Copy: In Ghost Colors
Someone needs to make New Order albums now that New Order’s not doing it anymore. Except that’s not quite right; New Order always held back a bit, and they only very rarely threw themselves headlong into dizzy dancepop joy. That’s what Cut Copy does over and over here. They’ve got that same sense of flailing gawkiness, of not quite knowing what to do with the grooves they work up. But the bits of French filter-house and bubbly Euro-pop we hear on In Ghost Colours aren’t just shades or accents; they’re full-on sloppy embraces. Cut Copy go for euphoria, for the liberation that dance-music promises. But the traces of fragile crybaby guitar-fuzzed indie-pop that remain aren’t incidental; they’re completely vital to the naive starry-eyed swooning here the same way Justin Timberlake’s bushy-tailed boy-band past was essential to the cutting-loose joy of FutureSex/LoveSounds. This is basically Portishead’s polar opposite: Glimmering goofy-grin summer pop that demands nothing and washes over you painlessly.
5. The Roots: Rising Down
Now that “Birthday Girl” is a nonissue, we can focus on what’s great about this: the harsh and buzzing electro synth-burps, the breakneck enunciation, the shattering breakbeats, the Afrobeat guitar-pings, the inspired guest-shots, the hard and bleak production, the pure and omnidirectional ire. With all that working for it, I have no problem forgiving the occasional wack yowly chorus. Over the last couple of albums, it’s amazing how completely these lifers have managed to strip away all their excesses, something that can’t be easy when your touring lineup numbers in the double-digits. This isn’t an album about what’s wrong with rap; it’s an album about what’s wrong with everything, and the icy head-knock intensity of its fury perfectly matches the freaked-out consuming panic of its worldview. Tracks like “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” and “Get Busy” are damaging experiences; they start out pummeling and never let up. And so “Rising Up,” works as an unexpectedly joyous palate-cleaner, a rare glimpse of hope after a long wallow in pessimism, sort of like the sounds that play over the end-credits of Children of Men.
Voice review: Harry Allen on the Roots’ Rising Down
6-10. Rich Boy: Bigger Than the Mayor, Bonnie Prince Billy: Lie Down in the Light, Be Your Own Pet: Get Awkward, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Montgomery Gentry: Back When I Knew It All