Sunday, December 27, 2009
3. Kid Cudi- Man on the Moon: The End of the Day
It is immediately evident that "Man on the Moon" is not a normal mainstream hip hop album. There's the spacey cover artwork, featuring Cudi's head bloated to planetary size, the accordingly spacey arrangements, and of course, Cudi himself. In a rap world where emotions other than anger and lust usually see about as much light as the dark side of the moon, the Kid (as Common says in one of his several awesome voiceovers on the album) speaks of "vulnerabilities and other human emotions and issues never before heard so vividly and honest." Where some dismiss this phenomenon as "emo rap," I fail to see any of the pomp and circumstance that is so prevalent in the emo genre. Instead I see a young dude who kicks it with his homies, has a good time, but is still constantly nagged by his insecurities about life- aka your average 25 year-old man. And where other artists hide behind gun-toting braggadocio or, on the other end of the spectrum, guyliner to conceal their true identity, Cudi pulls a pretty balls-out move by - get this - speaking his mind. "Man on the Moon" may not be a lot of things other great albums are, but it exudes honesty, something I view as one of the most admirable qualities in songwriting. Anyone can write a decent song, it takes an artist to write a decent song that is also introspective and self-revealing. We follow Kid Cudi through his rabbit hole of weed, self-loathing and female troubles (the source of one of the best lines all year "I got 99 problems/and they all bitches" - a sort of one-upping of Hova) and come out in a Wonderland. A place where Kanye smiles from above as the Cheshire Cat, Common sits on a mushroom smoking a hookah and spouting prophetic speeches, Ratatat and MGMT Mad Hatter it up, and Cudi just keeps taking those "Eat Me" pills.
4. Noah & The Whale- The First Days of Spring
Breakup albums are always tough to pull off, especially when the ex used to be in the band. Before this, their second album, Noah & The Whale's claim to fame was the feel-good singalong "Five Years Time," but there is nothing on this album that even shows a hint of that sunshine. That isn't to say that "The First Days of Spring" is an entirely melancholy album; an overriding theme is hope, as the title implies. There are even moments of near-glee (most notably in "Love of an Orchestra"). However, it is the forlorn glory of songs such as "Blue Skies" and the title track that makes this album what it is: a modern heartbreak classic on the same plateau as Ryan Adam's aptly titled "Heartbreaker." Although the lyrical content in this album sometimes falters (see: "Like a cut-down tree/I will rise again" in the title track), frontman Charlie Fink wins you over by wearing his heart on his sleeve and refusing to gloss over the ugly parts of the actual breakup, even his sexual exploits with an unfamiliar and presumably undesirable woman in "Stranger." The band compliments Fink's commentary with near-perfect musical embodiments of his feelings, especially the hollow "Blue Skies" melody that shows up quite often. Listening to "The First Days of Spring" is like running in the rain, where all outside forces press gloom upon you, but the endorphins shooting through your veins speak to you the promise of a rainbow at the end.
Friday, December 18, 2009
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz!
YYYs frontwoman Karen O. may be one of the weirdest individuals of our time. She may also be one of the most brilliant. From the second they burst onto the scene with "Maps," arguably one of the decade's best songs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have maintained their popularity by releasing three outstanding albums. I can see the great merit in their first two lps, but personally, it was not until "It's Blitz!" that I considered myself a true fan. With this album, the band moved in a new direction, adding more synths and trading guitar rock frenzies for epic, building pieces and danceable indie-disco. Many YYYs purists do not even view this album on the same plateau as the first album, but to me (probably just because of my affection towards synth-rock) it transcends the band's previous ventures. Among the best tracks are "Skeletons" and "Runaway," both much more epic productions than any other YYY's song; with snare drum cadences and haunting piano notes, you can tell that Karen O. and Co. aimed to pull out all the stops on this one- and succeeded. But the standout track for me is second-to-last "Hysteric," whose urge to "flow sweetly, hang heavy" sounded like the most appealing thing to do in the dying light of August nights.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
6. Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
A band, veterans of three albums, does not even approach the commercial arena until the release of their fourth lp, which not only allows them to enter that arena, but also to rise to previously unimaginable heights in it. Sound familiar? Yeah, Phoenix is pretty much the French Kings of Leon- if the Kings of Leon were reincarnated as less-drunk but more fun-loving hipsters from Nice. Believe me, I've got nothing against my Kings, it's just that Phoenix is... well... THAT good. With the opening song "Lizstomania," ("Someday" by the Strokes- if the Strokes were reincarnated as, well, see above) the good-times vibe is undeniable. But even "Lizstomania" in all of its ecstatic grandeur is eclipsed by what follows. "1901" is the reason Phoenix played virtually every late-night talk show this year- as the second single, it rocked the world. With the guitar and that badass synth (that Girl Talk recently caught onto in one of his shows), they became the biggest French mainstay in the US this side of mustard. And unlike some other recent albums that basically putter out after the first few songs (Miike Snow??), the monsieurs from Phoenix switch gears, but nevertheless hold our fascination with gems like "Rome" and of course the gorgeous two-part "Love Like A Sunset." With their combination of excellent pop songwriting, hipster vibe, and possibly the best album title of the decade, Phoenix now holds a special place in the hearts of millions of Americans.
7. The XX- xx
This is the Marvin Gaye for the cooler-than-you, colder-than-ice Brooklyn indie kid generation. But if you fail to find sparse drum machines, clean guitar melodies and boy-girl harmonies as sexy as they do, something's wrong with you. I don't know how the British foursome makes melancholy music sound so seductive, but it sure does sound like it could accompany any given make-out scene in any given teen sitcom *cough cough gossip girl cough.* The other remarkable aspect of The XX is their ability to survive the often-fatal tsunami of hype that internet buzz bands are subject to. Although they are arguably the most blogged-about band of '09, they actually deserve it. This album is one of the first (with predecessors in Hot Chip) in what I believe will be a large quantity of r&b-inspired indie that we will see in 2010. Even if this fad comes and goes as quick as a Ramones song, this album will be remembered. And to the dozens of kids in Brooklyn that are inexorably going to try to top The XX: good luck, hipsters, you're gonna need it.
8. Brother Ali- Us
It's hard out there for a pimp. It's harder out there for an overweight, legally blind, albino muslim rapper from Minneapolis. That's Brother Ali. But Ali does not attempt win you with a woe-is-me mentality, he wins you with his versatility, prowess at rhyming, and soul. Jumping from aggro guitar riffs to jazzy Gang Starr-esque backing tracks to gospel choirs to honey encrusted vintage cinema strings, Atmosphere producer Ant bars no holds in his work. As far Ali goes, his chameleon-like transformation from song to song- near-tears romantic to hard ass mc with teeth bared- only serves to illustrate his lyrical ability. As much as "Us" is an aural pastiche of hip hop in the past 20 years, it also has life as a fresh new recording- not quite as genre-bending as K-OS but far less traditional indie rap than Atmosphere. Ali was discovered by Atmosphere's mc and is produced by its dj, and now after four albums, the master-apprentice metaphor seems apt here. This is the part where Darth Vader throws the Emperor down that chute.
9. Miike Snow- Miike Snow
I'm a sucker for albums that open with great 1-2-3 punches. The opening to this Swedish band's debut album seems almost formulaic in its structure. This is no surprise, because in the search for the formula of a hit song, the members of Miike Snow (its actually three guys) seem to be winning after having produced songs for Madonna, Kelis, Kylie Minogue, and the infectious "Toxic" by Brittany Spears. But back to the album. Track number one, "Animal" is the hit single, the catchy, bouncy nicotine that makes you interested; number two "Burial" (the Benny Blanco remix is actually superior) slows the pace a bit with a heavily overdubbed vocal collage over a piano-driven funeral march, but is nevertheless majestic in its muted dramatic shuffle; it is the third, however, that makes the trifecta great. The opening keyboard chords of "Silvia" are the immediate harbinger of greatness- greatness in the form of a lovesick organ rave-up. The formula works.
10. Major Lazer- Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do
In what could be dubbed as a 21st century supergroup of djs/producers, Diplo (longtime MIA producer) and Switch combine their artistic talents in to a loveably unconventional album. Why unconventional? What other albums in '09 featured an autotuned baby, a fictitious Jamaican backdrop, AND a song that, if discovered by the right people, could be poised to be a Top 40 mainstay? The latter song, "Keep it Goin' Louder," sounds like the thousands of other autotune-and-patron fueled club jams... only better. When Ricky Blaze sweetly serenades "girl I wanna party here with you," it sounds so much more romantic than most other r&b booty calls. On top of that, there's "Hold the Line," where Santigold grooves on top of a surf guitar lick with the Major himself (a deep-voiced, sex-obsessed Jamaican man), and of course "Pon De Floor," this year's unofficial winner of the "song that is great while also being hugely repetitive" award. Listening to this album makes me want to befriend Major Lazer, head to a dancehall club in Kingston and "party here with" Switch and Diplo all night long.