Status Ain't Hood's Quarterly Report: The Year's Best Albums
So I bust rights and lefts, lefts and rights
I don't know if the past three months have been great for albums, but they've definitely been very good. I've only heard two albums that I love without reservation, but I've heard a whole lot of albums that I like a lot. I couldn't find room on this list for a whole mess of worthy albums: Arcade Fire, Jesu, Gui Boratto, Dalek, Deerhunter, Sean Price, Crime Mob, Patrick Wolf. I also didn't include Sally Shapiro's Disco Romance, even though I totally love that album, since it's only out on Norway or something and I have no idea when it might've been released; it would've been #3 on this list. So here's what made the cut.
1. Prodigy: Return of the Mac. Most everyone seems to feel the same way about this one as I do, but the one overriding criticism has been that P has completely deteriorated as a technical rapper in the past few years. That's true, but he actually makes that deterioration work for him on this album. There's a cold, angry weariness in his voice here; he's like the sneering nihilist kid of The Infamous after more than a decade of trials and disappointments and pain have weighed him down and dampened his pride. There's a lot of "New York made me this way" talk, which brings with it the implicit recognition that "this way" isn't a great way to be. And the ground-out weariness of his voice works perfectly with the humid, crackling warmth of Alchemist's production. Al samples the hell out of a very particular era of soul music, a time when lush orchestration and psych-rock guitars crept into the music and film companies were tapping geniuses like James Brown and Curtis Mayfield and Al Green and Isaac Hayes to do the soundtracks to cheap quickie action movies. Alchemist, of course, grew up white and privileged in Beverly Hills, and so he probably picked up his image of New York from afar, watching movies like Taxi Driver and Escape from New York and Across 110th Street, but his idea of the city meshes beautifully with the dangerous dystopia that Prodigy has long depicted. Neither one of them seems to have a lot at stake with this album, seeing as how they originally intended it to be a mixtape, and so there's no half-realized commercial-radio pandering, just two extremely gifted artists taking pride in their craft and figuring out what they loved about music in the first place. It's over in less than 45 minutes. I'd love to see other rappers take note of what they've done here, but I'm not holding my breath. I've got a larger review of the album coming out in a couple of weeks, so I don't want to go on too much, but Return of the Mac really is an unqualified triumph on every level except maybe the commercial one.
2. LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver. Last night, I was getting a hometown-nostalgia fix watching an old episode of Homicide on DVD, and the episode in question included a couple of montages set to Soul Coughing's "Super Bon Bon." A couple of things occurred to me. First: I used to love Soul Coughing, even if I haven't spent five minutes thinking about them in the past five years. Second: Wow, LCD Soundsystem really sounds a lot like Soul Coughing. The more I thought about it, the more similarities I found: both bands share roots in New York's downtown nightclub culture, both had musicians who pursued and achieved their own ticcy-but-muscular grooves, both bands' frontmen usually went for a sort of sardonic nasal sing-speak thing. (It's not a particularly original point; after my LCD Soundsystem interview ran, someone sent me an e-mail saying that one of the things he likes about LCD is how much they sound like Cake.) But the big difference between Soul Coughing and LCD Soundsystem is in the disparate ways they approached their similar ideas. Soul Coughing foregrounded their nonsensical free-associative lyrics; they were a self-consciously weird rock band who incorporated a few tricks from dance music without ever plunging headlong into it. Even LCD Soundsystem's best lyrics, which are pretty great, are basically just an afterthought; the band has a lot more to do with dance than with rock. I loved the first LCD album, but Sound of Silver is an improvement in every way, mostly because the band sounds less like Soul Coughing than it ever did. The grooves are harder and more focused, the reaching-for-prettiness moments are woozy and diffuse but also fully realized, and James Murphy's vocals have almost altogether given up on arch sarcasm and moved ever closer to dizzy joy. That last point is why those new songs all registered as towering anthems on Friday night. All of a sudden, this band is on our side, not taking sidelong shots at us. Euphoria always beats irony. "New York I Love You" is the glaring exception to that new approach, and I'm happy to ignore it, but even that song has a fond sweetness and an earned wisdom to it. I may have completely forgotten about Soul Coughing in the years since they broke up, but I don't think I'm going to do the same thing with LCD Soundsystem.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on LCD Soundsystem
3. !!!: Myth Takes. Rumors of dance-punk's death have been greatly exaggerated. Or maybe not. Bands like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem and !!!, all veterans of the circa-2002 tsunami of dance-punk hype, are releasing great albums, but they're doing it by getting further and further away from the sonic values of circa-2002 indie-rock and post-hardcore. I interviewed John Pugh from !!! a couple of months ago for D.I.W., and he told me how his band had been lumped in with that whole wave but that they'd never been particularly interested in Gang of Four. Instead, they were trying to evoke Chic and Funkadelic and Off the Wall, knowing full-well that their awkwardly spazzy art-school tendencies would bleed through. !!! had released a handful of great singles before Myth Takes, but they'd never released a great album, mostly because their punk roots kept sabotaging them. The muffled and tinny production, the scratchy guitars, and the cartoonish, grandstanding vocals kept working against the grooves they were trying to work up. That nervousness is still audible on Myth Takes, but for once they're not foregrounding it; they're just letting it leak out as it will. And so nothing really gets in the way of the lush, intricate push of the percussion or the psychedelic sweep of the guitars. Out Hud, !!!'s sister band, broke up last year, and that band was always more assured in their single-minded techno-funk; I have a theory that the three former Out Hud members still in !!! applied some of their old band's rippling smoothness to this album. Pugh couldn't really say if that's what was going on, but either way, this is the album I'd always hoped !!! had in them.
Voice review: Mikael Wood on !!!'s Myth Takes
4. Ponys: Turn Out the Lights. Near the beginning of every year, an album comes along and grabs me by executing used-up rock tropes with a sort of unearthly grace powerful enough to make me forget who they're ripping off in the first place. Last year, it was Band of Horses' Everything All the Time. The year before, it was the self-titled Black Mountain album. These records can be easy to ignore because they so steadfastly refuse to reinvent the wheel, but they sneak up on you if you let them. Turn Out the Lights may not be quite the work of glorious pastiche that the Band of Horses and Black Mountain records were, but its warm, glowing fuzz and its anthemic soar are powerfully satisfying in the exact same ways. A lot of people who loved the first two Ponys albums don't have a whole lot nice to say about this one, apparently because the band has swapped out its herky-jerk garage rock for mellower, more reverbed-out Velvet Underground stuff. But they pull off that ebb-and-flow with such expert panache that I keep thinking of the Dandy Warhols 13 Tales of Urban Bohemia, an album I really, really loved. As we get deeper into spring, Turn Out the Lights album is only going to get more burn from me; on a nice day, there's nothing I'd rather hear than a perfectly subdued wah-wah pedal freakout.
Voice review: Lindsey Thomas on the Ponys' Turn Out the Lights
5. Young Buck: Buck the World. So it's not the succession of dark, stormy bangers, the Straight Outta Cashville Part 2 I wanted. It's still an hour-plus of one of my favorite voices in rap, that grizzled sandpaper bark that sounds equally comfortable mourning fallen family members and issuing grim death-threats. And Buck is a very smart rapper in a lot of ways. Pretty much everyone else in G-Unit, including Mobb Deep on Blood Money, shoots for this sort of lazy, unearned arrogance, a tactic that can only work when there's enough actual confidence underneath to lend credence to the swagger. But that kind of thing can lead to backlash really quickly, since it's hard to root for that arrogance when the arrogant guy is already winning. Buck is as confident as anyone else in his crew, but he swaps out that arrogance for a wounded, paranoid bluster, and so he registers as a righteous underdog even on top of these million-dollar beats. Buck the World is full of sophomore-album missteps, and I drift off for long portions of the album; Buck really shouldn't be dicking around with Chester Bennington or doing soft, wispy Hip Hop is Dead filler-track material like "U Ain't Going Nowhere." But when the album does get around to the sort of epic, punchy bangers Buck was doing more consistently on Straight Outta Cashville, the resulting charge is more than enough to carry it through its sleepier sections. When someone can emerge from rap's least likable crew sounding like an actual human being, you know he's doing something right.
6-10. The Field: From Here We Go Sublime; Devin the Dude: Waitin' to Inhale; Rich Boy: Rich Boy; Bloc Party: A Weekend in the City; Soft Circle: Full Bloom.