Monday, June 30, 2008

Best Albums of the Year So Far

It is what it is. Alphabetical order. Here's the muxtape link for a song from each album:
TANBR 2008 First Half

Atmosphere- When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

I already wrote on this and don't have much to add, but the album is still pretty great after multiple listens. People, critics and hip-hop heads alike, take Slug's detailed, refined songwriting for granted, and it looks as if their latest will be another under-appreciated entry in Atmosphere's oeurve.

Coldplay- Viva la Vida

"Why Do Critics Front on Coldplay When Coldplay Can't Help but Be Awesome?" should be its own post--for the record, it has something to do with the "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" snydrome that affects all British bands when they conquer America. We end up being intrigued by their exoticism, then we lose our patience with their growth and assume that all British people are arrogant and superior, which is what we wanted out of them in the first place. Fact is, it's easy to hate Coldplay. If you want to say that they lack depth, you can point at how obvious the lyrics' preoccupation with death are. But if every band has to be deep, that shoves a lot of great bands into the corner, so you can say that Coldplay are faux-obtuse by pointing to the multi-part structures and the interminable Brian Eno fade-ins and the fact that there are kettle drums all over this. But you can't have it both ways: you can't say that a band is stupid for its genius and genius for its stupidity--even if it's the perfect summation of Coldplay. The epic, anthemic, rousing, effortless sounds of "42," "Viva la Vida, and Chris Martin's fallen angel swagger on "Yes" or "Death and All His Friends" are the thinking man's band for people who don't want to think. And they're brilliant. So shut up, Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes and Village Voice. These songs are not a 6.

Erykah Badu- New Amerykah, Part One (Fourth World War)

This record sounds like someone who knows everything about hip-hop slowly un-learning it. Each instrument, sometimes sampled, sometimes organic, seems off-kilter and wandering across the measures of each verse, almost as if they aren't sure they want to meet at the end. I could care less about her conspiracy theories and whatever concept she's trying to weave, but I could listen to her sultry, withered voice all day. You also have to admire the balls of someone who makes her album's single a bonus track.

Fleet Foxes- Sun Giant EP

Piercingly delicate melodies that will most certainly end up on a soundtrack to a terrible movie. And the transitions within songs here are gorgeous. At their best, Fleet Foxes sound like The Band on heroin.

Fuck Buttons- Street Horrrsing
The duo of Fuck Buttons started as a noise punk band but slowly added electronic elements until their project had moved way past anything they intended at first to become something much more experimental and ambient and artful. Their approach is best illustrated in album opener "Sweet Love for Planet Earth," which begins with tinkles, then adds a guttural Reznor-like line of tension, then layers some compressed chords, and finishes by--lower in the mix--piping in insurmountable drones and screaming. But unlike the post-rock that it recalls, which deals almost exclusively in momentum-building, these developments happen at a leisurely pace, at different, unpredictable intervals. But that pattern, pretty-to-ugly-to-pretty-to-uglier, is kind of inescapable. If the music of Fuck Buttons serves as their philosophy, then we're to believe that the world ends in a bang, not a whimper. Despite our best intentions, we'll always end up in a nightmare.

Girl Talk- Feed the Animals

There aren't quite as many awe-inspiring moments as there were on Night Ripper, and Greg Gillis has to play a bit more with pitch-shifting and--upon a pretty cursory first listen--more original percussion to match elements, but his layering has become much more complex. You can sometimes hear five elements of different songs at once. And his true strength is still his formalism. Anyone can come up with a clever connection of some austere pop song and a naughty rapper, but the ebbs and flows of these constructions, the song structures, stand up to repeat listens. Even most of the major key changes make sense. When's the last time you heard a song collage with a bridge?

Lil' Wayne- Tha Carter III

Portishead- Third
Perhaps I've never mentioned my love of Portishead on this site, but a good reason for that might be that this is their first material in ten years. This isn't an easy listen: it's as funereal and downtempo as ever, but there are some interesting influences here, and Beth Gibbons' languid, otherworldly voice is better than any instrument you could ever sample. A little bit of levity is found in the acoustic cafe-type interludes, but the group shines when it attacks (desultorily, of course) with a track like "Machine Gun."

The Roots- Rising Down

Rising Down is best described as solid. There are very few moments that will go down in The Roots' history, and this album is, once again, not the one that will start the revolution that seems to have passed them by. But consistency is underrated, and there isn't one song I would skip past here, even if it is a dark, unsettling listen. (Apparently "dread" is my iPod's mood.) Each song is as tightly-wound as possible, pulling no punches and wasting no time, and the hooks are as punishing and lasting as they've ever been. With too many ideas and too many guests that cloud the core members' shared vision, the album is weighed down by its ambition, which is kind of a nice problem to have.

Vampire Weekend- Vampire Weekend

A lot has been written about Vampire Weekend's brand of entitlement rock, selling us a jangly, Ivy Leagued pilfering of African rhythms and New York proto-punk and new wave. When you write a song (sort of) about the non-essential nature of the Oxford comma, you choose for that subtext to be inextricable from the music itself. But you know what? They're good songs--summery, jaunty, articulate, their reach never extending their grasp. No other band this year has produced a collection that is as instantly recognizable yet immediately accessible as Vampire Weekend's debut. As is the case with that pesky Oxford comma, they prove that once you know the rules, you can break any one you want.

Wale- The Mixtape about Nothing
Releasing a high-profile mixtape on the day of Tha Carter III was ill-advised, but releasing one as layered, witty, and consistently surprising as this was a masterstroke. When I heard that Wale was making something inspired by "Seinfeld," I was pretty confident he could hold it together, but I didn't expect a work that used the show (which, it's worth mentioning, I love) as a springboard for something this deep and satisfying, borrowing from the show's aesthetic to create pensive material that is completely different and rewarding on its own terms. It may be the most cohesive mixtape ever made, but it's also just fun to listen to an hour of Wale's jaunty, assured voice.

Wolf Parade- At Mount Zoomer

I used to host a college radio show, and each week I would finish with the chestnut "I'll Believe in Anything" from Wolf Parade's last album because it sounded the way I felt at the time: exuberant but anxious, idealistic but hesitant. When Spencer Krug sings, it sounds as if he's always apologizing, if that makes any sense. This album feels a bit more ambitious and willfully inaccessible than the first, but it retains the effusive quality I fell in love with through the shimmering, angular melodies played out on keyboards and guitars and the swelling choruses. These guys will be around for years to come.

Other stuff I liked that almost made the cut:
Asher Roth- The Greenhouse Effect, Vol. 1 (mixtape)
Curren$y- Fear and Loathing in New Orleans (mixtape)
Estelle- Shine
Gnarls Barkley- The Odd Couple
Hot Chip- Made in the Dark
Islands- Arm's Way
MGMT- Oracular Spectacular
My Morning Jacket- Evil Urges
No Age- Nouns
Rich Boy- Bigger Than the Mayor (mixtape)
Scarlett Johansson- Anywhere I Lay My Head (give it a try)
Young Dro- I Am Legend (mixtape)

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