Top 50 Albums 2010
By The Staff
10 :: Blue Hawaii
Blooming Summer EP
Try to imagine a world where that snippet of synth-pop you heard on an iPod ad is actually a signifier of something substantial, that when you track down the whole song you aren’t immediately sated and then disappointed by something that’s simplistic and rote and by a band with a bad name like Chairlift, something that you only listen to again as a way of reliving that sense of discovery that Apple tried (and obviously somewhat succeeded in) shoving upon you. Blue Hawaii’s music embodies that sense of discovery, for real, and as an entity making their debut with the Blooming Summer EP they already have a surprising confidence in their own complexity, confidence and complexity that can only be born of intense feeling and thorough thought. No need to wait for redemption in a Das Racist collabo.
Or: try to imagine a band that’s like the Knife but sounds nothing like a rip-off of the Knife. Opener “Lilac” is a trumpeting announcement, a shimmering cascade of dense sound and unpredictability that is never less than utterly gorgeous, something akin to the orchestrations of Finnish wunderkinds like Kemialliset Ystävät, Islaja, and Lau Nau but trading in a bit of their murk for a brightness and clarity that cuts like a knife (or the Knife, rather). And “Blue Gowns” is heir apparent to “Heartbeats” as a pop masterpiece that feels alien on its surface but is breathtakingly, crushingly human in its lyrics, its singing, its chords. Blooming Summer is the best music of its kind since before the Dreijers discovered opera and will likely stay that way until Braids, Blue Hawaii singer Raph’s “other” band, release their mega-work Native Speaker in 2011 (which will also be the best music of its Saint Dymphna kind since, uh, 2008’s Saint Dymphna).
In an effort not to oversell this EP I’ll just say that if you swapped “Katie” with “Belize” you’d have the best first half of any record this year and then a really pretty but tad more forgettable second half; as it is Blooming Summer still flirts with the dreaded term “front-loaded” (though the stuttering crescendo of “Lonelyhearts” is totally swoon-worthy). Yet even in its lesser moments the EP represents an aesthetic achievement that’s sort of monumental; it takes an iGenre prone to spit-shine and two-dimensions and opens that stuff way, way up while exposing new frameworks for dulcet tones and keening keyboards to reflect more aptly a staggering level of emotion, depth, and nuance—all while rarely sacrificing an iota of immediacy. It’s like if Metric were put in a maze to wander until their cute smiles and cheeky anthems turned to raw nerves and weird inflections, then were released to create real art. Oh, and like if half that band were cheating on the other half and the better half found a grace by which to endure and a new music to make.
I won’t overly scrutinize the substance of Blue Hawaii’s work here but suffice it to say that I feel the spirit is something of that much (and rightly) mocked plastic bag scene from American Beauty but with enough (read: an overwhelming amount of) craft and imagination to back up the following sentiment: that in the midst of crippling pain, in the midst of the unexpected, in the midst of things both mundane and strange, there can be found beauty. For Blooming Summer that idea is a dam-buster, and it coos and chirps and croons and belts “beauty, beauty, beauty” at every twist and turn, like a birdsong that swells then explodes into a constellation of innumerable points of brilliance. Cosmic connect-the-dots as a mapping of the human heart, then? No less than what I expect next from these gleaming heralds.
9 :: Surfer Blood
Let’s get this on a sticker on the cover of an album by Surfer Blood, somewhere on some shelf of some thankfully surviving physical music store: Surfer Blood, good band. – Cokemachineglow. But, you know, not necessarily italicized. And if you’ve followed our not-entirely-unanimous adoration of this band, then you’ve already called me out on just ripping off a sentiment Clay already sent into the blogosphere in his concert weeview, which was one of three or four concert weeviews we’ve featured on this band. No one’s keeping count—they all feature the same conclusion. Surfer Blood? Good band.
Sometimes there’s just nothing better to say. Surfer Blood is indie rock epitomized and then immediately antithesized: they are a band of schlubby underdogs and one Dan Bejar-type who’ve crafted a debut with guitars and a bass and some regular ole percussion. Sometimes they waft strings toward the angsty core of a song like an antagonistic fart (not another’s fart, but your own scent, and so maybe inappropriate but still so right), and sometimes they knee-jerk some healthy feedback into the coda of an otherwise empirical ditty. They do these things everyone does but do them better—and know they’re doing them better—and in sounding so content with formula they basically spawn already half-buried in an elephant’s graveyard, little time or space to mature and travel and really find a sound all their own, Thanatos already wiping boogers in their hair. If their fully-formed entrance into the world—an indie rock band, tight and tuneful, sprung voluptuous from the cracked skull of some forefather—means Surfer Blood will never have a better record than Astro Coast, that they may never even have another record, that this is the best we can hope from them…then we are content. As we’ve said: good band.
We’ll always have the little moments, the small things. Like Blink-182 once said: we’ll always have the last minute of “Harmonix,” where a bass line repeatedly tripping over itself is punctuated by a ringing affirmation, like the sound so intuitively expected when Mario finds a coin, and if you aren’t then satiated with the glowing orbs of loving warmth ignited from nostalgia and familiarity and the slightest spark of domesticity now living inside you—that vacant space is where your soul should be. We’ll always have “Neighbohood Riffs” following with so much relief, just some galloping show-off stuff, but still inherently sweet, efficient, as feral and playful as any solid indie rock guitar riff should be. In “Twin Peaks,” lead singer schmuck John Paul Pitts asks, “Why is everything a chore?” And we know he’s talking not about how hard everything is, but about something specific, something way harder to accomplish than all this morning-dew-and-sandy-screwin’ indie rock business.
I can hear resident CMG snark-puss Mark Abraham now: “Fine. So I don’t have a soul. I’m not sorry.” And Mark’s seen Surfer Blood live. To his credit: I have no idea what to say. I am totally unchallenged by this record. It does all seem too easy; the song titles seem to agree. But still, in the depths of binges on this record where I once again felt as I did when I first deciphered the buried language of all the records I’ve ever loved, seeing the record strung, like delicious Christmas tree popcorn, on a timeline, against a backdrop of, oh, say, stars, and so knowing intimately my love in all its sense—there Astro Coast sounded about as good as it would ever sound.
Chet Betz, who last wrote the review for this album, said, “…there’s the sense of one intense pang churning in Surfer Blood’s gut, one great big idea at the core of their music that they just gotta let out. But let out…in a way that’s intriguingly, delightfully unclear.” Chet continued to prescribe his own interpretation, one of an obsession with relationships, be they familial, idyllic, metaphysical. I get that, and I agree, but I see something harsher, too: that one great big idea struggling to surface from beneath the veneer of all this easy music? This shit’s actually really hard.
But Surfer Blood (good band) make the hero worship and DIY sophistication and the unraveling of a thousand relationships—and so perhaps also one’s reality—simple to swallow. They do this live, in front of people, sweating buckets, looking positively greasy, and have been doing such indecent exposure for close to a year now—doing it hard. And this schedule will likely continue, and people who already saw them will return to whatever venue they find a spot at, until one day the band realizes they don’t have another album as good as Astro Coast left in them. Shit was just way too hard. Meanwhile, we have their debut, an intimidating first release, and their best and only record.
8 :: Teebs
In his review of Ardour, Chet perfectly summed up Teebs’s endlessly pleasing debut with a single hyphenated word: “mega-gorgeous.” Mega-gorgeousness is so clearly the primary aspiration behind these eighteen tracks, and holy shit does it succeed. This is some exceptional, wholly gripping stuff, from the sped-up woodwind birdcalls that stir awake “You’ve Changed” through the actual death-rattles of “Autumn Antique.” The deftly crafted percussive snaps and thwacks and bass drops; the meticulously treated and manipulated samples that cozily detach and circle themselves into a heavenly swarm; the sinewy everything-else that drifts in and out of Ardour‘s frayed kaleidoscope: all truly gorgeous elements. Taken as a whole? Mega-ly so.
It’d be overwhelming, if not teetering on the dangerously methodical, were the entire thing not such a joy to listen to. Thankfully, despite the aesthetic sameyness of it all, Teebs is a master fucking craftsman, artfully imbuing every song—shit, every second—with a dashing cinematic scope, one which immediately makes Ardour emotionally familiar yet, in its insanely adroit execution, new-ish enough to not feel like the work of any one other producer. It’s just so tight, so economical, a constant crashing of one moment of giddy wonderment into the next: the muffled strums of acoustic guitar and celestial chimes that chemtrail out of “Bern Rhythm” as it softly bottoms out into the static-y thump of “Felt Tip”; the meditative earworm that is “While You Doooo” cooing its way into “Moments”‘s stunning washes of keys and what sounds like a hammer hitting iron, tripping over each other as they re-enter whatever the fuck atmosphere “Burner” orbits; the unfurling gurgles of backwards bass on “Long Distance” deconstructing and then re-mending itself into the synth warble of first single “Why Like.” It goes on like this, each track held tightly, hypnotically together by maybe not the most inventive drum programming of the year, but for me definitely the most interesting, imaginative, and flat-out best sounding. Seriously, shit’s impeccable.
Teebs’s affiliation with LA’s Brainfeeder collective of producers, including Gaslamp Killer (perhaps best known this year for producing much of Gonjasufi’s A Sufi and a Killer) but especially mentor and label-owner Flying Lotus, means Ardour arrives with a pretty good idea of what to expect. But not fully. Compared to the more cerebral and far-reaching experimental depths of Lotus’s masterwork Cosmogramma, Teebs’s hardly “out there” debut is more laid-back, eschewing barrages of tangents for fine-tuned repetition, consistently hitting us hard with cathartic heft instead of merely melting our brains with his ability to co-opt and personalize so many genres—ambient, hip-hop, jazz, dubstep, psychedelia, glitch, chillwave I guess, Dilla, soundtracks to high-def Hubble slideshows on barbiturates, etc.
And though, again, only one hyphenated word can even attempt to encompass all of that, the cover art does a pretty good job, too. It’s hand-painted by Teebs himself over another LP, a la Another Monty Python Record (1971) except instead of scribbles and jokes he’s got the music within pegged before you hear a note. Out of a bulbous, expanding black hole trickles bound yet unraveling swaths of partially brilliant, partially subdued color, while in its finest details concerned with merely creating the sensation of living, breathing movement. It all comes together so well when you step back and take it in as a whole, to the point where choosing a favorite song or brush swipe is a silly and futile exercise. Give it a mere fifty minutes of your time and Ardour‘s steady drip of lovely morsels adds up to a tantalizing feast of mega-gorgeousness. ‘Tis the season, let’s gorge.
7 :: Das Racist
Sit Down, Man
HOW DAS RACIST MADE THE MOST INTERESTING (IF NOT THE LIKE “GREATEST”) RAP RECORD OF 2010
Don’t do anything, in advance, that hints at intelligence. Do shit like make a novelty rap track, a mixtape no one cares about; fuck around, generally. This should probably involve getting stoned off of friend’s weed, drinking when there’s some money around, living in your mom’s basement because money is never around. Rub elbows. Upload shit to Datpiff on a lark. Suck, generally.
In the meantime: Listen to everything, everything loud. Or, rather, listen to everything loudly, not everything that is loud. Although listen to that, too. Watch TV. Jerk off. “Choose life.” But why would you do a thing like that, right. Absorb Brooklyn: the hustle, the idiocy, the intimacy, the glasses. Wear glasses, potentially; make fun of them. Tweet. Hate Tweeting. But Tweet anyway. Tweet prodigiously, incomprehensibly, emphatically. Read everything on the Internet, including everything on Twitter. Care about it, and then, because you’re in Brooklyn, don’t.
Then make a new mixtape. Throw everything in. Take a lifetime of loser-dom, of fuck-yous, make it riotous, and throw it all in: like Paul’s Boutique. Take a lifetime of hating hip-hop, of loving hip-hop, of absorbing the radio and resenting it and resenting how fully you’ve absorbed it, because you are obsessed with the stuff in every possible variation of the form, including but not limited to the Beatnuts and shitty Chris Brown singles, and you cannot help it, and throw it all in: like De La Soul is Dead. Then rap. Fucking rap! Rap like Binary Star, full of braggadocious mic tosses, dexterous go-forever flows; drop the best! verse! of the year! in “Rappin 2 U.” Worship at the altar of 2010 hip-hop, cram dickslap Diplo pap against pulsing Boi 1da mega-hit stuff, make fun of your own skinny jeans on street bangers and then make street bangers on an internet-only mixtape. Know this is retarded. Call your own bluff, repeatedly. Then throw all that in, you’ve got room. Throw in your iPhone. Throw in soap operas. Throw in El-P, sounding pretty much like El-P, by which I mean: great! Love New York hip-hop, backpacks, hard-knocks and all. Throw Twitter back in, then edit it, then throw everything in again; then edit, edit, edit. You’ve got room. But edit.
Hate Lil’ Wayne. Love Lil’ Wayne. Then throw Lil’ Wayne in, too, the final but maybe dominant ingredient in this rich, bottomless, dauntingly impossible to recreate ratatouille; sample the motherfucker. Then drop the mixtape and fill the space that Lil’ Wayne left.
You are now the funniest, smartest, dumbest motherfuckers in contemporary hip-hop.
Then front like it was an accident.
6 :: Women
Women gum up the works. “You want a rock song,” they ask you at the ouset, “a song about girls with surf-guitar and wave-shit, and waves of active perfumed torso on the wave-shit, and some bright, bloodied bandages for the superficial cuts? You’ll find all of them,” they say, “five intercostal spaces down the left mid-clavicular line”…right at the apex beat. Because isn’t that, like, where the human heart is?
Public Strain is a nasty record. If Women own a surfboard, it is a surfboard cucumbered from black Sisyphean boulders, waxed down with gasoline, and sent out blazing over this sea of steatorrhea’d gas bubbles some people still call “indie rock.” That’s right, Public Strain is impervious to shit. And fashion. Because, OK, “Heat Distraction” is a contraflow of zipping, lightbulb-moment guitar lines, all of which interlock, corner tiny melodies, overexuberate into distorted blind alleys—“Heat Distraction,” no doubt about it, is a total jam. In what frickin’ time signature?! Seriously, dudes. And just when you’ve got your bearings—mathy music: check; stonewall vocals: check; schizoid personality disorder rock n’roll: infinitycoma check—“Narrow with the Hall” tails in like a do-it-yourself olde English folk ballad, all Whiggish and party to drink, then insufflate drugs, then OH NO IT’S A SNOW BLIZZARD OF HISSING AMPLIFIERS!
This album is unpredictable, tetchy. I kind of want to believe it was made by Schrodinger’s cat during a total eclipse of everything. It’s twists and turns make it hard—first couple of listens through—to get a handle on just what Women are about, but, boy, when you do: endless reward. Endless. Because Public Strain is not only a hot-leap forward from Women’s immersive debut, it’s a full-blown, front-to-back classic, an album that flows from beginning to end and demands to be listened to in toto, all the time. It still leaves me fairly speechless.
At this point, I’m just going to quote Richard Powers’ back-cover blurb to Evan Dara’s madcap, deeply, deeply moving first novel, The Lost Scrapbook. I think it all applies to Public Strain, which “shows how an [album] can be experimental, yet moral, rule breaking but emotional, and post-humanist while still remaining deeply human.” Damn straight. This forty minute island universe is without reservation my album of the year.
5 :: Frog Eyes
Paul's Tomb: A Triumph
If you mined rock and roll, dug it up from some bear’s den in the forest, Frog Eyes is what it’d sound like. Feral, sharp, big-hearted with a bonfire in its bowels, and utterly untouched by a contemporary “chill”: right down to the raw, escaping air squeaks in his vocal rampages, nothing finds Carey Mercer anywhere near the vicinity of ironic, sarcastic, or numbed. With nary a “neither here nor there” sensation to be found, with lyrics that sometimes strike so fast they’re impossible to grasp, and without an ounce of polish coating them, it’s hard to even describe what he does as “singing.” This guy just could not care more about every note he tears into, every symbol he bellows, and every guitar chord he sends screeching, stumbling, or strangling along with it into the wild. Who sings like that? Soft and affable, Mercer’s not a madman—but he absolutely should be by now.
The sole difference from previous Frog Eyes in Mercer’s approach to Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, besides having the luxury to keep every song’s vocals recorded live as the band played, is in the new set of vocal dynamics he lays out for us. If you’re looking for the frantic yells interspersed with the gauzy timidity of Mercer’s whispers on Tears of the Valedictorian (2007), the faltering mumbles of “Bushels,” your palate may have to acclimate to new highs and lows.
There is no whispering on Paul’s Tomb. It attacks you, right out the gate with the bare-toothed and epic intro to “Flower in a Glove,” a stunning shred of guitar and voice that busts right through to the first track and slices it right open before evolving into chants, to pleas, to the closest Mercer ever comes really to a chorus. Before pealing away into heart-pummeling repetitions, which echo in a universe-broad landscape of gorgeous distortion that’s simultaneously, dirty, gritty, and intoxicatingly airy.
And it only gets more complex, more beautifully unhinged from there—even when Mercer switches gears into a lower-lip-thrust-out kind of pouting holler, moving into his dainty chitters, low-blowing howls, owl hoots, and colder, more ominous chanting. He does this during the dark, Halloween-y pop chant of “Rebel Horns,” with frequent boiling points and weird, frenetic bounce. Even where the album has its quieter moments, in the spectral duets of “Violent Pslams,” it’s less the reverent warmth of a church and more like being alone at night in a woods that’d make Robert Frost and his horse pee their respective pants. With eerie pricklings of suspicion, the only reassuring presence of God is in a shadow or God-sized hole in ether. The album swallows you in that Godless and arresting Lear-haunted wilderness. This is you and Carey Mercer tender, running mad-wild.
Paul’s Tomb is boisterous, anarchic, and so warm-hearted it’s capable of even pulling tragedy from the most clichéd lines or smallest, evocative hiccups of the guitar. Nobody—and I mean fucking nobody—is as cracked apart with the understanding of what rock and roll absolutely is, as Carey Mercer. And what makes it so untouchable is the impossibility for anyone to come close to accomplishing this hurly-burly chaos to such a degree as Frog Eyes. Even the guitar seems to know it; it falls down around his ankles in worship.
With this brutality and vulnerability so laid open in the vocals, with almost un-graspable lyrics, labyrinths of symbols, and with the track lengths stretching to a hair over nine minutes in some cases…like with Newsom’s Have One On Me this year, approachability may certainly be an issue for Paul’s Tomb. But once you’ve an ear in the door, listening—just try and turn it off. Every song. Every goddamn song. It’s a fucking miracle, the way Mercer, in the hands of Frog Eyes, takes something so raw and unattractive and executes it with such blissful, unapologetic beauty.
4 :: Flying Lotus
Steve Ellison’s Cosmogramma is, as Colin pointed out in his review, a record that pulls the margins in towards something that isn’t necessarily the center. That privileges those margins without necessarily relocating them. It would be most appropriate to describe Ellison as extremely faithful to what he’s honoring, which is apparent in the listening. Also appropriate, perhaps, that the album’s most famous guest, Thom Yorke, fronts a band whose reputation is for making experimental pop palatable to those who never cared for the experimental. To do that without dumbing down, without resorting to the easy refuges of irony and one-off hypotheses, isn’t just challenging, it’s rare. This kind of record isn’t a genre unto itself, and it isn’t explanation by reduction, but it does somehow distill its source material’s urgency, immediacy, and scope. Really, it’s all there in the title: Cosmogramma is not a snapshot of the complexly cosmopolitan so much as about the language of cosmopolitanism. Or is it like the grammar of the cosmos? The beauty is that the record could say, “Same difference.”
What makes Cosmogramma important among electronic records is that it places itself outside of the binary of building up norms v. breaking them down, to which so many records that combine disparate elements are assigned. What so clearly distinguishes it is that the album doesn’t seem at all interested in breaking down assumptions, complicating old comforts, or “teaching” its audience how to like it. It’s combinatory in the way that some of the great cosmopolitan records were—Bitches Brew (1970), Remain in Light (1980), Richard D. James Album (1996)—all albums that probably have no business being lined up next to one another and yet each feel right being evoked in the context of Cosmogramma. These albums aren’t interested in being difficult, and aren’t difficult to listen to at all. What they end up being is invigorating. Start peeling back the layers, start scrutinizing Ellison’s choices, and you start to get a sense of just how dense the material is and how choice the arrangements. And yet to enjoy Cosmogramma, by all accounts a dense, often noisy record, is often effortless.
Ellison is combining styles, including disco, IDM, jazz fusion, dubstep, and electro-pop, and in that sense Cosmogramma reads as both a self-contained artifact and a history of this last decade’s electronica. But the album is combinatory in an elemental way, too, using the novelty of ping-pong balls, and, to foreground jazz-fusion roots, virtuoso bass performances. There are a number of gestures here with the kind of historical weight occasionally hinted at by Squarepusher, but they don’t relegate FlyLo to writerly corners or lack a unifying vision.
Lush, detailed, equal parts astral haze and thudding rhythm, Cosmogramma sounds like it could be something that reveals itself not in the here and now, but over years of listening. Not because it’s tricky or demanding but because, like its constituent components—like jazz music, essentially the album’s mother tongue—Ellison has created something both contemporary and ahead of its time.
3 :: Beach House
Victoria Legrand, Alex Scally, and their trusty drum machine have always been in the business of dreams, and their first two records were soundtracks of perpetual, undisturbed slumber. But music’s greatest dreams are enlivened with the threat of puncture: Loveless (1991) is gilded with spikes and static electricity, and on the other side of On Fire‘s (1989) closed eyes dance the banality of drug store fluorescent lights. Beach House’s last album Devotion (2008) was a languid and incontestable picture of loveliness: a gown that floated uninterrupted downriver. Still, for better or worse and like so many purely lovely things, it felt easy to dismiss as ineffectual. The best records, we’re told, are imbued with bone; the best records jab or worse. Before this year, to say that a Beach House record was lovely was one thing, but to say it was one of the best of the year—or that it jabbed like one of the greats—was a difficult claim to defend.
That was then. Teen Dream is a spectacular step forward: a neck snapping to attention. Before, Beach House’s perspective was swathed in mist, but Teen Dream is startlingly articulate. In the opening verse of “Zebra,” Victoria Legrand brushes her Cousin Itt mop back behind her ears and perhaps for the first time on record sings right at you: Don’t I know you better than the rest? It’s the language of hanging on—It has happened again; The face that you see in the door / Isn’t standing there anymore; Are you not the same as you used to be?—repeated until it becomes as weighty and concrete as words can be. Legrand and Scally sell each song with drama (seen through to its most gloriously bombastic extreme in “10 Mile Stereo”), which makes those simple lyrics seem starker—surprising for their mass, kind of the way dream objects feel in waking life.
The other night I had a dream that I was trying to solve a math problem. I can remember it exactly: What is 800 subtracted from 1470? I had no idea. I went on an absurd adventure in search of the answer—I swam laps in a pool of purple water, I met up with long-lost acquaintances who seemed like they might be good at math, and I traveled through emotions of such strange joy that I couldn’t possibly articulate them in words. They would sound stupid, so much simpler than they seemed at the time. So too do the lyrics of “10 Mile Stereo” or “Used to Be” look deceivingly simple when severed from the record, whose eponymous adventure, I probably don’t have to tell you, is love. All this time it’s had its own logic, but how simple and crude that logic seems as you’re falling out of it.
Once we recognize that something great is ending, can we make the end go on, hellishly, forever? The patterns and repetitions of Scally’s arpeggios and Legrand’s phrasing seem to be trying, perhaps most desperately in the record’s final moments as she repeats another truism—I’ll take care of you / Take care of you / It’s true—into infinity. It’s the fadeout of one of the year’s most powerful records: a painstaking document of love receding.
Of course, it was stingingly obvious when I woke from that dream that the solution to the math problem was 670, and in an instant the winding thrill of the adventure disappeared. So sting the first words on your lips when you’re roused from the purgatorial reverie of Teen Dream: “It’s over.”
2 :: Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
It was almost surprising how unsurprising it was: despite the breathless hype that heralded (and fucking ought to have heralded) this new Big Boi record, when Sir Lucious finally hit our ears after years of major label fuckery and online ululations it just felt, somehow, right. Despite all its vibrance and audacity, it felt familiar, its carnival of aural pleasures—the talkbox stomp of “Shutterbugg,” the jet-class breeziness of “Be Still”—somehow something that we had always known would exist, had just to be plucked into being so that we might someday enjoy it. I’m saying Big Boi’s beat selection is on some Jungian collective unconsciousness shit here. I cannot, for example, imagine a human being that would not like “Shine Blockas”; my brain does not allow it. My heart does not.
Because Big Boi, good God, he has heart. It is one uniquely in tune with the idea of pop music, of what it can (and fucking ought to) be. Check, for verification, the encyclopedic cadences of “Daddy Fat Sax,” the vertiginous bombast of “General Patton,” the alien bounce of “You Ain’t No DJ”: the joy within this record is immutable, bursting out in liquid verses and exuberant production. An idea emerges. Perhaps the player would’ve been just fine without the poet, and that the inverse might not be true. Don’t misquote me: Andre’s one of the best emcees ever, and Big Boi is not, but Big Boi’s is the flagrant pop heart, the crucial engine in OutKast’s history. The player and poet trope may be inapt, after all; but brain and heart? Maybe. Never mind the stripper poles, the detour into prurience on the otherwise delicious “Tangerine.” Big Boi doesn’t mean that stuff. He means that sly nod to the one riding shotgun on “Hustle Blood”; he means that part about his main thang having his last name on “Shine Blockas”; he means the production, which his verses strive to merely honor as best as possible, often in sibilant, ambidextrous double-time.
How does one grow this heart? Well, one doesn’t. Big Boi ends his first verse on the first Kast record by attempting to split a blunt with you (the listener); spirit is innate in this dude. But make no mistake that he has grown, in his way. He never sounded boyish, but on Sir Lucious he demands the respect of an adult, of a man. So he sounds a bit crotchety in places, decrying mixtape DJs and punchline emcees. Crotchetiness is earned. Fathers get crotchety. A good father works his ass off, five years at a time, to build a home, a fucking well-produced one. A good father lets his kids’ friends—hello, Vonegutt—stay for dinner in that house, and afterward he shoots the shit with the scrappy few bound for their own successes: Janelle, Yelawolf, Gucci. Good fathers check out other women, maybe. But good fathers have heart. At the great table of southern hip-hop, Big Boi, breadwinner, patriarch, sits down first. Grown-ass-man rap just got its first masterpiece.
1 :: Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Uh-oh, yup, Kanye did it. He’s won. Sorry, guys, but let’s be honest, that shit wasn’t even close. CMG had probably three or four staffers that were like “record’s overrated” and then it won by a bajillion and six points. Yeezy smashed it. In a year where there were so many records to love, to obsess over—in a year where Big Boi finally dropped his and it did right by him, where Frog Eyes shuddered out their most complete of manifestos, where Flying Lotus tripped balls and created his Yorke-step album, where Women were all scuzz everything with a perfect chaser, and Das Racist made us laugh whilst spraining our necks head-nodding, and Emeralds did some of the best shit with a couple synthesizers and guitar in fucking Cleveland, all of that, building and building…and then Kanye drops a record with a stoopid title (what about Ye Actually? Ye’s Tome: A Triumph?) that arcs up and over and beyond, rocketing heavenward on the power of music so pure it gives me pause. Pause.
Kanye was dead to me. 808s and Heartbreak (2008) was sterile, a kid goofing in a futuristic toybox instead of getting grimy in the sand he came from. How was he honestly supposed to confront the issues he claimed to when he couldn’t even see them behind his Autotune gimmicks and shutter shades? His art its own barrier, Ye embarked on a quest to up the ante on every last WTF, to destroy his very self and leave only a black sheep Kanye, an “immaletyoufinish” Kanye, a Kanye made not of flesh and blood but of booze and inscrupulous Tweets. The culmination of the ruin was seeing him sink to new inner lows in that Spike Jonze short, like his body turned to oil for his heart to slowly plop down through layers of black ooze, finally hitting a decrepit bathroom floor somewhere in David Lynch’s worst American nightmare. I had to avert my eyes. I swore off writing about him. I swore off caring about him. And, I swear, if oaths weren’t made to be broken under duress of a greater power. Kanye West loved himself and now he loves music more; that’s a love that saves. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy resurrects our expectations for him, for hip-hop, for music in general. A vocal arrangement warbles to life on “Dark Fantasy” and then shoots shafts of light down through the clouds, staccato bursts of a genius melody like calm gusts and cool rain on a heated, scarred face. Beat on the verses, my God, co-produced by the RZA. Kanye conducts his string players to imitate the filthy two-chord whine of classic Wu-Tang, the piano and drums bouncing, and he integrates that seamlessly into a clarion statement that splits the difference between Derulo and Debussy. Kanye West loves music. Only someone who loves music with every fiber of their being could put every fiber of every music they’ve ever loved into the music they make and have it make such ineffable sense. These six-minute bangers are haikus. Kanye West loved music better than any other artist this year and I loved his music better, too.
To qualify I point at every track on this record, and if you push me I’ll point to a dozen R&B and pop stars melting into the mortar of a tower, horns clambering over each other to the invisible top—“All of the Lights,” real talk, and the stars are melting because MBDTF gives them place in a celestial choir. It assures them that it is bigger than they are, than even Kanye is, and they believe. “All of the Lights” is five minutes of undulating pop where we hear a mainstream diaspora coming together to help birth Album-mythos and still finding room for constant production shifts and switches and song moments that you can call favorites and never forget, like the glimpse of Kanye headed home with his voice tripping into giddy singing before getting harshed by what he finds. This, then, immediately followed by Kanye’s “Monster” posse cut where Primo-esque boom-bap circa Gangstarr or Jeru the Damaja meets vintage Timbaland (try not to hear the cadences of Missy’s “Work It” in the hook) but with that synergy in the only track besides “All of the Lights” without a credited sample, as if amidst all the reverent lifts Kanye returns the favor with his own couple raw source contributions (side-by-side) to the hallowed canon. In “Monster” Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon Iver (what) all jam, Minaj going off like Pharoahe Monch. Kanye West loves the music I love and his music possesses its communicants, wholly. Himself, included. Pinch yourself halfway through the orchestral El-P transmission that is “So Appalled” with all its invoked ciphers to make sure you’re awake, because Ye sure isn’t. Dude’s unconscious.
And so the record title begins to seem somewhat apt: Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is ported directly from his brain to our ear drums, without the hindrance or halting or insufficiency of speaking. I don’t know why Rawse has to dump on the unfiltered golden haze of Kanye’s spiritual sex-dream “Devil in a New Dress,” but in a way this record’s imperfections add interest and extra crackle to a texture that’s already buzzing at a million watts and imbued with infinite detail. This record’s engine is Unreal. And within the vastness of sprawling compositions linked together in one complete, cohesive work by an oneiric logic that has the absolute swag of straight science, Kanye finds himself.
It happens in all kinds of art, of course. Near the end of his life Philip K. Dick started writing novels that mixed autobiography with science fiction with philosophical treatise as a way of showing what happens when a fiercely imaginative but broken and addiction-addled artist encounters what PKD called Hagia Sophia, “Holy Wisdom.” The artists reels and reels and then goes on creating within the language he’s fashioned for himself but using that language to translate for a new tongue. For PKD that meant some of the best and most profound novels of his career, novels like VALIS and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. For Kanye it means MBDTF. Even if some of this record’s wisdom comes by way of collaboration (Dick would probably argue that the external is the basic source of human wisdom, anyways): Rhymefest has writing credits, there’s the aforementioned impact of Gil Scott-Heron’s words in the record’s epilogue, the fact that Pusha T’s surreal “invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless” on “Runaway” is the line of this young decade, cracking asunder its lush surroundings like some bolt of divine inspiration. But every other line here is an inspired blow. “Gorgeous,” for instance, is W.E.B. Du Bois-relentless in dropping knowledge, evidenced as much by Kanye’s torrential rapping as by the mere presence of Raekwon. So MBDTF sets up shop in the unique pink glow of revelation: VALIS talk.
And Kanye now sees, for the first time, the true returns of his mirror. On “Runaway” he warns a lover to flee. On “Power” he claims title to “the abomination of Obama’s nation.” On “Blame Game” Chris Rock may be talking horribly funny game in complimenting the way Yeezy taught his girl to re-upholster her pussy but the key is that the pussy’s no longer with Yeezy, it’s with Chris Rock. And in the sublime climax that is “Lost in the World” Kanye starts first by humbly showing how white-boy Bon Iver used Autotune better than Ye ever could and then goes on to show just how much he feels it when Vernon sings “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / to slow down the time.” And then Ye takes that music and glorifies it, raising it higher, “Soul Makossa” interpolation hitting like a crack propellant. This record is Kanye’s “A Day in the Life” moment, his ambition and self-expression catalyzing and crystallizing together in connected unison, but Kanye—cultural siphon that he is—knows enough to ask, “What’s a black Beatle, anyway? A fucking roach?”
The doubters on CMG staff question how much of this album’s strength is dependent on what we know of Kanye versus how much is intrinsic. To which I can only respond: does it matter? Kanye West loves the living shit out of music, and if you can’t hear that in every meticulously arranged note and gleefully tossed-in guest appearance (even in a misplaced Rick Ross), then you will never hear it. But that’s all I hear, and when MBDTF pushes me to look at Kanye, it warms my tired heart to see an actual, real Kanye stumbling his way back to wholeness. The album documenting that journey does so with the art of music, and the art of rap, and the art of earnest confession, and never less than art. Kanye knows that we, the audience, we see and we hear. He knows it and he works it in a way that only he—with all his infamy and talent—could do. By the time Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1” runs its course and “Who Will Survive in America?” asks its titular question again and again, we are given that moment that sometimes happens in art where a final, settling realization enters and brings with it numerous truths, in this case amongst them: Yeezy sees us, he sees our recession, he sees just our general struggle to live, he acknowledges that while some may put up a good front and others may “fake-ass party” their breath away, all of us are barely scraping by inside in more ways than one, and Yeezy is no different. So Kanye’s tribulations and innumerable influences have finally achieved that balanced mixture that makes them powerful, combustible, phoenix fuel. Look to the sky, Ye’s on fire. And then just listen to his Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; in the rumbling wake of Ye’s living flame he has left us, at last, a true classic.