Top 10 Albums of 2008

28 12 2008

After a WHOLE YEAR of deliberation, I bring you my decisive Top Ten Albums of 2008. I think. Maybe I shouldn’t be so decisive, because I’ve revised this about 15,000 times in the last two weeks. Let me just say this: It was a GOOD year for music. Things started to get really interesting in my two current favorite genres of music: hip-hop and Swedish pop.

Two notes:

1. Spin had a really interesting article (I know, I know: I shouldn’t admit that I read Spin. But I do. I read Spin and I love reading Spin. So whatever, I’m embracing it, let’s move on) about the current state of hip-hop in a world where buying a sample can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — on in other words, the entire budget of most (even many mainstream) hip-hop albums. So as a result, hip-hop takes less from its hey-day of adeptly mixing samples and rapping over them, and has evolved into a more “street” version of pop music. The result, I think, is really interesting, and I’m crazy about it: Ne-Yo, Beyonce, Ludicris, Jennifer Hudson and T-Pain all released great records this year, none of which fit the customary hip-hop model. On the flip-side, sample-happy Greg Gillis also put out another fucking awesome record this year, in the form of pay-what-you-will, so-infectious-its-masturbatory “Feed The Animals,” which alternately reinvents the genre. But none of those records made my list.

2. I think I might be a lesbian. I have such a freaking hard-on for female vocalists that it’s out of control. And I know it’s not really healthy and that I don’t really look at albums objectively because when a chick is singing I just like it infinitely better. I give you this caveat because my list is composed of 50 percent female vocalists, but the year-end list in my HEART would probably be more like 90 percent. So honorable mentions to Santogold’s self-titled (I listened to this on repeat for months while making bird collages), Kid Sister’s in-fucking-credible “Dream Date,” Love Is All’s “A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night” (for the Swedish angsty teenager inside of me), Estelle’s “Shine” (shameless Britpop), and Hello Saferide’s imperfectly beautiful “More Modern Short Stories From…” Cheers, ladies.


10. Kanye West – “808’s and Heartbreak”: Deeply wonderful for everything it is. I have been listening to this exclusively for the last few weeks… it’s the perfect break-up album (well, no. Kelly Clarkson’s Great Hits is the perfect break-up album. But this is the perfect break-up album for people who have pride). It’s weirdly upbeat and catchy; it’s meticulous and experimental and it works. Better than “Graduation,” which topped my list last year. I love that Kanye has eschewed this idea that he needs street cred in favor of the reality that he is the best fucking producer out there.

MP3: Kanye West – Paranoid

9. Ladyhawke – “Ladyhawke”: My friend Kim and I used to make these amazing dance mixes to dance to for an entire hour on Friday nights. The music — mostly Blondie, CSS, and Ladytron — was good enough that we didn’t need company or to be drunk; we just danced our brains out. If this album had existed when we used to do that, we wouldn’t have to make mixes; we could just dance to this all the way through. Every single track is fucking hit.

Mp3: Ladyhawke – Paris Is Burning

8. She & Him – “Volume 1”: It is not fair to the world that I love Zoey Deschanel as much as I do, because I know that my love for her and her little drippy outfits and her big deer eyes skews my judgement on her musical ability. Still, listening to this album makes me feel like it’s summer and I’m in high school and I’m reading Virginia Woolf for the first time and eating slow-churned ice cream. The cover of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is hypnotic, and a handful of the other ballads are impossibly heart-breaking in all the right ways. I listened to this too much last year for it to not make my list.

MP3: She & Him – Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

7. T.I. – “Paper Trail”: I am ready to say it: “Whatever You Like” is my favorite track of 2008. I just couldn’t overplay it. I drove around SEARCHING for it on the radio. If it came on just as I was pulling up to my house, I would sit in front of my house until it ended. Now, really, this is just a song about a glorified hooker. And to me, that makes it all the more endearing. Add to that the productive feat that is “Swagga Like Us,” the underrated “On Top of The World,” and the this-song-is-stuck-in-my-head-FOREVER song of the year that is “Live Ya Life,” and you have an album that competes pretty seriously with “Tha Carter III” for album with the most awesome and awesomely overplayed singles of the year.

MP3: T.I. – “Whatever You Like”

6. Los Campesinos! – “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”: It must be cool to be as prolific as Los Campesinos!. I was still spinning “Hold On Now, Youngsters” (which came out in February) when I was literally blown away by the British band’s November effort. It’s raw and bratty and upbeat but totally depressing at the same time. The haste with which this album was released translates into a beautiful, messy urgency, fueling many late-night painting sessions and cigarettes out on the roof. Also, there is a glockenspiel in this band. And it is played BEAUTIFULLY.

MP3: Los Campesinos! – Miserabilia

5. Why? – “Alopecia”: In many ways, “Alopecia” is a perfect album. The only thing is, Why? has this tendency to make perfect albums, so the surprise element is lacking here. See, I didn’t sit down and listen to this album and think, “HOLY SHIT! This album is FUCKING TIGHT!” I sat down and listened to it and thought, “Surprise, surprise: Why?’s latest is fucking tight.” It’s a lyrical masterpiece (as usual), it’s eclectic as ever, it transitions flawlessly between my I-hate-being-single lonely car rides and my I-am-so-happy-to-be-alive morning runs. More than anything, this album is always going to remind me of the happiest time of life — last spring in Walla Walla, perched on the end and the beginning of everything. The first half of the album stands out to me as everything a record could possibly hope to be. I just don’t understand why Why? lacks the kind of international fanaticism it ultimately deserves.

MP3: Why? – These Few Presidents

4. Lykke Li – Youth Novels: This is one of those records that is more like a painting to me than a collection of songs. I prefer to listen to it all the way through, maybe while on the plane or driving to Baton Rouge in my car. It has the ebb and flow of a meticulously-crafted mix CD, setting you up to feel AWESOME and then ten seconds later fall apart in a fit of tears. Gorgeous reinterpretations of jazz and synth and pop… it’s really just a fucking masterpiece. When I first heard this I thought to myself, “This could lend itself to some BOMB-ASS remixes.” Lo and behold…

MP3: Lykke Li – Dance Dance Dance

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science: Here is the truth about me and TV on the Radio: I don’t really like TV on the Radio. Or rather, I didn’t used to much care for them. It was one of those things where I respected the band (err, I respected people who loved the band), but like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, I’d just put on their records when someone really hip was over in order to earn some cool points. And then “Dear Science” came out and I didn’t listen to it. I read good review after good review and I didn’t listen to it and I didn’t listen to it. Until finally, on a total whim, I bought it from a record store in New Orleans that wasn’t selling anything else I particularly wanted to listen to. I put it in my DiscMan (yes, I still have a DiscMan) AND MY HEAD EXPLODED. I have no idea what kind of deal TV on the Radio had to make with devil in order to create a record that catered to every possible musical impulse a human being might have, but THANK GOD THEY DID. The best surprise on the album is “Family Tree” — the most perfect rainy day song ever written. “Stork & Owl” is likewise beautiful and sad, while “Halfway Home” can only be described as a fusion of awesome and awesomer.

MP3: TV on the Radio – Crying

2. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – We Brave Bee Stings and All: I picked up a copy of this haphazardly at the recommendation of Andrew Hall (a musical guru of sorts), and was instantly in love. I excommunicated every music crush I was currently juggling and gave all my heart to Thao Ngyuen, the talented frontwoman of this deeply underrated group. My favorite track on the album is the little-played “Travel” (I actually made a thrown-together YouTube project around it), for its perfect simplicity and succinctness. But the whole thing is wonderful, fun, and leagues ahead of Thao’s (also underrated) solo effort from x years ago.

MP3: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – Bag of Hammers

1. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III: For me, it’s personal. I am personally pretty in debt to Lil’ Wayne. He has earned me a lot of points with my New Orleans students, who love him the way I loved the Spice Girls in the 7th grade. Only they love him MORE. They have him tattooed on their bodies. And it’s every single student — male, female, uptown, downtown, fat, thin, whatever. And they can all sing every single song from this album. I have played this more times than probably any other single record in my personal history. For me, none of it has ever lost its luster. What I really realized about this record when I moved to New Orleans was how perfectly it reflects the Dirty Coast culture. It’s very real. Really breathes new life into a record that could have gone stale in August.

MP3: Lil’ Wayne – Mr. Carter

missing in action

28 03 2008

I kind of dropped the ball last week, and I’m sorry. There are many perfectly good reasons for it, though, and I thought I might detail them for you so you can feel like you’re more involved in my life.

My life mentor, Salim Muwakkil, came to speak at Whitman this week, which was a big deal for me. Sometimes I wonder if I have opinions of my own or if I just steal all of my ideas from Salim’s columns. Here are a few of my favorites:

+ Nas: Whose Word Is This?: I think the best articles Salim writes are about hip-hop. Here, he writes about Nas’s crusade to reclaim the n-word, which Salim backs up:

Those who use the word with malicious intent may still be able to inflict pain, but they are brandishing a weakening weapon. The word is being so relentlessly denuded it may one day be effectively defused. Nas’ album continues that process.

+ Throwing Away the Key: Perhaps Salim’s biggest crusade is the institutionalized racism inherent within the American criminal justice system. The insane disproportion of African-American men in American prisons (when compared with the racial demographics of the population as a whole) is, as Salim pointed out many times, something the United States will one day look back on with shame. Although many political writers touch on this subject, none do it with Salim’s passion.

+ Paying Back The Slavery Debt: This is the most compelling argument I’ve ever read in favor of slavery reparations, which was a hot topic almost a decade ago. Unfortunately, the conversation has practically become extinct, despite the coherent reasoning backing the idea (Salim wrote about it again in 2006 as a means to fund the horrific disrepair left by Hurricane Katrina, but to little dispute or rise.)

+ Katrina’s Racial Wake: Written in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Salim tells us what we all know now about race in America. If only it hadn’t taken a devastating storm to teach us that. Almost three years later, we still haven’t rebuilt what was once one of America’s greatest cities; FEMA continues to screw up, lacking any real or drastic solutions; and so many people who lived in The Big Easy have not moved back home.

Salim’s talk last week was about Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, which Salim pointed out was probably the most groundbreaking speech on race made in the last century (John Stewart said as much when he told his audience in a state of make-believe shock that a politician had spoken to the American people about race as if they were adults). For those of us who had felt Obama had grown perhaps a bit spineless in the bright lights of the presidential election, the speech was a breath of fresh air which addressed the racial purple elephant legitimately for the first time. Finally, we can take a step back and recognize that a black candidate for president does not mean we leave in a post-racial society.

You Ain’t No Picasso posted a link to the entire downloadable Ghostface Killah remix album. And it’s sick.

MP3: Ghostface Killah: Charlie Brown (DJ Medhi Remix)

I don’t know if you know this, but I’m the president of the Whitman branch of Action for Animals. I know. I’m a pretty big deal. And this week, adding to the excitement of Mr. Muwakkil’s visit, was Veggie Week. So here is a veg-friendly Albert Einstein quote (he was vegetarian btw) and a recipe you might want to try out.

Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

If you haven’t visited the Post-Punk Kitchen online yet, you have to. It’s really, really good. The writer, Isa Chandra Moskowitz should probably be enshrined for proving that vegan food is often better than non-vegan food. If you don’t believe me, check out this cupcake recipe. I’m not kidding when I say that you will have a food-related orgasm (FRO).

RECIPE: Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemony Frosting

more quotes.
ALSO this week, my boyfriend Alex Kerr turned 21 this week. So in honor of the biggest Rolling Stones fan I know (Alex), an excerpt from Wednesday’s interview with Keith Richards posted on golden fiddle. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever read.

Q: You should sell your body on eBay.
Yeah, I think so. Apparently, I do have an incredible immune system. I had hepatitis C and cured it by myself.

Q: How?
Just by being me.

Q: Do you regret not moisturizing your face?
No. I leave that up to other people.

Q: Ever think about getting Botox?
No one’s ever talked me into doing that. You’re lucky if you walk out of there alive. God bless you.

Q: Are you still cutting your own hair? You’ve done that all your life, right?
Yes. I did this bit here yesterday. [holds up a few strands on the side of his head] Also, I’m letting the dye grow out, since I’m not on the road. If the wife likes it, I’ll keep it.



the cause of violence

3 09 2007

Today the New York Times ran a pretty fascinating little piece on Colorado Springs and its music scene. Surprise, surprise: Police are blaming gangsta rap and hip-hop music for a spike in homicides in the area (there have been 19 already this year, compared with 15 in 2006).

I know what’s obvious, here: You can’t blame any form of art for what people choose to do in the long run. Just as the idea that listening to Linkin Park was a primary factor in the Columbine shootings of 2001 was purely ludicrous, the analogous conclusion that the glorification of drug hustlin’ and gun totin’ in rap music directly causes actual drug hustlin’ and gun totin’ in modern society is equally deranged.

As the Times article rightly addresses:

Others here say the police are focusing on hip-hop instead of addressing the growing pains of this largely white, conservative city, home to the evangelical groups Focus on the Family and New Life Church.

There’s something to be said about the fact that Colorado Springs is in so many ways just a ticking socio-political time bomb waiting to explode from the extreme antithetical forces at work here. The article extrapolates:

Since 1990, the metropolitan area of Colorado Springs, which sits south of Denver, has swollen to nearly half a million from 397,000. Though outright racial tensions, which led to marches here in the 1970s and ’80s, are largely of the past, there remains a sense of benign neglect toward minorities, said Dr. José J. Barrera, former director of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That neglect has translated into a chasm between the city and its minority youth, Dr. Barrera said.

Bingo. The police are right to note that there’s something wrong with Colorado Springs. Blaming all this on gangsta rap is far and above one of the easiest solutions. But cutting down on the number of rap shows in the area (as scary press linking the music to homicides has effectively done, cutting the number of concert-goers at one venue from 700 on any given night to 300) is not going to stop anything. Seriously: What kind of person, feeling alienated by their country for whatever reason, goes to a rap concert and suddenly realizes that the answer to all their ills is a drive-by shooting? Homicide cases are far more common within ethnic groups (i.e., you’re far less likely, if you’re White, to be murdered by someone who isn’t), and homicides victims are disproportionately of ethnic minorities. Press releases about rap cultivating murder act only as further scare tactics for rich, White Americans who are already unjustly terrified of Black teenagers on killing sprees.

So to recap the obvious: Colorado police are delusional. And thank God the New York Times had the common sense to publish an article that rightfully concluded:

After the show, the crowd tumbled out of the club. Young men politely chatted up a group of women. A couple tried to coordinate a ride home. Two men exchanged solemn stories of prison.

The only sign of trouble was a flat tire on someone’s customized sedan.

What maybe isn’t so obvious to liberal readers of this article is that corporatized gangsta rap is actually a pretty big problem in America. It is unfortunately true that too many youth, victimized by institutionalized racism and classism in this country, idealize the lifestyle of drug dealers and ho hustlers, and a lot of the reason for that is an omnipresence of this kind of music. Corporate music producers exploit these ideals because they are known to sell. The saddest part of all of this is that the initial social and political cause behind hip-hop music is too often lost in the airwaves; Public Enemy-style Damn-The-Man music is at an all-time low since hip-hop was first assimilated into mainstream musical media in the ’70s and ’80s.

There are still hip-hoppers fighting the good fight, combating major domestic issues in America today; In These Times did a great cover piece on political hip-hop last year called “Bigger Than Hip-Hop,” for example, which chronicles the leagues of musicians who attend the National Hip-Hop Convention every year, rapping for social and political change. Local rappers in urban cities also make waves with gruesome tales of what it means to be a minority youth in America today (Immortal Technique famously comes to mind).

I’m personally very keen on this rapper from New York called Cause, too. I’m including a few MP3s in the hopes that rap artists like this will come into their own in the coming years.

MP3: Cause – More Than Music

MP3: Cause – Click Clack

Ten Political Songs

9 08 2007

I posted a new page with my 10 favorite political songs of all time — and there are even MP3s and videos for most of them. Enjoy.