Saturday, January 31, 2009

Like sex to a nympho, but nothin' sweet

Alright, enough fucking around, I've gotta finish off this damn countdown so I can move onto bigger, better things. Ladies and gentlemen, the 3rd greatest mc of all time, Nasty Nas, Nas Escobar, God's son ...

3. Nas

In placing Nas 3rd on this list, I find myself scouring my brain for ways to justify him not being number one. Maybe inconsistency? Since I'm trying to build something with this list, I'll focus on how jaw-dropping Nas is when he's on. Nasir Jones' A-game is lyrically untouchable. Not only can he impart magnificent stories, he can relate simple observations about the world around him in a way that makes commonplace ideas seem transcendent. He also know how situate internal rhymes and outlandish vocabulary into his rhymes as to give them an extra, musical dimension above just what he's saying. I feel compelled to quote Nas' entire verse from 'Life's A Bitch' verbatim just to get my point across, but I'll spare the reader my indulgence and just give a few lines from the lyrical masterpiece: "When I was young at this, I used to do my thing hard/ Robbin' foreigners, take they wallets, they jewels, and rip they green cards/ Dip to the projects flashin' my quick cash/ Got my first piece of ass, smokin' blunts with hash/ Now it's all about cash in abundance/ Niggas I used to run with is rich or doin' years in the hundreds/ I changed my motto/ 'Stead of sayin' "fuck tomorrow," that buck that bought a bottle could have struck the lotto/ Once I stood on the cracks, loose cracks produce stacks/ I cooked up and cut small pieces to get my loot back/ Time is illmatic, keep static like wall fabric/ Pack a 4-matic and crack your whole cabbage." There, thanks for bearing with me, I got a boner just typing that. It's hard to get the full effect reading Nas' lyrics though, because his deadpan delivery, and raspy old man voice lend everything he says an extra level of gravity. And although Nas can brag and floss with the best of them, when he injects some substance into lyrics, his musings go beyond kneejerk social consciousness and into the realm of honest, unadulterated commentary about the world around him. I've probably had more moments of sudden, jaw-dropping awe listening to Nas than with any other rapper. 

Behind the times

As normally happens, I don't here many of the best songs from a given year until after the year has passed. Hence, my year end best lists are often woefully incomplete. I spent much of my best of 2008 list bemoaning the lack of truly great tracks from the year in question. Well, in the last month I've hear a lot of truly great tracks from '08. Here's a list, in no particular order, of some of the stuff I slept on initially, but now rocks my socks off:

Here Should Be My Home - No Age
Across Shields - Torche
L.E.S. Artistes - Santogold
Skinny Love - Bon Iver
Fatalist Palmistry - WHY?
Dancing Choose - TV on the Radio
Crooked Head - Fucked Up
Beg Waves - Ponytail
Where Do You Run? - Vivian Girls
Love Lockdown - Kanye West

So 2008, maybe not so bad for singles. Well, still bad for hip-hop singles at any rate.

Here's another installment in my sick music videos that you need to watch right now series:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Return of the G

Just a passing thought before I continue the mc countdown. I was listening to the Vampire Weekend album on the E train today, which precipitated my rumination upon the Strokes debut, thanks to the frequent comparisons between the media attitudes towards the two. The two groups also share Manhattan as their points of origin, and make very catchy songs, but there aren't many other similarities between them. I got off the train at 14th street and began walking east towards Union Square. Meanwhile, I'd switched over Is This It, which felt infinitely more suited to the dirty, bustling streets of downtown Manhattan than the crisp, relatively pastoral sounds of VW. I do enjoy the VW album, but it will never feel as raw and real to me as the Strokes' debut as I traverse the grimy subways and streets of NYC. I don't know if anything ever will. Well except maybe 'Obstacle 1' ...

4. Andre 3000

I'm listening to ATliens, specifically 'Elevators,' right now, and the creepiness of Andre's verses that bookend the song are giving me goosebumps as usual. I'm gonna come right out and say that 3000 earned his spot on the list primarily for his lyricism. His use of enunciation has always been good, and he has an impeccable way of riding the beat, but overall his technique is far from revolutionary. Additionally, his voice isn't particularly memorable, except maybe when he breaks out into song like in 'Call Before I Come'. But those verses! Literate, thought-provoking, heartfelt, and personal, essentially everything that Kanye strives for but often comes short of achieving. Andre 3k is the original introspective rapper, but he never fall into the traps of preachy self-righteousness, boring positivity, or whiny bitching. In fact, in terms of mainstream rappers, I can't think of anyone whose verses come so close to poetry. Just check out the lyrics to 'Millenium'.  That doesn't mean Dre can't come hard, as demonstrated by his work on classics like '2 Dope Boyz in A Cadillac' and 'B.OB.'. What's thoroughly impressive about Andre 3000, though, is that he just keeps getting better. This is saying a lot, because he started at a pretty high place. Hopefully he's put his 'Love Below' musical dabblings behind him, and he's ready to return full time as a hip-hop mc. However, Dre's idiosyncrasies and unpredictability have always been part of what made him great, so maybe it's best that he keeps us on our toes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Super nintendo, sega genesis, when I was dead broke man I couldn't picture this.

Continuing with the greatest hip-hop mcs countdown.

5. Notorious B.I.G.

I'm not exactly passionate about this pick, as I don't listen to much Biggie, but there's no way that I can deny his god-like powers on the mic. Straining my brain, I can't think of a single bad verse I've ever heard from B.I.G. Therein, however, lies the main thing holding him back from being higher on my list, possibly 2nd or 3rd. Simply put, the volume of this guys work is relatively meager, and I'm not saying that's his fault. He just happened to get aced 2 albums into a stunning career. But maybe, in some twisted way, it's all for the better. Biggie didn't have the chance to turn into a Nas, DMX, Ludacris, etc., i.e. someone who emerges with a stunning debut, then proceeds to put out variations of the same thing, only with diminishing quality. Then again, maybe he would have been a Jay-Z type, who knows? The point is, what this guy did release was virtually untouchable in terms of technique, delivery, and of course, those brilliant lyrics. The second main line of attack I have on the legacy of Notorious B.I.G. is his limited subject matter: sex, drug-dealing, and gang violence. Nonetheless, he did these things, at least the latter two, better than anyone else ever has, or maybe ever will. Given that mainstream rap has been obsessing over these topics for the last 10 years or so, that's quite a lofty statement. I think that Biggie Smalls should stand as a shining beacon to all of the rappers today who think that they can go into a recording studio without writing down their raps and create ill shit (cough, Kanye). Sure, a few like Jay and Wayne do it well, but everyone else should sit down and take notes on how Biggie spits one precise, literate, funny, compelling, frightening, riveting verse after another. Damn, I think I need to listen to more Notorious B.I.G.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tryin to help raise are youth to men

Aching with remorse as I write this post due to my decision against going to a show in Brooklyn this evening. 2 bands I have quite a bit of interest in, Fucked Up and the Vivian Girls, were doing a show at the Market Hotel. I invested a lot of emotion in contemplating whether I should go, but in the end decided against it because I was tired, and because Brooklyn is fucking far away. Wish I'd gone though, it would have been killer.

So it's been a while since my last post. Today, I'll start a countdown of my personal picks for top 6 greatest hip-hop emcees of all time. The only reason I chose 6 as the cut-off is because I can only think of 6 rappers who have clearly distinguished themselves from the rest of the flock. My criteria for great rapper? Well, that will come out in the list, but it's mainly a combo of technical skill and lyricism. Insightful, I know. Today, we'll begin at the back of the list with my #6 pick:

6. Slick Rick

I honestly don't believe Ricky Walters has received his due as one of history's great mcs. He's never mentioned among the top rappers of all time, and I imagine this has something to do with his less than prolific output over the course of his career. Having released only 3 or 4 true albums in 20 years time has probably hurt Rick's status. His image as something of a clown probably doesn't help either. Nonetheless, throw on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick and you will see an mc who was light years ahead of anyone else from his era. I know, people will try to tell you  about guys like Rakeem and KRS-One, but the fact of the matter is that those dudes sound boring and dated when you listen to them today. The raps from Slick Rick's debut, however, are still euphorically enjoyable. The cliche is that Ricky D is a master story-rapper and ... well this is exactly true. 'Treat Her Like A Prostitute,' 'Children's Story,' 'The Moment I Feared,' 'Indian Girl,' 'Mona Lisa,' ... each of these is are true hip-hop classics. In fact, the only missteps on Rick's debut are the moments when he tries to get serious and leaves the stories behind ('Hey Young World,' 'Teenage Love'). When he sticks to his humorous, and vaguely didactic tales of crime and sex, Slick Rick can do know wrong. It's not just his lyricism that earns Rick a place on this list though. His flow is agile and infinitely malleable, with changes of voice inflection and the occasional high-pitched female impersonation. Rick also happens to possess a truly unique voice: a nasally mix of cockney-British and New York accents, courtesy of transnational upbringing. In the end, Slick Rick's greatness can be attributed to two things: First his singular style, which is consistently enthralling, and second, the fact that his rhymes will never get old.

It ain't over ...

For good measure here's my video of the day: Flourescent Adolescent by the Arctic Monkeys. 

Friday, January 9, 2009

You should come back home, back on your own, now

This is a tribute to upstate New York, the land that raised me. Taking the Shortline Bus home from NYC, somewhere along Route 86 through the Catskills, I felt a growing urge to listen to something rustic. All of a sudden, for the first time this week, the urban anxiety of No Age just wasn't working, and I switched over to the Sun Giant EP. "I, am no, inno-cent son," Robin Pecknold wailed as the bus pulled into Binghamton. We stopped for a driver transfer, and I stepped off into the chilly night to stretch my legs and fill my lungs with some cold, dry air. Back on the bus, I went straight to Fleet Foxes. We were shortly out of Owego, driving along 96, when the album reached its climax with 'Blue Ridge Mountains.' The light of the full moon reflecting on the iced-over fields amongst the rolling hills meshed perfectly with the song's impressionistic fable of forbidden romance (or is it sibling solidarity?).  I was not satisfied, however, come the stirring conclusion of 'Oliver James,' and moved onto a pair of haunting Neko Case tunes: 'Widow's Toast' and 'At Last.' The distinctly Palace-esque lyrics of latter song had me switching to the Lost Blues compilation as the bus entered Danby. Fittingly, my journey home concluded with '(End of) Travelling' and 'Lost Blues.' "Give me a little time, to take what I know!" Billy Oldham and an unknown female vocalist duetted as we cruised past Ithaca College and began our descent of South Hill. Back home again, for a few days. Although boredom is sure to set in soon enough, for the time being, Ithaca feels just right. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Favorite Songs of 2008

Alright, enough procrastination, its high time I got down to listing my favorite songs from the year that was. Before I get started, I need to say a few things. First of all, I must admit that it was, in my opinion, a very weak year for singles. Top to bottom, and overall, I had a difficult time selecting 10 songs I felt worthy of year-end best list. This process was somewhat complicated by my determination to only place one song from each group/artist represented on the list. I did this because I wanted to ensure as diverse a range of music as possible made it onto my list. Finally, due to the dearth of great singles this year, many of the songs on my list ended up standing for albums that I listened to and really liked. I'm not saying that this was a bad year for music in any capacity, just that for some reason there were not, to my ear, as many individual moments of pure musical bliss as in years past. With that said, may I present my top 10 favorite songs from 2008:

10. Titus Andronicus - Titus Andronicus

I feel like this song fits in with recent indie rock-trend towards trying to sound like Bruce Springsteen. The horns and piano that open the song, the harmonica, the anthemic chorus and harmonies. However, unlike some of the other Boss-imitators, this song takes the framework of the E Street sound and brings out its more ragged, gutter trash elements. The wonderfully catchy punk melody, and also the fact that everybody in the band, particularly the singer, sound stumblingly  drunk helps too. The lyrics, about not giving a fuck, are appropriate.

9. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) - Beyonce

I'm gonna be honest, I was pretty late on board the 'Single Ladies' wagon, but when I fell, I fell hard. I can easily say that this is far and away the best song Beyonce has ever made (with 'Check Up On It' a distant second). I just thank god that Beyonce didn't fuck it up by going on and throwing a Jay-Z verse in. I'm not sure what my favorite part is: the chorus, the "uh-uh-oh" 's, or the handclaps. I'm also still not sure whether Beyonce is scolding men or women for not putting a ring on it. That's not important, what matters is that this song always makes me dance when I hear it. It also excuses Beyonce for making 'If I Was A Boy' one of the year's shittiest songs.

8. Big Bangs, Black Holes, Meteorites - Love Is All

Musically, this was the best straight punk rock song I head last year: fast, pounding drums, hooky and angular guitars, a full band-shouted chorus, and a chirpy, Sue Tompkins-worthy vocal performance from Josephine Olausson. What really gets me about the song though are the lyrics: ostensibly all about grand astral phenonomena, I always take a different interpretation. To me, this song is about the excitement and anxiety of falling for someone, and the sleepless nights that result. I could be totally off base, but something about the urgency in Olausson's voice and the off-the-rails, hormonally driven sound of the band's performance makes me think I've got the proper reading.

7. I Can't Believe It - T-Pain feat. Lil' Wayne

It's easy to single out T-Pain as a symbol of all that's wrong with urban music today: the heavily vocodorized voice, the brainless lyrics about getting drunk and having sex, the consistently toothless nature of his songs. Fuck that shit, the man is a brilliant song writer, as epitomized by this little ditty. Musically, the song is shockingly minimal, just a simple 808 beat and some keyboard noises to backdrop T-Pain's robotic crooning. The lyrics are characteristically ridiculous ("I could put you in a mansion, way up in Wiscanson"), but in a charming, R-Kelly sort of way. Lil' Wayne's guest verse excellently straddles the line between jaw-droppingly terrible and extremely entertaining, his heavily auto-tuned words so garbled as to be completely unintelligible. Somehow all of this comes together to make a perfect pop song, a feat that T-Pain pulls off with surprising frequency. I'll take this guy over Usher any day of the week.

6. Hang On - Dr. Dog

It's hard not to talk about this song without mentioning how much it sounds like a McCartney-Beatles tune. Which of course should be a huge complement, especially considering how well this song would stand up against many of the Beatles' best. What really earns this song its stripes though is the incredible chorus. Admittedly, the lyrics are a complete hack-job: "I don't need no doctor, to tear me all apart/ I just need you to mend my broken heart."  However, singer Toby Leaman's vocals are so thoroughly convincing, that they convert the refrain into a moment of soulful sincerity, not unlike Otis Redding would have done. I guess all of these references to older music makes this my throwback song of the year.

5. Soldier's Grin - Wolf Parade

As much as I love this song, I can't help shitting on it a little for a few things: it would have been maybe the 4th best song on the group's debut, and it's sound is sickeningly sweet pop stuff, even by Wolf Parade standards. The synths thoroughly dominate most of the song, but even if they give me a headache sometimes, they bleat out an incredible melody. Dan Boeckner's ragged guitars are sadly downplayed, but his impassioned wails are left intact, allowing him to turn trite phrases ("What you know could only mean one thing!") into anthems. I suppose the interplay of textures had always been part of what makes Wolf Parade great: guitars vs. keyboards, raspy vocals vs. sugary melodies vs. abstract lyrics, etc. Better for me just to sit-back and enjoy an incredibly-crafted song than quibble over the details.

4. Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes

The Fleet Foxes are fantastic at evoking naturalistic imagery with their music and lyrics, and no where did they do it better than here. Like many of the songs on their album, this one is multi-parted and replete with intriguing lyrics. The climatic segment is breath-taking, with Robin Pecknold repeating a verse about a wooden cabin in a "quivering forest" that gets snowed in under the glow of a yellow moon. The song's narrative seems to suggest a forbidden romantic excursion into the secluded wilderness, but the details of the story are not as important as the impressionistic imagery evoked by Pecknold. These images are perfectly accompanied, and embellished by the music: vocal harmonies depict sunshine, repeated piano loops signify snowfall. I can't think of any other pop song that does a better job of representing "winter" than this one.

3. Queens Get the Money - Nas

I am supremely thrilled and grateful to have a Nas song in 2008 that I love as much as this one. Jay Electronica deserves a lot of credit here for crafting a skeletal, but breath-taking piano loop beat reminiscent of the one Nas rode to perfection in 'Doo Rags.' As in that song, Nas is in immaculate form here, producing 2 full minutes of chorus-less rap with one jaw-dropping lyric after another. This is battle rap Nas, and he uses lyrical snippets from his '94 masterpiece Illmatic to underline his undiminished MC prowess. Sure enough, the performance here is on par with any of the handful of Nas's greatest verses, and the starkness of the production only enhances its power. "I'm the shaky hand that touched George Foreman in Zaire," Nas boasts, and when he says "Hip-hop was aborted so Nas breathes life into the embryo," you almost believe he's got the power to save the dying genre. There are too many great lines in this song, and I love it to death, so I'll just stop right here. 

2. A Milli - Lil' Wayne

Truth be told, it took a long time for this one to get under my skin. At first it came off as just a moderately entertaining gimmick, but gradually the song came to serve many important roles in my life: pump up jam, party-starting jam, feeling badass jam, triumph jam. Admittedly, I struggle with Lil' Wayne's freestyle-based lyricism, as it can lead to the occasional moment of cringe-worthy slop. However, when he's on, he's on, and 'A Milli' is over-flowing with the good stuff: "I'd rather be pushing flowers/ Then in the pen sharing showers," or "Like smokin' the thinnest air I open the Lamborghini/ Hopin' them crackers see me, like 'look at that bastard Weezy'." Plus, the beat is so gully that even I feel like a thug when I listen to this track. My only hope is that the success of this track doesn't spawn a whole bunch of shitty 'A Mill'-immitation beats, but I'm less than optimistic in this regard.

1. I Feel Better - Frightened Rabbit

Listing this song as my number one for 2008 seems strange, because, while its charms are numerous, it doesn't really do anything unprecedented, or break-any real musical ground. I guess the same can be said for the entire Frightened Rabbit album, so I guess that the position of this song on my list must be justified purely on the basis of how good it is. It probably qualifies as one of the group's most pop-friendly tunes: it is uptempo, features a wildly catchy guitar riff, and a refrain that's fun to sing along too. Among the other things I love about this song: the gloriously noisy chorus (which includes horns, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and background harmonies), the relentless build of the song (start with piano, add drums, add electric guitar, etc., up to cacophany by the end), and of course Scott Hutchinson's trademark, torchered lyrics and vocals. His cracking, but melodious scottish wail is a perfect fit for the song's profile of emotional destruction. Following in the footsteps great Smokey Robinson tunes 'Like Tears of A Clown' and 'Tracks of My Tears,' 'I Feel Better' is all about a dude who puts on the front that he's doing fine, while underneath the surface he's a mess of shattered emotions thanks to a recent breakup. What's worse, his ex keeps popping up, sometimes with other men, to remind him of this underlying agony. Of course, this is all conveyed through Hutchinson's trusty metaphors: "Now the sun does shine in this place some days/ And even when it's grey it doesn't always rain/ I'll stow away my greys, in a pad-locked cage and in a pad-locked room/ Only to be released, when I see all the songs I wrote about you/ This is the last one I'll sing about you." It is that final sentiment that is truly heart-breaking: Hutchinson deluding himself into thinking that he's ready to end his own self-flagellation.

So there you have it, Frightened Rabbit demonstrating that you don't need to invent the wheel to create the best song of the year. Maybe my selection of 'I Feel Better' as #1 was influenced by the other fantastic FR songs that I had to cut from the list (honorable mention to "Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms" and "The Twist"). In a similar vein, I had a tough time leaving Lil' Wayne's '3-Peat' out, so I thought I should at least mention it in passing. Lets hope that 2k9 is a little more dynamic for the single than last year was. If not, maybe the whole "death of the album" concept will prove to be a myth. Part of me hopes so.