Little White Earbuds Year in Music
01. Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
Ahh, sweet vindication. After years of well documented label bullshit, Clipse released their magnum opus which nearly lives up to accumulated hype. In many ways, Pusha T and Malice benefitted from the arduous and frustrating build-up between Lord Willin’ and Hell Hath, much as Wilco did from the YFH shuffling. But instead of merely building notoriety with label slight of hand, Clipse spent their time in industry limbo honing their already acute lyrical skills, coaxing the best and most fitting beats from Pharrell and building a devoted following. The resulting album was a lyrical slaughterfest with a pile of merc’ed lyrical targets and sparse beats that still womped. In a year full of disappointing rap records (I maintain that Fishscale is weak coming from Ghostface, More Fish even moreso), Hell Hath No Fury proudly stood at the top of the pack and commanded you fuckers to kiss the rings.
Audio: Clipse, “Momma I’m So Sorry”
02. Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer
White Bread Black Beer is another peak in the mountain range of Scritti Politti’s career. Green Gartside’s expert reinvention of his already winning formula gets more out of less without sounding sparse or contrived. The resulting creations are a testament to his abilities as a pop song writer and a persuasive wake up call to those who slept on him the first go-round. White Bread is also a challenge to bands such as Hot Chip and Junior Boys for whom Scritti Politti albums serve as crucial points of influence: Daddy’s back with a new take on an old game; time to step it up!
Audio: Scritti Politti, “Throw”
03. Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast
Conceptual eggheads from the start, Matmos stunned me with The Rose Has Teeth, an album that matched its lofty ambitions of honoring influential historical figures with intensely compelling and thought-provoking compositions. Where previous releases proved to be daunting listens for some audiences, The Rose both fittingly represented its conceptual targets and invited its listeners to learn with lush arrangements and supplimentary technology (the liner notes also act as a primer wherein users can read more about its subjects). Few conceptual artists make art albums (these days) this engrossing or pleasurable to hear.
Audio: Matmos, “Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan”
04. Hot Chip, The Warning
With as much love as this album’s singles have received, you would think The Warning as a whole would’ve seen better press. After all, it’s spring-heeled leap forward in song-writing makes the snarky joke with feeble melodies known as Coming On Strong look positively flaccid. The Warning succeeds with warm synth melodies and pristine harmonies chunked up by a jangled emphasis on percussion, even springing for clever lyrics without gobs of irony. Hot Chip is also extraordinary at understanding dance music, which made killer cuts like “Over and Over,” “Boy From School” and “(Just Like We) Breakdown” into prime fodder for an iPod Shuffle’s worth of remixes from likewise excellent producers (with Erol Alkan and Solid Groove at the top of the pack). A perfect fit for techno and rock fans alike, The Warning should not go unheeded.
Audio: Hot Chip, “Arrest Yourself”
05. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
Not enough pop stars break away from their primary role in society: to perform and look good doing it. Justin Timberlake is a pop star unwilling to be relegated to talented body status. FutureSex/LoveSounds pushed all involved to out-perform their best work and come up with something fresh, even futuristic (jamming two tunes together? Two become one, motherfucker!). The result was a pop record so unexpected that a fair portion of JT fans still don’t know what to do with it, but love it anyways. Listening to this album is bearing witness to the maturation of a star who happens to make pop music.
Audio: Justin Timberlake, “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows (interlude)”
06. Tim Hecker, Harmonies in Ultraviolet
Topping himself yet again, Tim Hecker birthed Harmonies in Ultraviolet, one of my favorite albums to relax with this year. Gently massaging electrons to course in time, recreating the thaw of winter’s deepest freeze, picking up on the little reassuring noises and reminding listeners that they exist, Hecker makes the extremely detailed sound simple and gorgeous. Even at its most eardrum-rending it puts me at peace, a wonderfully contradictory feeling that assures me of Harmonies’ pronounced brilliance.
Audio: Tim Hecker, “Dungeoneering”
07. Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped
Let’s discard the age thing for a minute (even if you haven’t read about it, you’re thinking it) and focus on the reasons Rather Ripped works: Though the album is lyrically streaked with despair and desperate tears, it’s juxtaposed with some of Sonic Youth’s most downright pretty melodies, as if writing tunes matching the lyrics’ pained tone would be too much for human ears, so here it is anyway. Accessible to a point, Rather Ripped has all of the noisy energy and nuance one would expect from SY, slipping in peripheral counter rhythms between anthemic leads and spazzing out when being ear-pleasing gets too burdensome or boring. Kim Gordon also gives the performance of a lifetime, her gravel-shred silk pipes inhabit the narrator’s skin with unusual ease; Thurston Moore is no slouch either, recalling his best vocal motifs without sounding dated or old. No one needs to teach these old dogs new tricks. They wrote the handbook and Rather Ripped is this year’s lesson plan.
Audio: Sonic Youth, “Do You Believe In Rapture?”
08. Califone, Roots and Crowns
Califone continued their streak of fastidiously-crafted fragment folk with Roots and Crowns, an album that found the group at their most concentrated and assured. Each song is caught with its body in some farm house in southern Illinois, roughly around 1949, and its head in the whirring present, dumbfounded. Creaking harmonics with moth-eaten holes plugged with scraps of seemingly arbitrary sound gently coat the ears, speaking volumes of Brian Deck and Tim Rutili’s skillful orchestration. Complimented finely by Rutili’s seasoned vocals (which sweetly serenade as well as the scrape the ground and the notes surrounded it) and his scattershot poetic lyrics, Califone deliver the complete package (and an excellent Psychic TV cover to boot). Those ready for a bit of the roots and not yet ready to aggravate dust allergies should sit a spell and give Roots and Crowns a few good spins.
Audio: Califone, “The Eye You Lost In The Crusades”
09. Henrik Schwarz, DJ-Kicks
Because this is from the DJ-Kicks series rather than, say, Fabric, Henrik Schwarz and other artists who’ve contributed a mix have been able to reveal their tastes in a safe and often stunning manner. This volume is no different. Like Gilles Peterson with a greater appreciation for native sounds and no real need for acid jazz, Schwarz cherry-picks forgotten and underappreciated slabs from what must be a vast collection. Starting out by deforming Moondog’s “Bird’s Lament” and dancing it around with iO and D’Angelo, Schwarz keeps piling on stranger and more delightful tunes. And as with most DJ-Kicks mixes, Schwarz works a handful of his own tunes into the grooves of obscurities, most notably his reductive and seductive remix of Coldcut and Robert Owen’s soul-rousing “Walk a Mile In My Shoes.” As unpredictable as it is awe-inspiring, Henrik Schwarz’s DJ-Kicks is easily among the most ambitious and enjoyable mixes of 2006.
Audio: Coldcut & Robert Owens, “Walk a Mile In My Shoes” (Henrik Schwarz remix)
10. DJ Drama & Lil’ Wayne, Dedication 2: Gangsta Grillz
Though the distinction of being one of the few popular rappers to actually, you know, throw down has kind of gone to Lil’ Wayne’s head and made him say all kinds of crazy stuff. At the same time, it’s easy to argue that as his noggin’ grows bigger, so does the quality of his work — tapes like Dedication 2 and albums like Tha Carter II prove it. Even when he sounds like he might be slipping into a vicodin/’dro coma Weezy spits wrecking crew lines, so when he’s at his most alert (especially his freestyle on the “Show Me What You Got” beat, Jesus) it’s like a walking, talking, white-slinging firing squad. Although Jay-Z’s too tired from all the lamping he’s quietly doing by the pool, it would be spectacular seeing Louisiana’s Finest square off with the Old Reliable Guard. Instead, Lil’ Wayne’s just going to further extend his legacy and keep putting out barn-burners like this one.
Audio: DJ Drama & Lil’ Wayne, “Dedication 2”
11. Booka Shade, Movements
12. OOIOO, Taiga
13. NOMO, Nu Tones
14. Boris, Pink
15. Junior Boys, So This is Goodbye
16. Crowdpleaser & St. Plomb, Mindtrip
17. Islands, Return to the Sea
18. T.I., King
19. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
20. Oakley Hall, Second Guessing
This list is a bit different from the one I submitted to Idolator’s Jackin’ Pop Poll thanks to some extremely well-timed Christmas presents post-poll. When the results come out (whenever that happens) you’ll see the differences. Thanks to everyone who visited my blog this year, commented on my blog, linked to my blog (special thanks to my pals at Pound for Pound, Another Night On Earth, Idolator and Not Rock On) or helped me in any way with my writing. It means a lot. See you in 2007.