2011: The Year Daftpop Stopped Writing But Learned to Love Drake

sometimes, i'm shallower than rap.

Another year has come and gone. I did very little writing. I did almost no listening to non-major label artists. Most people don’t even think that stuff is music, and sure, sometimes I think my mind is gradually atrophying from exposure to so much unchallenging trash; on the other hand, it is my belief that the respective talents of The-Dream, Kanye, Beyonce, and Jay-z are some of the best in any musical genre, and therefore worthy of my attentions. Maybe 2012 will offer itself as a new start for my musical collection and I will finally buy a record player and get into obscure soul and R&B from decades past (this is my musical dream). Or maybe I’ll just keep pumping up the volume when Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (seriously, have you heard this song? Drop everything and listen if you have not) comes on the radio and rapping along to the embarrassment of whoever is sitting in my passenger seat. Without further ado, here is a collection of my timely “bests and worsts” of hip hop, pop, and r&b in 2011.

Grossest sex jam of 2011 and definitely the grossest sex jam ever:
Chris Brown & Ludacris: “Wet the Bed.”
To quote my sister, “When I heard the song “Wet the Bed,” I almost pooped my pants.” Indeed, the extended metaphor of this song is so distasteful that one becomes bewildered enough to lose it. As though the song’s title and hook were not enough to drill home this mind-numbingly literal bedroom play-by-play, the beat consists of a synthesized DRIPPING SOUND, instead of, oh i dunno, an actual rhythmic instrument. Fuck you, Ludacris, and fuck you, Chris Brown, for thinking that a woman’s aroused state should ever be compared to pissing the sheets.

Sexiest Sex Jam of 2011:
Beyonce: “Dance For You”
Beyonce is too classy to make a sex jam in the “hey girl hey girl come back to my condo let me play yo booty like a congo” tradition of most contemporary sex jams. She is an artist of profound feeling and substance when it comes to the topic of love, and her album 4 was love’s showcase this year. “Dance For You,” on the deluxe edition of 4, is an epic, six-minute ode to her unending love, dedication and desire to one lucky individual (whom she decides to dance for). It was written by my man The-Dream (real name: Terius Nash), and like many of Nash’s weirdest and best songs, it does not follow any kind of traditional pop song structure. There are seven or eight distinct parts, which at times coalesce into a hook and other times not. A wailing, Purple Rain-era guitar underpins the end of the song, and then the album ends in a wash of sultry catharsis. This is obviously the best way to make an exit under any circumstances.

Best soundtrack to the next OWS protest:
Killer Mike: Pl3dge
Hey, you know how everyone thinks positive rappers are lame? But then those same people listen to politically-objectionable materialistic coke hustling rap because they prefer something “hard”? Well, H-town’s Killer Mike is political and yet not lame, hard and yet not rapping about counting his hundos. Pl3dge sounds pretty damn classic and could have come out any time between now and the past 15 years, but its raging pessimism regarding America’s economic plight is unmistakably of the now. Mike shatters illusions of what was once called “the American Dream” by applying X-Ray Marxist vision to the growing class and racial inequalities of our current ‘broke-as-shit’ capitalism. This is a particularly Richard Wright-esque insight on the track “That’s Life II”: “Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity, how could you sell white America your insanity?/ You tell ’em that they’re different and manipulate their vanity/ when truthfully, financially their life is a calamity.” Like Wright, Killer Mike sees ruling class rhetoric dividing poor (white and black) people by creating racial resentment. He is not confident that “change” is going to happen any time soon. His solution?: “Burn this motherfucker down.” I don’t disagree.

Worst soundtrack for the next OWS protest:
Kanye & Jay-Z: Watch the Throne
Here Jay-Z is, again rapping about brands so expensive most of us have never heard of them. There Kanye is, lamenting, “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie?/ A black guy.” Watch the Throne is undeniably a lot of fun, but it further entrenches both of these guys in what I have long seen as the inevitable existential inertia of famous rappers. Let me explain. The narrative of a rapper’s life is traditionally a rags-to-riches story. But when the struggle is over, and the rapper finds himself sitting pretty atop a pile of rap-gotten-gains like Audemars, Mongolian furs, and $150 million LiveNation contracts, what is there left to rap about? Besides watches that cost 300k, furs, and LiveNation contracts, I mean? Yeah, they don’t know either.

Worst Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Rick Ross feat. Nicki Minaj: “You the Boss.”
Nicki Minaj was the great female hope of 2010, until her major label debut turned out to be a middling, money-grabbing…major label debut. But, the cynical downplay of Minaj’s freak image worked, and Pink Friday, the generally triflin’ collection of club hits and crossover R&B love songs, has officially gone platinum. “You the Boss,” from Ross’s forthcoming God Forgives, I Don’t album, is not only triflin, but also an undoing and betrayal of Minaj’s own bossness. Whereas back in the good old days, Minaj and Ross appeared on the Ye track “Monster” as equals, and Minaj’s verse obviously bested Ross and every other MC on it, this song features Minaj comely whispering, “I’ll do anything that you say/anything that you want/ cuz you da boss/ you you you da boss.” I know Rick Ross is the boss, and his name conveniently rhymes with boss, but this 2011 single absolutely offended me, and made me wonder where the fuck Minaj is taking her career. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but whatever happened to the MOTHERFUCKING MONSTER? This woman was born to be a star, not a background singer cooing about obeying another rapper’s whims!!!

Best Song Featuring a Talented Duo:
Drake feat. Rick Ross: “Lord Knows”
Ross, all drug-dealing braggadocio, husky vocals and heavy gold chains, is a strange bedfellow for the pretty-boy, emo-rapping, navel-gazing of young Drake. But as far as I’m concerned, Drake fucking turned his musical fortune around with the release of the sprawling, dextrous, thoughtful Take Care, the album on which the epic “Lord Knows” appears. Rick Ross should always be backed by such larger-than-life Just Blaze production, and Drake should always have this much feeling when regaling us with tales of his fame-induced malaise.

There was more to talk about this year, and I tried to write long-form reviews of Take Care, DJ Quik’s Book of David, and my other favorite releases from this year, but the words were not forthcoming. Here’s to 2012 and a renewed loquaciousness about music and culture.

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Love Emperor

spontaneous heart eruptions from water

The-Dream, aka Terius Nash, has dropped the third installment of what can now be viewed as a trilogy of albums chronicling the delicate art of sexual conquest. Various methods of acquiring and securing booty are employed on Love King in much the same ways they were on 2007’s Love Hate and last year’s Love vs Money; ladies of interest are wooed by the promise of sexual bliss, material wealth and the-Dream’s pure swag, and what follows–whether the expansion of the empire or the loss of a strategic partner–is expressed against a backdrop of lush, maximalist R&B grooves that recall every pop and R&B master from the last two decades.

But Love King starts off grander, with a trifecta of near-perfect pop songs, and ends up being even more theatrical and dramatic in scope than his previous efforts. For starters, the title track doesn’t settle on just one love prospect; instead, we’ve got our king lounging on his golden throne and surrounded by a harem of ladies of every imaginable provenance. While Dream lists his diverse conquests with deuteronomical precision, an organ stridently clanks up a crunk-ass scale and homies shout “oh,” (as they are wont to do on any track with this much libidinous confidence.) The epic scope of Dream’s love-game is further showcased on album thesis “Sex Intelligent,” where he explains “I make every n**** irrelevant/ I’m sex intelligent.” He then goes on to boast that his bangers reach bedrooms from “Japan to Pakistan and Beijing to Paris, France.”

Winning a lot means you have just that much more to lose, and Love King spends a lot of time bemoaning love lost, thwarted and eluded. On “Nikki,” a flame from Dream’s first album returns to haunt him and his current lover. Thin, tinkling synths appropriately recall Prince on a track that gets its name from the song “Darling Nikki.”  The album then seamlessly transitions into “Abyss,” a stand-out track that lyrically plunders the depths of petty, post-breakup cruelty (“Cry till you drown your face/ bitch, i could give a damn how harsh this may seem”). But this song is also the most notable example of The-Dream’s skills as a sonic architect: sharp flourishes of strings and keys flit on the upper register, while bass-heavy synths and a sludge of electric guitar pummel on in the lower depths. Then, ridiculously, “Abyss” ends with the sound of rain and thunder!

The songs weave in and out of bedrooms and relationships, and the Love King is seen in various states of triumph and vulnerability; it’s this wide emotional range and yet single-minded topical focus that places Nash in the same lineage as his heroes/forebears R Kelly and Prince. Like these musical freaks who conjured an entire ouevre from the tales of exploits, Nash uses R&B as practically a devotional genre in which each falsettoed moan, fuckable bass thump, and tender piano flourish is a crucial building block for the Temple of Desire.

And yet, even after three studio albums and writing several mega-hits for Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, The-Dream isn’t a household name.  This has prompted some to wonder why Dream can’t achieve this kind of success with his own stuff. But this question is ultimately beside the point; The-Dream chooses to work within an aesthetically-specific form of sex jam. Why do we ask billboard hits of him when he has made us yet another seamless concept album about the minutiae of love and lust? The-Dream may never conquer the air-waves, but on Love King, he easily takes the crown as supreme earthly authority on all matters of the heart.

The-Dream has dropped the third installment of what can now be viewed as a trilogy of albums chronicling the delicate art of sexual conquest. Various methods of acquiring and securing booty are employed on Love King in much the same ways they were on 2007’sLove Hate and last year’s Love vs Money; ladies of interest are wooed by the promise of sexual bliss, material wealth and the-Dream’s pure swag, and what follows–whether the expansion of the empire or the loss of a strategic partner–is expressed against a backdrop of lush, maximalist R&B grooves that recall every pop and R&B master from the last two decades.

But Love King starts off grander, with a trifecta of near-perfect pop songs, and ends up being even more theatrical and dramatic in scope than his previous efforts. For starters, the titular track “Love King” doesn’t settle on just one love prospect; instead, we’ve got our king lounging on his golden throne and surrounded by a harem of ladies of every imaginable provenance. While Dream lists his diverse conquests with deuteronomical precision, an organ stridently clanks up a crunk-ass scale and Homies shout “oh,” (as they are wont to do on any track with this much libidinous confidence.) The epic scope of Dream’s love-game is further showcased on album thesis “Sex Intelligent,” where he explains “I make every n**** irrelevant/ I’m sex intelligent.” He then goes on to boast that his music now reaches bedrooms from “Japan to Pakistan and Beijing to Paris, France.”

Winning a lot means you have just that much more to lose, and “Love King” spends a lot of time bemoaning love lost, thwarted and eluded. On “Nikki,” a flame from Dream’s first album returns to haunt him and his current lover. Thin, tinkling synths appropriately recall Prince on a track that gets its name from the song “Darling Nikki.”  The album then seamlessly transitions into “Abyss,” a stand-out track that, in words at least, plunders the depths of petty, post-breakup cruelty (“Cry till you drown your face/ bitch, i could give a damn how harsh this may seem”). In deed, this song is the most notable example of The-Dream’s skills as a sonic architect: sharp flourishes of strings and keys flit on the upper register, while bass-heavy synths and a sludge of electric guitar pummel on in the lower depths. Then, ridiculously, “Abyss” ends with the sound of rain and thunder!!!

Several Songs Daftpop Enjoys Right Now

Me + Jesus = Nika Danilova

I am just so embarrassed by my last post that I must do what I can to make it move down the blog roll. But no, I will not delete the post, that would be a shame in a way; it felt so true while I was writing it.

So, I’m going to tell you what some of my favorite songs from 2010 are so far:

1. “Lover of Mine,” Beach House

This song is secretly a 50’s R&B number; I sweeear. The organ riffage gives it away. Just imagine some Motown babes wailing Victoria’s chorus: “In a wide open field/ we know what we feel.” Oh, god. This song hit me in the heart the first time I heard it. Like many songs on Teen Dream, this one is a vestige of a melodic truth we used to know; see, it’s like Plato’s concept of knowledge. Learning is just remembering. Listening to “Lover of Mine” is just remembering an essential melody.

2. “Love King,” The-Dream

I am a little afraid that The-Dream’s synth-heavy, homies-saying-“oh!” production style is reaching its apex; we are so familiar with him by now that his signature stuff might soon grow tired. BUT this song is still pretty awesome, and at least I love listening to it. It’s objective greatness, however, could be argued. The-Dream is most admired for the epic narrative arch of last year’s Love vs Money concept album, but few people have noted the awesomeness of his idiosyncratic lyrics. This song is a good-old fashioned “I can get all the girls,” jam, nothin novel bout that. But people always love lists of different kinds of women, and love revving up imperial aims to conquest us all. My favorite/least favorite line from this song includes: “Got a girl up in Target/a girl up in college/sorry ladies but there ain’t nuthin like a smart bitch.” Thanks.

3. “Night,” Zola Jesus

I first heard Zola Jesus in a friend’s humid living room one cloudy fall morning. The wood-paneled walls of this room prevent it from ever entirely dispelling the gloom; the windows are so old that the glass is thicker on the bottom, and leafless vines partially obscure your view to the drab yard outside. The smells of smoke and damp wood cling to the air. It is in this environment that Zola Jesus thrives. Honestly, the room I have described can’t be all that different than a room in Sadchester, aka Manchester, birthplace of much early 80s sad goth and post-punk musics: Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, all that. And it is the damp, reverby sadness of early Joy Division that “Night” conjures, along with a good dose of Siouxsie Sioux. This is affected, consciously anachronistic stuff, but I think it’s so effective because I don’t know of anyone else so convincingly emulating the early goths.

4. “Love Me Girl,” Yeasayer

The Guardian assigned this song an eclectic Balearic House beat. But to me, the song’s wonky keyboard, clickety-clack drum machine, and hand claps/finger snaps are more evocative of a Zac Efron song in High School Musical 3, and not really of the Ibiza club. I know that makes the song sound lame, but it is the very high school musicalness of it that makes me really love it. What unbridled, unashamed, silly energy! This same energy pervades most of Odd Blood, which shows Yeasayer’s influences include not only Disney movies but also Brian Eno, 80’s New Romantics, Peter Fucking Gabriel, Afropop, etc. One thing: I can’t tell if the girl at the center of the song is supposed to be a lying, deceiving, slippery wench, or if the speaker of the song is acknowledging the distance between he and his gf at the dour end of their relationship. I sincerely hope it’s the latter, because I have heard, from a friend of a friend of a Yeasayer, that these dudes are bunch of dicks. But oh well, they’ve got marvelously diverse ears, robust singing voices, and you know? I think they really go for it, even if they sometimes fail.

5. “Empire Ants,” Gorillaz + Little Dragon

Woah, I know, Gorillaz. I was kind of too embarrassed to listen to this immediately when it came out the other day, but then I decided to get over myself since the guest list featured a bunch of surprise presents. Surprise present number 1: MARK E SMITH ?!?! on the track “Glitter Freeze.” He spits: “Where’s norf from here??” then drawls over scratchy, arrhythmic electro; it’s not so different from his 2007 project Von Sudenfed, but it’s the first I’d heard of him since then. Surprise present number 2: LOU REED??!?! on the track “Some Kind of Nature.” Lou sounds perfectly blasé; it’s like he and Mark are competing for the title “Most Disdainfullest of Earthly Life.” The tinkling ivories and lilty, drunken meandering of this song would not sound out of place on Transformer, except for the Gorillaz flourishes and Damon’s voice which appears somewhere later in the song. Anyway, the point is, “Empire Ants.” This song is pretty straight forward; Damon’s unadorned crooning recalls Blur’s ballady-type songs; for once, he and his voice aren’t hiding behind a cartoon mask. At 2 minutes, the song turns from beach island reverie to ice-cold Kraut/Daft disco with the ghostly voice of Little Dragon (?).

6. “I’m Back,” T.I.

T.I. will be out of the ATL halfway house on March 26th! And thank goodness. Everybody seems to be in jail, and I will be happy to have my favorite radio rapper back in action. Wayne and Gucci Mane are obviously incarcerated, while, as if you cared, DMX might soon go back since he keeps violating his probation. The assonance goin’ on in this song is absolutely outta control, the cutting long ‘i’s further sharpened by his dipthongless Southern twang: “I never let you down/Imma shine on sight/Keep your mind on your grind and offa minez, alright, right right?” Alright, I will.

I hope you, too, will enjoy some of these tracks. All of them, with the exception of Love King (which is from an as-yet unreleased 2010 LP) and I’m Back (which may just be a one-off, as it is a glorious come-back track), come from a recently released LP or EP that is definitely worth some of your time and consideration.

Best of 2009 albums: take with grain of salt, this year kinda sucked

This year I was pretty consistent with this music blog, so if any of you read it, or if any of you know me, you will likely know my favorite albums of the year. Henceforth I will just make a list of my favorite albums, and in lieu of providing long descriptions, which come easy to me, I will assign one phrase/sentence per album to sum it all up.

The-Dream: Love vs Money

Brilliant, lush antidote to T-Pain production hegemony

Bat For Lashes: Two Suns

The pale English sun doth an imaginative, sensual & elfin musical genius make, again–just ask Kate Bush.

Mos Def: The Ecstatic

Spit fire, diverse beats, acrobatics from Brooklyn Globe Trotter

Micachu & The Shapes: Jewellry

THIS is the shape of punk music 2009–Dadaism and collage combine with a pop penchant for melody

Bassment Jaxx: Scars

Playful, emotive maximalism; dance to it, cry to it, hope to it

St. Vincent: Actor

Composure, well composed

Kid Sister: Ultraviolet

Joyful, jokey girl-next-door runs gamut from juke to house, proving Chicago know how to party

Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx: Part II

When in doubt, return to 1995

Wale: Attention Deficit

Lacking personality? Maybe. Lacking listen-ability? No. Dude got potential? Yes.

Now let me say this: what was 2009? A year of disappointments.

Hypocrite Listener vs Daftpop Music Showdown

To Hypocrite Listener: Like all haterisms, hating hipsters sure gets old. I agree. What I’ve tried to convey is my boredom with the whole dismissive irony of some of the men making music in this genre. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the woman part of me feels left out from this entirely dude-ly genre. Trend-spotters have identified hipster style as gender-ambiguous, but I’d say it’s really more like women are dressing like men. I will be satisfied when men mix flannel with skirts and eyeliner. Anyway! Men are still the majority of music critics, the music makers, and the people at shows. And fo’ sho’, a majority of men present in a scene does not mean said scene is evil. But it does mean that I feel left out and will look elsewhere for a more colorful, various backdrop for my interests.

But, Anna! I can almost hear my detractors say: what about them women in the Dirty Projectors, what about Annie Clark and Natasha Khan? Yar, yar, yar: I agree and am very excited by the music they make. Also, for the record, I think the Dirty Projectors are totally, unequivocally awesome.

But besides the grievances I carry on behalf of my sex, Nige, I am probably more on your side than it seems. I get pissed too when people diss “hipsters” who live in our hoods. And I see that just by having a music blog, attending Pitchfork’s festival this summer, and owning a pair of black skinny jeans, I am clearly taking part in this massive subculture–as you pointed out, this subculture is a force that pretty much defines our generation. But I think it’s important to forever keep an eye on how this subculture bizness develops, what it includes, and what it leaves out. I think you’d agree with me on that.

But everything I’ve said so far makes it seem like taste is a conscious decision. In many ways, it is. But I’ve been bothered for a long time about the mystery of personal preference, especially when it comes to music taste. Can I tell you that you need to like T-Pain? Yes. But can I actually make you like him? No. Same goes for someone like Grizzly Bear. I can appreciate what the band is doing but still be totally bored by soft, mid-tempo acoustic songwriting. This might seem an evasive thing to say, because I am essentially acknowledging that even if we argue all day about the merits or demerits of T-Pain and Grizzly Bear, my ill-drawn pseudo-scientific theory about personal preference trumps all. Critics use ideas and objective material to discuss art; subjective likes and dislikes shouldn’t be an excuse. But at the same time, does not music possess mystical and intangible properties? We do our best to qualify all its empirical qualities, but still, the reason some songs sound awesome evades all logic. And besides, if all of art could be neatly codified into good and bad, wouldn’t it be something other than art?

Another note, for another blog post–I didn’t like 2009. It was a desert for good music no matter the genre. It was so bad, some people even postulated hip hop was dead. Maybe it’s all dying, or it’s just end-of-naughties fatigue.

Anyway, you may not prefer to listen to any of these songs, but perhaps you can appreciate them.

THE PLAYLIST IS LINKED HERE

Here they are, in no particular order:

–Beyonce: “Halo” and “Single Ladies”

There are few stars that I would indulge a double album showcasing the two sides of their persona. But Beyonce endlessly fascinates; she’s reserved, classy and a great old fashioned star, akin to Diana Ross, but with better pipes. Though I’ve seen her bare most body parts, B retains mystery and tact when overexposure is the norm. But more important than her persona is her voice. The brassy sass of “Single Ladies,” is all the more impressive heard in the context of “Halo.” Turns out, I need both sides of B’s coin. “Single Ladies,” which I have positively described elsewhere as a “robotic Motown stomp,” is alone in its aural universe; there’s really no other song like it. “Halo” is obviously one of millions of ballads, but Beyonce’s singing on that one sorta makes me cry.

–Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane: “Shine Blockas”

This is probably the most refreshing hip hop song of the year. Seriously, I was attentive to everything that came out. In the classics we had Ghostface, Mos Def and Raekwon. Commercial faves like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and to a much lesser extent Fabolous all released albums. There was a come back from Eminem. Clipse finally released their third album the other day. But you know somefink? Though some of that stuff was good, none of it was really new. (Although Clipse’s pandering to commercial hip hop was new, but that’s for another blog post.) Big Boi picked up hot-on-the-streets-today Gucci Mane and made a song that embodies a warm, breezy Georgia day, with slightly nostalgic and thankfully un-2009 instrumentation, and made an unassuming track that sounds like it’s been here for a while but will stick around forever.

–Most the-Dream songs, notably “Rockin’ That Thang,” “Walkin’ on the Moon,” even his collab with Fabo on “Throw It In the Bag,” and his production on Electrik Red’s album.

I object to the idea that most pop is “the set-it-and-forget-it trend of auto-tuned to death vocals over recycled beats and increasingly boring sampled material.” The-Dream and his buddy Tricky Stewart guarantee that a lot of the music on the radio sounds interesting. The warm, human option in a radioverse of T-Pain’s playful robotics, the-Dream is very like a chubby cherubim with a bewitchingly lovely voice. He also knows his way around the studio, channeling MJ on “Walkin’ on the Moon,” Prince on the Electrik Red song “Friend Lover,” R Kelly every which way, including a persona favorite, Electrik Red’s song “Freaky Freaky.” He’s not copping these masters, though, he’s paying a dutiful tribute while adding his own shit: speeding up the songs and adding like 16 tracks of bleeps, bops, strings, space sounds, etc: there’s literally never a dull moment on one of his songs. Pitchfork identified his style as rococo; indeed, the-Dreams interior design equivalent is probably this room. Did I mention the-Dream co-wrote “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”? And that he is younger than you and me? ! ! !

–Ghostface: “Do Over”

Turns out Ghostdini didn’t have the lasting power I’d hoped for. Many long-time fans complained that Ghost didn’t bring it on this album as he had on his soul songs elsewhere. But I still think this song is a success.

–Pet Shop Boys: “All Over the World”

Okay, this song is totally ridiculous. It sounds like it was produced in 1996 and features gruesomely tacky faux-strings playing a famous ditty from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” But whatever! This song is totally exhilarating; every time I hear the chorus, I imagine the aging Pet Shop Boys standing on top of a mountain with their arms majestically stretched out to the sky. As the feverish 90s-British-gay-club bass pounds, we see the snow-capped peaks around the P.S. Boys, and the expanse of this colorful world unfolds before our eyes.

–Bassment Jaxx: “Scars” & “Raindrops”

Sasha Frere Jones helpfully pointed this out earlier in the year:

Two dance acts emerged around the turn of the century, both of which had the visas to pass between the worlds of pop and dance. One was Daft Punk and the other was Basement Jaxx. Especially since Basement Jaxx used actual human vocals and wove a wide range of references into their music, I thought they would reach more people, and for longer. Quite the opposite.

Daft Punk offered the nexus of studied unhumanity, the final solution of Kraftwerk’s menschmachine universe. And yeah, I think DP is more accessible than BJ, because even though BJ offer uplifting melodies, they are often hidden in an unintelligible chaos. DP makes a squeaky clean sound, even when they’ve got a shit ton of distortion on. Anyway, Bassment Jaxx is becoming a much more compelling group than DP–they’re a lot more prolific, and their emotional register is wide and varied. “Scars” is an auditory thesis in desperation and darkness. (This song also puts Kelis’ at-times gruff alto to much better use than her new single “Acapella.”) “Raindrops” is the opposite, the refreshing washing away of darkness, like the last drizzle before a rainbow appears! Yay.

–MSTRKRFT: “Heartbreaker”

You’re probably mad at me because I am including a bunch of dance music in my list, and most fans of dance/electro/whatevs wear skinny jeans. But alas, it’s technically a different genre. I know most MSTRKRFT songs consist of Justice-esque power-punching distortion, (their 2009 album is called Fist of God, for heaven’s sake), but this walk on the sensitive side plucks my heart-strings every time. The piano is simple but more emotionally effective than the catharsis-mongering of, say, Alicia Keys. The lyrics are rather basic: “I feel like crying/just want to die.” But the spirit is similar to the substance of Kanye’s 808s, and who hasn’t felt that desperate?

–Raekwon + Ghostface: “Cold Outside”

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is so dense that I haven’t absorbed more than half of it. But this song stuck out during my first listens; it’s all street-elegy, a pointed picture of what sucks about being poor, cold and stuck in the hood. Kids are smoking weed, mothers can’t afford diapers and no one can afford Newports at $7.50 a pack. Mariachi horns blare in and out of tune in an endless loop, sounding a bit like the undying cycle of human misery.

–Keri Hilson, Ne-yo, Kanye, “Knock You Down.”

Sure did love this song.

–Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

I had to acknowledge this one-woman phenomenon in some way, and it is by honoring her with a place on my playlist. “Bad Romance” has just the right amount of Gaga affectation; “Poker Face” was as static as the visage it describes; “LoveGame” featured a hook so obnoxious that it lulled you into a state of catatonic braindeath; “Paparazzi” was effectively creepy, but less because it’s about a stalker and more because it sounds uncannily like Gwen Stefani.  But the way she pronounces the word “romance” in this new single is brilliant: she slips in and out of a linguistic anachronism like she slips in and out of pop star cliches and robot outfits.  I am still embarrassed every time she says, “I’m a free bitch, baby,” but then again, no Gaga song is complete without something stupid like a “disco stick” popping up. Beside that, this song is pretty cool in a farty, thumping, idiotic sort of way.

–Jay-Z: “Thank You”

As previously mentioned, this song ain’t nothin new. But it suits Jigga to a ‘t’–I can just see him in his $4,000 suit, shimmying up his Italian silk tie, nonchalantly thanking all of us for providing him with riches. The marching horns on this track are a more effective testament to his old school New York cred than they are on “D.O.A.,” and, despite the questionable analogy about “9-11″ing his enemies, this song is a relaxed and enjoyable example of the rapper comfortably gazing down on us from his pedestal.

–Cam’ron: “I Hate My Job”

If there was a theme song for enduring a job during the recession, it’d be this one. Obviously being unemployed is miserable, but being locked into a job with a shitty commute, shitty boss, shitty hours, and shitty wages can be just as demeaning and dehumanizing. The piano loop sounds more like a Billy Joel rag or a Kermit the Frog sing-along than a track for the rapper of Purple Haze infamy, but I guess that just shows us that Cam’ron’s got the flexibility and wherewithal required to survive hard times.

–Clipse + Kanye: “Kinda Like a Big Deal.”

I listened to this song about 5 billion times this year, and I can’t remember what I ever liked about it. However, from an objective stand-point, this song features Kanye’s best verse of the year, and the guitars on this song are a much better way to rock in rap, as opposed to, say, Lil Wayne’s idea of how to rock in rap.

Rihanna Crosses to Dark Side, But Not Far Enough

i stole this glove from beyonce, but it's cool, it looks way more convincing on me anyway

So, Rated R. I still have a hard time knowing what criteria to use when considering the strengths of a pop album, because pop stars are not made by their full length albums, but by the strength of their singles and their image/aesthetic. I love pop music these days, but there are very few albums from this decade’s Billboard artists that I still find engaging or good.

Good Girl Gone Bad had a few excellent singles (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia”), while the rest (“Take a Bow,” “Rehab”) were conservative ballads that were timeless in a bad way: totally generic and characterless. There were a couple of “Watch out! I’m Rihanna and I’m really mad” songs, but those fell flat due to the flakiness of the production; sirens hesitantly blared and should have been more urgent, electric guitars were not nearly abrasive enough, etc. The “bad girl” was barely present; when she was, she was doing stupid stuff like throwing around some nice china and driving fast. Rihanna could have handled tough sounds and a tougher, more avant-garde image, but I suspect her production team was trying to preserve some femininity for the somewhat robotic and aloof star. Verdict: Good Girl Gone Bad was a transitional album, with tween-pleasing characterless ballads and sparingly few jolts of truly forward-looking shit.

Rated R has nothing as good as “Umbrella,” but the sad-sack songs have vastly improved, and, aesthetically, the album is a slightly more cohesive statement than Good Girl Gone Bad. Visually, Rihanna has finally given in to the darkness that she has always courted. The album cover features Rihanna as Siouxsie Sioux in 1982, or something, instead of the curvaceous Barbados babe she was on her last cover. Musically, the album is not as dark as it purported. The album opener is a strange little ditty inviting the listener into the “Mad House.” The organs and narration are straight outta “Thriller,” MJ’s compelling and enduringly spooky musical testament to the weird.

But it all gets lighter from there. In “Hard,” Rihanna’s newest single, she reminds us that she’s a hard mofo; unfortunately, it features Mr. Young Jeezy, who rhymes about heart attacks… again. Remember this, from Kanye’s “Amazing”?: “Standin’ at the podium/tryin’ to watch my sodium/die of high blood pressure/that or let the feds getcha.” What the fuck? What does a podium have to do with anything? Pfork gave “Hard” a 7 out of 10 as a single rating, but I am not convinced that this song is even that good. Even though Rihanna’s diction conveys her robotic strength as an elemental, necessary force, the song is a little silly; for example, none of the instruments sound good, and nothing sounds particularly hard. They should have put some chainsaws (or something) in the song to make it sound more convincingly badass.

“Hard” is followed by songs falling into one or other of these categories: conservative ballad, a la her old days, but with a darker lyrical bent, or stupid, stupid lite rock song. How come R&B and pop people can’t figure out how to make a guitar sound cool? Also, the pianos in “Firebomb” are cut from the Disney-single playbook. You know those Disney singles? Like Christina Aguilera’s version of that Mulan song? Ugh, those sparkly pianos. What I am trying to say is that all the guitars and pianos and everything sound like muzak in many Rihanna songs. This is especially true of the song “Firebomb,” which, again, doesn’t have enough power to sound like it could have things to do with real firebombs. Which are powerful!

Producers on Rated R include the-Dream, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and other cool people; so how come this album sounds bad so much of the time? I hate to bring her up, but let’s talk about Lady Gaga for a second. This woman took an aesthetic and ran with it. She collected all the 90s euro synths she could, and hoarded them onto her album. If she was going to fail, she would fail miserably, as all her eggs were in one musical basket that sounded a bit like 90s Cher. But, hey, guess what, it worked! Congrats, Lady Gaga, you milked 6 singles off of one cd, and they pretty much all sound the same! Rihanna would do well to take a similar chance.

Sometimes, when Rihanna tries to go all classic, it works. “Te Amo” and “Cold Case Love” are both pretty beautiful, touching songs, and they will both age well. (Nevermind that “Cold Case Love,” JT’s contribution, sounds a lot like the gospel choir part of “Losing My Way.”)

Sometimes, songs sound eerily familiar. The dreaded will.i.am makes an appearance on “Photography,” a song whose parts are pretty much jacked from the verses of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” and Burial’s love-lorned warbles on “Archangel.” I guess will.i.am is finally running out of ideas; thank god, maybe he will leave us soon.

Sometimes, the songs are just right. Take “Rude Boy.” This could be Rihanna’s thing: it’s a fast-paced dance/sex jam replete with synthesized steel drums reminiscent of the Caribbean. The song is a shout out to a rude boy, who Rihanna dares not to get it up for her. Clearly ‘rude boy,’ just sorta means gangsta in this song, and has no specifically place/time rooted identity; too bad–Rihanna and some dude in suspenders, a fedora and skinny black tie dancing in a sultry club surrounded by Jamaican palm trees and 14 kinds of rum would have made for a hot video.

In conclusion, Rihanna needs to come up with a production team that can create all the power she is singing about. She needs to take some chances on an aesthetic, and I think her next move could easily be a sort of goth Caribbean musical hybrid. She’s a big enough star that we’ll all still be with her for her next move.

Update: Kanye West in 2009

Shiny orbs reveal a contemplative Kanye

Last year this time I was sullenly nodding along to Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak.” This year this time I am marveling at Kanye’s 2009 brand expansion. He didn’t put out an album, but he was all over everybody else’s, guesting, producing, sputtering, chuckling, but mostly, as some might say, spittin’ raw game.

Probably because everyone was so mad at him for making a depressing cd, Kanye made up for all that 2008 autotuning with some witty, sad, self-reflective, angry and haughty rhymes on his various guest appearances.

A playlist of Kanye’s 12–COUNT EM’–12 singles is available for your listening pleasure (or displeasure, depending on the song) here. The best of this crop is “Walkin’ on the Moon,” with the-Dream. I LOVE THAT SONG! But other artists with whom Kanye worked successfully include Rick Ross, Keri Hilson and Clipse. Least successful collabs were with the Teriyaki Boyz, as well as with everyone and their mom on “Forever,” which is an EPIC FAIL (to use internet speak) featuring the megastars Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem. (I think it’s because I HATE DRAKE.)

Many of these songs feature similar themes and references to products. Below is a sort of index for Kanye’s songs of this last year. I was inspired by the index Slate compiled for Sarah Palin’s new book; the index topics revealed a lot about the book, so if you don’t have time to listen to Kanye, this list will fill you in on what you missed.

Brands (cars):

Mercedes Benz (Maybach Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want)

Maybach (Maybach Music 2, obviously), also known as “May-what?” (Run This Town)

Lexus (Maybach Music 2, Whatever U Want)

Ferrari (Walkin’ On the Moon)

Volvo, did not buy for family a (Run This Town)

Rav 4, did not become a rapper to drive a (Run This Town)

Brands (not cars):

-Reebok, implying it is okay to wear a pair of (Knock You Down), scoffing that you still own pair of (Run This Town)

-Louis Vuitton, implying it is higher class to wear (Knock You Down),

-Dolce & Gabbana, in your closet, Kanye finds (The Big Screen)

-Grey Poupon, rhymes with poop (Mayback Music 2)

Women:

-dykes, at the club, men who are not Kanye get (Maybach Music 2)

-breasts, for women who want them, Kanye will purchase new (Whatever U Want)

-nipples, aka bee stings (Run This Town)

-Michelle Obama, just cuz (Forever)

-sororities, Kanye has seniority at (Poke Her Face)

Movies:

-Good Will Hunting, in a sea of ill-will, Kanye goes (Run This Town)

-Karate Kid, because Kanye is rhyming with Asians, he mentions (Teriyaking)

-Return of the Jedi, when Kanye returns from out of town, it is similar to (The Big Screen)

-Hollywood (The Big Screen, Forever)

Wine Varietals:

riesling, drank too much (Run This Town)

Champagne, drank a little (Poke Her Face)

Affecting Foreign Accents:

‘chahnce, ‘ British pronunciation of the word “chance” (Supernova)

‘ting,’ Jamaican pronunciation of the word “thing” (The Big Screen)

Technology:

Macbook Air, Digitial Girl in question watched on(Digital Girl)

Blackberry, please stop using your (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-Macberry, horrible pun referring to iPhone (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-OMG, Internet lingo (Knock You Down)

texting, drunk (Walkin’ on the Moon)

Biology/biological functions:

gonads, someone grabbed him by the (Teriyaking)

poop, used in extended metaphor about world as his commode (Maybach Music 2, Teriyaking)

dick,  to prove point to women, Kanye uses (all songs)

-Medulla Oblongata (Poke Her Face)

-scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

comatosis, rhymes with scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

-sex, in library (Poke Her Face), with mentally challenged girls (Kinda Like a Big Deal)

Musical References:

-Slick Rick, Kanye is the new (Knock You Down)

-Hey Young World, [Slick Rick reference] (Knock You Down)

-Michael Jackson, this is bad, real bad, similar to the album by (Knock You Down)

Joe Jackson, Kanye is mad, real mad, similar to the mood of (Knock You Down)

Emotional Themes:

-palpable regret (all songs, especially Kinda Like a Big Deal, Run This Town, Walkin on the Moon, Knock You Down)

-haughtiness (all songs, especially Mayback Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want, Forever)

-combination regret & haughtiness (all songs)

But shiny bags can't take away the pain