The Emperor’s New Wall Hangings

Toast to my evilness

Empire, my favorite television melodrama, is so dense with gold chains,  so rife with betrayal, and so bonkers in its plotting that you would be forgiven for missing some of the show’s subtler motif work. The clothes are one thing (nary a dame is seen without 5 inch heels, even when doing push-ups) and the physical spaces another (all-gold-everything). And yet the uniting aesthetic, as one of the show’s designers coins it, could be described as “ghetto fabulous.”

The term ghetto fabulous offers a rebuttal to those who would use “ghetto” as a pejorative adjective, describing something shoddy or ill-made. The fabulousness of all things on Empire cannot be disputed, and yet there are different kinds of fabulousness, not all of it ghetto. A recurring friction on the show is the cultural rift between those who came up on the streets (mama and papa Lyons, Thirsty) and those who didn’t, such as the YMCMB progeny and bourgie, lily-skinned Anika. Luscious, like the Jay-Z he is modeled after, has a foot in both worlds, and is the embodiment of the one-in-a-billion rags-to-riches success stories. It’s an American tale, but one rarely told outside of the medium of rap.  Even for its capitalist zeal, its celebration of material-driven narcissism, and its earnest embrace of the patriarchal family structure, the show’s focus on black aspiration at the highest levels of the fake Empire show universe is kinda revolutionary.  Luscious and Cookie are the embodiment of ghetto fabulous.

Enter Kehinde Wiley painting. Of all the contemporary art of Empire, Wiley’s paintings are the most ubiquitous–hanging in the dining room and living room at the Luscious Lair, ready to be unpacked in Cookie’s new Dynasty office, illuminating the office at Empire, in Hakeem’s penthouse. You name the space, and a Wiley can’t be far away.

I first saw his paintings in the Brooklyn Museum, and admit I’d never even heard of him before. In a strange quiet corner, some ceiling panels were installed from Wiley’s series “Go.” These paintings–in scale, in the bodily posture of their subjects, in their heavenly environment, reminded me of the Sistine Chapel; the subjects, of Wu-Tang.  I was so delighted by the concept, and surprised that no one seemed to think of it earlier.

The Michelangelo + 90s rappers effect is all fine and good and the point, I think, of the gorgeous, technicolor oil paintings by Wiley. But they aren’t mere meme-quality in their incongruity. They’re recontextualizations of black people–some in attire easily identified as “hood”: low-slung jeans, drawers hanging out, hoodies, Timbos, etc, and a recontextualization of reverential Western art iconography, like the luminous portraits of saints and martyrs. Putting the two together challenges our racial/historical associations, synthesizing unlike traditions to melt arbitrary, sometimes racist boundaries. Beyond Renaissance painting, Wiley seems fond of perfect, repeated patterns, like William Morris and other Victorian printers, but with a technicolor boost, unafraid of pinks, reds, yellows. His subjects may appear with halos or appear to glow like saints, but in the Go series, they are placed against a doily of royal Islamic lattice work. It would be wrong to say these paintings are merely mash-ups of high and low, of royal versus hood, which I think it would be easy to say. Empire shows there’s nothing contradictory or at odds about being black and enormously successful, powerful, and rich. But it is something new for the United States, historically, and something network television is new to showing. Hence, Wiley’s paintings are a perfect thematic complement to the Lyon family, who find themselves in situations where far more white faces have gone before. “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie/ a black guy,” Kanye said of this phenomenon of the upper echelons, and all things we consider synonymous with high class.

Other paintings I spotted were some Basquiats, which obviously makes sense given the artist’s near-universal hip-hop cred. Others have catalogued the art of the show, to my surprise. So I’ll link them out of obligation.

The artwork that inspired me to write this post, though, was an ironic use of Kara Walker. I first saw Kara Walker’s silhouettes in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She is known for creating silhouettes, like paper dolls, which appear in innocent and sorta folk-arty scenes, like an embroidered pillow of farm animals at grammaw’s house. But the whole point is that the innocence is belied by the depiction of something gruesome in the “it is heritage,” genre of American cruelty, be it a lynching, a rape, or a beating.

While Empire’s partnership with Wiley is intentional and well-paired, the show veered off into ignoramus territory by placing a Kara Walker piece in Lola’s girly-princess bedroom. In the direct sightline of Lola’s bed is a Walker vignette featuring two children playing under a tree. And from a higher branch that we cannot see, a body dangles, with only legs visible at the top of the circular scene. It’s a picture of a lynching, but the cute silhouettes of little children with braided pigtails was apparently an  irresistible design choice for the little girl’s room, historical underbelly be damned.

MAYBE–just maybe–this cunning show wanted to convey what Walker does–that within every adorable pastoral lies someone’s brutal oppression and the heritage of American racism. That there is no such thing as cuteness. Lola’s origins, after all, are sorta messed up–nothing innocent or lovely about That’s So Raven’s baby’s daddy. But more likely, some designer wanted to big-up Kara Walker to the neglect of her themes.

As far as the sins of patronage go, this is a lesser one. Because like the Lyons, the work of these black artists has only recently come to grace the corridors of power.


YA HEARD???: Good jams of rap radio 2012

with these rings, i thee unwed

It is well-established that I ❤ rap radio, but often times both 92.3 & 107.5 are bloated with a lot of useless shit. On the continuum of good rap and r&b, passable rap and r&b, guilty pleasures, and pure shit, both stations play mostly the latter two categories. But there are a few things genuinely worth listening to on the radio right now. They are:

USHER climax

Produced by Diplo and sang by URSHER, this song is one of the finest examples in the tradition of dance djs teaming up with R&B legends. Honestly, the only person to gain from this collab is Diplo, who, though not a household name, is at least a dancy-party-in-the-basssssment-name. When Usher feels like it, he can put out an amazing jam with a stellar producer (“Love In This Club”, other jams with Polow), but in recent years he is most likely churn out some anonymous house with a musically-bankrupt Swedish producer. The soaring, emotive vocal line is underpinned by an initially glitchy, then inevitably paced beat, combining the decisiveness and yet instant regret of a break-up. Unlike so many slow-burning jams to be heard on the radio these days, the music of this song is actually crafted and thematic. Usher is only growing as a singer in his later years. THIS IS THE BEST SONG.

FRANK OCEAN thinkin bout you

Frank Ocean’s songs are as emo as Drake’s and as sexually explicit as Chris Brown’s, but, unlike Drizzy and Breezy, Ocean doesn’t trifle. I was into Nostalgia.Ultra, but at times his voice reminded me too much of early 2000’s indie singing (all nasal), which is a major turn-off. This song features a fine falsetto and serpentine phrasing, evidence of Ocean’s skill as the most respectable R&Ber out there. There isn’t much to “Thinkin bout you”, and that’s what makes it lovely. Just a gauzy guitar fading in and out, and an 808 lapping like a wave. Ocean has feelings, but he doesn’t rub your face in them. He wants to sex you, girl, but in a really classy way. If the radio featured more understated, subtle songs like this, the world would indubitably be a better place.


“Amen’s” music track sans vocals could stand alone as a bouncy intro-to-gospel. Then just as you think you’re listening to 107.5 on Sunday mornings (when they play church music) Meek Mill jumps on asking “bad bitches” to represent themselves. The light-hearted irreverance of this song covers drinking too much, smoking too much, and babes: a new religion built on the altar of bacchanalian excess. It is at times discouraging that the younger generation of dextrous rappers seem to be solely focused on party-times, but “Amen” has a playful irony that lesser rappers cannot fathom from behind the opaque self-seriousness of their rosé-tinted glasses.


Y’all know I love Pusha-T and Big Sean, and that I will probably die as Kanye’s last defender from the hoards who just don’t understand the glorious populism of his music. So for me, this is an easy hit. But this Chief Keef song makes a startling addition to the genre I like to think of as “ghetto ominous.” (In my estimation, the “ghetto ominous” genre features lots of minor scales and organs. See: Ace Hood, some Wacka Flocka, etc.) “I don’t like” has a churning, unpleasant synth line, and a skittish drum track that sounds like someone’s packin a gat. The rappers are straight hatin, as the song is simply a litany of things they don’t like–snitches, fakes, women who deign to call after giving a BJ. The unrelenting anger and pessimism of “I don’t like” makes it an unusual hit, but I’ll always make room for aggro rappers. There’s a lot to be mad about.


New Moon = Women’s Fantasy

undying and undead love in action
undying and undead love, in action

I am a bit too proud to “let it go” when critics pan something I like. So I have to justify, through thought and theory, why something is good. And perhaps I should just let sleeping vampires lie… but I enjoyed almost every minute of New Moon, a movie most critics said was inferior to its predecessor.

So first I must start earlier in the franchise. This past weekend I re-watched Twilight, and was re-creeped out by Edward being such a fucking stalker.

Twilight‘s version of love is deeply melodramatic and unfeminist; but it speaks to cliches that are apparently still quite deeply embedded in little girls. Ed is exactly the kind of guy young women should avoid; he confesses he’s extremely protective of Bella; he watches her while she sleeps without permission; he stares at her unnervingly in public; his moods are unpredictable; he lies to her all the time; he even threatens to fang her. She laps it up. Yet it’s still easy to see why this portrait of clandestine love is appealing. Ed’s single-minded obsession is really hot; who wouldn’t want to be the fixation of a deliciously sexy Victorian goth boy? It also speaks to the narcissism of some types of love; we want to be craved, to be the focus of somebody else’s life. It’s also narcissistic because that consuming sort of love allows us to hide in that love and shut out the universe, thus becoming an excuse for all sorts of selfishness on the lovers’ behalves. The point is, the first movie is pretty fucked up. A better argument than I could ever make regarding this topic is featured in this hilarious youtube mash-up of Buffy and Edward.

Many critics regaled the first Twilight movie for being an ode to teenage love; but for real? Twilight offers mystical magnetism as the only explanation for Bella’s and Edward’s love. B & E apparently have nothing in common, and the only time they are shown to have what looks like a normal conversation occurs during a montage sequence with no sound but the music track. What the two lovers say during pedestrian conversation remains a riddle wrapped inside of a question mark! The only thing those two have in common is that they’d both like to die for each other. Not so realistic, methinks. (Mehopes!)

New Moon, despite featuring further proliferation of the supernatural, portrays the most realistic version of “teenage love.” And it doesn’t take place between Edward and Bella, but between Bella and Jacob the Wolfman. Jacob is such a muscled sweetie-pie, literally an All-American hunk o’ love; maybe our first Native American heartthrob? (Sadly, the actor isn’t really Native American, though he claims to be part Potowatami and Ottowa through his Michigander’s mom side.) Jacob and Bella pursue a common hobby (motorcycles), they take scenic drives, see movies called Facepunch, hang out with friends, etc, and do pretty normal stuff. Their attraction is grounded, it makes sense, and it is no less hot just because it is more realistic. (How could it not be hot? Those MUSCLES! Here is a slideshow of them. [Thanks, Rach])

Next critique: New Moon is long and boring, they say. Well, sure, it’s long, but is it drawn-out? That depends on your perspective. The awkward pauses, long glances and hesitant touches between Bella and her two loves make for luxuriously drawn-out courtship rituals. My sister and I squealed with delight every time it looked like something might happen between the romantic leads.

Which leads me to my next point (bear with me). This movie is fundamentally feminine in perspective and an escape from the drudgery of daily life, like a harlequin romance would be. And that’s why everyone thinks it’s stupid. New Moon really takes female desire seriously; Bella is at the center and the plot turns on her being the fixation of two really hot dudes (one of whom is shirtless in almost every scene). Bella isn’t as good looking as her two love interests; she’s an everygirl. She has brown hair, not blond, thank you very much, and she wears frumpy-ass poofy coats to school. She is the blank page on whom we project ourselves. And you know? This movie’s pace is feminine, as opposed to masculine. Fantasy movies for guys are full of car chases, then some sex scenes, probably some gadget scenes, more sex scenes, battles, etc. This fantasy movie is not so much full of events as it is the possibility of events: again, the luxurious pauses, etc. Desire simmers slightly below boiling for most of the movie, and what we’re left is the possibility of the gratification of desire.

We women just love that. I’d rather use my imagination than see a fantasy created for me on screen; New Moon is all about possibilities, and that’s why I can’t wait to watch it again.

This One For My Homeboy William


I made a playlist of some of my favorite tracks from 2009. At one time or another, I listened to each of these songs very frequently. Some, like the Clipse track, I put on here out of obligation. I love Clipse and I need to represent, even though most of their singles this year were duds. (NOVEMBER 10th, THOUGH, WE WILL SEE WHAT THEY’VE BEEN HIDING FROM US!)

Some, like “Shine Blockas” and “Raindrops,” the openers and closers to this album, are uplifting and hopeful.

So, remember, CAN’T BLOCK MY SHIIINE, SHOHTY. (translation: you can’t bring me down, woman.)



Song of the Year

by David Mickelsen

Here’s another of my lists: the Song of the Year with some runners-up. This Song of the Year is not necessarily my favorite song released this year, nor is it supposed to be the “best” song (whatever that means). Instead, this is the song that best represents the year for me, the song that defines 2008 in my mind. It is a combination of what was most ubiquitous and celebrated in the mass consciousness, and what was most important and captivating to my consciousness.

It was a tough choice this time around, as there was no clear-cut number one for me this year, unlike the past couple of years: last year it was Rihanna’s summer anthem “Umbrella,” and Gnarls Barkley ran away with it in 2006 with “Crazy” (although T.I.’s “What You Know” was a strong runner-up). But there are a lot of tough choices in life, so here’s what I ended up with for Song of the Year:

No Matter What - T.I.Runner-Up #3: “No Matter What” – T.I. (Listen at imeem)
When a person is going to jail for awhile, one of two things often happens: he becomes hardened, bitter, and cynical (like 2Pac), or it causes him to become more introspective, and to reflect on his life and what’s really important (like 2Pac?). The latter is the case for T.I., who early in 2008 was sentenced to a year in prison for federal weapons charges, which he will begin serving in March of 2009. Much of his 2008 album Paper Trail reads like a confession, and on “No Matter What,” he draws strength from his faith, apologizes to his fans, is at peace with his fate (“Facin’ all kinda time, but smile like I’m fine”), and affirms that no matter what, still he stands.

Love Lockdown - Kanye WestRunner-Up #2: “Love Lockdown” – Kanye West (Listen at imeem)
Even given how polarizing it was, and how late it was released, this song was still a pretty big deal in 2008. Kanye West is, after all, one of the Big Two in the current rap world as I see it, along with Lil Wayne. That, and the fact that this is one of my favorite Kanye tracks ever, make it my #2 runner-up for 2008. “Love Lockdown” opens, appropriately, with just an 808 bass line. The world is then introduced to West’s infamous auto-tune-aided singing, under which piano chords enter before the track explodes into the chorus with thunderous drums: “You keep your love locked down, you lose.” The hottest moment for me, however, is the final instrumental break, where Kanye brings in synths, polyrhythmic percussion elements, and some distant, echo-laden noises that sound like they belong in the jungle, before everything drops out and it’s just 808s and piano again. Then the piano drops out, and the song ends, appropriately, with just an 808 bass line.

Paper Planes - M.I.A.Runner-Up #1: “Paper Planes” – M.I.A. (Listen at imeem)
I’ve recently fallen in love with M.I.A. I don’t know why it took so long; I’ve certainly known about her, back to the release of Arular in 2005. Nevertheless, while I wasn’t paying as much attention to her music over the summer as I am now, it was hard not to notice this track: it was everywhere (including a noteworthy spot in the trailer for Seth Rogen’s movie Pineapple Express, one of the first places that I really noticed it). Lately, “Paper Planes” has been in heavy rotation for me, and its album, Kala, is one of my favorites of 2007 (the single was released in February ’08). The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” is sampled to great effect, and the shotgun and cash register sound effects are appropriately jarring. Perhaps this could have been my Song of the Year if things had been different; either way, it’s a great song.

A Milli - Lil WayneSong of the Year: “A Milli” – Lil Wayne (Listen at imeem)
Walk down any given street in Chicago during this past summer, and you wouldn’t get very far before hearing those ultra-heavy 808s blasting out the open window of a passing car. “A Milli” was the closest thing 2008 had to a truly ubiquitous this-song-is-everywhere summer jam like the “Umbrella”s, “Crazy”s, and “Hey Ya”s of years past, and it stands on a level with any of those songs. Lil Wayne names every pop culture reference he can think of in three minutes and 41 seconds, and the ground-shaking production from Bangladesh is some of my favorite in 2008 hip-hop. I’ll always remember it as the song blasting through Chicago during my first summer here, and as such it’s the song that for me best represents 2008.

Review: the cult of snuggie

If you’re not familiar with the product, take a moment to familiarize yourself:

Perversely, I’m sold. What might appear to be only be the most mobile blanket yet, has what I believe to be real  fashion upside as well. The plush, yet supremely informal tone the snuggie strikes seems simultaneously to disarm pretentions and add a bizarre religious dignity to everyone who wears it. Sitting  sanctimoniously with popcorn clutched in hand, grandpa is not just “enjoying a snack,” oddly, he is a Franciscan monk enjoying a snack. Dad is not just “warm from head to toe,” stretched out on the couch after a long day’s work, in his snuggie, he is filled with the divine light of the heavenly father, too. The subscripts join in, as well, supporting this plainly religious undertone: “one size fits all,” it says as Sister Mom and Brother Dad sit down with Hari Krishna pleasure to pray for our one, transcendental oversoul. What better clothes to wear when cloistering yourself against our modern troubles?

Saint Francis, in his snuggie

The latter half of the ad heralds the snuggie’s alleged fashion versatility. The only thing missing here is a scene at the sports bar where, after the team scores a big touchdown, the guys are all slapping high fives with one another, all fifteen ehtnically diverse buds decked out in their tidy red snuggies. Or, after the campfire sequence,  a crew rolling deep  in the new camo pattern snuggie, would’ve be concievable. Yet, unlike the pulverizing impending reality of the first section, it is in this  social world where the snuggie falls short. The great garment just signals too much holiness to be cavorted about in so lightly. Wearing it out like that just makes you look like an asshole.

The verdict: Buy one snuggie (not two), wear it at home, and await the end times in it cordially.

Top 10 Albums of 2008: First Edition

by David Mickelsen

So pop culture publications the world over have compiled their “Best Albums of the Year” lists. Well, I’m quite a list-man myself, so naturally I’m taking part. The problem I have with publishing a “final copy,” however, and part of the reason I didn’t post this earlier, is that my Top 10 Albums of 2008 list is not static; it is fluid, changing, forever evolving as my tastes evolve, forever shifting as I hear more music. And there will always be more music to hear; I will likely hear 2008 albums in the future that will make their way onto this list, and anything I hear in any context will inform the way I hear and think about 2008’s (and every year’s) music. So with all this in mind, here is my “first edition” Top 10 Albums of 2008 list: the list as it stood at the end of 2008.

First, a couple of honorable mentions:

808s & Heartbreak – Kanye West

808s & Heartbreak undoubtedly wins the Polarizing Album of the Year award, and it’s no surprise, given Kanye’s abandonment of rapping in favor of auto-tune-aided singing. While I too was a bit taken aback by this choice, I was a believer once I heard the results. True to its title (808s & Heartbreak also wins my Album Title of the Year award), it is an album of heartbreak, the result of a hard year for Yeezy. To be sure, it’s a departure from the cocky, hilarious Kanye of old, far darker than anything he’s done before. Also true to its title, it is heavily 808-driven, in addition to being heavily synth-washed. The result is an affecting, emotionally charged album (it’s even been called emo), and for me, it ranks close to Kanye’s best, if not quite on the level of a College Dropout.

Tha Carter III – Lil Wayne

I feel like all the “best rapper alive” talk is a little overblown—best freestyle rapper alive may be a more plausible claim—but either way, there certainly are some great things about this album, particularly how all-over-the-map it is, and how effortlessly Wayne jumps between such disparate pop culture references as Orville Redenbacher, Gwen Stefani, Sidekicks, and Dennis Rodman (that’s all in the same song, by the way). And you have to appreciate what a pop culture phenomenon Weezy is himself, no matter what you think of the music.

Santogold – Santogold

This album is really cool.

…and on to the top 10:

Los Angeles10. Los Angeles – Flying Lotus

J Dilla was the first person that came to mind for me when I first heard Flying Lotus. Anna heard this resemblance as well, comparing Los Angeles to Dilla’s Donuts (incidentally, this is also the only album on both Anna’s list and mine). What strikes me, however, is that while the two albums have almost identical runtimes (just over 43 minutes), Donuts feels incredibly varied and expansive (so much so that I still haven’t completely gotten my head around it, even as it stands as one of my favorite albums of all time), while Los Angeles feels like a very cohesive, shorter composition. Part of this is due to the disparity in track count (Donuts’ 31 to Los Angeles’ 17), but it’s also due to the fact that Dilla and Lotus are going about what they’re doing in pretty different ways, with different approaches, different methods, and different master plans in their respective heads. The staticky, stoned-out beats on Los Angeles are some of the most organic I’ve ever heard, loosely structured and flowing together fluidly, each track still maintaining its distinctiveness. The tracks on Donuts are more diverse and hold a bit more structural integrity, and while it also has a great flow, its changes are far more erratic—as Anna said, it’s all coitus interruptus. So now I’ve spent this whole summary talking about Donuts…but hopefully I’ve at least given somewhat an idea of how I think about this album as well.

Sample Track: “Beginners Falafel

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today9. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne/Brian Eno

David Byrne and Brian Eno have long been associated. Eno worked on three of the Talking Heads’ best albums, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980), and Byrne and Eno teamed up for the first collaboration under their names, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in 1981. Now, 27 years later, Byrne and Eno offer their follow-up, the even-longer-titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

My Life was aggressive, experimental, and sample-heavy, influencing the hip-hop and electronic music of the coming decades. Everything That Happens is not that album. Now closer to age 60 than age 30, Byrne and Eno take a less-jarring, more melodic approach to electronic music, and the result is one of the most beautiful records of 2008, especially on the incredible “Strange Overtones.” Musically, it’s stunning, and Byrne gives an inspired reading of some pretty inspiring lyrics, albeit ones that are a bit counterintuitive at times: “This groove is out of fashion/These beats are 20 years old,” he sings…over some of the most interesting grooves and beats of 2008.

Sample Track: “Strange Overtones

The Odd Couple8. The Odd Couple – Gnarls Barkley

Jeff and I agree on a lot of things, but Cee-Lo is one of our biggest musical disagreements. I won’t make any attempts to speak for Jeff, but for me, Cee-Lo has been one of the most interesting figures in hip-hop and neo-soul for over a decade, from his ’90s work with the Goodie Mob, to the Cee-Lo Green albums of the early 2000s, to his most recent collaborative effort, his alliance with DJ/producer/keyboardist Danger Mouse as Gnarls Barkley. When their debut album, St. Elsewhere, came out in 2006, it blew me away, and its lead single “Crazy” took over my life that summer, along with the lives of a few million other like-minded souls.

I still feel like I haven’t completely absorbed their second album, The Odd Couple, as deeply as its predecessor, but I like it a lot nonetheless. Danger Mouse brings his usual brilliant mix of soul, funk, psychedelia, and hip-hop to the project, with sampled vocal harmonies, melodic synth lines, heavy drum breaks, and some very effective ambient noise here and there. Cee-Lo’s vocals, always impassioned, are often on the verge of psychotic here, a fitting terrain for his darkly moving lyrics. St. Elsewhere‘s themes of mental instability and detachment from reality are present here (“I’ve been entered by evil,” he sings on “Would Be Killer,” and I believe him), but Lo hasn’t lost his sense of dark humor either: “She has no idea I’m ugly,” he sings of his unsighted lover on “Blind Mary,” but follows up with “I’m so much prettier inside”–even when singing through a character, Cee-Lo has trouble being self-deprecating.

Sample Track: “Would Be Killer

Acid Tongue7. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis

I didn’t know much about Jenny Lewis before hearing this album; I hadn’t heard much Rilo Kiley, and none of her solo material. This album was recommended to me by a friend, however, and it immediately made an impact on me. Lewis blends folk, rock & roll, country, and the blues into an album that sounds like it would not be out of place in the early ’70s, but also sounds at home in 2008.

Sample Track: “Carpetbaggers

Dear Science6. Dear Science – TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio just don’t sound like anyone else. Being unique doesn’t necessarily make you good, but when you also write great songs, and that unique sound is gripping, palpable, and captivating, there’s some good stuff going on. Such is the case with TV on the Radio, and Dear Science, their third full-length, expands on and refines that sound. It’s a hard one to pin down; it’s full of contradictions, as it’s at once melancholy and joyous, driving and atmospheric, packed with disparate influences but cohesive and whole.

Sample Track: “Crying

Attack & Release5. Attack & Release – The Black Keys

The Black Keys have been one of my favorite bands for awhile, and one of my favorite things about them has always been the unpolished garage rawness of their sound, and the roughness of Patrick Carney’s production. So I wasn’t sure what to think when I heard that their new album, Attack & Release, was going to be produced by the aforementioned Danger Mouse. The result is a different sound for the band, to be sure, but rather than feeling like something has been lost, Danger Mouse’s sense of atmosphere and the psychedelic add a new dimension to the band. In the end, my favorite Black Keys records are still their earlier, grittier ones, but this one deserves a lot of praise as well.

Sample Track: “Strange Times

Modern Guilt4. Modern Guilt – Beck

It was a busy year for Danger Mouse, and by my measure, a great one, as he produced three of the ten albums on this list. This was another pairing that I didn’t necessarily expect, but again, one that I’m pleased with since hearing the results. I don’t know if it’s because of Danger or despite him, but Modern Guilt feels like Beck returning to a more straightforward rock approach, after the all-over-the-map the Information of 2006. This is a confident, weird Beck: Beck in his element.

Sample Track: “Gamma Ray

Volume One3. Volume One – She & Him

Some people probably dismissed this project as “an album by a hot actress who got to make an album because she’s a hot actress.” If that’s the case, it’s a shame. Zooey Deschanel is an actress, and she is really hot (see Failure to Launch), but she’s also an extremely talented songwriter and singer, as she proves on Volume One, her collaboration with indie-country artist M. Ward as She & Him. M. Ward certainly deserves a lot of credit for how good this album is; his sense for bright, warm production is in full evidence here, and he plays several of the instruments on the album, as well as providing arrangements for many of the songs. But this is Deschanel’s show; she writes all the songs here, besides one co-written by Jason Schwartzman and three covers (Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better”, and the traditional “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), and her wonderful singing is front-and-center, often layered in multi-part harmonies, part of what gives the album its ’60s pop feel.

That ’60s pop feel is formidable throughout the album; Deschanel’s influences are clear. “I Was Made for You” is pure ’60s girl group, and “This Is Not a Test” sounds like Rubber Soul-era Beatles while utilizing some Mamas & the Papas-style harmonies. Even the album’s instrumentation and production have a ’60s air. But rather than sounding like a band out of time, She & Him use their influences to create fresh, vibrant music, and some of my favorite music this year. Almost seems like Zooey should have been a singer all along. Wait…I just remembered her in Failure to Launch…nevermind.

Sample Track: “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

Welcome to Mali2. Welcome to Mali – Amadou & Mariam

During the summer of 2005 I came across a world music program, an area of music I was not at all familiar with, on a local college radio station. One of the tracks in heavy rotation on the program that summer was “La Paix” by the blind Malian couple Amadou & Mariam, from their album Dimanche à Bamako. I was quickly in love with both Amadou & Mariam and world music as a whole. But while Dimanche à Bamako was somewhat of a breakthrough for the group in Europe, it failed to make any real inroads in the States. Now, with Welcome to Mali, released in November in the UK and due for a March release in the US, the duo may be poised to do just that. It’s gotten nothing but high praise since its UK release, and it’s already being called their “big breakthrough album” (NME) and an “assault on the Western pop market” (Uncut).

I don’t know if Welcome to Mali is going to be all these things, but I do know that it’s one of the most enjoyable sets of music I’ve heard this year. Amadou & Mariam are one of two African musical artists that rarely leave my playlist for very long, the other being the late Ali Farka Toure (also from Mali). Both are heavily indebted to American blues, but where Toure was more firmly rooted in traditional African folk music, Amadou & Mariam explore a wide range of more modern musical styles, including funk, soul, rock & roll, and electronic music. All these are evident on joyous “Masiteladi” (it sounds joyous, anyway; I can’t claim to understand anything that’s said). Mariam’s singing, even mostly as backup on this track, is incredible; she may be my favorite female vocalist in music today (it’s a tough call between her and M.I.A.). Amadou sings beautifully as well, but it’s his guitar playing that’s really amazing, and it’s grittier here than anywhere on Dimanche à Bamako.

Sample Track: “Masiteladi

Consolers of the Lonely1. Consolers of the Lonely – The Raconteurs

As much as I like all the other albums on this list, and as good a year 2008 was for music, Consolers of the Lonely stands far and away as my favorite album this year. Nobody had as great a sound, nobody wrote songs as good, nobody flat-out rocked as hard as the Raconteurs in 2008.

I’m not gonna lie: Jack White is one of my favorite musicians of all time. The moment I first heard the White Stripes, when “Fell in Love With a Girl” started getting radio play back in 2002, I knew a life-long love affair had just begun. The first Raconteurs album, 2006’s Broken Boy Soldiers, took some time to grow on me (I think I wanted it to be another White Stripes record), but once I accepted that this was something different, I found that the Raconteurs were a powerful, talented band as well, with fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties, and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler (borrowed from the Greenhornes) forming a full rhythm section that White had never had behind him.

Upon many listens, Broken Boy Soldiers became a favorite of mine, so when Consolers came out, I was ready to love it. But it too threw me for a loop: I was looking for another Broken Boy Soldiers, which it most assuredly is not. The first noticeable difference is how much longer Consolers is (55 minutes to Broken Boy Soldiers’ 34). It’s a telling difference: Broken Boy Soldiers was a concise power pop statement, 10 songs of straight-ahead rock & roll, whereas Consolers is a sprawling, epic masterpiece, careening through genres and hitting a wide range of lyrical themes. White’s guitar playing is furious (see “Salute Your Salution” for one example), and his vocals are completely unhinged (see “Salute Your Salution,” again). These are also some of my favorite Jack White lyrics ever (which makes them some of my favorite lyrics in general). The word raconteur means “a person skilled in telling stories” (, and while there was some storytelling on Broken Boy Soldiers, this is the album where the group really begin living up to the name they’ve taken. The first major exhibit for this is “The Switch and the Spur,” a Benson-sung tune. It’s an Old West tale of an escaped convict, trying to escape through the desert, bitten by something venomous, and the imagery is striking: “The saddle spotted with sweat and blood/The poison pumps through his veins/There’s no stopping this, and now he’s powerless/Still holding the reins.”

But the truly epic story here is the one told on the closing track, “Carolina Drama.” The story of a dysfunctional family set in western South Carolina, it’s a tale of jealousy, revenge, and redemption. I don’t know how to do it justice without retelling the entire thing, so I’ll just say that for me, anyway, it’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect album, and let you hear it for yourself.

Sample Track: “Carolina Drama