It's tough to write about Why?'s breakout record without anxiously jotting down a few choice lyrics from songwriter Yoni Wolf's notebook. Not to downplay its musicianship, but Alopecia is foremost a lyrical masterpiece. Wolf muses on relationships, sex, and especially death (the album opens with him faking his own death and ends with him actually doing the deed) with the detailed eye and wisecracking smirk of an admitted hero of his, David Berman (whose Silver Jews are shouted out on the record). Unlike Berman, however, Wolf occasionally spouts his incisive lyrics through rapping, whether it's droll and monotone ("Good Friday"), excitedly nasally ("The Fall of Mr. Fifths"), or assured and sing-songy ("The Vowels Pt. 2"). And when he's not rapping, like on "Fatalist Palmistry," Wolf-- backed by the most driving, pop-friendly music on the album-- is confidently singing a tune (probably) about the uncertainty of dating a palm reader. But death seems to creep its way back in, note the last lines: "But God put a song on my palm that you can't read/I'll be embalmed with it long before you see."--Douglas Martin Download: MP3: Why?-"Fatalist Palmistry"
Third is fucking scary. Emerging from 10 years in the Wilderness (Axl who?), Portishead sound as if they've spent their downtime getting physically and emotionally raped in robot concentration camps while the rest of the world was off wanking to bad 80's pop music. Not since El-P's Fantastic Damage has a record captured the utter bleakness of contemporary times so poignantly. Their craft is impeccable: Beth Gibbons' voice is a beautiful razor, Geoff Barrow's drums eat speakers for breakfast, Adrian Utley's guitar lines shimmer in the darkness and every piece interlocks to form this painstakingly wrought machine of blood and bone. The minute you hear this record you realize that this past decade of amateur-hour protools-n-plugin enabled indie music has been an utter waste of our time...their sound is too frail, their ideas fall apart and everything they stand for is crushed under the Portishead steamroller.
Put Third up against any "experimental" record and it's weirder, catchier, more unique and just plain superior. There's a lot of Hip-Hop here: ask Barrow and he'll name-drop Marley Marl, The Bomb Squad, Madlib and Flying Lotus as influences, but it's rap's primordial energy and rawness he subscribes to now, not any specific sound or style. Yet for all of these qualities, Third's greatest allure remains its mystery. In an era where rappers document their bowel movements on YouTube and rockers whine ad nauseum on their blogs, Beth Gibbons' absolute refusal to grant interviews means we'll never know the story behind this utterly desolate record and that's ok, it doesn't need to be about anything other than the listener's own experience. Rather than a cliché break-up record or an academic exercise in seriousness, Third can stand proud as one of the few, true pieces of great human art the new millennium has produced.
So yeah, Third is scary. But if you're an artist you shouldn't be scared. You should be goddamn terrified.--Sach O
"All I hear is nonsense, blase blah," and so Elzhi commences Europass with seven words that cut to the core of rap, pop music, and culture in the year 2008. What follows is a tour de force of technical skill, beats, and out and out warfare. Based solely off of Europass, Elzhi is the best technical rapper rapping. One could also claim that he's the best storyteller rapping. And the best battle rapper rapping. Europass is just that good. Vividly re-telling an attempted robbery from three different points of view, topping Royce Da 5'9" on a track where Royce drops an insane verse, El displays a versatility and commitment to craft that was unparalleled in 2008. To say nothing of the production, mostly handled by Black Milk, and mostly stellar.
Most confounding is that Europass is a stopgap release, not meant as anything other than a cash grab at a merch table. That something so esoteric (really? A Europe-only release of a former Slum Village member's "debut" record is number 8?) could explode onto the collective conscious of hip-hop heads speaks to both Elzhi and the power of the internet. Which presents a strange conundrum. The very thing that El blasts in the first line of his debut record, "nonsense," has helped make him known. Europass shows that in this age of easily discarded memes and instant gratification, a dedication to quality can still allow one to rise above the muck.--Trey Kirby Download: MP3: Elzhi-"Talkin' In My Sleep"
Like Jerry Seinfeld and Trent Reznor, Wale slyly used "nothing" as a self-deprecating code word to signify "everything." Even more impressive than the microphone dexterity he displayed on the "Roc Boys" freestyle is the sheer scope of The Mixtape About Nothing, wherein this DC upstart keenly engaged all manner of hot-button topics like Ethan Hunt, skillfully working without hitting any tripwires. "The Kramer" navigated sticky race relations better than the entirety of Nas' Untitled, his introspection about the record business and his place in it stung with more precision than the complaints of any MySpace new jack or A & R, and placing his verse from The Roots' "Rising Down" right next to a complete banger featuring Malice and Bun B said a lot more about unity and hope than any fucking TV on the Radio song. And to top it off, he's reverent enough to solicit his only feature from Lil' Wayne, have it be the best thing Weezy blessed this year and call it "The Cliché Lil' Wayne Feature." Forgive us for being overly excited about Wale: this it what it sounded like to be a complete fanboy of this rap shit in 2008 and still feel like it was worth it.--Ian Cohen
While the rest of the world was wasting their time with the other "avant-garde" (as if...), "weirdo" (no really, as if...) rap act from New Orleans, the world slept on the Knux's genre-melting, utterly killer debut album, "Remind Me In 3 Days...". The Knux borrow from everybody from Outkast ("Fire (Put It In The Air,") to David Bowie ("Roxanne,") to Fergie ("Daddy's Little Girl,") to the Pharcyde ("Cappuccino,") and use it to craft the year's most original debut. This record is full of funny, furious rapping, wildly inventive musical experimentation, catchy hooks and song-writing that exhibits an eye for poignant, social satire. The Knux are able to do all of this to help craft a record that is a sly send-up of the inane vacuousness of The Hills-era, Hollywood social scene. And to make it a bit more obvious, this is the record that some unfortunate music critics think "The Carter 3" sounds like but actually really, really doesn't. Yeah, I said it. --B.J. Steiner Download: MP3: The Knux-"Fire"
Tal Rosenberg, dream state, age 14: "Girl, I love you. Sometimes, when I see you across the lawn with your eyeliner, smoking a cigarette, I think to myself how I'm the only one that understands you. If only you could hear my mind, perfectly attuned to what you're thinking and seeing that all these shallow losers don't know anything about you, even though they pretend to. When you're lying down on my bed, your hair perfectly splayed on my pillow, the light from my bedroom pouring onto your delicate features, I think to myself how lucky I am that you're here with me. When we kiss, I don't have to imagine being with anyone else, because you're just so fucking perfect and I can't picture anyone else that's more gorgeous than you. And after we make love, for the first time, because you're so special, we can go for a ride in my flying car through the night sky. We'll shoot lasers. And probably make out some more. Awesome." --Tal Rosenberg
Music is meant to be enjoyed. That sounds simple but often isn't when you listen to 322 records a year--really, I counted. That's nearly one new album a day, many of them for pay, many to keep current so that I don't completely plummet into a cannabis coated cavern of Fela Kuti and The Grateful Dead. At times, it feels like that Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Satan/Ned Flanders consigns Homer to a hell of hovering around a conveyor belt eating nothing but donuts. Yet it'd be cheapening Dungen's 4 to compare it to any sugar-coated confection. The sound might be pure euphony, but the ease belies a master's symphonic sleight of hand. Gustav Estjes, stays lysergically bent out in the frozen forests of Sweden and returns once a year, possessed with visions of Madlib, a Bitches Brew Miles and a Hot Rats-era, Zappa, kicking in the doors of our skulls--staying sanguine even though this is his fourth album and he ain't made a dime. I don't know if this is the best album of the year, but it's my favorite to listen to; one of the rare modern records warm enough to warrant endless loops. Yes, drugs help. --Jeff Weiss Download: MP3: Dungen-"Satt At Se"
Throughout their respective careers J Dilla and Madlib have shown they each possessed an understanding of groove far beyond that of their peers, and with their unique approaches to artisanal hip-hop clearly shared not just a collaborative relationship, but a friendship borne out of mutual appreciation and respect. So if there was anything positive to be gleaned from the tragic passing of Dilla, it's that we ought to appreciate Madlib that much more.
The latest in Madlib's Beat Konducta series, Vol. 5 Dil Cosby Suite and Vol. 6 Dil Withers Suite may not be Madlib's best work, but they are his most meaningful. What was once merely impressive is suddenly elevated by the music's expressed purpose: across both suites Madlib's compositions continuously acknowledge Dilla's contribution and influence. The tribute isn't in explicitly appropriating Dilla's approach, but rather creating tracks that evoke what he stood for: fearlessness and selflessness. This may not necessarily be music Dilla would or even could have made, but he would have enjoyed it.--Disco Vietnam Download: MP3: Madlib-"Do You Know? (Transition)"
On a purely musical basis, the aesthetic progress that Erykah Badu has made from Baduizm to this album is remarkable. Madlib and Sa-Ra performed the ultimate makeover: taking the unfortunately titled genre tag "neo-soul" and exemplifying the artistic adventurousness which it claimed to do. Really, there wasn't a better sounding hip-hop album all year, and this is from an album that's not supposed to be hip-hop! Whisking Lee "Scratch Perry, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Minnie Riperton, RAMP, Martina Topley-Bird, Miles Davis, and Roberta Flack in a big bowl, this was the stew that kept on giving, pumping blood into the low-end, kicking ass on the treble, and taking names in the process.
Then there was Erykah, cooing and chanting and giggling and whispering and spanking and slamming her way through every nook and pocket, nudging her pinched baby voice into heretofore unimagined places, bringing her persona front-and-center in a way that it had never been brought before.
But based purely on the significance tied into what is a "2008 album," there is absolutely no competition. All this month and next month, when every end-of-year-issue tells you that this was "The Year of Obama," "The Year of Change," or "The Year of Hope," the actuality is that the throwback cartoon image of Erykah punching her name through the casing is what I'll remember. If M.I.A.'s Kala was a telescope into the Third World--the one that Americans refused or were unwilling to see--then New Amerykah is a giant mirror reflecting the U.S. that we refuse to acknowledge. The one in which an educational system fails year after year; the one where racism persists despite the media's insistence of otherwise; the one in which the media continuously feeds bald-faced lies to the public; where everyone's out of work; and most importantly, where politicians fail us by falling prey to their own interests. The pervasive, Shepard Fairey-designed image of Barack won't bear the significance to me it will to many others, not when Obama capitulated on FISA; crafted a Clintonian cabinet that adhered to Beltway Establishment politics; and entered his presidency on an inauspicious foundation.
The point is that though we finally have a black president in the White House, little has really changed. Yet. And that's Erykah's masterstroke at the denouement, concluding with "Honey." By exiting on a note of (relative) optimism, she acknowledges that there's always a future ahead, one that offers even more opportunities for real progress to occur. New Amerykah Part One is a truly American document because it emphasizes a perennial and fundamental component of our history, that it takes furious and indignant motherfuckers to improve a temporarily moribund country beset by ethical and infrastructural maladies. This is 2008's Civil Disobedience.
808s and Heartbreaks is Kanye West's Electric Circus. It's his Love Below. His Life of Chris Gaines.. His Trans--except done directly in the prime of a white-hot career. It's "emo pop." It's too much like Tears for Fears. It's not enough like his first album. It's got too much techno. It's not techno enough. His production is inspired by Gary Numan. No, it's inspired by El-P. But it's not hip-hop! Why can't he sing? His use of auto-tune is stupid. No, it's a brilliant way to project a robotic and detached despondency. It's artistic overreach. It's a genius in his prime following his muse in whatever warped direction it takes him. It's a work wrought by tragedy. It's the product of self-indulgence. The lyrics are fourth grade poetry. The album sounds incondite and muddled. Its hasty construction lends it an immediacy and raw power. It's ephemeral at best. It's a Zeitgeist tapping, tour de force, that captures the personal and political at their lowest ebb. It's a Rorschach blot designed to elicit every possible emotion and opinion. It may be all these things combined. It may be none of them. It may be the best album of the year. It is. --Jeff Weiss