The 50 Best Albums of the Year (#30-21) (Sponsored By Medieval Times)
You better believe they serve Pepsi at Medieval Times.
Gareth Campesinos and Co. clearly grew up not just liking music but being obsessed by bands, and they've done the only honourable thing you can in that position: they've created the first band both worthy of and rewarding to obsession in quite some time. I don't just mean the second album, the fake fanzine, the great videos, the lyrics that kids will probably be deciphering for years to come, the indelible not-really-hit, the incredible concerts and this, a near-perfect debut - although sure, those help too - but rather that Los Campesinos! are the first buzz band in my recent memory to actually sound like they're everything that's important about music in one package, that can successfully fool you into thinking that listening to everything else is superfluous.--Ian Mathers
MP3: Los Campesinos-"My Year In Lists"
Less than a minute into Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt80, those unmistakable horns come in. "Many Things" is a sparer introduction than you'd think from the propulsive, packed arrangements of his pop, more of a blues with call-response soul interjections than a storm of huge-band protest funk. But just because Fela's youngest son chooses to build and sculpt as he goes along rather than groove tight all the way home (or for half an hour apiece) doesn't make him any less of a miracle heir. Don't think lightweight though. Think Stereolab-level pulsating, with sax solos, a burbling constancy of rhythm and patient virtuosity, and the occasional surprise--is "Fire Dance" hiphop? "Mosquito Song" some new clattering breed of salsa? This is like if Jakob Dylan made Highway 61.--Dan Weiss
MP3: Seun Kuti+ Fela's Egypt80-"Many Things" (Left-Click)
Any hip-hop producer worth his weight in vinyl would fall over himself to be favorably compared to the legendary J. Dilla, especially if said producer was from Detroit. That wasn't good for Black Milk. On Tronic, he washes his boom-bap with layers of techno ("Bounce"), G-Funk ("Without U"), live instrumentation ("Give the Drummer Sum"), and appregios with avant garde textures ("Overdose"), all while still dishing out post-Dilla soul ("Try"), and beating Just Blaze at his own game ("Losing Out"). Nearly topping his beats, Milk's raps weave through drum patterns with a flow strong enough to bar-for-bar with Royce da 5'9", arguably the D's best rapper. One of the rare producer/rappers whose lyrical prowess matches his beatmaking, how, with Tronic, Black Milk has finally escaped Dilla's long shadow.--Douglas Martin
Like most young artists these days, Andy Butler is a historian first. With the help of the best engineering the DFA could find, his first album under his fabulous moniker assembles favorite bits from early Chicago house, Cerrone, Patrick Cowley, and boring VIP section background music into a mournful palimpsest. Butler understands that the essence of great dance music lies in the intersection of anxiety and abandon; even on the dance floor his characters constantly look over their shoulders, or watch their partner's eyes as they follow a handsome stranger to the bar. But this collector of exotica's shrewdest decision was hiring Antony to sing "Easy" and the heartstopping "Blind," on which his tremulous high notes insist on flight from the nervous breakdown described in the lyrics.--Alfred Soto
MP3: Hercules and Love Affair-"Hercules' Theme"
"Oh shit. Gang Gang." And just like that--only a minute into "Princes"-- the UK's MC Tinchy Stryder nailed the listener's experience of first hearing one of the year's most diverse 'dance' records. Named after the patron saint of rebels and outcasts, Saint Dymphna was the kind of schizo world rhythm record Gang Gang Dance is making their creative legerdemain. Liz Bougatsos has a cross-breed urban scrawl made of famous city voices: part Siouxsie Sioux, part Cyndi Lauper, part Kate Bush.
The record has the internal sense of a long forming storm, following the fierce nonsense rhythms of wind and slanted rain, elements of chaos and clatter, but with a kind of natural enveloping rhythm. And yet, even with that haphazard sense of creativity at its base, the band follows its most roughly narrative terrain to date. Well, 'narrative' is a stretch, but you can make out actual words this time. They include vague musings about cows and McDonald's cashiers that, in Gang Gangs's hands, sound somehow like pagan poetry. But if the band's breakout record, 2005's God's Money, laid out the band's garbage-find logic, Saint Dymphna seems stitched together out of forty-five patch-quilt moments, odd cerebral rhythms and degenerate synth-n-bass patterns that give its songs if not, well, song then at least something you might identify since the word for these things ain't around just yet. In a year where the consensus holds that dance music lost its momentum, Gang Gang Dance fittingly forged 2008's best gap-crossing dance album out of world music spoils and scummy drum patterns, a little bit demented but wholly enthralling.--Derek Miller
MP3: Gang Gang Dance-"Desert Storm"
Norway's Hans-Peter Lindstrom has always operated on the expansive end of the cosmic disco spectrum, but never has he expanded so far as he has on Where You Go I Go Too, his first full-length solo album. With only three tracks clocking in at 55 minutes, including the nearly 30-minute title track, WYGIGT found Lindstrom injecting his linear brand of electronic drift was an extra dose of helium, causing it to rise further into the ether than ever before. With a five-minute template, Lindstrom often pushed his work to the very edge of the dancefloor; given 10, 15, or 30, he's floating peacefully above it, still shaking tail feathers behind him enough to provide the propulsive energy needed to alleviate mere drift. Alongside from the epic title track, "Grand Ideas" is Moroder on steroids, and closer "The Long Way Home" a mid-tempo meander. All three are built on the same shimmering spine of pulsating synths, a gentle but insistent rhythmic push, and a slowly unfolding fractal vision that allows Lindstrom both the flexibility to grow in different directions and the space to examine each and every glistening detail without losing sight of the whole. Repeat visits are highly recommended.---Todd Hutlock
Thank Sean C and LV for the world's introduction to the Menahan Street Band on their not-so-subtle flip, of 7" inch single, "Make The Road By Walking" into Jay-Z's "Roc Boys"-- with its Brooklyn basement vibe and smoldering horns capturing the unique essence of the band's retro soul. Their full-length debut, arriving two years later, is nothing less than spectacular. There's nothing to fall back on here, no way of disguising shortcomings with novelty or gimmicks. To pull off a record like this you need immaculately sculpted arrangements, ones that demonstrate a discerning ear for detail The dubby lilt of "Montego Sunset" and the Latin flourishes of "Birds," make Make the Road By Walking stand-out, its bronze horns and soulful flourishes almost make you feel like you're at Wattstax. --Dan Love
MP3: Menahan Street Band-"Make the Road By Walking"
Four albums into the Hold Steady's career of hard-drinking, hard drugs and good time rock 'n' roll, Stay Positive is the comedown. The parties start lovely, but they get druggy, and they get ugly, and they get bloody. The guys hanging round the scene are a little too old, the girls at the shows aren't having as much fun as they used to, and now, when things get messy, it can't be so easily laughed off. Dead bodies haunt the album, with Finn describing the killing of a grisly, harpsichord-driven "One for the Cutters," as a "fight with a butterfly knife" resulting in "one drop of blood on immaculate Keds." While the rustic "Both Crosses," sounds tormented, oppressively humid, and unlike anything the band has done prior.
Not to suggest that the Hold Steady has abandoned its predilection for raucous bar-band rave-ups, nor for songs about partying, punk rock and pills. This record contains all the references to classic rock songs, unified scenes and getting almost killed in Ybor City that every Hold Steady fan craves. It's just that, far from being golden with bar-light and beer, the band is now discovering they can't get as high as they got on the first night. At such times, as Finn will tell you, you gotta stay positive.--Jonathan Bradley
Dilla's gone. Common did "Terminator 4." The Roots added Jimmy Fallon to the Okayplayer roster. Talib Kweli is delaying Jean Grae albums. Mos Def raps out of annoyance. Lupe is kind of a douche. And Busta is the starting nose tackle for the Houston Texans. Things could be better for the Abstract and his contemporaries, yet The Renaissance, his first album since 1999's Amplified, sounds isolated from the doom and gloom around it.
Jabs at record label drama are kept to a minimum. Live instrumentation is used sparingly to great effects. The rhodes are back. Basslines turn your neck into linguini. And elements of The Love Movement ("Johnny is Dead") and Beats, Rhymes and Life ("Official") are utilized a decade and change later to more rewarding and less divisive results. The singles bare no influence of the synth/80s aesthetic that wins over (new) rap critics--"Gettin' Up" has a Greg Nice rhyme scheme and a two-step beat perfect for a family barbeque or a Mark Ronson coke party. "Move" is another sublime Dilla single that is right in Tip's wheelhouse. And "Won't Trade" has Tip so in pocket with the Black Sheepish beat, you forget this man made his first record when cable TV was a luxury. The Renaissance isn't a masterpiece, it's just a damn good hip hop album in a post-Dilla/hipster hop world. Q-Tip, like Bruce Wayne and stoner movies, just endures.--Zilla Rocca
MP3: Q-Tip-"Gettin' Up"
As the hoary adage avers: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." So what are we supposed to make of Vivian Girls, a Brooklyn-based, all-girl punk band who manage to rip off Tiger Trap, The Ronettes, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, plus seminal first-wave punk band The Wipers, all in one fell swoop? Say what you want about the theft from such specific source material, but between the charging drums of "All the Time," the guitars in "Damaged" sounding like buzzsaws cutting through rusty metal, the throwback elegance of "Who Do You Run To" (written by former drummer Frankie Rose), and the gorgeous harmonies of... uh.. every song on the album, you have a record that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Vivian Girls is what every punk album should be: fast, uncomplicated, defiant, brief, and, most importantly, endlessly replayable.--Douglas Martin
MP3: Vivian Girls-"Where Do You Run To"