Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Picks for the Top Thirty Albums of 2011.

I hit you with my picks for the Top Ten Albums of 2009, then the Top Twenty Albums of 2010, so I guess it only makes sense that I do a Top Thirty to wrap up 2011. Lucky for me, I actually didn't have any trouble coming up with 30 albums I spent some quality time with during this past year. And that's what this list is: the albums that came out in 2011 that I liked or found significant for one reason or another. A few of these I wasn't even that crazy about, but I'm going to write about them anyway. Consider the system bucked. Let's do this thing.

30. Naughty By Nature - Anthem Inc.

This one makes the cut for simply existing, and also for being all sorts of confusing, frustrating, and like a lot of other Naughty By Nature albums, really good and embarrassingly bad within the span of an hour. This thing opens strong: "Naughty Nation" is a burner of a leadoff track, with Treach proving he can still fast-rap with the best of them. From there it's a slow decline, hitting bottom with cuts like "God is Us" and "I Know It's Like," sappy R&B jams that never hit. Naughty's always had a penchant for tear-jerkers, so it's no surprise. What is surprising are the last five tracks on this thing: re-recorded versions of some of their biggest hits, including "O.P.P.," "Hip Hop Hooray," and "Uptown Anthem." Not remixes, mind you; just new vocals. Strange move, dudes. But it's good to see Kay Gee back in the fold, and it's good to see these guys still doing it.

"Perfect Party"

29. KRS-One and Bumpy Knuckles - Royalty Check

When it comes to rappers I'm supposed to appreciate but instead loathe with an almost unexplainable, fiery passion, KRS-One is at the top of the list. So when I found out that he teamed up with Bumpy, one of my favorite badass rappers, I was torn. I had a feeling I'd like parts of this album and tolerate others, and that's about what happened. Bumpy's his usual rock-solid self on this thing, but the beats aren't the strongest and KRS doesn't do much except imply that no one understands hip-hop as well as he does. You know, the usual. The upside: these dudes don't waste space. This is basically an hour of two veteran rappers trying to outdo each other, and there's plenty of cool lyrical jabs that result from that. I just wish the production matched the intensity these cats can still manage to muster.

"Flowing With the Vets"

28. Lloyd Banks - The Cold Corner 2

I used to really not like Lloyd Banks. He struck me as a Fiddy hanger-on who lucked into some quick-and-easy fame. But the dude has won me over during the last five or six years. He puts in more work than a lot of rappers out there, and for a guy who prides himself on his wordplay (a gutsy move), he never phones in a verse. This mixtape is a perfect example: Banks just busts raps for an hour straight, with only three guest spots over the course of 18 tracks. The beats are dark, trebly, and complement his gravelly delivery nicely. As of late, Banks has eschewed the more glammy aspects of rap in favor of underground cred and flat-out MCing, and I hope he keeps it up.

"1, 2, 3, Grind (feat. Prodigy)"

27. Paley & Francis - Paley & Francis

I don't know a whole lot about Reid Paley, I don't really know how he hooked up with Black Francis, and though I feared this album would be a bit adult contempo for my tastes, I figured I'd give it a go. Glad I did. It's mature music, but in that fractured, pounding, Tom Waits kind of way, and I'm all for that. The two chaps take turns doing vocals, and Paley's gruff delivery is a nice companion to Francis' high-pitched yelp, which sounds stronger than ever on these cuts. This just came out a few months ago, and I still don't feel like I've ingested it all. Looking forward to doing that. It's nice and raw.


26. Cappadonna - The Pilgrimage

Don Don! Like most Wu-Tang fanboys, it tickles me to no end that Donna J-Bird is still out there making the shit out of some rap music. He's also still nuts as all get-out, spilling over with nonsensical rhymes and contradicting himself at every turn. It's a treat. This album finds him, as usual, filled with some bold new knowledge he just acquired, and though it seems to have something to do with religion ("Put God First"), I can't really be sure ("Hoody Hoodpecker"?). What I do know is that he says "poppy wardrobe" like 12 times on this thing, and that's awesome. Also awesome: two blistering guest spots from Inspectah Deck, who has apparently been deemed down enough to hang with Cappa. Makes sense to me. Oh, and he also refers to himself as "Donna the cab driver" at one point, which is gold. Pure gold.

"Can't Believe It's Him"

25. The Strokes - Angles

I'm an unapologetic Strokes fan, and I was really looking forward to some new music from them. I thought First Impressions of Earth was an underrated record; same with Julian Casablanca's solo debut a few years back. I was hoping they'd keep the weirdness going, because the more difficult their music got, the more it seemed like it was building to something. And they did keep us guessing, but almost too much. This is still a really solid record, but unlike their previous three albums, there's not much holding it all together from one song to the next. "Machu Picchu" and "Under Cover of Darkness" hold up nicely compared to their old stuff, and so do some of the other cuts, but overall, it does feel a bit jagged. Still, I'm not going to act like I didn't listen to this a lot. Because I did. So clearly they did something right.

"Taken for a Fool"

24. Future of the Left - Polymers are Forever

I've been jocking this band's nuts hard for the past year, and I don't see it ending anytime soon. This EP is a warmup for their next full-length, and it's whetted my whistle and also given me a slight boner. Between their sarcastic-ass vocals, the hammering guitars, and lyrics I can't really make sense of, this is the kind of music that seems tailor-made for me, and I can't believe I didn't discover it sooner. There are six tracks here and a few of 'em are around the two-minute mark, so it's not the most fleshed-out gang of songs, but like I said, if this is the teaser for their next record, consider me prepped and ready for whatever's coming next.

"With Apologies to Emily Pankhurst"

23. Kool G Rap - Riches, Royalty, Respect

G Rap has been crushing the mic for about 25 years now, and the dude remains one of the only gangsta rappers that sounds legitimately intimidating to me. He's been praised plenty, but I've always felt he's never received the credit he deserved for lifting hard raps off the street and onto the major labels. Eh - he doesn't seem to give a shit. He's still content to knock out an almost completely unassisted album filled with no-nonsense tracks jam-packed with straight-up MCing, which he's always been great at. You'd think "$ Ova Bitches" would be a phoned-in rehash, but G Rap makes it sound like a lost cut from the Live and Let Die sessions. And that's ill.

"In Too Deep"

22. DJ Shadow - The Less You Know, The Better

It must be frustrating to be DJ Shadow. The more he tries to expand his sound and reinvent himself, the more people cry that it's all been downhill since Endtroducing.... Well, fuck that. His newest collection of sample-heavy (duh) jams takes 80's ass-rock, dices it up into rough chunks, and somehow feeds it back in a way that is initially off-putting but ultimately really interesting. No, this isn't the great return to form that idiots keep clamoring for, and that's the best thing about it. This album is dense, detailed, and begs to be listened to on headphones, just like the rest of his work. I've been rocking it for months, and I'm still finding new little bits and pieces. Is it perfect? Nah. But it's wildly different than anything else I heard this year, and that's exciting.

"Def Surrounds Us"

21. Boots Electric - Honkey Kong

This one almost slipped by me, and I'm glad it didn't. For some reason I feel like I listened to a lot of heavy, serious music this year, and when I needed a break, I couldn't have asked for something more ass-out fun than this. Knocked out over a couple years when he had the time, this is the first solo record from the Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes, and though it maintains the same sexy-fun-time vibe as the Eagles stuff, here he's backed by synths instead of buzzy guitar, and your girlfriend loves it. I highly recommend picking up the LP of this one: gatefold, thick vinyl, multiple inserts (that's what she said), and a high-quality download. Support this naked freakshow.


20. Bad Meets Evil - Hell: The Sequel

This thing has 11 songs on it, is 46 minutes long, and for some reason they kept referring to it as an EP. Not sure how that works. Whatever. The important thing to take away from this is that when these two nutballs get together and try to out-rap each other, they're tough to beat. I was always a huge fan of their old stuff, so I was happy when they finally squashed the beef and made this album happen. Aside from an inexplicably idiotic hook from Bruno Mars on the blatantly radio-pandering "Lighters," these tracks are surprisingly un-stupid, packed to the gills with raps that you have to listen to 10 times to really understand. It's songs like these that make me still appreciate Eminem: yeah, he's addicted to mainstream anthems, but when he wants to prove he's the best big-time rapper out there, he can still do it.

"Fast Lane"

19. Urge Overkill - Rock & Roll Submarine

Here's one that I didn't see coming. Nash and The King returned, sounding like they never left. "Mason Dixon" sounds like it could have been on the first side of The Supersonic Storybook, and that's a compliment. I didn't see a whole lot of praise for this thing, but what were people expecting? This LP surpassed my expectations for just existing, and the fact that it contained 12 Urge-worthy tracks sweetened the deal considerably. The dudes might not look as young as they once did, but they sound just like they did 20 years ago, and they can still write catchy-as-heck guitar songs that don't dare get too fancy. They leave that to their wardrobes. If you didn't like Urge before, you won't like them now. But if you were missing them, this'll set you straight.

"End of Story"

18. The Cars - Move Like This

The reunions just keep getting unlikelier. And speaking of bands who pick up where they left off, this LP proved that Ric Ocasek is able to turn his Cars songwriting skills on and off at will. Yeah, he dicked around with a bunch of solo records over the past 20 years, but he never attempted to replicate the Cars sound. Here he does it with ease, with pretty much all of these songs sounding like they could have been on Door to Door. In fact, most of these songs are better than the ones on Door to Door. Yeah, the absence of Benjamin Orr's slinky vocals create a gap that could use some filling, but Ocasek's such a production guru at this point that he doesn't have any trouble rounding out the sounds. This record ended up being way better than I thought it might be, and it was a great surprise.

"Blue Tip"

17. Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

I could talk about some of the weak-ass rhymes on this album, or how I thought the video for "Make Some Noise" was a star-studded jack-off session, but I'd rather talk about the strength of the beats on this record, and how much better the whole damn thing was than To the Five Boroughs. It sucks that it's come to that, but that album was a stinker, and I thought the Boys may have lost it for good. This LP proved they haven't, and though it's still not the late-career masterpiece that people still think they're capable of, it is a diverse bunch of tracks that come together and feel like a real album, which is something the Beastie Boys have always been great at. I'm not sure if Mike D's even trying anymore ("I mix my style up like a cement mixer"...?), but who cares. They've earned their stripes, and if they're just doing victory laps at this point, I'll remain happy they're even doing that.

"Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"

16. They Might Be Giants - Join Us

Any album that starts off with the lyrics "Outnumbered a million to one/ All of the dicks in this dick town/ Can't keep Johnny down" is fine by me, especially when it's sung by a guy named John who's in a band with another guy named John. They Might Be Giants are at their best when they coyly suggest that they're better than you, and between that song ("Can't Keep Johnny Down") and "When Will You Die," their first non-kids album in four years proves they can still turn on the snark and mask it in melodies that will be stuck in your cranium for weeks. John Henry has long been my favorite Giants album, and this one reminds me of it in spots, which might be why I've enjoyed it so much. The songs are catchy, the lyrics are too smart for me, and the playing is show-offy in the most non-obnoxious of ways. They still got it.

"Can't Keep Johnny Down"

15. Das Racist - Relax

DR can rap when they want to, and even when they act like they're phoning it in, they're still sticking it to you from beneath levels of oft-annoying dickishness. This is what initially made me peg them as Pitchfork-darling cool guys, but it's also the same thing that made me turn around and give 'em another chance. I still can't say I go in for every single one of their songs, but Relax, the first album they asked anyone to pay for, is worth the twelve bucks. It's the most accessible group of songs they've put together so far, and that somehow makes it their strangest full-length. There's not much song-to-song flow to this thing, but each track is album-worthy, and in the end, they all work together. DR rap, talk, sing R&B, and do it all over beats that give me a kick-drum boner. This was probably also my wife's favorite rap album of the year. If that counts for anything.

"Michael Jackson"

14. Raekwon - Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang

I guarantee that if Rae would have called this Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Part III people would have been a lot more excited about it. (In fact, I was a little surprised he didn't do that, until I found out he's saving that for 2012.) It's a shame that this record didn't attract the same attention as last year's Part II, because it's nearly as good, and makes Immobilarity and The Lex Diamonds Story look even shittier, which is tough to do. Also tough to do: pulling off a solid 17-track album with almost as many producers, none of which are RZA. But aside from a few random guest spots (Rick Ross, Lloyd Banks, Jim Jones), the Chef keeps shit in the family, with appearances from Meth, Ghost, and Deck, as well as verses from Nas and Busta Rhymes, who are familiar faces to Wu-Tang fans at this point. The songs are short, the rhymes are dense, and other than "Rock 'N Roll," a stinker that houses one of most ridiculously assy hooks in recent Wu-affiliated memory, the tracks aren't out to tarnish Raekwon's legacy, which I'm happy to say is back on track at this point.

"Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang"

13. Eddie Spaghetti - Sundowner

Eddie Spaghetti's solo records always stick to the same rough format, but that doesn't mean they all turn out the same. Sundowner sounds more inspired than 2005's Old No. 2 by a long shot, and finds Eddie digging deep to pull out some cover songs that you never thought would translate to well to stripped-down country arrangements. The two original songs here are great, but it's his versions of 80's/90's punk-ish songs (the Dwarves' "Everybody's Girl," The Lee Harvey Oswald Band's "Jesus Never Lived on Mars," Thelonious Monster's "Sammy Hagar Weekend") that really make this thing shine. The acoustic version of the Supersuckers' "Marie" seems about a decade-and-a-half too late, but it's become a standard part of his repertoire, so I suppose it's deserving of a proper studio recording. I listened to this album on a continuous loop for weeks after I picked up the LP, and I still love coming back to it. My kind of country music.

"Jesus Never Lived on Mars"

12. Dwarves - The Dwarves are Born Again

The Dwarves branched out with their sound over their past few releases, and though I'm all for experimentation and enjoyed most of their forays into genres I never thought they'd tackle (Blag rapping - say wha?), I'm not going to act like I wasn't excited about the prospect of the band returning to its roots. Born Again ain't exactly Sugarfix, but it is their most "punk" album since 1997's The Dwarves are Young and Good Looking. This record is catchy, doesn't contain a song over two-and-a-half minutes long, and features track titles like "I Masturbate Me" and "We Only Came to Get High." If you hated the Dwarves before, you will hate them more now. If you liked their old stuff but forgot they existed over the past decade, this might be the record that brings you back into the fold. The creepy, drug-addled, nude-dude fold.

"We Only Came to Get High"

11. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire - Lost in Translation

I first heard eXquire after checking out "The Last Huzzah," and from there I downloaded this album for free and listened to it every day on the way to and from work for about a week straight. The beats on this record are warbly, muffled, and fit eXquire's drunk/don't-give-a-fuck flow perfectly. Dude's completely filterless, and though I wasn't exactly offended by this record, there were definitely some parts that caught me off guard upon first listen. But, who gives a shit. This guy can bring it, and he doesn't sound like anyone else making hard-ass rap right now. He carries this LP almost single-handedly, and not once does he start to slip. Here's hoping the man stays this hungry in 2012, because you can tell he wants it.

"Lou Ferigno's Mad"

10. Joe Lally - Why Should I Get Used to It

Who would've thought that after the "breakup" of Fugazi, Joe Lally would be the most prolific solo artist to emerge from the group? Who knows, maybe he had a George Harrison, backlog-of-songs situation going on. Or maybe he's the one with the least amount of outside commitments. Either way, this is Lally's third solo album in the past five years, and it's his best yet. Yeah, his vocals and abstract song structures take some getting used to, but once you're there, you'll realize that he makes understated, intriguing, and melodic music that can be both noisy and delicate all at once. I started listening to Lally's solo stuff just because I'm a Fugazi fanboy, but I quickly realized that his work outside the band is its own thing, and he's done a great job of creating a rhythm-section-based sound that is spare, smart, and unlike anything else in my record collection.

"What Makes You"

09. Arctic Monkeys - Suck it and See

Arctic Monkeys have become such a reliable band that no one seems to really even bat an eye when they release a collection of songs as good as this one. Suck it and See is probably my favorite LP of theirs since their debut, and it might be because the expectations have already been satisfied with this band. They've proven themselves, and now they're free to make the music they want to make. This record sounds relaxed, confident, and it finds them getting a bit weirder with the themes and lyrics, while still keeping the hooks and melodies catchy, compact, and endlessly hummable. Sometimes I don't understand why these guys aren't mainstream rock heroes. Maybe they are, just not in the U.S.? Whatever. They write great guitar rock, haven't gotten too big for their britches yet, and it's a band that you and your lady can agree on. All good things.

"Don't Sit Down 'Cause I Moved Your Chair"

08. Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4eva

Big K.R.I.T. is going to be crazy famous soon. The dude is a poignant rapper in a time when that's actually becoming cool again, and not only does he produce his own beats, but they're dope as shit. The guy could probably get by one either one alone, and the combo is almost too smooth to handle. With Outkast leaving a hole in the Southern rap game that can't easily be filled, K.R.I.T. actually seems up for the challenge. This album is about 80 minutes long, contains 21 tracks, and is relentlessly filler-free. Thick beats, hard snares, soul samples that haven't been recycled to death - it's down-South hip hop as it should be. for such a young guy, K.R.I.T. is extremely adept at knowing what not to do. This isn't a dude trying to sound like his idols, it's a dude trying to get to their level as soon as he can. Can't wait to hear what he does next.

"The Vent"

07. Sloan - The Double Cross

20 years of Sloan. Seems like it was just yesterday that I was trying to make sense of "Underwhelmed" and imagining what faraway land contained a place called "Nova Scotia." I haven't done a very good job of keeping up with the band over the past two decades, but when I heard they had a new record coming out this year, I thought I'd give it a shot. It was a good call. I was just talking to someone the other day about how bands with multiple songwriters rarely stand the test of time, and Sloan has got to be one of the most impressive exceptions. Though this record is barely over a half-hour long, they pack a lot of variety into these twelve tracks, making it one that, even though it doesn't last too long, can be played over and over. And that's what I do.

"She's Slowing Down Again"

06. Danny Brown - XXX

Danny Brown is possibly unstoppable. The guy's 30, has songs coming out his ears, seems to enjoy pills with names I've never even heard of, and shrugs off getting denied a deal with G-Unit over his fashion choices like it's something that happens to a lot of people. I saw Danny live a few months ago, by himself (wonderfully hype-man free), and the guy wrecked a half-hour set flawlessly. Yeah, his sex rhymes might be a deal-breaker for some people, but for me, it's the way in which he strings his words together that makes it all so interesting. His style of speak can go from deep drawl to high-pitched wail in a split-second, depending on what borderline-insane gaggle of rhymes he's spitting through his missing teeth. XXX is weird, creepy, and one of the best rap records that's come out in the past few years.

"Blunt After Blunt"

05. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts

For a dude who prides himself on experimentation, it was great to see Thurston Moore put together a collection that mostly maintained consistent instrumentation throughout, placing the focus squarely on the songs instead of sidetracking listeners into wondering what kind of drumstick he's rubbing against his pickups. This is easily Moore's most calm, thoughtful set, thanks not only to the acoustic guitar he strums throughout, but also to the straightforward lyricism, something that you don't always get from the guy. Don't get me wrong, I love Thurston when he's getting as out-there as humanly possible, but this LP really stuck with me over the year. There's not a stinker on this thing, and the violin adds a sophistication to it all that shouldn't have worked, but totally did.


04. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Seems like the "meh" reviews started rolling in on The King of Limbs about an hour after it was released, which just proves my theory: society is filled with idiots. But I will say this: I wasn't blown away by this record the first few times I listened to it, either. But, I also remembered not being bowled over by a few other Radiohead albums when they first came out - ones that I eventually became obsessed with. So, I let this LP sink in, and once it got to me, I listened to it nonstop, much to my wife's chagrin. I love the fact that this record is short. I love the fact that it's layered, but not overwhelming. I love the fact that people apparently expect more from this band than the incredibly beautiful "Give Up the Ghost" can deliver. Not sure what they're waiting for, because this thing delivered.

"Lotus Flower"

03. Flash Bang Grenada - 10 Haters

The best rap album of the year is blippy, buzzy, and filled with more intricate, in-joke rhymes than your brain might be able to handle. When I heard that Busdriver and Nocando were doing an album together, I thought it might end up being an off-the-cuff experimental-type thing, and though there are tinges of that here, this is a more fully formed LP than I could have hoped for. Bus and Nocan spend 43 minutes trying to out-rap each other, and features from fellow weirdoes Open Mike Eagle and Del the Funky Homosapien make them dig even deeper in an attempt to cram as many syllables as possible into these ten tracks. They get the job done: these songs are thick, challenging, but also insanely fun. Get with it.


02. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

TV on the Radio seems to be in the same boat as Radiohead: they've been so relatively flawless for so long that when they put out a record that doesn't immediately knock everyone on their cans, it gets labeled as "decent" and doesn't receive the undivided the attention it deserves. Though I'm not exactly sure who I'm talking about here - I'm sure there are plenty of people who loved this record as much as I did this year. And they should have. Nine Types of Light may be mellow compared to TVOTR's previous output, but these are hardly entries in the handbook for soft-rock sensitivity training. They're just more straightforward (especially lyrically) than the stuff we're used to hearing from these guys. God forbid they don't do "Wolf Like Me" over and over. Wah wah. This album is amazing. Just let it in.

"Will Do"

01. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

When news broke that Beck would be producing Malkmus's new LP, I popped a pants-exploding boner the likes of which hadn't been seen since I heard that Randy "Macho Man" Savage was recording a rap album. Malkmus was fresh off the Pavement reunion tour, so I think we were all curious to see what kind of stuff he was going to come with. If you were looking for more of the sprawl-rock jamitude that made Real Emotional Trash so awesome, you were probably disappointed with this record. If you were looking for something that expanded on the odd tones and wacky incongruences of 2005's Face the Truth, then I'd be willing to bet you're madly in love with these 15 songs. You can't exactly hear Beck's production choices as a consistent force in the overall feel of this LP, and that's a good thing. Each song is its own little experiment, and none of them sound the same. It's not really the first time Malkmus has pulled this off, but this is the strongest example. This record's still making its way to my turntable at least once a week, and I don't see that wife-annoying trend ending anytime soon. I'll convert her. You just wait.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ten Great 2011 Albums You Might Not Have Heard.

Last year I did 12 of these, and put them in countdown form. This year I've got an even ten of 'em, and I'm going to put them in alphabetical order because this isn't a competition. Instead, this is where I get to tell you about left-of-the-dial records that I happened upon that might have slipped by you. Or maybe you're cool enough to have heard of all these. If so, congrats. If not, maybe you can find some great new music for yourself here.

Backburner - Heatwave

Featuring a sizable gang of Canadian rappers who pride themselves on their stylistic diversity, this album has been years in the making and was well worth the wait. It's basically posse cut after posse cut, and though some songs pick a subject and stick with it, the best tracks here are the ones that just feature the dudes tackling their allotted bars and trying to make the most of their limited time to shine. You can buy this album on the cheap right here.

"Straight Out the Vault"

Birdapres - Catch an L

It had been 4 years since Bird's debut solo record, and the dude clearly spent the time writing the most dense rhymes of his life. Old pals Pip Skid, John Smith, and Nestor Wynrush show up on this bad boy, and though I always prefer all of those guys when they're rapping over mcenroe beats, this record still manages to hit hard, even if some of the samples used are a bit brash for my tastes. Bird's got a mellow steez like no other, and this one's a creeper. Download it for free and give it a go.

"Get It"

Buttery Lords - Monsters and Madness

My boys! The Lords dropped this sweet EP around Halloween, but these are songs that can't be contained by a single season, holiday, year, or epoch. With jams about werewolves, ants, mental deficiencies and a lot of other stuff that might make you wonderfully uncomfortable, the only complaint I have about this collection is that it's too short. You can download it here for mad cheap, but I suggest that you go all-out and get the hand-numbered deluxe edition with the activity book. It's well worth it.

"The Werewolf Break"

Coolzey - Live From the Cave @ Dougman

This just came out and I've barely listened to it, but I like to give a shout-out to the Z-man whenever possible. The most noticeably significant thing about this record? It ain't hip hop. Z seems to have picked up the guitar (which he often does, but not usually under this moniker) and crafted some indie-pop-ish tunes on the semi-lo-fi tip. I've only spun this a few times, but I've liked what I heard. Name your price for it here and support the man.


Goldini Bagwell - Chainsmoke

This is another one that just came out, and another one from a guy that I'm friends with, but I've been bumping this hard in the ol' Volkswagen for the past week straight and I have no trouble vouching for the stone-cold dopeness of these 14 tracks. Gold's a member of Portland's Sandpeople collective, and though he's participated in projects outside the crew, this is his first proper solo record. Taking it even further away from his comfort zone, the beats are provided by Finland's Pmpee Beats, and they're huge. Buy this thing here and love the shit out of it.

"Wmn vs. Wrk"

The Happening - Piranha

I picked this cassette up on a whim a few months ago, and the more it shuffles through on my iPod, the more I love it. Taking on 90's grrrl-rock is a slippery slope, but the sincerity here makes it clear that these aren't ladies imitating a style; they're just some people picking up instruments and playing some raw, rugged rock songs. I keep meaning to go see them live. Buy this cassette (it's purple, even!) right here, or get the digital version if you're all futuristic.

"Two Becomes One"

Jesse Dangerously - Humble & Brilliant

Jesse's part of the aforementioned Backburner crew, but he's the kind of rapper who needs a solo record to spread out and say everything he needs to say. He gets the job done here, over thudding kick drums and wicky-wicky scratches that sound in-your-face true school at this point. J's a purist, so it totally works, and so do all the songs on this thing. Listen to it and/or buy it here in all kinds of different formats, and even get it with an accompanying chapbook.

Megachurch - Megachurch 2: Judgment Day

Lucking into this fuzzed-out, double-bassed, instrumental trio from Cleveland has been one of the best things that has happened to my ear holes in the last few years. Their sophomore effort picks up right where their scorching debut left off, shoveling on the sarcasm without even uttering a word. These eight tracks are all gems, representing some of my favorite music to blare when I don't feel like listening to some chump try to sing. Go here and take your pick from digital, CD, or take the cool-guy route (like I did) and grab the limited-edition vinyl. You'll be glad you did.


Pip Skid - People Are the Worst

Besides being a lock for Best Album Title of the Year Award honors, this 10-track collection features a gang of guest spots, some huge-ass hooks, and Pip sounding as pissed as ever, which is always satisfying. There's not a ton of cohesion to the beats here, but somehow that makes the whole thing even more fun to listen to. Pip shifts with the feel of the tracks, and shows some surprising dexterity. Best of all? You can download this for free right here.

Toolshed - The Lost

These guys also run with the Backburner crew, and they also can rap their asses off. This is forceful gang of tunes that makes me bob the ol' noggin without fail. I'm a sucker for dudes just flat-out dropping lyrics over beats and eschewing all the nonsense, and these guys are good at it. They'll drop a hook, but it's the verses that shine all over this thing. Check it out for yourself here, and pick it up if it suits you.

"Irish Car Bomb, pt. 2"

My Top Ten Favorite Tracks of 2011.

I've never done a best-of list for individual songs before, but my posting was mad sporadic this year, so maybe I'm making a last-ditch attempt to make up for that by expanding my year-end lists. This is the first one, and I've got a few more coming before the year officially burns out. I listened to a lot of music this year, but these seem to be the songs that I kept coming back to. Let me know if you think I forgot any. I didn't, because these are my favorites, but I'm always up for arguing.

10. Sloan - "Unkind"

This song struck me as a bit saccharine when I first heard it, but damn if it didn't lodge itself in my head for weeks. Sloan has always sounded more like the Beatles than Cheap Trick, but here they're letting their 70's-rock flag fly, with a hook that is just massive. A great song from a great record from a great band that's twenty years in and still a powerhouse.

09. Future of the Left - "Polymers Are Forever"

The opening song on their EP of the same name, this track's buzzy synths and snide, nasally vocals embody everything that makes this band so damn fun to listen to. A sense of humor is something that's lacking from a lot of rock music these days, and even though I have no idea what this song is about, when Andy "Falco" Falkous sings, he always sounds a bit dickish, like he's pulling one over on you. My kind of dude.

08. Dwarves - "You'll Never Take Us Alive"

The Dwarves have written countless self-aggrandizing tracks that could easily be labeled as theme songs for the attitude/outlook/mythicism of the band, and this one is the latest and greatest. This song's got everything that makes the Dwarves fantastic: a blistering tempo, short running time, hilarious hyperbole ("We transcend time and space"), and multiple reminders that you can try to get rid of them, but they aren't going anywhere. Unless you kill them.

07. Das Racist - "Girl"

This song is flat-out goofy, borderline dumb, and houses one of the dopest beats of the year. The DR dudes' raps are phoned-in on purpose, making the simplicity of the R&B-throwback verses seem even more sincere than they might be. (Are they? I don't think I care.) This is the Das Racist song that your girlfriend likes the most.

06. Big K.R.I.T. - "Dreamin'"

Big K.R.I.T. produces his own beats, writes rhymes about getting off your ass and accomplishing something in life, and boasts one of the smoothest flows this side of Big Boi. When people complain about modern rappers not having any respect or understanding about the roots of hip-hop or lacking a true appreciation for the form, they can't point the finger at this dude. Because he gets it.

05. Radiohead - "Codex"

I was also borderline obsessed with "Give Up the Ghost," the other over-the-top brilliant track from the strangely underrated The King of Limbs, but this is the song that still manages to give me chills. The muffled piano, the blippy percussion, the outer-edged atmospherics: it's all understated and pinpoint accurate. But as usual, it's Thom Yorke's vocals that make it a gut-puncher.

04. Azealia Banks feat. Lazy Jay - "212"

Dear lord. Who is this girl, where did she come from, and how did she lock down one of the most badass beats in recent memory? There's a lot of hype surrounding Ms. Banks right now, but when you listen to this song, you'll probably become a bandwagon-jumper. I have no doubt that she'll get co-opted into some flossy rap camp and lose her edge, but for now we have this brain-crushing track which is like three separate jams in a three-minute span, and they're all awesome.

03. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - "No One Is (As I Are Be)"

Malkmus has long been the master of writing seemingly nonsensical lyrics that still manage to evoke feeling, so it made sense that he would team up with Beck at some point, because Mr. Hansen has been known to pen songs in the same ambiguously effective style. Instead of insisting that the words coalesce into an identifiable theme, both guys seem more concerned with just making sure they fit. Whether Beck's production on this song (and the rest of Mirror Traffic) had a hand in furthering this method is impossible to say, but the awkward title alone seems to almost champion the concept. And even after the words cease, this song goes places that few Malkmus tracks have before. It's left-field and damn cool.

02. TV On the Radio - "You"

TV On the Radio make songs as brilliant as this one seem effortless, and maybe that's why Nine Types of Light didn't get everyone as worked up as Dear Science did a few years back. "You" is a breakup song that comes from a place that doesn't ostensibly feel like sheer hurt, but still clearly wields the power to crush someone if they were the least bit vulnerable. And the Prince-on-a-BMX video? Pure gold.

01. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire feat. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown, and El-P - "The Last Huzzah"

Talk about your monumental posse cuts. eXquire came out of nowhere with not only an awesome debut LP, but this underground who's-who jam that made sure he got noticed. He's running shit on this song, but all the guest spots are deadly as well, with Danny Brown stomping through like a stoned wolverine and El-P delivering a verse that still has people chattering. (Yes, he's counting the bars.) Add some tongue-in-cheek nods to "Flava In Ya Ear," and you've got yourself a head-nodder of a song, a highly (ha) entertaining video, and an unlikely group of dudes who, despite their wildly different styles, sound insanely cohesive. And just plain insane.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New (Reissue) Music Review: Nirvana - Nevermind - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (4xLP, 2011)

Yes, I broke down and bought this.

Nevermind is one of my favorite records ever - sentimentally so, even - and though this thing reeked of cash-grab from the get-go, I felt I had to pick up the Deluxe Edition on vinyl. There's stuff on it that I don't have, and the packaging looked pretty sweet from the outside, which gave me high hopes for the inside. When Music Millennium announced one of their 20%-off-all-new-vinyl sales, I saw my window (this thing ain't cheap) and took the plunge.

Here are my thoughts on it.

Like I said, the packaging is outwardly impressive. It's basically like a bound book, with a half-inch spine that houses four sleeves that each hold a thick-ass record. In what I think is actually kind of a cool move, they've replaced the $1 bill on the cover with a $20. A bit cutesy, but whatever. The sticker on the shrink wrap promised "expanded artwork with unreleased photos," but that's overstating it a bit. The "centerfold" is the standard group shot from the original issue of Nevermind (the one in the photo up there), and other than that there's a few pictures of the master tapes boxes, a proof of their 8x10 era-appropriate DGC promo shot, and another (maybe unreleased?) band shot next to the original lyrics/poem thingy that was in the inside sleeve of the original issue.

There's also a live shot of Cobain crowd-surfing that's used as a backdrop for the necessarily expanded reissue credits. But that's it. No booklet, no liner notes, no stickers or any other ephemera. Worst of all, there's no download included. Not that I'll have any trouble tracking this thing down online, but still: when I spend this kind of money, I prefer to get high-quality audio direct from the source. So, that was a disappointment.

Will this thing look awesome on my shelf? Yes. Do I feel stupid about caring about something like that? Not at all. Is that why I buy stuff like this? It's a plus, but no. I want the music. So let's break it on down.

LP One

As you'd probably guess, the first LP is the original album, remastered. I read some forums online where people were complaining about the fidelity of the remaster, and though I'm no audiophile, I decided to A/B test this new version next to my original US copy of Nevermind. The 2011 issue sounds louder, but in that shittily compressed way that a lot of albums do these days. It's not night and day, but the original LP definitely sounds better. It's most apparent in the drums, which pack less of a punch in the reissue, and that's no good.

So, I'll probably be sticking to my 1991 copy for standard listening, which I would have done anyway, because I always like to hear stuff like this as it was originally released.

LP Two, Side One: B-Sides

The first side of the second slab o' wax features B-sides from the Nevermind singles: "Even In His Youth" and "Aneurysm" are from the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single (note that this is not the same version of "Aneurysm" from Incesticide); "Curmudgeon," "D-7," and the live version of "Been a Son" are from the "Lithium" single ("D-7" was only available on the UK CD maxi); and the live version of "School" is from the "Come As You Are" single.

LP Two, Side Two: B-Sides and The Smart Studio Sessions

The B-Sides continue on the second side of LP Two, with the live version of "Drain You," which was also from the "Come As You Are" single, and live recordings of "Sliver" and "Polly," which were B-Sides on the "In Bloom" single, which was, strangely enough, never released in the US. I don't have that single (it's a semi-rare 12" picture disc), so I'm happy to have proper versions of these.

But other than those two cuts, I already had all this stuff, and I'm sure every other more-than-casual Nirvana fan does, too. I guess it's cool to have them all in one place, and I appreciate the thoroughness and chronological accuracy of it all, but it feels like padding. And even that wouldn't matter too much if there wasn't more noteworthy stuff that made it onto the Super Deluxe version that isn't included here. But I guess I get it: this is the same track listing as the standard Deluxe version, and they want you to shell out big bucks for the ridiculous Best Buy box set. There's reproductions of magazine clippings in there!

Anyway. From there it goes into the Smart Studio Sessions, which are basically the demos for Nevermind. To me, this is the meatiest section of this collection. "In Bloom," "Immodium" (the original title of "Breed"), and "Lithium" wrap up this side of the second LP. I bought a 7" bootleg in 1992 that had this version of "In Bloom" on it, but the recording was ass, and this one's a bit more cleaned up. It also had "Immodium" on it, but the version here is different, with Cobain not playing guitar during the first part of the verses. Pretty sweet. And I don't think I'd ever heard this version of "Lithium" before. For the record, these are the first three tracks that are asterisked as "previously unreleased."

LP Three, Side One: The Smart Studio Sessions

The rest of the Smart Studio Sessions are on this side of the third record. "Polly" is just a different mix of the version that would end up on Nevermind, and "Pay to Play" and "Here She Comes Now" are the same ones that were previously released on the With the Lights Out box set, and that was even after they had been put out on the DGC Rarities comp and a split single with the Melvins, respectively.

They've got "Dive" listed as previously unreleased, but other than a few seconds of extra noise at the beginning, it seems to be the same version from Incesticide. Not sure what's going on there. "Sappy" is one of many versions of that song floating around, and it's been heavily bootlegged, but this version is of a higher quality than most of those.

I enjoy a good pre-album demo reel, and this one is solid. The audio quality is rough, but totally listenable, and it's great to hear where some of these songs started after knowing exactly where they ended up.

LP Three, Side Two: The Boombox Rehearsals

You can look at this portion of the collection a couple different ways: It's either proof that they're officially scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything Nevermind-related and this was down there, covered in sludge, or they're catering to super-fans who want to hear any and everything that the band was doing around the time of this LP's original release. If you get a boner for anything that pulls back the curtain on the band, then you'll probably love these rough, rough versions of some songs that would end up on Nevermind, and a few that didn't.

The boombox version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was included in the With the Lights Out box set, but "Verse Chorus Verse," "Territorial Pissings," and "Lounge Act" are exclusive to this set. The recordings are assy, but these are early versions of the songs, with a lot of half-formed lyrics and slight differences in arrangements. So it's cool to hear that stuff.

LP Four, Side One: The Boombox Rehearsals

The rehearsal session continues here, with "Come As You Are" not being listed as previously unreleased, and I have no idea where this version of the song would have been used before, because it's not on With the Lights Out. Huh. It's followed by "Old Age," a rare track that was first released in a much cleaner, studio-ish version on the box set. There's also a long-ass version of "Something in the Way" with different lyrics, and a really rough take on "On a Plain."

LP Four, Side Two: BBC Sessions

The whole thing wraps up with two final unreleased tracks that are both really great: live, in-studio recordings of "Drain You" and "Something in the Way." "Drain You"'s breakdown is spot-on and slightly extended, and their take on "Something in the Way" is a much heavier version than the album cut.

The Super Deluxe, CD-only version of Nevermind includes the fabled "Devonshire Mixes," as well as a live show, and it bums me out a bit that neither of those will be available on vinyl. To me, the Devonshire Mixes are much more significant than the B-sides or the boombox tapes, but I guess I see the logic in not including two different versions of the same album in one set. Still: if you're a fan of this record and haven't hear those mixes, hunt them down. They're significantly different, and really cool to listen to.

Side note: I saw the DVD for the Live at the Paramount show that was released simultaneously with this set (and in the Super Deluxe version), and it's in one of those weird plastic, half-tall cases. What up with that? Fear not: I'll bitch about that after I buy it.

Any thoughts on this stuff?