95. T. I., Trap Muzik
JB: I ain’t gonna front: I’m somewhat in the position of a jazzhead in 1969 who totally digs Bitches Brew and is convinced that this rock & roll stuff is the music of the future, but wasn’t at Woodstock and can’t really say with a lot of authority what the aesthetic differences between the Velvet Underground, the Doors, and Led Zeppelin are, he just knows he likes their records. I haven’t been following any of the hip-hop scenes, mainstream, underground, East Coast, West Coast, Southern, etc. for any real amount of time, and my references are all the grab-bag of randomness that any dilettante can expect. The difference is that the jazzhead in ’69 didn’t have Wikipedia.
So I know that this is T. I.’s second album and his first major success; that he’s one of the wave of Southern rappers who have been not-so-quietly dominating mainstream hip-hop over the past ten years; and that he’s going to jail for the purchase of unregistered firearms. What I don’t have a clear picture of, because I don’t have all the background context, is how this album compares to his previous one, to his later ones, to his mixtapes and bootlegs, or what each specific producer or guest rapper brings to their tracks. (Okay, I know what Kanye brings. I’m not that ignorant.) Or why T. I. is on the list at all, rather than Lil Wayne or Goodie Mob (hey, speaking of Cee-Lo, what’s up with the no St. Elsewhere? Some misguided attempt to prove your critical independence, EW?) or Young Jeezy or UGK or Chamillionaire or — well, yeah, I know why no Chamillionaire.
Before going into the album, I’d only heard “
So my impressions of this album? It’s good. The usual qualifiers apply — it’s overlong, it’s repetitive, it’s not as good as it’s convinced it is — but it it’s a solid commercial hip-hop album. I’m digging the soul samples, sped-up or no, and the layered, near-symphonic texturing of many of the tracks is exactly the kind of relief I need after a session of monochromatic, po-faced indie rock. There are hardly any skits, and if the album doesn’t have a great sense of flow at least it has a decent amount of variety, alternating between odes to the game, blissed-out love tracks, and earnest warnings against the thug life. T. I. doesn’t demonstrate any blow-you-away skills, but he’s a charming, intelligent-without-being-pretentious MC, and after spending this much time with him it’s hard to dislike him.
I’m by no means convinced that it’s among the what, eighteen greatest hip-hop albums of all time (were there any great hip-hop albums before 1983? No seriously, I mean great albums), but it wouldn’t be a scandal if it made the top hundred.
MA: Ah, I take back what I said in the introduction. I guess there isn’t a pure Grandmaster Flash, say, ALBUM before ’83, back when rap was singles and singles were thirteen and a half minutes. (Still, I’d stick a Best of Grandmaster Flash SOMEWHERE in the top 100, if I were EW.)
But, yeah, I dug this one s’well, and actually found the best tracks near the end. D. J. Toomp’s sing-songy keyboard fill leading into new-jack ska over spacey keyboard line on “Bezzle” (Track 13 out of 16) is one of my favorite backing tracks, like, ever. Better yet, tracks from Kanye West, David Banner, and even T.I., split personality T.I.P. are nearly as good. It’s also a surprisingly grown-up bunch of songs. The gangsta cliches relating to where he has his glock are perfunctoraly tossed out in the first half of the album. But, towards the end, the 22 year old rap star talks down the materialist narrator of “24s” and starts ruminating on lost love and staying out of jail before dispatching advice to the shorties, sounding oddly like a high school guidance counselor on “Better Than Me.”
“Take Your motherfuckin’ ass to school to school, nigga, get you some property nigga. Know what I’m sayin?… The motherfuckin’ government have your motherfuckin’ ass sitting there for a long time. They hide your motherfuckin’ ass. Your hair get long as motherfuckin’ medusa, nigga.”
I mean, the intent is more or less the same, right?
94. The Police, Synchronicity
MA: Point One: Unlike Ice Cube, I’m a pretty big fan of the Police. There’s a lot of musiciany stuff to like here. There’s lots of really interesting synchopatic drum-riffin’ from drummer Stewart Copeland, especially on Miss Grandeko. The twittery little sax fill at the end of O My God, the not incredibly annoying flute solo in Walking In Your Footsteps, the Keyboard solo in the middle of Synchronicity II that, just for a couple minutes, ditches any sort of recognizable melody and turns into a collage of gradually louder swirly noises. These MoFos have really put a lot of thought into the construction of their pop tunes, and have been justly rewarded with a spot in our cultural consciousness and permanent Rotation on Lite 95. In terms of musical influence, Synchronicity deserves to be on a top 100 list in a way that, say, Britney or P.J. Harvey (who is awesome) don’t.
Point Two: I’m not at ALL a fan of Sting. Decent vocal range. Seems like a nice guy. Socially committed. Heard he was hung like a donkey and can make tantric love for 17 and a half hour straight while standing on his head. But as a vocal stylist, dude is just too. Damn. British. He always sounds just a tad bit reserved, and, if you listen very closely, you can hear him mumble “yes I would care for a spot of tea” during the keyboard solos.
See, OK, I’m not saying that ALL rock music has to come straight from the dick. But the good stuff, the pure stuff, still maintains trace elements of the blues and country, the back-alley mysticism and corn whiskey and being so lonesome you can die and it’s all filtered through the (something) of sweet, teenage lust. There’s no freakin’ SEX in Sting’s singing. He sounds like he’s thinking about everything, not howlin’ for his baby. And, like P.J. above, this affects the word’s he’s singing. I’ve been pawing through the lyrics to Synchronicity and they’re really… not Dylan, but not bad, surprisingly easy to follow (and, therefore GOOD) for a high-concept album about the proximate relationship between the collective unconscious and the waking world.
Well, mostly. There’s the occasional:
“Mephistopheles is not your name
But I know what you’re up to just the same
I will listen hard to intuition
And you will see it come to its fruition.”
Where Sting has the “pretentious erudition” knob turned up to 11.
But mostly it’s well-constructed imagery
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top
There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop”
“Because murder is like anything you take to
Its a habit-forming need for more and more
You can bump off every member of your family
And anybody else you find a bore”
Or, better yet, choruses that end with “I keep crying. Baby! Baby! Please!” which is the sentiment expressed in 84% of all pop music, expressed concisely and well.
Agh. I really would dig this album if it wasn’t for the Sting factor. And as it is I certainly find it listenable, unlike Sting’s solo stuff. Still, I can’t help imagining that this was only, say, Bootsy Collins standing in the recording studio yelling “FILTHY, SON! Make it Filthy!” away from being a real classic.
JB: Yeah, I’m with Ice Cube on this one.
I hadn’t heard this record since, geeze, 2001 or something — back when I thought I should like things because they were well-reviewed — and I think I’m better able to articulate my problem with Sting & Co. this time around.
I love British music of the late 70s and early 80s. Whatever you want to call it, post-punk, new wave, New Pop; basically anything that was influenced by Krautrock, Roxy Music, or Berlin-era Bowie, with the added benefit of punk kicking open the door to let anyone play. My problem with the Police is that they pretend to be this kind of music, but they’re really Frampton Comes Alive! with shorter haircuts, even down to the white poser-reggae. Overproduced and slick without being any fun, with terrible clever-dick lyrics and hideously mannered vocals from the Lamest Man Alive, they single-handedly created the adult contemporary genre and still manage to get props from proper rock fans. What the hell?
Plus, Synchronicity is their worst album, and the dubious benefits of having the Police on the list at all are outweighed by “Mother.” If pressed, I’d go for Zenyatta Mondatta, though I’d rather just ignore them to death. (I will say that I like Stewart Copeland’s drumming, when you can hear it beneath all the processed shit.)
93. Elliott Smith, Either/Or
JB: I don’t think there’s a whole lot I can say about this record. It’s good; even excellent. But its charms are not the kind that will be wholly revealed on a single listen, or even a double. I had to listen to it twice in any event: it was simply too opaque otherwise.
Part of me resists falling for Elliott Smith, partly because just about everyone my age already has and I’m nothing if not contrarian, and partly because I’m suspicious of (the reputation for) navel-gazing, self-pitying mopey indie kiddishness. Fragile beauty is one thing; half-assing it is another. I’m still not certain which side of the divide Smith falls on (probably, like most of us, he’s sometimes one, sometimes the other), which is one of the reasons I’m finding it hard to articulate anything.
Smith’s songwriting here strikes me as mostly fragmentary, little strings of melody unattached to any larger harmonic skeleton, which with his muffled, imagistic lyrics is a triumph of indirectness that befuddled me at first listen, used as I am to the emphatic vocabulary of all strains of pop. Country, soul, rock & roll, funk, hip-hop, jazz song, reggae — it all aims for clarity, even (on the duller spectrums) obviousness. Elliott Smith doesn’t, really, which can be disorienting until I recognize his position in the evolution of indie: he’s as much heir to Mission of Burma and Big Black as he is to the Smiths and Big Star. Lo-fi is as much a literary and compositional aesthetic as it is a sonic one.
I know nothing about the man himself save for some scraps of postmortem gossip picked up through Pitchforkian osmosis, so I couldn’t tell you what meanings (if any) these songs have in his biography, his relationships, his addictions, his neuroses — and none of that particularly matters anyway. Pop music, once it’s been plucked out of the air and sealed into a record, is for the listener to use as required: being neither heartbroken nor depressive at the moment, I don’t have much use for Elliott Smith except as a narcotic. That could change with the weather, of course.
Finally, I’m a little surprised that this record made the list; I would’ve expected Entertainment Weekly to go for the more lushly produced XO. Still, good on ’em. It’s a solid record, and while people more invested in indie tropes and culture may quibble with its ranking, I’m satisfied.
MA: The Thomas Pynchon of Indie Rock?
Still, Jonathan’s dead on. While every other album on this list shamelessly and provocatively displays it’s emotional wares, Either/Or plays it close to the chest. Either/Or demands to be seduced. Most pop albums make good-and-dang sure you know EXACTLY how you’re supposed to feel at any given time. Either/Or demands you listen with your brain as well as your heart.
Sadly, this means I understand it less than Jonathan. I can toss off adjective (Quiet. Pretty. Meditative. Near-sublime) but as to what the album’s about? Couldn’t tell ya. Yet. And, MAN, that’s a welcome change.
92. Destiny’s Child, The Writing’s On The Wall
MA: So we started this acapella group, right? We were.. what’s the correct term… Godawful. But kind of funny, if you’re in the right mood. (Read: Drunk off your ass.)
The group was based around two jokes. First of all: Our songs were really long. Second, they were basically the same lyrics over and over.
“Hot Dog Bun, Hot Dog Bun, Ain’t You Fun, Hot Dog Bun, Hot Dog Bun “
Repeat 76 times.
I trust that for anyone familiar with “The Writing’s on the Wall” is seeing some parallels here. It’s not that there isn’t some obvious talent on display here – Lead chile’ Beyonce’s got voice for days, and they’ve enlisted some red carpet producers, including Missy Elliot and TLC vetran Kevin “Ske’kspere” Briggs.
Butbutbut… Despite the strange Godfather Parody cum Old Testament cum Dear Abby for the Teen Set lead skit and “commandments” that try to cohere the album together TWWOTH is an effective collection of singles that ends up bein’ much less than the sum of their parts.
Firstly, it’s repetitive. Even listening to the best song on the album I tabulated 26 uses of the phrase “Say My Name” before I ran out of appendages to count on. Virtually every song follows a similar model; a couple short verses surrounded by two-three-four minutes of the D. C’s singing the SAME short vocal hook over and over. with slight changes in the harmonic backdrops and some ad-libs. The problem here is that these tracks are just too damn long. (And does Beyonce let anyone else take the lead vocals? Like, ever?)
Second, Too many of the songs are about the same stuff. The first twelve or thirteen tracks are all about peevish annoyance with guy-hood in general and that makes them feel somewhat interchangable.
The last couple tracks get better, or at least sadder, full of lost love (“Stay”) and Teen Pregnancy (“Sweet Sixteen”) – Trading sassy peevishness for heartbreak and feelin’ like you could die – The stuff of REAL pop music, dammit.
And, of course, the album’s anchored with Say My Name, one of the great late-20th century pop tunes, a bittersweet cocktail of paranoia, longing, hope, fear and this really neat rap-influenced staccato singing. If “The Writing’s on the Wall” has to constantly deliver more of the same, why couldn’t it have been more of the good stuff?
JB: I’m a disagree on this one. I thought it was terrific. Overlong, yes (that’s gonna be a criticism for, like, 90% of this list), and certainly a bit repetitive, but the production is outstanding — I’m very much in love with the hip-hop flamenco theme they had running throughout the album, and which, more than anything else, made it an album rather than a collection of songs — and the vocals are spit-polished to perfection. The ballads, as usual with modern r&b, are rubbish next to the bangers, but those bangers are some of the best black pop of the millennial era: “Say My Name, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Bug A Boo,” “So Good.” Beyoncé earned her Soul/R&B Royalty status with this record, and if the rest of ’em don’t do much to carry their end, well, nobody listened to the Supremes for Cindy Birdsong either.
91. Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
JB: This is the first time I’ve ever sat down and listened to an entire Smashing Pumpkins album, and I have to say it went better than I expected.
When Zwan’s album came out five years ago, I bought it and listened to it a few times on the strength of the single “Honestly” and the fact that Paz Lechantin was totally hot. But it wasn’t that great. Sure, the power-pop-meets prog sound was great (and possibly an unrecognized influence on what Muse would become), but Billy Corgan was mixed way too loud and his lyrics were way too inane, and MY GOD HIS VOICE IS ONE OF THE MOST IRRITATING SOUNDS ON EARTH.
I can honestly say that I hadn’t noticed in the 90s. I’d enjoyed the Pumpkins’ string of alt-rock hits — “Today,” “Disarm,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight,” probably some others I don’t know the names of — without really listening to them in the way I’ve learned to do since, as sonic documents. They were just part of the radio landscape, and not played often enough to grow wearisome. (That was before I started listening to American radio and learned the meaning of the word.) Corgan’s voice was unusual, sure, but not wildly different from all the weird voices on the radio then — Ed Kowalczyk in “Lightning Crashes,” Chris Cornell in “Black Hole Sun,” Linda Perry in “What’s Up,” Michael Stipe and Ed Roland in everything they did. But once the alternative 90s were well in the past and the rock mainstream had become a pop-punk/rap-rock/buttrock ghetto, I was listening to stuff far afield from the charts and being taught by Isaac Hayes and Martin Hannett and Brian Wilson to listen closely to the music I consumed, to listen with headphones and pay attention to the details. My favorite band at the time was the Libertines, and I was listening to their first record over and over again, loving every time I could hear the drummer drop his sticks in the middle eights. Then Corgan came galloping back with his new band and their beautiful, sheeny guitars and soaring melodies and HIS GODAWFUL WHINE SMEARED OVER TOP OF EVERYTHING LIKE FECAL MATTER ON PORCELAIN.
So I was apprehensive. I hadn’t really revisited the 90s Pumpkins since then, and what I heard of Corgan’s solo album and then the Pumpkins’ reuinion didn’t do anything to allay my doubts.
But, hey — I can see why a lot of people, especially the college-rock crowd, fell hard for Siamese Dream. It’s not unlike a surprisingly effective marriage of Loveless and Nevermind, sheets of cascading sonic gorgeousness over power rhythms borrowed from the 70s. And Billy’s voice is buried satisfyingly low in the mix, just another element in the music, not the VOICE OF HIS GENERATION CATERWAULING LIKE A DOPE. Compared to My Bloody Valentine, it’s total mainstream rock, yeah, but it’s mainstream in an artful, intelligent way, taking cues from Siouxsie Sioux and Echo & the Bunnymen and the shoegazers as much as from the punk-metal-pop hybrid that was Changing Rock Forever in
But then the record just keeps going on and on, and Billy doesn’t get any less annoying. The back half of the album is frankly disposable, starting with say “Geek
Still, I can say I like the Smashing Pumpkins now, again. That’s something. I always prefer liking stuff to the alternative.
MA: I was of the Pumpkins generation. I was not happy about this. I thought they were whiney and fruity and stupid. And, as I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t relinquish hate easily, it pains me to say this…
Siamese Dream is actually pretty good. High School MarkAndrew didn’a know what he was on about. Cut out some of the extraneous latter tracks, and it’s lurching towards great. I hear Bogart’s Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine, and I’ll raise him Rush and Zep. There’s a real rockist edge that I’d never noticed here, all multi-tracked guitars and pounding drums, and even the ballands feature two-minute guitar solos. I gotta admit: Siamese Dream is heavier, better constructed, better produced and far more musically adept than I remembered. There’s some downsides: The songs aren’t as catchy or as melodically strong as the best of their early ’90s brethren (read: Nirvana) and I completely agree re: feces and porcelain. But at the VERY least I’m enjoying it as a collection of influences, and I fear I’m enjoying it for what it is.