Princess Superstar, Is (Rapster)
It's absolutely criminal that Princess Superstar hasn't completely conquered the globe with her peerless mic majesty. No matter what someone's musical safe spaces are, when I give this CD as a gift, the giftees are universally awed. Often dubbed "the female Eminem" except that she was making records when he was still working out his oedipal rage at Burger King (this is her fourth lp). Not to mention she's faster, funnier, harder working and has a voice like split fruit hooked up to a bass amp, all yum and purr. Kool Keith, Bahamadia, Beth Orton and Herbaliser all drop in for the chance to jump into lyrical double dutch with New York City's finest word slinger. Every single time I listen to this album I get a joke I hadn't heard, catch another deft phrase and realize again why this is one of the best hip hop albums ever made.
Iron and Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)
I wish I had a refund for every single time I fell for a music review that compared someone to Nick Drake only to find out that they meant "could also be used in a commercial". Iron and Wine (aka Samuel Beam) channels Drake's melancholy fragility through an album of spare, deep, and abusively beautiful roots music. This record sounds like an Appalachian funeral held on a porch covered in snow drifts. Although it has that down home sensibility there's something firmly present tense that would prevent Iron and Wine from ending up on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. This album makes me want to curl up under a pile of quilts and drift aimlessly in and out of the world.
Missy Elliot, Under Construction (Elektra)
By now some urban format radio station has probably destroyed the first single "Work It" for you. But Missy can't help it if top forty masochists can't get enough of the way she turns every car stereo into a commandment for cartoonish rump thumping. If Tex Avery wrote hip-hop, I swear it would sound exactly like Missy Elliot. Under Construction perfects the playfulness started on Miss E. . . So Addictive into a full-fledged homage to old school hanging out, talking shit, and scheming on the flavor of the night. Missy spits her A-game, on one track squawking out haters, effortlessly shifting rhythm, and minting enough slang for her very own dictionary. If this record doesn't make you smile, smother yourself.
Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek)
Everyone has bands that they swear are secretly reading their diary. If I had a diary, Rilo Kiley would be the cipher for all my misery, joy, pain and bemusement. The Execution of All Things spans everything from melody soaked indie rock and off-kilter country to stein smashing pub anthems. Jenny Lewis' vocals have more color and flippant shade than the big box of crayons with the sharpener in it. As an aside, I think this is the only record I can remember that uses swear words the way real people actually use them. They're natural poets and scrappy lyricists, the sort of people whose everyday speech is probably riddled with one-liner sass and off-handed koans. There's a seen-it-all yesterday vibe that obviously comes hard living in the city of angels, but the reluctant rays of hopefulness are something altogether their own.
Sondre Lerche, Faces Down (Astralwerks)
This album almost sounds like it could be the follow-up to Rufus Wainwright's Poses but it isn't quite as plagued with back alley bitterness. Lerche has a a drowsy Donovan husk that reeks of innocence gladly lost. People this young (he clocks in at 19) make me downright envious. "You Know So Well" is the best shades of Lennon/McCarthy pop song I've heard since Elliot Smith's last go round. Sondre Lerche makes hook-filled orchestral swooners that manages to wash their way under your skin. His coquettish delivery and wry phrase rosaries make for some pretty sexy ennui. Half the time it songs like he's singing with a wine glass in his hand, a long cigarette holder and a pet jaguar sitting at his side.
Wilco, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (Nonesuch)
Hopefully there's some Reprise executive panhandling right now for creating the year's biggest underdog story of corporate martyrdom. River of crocodile tears aside, Wilco made a chasm leap from their solid alt-country sound into an album truly spectacular. Jeff Tweedy's vocals, slumbersome and filterless, ease into scuffed-heart classics punctuated by the occasional artfully culled wave of fuzz.
Buck 65, Synesthesia (Warner Canada)
He's been dubbed the "Radiohead of hip-hop" (Why not the Jennifer Lopez of alt-country?) and he deserves every single accolade. But if pegging a far afield influence is necessary, my money is on Tom Waits. Canadian hip-hop recluse, Buck 65, makes hip-hop that sounds like a bright, horny kid kicking his muse through the dark arts of beat alchemy. The throaty flicker of his voice sounds as if he has a piece of smoking peat jammed in his larynx. Of all the underground rappers out there, Buck 65 is both one of the most accessible and the most interesting. His creepy ricochet off hip-hop's core is full of amusing subjects, serious emotional engagement with the world and dusky beats for your head-nodding pleasure.
Matt the Electrician, demo/ep2002 (Self-Released)
Given how cynical I am, I would normally scoff at a jokey pretty boy with a guitar. Matt the Electrician is what Flannery O'Conner would have been had she strummed out her fiction and had a penchant for every once in awhile pulling out a matchbox car and vrooming it on someone's head. Not content to be just another jester songwriter, Matt has a knack for making heart-catching verse with an unexpectedly sad lilt or his tragi-comic sense of our clumsy human fumblings. His voice, shades of a young Paul Simon has a bright, tugging pierce embedded in pop songs that have fireside familiarity on first listen. All of these songs could easily be in the next Paul Thomas Anderson film. This EP is full of songs that, for very good reason, get retrieved in the moments when you're walking alone and need something thoughtful to hum in the dark.
Nina Simone (Re-Issue), Emergency Ward, It is Finished, Black Gold
There once was a tragic time when I sold my music for drugs. Unfortunately, I had no poor people to tax. The album I kicked myself for hocking the most was Nina Simone's It Is Finished. It's not the best overall record, containing a few tracks like "Mr. Bojangles" that are Nina at her maudlin worst. It also had my favorite Nina Simone track, "Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter" a blistering diss of a man trying to sex her up. It's one of those songs with a crescendo that drops a bomb in your crotch and ends in a chaos of drums that sounds like, well, need I say more? Call me twisted, but I can't get enough of a song written like an orgasm that is about telling someone to go fuck themselves. Finally re-issued with two more albums of the dusky-piped diva legend thrown in for good measure.
Logh, every time a bell rings and angel gets his wings (Deep Elm)
It's easy to hear any number of influences on this album from Radiohead to Sigur Ros to one song that actually reminds me of a Nordic, valium-laced Nirvana. Mattias Friberg's vocals sound like a deep space freeze perfectly stitched into the album's overall lonesome, winter tumbleweed vibe. Whereas Sigur Ros and Radiohead preen themselves (and rightfully so) on their relentless experimentalism, Logh keep their effort consistently in the realm tight, wind-chilled songwriting. That's not to imply that there's anything unoriginal about Logh. They clearly have carved a nice little cave for themselves within the realm of roomy, soundscapes of somnambulant beauty.