Sunday, January 09, 2005

Demos I belong to: Caucasian, 30-something, homo, newly Los Angeleno, blogger.

My ballot is weird this year, even by my standards. While my singles list is dominated by big, shiny R&B and hip-hop hits, the albums I voted for are entirely all over the map, and that wasn’t a conscious thing. I had a tendency towards electronic-based obscurities, though – at least, that’s how United State of Electronica, M.I.A., Junior Boys, and Erlend Øye’s mix record feel, obscure (with Ghostly International’s shoegaze revivalists Dykehouse not too far away). I suppose it’s possible that a year or two down the road, Junior Boys could land a car commercial and some MTV2 spins à la Dirty Vegas, but I wouldn’t bet my autographed copy of Maxinquaye on it. But there was a heavily human component (I don’t know how else to put it) to all of my album choices, maybe especially the mix disc topping my ballot.

Øye’s DJ-Kicks is one of the most astounding mix albums I’ve ever heard, largely for what I’m sure some call his gimmick: he sings over many of the instrumental tracks he spins. And he’s not just singing anything, he’s singing classics like “Always on My Mind” and “Venus” atop German technoid wonders. Oh, did I mention that he makes it work, utterly and completely? This in the midst of playing other such gems as Avenue D’s deliciously filthy “2D2F” (which includes my favorite lyric of 2004, “Don’t pass out goin’ down on me/or I’ll wake you up with a mouthful of pee”), and the Kings of Convenience remix of Cornelius’s “Drop” (which improves both artists). Preceding Avenue D is one of the singles on my ballot, Alan Braxe & Fred Falke’s “Rubicon,” the best French single of the past decade not involving any member of Daft Punk. It’s house for indie fans, but in a different way than, say, U.S.E.

United State of Electronica take what VHS Or Beta kinda-sorta did on their first album (but definitely not on their sloppy second), add in a ginormous helping of Discovery, multiply with vocoders (Roger Troutman, your influence is much bigger than you knew), and shake-shake-shake your booty. With a twist, though: they get the midtempo/ballad-ish stuff, too. Is this what Phoenix should’ve sounded like, I wonder? “Night Shift,” even with (maybe more because of – it throws the rest of the song into stark relief) its incredibly white-boy rapping, is so musically pretty and lush as to have the Frenchies (especially Guy-Manuel) checking their record collections. And “Open Your Eyes” is the dance music indie rockers dream of, much more so than art-damaged folks like Interpol or !!! (pretentiousness, thy name is…). Shit, if they could afford to buy their way on to the radio, it could be bigger than “Take Me Out.”

For those keeping score, I’ve got 5 indie albums on my list, with another 4 on majors and from gold-or-more-certified artists. Then there’s Sonic Youth, but I’ll get to them in a minute. Foremost among the big’uns is ‘04’s rookie of the year (she’ll prove more important and influential than Kanye, just watch), Gretchen Wilson, the only artist to appear on both my albums and singles ballots. “Here For the Party” does what “Redneck Woman” promises: gets down and dirty. She may be from Illinois, and her sound may be more akin to Southern rock than anything else (with some notable exceptions, such as the killer C&W torcher “When I Think About Cheatin’,” which is as nu-classic honky tonk as shit gets these days on major labels), but she’s bad, she’s nationwide. In case you didn’t notice, too, Wilson can sing her ass off, and she’s got the tunes to back her up. “Redneck Woman” is a great single by any means, but “Party”’s the one that nailed me, maybe ‘cause it just seems even more real. And who among us isn’t/hasn’t been?

A good friend of mine said that “If you haven't heard” Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, “you really didn't experience country music in 2004.” He’s so, so wrong. I mean, hello, Gretchen? Her Muzik Mafia mates Big & Rich, saving horses across the nation all year long? Toby and Shania and Nelly’s pal Tim, oh my? Loretta’s triumphant “I’m still here” isn’t country music of 2004, though it’s a great album. Pretty much any and all Jack White-and-Loretta comparisons to Rick Rubin-and-Cash are accurate, and not unwelcome. White revitalizes Lynn – she wrote the entire album, for the first time in her career – by giving her a new platform, a new base from which to work. “Portland, Oregon” may harken to her classic duets with Conway Twitty only in that it’s a (future) classic duet; apart from that, it’s one of the most outré entries in her vast catalog, and all the better for it.

Sonic Youth are so easily taken for granted, in large part because they’ve essentially held up a gold standard for 20+ years. We expect, and oftentimes assume greatness from them, which isn’t fair. We should be thankful for their brilliance, and for the fact that more than 2 decades into it, they’re still making albums as gorgeous as Sonic Nurse, a record as awash in colors and warmth as anything they’ve ever done. “Unmade Bed,” for one, coaxes yet another classic vocal performance out of Thurston Moore, yet also shows that his singing has become more rich and resonant over the years (shades of Dylan?). I’m not sure the Velvets or the Pixies would’ve sounded this amazing so far down the line, yet Sonic Youth just keep finding new musical vocabularies. We still need them more than you know, or realize.

Junior Boys seem fairly simple to me: microhouse as pop. Good pop. I’ve been waiting for this logical conclusion, and didn’t even realize it. Just like I wasn’t aware how much I needed a (one-man) band like Dykehouse in my life, mixing blips and bleeps with shoegaze circa ’89 and sounding like they could maybe save my life all over again. R. Kelly’s life, apparently, has been saved by Jesus – we’ll see if a jury agrees – but boy, has dialing it down ever helped remake his music. The first album of Happy People/U Saved Me is stepper’s heaven, and is accordingly the smoothest, most soulful album of his career. And amazingly, his gospel second album in the pairing is superb as well, better than anything on the last Kirk Franklin album if a bit clunky at times. But you know what? He sells this stuff so well that I’m buying without reservations. I actually believe him.

Trick Daddy may be the south’s answer to Jay-Z (and before him, Biggie) in that he so effortlessly makes pop and street records without ever seeming to stretch (sometimes, at the same time: “Let’s Go,” anyone?). M.I.A. may be Neneh Cherry times Dizzee Rascal, but that’s the lazy equation. In reality, she’s a total original. Her single “Galang” didn’t kill me the way it has many of my voting brethren (I can’t imagine it won’t place in singles), but the Diplo-mixed mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism does – with another month of play, it might’ve been my #1. Mixing her really “wow!” cross-cult raps across not only her own tracks but others’ beats (and mixing in others’ songs: hello, Bangles!), Diplo makes a totally fresh, totally refreshing record, one of the most astounding to come down the pike in ’04. I know it’s not an “official” album; I also know I don’t care.

The singles I voted for are largely cut from other cloths. Kanye’s not the rap savior he’s purported to be (moderation, people), but he’s awfully good, and “Through the Wire” is an undeniable single. He’s rapping with his jaw wired shut! [And doing it well, natch.] “Confessions Part II” got me before it was a single, just for its sly, slinky beat. “If I Ain’t Got You” is “Careless Whisper” for 2004, a raw, honest love ballad that we’ll be hearing in 25 years, and is the clearest example of how The Diary of Alicia Keys improves upon Songs In A Minor; Keys is just starting to make good on her talents.

“99 Problems” is the video of the year, by far, just like “Hurt” was last year’s; Mark Romanek knows his way around legends, doesn’t he? So does Rick Rubin, doesn’t he? If the Beasties circa Licensed to Ill had been smart instead of stupid, and if (let’s be honest) they’d been black, even then they couldn’t’ve made a single this glorious, this bombastic, and it’s not like they haven’t tried. But Jay-Z is capable of doing shit like this in his sleep. The trick is that he doesn’t. Hova’s girl B came back not exactly hard, but good enough with her girls on “Lose My Breath,” the best thing Rodney Jerkins has laced in years. Yeah, it’s not the most original production – but he knows how to take ideas and make ‘em go pop like almost no one else. That opening snare tattoo is one of the moments of ’04, no less, and Beyoncé’s good to share the love with Michele and Kelly.

My #1 single feels so obvious to me, like how could it not be everyone’s #1? After not thinking the Neptunes could top themselves years ago (with the Clipse’s “Grindin’”), they did so in ’04 with another masterful minimalist track, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Not only is this a high-water mark for Chad and Pharrell, it’s a high-water mark for Snoop as well – and the track wouldn’t work the same way, or so well, without him on it; it’s not all about the production. Snoop’s rap is so laconic as to match the track perfectly (and Pharrell’s verse fits nicely, as well, as it damned well should). THIS IS PEOPLE MAKING CLICKING NOISES WITH THEIR MOUTHS! YOU MUST WORSHIP AT THE ALTAR OF PHARRELL AND CHAD!

2004 was that kinda year, wasn’t it?

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