Friday, December 17, 2010

Top 10 of 2010: #5-1

5. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
In the year of Kanye West, former OutKast MC Big Boi was one of the few rap stars to appear something more than drab. The brilliant Antwan Andre Patton dropped nothing short of the best in his long-awaited return to the spotlight.

Prior to Sir Lucious, it would have sounded ridiculous to assert that Big Boi would release anything this spectacularly weird, hypnotic, fierce, funny and catchy. After all, we hadn't heard from the South's preeminent hip hop group OutKast in years, and Big Boi wasn't even supposed to be the brains of the bunch. You have to love underdogs who triumph and make it look like they were front-runners from the start.

Big catch: "General Patton": "This s*#t is like breathing to me," Big Boi raps over military cadences. Believe it.

4. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
Monae, self-proclaimed "weirdo," is like no one else, but somehow she manages to sound like everyone else.

The metamorphing songstress spins jazz, funk, classical melodrama, hip hop, Stax-era soul, pre-pubescent Michael Jackson and spacey Tommy James rock like the record industry's going to die tomorrow and someone needs to memorialize all of it.

At the same time that Monae champions her roots, she seems intent on pushing toward the future, or at least a future where genres are irrelevant.

Yes, it's a concept album that picks up where a previous EP left off, and concept albums can be tiresome. But Monae, who's dazzled for years without ever releasing a full-length LP until this year, keeps the flow of The ArchAndroid limber and irresistible.

Big catch: "Faster" - Monae turns into 10-year-old Michael Jackson at the end of this frantic, funk number.

3. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Arcade Fire can make anything dramatic, even the crappy neighborhood where you used to set bugs on fire with a magnifying glass and shoot BB guns at your friends to break up the boredom.

Some might scoff at the idea of suburban life as being short of idyllic, but the "little pink houses" business is anything but a dream these days. Pensions are drying up, college costs too much, there are no jobs, your parents are convinced the country is under siege, and your closest friends would rather play scratch and sniff with a bottle of glue than apply for a scholarship.

Arcade Fire, in true Springsteen fashion, believe this is a "suicide trap" and we need to get out. It's a good thing they've cushioned the dramatics with another slew of well-written, explosive songs that make every other rock band look like slackers. This album is a grower, maybe forgettable once but a classic by the fifth listen.

Big catch: "We Used to Wait" - We used to wait for it, but now we're screaming "sing the chorus again." Perfect description of Arcade Fire's slowly unrolling masterpiece.

2. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
A friend of mine once said he would be willing to proclaim LCD's James Murphy a prophet if every song were as good as album opener "Dance Yrself Clean."

Halfway through the drifting, low-fi track, Murphy drops a blitzkrieg of club-heavy beats, rambling keyboards and half-screamed vocals as catharsis. If you can't get your dance on with this track, then you probably don't like dancing.

Either way, This is Happening is filled with epic, danceable numbers that scream for repeat listens.

Big catch: Aside from the aforementioned "Dance Yrself Clean," there are too many to mention. But "All I Want," the classic Heroes-era grandchild that Bowie would have recorded if he and Brian Eno had thought of it, deserves mention.

1. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
West made most other hip hop artists look hopelessly uninspired through the course of this 13-track masterwork. It's a testament to his productivity that he had another dozen or so songs that he recorded during the making of this album that would have filled LPs for lesser artists.

Nothing is better for rap stars than for everyone in the world to doubt them. Let's face it, everyone was doubting West after he made a tuneless rant like 808s and Heartbreak and did his best impression of a cokehead jumping on stage to lampoon Taylor Swift.

Somehow, in the middle of it all, West found time to lock himself in the studio and make songs that crackle with creativity and his trademark self-awareness. Meanwhile, the sometimes clumsy rapper also found a way to turn in some of his best verses ever put to tape.

Big catch: "Power" - King Crimson-sample and a fired-up West obliterate just about every other song in their path.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Top 10 of 2010

It's that time of year. Time to get out your ice-scrapers, wish you had spent your last paycheck on Xmas gifts instead of comic books, and proclaim bold top 10 lists about various things from the last year.

Being that this is the Salmon, here's the first half of the top 10 albums of 2010, the keepers. If I left out your favorite album, too bad. You're wrong about that album, it's actually awful.

Also, if you're waiting around to see where the Salmon placed a Kings of Leon or Eminem album, you will be disappointed. The Salmon believes they reek like seaweed and Danny Bonaduce.

10. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Cartoon band makes like they're really real. Really worldly. Really expansive. Really poignant. Really funky. Really good.

Big catch: "Stylo" - Mos Def + Bobby Womack + Gorillaz = Really awesome underwater rock.

9. Beach House- Teen Dream
Victoria LeGrand sounds like Grace Slick way before she got drunk and helped Starship build that crappy city.

The indie-rock band takes their Xanax arrangements and fills them with shimmering guitar and haunting choruses. It's not beach music, but Teen Dream certainly warms these winter days.

Big catch: "Zebra" - Captures this band's propensity for patient, melting tunes with achingly memorable choruses.

8. The National - High Violet
Good bands with a distinct sound can opt for one of two roads; completely rework your vibe or chisel it down to its most refined.

The National go for the latter on High Violet, taking their thunderstorm-in-the-distance sound to great, if not unexpected, places.

Frontman Matt Berninger continues to make a name for himself as a quietly seething presence with a forked tongue. I'll bet you a dollar his baritone could make even "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" sound like a dirge.

Big catch: "Terrible Love" - Walking with spiders, really? Sounds like a worst-case scenario.

7. Sufjan Stevens- The Age of Adz

Easily the indie comeback kid of the year. Sufjan Stevens, 2005's genius behind Illinois, gets past his existential crisis to finally make another full-length where he's not hiding behind the production credits.

The good news is he's as tuneful as ever, although he's no longer the shy, super-talented loner sitting on the back porch playing a banjo who you would love to ask out on a date to the local coffee shop. He's still super-talented, but now he wants to go clubbing, sort of.

Glitchy dance beats combine with Stevens' penchant for writing melodic wonders. If you listened to the boy wonder's earlier catalog -- see 2001's Enjoy Your Rabbit -- you could have seen this one coming.

Big catch: "Impossible Soul" - Twenty-five minute run time makes it impossibly long, but not impo
ssible to listen to.

6. Vampire Weekend - Contra

The sophomore album from this delightful, world music-inspired indie band is every bit as irresistible, educated and sharp as its predecessor.

The Salmon watched these guys scarf into barbecue sandwiches following a show in South Carolina last year and they looked all of 14.

Truth is, they're in their 20s, but they've already written more classic pop songs than most artists could dream. At one point, it seemed their world beat tracks would eventually be stale, but they still taste fresh through two albums.

Big catch: "Contra" - Title track reveals something new about VW. A band known for danceable, punchy choruses can make a slow-moving ballad that cuts just the same.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review: Kanye West- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Rating: 10.0
Released: Nov. 22, 2010

Of course you hate this guy.

Is any major pop artist more grandiose, bewildering, or oddly sensitive right now?

Would anyone else think to make a 30-minute music video with a cameo from a giant Michael Jackson head?

Does any other artist think that indie-folkster Bon Iver belongs on the same track with rap legend Jay-Z?

Does any other musician describe himself as being akin to that guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? I couldn't make that last one up if I tried.

This guy was made for head-scratching, unapologetically insane moments even before he stormed the stage in Taylor Swift's big moment, but I'm reminded of an old saying about being crazy like a fox.

Kanye wears his lunacy like it's a badge, and he's likely made one of the best and most insane rap albums you'll ever hear in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Over the course of 13 songs, thankfully whittled down from hour upon hour of studio tinkering, West reminds us of all the hip hop formulas he has burnished to solid gold over the past decade, and then he demolishes them with a missile launcher.

Fuzz guitar? A vocoder solo? An Elton John piano solo? No one else would be this ambitious or ludicrously wide-screen, and we're all richer for it.

"They say I was the abomination of Obama's nation, well that's a pretty bad way to start the conversation," West raps in his characteristically self-conscious drawl on the King Crimson-ripping "Power."

Like the best self-absorbed pop stars who have come before him, West inflates his own importance on "Power." Thoughts of a "beautiful death" crowd his head in the unforgettably morbid coda to "Power."

No doubt he believes all of our lives and album collections would be so much more drab if he did take a dirt nap. I believe him.

"Power" is just one of many tracks on this album that take the minimalism of hip hop classics like Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt and replace it with clattering drums, tinkling pianos, fuzzy guitars, soaring horns, musical interludes and choirs.

The world-beating "All of the Lights" makes its hero a deadbeat loser who could be bouncing checks at the power company. The super-rich West, who is probably all done with threats from utility companies, inhabits the role with spite, regret and a beating heart.

"Restraining order/can't see my daughter/her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order/public visitation/we met at Border's/Told her she take me back I'll be more supportive," West spits at all of the doubters.

Where other rap stars play up their lower-class roots for credibility, West inhabits his character fully, making an epic for all of the underdogs. Oh, did I mention the beat is intoxicating?

Throughout the album, West raises the bar, and then raises it higher, birthing the disturbed younger sibling to his previous outstanding albums.

On "Lost in the World," all notions of formulaic hip hop are incinerated as he turns a distorted Bon Iver dirge into a stomping finale, complete with tribal drums, chants and a spoken rant from the ever-acerbic Gil Scott-Heron.

"You're my devil, you're my angel/you're my heaven, you're my hell/you're my now, you're my forever/you're my freedom, you're my jail," he raps.

West has been this intimate before - see his desperate, difficult previous LP 808s and Heartbreak - but he's rarely been this convincing and brilliant.

Hate him if you want to, but West is redefining what it means to be a rap star, pop star, celebrity, you name it. Refreshingly, he emphasizes the 'artist' part of 'rap artist.'

Based on his previous output as a producer for rap bigwigs like Jay-Z (face it, The Blueprint falls short of classic without Kanye's contributions), Common and Talib Kweli, it's easy to see that West was staking a claim as the greatest hip hop producer ever.

But if West keeps making albums like this, it's not farfetched to say he's ascending the ranks of the best rap stars ever.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Top Five of 2010: 5. Gorillaz- Plastic Beach

"If you watch MTV for too long, it's a bit like hell – there's nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that."

Yeah, that'll work, right? (crickets chirping)

Those are the words of Gorillaz co-creator and British cartoonist Jamie Hewlett about the brainstorming session that sparked this virtual act in 1998.

The snob in me says the conceit of a cartoon band would be short-lived. There's room for a few months of good-natured social commentary and then all parties will agree to move on.

After all, most cartoons only last as long as the viewing audience's childhood.

In the case of Gorillaz, I would be hopelessly wrong. The British band has real flesh and brains behind their creation, and it helps that Blur genius Damon Albarn is the mastermind.

Here it is 2010 and I'm picking Gorillaz' latest Plastic Beach as one of my favorites. Whooda thunk it?

Three albums in and Albarn's brainchild is not just surviving, it's thriving. Plastic Beach is the strongest of the group's creations, a lush, funky and, surprisingly poignant entry about disposable materialism and its effects on our culture.

The revolving door of guest spots continues. Check hip hop artifacts like Snoop Dogg and De La Soul sharing tape with all-time rock legends like Lou Reed. Only in Gorillaz' ever-expanding, virtual world can these artists co-exist without a heavy dose of awkward.

In the past, Albarn might have turned in grungy freakouts like "Song 2" (you know, the "Whoo Hoo" song), but now he's giving you the Lebanese National Orchestra on "White Flag" to punctuate his world view of music these days.

One of the top tracks is "Rhinestone Eyes," an electro workout where Albarn compares your eyes to "factories far away." You get the idea.

Gorillaz' animated world is growing ever more cranky and weird. Albarn's beach is not like yours. There's no robin's egg sky and gently rolling waves to lull you to sleep on the shore while you read your favorite book.

No, Albarn's beach smells sort of like a dump. There's a tire sinking into the sand over there and that crab scooting across the shore looks like it's missing a few legs.

It's good then that in a world of disposable rotting goods Albarn and Gorillaz are able to create something that will last in a good way.

- SoR

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Best of 2010 So Far - Five Albums You Should Pick Up Today

That's right, you should pick them up today, not tomorrow.
It's THAT urgent.

Um, not really, but a little drama goes a long way.

Over the next few days, the Salmon will be listing the top five albums of 2010 so far.

The year has been long on obvious hits, left-field surprises and colossal disappointments (I'm looking at you, M.I.A.).

In case you were wondering, that's Janelle Monae above, the metamorphing songstress who's made 2010 such a blast. Expect more on Monae and her frantic, fast feet.

It should also be noted that this list will not factor in the must-haves in the coming months like Arcade Fire's The Suburbs on Aug. 3 and Of Montreal's False Priests on Sept. 14.

In the meantime, here's a clip of Monae showing off her muscly James Brown footwork on Letterman.

- SoR

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: M.I.A.- / \ / \ / \ Y / \

Rating: 6.0
Released: July 13, 2010

Get the newspaper print out of your ears.

That's my advice to all of the critics lambasting hip hop chameleon M.I.A.'s latest album. Arriving on a sour wave of ill will ignited by a recent New York Times profile and her subsequent response, M.I.A.'s latest (that's really the title - her first name, Maya, in annoying computer characters) is not the triumph we expected.

Nor is it the Waterloo described by overly-cynical critics with an inability to decipher between bad publicity and good music, or vice-versa.

It's simply the work of an artist, who perhaps unwisely, really wants to follow Elvis Costello's example and bite the hand that's feeding her. Never mind that Costello was still writing pop songs at the time. M.I.A. certainly isn't, not unless you like your club beats to sound like automatic gunfire and chainsaws.

M.I.A.'s headache of an album is chock-full of glitchy filler and repetitive, overly-simplistic semi-songs. But for every two duds, there's always a reminder that this is the same artist behind zeitgeist albums Arular and Kala.

Those albums were mostly a form of hip hop, one of the most American of music forms, refracted through the foreign lenses of a Sri Lankan-born Londoner with a taste for multi-cultural rhythms.

No, she can't really sing. No, she can't really rap, her meager vocabulary doesn't provide the means.

But yes, there are hooks. Look to the world-beating pop of mega-hit "Paper Planes" for proof that subversive and often-alienating artists can sometimes strike gold.

And yes, her grooves are as fascinating and brilliant as we've heard from any mastermind producer. Kala tracks like "Boyz" and "Bird Flu" are mad dashes for the finish line, complete with distorted vocals, infectious beats and enough chaos to keep you on your toes.

The Sri Lankan rapper and purveyor of all things incendiary looks and sounds like the future of music, but there remains the distinct scent of the past too. M.I.A. retains all of the firebombing wit and charisma of hip hop activists Public Enemy and proto-punks The Clash.

If Arular was her version of The Clash's self-titled lightning-rod of a debut, Kala was her London Calling, proof that she could make any style or form of music fit her gutter rat world view.

It follows then that /\/\ /\ Y /\ would be her Sandinista, a globe-trotting, noisy, ambitious, overly long and frustrating affair.

Tracks like "XXXO" and "Teqkilla" would be club anthems in that seedy dive that most people avoid.

"Lovalot" is a sterile banger where M.I.A. is bold enough to take the point of view of an extremist.

"I really love a lot," she chants in her trademark monotone. "But I fight the ones who fight me."

"Born Free" is every bit as explosive as the title suggests, a thrash-anthem that finds her back in the shoes of a rebel. This is the pop singer who defends bloody militant groups like her father's own Tamil Tigers in war-torn Sri Lanka.

"Yeah, I don't wanna live for tomorrow, I push my life today," she sings behind a megaphone. "I throw this in your face when I see you, I got something to say."

The song never explains what it is she has to say, but it's clear that she'll punch your teeth out if you try to stop her from saying it.

Only in a modern age where the music industry leaks and creaks like a foundering ship could an artist this directly confrontational succeed. Back when boy bands ruled the landscape, we would never have known M.I.A.'s name, or known about the aforementioned Tigers and the atrocities of Sri Lanka's civil war. If that's the case, thank goodness we sprung a leak.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Michael Jackson Pepsi Footage Revealed

Here's some astounding video that captures the infamous 1984 Pepsi burning incident where Michael Jackson's hair caught fire.

The much-discussed accident happened when pyrotechnics exploded too soon during one take of the Pepsi commercial.

You can actually see MJ's head catch fire. This is like the Zapruder film for pop music fans, and it was only recently released by Us Weekly.

Some say MJ developed an addiction to painkillers after this that might have precipitated his June 25 death by cardiac arrest.

I say that's an astounding leap. Either way, it's odd to finally see this footage.