In November, the Washington City Paper asked its music writers to compile lists of their 10 favorite releases of the past year. Critics were required to divide a total of 100 points among their selections, awarding between 1 and 20 points to each. Any single, EP, album, box set, or nonillegal download of old or new music released in any quantity anywhere in the world in 2006 was eligible. Four weeks and 2,500 points later, the City Paper record nerds reveal that, although they still love rap and metal as much as they did when they were 16, they’ve also developed a taste for stuff by quirky female singer-songwriters.
Hell Hath No Fury | Clipse | Star Trak/Zomba
Fishscale | Ghostface Killah | Def Jam
Ys | Joanna Newsom | Drag City
White Bread Black Beer | Scritti Politti | Nonesuch/Rough Trade
Show Your Bones | Yeah Yeah Yeahs | Interscope
Boys and Girls in America | The Hold Steady | Vagrant
PINK | Boris | Southern Lord
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood | Neko Case | Anti-
Return to Cookie Mountain | TV on the Radio | Interscope
King. | T.I. | Atlantic
Yellow House | Grizzly Bear | Warp
Blood Mountain | Mastodon | Reprise
Drum’s Not Dead | Liars | MuteThe Eraser | Thom Yorke | XLSupernature | Goldfrapp | Mute
“Crazy” | Gnarls Barkley | Downtown/AtlanticPearl Jam | Pearl Jam | J
Brightblack Morning Light | Brightblack Morning Light | MatadorNight Ripper | Girl Talk | Illegal ArtThe Obliterati | Mission of Burma | Matador
Happy New Year | Oneida | Jagjaguwar
Based on a True Story | Fat Freddys Drop | Kartel CreativeThe Black Parade | My Chemical Romance | RepriseBring It Back | Mates of State | BarsukDedication 2: Gangsta Grillz | DJ Drama & Lil’ Wayne | Gangsta GrillzHarmony in Ultraviolet | Tim Hecker | KrankyThe Life Pursuit | Belle and Sebastian | Rough TradeLive_2006 | Hand-Fed Babies | SocketsCDROut of Cold Storage | This Heat | ReRTen Silver Drops | Secret Machines | Reprise
Rabbit Fur Coat | Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins | Team LoveSilver | Jesu | Hydra HeadStanding in the Way of Control | Gossip | Kill Rock StarsTaking the Long Way | Dixie Chicks | Open Wide/Columbia
St. Elsewhere | Gnarls Barkley | Downtown/Atlantic
Avatar | Comets on Fire | Sub PopBitter Tea | Fiery Furnaces | Fat PossumDonuts | J Dilla | Stones Throw
Hell Hath No Fury
Cocaine empowers the dealer, but it insulates him, too. That’s why Scarface translated so easily to Xbox: A video game is the perfect venue for a narrative about a paranoid, hermetically sealed existence. Clipse knows the kingpin’s predicament, and the Virginia duo’s latest dissects it without passing judgment. And then there are the beats: Stark, cold, and among the Neptunes’ finest, they artfully pimp the claustrophobia.
White Bread Black Beer
Squat-dwelling postpunks aren’t supposed to become glossy R&B stars. Glossy R&B stars aren’t supposed to develop stage fright and become eccentric recluses. Eccentric recluses aren’t supposed to make genius pop albums—oh, wait, yes, they are. That’s exactly what Green Gartside did with White Bread Black Beer, and the slippery, sparkling result is the best work of his bizarre career.
Boys and Girls in America
Thirty-something lead singer Craig Finn focuses on teenage folly to suggest that we never grow up—we just get old. Behind tales of hooking up at the Party Pit and doing mushrooms in the chill-out tent, the band detours down E Street in a way that’s retro but not outdated. The result is ample affirmation that a good story told over a crunchy riff never goes out of style.
The most popular mainstream rap album of the year will probably be conspicuously absent from most reviewers’ best-of lists. Could it be that trained ears don’t appreciate ferocious synth lines, Crystal Waters samples, or the springiest flow ever? Or is it that, when Tip says he’s “got that get it,” they don’t get what he’s getting at? No matter—critics mean nothing to the Southern rap monarchy anyway.
Drum’s Not Dead
The “no-guitars” record has become the concept album of our age. With Kid A, Radiohead used one to reinvent itself. With Drum’s Not Dead, New York’s Liars take on the whole genre of postpostpunk. So what does ditching the wiry skree get them? Tribal rhythms and lysergic textures that are refreshingly closer to Silver Apples than to Gang of Four.
The frenetic falsetto has been a disco-singer standby since the Bee Gees. But at least one dance-pop duo is challenging the genre’s annoyingly effervescent vocal style. On their third album, Bath’s clubbiest kids bring frothy synth lines and light-as-air lyrics down to earth with Alison Goldfrapp’s alto purr. Once you hear her breathe, “Switch me on/Turn me up,” you’ll never look at Kylie again.
What a strange song of the summer this turned out to be—an apt soundtrack for carnage in Iraq, birds threatening apocalypse, and David Spade hooking up with Heather Locklear. With its wistful lyrics and sampled strings menaced by underlying white noise, this was as likely to wreck a wedding reception as make you cry on the subway. Does that make us crazy for loving it? Possibly.
Brightblack Morning Light
“Minimalistic” is the wrong word to describe Brightblack Morning Light, because minimalism makes you ask questions such as “What’s missing?” and “Why is it missing?” The band’s hushed, breathy, and surprisingly soulful songs don’t appeal to such logic. Instead, they hover at the edge of the Memphis sound, conjuring gritty, fully formed little narratives. This is exactly what the Cat Power record should have sounded like.
Based on a True Story
Got a reggae jones—and a taco-sized joint—but can’t stand the sorry state of mainstream dub? You’re probably who Fat Freddys Drop had in mind when it put together the sound on its debut studio LP. The Wellington, New Zealand, septet drops the drummer, adds a DJ, and dials the tempos down past geologic, all while holding on to a Wailers-deep pocket. Consider yourself glazed.
From trip-hoppers to indie poppers, most shoegaze revivalists focus on the blissful bits, forgetting that the genre’s best songs were equal parts sweet dream and head-fucking nightmare. What makes Justin Broadrick such a successful ‘gaze resuscitator must be his metal pedigree: Leave it to a guy who was in Godflesh to remind us that My Bloody Valentine copped its name from a slasher flick.
—David Dunlap Jr.
There’s no getting around it: Comets on Fire pine for a past that’s not their own. But on Avatar, the best jam record since the Grateful Dead turned into Crosby, Stills & Nash, the California quintet makes up in charisma what it lacks in modernity. Here, more than on any other release, the Comets prove they can sell what’s already been sold.
Why won’t anyone blog about Rod Stewart?
By Joe Warminsky
There is plenty to hate about music blogs: the snobbish attention to the obscure, the pissing matches, the breakneck pace of the tastemaking, and the overall shortage of deep analysis. But I read ’em, of course, because I don’t want to be left out. I like arguments about music. I like downloading unreleased tracks for free. I’m a music geek—and geeks seek validation by other geeks.
I’m just jealous that they didn’t have this shit when I was 23.
When I was fresh out of college in 1994 with an English degree and few decent clips, my only outlets were a couple of zines and the local daily—a mid-size Pennsylvania paper that I still write for. Back then I reviewed death metal and Alan Parsons, hip-hop and Disney soundtracks, indie rock and country “hat” acts. I’ve plowed through stacks of bad-to-mediocre CDs, and I’ve tried to keep up with the Billboard 200. Even though I’ve specialized more and more lately (particularly with hip-hop), I see the critic’s duty as one of self-sacrifice: Every record deserves at least one thoughtful listen, even if it’s the most commercially calculated piece of crap on the planet. Somebody has to set the world straight.
So, yeah, I’m a codger of sorts. I have a soft spot for intelligent reviews of uncool stuff. But as the blogosphere becomes the predominant place for people to read smart and vital coverage of music, there is proportionally less coverage of the uncool. I think the Web could use a few more musical omnivores. How many bloggers were willing to delve into Rod Stewart’s discs of cover songs? How many trendy sites treated Hinder’s hard rock as anything but a joke? When was the last time crooner Michael Bublé’s name popped up on an elite music blog, followed by careful exegesis? Would soul man Gerald Levert have gathered any attention from hipsters if he hadn’t passed away this year?
Don’t get me wrong—I fully embrace what the blogosphere does provide. It’s essentially a broad, asymmetric rebellion against the SoundScan regime and the stodgy business plans of the major record labels. Blogs offer what good fanzines used to offer: stylistic detours, obsessive detail, contrarian viewpoints, and a secondary economy that allows overlooked musicians to flourish, at least on a small scale. There isn’t much money in it, and it’s mostly done for love—or at least for the validation of other geeks. Alternative weekly newspapers like this one have long filled that role, too.
The problem is that—when compared to the worlds of zines or alt-weeklies—the blogosphere often feels like an arms race. Sites battle one another, writers battle commenters, commenters flame one another, and back up the chain again. An album like Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, the No. 1 disc on the Washington City Paper’s critics poll, spurred so much good online commentary that I decided to scrap my review of it for the CP. Within a week of the disc’s release, it seemed as though every angle was covered. And that was just because of the debate on one site, Oliver Wang’s popular Soul Sides. (Never mind the fact that it was impossible to get a jump on the blogs. Clipse and its record label were so protective of the disc that advance listens were almost nonexistent until it inevitably leaked online two weeks before its release; those leaks had been thoroughly digested long before less savvy fans could hear the album.)
In the meantime, large chunks of the album charts have gone unnoticed by the most influential music blogs, an ever-growing group that includes, in no particular order: Stereogum, Fluxblog, Cokemachineglow, Pitchfork, Said the Gramophone, Music for Robots, BrooklynVegan, Gorilla vs. Bear, and the e-mail publication Flavorpill. Yeah, sure, they’ll sometimes write in-depth about the hottest popsters—the Timberlakes, the Stefanis, the Furtados, the Beyoncés—because those artists make concerted efforts to appeal to sophisticated listeners. But a scan of the current Billboard 200 shows numerous acts who would only get passing mentions by the elites: Chris Daughtry, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Killswitch Engage, James Blunt, +44, and Rascall Flatts, just to name a few. When a popular, ostensibly unremarkable band does manage to irritate the famous blogs, it’s often on the receiving end of the nuclear option. The new album by Jet—often dismissed as a simplistic, untalented garage-rock act—received a Shark Sandwich–style review from Pitchfork: No text, just a video of a monkey pissing on itself. Funny, sure, but empty, too.
So why aren’t those best-selling performers getting much coverage? Brian Raftery of Idolator, a music site owned by Gawker Media (which also owns several popular gossip sites) that has broader tastes than many of its competitors, writes in an e-mail that age is a big factor.
“While I hate to make generalizations about the music blogosphere, it is, for the most part, run by people who are still in their teens and twenties,” Raftery writes. “There are older music bloggers, of course—I’m 31, which is verging on brontosaurial in this world—but it is a young medium, with young writers. And the fact is, when you’re in college or high school, you are immediately supposed to reject anything that’s old, *and* anything that’s popular. So a Rod Stewart covers record has close to zero odds of being taken seriously—much less getting covered—in the music blogs.”
Of course, there are still thousands and thousands of words about uncool artists written online every day: Amazon, MySpace, and iTunes are filled with commentary by fans; NPR, Slate, Salon, and daily newspapers still do extensive coverage of music; Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and Blender have significant Web presences; and a few all-things-considered music sites appear to be thriving, including Popmatters and USA Today’s Pop Candy blog. (And when all else fails, there’s always All Music Guide.)
But is anybody forcing the average indie-obsessed young’un to stretch, to suffer through the process of writing about an uncool record, because he or she might have something fresh to say about a stale artist? It doesn’t appear so. The easiest knock against bloggers is that they lack editors. But the core issue isn’t that they need someone to tighten their prose. It’s that there’s no secondary voice saying, “You’re ignoring a wide swath of the culture, one that could teach you a lot about the music you already care about.” So while the blogs fight it out, looking to surprise one another with the depths of their coolness, I’ll be waiting for even bigger surprises: some intelligent, insightful writing about sucky, best-selling records. Maybe I’ll even try doing some more of it myself.CP
Kill Your Darlings
Tapes ‘n Tapes, R.I.P.
By Jason Cherkis
By the time you finish reading this, you will be done with a band called Tapes ‘n Tapes. If not, well, you were done with it months ago.
It is through no fault of Tapes ‘n Tapes. It simply released a debut album called The Loon. There will surely be at least one more album to follow from this nebbishy Minneapolis band. But no one will care. Why? Because it will be 2007.
The Tapes ‘n Tapes love affair started on Nov. 3, 2005, when respected blog Music for Robots posted a mash note devoted to the arrival of The Loon. “So today, we need to turn our joyous ears towards the frosty streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota to hear the current most amazing band in the world,” it gushed, posting an MP3 of the band’s song “Insistor.”
The same day, the blog Gorilla vs. Bear posted its ode to the glory of Tapes ‘n Tapes. “I got an e-mail from the band’s manager saying it would be cool if I featured a couple of the new tracks,” the blogger wrote. “So if you take anything away from this post, it should be that Tapes ‘n Tapes is really, really awesome.”
Blogger BadmintonStamps’ mixed review of Tapes ‘n Tapes’ Jan. 11, 2006, show (“While there were some less-than-stellar moments, the hits definitely outnumbered the misses”), did little to stall the hype. On Feb. 28, Pitchfork bestowed a coveted 8.3 rating on The Loon. In April, the group signed to XL Recordings—home to the White Stripes, Thom Yorke, and Devendra Banhart—which reissued The Loon.
On June 6, Sia Michel kinda panned a Tapes ‘n Tapes live show in the New York Times: “The band has all the buzz it could want, but it still lacks the confidence to develop a complex live identity of its own,” she wrote. Stereogum fired back at Michel (“Ex-Spinner Sia Michel knows it was blogs that rendered her former stomping grounds irrelevant”), and its readers did the same—except commenter “JT,” who claimed he didn’t “get the hubbub for that tapes crew…not that it’s bad, just boring.”
JT didn’t necessarily start the hate. But the hate spread like a virus. On June 7, a poster to Brooklynvegan wrote of Tapes ‘n Tapes: “am i the only one who really doesn’t understand what’s so special about this band?” In July, influential blog Said the Gramophone succumbed, too: “I have no love whatever for Tapes ‘n Tapes,” the blogger wrote. By the end of the month, the band had appeared on Late Night With David Letterman.
On Sept. 20, Stereogum kinda mocked Tapes ‘n Tapes’ inclusion in some MTVU programming gambit. Readers did the same.
Tapes ‘n Tapes soon found itself way down in blogger year-end polls. BrooklynVegan dumped The Loon at the bottom of its Top 40 list. It failed to crack More Cowbell’s Top 20. And suddenly, Tapes ‘n Tapes found itself shit on in its own hometown. A poster at Metacritic wrote: “Kind of fun to listen to. But grossly overrated and overhyped and not really that great.” Then he went in for the kill: “I’ve lived in the Twin CIties my whole life so I feel some hometown obligation to love and push this record but I can’t do it. Too much of a rip off. Most of them aren’t even from here anyways ;)”
On Dec. 23, local blogger Nice-N-DC slammed Washington City Paper for doing this story, which it claimed “was already diagrammed in Rolling Stone months ago” and declared the paper’s old-media ways “typical.”—Jason Cherkis
Opening the Drawer of Death
We exiled these CDs without playing them. Were we wrong?
By Jason Cherkis and Aaron Leitko
Every unopened promotional CD contains a promise. Maybe this is the album that will change us, you, forever. Sadly, the massive amount of promos the Washington City Paper receives every week necessitates a brutal weeding-out process. We can’t possibly listen to every smooth-jazz crooner with dreams of playing Wolf Trap. Nor will we review any album by an ex-Doors member. Ever. So over the past year, we created a “Drawer of Death”—a repository for unopened albums we suspect contain zero promise of greatness. A week ago, we decided to open the drawer, give these albums a listen, and see if we were right.—Jason Cherkis and Aaron Leitko
Description: The girl from The Wizard grows up to be in Rilo Kiley. The kids from Children of the Corn grow up to play campy hayseed rock.
Reason: You’re stuck at a party you don’t want to be at. You have a headache instead of a buzz. You don’t know how to get home. This is the band that’s playing.
Breaking Down the Silence
Description: coffeeshop pop with relatively inoffensive smooth-jazz textures
Reason: Guy closes his eyes and dreams of the day he opens for Rusted Root. Dream seems not so unrealistic. Why crush this dream?
Heavy Metal Spoken Word
Duncan Wilder Johnson
Description: Jack Black without the subtlety
Reason: Recites an “e-mail” to more famous spoken-word artist Henry Rollins: “How could you rip me off like that?”
Love Her Madly
Description: New Age–y tunes worthy of the Discovery Store’s CD racks made even worse with turgid organ work
Reason: Every time you pass Jordan Kitts Music at Montgomery Mall, you hear this.
Tarzan: The Broadway Musical
Description: Imagine “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with djembe drums.
Reason: Some NYU performing-arts grad is gonna be able to pay off a third of her student loans by appearing on this record.
Description: You might hear this at the Foggy Bottom Metro stop on Mondays at 2 p.m.
Reason: You can’t even fuck to this.
Steven Seagal & Thunderbox
Description: Former action star plays and sings Chicago-style blues. One song is called “Talk to My Ass.”
Drawer-worthy? Oh, yes
Reason: Is it better than your average South Suburbs bar band’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago”? Probably, but it still makes Jim Belushi seem like Howlin’ Wolf.
Description: stoopid punk rawk
Reason: For all its thrashiness and white-trash jokes, still the most depressing record in entire death drawer.
Barbie Hit Mix 2
Description: kid-safe versions of overplayed pop songs
Reason: Liner notes include a game where you can name your band by choosing from a series of multiple-choice questions. Liner notes tell us our band must be called Cool Diva Power because our favorite color is blue, we like cats, and we like hip-hop. But who is Barbie to call us divas?
Description: Pixies battling the Refreshments. It’s sort of promising before the singer takes to the mic.
Reason: Album cover depicts a chili pepper wearing a sombrero. CP
High Pain Drifters
Move over, Alistair Crowley: Cormac McCarthy is the new patron saint of heavy metal
By Brent Burton
Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley had just finished rereading one of his favorite novels when he was quoted in a Sept. 18, 2005, New York Times article called “Heavy Metal Gets an M.F.A.” The piece argues, in part, that recent tributes to Melville, Tolkien, and Dante (by literate thrashers Mastodon, Blind Guardian, and Sepultura, respectively) are signs of the genre’s emergent eccentricity. Point made: Metal isn’t just for knuckle-draggers anymore. But, if recent homages are any measure, the article’s author, music critic Jon Caramanica, missed out on one of M.F.A.-metal’s most beloved novelists. Had he checked O’Malley’s Web site a few days beforehand, he could’ve read another article from the Times, this one from 1992, titled “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction.”
In some ways, McCarthy is the perfect author for the hell-in-spectacles set. Best known for All the Pretty Horses, a 1992 bestseller that was later made into a Matt Damon flick, the reclusive 73-year-old often fills his male-centric novels with violent imagery. At the beginning of last year’s No Country for Old Men, for example, McCarthy depicts a jailbreak that culminates with the strangulation of a Texas lawman. “The deputy’s right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it,” McCarthy writes. “The deputy’s legs slowed and then stopped. He lay jerking. Then he stopped moving altogether.”
McCarthy’s account, in the same novel, of a shotgun’s sound—like someone “coughing into a barrel”—is also a good description of the riffs made by Burning Witch, a late-’90s doom-metal act that featured O’Malley and bassist G. Stuart Dahlquist, who later formed the band Asva. O’Malley says that Dahlquist turned him on to McCarthy when Burning Witch began to experiment with standard notions of tempo and time. The book that Dahlquist recommended—the one that, in 2005, O’Malley would revisit—was Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, a 1985 novel about a mid-19th-century gang that hunts Indians near the Mexican border. At the time he wrote it, McCarthy was still churning out seemingly endless sentences that owed a major debt to fellow Southerner William Faulkner. It was that “long-form descriptive writing and lack of punctuation,” O’Malley says, that inspired him to “try other structures.”
Not only did he try, he more or less abandoned what he calls the “normal construct of metal.” All of O’Malley’s subsequent bands—Sunn O))), Khanate, and too many others to mention—stretch power chords to the limit, slowing doom to the point where it turns into drone. A reader might experience a similar suspension of time when, in Blood Meridian, the protagonist, a character known only as “the kid,” approaches the scene of the novel’s final bloodbath. “In the afternoon he rode through the McKenzie crossing of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River,” McCarthy writes, “and he and the horse walked side by side down the twilight toward the town where in the long red dusk and in the darkness the random aggregate of the lamps formed slowly a false shore of hospice cradled on the low plain before them.”
When asked why McCarthy makes such a strong impression on headbangers—especially those who eschew vocals—Dahlquist suggests that imagery might be just as important as structure. “If I get something in my head,” he says, “maybe someone else will, as well.” Dylan Carlson, the man behind drone-metal act Earth, a band that once featured Kurt Cobain, would no doubt agree. Sidelined for years by drugs—O’Malley claims Carlson “cheated death,” just like a character in a McCarthy novel—Carlson reemerged in late 2005 with the all-instrumental Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, an album based on—you guessed it—Blood Meridian. “[T]his book was the strongest invocation of the real American West I had ever encountered outside of a straight historical text,” Carlson said in an interview with British webzine Metal Chaos.
McCarthy’s evocation of the frontier is also the basis for the more countrified sound that Carlson contributes to Altar, Sunn O)))’s 2006 collaboration with Japanese power trio Boris. Carlson appears on the half-hour “prelude” disc’s “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom” and, despite his less-than-overdriven sound, blends effortlessly with Sunn O))) and Boris’ dark yet soothing drone. Matt Camirand, bassist for stoner-metal act Black Mountain, takes a similar—or at least Hex-like—tack on 2006’s Kick Up the Dust, the latest from his side project called, wait for it…Blood Meridian. But, for the most part, metalheads tend to focus on the more horrific aspects of McCarthy’s fiction. The Capricorns, for instance, borrow the title of 2006’s Ruder Forms Survive, an album of rough-and-tumble instrumental metal, from the opening chapter of 1979’s Suttree, McCarthy’s funniest and most placid novel.
Those in search of grim images will find even more to like in McCarthy’s latest, 2006’s The Road. Set somewhere in a post-apocalyptic America, the book follows a father and his young son as they struggle to find food and fend off those who would regard them as food. The Road, which was released in September and spent a month and a half on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list, has already gotten props from the art-metal elite. O’Malley celebrates it as a “genre novel that transcends genre.” Dahlquist says that the book’s cold, bleak landscape is an “ideal canvas” for McCarthy; according to O’Malley, Isis frontman Aaron Turner is a fan as well.
It’s probably only a matter of time before some bunch of metal-obsessed fine-arts students christen their band The Road or title an album On the Gray Snow a Fine Mist of Blood, one of any number of evocative phrases from McCarthy’s first foray into the future. Just as its author is perhaps the perfect novelist for this crowd, The Road is perhaps its ideal novel. The book’s setting is McCarthy’s most dreadful yet (“No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust.”). And its prose—simple but elegant—should speak to those who whittle away at metal’s most garish excesses. The novel, too, ends on an optimistic note. Somehow, amid all the brittle corpses and burnt-out hulls, McCarthy locates some trace of humanity, some sense of possibility. Like Altar or Isis’ latest, In the Absence of Truth, it uses darkness not as an end unto itself but as a way to elevate the light. There’s no less venom. There’s just more hope.CP
Stepping Over the Line
Songs like Chicken Noodle Soup aren’t killing hip-hop-because they’re not hip-hop.
By Sarah Godfrey
In 1998, Goodie Mob lamented that people don’t dance no mo’. But last month, the first-ever BET Hip-Hop Awards included a category that has never been featured on any of the many different award shows hosted by the network—“Best Hip-Hop Dance.” And the nominees were:
Shoulder Lean, a self-explanatory move executed by Atlanta rapper Young Dro, with assistance from T.I.; Hyphy, a Bay Area herky-jerk; the Motorcycle, a handle bar-twisting maneuver popularized by Yung Joc and Diddy, the Chicken Noodle Soup, a spastic bit of choreography introduced by Harlem’s DJ Webstar and Young B, who have a single by the same name; and Snap, the oldest of the dance crazes, which actually includes multiple variations on the same basic dance. The winner was Snap, but crowning any single dance movement as the best of this year matters less than the fact that there were enough dances to inspire any sort of competition.
Blogger and XXL.com contributor Byron Crawford has dubbed the trend of dance-driven rap “minstrel show rap.” He was the first to point out that the smash “Chain Hang Low,” by Missouri rapper Jibbs, big-ups flashy jewelry over the melody from “Turkey in the Straw,” also known as “Zip Coon,” a 19thcentury minstrel-show favorite. Crawford has lumped “Chicken Noodle Soup,” as well as other tracks that seem to be built around present-day shuckin’ and jivin’ (such as “Fry That Chicken,” by cross-dressing country pied piper Ms. Peachez), in the same category. “[R]ecord labels are rushing out to sign the most coon-like negros they can find,” Crawford laments in a post called “Black People: WTF?” Earlier this month, the Baltimore Sun ran a piece on dance rap called “Can Blackface Be Far Behind?”
Others don’t believe the dance-rap trend to be quite that insidious but think it lacks substance and is contributing to the long-predicted death of hip-hop. On his acclaimed disc Fishscale, Ghostface takes a shot at the club track “Laffy Taffy” from break-out group D4L (My arts is crafty darts/While y’all stuck on Laffy Taffy/Wonderin’ how did y’all niggas get past me”). On “It’s Okay (One Blood),” the first single from Game’s Doctor’s Advocate, he, too, takes a swipe at snap music (a knock, it should be noted, that he omitted from his performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards).
Whether you believe that songs like “Chicken Noodle Soup” are dangerous, buffoonish contributions to rap or see the trend as merely the newest nail in hip-hop’s coffin, your argument is fundamentally flawed. Those songs shouldn’t be debated in the context of hip-hop, because they aren’t hip-hop—they’re dance music. Offensive dance music, maybe. Mindless dance music, perhaps, but dance music nonetheless, songs whose only connection to hip-hop is the fact that its artists tend to rap rather than sing.
That’s not to say that “dance rap shouldn’t be scrutinized by hip-hoppers if it drops the “rap.” Its social implications still impact hip-hop, but it shouldn’t be discussed from a position of ownership.
In fact, relabeling dance rap as simply dance is in the interest not only of people who hate the stuff but also of the offending artists themselves. For instance, Diddy’s latest, Press Play, is an abysmal rap album, but it’s pretty damn good as far as dance records go. His big smash, the Pussycat Doll–featuring single “Come to Me,” is sugary and overdone by rap standards, but damn, can it fill a dance floor.
Even better, artists who are blasted for making the most ignorant, base records imaginable might find a more welcoming community within dance. Dance artists get away with offensive lyrics all the time in the name of making the club (or, more specifically, the strip club) jump, while hip-hop is held to a higher standard of accountability. Ever heard of “ghetto-tech” faves “Ho’s Take Your Clothes Off” or “Ass-n-Titties”? Probably not—explicit dance music isn’t popular enough to inspire hand-wringing; Bill O’Reilly and Oprah couldn’t care less about Disco D or DJ Assault. Dance is played in clubs—not on popular radio stations—for the enjoyment of adults. No one cares about the music’s social impact—dance doesn’t have a huge political past to live up to, and its stars aren’t heroic role models with movie gigs and clothing companies. Look at Uncle Luke—his Miami bass raunch only became banned in the USA after it was branded rap.
The problem, of course, is that separating dance rap from the rest of hip-hop could decimate already weak hip-hop sales (see sidebar). This year, “Laffy Taffy” set a new record for one-week sales of a single download. If the fluff of D4L were categorized as dance rather than rap, it would make the relative commercial failures of albums like Fishscale, and by extension poor sales across the board for much quality hip-hop, all the more apparent. Although it makes more sense to compare the success of D4L to dance-inclined R&B artists such as Ciara or popsters such as Gwen Stefani, lumping dance rap in with hip-hop has extended hip-hop’s chart dominance—even if only on paper.
Still, for the long-term good of the genre, it’s time for hip-hop artists, critics, and fans to start handling their business like their rock counterparts do: Whenever a new strain of music crops up that they don’t like, they isolate it, ostracize it, give it a name that completely distances it from rock, and then proceed to ignore it. If that fails, there’s nothing wrong with a little shifting of blame. Vapid tracks such as “Chicken Noodle Soup” should be pop’s problem. They’re used to dealing with that sort of thing. CP
Blahs for Dixie
Southern hip-hop sold poorly in 2006-and still put the coasts to shame.
By David Dunlap Jr.
The best hip-hop moment of 2006 came when Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.” Juicy J, DJ Paul, and compatriot Frayser Boy seemed as surprised as anybody when the Hustle and Flow anthem got the statue, jumping up and down and gleefully shouting out their hometown of Memphis, Tenn. It was a decidedly un-street way to behave, and it was great. But that was back in March, in celebration of a song from 2005. And it’s been downhill for hip-hop ever since.
The numbers are as good a place as any to start the buzzkill. There’s been only a handful of platinum hip-hop albums this year, and, even then, T.I. and Ludacris have only creeped past the mark. Last year, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, even the Black Eyed Peas all sold at least 2 million records—50 leading the way with 4.85 million copies of The Massacre. None of this year’s most likely offerings from the West Coast—Ice Cube’s Laugh Now, Cry Later, Snoop Dogg’s Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, the Game’s Doctor’s Advocate—have even come close. Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come had an enormous opening week, selling 680,000 copies, and has struggled ever since. OutKast’s period-piece curveball Idlewild, which was released in August, hasn’t even gone gold.
Even stats geeks would agree that those digits don’t tell the whole story—singles and ringtone sales have been strong. And while it’s hard to find a signature rap release of 2006, there have been plenty of solid records, at least down South.
Atlanta’s T.I. stepped up for his hometown with King., the best of his young career. “What You Know,” with its insanely catchy ornate hook and his elongated enunciation, was the best rap single of the year. Nawlin’s Lil’ Wayne teamed up with his surrogate father, Birdman, for the hit “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” and found the time to release several legendary mixtapes and guest on multiple singles and remixes, including “Hollywood Divorce,” one of the few standout tracks on Idlewild. Even the career of Bubba Sparxxx, Georgia’s favorite hick-hop whipping boy, enjoyed a stay of execution when “Ms. New Booty,” his pin-cushion-themed dance-rap song, had surprising success as a club hit.
The South has also expanded its regional boundaries. In the past years, Southern hip-hop was centered on Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, and Memphis. This year has seen the resurgence of Miami rap, thanks to Pitbull, DJ Khaled, and Rick Ross. Clipse and high-school collaborator Pharrell Williams have helped bump up the profile of the Virginia Beach area.
So why has the South (relatively) sizzled while the rest of the country fizzled? Most successful Southern hip-hoppers still operate under the same models that they did when they were underground independent artists. They understand how hard they have had to work and how lucky they had to be to get where they are. Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, the year’s most critically acclaimed album, is a perfect example: The group’s sophomore LP got lost in the shuffle when Arista, their original label, was absorbed by Jive/Zomba, which kept delaying the record in favor of more commercial acts. (It might have been a smart move: Hell Hath No Fury’s sales faded 70 percent in its second week of release.) While Jay-Z boasts of his riches, Clipse sings about “Riding around shining while I can afford it.” This sign of gratitude is charming and endearing. It’s just enough to give you hope for the future of hip-hop.—David Dunlap Jr.
Yule Be Sorry
A 2006 Christmas-music roundup
By Andrew Beaujon
There are plenty of things to be ashamed of when taking stock of the year: past support for the war in Iraq, not caring about dirty instant messages to congressional pages, clicking on those photos of Britney’s hoo-ha. Loving Christmas music doesn’t have to be one of those things—you just need to look at each season’s yuletide offerings with a critical eye, if only to make sure you keep mistletoe where it can’t hurt you.—Andrew Beaujon
Acoustic Hearts of Winter
Aly & AJ
If anyone could scrub Christmas of its pagan roots, it’s a pair of tween-pop evolution skeptics. The arrangements are pathologically cute, but the Michalka gals’ clean is so squeaky that they feel less like a possibly genetically engineered pop act than like a newly opened front in the War on the War on Christmas. The two mall-rockin’ originals—“Greatest Time of Year” and “Not This Year”—are as difficult to tell apart as their (non-twin) authors.
A Classic Christmas
Most Christmas records look to make a quick buck via novelty—Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island, I am thinking specifically of the money I spent on you—but Wynonna makes a grab for shelf space near keepers such as the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song with thick string arrangements, orthodox song choices, and a way-toned-down twang. The album’s not quite the classic it aims to be, but its outta-left-field version of “Ave Maria” is stunning.
A Dipset Christmas
“I wanted to make a Christmas album for kids in the ’hood and shit like that,” muses Capo in the liner notes. But the holiday cheer doesn’t stop there! Enjoy “Ballin’ on Xmas,” basically Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” updated with “realer” rhymes such as “I never seen Santa, no elves/I saw a couple of mans go to jail” and “I wanna kiss her like I got a mistletoe in my pants.” Ouch!
Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas
The Chosen People’s contribution to Christmas music is often overlooked, often undeservedly (“White Christmas” and “Let It Snow”: written by Jews!), sometimes entirely appropriately (Neil Diamond’s Christmas albums). This album is pretty much what it promises—frenetic, modal, clarinet-driven takes on holiday classics, with only one klutz-kache: the Catskills-worthy “Santa Gey Gezunderheit,” in which a guy in the shmatte trade admires the old elf’s work ethic.
Songs for Christmas Singalong
Are indie rockers who both love God and can tackle “Silent Night” with ironic distance the future of this music? The only holiday record in the last decade that I’ve loved as much as Low’s 1999 Christmas EP is this set of five discs, originally shared only with Stevens’ family and friends. The big canvas gives him plenty of room to play—Renaissance carols, goofy originals, and more than a few moments of mouth-open beauty, such as the banjo-ed up non-Christmas hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
It’s hard not to feel like you’re writing a staff pick at Borders when discussing such blatantly grown-up-oriented product, but it’s refreshing that McLachlan doesn’t try to do definitive versions of songs everyone’s heard a billion times, instead choosing nontraditional numbers that evoke the season, like Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night.” Her cover of A Charlie Brown Christmas’ “Christmastime Is Here” reminds me why I love Christmas music—you just can’t be cynical about the good stuff.
A Twisted Christmas
Razor & Tie
The joke is nearly exhausted by the time you’ve scanned the cover art, and if you’ve ever wondered whether the melody for “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” would slot in perfectly with the group’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” well, wonder no more. The band members look like Christmas sweaters come to life, but the plodding music is anything but festive—a better soundtrack for a Boxing Day headache than pre-holiday festivities.
Worship Jamz Christmas
Razor & Tie
Someday I’m gonna get a master’s by proving how much contemporary worship music (Christian rock intended for use during church services) owes to gay dance music, with its bubbling synths, stuttering snares, and guitar loops, but I think I’ll just go for the easy joke: Do you think anyone at Ted Haggard’s house is singing “Ding Dong Merrily on High” this yuletide? Until the Saturday Night Live Christmas song “Dick in a Box” is released as a single, this recording will have to do.
At this point in his career, Billy Idol has to choose between winking at his punch-line status or balls-out desperation. Or does he? The self-released Happy Holidays is equal parts astute song choices (“Run Rudolph Run,” “Merry Christmas Baby”) and deep, deep pathos (suspiciously tight skin in the cover photo; most of the instruments are played by one guy). The previously unexplored avuncular quality of Idol’s voice pulls this into the win column.
Rachael Ray How Cool Is That Christmas
A perfectly serviceable compilation distinguished solely by its inclusion of a record of one of the weirdest moments in television history: the 1977 meeting of pansexual British glam icon David Bowie and pipe-smoking, child-beating “White Christmas” crooner Bing Crosby for a duet of “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.” The recording is as stubbornly saccharine and touching as the holiday it celebrates.CP