I'm getting pretty comfortable with my Top Twenty list for the year, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to offer some CHALLENGING OPINIONS about some of the year's best music.
KANYE v. DIDDY IN THE BATTLE FOR MEGA-LOL-MANIAC OF THE YEAR
Lex also mentioned this on ILM, but Diddy Dirty Money's Last Train to Paris is about as kaleidoscopic (and as dark) as Kanye's album and boasts a pretty impressive guest list. The difference in a nutshell is that Diddy aims for mildly eclectic competence and exceeds it, while Kanye aims for mad scientist greatness and misses it. Kanye wanted Who Framed Roger Rabbit and he got Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. This is Space Jam -- not aiming too high, but better than it has any right to be. Diddy Dirty Money hasn't impressed me much with live appearances or former glimpses, but like MBDTF this album is a little sprawling and a little "difficult." But DDM beats Kanye in the "motherfucker" contest on "Ass on the Floor," beats him in the overlong/overstuffed contest (Lil' Wayne does a VHS porno parody of Gil Scott Heron while Justin Timberlake, acting the Drake, does the hashtag-rapping on ponderous "Shades"), beats him in the robo-emo contest (which, admittedly, Kanye's basically over by now) on "Strobe Lights." And it's ten minutes shorter! And Grace Jones is on it, though I'm pretty sure she's a back-up singer! And Chris Brown and Drake's presences aren't actively offensive (in their own respective ways). Did I mention that, unlike some egomaniacs, Diddy often lets himself be a featured artist on his own album? Still, jury's out on which one I actually like more.
KELIS, KE$HA, AND MARINA VERSUS OTHER WOMEN WITH "THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THINGS"
By sheer virtue of over-saturation, my tolerance for semi-clever female singer-songwriter material with kitchen sink production was pretty low this year. Marina and the Diamonds' tactic of creating a slightly absurd but generally tasteful frame for Marina's obtuseness puts her inanity at a certain distance -- "LOOK AT YOU GURLS EATING YOUR YOGURT WHILE I EAT PIE THPTH THPTH THPTH" is pretty grating as genuine sentiment, but the band's cheesy sci-fi oompah-pah turns her into a cartoon -- as earnest as I suspect Marina is, she's drawn without nuance and our attention turns to the setting as much as the words.
She's not unlike Ke$ha in that respect, serving as trashy superhero/ringleader to a very different style of swirling production. And this sense that the cacophony is as, if not more, important in the end takes the focus off of Marina herself; her voice and her words are part of the set. Lily Allen's last album did something like this, but Lily Allen actually has a few smart things to say, and the album's unevenness was in part due to the fact that when she did say smart things (on "Chinese" and "Not Fair" and "22"), she set the bar higher for herself than for the production (better than on her first album, which is more of a set piece, having finally listened to it a few times belatedly). But Marina sets the bar low low low, so low it's just sitting there on the stage with everything else.
The trick of Kelis's album -- my #1, two spots ahead of Marina and one ahead of Ke$ha -- is that she's set the bar much higher than it appears. If you do enjoy the setting, those zeitgeisty Guettascapes and super-obvious house tracks -- which I'll admit a certain fondness for whether it's via Black Eyed Peas or the Guetta sound board for "Sexy Bitch," possibly because of how uninformed I am about dance music generally -- you slowly start to discover how sweet and thoughtful much of the album is. The secret to clicking for me, as it appeared to be for Jessica Hopper, who also votes Kelis #1, was "Song for the Baby."
DREAM IMITATORS VERSUS THE-DREAM
I was disappointed by The-Dream's third album only to the extent that my expectations for it followed loving Love vs. Money and finally "getting" Love/Hate, which I now consider to be almost as good as LvM. Love King has the same scattered genius feel of Love/Hate, but it also wants to thrill us with occasional cohesion; it's also stretched thinner, and he's done a lot of this stuff better before ("Love King" vs. "Shawty Is the Shit"; "Abyss" suite versus "Love vs. Money" suite), which isn't to say that the new stuff isn't good. Just that it's not what I needed from The-Dream this year, since I still listen to his first two albums pretty regularly.
Enter Trey Songz, who probably has his own R. Kelly fetish (eek, WORD CHOICE) but also expresses it through what The-Dream has done with his. He never really peaks on Passion, Pleasure, Pain, so he's not in the same company as The-Dream. But seen as a transparent derivative, he delivers the generic (in the genre, not pejorative, sense) goods. He rips directly -- on "Love Faces," it's the descending trademark Dream first-inversion major chord ("take 'em off, take 'em off, take 'em off"), the multitracked passion swarm ("hands around ya! hands around ya!") then imagining sweating out his lover's hair. But Trey also has a more traditional R&B crooner voice -- no other tricks than an occasional (weak) falsetto and effective vibrato. He even pays lip service to the idea of a song suite without making it explicit in content or transitions -- first four tracks go from imagined love-making to the ride home, into the garage, then (woops) "Bottoms Up," which throws the seduction totally off-track -- Trey spends the next three songs apologizing. "I know you're angry -- no, no, better yet, disappointed." And then the album gets more diffuse, with a particularly hilarious sub-Dream number, "Red Lipstick" (I guess he thought "Purple Kisses" wasn't direct enough?) and vagues out by the last couple tracks as a solid genre album should.
What I like about it is that it's not so much warts-and-all (as Love King is) as it is a couple of blemishes here and there that you could complain about but why bother? Which would explain the weird "rain on the windshield" effect on the album art, too, the closest an R&B male can get to soft focus, I guess. Some anticipated albums were a little too generic -- Jazmine Sullivan's range seems oddly limited on her new one; R. Kelly could sing the phone book reasonably well, but that doesn't mean that he should; Sharon Jones and Aloe Blacc put out dependable retro-fetishist albums that I'll listen to more frequently than their ranking on a 2010 list would suggest. Ciara's new look (with The-Dream) seems a little incongruous and I'm reminded of Mariah Carey's work with him, which wasn't bad technically speaking but something just seemed a little off. Meanwhile, Mariah's doing her best work (or at least most consistent and fitting work) by slathering on some kitsch on a Christmas album, which I bought impulsively full price at Whole Foods for some bizarre reason. In some ways Nicki Minaj's album is half of a pretty solid R&B effort, but I don't like the whiplash.
CAST OF THOUSANDS, BUT EVERYONE IS JUST KINDA STANDING AROUND
There were a ton of low-key "Producer and Friends" albums that came out this year with relatively little fanfare -- Dave Sitek's Maximum Balloon, UNKLE's Where Did the Night Fall, Massive Attack's Heligoland. Any of these would easily take a c. 15-20 spot on my list this year, and the winner goes (somewhat arbitrarily) to Maximum Balloon, probably because it's the one I'm currently listening to the most. I listened to Heligoland quite a bit at the beginning of the year and UNKLE's album quite a bit until recently. But none of these albums really stay in the memory very long -- they've got guests upon guests, some high profile. Katrina Ford appears on good tracks on two of them (MB's "Young Love" and UNKLE's "Caged Bird"). I include all of them here because I doubt anyone will remember any of them after too long.
GIRLICIOUS VERSUS RIHANNA
And finally, hoar-pop's doe-eyed Stupid Shits have recorded their second album before overseer Nicole Scherzinger has finished her first one ("Poison" is pretty great, though). And, unexpectedly, it's mostly dance melancholia in the post-Blackout vein, most obviously indebted to Rihanna. It's basically the halfway point between Rated R and Loud, in which Girlicious keep a little of the introspection while opting for dance-into-oblivion hooks. And they do some interesting stuff here, like interpolating ATC's "Around the World" (that would make them the second group I'm aware of to do it this year, after jj did it on Game/Lil Wayne semi-cover "My Life") and then basically admitting that that song's hook is better than any of theirs (something Flo Rida should have learned last year).
Anyway, it was a weird year. But I'm pretty comfortable with these 20 albums, which some last-minute attention going to These New Puritans and some reconsideration for a few "bubbling under" albums. Feel free to inquire for more opinions on other records I didn't mention here below.
1. Kelis - Flesh Tone
2. Ke$ha - Animal + Cannibal
3. Marina and the Diamonds - The Family Jewels
4. Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song
5. Rick Ross - Teflon Don
6. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
7. Goldfrapp - Head First
8. Trey Songz - Passion, Pain, and Pleasure
9. Mose Allison - The Way of the World
=10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
=10. Diddy Dirty Money - Last Train to Paris
12. Far East Movement - Free Wired
13. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh
14. The-Dream - Love King
15. I Blame Coco - The Constant
16. Waka Flocka Flame - Flockaveli
17. Warpaint - The Fool
18. Yelawolf- Trunk Muzik 0-60
19. Spoon - Transference
20. Maximum Balloon - s/t
Laurie Anderson - Homeland
Aloe Blacc - Good Things
Big Boi - Sir Lucious Leftfoot, Son of Chico Dusty
Delorean - Subiza
Fefe Dobson - Joy
E-40 - Revenue Retrievin' - Day Shift
E.via - Via Polar EP
Girlicious - Rebuilt
Gold Panda - Lucky Shiner
Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
HEALTH - DISCO2
Hole - Nobody's Daughter
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way
Lil' Wayne - I Am Not a Human Being
Lil' Wayne - Rebirth
M.I.A. - /\/\/\Y/\
Massive Attack - Heligoland
Kylie Minogue - Aphrodite
Liz Phair - Funstyle
Princesa - Mas Fuego
Sade - Soldier of Love
Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here
UNKLE - Where Did the Night Fall
Vampire Weekend - Contra
Wallpaper. - Doodoo Face