My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).
1)Burial — Burial. This haunted, dense, downbeat album is the most beautiful, and the most moving, or affecting, music I heard in all of 2006. It is hard to put my finger on just what it is about these fragmented and discreet electronic rumblings and beats that is so powerful… except that this music is insinuating something that forever remains just beyond my grasp. In any case, I couldn’t say anything about Burial that k-punk and Mudede haven’t already said better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that this music has insinuated itself into my dreams, even though I cannot consciously recall or reproduce a single melodic line or rhythm-and-bass pulse from it.
2)Ghostface — Fishscale. Even though I am in that small minority that doesn’t find this album quite as compelling as 2004’s Pretty Toney Album (which I wrote about here), this is still a powerful album, and by far the most compelling hip hop that I have heard in the past year. The wider emotional range of The Pretty Toney Album didn’t sell very well, apparently, so Ghostface went back to doing what the rap audience knows the best, and expects most readily: selling songs and stories about selling crack. Lots of critics have written about — again, better than I ever could — what a great storyteller Ghostface is, his amazing way with words and with brilliantly observed details, so that he’s like a great noir novelist one moment, a whacked-out surrealist the next, an oulipean metafictionalist the paragraph after that. I’ll just add that there’s something amazing about his rapping voice, the way it continually modulates between wacky humor and tough-guy fatalism and romantic whining. And I’ll note, once again, that his use of samples, particularly 70s-soul-music samples (regardless of who is producing any given track) is like nobody else in the business — since he calls upon soul-R&B sounds neither out of nostalgia, nor in order to give his tracks an authority they would otherwise lack, but in order to register difference and distance, to create and express disjunctions, to tear a hole in the heart of the world (the ghetto he grew up in) that he is evoking with such economy and precision. Just listen to how he samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man” in “Whip You With A Strap”; or, even more astonishingly — in a cut that was all over the Net last spring, but got removed from the final album (I presume because of clearance issues) — how a really nasty, knockdown battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth argument gets built around a lengthy sample of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes I Can Can.”
3)Kode9 and the Spaceape, Memories of the Future. Kode9 not only produced and distributed Burial’s album, he also released this collaboration with The Spaceape (Kode9’s electronic sounds and the Spaceape’s vocals), which also reaches a rare plateau of intensity — albeit these explicitly, ironically doom-laden visions are quite different in feel from Burial’s intimate intimations. Imagine a collaboration in which Linton Kwesi Johnson is produced by Augustus Pablo, with both the former’s poetry and the latter’s production re-engineered by Deleuze and Guattari. Kode9’s heavy dub is remarkably eclectic, melding together sounds and tones from pretty much everywhere; it’s bass-heavy, of course, but there are lots of things going on that aren’t just the bass. This gives the music, how shall I put it, a kind of resonating space that nonetheless is poles apart from the ganja-induced “spaciness” that we usually think of when we think of dub. The Spaceape’s highly stylized vocal intonations, somewhere in between Jamaica in 1980 and the UK in 2006, don’t quite sound like either, but instill in the listener (or, at least, in me) a hypnotically addictive sort of chronic dread.
4)Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Yes, I do listen to American pop music for the masses, and not just to Brit esoterica and hiphop cult figures. Justin is kind of bland and blah as a singer, as well as as a pop icon; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it emphatically doesn’t mean that he is talentless or awful. Rather, he displays an eerie sort of neutrality: he is really the postmodern “man without qualities,” and for this very reason he is unique and irreplaceable: anybody else who sang these songs, whether they were a brilliant vocalist or a godawful one, would bring one sort or another of an identifiable quality (a nuance, an inflection, a particularity of tone) to the music — and that would ruin everything. You might say that Justin is an entirely generic singer, just as he is an entirely generic celebrity; but he turns the very notion of the “generic” inside out, by turning it into an absolute singularity. This is why he’s the most brilliant “blue-eyed soul” or “white-boy-does-R&B” singer ever. (Even if, as I recall reading, his betrayal of Janet caused him to lose his “ghetto pass,” he has still managed to rebound where she hasn’t). — But of course, what really makes the album is Timbaland’s production; Mr. Mosely’s space rhythms and off beats and odd textures have never sounded better, precisely because Justin’s positive blankness (if I may be permitted the oxymoron) is precisely the perfect foil to set them off. (Jane Dark is absolutely right to see the album — I mean, hear it — as a sort of slash fiction or homosocial exchange “between men”). (I should add that my 4-year-old daughter absolutely adores “My Love”).
5)Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. Apparently most fans of the band were disappointed by this 2nd album, finding it much weaker than their first (which I wrote about, way back when, here). But to my mind, it was equally strong, even if less overtly punkish, and more (er, um) “mature.” Indeed, this was just about the only New-York-area-alternative-rock album I at all enjoyed listening to this year; the new albums by Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were well done, but they both basically put me to sleep (this may well be more my fault than theirs — I’ve loved both of these bands madly in the past, and I fear that what has happened is not that they have changed, but that I have — my sensibilities have mutated to the point where I no longer find them satisfying the way I used to. They used to be axioms for me, and now they are just… lifestyle options). (I should also mention TV on the Radio’s album, which I sort of liked OK but which never quite came into focus for me — maybe it will, belatedly, next year).
6)Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury. Lamentably, I am in agreement with the music-critic cognescenti. For what it’s worth, or for what it is, this is really good. TIght rapping, and brilliant Neptunes production, with some gorgeous and unusual timbres (I am especially partial to the harp arpeggios and snare drums, or whatever it is — I’ve never been good at these sorts of identifications — in “Ride Around Shining”). But the continual boasts/dramatizations/expressions-of-regret dealing with crack dealing (at least, for anybody besides Ghostface) and bling are way beyond tired at this late date… hiphop today is in real danger of vanishing up the crack of its own ass because all it can do is obsessively recycle with microscopic variations the narrowest imaginable set of themes… is this really the only thing that sells? the only thing that the fans — white or black? — want? Who can be satisfied in such straightened circumstances?).
7)Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I was just talking about incessant micro-variations upon narrow themes. I suppose that is what Ornette has been doing for the last fifty (!) years as well; but this is the first new release in a decade from the world’s greatest sax player, who is also the world’s greatest composer; and his music is as beautiful, knotty, and exhilarating as ever.