Top of the Pop
"Best" is such a slippery word. There's no magical equation that will compute the top albums of the year. Multiply the number of times an artist is dissed by Eminem by the number of Neptunes remixes he has, divide by the number of times he appeared on TRL in a muscle tee, and you're more likely to get the answer to Lil' Mo's question "How Many Times I Gotta Say it?" than any reliable musical ranking.
But maybe there is a little math to the method. If you count the number of months it took you to completely forget an album, the records that yield the highest numbers usually form a pretty good year-end list. This works because music fans have sharp memories! We know this because previous years of City Pages top tens highlighted the bands we still love now. Bands like, uh, Quickspace. Wait, who's that again? And what was I saying? I forgot.
1. Felix da Housecat, Kittenz and Thee Glitz (Emperor Norton)
Fantasizing about being rich and glamorous is the new being rich and glamorous. House-cum-electro DJ Felix da Housecat teams up with a sex Kittin's monotone vocals to satirize Beverly Hills bimbos with hospital haircuts, coke-mustachioed rock stars with skinny ties, and people who drop the phrases "hospital haircut" and "skinny ties" into the public lexicon. Übermodels and famous hipsters play the resulting album in their limousines while conducting champagne-bottle money shots. Proof that 9/11 didn't destroy irony.
2. various artists, The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever (No Label)
Even Beyoncé wasn't ready for this jelly. When Freelance Hellraiser mixes the lyrics to "Bootylicious" with the music to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he makes a punk-rock rally cry out of rama lama ding dong--and all without securing the rights to either song. (Take that, Courtney Love!) In fact, every mash-up track on this album is filled with as many subversive acts as bad puns. "My Name Is Funk Soul Brother" proves that, despite Eminem's lyrical skills, he's still as white a "brother" as Fatboy Slim. "A Stroke of Genius" hints that Julian Casablancas rubs Christina Aguilera the right way. And "Bium Bium Bambalo" finds that when Sigur Rós's indie score waters itself down to match Celine Dion's blockbuster vocals, the song sinks like the Titanic. But perhaps the best thing about Bootlegs is that none of its proceeds go to self-proclaimed remix inventor P. Diddy. Yet another reason to love the phrase "free samples."
3. Iron and Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle (Sub Pop)
When spring break goes on permanent vacation, retirement communities close, and every last orange has been squeezed, Florida will belong to Sam Beam. The Miami-area singer and his acoustic guitar turn the Sunshine State's emotional and geographical isolation into an imagined everyland ruled by John Sayles and Will Oldham. In Beam's bedtime whisper, old houses burn down, snakes linger in the basement, and prisoners dream about the outside world. The only constant is the sound of the train slowly breaking down as it passes by. It's a mythic space filled with tragic family histories, working-class desperation, and religious fanaticism. New Yorkers will call it Northern California; Californians, the Midwest; Midwesterners, the Bible Belt. Everyone else will call it home.
4. Noriko Tujiko, Make Me Hard (Mego)
If we lived in the kind of world where colors could be heard and abstract sounds seen, where computers fall in love while humans put themselves on screensaver mode, there would be no need to write this review of Noriko Tujiko. And probably no need to read it: We'd already understand every element of Make Me Hard--the sad robot whispers, the delicate sci-fi ploinks from some abandoned spaceship, the Emerald City voice that escapes from it all in ruby slippers. When the Elfin Queen finally calls Björk home, we'll know how to replace her.
5. Beck, Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope)
Life's a cliché, and then you die. But in the meantime, Beck is picking up the fallen tears, broken hearts, pink moons, and glowing stars summoned by every lyricist throughout time and making magnetic poetry from the remains. When the onetime king of lobotomy beats finally gets around to emptying his own souljunk, he finds ready-made dime-store art. A line from a Harlequin romance novel, a melody from an old Leonard Cohen cassette, a story from a diary someone left behind--whether we want to believe it or not, that's the stuff real-life relationships are made of. Love is the only pop-culture reference we've all known since birth.
6. Radio 4, Gotham (Gern Blandsten)
Once upon a time in Gotham, everyone hated Giuliani. It's the era New York forgot, back when Kathleen Hanna counted Amadou Diallo's bullets and the mayor prevented Russell Simmons from rocking the vote. Radio 4 remember, and they want to remind the young Karen O lookalikes about the Cabaret Act, the crackdown on the homeless, and the war against art. It's pop as populism: These Brooklynites know that if you wanna make the crowd shout your chorus back to you, you've gotta give them a pogo-worthy beat and a good Clash bassline. Still, their Gang of Four-inspired "new disco" is so impressionable that you don't have to read the Village Voice to know you agree with singer/bassist Anthony Roman's cause of the moment. That whatchamacallit he's raging about? We're against it!
7. The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (Star Time)
The Walkmen make you wish the phrase "the The bands" was just a copy-editing mistake. But don't let the fact that they've got those three little letters stapled to their name make you think they come pre-approved with modeling certificates. Even if these former members of the überhyped band Jonathan Fire*Eater sound a little like the Strokes, they're decidedly less trendy and more timeless than the it-band next door. The Walkmen are your indie-rock drinking buddies, the guys who shake out their best Bowie vibrato on guitar, worry aloud that their friends might be poseurs, insist that they were the first ones to love that LCD Soundsystem single, and spend their lonely nights trying to prove they're not bored. Except, occasionally, they sing about vacationing in France. Really, they're just like you--only better. Please try not to hate them.
8. Clipse, Lord Willin' (Arista)
They insist, "Call me Mr. PleaseBelieveIt." Somehow, you can't. Clipse may talk a big game about their gangster friends in Virginia, but every time they reference "the ghetto," you notice they're rapping over a variation of the same PlayStation beat the Neptunes created for Justin Timberlake. There's a playfulness to their violence: Malice and Pusha T are like video-game thugs, Grand Theft Auto players who are just as likely to reference Keanu Reeves as they are to name-drop Phillip Michael Thomas. When Malice admits that some people cheat on their lovers with "the heat--a pearl-handled chrome thing that I call Sweets," you can't bring yourself to believe he's describing a gun. Maybe he's talking about a dildo?
9. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Locked On)
London Bridge had to burn down so that Birmingham could start burning up. Not since Pulp's A Different Class has an English outsider garnered so much attention for writing sharp songs about urban decay, unemployment, and street violence without making it sound like a very special episode of Neighbours. Mike Skinner's '90s-style UK garage-laced hip hop might not fly in Compton clubs, but his street cred is more Irvine Welsh than Ice Cube. The 22-year-old's laddish cockney spits slang about the kind of geezers who live on the dole, drop E to the sounds of Artful Dodger, and shag their birds in the pub's WC. And somehow, to us Yanks, the bloke still sounds like he's speaking American.
10. Black Dice, Beaches and Canyons (DFA)
Forget the soundtrack of our lives--this one's the IMAX score. Black Dice's song titles alone ("Things'll Never Be the Same," "The Dream Is Going Down," "Endless Happiness") are epic enough to etch a lifeline onto vinyl like the growth rings on tree stumps. Drop the needle, and band members sputter only gibberish: caaaaaw, blahgh, hug-uhhh. Sequencers turn guitar chords into your brain's inner voiceover played in reverse. Drums thump erratically, like a condor caught in a parakeet cage. And when it's over, you've gone from birth to death in just under an hour. You'll never listen to anything that goes verse, chorus, verse again. Well, at least not until the next Felix da Housecat single.
The next ten: 11. Goodiepal, Narc Beacon (Skipp); 12. Liars, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Mute); 13. Fischerspooner, #1 (Ministry of Sound); 14. Neko Case, Blacklisted (Bloodshot); 15. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (Merge); 16. Múm, Finally We Are No One (Fat Cat); 17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, S/T (Shifty). 18. Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek); 19. Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra); 20. RJD2, Dead Ringer (Definitive Jux)
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