Friday, October 23, 2009

15 Essential Hard Rock/Metal Albums of the 2000's (Part II)

And we're back.

Last night I unveiled albums 15 through 11, and although those are some pretty great records, now we're getting into the good stuff. Albums 10 through 6 are amazing, encompassing everything from Post-Hardcore to Metalcore, Thrash Metal and even some Nu-Metal too.

So let's get right into it. And remember, this is still just an appetizer.

Stay tuned for albums 5 through numero uno tomorrow!

10. Gallows “Grey Britain”
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Too soon, right? Well you’re dead fucking wrong. There may have been better hard rock/metal albums released this decade, but nobody’s kicked ass like Gallows have with their sophomore effort, Grey Britain. Opening track “The Riverbank” is the best opening track of any album this year, with its haunting opening string arrangement exploding into a truly epic catharsis. In a decade dominated by Green Day, My Chemical Romance and Fallout Boy, Gallows is a breath of dank, oppressive heat (and I mean that in the best possible way), skewering the violence, drug abuse, and apathy that is rampant in the youth culture of their home country, while finding the perfect balance between Black Flag-inspired hardcore and Sabbath-drenched heavy metal brutality. This is essential!

9. Lamb of God “Ashes of the Wake”
No true metal fan, young or old, that was alive during the 2000s hasn’t heard Lamb of God’s fourth album, 2004’s Ashes of the Wake. It’s one of those albums, and Lamb of God is one of those bands, that simply cannot be denied by anyone that calls themselves a fan of heavy music. This is music that absolutely pulverizes you from start to finish. “Laid to Rest” is a stone cold classic, opening almost coyly with stuttering double bass and lead vocalist Randy Blythe’s iconic spoken word opening salvo, “If there was a single day I could live…” before the song completely flies off the handle, and never lets up. By the time the truly psychotic bridge explodes, it becomes quite clear that this is a band at the very top of their game. Ashes of the Wake has no weak moments and absolutely no filler. Machine gun double bass pummels, truly vicious guitar riffs terrorize, and Blythe’s vocals sound so unabashedly evil that he makes Tom Araya sound like a fucking Teletubby.

8. Metallica “Death Magnetic”
To this day Metallica’s 8th album, “St. Anger,” is still the most bizarre collection of songs I have ever heard in my entire life. Metal fans around the world are still dumbstruck by the sloppiness, absurdity, and downright silliness of that album (remember “Invisible Kid”?). Almost as surprising as the epic fail that was St. Anger is the epic triumph that is Death Magnetic. Who could have predicted that after over ten years of churning out disappointing album after disappointing album, the greatest metal band of all time would finally reclaim their throne? Death Magnetic sounds like the missing link between “…And Justice for All” and the Black Album, shedding all those annoying Southern Rock/Nu-metal pretensions that bogged them down throughout the 90s and early 2000s, and revealing a band that can still pound you into submission with pure, unadulterated METAL. “That Was Just Your Life” has a chorus (and an amazing solo by the great Kirk Hammett) that shreds with reckless abandon, and “Suicide and Redemption” sees Metallica finally bestowing upon us another one of their incredible instrumentals. But it’s the old-school Speed Metal rampage that is “My Apocalypse” that dispels any doubt as to whether or not these guys still got it. Um…they do. Bow Down!

7. Glassjaw “Worship and Tribute”
Glassjaw took the post-hardcore genre to another level with their first album, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence.” But 2002’s “Worship and Tribute” is where they truly perfected their sound, combining everything from Jazz and Thrash Metal to Psychedelic Rock and Funk, shaking it all up, and letting it explode into something messy and precise, grotesque and beautiful. Choice cuts like “Cosmopolitan Bloodloss” and the incredible “Tip Your Bartender” feature verses with chaotic, jagged riffs and pummeling double bass that give way to soaring, gorgeous choruses, at times careening out of control and nearly imploding on themselves. “Ape Dos Mil,” “Must’ve Rained All Day,” and “Radio Cambodia” are stand outs for their melodic, pop sensibilities, showcasing lead singer Daryl Palumbo’s emotive vocal style. But the highlight is “Pink Roses,” a harrowing glimpse into the heart of alcoholism and depression, matched perfectly by the most freewheeling, cacophonous arrangement on the entire album.

6. Slipknot “Iowa”
Slipknot’s self-titled debut album catapulted them into the spotlight in 1999, attracting legions of followers (lovingly referred to as “maggots”), tons of controversy, and a whole heap of inner-band turmoil. In interviews members of the band have referred to this period as the absolute darkest in the 9-man crew’s history. Released in August of 2001, “Iowa” is the product of this period…and it shows. Iowa is quite possibly the darkest, most unrelenting metal album released this decade. Other albums may have been “heavier,” but nothing sounds quite like Iowa. The music is violent, surly, and about as forgiving as an 18 wheeler barreling head-on at your Honda Civic. Lead singer Corey Taylor spews pure venom throughout, declaring that “people equal shit,” railing against religious zealots, and describing psychosis and an utter loathing of life in general in brutal detail. It’s probably the most misanthropic album ever made, and it kicks fucking ass. Slipknot’s famous wall of sound was never this oppressive and cruel on their first album, and hasn’t been since. Iowa is the sonic equivalent of a Rob Zombie movie; malevolent, obscene, more than a little absurd, and absent of even the faintest glimmer of light. Great stuff.

We're almost there!
Check back tomorrow
for the Top 5
Hard Rock/Metal Albums of the 2000s!!!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

15 Essential Hard Rock/Metal Albums of the 2000s! (Part I)

In case you didn't know, Hard Rock is not dead.

Of course with the rise of Hip Hop from a popular genre flirting with the mainstream (during the 90s) to basically becoming the mainstream, it would be very easy to see Hard Rock music as a dying genre, hanging on by the thinnest of threads (i.e. Emo-punk, Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, etc.). But I'm here to let you know that Hard Rock was most certainly alive over these past ten years, and anyone who was oblivious to this truly missed out.

So I guess this list can be viewed two ways then. If you've basically been ignoring my beloved genre of Hard Rock, view this list as a cheat sheet. Go out, or log on, and find these albums immediately. No one will be mad and no one will blame you. I'll act like you've been up on these future classics all along, and you can start fresh in 2010. On the other hand, if you've been as utterly obsessed with loud guitars, violent double bass, and guttural growling as I've been, then you probably have your own opinions as to which albums are the definitive Hard Rock albums of the 2000s. In that case, you can consider those opinions officially null and void, because this right here is the gospel! These are without a doubt the best albums that Hard Rock had to offer.

So dive in. Read. Explore. Download. Rock out. Get mad. Break shit. And throw up the horns! Do what comes naturally you godless heathens! This a celebration of all things loud, crass, obscene and satanic. Hard Rock, Punk, Metal...everything is fair game.

Let's start with 15 through 11...

15. Soulfly "Dark Ages"
I guess you could say that Soulfly’s “Dark Ages” was the closest we got to a proper Sepultura album this side of the new millennium; you know, a Sepultura album with the incredible Max Cavalera providing those raw-as-fuck, no bullshit vocals. Released in 2005, Dark Ages came as a bit of a surprise, since Soulfly’s previous releases had most definitely fallen short of the standard any true metal fan holds a guy like Cavalera to. Dark Ages is a beast of an album, encompassing everything that was great about Sepultura, and everything that is so refreshing about Soulfly. “Corrosion Creeps” slithers along like an anaconda on a war path, and “Bleak” sounds like the apocalypse, but the standout is definitely “Frontlines,” a brutal, rapid-fire call to arms that can only come from one man. Why the metal community takes this guy for granted, I’ll never understand.

14. Guns N’ Roses “Chinese Democracy”
Trust me; I’m obsessed with the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. And nothing on Chinese Democracy even comes close to “Paradise City” (or even “You’re Crazy” to be honest), but neither does anything else on this list. The fact of the matter is that Chinese Democracy was doomed to be critically-maligned by the time 2003 came and went without its release. But for what it is, it’s a crime that no one has properly given Axl the credit he deserves for making such a sonically-astonishing album. Give it at least 4-5 listens and you’ll understand. “If The World” sounds like the soundtrack to a James Bond film, “I.R.S.” rocks fucking HARD, and “Madagascar” is downright beautiful. Shame on all of you!

13. Shadows Fall “The War Within”
The War Within came out at the height of the metalcore, NWOAHM craze that swept the metal community around 2004-5, and at the time they were touted as the next Metallica. I guess people confused sounding like Metallica with being the next Metallica. Regardless, The War Within does everything right. Classical guitar intro? Check. Cryptic, yet totally badass song titles? Check (“Eternity is Within”, “Enlightened by the Cold”, etc.). Bone-crushing double bass and face-melting guitar solos? Check and check. Need proof? Listen to “The Power of I and I” and tell me that shit doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping. If you’re interested in even vaguely understanding 2000s heavy metal, The War Within is a must.

12. Green Day “American Idiot”
So “Warning” may be their best album, and “21st Century Breakdown” is where they perfected this whole rock opera thing they’ve been obsessed with lately, but only a moron would deny the importance of Green Day’s landmark album, American Idiot. Green Day seized a moment in time with American Idiot, striking a chord with everyone who came of age during the Bush Administration. The actual storyline of the album is complete bollocks, but the passion and intensity of the performances was more than enough to have every high school kid this side of 9/11 feeling like they’d woken up on some nightmarish holiday, speeding out of control down the boulevard of broken dreams that was the mid-2000s. And besides, “Give Me Novocain” is fucking epic.

11. Nine Inch Nails “Year Zero”
If we view Green Day’s “American Idiot” as an outraged and confused observation of the Bush years, Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero” is Trent Reznor’s frightening journey into the future. Public Enemy-styled dissonance runs rampant and ghastly, electronic rackets harass the listener throughout. Reznor injects into these songs the kinds of melodies that haunt as much as they seduce, as razor-sharp guitars sound like air raids over a funky, percussive backdrop that never lets up, even when it drops out of sight without the slightest warning (“God Given”). Could somebody let Marilyn Manson know that this is how you stay relevant once the hype dies down?

5 down, 10 to go!

Check back tomorrow for the next 5 most essential

Hard Rock albums of the 2000s!

Lil' Wayne Pleads Guilty!

Rapper Likely to Serve a Year in Jail

This morning, (Thursday, October 22nd) at around 10:05AM, Lil Wayne walked into a Manhattan courtroom and pleaded guilty to felony weapons charges, stemming from an incident in July 2007, in which he was arrested after his very first headlining gig in New York City. According to, Wayne is expected to be sentenced to a year in jail, but could be released in eight to ten months if he behaves himself while incarcerated.

Wayne’s long-delayed albums, Rebirth and Tha Carter IV, are expected to be released before the end of the year, so I guess we can expect to see quite a bit of Lil Wayne in the coming months (much like the media blitz undertaken by T.I. in the months leading up to his incarceration). Incredibly, Wayne’s legal troubles actually don’t end here though. We can’t forget about the multiple drug and weapons charges Wayne is facing after an incident back in early 2008, when he and two others were arrested after their tour bus was stopped by police just outside of Yuma, Arizona. Officers found ridiculously large amounts of marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy in Wayne’s possession, in addition to $22,000 in cash. We’ll have to wait and see how those charges pan out, but if Wayne couldn’t beat these weapons charges, I’m thinking he might not beat those drug charges either.

Not a great day for Lil Wayne guys.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rihanna Plays Career "Russian Roulette" With New Single...

So yesterday, after months of hype and anticipation, pop megastar Rihanna finally unveiled the new single from her forthcoming album, aptly-titled Rated R (album cover to your left). The track, entitled “Russian Roulette”, is even more aptly-titled, as it is definitely not what most people expected from her. In stark contrast to previous hits like “Disturbia” and “Don’t Stop the Music,” the track is surprisingly dark and even a little disturbing, beginning with a slow, searing guitar solo before pounding, mid-tempo drums, light piano and eerie, distant moans kick in. The arrangement is murky and spare, plodding and thumping rather than kicking and swinging like most pop hits are supposed to.

Rihanna’s voice is plaintive and brooding throughout, and from the very first verse it’s clear that Rihanna is ready to move into a moodier, seedier direction conceptually. She sings “Take a breath, take it deep/Calm yourself, he says to me/If you play, you play for keeps/Take the gun, and count to three/I’m sweating now, moving slow/No time to think, my turn to go.” Rather than switching up the elements of the song for the chorus, everything is simply turned up 20 or so notches, erupting into an epic, imposing stomp as Rihanna belts out “And you can see my heart beating/You can see it bumping through my chest/And I’m terrified but I’m not leaving/I know that I must pass this test/So just pull the trigger.” Is it about Chris Brown? Who knows. But when the gun goes off at the songs conclusion (yes…there is a gunshot at the end of Rihanna’s first single), I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out who was on the receiving end of that bullet.

Reaction to the song as been very mixed (hence the really not clever pun in the title of this article), with many Rihanna fans complaining that the song just doesn’t make for a good first single, doesn’t sound like “S.O.S.”, etc. Well, I’ve taken a day to think it over, and I completely disagree. Rihanna didn’t have to take such a risk on her first single, especially considering the ordeal that this past year has been for her. Instead of playing it safe with Umbrella 2.0, Rihanna is stepping out with an edgy new look, a decidedly less-accessible first single, and a hot fucking album cover, if I do say so myself.

I’m loving it.

Mariah Carey's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel

Reflecting on an Imperfect Album...
Rating: 2/5
The first track on Mariah Carey’s new album Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, entitled “Betcha Gon’ Know,” is perfect. Produced by the chart-topping songwriting team of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream (“Umbrella” anyone?”), the song slithers along for a smoothed-out, sexy four minutes, with Mariah showcasing her often surprising knack for vocal subtlety. Most Mariah fans can’t help but roll their eyes just a bit when she relies on that breathy, super-girly whisper voice of hers, but here it’s utilized for maximum impact, accentuating her intricately-constructed, hip hop-inspired phrasing. The song is smoky and dreamlike, and gets the album off to a wonderful start. Perhaps Carey and her collaborators took note of this, because they seem to have made the ill-fated decision to make almost every other song on the album sound ridiculously similar to “Betcha Gon’ Know.” Or maybe track three, “H.A.T.U,” came first. Or maybe it was “Inseparable.” Bottom line: Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is a once-in-a-while entertaining but overall unremittingly repetitive album, one that will hopefully serve as a wakeup call to Mrs. Cannon that perhaps it’s time to reinvent the wheel.

Mariah Carey’s best album is 1997’s Butterfly. Her previous releases were bigger sellers and have the more indelible hits of her career, but Butterfly was an artistic epiphany for an artist known more for her powerful (or just plain loud) vocals than her creative ambitions. By injecting the songs with a healthy dose of hip hop (something extremely common for pop divas today, but very risky back in 1997) Butterfly successfully set Carey apart from former peers like Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. Unlike them, Mariah had actually co-written and composed almost all of her material since her debut album, and seemed willing to embrace more subtlety, rhythm and nuance in her vocals; the very qualities most overproduced pop divas seem to run from like the plague. Though she would basically stumble through the next 6 or 7 years of her career (ahem…Glitter?), the stylistic changes found on Butterfly allowed Mariah to stay relevant with a younger audience, while Whitney and Celine faded into the background. Mariah’s next good album, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, put her back on top, selling more albums than any other that year(!), largely on the strength of its monster singles. But then something strange happened; Carey’s next album, last year’s E=MC2, both sucked and bombed respectively.

And her latest attempt probably won’t help matters. Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel opened at number three on the Billboard album charts, behind Paramore and Barbara Streisand, and will most likely fall out of the top ten completely only three weeks since its release date. Of course, record sales and artistry are two very different things, and if Mariah were taking creative, inspired risks with her music that the public simply isn’t ready for, then this would be a very different review. But Mariah Carey has a problem on her hands, or shall I say multiple problems. For one thing, she barely sings on this album. Obviously, that statement makes no sense; she’s definitely “singing” on this album. But Mariah Carey is not Rihanna. She’s Mariah Carey. You know…the powerhouse vocalist with that 5, 6, 7 octave range. Lead-off single “Obsessed” is a fun song for sure, but why in the hell is Mariah Carey using auto-tune? Inevitably, one can’t help but be put off by the way Carey has allowed her collaborators to squeeze and contort her voice and musical persona into current trends in such an obvious, almost insultingly-underwhelming way. Nothing new. Nothing interesting.

Once again, there are enjoyable moments on Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, but more often than not the results are just plain ridiculous. Mariah has never been Joni Mitchell, but the lyrical content here is seriously pandering to the lowest common denominator. On the song “It’s Impossible” it’s like she wants to make sure that 5 year-olds know what she’s talking about when she sings “Love you like a freeze-pop/Love you like a milkshake/Love you like a high school girl on a first date.” Freeze-pops and milkshakes? Isn’t Mariah pushing forty? What kind of 40 year-old describes love that way? You may not have noticed this, but at the end of “Obsessed”, when Mariah finally lets loose and shows off that legendary voice, she’s singing “He’s all up in my George Foreman!” over and over again. Like…as in George Foreman Grills. Get it? Cringe-worthy stuff here Mariah. Listening to this album reminded me of an episode of Maury where this 16 year-old girl brought her mom on the show because she was always dressing up in clothes for teenagers and trying to hang out with her daughter’s friends.

Mariah, it worked on Butterfly, but that was twelve years ago. It’s time to grow up. Trust me on this one. That girl’s Mom looked amazing after her makeover.

The Rise & Fall of Kanye West

Has Hip Hop's Artist of the Decade Finally Lost His Cool?

A little under a month ago, rising country star Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video award at MTV’s annual Video Music Awards show. Of course, the VMAs are more of an industry promotional tool than anything else, and certainly not a measure of video-making or “artistry” by any stretch, but 19 year-old Swift seemed genuinely excited about her moon man, and we all felt warm and fuzzy inside for her. All was well. Then, twenty seconds into her cute, little acceptance speech, something really, really bad happened.

When Kanye West suddenly appeared onstage, calmly yanking the microphone from Swift, we all knew what was about to happen; West is probably as well known for his manic, ego-driven diatribes and award show freakouts as he is for his vast, influential body of work, experimental music videos, and dazzling live performances. This was supposed to be the Kanye we all knew and loved (or put up with). Swift was supposed to toss her head back and let out a good chuckle, tell Kanye where he could shove it, and finish her speech. But amid a thunderous mixture of boos and sympathy cheers from a stunned audience, Taylor Swift just stood there, tears welling-up in her eyes, humiliated and utterly speechless. And thus, Kanye West’s career meltdown had officially begun.

At this point, you might begin to wonder if perhaps “career meltdown” is a little strong. Well, let’s look at the facts, shall we? In the days that followed the infamous VMA incident, everyone from Pink and Kelly Clarkson to Bill O’Reilly and President Obama have commented on it, with Obama even calling West a “jackass” (off the record, of course). Whether its or, every news item that even mentions the word “west” is met with a slew of angry comments, filled with vicious, brutal words for the Louie Vutton Don. And mind you, this is almost a FULL MONTH after the incident. His highly anticipated joint tour with pop sensation Lady Gaga, aptly-titled “Fame Kills”, was cancelled a few weeks ago, with Gaga herself citing the cause as Kanye’s need to “take a break”, obviously a result of the overwhelmingly negative publicity West has received. In other words, Kanye West’s career was going 300 mph just two months ago, and it is now at a complete stand still. For arguably the most influential figure in hip hop this decade, it’s a bitter, disappointing way to ring in the New Year.

Yes, you read that right. Kanye West is the most influential hip hop artist of the 2000s. Don’t believe me? Well, once again, let’s look at the facts (Ok, maybe these aren’t “facts”, but bear with me). Before Kanye West, there were mainly two major stylistic approaches to hip hop; Gangsta shit and, for lack of a better way of putting it, Conscious shit. Since the early 90s, when Dr. Dre’s The Chronic made violent, materialistic, misogynistic hip hop melodic and palatable for the mainstream to consume, Gangsta rap had been the money-making approach to hip hop. Meanwhile, groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were setting the template for the alternative hip hop movement; melding thought provoking examinations of the very same culture gangsta rap reveled in with complicated, jazz and soul-inflected beats. Both approaches had their artistic merits and limitations, but aside from a few obvious exceptions (Fugees, for example), the darker, more hardcore approach always won out at record stores with a more-overt embrace of mainstream pop sensibilities (Puff Daddy, for example).

And then came OutKast. Rising out of the Dirty South, a location consistently ignored by the hip hop elite well into the 1990’s, OutKast’s approach to hip hop was ingenious. Big Boi and Andre 3000 presented themselves as “The Player and the Poet”, allowing the two major perspectives and stylistic approaches in hip hop to coexist and play off one another, thus bridging the gap between the two. Their very existence made a statement; both sides have something worthwhile to offer and often signify the same thing, but simply take different routes in getting there. There was something for everyone in OutKast; their music, always intelligent, could be rough and raw one minute (e.g. “Snappin’ and Trappin’”, “You Scared?”), and then melodic and pop-oriented the next (“Hey Ya”, “Ms. Jackson”). However, the stress and strain of holding these two complimentary but divergent artists together under one roof must have proven too great a task for Big Boi and Dre, and since the release of 2006’s Idlewild, they have yet to reemerge as a duo.

And then in walked Kanye West. After providing some of the best production hip hop had ever seen at that time to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint in 2001, Kanye signed to Roc-A-Fella Records and released The College Dropout in 2004. This is significant for a number of reasons. For starters, West’s music sounded absolutely nothing like anything Roc-A-Fella had released prior. When Cam’ron and Beanie Siegel were writing songs about fucking bitches and busting shots, Kanye was writing about working the night shift at a dead end job, spirituality, and the pressure that comes with dropping out of college to pursue a dream. He collaborated with Jay-Z and Ludacris…and Common and Mos Def. The beats were soulful, almost vintage, firmly embracing the long, often-forsaken history of Black music from which the entire Billboard top 40 (now or then) comes. And Kanye had an everyman quality to him; he wasn’t the best emcee, he wasn’t the best looking guy, and he wasn’t talking about anything the listener couldn’t identify with or experience themselves. He was…real. Like OutKast, Kanye’s very existence embodied the two halves, the player and the poet, into one glorious, if somewhat egotistical whole.

The College Dropout sold over 3 million copies and made Kanye West into a superstar. And he was only getting started. The sprawling Late Registration (2005), with its lush string arrangements, heartfelt subject matter and majestic melodies, took things to an entirely different level. First single “Diamonds (from Sierra Leone)” even had the audacity to condemn the rampant, irresponsible materialism that was downright ubiquitous at the height of the bling bling, big-booty-hoes-in-every-video era of hip hop. West’s outspokenness took many forms; from the noble (e.g. West is one of the first and only hip hop artists to speak out against homophobia), to the widely-controversial (e.g. “George Bush don’t care about black people” perhaps?). And while it wasn’t hard to tell that the man’s ego was growing exponentially at this point, so was the number of hit singles under his belt. 2007’s Graduation replaced lush strings with haunting synthesizers, and contained some of West’s best work, including “Stronger”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, and the astounding “Flashing Lights”, arguably his most mind-blowing production. And of course the infamous Kanye vs. 50 Cent chart war generated lots of headlines and embarrassment for 50 (remember when he said he’d retire if Kanye won?), but the significance of this is far more profound that that. When 50 Cent, quite possibly the most successful Gangsta rapper of all time (and up until 2007, the most popular artist in the music industry, period), sold far less copies that Kanye West, it typified a major shift in hip hop; Gangsta rap was losing its hold on the imagination of the public, in favor of something more thoughtful, relatable, and…conscious.

At the height of his career, West embarked on the Glow in the Dark Tour, easily the biggest, most outrageous stage production hip hop has ever seen. It was the kind of production that seemed unthinkable for a hip hop artist, reserved for mega-selling pop/rock stars like Britney Spears, U2, and Madonna, complete with an eleven-piece chamber orchestra and a cutting edge, world class light show. Later that year, Kanye won 4 Grammys, bringing his grand total to 10 (a year later he’d win two more, bringing that total to 12), but not before two major personal tragedies would lead to a major change in his career trajectory. In May of 2007, West’s long engagement to model Alexis Rainey ended, and in November of 2007 West’s mother, Donda West, died from complications during a plastic surgery procedure. West understandably took these two events extremely hard, but seemed to be dealing with the pain as well as anyone could, finishing out the Glow in the Dark tour, and even getting to work on a new album. Everything seemed great…until the album came out.

2008’s 808s and Heartbreak is one of those albums that no one ever sees coming; A great artist with a well-known, consistent style suffers great personal trauma, resulting in a radical shift in the direction of their music. Over fuzzy, brittle production, West sings the entire album in autotune, creating a strange distance between himself and the listener that is both unsettling and fascinating. He is practically having a nervous breakdown for over 50 minutes, detailing the loneliness and regret fame has brought him and the shattered relationships it’s left in its wake. And with the relatively surprising success of the album came even more trouble, including multiple arrests for assaulting members of the paparazzi and a really funny South Park episode that didn’t exactly caste Mr. West in the best light. But West seemed on track, helping to usher in the careers of multiple young artists, including Estelle, Kid Cudi and Drake. Kanye was everywhere, doing guest appearances on hit song after hit song, producing the bulk of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, and preparing for the Fame Kills Tour with Lady Gaga. Kanye had successfully blurred the lines between Hip Hop and Pop like no one before him. Everything was great, until….

And now we come full circle. And where things go from here is anyone’s guess. But Kanye West’s genius cannot be denied. He gave Talib Kweli his first and only mainstream hit (“Get By”). He brought the world John Legend. He helped get Common, a respected but only mildly-successful emcee, both his most successful and best album (2005’s BE). He cleared the way for artists like Lupe Fiasco, Drake, and Kid Cudi, and do I need to remind you that this is the same man that produced “H to the Izzo”, “Let The Beat Build”, “Swagga Like Us”, and fucking “Gold digger”!?

So Taylor Swift was sad…fine that sucks. But Taylor Swift has also been catapulted into a level of fame that is absolutely insane, her album sales have probably quadrupled, and last time I checked nobody’s had to talk her down from any ledges or cliffs. I think she’ll be ok. Meanwhile, we’re about to lose one of the greatest talents popular music has ever seen to…the VMAS!? Like the great Jim Morrison once said, “Learn to forget.”

Or just shut the hell up about it already.

Paramore's Brand New Eyes

Rating: 4/5

Who could’ve imagined that those teenage, emo-hicks from Tennessee with the chick lead singer had an album like this in them? Opening cuts “Careful” and “Ignorance” kick the doors off the hinges, perfecting their signature style (as seen with previous gems like “Misery Business” and “For A Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic”) with fun, dynamic songwriting, irresistible melodies, and a nice dose of righteous anger from ridiculously-talented lead singer Hayley Williams. Williams’ heartfelt lyrics give the listener a bleak yet hopeful window into the intense pressure and inner-turmoil the band has endured since their second album “Riot!” catapulted them into the spotlight a few years ago. Like Gwen Stefani at her best, Williams’ lyrics have a charming, almost wide-eyed innocence to them, whether hopeful or steeped in sorrow and uncertainty, that is easy to underestimate, but impossible to ignore. And where most male emo-punk singers adopt a high-pitched, prepubescent squeal, Williams’ voice is soaring and powerful, recalling Kelly Clarkson or Pat Benatar. In other words, Williams’ performance on “Brand New Eyes” is worth the price of admission alone.

The rest of the band ain’t slouching either though; Paramore slash and bang throughout, but the band truly shines when they stretch out a bit and take a few chances, which they most definitely do on stand-out tracks like the country-tinged “The Only Exception” and the beautifully-understated “Misguided Voices”. The climax? Check out the final track “All I Wanted” and you’ll find a band that has truly arrived. Paramore flirted with a song like this with “Decode”, their contribution to the Twilight soundtrack, but this is the real McCoy. “All I Wanted” is where Paramore have finally transcended their Pete Wentz affiliation, their age, and even that silly emo-punk genre of theirs. Amid roaring guitars and thunderous percussion, Williams gives the kind of vocal performance Katy Perry, Avril, etc. could only dream of; powerful, passionate, and believable. Like Green Day circa “Warning” or System of a Down circa “Toxicity”, Paramore’s “Brand New Eyes” showcases a young band that’s making all the right decisions and breaking away from the pack artistically (something bands like Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy have yet to figure out). And they know it too; on the surging “Looking Up” Hayley sings, “God knows the world doesn’t need another band/but what a waste it would have been.” Damn right.

Jay-Z's The Blueprint III: It's complicated...

Rating: 3.5/5
(Originally written September 11, 2009)
One could make the argument that Jay-Z’s only true peers in the world of hip hop are Eminem and Nas; they are three of the greatest emcees of all time, each possessing their own unique style, perspective and career ambitions. Interestingly enough, in addition to most likely being Jay’s equals as emcees, both Nas and Eminem each played a role in making 2001’s The Blueprint such a complicated and powerful work. Forget what you heard, “The Takeover” is every bit as good of a diss record, if not better than “Ether”. Nas relied on cheap insults and homphobia, shocking the hip hop community with its ferocity. But “The Takeover” actually achieved its goal; total domination of New York hip hop. Nas could have responded with a symphony and it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Ironically, Nas’ most biting, dead-on critique of Jay-Z addressed “Renegade”, Jay’s classic collabo with Eminem. We all remember the “Eminem murdered you on your own shit” line, cementing Eminem’s status as a force to be reckoned with amongst the hip hop elite. It created a strange tension amongst the three artists, with each taking very different paths throughout the rest of this decade. Today we find them in a relatively similar place; attempting to carve out a position for themselves in a genre that grows younger, bigger, and more experimental and competitive every day. Nas has both admirably and (somewhat) annoyingly taken the elder statesman route, ignoring the mainstream entirely, devoting his music to politically and socially-aware content, and lambasting current sounds and trends. Eminem, on the other hand, seems to operate in a vacuum, changing neither his sound nor content at all. But Jay-Z, always attempting to be that great unifying force in hip hop, wants to be both inside and outside of today’s hip hop status quo, at times rejecting the current trends (“D.O.A.”), and yet steeped in them at the same time (“A Star Is Born” keep reading).

The Blueprint III is complicated. Not so much in terms of the actual music, but exactly what Jay-Z is trying to say with this album. The Blueprint is undoubtedly the best hip hop album of this decade. It announced Jay-Z’s ascendance as the most influential emcee in hip hop, while also heralding the emergence of Kanye West, a topic that would need its own separate essay to fully flesh out. But to be clear, a year after Biggie’s death, Jay-Z told us the city was his, and by The Blueprint he’d achieved this. The torch had been passed and Jay-Z was now the King of Hip Hop. So almost 10 years later, with millions and millions of dollars in the bank and a legion of imitators at his feet, naming his album The Blueprint III is a strange decision. What exactly does Jay-Z want to do here? Connecting this album so brazenly to this legacy suggests a continuation of that legacy; Jay wants to set the course for hip hop once again. But of course, that’s a fairly complicated ambition.

Five songs into The Blueprint III, it becomes quite obvious that this will not be a bad album. It can’t be after a five-song run like this. “What We Talkin’ About” is an epic, synth-heavy opener, with a haunting, stuttering chorus sung by Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun. Jay shrugs off the haters and all their chit-chatter on the song, exclaiming, “Grown men want me to sit em on my lap, But I don’t have a beard, and Santa Clause ain’t black.” The party continues on “Thank You,” as Jay does his customary braggadocios routine over a swaggering bed of horns. “D.O.A.” and “Run This Town” are definitely Jay-Z’s best singles since The Black Album, and the Alicia Keys-assisted “Empire State of Mind” is Jay’s best New York tribute of his career. The song is gorgeous, in the vain of Kanye’s “Homecoming” but far more soulful and probably the standout track of the entire album.

This is when things get…complicated. Young Jeezy is in top-form on “Real As It Gets”, mainly because the track, produced by The Inkredibles, sounds exactly like a Young Jeezy song. Think “I Luv It” meets “Standing Ovation”. Obviously Jay-Z is also bringing great bars to the track, yet it’s the first time on The Blueprint III where it feels like Jay-Z is out of place on his own song. Things get way better on the Swizz Beats-produced “On To The Next.” Get over the fact that they’ve basically stolen the entire concept from Wayne’s “A Milli”, and you’ll love this song. And by the next song you’ll begin to wish Swizzy had a few more songs on the album, rather than Timbaland.

Now let’s get a few things clear. Timbaland is one of the greatest producers of the 1990’s/2000’s. Additionally, Jay-Z and Timbaland have always had an incredible chemistry (“Big Pimpin’” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” anyone?). Unfortunately, Timbo supplies three of the 15 tracks on The Blueprint III, and 2 of them are amongst the most underwhelming songs of the album. “Off That” is both a painfully-formulaic Timbaland track (sounding like a Missy b-side circa. 2002) and a total waste of Drake, whom they utilize only for the by-the-numbers, decidedly average chorus. Two songs later, “Venus vs. Mars” takes the place of the previous Timbaland track as the new shittiest song on the album. The chorus is a complete rip-off of OutKast’s “Mamacita” (off Aquemini), Jay’s flow is a rip-off of LL Cool J’s from “Going Back to Cali”, and the very concept of the song (venus vs. mars, women vs. men, etc.) is sort of….dumb. Timbaland redeems himself by the 13th track, “Reminder,” with a hypnotic beat and chorus, and Jay boasting, “10 number 1 albums in a row, who better than me?/only the Beatles nobody ahead of me/I crush Elvis in his blue suede shoes, Made the Rolling Stones seem sweet as Kool-Aid too.” No arguments there, but the damage has already been done.

Kanye West certainly holds up his end of the bargain, producing the bulk of the standout tracks, and breaking up the monotony of the Timbaland-produced material on the latter half of the album. “A Star Is Born” is a great track with Jay tipping his hat to some of hip hop‘s greats, although the auto-tune assisted chorus creates an obvious contradiction with the lead-off single. Meanwhile, “Already Home” is probably the track that most-recalls the first Blueprint album, with retro, soulful production reminiscent of “Heart of the City” and a memorable, near-perfect chorus from Kid Cudi. Unfortunately, this is followed by “Hate”, where West and Jay try an old school, back and forth concept (think Dre and Em “Say What You Say”). The song falls flat though; the beat is too slow, their flows have strange accents, and by this point in the album (track 12) the “haters” subject is very played out.

The final tracks, “So Ambitious” and “Young Forever,” end the album on an defiant, grand note. “Young Forever” is particularly interesting, featuring Mr. Hudson sounding like Chris Martin of Coldplay, singing about living forever or something. It’s the standard, anthemic, “I’ll never leave as long as you still love me” shit Jay-Z’s been talking about since The Black Album. And it’s a great song. But one has to wonder if there is anything left for Jay-Z to say? The album is littered with quotable after quotable, and Jay still raps circles around almost everyone else, but what is he really talking about at this point? Though 2007’s American Gangster was criticized for playing it safe in terms of subject matter, it still presented a focused Jay-Z; clear, concise, detailed and determined. And while Nas is talking about the N-word, and Eminem is talking about guns, rape, blood, and prescription drugs, Jay-Z can‘t seem to get his mind off of his haters, his money, and his legacy; three pretty obvious, kinda boring topics, if you ask me. Jay-Z still holds the hip hop torch in his hand, there‘s no doubt about that. But it‘s when Jay-Z gets comfortable in his position as the Sinatra of hip hop that he‘ll start making the kind of album we all know he still can. Though certainly not a bad album (actually it’s quite good), The Blueprint III is Jay-Z in survival mode, not ready to pass the torch to the next generation, but without the slightest clue where he’s taking it next. In other words, it’s better than Kingdom Come, but not as good as the Black Album.

Hey…at least he got rid of that auto-tune bullshit.

Reflecting on Michael Jackson

(Originally written June 26, 2009)

There will never be another Michael Jackson. Many have tried, but no one succeeds in creating the kind of excitement and magic Michael was able to conjure on record, on stage, and in his many classic music videos. There has never been a more complete artist; a powerful yet wholly unique voice, charisma to spare, dancing that absolutely boggles the mind, incredible songwriting, and sheer creative genius. He had it all…and then lost it all. And people can blame whatever they want for Michael’s long and painful fall from grace (childhood trauma, drugs, self-hatred, mental disorders, etc.), but inevitably it was his peerless, undeniable talent that both catapulted him to a level of fame restricted to religious deities and royalty, and then completely ravaged his personal and professional life. No human being should be THAT famous. I would venture to say that Michael Jackson was probably the most famous person in the world at one point, blessed with a powerful gift; the ability to hypnotize and inspire millions and millions of people with his art.

As with all great artists, Michael had obvious influences. Certainly the Motown greats he literally grew up around were hugely influential. Michael had the fragile, emotion-drenched vocals of Marvin Gaye, the songwriting prowess and socially-conscious subject matter of Stevie Wonder, and the charisma and star power of Diana Ross. He was most definitely a student of the Beatles as well, having mastered the art of the simple but deeply moving pop song.

And then there’s James Brown. Probably the only other artist in music history that can actually hold a candle to James Brown as a performer, Michael worshipped him. Brown’s influence is all over Michael’s work, from his frenetic footwork to his savage, ad-libbed howls and yelps. Jackie Wilson and Fred Astaire were also important to Michael’s particular style of performance, but James Brown would always be his primary inspiration and definitely his favorite artist.

And yet, as with all great artists, Michael Jackson stands alone as a true original and, along with Prince, easily the most influential artist of the past 30 years. Madonna, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Usher, TLC, NSYNC, Chris Brown, Neyo, Robin Thicke, and basically anyone who has either made pop music or made a music video in the past 25 years owes something to Michael Jackson. Before Michael Jackson, music videos were low-budget and unimportant, MTV was still relatively small and not playing ANY black artists, and music magazines would not even put black artists on their covers. By 1983-84 artists like Prince, Lionel Ritchie and Whitney Houston had broken through and received some airplay, but Michael Jackson was the first. “Billie Jean” was simply too amazing to be ignored.

And apparently that was the point. Coming off of the huge, if somewhat underwhelming success of Off The Wall (compared to Thriller, at least), and in the face of racism and indifference from the white-controlled music industry, Michael’s aim with Thriller was quite literally to take over the world. He wanted every song to be a potential hit, and he wanted every song to appeal to a different demographic. Once again enlisting Quincy Jones as a producer for the project (Jones also produced Off The Wall), Michael worked tirelessly on Thriller, and covered nearly ever base of popular music. If there is one knock against Thriller, it’s that this strategy inherently forsakes cohesiveness, in favor of a “something for everyone” experience. There’s hard rock (Beat It), lush balladry (Human Nature), slow jams (The Lady In My Life), chaotic dance floor workouts (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’), theatrical, concept songs (Thriller), bubblegum pop (The Girl Is Mine), and dark, mature funk (Billie Jean). Thriller had a massive impact on the record industry, changing the way albums were created and marketed. Suddenly the level of success an album could have and the demographic an album could be directed towards expanded drastically. Additionally, music videos became a must for any artist looking for the kind of success Michael had, and the popularity of MTV exploded. You could liken the breakout success of Thriller to that of Usher’s “Confessions”, Justin’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds”, or Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad” for perspective, but none of these albums, or the success they had, comes close to comparing to Thriller. Michael pioneered the idea of making albums with no filler, albums where every song could be a hit single. 7 of the albums 9 songs were top ten hits, a feat no one has matched. Thriller has sold 100 million albums worldwide, won 8 Grammy awards, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best selling album of all time.

Over the next ten years Michael embarked on a series of world tours that would each outdo the last as the biggest selling tour of all time. No one is, was or ever will be as big as Michael Jackson. But with all the talk of record and ticket sales, what often gets lost in conversations about the man is the actual songs. Michael Jackson is the gold standard of pop music. “Human Nature” is sublime. The rapid fire, falsetto vocals on the chorus of “Smooth Criminal” is a stroke of utter genius, and “Billie Jean” is quite possibly the most influential pop song of the 1980s and beyond. “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” still tears up any dance floor across the globe, “I Want You Back” (with the Jackson 5) is up there with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” as one the purest, most perfect pop songs ever made, and even “You Are Not Alone”, one of Michael’s last big hits, is the perfect slow jam. There are many Michael Jackson songs that, depending on my mood and the situation, I’ll call my absolute favorite, so I won’t even go there. However, I will say that “Will You Be There”, off 1991’s Dangerous album, is probably his most fascinating song lyrically. Backed by a full choir and the Cleveland Orchestra, Michael sings of the alienation and isolation his celebrity status has brought him.

“But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
And fight 'til the end
But I'm only human”

I won’t waste time writing about his downfall, his legal troubles, or even the nature of his death. That’s for the coroners, journalists and self-righteous pundits and talking heads to mull over. Because inevitably, Michael WAS only human. Skin, muscle and bones just like the rest of us. I didn’t know the human being that was Michael Jackson, and neither did you. We knew Michael Jackson, the performer. So fuck trying to figure out if he was a great human being, or some kind of Peter Pan-obsessed, skin-bleaching freak. The incredible body of work Michael has left behind attests to his artistic genius, and that’s good enough for me.

And it should be good enough for you, too.

Eminem Has A "Relapse": Blood! Guts! Guns! Cuts!

Rating: 4.5/5
(Originally written May 10, 2009)
To truly understand the sheer brilliance of Eminem’s new album Relapse, we have to start at 2004’s Encore. Encore sucked. This is basically fact. But why is the more interesting subject. Coming off one of the greatest three-album stretches ever in hip hop (and music in general), as well as a fucking Oscar for “Lose Yourself,” arguably Eminem’s finest songwriting moment, Encore was a musical brick wall for Eminem. The beats were boring, his flows seemed forced and uninspired, and (most importantly) the subject matter was lacking, both in depth as well as visceral impact; this is a must for a successful Eminem album. From the Slim Shady LP through The Eminem Show (his most accomplished album), Eminem’s defining qualities are, and have always been, his brutal honesty and his even more brutal use of hyperbole and surrealism. Encore had practically none of this, leaving the listener with a played-out, uninspired shell of The Eminem Show.
And then he disappeared. And when Eminem disappeared, Dr. Dre basically disappeared. And when Dr. Dre disappeared, 50 Cent became complacent (kind of hard to remember that Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is a classic, isn’t it?). And then Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. basically took over hip hop. In the meantime, Eminem’s 2nd marriage to Kim ended in divorce, he gained about 40 pounds, his best friend Proof was murdered at a nightclub in Detroit, and he slid into a nasty prescription pill addiction that resulted in a drug overdose in 2007 and a terrible Shady Records compilation album called “The Re-Up”. All seemed lost for the Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit camp. Could they somehow make a comeback after 4 years away from the game (which in rock isn’t too bad, but an eternity in a fast-moving genre like hip hop)?
Well, judging by the first week sales (over 600,000 albums sold), I’d say the answer is yes. But record sales aside, Relapse is a great album and a return to form for Eminem; and it easily stands up against his best work. Me telling you that the album sounds nothing like the 1st single “We Made You” is a given. None of his first singles convey the overall sound of his albums. But it doesn’t sound much like “Lose Yourself” either. Or “Cleaning out my Closet.” Or even “The Way I Am.” Songs like “Kill You,” “Kim,” and his 2nd single “3am” would be a more apt comparison. This album is dark. Really dark. In other words, if you’re not a big fan of Eminem’s violent, psychotic material, then stay very far away from this. Definitely not for you.
As with any Eminem album, Relapse walks a fine line between fact and fiction. There are shades of Eminem’s actual experiences throughout, and the general concept of the album, pill-addiction, suggests that the whole thing is the musical equivalent of the mind of a psychotic, pill-popping, drug addicted menace (i.e. Eminem). But once again, Eminem walks a very thin line here, and by the 5th song Eminem (or the “protagonist”) has already broken out of rehab (after murdering everyone inside), told us about how his mother used to crush vicodin and put it in his food when he was 10 (“My Mom”), and “confessed” that his step-father used to molest him behind the shed of his childhood home (“Insane”, and the title is very appropriate). Later, a skit in which a young female hitchhiker is attacked after getting a ride (presumably from Eminem…or Slim Shady?) leads into “Same Song and Dance” where, over a quiet, stuttering beat, the listener is placed directly into the mind of a serial killer as he meets, chats up, and eventually kills an assortment of young women (including Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears). The album is literally steeped in drugs, rape, incest, famous serial killer namedropping, kidnapping, murder, blood, guns, cannibalism, vaginal mutilation, cross-dressing and the telling of an assortment of nauseating, drug-induced episodes. This is Eminem at his most ruthless and relentless. Think “The Chronic” meets “Natural Born Killers.”
Thus an obvious response would be that Relapse amounts to nothing more than a cheap rehash of his previous work (which has at times also centered on blood, murder, rape, guns, and the like). This sentiment isn’t wrong necessarily, but it misses the point. It is important to note that Relapse is a concept album, in which Eminem equates relapsing into drug addiction with relapsing back into the Slim Shady character. In other words, Relapse is supposed to be a rehash of sorts (the title “Same Song & Dance” intentionally suggests this). He has purposefully fallen back into his old tricks, and then taken them to the extreme, in order to emphasize the sheer magnitude of the insanity and depravity of the past four years of his life. This theme is actually quite impressive in how it’s deployed here, with the album slowly winding down from the lunacy and blood-splattered wordplay of the 1st half of the album to a skit that reenacts Em’s 2007 OD. This functions as the album’s moment of clarity, followed by two of the albums standout tracks, “Déjà vu” and Beautiful.” Here, the Slim Shady character has disappeared entirely, leaving Eminem to survey the damage done and relate his observations eloquently to the listener. “Déjà vu” is particularly stunning, with Eminem dropping all the charades and façades, and giving the listener a painful play-by-play of his slow descent into addiction.
Yet even more eye-opening than the subject matter his how good these songs sound. Eminem has never been this limber and inventive with his writing and flows. The multi-syllabic rhyme schemes are astounding, with each song (and each verse of each song) employing a completely different but no less outstanding lyrical and verbal motif. In short, Eminem is a lyrical monster, and this album will unequivocally prove this. And no where is this more evident than the final track “Underground,” undoubtedly Eminem’s finest moment here. Over a thunderous, apocalyptic monster of a beat, Eminem goes on a lyrical rampage. Think The Marshall Mathers LP’s “Criminal,” but more chaotic, freewheeling and emotionally-calloused than that song. It’s an incredible finale.
Of course, Relapse would be nothing without Dr. Dre, who produces all but one song (“Beautiful”, produced by Eminem). This is some of Dre’s best work since “Chronic 2001”, each song distinctively different from the others, but all boasting crushing bass, haunting strings, and an overall foreboding atmosphere that complements the content perfectly. If Relapse is any indication, 50’s Before I Self-Destruct and Dre’s Detox (which are sure to boast mostly Dre beats) are not to be slept on. This could be a very big year for Shady/Aftermath/G-Unit.
The violent/misogynistic/homophobic/generally revolting content is most definitely going to bother people (again). But keep in mind that the Slim Shady character is a CHARACTER. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Slim Shady and the “real” Eminem are two sides of the same coin, and Eminem flips back and forth between them throughout Relapse. The album is ultimately a journey into the mind, and therefore the imagination, of a malevolent alter ego, not necessarily Eminem. Being able to recognize this difference is the key.

And having a sense of humour wouldn’t hurt either.