The first part in our annual roundup of good albums we overlooked during the year...
If Young Jeezy’s 2008 work “The Recession” is the album that best sums up the fears of the disenfranchised surrounding the late ’00s recession and the hope attached to the possibility of an Obama presidency, “PL3DGE” — a radical political work from Atlanta rapper Killer Mike — provides a perfect snapshot of the frustration and resignation that have set in some four years later.
On the controversial “Burn,” the MC rhymes “Can’t get a job / But I can get arrested / Thought [expletive] was changing with this black president [expletive].”
“Burn” also includes a call to stockpile weapons and burn down corrupt churches — imagery that got the video for the track banned from BET this year. Thanks to a powerful fan-led Twitter campaign, the network realized that the piece is a protest song, rather than music meant to incite actual violence, and reversed its decision — a victory both for politicized street rap and the underrated rapper himself.
Similarly engaging is “God in the Building II,” on which Killer Mike criticizes organized religion over a literal amen chorus and ponders the eternal question: Is there a heaven for a gangster? “I have sold my people dope / Yet provided them with hope / A sinner and a saint / I’ve been ’em both.” On “That’s Life II,” which has been widely praised as containing some of best verses of the year, and perhaps of Killer Mike’s career, he touches on the ongoing tragedy in Haiti and the Oscar Grant verdict, among other issues, and blasts not only the conservative talking heads that have become regular hip-hop targets, but also Oprah and Nancy Pelosi.
Not all of “PL3DGE,” released in May, is intense, message-driven fare, however: See “Ready Set Go,” featuring T.I., and “Go Out on the Town,” a club track with Young Jeezy. The Jeezy collaboration is disappointing in that it feels like a missed opportunity for something more heady and topical, but considering that the men have delivered two of the most important albums of the past few years, it’s hard to begrudge them a night off.
— Sarah Godfrey
Recommended Tracks: “Burn,” “That’s Life II,” “God in the Building II”
“The Magic Place”
Beautiful, haunting, pristine, ethereal — those adjectives get thrown around generously in music reviews, but they should really be saved for an album such as “The Magic Place.” Julianna Barwick has created a spiritually cleansing album of perfect stillness using little more than her voice. You won’t find many lyrics or instru-ments on these nine songs — maybe a piano plink here, an identifiable word there. But mostly it’s just her voice, and with each loop and layer it sends listeners deeper and deeper into a gentle hypnosis. The result is one elongated, chill-inducing moment.
With the focus placed squarely on vocals, “The Magic Place” feels like an artifact out of place, even time. These could be ancient meditations or futuristic communications from a far-off solar system. “White Flag” is representative, starting with a serene chant before another round of vocals echoes in from the distance. Even in the absence of rhythmic shifts, the track reaches a peak as the separated chants eventually weave together — you can almost feel beams of light breaking through clouds — before slowly splintering away, back into their orbits. It’s a formula that repeats itself over the course of the album but never grows tiresome, only more entrancing.
At first “The Magic Place” seems like the perfect companion piece for any sort of silent film that needs a slow-motion soundtrack, thanks to its wordless songs that are open to interpretation. But with each repeated listen it becomes clear that the album is no mere companion piece. It requires no further sensory stimulation to enjoy. All it needs is some new adjectives to aptly describe it.
— David Malitz
Recommended Tracks: “The Magic Place,” “White Flag,” “Vow”
“How to Live With a Phantom”
Largely unfamiliar to American audiences, Shintaro Sakamoto has been a fixture in the Japanese music scene for two decades, as the frontman for the well-loved Tokyo psych-rock outfit Yura Yura Teikoku. This past November, Sakamoto released his solo debut, “How to Live With a Phantom.” It is a strange and intoxicating affair, replete with unforgettable songs, head-scratching titles and persistent light-rock touches such as alto sax and unison female backing vocals. Western audiences might be reminded vaguely of Steely Dan, or even the recent Destroyer album “Kaputt,” but ultimately Sakamoto’s extraordinary talent for distilling a wide array of influences into an exquisite, colorful sound is something utterly unique.
The mood on “How to Live With a Phantom” is leisurely, even loungey, but suffused throughout with an unaccountable melancholy. “My Memories Fade” is a gorgeous lament featuring steel guitar and a peculiar, tugging bass figure that stubbornly refuses to resolve around the melody. Even for non-Japanese speakers, the profound sense of emotional restlessness transcends language barriers.
There is little Sakamoto won’t take on, and seemingly nothing he can’t do well. “In a Phantom Mood” is a nod to the marvelous samba of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The light funk of “Mask on Mask” is a salsa-flavored, two-chord jam featuring a catchy vocal line, and finally — get this — a great conga solo. And “A Gleam of Hope” suggests a reggae influence refracted through the 8,000-mile distance between Japan and Jamaica.
This is the essence of Sakamato’s brilliance. Without ever seeming inauthentic, he has created a mesmerizing sound that leaps effortlessly between genres and cultures that few others would ever think to co-mingle.
— Timothy Bracy
Recommended Tracks: “My Memories Fade,” “How to Live With a Phantom,” “Mask on Mask”