Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
Concept albums dragged asunder by unending skits are nothing new in hip-hop, let alone concept albums, although a narrative boasting such levels of complex specificity as this seems rather fresh. So even if by the second listen I was skipping over those skits without a second thought, Lamar’s achievement seems indelible - an urban rapture that delineates the limits of tribalism and the wretched cycle of purposeless violence, all set against the backdrop of a Rosecrans Avenue circled endlessly by our narrator and his homies. Lamar’s too kind to his Compton elders-not-betters, making room for Dr. Dre’s supposed insight long after the protege has made deeper points, and one listens in vain for female voices transmitting something beyond sage advice or siren calls (even the song about love interest Sherane seems as much a tribute to the gorgeously sampled Janet Jackson as any girl on the block). Yet how many twenty-five year olds have the subtle smarts to craft a bona fide crunk anthem decrying the physical impact of crunk’s poisons? How many assume their audience will be sophisticated enough to keep jumbled timelines straight, playing up their crass youth by comparing their dick to the Eiffel Tower and commandeering Martin Luther King’s dreams as their own only to prove how far they’ve come? How many challenge the allure of the aforementioned tribalism with wisdom like “I’m real / I’m real / I’m really really real”?
Sonic Youth, Smart Bar: Chicago 1985 (Goofin’)
Captured shortly before they willingly tipped headlong into something approaching songcraft, these fourteen blazing performances from an artsy New York noise band highlight the moment a new drummer helped lift the tempos of a sprawling collection of no wave/thrash hybrids for an indie audience still suspicious of melody and grandeur. Hüsker Dü may have led the noise-tune pack, but nobody could drone and squall like the unimpeachable front line of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo. Soon, nobody would chime and weave like them, either, but aside from a few intros and outros, those nods to an improved-upon psychedelia awaited future expression. This is where to go if you want to remember a band just determining how to control their chaos, washing the bad taste of the ’84 election from their collective mouths, allowing their Madonna fascination to leak out via strategically-placed boombox blasts, figuring out how to play Kim’s clenched throat extremism against Thurston’s laconic murmur. And if it’s grandeur you seek, attend to the eight minutes of an embryonic “Expressway To Yr Skull”.
Lana Del Rey, Paradise (Interscope)
Either the voice hits you where it counts or it doesn’t. That studied contralto certainly seems less wobbly than the often-labored metaphors, from Whitman and Elvis to quote unquote America, as in “like an American,” an attribute she does not consider positive. Making concrete those David Lynch rumors through a rather straight version of “Blue Velvet,” Del Rey views both the beloved 1950s and the present day through a mind warped by cinema and a Warholian aesthetic sense exemplified by her observation that “A flag waving or a Pontiac Grand Am — I didn’t even have to know what those things stood for to know they were beautiful”. Such an approach may have its limits. But comparing her pussy to Pepsi Cola is perfect, refusing the easy iconicity of Coca Cola and employing the junkiest imagery possible of an inauthentic Americana she gets off on. Which is why her claim the phrase was a gift from her approving Scottish boyfriend rings so wrong. Why hand over those writing credits so easily?
Keyshia Cole, Woman To Woman (Geffen)
Despite attractive details - the solid grooves of “I Choose You” and “Missing Me,” the squelch of “Stubborn” - the production is rarely more than capable, and one does wish the diva herself deigned to sweat once in a while. But woman to woman is right - just like the Shirley Brown hit she echoes, Cole aims to bypass the men nearly single-handedly screwing up the relationships of both her fictional protagonists and her legions of largely female fans, the latter explicitly acknowledged as the album’s inspiration. And for once, that tribute seems more than lip service, as befits a straightforward r&b star whose ego functions merely as something a male jerk carelessly bruises, and as befits a generous singer who gamely trades verses with a rival like Ashanti yet consigns Robin Thicke and (especially) Lil‘ Wayne to faintly ridiculous background cameos. Standout track: “Get It Right,” in which a relationship flounders on the evidence of disinterested strokes and moans. Runner up: “Zero,” in which a selfless persona discovers her limits.
Sinkane, Mars (DFA)
Having fled his native Sudan for Ohio and eventually Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab drummed a bit for Of Montreal before finding his rhythmic niche amid the mildly proggy acolytes of the DFA label, and while he knows how to create a beat, he seems less sure of what to do with one. Minus sweet-voiced afropop opener “Runnin’,” these are ideas for songs the creator either won’t or can’t complete - riffs, rhythms, bass lines, keyboard glissandos. Also, spaced-out jazz flute and a dreadful seven minute closer suggesting some melange of David Sylvian and bad Arthur Lee.
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man (Capitol / Parlophone)
Any song thrush with a weakness for astrology gets compared to Kate Bush, but Natasha Khan’s intellectual concerns seem more in line with Robert Smith’s, right down to her ability to make even the most optimistic of statements seem glum - not much audible hope in her voice behind “where you see a wall/ I see a door / you’ll get through” or even “thank God I’m alive”. Fans claim she’s toned down the eccentricities and melodrama since last time around, and when considering the Bowie-ish faded starlet ballad “Laura,” I kind of want to believe them. But what about Khan swooning “I am Hope / and I show my knife” over a massed choir reciting “oh yeah”? What about begging the thunder bolts to strike or boasting the garden bloomed a flower for each day of her absence? What about her claim that “skidding rabbits make good paper goats”? Or was that “scaredy rabbits”?