James Blake – James Blake (2011)
The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.
The trio of Gibbons, Hill and Beard were always thinly veiled rip-off artists, but they tended to be damn good at it, fusing John Lee Hooker’s riffs and attitudes with the kind of classic rock hooks that fit snugly on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. On Eliminator, those mainstream tendencies completely took over, and it was a blessing. By polishing up their guitar sounds and throwing some love songs into the mix, ZZ Top found the balance they needed to make a great record. Instead of sounding like a guy who’s bullshitting his buddies, a la “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Billy Gibbons sounds sincere in his appreciation of legs, suits and TV dinners, letting his guitar do the bragging with one indelible riff after another – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man” is one of the strongest opening sequences in ’80s rock.
Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (2010)
The second mixtape Das Racist released last year, Sit Down, Man, was a Discman constant for me, along with the Wallpaper remix of their corporate homogenization novelty song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Now that I’ve circled back and picked up their debut mix Shut Up, Dude, it’s crystallized in my brain – few things are more fun these days than listening to these guys. The lyrics might be delivered with a stoner’s irreverence, but they’re meticulously packaged blasts of verbal candy, delightfully off-kilter (“We can eat gruyere as if we care/We can eat Roquefort, or we can kick it like Rockport”) and rich in pop culture (references include Saved By the Bell, Tim Meadows, The Land Before Time, Look Who’s Talking Now and Jake Gyllenhaal). And given that it’s a mixtape, Das Racist can rap over anything, whether it’s a choice Madlib beat or a hyped-up slice of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” The result is mischievous, way smart and party ready, and a reminder of how much fun rap is when it doesn’t have to worry about intellectual property law.