My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"The collaboration between underground hip-hop's most adventurous producer (Madlib) and its most treasured lyricist (MF DOOM), Madvillainy is full of dark alleys and trapdoors. DOOM's lines are extended vocabulary workouts and take repeated listens to fully unpack, yet there are times when the emcee peers through the Dada-ist carnival of words and speaks directly and honestly. Madlib's production, meanwhile, is pure pastiche, a smorgasbord of world music, classic soul and outsider music. Snippets of childhood recordings rub against Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins. It's a dark, funny and strange album."-Rhapsody.com
"Madvillain's music is accessible but idiosyncratic, catchy but soaked in noise, lighthearted but full of abstractions. Madvillain is why independent hip-hop isn't such a bad idea; this group needed breathing space."-Sasha Frere Jones, The New Yorker
Bad guys are cool. This has always been obvious; the lexicon of villains who are more appealing and fascinating than the heroes who battle them is so long there is no way I will even try to replicate this. Part of this is almost certainly our innate tendency to be attracted to things that are bad for us. There's an inimitable charisma the Devil possesses that his positive number can't come close to. Part of this is probably the taboo of it, the idea that we are transgressing by being drawn to the black hat in the story. Most of it, though, comes from the fact that there's an innate freedom to villainy. By their very nature, villains can do anything they want. They can murder, they can steal, they can break any and every rule that constrains us right-thinking, moral types. Villains are, at their core, representations of the freedom that we avoid because of a higher calling to morality (or, in some cases, because of fear of punishment or retribution).
This villainy-as-counter-culture idea permeates music (yeah, I haven't gone off the deep end. We're getting there). I would go so far as to say that most of the music we have listened to for this feature so far finds itself opposed in some way to mainstream culture. Captain Beefheart and all of experimental music, before and after, has tried its best to walk a different path than mainstream music, questioning our ideas about what music is supposed to be and the way that we experience music in daily life. Punk rockers like Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Sham 69 got their start from their distaste for mainstream music and disaffection for mainstream culture, and their music is a direct reflection of that viewpoint. Alternative music got its name from its refusal to cow to mainstream desires. Music is full out metaphorical outlaws (and not a few actual outlaws, though that's a discussion for another time), pillaging our cultural mores, plundering our societal standards, and generally not giving a hoot whether we can get on their wavelengths or not. This week, we will look at three artists who actually present themselves as transgressors, who cultivate (at least partially) their musical reputations on the idea that they don't fit into our ideas of "what's right" (whatever those may be).
The first, and the most obvious example of this trend we will examine here today, is Madvillain. Formed out of the duo of MF DOOM and Madlib, Madvillain, in name and in content both musical and lyrical, are obsessed with the concept of villainy. Part of this likely stems from the group's approach to hip-hop culture, but it also comes from their approach to music itself. Their debut album, and Collin's pick this week, Madvillainy, is an endlessly experimental examination of the idea of villainy, the concept of transgression and the view of taboo.
DOOm was born Daniel Dumille and emerged as part of hip-hop group KMD in 1991. The group also included DOOM's brother Subroc, and was known as an outright oddity in the hip-hop community: they were dark, strange, and suffused with a sense of racial unease. When their label, Elektra, dropped them and refused to release their racially charged second album Black Bastards, the group was set adrift; later that year, Subroc was hit and killed by a car. DOOM reemerged with a new name and some independent singles in 1999. The mainstream had refused to accept his artistic vision; it had spurned him. And so he turned himself into what he had been seen as, adopting his name from Marvel Comics baddy Dr. Doom. DOOM became a "villain."
Madlib, born Otis Jackson Jr., came up with the group Lootpack, but really established himself as a producer with the album The Unseen, which featured his voice sped up to create his alter-ego Quasimoto. Madlib was an outsider in more than just name. In a hip-hop atmosphere that had most producers moving away from sampling and towards increased instrumentation, Madlib was resolutely anachronistic, focusing mostly on jazz samples. He strove alone, outside the norm, against the current. He was, in his own words, a "villain."
These quiet rebellions form the core of Madvillainy, give backbone and weight to a series of sonic experiments that present 22 songs in 46 minutes. Each song is brief, and to the point, but more importantly each feels imbued with the idea of rebellion against the mainstream, a battle against old fashioned ideas, but also against progressivism that leaves behind the ideals and the techniques that so well served the past. It can be a difficult dichotomy to strike, yet Madvillain rarely missteps. The sounds and samples sound old and dust coated, but the ideas and rhymes sound fresh and new. The opening track, "The Illest Villains" is a spoken word sound collage that sets out the album's thesis with humor and an offbeat grace.
DOOM is, at heart, a poet. The rhymes on songs like "Raid," "Rainbows," and "Moneyfolder" are so enthralling you can find yourself lost in the cavalcade of words, yet taking the time to parse out their meanings is equally rewarding. Madvillain is a heavily referential group, and the album includes references to things as diverse as Star Trek and Mozart (in the quite clever "Figaro," which refers to the master composer as "the clever nerd, the best m.c. with no chain ya ever heard."
DOOM and Madlib were both burned by their dalliances in the mainstream, but Madvillainy never comes off as bitter. In fact, quite the contrary. The album is often joyous and life-affirming, but is always clever, continuously using strange sounds and dichotomous arrangements to keep up an impressive experimental edge.
Edward Ka-Spel is a different sort of transgressor, more the idiosyncratic artist than the "dangerous villain." We got a look at Ka-Spel's brand of oddity last week when we examined his band The Legendary Pink Dots, and his solo album, and Tab's pick this week, Laugh, China Doll never strays too far from the path he takes with the band. Rather than rebel against the mainstream, Ka-Spel has escaped it by creating his own mythos, complete with a vision of himself as a sort of crumbling statue (he regularly appeared on stage during the period of this album, wearing pink sunglasses and a long scarf, with black lines on his face and arms to represent his "Cracks."
The opening track, "Lilith's Daughter" has a hypnotically melodic opening riff that carries you into his haunted vocals. "Requiem" is a dark, melancholy dirge that captures the sadness at the heart of the album. Ka-Spel is a reluctant misfit, cloaking himself in oddness to cover up his innate alienation.
"Suicide Pact" has the looping, electronical sound of several Legendary Pink Dots songs, and plays with many similar themes throughout (including repeated references to the fact that "we're only faces in the fire." Careful readers will note that Faces in the Fire was the name of The Legendary Pink Dots EP we examined last week. Careless ones probably missed that last sentence too). "Dance of the China Dolls" is a suitably creepy melody that also has hints of playfulness and a delicate sadness. Basically, it sounds like what you might imagine China Dolls might dance to.
I can't say I love Laugh, China Doll unreservedly. It ultimately sounds almost exactly like The Legendary Pink Dots, which isn't a great thing for a solo album, but is perfectly satisfactory if you happen to love the band. Ka-Spel's songwriting is always personal in a mystical way, so it doesn't necessarily feel more personal on this solo effort. But overall, the album comes across as a nice view into the headspace of a very strange outcast.
Belle and Sebastian aren't "villains" like Madvillain, nor are they artsy outsiders like Edward Ka-Spel. They are outsiders, especially on their debut album, and Ashley's pick this week, Tigermilk in the way that we all are at some point in life (usually in high school). They feel outside of the mainstream, and their delicate, wistful pop is reminiscent of the kid who feels more outside the mainstream than he actually is. Tigermilk is an album about high school in the best possible way, capturing the feeling of wistful melancholy and nostalgia for times not yet past with a self-awareness that comes only with age.
The opening track, "The State I Am In" is, on the surface a song about the teenage need for obscurity (especially in respect to their parents), but is on a deeper level about the quest for something to devote yourself to, be it family (which may ignore you), religion (which may betray you), or work (which can leave you feeling cold). In a sense, "The State I Am In" is a thesis statement for the album which is endlessly searching in a way that is perhaps immature on the surface (with all of its metaphors for adolescence and angst) but asking lasting questions in meaningful ways upon second look. "Expectations" also uses the idea of school and the inherent expectations that parents, teachers, and other students have for you as a metaphor for the ways we all try to conform to others' views of us.
"Electronic Renaissance" is a song of almost unspeakably fragile beauty, a haunting ode to late-night self discovery, the sort of song that makes you get lost in yourself and your past. Again, the surface of the song is about insecurity and the way we let other people dictate who we are, but just a touch below the surface its about having the courage to stick to who you are regardless of what happens around you. My favorite song on the album, "We Rule the School," takes this pattern of high school as a metaphor for real life to its apex, begging us to "do something pretty while you can," which sounds simultaneously like the kind of advice "deep" kids might have thrown out, but also rings true in a way that is actually deep a few years removed from the high school experience.
Belle and Sebastian are a band comfortably in my wheelhouse, creating delicate, often melancholy pop that is the perfect background on a rainy day, yet I have never respected the band as much as I do after having delved into Tigermilk for a week. Sure, I almost always play "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" whenever I'm on an airplane, but I have never given them as much credit as they may deserve.
While Madvillain consciously chose to pose as "villains" in opposition to the mainstream, Edward Ka-Spel drifted there as a result of alienation. And Belle and Sebastian seems most comfortable posing as outsiders to get at deeper truths we tend to ignore, using a period of our life in which we all feel alienated to show us how similar and yet unique we all are. Madvillain stakes out territory between anachronism and progressivism, Ka-Spel between artistic indulgence and deep personal confession, and Belle and Sebastian in the space between the way we experienced the world in high school and the way it actually works, using our flawed former viewpoints to guide us toward actual revelations. Each of these groups is a "villain," willfully disregarding the rules we set out and drawing us in, partly through charisma, partly through taboo, and mostly through the freedom they enjoy by stepping outside the mainstream. They may each be "villains," but they are surely the kind worth rooting for.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next Week on My Year in Lists:
Portion Control wants us to Simulate Sensual and take a Step Forward, Mogwai asks us to form a Young Team, and Arcade Fire asks us to attend a Funeral.