On first listen, Jens Lekman reminds you of Morrissey. Like the ex-Smith's frontman, the 26-year old Swede's got a rich baritone warble, a sly wit and a penchant for moony-eyed romanticism. But that's where the similarities stop. Lekman's the sort who'd write a song (“A Postcard to Nina”) about posing as the boyfriend of his lesbian friend while on vacation in Berlin. If a girl from Berlin asked Morrissey to do something like that, he'd probably laugh at her, tell her she was fat and head to the local leather club.
You'd want Jens Lekman to date your sister. He's completely non-threatening, sharply-dressed and witty. The kind of
guy chap who has no problem telling the media that he's in “love with being in love.” This is probably because of Lekman is Swedish, and let's be honest, we'd all be pretty stoked too if we had six weeks of vacation, universal health care, good cheap vodka, and 6-foot tall blonde bombshells around every korner. But what separates Lekman from other sappy singer-songwriters is his sense of humanity. He doesn't blame his lesbian friend's father for his bigotry. Instead, he's a “sweet old man who just can't understand.” With its nostalgic longing, “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo” reminds you of a Swedish version of The Talking Heads' “The Big Country.” Yet rather than sneering “I wouldn't live there if you paid me,” Lekman dreams of bringing some friends out to the country and turning the clock back to 1952. Sure it's a tad Vanilla, but give the guy a break, what's he supposed to do, complain about much he hates Ikea?
I think Graduation is the 19th best record of the year but I still kind of hate it. This is partially because I am a “hater” (maybe), but also partially because anything by Kanye West is surprisingly easy to hate. Accordingly, there are any number of gripes that you might have with Graduation. “Drunk and Hot Girls” has by now probably been used in 43 fraternity date rapes. It features Chris Martin, which makes it 33 percent more boring. It features more synths than a Depeche Mode record, which makes it 66 percent more gay. And lyrically, Kanye's never been this simplistic. I mean “Let's get lost tonight/you could be my black Kate Moss tonight?” Really?
But over-ambition has always been West's trademark and Graduation is no different, containing as much brilliance as it is has hubris. Blessed with the ability to tap into the main vein of the zeitgeist, Kanye mixes and mashes everything everything from Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne to Daft Punk and Michael Jackson, to Steely Dan and Can, to Jay-Z and DJ Premier. If the hoary cliche reads that there's something for everyone, Graduation is the rare record that actually delivers. On the mic, Kanye is still never going to be anyone's favorite MC, but he's improved with time. Most importantly, he's learned how to minimize his flaws and maximize his strengths. Even if he's still arrogant enough to brag that you can't tell him nothing, at the very least, Graduation is good enough for him to have earned that right.
Have you ever looked at the way outdoor cats stare out the window when they're trapped inside on a sunny day. How their eyes seem to open up wider than movie screens, as though whatever is going on just outside that thin glass pane is the most important thing in the entire world. Well, that's sort of how I get whenever I listen to Beirut. No matter where I am when I hear it, I know that someplace else is better. It's the sort of music that makes me want to be in some remote corner of a strange Eastern European republic, sipping acidic coffee and smoking Turkish cigarettes that taste like asphalt while listening to a clan of gypsy buskers crashing their way through an exotic, melancholy ballad. Beirut makes you want to travel when you're land-locked and when you get old enough to realize that that sort of peripatetic existence isn't always possible, listening to it too much can make you a little crazy. Of course, Beirut's a prodigy of sorts. He had to be. This is the sort of music that has to be made by someone still young enough to be able to pretend.
One of the most irritating things about music criticism circa 2007 is the way in which critics seem to think that having the taste of a 13-year old girl is a badge of honor. Check out out this Slate article where Jody Rosen brags about having “more wussy girl-pop on his year-end list than any other critic.” Of course everyone has the right to their own tastes but no one should be proud that their Top 25 Best songs of the year list includes cuts from Jennifer Lopez, Mickey Avalon, Mika, Katherine McPhee, and Gwen Stefani. What bothers me so much isn't as much the brainlessness of the music in question but rather the thought that more often than not critics don't dig very deep and instead conflate “good music” with “popular music.”
Souvenir is the type of group that popist critics should be talking about. Watch the video above. Their music is as glossy as it comes, washed with 80s keyboards, cocaine synths and breathy chanteuse vocals. And the entire album is great, sort of like the bastard child of Fujiya & Miyagi and Annie. Instead, Souvenir didn't appear on a single year-end list that I've seen and consequently you probably skipped over this entire section because you have no idea who Souvenir are. But you should. 80s-style French pop with surf guitars typically isn't my type of music, but 64 is so good that it transcends its genre. Watch the video above. Download the song below. Get your fix of sugar and obscene catchiness. I promise you this is better than the J-Lo record.
Lupe Fiasco is the best rapper to emerge from the major label system in this decade. Those are strong words until you consider the competition. Kanye's still way more of a producer than a rhymer. The Game's good but lacks originality. 50 was past his prime as soon as he hit it and even Young Jeezy's fans have to pretend that he's more of a motivational speaker than a rapper. But in terms of pure ability, from vocabulary to rhyme patterns, from technical skill to conceptual originality, Lupe Fiasco is clearly ahead of the rest. For all practical purposes, Lupe should be considered the second coming for people who consider themselves fans of “that real hip-hop.”Whatever that's supposed to mean.
There's only one problem, Lupe Fiasco isn't really hip-hop. He's something else entirely. Of course, he's a rapper, but he's too creative and too much of an original to get boxed into genre constraints. What Nas really meant was that the NYC-centric, punch-you-in-your-face version of “real hip-hop,” is dead, “hip-hop” will always live in some form. And Fiasco's very much of the new generation trying to break free of the elders' out-moded thinking. He raps that he's “American mentally with Japanese tendencies and Parisian sensibilities. Raw he's not going to give it you. Like all genius' (Jay-Z's words, not mine), Fiasco is prone to bad decision-making. This album is a little too emo and Matthew Santos has a nice voice but he doesn't belong anywhere near a hip-hop album. Yet The Cool is that rare major-label rap that demands rewinding, and yes, refuses to dumb it down.