God Save the Scene

God Save the Scene
Hip-hop is in the midst of its own punk-rock revolution

Like rock before it, hip-hop has easily won a cultural acceptance once unthinkable, and our reward is a parade of Jadakisses and G-Unit solo projects, preaching empty and ultimately safe rebellion in the same way Boston and Foreigner once spoke to beer-drinking longhairs in high-school parking lots. That being the case, it was hard to hear Brits like the Streets and Dizzee Rascal and not imagine a hip-hop equivalent to the punk revolution of two and a half decades ago. Today's industry is too fragmented to be overthrown the way the Clash stomped REO Speedwagon, though, and just as Boston and Foreigner made some great records that will outlive every mullet revival in the future, one simply can't write off hip-hop's mainstream. Still, it's no coincidence that most of the best hip-hop of 2004 came from outside it--and the very best came from outside America.

1. The Streets, A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic). For all the mythology and analysis devoted to Mike Skinner's second album, the secret of its appeal is remarkably simple. Skinner not only wrote great, catchy songs--the riff-happy sing-along "Fit But You Know It" was easily the year's best single--but he actually used hip-hop to tell stories. When American rappers toss their notebooks of battle rhymes and street cliches for such old-fashioned yarn-spinning, mainstream hip-hop will become great again, and not before.

2. Dizzee Rascal, Boy In Da Corner (Matador)/Showtime (XL). "People are gonna respect me if it kills you," Dizzee Rascal snarls on Showtime, and he's right. Who would have believed that Tupac's heir apparent is a teenage East Londoner who unleashes his patois over ringtone melodies and video-game bleeps?

3. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). The one rapper/producer with as much cred in the Billboard Top 10 as in the underground, Kanye used the stunning College Dropout to build a long-awaited bridge between hip-hop's two tribes, revealing himself in the process as perhaps the most honest MC in the game (just listen to "All Falls Down," which says more about bling than the entire collected works of Def Jam and Cash Money).

4. Madvillain, Madvillainy (Stones Throw). Remember how hip-hop heads pissed themselves with excitement when producer-du-jour Madlib met up with his counterpart Jay Dee last year? This was the collaboration they should've soiled themselves over: MF Doom's comic-book-referencing rhymes and Madlib's sampledelic, try-anything production crammed more ideas into two minutes of "Strange Ways" than could be found on most full hip-hop albums this year.

5. Wale Oyejide, One Day...Everything Changed (Angry Robot). Atop haunting, Afrobeat-infused hip-hop, Wale Oyejide evokes the unease that spurred revolutionary manifestos like Culture's Two Sevens Clash, Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dread Beat an' Blood and any of Fela's more pointed work. Forget inanities like Jadakiss's "Why": This is real political hip-hop.

6. Various Artists, The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-83 (Stones Throw). In an alternate reality, Nutmeg State rhymers like Mr. Magic and Pookey Blow would have taken these amazing records to the charts and the bank, and hip-hop would never have been the same. Or would it? Listen to this crucial reissue and decide for yourself, if you care at all about...OK, OK, you get it.

7. Jacki-O, Poe Little Rich Girl (TVT). In the worst year for hip-hop women in some time (mainly because there was no new Missy Elliott album), Jacki-O's flawless interpretation of a Down South Lil' Kim stood out as much for its clever crunk-&-B production as for the expected in-your-face nastiness. Those looking for less raunch but no fewer crunked-up hooks should check out newcomer Ciara's Goodies, which has more of those than just the smashing, sassy title track.

8. Beans, Shock City Maverick (Warp). After probing hip-hop's boundaries for weaknesses in the Antipop Consortium, Beans crafted his ultimate bait and switch. Familiarly retro yet shockingly futuristic, the spare, gleaming electro-beats and jagged rhymes of Shock City Maverick offer old-school hip-hop viewed through a broken funhouse mirror...held to your throat.

9. 213, The Hard Way (TVT). Stripped of danger and ambition, Uncle Snoop was headed toward a permanent upper-left-corner residency on Hollywood Squares before hooking up with his old bandmates Warren G and Nate Dogg. Surrounded once again by luscious, lazy G-Funk, Snoop reclaimed the mantle of Tha Doggfather for the first time in years, creating an unexpectedly great set--comparable to catching an awesome high from the scrapings of an old bong.

10. Thavius Beck, Decomposition (Mush). The title, the dead-insect cover art, the gloomy and ironic concepts ("Amongst the Shadows," "Music Will Be the Death of Us All"), the ambient, mostly instrumental tracks--Decomposition plays like an homage to the '90s angst of Massive Attack. And considered as such, it's a true blast from the past, one that blows open a black hole allowing you access to trip-hop's disorienting dimensions once again. Smells Like Indie Spirit ver find yourself missing the word "alternative" as a concept, a signifier, a lifestyle? Nowadays, any dudes-with-guitars collective either has to do the Creed butt-rock thing, the whine-incessantly-about-your-ex-girlfriends emo thing or the get-beat-up-incessantly-by-your-ex-girlfriends indie-rock thing. It's harder and harder to find the best aspects of each combined: the fist-pumping intensity of the butt-rockers, the ludicrous melodrama of the emo kids, the inventive guile and vast record collections of the elitist indie crowd. That triad is increasingly rare, but--like pink hearts, yellow moons and purple horseshoes--magically delicious. Dan Leroy

Smells Like Indie Spirit
Music that made the world safe for the word alternative again

1. Muse, Absolution (Warner Bros.). It's hard to believe this record exists in 2004: pompous, overwrought and utterly exhilarating art-guitar rock that Kurt Cobain, or Kid A, or 9/11 allegedly "killed forever." It's got too many fancy gee-tar effects for Nickelback fans and too much soft-verse/loud-chorus pandering for Arcade Firemen; instead, it balances perfectly on the Schick Quattro's edge of English self-absorption and alt-rock self-flagellation. It also rocks yer face off.

2. Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets (Lookout!). Ken Burns could make a 10-part documentary about the song "Little Dawn" alone: The Punk Guitar God riff, the melody cribbed from "The Way You Do the Things You Do," the amplifiers-aflame chorus, and the final three minutes, wherein Ted moans, "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right" over and over. It's the only thing you need or want a rock star to tell you, especially now.

3. American Music Club, Love Songs for Patriots (Merge). Only Mark Eitzel--poet laureate, sad sack, meltdown time bomb--could sequence the gorgeous, dew-eyed optimism of "Another Morning" and the ranting, male-stripper-as-metaphor-for-America dirge of "Patriot's Heart" and knock both outta the park.

4. The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (Epitaph). This breathless half-hour-of-power's best song, "Dead Quote Olympics," is a derivative garage-punk tune that derides rival garage-punkers for being derivative. The word for this is "genius."

5. Various Artists (untitled CD inside the music issue of The Believer). God bless the mix CD. This one's got the Walkmen's "The Rat" for arena-rock grandiosity, TV on the Radio's "Dreams" for nervous, devastated funk and Death Cab for Cutie's "Title and Registration" for the vibraphone solo. The Constantines are today's Tom Petty, the Gossip is today's Aretha Franklin, and the Mountain Goats are today's Neutral Milk Hotel. It adds up to a favorable prognosis for literary rockers nationwide.

6. Talking Heads, The Name of This Band Is the Talking Heads (Rhino); Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador). Is it cheating to include these? Perhaps. But who among us is writing brilliant robo-funk pop tunes like the Heads, or emulating Pavement's habit of making utterly nonsensical lyrics and ramshackle grunge riffs glisten like the rough surrounding the diamond?

7. A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder (Matador). Effortless, effervescent melodies. Continuous sonic invention. Weird--and weirdly evocative--lyrics. Multiple projects, multiple guises. Anyone else think lead New Pornographer Carl Newman is Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard minus the Budweiser I.V. and goofy-ass onstage high kicks? Anyone think he's often better?

8. Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere (Warner Bros.) Drums, as far as capital-R Rock is concerned, are designed to make one noise: WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP. And no album this year WHUMPS with more aplomb than this one. The kick-drum pounds like the footsteps of Corona-drunk giants as the tunes blossom into sprawling, panoramic alt-rock vistas.

9. Blood Brothers, Crimes (V2). This record is violently unpleasant--spastic, migraine-inducing, terrifying, lyrically macabre to a Saw-like degree. The dueling-vocalist Brothers scream in unbelievably high-pitched shrieks, like miniature teenage girls drowning in your bowl of Cheerios. But an old BB song title says it all: "Every Breath Is a Bomb."

10. Cake, Pressure Chief (Sony). This is Cake's worst album, meaning that everything's great, but three or four songs are just sort of OK. The sound is still witty, crafty and outlandishly unique. Furthermore, that Bread cover ("Guitar Man") is glorious.-Rob Harvilla