CHICAGO — With unknown artists largely relying on individual singles to drive them to popularity, the EP seems to be making a comeback recently. This means they keep getting better, which is especially heartening for those of us with twenty other records to get to. Recent ones I recommend are usually pseudo-dance music: Ry Legit’s Serial Killer EP, Blaqstarr’s Divine and anything by Skrillex, who has released about three in this past year alone. Evidently Skrillex is working up to a full-length to be released this year. I don’t want to spread rumors, but keep your ears peeled.

Bombino: Agadez

Cumbancha, 2011 (BUY)

As a Tuareg who has only just now obtained the legal right to play the guitar, I’m surprised Omara Moctar couches his shredding in the subdued guidelines of Saharan desert blues as much as he does, so I guess you gotta be careful when your producer considers you “Africa’s newest living legend.” Impressive any way you look at it, this album is all the more powerful with the knowledge of the hell this man has been through in the last Tuareg rebellion — beyond respect, he deserves your money.

Compared to the raging live set of 2009’s Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2, he comes on mild at first, but that’s to say nothing of the subtle rhythmscape of drums and bass and shakers and whatever those echoey sliding percussion bits are. Out of this flow his skilled guitar lines, which he has crying like a fire in the sun. His voice rarely dominates, but thanks to the African principle of music-before-words, the emotion of the songs isn’t lost on those who don’t speak the language, not with his rhythm section.

He’s a great songwriter, too, achieving the clear, humble feeling of folkies at their best. As rich and rewarding as Automatic For The People, only grooveful. That includes the long, nearly aimless jams. A+

Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto

Parlophone, 2011 [BUY]

The latest commercially viable critic’s band isn’t just a carbon copy of Radiohead, or anybody else for that matter. They’re happier, more into uplift, and they even have their own watery sound. But they share the same bummed musicality and airiness, and have the potential to go much deeper if this suited their trendiness, which it doesn’t. If they just understood this, they could fully conquer the charts and the critics. That’s too bad, because Chris Martin is plenty bright.

Here, though, now that they’ve maximized their fame, they get loftier by the minute. On this concept album, based on a Nazi resistance movement and also historic graffiti, they make their pompousness explicit. They haven’t gotten any more engaging — their echoey delicacy will sink immediately out of consciousness unless you pay attention. But they’re not without some vague allure. Their textures, for one, are neat and layered without being overbearing. The “enoxification” of this record at least keeps it absorbing when you take the time to listen. Like Radiohead, Coldplay is best used for entertaining plastic sonics; I recommend “Paradise” and the highly pleasurable hook to “Charlie Brown.”

All this reduces them to easy listening, ideal for airplanes before takeoff, or maybe a relaxing tanning salon. While there is a need for such calming music in these places, I see no reason for it to make Martin millions of dollars. Whatever happened to this being a song band? B

Das Racist: Relax

Greedhead, 2011 [BUY]

In which the guys behind “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” prove they’re not a joke and get funnier. The MCs here are highly literary and do a lot of wordplay, not a surprise from a group that met at Wesleyan. What I didn’t anticipate was that they turned out not to be total nerds. In fact, they’re really chill.

They use a bunch of tastemaker producers like Diplo, El-P and Patrick Wimberley to stick warm alt-rock synths onto their chintzy computerized beats and maniacal cackling/hiccupping, an urgently goofy sound they never could have come up with on their own. They’re not hyped as whiz lyricists for nothing, either – here, they triumph in what I never expected anybody to try, namely cash reclaimed and redefined as rap subject, driven away from the stereotypes of both gangsta brags and liberal protest. And that’s all in the middle of the cultural stream-of-consciousness they perpetrate like Le Tigre or Buck 65 before them, which in this musical context sounds as street as the Wu-Tang. Plus jokes, such as rhyming “Heems” with “Queens” in at least three different songs, are everywhere.

All in all, the record is a cohesive statement for their positioned subculture, all the more so that it can’t be reduced to a few words, which is also why plenty already haven’t “gotten it”. Considering how reactionary most tastemakers are, that’s probably the best recommendation out there. A

Gang of Four: Content

2011, Yep Roc [BUY]

I’ve always been amused by the Gang of Four’s success. Featuring zingers like “He fills his head with culture/he gives himself an ulcer”, “Their world is shrinking/but they dance as the dollar is falling”, and “Fornication makes you happy/no escape from society”, commercial affluence would probably be the last thing these radicals would want. Ignoring the fact that popularity would actually help them spread their revolutionary messages, these guys were born to be the underdog. The more disgruntled they are the better. Jon King and Andy Gill’s tautly dissenting material in the early 80’s predicted the future rather well, describing issues back then that would only intensify as time went on: “At Home He’s A Tourist”, “He’d Send In The Army”, and most of all, “Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time”.

Now that they’re still expostulating about the same issues, their music in what some call the Information Age actually seems more urgent and twitchy. How old they are provokes the suspect charge they’ve become placid, and they have calmed down a little. But adding weight to King’s flak and an exhilarating tremble to Gill’s scratchy guitar skewerings, that only intensifies the package.

You may say the Gang has lost their youthful militancy. I wouldn’t dispute it. Old-man rage, however, however, isn’t anything to sneeze at. It’s just as intense as before. It’s also a lot rarer. A-

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

2011, Sub Pop [BUY]

Robin Pecknold wins critics over by taking everything I don’t like about folk music and developing it into a distinctive sound, an expansively rustic, pietistic combination of guitar plucking, faceless keyboards, and mandolin. His baby voice is sometimes up to the mark, but when it’s not, it dribbles all over the rest of the music. This is rich and warm enough for me to feel nauseated.

There are only so many places you can take Simon & Garfunkel these days, and Pecknold has discovered why. He talks a lot about being a spoiled kid – “The borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth”, proclamations like that. But the feel-good melody is hardly redemptive, much less the poetasting. It surrounds your ears in a blanket of sunshiney harmonic ooze that’s just as suffocating as the self-pity that defines his bootlicking whine. On the title track, when he rambles, “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore”, he sounds like he hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. Privileged hippies are no myth.

True, at his best, Pecknold transcends retro-folk ho-hum. At his worst he provides a compelling argument for class warfare. C+

Ruth Gerson: Deceived

Wrong, 2011 [BUY]

Applying her idiosyncratic habits to classic balladeering, this career songstress sure can write, and on this cover record, she shows excellent taste. Though she’s toured with Dave Matthews and worked with Don Dixon, she’s both more interesting and more unassuming. I’m not surprised she’s donating some of the proceeds to fight domestic violence, because this is practically a concept album about females murder victims. But this sorrowful record speaks for itself.

Deceived closes with “Delia’s Gone”, the old standard done by, among many others, Blind Willie McTell, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Dylan. It’s a typical example of an established classic for unskilled folkies wishing to improve their authenticity, but Gerson makes it hers. She stays playful like Cash, turning his alluring growl into a mournful but vibrant tremble just as engaging. This sums up much of the album, which takes straightforward folk songs and displays them in a way that transcends protest but remains refreshingly political – hearing so many tragic stories in a row is painful, and that’s a compliment. Noteworthy is the plainness she practices, a musical asceticism that seems only natural to the material. Performance regardless, the songs here are great, period.

She presents the material humbly, but her minstrelsy leanings almost rival those of Cash himself, and she’s smart enough to get so far with these traditional songs. Then again, there’s a reason these songs are traditional in the first place. A-

Paul Simon: So Beautiful Or So What

Hear Music, 2011 [BUY]

You couldn’t tell it from the liveliness of the music or his twenty-something voice, but Paul Simon is seventy. Though he’s very bouncy, his age is starting to catch up with him, making for a calmer record. He always sounded beyond his years, an effect that has not changed and probably never will. But since he first broke the world music scene to the mainstream, he fell asleep for twenty years. Now he’s awake, and how.

For his official upturn, he capitalizes on his age to make the most pensively lovely music of his career. The subtle, melodic rhythms haven’t been this intensely global since 1990, and they help make his deep reflections universal. It wasn’t till the live show that I fully gained my now boundless appreciation for the bridge of “Rewrite” with its sweet little bass lick and exquisite guitar plucking. Even more endearing, though, is the fragment of song climaxing “The Afterlife”, not to mention the zebra grazing in the African savannah on “Questions For The Angels”.

What more is there to say? It’s a Paul Simon record! About time too – no one really sounds like him at all, despite his great influence. Especially healthy is “Love And Blessings”, which could be his thoughts on global warming. Then again, it could just be how beautiful he finds nature. A-

Generation Bass Presents: Transnational Dubstep

Six Degrees, 2011 [BUY]

Dubstep, along with the ethnic traditions that frame it on this record, is constantly evolving no matter where it is, England or America or anywhere. When a genre consists of how tech gurus can best refine previous tracks and sounds and textures, what more could you expect? So don’t think of this compilation as representative. What struck me was how well everything meshed together as if there were no genre distinctions at all. Given how fluctuating everything is, I guess there aren’t.

Hence DJ Umb can sequence whatever he likes out of dozens of pounding drops, synth-sitars, and of course a whole bunch of drum machines and somehow come up with this thorny jungle of a record. Techniques like breakbeats and wobble bass are rhythmically exploited into serving exotic pulses, evoking a vast subculture of lounges and raves that you imagine can be found in nightclubs all over the West and also the Third World. That’s the setting for the wacky music, where gadgets are made to sound like stringed instruments and a track called “Only Human” is followed by one called “Kamikaze”. And when their voices are sampled, people turn into demons.

Sure, it’s easy just to make up fads, like when Washington DJ Dave Nada invented “Moombahton”. But that means they can be easily transcended, and this record is the type of innovation where whole new cultural traditions are born. If you don’t believe me, pop some pills and go clubbing in London or Delhi or wherever Umb may take you. A+

I don’t believe in trends, but I’d like to take a moment and say that dubstep is a pretty good one. This is where electronic music is at right now. Ten years ago, people were getting wasted to the flowery, rhythmically illiterate sonics of Daft Punk; today we grind to Chase & Status, whose massive blasts of texture and dumb hooks fully justify the consumerism that makes them possible in the first place. I consider spirituality replaced by stupidity a philosophical triumph, and that’s as good a reason as any to explain why I’ve mostly been disappointed in last year’s critical consensus. At least we have the underground scene to vanish into.

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Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure dregs...