Decided to catch up on the Africana this week, a field I’ve been avoiding all year for various reasons, the main one being coincidence. Nothing like an album title with the word “disco” in it to make me all eager and giddy.

After Dark 2

After Dark II

Italians Do It Better, 2013 [BUY]

This Italo-disco greatest hits compilation is tighter and less indulgent than that other album said to define the genre, the Chromatics’ Kill For Love, but it’s still bloated fantasia. There are a couple of neat tunes here, most notably “Cherry”‘s real emotional complexity. Regardless, trimming the many moments of art-rock pretension would go against the creative philosophy of label owner and producer Johny Jewel, who deeply enjoys playing the auteur.

Even with the occasional distorted guitar, I’m struck by how vividly this sounds like not just the Knife but also Kraftwerk: the textured percussion, the staccato cadence, the rubbery flow, the keyboards that morph from drums to synthesizers and back again. But where Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider kept things upbeat and bouncy, confessed wannabe pop star Jewel slows everything down and washes it over with enough glassy atmosphere and whooshing noises to reach precisely the type of solemn sophistication that is the unfortunate hallmark of detached Eurodada. The style recalls one of those Svedka fembots as the centerpiece of a neon-lit conceptual fashion show, singing through a harsh, grating vocoder. Sometimes she turns human and sings in a voice you can understand, in the form of Ruth Radelet’s breathy soprano or Anne-Laure Keib’s thick contralto. Then it’s back to the posing, the humorlessness, and above all the detachment.

This is far too robotic to pass for a masterstroke of camp: its emotional distance hardly qualifies as aesthetic distance. How to make art about bad art, wonders Jewel. Why, I’ve got it! By making bad art, of course!

The National: Trouble Will Find Me

The National: Trouble Will Find Me

4AD, 2013 [BUY]

The National exemplifies the impossibly morose, “sincere” college-rock beloved by the supposedly existent Brooklyn subculture that rules over the whole indie scene, not to mention those all around the world who wish to make it into this exclusive clique. Still, within the constraints of their style they’re quite agreeable, too spirited for college-rock by a long shot. They write terse, comprehensible songs, which means a lot when you’re passing yourself off as sincere.

From Matt Berninger’s weighty baritone to the alienated romance he sings about, he could be Leonard Cohen’s bastard son, conceived by some arty French groupie who caught him by surprise circa 1970. His music exists in the hot, irrational, erotodepressive world of Beautiful Losers, an enduringly transcendent 20th-century urban fantasy in which sophisticated bohemians fall in and out of love, jump down elevator shafts, and stay down with their demons. Where Cohen’s preferred mode is the sublimely subdued, Berninger’s is bigger, simpler, more anthemic. The surface richness inevitably caused by baroque violas, trombones etc on top of the guitar strumming softens the record considerably, but he keeps aiming for grand statements, and though I appreciate his commitment to the arena, it has the paradoxical effect of escalating his despair. However strong the beat is, in the context of all this dark murky texture it only pushes Berninger deeper into swampy sadness. The appearance of spiritual release is, I suspect, exactly what makes this sound so repressed.

Although the grave overall tone is what has always defined this band, it wouldn’t mean anything without moments of marked clarity and meaning, namely solid individual songs: “Pink Rabbits” and “I Need My Girl” find beauty in human contact; “Fireproof” doesn’t and you empathize anyway. If you’ve been conditioned to enjoy stylized emotion, this album might speak to you.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko

Basse Koukouyate

Out Here, 2013 [BUY]

Unlike numerous overweening African guitar gods, Malian troubadour Bassekou Kouyate’s sonic innovations are numerous, and mind you he actually plays the ngoni. At first it sounds overly thin and frantic, but the Western harmonic signature powers his ambition and outrocks any and all competition.

The ngoni is a West African lute. Kouyate’s sounds a little jangly, tinny, almost deliberately flat, and when he rips out a fat power hook or speedplucks his ominous arpeggios, its percussive trill is strikingly musical. Essentially, this record is a jam session, designed to give him ample room to solo, which he does fiercely, eagerly, letting loose with his melodic ratatat wherever he can. Rather than anger, the not-so-hidden secret of all too many egoistic virtuosi, Kouyate aspires towards the physically exhilarating. His heavy riffs beef up his shredding, singer Amy Sacko’s tangy wails add a crucial human touch, and the stringy, jumpy beat drives the quick circular motion and keeps the pace flowing. When clever American guitar god Taj Mahal shows up and his own special signature fits right in, it sounds like the blues might have started in Mali after all.

If you find Kouyate’s demonstrative instrumental technique a little disorienting, that’s the point — it’s lighter and tougher than the vast majority of Malian or even West African music. But it’s no novelty, let alone inaccessible. It’s ear-piercing, the sound of friendly, hard-earned celebration.

The Rough Guide to African Disco

Rough Guide to African Disco

World Music Network, 2013 [BUY]

The album title alone raised my expectations unreasonably, and I was not disappointed. As you might have guessed, there was no singular disco scene in Africa, unless soukous at its peak counts, just individual pop innovators canny enough to fuse their own rhythms with European ideas about arranging music. Yet this happened often and triumphantly enough I can’t help but suspect that this rock-solid compilation represents only the cream.

Although “Dance the Body Music” does recall “Keep It Comin’ Love,” don’t expect the Sunshine Band or anything silly like that. From stylistic disunity to simplified remixes to electronically treated vocals, nothing can prevent these delightful pop confections from riding a ripped funk groove based on the confluence of relentless forward-driving rhythms, chattering guitar chords, magically drifting horn melodies, and a transformative plasticity that makes everything here bounce irresistibly. Like many rhythmic constructions, it takes a while to sneak up on you. But let yourself glide on its fluent propulsion and jittery clavinet minitunes and you’ll easily settle into its self-sustaining musical pattern. Anyway, Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s gloriously synthy “Kwedini” sounds pretty immediate to me.

The commercial candor here occasionally does end up looking ridiculous — anyone who’s bonded with Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens’ Paris-Soweto will chuckle at the new, sped-up version of “Gzette” (or “Kazet,” who knows). I’m just happy to hear that shameless guitar hook. Shake shake shake your booty.

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...