Note: This XL Beatdown was (largely) guest-curated by Geoff S., who blogs over at Reading (b)log.
Nikki & Rich, "Next Best Thing"
AM: Sanitized retro R&B for the shopping mall crowd. If you find contemporary R&B a little too 'urban' for your tastes, but crave uninsightful lyrics about sex, this should do. 1/5
NS: The product of a jailbait chanteuse/enigmatic DJ duo whose idea of soulful probably begins and ends with Amy Winehouse, "Next Best Thing" at least has the ebullience of its subject matter and a comfortable and commanding lead singer, so it isn't all bad. But if DJ Rich Skillz wants to stay in this business, he might want to consider expanding his palate, and learn more than two piano chords. You know, just in case. 2.5/5
Teenage Fanclub, "Baby Lee"
AM: Shadows was in the can before Chilton died, but "Baby Lee" only highlights what a talent we lost. Even the Big Star obsessives in Fanclub can't fill that void, which isn't to say this isn't a good song. A bit slow, but the the tune churns along winningly, with a sweet chorus. 4/5
NS: Bandwagonesque fan though I am, the rest of Teenage Fanclub's discography remains unknown to me, and this piledriver of a power-pop number proves how mistaken I was to write them off. Their trademark heavy guitar crunch is mostly absent, but they find a worthy replacement via the magic of economically-applied string parts, which fit them well, of course. 5/5
Zola Jesus, "Night"
AM: Bands sure have weird names these days, don't they? It's not a problem, I guess, but this is music that grinds along gloomily. "Night" is just short of quality, without a compelling element to suck listeners into its dark haze. 2.5/5
NS: I like a bit of dreadful, stifling atmosphere in my music, especially stuff like Siouxsie and the Cure (as well as obvious antecedents like Bat For Lashes), but the thicket of keyboards herein would probably sound better soundtracking the next David Lynch movie than it would as a singular album. Zola Jesus certainly seems to have the skills necessary to make transportive music, so why does this feel pre-sequestered for goth club bathroom music? 3/5
MGMT, "Brian Eno"
AM: This would make for good listening on Halloween, if people still care about MGMT come October. Spookier than I'd imagined, which totally befits a tribute to the non-musician. The madcap "Eno" has something of the spirit--much diluted, of course--of Here Comes the Warm Jets, so I won't complain. 4/5
NS: MGMT might think this ultra-prehensile garage number has the requisite blips and bloops to act as a legit tribute to its namesake, but to my ears it sounds more like one of the late Jay Reatard's Nuggets psychedelic goofs, and that's not a bad thing. As an MGMT-agnostic, I find this more exciting than any of their previous chart-toppers, but as a statement of musical allegiance, it's no "Alex Chilton." 3.5/5
UNKLE, "Natural Selection"
AM: The music whirs and buzzes like XTRMNTR-era Primal Scream, but without the same fury. This song seems rather to skip along the precipice, without ever taking that plunge, hiding its tunefulness in some almost Peter Hook-ian bass work. 4.5/5
NS: UNKLE could teach Zola Jesus and MGMT a thing or two about how to do the 80's right (if you absolutely have to). Sounding like a Tears For Fears or Gary Numan song shot full of Hawkwind-amphetamine fuzz bass, "Natural Selection" shows again how often it is that the best post-punk is being made by DJs, especially in England. You also get some of the coolest bass tones in recent memory. 4.5/5
Erykah Badu, "Window Seat"
AM: The sort of thing Nikki & Rich will never be, "Window Seat" hearkens back to the Baduizms of the singer's neo-soul period. I was hoping for "Honey Redux" personally, but the gently lingering keys remind us that we won't need a next best thing while Erykah's still around. 4/5
NS: One of my biggest musical blind spots involves Erykah Badu and the neo-soul movement she comes out of (a very different type of neo-soul than Nikki & Rich), so perhaps not listening to New Amerykah Part One disqualifies me from making negative judgments. This is...not exciting music, to be sure. Badu is a powerful singer, but everything about the track is so quiet and lounge-y, so when something lovely does pop out of the ether, and the instruments get a bit more lively, you can't blame me for not noticing. 2/5
Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles"
AM: The productions sounds like the PS2 beats of Boy In Da Corner, without the sharp edges, and the rapping is barely competent. And yet, in something of a miracle itself, this song doesn't suck. The ICP's dumb wonder sounds so sincere I can't help but share it, and professionalism is never a prerequisite to a good jam. Side note: is there a contemporary American folk movement larger than the Juggalos? They must be doing something right. 3.5/5
NS: Thank you/fuck you Aaron for taking my ICP V-card after years of studiously avoiding this group [you can thank Geoff --Aaron]. But I won't lie: "Miracles" is a strangely powerful experience, less so for the music than for the inspiring conviction with which these two proudly ignorant rappers name off natural phenomena they are easily impressed by (Favorite: "Music is ALL magic/you can't even hold it!"). Their rap skills are non-existent, and the production is sub-Casio, but somehow that's beside the point, so I'm forced to plead the Fifth on this one. RATING: N/A
AM: These spasmodic rhythms recall Remain In Light in the best possible sense. The album cover of the upcoming Swim captures this groove better than my clumsy words could hope to. 4.5/5
NS: This is by far the best thing Caribou has yet produced. Typically inscrutable and distorted for maximum terror, it's also the ultimate amphetamine buzz of this nascent 2010. And at the same time...you can almost dance to it. Hats off to this math professor for using his considerable intellect towards the cause of cramming as many awesome and crazy ideas into a song as he can. 5/5
The-Dream feat. T.I. "F.I.L.A."
AM: A slice of Southern triumphalism that falls slightly short of its aspirations. The loud, synthetic horns regrettably overshadow the piano, which tinkles with quiet bite. Dream tosses out hooks like it's his birthday. 4/5
NS: You know from the first "AAAAAYYY" that this is a T.I. song, and then The-Dream intrudes on Tip's territory with his own trademark "Radio KILLLAAAAA," so it's hard to say who the dominant force is on this track. I'm always happy to hear new T.I., particularly when the track in question bears the hallmarks of his King-era music, but with the sweetness of those horns, this could easily be appended to Love Vs Money. And it would be one of the best songs. 4/5