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Sharp Darts: A Few of My Favorite Things

Taking the measure of 2008 calls for more than just a list of albums.

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The Disco Revival When LCD Soundsystem honcho James Murphy and drummer Pat Mahoney dropped their excellent entry in the Fabriclive DJ mix series late last year, it didn't make much of a splash. Within a few months, though, it had become clear that their mix—mostly a strain of vintage underground disco much darker, more dangerous sounding, and more explicitly gay and black than anything the Village People ever did—had catalyzed a sea change in the hipster quadrant of clubland. It seemed like a couple years of getting pounded by bloghouse's overblown synth noise had primed everyone to crave disco's smooth thump instead. Now abetted by a network of crate-digging bloggers, Murphy and Mahoney are extending their archaeological expedition to uncover the slinky, hedonistic sounds that ruled influential New York clubs like the Paradise Garage in the late 70s but were basically unknown to the outside world. The success of their Special Disco Version DJ tours and the emergence of dozens of similarly themed club nights around the country—to say nothing of the enthusiasm that greeted the Hercules and Love Affair record—prove they're onto something.

Commercial Hip-Hop Getting Weird A decade of dominating the pop charts let mainstream hip-hop get lazy, content to recycle stale gangsterisms and the sounds of a handful of big-name producers. Now that the bottom's dropping out of the music industry in general (and gangsta rap in particular), the genre is scrambling to catch the ears of lapsed fans. That's led to some pretty wild experimentation, and the Top 40 has become a free-for-all. Beyonce and Kanye West made hits out of songs that take minimalism to a crazy extreme, slicing down to the bone and then through it—other than their vocal melodies, "Single Ladies" and "Love Lockdown" have barely any harmonic content at all—and reformed trap stars like Jay-Z and T.I. have been reaching across the aisle to enlist hipster favorites like M.I.A. and Santogold for collabos. Meanwhile Lil Wayne turned the hiccuping, amelodic "A Milli" into the biggest hip-hop song in the world, in between oddball stunts like quoting Green Day through Auto-Tune on a dark mix-tape track and abandoning his mike during an in-studio BET rendition of "Lollipop" to play a screeching guitar solo.

The Dutchess & the Duke, She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke Now that indie rock's trend cycle is churning so fast that everybody can be totally over the latest hyped-up band before they even put out a record (sorry, Black Kids), the Dutchess& the Duke seem almost badass in their utter disregard for next-big-thing one-upmanship. There's nothing remotely innovative on the Seattle duo's debut album (released this summer by Hardly Art), unless you consider treating early-Stones melodies to an early-Dylan delivery an aesthetic breakthrough, but their fuzzy lo-fi acoustic sound and their talent for channeling heartbreaking romantic vibes through three-chord folk-pop put it at the top of my most-played list this year.

Africa in the Spotlight Any record collector worth his salt has some African albums in his stacks—Fela LPs have long served to certify music nerds as cosmopolitan in their tastes, and discs from excellent series like Ethiopiques and Congotronics are acquiring a similar status. But until recently the continent has been represented in the West almost exclusively by styles that evolved decades ago. As more Africans have gained access to the Internet, though, indigenous styles—many of them responses to Western club music, like kwaito in South Africa, kuduro in Angola, and coupé-decalé in Cote d'Ivoire—have started reaching us while they're still fresh. In 2008 listeners in America and Europe were exposed to a flood of new African music—Diplo in particular has been great about releasing the stuff here—and it's all got more in common with what your local hipster DJs are spinning than it does with, say, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Two highlights: DJ Mujava's addictive "Township Funk," a stateside club staple that matches a dizzy keyboard lead to a sparse, Africanized house beat, and the Very Best's refit of Vampire Weekend's "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," where Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya uses a brand-new melody to transform the tune from an Upper West Side approximation of Afropop into the real thing.

Portishead, Third The second most surprising thing about Portishead's third studio disc was that it came out at all. The group's late-90s implosion had all the hallmarks of a permanent split: an album put together in an atmosphere of sanity-breaking perfectionism, followed not by more studio work but by a live recording, and then solo records from some members and silence from others. The first most surprising thing was that the group ditched the swooningly romantic aesthetic and spy-movie noir of its 90s material for harsh, industrial tones and an overwhelming sense of paranoia and knife-edge unease. What's not so surprising is that, like Portishead's other albums, Third is pretty much flawless.

The Return of Lo-Fi Today anyone with GarageBand, a hundred bucks' worth of gear, and a bit of know-how can compete with the pros of a decade ago. Clean, professional-quality home recordings are the norm, and this has apparently provoked a bunch of aesthetic regressives to remind us of the charms of dirty, amateurish tape jobs. To my ears LA art-punk duo No Age are the best lo-fi revivalists—their album Nouns has made its way onto dozens of year-end lists, either despite or because of its cheap-ass aesthetic—but they're hardly the only ones. Enigmatic Brooklyn garage act Blank Dogs buries a wealth of pop hooks under layers of tape hiss on The Fields (Woodsist) and On Two Sides (Troubleman), and a San Diego solo project called Wavves, whose fuzzy full-length Wavves (Woodsist) caught more than a few ears, looks ripe to become a full-fledged phenomenon with next year's Wavvves (De Stijl). Meanwhile tastemaking hipsters who've watched the vinyl fetish go mainstream—even Best Buy has a vinyl section now—have turned to the cassette tape as the au courant fuck-you to digital fidelity.

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