Throughout the year, we’ll be revisiting acclaimed albums month by month as they turn 10. Thanks to services like Spotify, these works are readily accessible, and we can process them in a bubble, sans a time-sensitive and superlative-laden media boost, to see if they are any good. Along the way, we’ll explore how then-nascent technology changed the way we move as music fans.
One of Houston rap’s most iconic mixtape series was called Major Without a Major Deal. The music stemmed from the Swishahouse camp, and it helped usher in one of the 21st century’s most distinct and successful subgenres. Let’s harp on that declarative, prophetic title for a sec.
Houston rappers like Lil’ Flip and Slim Thug proudly bragged about their independent success. “I rocked 50 Cent and Eminem crowds,” Thug snarled on “Like a Boss.”
They sold barrels of burned CDs from their trunks, were treated like local royals, were the most cutting-edge artists on campus, and could not care less about officially signing with a major label. On 2002’s “Thinkin’ Thoed,” Chamillionaire copped to blowing off major-league advances:
*beep* It’s Def Jam and we heard all your tapes /
We want to sign you, we can’t wait.. *message erased*
Eventually, however, every leading man in the city—Cham, Thug, Flip, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, OG Ron C, Big Moe, Chalie Boy, Chingo Bling, Z-Ro, Aztek Escobar—spent a few years signed to a major, and 2005 was the insurgency. The year was anchored by major-label debuts from the frontrunners; faster than you can say “tippin’ on four fours,” Third Coast rap became a pop trend.
“I knew it was real around the end of 2004 when the labels started coming and sitting down with me and wanted to take me out,” Jones told me last year. “At the time ‘Still Tippin’’ was already out six months before the world caught it. We already had vocal regional love and support for the single. We were on the road getting paid from a song that did good for us.
“When we came out in ’05 it was Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug—it was a whole conglomerate. It wasn’t just one thing; it was a movement.”
Unfortunately, 10 years ago the traditional record label didn’t realize it was already dead. Like a startup that hires too many of its friends, major-label rap music wasn’t built to sustain multiple H-Town headliners.
As rap blogger Clyde Lovellette wrote, the hip-hop climate was warped and its aggressive regionalism was crumbling: “Napster had been around for half a decade and second-generation peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Kazaa and BearShare were already old hat, making the music industry start its nose dive… And as Pharrell’s Neptunes, Timbaland, and Lil Jon became pop crossover superproducers, scenes started popping up around the country.”
The most forceful agent of change in rap music was the Web. No other contemporary, secular, Western genre benefited as much from its connectivity. While the desire to sound like a baroque indie rock suite neutered American rock ’n’ roll—undercutting its regional music scenes in the process—in rap the Internet soaked away rivalries, ushered in the most collaborative creative space in genre history, and let weirdos find each other and explore.
Houston rap can dap peer-to-peer filesharing for its acceptance and underground profile. It was a medium that, at its most vital, skipped the jewel-case line and went straight from tape to data file. The year 2005 was over in a flash, but to date its mixtape footprint lives on in the most vital creative corner online, YouTube. Want a 54-video playlist of Slim Thug freestyles over unlicensed beats? Or maybe DJ Screw’s melted-and-lost 1997 tape, Southside Holding? With unaccredited bass from an unregulated file-trading market, Houston rap’s hustle became impossible for the big dogs to ignore.
The stuff that broke through in 2005 was often stellar, though it lacked the slow-pitch signature chop and screw of Swishahouse and the Screwed Up Click before them. Plus it was more fun to hear Paul Wall and Chamillionaire freestyle over Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive,” then upload it and spam your friends.
5) Mariah Carey — The Emancipation of Mimi
What critics said then: “It’s easy to scoff (a sleevenote extract: ‘Emancipation: to free from restraint, control, oppression or the power of another’), but Carey does seem to have undergone a transition, presumably generated by the knockback of being paid to leave her last record label. The result is a tough cookie of an album. Despite its grim title with its visions of messy self-absorption, The Emancipation of Mimi is—mostly—cool, focused and urban.”
Most dated thing about it: Those lazy, leftover Neptunes bangers that sound like a college apartment complex–sanctioned pool party.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.01
Like most records that go on to casually outsell everything in a given year, Mariah Carey’s comeback LP enjoyed massive pop success thanks to major-label force-feeding and timely collaborations. It’s contemporary pop for shopping mall food courts—the first sung words rhyme “party” with “Bacardi” on the Jermaine Dupri-produced “It’s Like That.” And of course the Neptunes (featuring Snoop Dogg) drop by to clang on Coca-Cola bottles.
Thematically Emancipation of Mimi is a Battle of Waterloo, post-breakup Facebook profile overrun with party pics that map out the self-improvement process. The release followed the cinematic failures of Glitter, commercial disappointments in 2002’s Charmbracelet, and later Carey checked into a Connecticut hospital for two weeks following “an emotional and physical breakdown.”
But no matter how well-curated, Carey attacks this thing with vocal ferocity rarely reserved an R&B legend’s 10th album. On the Bobby Womack-sampling “We Belong Together,” a track that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 14 weeks, her eighth-wonder voice finds its fuming, aimless counterbalance: “I turn the dial trying to catch a break, and then I hear Babyface, I only think of you.” Session guru and Roots keyboardist James Poyser facilitates “Mine Again,” and it’s an impassioned, gray-skies gem. There’s corny chimes, a Rhodes piano, jazz flute—it’s a Broadway segue—but Carey’s performance hurls a chair through the stained glass.
4) Mike Jones — Who Is Mike Jones?
What critics said then: “The only downside of this album is unfortunately somewhat predictable—a decided lack of depth lyrically. This isn’t a major problem given that this is an album meant to be played for the bump and not for profound jewels of wisdom, but at the same time you can only hear Mike Jones talk about ‘gripping grain and switching lanes’ so many hundred times before it gets stale; not to mention he seems to shout out his phone # every single song (281-330-8004).”
Most dated thing about it: Mike Jones as the most interesting man in music; rappers barking their phone number or official website at you (as opposed to handing you a business card with Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram links).
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.234
You can forgive Mike Jones for writing the most self-referential album in hip-hop history because he’s a perpetual charmer. On the 26-second intro, he sets the tone: “Be on the lookout for my next album, The American Dream. Hit me up: (281) 330-8004, baby. whomikejones.com.” For old times’ sake, I dialed up the iconic Houston area code and instantly got a “you have reached a non-working number.”
A great many people did not like Who Is Mike Jones? for political reasons. Screw heads couldn’t believe that this doughy jester got to bat first and play ambassador for the genre. Other H-Town artists—most infamously Chamillionaire, who dedicated a triple-album, 61-song opus to dissing Jones—saw Jones as a shrewd, disloyal associate. Outside the state of Texas, rap purists lumped Jones in with single-serving microwave hip-hop hits that existed to sell mobile ringtones.
Whatever, Jones’ actual record was a celebratory Champagne flute toast strung up by monster-truck singles that were locally sourced. Austin, Texas’s Carnival Beats produced six songs here, including immortal bangers “Still Tippin’” and “Back Then,” both built upon mastermind cut-and-paste samples. On the Lil’ Bran–featuring “Scandalous Hoes,” Jones muscles up with jack-hammer rhyming over casually effervescent soul. Producer Mike B’s fluorescent Miami synths slide up and down the block on “Flossin’” while the late Big Moe coos about codeine and candy paint. For his part, Jones dispenses genius marketing tactics, rhyming “My album, Who Is Mike Jones? coming soon” with “My album, Who Is Mike Jones? coming soon”
3) Robyn — Robyn
What critics said then: “Her pop fun is a bit knowing—she’s 26 after all. But trust the Swedes. They know what they’re doing with this sort of thing. Plus it’s all over in 35 minutes. If you think people should be fined for albums over 60 minutes—is that ballad really worth it?—you’ll appreciate this.”
Most dated thing about it: Casual cultural appropriation.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.8431
Credit Robyn for its unexpected thrills: By 2005 the Swedish singer was an also-ran commodity, having spent the ’90s as a disposable teen. Jive Records discouraged her experimentation, so Robyn ditched the bigs and started Konichiwa Records. The subsequent self-titled album is an uneven epic with breakthrough moments. On the Chappelle’s Show–nodding “Konichiwa Bitches,” Robyn has fun with cultural tourism and raps lines like “check the scenario I’m a bust your ear drum” and “you is a punk.” The heisted swag predated the thinkpiece era that swarmed Iggy Azalea, but it hasn’t aged gracefully. Robyn gets a pass because the track comes bundled into an expressionist clusterfuck of an experimental record. “Handle Me” kisses off the players with that turn-of-the-century pop trope of pairing hip-hop drums with cheesy acoustic guitar (think Blaque’s “808”)—but there are two other central, melodic lines warping the post-TLC single. Despite the staredown, Robyn pushes her insecurities forward on “Who’s That Girl?” The synthesizer barrage was a riveting collaboration with the Knife, and it’s fertile territory for a breakdown: “I just can’t deal with the rules, I can’t take the pressure,” Robyn sings before admitting to not being a Gone Girl–esque cool girl. Thank goodness.
2) The Mountain Goats — The Sunset Tree
What critics said then: “And no, I’m not a low-fi purist, so it doesn’t at all bother me that he’s upped the production. In fact, the accompaniment of Peter Hughes, John Vanderslice, Franklin Bruno, Scott Solter, and Maldoror fan Erik Friedlander open things up here (as on his last few records), allowing Darnielle more space to take some breaths, work on atmosphere, introduce catchy piano trills, some distorted grinding noises, and cello swells. But yet my first few listens to The Sunset Tree, the Mountain Goats’ third 4AD full-length and follow-up to last year’s We Shall All Be Healed, left me cold, even though Darnielle axes his fictions and explores his own personal life, specifically an abusive stepfather.”
Most dated thing about it: Being mad at John Darnielle for not recording music on an old boombox.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 9.1553
“Dilaudid” was the advance single sent in to the student radio station. On it, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats furnishes hot air about a relationship’s tipping point: “Put on your gloves and your black pumps / let’s pretend the fog has lifted.” He sings with nasally affection and unchained angst over an agnostic, dignified cello. The album it’s tethered to works backward from this teenage meltdown and focuses on Darnielle’s childhood as a suppressed, often-abused boy.
By 2005 Darnielle was a heralded storyteller, but his pen’s stinging wit had yet to turn violently inward. A year prior, We Shall All Be Healed dealt half-seriously with the carpenter ants in the dresser, flies in the screen, and meth addicts he’d come across as a wandering youth. The Sunset Tree is explicitly autobiographical.
But despite being the third-straight Mountain Goats release that featured a full band, the album’s full-bodied styling was an attached, circular talking point. Luckily we can ignore that aesthetic nonsense and process the songs because they continue to bite. “Six cylinders underneath the hood, crashing and kicking… I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me,” Darnielle sings on “This Year,” the album’s caution-to-the-wind banger. But by the whispered “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones,” the futility of a life lived under arrest crept back in: “treated the days as though they’d kill us if they could, wringing out the hours like blood-drenched bedsheets.”
The Sunset Tree’s enduring pressure stems from its wounded optimism. Even as Darnielle sings about waking up his dad and getting a beating on “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” he sees the endgame: “Held under these smothering waves
by your strong and thick-veined hand,
but one of these days, I’m gonna wriggle up on dry land.”
1) Okkervil River — Black Sheep Boy
What critics said then: “Leave it to [frontman Will Sheff] and Okkervil River to somehow make such contradictory impulses mesh. With Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River has ascended to heights only Wilco, Will Oldham and Neutral Milk Hotel dare to fly. First and foremost, Black Sheep Boy is a spellbinding Southern Gothic narrative with evocative imagery—a wounded heart and bloody violence. Each song is short story unto itself, though some are seemingly connected by Scheff’s [sic] simple, unaffected metaphors.”
Most dated thing about it: The vitality of deluxe-edition CDs.
Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 9.1554
Black Sheep Boy is an album sparked from an obsession with folk singer Tim Hardin’s 1967 song by the same title. Hardin overdosed and died of heroin in 1980, and “Black Sheep Boy” spelled out a critical relapse that began with a visit home.
Following two strong but quietly revered releases, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff was broke, homeless, and increasingly realistic about his music’s fiscal ceiling. Okkervil River wrote and recorded its breakthrough epic in a rat-infested garage while Sheff worked at Austin’s Vulcan Video.
As Consequence of Sound notes this week, what distinguishes Black Sheep Boy from its 2005 contemporaries is that it took forever for anyone to notice it:
…one glowing New York Times review put them back on the radar. Then Pitchfork included Black Sheep Boy on their list of 2005’s overlooked records. Suddenly, everybody wanted to get on the train.
But by 2007, the band booked gigs on the University of Texas campus and had the cultural cache to solicit an entire student orchestra (full disclosure: I strong-armed the student concert-planning committee into backing this idea, and we didn’t sell out the place). Black Sheep Boy fueled a seven-year festival run for the band. Not bad for a terminally jaded songwriter.
“I don’t view the world as positive. There is friendship and love and devotion and faith, but you look at what’s happening in the world, and we’re headed for disaster. There’s fear and pain and cataclysm and mortality and betrayal. These are rules of life,” Sheff told me in 2011.
Black Sheep Boy has a frenetic romantic edge rooted in the cataclysm that comes without reciprocated affection. “Climb into my arms with blood on your clothes,” Sheff sings on “A Glow.”
The American music landscape is littered with sad white dudes, but this is a gorgeously decorated and pensive series of arrangements done on a shoestring budget. Every song is urgent, and there’s no elbow room.
Photo via Kenny Louie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)