Oh, Cee-Lo. Your rise to A-Lister status has not only been incredible and all- encompassing, it’s been meteoric. It seemed like only yesterday you were languishing in awesomeness with the Goodie Mob, and Gnarls Barkley, and solo hits like “Freak,” and now you’re selling me 7-Up and narrating American Dad and helping The Voice make American Idol look old and busted. The only surprise about your inevitable Christmas album is that it took so long to get here; you actually had to wait on December. Apparently even Santa is late to your game. Well played, sir. Well played.
The fact that a there’s even a mainstream holiday album by a guy whose ticket to superstardom was a song called “Fuck You” is proof of your genius. You always know when to pull back. Doing this thing as a combination of Phil Spector and Stevie Wonder’s Motown years assures your household status: you know that some of these warhorses (“The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas”) are never gonna sound fresh again, so you just went for pure tree trimmability. Jingle bells everywhere! It sounds like the soundtrack to a ’70s TV special, and it sort of is: I see you’re gonna perform the whole thing in Vegas and then stick it on YouTube. And yet it has soul: A carbon copy of “This Christmas” with just the right amount of extra tinsel on it, the first-ever good cover of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a nod to the Grinch, and even a song that takes the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna” to the Motor City. It’s a Christmas miracle!
I’m even willing to forgive you the holiday special coal in your Spector stocking. You probably knew you had to bring in Christina Aguilera for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a favor to The Voice, or to let Rod Stewart play Bing to your Bowie on “Merry Christmas Baby,” even though his voice is shot. Besides, that trio of serious songs near the end there actually sound like they have gospel roots. I know you mostly did that to get grandma over to your side, but hey, you brought gifts for everybody, didn’t you? Besides, you’ve got me feeling generous, even thought it’s early November. You’re really good at this celebrity thing, you know that?
Impact: 82. It’s nearly impossible to resist the appeal of this album, but for God’s sake, don’t play it for holiday depressives.
Innovation: 78. Covering Joni Mitchell’s “River” is a true stroke of genius, also the acapella jazz “Grinch.”
Integrity: 85. It practically tastes like peppermint. And yet it’s obvious he means every jingle.
Sorry to Bother You
One of the most energetic, creative, and clever rock bands out there right now is actually a hip-hop group. This is not entirely unprecedented if you remember Outkast (or for that matter Public Enemy), but you’re probably going to see a lot more bands cross the wall from the rap side — not just because hip-hop died and got absorbed by pop, like jazz and the blues before it, but because, economically and socially and now musically, rockers and rappers realize they’re in the same boat. After two decades of bringing communism, funk, sex, and eclecticism to their genre, this may finally be The Coup’s crossover moment. They used to be the Roots with an agitpop bent; now they’re indie-rockers with soul. The best moments here walk the line between snark and satire in a way rarely seen since the Clash fell apart.
If you’ve never heard this Oakland band/rap duo before, the surprise of Sorry to Bother You is how aggro it’s not: the beats and the lyrics are sharp, but there’s no attempt to conflate street cred with loud guitars. It’s more like a Black Keys collab with Dead Prez. If you’re a fan, the big shocker is how relaxed and comfortable they sound after six years off and some near-tragedies, and also how well they’ve succeeded at integrating their late-period sense of humor into their leftist polemics. Justin Sane of Anti-Flag showed up at the studio this time, but so did Das Racist. For a group that had to recall an album scheduled for September 2001 because it pictured then blowing up the World Trade Center, this is important.
In fact, the looser vibe ironically helps put their still-sharp commentary across better than ever. “Your Parents’ Cocaine” is a contender for single of the year; it’s such a dead-on parody of 1 percenter decadence that it could easily become a party anthem for people who don’t get irony. About half the time, the lyrics on Sorry trod the path of the group’s usual 99 percenter anthems, they preach to the converted just fine but don’t offer any emotional arguments to the mainstream. Well-intentioned they may be, but they can sound a little hollow, especially when you’ve been fighting the good fight since Clinton took office.
More often than ever, though, the parody stings; and sometimes, as on “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green,” it finally reaches the level of poetry: “I told them to smother in their mountains of stuff / And headed to the elevator door in disgust / They said ‘you’ve forgotten. you’re one of us’ / I looked down at my tail, rattled it, and I cussed.” Imagine dancing to that at a party. The Coup are making that possibility sound more likely with every album, which not only means they’ve done all they could for the cause, it means their actual ideas might finally catch on. Revolutions have started in duller ways.
Impact: 85. If the lyrics did a little more showing and less telling, this would be nearly flawless.
Innovation: 87. There may be another hip-hop song with no drums and lots of chamber strings. Maybe.
Integrity: 90. The party album of the year is the political album of the year.