Ever since she agit-propped her way into our hearts in 2005, Sri Lankan hip-hopper M.I.A. has recorded head-spinning yet startlingly clear reflections of these modern times. On debut disc Arular (her father's name), she was both political rabblerouser and fashion plate, the worried daughter of a Tamil Tiger freedom fighter making beats in her basement and blowing up online. For 2007's Kala (her mother's name), she mixed urban fracas with a Bollywood bent; that album spawned Paper Planes, the utterly addictive hit with the register-and-ricochet hook. That song would earn her a place on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack: movie and musician both entertaining and provocative, crowd-pleasers not afraid to ruffle your hair.
Maya Arulpragasam is 35 now, a new mom with heightened fears of the future. But if you're expecting a softer, cautious gadfly, you don't know M.I.A. New album Maya (or /\/\ /\ Y /\ as she typographically insists) is raw, restless, a two-faced battle of nurture and nuclear: "I really love a lot, but I fight the ones that fight me," she warns on the jarring air-siren snap of Lovalot. On the Afrika Bambaataa pulse of XXXO, she scoffs at the notion that iTunes smash Paper Planes turned her into a hit-seeker: "You want me be [sic] / Somebody who I'm really not."
Boobirds have savaged Maya for its cacophony of found sounds and future shock. But by insisting on buzzsaws and computer blather, government paranoia and the commodification of drunk girls, M.I.A. is simply taking what we give her and setting it to song, making music of the din that is 2010. It's not an easy record, but it's always alluring, especially when she cuts the aggression and sweetly sings, as on It Takes a Muscle and Space. There's heart under the hard shell, and just knowing that makes it easy to embrace her.
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The Steinbrenner Playlist
I grew up a Red Sox fan. I've lived in Baltimore and Tampa Bay. So it's fair to say that at no point in my life have I cheered for the New York Yankees. But when I heard the news about George Steinbrenner's passing, a genuine sadness washed over me. My first thought: Guys like that don't die at 80. They tell Father Time to take a hike. The world needs complex people, and he was certainly that. Big Stein was proud to be from Tampa, so here are a few songs in his honor:
1 You're Fired, Bratmobile
2 The Winner Takes It All, ABBA
3 Moneytalks, AC/DC
4 Tougher Than the Rest, Bruce Springsteen
5 The Boss, Diana Ross
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Crow's 'Memphis' cookout
Sheryl Crow grew up in the small Missouri town of Kennett, which is, as her new album states, 100 Miles From Memphis. And it's made very clear on the record's first track, the soul-kissed Our Love Is Fading, that the 48-year-old is hankering for a little home cooking. On first single Summer Day, the keyboards slink, the horns pop and Crow's warm, whiskey-tinged vocal yearns for the grace of Memphis' Al Green. Keith Richards (Eye to Eye) and Justin Timberlake (a cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's Sign Your Name) show up to add starshine. And as a nod to her days as a backup singer for the King of Pop, Crow tacks on a cover of I Want You Back, dedicated "To Michael With Love." It's light, likable stuff, suitable for cooling down — or maybe road-tripping to Graceland.