Shamir Bailey’s voice sounds like freedom. That’s all illusion and artifice, of course. No one person can stand in as an avatar for that sort of feeling. Bailey is a human, like the rest of us, and he’s had to deal with the hardships of growing up as an androgynous black man in the burnt-earth suburbs north of Las Vegas, which cannot be an easy thing for anyone. The euphoric dance-pop of Bailey’s debut album Ratchet might not even be the music he wants to be making. He’s said in plenty of interviews that he started out trying to make country music, and I have no idea that he’ll get around to it eventually. (When Bailey does sing country, it’s devastating.) But Shamir’s voice has some of that swooping, diving, lighter-than-air feeling that you can hear in something like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. For my money, Off The Wall remains the best MJ album because it’s the one with a sense of discovery to it; you can practically sense Jackson walking into a club for the first time and his soul just taking flight. And that’s what I hear in Ratchet: An incredible voice learning what it can do, taking off into the stratosphere. If you swapped Bailey out for a relatively average singer, Ratchet would still be an album of expertly assembled disco-house and synthpop. But coming from a vocalist as rare and special as Bailey, it’s something else: A monument to dizzy joy and a testament to human possibility. It’s probably conceivable to keep a bad mood going when Ratchet is on, but I haven’t succeeded yet.
Full disclosure time: Nick Sylvester, the person who produced every track on Ratchet and who introduced Shamir to the world on his GodMode label last year, is a really good friend of mine and a big part of the reason I have a job as a music critic. Sylvester was working at the Village Voice when I left Baltimore for New York at 25, and he put in a word for me and got me hired as a blogger at the paper in 2005, my first full-time writing job. (Before that, he’d been editing my track reviews for Pitchfork.) Sylvester and I both each wrote a single long-ass music screed every day on that website, and I’m a much better writer today because I was forced to compete with that motherfucker. While he was still working in the field, Nick Sylvester was the best music critic of his generation. He left rock crit behind for reasons too complicated to get into here, and he went on to do other things. GodMode, his label, started off as a hobby and a way to release stuff from his scuzz-rock band Mr. Dream, and it was all noise-rock cassettes for a while. But around the time he got sent a Shamir demo, he moved the label’s focus, including bits of all the non-Clipse-mixtape genres he used to enthuse about in print. (Courtship Ritual’s 2014 Sylvester-produced GodMode album Pith is something you should really hear.) As someone who knows Nick, it’s been a real thrill to hear him put his ideas about music — his love of Arthur Russell, his obsession with the early days of DFA — into the music he’s been helping to bring into the world. Maybe you’ve seen a friend go on to do things like that, too, turning personal loves into no-shit great art. It’s a great private feeling.
If you want to read personal bias into the way I feel about Ratchet, go ahead; it’s definitely there. But don’t read too much into it. This isn’t a “holy shit, my friend is making music and he’s pretty good!” type of situation. This is a no-shit great album, one that requires no qualifiers and no disclosures. If the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police got together to make this album, I’d still love it. If Nick Barrett, the kid who sucker-punched me in the nose on the last day of seventh grade and then hid outside the principal’s office so I wouldn’t fight him, had produced Ratchet, Ratchet would still be our Album Of The Week. I wouldn’t feel conflicted about it. This is the sort of album that steamrolls reservations and uncertainties. Shamir’s 2014 single “On The Regular” didn’t go music-dork viral because a bunch of critics are friends with Sylvester. It blew up because it worked — its cowbell bounce, its fluid warmth, Shamir’s clipped and charming and oddly effortless rapping. “Call It Off,” the one with the Muppets in the video, was another hit, a joyous and dizzy breakup song that captures the giddy I’m-the-shit feelings that can come with breaking up with someone, rather than the morose regret that popular music has so thoroughly explored. Given that those songs have been out there for a while, it’s no surprise that Ratchet is great. But it’s a bit of a surprise that the album is this great.
The most surprising thing about Ratchet is its dynamic range, the way it builds peaks and valleys. There are down moments here. “Demon” is totally a country song, just one with hiccuping vocal samples and gooey synth hooks rather than pedal steel. “Darker” is a meditation on anguish, one that always seems ready to explode into a cathartic release and never does. Album opener “Vegas” is a bittersweet hometown postcard: “We’re sinners all riiiight / At least at niiiiight.” Those quieter, more reflective moments hold the album together; the bangers mean a whole lot more because of the stretches of feeling between them. And even on ostensibly happier songs, like “In For The Kill,” there’s a sense of struggle in the disco-punk horn skronks and in the promise to do things better the next time Shamir comes back to this town. Shamir has a voice that can sell anguish and anger and drama. And then one of those disco anthems kicks in, and your heart just flies into the sun. Ratchet is an album with a lot going on, one that announces the arrival of a major voice who seems ready to do just about anything. But it’s also a record that will sound great banging out of your open car windows all summer. That can’t be an easy thing to do, but Shamir Bailey makes it sound easy. We’re lucky to have him around right now.
Ratchet is out now on XL. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jim O’Rourke’s florid, layered return Simple Songs.
• Faith No More’s crunching, industrial-strength reunion effort Sol Invictus.
• Brandon Flowers’ awesomely ’80s solo joint The Desired Effect.
• Hot Chip’s deeply satisfying synthpopper Why Make Sense?
• Joanna Gruesome’s jittery, ferocious indie-pop attack Peanut Butter.
• Thee Oh Sees’ triumphantly funky garage-psych monster Mutilator Defeated At Last.
• Tanlines’ electric-guitar pop album Highlights.
• Ceremony’s post-hardcore gloom-rock move The L-Shaped Man.
• Joanna Warren’s gorgeous, celestial n?m?n.
• Valkyrie’s monstrously sludgy classic rocker Shadows.
• Holly Herndon’s giddily experimental Platform.
• Daniel Bachman’s lovely acoustic-guitar instrumental record River.
• Fool’s Gold’s sunny, psychedelic, Afropop-inspired self-titled joint.
• Regal Degal’s panting new wave album Not Now.
• Circuit Des Yeux’s cathartic, personal In Plain Speech.
• Diamond Youth’s burning, boiling rocker Nothing Matters.
• Cloud Nothings side project Total Babes’ punked-up Heydays.
• Holly Miranda’s sweet, liquid self-titled album.
• God Damn’s punishing noise-rocker Vultures.
• The Helio Sequence’s self-titled indie rocker.
• Du Blonde’s mutant-pop bugout Welcome Back To Milk.
• Weedeater’s stoner metal wallow Goliathan.
• Froth’s psychedelic, beach-ready Bleak.
• Shadow Age’s hollowed-out post-punker Silaluk.
• Pet Symmetry’s emo debut Pets Hounds.
• Kopecky’s rich, clean guitar-popper Drug For The Modern Age.
• Strange Names’ jaunty, synthy Use Your Time Wisely.
• Rainer’s R&B-inflected electronic pop album Water.
• The National member Bryce Dessner’s orchestral work Music For Wood And Strings.
• DMA’s’ self-titled EP.
• Cale Parks’ Lagoon Fool EP.