By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
This was such a delightfully strange year in music that it's no wonder the album of the year seems to be a toss-up between a college dropout and four Ivy Leaguers.
I asked my friend, one of the last professional music critics still happily laboring *full time* for a major American newspaper, if he thought the proliferation of televised singing competitions was in any way creating or encouraging a conscious demand from the masses for better singers and more sophisticated pop performers. He said no. What he sees when he watches aspiring singers on The Voice, The X-Factor, American Idol, or America's (Sometimes) Got Talent, are people conflating volume with emotion, and mistaking speedy, glib vocal embellishments for technique. The ability to convey via song any deeply felt experience, wisdom, compassion, or any of the other uncanny types of information song was *invented* to convey, is not something these shows appear to listen for, measure, value, or even recognize. In all fairness, The Voice sometimes pays lip service to the idea that singing "well" implies being able to transmit all possible nuances of a song's meaning. But for the most part all these aspiring "game show" pop stars manage to do is mimic the signature licks of their favorite singer, thereby setting the bar for themselves too low to properly astonish — or educate — their voting audience.
A lot of music writers draw a line in the sand: Will I write about "underground" "DIY" "obscure" artists, or will I concern myself with pop music and interface the big business behind it all? But I feel that in some ways the greater question has to do with one's attitude towards musical obscurity — and how the concept of what is "obscure," musically, has changed in a digital age where one has equal access to Rihanna, Tim Hecker, and a compilation of music found on African cell phones. Obscurity, rather than indicating lack of sales or being a label for "difficult" music, now indicates music that has been deemed unworthy of discussion.
We all seem to have accepted that the major label system was fundamentally flawed, with a general consensus that the system's fall is a great thing for fans of music. But with Kickstarter, we see a system of direct patronage replace the diffuse methodology of the label system. I mean, sure, we all love our favorite bands, but do we really love them when we pay them directly for music that must meet our pre-release expectations? We always look in pop's rearview mirror and applaud those who zigged when they were expected to zag, but would those iconoclasts have been so eager to do so if they weren't scamming some corporate dime, or if they were making music that would need to be used to pay back direct short-term investors?
Cede this multicultural crew their right to sample “Keep Cool Babylon” and swipe lyrics from Junior Reid. Celebrate Koenig’s erudite yet earnest grapples over an agnosticism he can’t stop worrying about (“born to live without you”). And acknowledge how rare it is for a supposedly overburdened studio concoction to transmit such simple pleasures as the East Coast/West Coast divide of “Hannah Hunt” (“I miss those freezing beaches”) or complex meditations like “Hudson,” which thinks aloud about place-naming, real estate as act of genocide, and melting pot agony/ecstasies, amid an ironic embrace of flag and country softly echoing e e cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” All this plus tunes. Baroque and roll!
Paramore's Hayley Williams has the kind of expressive big voice that can’t avoid going heart on sleeve, the type of singer unwilling to distinguish between humdrum reality and epic grandiosity, partly because she believes humdrum reality serves as the foundation for every epic. Which means her song about daydreaming betrays all the subtleties of a car chase, her crazy girl number peaks with breaking into somebody’s closet to sniff their wardrobe, and her Jam/Lewis move involves both a kalimba and an assembled gospel choir taunting, “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world.” It’s all — gloriously — a bit much.
The most remarkable thing about The 20/20 Experience is that this ponderous document is supposed to be Timberlake’s honeymoon album. Can you imagine the "Here, My Dear"?
Yeezus got all the buzz and think pieces, but the Weeknd's Kiss Land was the real aural-psychosexual thriller, an r&b noir about a woman-hating star gone over to the dark side. Fantasy or reality? I'm not sure, but Abel Tesfaye's therapist has probably blocked off most of 2014 already, just in case.
I also wish the attention lavished upon Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus had instead been paid to my favorite 2013 release: Hov Said It Best by Mela Machinko. With the cunning skill of a musical archeologist, songwriter/vocalist Machinko took fragments of various Jay Z tunes and transformed them into — sorry Beyoncé — the year’s most thrilling r&b extravaganza.