Five better titles for Modern Times:
1 Boys and Girls in the Old, Weird America
2 Whatever People Say I Am, We Can Have a Whompin’ Good Time
3 Rather Relaxed
4 I Write Sins Not Tragedies
5 Hip Hop Is Dead
Los Angeles, California
As much as I tried listening to the new Dylan—no fewer than five times—I just can’t believe how gawdawful it was: tired rhythm and blues, shuffling jazz, sweet and lowdown old-tyme ballads, and instrumental solos that were horribly trite and clichéd. His voice no longer sounds wonderfully idiosyncratic, but more like a wounded whale spewing distress calls out a clogged blowhole. Cribbing from a 19th-century Confederate poet might be the most interesting aspect of this mess. Actually, more awe-inspiring is the marketing juggernaut: iPod commercials, satellite radio, Scorsese documentaries, Lincoln Center tributes, digital catalogs, Broadway musicals, and crits chomping to give five stars. . . . If it were anyone but Dylan making this music, would anyone care?
Brooklyn, New York
What you’ve got in your hand, that mirror disc, that’s not Dylan. He’ll tell you so himself: It doesn’t sound like him, it’s trash, it’s compressed and shrunk down like some unfortunate missionary’s head. All those superstitious aboriginals were wrong—you can’t trap a man’s soul in a photograph or on a length of tape, and certainly not in the either/or matrix of digital code. Maybe it’s better closer to the bone, if it’s carved out of wax and pulled out by a needle that shaves away more of the record every time it’s played. Robert Johnson was spookier before they mastered out the pops and hisses, when his voice was a thin and aching thing that could have come from nothing but a ghost.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Dylan, Springsteen, Davies, Simon, Cash: How could old-school rockers hold their own this year against the likes of upstarts like Arctic Monkeys and TV on the Radio? In Dylan’s case by continuing his walk in the dark, Springsteen by loosening up, Davies by spinning tales against the critical establishment, Simon by collaborating smartly again (this time with Brian Eno), and Cash by dying.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Like most sequels, Love & Theft II: Modern Times recycled the old thrills but wasn’t as good or fresh as the original. Sometimes, though, old thrills are better than new nothings. The Joanna Newsom album reminds me why I never dug the pretentious artsy kids in my high school: The stuff they liked sucked, and the cutesy alternative universes they created for themselves seemed even more torturous than the mainstream jock-hells the rest of us were stuck in.
Los Angeles, California
The best song of the year by far was “Crazy,” which showed its strength not only in the variety of radio formats that played it, but also in the variety of artists who covered it—its adaptability to a variety of different interpretations. Musically it’s very simple, but there’s a subtle ominousness in the measured keys, those opening bass notes. Cee-Lo, of course (as Chef, Pilot, Darth Vader, Graduate, etc.), is the star of the show, but his is really a role of portent, warning us of our futures, the fortune-teller in a swirling skirt and glowing eyes singing, “Who do you think you are . . . do you really think you’re in control?” Clearly we are not—we are sucked into the irresistibility not only of the song’s hook but also at the chance of glimpsing our own costumed psyches, a combination that has proved to be unbeatable.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Simply put, American music in 2006 lacked heart. Gnarls Barkley’s magnificent album was at its core an essay in ecclesiastic paranoia and distrust, large chunks of rap music were as hostile to the middle class as any Republican policies, and as wonderful a single as Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” was, it’s hard not to marvel at her career-long ability to distill relationships down to whose things are rightfully whose.
We’re crazy? If Gnarls doesn’t top the singles chart, you bet. But if they show up anywhere on the album roster, we’re absolutely bonkers. St. Elsewhere had a hit-to-shit ratio on par with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (still spinning those deep cuts, ’03 voters?)—and that was a double.
Silver Spring, Maryland
TV on the Radio‘s Return to Cookie Mountain
is a formalist’s dream: granitic, obscure, everyone agreeing on the influences (Peter Gabriel prog rock dripping from a dead man’s eye). It would be churlish to blame the band too much for not figuring out what they’re ultimately trying to say. Their live performances mitigated this, as their obscurity assumed menacingly messianic proportions. Still, I read not a single satisfactory review of this album, in part because no one was able to articulate why they liked the good parts and why the boring parts sucked.
Neko Case and Jenny Lewis both released alt-country albums this year that traipsed through knotty thickets of sex, love, God, and death. Case’s noir-ish distance made a stronger bid for authenticity and was arguably the more heralded, but Lewis offered a far more personalized vision that proved the greater artistic statement, staring faith and disappointment directly in the face, carrying out a dialogue with the Almighty in her own language and demanding answers she could reach out and touch.
Raleigh, North Carolina
Two artists signified the year’s yin and yang: Ghostface Killah and Joanna Newsom. Dude vs. chick, Staten Island crack kitchen vs. Northern Cali enchanted forest, “Whip You With a Strap” vs. “Sawdust and Diamonds.” Both share a love of word and yarn, and properly represent their neighborhoods.
St. Louis, Missouri
While Justin Timberlake was no longer greeted with contemptuous snorts, there were snorts all the same, this time concerning his qualification as a futuresex lothario angling for Prince’s throne. “He’s still a dork,” one friend insisted. Well, yeah, and Justin knows it. I’ll take a dork angling to get laid over a Mickey Mouse Clubber with an orange fright perm any day. Were skeptics afraid that Justin now represents the golden mean of rock criticism? If so, the evolution from the rock-critic-as-Elvis-Costello of David Lee Roth’s nightmares was less painful than anyone could have predicted. And on the evidence of “Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows,” Justin plays guitar about as well as Elvis C. ever did.
Justin Timberlake was pop’s critical paragon in ’06, but so far he’s just a remarkably limber amalgam of greater artists, greater voices, and greater postures, lucky or savvy enough to get hooked up to Timbaland’s darkly liquid post-millennial funk. The real genius of our latest pop cycle is Beyoncé Knowles. Ask yourself: Between the two, who’s shown more sides, more depth? Who’s got more range and a better sense of humor (“Dick in a Box” excepted)? Who’s got next in a long, classic line and who’s just practicing pastiche?
Raleigh, North Carolina
The most important artist of 2006 was Timbaland. It’s been 10 years since he altered the direction of popular music, but his scorching productions still feel more energetic and spirited than the rest. Age has also made Tim more hip to the game: His jones for microhooks crowned him 2006’s king of ringtones; he’s nurtured next-gen producers like Nate Hills; and with Duran Duran and Björk projects reportedly on the way, he’s learned to butter all sides of his bread.
Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too”: I don’t know if Michael Richards’s meltdown will be good or bad for charmers like Clipse. The ugliest word in the English language has regained its taboo value after years as ho-hum-part-of-the-scenery, and sure enough, I got a listener complaint when I played this on the radio recently. I’m 95 percent sure the caller was black, and seeing as he asked if I’d play some Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa instead, I’m assuming he was bothered by the barrage of Ns rather than all the Fs. Which is fine—it’s a word that should upset people, and if black comedians and black hip-hop artists are being put on alert by Al Sharpton, that’s a good thing. But, for better or worse, when all the hate comes packaged in something as musically arresting as “Mr. Me Too,” it’ll always have a strong pull on me—and now that the taboo’s back in place, the pull is that much more visceral. Additionally, there are some great bits between all the Ns and the Fs. I love “Bof’ us laughin’ ” when the rapper and Diddy deplane in Aspen, and nobody comes up with better verbs than these guys—”juice-and-ginnin’ ” and “neck-and-chinnin’ ” on “When the Last Time” a few years ago; “dunce-cappin’ and kazooin’ ” on “Mr. Me Too.”
On July 17, 2005, I officially gave up drinking. And since then, I have made it through approximately 450 nights out at bars, 235 Boston Red Sox games, 35 business trips, five weddings, two MTV Video Music Awards ceremonies, and one high school reunion, all without even wanting as much as a sip of the sauce. But nothing—and I mean nothing—has made me want to hit the bottle like repeated exposure to the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America.
Brooklyn, New York
Boys and Girls in America: By most accounts, I spent much of my Indiana adolescence stumbling around in a state of reserve/shyness/vague panic, so here’s what I’m doing now: replacing all the memories of my own lame teen years with the things Craig Finn writes about.
Bluffton, South Carolina
Why is the Hold Steady a constant critical favorite? Because Craig Finn is wordy and nerdy—he can’t stop blabbing about the music world. In other words, he’s one of us.