Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’ll be here all week!
I spent this year trying to be a more empathetic and broad-minded critic, so it hurts me to open with acrimony. But since Zach teed it up so delicately, let’s look back by looking to the future: In 2011, someone needs to put Taylor Swift, and her guitar, in a well and seal it shut. Because while the case that 2010 was The Greatest Year For Music Ever is a fun one to make, it cannot be denied that even as others were more acclaimed, no one was more popular or more present than Swift. How quickly she beat back Kanye West’s surge to chart glory, by leapfrogging him just a week after his epically anticipated and then slobbered-over My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s debut. I spent some time in these wintry days trying again with Speak Now, seeking her precocious wisdom, her plaintive but pretty way with melody, her winsome charm. Turns out, she still sings out of key, tramples you with cliché, and grossly overplays the sympathy card. I came away thinking that Swift’s “Not her, pick me” brand of songwriting is its own worst enemy. If all these silly boys keep making the wrong decision, at what point do we think maybe something is actually wrong with the girl? (Look dear, you quest for John Mayer, you get John Mayer.) I know, I know, why I gotta be so mean?
The artists who seemed to have things wrong with them, and know it, were the ones I loved most this year–Kanye gutting himself in public and then calling it a fantasy; the aforementioned Titus Andronicus conflating The Civil Fucking War with getting dumped and drunk in Jersey; Tyler, the Creator’s depraved Hamlet routine; Erykah Badu boldly stripping to her stretch marks; James Murphy spectral wilt; Das Racist pissing on your head and telling you it’s piss; Drake’s dorm room emasculation; even Ke$ha and her lipstick-smeared, vomit-stained, glitter-streaked slop-pop. Ke$ha is Swift’s evil mirror twin, a picture of young, blonde, stumbling, rapping, gleeful insolence. “I don’t care what people say / the rush is worth the price I pay,” she sang on “Your Love Is My Drug,” a Dr. Luke production as virus-like as any made this year.
And there was a Luke outbreak. Just try to inoculate yourself from Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” or B.o.B.’s “Magic,” or 3OH!3’s “First Kiss.” But it’s Taio Cruz and “Dynamite” that is the most amazing. Because unlike Perry or Ke$ha, Cruz–who I recently saw perform at Z100’s Jingle Ball–is working with negative charisma. And for this emotional zero, Luke has gifted a pop song as giddy and inescapable–I began singing it while watching a football game this weekend–as any this year. Due mostly to his walloping house drums, keening guitars, taste for vocal manipulation, and mega-choruses, Luke has been dismissed for following a distinct formula. So did Jonas Salk, haters! Dr. Luke is a healer.
Speaking of medicating, in 2010 there was also the return of old friend and former outpatient Marshall Mathers, both as a commercial golem and an artist people took seriously, after the failed phantasmagoria of 2009’s Relapse. I struggled with his Recovery earlier this year. I hate to be rapped at, and at times Em seemed intent on yelling the earbuds right out of my head. But Eminem is nothing if not persistent and I realized that my hope that he would somehow return to the dexterous, dazzling and, yes, nihilistic, but also actually funny Marshall of The Slim Shady LP was not possible. We get older, we change; Marshall must change. So Eminem excels at anthems and anthems only these days, and Recovery is nothing if not 16 straight chest-beaters. Some are better than I remember. Might I recommend the excellent Just Blaze-produced opener “Cold Wind Blows”?
But it’s the flip side of Em’s stormy reoccurrence I’m more enamored with. That is, while Drake got intimate and Kanye got maximal, Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y–both youngish survivors and re-entrants to the major label system–went so deep into the pocket, they were practically covered in lint. Their body of work this year was big and uniformly good, recalling a time when rap was as much about casual insinuations and hazy basements as King Crimson samples. It’s nice that we can have both.
And while I have some thoughts on where indie went this year (Made it, Ma! Top of the world! Or whatever.), ///Y/ (We were wrong, it’s good, and more importantly, tough), and BLAND (Vote with your heart, white people), I’d like to name a few songs from this year that made me feel like the world was whole and Teddy Pendergrass was still alive. Most of them are ignorant.
Rick Ross feat. Styles P, “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)”
James Blake, “CMYK”
Fabolous, “You Be Killin’ Em”
Waka Flocka Flame, “Hard In Da Paint”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Woke Up Near Chelsea”
Best Coast, “Our Deal”
Soulja Boy, “Pretty Boy Swag”
Bruno Mars, “The Other Side” (Deal with it.)
And with that, surely the great Rich Juzwiak, who at least shares some enmity for (and archival evidence against) Taylor Swift, will relish an opportunity to defile Dr. Luke, his stable of pop proliferates, and others things I adore.