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.
In 2012 I mostly listened to Whitney Houston.
In 2013 I mostly listened to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.”
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.
2013 left me wondering: Why can men — Ezra Koening, Kanye West, Eminem — make great art out of hypocrisy, while women (Beyoncé, M.I.A., Lily Allen) get pilloried for it?
Whoa, I can’t believe it was more than seven years ago that I was moaning and groaning about the lack of so-called girl groups on the charts — and in our hearts — what with the demise of Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, Destiny’s Child, and the like. Well, sometime music writer and Wild Flag guitar flinger Carrie Brownstein never quite left and in fact seems to relish flaunting her establishment sell-out status in the form of that cutesy AmEx ad that never failed to make a kindred female music critic literally scream with disgust every time it flickered on screen. This year, Kathleen Hanna climbed back on stage as Julie Ruin, Lyme disease be damned, and even Destiny’s Child reunited amid a flurry of pom-pom-heaving halftime-show hype. But even more exciting was the new generation of loud, proudly girlish voices, joining those of the perpetually visible Beyoncé “Mrs. Carter” Knowles, “Bad Girls” ringleader M.I.A., and Britney “Work Bitch” Spears. I had to marvel at the alternately ethereal and brutally frank Lorde, the bouncy Haim, the levitation-inducing Lucius on San Fermin, everygirl Madeline Follin of Cults, the sassy hitters of Icona Pop. They crashed their car into the (song’s) bridge, but they don’t care. I love it.
Album List Blurbs:
Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City
When all of the discussions of capitalism and the city are about spectacle (Great Gatsby), or burlesque (Spring Breakers), or satire (Bling Ring), or apologetics (Republicans), this one is about loss and ennui, taking up all of the best things that James Murphy ever had to offer. It is solemn and pious, but those are virtues.
2013 was spoiling in the best way possible: It seemed that bands I’d admired forever started to gain certain critical attention, only it often happened under the unfortunate and incorrect guise of “riot grrrl revivalism.”
Chance is becoming quite famous and a little rich, so he probably shouldn’t worry that he’s a legit weirdo. But he does worry — and you can tell. He calls himself Chance The Rapper (“please say The Rapper”) and names his statement mixtape Acid Rap as if he were insisting: “I’m rapping! I am a rap artist, OK?! I know acid and British jazz and orange Nickelodeon cassette tapes aren’t exactly hip-hop, b…but I’m still a rapper! I rap!”
Disclosure’s Settle is the sort of crossover electronic album that makes you think it’s absolutely kosher to hit the club, even if you don’t own any designer jeans and you’ve got 10 bucks to your name.