My favorite album this year was Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), not least because in a confusing time, I expect artists to be confused themselves. Heady, gnomic, often inscrutable, NAPO is an album on which its creators are figuring out what they want to say in the act of recording. In 1997 Badu, with her turban and high, pinched Lady Day mannerisms, was lauded for how different she sounded from Blige and Whitney, honored as much for not being Blige and Whitney. Although I still find her voice affectless, I see the beginnings of an aesthetic strategy: the voice’s detachment is Badu’s way of mitigating the thud of her more incoherent moments. But incoherence and affectlessness merge into something beautiful and strange in “Me,” which could have been retitled “Dreams From My Afro-American Studies Class.”
Listening to Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels a few weeks ago, it occurred to me: he recorded this album too late to include a song about Vampire Weekend, sung from the point of view of an outraged I Love Music poster.
The distortion of the human voice was this year’s hot trend, especially in R&B and hip-hop, in which Auto-Tune became a kind of sacrificial cross that affirmed its users’ tortured humanity. Kanye West sounded like a Robocop. Lil Wayne sounded like a sex dwarf. The-Dream sounded like Prince imitating Prince. Then there was Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, who completed her transformation from wretch to wraith, and it took only 14 years. Since Portishead’s appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in waiting for Third. But Gibbons’ arid yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I’m assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted how Third could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces. A subtle indictment maybe: rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don’t concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from “We Carry On” through “Machine Gun” is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. From Belgian techno beehive synths to squelched harmonies, it’s the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes.
Of course prettiness can signify by itself; but marveling at the details gets boring sooner or later. Fleet Foxes reminded audiences that Crosby, Stills, and Nash had really pretty harmonies. Shrewd, too, that their creators sculpted those voices to enshrine the band’s complacency and self-regard. Fleet Foxes haven’t kicked around as long as CSN, but they veer perilously close to the Land of Goop. Despite a couple of obvious exceptions these tracks are the kind of voice-plus for which T-Pain is still mistakenly