Arch your back, point your toes: Best of 2012

1. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
2. Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
3. Jessie Ware – Devotion
4. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
5. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
7. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
8. Angel Haze – Reservation
9. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
10. Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne
11. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
12. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d. city
13. Dawn Richard – Armor On
14. Imperial Teen – Feel the Sound
15. Usher – Looking 4 Myself
16. Rick Ross – Rich Forever
17. Jerrod Niemann – Free The Music
18. Sinead O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
19. Four Tet – Pink
20. The Men – Open Yr Heart
21. Bob Dylan – Tempest
22. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
23. Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game
24. Beach House – Bloom
25. Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos

It’s a bad religion

Last night’s Frank Ocean performance at the Grammys didn’t surprise: a clumsy song performed by an off-pitch singer. I’m with Ned:

It took, say, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs until their third album for me to think they were more than a series of misassembled ideas and earnest tributes. (And I still think that about the earlier stuff and YES that includes “Maps” and don’t question me.) By the time of his third official album or whatever happens Ocean may well be knocking me into the nth plane of existence. Fuck it, I WANT him to. You don’t want artists who don’t work for you to keep failing, you want them to get BETTER.

A reminder: channelORANGE is Ocean’s first album. And Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a salient example. R. Kelly, Peter Gabriel, the Go-Betweens, Tori Amos, Al Green, and Pearl Jam too. These acts needed an album — sometimes more than one — to figure themselves out. Which makes the Grammys’ creation of an absurd category so that authors of alterna-R&B “think pieces” can congratulate themselves is both precipitate and an example of the most rebarbative wishy-washy liberalism. Jon Caramanica’s criticism (voters’ “reliably boneheaded” choices) is too kind.

2012 – #10-#12

10. Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne

Not their best since 1993: Finisterre is a rival, as I learned replaying both last weekend. A modest summa, embellished with the sparkliest of modern dance filigrees. Forty year olds can still surrender to club sounds (“Tonight”). Forty year olds may even glean wisdom about their youth from club sounds (“When I Was Seventeen”).

11. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

Not long after playing “Stay Useless,” Cloud Nothings felt the wrath of July in Chicago: light rain but ominous thunder. In the middle of “Wasted Days,” thousands of Pitchfork Music Festivals had a Solomonic choice: take cover or listen as wary roadies cut the power. The band played regardless, their harsh chords a rebuke to the weather like their album didn’t so much redress new wrongs as remind us that ah-fucking-youth is a condition that needs constant redressing — and study. Attack on Memory is also a rebuke: Green Day hasn’t written a song with a chorus like “I need time to stay useless” since 1994.

12. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d. city

“The commitment to drama has musical drawbacks,” Christgau writes, but it doesn’t mean this album’s pleasures are purely verbal. The flanged percussion and horrowshow organs on “Sherane” don’t let up. Shrewd counterpoint to a meditation on how life sucks called “Poetic Justice” requires the sweetness of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” and the falling anvil called Drake. But when he returns to drama — the deadpan “Everyone’s a victim in my eyes” in “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” — the words give pleasure.

Rolling and trolling: Ke$ha

Ke$ha, KeshaAfter enjoying Ke$ha’s Warrior for the last week as a not particularly burdensome or welcome bit of ephemerality, I had nothing to say until I read Jonathan Bogart‘s essay severed from its rebarbative headline (in the subhead, we’re told, she “scares parents”!):

“But Ke$ha actively courts the dislike. Her voice, flattened and shrilled by the AutoTune software for much of her first album, is often pitched at a deliberately jangling register even when it’s not being manipulated. Her lyrics are full of provocative, childish insults and vulgar slang, and her attitude is often less that of a grown woman and more of a hyperactive teenager deliberately scandalizing authority figures. On the Internet, we call that trolling. In life, it has more of the quality of a dare—how obnoxious can she get and still be hugely popular?”

Hiring Iggy Pop to growl through lyrics called “Dirty Love,” ordering the Strokes to to recreate their machine-tooled boogie on “Only Wanna Dance With You” — trolling, I suppose. Hurling “Found out you’re full of it/I’m over it so suck my dick” at an object of desire on “Thinking About You” — maybe. Calling Ke$ha’s approach trolling is attractive because it infuriates the sort of people who think Wrecking Ball is the year’s best album.

But trolling is cheap, in every sense. The production on Warrior, mostly by Dr. Luke but with contributions by Max Martin, Shellback, and the Flaming Lips, is as opulent as 2012 pop gets on uninhabited tracks. Skeptics who resisted Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” will find “Crazy Kids” a “We R Who We R” retread, complete with foregrounded acoustic guitar hook to adduce its sincerity. She’s often not as shallow as she thinks she is, which is a problem. Feigned depth is one thing, feigned shallowness a particularly gruesome tragedy. She consigns one triumph to a bonus track: the Joan Jett-indebted fodderstompf “Gold Trans Am,” in which she orders a dude in a Skynard tee and sweet-ass mullet to get out of her dreams and into her car (the refrain:”Wham bam thank you man/Get inside my gold Trans Am”). By the time the guitars roar and the hand claps get louder, car sex has become a patriotic duty, a freedom ride. And with this concept she and the Springsteen fan are as one.

This much is true: Solange Knowles

My favorite track on Solange Knowles’ True EP registers as pure aural pleasure: spare drums and bass, synth squiggles worthy of Bernie Worrell, ominous piano chords, and the singer oh-oh-oh’ed as frog chorus. It’s called “Don’t Let Me Down,” and it doesn’t, especially when it threatens to turn into Amerie’s “Crazy Wonderful.” A release of modest pleasures, True works best as a sketchbook in which Knowles flaunts several shades of theoretical lust and rue, a strategy constructed around an appealing but thin voice that pirouettes around feeling; it’s also a sample of R&B poses since the late eighties. If she shows no personality, she’ll shop for one: from Ciara cool to the Jam & Lewis laptop beats and “Control”-aping “Locked in Closets.” The Aaliyah-worthy “Lovers in the Parking Lot” squeezes every bit of coquetry from the dangled refrain “played around with your heart.” No coquetry in “Losing You,” propelled by a synth patch out of an Angelo Badalamenti score and a sampled scream. Dialectic, thy name is Solange.

It’s November 2012

Barring sudden inclusions, this looks my top twenty.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Jessie Ware – Devotion
Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
Angel Haze – Reservation
Rick Ross – Rich Forever
Saint Etienne – Words and Music
Dawn Richard – Armor On
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d. city
Jerrod Niemann – Free the Music
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Leonard Cohen – Old Ways
Imperial Teen – Feel the Sound
The Men – Open Yr Heart
Usher – Looking 4 Myself
Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Sinead O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?

“More likely to have super churches than supermarkets”

As good as Jeff Chang’s piece is, he hasn’t persuaded me to love “Backseat Freeystyle,” or MC Eiht’s bit in “”m.A.A.d city.” Still.

His semi-autobiographical good kid, m.A.A.d. City is unrelentingly dark. (“m.A.A.d.,” Lamar has explained, means “my angry adolescence, divided.”) It is a coming-of-age story set in Compton, a city that would have stayed invisible were it not for N.W.A. and gangsta rap.

The city has changed a lot since the peak of DJ Quik and MC Eiht’s beef in the 1990s — it’s now mostly Latino. But in the most important ways — the lack of educational and economic opportunity, the brutal policing of youth, the persistence of gun violence — it has not changed at all. The world inside Alondra, Rosecrans, and Bullis is still more likely to have super churches than supermarkets. Lamar would say it’s a city of cul-de-sacs.

Free your mind: Jerrod Niemann

The sleeve for Free The Music evokes the baroque artwork on a late-period Michael Jackson album, a signal that Jerrod Niemann wants listeners to weave title, art, and music into a conception of country music as a genre in need of re-imagining. Start with his name; this is a genre which already boasts a guy named Dierks Bentley. Proceed to his voice: although his timbre recalls late Merle Haggard, Niemann can not only project a let’s-hang-on-the-sofa sexiness but suggest how bluntness and extroversion can be as mysterious as interiority. 2010’s sleeper Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury played with the amiable cad tropes that Toby Keith and Jason Aldean fans recognize, but most of Free The Music outdoes his recent work; we’re only now starting to see this guy’s talent.

For one thing, Niemann likes electric pianos, an instrument whose use probably reached its peak when Ronnie Milsap was racking crossover hits in the eighties. The previous album’s “What Do You Want” was a blueprint for “Guessing Games,” a slinky number in which he wrings drop after sensual drop out of a series of two-note beats and licks. He also likes horns and, better, understands them: they’re accents not ballast. As he does on first single “Shinin’ On Me,” Niemann doesn’t even try to sing over them; he trusts his own unfailing groove so that Free The Music sounds like the most honest Jimmy Buffet album in recorded history. Case in point: the mandolin and horns trading solos in “It Won’t Matter Anymore,” a complement to the slacker that Niemann wants to be and manipulates like a Nashville pro.

In the show shuffle “Fraction of a Man,” he depicts a guy much like the confused American male in Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” He and his friends laugh at the same punchlines, doesn’t pretend to be a Rhodes scholar, and is “partial” (odd word!) to farmers with small town families. But his politics make perfect Nate Silver bait: this eagle “flies with right and left wings.” But instead of getting defensively triumphalist like Brad Paisley in “Welcome to the Future” or Eric Church in “Homeboy,” he gnarls that Haggard-esque nasality into aw-shucks self-reliance and transforms the song into a New Orleans funeral march. Don’t let the fathead title of “Real Women Drink Beer” fool you: its ecumenicism is a match for Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” a place where everybody knows your name.

Mistrust Niemann’s intentions, though: country doesn’t need expanding (leave the argument to Taylor Swift’s most avid partisans). But we do need albums as entertaining as Free The Music.

Whatcha doin’ uptown: Sunken Condos

Everything Must Go deserved Two Against Nature‘s plaudits. Besides a credible anti-Bush (I think) song (“Godwhacker”), four or five of Walter Becker’s most elegant and acerbic solos, and indelible ones all over the place by saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, it even sports a title worthy of Steely Dan. Donald Fagen’s fourth solo album Sunken Condos boasts another, deservedly: it’s his best record since The Nightfly. “I’m Not The Same Without You” is the sort of coup that only he could pull off. “Since you’ve been gone an awesome change has come about,” he sings while his own piano and a frisky drum part project the sense of liberty that as a singer he’s too knowing and restrained to indulge in. Loving Fagen means coming to terms with irony at its most metaphysical — in the seventeenth century Donne/Herbert sense. He’s not exactly willing himself to be enthusiastic so much as trusting the audience to understand the joy of winking at them.

“I’m Not The Same…” should have been the first track; it’s better than “Slinky Thing,” a conceit looking for a referent and finding it only in Jon Herington’s guitar. Sunken Condos simmers; coming to a boil would be unseemly. Besides, deserved revisionism has salvaged Gaucho from two decades worth of ignominy; no longer can Fagen surprise us with a nostalgic mode as ephemeral as a hurricane in December. Coming after Gaucho, the optimism of “I.G.Y.” and “Ruby Baby” felt like a cold soda can against a sweaty face. Fagen’s voice sounded like a caustic but well-meaning friend suddenly lapsing into what he would consider the confessional mode. Sunken Condos‘ real surprise is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” designed to press the same buttons that “Hey Nineteen” did, making a hash out of notions of white privilege. The shock of hearing Fagen sing “When you shake your booty, ghetto-style” pales besides the arrangement that he and co-producer Michael Leonhart carve out of clarinet, a mocking guitar, and obtrusive Hammond organ. There’s nothing “out” about it, let alone “ghetto.” He’s just another white boy who can’t resist certain pleasures so long as he can cling to his white, privileged, extraordinarily resourceful self.

Recognizing the appeal of violence

David Drake:

It’s also interesting, though, how rap music is as much a part of the text as it is a source for the record’s producers. Jeezy pops up on the aforementioned “The Art of Peer Pressure,” while E-40’s lyrics “had us thinkin’ rational.” Kanye didn’t just open the door for Kendrick’s conflicted feelings (“Projects is torn up, gang signs thrown up,” from “We Major,” appears on “m.A.A.d. city.”) Kendrick and his friends dream of living lives like rappers do. And he sees this as a problem (“A Louis belt will never ease the pain”) but he’s also caught up in it. Because he feels it, too.

Kendrick’s a smart rapper because he directly addresses violence and addiction and materialism by recognizing their appeal, and even smarter for being uncertain that this is enough: “Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?” His characters confront these things, things most “conscious” rappers run from or criticize without empathy, the things that much-vilified street rap covers (and glorifies) on a regular basis. Kendrick’s characters live through it, and he embraces that inner conflict, and still draws conscientious conclusions, even if he never quite seems comfortable with them.

A dramatic turnaway: Taylor Swift’s Red

The best track on Taylor Swift’s Red is “Starlight.” Buried in the last third of a sixteen-track album, it boasts the most Swiftian lyric: during the violet hour of a past that might exist, dreams become flesh to the accompaniment of a song on the radio. It’s a trope as old as rock itself; elders like Springsteen, Roxy Music, Donna Summer, and Madonna, of course, but Saint Etienne’s recent Words and Music devotes a song cycle to the way in which nostalgia is the caulking that binds courtship and music. Hell, Swift’s first hit “Tim McGraw” is part of the lineage. As power chords and four on the floor pounding evoke the Robert “Mutt” Lange who helmed Shania Twain’s blockbuster albums and the Corrs “Breathless,” Swift spins her own breathless yarn about she and her boy sneaking into a yacht club party pretending to be a duchess and a prince. “Don’t you dream impossible things?” he asks, like the guy in The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” or in the dread-infused “To Wish Impossible Things.” All Swift can say is “Oh, what a marvelous tune!” as a piano tinkles beneath the beat. The fact that the song is reportedly about Robert and Ethel Kennedy demonstrates the fungibility of Camelot: Bobby skipping stones on the water dreaming impossible things like putting poison in Fidel Castro’s cigar or removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Swift’s record company might release “Starlight” as a single. Every song on this multimillion dollar project, on which dozens of livelihoods reportedly depend, could be a single, as new rules set by Billboard indicate; every song was designed as a multiformat crossover sensation. That’s the trouble. By themselves, absorbed and loved on an iPod, songs like “Red,” “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “Stay Stay Stay” register; heard en masse their details congeal into a kind of hypertrophied perk. The most sinister culprits happen to be helmed by the costliest help (Max Martin, Shellback, Jacknife Lee). There are gestures of altruism: a nullity of a duet with Gary Lightbody of unknown-on-these-shores Snow Patrol, presumably because no one deserves to sleep on the cold streets. Besides the ukelele-anchored trifle called “Stay Stay Stay,” in which she shows a rare talent (for an American) of making a smirk resonate like a smile (she even kids herself: “I was expecting some dramatic turnaway”), the best song after “Starlight” is a banger called “Holy Ground,” which I swear sounds like a pop version of an Easter-era Patti Smith rumbler. The guitars strum while a synthesizer squiggle urges Swift to go tribal and onomatopoetic while she imagines that the city is “ours” — the name of another Swift hit. Like Neil Young’s catalog, hers is all one song. The trouble is the ephemerality of breathlessness, not least when stimulants induce it.