The role of the critic in the era of hype

Suppose I wrote a review of your next recording that went like this:

“The new Dogslayer album is a standard set of pop songs of average quality, played competently but without distinction by the band. The guitarist and drummer zigzag between performances that are capable and others that feel merely adequate. The singer hits his marks, but imparts little personality to the songs. The lyrics are neither embarrassing nor illuminating. Fans of the genre’s conventions will enjoy their effective discharge here. The set is pleasant but forgettable, and will leave no lasting mark on the consciousness of its listeners.”

You wouldn’t much like that, huh? You might even hunt me down; beat me profusely about the mouth and cheeks. I wouldn’t blame you: a review like that, particularly if it was reprinted on a high-profile music website, could really harm a band’s career.

But wait a second: when was the last time you saw a review like that on a high-profile music website? I’m not talking about a bad review, now; those come with their own special cache. I’m talking about a review that says that a particular record is average. Not a disaster, not an affront to the senses, not even mediocre; but average.

Thousands of albums were released last year. I played on some of them, you played on some of them, they were duplicated or replicated, handed to a publicist or a go-fer, slipped into a padded envelope or encoded for digital transfer, and sent out to critics to evaluate. Almost all of those albums were average. This is indisputable; it’s a mathematical fact. This is no indie rock Lake Wobegon we inhabit here. On any qualitative scale, there’s a midpoint, and most everything is going to coalesce around that midpoint.

Artists are imitative people. For every musical visionary, there are a hundred other rockers who aspire to put out competent, wholly unremarkable reiterations of stuff they’ve already heard before. The entire musical-recommendation algorithm system is based on these imitative rockers: they are the datapoints in the web of association that’s supposed to anticipate consumer demand. If the Dogslayer album sounds disturbingly like MGMT, well, great!, MGMT has moved some albums; we’ll put a line in the press release that says RIYL: MGMT. Nobody who has logged time in the clubs will dispute that most bands play straight to audience expectation by presenting familiar sounds in familiar packages. They’re chasing success, sure, but they’re doing so by mimicking other artists who have resonated for listeners, not by breaking any new ground. In a very real sense, these bands are trying to be average.

This is perfectly fine. Entertainment does not, usually, require extraordinary measures; in fact, it’s often the case that extraordinary measures get in the way of entertainment. I find pop music immensely entertaining, which means that I’m probably going to find an average pop record amusing. I don’t need every album I play to be The Hissing Of Summer Lawns or even Prinzhorn Dance School. That would, frankly, drive me insane. I’m happy to spin a little Dogslayer now and then.

The trouble arrives when I am asked to assess the Dogslayer album. That’s because it is, like a good ninety per cent of what the critic gets, an average album, a nice little in-genre exercise. The members of the band are probably NYC music lifers who never gave critical response a second thought; they’re concerned with plugging in, cranking it up, and moving the crowd. But then they got popular and graduated to the Bowery stage — and with that came a manager, and an agent, and, inevitably, a publicist. The publicist’s job is, among other things, to attach to the album something that reads a little like this:

“You have in your hands the stunning debut release from the multi-talented, multi-ethnic, multi-orgasmic DOGSLAYER — the band that shook Brooklyn so hard they now call it Shooklyn. Chances are, you’ve heard the buzz about their sold-out performance with Horsefeeler at Bowery Ballroom, a show that Derek Stark of studioface.com called “heavy as a hammer, light as a rock and twice as solid”. But even if you were one of the lucky few to get in, nothing will prepare you for the sheer musical force of Bitterteeth. Recorded by Derek “Brick” Spank (first cousin to Dave Longstreth!) on the very same mixing board that Joy Division used to make the B-side to “Transmission”, the album envelops listeners in gossamer guitar, shimmering synthesizer, heavenly glockenspiel, delicately-struck drums, and the caramel voice of the incomparable Derek Bok III. Not since the heyday of MGMT has a band so effortlessly melded pop and rock to create sonic pop rocks. Shake it up, and feel your head explode…”

And so on. The first thing that the responsible critic does when receiving her copy of Bitterteeth in the mail is chuck this propaganda in the trash can. But even good critics aren’t responsible every day; some days, they’ll be tired and cranky and looking to make rent, and they’ll be cursing the day they agreed to take on another review. Just a quick peek at the PR materials couldn’t hurt, right? Two beers later, and Dave Longstreth and the Joy Division mixing board have found their way into the piece; one whisky, and the Bowery show has snuck in there too, as has the heavenly glockenspiel, the pull-quote from the website that the writer has never heard of before, and copious comparisons to MGMT.

At this point, it is the responsibility of the editor to say “hold it, now, you’re not evaluating, you’re rehashing press-release copy.” You’re chuckling bitterly now, but magazine editors used to do this; they didn’t always have the best taste, but they were decent watchdogs against rampant grade inflation. They may have been cokeheads and assholes, but they had some concept of journalistic integrity. Go back and look at Dave Marsh’s record-rating guides for Rolling Stone. Sure, he went over the top for some personal favorites (all critics should), but he was always willing to give the average record an average review. That didn’t mean he hated it — it meant it was willfully, purposefully anodyne, and he was calling a spade a spade.

Since then, the landscape has changed. Well, that’s an understatement: what I mean to say is that the landscape has been torn asunder by earthquakes registering 8.0 plus on the Richter scale. Web traffic is driven by posted premieres and exclusive streams, which means that any upstart capable of cultivating a tight relationship with an indie label’s marketing department can set himself up as an influencer. Many popular music sites are now in so tight with the big “indie” agents and publicists that it’s impossible to tell where the promotion ends and the journalism begins. Sometimes the journalism doesn’t begin: the site becomes a repository for commercial messages and label sales pitches.

Hyperbole tends to feed on itself. More disturbingly, it tends to encourage cliche repetition, and chase out oddball dissent. In 2013, the Internet looks like one gigantic PR Newswire. Almost all of the reviews I read on the Internet these days are unadulterated hype. Sometimes it’s hype rewritten by really good writers; they’ll figure out a way to re-word the main points of the press release in the graceful language they learned in seminars at the 92nd Street YMCA. More frequently, it’ll be hype rewritten by okay writers. They’ll try to disguise what they’re doing, but the dry bones always poke through the carcass.

In a climate like this, Dogslayer accumulates empty rave after empty rave. The band picks up so many interchangeable rave reviews, in fact, that they begin to think that they’re entitled to all the superlatives that their (paid) publicist has picked out for them. Without really noticing it, the members of Dogslayer have come to believe that the job of the critic is to ditto the positive notice they’ve already gotten. So many of the reviews say the exact same thing, cite the exact same influences — this must be how it works, right? Do you see what’s happened? The critic can no longer praise Dogslayer. All she can do is repeat what’s already been said or insult the band. Any deviation from the script written by the publicist will be taken as a weird affront to the myth that the label is building around the group. Should she trash the one-sheet and attempt to evaluate the record fairly, free from hyperbole, her review will be received as a pan. More than that, it’ll be received as an unwelcome deviation from consensus, a mar on the Metacritic score, bitter and contrarian.

Our hypothetical independent critic doesn’t like hurting people’s feelings, and despite my rep, neither do I. I hate it that it’s come to this — that bands and audiences now believe that the role of the critic is to be the publicist’s validator and attache. As music marketers have become increasingly precious guardians of the conventional wisdom surrounding their wards, bands have rarely had to cope with reviews that call them what most of them truly are: average.

Part of the problem is that as money has flowed in, careerism has overwhelmed the so-called “indie” music. Many prominent indie rockers are in their thirties: they’re not looking to rule the world with their music, they’re looking to make a respectable middle income. There is no shame in this, but it again confounds the critic. When you’re twenty years old, you tend to be surrounded by other twenty year olds with crazy dreams. They’re living in warehouses and eating rats, all so they can make art; it’s horrible, sure, but they’re young and healthy. You can poke holes in their pretensions, and they’re resilient enough to bounce back. Thirty year old musicians are different. They’ve got families to feed, bills to pay, and interpersonal responsibilities to attend to. That lukewarm review — that refusal to play minor-league ball with the starmaking apparatus designed by the publicist — is potentially taking the food out of the mouth of the guitar player’s newborn kid. That doesn’t feel quite so nifty to do. I don’t relish the prospect of undercutting the moneymaker-myths that musicians in their thirties rely on to get by. They’re dumb, but I understand why they’re essential.

In the 21st century, the critic is on the ropes. She no longer feels welcome to speak her mind about “indie” projects; every time she does, she bruises and bewilders some aging musician who is expecting not wild worship, but a boost to his career prospects. In the big musical clearing-houses that drive mass opinion, she’s been replaced by the marketer and the associative algorithm — and nobody really minds. PR copy takes the place of evaluative reviews, and that’s cool with readers. As databases continue to be refined and patterns of music consumption are further studied and tracked, it’ll be the algorithms that make recommendations, and the uploaded opinions of millions of listeners who define conventional wisdom. The critic is getting squeezed out.

What the critic needs to do is untether herself from the expectation that she’s there to make a recommendation to buyers. This will be hard to do — but it must be done if the critic is to survive. I once wrote in the Christmas Abstract that in America, every list is a shopping list. The critic needs to come up with a different kind of list: one that reflects her idiosyncratic and personal tastes. When the critic echoes conventional wisdom and the recommendations of the algorithm and the publicist, she needs to step back and ask herself what part of her singular God-given mind has gotten gummed up in the machine. Then she needs to about-face and march off in the other direction, and stake out narrative territory based on her own experiences, her own personality, and her own crazy whims.

Critics Poll XXIX — My Ballot

It’s about to get ugly — flow so mean, I just can’t be polite.

I have always loved music videos.  I loved the first generation of grainy promotional spots for new wave bands, I loved Michael Jackson’s choreography and Russell Mulcahey’s cinematic interventions, I loved ZZ Top and their keychain and Prince humping the floor.  It was all magic to me, and it continues to be a mystery why a director would ever shoot anything else.   Movies, TV shows, documentaries: all of that seems like a wasted opportunity and a terrible misapplication of film stock.  Year after year, music videos delivered for me in a way that no other filmed entertainment did.  

So it is from my position as a dedicated and passionate follower of the form — a goof who knows all the dance steps in “Get Me Bodied” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” clip by heart, even if I can’t execute a single one — that I say 2018 was the best year ever for music videos.  Old masters of aesthetic hyperactivity and condensed three-minute visual messages outdid themselves: Beyonce and Jay-Z hung in the Louvre, Janelle Monae draped her frames in the colors of the bi-pride flag, Drake gave away money and fired up the crowd and danced with the freaks in the French Quarter, and it all looked stunningYoung artists who’ve shown some facility with the form took big steps forward, including Vince Staples, whose Google map-themed “Fun” clip was a distillation of everything he’s been trying to say about surveillance, voyeurism, and poverty porn, and Tyler and A$AP Rocky further sharpened their distinctive personalities in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, The 1975 nodded to Stop Making Sense and My Chemical Romance and Broadway theater; Mitski kept one-upping the arthouse flicks.  Even musicians who don’t normally make good clips rose to the occasion in ’18.  I’ve always thought music video was the weakest part of Kevin Barnes’s game, but his spot for “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia” captured his feelings of dislocation and outsiderdom (not to mention his seething aggression) better than all his other clips put together. 

But the new video stars owned 2018, and — lucky us — it just so happened that the artists who made the best clips also made the best music. Rosalia took her place at the head of the class with three superb, interrelated clips for songs from El Mal Querer, and gave us the year’s most indelible images: the dance in the back of the moving truck, the bullfighter and the motorcycle, the robed cultist(?) takeover in the mansion, the girl frantically jumping on the bed.  Kali Uchis wasn’t quite so arty, but she’s every bit as effective, and the long shot in the “Tyrant” clip through an infinite regress of car windows was my favorite special effect. Caroline Rose might be the funniest pop singer to emerge from the wilderness since Kate Miller-Heidke (and KMH isn’t too funny anymore); her clip for “Soul No. 5” was reminiscent of late ’70s Attractions videos.  No matter how many times I see her drop that hula hoop, I still crack up.

And bouncing through contemporary music like unstoppable Evil Otto, shutting the boards down with a big grin and chasing us all around, was the incomparable Tierra Whack, the Rookie of the Year and some kind of off-the-wall North Philly visionary. The fifteen minute-long low-budget but oh-so-brilliant clips from Whack World are so good and so resourcefully made that I’m not sure people realize how great the songs are.  Tierra Whack didn’t just demonstrate that she could bring developmental pop songs to a satisfying resolution in sixty seconds.  She showed that she could do it straight across genre: that the conventions of power pop, trap music, smoky R&B and neo-soul, etc., were no obstacle to her.  Then there were the lyrics, which were economical, quotable throughout, and exhibited deep understanding of hip-hop in its most elemental form. 

Some critics have compared her to Missy Elliott. That’s not misleading. Missy would also boast in verse about how many vegetables she ate. But in practice, Whack World reminds me more of D. Boon, or those late ’60s Mothers of Invention albums where Frank Zappa kept jumping from fragment to fragment in a deliberate attempt to keep his listeners bewildered. Zappa had a wide open field on which to play. Tierra Whack is responding to the challenges of an era of constricted expressive opportunities. Music optimized for Instagram was bound to happen eventually, and if the platform exists, and it’s big and it’s wide, I can’t knock talented artists for jumping on up. In one quick stroke, she did what Kanye has been threatening to do since the beginning of the Pablo release cycle. She’s managed to reimagine what a pop album can be in the present media environment.

And yes, this is an album. Running length ain’t nothing but a number.

Album of the Year

  1. Tierra Whack – Whack World
  2. Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past
  3. Boygenius – Boygenius
  4. Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake
  5. Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
  6. Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
  7. Caroline Rose – Loner
  8. Kali Uchis – Isolation
  9. Rosalia – El Mal Querer
  10. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now
  11. Metric – Art Of Doubt
  12. The Carters – Everything Is Love
  13. Noname – Room 25
  14. Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E.
  15. Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
  16. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
  17. Saba – Care For Me
  18. Francis And The Lights – Just For Us
  19. Rubblebucket – Sun Machine
  20. Black Milk – Fever

Best Album Title

The best title is probably Transangelic Exodus, since it manages to nod to Ezra’s four obsessions — queerness, spirituality, Jewish identity, and escape — in two words and seven syllables. But my favorite is Lost In Beaucaire by a French band called Woody Murder Mystery.  Their sound is mildly psychedelic, like a blunt filled with herbs de Provence.  Beaucaire is actually close to Provence: not on the French Riviera but tucked into the countryside where cattle have more rights than people.  My suspicion is that the cow on the cover of Atom Heart Mother had something to do with the making of this album because it reminds me of an early Floyd soundtrack: it’s lazy without being listless, melodic but not overly so, dotted with zone-out stretches and too-brief moments of accidental beauty, and decorated with combo organ that sounds as if it is drifting down the hall of an abandoned church.  No instrumentalist in this group can hold a candle to Wright or Gilmour, or, for that matter, Sean O’Hagan or Marcus Holdaway.   But what do you expect from cows?  They don’t even have fingers. They just have to hoof the fretboard and hope they luck into some consonance. 

Best Album Cover

Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy. The album is… it’s good, really. I like her; I think she’s a fun character. But let’s not go overboard here. Look, the worst thing about Whitey is how credulous he is.  Whitey will swallow anything.  The next time some wiseass economic determinist tries to tell you about how capitalism has been so much more “successful” in the West than it has in, say, darkest Africa, you might remind him that this is because the white man is so damn gullible that the wheels of commerce face no impediment here. Packaged properly, there is nothing he will not buy.  I speak from experience.  I myself am of the Caucasian persuasion, and I will shell out for whatever you’ve got and accept any bullshit line that flatters any object I fancy.  Jay-Z as a statesman?  Sure, I’ll buy it.  Beyonce as an articulate spokeswoman for social justice?  Yes, that sounds about right, he says, admiring that ass.  Oprah as presidential timber?  Sure, why not?, beats the alternative, yuk yuk.  But there are bridges too far even for me, and Cardi B, feminist hero?, that’s too far on the distant shore.  This Bronx loudmouth – who believes that face down ass up equals perfect posture – has made a solid corporate rap album, nothing more or less. Those hard consonants and trap beats you hear are the clinking and clanking of a capitalist tool. Believe me, I don’t begrudge her those money moves.  This is showbiz, we all ride our gimmicks as far as we can take them, and Cardi appears to be built to ride hers reasonably far.  What I can’t handle is the conviction among those who ought to know better that Cardi’s grueling sexploitation rhymes and her rote (if funny) power bottoming are salutary political statements.  The next thing you people are going to tell me that some gross Louisiana stripper and her sleazeball attorney are some kind of freedom fighters, and put them on TV all the time.  Oh, wait. Hm.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest. Will “Holy” Toledo isn’t the thinker that Ezra Furman is, which keeps him free from certain writerly pitfalls, and the noisiness of his new set comes with a built-in excuse: its template version was cut in 2011 and released on MyHamper, or Bandspace, or whatever, when he was four years old or thereabouts.  It gathered a passionate cult following, which means the fi of the redraft can’t be allowed to drift too hi. Which it doesn’t, but I’m sure the fans of tape hiss still complained bitterly. Just to make sure you’re getting what you want, Toledo has packaged the original in a double disc set with the new one, so those of you with a compare and contrast essay overdue can look no further for a subject. Once again, Toledo lets the songs run all day, long as the hut of Baba Yaga, and he doesn’t really have the musical or lyrical ideas to justify the excess.  On Teens Of Denial, he whomped up stories about drug abuse and aimless youth into bracing but somewhat empty epics; here, his subject is the Namblafied relationship between the narrator and an older man.  Since he’s interested in actual people and not anything as nebulous as a generation, these stories achieve a kind of narrative traction that’s absent in his other work.  Go back to go forward, vol. 4080.

Most Welcome Surprise

The Future And The Past. The point of pop production is to create a sonic environment for the storyteller/main personality to inhabit. That’s it; that’s the whole job. Complicating the job, though, is the artist, who often wants her record to sound exactly like something else, and who hires the producer to make this happen. Make my record sound like Van Morrison in 1972, and never you mind that there is only one Van the Man. Natalie Prass has been working with Matthew E. Smith since she was a kid, and together they have ideas: on the self-titled set, they made like she was a blue-eyed soul singer akin to Dusty Springfield.  It was a really well-appointed simulation they crafted over there at Spacebomb, even if it wasn’t exactly imaginative.  The problem was that they were writing checks that Natalie Prass’s voice couldn’t cash.  (Then there was “Christy”, and the less said about that the better).  For album number two, they switched it up – which is something most AM gold fetishists never do – and I’ll be damned if they haven’t arrived at something new under the sun.  The Future And The Past answers the following question that nobody has ever asked: what would the Kamakiriad have sounded like with Jenny Lewis in the driver’s seat and machine beats provided by, say, Pete Rock?  Never mind worrying if the voice doesn’t fit with the style, because there won’t be any prior model to compare the music to.  My feeling is that the ‘70s-loving fans of Natalie Prass are having a hard time warming up to this, which is a shame, since syncopation plus electrofunk grooves plus jazz piano plus hefty appropriation from black American music usually equals Steely Dan. Also getting lost in the shuffle is the political content: 80% of this album is fighting words aimed at the Prez and his followers.  Because she is such a pipsqueak it can be hard to register her protest as such. But when she says “we’ll take you on/we can take you all” in “Hot For The Mountain, you can damn well feel that itch in her voting finger. Do I believe that a coalition of the twee is poised to bring down this charmless regime? No, but I’m a cynical old cuss who has lost too many elections, so don’t mind me.  Do I believe that Natalie believes it?  Well… I’ll tell you this much: “Sisters” slams as hard as any hip-hop I’ve heard this year.  So don’t fuck with the Richmond kids. They’re tougher than they look and they’re loaded for bear.  Also, Virginia’s not a swing state anymore.  The Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of pop albums.

Biggest Disappointment

Daytona/Kids See Ghosts/Nasir. It’s possible to applaud Kanye for rethinking the release strategy for the modern age while still recognizing these for what they are.  They’re EPs.  i.e, extended play.  There’s something you want to play for your listeners, and it contains more ideas than what you’d get on a single plus flip side, so you extend those ideas through a few more songs, and you leave it at that.  There are many short sets that do the work of an album better than traditional LPs do – numbers one and three on the list above, just for starters.  But not all artists are suited for the EP format, and Kanye’s insistence on a one-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t work for his current rap clients.  Your modern Nas is generally just warming up by song seven, and it feels almost cruel to yank the platform away from him before he has a chance to hit his stride.  He’s not an extended player: he wants to spin a wide web of associations before he turns his attention to fly-catching.  Cudi, on the other hand, is going to give you the same thing in twenty seconds as he is in twenty hours. he peddles a certain sonic effervescence that stays frothy enough in a bottle of any size.  On Kids See Ghosts, the EP length feels totally arbitrary: it’s more about Kanye’s numerological obsessions than what suits Cudi best.  As for little brother Terrence, he’s a team player, and he’ll always work with what you give him. I do find it amusing, though, that certain Johnny-come-lately critics are treating Daytona like some kind of artistic breakthrough.  Listen: Pusha T has always been great.  Always. He was great in the Clipse, he was great on the Timbaland productions, and he was even great on those stupid Wrath Of Caine mixtapes that he probably made between bites of Arby’s. As a dedicated fan, I’d like more than seven tracks of that greatness, and I take Kanye’s parsimoniousness as a personal affront.  Troll me with your MAGA hat if you must, but don’t short-pour me my Pusha T.  All that registered, I do give Yeezy his props for bending all of these tough-guy characters to his will.  Here’s the infamous cocaine slinger, the legendary street poet of the Queensbridge projects, and “the most influential vocalist of the past twenty years” (Kanye’s belief, not mine, but I understand where he’s coming from). Look at them all jump to the beat of the producer’s baton. Look at them indulge his dumbass whims. Not just any producer, either — a gay fish in a pink polo shirt.  Lets you know who really holds the power in hip-hop.  

Nicest Try

Brockhampton – Iridescence.  Gotta hand it to these kids.  While everybody else is making hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with the pop feeeel appeeeel to it, they remain as annoying as a bag of bugs.  Abrasive beats, throwback DAS EFX flows with hoobaly boobaly rimbally bimbally all up in your face, drum machines on the “broken typewriter” and “broken slot machine” settings, fax noises, Pathmark pickup on aisle 3 vocal filters, etcetera.  They continue to refer to themselves as a boy band, and who am I to question their boyness?  Four albums in, and Kevin Abstract remains the only recognizable voice.  Other emcees in this cast of thousands range from mumbling Mafiosos to token white guys to would-be Eminems in matricide mode to dudes reminiscent of the guy on the old De La Soul albums who did the Guido impersonation. Oh, and there’s a power ballad with a children’s gospel choir on it.  That’s the meaningful tune.  Also, there’s a big finish.  Big finish!

Album That Opens Most Strongly

Room 25. From the further adventures of Fatimah Warner: tenement floors scrubbed with Pine-Sol, tickets to Warriors-Cavs Game 5, reading Toni Morrison in a canoe, Sunny Delight, faded dungarees, giving a blowjob to a kid with Adidas on, inmate registries, opinions on Africa as a concept and the continuing career of Morgan Freeman even after getting #MeToo-ed, marijuana, biscotti, hot tamales.  I mean, god bless hip-hop, right?  Where else do they even bother? 

Most Consistent Album

Just For Us.   I could get used to this new level of productivity from the king of redaction. Twenty new songs in less than eighteen months?; that’s almost a normal pace.  Maybe Francis has just gotten more confident,  though confidence might just make him edit more rigorously.  A new Francis project doesn’t get released – it just slips through the exhaust vents in his towering quality control firewall. That’s probably why he never publicizes them.  He just leaves them on the internet and runs.  Just For Us splits the difference between the trad. piano pop of It’ll Be Better and the vox-FX experimentation of Farewell, Starlite!, but it’s more of a mood piece than either one, and i suspect it contains fewer highlights. Time will tell, unless it doesn’t.  One wag in the YouTube comments suggests that it tells its story in reverse, like undun or DAMN.  I’d wager it’s so airtight that you could slice it up and reassemble it however you pleased, and it would provide the same experience.  Francis’s music exists in stasis: there are really no directions to travel, it just spreads and fills the horizon until the record ends.  That’s only one of the many weird effects produced by his chronomancy. 

Most Unfairly Maligned Artist

J. Cole reminds me of The Economist in that he insists on talking to his audience as if it consists of adults.  Why he persists (and why they persist) I have no idea.  Because of this affront, rap listeners outside of the cult – a very large cult, mind you – call him dry.  Readers who have come to expect jolly vindictiveness from journalists say the same thing about The Economist.  They’re all wrong.  Some critics have gotten on Cole because of the nullification-via-technological-revolution argument in “Brackets”, but would you people rather have him rap about capping the President?  Wait, don’t answer that.  Funny how J. Cole has been getting less corny as Kendrick’s corniness continues to spike, right there in public in front of the Pulitzer committee, but that’s not something I’d expect superficial listeners, or haters, to notice.  I only wish they’d give Cole his props for a first-class trolling job.  Releasing his anti-drug album on 4/20?, that’s like something Kanye would do. Kanye or Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Heading For The Cliff

For what it’s worth, I am not of the party that believes that Jack White has lost his marbles.  Even during the heyday of the White Stripes, his motivation was never clear to me. Was he a dedicated traditionalist hiding his back-to-basics aims behind a patina of showbiz schtick, or was he a satirist sending up classic American pop styles?  Or was he just frustrated that the lane for guitar heroes had gotten so narrow?  Boarding House Reach suggests none of the above – instead, this is Jack as the mook, drunk and stumbling through the convenience store of American pop at 3 a.m., pawing all the merch, ripping the cover off of hip-hop, or country, with his teeth, and cramming the contents into his mouth without paying.  When the clerk says hey, Jack, you do realize there’s a price tag on that there rapper, he’s like fuck youuuuuuu pal, I am Jack White, incipient Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and I will do what I want.  Angrily, with a sense of utter entitlement, right in the corner by the john and the washbucket and the security cameras, until the cops come and drag him away. 

Album I Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Poppy – Am I A Girl?  I had Poppy as Rookie Of The Year last year and I don’t take it back.  Moriah Pereira figured out a way to get the Internet to work for her rather than getting flattened by the rest of it like the rest of us have.  But 2018 has hammered home the difference between a youtube satirist with limited, if charming, musical gifts, and a genuine revelatory pop talent such as Tierra Whack.  Are you using new media to advance your writing, or are you defined by its constraints?  On Poppy.Computer, Poppy played Poppy – it might not have been as creepy (or brilliant) as the video clips, but it was the same character with many of the same props and gags and in-jokes and whatnot.  In a way, it was the soundtrack to an episodic film project, much like the score to the Muppet Movie.  You don’t learn everything about the Muppets from “Movin Right Along”, but it is in all ways the same damn Kermit.  On Am I A Girl?, Pereira takes some tentative steps away from the character she’s created, and when she tries to put her foot down, there’s nothing there to stand on.  There to hold her arm as she stumbles is Diplo, who has gifted her with a good track but otherwise leeched out her idiosyncrasy and shattered the illusion in the name of what?, mainstream acceptance?  Like that’s going to happen. The model here is Grimes, who can’t sing either, and look!, there she is on “Play Destroy”, sounding so much like Poppy (and Poppy like Grimes) that you’ll wonder why they bothered.  The big departures here are two hard rock numbers indebted to a ridiculous degree to Babymetal.  I have no doubt that Moriah Pereira enjoys death/thrash/doom as much as the next headbanger, and I’m also sure that she and Titanic Sinclair (and maybe even Diplo, between bong hits) consider this a provocative juxtaposition in keeping with the Poppy character as we’ve come to know it.  But it’s not.  Poppy stole plenty from Japanese pop on her debut, but she was never desperate enough to stoop to pastiche.  She stood for a kind of disturbing, machine-processed seamlessness that is probably unrecoverable to her after this one.  Unless everybody just forgets about this album. And hey, I already did. 

Okay, that’s all for today. Singles next.

Critics Poll XXIX — Singles, etc.

Souped up girl and ready to blow.

Single Of The Year

  1. Caroline Rose – “Soul No. 5”
  2. Ezra Furman – “Love You So Bad”
  3. Metric – “Now Or Never Now”
  4. Soccer Mommy – “Scorpio Rising”
  5. Kali Uchis – “Tyrant”
  6. Now, Now – “AZ”
  7. Janelle Monae – “Make Me Feel”
  8. Drake – “In My Feelings”
  9. Vince Staples – “Fun”
  10. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – “Paper Rain”
  11. Tyler, The Creator & A$AP Rocky – “Potato Salad”
  12. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – “Suspect My Tears”
  13. Of Montreal – “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia”
  14. Teyana Taylor – “WTP”
  15. Rosalia – “Piensa En Tu Mira”
  16. Travis Scott & Drake – “Sicko Mode”
  17. Bad Bad Hats – “Nothing Gets Me High”
  18. Camila Cabello – “Never Be The Same”
  19. The Aces – “Just Like That”
  20. Caroline Rose – “Bikini”

Most Romantic Song

Eleanor Friedberger -“Make Me A Song”. Rebound: named for a dance club in Athens. That’s your first clue that something important has changed.  Your second clue is everything else.  

Most Moving Song

Andrew McMahon’s “House In The Trees”.

Funniest Song

Tierra Whack’s “Fruit Salad”. It’s all in the way she sings “vegetaboooools”.

Most Inspiring Song

“Django Jane”. Some of my pals accused Janelle Monae of retardating on the new one.  Technically they’re right: she returns from Hollywood with the density and conceptual complexity of her recordings pruned back so far you can see the bark on the trunk.  This happens to people who move out to L.A., right, Will Sheff?  But Janelle was already so far ahead of the competition that I’m not surprised that true fans (i won’t say fandroids) aren’t noticing.  Honestly, the futurespace/sci-fi robot/transhuman stuff was the only part of the Monae project that never worked for me – I’ve always preferred her in Girl James Brown mode – so I don’t mind that Dirty Computer isn’t set on the moon in the twenty-eighth century or whatever.  (I do miss Deejay Crash Crash a little.)  The style here is ’80s carnival music: not just the Prince, Janet Jackson, and Madonna nods you were expecting, but also a considerable amount of Kenny Loggins and Huey Lewis, too.  Anything you might have heard on a fairground during the Reagan Administration, in other words.  The man who pushes the big red START button on the Tilt-A-Whirl is Nate “Rocket” Wonder, who plays everything, brilliantly, and produced most of the album, too. He’s no spaceman – he’s a terrestrial boogie monster who is completely down with the day-glo motif.  I am sure that in Janelle’s mind there’s some wigged-out Octavia Butler narrative underpinning the storytelling  But there’s nothing on this set about computers, and despite such songs as “Let’s Get Screwed”, it’s not too dirty, either. Instead, the project is a straightforward Lemonade-ish reaction to black women getting run down, pretty much all day, in public, by assholes in power. This does not require nuanced, deeply metaphorical language involving Jupiter and spaceships.  It may help to be as blunt as possible.  It may also help to dispense with the transhumanity and embrace your plain-old-humanity.   You might say: I have rights; I’m entitled to the same things you are.  I’m entitled to my sexuality, my fantasies, and my fun.  I am beautiful, no matter how you jerks rate me.  The way you behave scares me.  Your words hurt me, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before saying them.  Your actions are cruel, and unless you’re okay with that, you might think twice before doing them. I deserve – I demand – your respect. If all of that sounds obvious, and basic, but it still desperately needs to be said, well, whose fault is that? 

Meanest Song

Pusha T, “The Story Of Adidon”. Making fun of Drake: that’s fair game, if it’s how you get your jollies. Making fun of Drake’s producer for having multiple sclerosis — that just makes you look like a jerk. Gratuitous cruelty is part of Pusha’s brand, I guess, but there’s no need to be so petty about it, or to drag innocents into the dumbest and most pointless of rap battles.

Saddest Song

Pretty much everything on Fred Thomas’s Aftering, especially “House Show, Late December”: eight-plus minutes of despondent poetry recited over scratchy midwest emo guitar-and-drums.   With dead-eyed accuracy, he paints the picture of an unpleasantly inebriated party of miserable rockers pointlessly grinding it out in squalid surroundings. Also, unlike certain fingers-crossed complainers who are secretly enjoying the era of governtaiment, his reflections on current electoral outcomes feel genuinely pained.  In between complaints about the aimlessness of life and protests-too-much about going sober, he does manage to indie-rock a little – in as dour a manner as possible, mind you. If you’re not exactly an “up” person either, you might find a kindred spirit here.

Sexiest Song

Probably Natalie Prass’s “Hot For The Mountain”. I find the idea of young women seizing political power sexy. I think I’d find the reality of it even sexier, so here’s hoping. Also, I feel the need to say that Noname’s new songs seem like they’re about sex between actual human beings, rather than bizarre archetypes, and that’s pretty refreshing in this pop environment.

Most Notable Cover Version

Somebody’s gonna tell you Anderson East has a voice like Van The Man.  Really, it’s Bullet Bob all the way, right down to the ironworker clang of his consonants and the steam heat of his phrasing.  I get such a manly, gristly, silver bullet feel from his rip-roarin’ cover of Ted Hawkins’s “Sorry You’re Sick” that I think I’ve just grown a beard.  His version of R&B is built for opening shows, which is what makes it grabby; unfortch, those shows are in basketball arenas, which is what makes it dumb.  Albums like his don’t tend to have any legs — the very point is that you’ve heard it all before, and with each listen, the maudlin elements of his storytelling further overwhelm the rest of the sentiment.  But it sure is a blast to listen to him sing.  

Best Guest Appearance

Saba and Smino on Room 25

Best Show I Saw In 2018

Jenny Lewis, White Eagle Hall. Honorable mentions: Lucy Rose at Le Poisson Rouge, and my old buddies in Belle & Sebastian at Forest Hills Stadium. How To Solve Our Human Problems isn’t a high point in the B&S discography or anything, but it’s got its nifty moments, and I, for one, am glad they keep padding out their story with extra chapters. It’s been, oh, fifteen years since Stuart Murdoch eloped with Miss Private, and although he continues to insist on hiring cute backing singers – oh, like you wouldn’t — there’s no evidence that he’s straying.  Tigermilk-style revenge and wandering-bard fantasies still lurk in the dusty bagpipe of his heart, I am sure. But he’s got a kid now as well as a loving wife/photographer, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy who’d turn down a home and hearth combo package when it’s offered to him.  He’s dealt with the challenge of domestic tranquility rather creatively, receding into new wave nostalgia and “songwriting excellence”, and leaning hard on the society of his band, which, in its mix of goofball personalities and its consistent flashes of gentle wit and ramshackle wisdom (not to mention the loose, sprawling feel-good shows), becomes more like the Grateful Dead with each passing year.  For the first time, I feel the absence of Mick Cooke, who sure could have punched up the fake Northern Soul arrangements on Human Problems, and Stuart’s many nips away from the spotlight are not without their cost (“Cornflakes”, echchchchch). Sarah Martin continues to pick up the slack, though. Also, “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is a genuine rarity: a letter-to-my-child song that doesn’t play as a grotesque self-justification.  Imagine this from the kid’s perspective – who would you rather have as a dad, Stuart, or Sturgill Simpson?  Which one is going to take you out for ice cream, and which one will you discover drunk on the kitchen floor?  Let’s not even drag Andrew McMahon into this.  Stick with stuart.  You’ll have a nice time at the fair. 

Best Singing

Danielle Balbuena, a.k.a. 070 Shake. This is the Jersey girl who put her hand on the stove to see if she still bleeds.  She defends that line, by the way, so you smartasses can stand down: she says that if you burn yourself badly enough, the wound will actually open.  I don’t know if she’s speaking from experience; the point is that she is calling out her critics as unburnt softies — people who do not have the same experience with pain as she does.   I doubt Kanye cares one way or another. You can see what prompted him to press-gang her into the G.O.O.D. music content farm: Glitter sounds a good bit more troubled than Kanye, who is merely insane, has allowed himself to be in the past few years.  Kanye has been driven mad from nonstop exposure to fame and the news cycle; it’s the dullest story in California, and his insistence on rehashing it as if it’s news has been having a deleterious effect on his artistry.  070 Shake behaves like she’s got no idea there’s even such thing as fame, or an Internet, or electricity.  Instead, she sings like a woman brooding over heartbreak in a cold room, maybe by a railroad trestle, who hasn’t eaten or had a bath or seen a bright light in days.  It’s snowing and the sun isn’t up, and she made it to the stop only to see the Bergenline bus pulling away.  She’s singing the blues, in other words — and that will never go out of style.  The EP isn’t all aces, and in the future she’s going to have to vary the emotional tone somewhat.  But there’s good reason to believe she’s more than the new Fetty Wap. 

Best Singing Voice

Cristal Ramirez of The Aces. She’s from Utah, of all places, which might help to explain why the world didn’t exactly pick up on When My Heart Felt Volcanic.  Imagine doing the rock up in those dry Mormon hills.  But rock they do: to be precise, The Aces mimic the crisp, professional, ruthlessly efficient pop-rock of big-money female-fronted pop-rock acts with astonishing fidelity – Carly Rae Jepsen, post-Farro Paramore, Chvrches, straight-pop T. Swift, Lorde, that last Grimes album, Haim.  Haim especially.  And lookit, I didn’t think it was possible to be any more faceless than Haim, but The Aces have proven me wrong.  Personalities may emerge as I listen to this more – and I sure will listen to this more – but I’m not betting on it; I mean, this band has included its business plan in the liner notes.  

Best Rapping

Saba

Best Vocal Harmonies

Boygenius. Just call them the Pistol Elfies, with Ms. Dacus in the role of Miranda Lambert (the natural), Rappin’ Phoebe B as a West Coast Angaleena Presley (the wry, lyrical one), and Julien Baker as Monroe Suede (high voice, high strung, tendency to dance on the edge of emotional breakdown).  Because they’re indie rockers and not trad. country singers, they’re under no pressure to write a hit; because they’re elves, they get +1 to INT and DEX and only a mild penalty applied to constitution.  Also: combat bonuses with bow and arrow.  I’m impressed by how they’ve reinforced each other strengths without accidentally amplifying any of their weaknesses: the way Phoebe’s er, unusual way of putting things manages to shake up Lucy Dacus’s writing, which was getting a little poker-faced on Historian, or how Lucy’s mahogany alto warms up Julien Baker’s wail-of-the-banshee act, or how Julien’s emo guitar punches up her pals’ usual stately classic rock arrangements.  Lucy Dacus’s two songs here strike me as her best of the year, easily.  As for Julien Baker, I’ve never thought she was best straight-up notes and chords songwriter: her diatonic, circular numbers rely on emotional crescendos to get over.  Here she gets to sing in such tight harmony that she’s sometimes rendered a sound effect — she’s the teakettle whistling when things really come to a boil.  It’s a good role for her, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the ballast that her partners provide.  Nobody dominates: Boygenius really does give the impression that all three members are equal contributors less interested in jockeying for position than in making great music. Just like the Pistol Annies, in other words.  I won’t say that more excellent artists ought to do the GTR thing and join forces, because I’d wager that it’s the rare frontperson who can put her ego in check long enough to sustain such a balanced collaboration.  After all, has it not been said that when the heart rules the mind, one look, and love is blind.  If you want the dream to last, call it a day after six songs.  Plenty of cover for that decision in the year when everything was too damned short.

Best Bass Playing

Black Milk. And while I’m at it:

Best Production and Best Beat Programming

I don’t ask the universe for justice or the industry for fairness.  I’m just saying that if Black Milk ever won a Grammy for what he does — pretty much every year — that’d be mighty nice.  Honorable mention: Iman Omari for his work on the Cavalier album. Forget Mantovanni and Barry Manilow: this is some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear.  That EZ listening sound.  Your elevator oughta be so lucky.  Black Milk is so self-effacing that he might have dropped off of your radar — he’s the Detroit cat who still must suffer constant comparisons to J. Dilla even though he stepped out of that shadow years ago.  The sounds he produces are so winsome and so rusty-city cinematic that if his rapping is any good at all, his records shine.  Unfortunately, in the past, he has often rapped like a pharma sales rep in the midst of a power point presentation.  In 2018 he was motivated, and he kept Fever at a nice simmer.  That’s probably as high as the burners on this reliable old stove go up; don’t twist them any harder, they’ll break.  Cavalier is a New Orleans kid I’d never heard of.  Turns out he is a fine, very thorough rapper from the Okayplayer school of verbal density and social conscience.  Sometimes — well, rarely — he’s even funny, which gives him one on Black Milk.  His ace in the hole is Iman Omari, whose peculiar sense of time and playful relationship to the beat remind me of… well, they remind me of Black Milk, to be honest.  Also, these two emcees kick it on similar topics: police brutality, phonies, disloyalty among friends, how us menfolk oughta treat the wimmen better, phonies (aren’t they something), the struggle for black self-affirmation in a society determined to hold nonwhites in psychological bondage, ass (but respectfully), phonies (aren’t they awful).  I only wish Cavalier would release his project on CD like Black Milk did.  Fat chance of that happening in these plastic elastic days when only Olivia Newton John is allowed to get physical.  These poor millennial schmucks better hope that the cloud really is as permanent as Zuckerberg says it is.

Best Live Drumming

Stephane St. John and Domenico Lancellotti on The Good Is A Big God. You’d figure that a record made by a curly-headed brazilian who has collaborated with Caetano and Moreno Veloso and produced, no less, by Sean O’Hagan would fit my sweet spot squarely.  And it does, sort of, though this samba never achieves the sunburnt radiance I associate with Tropicalia.  At its best it does indeed approach the rhythmic (though never the sexual) intensity of Transa and the curiously friction-free juxtapositions of Hawaii. Much of this is as soporific as the waves, though.  Nifty late nite music in any case.

Best Synthesizer Playing

Mildlife. This was a Youtube discovery: it was posted to Provocative Educative!, the same channel that tipped me off to the Jazz Spastiks and the last Open Mike Eagle record.  in ’18, a lot of the stuff they pushed on me was jazz, not hip-hop, and I’m beginning to hear the hoofbeats of a Trojan horse.  But who among you is above a little saxophone in the evening?  Mildlife doesn’t hip-hop at all — they’re a prog-jazz fusion act with extremely incidental vox, and if that sounds dreadful, remember that Air fits the description too.  I’ve turned to Mildlife when I’ve had enough of Talkie Walkie and 10 000 Hz Legend, and even though these Aussie knob-twiddlers are very different animals from Godin and Dunckel, their music scratches a similar itch.  Maybe not at the base of the spine; farther along the shoulder blade.  What you’re getting here is a congenial relationship between the bassist, who is content to lay down those hypergroovy, mechanical “Femme D’Argent”-type parts, and the analog synth player, who is a flucking wizard.  Once they get the jam where they want it, the whole band locks in and starts cooking, as the jazzbos like to say, and here I really do feel the force of the metaphor: it’s like the moment when the celery and carrots and starch sizzle into a roux at the bottom of a cast iron pan.  Along the way some buttinsky or another sings something that might be words?  In Australian?  Dude may just be marking time.  If it makes enough of an impression on you that you figure out what he’s on about, let me know.   

Best Organ Playing

Thank you, Caroline Rose, for bringing back demented roller-rink combo organ. We expect male singer-songwriters of a certain type (funny looking) to affect a sarcastic outlook as a defense mechanism, but girls who do the same are banished to the Siberia of stand-up comedy — something I have no doubt Rose could do if she wanted to, so I hope to hell she doesn’t want to.  It’d be a waste of the singular sneering-robot voice she’s developed.  She applies it to great effect throughout an album that contains some of the best tawdry boardwalk-town Farfisa-centric arrangements since the heyday of Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns.  I like it on the takedown of the music biz dickhead (“all you gotta do is put on this little bikini/and d-d-d-dance!”) and the one where they do it for the money (“they did it for the money”), and I like it even better when she plays it straight and admits that modern alienation is getting to her.  But I like it best on the one where she jokes so hard about having soul that it soon becomes clear it’s no joke.  I mean, what is soul but irreducible personality?, and doesn’t she have that in spades?  Loner wasn’t my absolute favorite album of 2018, but there was no album I rooted any harder to sell.  I’d hate to see her chuck it and start writing woke gags for Samantha Bee.  What a loss for the good guys, as Jenny Lewis might put it.  

Best Guitar Playing

Kerry Alexander of Bad Bad Hats.  Lightning Round was made with an eye on the big time: it is slicker, more processed and pro, more to-the-moment, more synth-heavy, and frankly, less twee than anything BBH has done before.  The guitar is still there, thank goodness, and while it doesn’t drive any of the songs the way it did on Psychic Reader, I dare say that Kerry Alexander is better than ever.  In fact she is using the guitar exactly how I always want pop-rock musicians to use it: picking spots, teasing out lead lines that echo her melodies, amplifying the rhythm section at strategic moments, adding coloring and shading.  It’s almost like… she knows what she’s doing.  Imagine that.

Best Instrumental Solo

Francis’s weird-ass punch-card computer meltdown on “Tear It Up”. It’s about four notes, but they do the work of four hundred.

Best Arrangements

Rosalia’s album is short, and about a third of it feels like moody American R&B in the current Beyonce-derived style; nothing to kick out of bed, certainly, but also nothing you haven’t heard earlier today. But the balance of El Mal Querer consists of a flamenco-latin pop-trap music hybrid that may indeed mark Rosalia as some kind of crazed post-ethnic genius.  It’s jam-packed with cubic inches of musical ideas, too, at a density that recalls the Tierra Whack project.  Track number two, for instance, strikes me as blown-out prog flamenco, or maybe all flamenco is as mesmerizing as this? (I doubt it).  All of it is sung in Spanish, naturally, so you MAGA hat wearers might not be feeling it. Yet it strikes me that unlike Natalia Lafourcade, who wraps up her dazzling Latinx indiepop and folklorico in the sharpest threads imaginable, Rosalia is so comfortable handling sleaze – just check out the fantastic videos – that El Mal Querer might just penetrate the American market.  J/k, I’m sure this will be about as welcome as the immigrant caravan. Oh: straight from the With Friends Like These department, Rosalia’s achievement was greeted with a bouquet of articles accusing her of cultural appropriation. Apparently she’s not from the proper subdivision of Spain that would authorize her to make use of gypsy signifiers and seriously?, what the fuck is wrong with us?  Has it really come to this?  Of course Rosalia is a child of privilege – you could never make an album like this unless you had lessons and/or a big budget.  Who the fuck cares?  Would you rather Rosalia embrace an identity as a corporate raider and leave El Mal Querer unmade? Sometimes I think we don’t even deserve music.   

Best Songwriting

Tierra Whack

G.O.A.T.

Let me begin by saying I don’t think Look Now is as good as Painted From Memory. No “God Give Me Strength” or “Tears At The Birthday Party” here. But it is a lot closer than you’d wager, and Painted From Memory – which was, you’ll recall, received upon release as a late-period high point and a possible last gasp – was twenty years ago.  It is absolutely stupefying that Elvis Costello continues to write and sing and bandlead and concept-master at this level at sixty five years old. Great musicians way younger than he is have already entered the recursive period of their runs, or just hung them up. Compare Look Now, which has the creative restlessness and depth of vision of an artist in his prime, to something like Graham Parker’s Cloud Symbols, which is just a fun reiteration of what we all loved about the Rumor in the ’70s and early ’80s. Consider also that “Isabelle In Tears”, which would be a centerpiece of anybody else’s set, didn’t even make the album.  If you want it, you’ve got to get the deluxe version.  He’s in his seventh decade and he’s still sneezing out magnificent b-sides.  It’s downright ridiculous how much water in this well: it defies everything we know about artistry, and aging, and energy, and human frailty.  And I have to say that the spot atop the career value list isn’t open to debate anymore, if it ever was.  I guess you could make a case for Dylan if you wanted to weight cultural significance heavily (I don’t), or Paul Simon, if you really dig theft.  But with all respect to the forerunners, Dylan never wrote as crisply or with so much courage as Elvis Costello does, and Paul Simon wasn’t anywhere near as prolific.  Absolutely nothing has deteriorated: not the pen, not the voice, not the sense of literary irony, certainly not the stakes.  This is probably his most Broadway set ever, which, in the context of his long arc, strikes me as just another successful experiment.  He’s singing from the point of view of women, and inhabiting those perspectives with a little more sensitivity than Woody Allen does, but he never handles it with so much care that the essential desperation that has always motivated him gets subsumed by his sense of social responsibility or fair play. It’s not that he doesn’t give a fuck, because I’m pretty sure he does, it’s that he knows damn well what’ll keep him running.  I guess you could compare it to Sondheim, but Sondheim puts out a musical once in a blue moon.  And Sondheim never could have written “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes”.  Maybe Richard Rodgers could have.  That’s who Elvis Costello is: a rocking Richard Rodgers.  We’ll never see the like again. 

Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album

Every line on Whack World is a hip-hop quotable, but I’ve got to give this one to Saba, who may just turn out to be Chicago’s MVP now that Chance has entered politics, or a monastery, or something. If the Windy City ’18 sound isn’t quite as rapturous as it was a scant few moons ago, well, in retrospect that exuberance was probably unsustainable.  You’re only the king of the after-school programme for a semester at best.  Saba, to be fair, was never big man on campus: he’s always been the nerd at home neither in the streets nor in the halls of the academy.  Care For Me is a My Bodyguard story about the Pivot Gang roughneck who serves as his tor/mentor and protector until he is, all too predictably, slain, “for a coat”, we’re told, right off the bat, in the same neighborhoods Saba love-hates.  In the density and agility of the storytelling — not to mention the occasional greyness of the production — the album resembles J. Cole’s For Your Eyez Only.  A lot.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

Saba, “Prom/King”

Band Of The Year

Boygenius. Hope that wasn’t that.

Okay, more tomorrow.

Critics Poll XXIX — Various Chartbusters

Insistent on her derecho de nacimiento: Natalia Lafourcade.

Most Convincing Historical Re-creation

Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer. For once this guy served me an onion that doesn’t make me want to cry when I slice it.  Of course he did it by abandoning the pretense that he’s a Randy Newman acolyte and mimicking Elton John instead.  Elton, great as he is, we can do; Randy is inimitable.  FJM is such a skilled singer that he really does approach the soapy, soupy, soppy quality of early ’70s records like Madman Over The Water.  The lyrics are still too dumb to justify their pomposity, but at least for once, he’s being historically accurate: Bernie Taupin was pompous and dumb, too. 

2018 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Tinashe’s Joyride. The latest from this still-young and talented artist is, like everything she’s done, a mixed bag: some Beyonce-ish piano balladry, some of that smoke-ring R&B she’s made her name with, some boilerplate sex-me-now pop that could have been singer-songwritten by any old chanteuse, and expensive guest verses from various Migos and their ilk, all of whom proceed with absolute indifference to the subject matter and emotional tenor of the songs.  We’ve been here before with Tinashe: this ringmaster cannot control the circus held in her own name.  Her mixtapes, uneven though they are, had sonic consistency to them because she produced them herself; Aquarius, her prior studio album, was as bumpy a ride as this is, but it had a couple of hits on it.  This doesn’t.  This’ll be the fourth time I write that Tinashe has everything you need to be a big star, which is about three times too many.  It pleases me that she proceeds with an ingenue’s indifference to the politics of the biz, but in pop, you can only get away with that for so long.  This was probably her shot, and her big-money backers aren’t going to be pleased with the outcome.  Like another major-label misfit once found out, if you do not want what you haven’t got, it’s a sure thing you won’t be getting what you do not have.  Capitalism: built to reward the hungry.  

2018 Album You Listened To The Most

Isolation

Thing You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should

Quelle Chris & Jean Grae

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

K.T.S.E. Well, what do you know: the most complete statement out of Camp Kanye this Yeezy season turned out to be the afterthought.  Some of his productions for Teyana Taylor are redolent of the “old Kanye” in that they do recall the era when he’d just speed up a soul sample and pinch some tinny drums from a MIDI bank and call it a completed work.  But Taylor is such a miracle of a singer that it hardly matters, just like it’s never an issue that her lyrics are so stupid that she actually manages to make a three-way sound unappetizing.  I didn’t think that was possible. “Hurry Hurry” is barely even a song: it’s just some sex groaning and a guitar loop that Otis Redding left on the dock of the bay overnight.  But goddamn does it work.  The theme of the song, just like the theme of all her songs, is that she is horny as hell and needs some genital stimulation ASAP.  You can really see how this would appeal to Kanye. Where did he scrounge her up?  Some reality show?  This is what they promised me Ella Mai would be: an R&B sorcerer who squeezes the soul out of every syllable and never takes a moment off.  It’s like Lauryn Hill after several icepick lobotomies.  Also, I may not be the gayest fish in the tank, but if I was at a disco in Fire Island Pines and “WTP” came on, you’d best believe I’d vogue. Don’t sic Mike Pence on me, people.  Allow Ms. Taylor to sing the blues.      

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Of Anyway

JB Dunckel’s H+. Air without Nicolas Godin’s bass lines?, That’s like jelly without peanut butter, like Becker without Fagen, like schools without teachers, like Kathy Lee without Regis, like Rasheed without Tonya Tamika.  Like Paris without Texas. Dunckel’s moody music stays on brand, and his solo disc does indeed contain the lovably yawnsley themes of transhumanity we’ve come to expect from him, including a song called “Transhumanity” (chorus: “transhumanity/transhumanity”.) But if you’ve got a hankering for some Moon Safari action, Mildlife is the better move.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

In The Rainbow Rain. A field of vision that was once wide enough to encompass both the My Lai Massacre and blue balls narrowed to the size of indie rock, and then to the size of his band van, and finally to the size of Will Sheff’s noggin.  That’s not a problem, intrinsically: even if it does get stuffy in there, he makes up for it with “mystic” music that borrows from Van Morrison’s undersung ’80s albums.  But never again are we getting “The President’s Dead” from this guy.  Instead, we have the hallucinatory Will, probably for good.  Honestly, I think he still has PTSD from the popular and critical reception of Silver Gymnasium, and he’s drowning his sorrows in magic mushrooms, etc.   Either that, or Jonathan Meiburg has him Monarch-programmed. 

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

When Rayland Baxter’s Wide Awake has been discussed at all, which it rarely has, it’s been called Beatlesque. Kiss of death, I know.  You do have to give Rayland his props: he’s got his McCartney imitation down pat, especially his read on “Seventy-Nine Shiny Revolvers” (note last word).  He’s even busted out the Hofner bass and achieved that Ringo backslap on the snare.  In practice, though, Wide Awake is more like what The Shins would be if they were produced by Butch Walker: reverb rolled away, copious overdubs, emphasis on clarity, a piano player who definitely ate all his vegetaboools, etcetera.  James Mercer is a better lyricist than Baxter is, and Butch’s, er… muscular treatment on the boards doesn’t leave the principal any room to hide.  But Rayland is confident that his melodies are so strong and his hooks are so shiny that you won’t even notice the words, and for ten tracks and forty minutes he stands in the spotlight and gives it to you straight.  Is his swag justified?  Well. My guess is that if you didn’t mind the Webb Brothers yanking you back to the sixties with every onanistic move they made, you won’t be too mad at Rayland Baxter for chasing his ’60s daydreams, either.  He really put the effort in; him, and Butch, too.  This sounds great, if we can agree that by “great” we mean something that would have excited the groupies in the green room at Apple Studios.  If you’re going to make a classic rock record in 2018, you may as well shoot the works.  Go on, fulfill your Sgt. Pepper fantasies.  I only wish Scott Miller was around to appreciate this.

Album That Sounded Like A Chore To Make

Lykke Li’s So Sad So Sexy. This might be the seven mary three of the synthpop revival: the moment where we recognize that we’ve simultaneously gone too far and too formulaic, and we must recognize that musical culture will shift and the party will soon be over. Scandinavian music is usually grueling — what with the monthlong nights and the rain and the freezing temperatures — but this manages to be utterly listless, too. If you’re going to tie the listener to the back of the van and drag him through the mud, the least you can do is step on the accelerator from time to time.  Why prolong the agony, you lachrymose Swede?  I can’t believe Jeff Bhasker was involved in this one; Rostam, too. They keep this up and they’re going to get booted out of the Illuminati.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Album Was About

Fenfo.  Six or so years ago, Fatoumata Diawara, Malian singer-songwriter, put out an amazing album called Fatou that even you xenophobes ought to appreciate.  It was like a desert breeze through the souk, he wrote, cheesily, even though he’d never been to a souk, or, for that matter, a desert.  Regardless, I recognize West African magic when I hear it, and if we’re going to sit around praising the likes of Paul Simon and Ezra Koenig, the very least we can do is give their robbery victims a few spins. Anyway, Fenfo isn’t nearly as good as Fatou, so my recommendation to you Doctor Livingstones is that you start with the old one and turn to the new joint if you get desert-thirsty for some more.    

Most Consistent Album

Astroworld.  Look, Future had to take a breather sometime.  If you’re banging your knife and fork on the table, hungry for more of that steaming southern mush, Travis has you covered.  Some of this is like latter period Kanye productions minus the classical cohesion.  Some of it is just industrial byproduct.  The wrinkle here is that he switches up the beat midway through the tracks, but unless you’re sitting there with the running order in front of you, you’ll never notice. It’s just a long float on a beautiful, sluggish bayou. Occasionally, landmarks are discernible. Is that the Weeknd or a rippling reflection off the brackish water?  Is that a lump of swamp moss, or is it Drake?  

Most Inconsistent Album

For all its faults — and just now I can’t remember what they were — Views never dragged.  More Life, on the other hand, bogged down midway through the tracklisting with detours into Ja-fakin’ B.S. and various dreary guest shots from the bakalakarakalaka British rappers you didn’t want to hear.  Scorpion cuts out the ethnopiracy and most of the features, too, so when the engine stalls — and stall it does — Aubrey has nobody to blame but himself.  As this is a Drake set, there’s some magnificent music scattered about, but the connective tissue continues to weaken.  He’ll make you scrounge for it.  The principal’s disposition is as sour as ever, and this we’ve come to expect.  But this is the first drake album that adds no new dimensions to his paranoia.  There’s a lotta bad things they be wishing on him; that’s about it.  I wonder what his momma is going to say on his answering machine this time around.  Give him this: he still speaks about social media and Instagram culture with authority that no pundit or thinkpiece-writer ever comes close to matching.  He’s fully attuned to the tragedy of the moment.  Maybe that’s what makes him so damn grouchy.  He needs a computer time-out he knows is no longer an available option for him. And not just for him. 

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Lot Better Than You Initially Thought It Was

Be The Cowboy

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Camila. I could go for more “esta cosa se prendio” and less “she loves control/she wants it her way”.  (“All the things I want to do to you is infinite”, on the other hand, suits me fine.)  But why quibble with this state-of-the-art pop star, fresh off the Cuban sandwich press?   Hers is not the Latin pop album of my crossover dreams; hell, it isn’t even Gloria Estefan doing the conga.  But the tropical breezes blowing through these grooves are brisker than a cursory listen might indicate.  Even “Never Be The Same”, the mainstream blockbuster, opens with a barrage of bongo drums.  Probably digital, much like the arrivals board at San Juan airport.  Camila Cabello claims Taylor Swift as her big influence, and sometimes I even hear it. But most of the time, her music plays like Carly Rae plus strategically placed habaneros.  Bite carefully.  So open and curious is this cupcake that when she asks who I am in the dark, I don’t even hear the double entendre.  And when she says she’s looking for some real friends, I honestly truly madly believe her.  

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

Boy howdy, things are getting slack around Chez Meloy.  The last album felt like a showcase for the instrumentalists; this one doesn’t even have that.  The ballyhooed move toward ’80s synthpop extends to, oh, about three and a half songs, and Jenny Conlee’s earnest imitation of New Order does not adequately compensate for the sudden lack of chord changes or interesting melodies.  They do remain in step with the times, though.  “Everything Is Awful” is not a good song, but no lyric suits the mood of 2018 any better.  Meloy sings repetitively about how bad things are, but he won’t provide any specifics, and instead pantomimes exhaustion. Even as the words are despondent, the tone is giddy.  All are having a jolly good time.  By stanza number two, you can already feel the righteous rebuke to the question the song begs: what’s so awful, exactly?  Everything, you insensitive fool! Must I enumerate?  Don’t you watch the Steven Colbert show?  The President’s latest tweet was factually inaccurate and contained two grammatical errors.  Awful!  La la la la. I expect NPR to take it up as their theme song any day.  if they haven’t already.

Most Sympathetic Or Likeable Perspective Over An Album

Insofar as most know about Port Arthur they know it from UGK. Insofar as most of those people know UGK, they know UGK from the world famous Jay-Z collaboration.  Big pimpin’ down in P.A.T. and all of that.  So I think that a wrong impression has been generated.  This is not Bun B’s fault: he just wanted to put on for his city, and he’s done plenty since to let people know that the scale of the pimpin’ in the P.A.T. may have been exaggerated.  Port Arthur is an open sore of a city, stuck up a fissure between Texas and Louisiana, irritated by the most caustic oil refinery in the country.  The slav-, er, workers who sluice the petroleum through Port Arthur live in neighborhoods abutting the plant that are as house field field field field house as anyplace in Danny Brown’s Detroit – but while Detroit has a glorious history that hipsters itch to claim for themselves, P.A.T. is just a national gutter. One American society, dependent as it is on oil, could not do without, mind you. That contradiction has always been felt in UGK’s music: that’s why they could get away with rapping from the crackhead’s perspective in “Stoned Junkee” without worrying about getting hit with a backpacker tag.  It was always going to be jail or legendary status for these guys.  Pimp C drew the short straw and got jail.  Bun is the legend – so much so that everybody in the south queued up to rhyme on Return Of The Trill.  Some of them even do okay; Lil Wayne, in particular, makes himself right at home in the swamp. Mostly this is Bun’s show, and he sounds about as weatherbeaten as you’d expect a resident of a poor city that has been flattened by four historic hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Ike, Harvey) to sound.  Of course this album runs on way too long, and the Ja-fakin number and the Run The Jewels guest appearance should probably have been excised. But Big K.R.I.T.’s reverent production does give this set some semblance of unity, even if it’s a little creepy when K.R.I.T. does his Pimp C imitation. (Cut that out.)  Bun remains an underrated storyteller – one whose lived experience gives him the authority to inhabit characters that other emcees wouldn’t touch.  For instance, there’s one here where he plays both the dude in the car late at night with the blunt and the policeman forced by circumstances to pull him over and investigate.  He lets both voices be heard, and then he pulls the plug on the narrative.  He won’t stoop to tell you how it ends.  He knows you know how it ends.   

Mighty Cut, Foul Out

David Byrne has probably put more herks and jerks and hiccups in the rock and roll canon than any other fella.  Usually herks and jerks and hiccups get you a seat on the novelty bus next to Romeo Void. But Byrne had the Frantz-Weymouth rhythm section in his back pocket, so all the tics that made up his performances were just more fodder for the popcorn popper. A million years after True Stories, he’s still herking and jerking away – only neither Chris nor Tina nor Annie Clark are around to bail him out.  This has been the story of his solo run, more or less.  Rather than change his approach to accommodate 21st century human desires (not that he’d know anything about those), he’s stepped on the herk and jerk accelerator.  The result is not the sort of album you’d expect to get out of a man in his mid-sixties, and American Utopia, in a way, inspiring: while most of his peers are wrapping up the circus tents, the klieg lights of the Byrne off-broadway theatre burn on.  He’s still irritating; still squinting his eyes and jabbing his finger into your ribs and twisting it around, laughing his head off and making wry, whimsical comments.  He’s your well-dressed uncle, a success in a line of work you’ve never heard of, greeting you at the door with a joy buzzer.  He hasn’t given us a last will and testament album, and for that, I’ve got to thank him.  He clearly believes he’s got miles to go and many tall tales to tell himself about dogs and monkeys and etc.  He’s probably right.  What god would have the audacity to interrupt such a peppy internal monologue?        

Artist You Respect, But You Don’t Like

Kadhja Bonet. I admit to a certain fascination with Childqueen, given that it leads with its idiosyncrasies, it’s boldly (and somewhat disgustingly) anti-social, and there’s nothing out that sounds remotely like it.  Over ten tracks, Bonet splits the difference between the Love Theme from Mahogany and the march of the Oompa Loompas.  She’s taken the soundtracky bits that annoyed me on prior Janelle Monae albums, soaked them for awhile to bleed out the funk, and muted the backbeat to generate an oddly stationary feeling. It’s sort of like watching the overexposed frames of a wobbly film strip that keeps threatening to jump the frame. This doesn’t rock, it doesn’t soothe, you can’t dance to it, and good luck singing along. Too weird to be background music, too insular to be hallucinatory, and no fun in the slightest, Childqueen exists in a category unto itself. My understanding is that Kadhja Bonet, who is some sort of polymath, played all of this music herself, including the copious strings and woodwinds and fretless bass and warbling synthesizers.  I suppose that’s impressive in a way, like one of those dudes on youtube who can juggle and recite the Declaration of Independence while his dick is in a blender. but next time around, she desperately, desperately needs to work with a real percussionist.  

Best Line Or Rhyme

On “Tyrant”, Kali Uchis sings “Word on the street you got hoes/I disappear like El Chapo”.  Gets me every time.  Allow me explain why.  She’s not just comparing herself to a Latin American badass. She’s also laying down her zero-tolerance policy.  When she gets the word that her man is screwing around, no further discussion is necessary.  She’s out of that jail cell before he knows what hits him: no traces left and no fucks given. In a year of welcome statements of female autonomy and self-respect, this was the most succinct, and, for me, the most satisfying.

Most In Need Of An Editor

Smino. Noir reminded me of Malibu by Anderson.Paak in that it’s hypermusical (good) and full of jazz chords (eh… sorta good) and remains focused until it catches an air current and drifts out of reach like a helium balloon.  I absolutely get why Chance and Saba are down with this guy: he shares their Soulquarian proclivities. They’re Hippie Johnnies for the hip-hop era.  But Chance knows how to structure a song, and how to weave those songs into an album, and how to leave the impress of his personality on everything he does.  Saba is a born storyteller.  With Smino, it’s all gentle and beautiful flows and gentle and beautiful accompaniment, spreading everywhere in a great undifferentiated mush of gentle and gooey beauty.   Before you know it you’ve been staring at the lava lamp for an hour.  I realize my experience of this set is meant to be, um, herbally enhanced.   Slip me a few of those gummies and maybe I can get on this guy’s zonked wavelength.  Or, you know, just throw on the Noname album instead. 

Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning

Sunflower Bean. Here’s a rhetorical question for you: why are Fleetwood Mac imitators always inept? I don’t mean they’re bad at ripping off Fleetwood Mac; that they’re pretty brazen about. They steal with utter confidence and complete entitlement.  I mean they’re bad at music.  And that is the one thing you could never say about anyone in Fleetwood Mac. Zeppelin imitators?, they practice. Parliament imitators woodshed for years before they dare to get on a stage and do their copycat funk jams. Beatles imitators practice too much – their reverence gets in the way of their cribbing attempts, if you ask me.  But Mac Copyists always sound like they picked up their instruments in a thrift shop a week before recording and learned to play from For Dummies books. There must be something about Fleetwood Mac that encourages duffers to think they can approximate the sound of Rumours without working very hard at it at all.  And I think you know what that something is. {Whispers} There were girls in the band. 

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Justin Timberlake

Indispensable Elder Who, Lord Willing, Will Never Hang Them Up

The great thing about sounding like a grouchy septuagenarian when you’re young is that when you actually become a grouchy septuagenarian, everybody is used to it already.  If Graham Parker’s gripes didn’t piss you off in the late ’70s, no modern-day turn of the rusty crank of his is going to bother you very much.  Thirty years ago I started calling this guy Grandpa Graham, and I wasn’t just making light of the irritability that suggested early-onset prostate issues.  I was also acknowledging that I was his descendant — once I started writing songs, there was nobody out there whose compositional intentions and general disposition mirrored mine any better.  Look at how excitably he jams un-singable words into his already overstuffed verses; I mean, this is fun for him. Check out how wistful he gets about Maida Hill — the place itself, not merely the romantic associations he has with it. How about the pure, irascible glee with which he sings “don’t be a scumbag!” Gotta love him, unless you don’t, and if you don’t, well, he probably doesn’t like you very much either.  The new one is mellow, as a direction, but that really means he’s assembled a hotel-bar R&B combo with a horn section and a lighter touch than the Rumour ever had.  There’s even a number about his preference for brushed drums, and it’s only partially a metaphor.  So here we have an older dude playing music that would have been older dude’s music even when he was a younger dude.  Howlin’ Wind, which this album evokes, was throwback music in 1976, so what do you call this?  Also, do astringents lose their paint-peeling effectiveness when they’ve been stored in the basement too long?  Pry open this dusty can of turpentine and find out. 

Worst Song Of The Year, and Worst Rapping, Too

Kanye West, “I Thought About Killing You”.

And Furthermore…

A truth that seems to be eluding the music press: you can’t talk about Kanye + Trump without also discussing Jay-Z.  The way I reckon, it’s the poisoned relationship with big brother Jay that’s driven Kanye’s political statements, such as they are, more than any other factor, though I’m sure the president’s misogyny appeals to him plenty. Remember (Mr. West sure does) that Obama called Kanye a jackass.  Michelle Obama buddies around with Beyonce, who doesn’t like Kanye anymore, either.  So if Jay-Z is going to make an album For Forty-Four, and if Jay and Beyonce are going to hit the trail, however half-heartedly, for Hillary Clinton, well, what’s bound to piss them off more than a big bear hug with the dickhead who humiliated their candidate?  These days, Kanye is the man with the pal in the oval office, and Jay and Beyonce, members of the out-party, are stuck with, what?, true love or something?  Note that when Kanye is pressed by interviewers to say what it is about Trump’s presidency that he likes, he’s flummoxed: he winds up spewing a whole lot of management-speak about “dragon energy” and creative disruption, and invariably it ends up morphing into a statement about the iconoclasm and nonconformity of Kanye West.  Jay-Z and Beyonce, on the other hand, are much more responsible with the talking points, which, while less infuriating, is not exactly what we need out of pop musicians. By now their public politics have been firmly established, and they can speak upon black excellence/generational wealth/aspirational economics at least as well as the average pundit.  Speak they do.  As Kanye goes low, they keep going high, and higher and higher, until there’s no damn place in pop left to go.  Which makes Everything Is Love feel more like a credits roll than a victory lap, to be honest, no matter how much blue-chip confidence the music radiates.  Those expressing surprise at Beyonce’s flow, or sprechgesang, or whatever, must be inhabiting a different cultural universe than i do.  I mean of course she can rap.  She didn’t have to call herself Beeyzus, though.  Gilding the lily like that is beneath her.   

Worst Singing

I’m not exactly sure why Tracyanne felt she needed Danny, whose unctuous eardrum-murdering performance on “Jacqueline” gives me the willies just to think about it. But perhaps they’re buds, and perhaps she’s still disoriented from Carey Lander’s death.  I know I am. You have to hand it to Danny: dude does not seem to mind getting murked on his own shit, as the rap fans used to put it.  Then again, given the opportunity, who wouldn’t make a record with Tracyanne Campbell?  She could show me up any time.  She hasn’t been quite the same singer since “French Navy” and she’s never getting that Underachievers gleam back, but she remains the quintessential elfin indiepop frontwoman.  Scotland in a box, like a tin of shortbread cookies from Walker’s.

Worst Instrumentalist

I like the 1975, but Adam Hann has the worst tone and worst instincts of any lead guitarist in pop, and that includes the dude you just heard playing “Eruption” at Sam Ash. That cat-mewling thing that he does?, that would have gotten him kicked out of ABC in 1985. Maybe Spandau Ballet would have found it acceptable, and maybe not.

Worst Lyrics

You heard “The Middle” way more times than you wanted to, I am sure, but I doubt you paid attention to the words. Believe it or not, the verses are a lament: apparently, the narrator has destroyed her house while trying to have sex. Anyway, that’s what I got out of it, and I’m sticking to it. She feels bad about it, but not for the right reasons. Then there’s a chorus that 1.) makes no sense, 2.) has nothing to do with the wreckage that Maren Morris has left while arguboning (badly, it seems). Tip for kids: if you cannot do sex without also doing property damage, there is probably a flaw in the code you’re using. Bring it up with your health teacher.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better

I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. Sonos Audio pitchwoman and occasional pop star does record about her liberal guilt.  That’s the headline, and if you can’t handle that, you’d best not proceed to the lede. There’s water in the water fountain, and she drank it, and now she feels bad about it.  I am dumbfounded by her sincere conviction that I ought to care.  Enjoy your licensing money, Garbus.  Nobody begrudges you your big bankroll.  Go buy some local artisanal fair trade shit.  That blood-soaked dollar won’t rinse itself. 

Most Unsexy Person In Pop

Post Malone

Most Overrated

I see that every blue-stater’s favorite cowgirl is swimming in her customary pool of positive notice for her xanaxy new album.  Only this time, Kacey Musgraves has actually earned the praise, sort of: Golden Hour is recorded with a heaping helping of radiance and sung way better than anybody ever had reason to suspect she could sing.  So: credit where it’s due.  On the other hand, as she grows in confidence, her that lazy streak of hers becomes brighter and bolder, and I believe it’s become visible from space, cowboy; I mean, who’s going to tell her to rewrite that slack second verse?  Perk up some of these $75 spa treatment melodies?  Not these producers.  They’re too busy screwing with vocoders and artfully muffling the banjos to care.  And I think that what these non-country critics dabbling in country mean when they call this album coherent is that she’s found a sound and an approach that suits her laid-back, pot-hazy, sleepily democratic outlook.  She’s against men on high horses and she’s for moms, and taking it sloooww, as if she’s got another gear.  So what we have here is a rarity — a persuasive articulation of an inane worldview.  There are many worse things, I guess.  But we’re reminded again that the step down from Miranda Lambert to the rest of the field is a doozy.  And if Taylor Swift is going to keep taking it on the chin for remaining apolitical, how the heck does Musgraves get away with this?  

Most Underrated

After the straight-up U2 swipes on Black, how about some U2 swipes plus mandolin and quick-pickin’ banjo.  The Mountain is bluegrass, Dierks Bentley style, just like Up On The Ridge was; Dierks seems to think that bluegrass is located at high elevations.  I really don’t mean to complain: this may be Nashville machine music, but it’s absolutely earnest in its aspiration to be something more.  And more than anything else, it’s that striving above station that gives Dierks the grace that distinguishes him among his peers.  Given his unambivalent identification with the Duke boys, he could easily have been agglomerated into bro-country; instead, he’s made himself into a prime peddler of bro-related pathos.  He’ll never do that any better than he did on Riser, with its aging playboy characters who’d failed to recognize that the party had stopped long before they’d finished their six-pack.  Also, as this fucking cad matures, he slathers on the platitudes thicker and thicker.  That the songs don’t quite suffocate under the blanket of warm pieties tells you something.  It tells you he’s working, as he always does, from a sturdy compositional core.  I recognize that when I hear it, and I remain a fan. 

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

No doubt you recall how Ashley Monroe kicked off her solo career.  She reminded us that she ain’t Dolly and her contemporaries ain’t Porter.  Funny, then, that ever since, she has been retreating — and it has indeed been a retreat — into traditionalism.  Not content with hauling Vince Gill out of mothballs, she’s actually cut the new one with historical recreation specialist Dave Cobb, the carpenter who has built those sturdy old barns full of sound for Sturgill Simpson et al.  Since he’s a deep woods craftsman par excellence, he’s slathered the varnish all over the knotty pine; since he has absolutely no imagination (and since Monroe Suede is a girl) he’s decided to fit her with standard countrypolitan arrangements.  Strings all over the place:  they’re “nice”, all honeyed and shit.  The problem is that she ain’t Patsy, either.  She’s monroe suede, aka Hippie Annie — she’s got a pin-light beam of a voice, a delicate touch with the pen, and a good sense of humor, too.  She wasn’t made to swim through syrup.  Anyway, connoisseurs of Nashville pluck are digging this, I hear.  They just love when a girl shows reverence for past models, as they themselves are past models.  It makes them think that they have a snowball’s chance. 

Neatest Reinvigoration

In the ’00s, Edan was a perennial contender for my Thing You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should category.  Then he stopped doing music, and I admit I completely spaced on him.  Apparently he made a beat or two for Homeboy Sandman, and that went so well that they put together an EP.  Seven songs; it’s all the rage.  Humble Pi is hardly shorter than the last Homeboy Sandman full-length: Veins, which was what?, twenty-five minutes?, got knocked for its production, which was to say that there wasn’t any.  There were beats, there was a little synthesizer, there was Homeboy Sandman in a bad mood.  It was… well, “unalloyed” is one word for it.   And Homeboy Sandman is one of the few modern emcees who merits this treatment, and not just because he loves masticating his words and extracting their sugary flavor and blowing big greasy bubbles from them as if they were so much Bubble Yum.  It’s also because of the variance of his vocal tonality.  All spoken words carry a note plus overtones; Homeboy Sandman just makes that more obvious than other more percussive speakers.  Edan, it turns out, does something not too dissimilar with the beats: his mode is broadly psychedelic with loads of ear candy and MPC hijinx, but the feel is abrasive and smart-assy like old-school hip-hop.  The busy-ness of these production shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for a fan of, say, J Beez Wit Tha Remedy.  As for homeboy sandman himself, he’s as ornery as ever, and his irritation at his lack of recognition runneth over.  I prefer it when he directs his attacks at external targets, as he does on “Never Use The Internet Again”, which almost makes me believe he’s never going to use the Internet again.  “Anything to get a fucking like/one day I decided I should get a fucking life”.  The artlessness of the couplet amplifies the force of the message.  Also, amen.

Worst Song On A Good Album

“Best Friend”, the last song on How To Solve Our Human Problems. Gives Danny a run for his money for Worst Singing, too.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Karl Malone” by Joey Purp. I got dope, I got blow, smoke, I got coke, I got blow, I got coke, I got molly man, I got smoke, I got tabs, I got coke, I got ahahhaaaagagahahaghh.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

Tierra Whack’s “Hungry Hippos”. “Open up and bite it” became my statement of purpose this autumn. It applies to so much. But at the level of the album’s plot, she’s talking about biting rhymes, style biting — she’s dealing with a man who lacks swag, and as a magnanimous sort, she’s going to allow him to cop some off of her. He likes her “diamonds and her pearls”, and by this, she means the art she’s making. She says “thank you, I designed it”, and she damn well did.

Good Artists Most In Need Of Some New Musical Ideas

I’m pretty sure “Graffiti” is about a school shooting. That’s why the characters are in the bathroom stall: they’re hiding out from a Dylan Klebold type.  They’re writing “we were here” type stuff on the walls because they don’t think they’re getting out alive.  Now they never will/ never will grow old because they’re about to meet a loon with an AR-15.  Time to kill/time stood still, etc.  Lest you think I am being too literal, corroborating evidence for my reading comes from the rest of Love Is Dead: Lauren Mayberry believes the bad guys won, and she’s determined to meet the challenge of widespread heartlessness with the sort of big-ass, repetitive choruses that have been her metier lately.  I rather think it’s a better application of the thumping borderline-brotronica sound than it was on Every Open Eye, where the songs were about… what, exactly?, burying “it” and rising above?   Don’t point the finger at Mayberry: she was all in with the protest music in 2018, and I’m pretty sure she’s realized exactly what she wanted to.  No, if you have beef, it’s with Cook and Doherty, because what the fuck happened to those guys?  The Bones Of What You Believe earned those Vince Clarke comparisons with some of the most creative synth arrangements ever waxed.  To go from that to Greg Kurstin’s warmed-over bass drops is a long way to fall.  Then again, Yaz only had enough ideas to fill an album and a third, too.

Running Out Of Gas

I like the song Adam Young wrote about his dad, really I do, at least as much as I like any latter-day Owl City.  It’s corny, but it’s got the emotional specificity and uncool vulnerability that has always helped make this project go; see also the beautiful number about his sister on the Sky Sailing record.  But too often on Cinematic, he’s made the X-tian filmed entertainment mistake of leading with the wholesomeness and filling in the details after the fact.  Which leaves us with a version of humanity that does not intersect in any meaningful way with the one we’ve all got to experience on a day-to-day basis in 2019. It’s a strange, too-sunny diorama he’s asking us to inhabit: nothing moves, and there’s no reference to the real world outside the box of his increasingly constricted and formulaic imagination.  So I guess Cinematic is a good name for this project, since Hollywood specializes in exactly that.  The music has stubbornly refused to advance an inch since All Things Bright And Beautiful. The engine has stalled in the Minnesota snow — picturesque snow, sure, but cold all the same. As for Kenny Vasoli, I continue to find his Vacationer act the exemplary post-emo project in that it’s allowed him to be himself without jettisoning his entire Starting Line audience. Samples from obscure hula hula records plus trip-hop beats plus the usual lovelorn emo storytelling plus Chesneyish wistful summer’s-end  nonsense: that was… well, it wasn’t revolutionary or anything, but it did provide Kenny his own lane.  On Gone, Vacationer applied that sound to a fully motivated cycle of songs that benefited mightily from coherence of mood.  August is over, and they were packing up the beach chairs, and there goes Kenny’s baby with someone new, etc.  Mindset is just variations on a sonic formula, and as such, it mostly resolves to background music designed for beach bars.  This record seems to exist because the Vacationer machine broke and kept spitting out copies of Vacationer songs, each one a little more faded than the last as the toner depletes.  They should try pressing more buttons at once.  Nobody wants to pull the plug.

Most In Need Of A Rescue Helicopter

You can create a spellbinding mood.  You can get your beats in place.  You can come up with cool synth textures that remind the listener of Marvin Gaye or “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” or whatever.  You can dance around like you’ve got an iguana in your shorts, you can foreground your gender or racial fluidity, you can write tearjerkers about your experience of personal trauma.  You can check all the boxes.  In R&B, if you can’t sing your way out of a paper bag, none of that matters.  On past Blood Orange records, Devonte Hynes has always muddled through with the help of his buddies; on Negro Swan, with no Carly Rae or Nelly Furtado in sight, he’s stranded and unarmed in the combat zone.  Gulp.

Next Artist To Come Back From The Wilderness

Tracy Chapman

Best Stealth Political Statement

I usually have no truck with social utility arguments made by artists, and i don’t tend to see pop singers as heroes.  I also doubt that Natalia Lafourcade, broad-minded though she is, views herself as a pan-Latin freedom fighter: she’s too committed to aesthetics for that.  But I cannot help but notice her sub-rosa campaign for dignity and Mexican pride in the wake of… well, you know.  Like all folk music projects helmed by urban sophisticates, the Musas albums make their political undercurrents rather manifest: usually the artist wants you to respect a people and a culture that you might not think much about at all.  I know I hardly did, and I fancy myself a fan of all things Mexican.  As a pop singer and writer (and arranger, and producer) Lafourcade once led with her exceptionalism, so much so that she wrote Hu Hu Hu while living in Ottawa of all places, an expat Joanna Newsom fan who just happened to sing in Spanish.  And that, I think, was unsatisfying to her, even as it delighted the heck out of aesthetes like me.  So she’s let Manos De Los Macorinos drag her back to the soil and the common people who she’s definitely not one of, and it’s been folklorico galore for the past three years.  What Natalia Lafourcade shows me, and ought to show caudillos worldwide if they’d ever consent to listen to these sets, is that you don’t have to be a gauche populist to connect with the people.  All you have to do is open your heart.  This is a point that J.C. tried to make, up there on that mount, way way back in the day.  In case you prefer a more secular gospel, in song Natalia insists on her derecho de nacimiento: her rights by birth.  Only the ugliest of Americans would deny that to such a flora linda.  Unfortunately… well, you know.

Worst Controversy

Imagine: Pinegrove dropping an album right in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings.  Jesus H. Christmas and a gangbang on Bloomfield Avenue.  If they were a Brooklyn band, I might suspect a little anti-marketing and hashtag-chasing.  But as they’re a bunch of Jersey schmucks, I know damn well it was just terrible timing.  Me, I have been known to release music now and then, and I admit that it’s flattering that those of us who do are now getting held to the same standards as Supreme Court nominees.  I am willing to take the polygraph test and quote Dres of the Black Sheep under oath: don’t punch girls/and I don’t punch a clock.  But c’mon, our missions are a little different.  Judges are responsible for upholding the law.  Rockers are responsible for…  well, not for undermining it, exactly, but playing fast and loose with it in the name of entertainment.  We’re supposed to provide vicarious thrills and make ourselves the outlet for a collective id.  Time was — and it wasn’t too fucking long ago, trust me — when sexual misconduct was part of the job description. Guys like me who played it straight and smiley were criticized by rock bros for our inability to be properly predatory.  Nikki Sixx is very disappointed in you, young man.  My how the worm has turned, at least in the narrow realm of independent pop-rock.  These days, a rumor of sexual misconduct can un-person a singer faster than you can say PWR BTTM.  Evan Hall’s sex offender shit goes way beyond rumor — he confessed to it, sort of, in one of those posts that smacked of “getting in front of it”, as the spin doctors like to say.  It was pretty nauseating, and tone deaf too, and the Internet being what it is, the pile-on was soon the size of Kingda Ka.  if you’re among those who believe that Hall, and by extension, Pinegrove, ought to be ostracized, I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you he deserves a second chance.  At the very least he traumatized a young woman, and no, Lindsey Graham, that is not something that every red-blooded American boy does  while “boofing”.  But there is a class of people whose role it is to determine what constitutes criminal behavior and mete out punishment.  Those people are called the police.  Are you part of the police?  Or are you, you know, music fans?  Because Evan Hall’s particularly heinous sexually based offenses have nothing to do with whether his records are any good.  Spinning those records — and happily singing along! — is not the same as supporting his rapey behavior.  It is perfectly permissible for you, as a music listener, to pay attention to Pinegrove and even enjoy it without making yourself complicit in an assault.  You can leave the investigations and prosecutions to the guys with the badges.  Citizens’ arrests are for the Dukes Of Hazzard.  There are critics who argue that the work of art cannot be separated from the actions of the man who makes it, and I dunno… I think that those have got to be the laziest critics in the world.  Of course you can disaggregate the record from the biographical details; that’s the whole point of formal artistic evaluation.  That’s why you throw away the PR copy before you press play and begin your review.  I, too, would much prefer it if the members of the bands I like to cheer would be good Judeo-Islamo-Christians with a side of Buddhism.  But c’mon, people, you’ve met guys in bands.  They’re maladjusted and anti-social.  That’s why they spend all night hitting things and swinging around vibrating sticks and screaming into microphones.  I’d love to think they’re better than they used to be about grabbing ass, but they’re probably just as bad, if not worse, about a hundred and one other pernicious things.  If you believe the answer is to leave Evan Hall, and white guys in general, over at a rest stop on the side of the highway for awhile and listen instead to records by women and African-Americans, and transsexuals, and Asian refugees, and half-lobsters from Pluto, allow me to heartily co-sign that program — and also point out that this is exactly what we’ve been doing lately, and that we’ll have to keep it up for, oh, at least a hundred years before we balance the scales.  We don’t have to get the cops involved.  We don’t have to become the cops.  We can just pay attention to stories, and storytellers, whose voices we haven’t heard over and over again.  Pinegrove deserves a smaller audience than, say, Japanese Breakfast not because Evan Hall assaulted his girlfriend, but because Pinegrove isn’t half as interesting as Japanese Breakfast is.  They were never all that great, and now that they’ve grown out of quasi-emo and into standard-issue hickster country-rock, they’ve got very little to add to the musical conversation.  If you disagree with me on that aesthetic assessment, and you’re denying yourself the pleasures of the Pinegrove album because you don’t want to be an enabler, you’re not hurting anybody but yourself.  Well, I guess you’re hurting Evan Hall, too.  Guess you have to decide if that’s worth it to you — whether the thrill of punishing an offender is more gratifying than the thrills of the music would have been.  If it is, maybe you’re more of a cop fan than you are a music fan.  

And While I’m At It, Rock Writers

How far we’ve come.  Not so long ago it was tough to get readers to put records in sociopolitical context.  If in your review you teased out the electoral implications of some dumb pop lyric, people would call you a killjoy and tell you to stop overthinking things. Dance, you cocksucker.  Well, [Tony Montana voice], lookit you now, rock criticism, lookit you now.  These days, artists who express any discontent whatsoever are immediately assimilated into the political party of their sympathetic reviewer.  Here’s the lede, and you’ve read it over and over: in these troubled days when [politician I don’t like] is, unfathomably, ascendant, and the rights of [affinity group the artist belongs to] are being trampled beneath the bootheel of oppression, [album] is a shout of rage, a rallying cry, a furious, unflinching summary of the times.  Never mind that there might be deeper reasons for anxiety than the garbage tumbling around in the news cycle, and that musicians aren’t mouthpieces for an ideology workshopped in Westminster. This environment has benefited bands like Shopping – groups that, for one reason or another, are redolent of others with actual political significance and are thus easy targets for projection by the disaffected. Fifteen years ago, they would have been typical dance-punks with typical vague lyrics and typical young-adult axes to grind.  In ’18, they were received as agitators.  And hey, maybe they really were motivated by Theresa May and assorted backbenchers, but unlike Sleaford Mods, who’ll actually spend a song making fun of Boris Johnson’s haircut, they can’t be arsed to give you any specifics.  Their angry Gang Of Four-ish chants (can’t really call them melodies) could be applied to Brexit, but they could also be complaints about the chanter’s girlfriend.  The rejoinder to this is something about the personal being political, and yeah, sure, anything can be crammed into the narrow, airless hallway of party politics if you push hard enough.  But that’s nowhere you want to hang for long. Democratic politics is a street-fight, and most musicians aren’t brawlers: very few of them, bless them, have given “the issues” a fraction of the attention they’ve paid to their kick-drum sound. When we graft political trenchancy on to these guys, we risk making Milkshake Ducks out of them.  and that’s exactly what’s been happening, has it not?, mass disillusionment in the critical-discursive zone when it turns out that our favorite singers and rappers aren’t square with the platform as articulated by Bernie for America.  I think we need to reopen ourselves to the possibility of discourse that has nothing to do with who or what is sitting in office.  While we’re at it, we need to stop dragging musicians into the muck of our destructive obsessions.  That hungry void where public culture ought to be is big and black and growing by the day. The edge is greased and slippery.  You don’t want to take that tumble.  The next thing you know, you’re red-faced on a talk show and ranting about some rider attached to an omnibus bill, and that, my friends, is the end of youth, the end of rock and roll, the end of hip-hop, the bitter end of everything.

…And Finally

Let me leave this here before I run out of records to rate: no protest song is going to spring us free from this mess. The FBI won’t either.  No independent (?) prosecutor is going to fix our problems.  The independent (???) judiciary won’t either.  No member of law enforcement is going to ride to our rescue.  No deep state is going to rise up and re-set the bowling pins.  No comedian is going to sear this administration out of power with a sick burn.  No renegade Republican is going to wake up and rediscover his set of misplaced ethics.  No investigator will rake enough muck to affect the way the world is turning.  There is only one way out, and that’s the way in.  The American electorate made this happen.  Once we decide we’re not having fun anymore — once we’re done with this experiment in governtainment – the American people will make it un-happen.  Any old time now.  Annnnnnyyyy time.  

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Richmond, VA

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2028

Phoebe Bridgers seems built to last.

Best Album Of 2019

Um… Laura Marling will be back, won’t she? Please?

Loaded words

Everybody fears semantics, and for good reason — there’s no quicker or more annoying way to bog down a discussion than by starting an argument over definitions. You might reckon that we’ve got enough fights going on right now, and we hardly need to start another one about words. Yet public discourse in America has gotten so scrambled that it’s become impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation about our government. It has become apparent to me that we’re never going to begin mending our politics until we clean up the language we use when we talk about ideology.

Over the past four decades, American society and American morality has gone through some vast and terrifying realignments. But because we insist on applying nineteenth century European terminology to our politics and ethics — terminology that doesn’t fit Europe very well anymore, either — we keep misinterpreting those changes. A complete overhaul of our political lexicon is probably in order. But that’s a big request, so to start, I want to ask for something simpler. I want us all to quit using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” for awhile. They’ve become crutches: trigger words that no longer correspond in the slightest with what they’re used to describe. They’re muddying the waters, and they need to be retired until their meanings can be recharged.

If that’s a habit you don’t believe we’ve got the will to break, maybe we can simply begin by remembering that “liberal” and “conservative” are adjectives, not nouns. No person is a liberal or a conservative. A person may have a predilection toward liberal ideas or conservative behavior; he may have both. But unless he’s a cartoon, his outlook will never fit under the umbrella of a single term. We know this, yet we go right on calling our friends and foes by category names that never really held water as descriptors of human beings*, and certainly don’t in 2018, when those terms have gone through a rhetorical shredder.

But if these terms are no good as nouns, they’re terrific adjectives. They describe ways of thinking and behaving that transcend policy and ideology, which is why their application to politics was initially helpful. They are not natural antonyms. Both describe approaches to a problem of scarcity that can be illustrated by imagining a wound and a bottle of healing ointment. A physician might liberally apply the ointment to the wound. He might look to conserve the amount of ointment in the tube for fear of wounds developing elsewhere. Whether to be liberal or conservative with the medicine is a judgment call specific to an instance. It isn’t necessarily predictive of what the doctor will do with his next patient. We don’t expect it will be: instinctively, we know that a doctor who treats each wound in the same way isn’t worthy of his caduceus.

A statesperson ought to think, and act, with similar flexibility. Policy knots usually require a combination of liberal and conservative approaches before they’re untangled. Consider a common land-use dispute: some businesspeople in a district want to log a forest to get at minerals underneath. Timber laborers looking for work support the initiative, but nearby homeowners don’t want to deal with construction noise, and environmentalists decry the destruction of a habitat for animals. A lawmaker might look to pass ordinances that force the timber company to proceed conservatively in the interest of environmentalism or the public peace, or they might look to mollify the homeowners with a liberal application of tax breaks. She might prioritize forest conservation, or she might prioritize the individual liberties of businesspeople looking to act in an ostensibly free-market economy. If she’s wise, if she’s worth anything as a leader, she’ll try to balance all of these competing claims. She’ll be behaving both liberally and conservatively, sometimes simultaneously.

It has become commonplace to refer to Republicans as “conservatives”. Sometimes the two terms — Republican and conservative — are used interchangeably, even though they’re incommensurate. One refers to a multi-million-dollar political institution that exists for the purposes of self-replication and power extension, and the other one is a fairly neutral adjective attached to cautious behavior. Do modern Republicans seem cautious to you? Circumspect in any way? Maybe they’re hesitant to embrace certain cultural changes (they’re more than fine with others), but by and large, that’s not what motivates them to go to Washington.

The main policy objective for Republican legislators is now, and has long been, tax cuts — even at the risk of major deficit spending. When they get power, that’s what they do.  A zealot will argue that these tax cuts are necessary to stimulate the economy, and it’s worth it to gamble, with fingers crossed, that future growth will compensate for any financial shortfall. You may find this absurd, or self-defeating, or you may applaud it as a bold move. What you cannot do is call it conservative. It’s the opposite of conservative: it’s an aggressive throw of the dice in the name of economic expansion. This latest Republican administration has also tried to undo regulations on corporate activity put in place to force those corporations to behave conservatively. They’ve also stood in the way of any restrictions on gun ownership or gun production and distribution, and they’ve based their argument on a reading of the Bill of Rights that privileges individual liberties over social responsibilities. So when I hear Democratic politicians complain with absolute conviction that their opponents are too conservative, I can only conclude that our discourse has gone into a shredder, and our understanding of the real-life ramifications of policy has followed.

Republicans often deride their opponents as liberals. When I was a kid in the eighties, this was used as a pejorative; George Bush Senior spoke, quite often, as if a liberal outlook was a hallmark of weak character. Abetted by talk radio hosts, Republicans really did manage to turn “liberal” into an insult — so much so that many Democrats ran like hell from the label. To fill the void, some Democrats began calling themselves “progressives” instead, reintroducing a meaningless term into a political arena already chock full of meaninglessness buzzwords. This was a nice bit of rhetorical gamesmanship by the Republicans, even of it was never too clear about what, exactly, they were accusing their opponents of. “Liberal” became a code-word for softness on crime, which few Democrats ever are or were, and willingness to challenge the need for tax cuts, which, depending on circumstances, can be quite a fiscally conservative position to take. But mostly, it meant opposition to Republicans and Republican-backed initiatives, and since many Democrats dislike Republicans for very good reasons, they accepted the Republican supposition that they were instinctively liberal — liberal by identity as well as ideology.

But are they really? Are Democrats any more liberal in their approach than Republicans are conservative in theirs? Some prominent Democrats have worked to reinforce and extend certain liberties, but that’s hardly been the party’s preoccupation. When in power, the Democratic party has accelerated the concentration of authority in the hands of a class of experts, pushed for government regulation of the private sector, and attempted to extend some healthcare benefits to those who aren’t lucky enough to have insurance. Depending on your outlook, you might call all of that commendable; you might even call it necessary. But you can’t call it liberal. Nearly everything advocated by the modern Democratic party infringes on the individual liberties of somebody or other; again, you may decide that certain people need their rights curtailed, but when you do, you’re taking an awfully illiberal position. In opposition to the current administration, Democrats have gotten cozy with law enforcement, and they’ve made heroes — and bedfellows — out of CIA and FBI operatives who are among the most illiberal people on the planet. The ease and speed with which Democrats get comfortable with spooks tells you all you need to know about the true state of liberalism within the party.

To confuse things further, another troublesome term has wormed its way into the rotten frame of the Overton window. Certain critics of the Democratic party — including Democrats — have taken to decrying something they call “neoliberalism”. (Don’t look for an advocate of neoliberalism; it is, like “emo”, a tag that nobody wears voluntarily.) According to critics, neoliberals want to grease the gears of global enterprise and make labor as flexible as possible, and, as a corollary, reduce oversight from regulatory bodies and governmental authorities. There is a much better, more elegant, and more historically accurate term for this belief, and that term is: liberalism. The free market is a liberal concept and always has been. Those who complain about neoliberalism may be loath to say it, but it’s liberalism that bothers them.

And that’s fine. It is absolutely okay for you to distrust certain liberal solutions to policy questions, just as it is absolutely valid to challenge this administration for its troubling incapacity for conservative behavior. It doesn’t make you liberal or conservative to do either, and it certainly doesn’t make you a liberal or a conservative, because such a thing doesn’t exist. Alas, politics has become wrapped up in individual personal identity, and we’ve all become more interested in what category we fit in than we are in understanding what the heck is happening. Because we’re all rather determined to signal what team we’re on, we gotten caught up in our placement on a left-right spectrum — another European import that’s not even slightly salient to the realities of American political life anymore, if it ever was.

So I’m asking you today to drop it. Ignore the hollow terminology for a little while. When you hear these words in action, ask yourself whether liberal and conservative behavior, or liberties, or conservation are even being discussed, or if you’re just listening to barkers and cheerleaders calling out team names. Remember that the people who work for the big political institutions try as hard as they can to sell you a total lifestyle package; that’s part of the marketing strategy, and the sorting has been so successful that America is now a mismatched pair of feuding single-party states. Even if you don’t agree with me that this is a terribly unhealthy thing to have happened to us, I hope you’ll concur that the language that politicians and their attaches in the press use has decayed to the point of incoherence. If we can’t talk about things, we can’t fix them — which means that those with an incentive to keep things as broken as possible will keep trying to confuse us. One day we may recall what “liberal” and “conservative” used to mean, but we’re going to need to do a lot of hard work before we get there: we need to strip them down and rinse them of their cultural associations. That won’t happen overnight. For now, they’re insubstantial at best and toxic at worst.  Don’t use them.  Start calling things what they are, and we may someday remember where we are — and maybe even who we are.

tris@trismccall.net

 

*Again we have borrowed this nasty habit from the Brits, who have, or have had, actual political parties called the Conservatives and the Liberals. One hundred years ago, a Westminster supporter of Asquith had legitimate strategic reason to call himself a Liberal, just as a delegate to a nominating convention on behalf of a Clinton is a Democrat. Then and now, that’s a party descriptor, and only a vague indication of ideology. Consider that the Conservatives count among their members some of the most intemperate men and women in the British Isles — people who haven’t acted conservatively in years.

Pass the gavel

It’s our last hope.

In a little less than two weeks, the Democratic Party has a chance to win back control of the House of Representatives.  Should this happen, you can expect investigations on anything and everything related to the past activities of the slobs who presently govern us.  There will be grandstanding and grotesqueries.  There will be hot air.  There will be subcommittees on subcommittees for the examination of Jared Kushner’s underwear.   There will be pointless vengeance, and cops on the Hill, and there may, god help us, even be arrests.  It will be interminable, and it will be insufferable.  There is only one thing worse than the Democrats winning control of the House, and that is the Democrats *not* winning control of the House.

That would be a lot worse.  It would be so bad that I don’t even like to think about it.  But since there’s a decent chance that it will happen, I think we’ve got to stop what we’re doing (something to do with Gritty, I’m told) and take a good, honest look at what we’re up against, and the future we’re in for if the Republican Party maintains its House majority.  Because if you thought these past two years were a challenge to get through, they’d be a dainty prelude to the symphony of authoritarianism that would commence if the present direction of the country were to be ratified by voters on November 6.  We have one last chance to plot a course correction.  When you go into that ballot booth on the 6th — and buddy, you’d damn well better — you’ll have two options.  You can say, why yes, I approve of the policies that the regime in Washington is pursuing, and I wouldn’t mind one bit if they intensify.  Or you can help construct a bulwark against the tide.  It’s one or the other.

You wish there were more choices.  Me, too.  In a sane society, there surely would be.  There is a part of you — the noblest part, probably — that wants to reject my assessment altogether.  You don’t want to get in bed with institutional Democrats; you’ll back candidates who are unsullied by corporate money, or you’ll back nobody at all.  I understand the impulse.  But this time around, for the sake of national survival, you’re going to have to tell that voice to pipe down.  Allow me to explain why.

The American system of government was designed to prevent concentrations of power.  For every leader who thinks he had the right idea and won’t hear a counterargument, there are supposed to be two leaders in positions of equivalent authority whose role it is to throw cold water on the engine.  Ours is a complex society; that’s how we’ve been able to sustain human enterprise at the level and variety to which we’ve become accustomed.  The greatest threat to a country like ours is leadership that gallops off at top speed in a direction determined by a small group of like-minded executives.  That’s a sure way to keep half (and probably more) of the country pissed off and alienated all day.  Executives of both parties who’ve held the White House over the past sixty years have largely disregarded this, and they’ve looked to consolidate their power at the expense of those with the ability to keep it in check. In a way, you can’t blame them: expedience is an executive value.  Voters like men of action and expect their elected leaders to act decisively.  It’s the responsibility of the courts, the legislators, and the free press to say, nuh-uh, we need to build a broader consensus before we act.  This is government of the people, and that means all of the people; even those we find distasteful.

For the past two years, Republicans have held control of all three branches of government.  Unlike some, I don’t believe this outcome was engineered by wicked hackers overseas.  I see it as a considered decision made by voters.  That I also think it was an unwise decision is immaterial; American voters have made bad decisions before, and our right to choose wretched leaders if we want them is one of the cornerstones of civilian rule.  And many Americans do like to experiment: they threw the dice on a certain style of leadership in 2008, and threw them again eight years later on behalf of something quite different.  For reasons that I’ve outlined elsewhere, we’ve have come to demand governtainment, governtainment requires drama, and drama demands broad strokes and maybe even arch-villains to tilt against.  But even if you can’t resist a fireworks show, you must realize that concentrating power in the hands of any small group isn’t a risk worth taking.  The worry isn’t that you’re not going to get what you voted for.  The worry is you’re going to get far too much of it.

Unlike other single-party governments, this one didn’t take office with a head of steam.  This was because the vehicle of Republican ascension — its Presidential candidate — wasn’t trusted by the entire party.  Many Republicans had misgivings about their candidate’s priorities; others were plainly fine with them, but didn’t like his approach.  Some disliked his character on moral grounds, and some felt he wasn’t up to the job.  The new regime was loaded with people who didn’t know how Washington operated, and they stumbled out of the gate, making months worth of unforced errors.  What they could do with the blunt force of executive order, they did, but the rest of the plan took awhile to implement.  That bought us some time.

Unfortunately, time is up.  This administration has purged its internal enemies, straightened itself out, and is now talking in one awful voice.  The rest of the party has fallen in line behind the executive with the sort of unanimity that we all should hate to see in a pluralist society.  The Republicans in positions of legislative authority who tried to put the brakes on the White House won’t be around after this election: some are retiring in frustration, some are rightfully ashamed of what’s going on and are bowing out, some have capitulated, and a couple have actually bought the farm. The queasy, nose-holding party of 2016 has been transformed, emboldened, homogenized and pasteurized.  By 2019, there won’t be any anti-establishment Republicans left.  Those Republicans who’ll form the next Congress will go along with the executive branch no matter what it does.  They’ll cover for all ethical lapses, and gloss over the daily mendacity with a smile.  Should the Republicans maintain their legislative majority, they will move forcefully, and in unison, on an agenda that, in their view, will have been ratified by the electorate.  And if we fail to vote these guys out, this won’t be an unreasonable assumption.

What would that agenda be?  By now you know.  It combines nativism with regressive economics and a near-comical contempt for science.  Expect all of that in overdrive, plus an augmentation of the unearned swagger that makes this regime so infuriating to follow.  Some 2016 Republican voters reckoned that the bigotry was just fun and games on the campaign trail, and that once in office, these guys would drop the act and govern with sensitivity to the diversity of modern America.  That argument was always a weak one, and now it’s off the table.  They’re are dead serious.  They’re not open to persuasion; they’re ready to proceed, and if you happen to be in the way of the bulldozer, they will run you down without blinking.

In a healthy, balanced democracy, none of this would survive challenges in the courts, which are supposed to be staffed by sober-minded, deliberative people whose hands aren’t soiled from intra-party scuffles.  That safeguard has gone out the window, too.  Bush vs. Gore confirmed what we already suspected: the Supreme Court has become just another extension of party politics.  With every predictable 5-4 decision, the case for the Court’s autonomy gets harder and harder to defend.  What’s more, people like it this way — they support candidates who promise to deliver court seats to judges whose ideological positions mirror theirs.  In 2018, there is not much desire left for judicial independence.  We expect justices to rule (increasingly, we even say “vote”, which gives the game away) according to the priorities of the executives who appoint them, and when they don’t, we get mad.  We recently watched a Supreme Court nominee angrily denounce the opposition party on live television.  Naturally, the members of that party voted against him; the members of the other party loved him for it.  His talking points were interchangeable with those that Republican candidates use while campaigning.  In other words, the mystique is gone, the masks have fallen, and nobody expects a judge — even a Supreme Court judge — to be anything other than a political operative.  The nominee believed that the Democrats were trying to torpedo his candidacy on that basis.  The Democrats, just as clearly, felt that he was being put on the bench in order to run interference for members of the administration in legal hot water.  The terrifying thing is that they’re probably both right.

Republicans will maintain their majority on the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future.  Any challenges to extensions of executive authority will meet the same fate as the opposition to the travel ban: right down the tubes, by the score of five to four.  Discriminatory policies, ridiculous gerrymandering meant to retain legislative majorities, voter suppression, you name it, the highest court is going to find a justification for all of it.  That’s what they’re there for — that’s the job for which they were hired — and that’s why the Republican leadership resorted to dirty pool to keep Merrick Garland off of the Court.  For the next two years, minimum, the executive branch will be operating without meaningful judicial oversight.  They’ll be able to do whatever they want to do, to whomever they want to, and if you’re cool with this because you figure you’re not in the crosshairs, I remind you that today’s conciliator is often tomorrow’s target.

So forget the courts.  The House of Representatives is it; it’s the whole ballgame, the last line of defense between you and your friends and a regime that acts with entitlement but no sense of proportion.  If you’re concerned about what it would mean for this administration to operate without fetters, you must vote to deny the Republican Party a House majority.  That needs to be your sole objective on Election Day.  All others are secondary to the point of irrelevance.  We in the Jerz often complain, and justifiably so, that our votes aren’t as consequential as those in neighboring states. Usually that’s true.  Not this year, though.  The imprimatur can be taken from the Republicans in four or five districts — and all of those races are real ones, and they’ll be decided by thin margins. If the Republicans are stopped, Jersey will have had plenty to do with that; if they aren’t, that’ll mean that Jersey didn’t care.  Cry no tears for the regime: they’ll still be able to make plenty of trouble even if the Democrats do manage to win back a small amount of institutional power.  They just won’t be able to run the whole show without consequence — which, I remind you, is something nobody ought to be able to do in America anyway, and that nobody could do if our whole system wasn’t on the fritz.

Seats in the Senate are also up for grabs, but because of their apportionment, it’s not too realistic to imagine that the Democrats could take control of the chamber.  Normally, this wouldn’t be a disaster, but to say that the present Senate leadership is marching in lockstep with the administration is an understatement; on some days, I imagine that the Majority Leader is the main architect of this entire fiasco.  As for the press, I’m afraid we’re not the light to guide the country free from the thicket.  In this piece, I explained how the emphasis on search-engine and social-media optimization has created an environment that best suits demagogues and celebrity trainwrecks; that was written in late 2017, and I’m sad to say that nothing has changed.  But you shouldn’t need Politico to tell you that something is amiss.  You already know that the only way out of this is the way in.  Elections got us into this trouble, and only elections can steer us home.

Friends, your vote is not a mirror to your soul, or a binding promise, or sacred expression of your most cherished priorities.  A vote is just a tool — one of the few you have at your disposal.  Admittedly, it’s a meager one.  But if this tool was truly powerless, officials in Georgia and North Dakota wouldn’t be trying as hard as they could to take it away from people who might use it against them.  This November, you’ve got two ways to use that tool.  You can loosen the screws on the black iron gates that are swinging all over America, or you can let those gates slam shut.  That’s it; that’s the choice.  A Republican majority in the House will complete the assumption of absolute authority that began with the 2016 election.  The only way to avoid total Republican rule is to grant that majority to the Democrats. There is simply no other knight on the battlefield capable of joining the fight. Laugh at the rusty armor if you must; throw some stones if you have to.  But this year, vote smart.

A day may come — and hopefully it will come soon — when you will be able to relax and vote for the Green, or the Libertarian, or the Marijuana Freedom Party, or write in your Uncle Lou, or stay at home and play videogames while responsible grown-ups decide how the pie is sliced.  But when there are no reasonable adults in view, that means you have to be the wise one.  You have to put aside personal preferences and make a strategic decision that’s right for the country.  In order to make sure that the day comes when we can again afford to be creative with our votes, we need to recognize that our system of government is facing an existential threat.  That’s not hyperbole: the consolidation of power under one banner — any one banner — is always an overture to autocracy*.  Any time we give the same group of guys the ability to determine the rules, enforce the rules, and judge whether the rules are fair, there’s a possibility that they’ll rip up the current codes and replace them with ones that allow them to replicate their power.  The only thing that prevents them from doing just that is their consciences.  Look at our current leaders.  Do you trust their consciences?

Modern Republicans like to argue that any small bit of resistance they encounter constitutes obstructionism.  They will tell you that divided government frustrates the will of the people, who, they believe, demand prompt, friction-free customer service from elected officials.  It’s worth remembering that real American leaders have never required unanimity to make meaningful, positive changes. They’ve understood that, in a complicated country, opposition is inevitable and needs to be expressed, and attempts to iron it out or shut it up are unhealthy.  Compromise is frustrating, but it also forces people to see through the eyes of others, and take their concerns seriously.

Right now, the regime isn’t listening to you.  The members of this ignorant and remarkably intemperate administration are doing whatever the heck they want, whenever they want, just because they can.  They believe they can bully their critics into submission, and they’ll proceed accordingly, and with absolute arrogance, for as long as we let them.  Do not underestimate their ability, or their inclination, to rewrite the basic rules of American government in order to accommodate their desire for executive authority.  They got off to a shaky start, but lately, they’ve been consolidating their power with the sort of ruthlessness that ought to give any patriot the chills.  On election day, we’ve got one final opportunity to slow them down. I don’t say this lightly: should we miss this chance, we may never get another.

tris@trismccall.net

 

 

*I do also object, strongly, to ideological conformity among Democrats, but that’s not the trouble we’re facing in this election.  We’re not close to that.  We’ve got to fight the dragon in front of us, not the one that might trouble us down the road.

My List For 2017

Tear down the wall, always.

To some, I guess, they were a stoner band – they made songs ideal to light up to. That’s a fine approach to Pink Floyd, even if it wasn’t mine. For other fanatics, Pink Floyd were soundscapers in the prog tradition, immediately identifiable instrumentalists who made music that was effortlessly immersive. Put on a Floyd album and get lost for forty-five minutes; I certainly did plenty of that. Still others saw them as a band of might-have-beens: what if Syd hadn’t lost his mind, what if Rick and Dave had kept on singing, what if Roger hadn’t, to paraphrase James Mercer, grabbed the yoke and flown the whole mess into the sea?

Yet to me, Pink Floyd has always been a concept band. It was because of their mastery of concept – their ability to buttress a philosophical or political idea with flourishes and sonic coloring that reinforced its meaning – that Pink Floyd became, along with Yes, one of the pillars of the temple of rock where I knelt at night. Yes was the sound of heaven: the world that I wanted, an eco-utopia of perpetual change and elfin magic and the revealing science of God. Pink Floyd was the world as it was: the smokestacks and the ticking clocks, the pigs and dogs and sheep, and always some mad bugger throwing up a wall.

Roger Waters, for all his faults (and to his credit, he’s always worn them in plain view) was the concept-keeper for the Floyd. Without him, they would merely have been a great band; with him, they stayed on topic and theme better than any rock group ever did, or ever will, probably. It was Roger who told Syd’s story in diamond-hard imagery on Wish You Were Here, and laid out the breakdown of the postwar dream in The Final Cut, and on Animals, ushered you into the coldest shower you’ll ever take – a vision of society that, because of its ruthless accuracy, still rings like an alarm all these years later. Roger kept it going in his solo career, too; even if he didn’t have his former mates to back him up with music worthy of his ideas, he kept those big ideas coming.

While Pink Floyd kept those sets tidy, it was, by 1977, apparent that Roger was working on a grand concept that transcended single albums. He had something to say about war and the welfare state, greed and surveillance and state-sponsored distraction and the price of liberty, and our human obligation to take care of each other. Sometimes it took the shape of a personal story: a father he never knew, “buried like a mole in a foxhole” at Anzio, as Roger, who was desperate to make that sacrifice mean something, sang in “Free Four”. Sometimes it drew from classic dystopian literature, like the echoes of Orwell and Bradbury in Animals, and sometimes its inspiration came directly from headlines about miners’ strikes and trouble in the West Bank and Gaza. This was sanctimonious at times, and it sure could be strident, but it was never forced. It was all an expression of Roger’s soul, and in singing it with the passion that he did, he was playing according to the rules of his chosen style. He expanded the parameters of what rock could be. He was making progressive music, even though he thought he was.

His monomaniacal pursuit of his vision wrecked Pink Floyd. The other players in the band were way too good to be marginalized. In retrospect, it’s easy to blame Roger for the estrangement that followed The Wall; nobody likes a guy who puts his sociopolitical agenda ahead of his relationship with his mates. Yet Roger Waters was driven, as many great artists are, by a story he absolutely had to tell – and fifty(!) years after The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, that ambition is still paying artistic dividends. Is This The Life We Really Want? is the culmination of a through-line in Roger Waters’s writing that begins with Corporal Clegg’s wooden leg and threads through Obscured By Clouds and the stealth-socialism of The Dark Side Of The Moon, the despair of “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 1″ and the elegy for liberal democracy on “The Gunner’s Dream”, the quiet outrage of the When The Wind Blows soundtrack, and the unanswerable moral rage of “The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range” from Amused To Death. All of that is present and profoundly reinforced on the new album, which is the most succinct elaboration of Roger Waters’s worldview ever waxed, and the only rebuttal to the State Of The Union address you’ll ever need. With Is This The Life, Roger has done something that few artists, even great ones, ever manage to do. He’s stuck the landing.

It may remind you of Pink Floyd.  That’s intentional. Roger has always loved callbacks, and as it’s his catalog, he’s free to re-use it however he likes.  Nigel Godrich, who produced this set, is an obvious Floyd obsessor who knows the discography backward and forward, and he’s pulled off an impressive balancing act – he alludes to Roger’s past without overwhelming the listener, or the singer, with it.  The record that Is This The Life We Really Want? most closely resembles, in tone and theme, is The Final Cut, and if you’re one of those Floyd fans who can’t countenance that one because of the way Roger was treating his (soon-to-be-ex) bandmates, you might want to run these two back to back to remind yourself just what was at stake.

The Final Cut is a record about a missed opportunity: our chance, according to Roger, to refashion society according to egalitarian principles in the wake of World War II has slipped through our fingers, and now we’re living with the consequences. Just like his role model Jeremiah, he names names, howling his head off about Margaret Thatcher and Leonid Brezhnev and Galtieri, and you, First Worlder, who has put material comfort ahead of your responsibility to your neighbors. The threat of nuclear holocaust hangs over the whole set, but the proximate cause for all the shouting was the Falklands War, which Roger saw as grubby and intemperate backslide into pointless militarism. Confrontational as it is, the album contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written by a rock band, including the second verse of “The Gunner’s Dream”, a distillation of the promise of social democracy that beats the stuffing out of any political speech I’ve ever heard. If pop music is, at its best, an attempt to fill up the infinite space between the people we are and the people we wish we could be, here was a reach farther than most artists dream, let alone attempt.

The band, however, was coming apart, and I can’t deny The Final Cut sounds fractious. Roger, who has always sung like a wailing revenant, is even more cracked and exhausted here than he usually is. Unfortunately for all of us – Roger included – the world has given him another chance to make many of the same points. Thirty-four years after The Final Cut, we’re right back to petty nuclear brinksmanship, authoritarianism, and near-psychotic disregard for the welfare of our fellow travelers on the planet. On Is This The Life We Really Want?, Roger illustrates our predicament with graphic images that would’ve seemed over-the-top if circumstances hadn’t proven them dead right: I like the description of life in 2017 as a seat on a windowless, doorless private plane manned by an insane crew, but you may be more moved by the dead child face down on the beach, or the woman killed by drone strike as she cooks rice for her family, or the tank crushing a student, or a home, or a pearl. This is ugly stuff he’s entertaining us with, no doubt, and it isn’t for the faint. Same as it ever was, Pink Floyd fan. Somebody has to preach, right?, and since the churches have abdicated their positions as moral arbiters, it’s down to the pop stars to bring the fire and brimstone.

While other members of his cohort – Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Ray Davies, etc. – have succumbed to various flavors of despair, Roger Waters continues to insist that we’ve got options.  What differentiates us from the bug on the wall is our capacity to act selflessly and open our hearts to the stranger and the refugee.  When we stand by, silent and indifferent, and allow the suffering of others to continue, we’re choosing to dehumanize ourselves – which, according to Roger, is exactly what we’ve been accomplishing. Note that the album title is a question: we’ve all got the option to choose humanity over anthood, so why don’t we?  Roger’s tone throughout is one of anguished disbelief – this can’t be the life we want, can it?  These choices we make, they serve no one, do they?  Yet we keep making them. This time around – and this hasn’t always been true on his solo records – he’s got a band who’s right there with him, illustrating his poems with performances that feel anguished, weary, accusatory, repentant, all the things that the music suggests. As for Roger himself, he’s still broken-hearted when he mumbles and properly astringent when he shouts.  He’s also revealed a heretofore dormant talent for playing the piano.  Nothing he does is flashy, mind you, he hits the keys slowly, and dolefully, like he’s knocking on your door to deliver the disastrous news.

Is some of this grumpy-old-man business, a litany of bellyaches about the parlous state of the world? Well, certainly, and if you want to argue that there’s no place for that in pop music, on certain dark days I’m willing to concede the point. But if anybody has earned the right to complain, it’s Roger Waters. Fifteen million copies of The Dark Side Of The Moon were sold in the United States. Songs bearing Roger’s heavy lyrics have been in rotation on classic rock stations for decades.  It’s not that he hasn’t been heard, it’s that he hasn’t been heeded. How many of those people who chanted at rallies about building the wall and keeping immigrants out have copies of Pink Floyd albums in their collections? How many of them attended a Pink Floyd concert, or sang along to a song on the radio?  Quite a few, I’d imagine. The generation that Roger Waters has been addressing, so eloquently and passionately, for sixty years?, those guys turned out to be real pieces of work. We’re not much better. For more than sixty million Americans (not to mention voters in the UK who’ve got their own problems) Roger’s poetic verses meant nothing. I’m not sure how any artist could try any harder, or believe in his causes any more fully, or make his case any more plainly. Honestly, it’s a minor miracle that Is This The Life We Really Want? is as even-handed as it is; if he’d gone straight off the rails and put out an album of fist-shaking rock, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Instead, he’s given us another perfectly balanced cycle of songs, rueful and gorgeous in all the right places, thoughtful, imploring, open-hearted. I’d like to think that Governor Kasich, self-proclaimed Pink Floyd fan, heard it, and let the lessons sink in. I’d like to think that it mattered to you. It couldn’t have mattered more to me.

Album Of The Year

  • 1. Roger Waters — Is This The Life We Really Want?
  • 2. Saint Etienne — Home Counties
  • 3. Laura Marling — Semper Femina
  • 4. LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
  • 5. Tyler, The Creator — Scum Fuck Flower Boy
  • 6. Randy Newman — Dark Matter
  • 7. Elizabeth & The Catapult — Keepsake
  • 8. GoldLink — At What Cost
  • 9. Paramore — After Laughter
  • 10. Susanne Sundfor — Music For People In Trouble
  • 11.  Morrissey — Low In High School
  • 12. Natalia Lafourcade — Musas
  • 13. Marika Hackman — I’m Not Your Man
  • 14. Lana Del Rey — Lust For Life
  • 15. Elbow — Little Fictions
  • 16. Lucy Rose — Something’s Changing
  • 17. Jay-Z — 4:44
  • 18. Wand — Plum
  • 19. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton — Choir Of The Mind
  • 20. Drake — More Life

My List For 2017 — Singles, and the rest of Page 1

My favorite album cover of 2017. Garish, isn’t it? I love the way the fingers create an anatomical riddle. Oh, and the album’s pretty great, too.

Nobody wants to look old and in the way.  This especially applies to critics, who need to keep up on trends or come off even more preposterous than they normally do, and musicians, who operate in an industry that puts a heavy premium on youth.  Usually this isn’t much of a problem for me at this time of the year: there’s some kid’s-stuff mall emo I’m waving the flag for, or a 20-year-old rapper out of the Midwest with a mouthful of slang meant to confound mom and dad, or an indiepop project from adorable twee Scots who sound and behave so much like twelve-year-olds that they might as well be lined up for the recess bell.  The world likes young people, the biz likes young people, I like young people, everything’s in bloom on the spring chicken farm.

But this year, my album list featured a septuagenarian coot in the top position, an even older grump at number six, and the grouchiest senior citizen in the entertainment industry at number eleven.  What’s going on here?  Have I finally capitulated to age and thrown in with the codgers? Or has the mask fallen, and am I now making my generational allegiances plain?  Damn millennials with your cellular phones and your bit coins.  Take those avocado toasts and shove ’em.

Probably not.  In 2016 and 2017, we got a bunch of mea culpas from Baby Boomers; things, if you’ll notice, didn’t exactly turn out the way they were supposed to during the Summer of Love.  They’re the Jerkiest Generation, and always have been, but at least they were kind enough to send their best poets to deliver the bad news.  Message received; next year’s album list is virtually certain to skew toward the whippersnappers.  But I’m glad things broke as they did, and not merely because I never miss an opportunity to tell the world what Roger Waters and Randy Newman (and, for that matter, Morrissey) have always meant to me.  It also gives me an opportunity to clear up a few things up about my priorities — and there’s no safer place to do that than on a personal page that you’re only reading because you like me.

About five years ago, I was caught up in a long-running rock-crit debate between two warring ideological camps. On one side were so-called poptimists: critics, mostly younger, who believed that marginalized forms of popular music were just as worthy of critical scrutiny as those moldy old records designated classics by first-generation rock writers. They defended ephemerality as a virtue, argued that commercial performance was a legitimate barometer of merit in a capitalist industry, lionized fun and entertainment, and criticized their opponents for their implicit racism and sexism and insistence on evaluating everything by the standards set by late-’60s Beatles albums.  Not everybody was trying to make Tommy, dammit, and it was unfair to demand a magnum opus out of every teenager with an MPC who probably just wanted to dance.  On the other side of the debate were the rockists, largely older and largely male, who felt it was preposterous to stack, say, Britney Spears up against Bruce Springsteen.  Any fool could see the difference in artistic merit between the two, and it was only doing readers a disservice to pretend that an equivalency existed.  Rock, and pop, for that matter, had peaked around 1973, and everything has gone to hell in a handbasket since.  Now I’m caricaturing the position, but not by very much.  I’m also using the past tense, because the debate is more or less settled: the dust has cleared, and the poptimists have won. Major pop releases are now received with the seriousness that used to be reserved for rock records by canonical artists.  It would be the rare critic indeed who’d argue that a new set from Rihanna, or Beyonce, didn’t deserve front-page treatment.

I love Beyonce, and Rihanna, and Katy Perry, and just about every other pop star you might like to name (hey, that new Camila Cabello album sounds pretty good…)  Because I’ve been pretty loud about my appreciation for what they do, many readers have assumed that I pitch my tent among the poptimists, and have said so, in angry letters to the editor that I still have.  Well, the nice ones called me a poptimist; the others used language that I won’t repeat here.  Let’s just say they impugned a masculinity that I don’t exactly value in the first place.  Many of these guys — and they were all guys, of course — were so vitriolic in their accusations that they were unable to see that I agreed with them far more than they thought I did.  I just don’t condemn modern pop stars; I think they’ve managed to make some classic albums too.  But my real, honest-to-god position is about as close to vulgar rockism as you’re likely to find from a critic who still cares, and very much, about contemporary music.  I believe the classic period for pop and rock albums ran from 1967 to around 1974, and just about everything of merit since then has been attempts to recapture the glories of that period.  The only difference between me and the worst of the rockists is that I’m still buying, and enjoying, new albums by the hundreds.

I do understand the sociopolitical problems with this, and I try to be sensitive to them.  But just because something is problematic doesn’t mean it’s wrong — especially when everything we’ve ever learned about the history of artistic movements suggests that it’s right. Heydays exist.  Those writing about other mediums aren’t shy about pointing them out.  Elizabethan drama, Flemish portrait painting, Abstract Expressionism, bebop, Japanese bamboo art; heck, there are literary critics who’ll tell you that the novel went into aesthetic eclipse for decades in the mid Eighteenth century. There is a short period of groundbreaking and standard-setting, and then a much longer era of stasis, institutionalization, and decline. There oughtn’t to be anything controversial about pointing this out, just as there’s nothing outrageous about noticing and celebrating the great stuff that continues to get made after the classic period is over.

Mind you, none of this is nostalgia.  I have no retrospective appreciation for the Vietnam era.  That must have been an awful time to have been a young person. Advances in recording technology must have been, in that context, a very small consolation. But more consequential, I’d wager, than the advent of gazillion-tracking and the studio as an instrument and the Wall of Sound and all the rest of it was that it was then possible to get that technology into the hands of the right people. The business was, by modern standards, pretty small-time — it hadn’t consolidated yet. Nobody knew what the kids wanted; there was no good outline or target marketing, or, God forbid, any algorithm to predict audience response. Instead it was entirely reasonable, and economically defensible, to give money and resources to the big-nosed likes of Van Morrison or Randy Newman. A fully mature industry — one that operates confidently and efficiently — has neither interest in nor room for guys like that.  They’re going to adhere to best practices, which will usually mean pleasing the crowd as expediently as possible.  Since there are now instant methods of ascertaining crowd desire, their jobs are done for them.

And if you still don’t believe me, consider that we all watched this exact thing happen in hip-hop. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the industry was shapeless, executives were tentative, and nobody had any idea what was going on or what was going to sell. This led to record deals and promotion for funny-looking, idiosyncratic, visionary artists who’d never, ever sniff major industry money if they were rhyming today: De La Soul, KRS-ONE, Rakim, you know the names as well as I do.  Public Enemy seemed like a dodgy proposition to the suits when they first came out, but the attitude was, what the hell, who knows with this crazy rap stuff, let’s throw it out there and see if anybody pays attention. By the late ’90s, that uncertainty was gone. This is not to say that there are no longer great hip-hop albums made, because great albums are released every year.  I merely point out that there is far less interest in the sort of protean personalities that exist during the classic phase of any style.  This is basic corporate theory: when the institution is in a nascent stage, big personalities tend to dominate.  Once an institution is mature, big personalities are no longer necessary; eventually, they’re no longer welcome.  The game runs by itself.  There’s no demand for wild cards in the deck.

The coterie of artists whose personalities defined the classic pop-rock period are now saying goodbye.  They’re making closing statements, pulling it together one final time to get their aesthetic estates in order.  Since they effectively wrote the rules of album-making, they’ve got certain advantages that younger artists can’t pretend to. Do these make up for the stigma of age — the feeling among some listeners that veteran rockers said their piece and had their turn, and it’s time to turn the floor over to the next generation?  Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.  I’m enough of a softie that I don’t want to throw grandma out in the snow when she might have some wisdom left to impart, just as I’m still enough of a tyro to decry gerontocracy wherever I see it.  But I do think that the poptimist argument that it’s unfair to judge younger artists working in alternative styles by the standards of the early ’70s classics is undermined by the influences and models that those younger artists consistently cite. Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Neil Young, Nilsson, Pet Sounds, Motown and Stax-Volt, Dusty Springfield and P-Funk: the names dropped in the press releases I see these days are, pretty much, the same names I saw ten years ago. The album wasn’t supposed to have made it past Napster; here we are in the second decade since the millennium turned, and everybody doing pop, rock, and hip-hop still dreams of dropping a classic full-length.

My favorite single of 2017 was made by a woman born thirty years ago in the frozen fjords of Haugesund, Norway.  As far as I can tell, she’s never lived in the United States; I don’t know if she’s ever even toured here.  Yet this Scandinavian avant-garde art rocker has chosen, on her lead single, to emulate Dolly Parton circa 1971. Other songs on Music For People In Trouble chase Judy Collins, Grace Slick, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell circa For The Roses. She’s happy to own up to these sources, which were as far in the rear-view mirror for her when she was born as Doris Day and Perry Como were for me. She might be the rare artist who is able to stand up to her sources (Laura Marling is another), but her aspirations aren’t unusual. That’s because those artists and those albums are the benchmark, and they will always be.

Music is both the very best thing that people do and the thing that allows people to be at their best.  We are never more ourselves than we are when we are singing, or dancing, or making up songs, or deejaying, or just listening.   Music amplifies and broadcasts the strange, irreducible parts of our personalities, those elements that can’t be counterfeited; when you’re in the presence of a real musical artist, you immediately know it’s her, and you know there’s nobody else who can do what she does.  Around fifty years ago, rock, pop, and soul artists figured out how to get the album — the forty-minute sequence of songs and musical ideas — to be the ultimate conveyor of personality.  Ever since then, we’ve been scrambling to replicate the work they did.  We’ve gotten pretty good at it, too: we’re skilled at sound-matching, and song-sequencing, and singing and playing our instruments in a manner that makes our individualities manifest.  It’s no shame to admit that it’s never going to be quite as exciting as it was in the classic period; it never is.  The qualitative distance is real, but it’s also been exaggerated.  The very worst record that’ll be released tomorrow will still be more interesting to engage with than almost anything else you might have devoted your attention to in a year as deadening as 2017.  It shouldn’t depress us that we’ll never quite live up to our models.  We should celebrate that our models are as world-bending as they are. Thank goodness for them. Go right on copying them.

Single of the Year

  • 1. Susanne Sundfor — “Undercover”
  • 2. Paramore — “Fake Happy”
  • 3. Phoebe Bridgers — “Motion Sickness”
  • 4. Tyler, The Creator — “See You Again”
  • 5. Vince Staples — “Big Fish”
  • 6. Nelly Furtado — “Pipe Dreams”
  • 7. Harry Styles — “Sign Of The Times”
  • 8. Future — “Mask Off”
  • 9. 2 Chainz — “Trap Check”
  • 10. Cloud Nothings — “Internal World”
  • 11. Drake — “Passionfruit”
  • 12. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee — “Despacito”
  • 13. Charly Bliss — “Glitter”
  • 14. Morrissey — “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage”
  • 15. LCD Soundsystem — “Tonite”
  • 16. Liam Gallagher — “For What It’s Worth”
  • 17. Kendrick Lamar — “Humble”
  • 18. Alvvays — “Plimsoll Punks”
  • 19. Idles — “Well Done”
  • 20. Poppy — “Moshi Moshi”

Best Album Title

Music For People In Trouble. Because we are, you know.

Best Album Cover

See above.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

The Saint Etienne album came with a little map of the Home Counties, a made-up (and hilarious) police blotter, and an essay that namechecked Orwell and Virginia Woolf. So yes, Sarah Cracknell was speaking my language, and not for the first time. I’d also like to acknowledge Poppy and her evil overseers for a thank-you section that lists most major financial institutions in bold pink type, and instructions for folding the CD insert into a cult hat complete with Illuminati eyeballs.  She’s all in on the character, bless her.

Most Welcome Surprise

I was pleasantly surprised that Harry Styles and Nelly Furtado want to be alternarock stars; there’s not a lot of dough in it these days, but at least you get the opportunity to work with real racket-makers. Also, while I’ve always liked Lucy Rose, I didn’t think she had the capacity to make an album as good as Something’s Changing.  My real answer in this category, though, is Colin Meloy, who, via the Offa Rex album, proved to me he could do a genuine Martin Carthy imitation. Whatever you want to say about that guy, concede this much: he’s a talent.

Biggest Disappointment

I covered this in the Abstract, but I’ll say it again: it’s been years since an album has disappointed me as much as Melodrama did. Lorde let Jack Antonoff, he of the one chord progression (and an unimaginative one at that) run roughshod over her writing, which is not an outcome I thought was possible in 2013. But I also confess a certain disappointment that Taylor Swift is drinking as much as she seems to suggest that she is on Reputation, if you accept the dubious proposition that her narrators are proxies for her. This year, I sorta do.

Album That Opened Most Strongly

Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas.

Album That Closed Most Strongly

Semper Femina

Song Of The Year

“Nothing, Not Nearly”. Sometimes I think that the entire British folk-rock tradition — from Sandy Denny in Fairport and Jacquie McShee in the Pentangle through Nick Drake and Renaissance, Kate St. John and Beth Orton singing about that abandoned shopping trolley — was all just a buildup to 3:03 – 3:12 on this track.

Okay, page two soon.  Thanks for reading along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My List For 2017 — Page 2

If you don’t believe him now, will you ever believe him?

On “I Wish You Lonely”, a musical curse hurled by Morrissey on his hand-grenade of a new album, the fussy old vegetarian compares himself to a humpback whale. Not any whale, mind you; he envisions himself as the last survivor, defiantly swimming through the seas with harpoon-boats in pursuit. Like so much about Morrissey, it’s simultaneously funny and not so funny. For thirty-five years now, it’s never been clear whether his listeners are supposed to laugh. I suspect he wants the authority to crack jokes, but also the prerogative to look down his nose at you if he thinks you’re approaching his lyrics with a surfeit of levity and an inappropriate amount of gravity.

If you know Morrissey at all, and you certainly do, it’ll be clear to you why he identifies with the whale. Humpbacks are intelligent (something he’s positive he is), free-roaming and grand, ugly-beautiful, hounded by bullies. Also, famously, humpbacks sing. Not everybody understands their song, and many, tone-deaf that they are, would deny that that whale is singing at all.  Nevertheless, it goes right on with the show.

Like many people who feel marginalized, Morrissey has always been acutely sensitive — both on and off record — to threats to his autonomy and his liberty to speak his mind.  Years after topping the UK charts, he still feels very much like an outsider, and he has never been willing to modify or even soften his positions for the sake of the pop game. If you ask Morrissey an opinion question, he’s not going to waffle. You’re going to get an actual answer.

In 2017, few of his fans liked the answers he gave. The nasty nativist streak that has always been present in his writing — from “Panic” through “Bengali In Platforms” and “National Front Disco” and the rest of it — grew too wide for his apologists to ignore. Morrissey made statements that were unambiguously xenophobic and blatantly Islamophobic, too, and went on the record in support of a politician who was odious even by the low standards of the UKIP.  In so doing, he appeared to be aligning himself with the ringleaders of the tormentors — the closed-minded thugs who most members of his following feel persecuted by. This all came to a climax in an interview with Der Spiegel which played like an audition for a Prison Planet talk radio gig.  Lamely, he claimed he’d been misquoted (nope, you’re on tape, pal). It was all too much, and certain nervous parishioners in the Church of Morrissey ran for the exits.  Martin Rossiter, for instance, who did practically nothing but pilfer from the Smiths on those early Gene records, took to the Quietus with a broadside headlined “Why Morrissey Is Dead To Me”. It was like a former Christian washing his hands Jesus; Jesus if he’d gone alt-right.

Me, I’ve got a very high threshold for perturbation.  Even back when I was a teenager, searching for all the friends on the pop charts I could find and singing along to “Cemetry Gates” in the back of a speeding car, I always considered the Smiths problematic.  I liked discos and the people inside; I always figured I’d be one of the people burned along with the deejay if Morrissey ever had his way with the kerosene. I never wanted that double-decker bus to ram into me. I suspected, very much, that he didn’t either: if he was dead, how would he run his mouth?  But Morrissey was a fully-formed character, and thus indispensable in a pop landscape where personality was in short supply.  He also wore his flaws in plain sight, which, I had come to recognize, was a hallmark of a legitimate artist.  He never tried to hide anything from his listener – it was all right out there, on the surface, gruesome in broad daylight.  So even though I never got into World Peace Is None Of Your Business, I figured I needed to give my cranky old uncle Morrissey a spin.  There were songs on the new one with such titles as “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” and “When You Open Your Legs”.  My rubbernecker’s impulse had been fully engaged.

Low In High School isn’t as good as Vauxhall or Your Arsenal, but it’s probably a stronger and more rewarding set than late-career high points like Years Of Refusal and You Are The Quarry.  Neither of those two very good albums made all that much of a splash, so it’s hard to blame this professional attention-getter for turning up the volume and amping up the rhetoric.  If that’s all there was to High School, it would still be worth cursory engagement from people whose lives were saved by the Smiths (or so they used to like to say), regardless of the principal’s position on Brexit.  But the latest Morrissey is more than that. Yes, it’s abrasive, bombastic, self-righteous/self-pitying, conspiracy-minded – everything the public Morrissey has become over the past decade. But it’s also very funny (as always), peculiarly romantic, lovelorn, properly astringent; acid squirted in the eye of some targets that really do need a good spritz.  Seventy per cent sympathetic, thirty per cent abominable – same as it ever was, according to my count.

While nothing on Low In High School contradicts Morrissey’s new identity as a volunteer UKIP spokesperson, it doesn’t lead with the distaste for multiculturalism that has marred so many of his recent interviews. This is, instead, an album about violent conflict: not merely battles between armies, but a war that the singer is convinced, and not without reason, is being waged on people like Morrissey.   This is why he opens with a berserk love letter to his fans – he assumes you, long time listener, are something of a humpback whale, too, solitary and hounded by men (always men) who are determined to put the harpoon through softer human specimens.  Low In High School argues that war is a choice made not by governments, but by individual male humans who cannot govern their own destructive impulses.  I, too, have looked around the country, and the globe, and you know what?, I believe him.

“I Bury The Living”, the stupendous centerpiece of this enraged, justifiably defensive disc, lays the blame at the foot of the Man With Gun: the anonymous grunt, “just doing his duty”, or so we’ve been assured. “Give me an order/I’ll blow up your daughter”, he says, succinct and hard-eyed, hungry to kill.  He doesn’t care what the war is about – he just wants an excuse to discharge his weapon. The song is the best rejoinder to mindless Support Our Troops rhetoric since Belle & Sebastian’s “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love”, and it works for the same reason – it isn’t afraid to be offensive.  Because war is offensive, people, a million times more offensive than anything a pop star might sing.  One song later, on “In Your Lap”, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Morrissey ducks and covers as combatants, righteous and fascist, get their jollies by burning, clubbing, and spraying each other. You aren’t responsible for what armies do, he tells us on “Israel”, they are not you. These are the songs that the Decemberists, great as they are, have been trying to write for twenty years; Colin Meloy’s politeness, balance, and sense of decency prevents him from going all the way with the arguments.  Morrissey, a goddamned problem, isn’t so burdened.

His remedy: all the young people, he tells us, must fall in love. A little hippy-ish, sure, especially from the guy who wrote “Shakespeare’s Sister”, but I don’t think I’ve heard anything better, or more practical, from the so-called authorities lately.  Also – and he is dead serious about this – he requests that you stop watching the news.  I think he’s right about that, too.  Broadcast journalism got caught in the rapids around 2013 and has since gone right over the waterfall, and it’s mostly been yelling and kicking up a dangerous froth ever since. They’ve mastered psychological techniques to keep you tuning in, waiting for the big revelation that never comes.  I appreciate Morrissey pointing the finger, and putting it to us as straight as he does, just as I commend him for what appears to be a legitimate concern for the mental state of those he counts as members of his tribe. On Low In High School, he really does sing like he’s worried about you, Morrissey listener, ostensibly fey individual who, for all he knows, may actually be a girl, clinging to passive resistance in the face of toxic masculinity.  All of his songs have always been pitched at you, of course – that’s why you scribbled the lyrics on your notebook.  But he’s never made the stakes quite as clear as he does here.

No matter what they tell you during election years, artists aren’t terribly interested in politics.  For the most part, an artist’s prime responsibility is to the art, which, in a capitalist society, means securing enough funding to do the next project.  That’s it; that’s the driver, and there’s no shame in it.  A real artist will make all kinds of horrid compromises and enter into relationships of complicity with any number of ghouls to make sure the next album comes out. I think we fans of popular music have come to accept this, just as we acknowledge that most “statement” records don’t really make statements at all: they say exactly what you’d expect them to say given conventional wisdom and the general liberalism of the pop audience.  Morrissey, though, is different.  He wants fame and fortune as badly as the rest of the pop stars do, but some ancient injury that won’t heal (I think I know what it is) makes him incapable of going along with bland consensus or playing to the crowd.  I heard hundreds of political records in 2017 – records from old artists immobilized by guilt for what their generation had done and young artists determined to be broadly inspirational and inclusive.  The only singer who convinced me that he’d actually stand up and fight for me – the only one willing to jeopardize his career in order to speak out on behalf of his audience as he imagines it – was Morrissey, for better and for worse.  It’s there in the high note he reaches on “Home Is A Question Mark”, and in the way his voice breaks at the climax of “Israel”, and in the gritted-teeth delivery of “I Bury The Living”, and in the very sharp words he aims right at your beleaguered eardrums.  If it’s all an act, it’s a heck of a good one.

You know what?, it’s not an act.

Best Singing

Steven Patrick Morrissey

Best Rapping

Kokamoe is an old guy who jumps on buses in D.C. and starts rapping.  He’s been doing it for decades, which means he’s been in town for quite a bit longer than Devin Nunes (R, CA-22). The “Kokamoe Freestyle” is the virtuosic peak of GoldLink’s At What Cost, the year’s best pure rap album, and a needle-drop directly into the groove of the nation’s maligned capital. It’s not so much a tribute to Kokamoe as it is a celebration of the local color of a city that, too often, is hated on by the rest of the country.  The real D.C. is right there, somewhere past the monuments and the National Mall. GoldLink wants to show you.

Best Vocal Harmonies

Tie between Harry Styles’ multi-tracked Southern Cali-voices on “Ever Since New York” and Lana Del Rey “singin’ with Sean” Lennon in awe and wonderment at the great spinning wheel of schlock that is showbiz. My favorite backing vocals were done by the Big Moon, the outfit that supported Marika Hackman on I’m Not Your Man. Their album has its moments, too.

Best Bass Playing

Much as I’d love to vote for the Dutch Uncles’ art-funky Robin Richards here, I’ve got to go with James Murphy for his successful Tina Weymouth impersonation. Thousands upon thousands have tried. Only a handful have survived to tell the tale.

Best Drumming

Evan Burrows of Wand is my man this year — his playing demonstrated a neat familiarity with punk and jazz and jam-band free-for-alls, not to mention proggy drama, and he jumped between the styles with more grace than genre-hoppers ever seem to manage. While I’m at it, I want to send a great big shout to the rhythm section on Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing: they really did capture that Sirius XM The Bridge “mellow classic rock” sound that I thought had gone out of style with Phoebe Snow.

Best Drum Programming

Pop singers over trap beats: that’s become a horrendous cliche, and one we all wish would go away in 2018. But Lana Del Rey isn’t just any pop singer — she’s the Queen Midas of absurdity, and everything she touches is blown up to a ridiculously epic scale. She’s also so closely in tune with Rick Nowels that he can anticipate her emotional states and reflect it in their beatmaking. Those heart-flutters and tight-throat sobs, the sudden accelerations of thought and roller-coaster drops into melodrama are all present on Lust For Life. They’ve got this character down pat. The miniseries ought to be lots of fun.

Best Synth Playing/Programming

Bobby Sparks on Nelly Furtado’s The Ride.

Best Piano Or Organ Playing

If you like piano-playing singer-songwriters, 2017 was your year. Susanne Sundfor, Roger Waters, Tori Amos, Randy Newman, Lucy Rose, Steven Wilson — they all took to the eighty-eight with sensitivity and skill. Elizabeth Ziman of the Catapult was the flashiest (check out “Mea Culpa”) and that counts for plenty to this showoff over here. But the very best was Emily Haines.

Best Guitar Playing

Los Macorinos.

Best Instrumental Solo

Bobby Sparks’s organ ride at the end of “Pipe Dreams”. It’s the rare pop star willing to share space on her single with the organist. Think of that gesture of magnanimity the next time you’re tempted to make fun of Nelly Furtado’s name. Oh, wait, that’s not you who does that; that’s me. Sorry, Nelly.

Best Instrumentalist

It was a hell of a year for Greg Leisz. Not only did he add his slide guitar to records by the usual classic rock characters, he also made a significant incursion into alternative music. St. Vincent, Father John Misty, Susanne Sundfor, Haim, Phoebe Bridgers — Leisz decorated all of those albums. He plays on two of my three favorite singles of 2017. Despite all of that, he’s still a bit unsung. Call him what he is: one of the best and most versatile guitar players working today in any style.

Best Production

No I.D. for 4:44. He had Jay-Z’s consent to try to make a classic album, commercial aspirations be damned; he had to keep up with his wife, and couldn’t be bringing home any sub-standard bags of groceries. But Jay is such a brand that No I.D. was left with a difficult needle to thread: the music had to be cohesive, and allude to Hova past while never overwhelming the listener with nostalgia. Come to think of it, that’s the same challenge Nigel Goodrich overcame on Is This The Life We Really Want? Those two should get together, swap notes, trade stories about their crazy bosses.

Best Arrangements

I sat through years of look-at-me misogyny and press-baiting homophobia and kill people burn shit fuck school — a whole lot of nonsense, in other words — to get to the moment on “See You Again” when Tyler lets the brass pour all over the track like warm honey on a biscuit. Truth is, he was never convincing as a anti-social tough guy. I saw him as a would-be soft-rocker and maker of beautiful music, in the Englebert Humperdinck sense, from the outset. If you haven’t watched his tiny desk concert, it’s by far the best one I’ve seen. What a goof, what a clown, what a total, wonderful nerd. I still can’t believe the Moral Majority was ever scared of this guy.

Best Songwriting

Bill James, infamously, once called Don Mattingly “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit”. That was it; that was his whole comment on Mattingly’s career. I watched Mattingly play, and I know what James meant — he never wasted one moment of his too-short run under the limelight indulging in extraneous nonsense. He had a talent, and he stayed true to it as long as he could. Anyway, I’d like to say that Natalia Lafourcade is 100% musician, 0% bullshit, but I can’t leave it at that: I’m too much of a blowhard. Sometimes marketed north of the border as Mexico’s answer to Norah Jones, she’s really more of an indiepop version of Lila Downs. Like Downs, she’s got an encyclopedic understanding of Latin American folk forms and the energy of an international pop star; unlike Downs, who’s a bit of a roughneck, Lafourcade possesses a voice from twee heaven and a light touch on the faders. When she puts the flowers in her hair and plays her ukulele, it’s like somebody opened the otter enclosure: it’s cuteness overload that the human eyeballs are not equipped to handle. I’m still scarred, and the scars are pink and taste like sugar dots. Hasta La Raiz, which was either the best or second-best album of 2015, played like a cross between Belle & Sebastian and Julieta Venegas that I thought existed only in my lucid dreams; Musas, the new set, is pure, patriotic engagement with the Mexican folk tradition from a Veracruzana linda with a not-so-subtle message for bigoted Americanos. Some of the songs are penned by trad., and some are Lafourcade originals, and I’ll bet you a plate of split-pea tlayocos that you’ll never be able to tell which are which. Here’s a hint: hers are the ones that sound even more like Latin jazz-folk standards than the actual jazz-folk standards. She is amazing; we’re not worthy; etcetera; etcetera; my favorite artist in the world at the peak of her powers. New album next week!, I am hyperventilating.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

Jay-Z’s “Marcy Me”. Dense, old-school rhyme about dense, old-school New York City.

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album

The songs on Dark Matter concern, in order: a hypothetical debate between smug fundamentalists and clueless scientists, the Bay of Pigs invasion reimagined as an effort to kidnap Celia Cruz, the psychology of Vladimir Putin, a woman berating her children from her deathbed, the theft of the identity of the bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, the masturbatory thrills of the conspiratorial mindset, a funny-looking man’s disbelief in the face of his beautiful wife, a beach bum about to be drowned by rising sea levels, and a crushed old man who has lost his youngest son — probably to heroin addiction, but you can’t expect Randy to give you all the specifics, now, can you? He sets the pace. The rest of us jokers chase.

Band Of The Year

Elbow. Ssh, they don’t like calling attention to themselves.

Best Live Show Of 2017

St. Lenox at the Sidewalk Cafe.

Best Music Video

All the fabulous clips for Musas songs aside, I was knocked dead by this video for “Magpie Eyes”. New Jersey has its own Home Counties, and Union, where I grew up, is one of them.  I don’t recognize the architecture, not exactly, but I understand the sentiment: there’s a big city out there, and by many signs it isn’t that far away, but it may as well be on the other side of the moon for all it intersects with your life. Everything around you feels simultaneously functional and dated — you know it’s not going to be replaced, but you’re vaguely conscious of a standard by which it would all appear worn out and maybe even risible.  You can spend your teenage days dreaming, or you can appreciate the strange, eerie, subtly cosmopolitan beauty of what you’ve got. The tower blocks, the rail stations, the right angles in concrete, the longing faces of your friends.

 

Sun’s setting, that’s all for today.  I should probably proofread this, no?  Next essay will be the pseudo-political one. Sorry about that; the good news is that there are plenty of categories to come. Also, there’ll be a last word, and this one is long overdue.

Pages 3, 4, and 5 (Miscellaneous Categories)

It’s fine, ‘cos she is just a girl: Marika Hackman.

For four and a half decades, I’ve been watching American society, closely and warily. Though I’ve sometimes written hard words about my country, I try not to be hyperbolic about it. So when I say that I believe that America is, in February 2018, more susceptible to fascism than it ever has been in my lifetime, I hope you don’t think I’m ringing alarm bells for the hell of it.

I also hope you won’t think that I’m saying that fascism is about to be imposed from above on an unwilling nation by the current government. Our leaders are amoral and brutal and prone to authoritarian action, but they are, like all governments in the West, expressions of desire, both conscious and unconscious, by citizens. The government is a symptom – and though symptoms can kill, I think the incoherence of our present regime is, ironically, one of the best safeguards against fascism we have left.

The other safeguards are crumbling away. Day by day, story by story, post by social media post, they face constant pressure from a public desperate for retribution. Americans want to see forceful action taken against their perceived enemies. Since those enemies in this cold civil war are other Americans, the justice system has become the designated instrument of vengeance. For the past few months, American politicians and bureaucrats have been wrangling over control of the FBI: all the combatants want to use the bureau as a cudgel to beat their adversaries, and to my dismay, the whole nation seems united in cheering on the fight. Lock them up, throw away the key, raid the DNC, raid the RNC, hooray for the special counsel, the special counsel is crooked; the circle gets more vicious by the week.  If you’re part of this chorus – if you spend any part of your day fantasizing about your political opponents behind bars – you may be more fascist than you think you are.

I have made my extreme distaste for the President and his henchmen plain.  That said, one of the very last things on earth I would like to see is anybody led away from the White House in handcuffs.  That might appeal to some primitive lizard-being inside me that wants to punish those I believe are up to no good, but it would be a disaster for this democracy, or whatever is left of it. It would set a precedent from which there’s no coming back.  It is illuminating to me that many, many people who consider themselves liberal and broad-minded would applaud this outcome, just as Trump’s popular stump line about jailing the Clintons made me realize we were descending farther into a tribal hellscape than I thought Americans would ever voluntarily go.  Cheering on the cops and throwing them handfuls of investigatory powers like Halloween candy used to be a Republican pastime, but now everybody does it, and that’s exactly why we’re in the trouble we’re in. No matter what superficial allegiance you claim, if you’re hungry to have the police solve your political problems, you’re in the ideal state of mind for a fascist ascendancy.

If and when it comes, it won’t look like what you think it will look like. Those dumbos in Charlottesville with the jackboots and their chants about Jews?; that’s not the vanguard, that’s the ass end. Fascism for the twenty-first century will be a polite, algorithm-driven thing, a crowd-pleasing thing, attenuation of privacy rights and erasure of personal boundaries by police organizations that have unprecedented invasive authority. Your life will be transparent to law enforcement, but law enforcement will be opaque to you. The searchlight that shines on the nation will become more searing than we can imagine.

Fascism will come with a blank face and a closed fist.  It’ll speak, when it does, in the language of legal procedure.  Obstruction, misconduct, conspiracy, transparency: interfering with the police will be the worst crime.  Every hard-drive will be digitally seized, every cache will be snooped through, every sheaf of correspondence will be subjected to inspection, and it’ll all be done in the name of truth and justice.  It’s happening already.  So desperate are Americans to see their enemies jailed — because that is, they’re convinced, the inevitable outcome of all this police  action —  that they are acquiescing to general surveillance as a way of life and a means of retribution.  When it all comes out, they say, then we’ll really nail the bastards; godspeed to the investigators, go faster and harder, bring the boot down.  If you’ve been hungry to see memos released, and classified documents aired, and tax returns made public, and personal e-mails stolen and posted to a leak website, you’re exactly where they want you.

Once in the whirlpool, it’s oh so difficult to swim free.  Whole institutions — education, tech, broadcast media — become part of the law enforcement apparatus, bound up in the task of social supervision, theoretically independent but forever ready to jump to the rhythm of the police baton. Journalism was, once, a kind of direct, to-the-moment division of storytelling; it still is in part, but that’s not what we’re demanding of our reporters.  Instead we want them to expose, dig up dirt, investigate; we want their pieces to assist the downfall of powerful people we believe to be wrongdoers. We want them, in other words, to do police work.  We want columnists who cheer on that police work, and who argue for its necessity in weaponized language we can reuse (and retweet).

America is an experiment in civilian control.  Through our regular elections, we’re asked to send ordinary representatives of Joe Schmoe to Washington to execute the general will. Never mind whether it actually functions that way or how imperfectly we’ve realized the aspirations of the Athenian philosophers; stop to think for a second how crazy it was, and is, to even dream of giving that kind of power to the public. That any version of this has ever been allowed to happen is astonishing.  Yet we did it, and because of our success (and probably no other reason) we’ve been emulated by other wealthy nations. As Americans we reserve the right to elect the very worst citizens in the land to represent us. We may have done just that. But when we fuck up, we cannot and should not call the cops to kick down the door and put things straight.  For one thing, they’re very unlikely to put things straight, not in the way we want them to: they’re cops, that’s not what they do. More saliently, they will trample on the rug and wreck the furniture and break all the windows while they’re at it. This is our house, dammit, not theirs, and we will have opportunities in 2018 and again in 2020 to atone for our mistakes in the way that grown-up citizens do, secure in the knowledge that police-assisted regime change has never worked in the developing world and it sure as heck won’t work here. Our current leaders aren’t going to help us out: through laws and executive orders and the language they use, they’ve made their preference for ruthlessly expeditious governance manifest. Luckily — and despite it all — it’s not up to them.  We can still keep the republic if we want to.  Boy, I hope we want to.

Rookie Of The Year

Perverse old 2017 — the year a YouTube satirist out-popped Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Haim, and Lorde.  Poppy’s album really isn’t half as mesmerizing or trenchant as her fifty second spots, but if it was, it would be Top 10 material.  As it is, it’s pretty promising, and with “Pop Music”, she came up with a statement of purpose that ought to carry her along until the next album, or the next video, or whatever Satanic Pee Wee’s Playhouse she chooses to inhabit next.  I’m glad she’s around.  Pop needs great characters, and she’s arrived fully formed.

Best Guest Appearance

2 Chainz on Drake’s “Sacrifices”.

2017 Album You Listened To The Most

Marika Hackman’s I’m Not Your Man.  I kept waking up with those songs in my head.  What can I say?, I guess I like being taunted for not being a girl.

2017 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Bedouine

Most Notable Cover Version

Phoebe Bridgers’s gorgeous, weirdly empathetic run through the murder/rape ballad “You Missed My Heart” made me re-evaluate Mark Kozelek a little. Maybe he’s good for something other than throwing dirtbombs at The War On Drugs.

Most Romantic Song

Brad Paisley’s “Go To Bed Early”. Much of Love And War was too corny for me, even, which is saying something. But if you like numbers about irresistible attraction to your wife (I do), Brad’s got you covered.

Funniest Song 

Partner’s “Everybody Knows”. The best number ever written about getting stoned in the grocery store and in front of your professor. College humor, to be sure, but still pretty amusing.

Most Frightening Song

The horrors of A Crow Looked At Me aside (and best left undiscussed), I admit I found the “numbers on your phone of the dead that you cannot delete” section of “Emotional Haircut” pretty terrifying. Because I got ’em. I bet you do, too. It’s something about the unsettling collision between physical mortality and a machine-world that has trouble letting our identities go.

Most Moving Song

Natalie Hemby’s “Cairo, Illinois”. Ghost towns give me the chills.

Sexiest Song

“Soledad Y El Mar” by Natalia Lafourcade. The mariachi version of “Mexicana Hermosa” qualifies, too.

Meanest Song

Marika Hackman’s “Boyfriend”. The target probably deserves to have his girlfriend pinched, but she didn’t have to sound so gleeful about it, did she? Guess she felt she was proving a point.

Saddest Song

Randy Newman’s “Wandering Boy”. First he introduces the character — an aging sad sack who can’t even get the rest of the family to come to the annual party. Then he wades into the reason they’re despondent: they’re crushed by the plight of their youngest son, who has crashed through all safety nets and is now lost on the streets. “I hope that he’ll come home”, Randy sings, and in his voice, you can hear that the hedge-maze between the wandering boy and his broken-hearted father is high and thick and dark and impossible to navigate. When he pauses before delivering the last line and tells the crowd to search him out and push him toward the light, the delivery is so distraught that I choke up every time; hell, I am tearing up just writing this. I don’t know why those barriers exist between us and those who love us, and I don’t know why people fall into addiction. Randy doesn’t either. His compassion is equalled only by his despair. This is one of the greatest songs in a catalog loaded with greatness, and demonstrates that at 74, his singular vision hasn’t blurred a bit.

Best Historical Re-creation

Guess this can’t really go to Liam Gallagher, now, can it?  That’s not fair. How about White Reaper and their album-equivalent of an ’80s Camaro doing donuts in the Sam Goody parking lot?

Best Sequenced Album

At What Cost

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Rostam’s Half-Light.

Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should

King Krule, again.  Should I?

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy

Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Enjoyable To Make

2 Chainz is at that great point in his career where he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, and he can relax and settle into a set of beats like a big man in a rocking chair on an Atlanta porch.  Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t the best rap album of 2017, but it might have been the most assured; he knew the audience was there, and he knew he had exactly what they wanted. No pressure, no sweat, no straining to impress, no energy wasted, nothing but tight rhymes from an elder statesman who learned long ago how to present a verse and tell a story.

Album That Sounded Like A Chore To Make

Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming. Sherri DuPree did her best, but she couldn’t compensate for the departure of both of her sisters — or the loss of the signature vocal harmonies they provided. Those must have been some strange and strained sessions.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About

I admit I could use a hand with some of the new Dutch Uncles stuff. I had a good sense of what the songs on O Shudder were getting at, or at least I thought I did. Big Balloon just mystified me.

Most Consistent Album

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life.  I don’t think that album ever ends, technically; somewhere down that magic highway, the Japandroids are still humping away on that same rudimentary chord progression. Good thing it’s a nifty one. The Who sure liked it.

Most Inconsistent Album

Pacific Daydream was, among other things, a weird stab at pop relevance from a bunch of guys who are far too long in the tooth to pull such stunts. When Rivers Cuomo and Butch Walker tried, instead, to forge some bizarre mecha-hybrid of the Beach Boys and Weezer on some of the less mersh tracks, the results were magnificent — and the rest has grown on me. I can’t hang with the crowd that claims Weezer is back to the bad old days of Raditude, no matter how much Pat has pruned his drum parts. The recent songwriting is simply too tuneful, and those tunes are developed too nicely. Cuomo has, in his old age, become one of the best bridge-builders since Roebling.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

More Life, though I do love it.  I could have used a little less rakalakabakalaka and Batman jokes from the goofy British emcees, though. Steven Wilson’s To The Bone could have been tightened up, too.

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Puxico.  Nine songs is just not enough from the most prolific pen in Music City.  Throw in some of that Kelly Pickler filler, why don’t you, Hemby?

Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was

After Laughter.  What can I say?, I missed Jeremy Davis. Those kids ought to call off the lawyers.  I promise, they’ll be much happier without them.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Scratch & Sniff by the Jazz Spastiks.  Lotsa jokes about bananas, popcorn, oranges, toothpaste, marijuana, kids from old ’50s commercials spliced in with audio from Wall Street and a sexy health-food nut going on about her marshmallow elixir. Forget what I said about Partner; this was the real funniest stuff of the year.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

I was all set to answer PWR BTTM, but I didn’t get the opportunity.

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

No, I don’t believe that Drake is going to kill me.

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

Sylvan Esso. God, I hate when would-be pop stars complain about the starmaker machinery. You’ll get no sympathy from me — not when scores of your more talented peers can’t even get slapped on a lousy Spotify playlist.  And while I’m at it, I can’t say I really care if Andrew McMahon is a family man. If he’s doing it all to bring home the bacon for his wife and child?, good for him, I’m sure he’ll make a fine Republican congressman someday. Seriously, pal, go on and party if you want to party. In pop-rock, the business which you have chosen, there’s a long tradition of this exact thing. You’ll fit right in.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over An Album

Sarah Cracknell’s.

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

John Dwyer of OCS.

Album You Learned The Words To Most Quickly

Dark Matter

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Lotta Sea Lice. Ruins Courtney Barnett for me, a little.

Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning

Alex Cameron

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Win Butler

Worst Song Of The Year

“Believer” by Imagine Dragons. It’s got everything I hate: an umalabumarumalabumala verse, an “inspiring” message, big, screechy falsetto vocals and martial drums that sound like they’re scoring a military demonstration in Pyongyang, and if that wasn’t bad enough, a video with Dolph Lundgren hitting people. Mercy.

Worst Singing

Chris Tomson of Dams Of The West. Youngish American actually has good, funny lyrics, but he sings in such an artless monotone that you’ll never make them out. He has no idea how to set up or deliver a joke, he doesn’t know when to shout or when to whisper, and he completely garbles the emotional climax of “Polo Grounds”, a song that’s so neatly written that it shouldn’t be possible for it to fail to connect. “Will I Be Known To Her?”, indeed; probably not, sad to say.

Worst Rapping

This really ought to go to Taylor Swift, but I’m afraid she’s spared the indignity by Vic Mensa, who is an excellent rapper when he gets going and gets good guidance. Unfortunately, somebody let him put an uplifting spoken-word disaster on the end of his album in a bid for, I dunno, Def Poetry Jam cred, and it’s probably the most excruciating four minutes of 2017. “Everybody wanna get free shit/but nobody wanna get free/Shit!” Ugggggggh.

Worst Lyrics

Ed Sheeran, “Supermarket Flowers”.  It manages, simultaneously, to be pulverizingly mawkish and make no sense at all.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better

Reputation, especially “Gorgeous”. “I can’t say anything to yo face/coz look at yo face”. Maybe go easy on the Stella Artois next time, Taylor.

Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music

Neil Portnow. How do you get that gig, anyway?

Most Overrated

Migos. Not to rehash what I wrote in the Abstract, but… aw, hell, let me go ahead and reprint it.  At least Lil Yachty has stupid hair and an unfashionably sunny outlook; these stylish ciphers won’t even give you that much. If you ever want to understand the political bankruptcy of music sites such as Pitchfork and etcetera, just cross-reference the rhetoric in their social-justice editorials with their assessments of the Migos. These folks who are oh-so super sensitive about gender nomenclature and the fragility of queer identity and the creation of safe space are awfully quick to rave about a group that never misses an opportunity to put on a sexual objectification clinic, and whose homophobia is very much on the record (and on their records.) And this exception, like many other exceptions of a similar complexion, is made because… well, why? Because the Migos are poor and underprivileged and therefore deserve Whitey’s sympathy? They’re from Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. Because Whitey lacks the positionality to lodge a moral objection against this particular expression of black culture? Lame, and chickenshit, too. Because Negroes are zany? Hey, I could give a fuck about the things Migos say, but then I’m a loudmouth and it’s hard to offend me. All I ever ask is that they come up with some original, or at least unusual, content. Because right now all they’ve got is catchy singles, and that’s just not enough. The Motley Crue of hip-hop.

Worst Song On A Good Album

Angaleena Presley’s “Country”. I get what she was trying to do there, and I understand her frustration. But she’s not anywhere near the vocalist she’d need to be to pull that off.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Pills”

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

Alisdair MacLean could stand to vary his songwriting approach a bit. Twenty years on, we’re still on that same rain-washed London side street, and there’s still eeriness approaching. You’d figure the phantom would have gotten him by now.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

I’ve come to see Jack Antonoff as a menace — not because he’s a “good guy” around girls, as a lengthy but irrelevant hit piece recently suggested, but because he’s got one musical idea and he insists on sticking all of his clients with it.  Or maybe they’re more than happy to take it on; regardless, he’s the guy in the producer’s chair, so he gets the blame. Anyway, go over to your guitar. Strum a major chord — a C will do. Now, sing a cliche, something like “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, or anything from that crummy Lorde album, or just make one up, since it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying. Repeat it a few times. Now, on the third measure, without changing the melody of the phrase you’re singing, switch over to the relative minor (Am) while keeping the bass note the same. You’ll still be singing “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, but it will somehow sound more dramatic. On the fourth bar, resolve the phrase. Congratulations, you have made a Jack Antonoff production. Pick up your Grammy from Neil Portnow on your way out.

Will Kanye Be Back? 

Yes, but I expect a quality drop.

Is Taylor Swift In Premature Decline?

She’s got one more great album to give us, but it probably won’t be for awhile.

How Much Longer Does Drake’s Hitting Streak Continue?

Two more albums, or until he decides to start making movies in earnest.

Next Artist To Come Back From The (Metaphorical) Dead

Green Gartside. I hope.

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Canadian wave — Montreal in particular. Canada-Caribbean collaborations, cutting the U.S. out.

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2027

We’re all betting on Laura Marling.

Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder

Portugal. The Man, which is sad, but there you go.

Biggest Pop Music Trend Of 2018

Pop stars hopping on remixes of Latin hits. Let’s call it the Despacito Effect.

Best Album Of 2018

Chance IV

 

Okay, friends, I’ve got a Last Word, but I might not get around to it until Friday.  Good night.