On Zoom

I’ve never used Zoom before tonight. I’m not sure I ever want to do it again. But for forty-five minutes or so, I got to see my sister and her children, my brother-in-law, a pair of sibling cousins of mine who were central to my youth and remain important to me, my mother, and three other cousins who have been directly affected by the virus. One came down with symptoms after a business trip to Colorado and tested positive. Her sister, who hasn’t been tested, brought her to the clinic. This morning I learned that their mother has it, too. She’s running a fever and was visibly fearful about the possibility of being put on a ventilator. Everybody is frightened, and for legitimate reasons.

My sister reported that a neighbor insisted to her that the virus was a hoax. I don’t know whether that neighbor was aware that my sister has been fighting serious health conditions for more than a decade, and is immunocompromised. I do know that that neighbor lives in Cranford, New Jersey, a town with residents who make much of their affluence and education, and who are supposed to know better and act better than Internet trolls. I’m further aware that this neighbor is only one of many who continue to treat this epidemic as a joke. If my sister is taken to the hospital with virus symptoms, would this neighbor, and the hundreds of thousands like her, wave it away, blame it on her history of illness, and continue to behave like nothing is wrong? Would she do the same if it happened to Hilary?

Life is an underlying condition. Life is all too fragile. If you’ve made it to your forties with nothing major going wrong, bless you: you’ve been fortunate, and I hope you remain so. If you’ve developed a medical problem that makes you susceptible to the worst this virus can do, you are still worth preserving. Because this is no hoax and no drill, and tonight, the fog is closing in on my friends and family. The New York Times just ran a story about a 92 year old man in a nursing home, terrified and alone, begging his family to bring him home. The picture of the man looked familiar to me. I read further and realized to my horror that it was my high school drama coach. You, me, and everyone we know: the face of this crisis is mine and yours.

Five day count

We woke up to the news that the University will remain online-only for the rest of the semester. We knew this was coming, but it’s still dispiriting. The original plan, which was sent last Wednesday, was to reconvene classes on March 30. That seemed optimistic to us, a real long-shot, but as long as it hadn’t been rescinded, we could entertain the possibility that they knew something we didn’t. They did not, and it’ll be distance learning for the duration.

We know this isn’t what students signed up for. They want face-to-face time with the Professor, and I can’t blame them. Hilary has always been reluctant to commit to online teaching, and for very good reason: her formidable powers are best encountered in person, and she hates to shortchange her students. But she’s doing her best. She’s got three classes this semester, and while wrangling freshmen has been a chore, the committed English majors are showing up in the chat rooms. The endless nature of the crisis is sure to test diligence, and I wonder if the University will eventually decide to scrap the semester and just give everybody an A.

Two days ago I got the news that my cousin had tested positive. This morning, I learned that her mother is sick, too. So far, their symptoms haven’t been severe. Nevertheless, I can’t help but worry about them. Another cousin from the other side of the family is also waiting for a test. News out of Lakewood is that at least forty people there are positive for the virus. The biggest cluster still seems to be near Teaneck and Englewood, but that could simply be where tests are getting administered. We’re not going to get a clear picture of anything for awhile, and until we do, all this virus mapping is probably more misleading than illuminating.

The Governor of New York has promised that the MTA will not be shut down. This was a change in tone from the near-military language he used a few days ago, which suggests to me that his crisis-management strategies have evolved to suit the moment. It’s probably wise. Talk of the National Guard is bound to make people feel more powerless than they already do. Meanwhile, Bergen County took the initiative and declared a state of emergency, and then rescinded it in deference to Governor Murphy. The White House continues to push the line that this is a Chinese virus, as if viruses pay taxes and salute flags, extending their strategy of pointing fingers at a perceived nonwhite threat at any sign of distress. By now, this ought to be transparent to everybody in the country, yet I still see people on the Internet recycling unhelpful language coming from the federal government. This is something I remember from the 9/11 period, too: the malleability of perception, and the rush to defend authorities by mimicking their behavior and ratifying their worldview. It’s natural in a crisis, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it easy to see.

I’d had a diagnostic appointment with my dentist scheduled for today. That’s been scrapped. I suppose I could call him and talk about the major work I’m supposed to have, but I’m not eager to do that. When I talked to the office about rescheduling, the tone was harried. Should the problem in my upper molar become an emergency, I hope he’ll find time for me. In the meantime, part of my consciousness continues to operate five days in the past — the typical gestation period for the virus — as I remember what I was doing at the moment when the pathogens might have been transmitted. On the 14th, I went to an art opening, and a very good one, at Drawing Rooms in Jersey City; this’ll probably be the last new show anybody mounts in many months, so I’m going to try to keep the memory fresh. Ironically, many of the images on display were paintings of hands. By municipal mandate, everybody in attendance had to sign in. My hope is that they never need to send that list to the city. We probably took a far greater risk when we picked up Hilary’s medication at a crowded Duane Reade. But that was six days ago. Are we in the clear?

Slightly past the ides

I’ve put this off long enough. Everything I’ve done for a long time has been governed by superstition, so I must believe that journals bring bad luck. But I wish I’d kept a daily record in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers, and along with that collapse, the loss of the sense of security that I’d been taught was part of the American promise. I watched 9/11 unfold in real time, with one eye on the towers, until they weren’t there, and another on the clock, and the news on in the far room, providing reports that contradicted what I could glean through my senses. The slipperiness of the official story and the landslide of conspiracy theories that followed has left me with muddier memories of those days than I’d like. I don’t want to repeat that mistake. For the sake of my own sanity, and whatever small amount of alacrity I have left, I’m going to start taking notes.

After two days indoors, we left the house to put air in the tires of the bicycles. On my way to the basement, I passed our neighbors on the stairs — a young couple expecting a child. They’re very friendly, and they smiled at me, but they were keen to keep that state-suggested six feet between us. It’ll be that way for months. For those of us who are already prone towards feelings of social alienation, it’s going to be tough to manage the estrangement.

All of the tire shops in the neighborhood were closed, so we rode to 12th St. and the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Very few cars were heading into the city. The gas stations were empty. The attendant sat in a chair on the tarmac by the pumps — it was a very nice day — and watched us as we filled up. Hilary told him to stay safe.

Many more pedestrians on Newark Avenue than we reckoned there’d be. The Van Hook specialty shop was preparing for its day, and one of the cheese-wallahs was crouched by the window with a magic marker, addressing boxes for curbside pickup. We found P&K Market open, stocked, and with few souls in the store. The crowds at the grocery and the pharmacy during the weekend had been terrifying; reminiscent of Sandy, but with a feeling of desperation and fatalism unusual for Jersey City. 7 p.m. curfew on both of these establishments. Get back from work quick, if you’re going to go to work, which you might not.

News on at home, which is probably a mistake. It’s tough to shut it off. If there’s a request for tanks or road closings or a general lockdown order brewing, it’ll probably be tipped by the networks before it appears on Twitter. Yesterday Mayor De Blasio told New Yorkers to prepare to shelter in place before the Governor contradicted him; it’s hard to tell if they’re just trying to get their stories straight before they seal the doors. I don’t know how they’d begin to enforce a shelter-in-place order, but I do notice that at least one military ship — a hospital ship, we’re told — is coming to New York City. Meanwhile, celebration in some busy Internet warrens (mainly QAnon) over vague reports that Oprah Winfrey has been arrested for child trafficking. This prompted Oprah to get on the social networks and proclaim her innocence. Rookie move, Oprah; it’s been years since anybody has been inclined to disconnect the dots. Apophenia, the psychiatrists tell us, is a warning sign for schizophrenia, and it’s quite possible that America has lost its marbles so far under the couch that they’ll never be retrieved.

But even the most ardent QAnon conspiracist will soon have to own up to the hard facts whistling in the wind all over the land. My cousin caught the virus in Colorado. She’s young and healthy and recovered pretty quickly; she told me over text that it wasn’t as rough as the flu. Brad’s neighbor across the hall has it. Non-elective surgeries have been postponed at Hackensack General, and they’ve been building tents in the parking lot. I’m mostly worried about getting Hilary sick: I can’t let that happen. We don’t know how immunocompromised she is, and I don’t want to find out the hard way. She’s been through too much to get hit with a superbug. I cannot and will not be a vector. For now, there’s no trouble staying home: I have plenty of assignments to do from here, though I’ll see how long that lasts. Mostly I feel smeared, like a computer screen smudged with thumbprints and indifferently wiped. It’s quiet outside — nobody on the road. I hope they keep the streetlights on.


About 2019: Albums

Lit a match and saged my house down. It didn’t make a difference.

My very favorite album of 2019 contains the following stanza:

The day my daddy died/I was down the street/I lost my only friend/people don’t grow on trees.

This awkward, guileless verse was not artfully muffled, or hidden in an outro, or ‘verbed out and tucked into the mix. It is, like all of the other lyrics on A Real Good Kid, brutally comprehensible. The couplet is placed just before the climax of the last song on the album; and since the album is absolutely, unswervingly linear, it arrives at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Just before the band comes crashing in for the final time, this is what Mike Posner wants to tell us: he wants to reiterate the central theme, the reason for the album’s existence, in as flatfooted a manner as he can muster. People don’t grow on trees.

2019 was a year to huddle around the speaker and hear stories. As I still believe that the album is the best vehicle for storytelling, and fault books, essays, and paintings only for being insufficiently melodic, it was a swell year for the likes of me. Songwriters used the album form to make arguments, extend narratives, establish memorable characters, crack running jokes, and make the most of the thirty to sixty minutes the format allows them. Richard Dawson, Jenny Lewis, and Billy Woods, for instance, had a lot to say about the ravaged state of the first-world psyche, and fitted withering case-studies to music designed to reinforce the emotional tone of their suites of songs. From Julia Jacklin, David Bazan, Eva Hendricks and (accidentally, but absolutely) Aubrey Graham, we were shown snapshots of destabilized protagonists at transitional moments; by the time the music stopped, those narrators felt as real as the guys across the street. Others used a sequence of songs to tell a straightforward story: the inexhaustible Dan Campbell, for instance, returned with a continuation of the blue-collar saga of Aaron West, and Max Bemis and Tyler Okonma shared quasi-fictional — and strangely similar — set-length accounts of queer awakening. Elizabeth Nelson got specific, Ezra Furman got polemical, Ace Enders got rueful, Maxo Kream got confessional. These writers made albums that keep playing long after the last note fades; albums that pull you into their own neatly-fashioned universes and don’t let you go; albums that ask questions that are hard to answer comfortably.

Mike Posner didn’t exhibit the sort of facility with language that those other writers did. He was, however, up to something similar. He started at the top by establishing a narrator and a predicament, and then moved, song by song, to elaborate that predicament for the listener and grope toward an emotional resolution. And in spite of my own skepticism, and occasional bewilderment at his methods, I am forced to conclude that he did this better than any of those other writers, none of whom would ever attempt to get away with singing something as flatfooted as “the day my daddy died/I was down the street.” The artistic success of A Real Good Kid reminds me of two things I thought I learned long ago, although for some reason I always seem to be spacing on them. 1) When writing songs and making albums, both the words and the music are important, but neither thing in isolation is nearly as important as the way in which the words and music interact, and 2.) this isn’t a damned poetry contest.

On A Real Good Kid, Mike Posner struggles with the breakup of a relationship and the death of a parent. There’s searching, self-castigation and self-indulgence, and burning questions about how the narrator is going to reconstruct his life in the absence of his “only friend.” This probably sounds exactly like 808s & Heartbreak to you, and, well… I don’t think Mike is running from the comparison. “Wide Open”, the second song on the set, is basically “Welcome To Heartbreak”. Other songs borrow liberally from Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; there’s even a rant-like breakdown in the middle of “Drip” set to music that’s not miles removed from “Runaway”. Kanye is thanked in the liner notes, but that probably won’t be enough for listeners allergic to wholesale borrowing. If that’s you, you’re not going to hang with this, and you should skip ahead on the list below to Richard Dawson or Jamila Woods or something like that.

But here’s one of the many things that hip-hop teaches us: we’re all on the shoulders of giants. How we got up there is immaterial. It’s what we see and what we do from that vantage that matters. In the face of some stiff competition, Mike Posner has recorded the most focused album of 2019; in fact, it’s one of the most focused albums I’ve ever heard. After staring mortality in the face, he’s got something crucial he wants to report, and he refuses to allow anything to break his concentration, even for a second. Every choice made by Mike and his producers on A Real Good Kid — right down to the timbre of the instrument sounds and the placement of the beats — is designed to further the emotional arc of the story. This second-by-second arrangement diligence coupled with Mike’s casual, near-offhand approach to storytelling is, I think, something unique in the body of contemporary pop. It may not be an original approach to composition, but it’s an entirely original amalgam of messiness and meticulousness he’s giving us here; a casual amble on a rail-straight line. A Real Good Kid manages to feel utterly relaxed, even as the subject matter that Mike is handling is as heavy as it gets. The effect of this is, again, something singular and unprecedented, and I believe that it’s an expression of Mike’s approachable personality, and his peculiar brand of self-deprecation, which is quite unlike that of any other pop star, and makes him easy to like.

Mind you, the first time I met Mike Posner, I came away from the encounter thinking I’d just met the biggest jackass in the music business.  Not that he was particularly mean to me; no, his conspiratorial will to draw me into the petty sexual politics and revenge positions of “Cooler Than Me” was part of what made the encounter so vulgar. Of course he was just treating me like a bro, and brotronica was what he was at the Bamboozle to peddle.  The ladies sure loved it — they pelted him with undergarments and waited around after the show to get a body part signed.  When “Cooler Than Me” hit on a national level a few months later, it reinforced my impression of Mike as a guy blinded by resentment — a young man so swept up in his own sense of entitlement that he was incapable of imagining that the weenie journalist sent to cover his show could do anything but commiserate.

The second time I talked to Mike Posner was a different story altogether.  this one was a phone interview, and I clearly recall dreading the ring, thinking hoo boy, this guy again, I’m in for it today.  “Cooler Than Me” had been on the charts for a few weeks and he was in Jersey to headline a show in Asbury Park.  Here, I figured, was an opportunity for some self-congratulatory bluster.  Instead, Mike was small-voiced and measured, and mostly wanted to talk about his dad.  His father had told him: all of the musicians I like (classic rock dudes, in other words) are better live, and all the musicians you like (hip-hop and EDM artists) are worse.  This offhand comment was obviously eating him alive.  Mike told me he was determined to be a different kind of artist, and insisted that whatever context he found himself in, he was going to put the lyrics first.

I thought about that a few years later when he had his other hit.  “I Took A Pill In Ibiza”, if you don’t remember, was a ’70s style confessional number in which Mike treats himself brutally; even by the standards of self-deprecating stories of minor-celebrity emptiness, this one is really hell on the narrator. It occurred to me then that Mike had always been willing to make himself look bad in the name of art, and in the age of the endlessly retouched selfie, this might be a quality worth celebrating.  He followed “Ibiza” with a dreary spoken-word set. I listened to it so you don’t have to (you didn’t), and I’m sure I thought, well, that’s the end of Mike. 

Instead we get this: a concept set about the death of his father by brain tumor. Mike’s reflections are alternately corny, clumsy, embarrassing, self-flagellating, and freighted with platitudes, and he’s matched with music that is, in part, shamelessly purloined from Kanye. Nevertheless, all of this sticks. And maybe it’s my own recent state of existential frailty that has made me susceptible to Mike’s latest round of storytelling, but also maybe not. Even on that debut album, straight from the darkest corners of the Duke University quad, he was always a sure hand at building narrative tension through compositional development and masterful sequencing of musical happenstance. There are moments on A Real Good Kid when Mike switches the beat, or brings in the choir, or gets strategically hoarse, or doubles a vocal line, or drops in a sample, and in so doing, he achieves the sort of emotional payoff that only happens when a songwriter puts the narrative meaning first, and arranges his sonic elements accordingly. Records like that do not, um, grow on trees.

Album of the Year

  • 1. Mike Posner — A Real Good Kid
  • 2. Jenny Lewis — On The Line
  • 3. Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • 4. Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Hiding Places
  • 5. Richard Dawson — 2020
  • 6. Charly Bliss — Young Enough
  • 7. Sunday Service Choir — Jesus Is Born
  • 8. Metronomy — Metronomy Forever
  • 9. Wand — Laughing Matter
  • 10. The Paranoid Style — A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life
  • 11. Julia Jacklin — Crushing
  • 12. Jamila Woods — LEGACY! LEGACY!
  • 13. Tyler, The Creator — Igor
  • 14. Drake — Care Package
  • 15. Say Anything — Oliver Appropriate
  • 16. Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties — Routine Maintenance
  • 17. Bruce Hornsby — Absolute Zero
  • 18. Denzel Curry — Zuu
  • 19. Mon Laferte — Norma
  • 20. John Van Deusen — I Am Origami Pt. 3 — A Catacomb Hymn

Gosh, those are wonderful albums. If you were involved in any of them, my Richmond Flying Squirrels hat is off to you. Thank you.

Best Album Title

The Weight Of Melted Snow by French For Rabbits

Best Album Cover

Caroline Polachek’s Pang. The composition of the photograph is impeccable: I like the twist in the ladder and the breeze that threatens to pull Caroline off to the left, I like her head-down determination as she grasps for the rung, I like the slash of blue in the otherwise grey sky, and of course I like the plastic pants. Where is Caroline heading, anyway? As usual, she doesn’t bother to explain herself – she figures that she’s so brilliant that you can just bask in her bent brain-waves and call it entertainment.  And you know what?, for a brain-wave basker like me, it kindasorta works: there’s something so guileless and pure about Caroline’s gauche self-confidence that I’d almost call it sexy. Mainly, though, Pang reminds me of the things I liked about Caroline back when I bothered to think about her at all, which was… holy crap, that was 2012. Has she really been dithering around and making ch-ching noises and pitching songs to Beyoncé for seven years? Guess she has. 

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Oliver Appropriate. Puerile minds think alike, and just like Max Bemis, I also think of rancid bodily fluids whenever I hear about something “streaming all over the internet”. Unlike Max, I don’t think I have what it takes to build a promo campaign around my disgusting joke. I lack the taste for provocation, or the desire to crowd-please a bunch of reprobates, and that’s to my infinite discredit. Max gave up on you, sophisticated listener, about three album cycles ago: he figures he’s punk rock emeritus now, and he knows that it’s the rare member of the cognoscenti who has any time for that crap.  Doubtless this bums out Sherri Dupree (and Lucy Dupree-Bemis), but they’re probably grateful that he has an outlet for his dirty jokes.  If you don’t appreciate Bemis brand lyricism by now, there’s nothing I do to inure you to the taste of his suspicious homebrew.  

So I won’t try. Instead, I’ll point out that his casual mastery of notes ‘n’ chords rock songwriting, refrain-building, and melodic development, all of which was generally in abeyance on the last few, is back in full force here. Every say anything set is a concept set, and the theme this time is Max’s homosexual urges, which are played as a revelation, but cannot be a surprise to anyone who has followed the artist for a millisecond.  This is the co-author of the Gayest Album Ever Made™, a full-length set about sexual desire for Chris Conley that included groans and shrieks from Chris Conley plus enthusiastic and wholly complicit support vox from Sherri.  Oliver Appropriate (the character) is an alternate-reality Max who freaks out and murders the young man he lusts after. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d do, but hush, just go with it. The story ends with the main character shackled to the corpse of his lover, but before we get there, there’s lots of wonderfully pithy and scathing observations about the New York independent rock demimonde. Altogether now: I know a lot of men in hardcore bands/collectively funding the Colom-biaaaaaans! Allll-together now! No? Just me? OK then. Just me. M

Album That Opens Most Strongly

Norman Fucking Rockwell

Album That Closes Most Strongly

Wildcard. Having taken the covered wagon as far as those wooden wheels would let her go, Miranda Lambert turns over the farmhands on the caravan: new sidemen, new producers, new arrangement sensibility, new sounds, etc.  Natalie Hemby is still riding shotgun, but Miranda has convened an alternate songwriting crew with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose; they’re called the Love Junkies or the Ladies Who Lunch or the Pistol Bettys or something. This woman just loves to put together girl groups.  You ever get the sense that Miranda is the key to the city of Nashville?  I do.  She’s still a fan of it/old shit, and she can cozy up to a traditionalist ballad like “Tequila Does” better than anybody in boots, but some of this record is borderline new wave in its sensibility. “Track Record” is practically a Taylor Swift song. Now, city slicker over here considers Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse a bold and eclectic masterpiece, but the Music City crowd felt otherwise – they thought he was just horsing around, killing time before his next real record.  It wouldn’t shock me if some old-time Miranda Lambert fans felt similarly about this one. There I part company with the old-time fans. I concede that a few of these good-timey numbers are so flimsy that they wouldn’t fly at all without a magnificent singer at the yoke. Well, lucky us.  Look at what we’ve got here.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Solange’s When I Get Home. Quality control at Knowles, Inc. slips  dramatically.  Look, I hate to knock this, because — as I keep reminding myself whenever I slog my way through this brief but strangely interminable set — Solange could otherwise be doing any number of stupid ass things with her famous handle. Reality TV, sneaker design, political office, you name it. Instead she makes highly experimental, scrupulously hook-free jazz pop with a pinch of hip-hop to ensure that the proceedings don’t bog down completely. It’s ballsy. It reeks of privilege, sure, and a fair bit of (further) coasting on her sister’s acclaim, but if Beyoncé is inspired by this, then maybe all the meandering is worthwhile.  If you’ve ever sat in a dentist’s office with nothing to do but thumb through a glossy fashion mag, you might appreciate the resolution of the photographs and the weight of the paper and the opulent aroma of the little packets of perfume until you get to the end and realize there weren’t any articles in there. But whatever, you’re none the worse for it. Maybe your fingers smell funny.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Injury Reserve. Neither Groggs nor Ritchie With A T are much to speak about on the microphone. Moreover, when they kick topics, they’re always borderline brain-damaged, like the one about the magic Tesla that morphs on the go at the touch of an app, or the one where he and his girl are “Picasso-ing” their imaginary kids. Come to think of it, those are both the same fantasy: technowizardly creative control over things that are by nature uncontrollable. Regardless of their INT rolls, they do have talented friends, including Freddie Gibbs, whose crack-slinging boasts are so deftly delivered that it doesn’t even matter that they’re completely out of place on this album, Jersey’s own Cakes Da Killa, who does his peeved gay black man thing with extra hot sauce here, and Rico Nasty, who sets “Jawbreaker” on fire with one of the best guest verses of the year.  They all get to rhyme over Parker Corey’s beats, and there’s the real reason to pay attention to this Arizona crew: he’s having so much fun screwing around with rap verities that he pulls everybody involved into a great gyre of goofiness. Hip-hop goofiness, mind you; the essential goofiness of the great three-man rap acts of the ‘80s. So when Phonte swings by to bless the last track with an old-school “bass for your face”, it feels very very well earned, and a nice alternative for rap fans who found the latest Brockhampton too somber.   

Album That Sounded Like An Absolute Chore To Make 

Chance The Rapper’s The Big Day. I don’t want to pile on, because I like it, and I regret that it got the living shit beaten out of it. For once, Pitchfork didn’t lead the backlash. Their faint praise was positively measured next to Anthony Fantano, who cruelly dropped a zero on Chance, kickstarting a cavalcade of YouTube assassination attempts, many of which drew blood. We’ll see if the target survives. Some of the collaborations found their way into the crosshairs, particularly the Ben Gibbard and Shaun Mendes features, and I do get that. But the main knock on Chance four is the subject matter. The emcee simply would not shut up about his wife, and this rubbed un-romantics the wrong way. Granted, Chance picked a funny year to record a seventy-seven minute tribute to matrimony and heterosexual monogamy. Yet I was fascinated by the way in which Chance’s overdriven attempts to generate excitement about his marriage paralleled his capitulation to entertainment industry conventions. From my view, The Big Day is a concept set about a former independent who was powerless to prevent himself from getting gummed up in a variety of restrictive institutions, presumably because he’s a nice guy who doesn’t want to let down the folks.  

But unlike, say, Bill Cosby, he has no time for displays of ostentatious maturity – perhaps because (hopefully because?) he’s not mature in the slightest. I am pleased to report that most of what he says about his life choices is bratty as all get out. And when he realizes that fucking side chicks isn’t as satisfying as bringing his girl to his auntie’s house, his astonishment is equaled only by his gratitude to God for being right. So even if Chance is faking it somewhat, as his detractors not-unreasonably insist, I can still appreciate the man he wants to be enough to want to see him get there. If we can sit and smile through countless verses about Jeffery Williams’ enthusiasm for anal penetration, I think we can roll with an album that concerns a relationship designed to last longer than the time it takes for the rapper to get his nut.  Those of us who are crazy about our girlfriends understand.  And there are more of us than you’d think.  

Another Chore, Although Not Without Rewards

Western Stars. Less love, more tunnel. This happens to certain cowboys as the manberries wither on the vine. Springsteen brings us the daredevil as coward, not because the daredevil is afraid of a little dustup, but because domesticity scares the bejeezus out of him. Even though the stuntman has that metal (ram)rod in his leg, and the old actor gobbles viagra with his morning coffee, there’s no sign that these virile codgers are satisfying any chicks. On the contrary, these characters are wandering in the dry gulley, remembering the flashing heads of hair of their long-lost beloveds, ruing the day they followed their own star, drunk on solitude. I believe Bruce would call this “depression”, a malady he knows firsthand, or so we are told by the hardworking publicists at Shore Fire Media.  And what’s really striking about the songs here is how well they capture the mindset of the many men who’d vastly, and I mean vastly, prefer suicidal depression to actually having women around.  It’s a whole subculture: men going their own way, or MGTOW, in Internet slang.  Do aging incels really deserve string arrangements this syrupy?  Guess the Boss thinks they do.  He’s always been a generous employer.  The benefits package is impressive.

Most Consistent Album

About Jade Lilitri of Oso Oso there will be no equivocation from the guys who run IsThisBandEmo dot com. He’s all the way in, and as such, he’s this year’s designated baton carrier in the great relay race that stretches back through the Hotelier and You Blew It! through American Football and Jimmy Eat World to The Promise Ring and Mineral, and, yeah, whoo, let’s not get into the stuff before that. It’s murky. On Basking In The Glow, Lilitri hits all of his marks, which is commendable in a way – that chorus on “Impossible Game” could have come from any emo classic of the last two decades – and in another way, it suggests that he’s not pushing at the barriers of the genre as vigorously as a youngster ought.  We’ll see if it ever starts to bug me over the next, oh, ten thousand times I’m going to play this album.

Maybe Not As Consistent As Oso Oso, But In Many Ways A More Impressive Exhibition Of Sustained Vision And Tone

Care Package. With Aubrey, see, the conversation never stops. It’s a little one-sided, but that’s all right, as Stuart Murdoch said in a totally different context. The album ends, but the late-nite ruminations don’t; 40 has some sweet beats in the glitchy recesses of the hard drive. The velvet walls of the vocal booth beckon. There are always more chains to yank, and girls to confuse, smoke-rings to blow and metaphors to mix. Most of the stuff on this compilation fell in the murky interstitial area between Drake albums, although some of it was appended to sets as bonus tracks; if you heard these, they were on a playlist or tucked in a radio set, and you surely assimilated them to the forty million other drake tracks in circulation between the years 2010 and 2016.

Extracted, dusted off, and strung together in a sequence, these odds and sods tell a damned coherent tale. They’re testament to the formidable hypnotic powers of a word-weaver with a confessional style that simply can’t be mistaken for anybody else’s – a glib, quietly self-impressed delivery that conceals astonishing reserves of emotional manipulation. The Drake that emerges from Care Package is possessive, insatiably hungry, unapologetically deceitful, and dangerous precisely because sexual satisfaction isn’t all he’s after. No, Drake needs you to care, even as he knows that the care he’s going to return will be inadequate by his own standard. The character Drake is not amoral, but he’s given up on self-improvement as a sucker’s game, and his expectations for his own behavior are frighteningly low.

This is about as candid and honest a portrait of the modern North American subject as you’ll find anywhere, in any literature: the thinking fellow whose brain power serves only to dig him deeper holes, and the man of feeling who uses sentiment as a crowbar to pry open the unsuspecting.  And if this accidental album hangs together far better than most rappers’ planned full-lengths, you can put that down to the star’s narrative discipline and swiss-watch consistency.  No obligation here to shoot for the charts, no R&B hooks or music purloined from Afropop hitmakers, no passionfruit or hotlines blinging.  No, nothing but Drake verses, unadulterated and uninterrupted, for better or for worse.  Probably the purest drake experience you can have, so, um, be careful out there. 

Most Inconsistent Album

Father Of The Bride. Hey, remember that Tribe Called Quest comeback set that was mostly a Q-Tip project plus various agenda-driven attempts to redefine what the Tribe was?  Yeah, I barely do, too.  But Father Of The Bride brings all of that rushing back, with Ariel Rechtshaid in the role of omnipresent Jarobi and Danielle Haim as inescapable Busta Rhymes. Nothing new about frontman quasi-solo projects with band names slapped on them — Port Of Morrow was a really good one — but there’s something downright creepy about the way Tomson and Baio have been locked out of the control room in favor of… Dave Longstreth, et. al.?  I mean, really, Ezra. Some kind of friend you turned out to be, as your role model Barry Manilow once put it.  As for Rostam, we were promised plenty of him. But he only makes his presence felt on the late Mates Of State-y “We Belong Together” and the stupendous “Harmony Hall”, which, to be fair, is worth the price of the album all by itself. As for the main main, his knack for melody sure hasn’t deserted him, even as he settles more frequently for mannered, middle of the road expressions of ideas mined from early ‘70s proto-indiepop. I remember when he used to spazz out instead. (Though that might have been Tomson and Baio.)  Oh, and that Jenny Lewis “appearance” turns out to be a vocal sample.  Buyer beware.  Have fun but tread carefully; don’t fall for the Illuminati mind control tricks.

Also Inconsistent

2 Chainz’s Rap Or Go To The League.  Reality lyrics from 6’5” small forward Tauheed Epps of Alabama State, now with a slower crossover step.  I’m sure it would have been enjoyable to hear 2 Chainz rap about hoops while the memories of the Southwest Athletic Conference were still fresh in his mind. Nearly two decades after the last bucket, the sportscasting sorta blends in with his other old man reveries.  Which is not to say that he isn’t funny, or sympathetic: I am a codger too, and I also don’t like pointless gangbanging or, um, paying taxes. He remembers his coaches fondly; I remember Mr. Glenn Brown, and it’s easy for both of us to say now that we’re no longer in ridiculous shorts on a painted line waiting to get a deadleg from some random jocko. Because this is a 2 Chainz project, the beats and rhymes are pretty fresh, and he continues to be a master of inflection, capable of saying vicious stuff in the most jovial, avuncular manner possible. But his disinclination to self-mythologize runs him into serious trouble. If a fortysomething guy is going to stand there and tell you the truth about his life and his feelings, that’s not pop entertainment as I understand it. Look at Pusha T.  He’s older than dirt and richer than God, but he pretends he still wants to stand on a corner and sell drugs.  He cares enough about the art to lie to you.  He knows the alternative is unpalatable. 

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

White Reaper. Omigosh, they’ve turned into Sloan. I guess it was inevitable. Good on Tony Esposito and Co. for going against the dream-pop trend and delivering You Deserve Love, the most awake-pop record of the year. No canned reverbs or machine psychedelia here, and, bless them, not a single moment of chill. Unlike Charly Bliss, their conceptual partners in power pop, there’s nothing political or even terribly emotional driving their urgency – they’re the same five Kentucky wiseguys they were when they named their debut album White Reaper Does It Again. They just love the verities: cars and girls and girls in cars, and a well-turned chord progression, and all the whoas and whoos in the right place. “Ring” even pre-empts the criticism – you talk too much for somebody with nothing to say, Little Ruby tells Tony. I imagine that the dirtbags and dead-leg givers at the 7-11 miss the sonic references to Van Halen and Cheap Trick. But those guys don’t buy contemporary records anyway. That’s because they’re not real. They only exist in our fevered memories.  

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

The Highwomen. Further proof that Dave Cobb is a black hole at the heart of Nashville that sucks all objects of critical mass into his orbit.  Aw, heck, that makes Dave sound worse than he is; his stately, oaken, historically reverential productions aren’t that bad, are they?  So let’s try this again.  The Highwomen is further proof that Dave Cobb is a toilet in which all weighty objects in Nashville swirl until they are sucked down into the depths of his porcelain-pure mixes.  No better, huh?  How about: Dave Cobb is the Pacific garbage patch of Nashville.  No, try as I may, I can’t say anything nice about Dave Cobb, who has turned himself into a menace; maybe not at the level of Jack Antonoff, but with similar outcomes.  I do suppose Dave was the natural guy to produce the Highwomen concept, considering that two of the principals (Carlile and Shires) have already had their commercial profiles elevated via the dignified, grown-up Cobb treatment, and another (Hemby) has been Cobb-adjacent for quite some time.  The exception here is Maren, and I use the first name pointedly, because even Dave Cobb and his reverse Dorian Gray productions can’t prematurely age her.  Alas, I believe she joined the group late, and she’s not much of a presence on this album: if she sings on the back half at all, I sure can’t make her out.  

No, the star of the show here is Brandi Carlile, who is always worth hearing, but who has also been bordering on spinsterly sanctimony for a few album cycles. Some of this does feel like a victory lap for Carlile and Cobb after their Grammy recognition last year and her acceptance into the Nashville C&W family after years of knocking on the cabin door. Amanda Shires and Jason “Mr. Shires” Isbell, friends of the LGBTQ+ that they are, have even contributed a lesbian torch song for Brandi to oversing. Here’s another clue for you that this is a stealth Brandi Carlile album with recurring special guests – the Highwomen don’t even mine Natalie Hemby for material very often. I believe she only has four co-writes here, and two of them are with Carlile.  Brandi has steered her away from “Brews And Boobs On The Pontoon” and the wistful geographical specificity of Puxico, and toward some commendable yet cruller dry sentiments about inclusivity and feminism. Good thing they can all sing, right? 

There’s also a Hemby-Lambert number in the dreaded letter-to-my-child genre, and the cheeky radio single “redesigning women”, which will certainly not be a hit, but which is probably as close to the Pistol Annies as they’re capable of getting as long as Cobb is on the boards.  The best songs, unsurprisingly, are the two Maren Morris numbers, and while they may get her back in the good graces of the purists who hated her R&B moves, they just sound like Maren Morris to me.  So go ahead and like this album. I kinda do. But thank your lucky Southern stars that Miranda Lambert seems immune to Dave Cobb’s pull.    

Most Sympathetic Or Likeable Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

The Paranoid Style – A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life. Elizabeth Nelson comes off like Paula Carino arguing with a record store clerk.  Also, she sounds out every syllable she sings with all the subtlety of a slap in the face. So why can I not stop playing this?  Well, for starters, the thirtysomething (fortysomething?) female perspective is not one that you get all that much in garage rock, and for continuers, this particular thirtysomething is a peculiar specimen. She’s obsessed with music criticism and rock history, American politics and economics, the Irish Republican experiment, and, apparently, chicken wings. It all comes at you in a mad flurry: specific calendar dates and castigations of Federal Reserve chairmen and judiciously selected quotes from classic pop songs and some very funny jokes. One track is about a Bar/None party in the early nineties – Katy McCarthy and Brian Dewan are both namechecked – while another recounts the story of the Who show where the kids were trampled to death. There’s even a bit where she sends up “Odorono”, which was itself satire. It all goes along swimmingly until she drops in a verse of “Ana Ng”, and you realize what you’ve been missing: sweetness, balance, poise, etc.  But hey, the Paul McCartney records are right over there, waiting for you, and this brilliant scuzz bomb of an album won’t take up all that much of your time. There used to be… well, not a lot of albums like this, but a few every year – albums made by total originals, back during the days when autonomy and individuality were expected from college rockers. The Eighties, basically. If we can humor and even applaud countless capitulations to pop convention from intelligent schemers with naked commercial ambitions, we remaining fans of Camper Van Beethoven (and Bongwater) deserve a few albums like this. 

Most Alienating Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

Weezer Black. I think it’s important to remember that Weezer was taking it on the chin, hard, even before Teal came out. Sketch comedians were doing bits. This unaccountable opprobrium directed toward Weezer must have baffled Rivers Cuomo, who is, above all, a student of pop-rock craft. He knows damn well he followed up the outstanding Everything Will Be Alright In The End with the very very good White and then with the reasonably worthwhile Pacific Daydream. So if he’s angry at his audience, I can’t really blame him.  What I do blame him for: writing an entire album about his recent professional resentments and fitting those gripes to California sleaze-pop accompaniment. At the level of the plot, Black is basically De La Soul Is Dead minus the human compassion and the donuts. There’s even a song about how he doesn’t want your shitty demo tapes. I think he’s justified in likening many of his recent critics to zombies, but telling them to die does strike me as gauche, especially from a guy who has flirted with Unabomber-like antisocial tendencies in the past. The references to cheap online review culture (in a song that’s a dead ringer for “Distance”-era Cake, btw, right down to the trumpet), celebrity death cults, agoraphobia, and the fickleness and inattention of the listener all pile up and leave a pretty acrid taste. It is deeply telling that Weezer released the first four songs of Black on Fortnight. Music to shoot your “friends” to. 

A Wee Bit Overexposed, Would You Not Say

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?  This teenaged edgelord(e)’s hit debut has been widely compared to Pure Heroine. To me, it’s young Fiona Apple all the way, right down to the gothic showtunes, the jazzy nonsense, the verbosity and clumsy word choices, and the clickbaity provocation. Fiona flirted with body dysmorphia and underage sex; Billie, um, eats spiders. Also she’s got that Flowers in the Attic thing going on with her brother Finneas, who does impart a distinctive creepy spider-munching aural signature to the project that marks it as a different kind of pop proposition than what you’d get from the non-creepy likes of Grande/Swift/Rexha. You can really see this appealing to a certain type of teenage girl who feels inadequately represented by mainstream culture, but badly wants a ride on the mainstream tilt-a-whirl. As for me, I’ve kinda-sorta almost bought a copy, but I’m put off by the production inconsistency – not just the gimmicky shit like running the mix of “Xanny” through a bathroom fan (apparently), but also the blandburgers at the tail end of the set, and non-pop throwbacks like “Wish You Were Gay”, which is farther down the road to puppet theater vo-de-o-do than I’m willing to go.

Somewhat Underexposed, And Kinda Promising

Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe is one of the odder ducks in the digital record store. It’s frontloaded with catchy, if fragmentary, guitar-rock numbers redolent of Britpop, degenerates fast into sub-Sade saxobeat smoothies, and then recovers for a tidy finish. There’s a vague sci-fi theme about a futuristic health care firm, and Nilüfer sings it all like she’s attempting to dislodge a peanut butter sandwich from the roof of her mouth.  I hear milk helps with that. Like way too many 2019 releases, Miss Universe deepens my suspicion that psychedelia is what you do when you can’t think of a melody, but i do give Nilüfer Yanya credit for her ambition, and for writing about something other than herself. I also like that her version of techno-dystopia isn’t (necessarily) driven by phone addiction; I mean, there are plenty of other awful trends to be vigilant about, right, kids?  33.3% chance Nilüfer turns out to be more than just the UK answer to Japanese Breakfast, and worth a couple of spins in any case. 

Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Frank Iero & The Future Violents – Barrier. Frank is sort of the Richie Sambora to Gerard Way’s Jon-Bon in that he’s considered an essential part of a landmark Jer-Z band, but if you break it down to the submolecular level, you find that he isn’t bringing much that a thousand and one other guitar players couldn’t contribute. Richie was known for his screechy “woooowh-nedd dead or aliiiive” backing vox; people said they were characteristic, I say they were characteristically bad. Frank didn’t sing much in MCR, and, um… I guess I see why. His estranged relationship to pitch isn’t so much of a problem on the brutal rockers meant to suggest Billy Corgan in the midst of a brain aneurysm, but the folkier numbers here are well beyond his abilities. He does know how to raise a middle finger artfully, and if you can handle a song called “Medicine Square Garden”, you’ll agree that he can sprawl out in front of you as belligerently as Patrick Stickles ever does.  But mostly Barrier makes me hope they’ve gotten all of the horsing around out of their systems and they’re ready to put My Chemical Romance back together for good. There must be a color of hair dye that Gerard hasn’t doused himself in yet.  He could go blue.  Go on, Gerard, lead the band through a concept record about Brainy Smurf.

Album That Made Me Cry Uncle

Norah Jones – Begin Again.  Hope springs eternal in the breast of Norah, from whom there is always morah. Not satisfied to forever be the bland blockbuster-maker behind “Don’t Know Why”, she turns the whole shebang upside down every year or so in an attempt to shake loose a spicier direction.  And isn’t that all we can ever ask of mega-selling pop musicians?, that they refrain from reiteration and instead try some shit now and again?  In that sense, Norah is a model superstar, if you could call her a superstar at all, which you really can’t, given how staggeringly effective her commercial self-sabotage has been.  As you probably know, I’ve always sorta run Norah down, even as she’s made choice after choice tailored with uncanny precision to my taste: pushing the piano in the mix, writing chord substitutions and countermelodies into her songs, gospeling it up and hanging with Belle and Sebastian and singing Everly Brothers tunes with Billie Joe. Norah Jones has done everything but show up at my door with a plate of cookies, and… I give up.  Seriously. I am now Norah Jones’s number one fan. I’m gonna go back and listen to all those old records of hers.  Anything else would be downright cruel.  

Okay, much more to come. Singles, individual achievements, blather, offensive comments, you name it. I’ll get to it all as soon as I can.

About 2019: Singles

Horse tack is attached.

The Song That Shook The World

At the risk of stating the obvious, 7 is by no means a good set. Then again, it’s not like the principals were trying to make one. If you were in Lil Nas X’s position, you probably wouldn’t sweat the details, either: you’d figure the sell-by date was coming at you like the Kamchatka meteor, so you’d better do your best to get something — anything — out before the milk curdles. Simple business practices to suit a simple business man. 

That business used to be social media and reality television, and it surely will be again; cue J. Cole saying “in five years you gon be on Love And Hip-Hop.”  But no matter what happens next, Lil Nas X can go back to the clickbait grind with his head held high. He’s made his contribution and he ought to be out looking for some nice laurels to lie on. His place in pop history is secure: the biggest streaming song ever, bigger than Drake, bigger than T. Swift, bigger than Oppan Gangnam Style, and never you mind that it came from a social media platform best left to Chinese incels. Straight outta Tik-Tok, (not so) crazy motherfucker named… whatever his name is.  You don’t care, and doubtless he doesn’t, either.  Artists did not make this technodystopia we’re inhabiting, and idea people with loud mouths will take any platform you give them.  That Lil Nas X turned sixty seconds on the flimsiest platform of them all into the year’s biggest music story is not a testament to anybody’s genius, but it wasn’t just a bolt from the blue, either.

To recap: “Old Town Road” was essentially a salvo in the sort of meme game that gets played on social media a thousand times a day, only this one (and maybe just this one) didn’t have anything to do with the President.  It was called the Yeehaw Challenge, and it required the participant to give himself a hick makeover and post the results to the site. Apparently most of the people who played around with the hashtag just donned a cowboy hat and acted like an idiot, which makes them no different from most senators from Western states. Lil Nas X took it farther and made a country song — sung through processing and matched to machine beats, of course, but Kacey Musgraves knows all about that.  Before you could say Charley Pride, “Old Town Road” was number one on every chart imaginable, including the country chart. 

Until it wasn’t. The story from Billboard was that there were elements of “Old Town Road” that were inconsistent with country music at its essence, and gosh, I can’t even imagine what those “elements” could be. Can you? Music City, to its credit, came to his defense, sort of: sniffing an opportunity, Billy Rae Cyrus put his zero credibility on the line with a slot on the remix, and Keith Urban, who knows a commercial C&W hook when he hears one, covered the song on a banjo and posted the results to the Internet. That sounded great, and you know why?  Because “Old Town Road” is a great country song.  Not a novelty, or a reinterpretation, or an exercise in condescension and appropriation; no, it’s a great song for the same reason that Kenny Chesney’s numbers are great when they’re great. It’s got a hook, and a boast, that Jason Aldean would kill for — a hook so good that it deserves a closer reading.

Lil Nas X says he’s got the horses in the back. That, to me, is utterly brilliant, and not just because it scans so well. The horses might represent the engine of a car: horsepower, junk in the trunk, revving up like all good rock and roll does. Or the horses could be the narrator’s goons, waiting in the back of the shack to administer a beatdown on fools who dare to violate. Then there’s the sexual connotation of horses, doing the pony, the horse as a traditional figure for a man’s dong, sliding in and out of somebody’s back, i.e., their buttcheeks. Then there is the crucial sense in which the horses represent horses, majestic things that gallop deep in the national psyche, beautiful animals that used to get celebrated in song all the time, but not so much anymore. Most of these country cats are so busy singing about their stupid trucks that they couldn’t tell a horse from a damned goldfish. 

And why is that? It’s because everybody in Nashville is doing the Yeehaw Challenge. All day, every day. They’re all in costume, putting on accents, hemming and hawing and drawling like Hollywood caricatures of hillbillies.  Even Dierks Bentley, who is the soul of sincerity, will tell you with a straight face that his role model is Bo Duke.  None of these people are actual cowboys, and would you want them to be?, that’s not their job.  The job is poetry.  They’re here to animate certain powerful symbols and archetypes that resonate for people of a certain disposition. I can only hope that the curious case of Lil Nas X reminds everybody of that, even as it provides me Exhibit Z in my ongoing argument that says country and hip-hop are different expressions of the same basic American creative impulse. They’re the Bumgarner and Puig of musical genres. “Can’t nobody tell me nothing” applies in both cases, and equally snugly.  And I think we would do well, for once, to defer to the wisdom of crowds, and understand that American listeners received “Old Town Road” as a country song in every way in which “country” is meaningful as an artistic descriptor — no matter what the industry says. 

They can make their own rules and draw their own lines, but real fans of popular music understand.  The institutional gatekeepers wouldn’t have Lil Nas X for the same reason that jerks always throw up walls.  They can’t stand to see a black man beat them at their own game.     

Single Of The Year

  • 1. Vampire Weekend — “Harmony Hall”
  • 2. Sego — “Neon Me Out”
  • 3. Maren Morris — “The Bones”
  • 4. Charly Bliss — “Hard To Believe”
  • 5. Lana Del Rey — “The Greatest”
  • 6. Julia Jacklin — “Head Alone”
  • 7. Metronomy — “Salted Caramel Ice Cream”
  • 8. Oso Oso — “Impossible Game”
  • 9. White Reaper — “Might Be Right”
  • 10. Better Oblivion Community Center — “Dylan Thomas”
  • 11. Ximena Sariñana & Francisca Valenzuela — “Pueblo Abandonado”
  • 12. Maxo Kream — “Meet Again”
  • 13. 2 Chainz — “Money In The Way”
  • 14. King Princess — “Prophet”
  • 15. Denzel Curry — “Ricky”
  • 16. Gang Starr — “Family And Loyalty”
  • 17. Silvana Estrada — “Carta”
  • 18. Jimmy Eat World — “All The Way (Stay)”
  • 19. The Rocket Summer — “Peace Signs”
  • 20. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — “Flat Tummy Tea”

Honorable Metal Mention

“Shoot For The Sun”. I don’t know much about metal, but I do know what I like. This is it.

Most Romantic Song

Homeboy Sandman’s “Picture On The Wall”. I’m sappy like that. The whole Dusty album was a bit of a relief, to be honest.  After Veins and “#neverusetheinternetagain”, (not that I didn’t dig both), I figured he was about an inch away from joining the militia. Dusty catches Homeboy Sandman in the best mood he’s been in for years, celebrating his love for his girlfriend and his move to Mello Music with music that’s, er, surprisingly mello.  By his standards, I mean; in real terms it’s still spazzier than a bag of cats. But if you, like me, prefer Sandman when he’s relaxed and optimistic and rapping about sun-dried tomatoes, you may dig. Or maybe you won’t? For the first time in a long time, it seems like Sandman might not see that as a direct reflection on your intelligence and character. I must add: Pitchfork slagged this album on the absurd grounds that Homeboy Sandman is out of ideas. They couldn’t be more wrong. If there’s anybody with a case to sue Pitchfork for sustained defamation in reviews, Homeboy Sandman is that guy. I don’t know what’s going on there. He must have murdered Ryan Schreiber’s hamster or something.

Funniest Song

Danny Brown’s “Belly Of The Beast”, which isn’t to say it’s a wonderful song, or a particularly thrilling direction for the artist. Danny has likened his new set to stand-up comedy, and I think I see what he means. Like a stand-up comedian, Danny believes that his personality alone is sufficient: he can just appear in the spotlight and behave like the zany goof he is, and everybody will clap.  Also, Danny is funny, pretty much always.  The Roy Orbison gag gets me laughing every time.  It’s all in the delivery — the way he says “Orbison” in a manner that highlights the sheer fun of saying such absurd words as “Orbison”.  Yet we’re now nearly a decade removed from “Trap Or Die”, and it’s increasingly clear that that version of Danny isn’t coming back.  So in honor of the departed, allow me to eulogize the emcee we’ve lost.  That Danny was an extraordinary storyteller: he could set a scene, and animate characters, and drive home a point with distinctive amalgam of efficiency and empathy that was his alone.  He also demonstrated that he didn’t need to sound like a freakazoid to hold your attention.  After XXX, he decided that the only tale worth telling was the one about partying to forget the pain/suffering through the pain of partying.  That just can’t compare to a thick description of a junk raid in abandoned houses in Detroit. Also, he’s not really from Detroit anymore. Where is he from?  The Internet, I guess.  Like all the rest of the comedians.     

Most Frightening Song

Jenny Lewis’s “Little White Dove”. If you forget about Nice As Fuck (and you did), On The Line makes two smart ones in a row, smart as anything to come out since that last Pistol Annies set, whip-smart, even. To be fair to the rest of the field, you don’t have to be smart to make a good record. There are marks out there to hit and talented dummies can hit them fine.  That’s the magic of pop music – its egalitarian essence. Sometimes it even helps the public profile to play it stoopid. What Jenny Lewis shares with, say, Scott Miller is a profound disinclination to do anything like that. Instead, she makes pop records that are crammed to their corners with ideas and associations – records that always have something new for us when we re-engage with them. Just as The Voyager used the three-way as a figure for social disengagement in the guise of sexual adventure, On The Line presents addiction not as a spiral into rock and roll debauchery, but another way of dealing with the pain of interpersonal contact. It’s the same line she’s been pushing since her days with Rilo Kiley, really: this wry, terrifying examination of the many many things we do to forestall or dodge closeness with other people. Forget the heroin you’re shooting or the cognac in the glass, aunt Jenny knows why you’re hooked on Candy Crush. It hurts to stop phubbing. You might have to connect with somebody. To drive the point home, she’s taken a big risk here – she’s mixed at least half of this album like it’s coming through an old transistor radio, or, to be more metaphorical, through an old phone that’s breaking up (are we breaking up/is there trouble between you and I, etc). To transcend the limitations she’s set herself, she needs to sing, and write, and play at a world-class level. How do you figure she did?

Most Inspiring Song

“Diamond” by Jimmy Eat World. Old emos never die; they just keep on emoing. Some don’t even need crutches to ease the walk down the backside of the hill: while newly stable guys like David Bazan raid their childhood memories for tearjerkers, Jim Adkins just goes right on squeezing all the emo out of his hair-dye bottle. Now that he’s done with his divorce, he’s back to uplifting various girls in the middle/ in the middle of their rides with impossibly straight-faced, earnest inspirational verses and exhortations to persevere. God, I do love this wide-eyed, passionate, ridiculous motherfucker. His tensile strength is legendary — he’s absolutely unbreakable. Neither the passage of time nor harsh reality can lay a glove on him. Twenty years after “Lucky Denver Mint”, I even begin to understand the secret wisdom of his inane band name. Because Jimmy really did eat world!, and he’s going to keep on eating it, pith and pits and all, until he’s tasted all the sweetness (whoah-oh-ee-oh-oh) he can taste. It’s arguable, I guess, that an artist this adolescent has nothing to add to a sociopolitical moment that requires some adulting. But if that sax ride on “All The Way (Stay)” doesn’t cure your millennial blues, Dr. Rock cannot help you. Go on and obey the backing singers: let those feelings show. 

While We’re Emoing, Here Is, At Some Length, The Most Moving Song

“God And The Billboards”, by Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties. Yes, indeed, Soupy is back with some more crafty Aaron West stories for you. I guess that answers the question about whether Aaron kills himself at the end of We Don’t Have Each Other. In retrospect, though, Soupy wouldn’t use a symbol as broad and boring as the ocean to represent suicide, would he? He wouldn’t have used a symbol at all. That’s not how Aaron thinks, and Soupy is at one with the character.  He would have sung something like: “Oh these crappy raaaaazor blades/are of such pooor manufaaaaaacture these days/they don’t even slash me right/someone call my mooooom toniiiiight.” Whether the world needed a continuation of Aaron West’s story is between Soupy, his audience, and his conscience. But even though I’m the guy who didn’t think Empire Strikes Back was necessary, I found myself compelled by this particular Chapter Two. In many ways, it’s richer, more thoughtful, and more literary than the first album, and I’m already looking forward to Chapter Three.

At the level of the plot, much of Routine Maintenance is a reiteration of the first album: Aaron stumbles around and gets drunk, runs away to Los Angeles, puts a band together, and is called back home by a crisis in which he finds Soupy-approved redemption over the carburetor of the family jalopy. Along the way he kvetches about everything, sometimes hilariously, sometimes curmudgeon-ly, but always with strict attention to the rules of poetic justice as they operate within the moral universe of working-class East Coast emo. You might think that it’s a bit of a cop-out, or just unimaginative, that Soupy briefly sticks Aaron in a Wonder Years-like touring band (the guys are even from Philly, sheesh), but Aaron’s rock and roll detour serves two important narrative purposes.  First, it gives Soupy and co-conspirator Ace Enders an excuse to live out some Springsteen fantasies on “Running Toward The Light. Just like the Boss, Aaron sees Jersey as a dead end, which is a tougher case to make in 2019 than it was in 1973, but we’ll let that slide.

More importantly, it sets up the familiar drama you’ll remember from all those Wonder Years records: the protagonist must choose between artistic self-indulgence and family responsibility.  “If I’m in an airport/and you’re in a hospital bed/what kind of man does that make me”, etcetera.  Soupy promptly kills off Aaron’s brother in law so that the main character can become a father figure for his nephew, which is downright evil, when you think about it, and the kind of thing that gets an author in trouble on Quora and TV Tropes.  If this was a kitchen sink drama on Lifetime Television For Women, we’d all be groaning under the weight of the plot mechanics, not to mention the narrative convenience.  

Luckily for us, it’s a pop-rock record, and Soupy continues to be a steady hand at pop-rock set pieces: the brutal divorce scene in “Just Sign The Papers”, for instance, or the description of life in the flat in Reseda where Aaron, broke and on the run, squats with some Mexican immigrants, or “Bloodied Up In A Bar Fight”, which is funny, even though it isn’t.  I’m sure I would have liked the story better if it had ended with Aaron’s return home; he really didn’t have to drag the nephew and the church and all the gruesome filial business into it.  He could have left that implicit, and I still would have gotten it.  But I’ve got to appreciate how he names all of the characters, and how nimbly he jumps between the many cross-references and Wonder Years callbacks into the lyrics, and the many easter eggs in the verses for those who he assumes are listening carefully.  For instance, there’s the delightful moment where Aaron shows Colin – that’s the nephew – the chords to the hymn he’s playing at his father’s funeral, and they turn out to be the same chords to the Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties song that both characters are inhabiting.  Does anybody else go for this kind of shit?  I mean, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s cheese with complex taste notes; nothing fruity, more like spice, aged oaken barrels, the funk inside Soupy’s sneakers. 

Meanest Song

In the long race to make records that sound like those of Richard and Linda Thompson, it sometimes helps to be the child of Richard and Linda Thompson.  Sometimes it doesn’t; IMHO, Teddy has never had much success in that department. The Rails consists of Kami Thompson and her husband Mitchard Bompson, and… oh, wait, that’s not his name?  Huh, it says here in the press release that he’s called James Walbourne, and, wisely, he doesn’t attempt to play guitar like his father-in-law. But when these two harmonize on their better folk-rock numbers, they do manage to generate a cool, lacerating Sunnyvista vibe. At other times, they suggest a more evil Crowded House. For instance, there’s the one that goes “save the planet/kill yourself”, and, um, I think Kami is kidding?  It’s hard to say. Breaking the news about the void at the end of the rainbow is kind of the family business.

Sexiest Song(s) 

Mikaela Straus, aka King Princess, possesses a tasty pop-R&B voice with sweet-and-sour tough-girl phrasing, so you might guess that it would be tough to get her lost in the dream pop mist. I’ll be damned if they don’t try, though. Nothing about last year’s swell EP suggested to me that she was about to drop a chill playlist on us, but that’s what Cheap Queen is, and funnily enough, I don’t mind at all. She pulls it off because she’s a good nuts-and-bolts pop songwriter (check out “Prophet”, mmmmm) and a better communicator, even if there’s nothing too unusual about anything she has to say. You’d think they would have run out of powdery eighties synthesizer patches by now. Regardless, this is a strong choice for those who deem Billie Eilish too spider-eaty and tonally restricted, or for those who don’t find Troye Sivan’s butthole all that fascinating. 

Saddest Song

Everything on Julia Jacklin’s searing, well-titled Crushing. Look, Julia does not want to be touched. I believe her. Her plea for proxemic autonomy has been read as a feminist statement, and… sure, what the hell, if Cardi B in ass pants can be strip-mined for feminist significance, so can Julia Jacklin’s high-strung disposition. But what do I know, I’m not even a girl. Fans of Big Thief probably dig this, as Julia’s agitated warble is not dissimilar to Adrienne Lenker’s, but the storytelling on Crushing lands with the sort of straight-to- the-jaw roundhouse punch that Lenker, talented as she is, has either been unable or unwilling to pack. All of these narratives are trapped in that agonizing moment when a romantic relationship is over but neither partner will pull the rip cord and jump. The result is the year’s most harrowing album, and its most intense, even as Julia promises us she’s eventually going to come out of the funk, open a window, and air things out. 

Most Notable Cover Version

Morrissey’s California Son, and — hey, where are you going?, hear me out here. I thought we were supposed to be friends. More to the point, I thought we were both friends with Morrissey. Shit hit the fan and you are no longer a fan? Well, you’re missing a…, well, certainly not a great one, or even a good one, but a remarkable one. Noteworthy, as Homeboy Sandman might put it.

Eye-popping as it is, the tracklist is only the third most notable thing about this crazed late career covers set. Whatever his faults – and we’ve lately been as busy enumerating them as we were ignoring them in the eighties and nineties – Morrissey has always had good taste. Why wouldn’t that extend to an appreciation of “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow”?  That leads us to the second most notable thing about the set: just how well he sings songs that you’d figure he has no business singing.  Did you think Morrissey could handle Laura Nyro soul and make you present to every syllable and every inflection? Right, you didn’t think about it at all, and that’s because the very notion would have seemed ludicrous to you. But here we are, with Moz riding around on the melody like a fucking stunt pilot, and Billie Joe Armstrong in the background, contributing awed support vocals. Great players make great plays, as the philosopher Jeff Van Gundy used to like to say, and Morrissey is coasting down the lane, straight to the hoop, dribbling through an arm and a leg and slam dunking, over and over.  

Reviewers are not appreciating this, and that is because of the single most notable thing about this album: it’s a world-class troll job.  Morrissey raiding the vault for classic protest songs in 2019 – and singing them all with front-lines fist-in-the-air vigor – presents the critical listener with the sort of conundrum unusual in pop, where the political lines are usually broad and blatant, and done in fluorescent paint, and offset by traffic cones with arrows that say look right here folks. What do we make of the apparent contradiction between Phil Ochs liberation lyrics associated with the civil rights movement and Morrissey’s loud and visible support of odious white nationalist politicians?  

In order to grok, we need a more subtle understanding of Morrissey’s project – which, mind you, is not an apology for it – and maybe a better take on the malicious politics of the dreaded 55+ demographic.  Morrissey sees Islam as an affront to the sort of secular humanist values that are usually called progressive by those who have no problem throwing stones at the church.  Never mind its ahistoricity; this belief is not incompatible with his support for gay rights and animal liberation and his longstanding condemnation of all forms of religious faith.  Remember that Ann Marie Waters, the infamous politician Morrissey supports, does not view herself as a reactionary: she wants to keep Muslims out of the UK because she believes their worldview is incompatible with science and progress and feminism and buttsex and a whole bunch of other delightful stuff that isn’t in the Koran.  She sees herself as a descendent of the suffragettes, fighting agents of ignorance and intolerance.

And it is a sad truth that many (though not all) of the people down with the Great Replacement theory feel just as she does. They hear “Only A Pawn In Their Game”, and they imagine that that pawn is the beleaguered working class white man, assaulted by a press corps in the pocket of national security agencies and billionaire corporations, all conspiring to rig the system against the little guy.  And never mind that that’s not what Bob Dylan meant, because… look, what did Bob mean, anyway?  That guy was always vague.  Gauche populism was part of the marketing strategy from the outset.  He was more than happy to be whatever you wanted him to be, as long as you believed that you, and he, were in the know.

So even if we haven’t learned anything new about Morrissey today, maybe we’ve learned something important about Bob Dylan.  And maybe we’ve learned even more about certain members of the Baby Boom generation – those now turning to radically unpleasant solutions and voting for demagogues, former hippies who view their belligerent non-cooperation with orthodox liberal institutions (they’d call them neo-liberal) as an extension of a resistance culture they misremember from the sixties.  Maybe the ugliness was always there.  And maybe they told us not to trust anybody over 30 because they always knew, deep down, exactly where they were heading.  

Worst Song On A Good Album And Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better

Taylor Swift, “London Boy” and “ME”. Good news and bad news, people.  Take the bitter with the sweet, as Carole King put it.  I’m happy to say that the fetching version of Taylor is back, as it had largely been M.I.A. on the last two sets, rife as they were with stories of getting borracho at celebrity events plus the obligatory complaints about social media. Way beneath her talents, if you ask me.  She’s also writing lyrics with the sort of observational specificity that’s awfully rare in pop, even if she’s still unwilling to observe anything that doesn’t affect her personally.  However, she no longer has the patience or discipline for the sort of linear storytelling that she did so effortlessly on the first four records.  Or maybe she doesn’t think synthpop can accommodate it?  Who can know the mind of a Taylor Swift. Popularity at this level does lead to warped priorities and scrambled synapses.

The bigger problem is that she refuses to push her composition into new territory.  Too many of these eighteen newies are straight-up reiterations of tracks from her back catalog, and only so much of this conservatism can be pinned on the rigid Mr. Antonoff, slave to the relative minor.  Taylor Swift wrote so much so quickly that it was inevitable that she’d start repeating herself as her production outpaced her experience. But this is, as you’ve noticed by now, a very intelligent woman. If she cares about her art as much as she says she does, you’d figure she’d recognize the problem and take some evasive action. In all art forms, risk aversion plus attenuation of urgency equals mush, and some of the weaker tracks on Lover are the sonic equivalent of baby food.  Even as her (pop) star continues to ascend, she’s been stuck in neutral as a writer and musician for three albums now. If she wants to be remembered as a writer and musician first, rather than as a (pop) star, she ought to plot a course correction.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

Vampire Weekend’s “Sunflower”.

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

“Wasted Youth” by Jenny Lewis.

Worst Lyrics

“Redesigning Women”

Worst Song Of The Year

The Mountain Goats — “Doc Gooden”. In general, I do not think I hold, or value, idiosyncratic opinions. I like The Wizard Of Oz and Elizabeth Warren and Harry Potter books and Monet’s Water Lilies; that’s about where my tastes are.  I do defend a lot of unpopular music, but that’s only because I like music in general. I pitch a pretty big tent. Similarly, there’s not a lot that I don’t like because everybody else likes it; we all know about me and Radiohead, but I’m happy to give credit when it’s due to Greenwood and Selway, who are outstanding musicians.  

But the Mountain Goats are different.  Not since Leonard Cohen has there been an act about which I’m at such sharp variance with critical opinion.  For the life of me I cannot figure out what the attraction is: the band doesn’t rock, beauty is beyond them, Darnielle isn’t much of a singer, and his lyrics always strike me as the sort of stuff that Will Sheff might chuck into the wastebasket with some vehemence.  Even the concept on In League With Dragons seems designed to piss me off: this is supposed to be an album about D&D, but there’s no D&D content here at all, and I resent having been made to sift through this tedious hunk of junk in order to look for it.  

To make matters more insulting, the Doc Gooden song is a total embarrassment.  For starters, the timeline is wrong: if you’re older than 35 and you were in the NYC metro, Gooden is still quite present to you; he’s not a lost or forgotten anything.  The LL Cool J quote doesn’t fit no matter how hard the band forces it, and the reference to the “speedball” is so corny and on the nose that I think Harry Chapin just rose from the dead.  Finally, he’s got the scene-setting detail wrong – Gooden didn’t pitch his no-hitter in Seattle, he threw it at Yankee Stadium.  if Darnielle was a baseball fan rather than a dilettante mining baseball (and Dungeons & Dragons) for crummy metaphors, he’d know that.  I imagine he would say that’s beside his point, which is something stupidly obvious about the ephemerality of magic, I guess.  But you open yourself up to pedantic criticism when you make pedantic songs.  Because you know what would be cool?, an actual song about Dwight Gooden.  Not Gooden as a vehicle for your dumb observations about life.  He doesn’t deserve that.  He didn’t resurrect the Mets franchise so he could be pity-used by some strumming fakeademic from Indiana.  Spare us.

Okay, sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Positivity next, I promise.


About 2019 — Individual Achievements

Grace under pressure.

In my life, I’ve encountered people who are truly committed to social justice, equality, fairness, and a political program that might reasonably be called progressive. I’m always struck by how many of these people are Rush fans.  Dedicated fans, too; fans who’d surely count the members of Rush among their favorite musicians, if not their personal heroes. 

I can think of a few reasons why this might be.  A commitment to social justice is, in my experience, a mark of intelligence, and Rush has always cultivated a smart fanbase. Rush wrote sci-fi at a time when not many rock bands did — songs designed to resonate with the same sort of kids who found Asimov and Bradbury provocative, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There was a Solar Federation, and it was oppressive, and it was the moral responsibility of the thinking individual to stand against it.  Rush taught its audience to see systems, and patterns, and encouraged listeners to dream of a better and purer way forward.  Three of those dreamers were the members of Rush themselves, who, on and offstage, threw the weight of their celebrity behind the twin causes of mindfulness and compassion.

So it saddened me to see Ayn Rand’s name in many of the obituaries and appreciations of Neil Peart. Objectivism was part of Neil’s intellectual development, as it was for many young men, and because Peart always wrote about what he was reading, Ayn Rand’s ideas showed up in some of his lyrics. So did echoes 0f Samuel Coleridge, and  Arthur C. Clarke, and, most famously, Mark Twain. Neil gave the impression that he never discarded an idea he encountered in a book. By the time he wrote the songs that made Rush world-famous, he’d already drawn what he needed from Objectivism and moved beyond it.  

Nevertheless, Rand sticks to Rush like a rust stain.  I’d like to put the blame on the Boomer generation of rock critics, who hated Ayn Rand almost as much as they hated Rush, and still miss no opportunity to beat Rush with the stick of Objectivism.  I can’t, though, because Neil Peart really *did* write several early songs — good songs — that made his appreciation for and understanding of Anthem apparent.  If Rand herself had heard those songs, she… well, she probably would have considered Rush degenerate.  But she would have liked the lyric sheet. She’d have noticed her fingerprints all over them.  Ayn Rand can’t, and shouldn’t, be written out of the Rush story, no matter how much fans of the band would like to recuperate Peart’s rep on behalf of genteel Canadian social democracy.  The young Peart had a view of socialism and communism, and it wasn’t a favorable one.  What’s important to remember, though, is that even at his most philosophically vulgar, Neil Peart had a pronounced moral sensibility miles beyond anything articulated in any of Ayn Rand’s writing.  And Neil Peart wasn’t vulgar for long.  

When Peart wrote “2112”, he was 23 years old. He was still pretty new to the band, and the band was pretty new to the airwaves.  The record company gave Rush a tacit ultimatum before the album came out: write something that sells, or that’s that. It’s possible that Peart had a grievance against power structures — especially the sort of authority figures who weren’t demonstrating the imagination or courage necessary to appreciate a band like Rush.  As a young man possessed with a world-class talent, he must have appreciated Rand’s condemnation of mediocrity.  Peart replaced the Anthem lightbulb with a guitar, and positions rock as sedition against a totalitarian state — a theme that would soon become a trope, culminating in the near-parody of Styx’s Kilroy Was Here. In tone and temperament, it’s not all that far removed from Paul Kantner’s Blows Against The Empire, or, for that matter, Fahrenheit 451 or A Canticle For Leibowitz

“2112” was an unexpected commercial triumph that established Rush as a band with a future. If Peart had been a true denizen of Galt’s Gulch, he would have seen this turn as a personal vindication and become insufferable. Instead, he pivoted, and penned his first set of mature lyrics. A Farewell To Kings is an album about the moral inadequacy of society — its wayward rulers in particular. The Cinderella Man is cast out and rejected not because he’s a misunderstood Übermensch, but because he carries a message of radical love that his peers and leaders aren’t ready for. Neil Peart was certainly no Christian, but there are overtones of caritas in his writing: he asks us to forge a new reality/closer to the heart, which is prog-rock speak for sympathetic identification. A Farewell To Kings couldn’t have been written if Peart hadn’t first grappled with Rand’s ideas on the prior album, and pushed past them. He wasn’t overwriting “2112.” He was complicating it.

Peart’s final flirtation with Objectivism makes this clearer. The members of Rush developed a tendency to laugh off “The Trees” or dismiss it as a fairy tale, and it’s easy to see why: the song’s political implications are obvious, and they’re delivered with the sort of bluntness that upsets the ideologically squeamish. Yet I believe that “The Trees” is an essential song in Rush’s catalog, and I don’t think it’s possible to apprehend the scope of Peart’s lyricism without grappling with it. The song, if you don’t know it, is about a revolt in a forest in which the shorter maples punish the taller oaks for hogging the sunlight. In the end, in a wonderfully brutal image, the trees are “all kept equal/by hatchet, axe, and saw.” The maples have not merely seized control and enforced equality in the most menacing way — they’ve also convinced themselves of the nobility of their violent act. It should be clear that Peart is writing about communism, and doing so in a way that draws on his absorption of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy.

But wait a minute: Peart doesn’t let the oaks off the hook, either. Their undoing is, at least partially, their own fault.  Rush tells us that the bigger trees are self-satisfied, and describes their active refusal to understand the complaints of the maples. In “The Trees,” the oaks are worse than arrogant, at least from the perspective of a loud rock band: they’re deaf. It’s their inability to sympathize with their less fortunate neighbors that puts the forest in peril. And this, from Hemispheres on to the very end of the band, becomes a driving theme of all of Rush’s work. Human society, cruel as it is, can be salvaged if we listen to each other respectfully and allow our hearts to open. It’s an optimistic and deeply Canadian vision, and Rush, in spite of the occasional darkness in their music, was an optimistic (and deeply Canadian) band. Peart believed that gains was possible and disaster could be averted, and that people really could forge that new reality closer to the heart. And this is, I think, why so many self-identified progressives adopted Rush as a patron band: they were the rare rock conceptualists who actually believed in progress. Compare to Tony Banks’s near certainty that human beings were doomed to continue to make the same mistakes over and over, or Peter Gabriel’s dredging and plumbing of the destructive unconscious, or Roger Waters’s scalding fatalism about the failure of the postwar dream, or the Airplane’s last-ditch anti-authoritarianism, or Jon Anderson’s prophesies of ecological collapse and fears about life lived too close to the edge.  

And while Neil Peart couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have written “The Trees” without a push from Anthem, the song reminds me just as much of a better story that libertarians also love: “Harrison Bergeron.”  Vonnegut’s dystopian fantasy from 1961 is often read as a reaction to the excesses of Soviet-style socialism, but really, it confronts a human impulse native to no particular god or government. Harrison is a rebel against a society that has no tolerance for demonstrations of excellence that might make the talent-free feel bad about themselves. Those with innate ability accept their government-provided handicaps happily, in the name of the social order; for instance, one character with remarkable intelligence wears a special headset that buzzes, rings, and distracts him every time he formulates a coherent thought.  The story makes clear that the character’s decision to wear the headset is, at least in part, voluntary: he’s internalized the egalitarian principle so thoroughly that he’s willing to punish himself for his own marks of distinction.  

The first time I read this story, I thought Vonnegut was being hyperbolic. But the older I get, the more I realize that the world of “Harrison Bergeron” isn’t much different from the one we inhabit.  We have indeed designed a device that broadcasts signals and static worldwide, and which rings, beeps, flashes, and generally discourages us from sustaining and developing thoughts beyond their most rudimentary form. You’re on it right now. If you’ve managed to read this far without clicking on a distraction or checking a feed for a jolt of novelty, well, you’re probably a Rush fan. Neil Peart dreamed of an Analog Kid whose natural purity granted him immunity from the normalizing tendencies of the techno-state: today’s Tom Sawyer, whose mean, mean stride contained reserves of integrity and self-possession. Straight through Clockwork Angels, Peart believed that resistance was possible, and that renegades were real, and that there existed a red Barchetta fast enough to outrun the heavy-handed enforcers of the Motor Law. Maybe that red Barchetta was you.

I’m not much of a progressive, and Rush was never my band. Yet their music is, for me, as it is for so many others, indelible: missives from a writer who was always too decent to mislead his audience. On MTV, many of my other favorites pushed me a fantasy of an adult world defined by adventure and transgressive behavior. Neil Peart couldn’t do that. He was the first I heard who was willing to describe my reality as it was, and as I experienced it – suburban sprawl as an expression of a imaginative deficiency, suspicion of anything out of the ordinary, a widespread longing that society seemed increasingly unable to satisfy. Peart’s nods toward Ayn Rand weren’t even the price we had to pay for a critique of conformity as blunt and beautiful as the one in “Subdivisions,” because by the time he got to Signals, that stuff was all in the rear view mirror. I’m just gratified that something worthwhile came of Objectivism, and it didn’t just resolve to Paul Ryan trying to take basic services away from poor people. 

One last thing: while other great rock writers sang about harmony but behaved abominably to the people in their lives, Peart practiced what he preached. He was, by all accounts, a kind and generous person, one who would write thoughtful, caring letters to listeners and who treated everybody in Rush’s orbit with courtesy. His famous aversion to the limelight was real, but he never stopped trying to improve himself as a writer or as a performer. While other great rock bands fell apart because of the egos of the artists, Neil, Geddy, and Alex hung together, tight, until it became physically impossible for the group to continue. Anybody who has ever seen Rush in concert knows that the connection – and the friendship – between the bandmembers was a real and beautiful thing. Rush was a demonstration that Neil’s ideas about respect and openness and the courage to deviate from the norm weren’t bullshit – that people living by these principles really could function, and flourish, and achieve the greatness that they aspired to.  

Oh, and Neil Peart could play the drums a little, too. 

Best Singing

The Sunday Service Choir.

Best Rapping

Saba, who continues to make a strong case for himself in the Best Rapper Alive sweepstakes.  This time around, he does it in the context of a posse project, and even if his Pivot Gang pals aren’t good enough to keep up (few would be), they do impart personality and pass him the rock so he can score with decorum.  Joseph Chilliams – who, as it turns out, is Saba’s little brother – makes a decent ersatz Phife Dog, complete with references to small-time screen celebrities you forgot about and pro athletes and cartoon characters you didn’t. The other dudes acquit themselves well as color commentators too, even if “pull up with that Smith like Morrissey” is a few decades out of date.  It all does make you wonder how Walt would have fit in had he not been, as you heard, killed for a coat.  In a way, You Can’t Sit With Us drives home the tragedy of his death even more than Care For Me did. 

Best Singing Voice

John Van Deusen. More emotionally charged music from an emotional young man playing his electric guitar and howling in an emotionally effulgent fashion.  If there was only a shorthand way to refer to this style!  In fairness, I doubt that the Emo Council would accept John Van Deusen into the brotherhood: for all the Gibbard in his sound, the echoes of Frightened Rabbit are louder. The psychic connection between the Pacific Northwest and Scotland run deeper than the fjords, so I have to believe that Van Deusen is acquainted with the same maritime despondency that took out Scott Hutchinson. Regardless, he’s come with the best batch of hooks I’ve heard on an, um, emotionally forthright guitar album in awhile, and he’s an outstanding singer, too, acrobatic without being showy, and nicely tethered to his well-wrought melodies even when he gets worked up.  Moreover, I’ve heard he runs a boardgame store in Anacordes, Washington. so we’re probably simpatico. If you’re ever in Anacordes, drop by and pick up a copy of Agricola; I’m sure he stocks it. 

Best Guitar Playing, Acoustic Division

Adrianne Lenker

Best Guitar Playing, Electric Division

The hot Sahel wind blows through the frets of Fenders and Gibsons.  I’m never going to know what Tinariwen is singing about, so I’m glad those guys speak with their hands in the international language of Stratocaster. That goes for Fatoumata Diawara, too – the press stuff says she’s decrying female circumcision and the shoddy treatment of refugees, and yeah, I’m just going to take her word for it.  Mdou Moctar is from Agadez in Niger, which is on the southern fringes of the Sahara and a major jumping-off point into the void for migrants fleeing Africa for cooler pastures. It’s a place, in other words, that’s stitched like a burr into the interwoven globe, and Mdou plays like a guy hip to every vibration on every string. I hear Fela and Hendrix, but also Black Sabbath and Jimmy Page, and especially Richard Thompson. Mdou can’t really sing, so he basically solos straight through the album, and if you’re hungry for guitar pyrotechnics, this is worth a spin. Drawing connections between Nigerian funk and heavy metal, Caledonia soul and soca, and folk music of the Celtic diaspora – Van the Man could tell you all about it, if he was in a chatty mood.

Best Bass Playing

Sego Sucks is a scruffy, sleazy, wordy rock record made by fans of Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem, and (especially) the first two Beck albums.  The frontman, who is occasionally desultory and always a little caustic but never, ever malicious, and often seems on the verge of flying into a tizzy, often puts me in mind of Jesse Hartman of Sammy. He’s got that same drowned rat/drowning ironist charisma. It works in a rock context, or it used to, anyway. You might see his constant slippage from bemusement to bewilderment as a defeatist dodge; he’s a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill him, etc.  But I reckon you will appreciate his greatest asset: bassist Alyssa Davey, an absolute monster with a sound as meaty as a porterhouse from peter luger.  Just like a good punk reprobate ought to, she bullies the strings with total depravity.  Davey ought to be playing with the Stones or the Who or somebody, rather than a dirtball combo from Utah, but for now, they’ve got her, and as long as she’s handling the bottom end, they’re free to put fuck-all over the top and it’ll work: guitar squall and narcoleptic nyah-nyahs and USA chants and whatever else crosses their feedback-addled minds.  Not all of these gutter jams merit close engagement – sometimes they’re just dragging you through the dirt to see how much muck you can take – but “Neon Me Out”, the kickoff, is one for the ages, and it’s probably already in a trillion car commercials. The chorus attaints that kaleidoscopic quality I associate with Kula Shaker circa “Govinda”: you really do think you’re catching a glimpse of God, or perhaps Jerry Garcia.

Best Drumming

I didn’t expect Wand to turn into Radiohead quite so soon. Guess I should have known from the general bendsiness of “Bee Karma” (note second word) from Plum, but silly me, I thought Cory Hanson was just dipping a toe into the pool.  Laughing Matter goes on for ninety years or so, and parts of it are taxing, but to their credit, they never try to get over on texture alone. Or effrontery, for that matter, although they must exist in a constant state of temptation by the lure of their own machinery. Even when the music gets noisy or imitative of OK Computer, the next interesting harmonic or rhythmic idea is usually only a guitar squall away.  After a year of too-brief projects, it’s downright nice of Wand to give us a sonic ocean to explore.  I like the Galaxie 500-ish one that Sofia Arreguin sings about her plane ride, and the one in which Hanson takes too much Advil and urinates on himself, and especially “Wonder”, which could be the centerpiece of any old Uriah Heep or Blue Oyster Cult album and will remind you why wand is the psychedelic band of the moment, no matter how much they dig Thom Yorke (a lot, apparently.)  Also, and this is critical: Evan Burrows, their stupid-good drummer hasn’t gone anywhere.  He isn’t any less stupid-good than he was on Plum

Best Synth Playing

I take it as a given that Americans do not and cannot understand Joe Mount’s sense of irony. But I’ve recently begun to suspect that Brits don’t get the joke either. For instance, there’s the slow and drumless one on the new Metronomy album on which Joe keeps singing, over and over, in his most mealy-mouthed voice, about how he was thrown out of his rock band for playing the drums too fast. Then, almost as an afterthought, he slips in a verse about a rejected proposal. This is a preoccupation on Metronomy Forever: there are wedding bells but they’re not for you, and when Joe raises his head to hit on the woman who is like salted caramel ice cream, you just know he’s going to screw it all up. The key, I think, is the very last song, which only seems slight if you aren’t paying attention to the words.  Joe slips a mixtape to a girl at a dance, and she doesn’t call him back; he figures, well, that’s that. Ten years later, her brother tells him that he loved the tape, and the two blokes end up getting a drink together at a bar. This is music as compensation for something lost, a lubricant for missed connections and crossed wires, and it’s presented here without acrimony by a guy who has always been a better storyteller than the EDM crowd appreciates. As for the quality of the synth textures, well, you already know.

Best Piano Playing

Phil Cornish from Sunday Service. The first time I walked into New Hope Church in Newark, I didn’t understand why there were boxes of tissues on the ledges by the walls. Fifteen minutes into the service, I got it. There have been other great gospel albums released in the past few decades, but none approaches the transformational force of a real service like this one does. And no matter how much Kanye frustrates me, I’ve got to give him credit for making this happen — and reminding us again that everything we love about pop presentation comes directly from the African American church.

Best Vocal Harmonies

Harry Styles on Fine Line. Harry’s a classic rock fan, so I have to think that the sonic references to Yes, and The Zombies, and The Association, and The Mamas And The Papas are 100% intentional.

Best Drum And Instrument Programming

Igor. So Tyler is a full-blown queer now! Welcome to the club, Tyler. I think it’s a good look for him, and it’s salutary for the rest of us. It expands our notions of what a queer can be: not just fluttery aesthetes with paintbrushes, but also people who rap about band-aids, brown stains, and Smuckers products. Apparently it also means they’ll let him back in England, and it’s about time they realized that those verses about raping and killing Santa Claus were, um, hyperbole. I think. Anyway, behind the gloss and the old-school breakbeats and the radiant b-vox and synth pads and usual musical/arrangement excellence, Igor is a pretty straightforward story about a guy who gets in a relationship with another guy, but that other guy is in the closet, and he eventually ditches the main character for his ex-girlfriend.  This is a believable predicament, and one dramatized on pansexual soap operas all the time. Maybe the male love object is indeed behind a mask, and unwilling to defy social expectations in our current climate of fear.  Or maybe Tyler smells.  

Best Production

FnZ on Denzel Curry’s Zuu. New adventures in bass music, or maybe it’s the same old adventure, only louder.  South Florida is renowned for its bottom end, which is appropriate given its geographical position, but this album really takes the cake.  Because Denzel is merciful, he doesn’t let FnZ drop it on you all at once. Instead, he boils you slowly like the frog, turning up the low frequency heat, song by song, until you’re absolutely stewing in bass by the end of the set.  This is rich, thick, quicksand bass, slippery as Everglades mud.  Because the emphasis is on ass, he keeps the rhymes lean and direct and no-frills, and the whole thing whizzes by your chin like a Chinese star, pointed and vicious and traveling with too much force to redirect.  I can see this getting very popular, but for practical reasons I hope that it stays regional.  A car with subwoofers bumping Zuu could take out every window on this block.   

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album

Billy Woods is as adept at mashing words together as Homeboy Sandman – and that’s saying something – but unlike Sandy, his version of acrobatic wordplay is intentionally mirthless. He gives you punchline after punchline with a heavy emphasis on the punch; he’s sure not smiling when he says any of this.  Much of the accompaniment on Hiding Places is as out of tune as a vinyl LP that has warped in a tenement closet, and the cover image is an abandoned house collapsing in on itself. Billy hates you so much he won’t bait a single hook, and over eleven tracks, his resolution becomes its own reward. His intelligence, on the other hand, isn’t something you’ll have to wait for: it’s there from the very first line. Certainly this is not a fun listen, but if you miss that old Definitive Jux doomsday hip-hop sound, Hiding Places is a project worth engaging with.  

Best Songwriting and A P.F. Rizzuto Close Second Place

Richard Dawson’s 2020. There has to be something more to life than killing yourself to survive, says Richard Dawson’s narrator on “Fulfillment Center”, one in a set of brutal protest songs sung on behalf of the information age proletariat. The narrator urinates in a bottle because the company (Amazon, surely) won’t countenance breaks, and when a non-native speaker breaks down and starts raving on the factory floor, nobody flinches. They just wait for him to be carted away by corporate security.  Then there’s the song about the U.F.O. sighting, and the one sung from the perspective of an anxiety-ridden jogger, and the tale told by the kid who screws up the soccer game to the disappointment of his overbearing dad.  These brittle folk-rock productions do not cut corners: they just ramble around the Newcastle countryside getting muddy, following paths through the gorse to weird glades. Dawson sings like an alternate-reality Guy Garvey whose psyche and spirit have been broken to pieces by twenty years sans promotion in the accounts-receivable department. Obviously, this is getting understood as a Brexit statement album, but its messages have global applications, I’m afraid.  2020: nowhere to run. 

Best Instrumental Solo

Benmont Tench’s classic organ ride on “Heads Gonna Roll”. Also, I’d like to thank the sax players who tried to summon the spirit of the Big Man: James King on “All The Way (Stay)” and Chiemena E. Ukazim on “Bury Me Anywhere Else”. A woozy E Street salute to both of you; get these guys a couple of cookies from Del Ponte’s in Bradley Beach.

Best Concert You Saw

Calliope Musicals at FM in Jersey City.

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

Duo Duo by Operator Music Band. Oops, I forgot to write about this one two days ago.  Just like they forgot to write much original music, choosing instead to borrow it all from Talking Heads/Stereolab/LCD.  But hey, James Murphy is a thief lord, too, and I don’t hear anybody grousing.  When these pop Fagins pick a pocket or two, it’s all about the finesse, and more than half of this is really skilled – groovy, bouncy, good communication between pilot and co-pilot, quality signals transmitted over an extremely narrow band.  So this is a situational play, tasty when applicable, like Uncle Boons or the squeeze bunt.  Me, I like the one that goes ba da da da ba da da da for measure after static measure until the chord changes, at which point it still goes ba da da da ba da da da. Joe Mount would understand.

Also A Grower, But Let’s Not Get Carried Away Here

JPEGMafia’s All My Heroes Are Cornballs. Anything that could be said in defense of vaporwave – its social and conceptual significance, its intervention in the artifice of popular culture – can also be said about hip-hop.  Vaporwave sounds like an adjunct professor chopping up elevator music and 8-bit video games to make a point about art; hip-hop is, you know, art. Given the continuity between the styles (if you want to so dignify vaporwave by calling it a style), it was inevitable that somebody like JPEGMafia would emerge from a cloud of pixel dust and start rhyming, and pretty damned well, about memes.  I’ve seen this compared to Death Grips, but it’s really more like a bug-fixed Kid Cudi with a bigger chord vocabulary and a wider field of reference, or Childish Gambino plus actual musical talent.  Like other projects that take the Internet as a subject, archness and emotional estrangement is part of the message.  The heat, when it comes, is largely theoretical – metacommentary about expectations for African-American vocalists, anger as a type of performance, etc.  And sometimes he just raps.  Those, you’ll notice, are the best times.   

Best Arrangements

The return of the Mick on Days Of The Bagnold Summer. And Mick Cooke isn’t just here to toot his horn and do arrangements – he’s back with the six-man (plus Sarah) crew to revive the wispy, twee spirit of the Storytelling era. 2000-02 is the blurriest part of the Belle & Sebastian timeline: that low-energy period when Isobel was getting ready to jump ship, and Stuart David was out, and Bobby wasn’t yet in. Everything was in flux, and you could hear that in the music, which sounded noncommittal, vague, and pretty, like a girl holding her breath, half-shutting her eyes, and groping her way through a grey day. Anyway, the new set is a big blast of nostalgia from a group that doesn’t take backward steps very often, and it puts Stuart Murdoch in an odd position: just when it seemed like he was settling into soporific, neatly-appointed, middle-aged domesticity, circumstances have conspired to make him sing “I Know Where The Summer Goes” and relive his dissipated youth.  So does he, ah, still write them like he used to? Well, if by “used to” we mean Life Pursuit or God Help The Girl, which “Sister Buddha” coulda slotted into, the answer is yeah, sure, sometimes. But some of these tunes are dangerously unsupported by the chords. Consider the cheap bossa nova arrangement and overall compositional slackness of “This Letter”, and then consider “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”, with its impeccable circle-of-sharps-and-flats melody that just keeps twirling and twirling like an goddamned elf, skipping across the Clyde on polished footstones. The juxtaposition of the two is a little hard to deal with, even if it doesn’t seem to be hurting Stuart’s feelings or wounding his confidence. Regardless of the context, it’s nice to hear Mick blow his horn again.  

Band Of The Year

Charly Bliss

Best Guest Appearance

Lyle Lovett on Rodney Crowell’s Texas.  I brought up total depravity in the Sego paragraph, and since this is a concept some struggle with, I wanted to take this moment to stretch out and explain its salience to rock, and hip-hop, and R&B, and blues, and all other forms of art derived from the African American church.

Paul of Tarsus’s letter to the Romans contains the kernel of Christian theology and sociopolitical thought, and it goes like this: you are fucked up beyond recovery, and you require divine intercession. You cannot “good deed” your way out of this spiritual sickness of yours, because only through faith can a man be justified. In Paul’s view, god sends you the law precisely because he knows damn well you can’t live up to it, and he’d like you to come to consciousness of this so you’ll realize you need saving. The law consists of stuff that you know in your bones is right, but which you’re powerless not to do; i.e., you know it’s wrong to covet thy neighbor’s wife, but you’re still going to do it, that and a million other all-too-human things expressly or implicitly prohibited by scriptural codes.  

The good news is that you don’t have to be punished for this: Jesus has paid the price for your sin on the cross, and taken a holy beating so that ye may live. All you have to do is believe. If you do believe, your heart will open, and you will receive the gift of grace, and through that gift you will be born a new person in Christ. Easy peasy, right?  So simple that it only took the Western church fifteen hundred years to fathom the implications of Paul’s words, and when they did, what they came up with was so draconian that we still recoil from it.

Followers of John Calvin in Geneva (and sometimes John Calvin himself) took the theology of Romans to its logical conclusion, and declared that man was totally depraved — so much so that even if god were to tap him on the shoulder and offer him a gift of grace and a plate of cookies and milk, he’d be too far gone to accept it. There is absolutely nothing he can do to aid his salvation.  God’s irresistible grace is his only hope.  That grace does not fall on humanity evenly: some people (the elect) will get it, and others (the preterite, or less politely, the damned) will not, and that’s that.  The die is cast; the decision on the fate of your disgusting heart and filthy soul was made before you were born.

Now you do not have to be Neil Peart to realize that this view of our spiritual condition is incompatible with egalitarian democracy. Luckily, not too far away in Holland, just as the modern subject was getting hammered out in the shadow of the stock exchange and the tall ships, and painted in all her interiority by Rembrandt and his frenemies, another theologian was coming up with another eirenicist approach. (Eirenicism is the technical term for the use of reason to reconcile mankind with God.)  Jacob Arminius is not as famous as John Calvin, and… well, I wish I knew why. It’s probably because Arminian sounds like “Armenian”, which is a completely different thing.  

Arminius – and this is crucially important for rock and rap and all the rest of it – completely accepted the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. He agreed: the human race was about as low as you could go. Where he differed from Calvin was his view of irresistible grace. As he saw it, God’s grace could be resisted: if you really wanted to clam up your ears and dance with the devil, that option was open to you, even if the big guy was calling your name. It followed that the inverse was also true. No matter how degraded your morals are, you’ve got an opportunity to open yourself up to God and let grace do its work on you. Divine grace, he believed, was so powerful that it punches through the total depravity of mankind and creates a kind of caesura in the celestial music. This force – which he called prevenient grace – was available to everybody, in perpetuity throughout the universe. There would be pivotal moments in a man’s life when he would either opt to humble himself before God and let the light in, or turn all the switches off and persist in sin. This was the arc of the cosmic drama: not great deeds, but the private struggle for salvation in which each soul was a separate battlefield.

Calvinists deemed this both illogical and an affront to the concept of divine omnipotence, and convened a synod to declare Arminian theology heretical.  and so they did.  The Remonstrants – that was Arminius’s party – were soon on the ropes. But while the idea of predestination has never been fully expunged from the Western Christian imagination, Arminius has gotten the last laugh and then some.  Arminian theology underpinned the Baptist and Methodist movements in the UK, and, in turn, the African-American Baptist and Methodist congregations that catered to men and women in bondage. From these churches would come a great outpouring of gospel, and soul, and rhythm music indebted to Africa and the islands.

This became a gift to a society that didn’t exactly deserve it: art as an expression of prevenient grace, low-down people in touch with their depravity but with eyes on the sky, anguished cries for help and supernatural sympathy (the blues, brother), and a deep understanding that we’re all in this shitshow together. No elect, no good guys, just the same salvation tearing the fabric of dull reality for those who can get with the vibe. Sin and pain, dirt and redemption, holy fire and the flames of hell: it’s right there, in the way Aretha Franklin pounded the keys, and the way Elvis Costello hits those high notes on “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”, and the growl of James Jamerson’s bass and the firm crack of Charlie Watts’s snare, and Lauryn Hill’s rhymes and Angus Young’s leads and Nick Drake’s thrumming Martin. If I don’t hear total depravity in your song, buddy, you’re not just doing it wrong – you’re wasting the gift.  

Rodney Crowell is an old dude – he’s probably well on the far side of sixty – and any innovations he had to contribute to Texas country music happened in the Eighties. Yet Rodney’s familiarity with total depravity gives him a leg up over younger Nashville artists who are more comfortable with platitudes and pat morality.  He knows what’s deep in the heart of uncertain Texas, and maybe even what makes it so uncertain, and he can approach it with the wry irony that only those who’ve fathomed the depths of their own abjectitude can.  Willie Nelson and Billy F Gibbons recognize; Lyle Lovett does, too. The song with Lyle is outstanding, so even if you’re going to ignore this one, you might want to drop the imaginary needle there and let it tarry awhile, or just add it to your non-chill playlist.   

Whew, okay, that’s enough for today. Thank you for attending services. Theresa will be passing around the collection plate shortly.

About 2019: Miscellaneous Stuff

The year’s best music video: Tierra Whack vs. the potatoes in “Unemployed”.

You Didn’t Think You Were Getting Away Without A Topical Essay, Did You?

America is twenty-two trillion dollars in debt. That this is a fiscal crisis should be obvious to everyone. It’s also a moral crisis. Regardless, the current administration continues to boast about the rude health of the national economy. The value of the stock market is up. Companies continue to post profits, and people still launch new businesses successfully. GDP keeps rising. The gears of enterprise keep turning. 

But the part of the economy that’s actually under the control of the government is a royal mess. Last year, the treasury reported a deficit of 900 billion dollars. By 2022, the shortfall will break a trillion. This government isn’t merely spending a little more than it’s taking in and hoping to fudge the numbers a bit the way a stealthy embezzler might.  They’re not just brazenly unbalancing the scales.  They’ve taken the scale and thrown it out the window, and they’re whistling and looking as innocent as possible in the hope that you won’t notice the heist.

When they do talk about it, it’s mostly to justify their actions, or to announce another tax cut, or a government expansion guaranteed to shovel more I.O.U.s on the mountain of debt. Because why not?, things are already completely out of control.  No one will notice, and even if somebody does, the malfeasance is so huge and the numbers so large that all the sprockets in the investigator’s mind are liable to blow.

Economists in the pay of the government will appear on cable shows and say with a straight face that deficit spending is healthy, carrying trillions of dollars of debt is wise fiscal policy, and failure to pay bills is acceptable.  It is dispiriting to me to see so many grown-ups fail to grasp what every five-year-old knows: it’s far better to have money than it is to owe money, and owing 22 trillion dollars is exactly 22 trillion times worse than owing a buck to the lemonade stand.

I’m not going to argue macroeconomic minutia with professional obfuscators.  I don’t want to hear it, and neither should you.  Instead, I’ll begin with the premise that you have enough common sense to recognize a government snow job when you see one. Even deficit hawks tend to underplay the staggering moral hazard that’s been engendered by the irresponsible economic policy that the country has pursued for the past forty years.  Spending and tax-cutting the country into insolvency was celebrated, as drunken sprees tend to be. That policy also has robbed young people, who had no vote and hence no say in how the budget would be apportioned, of their future.  Each newborn owes $400,000 to our national creditors.  This should fill all of us with shame.  It should spur us into action.

Eating the young is a common characteristic of decadent empires.  In American fashion, we’ve taken it to a crazed extreme. Nobody ever apologizes for the profound selfishness of American fiscal policy; our treasurers, executives, and lawmakers are too busy patting each other on the backs and taking credit for the success of businesspeople who’d probably be happiest if the government would just leave them alone.  Policymakers, worried about their jobs, do like to stimulate the economy whenever there’s a sign of a slowdown, which usually means a big spending package or a tax cut or both. Whether any of these slash-and-burn tactics has any effect on the GDP or productivity is for others to debate. 

Regardless, we grown-ups simply have no right to heap onerous debt on the shoulders of young people, who, in a representative republic, deserve an opportunity to guide the country according to their own wishes.  What we’ve done isn’t simply unfair.  It’s theft, plain and simple, and our willingness to countenance that theft, for decades, has stained all of our institutions.  Taxation without representation split America from the British Empire, and if we don’t straighten out our act, the same damn thing is going to sink the country that bravely, and justly, stood against it. 

And Furthermore

Citizenship implies responsibility. A republic as complex and powerful as ours can’t stand unless its members take that responsibility seriously. Lately, we’re not doing too well. 

The President of the United States was lifted from bankruptcy and ruin by outside parties who decided that his public rehabilitation represented a worthy investment. Because the President has blocked any inquiry into his finances and refuses to release his tax returns, we don’t know who those creditors are. That’s a huge problem.

It is in the public interest to determine to whom our leaders owe favors and to deny executive authority to those who may be compromised. We can and must refuse to aid the ascent of politicians with tainted motivations who seek elected office for opaque reasons.  If there is even a hint of impropriety around a potential officeholder, it’s our ethical duty as citizens to shut that politician down. The health of the republic we love depends on our vigilance. 

In 2016, we didn’t do that. We didn’t vet a mendacious politician properly. Whether our failure to live up to our responsibility as citizens happened because of omission or complicity is immaterial now; what’s imperative is that we don’t repeat the mistake. The consequences of our laxity haunt us daily. We don’t know why the President makes the decisions he does. We don’t know if he’s acting on behalf of American interests, or the interests of his creditors, who may not be American at all. 

A citizen is expected to behave morally: she’s a person with a sense of the polis, and she doesn’t put her own needs over those of her neighbors. Just as importantly, a citizen must have the wisdom to differentiate between statesmen and charlatans. A citizen is not credulous; she doesn’t act to reinforce the position, and the party line, of leaders whose ascendancy benefits her and those like her. When she’s confronted with a scam that an elementary school student could see through, she puts her partisanship aside and calls it what it is.

The American republic is strong. It can take a great deal of abuse before it topples. Nevertheless, we’re really pushing it.   

Okay, back to the fun stuff.

Most Caustic Polemical Material

Agenda by The Pet Shop Boys.  Uh oh, the angry Neil is back.  Thought we’d left him on Elysium.  The Agenda EP is four straight-up protest songs, heavier on bitter sarcasm than the playful irony that you probably associate with the Pet Shop Boys.  There’s even a song called “Social Media”, which is definitely not not an old man complaining about social media.  Yes, your very favorite genre.  It’s funny, of course, but uncharacteristically flatfooted.  See, also, this representative verse from “Give Stupidity A Chance”: “Instead of governing/with thoughtful sensitivity/let’s shock and awe the world/with idiotic bigotry”.  Applies well transatlantically, does it not?  In their defense, Tennant and Lowe are exactly the sort of gentle London cosmopolitans that Brexit was designed to enrage. So it speaks well of their courage and their pattern recognition, if not their artistry, that they’re kicking back in the only way they know how.  Remember that the reason why the Civil War dragged on for four years is that the North was caught with their pants down: they didn’t realize how badly the South wanted to fight, and by the time they’d figured it out, Virginia and Tennessee were covered in blood.  Neil is ready.  Are you?

Also Surprisingly Pointed

Charly Bliss’s excellent Young Enough.  Do you reckon “Chatroom” is about the Kavanaugh hearings?  Or is it just that Professor Blasey-Ford’s experience is depressingly common?  Regardless, it fits so snugly that it’s done the song a disservice: I can’t hear the second verse without visualizing Lindsey Graham. Yes, much has changed in Charlyland: in place of the stories of poolside parties and peeing on the trampoline are references to fights in the family planning aisle, cult leaders, and heavy allusions to sexual coercion and pain. Right in the middle of it all is Eva Hendricks, cracking wise in that apple-scented fine line marker of a voice of hers; holding on to her sense of humor, and sense of self, in spite of it all. It’s going to break her heart to see it blown to bits, she tells us, with absolute sincerity, right off the bat, and if you think the antecedent is unclear in the slightest, well, buddy, you haven’t been paying attention. The band backs her up with music that makes the connections between Weezer, Rilo Kiley, and Fountains of Wayne crystal-clear – music sturdy enough to stand up to the insane compositional demands of a lifelong Elvis Costello fan. Putting the power in power-pop: not (just) a matter of pre-amp distortion.

Maybe Not As Provocative As The Artist Thinks It Is

Marika Hackman’s  Any Human Friend.  The synth pads are new, but the songwriting structures aren’t: this is the same compositional architecture we got on the first two albums. Maybe it’s a bit more streamlined, and maybe not. No new tricks for us, but at least she isn’t giving anything back. As for the words, hm: it’s a little early for Marika to be making her Masseduction, don’t you think?  Annie Clark had to do a whole season of preemptive penance with David Byrne before she laid that one on us.  The queer component of her storytelling lends it some sociopolitical heft, I guess, although given the bumper crop of sapphic pop we’ve gotten over the past three years, positionality ain’t what it used to be. I understand the frustration with the straight-ish girl on “Conventional Ride, even if that’s the sort of thing that Sara Quin has been writing about for years. But the rest of this album feels oddly familiar, and not in a refreshing way. Marika’s kissing/fucking/eating/moaning isn’t all that much different from what you’d get out of Trippie Redd, or David Lee Roth.  Much as i dig a good she bop, “Hand Solo” suggests that her orgasm addiction is getting out of control: I mean, she’s so horny that she can’t think up a better Star Wars joke than that? I mean, I get it, if anybody does. But marika’s distinguishing characteristic continues to be emotional remoteness that makes Laura Marling look like Marianne Williamson by comparison. Coupled with her sex drive, that pushes this album into find em/feel em/fuck em/and forget em territory mainly suitable for members of Alpha Beta Theta Gamma.  She keeps this up, and she’s liable to get appointed to the cabinet.

Exactly As Provocative As The Artist Thinks It Is

Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain.  Just what you asked for: rap songs about Brexit.  To be fair to this goon, he’s also plenty interested in tawdry sex and booze and other football chav nonsense.  But he’s also bugged by the way in which his country is committed to misrepresenting itself on the world stage, and as a confirmed reprobate with legit love for merry England as it is, he wants to set the record straight.  For Slowthai, the great crime of Brexit is that it’s full of shit — its proponents, in his view, are nostalgic for a version of the country that nobody interesting or worthwhile would want to inhabit in the first place.  He asks you to embrace instead the England he knows: abrasively multicultural, physically grotesque, filled with too-clever louts and acid-tongued chicks, scandal-ridden and fight-prone, heavy on mockery, unique on the globe but tied to the world by necessity.  You might say that the current government in Westminster is, ironically, the best example of what he’s talking about.  Their endless bickering seems a hell of a lot closer to Slowthai’s vision of essential Englishness than all the fascist hooey about hedgerows and the sceptered isle.  As is generally the case with records like this, it’s at its best when it’s closest to punk rock.  Which furthers a peculiar understanding of the British national character that i’ve arrived at myself: these limeys still can’t rap worth a damn.  Slowthai tries his best.  But when a real emcee like Skepta – a guy I don’t even like very much, mind you — comes by to drop a verse, he throws into relief Slowthai’s corner-pub croak, which, over eighteen tracks, will fry your eardrums like fish and chips. That said, it’s probably a decent reflection of the abrasive state of discourse in the UK, and Brexit dragged on forever, too. May Boris Johnson and Michael Gove be trapped in a room with this album on infinite repeat.  Spare Theresa May, though.  That woman has suffered enough.   

A Somewhat Commendable Barricade-Stormer

Ezra Furman’s  Twelve Nudes.  I guess Ezra thought that the problem with Transangelic Exodus was that it didn’t hit hard enough. This is the most screaming Ezra has done since… I was going to say Day Of The Dog, but that had more than a few oases of melody amidst the clangor. Twelve Nudes doesn’t. It’s just banging pots and pans and Ezra behaving like he’s stubbed all his toes at once. He howls because it’s a punk rock thing to do, and because he believes it is the only rational response to the parlous state of the world, and he howls because it is an expression of the gender dysphoria that has overtaken him and threatens to subsume his other concerns. As this is an Ezra Furman project, it is thoughtfully written and designed to prompt dialogue. And because it is thoughtfully written and designed to prompt dialogue, it is incumbent upon we, the fans and admirers of this excellent artist, to take these decisions seriously and respond to them. So here we go.

1., it’s not particularly punk to yell.  Many great punk rock records don’t have any yelling on them at all. 2., as a Salinger fan, I get his desire to change his name to Esme. As an Ezra Furman fan, I worry that literalism has begun to flatten his sexual imagination. Like any sane possessor of a Y chromosome, Ezra often wishes he wasn’t male. This is highly understandable, because girls are cute and smell nice, and boys are icky and smell like Doritos and gym socks. But he’s never going to write about gender instability any more persuasively than he did on “Wobbly” and “Body Was Made”, and repeat trips to the well are hauling up muddy water. 

3., about the racket, Ezra may be right: screaming an alarm might indeed be the best way to call fellow dissidents to action.  It is, however, not always the best way to make a musical album. I thought that Ezra was on to something special with the arrangements on Perpetual Motion People – that highly personal hybrid of doo-wop, new wave, Blobby Dylan, and Violent Femmes-style punk felt like it could be a carrying tool for him for a few album cycles.  If he dispensed with it because he felt it was insufficiently urgent, it’s hard not to sympathize.  He might have decided that an era of asylum seekers in cages and non-scientific thinking and white nationalist revanchism requires some abrasion. But Ezra’s music was already astringent. He didn’t need to blow the cones in the amplifiers to make his political points. He was making them fine.

Bravest Record

On Girl, Maren Morris has inverted Billy Ocean: she’s gotten out of her car and into her dreams.  No longer is she rolling in her Eighties Mercedes and holding services to the dashboard radio. Instead, she’s floating in that great, specifics-free M.O.R. zone, inhabited by those to whom mass appeal is more important than the rock and roll verities. She’s doing this, no doubt, because she’d like a big fat crossover hit – and if you had pipes like hers, you’d chase one too.  But Maren has another reason for swinging for the, er, middle: this is a not-so-subtly political album, from a broad-minded Texan who’s had enough of the bullshit. So we get a nice big bite from “Nine To Five, plus a full-throated rejection of showbiz chauvinism worthy of Angaleena Presley, plus a big fat nod to Beyoncé, right in the face of the dudes who’d like to run her out of the genre for her R&B overtures. Then there’s the plea for social tolerance, sung with Brandi Carlile, that turns on the line “if I’m being honest, I don’t know what God is” – the gutsiest thing I’ve heard in awhile from an artist who is still marketed, primarily, to hicks. Shut up and sing?, hell no, she won’t, she tells us on “Flavor”. As always, she makes up for the flatfooted lyrics by performing the heck out of everything. Oh, I notice some critics find the chorus to “Make Out With Me” insufficiently racy — as if a smooching session was a less legit subject for a pop song than, say, Lil Wayne’s testicles. I feel bad for their girlfriends.

Promising Reunion That, All Things Considered, Isn’t Going So Well

Somewhere along the line, somebody told Ride that they weren’t songwriters — that their contribution to the story of music was not “Twisterella” or “Walk On Water” or “I Don’t Know Where It Comes From”, but a sound-over-substance approach to pop-rock presentation heavy on numbing guitar effects. The sad part is that they seem to believe it.  Much like the modern Feelies, they’re back together as living legends/reputation coasters/genre granddads rather than as artists with anything new to say. I can understand why Gardener and Bell want back in in 2019: they may indeed have something to teach the shoegaze movement, oversaturated with mediocrity as it is. They might even have a track or two to contribute to a chill playlist.  But This Is Not A Safe Place, like all Ride records (and, to be honest, all shoegaze records), succeeds to the extent that the writing is good.  And it is good, now and then, when you can access the body through all the gauze.  Angels still come from time to time.  But not nearly often enough.   

Comeback Story

There’s no small satisfaction in witnessing an artist you’ve followed for a decade grasp that elusive thing he’s been groping for, even if he’s mainly been groping around in his pants in a, you know, masturbatory way. Hmm, that makes it seem like I want to watch Bryce from the Rocket Summer jerking the gherkin, and I so so do not. What I mean to say is that Sweet Shivers realizes the hybrid sound he’s been after for years: a bright sunny day amalgam of hi-sheen disney pop, mallpunk, arena prog, electrobullshit, and the sort of smiley face Christian hooey I associate with Adam Young. He swung for these oddly angled fences on Zoetic, and whiffed like Mighty Casey; instead of grabbing some pine, he’s hacked again and hit a… well, at least a ground-rule double, I’d say. He’s still not letting anybody else into the studio, which means he’s quadruple- and quintuple-tracking everything again, achieving that weird airless quality that all latter-day Rocket Summer projects have.  Nevertheless, some of these productions are undeniable, particularly “Blankets”, the spazzy album closer “M&M”, and “Gardens”, which might be my favorite Radiohead fake ever. Seriously, “Gardens” sounds like what would happen if you gave a precocious choirboy the task of adapting OK Computer for use at sunday service.  Heck, no “sounds like” about it; that’s exactly what it is.  Bryce is that precocious choirboy and always will be. He remains a hypertalented Jesus freak whose idea of sociopolitical intervention is throwing peace signs/at these dark times, and you know what?, that’s a hell of a lot healthier than issuing subpoenas and ranting on chat shows. I think I’m going to take his advice. Can’t hurt.  Might win me some points in heaven. 

Religious Conversion That Was No Publicity Stunt

Jesus Is King. Noted Prefab Sprout fan Michael Grace called this all robe and no ghost. I know what he’s getting at: standard gospel platitudes do sound funny coming from an artist who has always traded, and traded hard, on revelation and surprise. But let’s not overstate. Jesus Is King is a distillation of ideas that have always been present in Kanye’s music, and as he always does, the auteur has crafted a distinctive and particular sound that reinforces the storytelling. Furthermore I see no reason to assume that this turn towards goody-two-shoes-ism is in any way insincere, just as I believed him when he said he was lost in the world of molly and ass. Artists take journeys, and the Christian in Christian Dior has, for better and for worse, always been a searcher. If this latest leg of the trip scores Kanye a bunch of white fans in the Bible Belt, that won’t be by cynical calculation or boardroom design.

But…. c’mon, that’s not going to happen. Interest in Kanye among the MAGA crowd has always been patronizing at best.  At 40+, the artist is stuck with the same fanatics who’ve always flown his flag, so any preaching he does is going to have to be to the converted.  And this time out, I fear he has really wrongfooted his supporters. We Kanye true believers are always ready to wave away all manner of dumb and offensive shit in the name of inspiration, but we’re not equipped to forgive dullness. Kanye has written loads of stoopid lyrics in the past, and somehow we’re okay with it all – but he’s never before been boring, and with that, we simply cannot hang.

So when noted Kanye West (and Bible) fan Tris McCall says that this is the least Christian album in the Kanye discography, understand that I’m not challenging the realness of anybody’s faith. I mean that effective Christian art – art that spreads the word and advances Christian concepts, from Titian to Narnia to Mahalia to Brooke Fraser to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and “Jesus Walks” – is always risky and electrifying and alive, full of the sort of invention that encounters with the leading edge of Christian theology and Christian iconography provide. That’s why the most helpful comparison is with Slow Train Coming and Saved — the albums that Dylan made when he chose to signify his devotion via indulgence in cliché. That didn’t work for Dylan, and it’s not really working for Kanye, either. All that aside, the guy I really feel for is Pusha T. Everybody in his immediate vicinity has joined the God Squad. Who is left to kick sadistic verses about Sesame Street characters with him? You know: “Ernie and Bert/those bullet holes burnin and hurt”, etc. Don’t let your pal down, Kanye. God wouldn’t appreciate that.

Most Regrettable Genre Shift

Let it be known that I still cherish my copy of Poppy.Computer.  I won’t be selling that back to Tunes.  And insofar as I pay attention to YouTube culture, if you even call that a culture, which I really, really, really, really do not, I still consider the Poppy satirical project the very best use of the medium. Especially the one where she sits there in the throne while the telephone rings. But there is a big difference between a YouTube satirist and a real musical artist, and the Poppy story mainly just throws a spotlight on the immense gulf between the very best comedienne and the very worst musician.  Poppy and Titanic Sinclair were always stretched when they were making real-ish songs: they did the best they could do, which often wasn’t very good, but which worked when it seemed to be an expression of the same ideas from the YouTube spots.  Which makes me wonder if Poppy has gone straight off the reservation by doing these death metal/digital distortion numbers, or if they’re just meant to further the interweb mind games.  Regardless, Poppy doesn’t have the vocal skills to pull any of it off, and even the accompanying videos and costumes feel flat.  I do believe Poppy, or Moriah Periera, when she says that she likes Limp Bizkit; I’ll admit that I like Limp Bizkit, too.  I commend her for chasing her peculiar star. Don’t mind me, though, if I decide that I’ve gone as far down the rabbit hole as I’m going to go.  Jenny Lewis told me not to. 

Best Career Move That’s Still Paying Dividends

Everybody knocks Deadheads, but what fanbase would you rather have?  Reckon the Ariana Grande audience would sit through “Drums > Space”? The beautiful thing about the Dead crowd is that they don’t demand innovation, or discern compositional development through their monocles while reclining in luxury boxes at Lincoln Center. No, these are people who are actively entertained by experimentation. They will hoot and holler when Bob Weir tries something goofy and breaks a string. Bruce Hornsby’s decision to hitch his wagon to this traveling circus was probably the shrewdest decision any rock star made in the 1980s. It guaranteed there would always be an audience for his departures from AAA radio convention. It also meant that young artists who always kindasorta appreciated Hornsby – Bon Iver, yes, but there are others – can have a little cover/cred while thumbing their noses at the tastemakers. Bruce is a willful guy and was always going to do exactly what he wanted to do, no more and no less, even if it meant subsisting on gruel and boiled basketballs. But there is no way he’d be in a position to make and release an album as ambitious as Absolute Zero, at the age of sixty-four(!), without a big assist from Jerry’s ghost.  

Best Technical Skills On The Mic

It’s been three albums and several mixtapes now, and it’s safe to conclude that Little Simz has no imagination whatsoever. Her idea of a departure from hip-hop verities is a song rapped from the psychiatrist’s couch; it has “realism”, and by that I mean it’s about as predictable as you’d expect it would be if you were unfortunate enough to overhear a stranger’s grousy therapy session. A stranger she continues to be, despite the Jay-Z co-sign, despite her consensus elevation to the front ranks of British hip-hop, and despite her congenial disposition. She makes up for her lack of specifics by rapping circles around the competition, varying her flows and tempos, and maintaining her rhythmic balance with Swiss-watch perfection. See her hug those curves. She’s a high performance Porsche on a twisty, scenic road in the Alps, and never for a minute will you think she’s going over the cliff.  It’s enough to excite any fan of hard rhyme, which has been in short supply in the drugged-out era of Lil Xan, Lil Peep, Lil Pump, et. al. Lord knows I’m the first to say that rap is not a skills contest. It’s still nice to hear an artist whose verbal dexterity is backed up by a commitment to clarity.  I’ve got to think KRS would approve; Ms. Lauryn Hill, too.

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

I confess to a dereliction of prog duty: I never listened to Squackett, which was the project that Steve Hackett did with Chris Squire in 2012.  Guess I was still feeling the burn from GTR, all these years later.  Steve has been the keeper of the flame for a long time now – while the the rest of the Genesis guys just wanted to get with the times and score hits, he continues turning out multi-part tracks named after various Tarot cards. It’s Steve who dragged Anthony Phillips out of mothballs and cut album sides with Jonathan Mover, and sailed on the Prog Cruise and the rest of it.  His relationship with Squire went back years. So I admit I got a little misty when I heard “Under The Eye Of The Sun”, which is one hundred per cent tribute to the big oak that used to stand right in the middle of the prog rock garden.  Steve’s Jon Anderson impression is… enthusiastic, and that makes up for a lot.  But the real hero of this story is bassist Jonas Reingold, who plays an extremely Squire-like part with the same sort of how-the-fuck-is-he-doing-this velocity that Squire used to achieve.  A member of Genesis leading a letter-perfect Yes homage is like one of those Marvel adventures where Thor comes to rescue Superman from a radioactive Richard Nixon: larger-than-life grandeur packed into a comically small space.  As a tip of the cap from one of the greats to one of the greats, it almost feels too personal to share: a parting note written in a language that many of us understand, but only a handful of people have the capacity to speak.

Best Intersection Of The Academic And Aesthetic

Jamila Woods’s Legacy! Legacy!  Less loose, more rock, more modern, more pro, some nice production flourishes, some sweet choral moments, and generally improved performances by Jamila, who you still wouldn’t mistake for a competent R&B singer.  It’s probably for the best that drifting pitch and a certain mealy-mouthedness are her vocal hallmarks, because if she ever acquired skills, she’d probably decide she was Billie Holliday, and that, my friends, would be that. She’s still a social studies teacher on the mic, and probably always will be, but if you don’t have any problem with that (I sure don’t), crack that book and stick your big nose in it.  The lesson plan this semest… –er, album cycle is Great Blacks On Wax, as a certain Baltimore museum might put it. Each of these songs is named after/inspired by a visionary artist of color, and yeah, this is the most Jamila project imaginable. HEAVN got over on a twee and highly educated version of black power that was wide enough for alienated non-blacks to inhabit; this time around, she’s playing things a little tighter and a little more proprietary. There’s even a whiff of the elitism that her critics never quite had the heart to accuse her of, but was always lurking in the grooves: she implies that she’s got a particular susceptibility to the ghosts of these past greats that Jane on the street does not and could never. But I’m not gonna say she’s wrong. Not when she finds the swagger in epistemological uncertainty. Not when she comes with “collard greens and silver spoon/my weaponry is my energy/I tenderly/fill my enemies with white light”. If any part of her poetry curriculum helped her write statements of purpose as succinct and rich as that one, that was Brown University tuition well spent.  

Album I Respect, But Don’t Like

Men I Trust’s Oncle Jazz.  So it has come to this: eighty minutes of laid back, detuned lounge guitar, instruments running out of phase, girl singer cooing incomprehensibly in a manner suggestive of an animate pillow, misty vomitocious synthesizer patches, mom’s all-purpose powdery bullshit, Quebecois chillness, radiation sickness.  This, people, this is what your lousy Spotify has wrought. Oncle Jazz might be the queasiest long-player ever made, and I emphasize the word “long”: this is an oceanic experience, one that can be likened to a voyage across a humid tropical basin choked with sargassum. This is the sort of album that feels like a lifetime to experience, and you look up, and you realize you still have fifty minutes to go. But much as I would like to call this the Seven Mary Three of the dream-pop era, I really can’t: the evil masterminds behind Men I Trust are too good at their instruments and too secure in their execution of groove for me to pretend that they’re simply running a formula on the verge of wearing out. I believe they’re achieving exactly the effects they want to achieve, and that makes this remarkable, interminable, strangely intemperate album a soap-slimy monument of sorts.  As such, it belonged somewhere on the listening schedule, but in a year as good as 2019 was, I refused to bump anything of quality to fit it on.  That feels dead wrong to do.  I couldn’t put any of you people through this.  Maybe drop the digital needle on YouTube at some point.  You’ll catch the drift pretty quick.  

And While We’re On The Subject Of Reveries

Funny, isn’t it, to think back to the era when there was a big bad electric rhythm guitar run through the buzzsaw settings on the “Big Muff Pi” distortion pedal on every single pop song.  And I hated that, and complained about it bitterly, and celebrated those few records (Cardinal? Gideon Gaye?) where the principals were brave enough to scoop all of the fuzz and abrasion out of their mixes. How the worm has turned.  In 2019, it was permissible – nay, critically encouraged, even – to make schlocky throwback A.M. gold, glistening with Christopher Cross reverb and spitball-slick filters for the vocals and guitars, the sort of Englebert Humperdinck stuff your elderly aunt would listen to on the Victrola.  That’s what’s hot.  It strikes me that we may have overcompensated a wee bit.  Weyes Blood aspires to sound like the Carpenters; “Rainy Days and Mondays” is what she’s shooting for.  At least Karen Carpenter hit the drums with conviction and desperation; Weyes Blood is music with no motor whatsoever.  I do appreciate that Natalie Mering bothers to develop her melodies, since that’s something in short supply these days. But without the rock beat, and the grit of hard experience – blues, brother, and gospel too — none of these plaintive songs to the heavens achieve the spiritual traction she’s going for.

Jessica Pratt, too, seems like she’s got a pretty good idea about how to structure a pop song, even if half the songs on Quiet Signs are munchkinland versions of “The Lights Are Always Bright On Broadway”. Her melodies do interesting things, and the notes scatter like spring seeds into rich harmonic soil that’s so thoroughly wetted out by reverb that everything ends up slurry in the gutter. Seriously, I cannot make out a word this fucking elf is singing, and while I suspect this is by design, it still strikes me as a bizarre choice to make in a folk medium. I mean, why write words at all? Why not just have a sheep bleating over echoed chords?  Is it because we’re nostalgic for a time when words were carriers of meaning, and we generate a misty emotional impression of those days by suggesting the presence of language rather than creating language of our own?  Or is it that dream-logic again, where you know you’re encountering some kind of meaning in your reverie, but you can’t quite piece it together, and if you get too specific you’ll wake up, and you’ll have to make some toast, shave, and go out and face your homicidal blackpilled neighbors? If so, I get it, sort of – but for me, pop music has always been the one tool that allows me to function in a hostile environment. In order for it to do the trick, I requires some straight talk, hard rhyme, occasional discomfort. Those are things Jessica won’t give you.  She prefers a nice cushion.  Not just her, I notice.  Only trouble is, gee whiz, we’re dreaming our whole lives away.

…And In Conclusion

It is not Jessica’s fault that the dream-pop truck parked on my street this year, tilted the flatbed, tooted the horn, and sluiced ten shitloads of dream pop into my life. Seriously, I am drowning in this stuff, and the release schedule tells me that there are infinite variations to come. It does not speak too highly of the subgenre that it’s this easy to mimic, but it could be a hell of a lot worse: it could be fascist black metal, or grunge revival, or jazzy belles, or any number of styles that aren’t pop at all.  I just can’t pretend that it’s interesting that one of these bands uses flanger on their guitar parts lifted from Jesus and Mary Chain while the other uses flanger plus phaser and the other uses the phaser with the middle knob set to five o’ clock.  Maybe it is testament to the collective unconscious that all these dreams are the same: we’ve all had the one with the flying, and the one about the flood, and the one where we’re late to class and have to pull down our pants and get paddled by Ms. Crabtree.  Those are universal, I tell you. I have taken refuge from the dream-pop mudslide behind a bulwark of high-quality awake-pop — Weezer Green, which is ultra-alert and sharp-cornered, Cake, who present their stories with remarkable alacrity, Motion City Soundtrack, whose music is the equivalent of mainlining coffee and skittles, and Fountains Of Wayne, who may have never slept in their lives. The common denominator here: nerds. Perhaps nerds do not dream. Or perhaps our dreams have been crushed by asshole tastemakers. That sounds more like it.        

Album And Artist I Misjudged In 2018

I  totally whiffed on Sweetener last year. My bad. Ariana Grande #4 is state-of-the-art pop from a booze-infused cupcake whose early resemblance to Mariah Carey is far away in the rearview mirror. There are Max Martin numbers, and they do the nifty things that we’ve come to expect Max Martin numbers to do: arrive at the hook with ruthless efficiency and hard-sell it like Billy Mays with a bucket of Oxyclean. I’m not complaining, even if I’ve heard it before.

The six Pharrell tracks, though, are total revelations. The title tune recalls Scritti Politti, at least for me; “Successful” is like a Donald Fagen slink over a Clipse beat; “R.E.M.”, with its weird-ass chord changes, is like a power pop joker shuffled into a deck of Beyoncé face cards.  Then there’s “The Light Is Coming”, which, in spite of its lascivious intentions, is pure prayer.  These are some of the best and most illuminated productions Pharrell has ever done – an appropriate application of a megatalent that has not always been wisely directed – and they make up for some of the ghastly shit he’s hung on us ever since “Get Lucky convinced him that he was some sort of dancefloor maven.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Pharrell’s services had not been retained for Thank U, Next.  Instead Ariana has snapped back to prior producers, who make this all sound “forward-looking”, which Pharrell, even at his worst, has never bothered worrying about. More problematically, Ariana is now writing lyrics, which ought only to interest you if you’re the sort of person who thumbs through Us magazine with passing interest while on an exercise bicycle. I’d also like to un-thank Ariana, and 2 Chainz, too!, for bringing “My Favorite Things” back into heavy rotation; always un-happy to see Richard Rodgers’s most annoying composition getting even more airtime than it’s already had. There are some neat numbers here, particulary “Nasa”, which is, um, not about the space program.  But the critic who tells you that this one is better than Sweetener is, essentially, the guy who Lizzo called out.  You know; the one who, before he writes that paragraph about music, really ought to learn how to play a chord. 

Most Inappropriately Titled Album

Sarah Bareilles’s Amidst The Chaos is not quite the most middle manager-ish music out there — not as long as Ingrid Michaelson has a record deal. It’s still over-structured to the point of asphyxiation. Bareilles starts her songwriting sessions with a flowchart and ends them with a PowerPoint presentation, or at least it sounds that way. If there’s one thing she can’t stand, it’s chaos. That’s the diagnosis of the national predicament: we’re amidst the chaos, and if adult authorities were just to regain control and smooth out some of the perturbations, we could all return to the spa-like serenity that is, for bores, the ideal state of being.  I kinda hate to break this to Sarah and co., but there’s not a heck of a lot of chaos in American public life at the moment.  Chaos is not really the problem.  Everything this government is doing is actually quite systematic.  They’re just blunderers: they make unforced errors and muck their own plans up, and as people who don’t want to see them achieve their ghoulish objectives, we should receive every shoelace-trip as a blessing.  Chaos implies randomness, and… yeah, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an administration or congressional leadership quite as predictable as this one.  They always do exactly what you think they’re going to do.  I’d welcome some chaos from these people, because that would open the possibility that they’d accidentally stumble into something productive.  And it’d be nice to think we’re able to stop or reorient them, but in order for that to happen, we’ll have to show them that there are some electoral consequences to their actions.  So far we haven’t done that. Imposition of order from some sort of extragovernmental big daddy – some independent or (gulp) international police force – is a fascist fantasy.  In order to rid ourselves of this disease, the body politic, which is messy and sneezy on its best day, will have to get up and reince its priebus.  We’re going to need a representative republic.  That’s going to be pretty chaotic. To say the least. 

And Finally

2019 was mainly phoney war, as they said in 1940.  2020 will be a different story altogether. I don’t think the networks are going to have to try so hard to drum up interest.  For the first time in our adult lives, an incumbent president is going to be vulnerable, and voters may be able to do what the impeachment managers couldn’t. Most of the time, those in positions of authority assume that the chief is there for eight years; everybody in Washington was ready for the Obama takeover in 2007 and they planned and acted accordingly.  Only the very gullible or the extraordinarily partisan believed that Mitt had any chance in 2012. Eight years and two elections later, it’s about to get dicy in the marbled halls of authority. Could a Democrat upend the apple cart?  

I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s possible: 25%-35% possible, depending on who they nominate. Bets are going to have to be hedged.  People in power are going to get nervous.  And when the people in power get nervous, the people who aren’t in power tend to get hurt.  

Now you may be one of those who believe that the fix is in, and some combination of oligarchs, global gangsters and wicked computer programmers have already guaranteed a victory for Republicans.  You may be one of those who feel that machines in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were monkeyed with.  And you may be right.  But, hmm, I bet you aren’t.  If the Republicans had any confidence that their dirty tricks would be effective (or even work any better than the compensatory dirty tricks of the Democrats) they wouldn’t be working as hard as they are to disenfranchise people. Republican legislators in dicey districts wouldn’t be throwing in the towel at a noteworthy clip. No, they’re more than a little spooked, these guys, because they realize that voters hold the hammer, and they hate that.

What this means, practically, is that we can all expect a propaganda campaign like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  We’re going to be awash in a river of bullshit, and all manner of awful things are going to be justified as the in-party fights with claws out in an attempt to retain control. Collusion and foreign interference won’t be the half of it.  My prediction is that you will barf, repeatedly.  But as you are barfing, remember that the turbulence you encounter on flight 2020 is there because of the insecurity of the Republicans.  Compare, always, to GWB’s smooth cruise to reelection — one that was never in doubt.  Take a look, again, at the margins by which Trump won the states that he absolutely had to win in order to become president.  Everything had to break his way.  This time, he’ll have the power of incumbency and familiarity working for him, and yeah, that generally carries the day.   But he’ll be entering the campaign with historically high negatives, and he’s not going to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent.  His weakness is sometimes overblown by fantasists who imagine he’ll soon wake up in jail.  But it’s real.  

Consider also that Trump has never, ever had the consumer-cultural support that American strongmen generally do: under Bush, there was a cultural embargo that shut down all non-red-white-and-blue music for about four years. Trump doesn’t even have Nashville behind him.  Instead they rush to praise Sturgill Simpson and the like for broadening the scope of music city sentiment and parodying masculinist imperatives, and, in general, acting like damn Democrats.  They welcome weirdos into the sorority and make sages out of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires for tweeting opprobrium in a Republican direction.  With one exception that, as I see it, absolutely proves the rule, not a single artist of any significance has been willing to put on the red hat.  That tells you nothing about Trump’s chances for re-election, but it does say plenty about the penetration of his ideas, such as they are, among younger people, some of whom may actually vote. We’ll see. In the meantime, don’t think I’m encouraging you to actually listen to the Sturgill Simpson album.  Oh no, no, don’t… um, don’t do that.

Okay, as usual, I’ve got a last word for you. I’ll finish it as soon as I can. Thanks for rocking with me.

Listening Schedule 2019

Some years have great albums, some have great singles, some are dense with interesting recordings, some are loaded with powerful, individual musical personalities. 2019 had all of that.

Every year has a different character. For us, 2019 was something like a trip across a stormy ocean on a fast and narrow boat. There were many times when I believed we wouldn’t make it — times when I thought we were bound to capsize, and other times when there was nothing to do but trust in the wind and pray. We don’t know what’s coming over the horizon. But now that the far shores of the year are visible, I thought it would be salutary for us to play our annual game, even if listening to the music of 2019 brings back some awful memories.

We do this, in part, because many of the surrounding memories aren’t awful: being alone on a scary sea, is, we have learned, an experience that can fairly be described as hardcore. As you know, we’re not hardcore people in the slightest; we’re not rough or tough, and we don’t pride ourselves on our strength, or our courage, or our perseverance during trials. But circumstances may compel us to become something other than what we are. In 2019, we discovered that we could do things that I never would have dreamed we’d be able to do. That was, in a way, rewarding. Maybe the hat would have put us in Gryffindor after all.*

So while this was a frightening year, an brain-breaking year, a bewildering and disorienting year, a year filled with experiences I wouldn’t wish on anybody, I would not say it was a bad year. Because it wasn’t; not even a little. And we were helped along the way, as we always are, by the music, which was exceptional. Some years have great albums, some have great singles, some are dense with interesting recordings, some are loaded with powerful, individual musical personalities. 2019 had all of that. The decade is going out strong.

Real estate on this list is at a premium. I left out a few records that, ordinarily, would have made it, like Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs and Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe; I couldn’t even find room for that Earl Sweatshirt EP (I’m sure I’ll squeeze in a few listens here and there.) What this means, practically, is that you’re going to encounter some extraordinary music, and very few of those obligatory albums that we put on the list out of respect for an artist’s prior work. I say with some emphasis: this year’s schedule is a joy. Should you like to experience that joy along with us, the game starts tomorrow.


  • Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties — Routine Maintenance
  • Solange — When I Get Home


  • Miranda Lambert — Wildcard
  • Operator Music Band — Duo Duo


  • Pivot Gang — You Can’t Sit With Us
  • Stella Donnelly — Beware Of The Dogs


  • White Reaper — You Deserve Love
  • The Rails — Cancel The Sun


  • Van Morrison — Three Chords & The Truth
  • Harry Styles — Fine Line


  • Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated
  • Fontaines D.C. — Dogrel


  • JPEGMafia — All My Heroes Are Cornballs
  • Tegan And Sara — Hey, I’m Just Like You


  • Olden Yolk — Living Theatre
  • Denzel Curry — Zuu


  • Julia Jacklin — Crushing
  • Pedro The Lion — Phoenix


  • Oso Oso — Basking In The Glow
  • Little Simz — Grey Area


  • Jenny Lewis — On The Line
  • Metronomy — Metronomy Forever


  • Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Hiding Places
  • The Japanese House — Good At Falling


  • Wand — Laughing Matter
  • Vampire Weekend — Father Of The Bride


  • Vanishing Twin — The Age Of Immunology
  • Sego — Sego Sucks


  • Mon Laferte — Norma
  • John Van Deusen — (I Am) Origami, Pt. 3 — A Catacomb Hymn


  • Morrissey — California Son
  • Rose Elinor Dougall — A New Illusion


  • Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • The Paranoid Style — A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life


  • Homeboy Sandman — Dusty
  • Elbow — Giants Of All Sizes


  • Jamila Woods — LEGACY! LEGACY!
  • Calliope Musicals — Color/Sweat


  • Maren Morris — Girl
  • Andrew Bird — My Finest Work Yet


  • Drake — Care Package
  • Ezra Furman — Twelve Nudes


  • American Football — American Football (LP3)
  • Gang Starr — One Of The Best Yet


  • Mike Posner — A Real Good Kid
  • Y La Bamba — Mujeres


  • Taylor Swift — Lover
  • Nico Segal & Nate Fox — Intellexual


  • Injury Reserve — Injury Reserve
  • Courtney Hartman — Ready Reckoner


  • Better Oblivion Community Center — Better Oblivion Community Center
  • Somos — Prison On A Hill


  • Frances Cone — Late Riser
  • King Princess — Cheap Queen


  • Say Anything — Oliver Appropriate
  • Blood Orange — Angel’s Pulse


  • Pronoun — I’ll Show You Stronger
  • Billie Eilish — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?


  • Charly Bliss — Young Enough
  • Richard Dawson — 2020


  • 2 Chainz — Rap Or Go To The League
  • Dori Freeman — Every Single Star


  • The Rocket Summer — Sweet Shivers
  • Anemone — Beat My Distance


  • Ximena Sariñana — ¿Dónde Bailarán Las Niñas?
  • Weezer — Black Album


  • The Highwomen — The Highwomen
  • Kanye West — Jesus Is King


  • The New Pornographers — In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights
  • Steve Lacy — Apollo XXI


  • Chance The Rapper — The Big Day
  • Belle & Sebastian — Days Of The Bagnold Summer


  • Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
  • Bruce Hornsby — Absolute Zero


  • Jimmy Eat World — Surviving
  • Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Bandana


  • Mdou Moctar — Ilana (The Creator)
  • Lucy Rose — No Words Left


  • Tyler, The Creator — Igor
  • Marika Hackman — Any Human Friend


  • Rodney Crowell — Texas
  • Camila Cabello — Romance


  • Danny Brown — uknowhatimsayin¿
  • Caroline Polachek — Pang


  • Bruce Springsteen — Western Stars
  • The Early November — Lilac


  • Young Thug — So Much Fun
  • Laura Stevenson — The Big Freeze


  • The Futureheads — Powers
  • Big Thief — U.F.O.F./Two Hands


  • GoldLink — Diaspora
  • Sleeper — The Modern Age

*j/k, we’re both obviously Ravenclaw.

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.