In the ten years since I’ve done one of these annual Abstracts, the culture of the Internet has changed quite a bit. Music writing has grown more professional and responsible – more serious-minded – and the sort of infuriating goofball commentary that you’ll find in the following Abstract has been shunted to comment sections and disreputable channels that don’t pop up in anybody’s feed. Some modern music writers, God bless them, even fact-check. I’d hate to hear their bands.
Me, I love popular music much too much to be serious about it. The Abstract is meant to be written quickly, read sloppily, stuffed in your face and digested like a fistful of Pringles. I set up the albums one at a time and pop off about them; it’s whatever happens to be in my head at the moment. There’s no guarantee that I wouldn’t reverse any and all of this tomorrow. In fact, if I were to re-read it (I never re-read it) and I didn’t feel queasy, horrified with myself, I’d be doing it wrong.
I have strong opinions about pop music. You do, too. Most of those opinions are stupid. How can they not be?; pop asks us, again and again, to lead with our passions and rationalize them later. In my capacity as a professional opinion-haver, which is something I’ve been in my life (gosh, what will I say to St. Peter?), I always tried to be as fair as I could. Scruples accidentally instilled in me by the nuns in catechism, I imagine. Anyway, that’s not what this exercise is about. This is unfair, offensive, impulsive, all the stuff that isn’t welcome on professional music sites anymore. If you’re a reprobate, you might just enjoy. Or you might want to kick my butt. Rock and roll: all is valid.
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness People, just once in my listening life I would like to hear a record album with the following message: Los Angeles is fantastic! Living in proximity to the culture industry is both invigorating and educational! There is something worthwhile about time spent in the second largest metropolitan area in the country! But no, it is always just the loneliness of the hills and the alienation of the camera and the phony phony people behind the starmaker machinery. There was more to the Laurel Canyon scene than neurosis bordering on psychosis – there was also misogyny, and mudslides, and horse. Well, yeah, most of that is best forgotten about, and to her sorta-credit, Aimee Mann sticks to the timeworn stereotypes in this, her NPR-baiting examination of genteel white person despair. Her intelligence and her compassion recommends her to me, as does her Raymond Chandler fandom. Heck, her appreciation of Scott Miller recommended her to me, too. Over the past thirty years Aimee Mann has been recommended to me more often than Vitamin D. They all thought I’d like A Fish Called Wanda, too.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness – Zombies On Broadway This year’s version of Tegan & Sara’s Love You To Death: the grueling double-down after the surprise capitulation to the marketplace. Whumping electronica, millennial whoahs, midtempo strivers. But while the Quin twins seem to be getting a bang out of pop stardom, Andrew McMahon cannot, as the Brits say, be arsed. I, um, love Andrew to death, but if the record cycle has become just another chore to this hardworkin’ family man, could he at the very least give us more of the piano that used to be his moneymaker?
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled/Natalie Hemby – Puxico Forget the Heritage Institute: it was Nashville that laid the ideological foundations of the electoral disaster of 2016. I’m not just talking about the President here. Democrats got straight-up murdered everywhere that didn’t lead with cosmopolitanism, which means most of America. As one of the foremost fabulists of small-town hooey, Natalie Hemby bears more than a little responsibility for the political triumph of the sticks, and she’s such a good writer that I think I’d still listen if she wanted to, you know, rub my face in it. But I am happy to report that she’s on to a sweeter, more wistful, and more nuanced version of the standard propaganda than you might expect to get from the author of “Brews And Boobs On The Pontoon”. Her solo set, which is personal (and maybe uncooperative) enough that it’s unlikely to get a physical release even in the last bastion of the CD, sings the praises of Puxico, a town of 881 hayseeds in the Missouri bootheel. Most of whom, I imagine, want to make America great again and/or cheer for the Cardinals. Hemby sees Puxico as a repository of communal love and gently fading memories – a small heart pumping warm blood, shadowed on the far bank of the Mississippi by the rural ghost town of Cairo, Illinois. My gut tells me this is all total B.S., and Puxico is more the kind of place where Jews are speared on a pitchfork. But hell, it’s not like I’ve ever visited, and she makes her case so beautifully, and with such fetching modesty, that I am all in, at least for the thirty minutes it takes to spin this album. Alas, she does not have the pipes to present this as a proper Music City country record: Hemby sings like somebody used to setting up demos of songs for Miranda Lambert to hit out of the park. Mostly she tries to imitate Amy Grant, who she broke into the biz writing for. Angaleena Presley isn’t much of a singer either, but she does have the capacity to communicate anger and sarcasm and bitter disappointment – none of which are valued commodities in modern Music City, but ones appreciated by sons and daughters of Declan MacManus. If anybody had the right to say I told you so, it’s Presley, who basically called the whole disaster on American Middle Class, right down to the epidemic of painnnnnn pills. Instead of gloating, she’s on to new things to complain about: mostly the predicament of women at the periphery of an industry that exists in part to prop up the patriarchy. Never much for decorum, Presley breaks down completely on the contemptuous single, which is just a litany of bro country cliches delivered with all the venom she can manage (“jeans jeans jeans/we’re keeping it country”, she snarls, before turning the mic over to Yelawolf). She even gets a hee-haw in there. Partly shady with a 100% chance of dudes, she told Vice when asked about the current climate of country radio. Earlier in the set, she reconvenes the Pistol Annies to provide a more palatable version of the same message on “Dreams Don’t Come True.” So: still pissed off, still swinging, still furious at the authorities, no matter who they happen to be. You can draw your own conclusions about what that portends for 2018.
Arcade Fire – Everything Now The title track, which appears to have been written in the main by one of the guys from Daft Punk, is the best thing I’ve heard out of these guys in awhile. Admittedly that is not much of a bar to clear. After that this expensive shitshow drops straight off a cliff into a pit of limp sub-Metronomy funkouts. Seriously, the balance of this album is some of the laziest crapola to have come from a major label rock band since the Carter Administration, and ’70s rockers had ludes and stagflation to blame. I recall Win Butler used to be a pretty good vocalist before he decided he was some sort of supercilious cane-wielding British gentleman. His wife Julian Assange, or whatever the fuck her name is, remains the very worst singer in the world. Everybody hates this and for very good reasons. I’ve heard their restaurant in Montreal is halfway decent. Maybe they should transition fully to Haitian cuisine. I won’t miss them.
Beck – Colors Morning Phase was pretty and distinctive-sounding, and nothing else. This one doesn’t even have the distinctive sound. If I kept playing it I’m sure it would grow on me. But I’d never know why I bothered.
Bleachers – Gone Now It wasn’t the special counsel or Seth Rich that finally broke me and made me believe in the Illuminati. No, it is the bizarre cultural prominence of this Bergen County weenie. Only an international cabal with roots deep in both finance and Satanism can account for Jack Antonoff. How else could he be “friends” with all of these major pop stars? They’re sure not mining him for compositional ideas, because he’s only got one: take a phrase in the tonic and then repeat it a measure or two later, note for note, while the bass switches to the relative minor. By now this songwriting crutch is so obvious that Illuminati threats against journalists are actually the most rational explanation for its cover-up. You could plausibly sing out of the woods are we out of the woods are we out of the woods over all of the songs on Gone Now except the last one, which is a blatant rewrite of “Stars” done with the help of Nico Segal and meant to suggest Antonoff was the main supplier of musical ideas to fun. (Not even close.) His alleged roots in classic rock extend to the same two songs he’s been recycling since his days with Steel Train: “Thunder Road” and “All The Young Dudes.” Like the first Bleachers album, Gone Now is enjoyably empty; it’s the shed skin of a bombastic eighties album once the snake has slithered free. But I’m not giving Antonoff a pass anymore. I’m calling him what he is – the biggest perpetrator in modern pop.
Brad Paisley – Love & War/Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Vol. 1 It occurs to me this new era of incivility has to be even harder on Brad Paisley than it is on Roger Waters. Roger’s a two-fisted man. Paisley wants to kiss and play guitar. It’s possible to see his last five albums, including this one, as an increasingly futile attempt to bridge the bloody chasm between the Nashville audience and those damn Yankees – not by giving an inch to the tastemakers who sneer at contemporary country music, but by modeling broadminded and warmhearted behavior for the hicks. How did that go? Well… um… gotta give him points for trying. Only nobody did: not when he gave Obama a big bear hug on American Saturday Night, or addressed some of the more pernicious sides of Southern ideology on This Is Country Music, or when he enlisted LL Cool J on Wheelhouse, or when he constructed his careful, winking parody of bro-culture on Moonshine In The Trunk. Each statement has been a little more guarded, a little more desperate, maybe a little more hopeless. Now comes Love And War, on which Brad and his best pal (his guitar) attempt to convince the unwashed that they’ve got everything they need and they shouldn’t be so angry all the time. Doubt that one is going to go down smooth. If the past eighteen months have shown us anything, it’s that people like being angry. Me, I’m a lover, not a fighter. I dig the wholesome numbers about how much Brad is excited by his wife, all of which have the ring of truth to them, and also “The Devil Is Alive And Well”, a protest number with a cleverly (tee hee) shrouded message. I believe I’ve cracked the code. If all Christians were like Brad Paisley, we’d be in church on Sunday. Another Music City traditionalist who constantly threatens to alienate his base: Chris Stapleton. Unlike Sturgill Simpson, he doesn’t have critical consensus as a cover – when he makes his departures from Nashville expectation, he’s basically standing out on a Tennessee mountain all alone with nothing but his hat and his beard and his big growly voice to protect him. On the From A Room collections, he’s a soul man and a blues man and a soul-blues man, and sometimes a country-blues man, and sometimes a country-soul-rock man, but never is he the down-home broski with the jeans jeans jeans and the pickup truck on the darrrrt road. Guess he is after that sweet sweet Amos Lee/Ray Lamontagne money, which might be no money at all.
Brockhampton – Saturation/Saturation II/Saturation III This has been the year’s biggest hip-hop story, and maybe its biggest story, period. Which is strange, because many rap fans still don’t know the music. 2017: a weird one. Or maybe it’s just because Brockhampton is a cast of thousands, and besides gay rapper Kevin Abstract, there’s no one emcee here who seems like he packs the gear to be a breakout star. Or maybe it’s because there’s been so damn much music. Three long albums, with the final Saturation arriving just before the sands ran out on the year. Because they’re L.A. kids and because of the size and looseness of the crew, they’ve gotten compared to Odd Future, but that’s just lazy – the tone is totally different and the organization of the tracks is, too. Odd Future was into phony devil worship and scaring the shit out of the neighborhood, and made horror movie music to match; Brockhampton sounds like a bunch of kids who met on a Kanye West fanatic message board. Which is what they are. Though a thousand and one indifferently disaggregated emcees take their turns on the microphone, sonic coherence is more or less guaranteed by their common influence(s) and the presence of producer Romil Hemnani. When he’s on – as he is for the first half of II – the music sounds wild and crazy and free like a dear friend who comes up behind you and gives you a wedgie for no reason. When he’s not (and sometimes when he is), he makes some of the most irritating music to appear on a hyped hip-hop album since the breakup of the Bomb Squad.
Action Bronson – Blue Chips 7600 A victim of his success, I’d say; that and his affiliation with (and resemblance to) “Mediterranean” Mario. There they were, dining together at Eataly, bro-ing down, peeling off slices of prosciutto on Fuck, That’s Delicious, Bronsolino’s sorta-cooking show. He also did an episode with Michael White; he’s got good taste in Italian restaurants. I’m sure it was fun to make, but it’s hard to go back to lean, mean gangsta rap after that. He’s always entertaining, but these days I see him as a buffoon: a big fat mutz eater who sounds like Ghostface. Make moves not movies, chapter #4080.
Bully – Losing I take it as a small mercy of an otherwise pitiless galaxy that there has never been a proper grunge revival. That said, it could happen any day. So whenever I see a band toss kindling on the fire – no matter how small the sticks – I get the urge to call Smokey The Bear.
Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing Big Machine attempts to mint this year’s Maren Morris. Busbee has been retained to produce, and they’ve brought in some of the same Nashville studio cats and matched instrument sounds. Shane McAnally and the tireless Ms. Hemby contribute their co-writes, Pearce adopts the strategic wrist tattoo and a similar ombre effect in her hair dye. The outcome? Let’s just say making a Maren Morris is harder than it looks. It helps to actually be Maren Morris.
Chad VanGaalen – Light Information/Oh Sees – Orc The crowded and smoky basement room that is modern psychedelia strikes me as cramped quarters for big dreamers. Some of them hang out there anyway. In deep shadows it is easier to masturbate in the corner. Chad VanGaalen has been playing pocket pinball for seven albums now, and what this guy jizzes out for us is always pretty similar: weird-ass what-is-it lyrics, squelchy what-is-it instruments, bubbling and burbling what-the-fuck, signals run through yard sale guitar pedals, quivering weenie-on-the-brink vocals, some echoed shouting, a certain four-track claustrophobia. Yet he can be counted on to come up with a few good numbers each outing plus some synthesizer perfectly suited to fit insiiiiiide your miiiiiiind (his words & phrasing). This year’s winners are “Old Heads” (operational statement of creative bewilderment), “Pine And Clover” (Neil Young kidnapped and press-ganged into Jefferson Airplane), and “Broken Bell” (the “political” one). John Dwyer of the Oh Sees is more consistent, but he isn’t half the tunesmith that VanGaalen is. Instead he gets over on the ole sturm und drang. Last year’s A Weird Exits was the sturm, and it was an impressively windy one; since then it’s been mostly drang. It’s a good thing he knows how to make a racket. That plus the blacklight plus the smokescreen makes it tough for visitors to notice all the cracks in the wall. Also, the visitors are baked out of their minds.
Charly Bliss – Guppy They’ve been opening shows for the reunited Veruca Salt, and that sounds about right: this is a straight up power pop guitar record, made by evident Paramore fans, on a model popularized in the early 1990s. To get away with such throwback nonsense the songs have to be awfully good, but who can really tell if they are or aren’t when they streak by like speeding bullets? (That’s an old power-pop trick, too.) Well, I can tell, that’s who; I’m a world-famous teller. After protracted exposure to Guppy I can say with some authority that at least four of these ten cuts are total keepers and the other six are fun enough for a sunny day. The singer, who is probably 35 or something, plays a total pipsqueak – she even does a girly squeal from time to time. Fans of teenage verisimilitude may call B.S. But anybody who has the Diet Cig album on their best-of and doesn’t list this one too will get points on their critics’ license.
Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound I admit I’d never thought all that much of this po-faced post-alternative combo. After Life Without Sound stuck with me I went back to the others and gave them another shake, and I still don’t really like them. Dylan Baldi used to be the kind of peekaboo-player who’d make a refrain out of his obscurantism: “I’m not telling you/all I’m going through”; that was the chorus of his best number. But now he’s got a new greatest hit – this one is called “Internal World” – and he’s updated his outlook from elusive to provisionally humble. Now he wants us to know that he’s not the one who’s always right. I believe him. I’m not sure why he’s so convinced that I care about him either way, but you know how songwriters are. What I do notice is that he’s become the most adenoidal singer since the heyday of Joe Jackson, and I admire the way his gulpy delivery stands up to the guitar attack. Well, at least until the last two tracks. Then it gets so noisy that I wave the white flag.
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice Kurt and Courtney, get it? Wait, that wasn’t funny the first time. In theory, Courtney could impart a little discipline and urgency to Kurt’s hippy-dippy doobie-haze songwriting, and Kurt… well, I don’t think that Kurt has anything that Courtney needs. But he ends up dominating anyway – or his aesthetic does – and he drags this set toward the shapelessness and insularity that has always characterized his music. Sometimes I Sit And Think will always be remembered for the sharp compositions on its first half, but its back half was larded up with reiterations and motorless space rock. Barnett has always had a penchant for the kind of indulgence that Vile possesses in spades, so this was always going to be a dangerous pairing. Chocolate-covered lentils.
Dams Of The West – Youngish American Some years the critics are dead wrong. For instance, consensus sez this, the solo debut from the Vampire Weekend drummer, is self pitying white-guy crap, but Father John Misty’s new thing demands your attention. That’s exactly ass-backward. Youngish American is the album that Pure Comedy might be if FJM paid attention to song architecture and/or bothered to edit himself, and if he had a real sense of humor rather than a byzantine set of defenses posing as one. I acknowledge it’s a weird moment for male rockers: if you’re not in a dress in ’17, you’d better have a pretty darn good excuse for your lousy cisgender. “I feel sheepish about it” will not cut it. Which leaves Dams Of The West without a seat in the game of musical chairs, since apologies for existence is basically the whole act. In 1977 Chris Tomson would have been praised for his sensitivity; now, no matter how wise he cracks, a certain type of music writer just hears passive-aggressivity. Hey, I sympathize – I’m tired of white guys too. I, also, would like to hear more from Japanese chicks and such. There are limited avenues for liberal guilt in contemporary pop, and that’s how it should be. There’s only room for one of these guys at a time. We just picked the wrong one. To be fair, Father John Misty sings about ten thousand times better than Tomson does. Like Mia Farrow says in The Purple Rose Of Cairo, you can’t have everything.
Danay Suarez – Palabras Manuals/Ravyn Lenae – Midnight Moonlight Drama kids with a lotta talent but not too too much focus. Suarez raps, very well, in Spanish, over stiff but intermittently exciting beats; then she turns around and hands you a can of warm, flat pop soda. Ravyn Lenae shows flashes of the intellisoul singer imaginative enough to have earned an opening slot for Noname – and long sequences of colorless avant-r&b limp as overcooked spaghetti. Neither has settled into a steady voice. They’re jumping around on the record, trying to find a place for the needle to slot into the groove. Lenae is roughly four years old. Suarez is on the wrong side of thirty. You already know which one my money’s on.
Dave East – Paranoia Unpleasant character, okay flow, twice-chewed storytelling, limp production, shot through with lassitude unbecoming to a gangsta rapper, let alone an actual gangster. I guess I sorta see why Nas gave this guy his imprimatur, but let’s be honest: he’s never distinguished himself as a talent scout. I know we’re all looking for an East Coast hero, but there’s too much great hip-hop in circulation to waste time with this.
David Nance – Negative Boogie Often this is nothing but a basket of noise: a little white light over here, a little white heat over there, Ubu-like chaos, aimless tinkly piano, screaming for screaming’s sake. That’s all fun, as knotty problems go. But Nance is also capable of lilting country nonsense, zonked classic rock grandeur, and them lonesome fistfight blues. What I am saying here is that this grungy Oklahoman character can make a racket straight across the genres. Sometimes he sounds like David Byrne’s unruly nephew, sprung from reform school. Sometimes it just sounds like he’s slammed his pinky finger in the car door. But ultimately it matters not what makes a man howl for forty two minutes and twenty two seconds. It is enough that he howls. And you can thank him, because the silence was getting oppressive around here. The politeness, too.
David Ramirez – We’re Not Going Anywhere/Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination/EMA – Exile In The Outer Ring The grim political music for grim political times. You knew it was coming. In fairness none of these are death marches: all three of these acts do try to be as entertaining as they can be as they hold your feet to the fire. David Ramirez, a miffed Mexican-American, does a Springsteen folk-rock thing while registering his disinclination to comply with current immigration policies. Nadine Shah, an peeved Pakistani, asks you to dance to numbers about, um, current immigration policies. And the Syrian civil war. Get down. EMA… well, she has some non-gender-conforming friends. The “outer ring” she’s talking about are the deep exurbs around the city core – crystal meth country, a breeding ground for violent political discontent. As a South Dakotan I expect she is painfully familiar with the problem. The single is called “Aryan Nation”, and I have to say that it’s a little more sympathetic than I’d hope. Luckily, or unluckily, she throws so much noise and distortion on the main signal that the journalistic value is compromised. Surely that’s part of the point, right?, the way in which our storytelling has eroded alongside our ethics. She really didn’t need forty minutes to make it, though. She could have pointed to cable TV and been done with it.
Delicate Steve – This Is Steve/Washed Out – Mister Mellow But we all have our prejudices, now, don’t we?, Chances are, they’re pretty self-serving. Maybe you think that people from rural Tennessee are backward and vote against their own interests. Maybe you believe that people on Grindr with tattoos are higher-risk than those who are ink-free. Me, I believe in my heart of hearts that people who make instrumental music lack urgency and a crucial sense of purpose. Otherwise they’d fucking say something now wouldn’t they. The microphone is right there. You just speak into it and your words are preserved forever, or at least until the engineer presses CTRL-Z. Why would a person pass up that opportunity unless he was some sort of very pleasant wanker? Word man over here will never understand.
Drake – More Life Salt thrown straight in the eyes of those who do not care for the Drake. Oh, you thought Views was overlong? How about eighty-two minutes of artfully muffled kick drum, passive aggression, and cuckolding threats? Sonic smoke rings, slowly getting wider. You objected to all the cultural appropriation? Here are more Latin fakes, some globetrotting, desultory Afropop, a bunch of quasi-British nonsense, and the usual Ja-fakin canned island breeze. Beats imported in caviar tins – the most luxurious his producers can purchase, or purloin. Think the gangster shit coming from this polo-shirted milquetoast is ludicrous? Well check out Baka, he’s a no-long talker, and he will shoot you while Drake the Mafioso kingpin watches and counts his moolah. How about those who fret over the rapper’s deteriorating mental state? For those fellas, Drake has a special rejoinder planned: he gets his mother to anticipate the criticism in a voice mail message. The implication is tough to miss. If you don’t want to sound like a seventy year old woman, cut out the concern trolling, because you’re not drake’s momma. As for those who hear an uptick in Aubrey’s mood, well, I hate to throw cold water, but a close examination of More Life reveals that he’s just as paranoid as he’s ever been. He’s now just convinced that his enemies can’t get it together. His improved disposition is predicated on the perceived incompetence of his adversaries. He is, as he always has been, a man of his time.
Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon The last one was on some Spandau Ballet/Ultravox/Level 42 shit; this sounds like Green Gartside fronting ’80s King Crimson. On O Shudder, the Uncles wrote, sometimes cleverly, about collisions and compromises with adulthood; this time I don’t have a clear idea what they’re on about, but because of Big Balloon, I’ve listened to more Scritti Politti in 2017 than I have since I was fourteen and determined to develop a perfect way to make the girls go crazy. Thanks for that, Dutch Uncles.
Ed Sheeran – Divide Ed is dandy with a loop pedal and he does command a huge crowd with nothing but his acoustic guitar. He has an ear for a pop chorus and he sings with absolute conviction. Unfortch, he is also an asshole, and it’s getting worse. Eddie, if I may call him that, has grown into one of the most self-important stars in pop history: a little orange gremlin convinced that every experience he’s had is a global landmark, every girl he puts down had it coming, and every hangnail he’s had was a Herculean challenge to overcome. These are the risks that a human being runs when he tops the charts over and over – that’s a rather potent hallucinogenic, as you might recall from the Whitney Houston experience. A man’s mind may warp. He might decide to circulate a fake Latin number and call it “Barcelona”, or a fake irish jigger and call it “Galway Girl”, or a risible experiment in Afropop and call it “Happy Happy Monchhichi” (or something). A regular one-man Epcot Center, Ed is. Since he’s a legit pop star with world-class talent in addition to a pompous fuck, he does connect for real from time to time: “Castle On The Hill”, “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here”, and especially “Nancy Mulligan”, an honest-to-goodness Celtic banger that wouldn’t necessarily compel Phil Chevron to punch him in the face. But the batting average is dangerously low. And look, I’m sorry his grandma died, but he doesn’t need to make a chorus out of “you were an angel in the shape of my mum”. I mean, that doesn’t make any damn sense, spiritually or otherwise. The marquee lights must have melted his noodle.
Eisley – I’m Always Dreaming It’s a little cheap of Sherri Dupree to call this an eisley album: sisters Stacy and Chauntelle and even little Christy have been replaced by folks from the Warped Tour volunteer fire department. With no trademark Eisley harmonies to rely on, Sherri must sing better than she ever has, and for the most part she does. Nonetheless she cannot begin to spring her band, or what’s left of it, from the weird, flat, dangerous no-man’s land between commercial pop-punk and adult contemporary music. Hence I cannot begin to understand the rationale for the existence of this album as a mass market item. If Sherri’s love life with silly jerk Max Bemis – who guests here and reminds you that he can sing melodiously when he wants to – isn’t all that compelling to me, a passionate defender of both of these crazy kids, I can’t imagine anybody else will be interested. It all goes back to the same problem Eisley has always had: there’s never been a good peg on which to hang this band. On Currents, Eisley tried to prog out a bit (they’d probably have called it dream pop, but those were some weird-ass dreams); those flourishes are gone now. At the beginning Sherri concentrated on fairy-tale shit, which fit nicely with the witchy harmonies, and might have worked out in the long run if anybody in the group had ever come up with a hit. But they didn’t. The Dupree diaspora guarantees they never will.
Elbow – Little Fictions For years I was scared off of this band because somebody or other likened them to Radiohead. Now that I am familiar with the Elbow ouevre I see what they mean, even if the Blue Nile would have been a more helpful comparison. There are trajectorial similarities: they’re both prog-rock bands that navigated a difficult path from the end of Britpop through the wordy ’00s into an era dominated by beat music. But Radiohead leads with a big, impressive sound that dissipates the closer you get to it and the more you pay attention to what Thom Yorke is saying, which is usually some garbage about lemons. Elbow is just the opposite. At first it seems like aural wallpaper. If all you got out of a cursory listen to an Elbow album was that they’re modest and polite and the singer feels wistful, I wouldn’t blame you. You’ve really got to press your nose right up to the canvas to see what’s going on here. Because what the synth player/programmer is up to is really quite intricate: cool, understated, near-industrial pads, flat and secular organ tones, loops that nod to latin music. Ditto for Guy Garvey — no matter how mawkish he can sometimes be, his best poetry tends to be subtle. It took me ten plays to figure out that “K2” was about Brexit. Radiohead would have sung Brexit briiiiiings me dooooooooownnnn.
Elizabeth & The Catapult – Keepsake See people, this is why you never ever give up on a real songwriter, no matter how man experiments and fussy arrangements and outright stinkers she makes you sit through. An artist capable of writing a song as good as “You And Me” is always a candidate to put it all together. Too often it happens long after the world stops caring. But I care. And I am grateful Elizabeth Ziman cared, and believed in her talent, and kept on trying.
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton – Choir Of The Mind I’ll be honest – I don’t always know what the fuck she’s whispering in my ear about. That goes for Metric, and it goes double on her creepy solo records. She doesn’t include a lyrics sheet, and I think she’s right to refrain from that. These songs are provocative dreams that elude you the harder you try to pin them down. Maybe you wake up in a pool of sweat. Maybe you wake with a shameful boner. The elliptical: not just a machine at the gym.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy/Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up/Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors Some years are easy on critics. Kanye West releases an album, Beyonce releases an album, Chance The Rapper pops off, Rihanna comes out with some singles; we know we’re in the presence of royalty and we can begin our ledes there. It’s these in-between years when things get dicey. For instance Dave Longstreth stopped writing black power anthems for Solange long enough to put out a limp, embittered, quasi-pop Dirty Projectors thing, prompting a rush of incoherent praise. Then Amber Coffman made an album of her own, and everybody forgot about poor Dave and moved on to his ex-bandmate. I’m not going to listen to that Amber Coffman album; please don’t make me listen to it, ok? I never liked Dirty Projectors and I’m sure not going to start now that these fools have gone EDM. Fleet Foxes is a group that I do like, or that I used to like, anyway, and I, like many other music obsessors, looked forward to the day Robin Pecknold completed his degree in phlebotics, or whatever the fuck he was studying, and returned to the studio. For the release of Crack-Up, rock critics were jazzed and jazz critics were rocked, and folk critics were folked up and fairly beat. Rap critics, presumably, could not be bothered, and it turned out they were right, because Pecknold has delivered one of 2017’s toughest albums to hack through: an endless, stapled-together series of intros and outros from old America b-sides and crummy David Crosby solo discs with nary a through-line to guide you across the bramble of vigorously strummed suspended chords. That’s ambitious, in a sense, and some of the positive notices big-upped Fleet Foxes for their embrace of prog-folk. This is, um… sure a nice way to say it. But it misses the point – somewhere on the quad, Pecknold allowed his knack for developmental folk melody to atrophy. To his credit, he’s tried to foreground his concern for the parlous state of the globe. But c’mon, he’s Robin Pecknold. What the fuck does he care? Please do not try to convince me that man’s inhumanity to man has made any impression on his endlessly echoed ass. Like Pecknold, Father John Misty is an excellent singer. Yet he has never demonstrated any grasp of pop melody, and his compositional smarts, such as they are, appear to be in full retreat. Pure Comedy has been championed as an intellectual breakthrough, but all the critics really mean is that the songs are longer. It is hard to be a brilliant observational wit when your shallow psyche is your main subject. I know, he’s already rolled out the auto-critique. Spare me the contortions. Mr. Pretzel; I mean, I listen to Drake. No matter how much that guy whines, he’s made sure he has the beats in place. The bars, too, for that matter.
Feist – Pleasure So we were out at an Italian restaurant with the extended family for my mommy’s 75th and the grandbaby was there, up on a high chair and eating some mush version of Italian food. Like all babies she must be entertained constantly or she will pop, so we stuck her with a music box and hoped she’d hold still. Out of the device came children’s music, and it was just as nasty as you have heard. Much of it was straight Romper Room, and I tried to ignore it as the older child informed us about the difference between various Yu-Gi-Oh cards. But one tune did catch my ear. One, two, three, four/let’s count a little more, went the refrain, and I don’t have to tell you what the melody was, because you are oh so familiar. The wellspring of generic girl voice, right there. Well, not the rewritten Kidz Bop version; that was, if you can believe it, even more inane than the original. I mean the track that sold a trillion ipod Nanos: the rare cut from The Reminder that Leslie Feist didn’t write herself, that, in fact, didn’t sound consistent with her aesthetic at all. And as she bought it off some Australian sharpie who was opening shows for her, it shouldn’t have. I hope she got a nice taste of that sweet Steve Jobs money for her pains, because that’s the recording that’s going to define her for the rest of her life – an arrowroot biscuit bland enough to feed arithmetic to a toddler on. If you were she, you might be a little annoyed by now. You might want to lash out. You might end up making albums as offputting and user-unfriendly as this new one. Leslie, if only recompense for cultural crimes was that easy.
Future & Young Thug – Super Slimey/Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls/Future – Future/Future – HNDRXX I’m beginning to mistake these guys for each other. When Thugger was doing pikachu songs and whatnot, he sounded like Future in the middle of a psychotic break – and since Future never breaks, that was vocal i.d right there. But sometime around the release of Jeffery, we started to get the “cool” Thug, and that pivot toward the center began to erase his marks of idiosyncrasy. Just like Future, his topics are dull as dishwater: guns, drugs, pleas for oral and anal, and occasional devotional anthems for the ladies. In order for him to distinguish himself, he has to keep piling on the creative dick jokes; unfortch, there are only so many ways even the most imaginative reprobate can request a blowjob. Technically, Young Thug has yet to release his debut album: “Hytunes”, or whatever it’s supposed to be called, has been pushed back over and over like a bad defensive lineman. He hasn’t even had his official coming out party and he seems to be running out of novel approaches to female orifices. Beautiful Thugger Girls is advertised as the one on which Jeffery sings, but Jeffery has always sung; he’s a filthy Southern bluesman, that’s what he does. Let’s be honest: he’s never going to top the moment on “Kanye West” when he croons “get behind her/put it in her buuuu-uttt”. He’d better locate another gear. As for Mister Wilburn, he just keeps stamping them out from the same worn metal dies at the Future factory. Oh, so twenty tracks and seventy-four minutes of narcotized blur isn’t enough for you?, Here’s nineteen more songs and seventy-six more minutes of me. HNDRXX is supposed to be distinct from Future in some way, but fuck if I know how. It’s all part of the same syrupy slurry, oozing up I-85 from Atlanta in our direction. What sounds exciting in limited doses is… well, it’s still beautiful, technically, but like any other narcotic, it’ll numb you the hell out after protracted exposure to it. Or another way to put it: as exciting as the “percoset/molly percocet” hook is (and it is), it’s pretty grueling to hear him, six long and slooooow songs later, rap “poppin tags/i been poppin tags” in the exact same cadence. And then you look at the track list and realize you’ve still got seven songs and twenty five minutes to go before you’re out the other side. Hoo boy. Also, what’s so great about opioids anyway, Nayvadius? STFU about that shit before Angaleena Presley administers a beatdown.
Gallagher Incorporated – Who Built The Moon & As You Were So this is what passes for ’90s nostalgia: Liam and Noel squabbling like Oasis is still at the top of the pops. I hear Mad About You is getting a reboot too. You’d figure that even these on-brand jokers would have grown tired of the battling brothers schtick. But no, anything to stay gold, Ponyboys. Rage rage against the dying of the Britpop light. Happily, they’ve extended the old wibbling rivalry to the recording studio, where they both sound awake and alive for the first time in years, determined as they are to achieve Gallagher supremacy once and for all. For Liam, that means hiring big-money Anglophile Greg Kurstin to manufacture a Faux-asis for him to inhabit – which, remarkably, he manages from time to time. Sure, there’s something gauche about turning back the clock so emphatically, but Liam is such a lively singer that he can make appealing counterfeits out of blatant What’s The Story-wannabe numbers like “For What It’s Worth” and “I’ve All I Need”. As for Noel, he’s apparently decided he wants to be in Spiritualized circa ’97, which hardly makes him unique, but at least he has the budget to chase his dream. The astral plane is not a place where such a cantankerous character can reside for long, however, so it’s a minor miracle that Who Built The Moon? works as well as it does. “Love Is The Law”, “Black & White Sunshine”: these have pop hooks flashy enough to be perceived even amidst the guitorchestral excess. Naturally, little brother’s album sold gold and big brother got the critical plaudits, so both can claim victory and return to their previously scheduled activities. Liam can afford those grand post-gig buffet spreads he craves, and Noel can continue to expound on third-way politics in the NME. Everybody is happy in merrie olde England.
Goldlink – At What Cost/Daye Jack – No Data/Smino – blkswn The avant-rap. Smino you may remember from the Noname and Saba projects, and blkswn borrows a little from each: from Telefone he takes the warbling confessional intimacy and from Bucket List its expansiveness. Lots of gaudy melodic and harmonic ideas, different flows, copious musical richness, the many moods of Smino. This is the sound of a talented young mofo figuring it out. Daye Jack’s album is about twenty-five minutes of pure throwback fun and then another ten where he hits the wall and retreats behind the stylized funk. His preferred idiom is ’80s pop a la “You Dropped The Bomb On Me”, and he keeps that Julie’s Bat Mitzvah dancefloor vibe going for much longer than you’d think a guy born in Nigeria in 1996 would be able to. He’s got an uncanny vocal resemblance to Kanye circa College Dropout, too, which helps. Goldlink, on the other hand, is sui generis no matter how many comparisons to Wale he gets; he’s like an apparition that comes out of you from the Potomac steam of a D.C.. summer. This might be the most humid-sounding hip-hop album I’ve ever heard– a collision of sweaty go-go, church music, garish r&b and storytelling raps of near Wu-Tang density. Very nice match between the album cover, which manages to be simultaneously lurid and surreal, and the damp, dripping, widescreen songs that don’t sound like anything else out at the moment. Though At What Cost might be the kind of album that only makes sense when it’s ninety plus degrees and disgusting outside: real cockroach weather.
Gorillaz – Humanz I don’t understand this project. WTF? Is it supposed to be party music? Pop metacommentary? Sometimes I think Damon just wants to hang out with rappers.
G Perico – All Blue Jheri-curled, looks like Eazy-E, raps like Quik or Too Sshort over latter-day g-funk beats, post-Chronic bass, represents South Central L.A., naturally. The tyranny of the Southern Cali rap stereotype in action; they’re getting as bad as Asbury Park out there. To his credit, G Perico keeps it to hard rhyme – All Blue consists of thirteen lean, terse numbers, all of which keep the ole head bobbing, steady fun, if fun for you involves songs about selling crack to your uncle. Kept out of heavy rotation for me by redundancy, I mean, we really don’t need another YG. He’s derivative enough.
Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins I have never understood how a group of Yes fans can make music so dull. I mean, I assume they’re Yes fans. They sure didn’t get those harmonies from The Association. And oy, these chord changes. What do they think this is, Stravinsky?
Haim – Something To Tell You The most faceless act in modern pop returns; not because there was any urgent demand for more Haim music, or because anybody believed the first Haim album was insufficient, but because you can’t very well be careerists if you don’t have a career. I still have no clue who these women are or what compels them to rock, and in a way, that’s refreshing. Since their personal stories are unrecoverable from their recursive lyrics and even from their interviews, they’re unburdened from the obligation to do anything but German-engineer their streamlined pop songs for the stylish and discriminating. Haim gets knocked, and fairly so, for writing verses that are nothing but compendiums of random stock phrases from prior radio hits and then singing empty-phrase choruses over and over (“gimme just a little of your love”, at least thirty times in a row, to give you one example) until you break down and sing along. If you’re feeling generous, as I sometimes am when I’m spinning these characters, you might see that as total faith in pop history. But I do think that Ariel Rechtshaid’s golden touch has failed him a little, because much of the appeal of the debut was its studied timelessness – it seemed to refer to all eras of pop at once, and played as a celebration of the whole shebang. Shackling Haim to the ’70s, as he does here, doesn’t do them any favors. In the ’70s, see, they wrote lyrics.
Harry Styles – Harry Styles A decade after 808s & Heartbreak, this is not one of the outcomes I’d imagined for Jeff Bhasker: aiding the self-sabotage of young male pop stars via unfashionable historical re-creations. Two years ago, he succeeded in chasing down that Englebert Humperdinck sound that Nate Ruess craved, and now he’s turned Harry Styles into… Spacehog? In fairness, Harry would probably say he was shooting for Bowie, but the glam rock moves, casual sexism, and willful stoopidity here are pure Chinese Album. Even the throwaway numbers meant to establish Harry as a rocker are dumb fun, and Bhasker makes sure to properly frame the gleefully bombastic centerpieces and the epic conclusion in which Harry is waxing his larry in a hotel room. Gross, and compelling. Then there’s the one that couldn’t be more obviously about Taylor Swift if he was slapping you across the face with a copy of Red. You knew that was coming. Everything else is a surprise. Always bet on young artists. They grow in weird and wonderful directions.
Homeboy Sandman – Veins No features, no choruses, just twenty four minutes of hard rhyme from a guy who has never been accused of making pop moves, and who sometimes hits you upside the head with clever overload. Right down to the running time, veins is like watching a DVD of the Sandman show with the commercials cut out. Though he gives the impression that he couldn’t care less, some of the production here is pretty tight. The troubling news is that he’s still in curmudgeon mode, but this time he’s straightforward about what’s eating him: not women who give him attitude in bike lanes or fans who gripe about his tracklisting, but hip-hop conformity and the unwillingness of his peers to take chances. “Money molly fashion murder raps is straight infant/does anybody besides me have the balls for being different”– that’s a legit question to ask, and now that Mos Def is detained in Guantanamo, hip-hop could use a new ombudsman. Regardless, I admit I preferred it when he was rapping about sun dried tomatoes.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator/Bedouine – Bedouine The Navigator is something of a bait and switch, at least for the likes of a Latin lover like me. It is advertised as a coming of agey, Tree Grows In Brooklyn-y tale of a futuristic Puerto Rican chick who will give you a handjob in the staircase if you are nice, and is supposed to have music to match. Which it does, sort of – but in practice it’s less of a Latin-alternative (whatever that means) set than it is a throwback to those old hispanofake Carole King projects like “Mi Corazon”. Seventies storytellin’ folk-rock plus a few scene-setting words in Espanol and the occasional bongo. What keeps this from being a boriqua version of HEAVN is the lyrics, which, while morally laudable, too often indulge in cliche and obvious end rhyme and all the rest of the pitfalls Jamila Woods avoided. It might just be the freshly minted Tropicalia fan in me, but I really do think The Navigator works best when it sounds Caribbean; say, the outro of “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”, or “Rican Beach”, which plays like a crude translation of the politics of the latest Natalia Lafourcade album. I’m not complaining. 2017 is a crude time; you could plausibly think Natalia is just a Veracruzana linda, cute as a button, with no agenda other than your entertainment. It would be hard to miss that Alynda Segarra, who is the daughter of a NYC deputy mayor under Giuliani, would like the white Anglo man to suck it. What you could miss – if you didn’t read the press clippings – is anything exotic about Azniv Korkejian, who performs as Bedouine. Here is an Armenian woman who apparently escaped both Syria and Saudi Arabia before coming to Spacebomb in Richmond to make her debut album. And the evidence of all of that cultural clashing and Bedouin wandering on her music? Zilch. In fact you’d be forgiven by me if you missed that Azniv Korkejian is even a person. I suspect you may initially mistake her for a drugged Laura Marling, mumbling some prayers before she hits the hay. Eventually a Laura Marling clone was going to emerge, and I do enjoy this album in the same way that I like Gene, or a veggie burger. I’m just surprised that they had to send away to Armenia to find one. How many box tops did they have to redeem, I wonder.
Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart Of Life/Waxahatchee – Out In The Storm It pleases me greatly that these crowd-pleasing goofbags have dropped the murk and/or the arty minimalism and just embraced the classic rock. Guess they command big enough audiences now that they don’t have to bother being cool. This is just straight up hamfisted electric guitar business, like the Breeders, or Aldo Nova: highway rock revisited. These people don’t have a single fresh compositional idea between them, but that’s okay. A healthy style needs good formula practitioners, too. Oh, and with those who argue that the Japandroids lyrics have taken a sharp turn toward the shitter, I cannot agree. I have done the research and determined: their lyrics were always stupid.
Jay Som – Everybody Works/Vagabon – Infinite Worlds Starter rock, new voices of color, all of that. Jay Som is a Filipina-American from Oakland with about half an album’s worth of interesting ideas and not enough modes of expression; she’s also apparently a big Carly Rae Jepsen fan, though you’d never know it from Everybody Works. In practice, her album isn’t all that far removed from Waxahatchee, if Waxahatchee took the tray out of the oven too soon and some of the cookies in the back didn’t bake all the way through. Still a lot of cornmeal strewn around, a certain slapdash approach to the recipe book, but pleasant enough. Likewise, I wouldn’t leave the room if somebody put the Vagabon album on, but some of this is shamefully underwritten, including an interminable mid-album electro-instrumental track (there are only eight songs on the set) meant to convey malaise. I think. Elsewhere the producer shoots for raw, first-take honesty and mostly just nets performances that are out of tune and out of time. I understand that too much pop is fussed over, but that’s no reason to get all slovenly on us. Don’t make like you’re above revision; dot some I’s and cross some goddamn T’s, Vagabon. Shirt untucked and covered in grease stains is no way to make a first impression.
Jay-Z – 4:44 The Carter Family Players present the Carter family saga, chapter… well, what chapter are they on now anyway? No end in sight, too, not when they’re having this much fun. Whether this particular installment of the continuing story appeals to you will depend on whether you find Jay’s contrition heartwarming, rather than grotesque, or phony, or whiny, or total bullshit. No, this house of cards will not stand for you, textual critic, if you won’t hold all your usual Death Of The Author stuff in abeyance for ten songs plus bonus tracks. Me?, well, of course I believe him. I’m a fan; I’m here for the show. Because it’s Jay-Z, the storytelling is really good even when it’s clever, always artful and maybe even oldanwise, and executive supervision by No I.D. guarantees production consistency rare on a 2017 hip-hop album. But underlying issues remain. Jay still cannot conceive of a path forward for African-Americans that doesn’t simply mimic the excesses of rich white people. Yes, this materialist incrementalism is practical, and hey, i can visualize 44 himself, listening on the beach in Bora Bora (I hope), nodding his head at all the sensible talk. But that’s not what we need from rap artists. It isn’t just that you can see after a while how Jay’s imaginative failure – his very limited views about the application of black excellence – might frustrate Kanye. It’s that you can see how it’d lose Beyonce, too.
Jazz Spastiks – Scratch & Sniff Probably my favorite pure deejay record since Entroducing. Not that there’s been all that much competition. The facelessness of the style scares most musicians away. The gimmick here is that each of the songs is named for something that could be in a kid’s scratch and sniff book – banana, chocolate, oranges, toothpaste, and, um, weed is in there too, just in time for the coming Jersey legalization. This is mainly just an excuse for these guys to dig in the crates for some old commercials and goofy public service announcements on their subjects and then do a transformer scratch over the whole thing. So, yeah, pretty enjoyable, for something that you probably could have done in your dorm room if you were willing to blow off a few classes.
Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights Sprained Ankle was much admired for its stark and realistic quality. This… is not quite so stark. Julien’s voice has been given the Barbra Streisand treatment with copious hall reverb and “depth”. The spare electric guitar has been supplemented by winding, aching piano, which would work better for me if it did not seem to portend the incipient entrance of a four on the floor beat and Chris Martin. Also, I don’t really care if she wears a seatbelt.
Kamaiyah – Before I Wake Boop. Boop. This is a message from the Kamaiyah flight deck. You may have noticed that we’ve been circling aimlessly for awhile. Due to a delay at our final destination – the actual upcoming Kamaiyah album – we will be in a holding pattern for the length of this mixtape. We apologize for the inconvenience and promise to do everything we can to help you make your connection to the actual Kamaiyah album. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this mixtape. Or, you know, shut your eyes, grit your teeth through the turbulence, and pretend it never happened.
Kami – Just Like The Movies/Taylor Bennett – Restoration Of An American Idol/Vic Mensa – The Autobiography 2016 is over, but the Chicago music machine keeps right on firing: folks like Smino who we got to know on last year’s albums, etc.; I mean, if Joseph Chilliams dropped a project, you’d go listen, right? How about the guy who wants to ***beep*** Kylie Jenner? Yeah, sure, bring it on. Now Vic Mensa got famous before any of those other cats did – remember the Innanetape? – and it must irk him a little to see them partying on the Grammys. The Autobiography is a proper major label debut, not a free Soundcloud free release or an after-school project, and that alone makes it feel more than a bit distanced from the rest of the movement. There is a lot to like about Vic Mensa: for one thing, its nice to hear a rapper who puts such a premium on intelligibility and who tells his stories with Nas-like density of factual detail. Though he complains about women more than the fucking President, some of his confessions are so intricate that they do manage to achieve the literary quality I associate with Kendrick and J. Cole. He makes missteps, though: “Rollin’ like a stoner”, an attempt by an altogether terrestrial emcee to make like a cloud rapper, and “Rage”, a bombastic rap-rock ballad that sounds boardroom-designed. Yet the real problem here is that he did not avail himself of any of the outrageously creative producers who’ve made Chicago the first city of American musical maximalism, instead opting to rhyme over generic, perfectly functional, and unexciting L.A. rap-rock beats that he probably got wholesale. The result is a Chicago hip-hop album where the collaborations are with Pharrell Williams and Weezer (!) with nary a Jamila or Noname to be found. Chief Keef and Joey Purp do show up on a song pointedly called “Down For Some Ignorance”, which tells you all you need to know about where Vic’s head is at. Making like you’re smarter than your local competition is a standard and wholly forgivable hip-hop move, but there are some scenes that you don’t want to outgrow. Taylor Bennett, for instance, was born to it: he’s the inheritor of every worthwhile connection in the Windy City. That’s good and bad. he’s still working out his relationship to his brother’s penumbra. Right now no matter how well he raps, he still sounds like chance doing a funny voice. I’m afraid there may be no cure for that. Though he raps a little, Kami is the crooner in the Savemoney crew, and Just Like The Movies got a release more typical of modern Chicago than Autobiography did: it’s free to download. Its main mark of distinction: it is the most new wave-influenced of any album to come out of the movement. Now, everything released in chicago since Graduation is at least a little bit new wavey, but this one has a track on it that’s exactly like Kid Cudi covering “Mr. Roboto.” But exactly. You’ve been warned.
Katy Perry – Witness/Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic I am a little tired of defending this calculating bimbo, especially since her album, much like Michelle Branch’s lardy dullburger, is nothing but a compendium of the safest possible choices. A singer-songwriter who can keep her balance for years in the midst of the hit parade is usually worth her weight in gourmet cheese, but Katy has been such a klutz with the lyrics lately (not to mention the mediocre singing) that her mouth has given back much of what her pen provideth. When she got beat up on the playground this spring, she didn’t have the witticisms to hit back: “Swish Swish” is a terrible excuse for a battle number. Surely it is easy for others to take potshots at an artist who compares herself to both Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck (wha?) and a hunk of Kobe beef. I do think, though, that there is more to the sudden vilification of Katy Perry than discomfort over icky metaphors. Other artists grudgingly waved the flag for the Clinton campaign, but Perry was a little different – it seemed like she actually meant it. Maybe the Illuminati was on Beyonce’s ass about it, but Katy didn’t need any prodding. She had visions of “Roar” on the loudspeakers as the balloons dropped at the inauguration. And just like everybody else who was too closely associated with the Clintons, she needs to be punished. Because it was not and is not culturally permissible to be enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton: fair or not, this strikes audiences as grotesque. From one angle at least, Perry got off easy. Martha Stewart had to do actual jail time.
Kendrick Lamar– Damn 100 per cent popular entertainer, this guy is. Given that most of his peers unload their undifferentiated prose in a trail of pink slime, his attention to argument and meter and narrative development feels positively literary and maybe a little old fashioned, too. I think O. Henry would have appreciated the flashback where the man who would become his label owner almost kills his father. That’s the sort of road-not-taken serendipity that lands a writer in middle school anthologies. Think “The Gift Of The Magi”, plus narcotics and fried chicken. elsewhere, much like Eve Ensler in the Vagina Monologues, he tries on different hats and expresses himself in a range of funny voices an abusive parent, an activist, a murderous old lady who is the embodiment of divine retribution, the rapper “Kendrick Lamar”. It pleases me greatly that he’s upped his source material, too, because Deuteronomy is much more interesting than Revelations, the Bible’s cheesiest book. Anyway, that’s the damnation he’s talking about – not an exclamation, but hellfire, immense distance from God, all that great Christian showbiz stuff. Because he’s worried about his pull in an industry obsessed with appearances, he’ll make it look sexy; because he’s Kendrick, he’ll keep firing out the cornballs until all your defenses crumble.
Kesha – Rainbow/That Poppy – Poppy.Computer You probably noticed some Internet wags saying that Taylor Swift and Kesha have traded places. As usual with those who communicate in 140 (ahem, 280) characters, this is an oversimplification, but yeah, I can see why the joke went viral. These days it’s Swift doing the lovable-clumsy code-switching and fun appropriation and Kesha singing the heartfelt country rock ballads. It might be better said that they both returned home: Swift, after all, is a carpetbagger from Wyomissing, PA, and Kesha Sebert’s momma came from Music City and wrote for Dolly Parton. Yet just as David Cone always made more sense in NYC than he did in Missouri, it’s more than possible to find your spiritual home far from your place of birth. It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at, etcetera. Anyway, these are artists with unique gifts and they’re entitled to grow, or shrink, or mutate into mother monsters if they want to. Kesha’s adventures in naturalism are getting chalked up to her self-affirmation in the wake of her escape from the Satanic powers of Dr. Luke; actually, she credits a U.F.O. sighting, but why quibble with the press release? Me, I always thought that all the blatant Illuminati imagery in the “Die Young” video was these guys taking the piss – the 2012 equivalent of Styx putting backward masking on “Kilroy Was Here” just to have a go at Tipper Gore. But even i have to admit that Kesha’s description of Dr. Luke’s treatment of her sounds a heck of a lot like the descriptions of Monarch mind control programming that you might read about in the sketchier corners of the Internet. That might be part of the act, and I wouldn’t put it past these sharpies to get the criminal justice involved in their little charade. But now we’re applying a conspiracy theory to another conspiracy theory, and I’m not sure that there’s a rabbit here worth chasing down the hole. No, what you really want to know is whether Moriah “Poppy” Pereira has managed to extend her satire of the modern conspiratorial mindset from her Youtube channel to her debut album. and the answer is… nah, not really. Those Poppy videos work as well as they do because of the lighting, and the costumes, and the pacing, and her own performances, which are unsettling even when she’s downright hilarious. She’s an actress, basically, and if her clips manage to remind us of the power of acting in an era where blasé film performers behave like the camera robs them of their will, she’ll have done her cultural work and she can rest on her laurels forever after. Yet even Eddie Murphy had to learn the hard way that the step from sketch comedy (which is what Poppy is) to making real pop music is a doozy. That Poppy’s Bubblebath EP was pretty promising, especially when the songs were paired with videos that laid the Illuminati schtick on so thick that even CNN couldn’t miss the joke. But shorn of the visuals, Poppy’s specialness can be tough to locate. At times on Poppy.Computer, she sounds like a regular old pop star, which is not at all what I would have guessed, but the format has a way of cutting comediennes off at the kneecaps. Even the binaural synthesizer music from the clips is missing. When Poppy.Computer gets going, which is not nearly as often as it needs to be to justify its normalcy, it bears a startling resemblance to Dubstar: same playful/menacing cyborg objectification, same operating confusion about who is programming who. Actually that’s not a bad comparison for Poppy: Sarah Blackwood in Client mode plus Pee-Wee Herman. Great for performance art, maybe not so hot for synthpop. I still hold out hope that Mars Argo, the star of the That Poppy director’s dry run, will turn up somewhere. She had a good robot voice and a pretty neat songwriting sensibility. But she wasn’t the screen presence that Pereira is. Video killed the radio star, chapter 4080.
Khaled – American Teen By this sign shall ye know yonder critic who didn’t pay much attention to music in 2017 but wants to participate in the year-end discussion anyway: he’ll have the Khaled album in his top ten. If you need a token R&B guy on your list for sociopolitical credibility reasons, this easily digestible meat pill is the repast for you. He’s still vaguely unknown (even though his album went platinum), the tales of youthful ennui and drug abuse feel au courant, and his name has a thrillingly foreign sound to it. But the music is square as can be. The Muppet Babies version of Abel Tesfaye.
Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life For starters, the kickoff track is at least 40% “Don’t Stop Believing”. Normally I’d call that slack compositon, or just lazy-ass ahistoricity, but with LDR we have learned that all the references are intentional, no matter how shticky. And allow me to give her props, even for that kickoff: she develops the melody of “Don’t Stop Believing” rather cleverly. Variations on a Theme by Jonathan Cain, Elizabeth Grant, conductor. Three years ago it was all Lou Reed, Beat poetry, and Kennedy fatalism; now it’s…. Journey? Yes, a lot has changed under the Hollywood sign, if she’s even still under the Hollywood sign, which I kinda no longer believe she is. Lust For Life is the first Lana Del Rey album that’s set in the present moment rather than some fabricated filmic past where men are wild and ride motorbikes and subservient women give Frank Sinatra free under-the-table sleeve jobs at the Copacabana. There’s even some not-stupid politics here, nearly all of the it how-can-we-dance-while-our-
Laura Marling – Semper Femina She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes, she can ruin your faith with her casual lies, etc. No, seriously, what makes Laura Marling’s gender essentialism any less problematic than Billy Joel’s? Well, ever since I discovered that there could be girl homosexuals, I myself have had a great weakness for Les Yay, as TV Tropes calls it. This is something Billy cannot generate, no matter how hard he pounds his piano. For the daughter of the Fifth Baronet of Marling, that sort of thing comes naturally – it’s just a sexy extension of noblesse oblige, here afforded to a range of cute liege chicks who intrigue and infuriate her in equal measure. I have no doubt that her friend’s pudendum is as lovely as she says it is. Yet despite the heavy duty sapphic content of such numbers as “Noelle” and “Always This Way”, I am convinced that the only woman Laura Marling really has on her mind is Laura Marling.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream The question with this guy is always the same: are the lyrics good enough to justify all the theft from Eno and Bowie and Suicide and U2 and the rest of your record collection? Has he added any value? Because Remain In Light is right there on Youtube, ready to be played. In the past he’s managed to stay one step ahead of the karaoke machine, but this time around, he’s set himself a real obstacle course to run. For starters, the new songs go on all day, and while none of them exactly drag, you’ve got to be more of a James Murphy fanboi than I am to resist the temptation to zone out now and then. That’s an LCD first. More problematically – for him, at least, if not for us – this is by far the least gimmicky LCD Soundsystem has album ever made. The pithy pop-rock quotables are still there, but he’s not dropping names or acting the bemused big-city scenester like he once did. Instead he’s writing about mortality and aging and encroaching irrelevance from a (male) rocker’s perspective. That probably limits the audience quite a bit: I guess I can envision a girl dancing to this, if she had no good alternative at hand, but it’s hard to imagine any of it resonating with her. But urbane middle-aged nondads need something to nonrock to, too.
Lights – Skin & Earth Ms. Poxleitner is owed an apology, or at least a couple of bucks. Back when Tegan and Sara were still pretending to be alternative, Lights was bravely doing the “She Bop” revival thing and dodging dirty looks from the cognoscenti. Now everybody wants to sound like Lights circa The Listening, including the biggest pop star in the world. Sucks to be juuuuust a little before your time: only psychos like me paying way too much attention recognize your bragging rights. Everybody else assimilates you to the bandwagon. This new one brings back some of the not-really-dubstep synth experimentation of Siberia and the time-to-make-some-dough arena pop moves of Little Machines. She remains a sure hand with a hook. But the market is awash in this stuff. Poxleitner sang about it in ’12: timing is everything.
Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie – Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie Honestly I ought to try harder with this. It’s basically a Fleetwood Mac album minus Stevie Nicks. Mitchell Froom produced. Lots of my old favorites have put out good music this year, and these are certainly old favorites. My suspicion is that it’s somewhat lackluster stuff. But these two (four? five?) deserve the benefit of every doubt.
Lorde – Melodrama Here is the surest tip-off that you’re about to get a retreat to dull conventionality from a pop star: she tells the press that she’s really broken some rules on her upcoming set. Katy Perry did it before she stuck us with Witness, and hey, check out Lorde, telling the New York Times that “Green Light” was a dangerously complex pop song. (This was a few days before the Illuminati overlords placed an article with this headline: “You May Not Know Jack Antonoff, But You Love His Music”.) In fact it is about as normal a song as anybody has released lately: it sounds like 2017 over a disco beat. It is also the only decent track on Melodrama, and not coincidentally, it’s the one that features a writing credit from Joel Little, Lorde’s partner on “Pure Heroine”. It is tempting to blame Antonoff for the dreariness and dead-mall emptiness of the rest of this album, especially since you can sing are we out of the woods are we out of the woods are we out of the woods over half of the choruses here, too, and because “Liability”, the centerpiece, bears a striking structural resemblance to – you guessed it – “All The Young Dudes”. But i’m afraid the culprit here is Ella Yelich-O’connor herself, who has, in four years, gone from “we ride the bus with our knees pulled in” to “we are kings and queens of the dancefloor”. And so an observational poet becomes just another dance club cheerleader. Not even a particularly good one, either; I mean, “they’ll hang us in the Louvre”?, really? Now either Lorde has contracted a neurodegenerative disease of some kind, which is unlikely given her “age”, or she made a deliberate decision to chase a sound and subject matter commensurate with what you get on contemporary hit radio. Given the presence of Antonoff behind the boards – and the title of this album – I’m betting heavily on the latter. Once you start making those compromises, it’s very difficult to stop: the next thing you know, you’re out there spending top dollar to capture that Selena Gomez feel appeal. So here is the lesson I take from the great Melodrama disaster. You find a talented kid who wants to be a pop songwriter?, you give her this advice, and this advice only: learn an instrument. Otherwise she will get steamrolled by her collaborators. Seriously, learning Logic and Ableton and all that loopy business is no damn substitute for the real thing. You will try to guide the ship but your hands will be tied. A producer cannot impose his will on Taylor Swift because no matter how much gook there is on her songs, at base there is a girl in her bedroom with an acoustic guitar, hammering out a compositional framework around which all the fancy window-dressings will hang. That framework is the song, and it doesn’t budge. Be that girl. Don’t be Lorde. God, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but don’t be Lorde.
Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone Soft rap, British style. Respects his girlfriend, loves his mother and his nan’s pancakes, other stuff that makes you go awww. Enjoys record shopping. Although I suspect he’s misrepresenting his purchases; I don’t believe for a second that he’s really an ODB fan. Loyle recalls Macklemore in that he really does prefer to rhyme over finger-snapping Holiday Inn music, all of which has been shrewdly selected to reinforce his heartfelt everyman persona. In practice it’s not quite as ghastly as that description makes it sound, but his skills can’t compensate for the “cinematic” feel of his live band. I have to assume it’s a band anyway. Any self-respecting machine would have committed digital seppuku by the second chorus.
Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing The poor woman’s Beth Orton is back, this time with fewer beats and loops and a more direct confessional style. Call it her Sugaring Season. Lucy Rose is such a fucking mushroom that I’ll be damned if I can make out a thing she’s trying to tell me: something about “love”, I imagine. But i appreciate her appreciation of the Seventies singer-songwriter canon and her willingness to mix this mamajama straight for “The Bridge” on Sirius satellite radio. Mellow classic rock for the marshmallows. True story about artist discovery from a few years ago: we were shopping for dresses at the Jackson outlets when “Like An Arrow” from Work It Out came on the store’s P.A. system. Hilary was in the changing room and I was like, hell, this is beautifully sung, but they really stuck Beth Orton with a stinker beat this time. Then I realized that by no means would the Jackson Premium Outlets play Beth Orton. Must be a biter working with a radio promo company, thought I. A few boops on my portable cellular communication device and I’d learned about Lucy Rose, an artist I’d never heard of. One you’ve probably never heard of either, because it’s not like that radio promo company scored her a mass audience. The Internet: still good for something, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
Lupe Fiasco – Drogas Light/2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music/Cousin Stizz – One Night Only The non-avant rap. That’s not to say that this trap stuff lacks artistry, because there’s plenty of it hidden in the smoke here. It just means that you could throw any and all of these characters in a contemporary rap radio set and cause no conceptual dissonance. That includes lupe, who decided to make some trap rap just to show you he could (not that I’d have doubted it) or maybe he was so worked up from Tetsuo & Youth that he needed to blow off a little steam. Mission accomplished in either case. I still don’t think they’re going to give him that Nobel prize, so he might want to broaden his bucket list. 2 chainz has been “killing it”, as the publicists like to say, for the last two years – he had the best guest verses on both Anonymous Nobody and More Life, for instance, and stop for a moment to think about how improbable that is – and he keeps up the hot streak on Pretty Girls. Nothing fancy, nothing too funny, no lard, just straight g-rap rhyme from a veteran who has learned not to waste energy. He’s like a further-South version of Pusha T: an old man who knows the rules of the game so well that you don’t even mind that he’s not as thirsty as the kids. Though word has it he bought an actual trap house near Howells Mill Road in Atlanta and painted it pink for a publicity stunt. He knows it’s his moment and he wants your attention. My favorite trap guy at the moment is Cousin Stizz from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, who answers the question: what would Future sound like if you took the vocal effects (and maybe some of the drugs) away? He’d have to write lyrics, wouldn’t he? Yours truly had two big swings and misses at last year’s Critics Poll. One of them I’ve already owned up to: Jet Plane And Oxbow is a neo-prog masterpiece, and I couldn’t get far enough past Jonathan Meiburg’s pomposity to apprehend that until this spring. The other one was Monda by Cousin Stizz. which is such a hazy, head-bobby, hypnotic experience – like a July day passing by in a park with no pressing concerns and everybody to your left and right is smoking bones and touching each others’ butts – that I missed its outrageous replayability. I don’t know yet if One Night Only is anywhere near as good as Monda, but some of this picks up right where Stizz left off. “Lambo” in particular: he just wanna race the Lambo. He just wanna race the Lambo. Let’s throw the dice and gambo. Listen to how he boils those syllables down to a slurry at the bottom of the pot. Listen to how the arc of his inflection makes a hook out of the split-second pause after the word “race”. He may run out of ideas faster than Future did. But for now he’s the brick-slinger to watch.
Maggie Rogers – Now That The Light Is Fading Zzzzzzz. Seriously, this is too boring to consider when I still have the PWR BTTM paragraph to finish. By now you may have read that one; you could be skipping around. Go back and read it again. If you are interested in PWR BTTM controversy, turn to page 15. If not, turn to page 89 to discover who killed Harlowe Thrombey. The end.
Marika Hackman – I’m Not Your Man/Land Of Talk – Life After Youth/Big Thief – Capacity The female-fronted leftfield guitar rock. Sometimes it’s more than just a front: nearly everybody involved in the making of the Marika Hackman album is a girl. That’s a pretty rare thing – even on those feminist statement records, it’s often a tale of Snow White and the seven(teen) dwarves behind the scenes. Hackman is putting her money where her mouth is, or vice versa, as the title track is an exercise in lesbian triumphalism and a vigorous refutation of the weird idea that boys are necessary. You know how it goes: a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, etc. Surely true, but why rub it in, Hackman? A few of the numbers here are duds, but there are so many of them, and they sustain the sinister, misty twilight tone so nicely, and oscillate so seamlessly between blurry and Blur-y, that I think there’s more here than the 2017 answer to Margaret Glaspy. This one still has room to grow on me; everything in this entry does, this, and the next one, too. For instance, the Big Thief album is not giving up its secrets so easily. There are lots of good musical ideas here, but it’s so hushed and modest that it’s tough to tell what’s going on. It’s a little like kneeling and squinting to see what’s in a dollhouse. On top of that, Adrienne Lenker whispers her lyrics through various reverbs, and exhales as much as she intones. The result is something like an Okkervil River or Neutral Milk Hotel record that has been left out on a rock for a week in the rain until all the colors run and the words become illegible. Although I got the one about the teen mother who freaks out when her toddler injures herself and gets blood all over her dress. Nice bit of short-story writing there, Lenker. Her Saddle Creek labelmates in Land Of Talk are easier to apprehend: they’re a basic-set indie rock combo from the part of Canada where everybody is either in or affiliated with the Broken Social Scene. Mainly it is a vehicle for one Elizabeth Powell, a nifty, note-bendy rhythm guitarist and a singer with a neat Frischmann-esque lilt to her voice. Or Wener-esque; I always conflate those two in my memory of the ’90s. The songs are a series of Canadian-cautious complaints about adulthood – sands running out and all that. The second half of this disc is hit or miss, but the first three tracks are fire. Back-burner indie-rock fire, mind you, nothing blue-flamed.
Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet/Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town/Showtime Goma – Smiley Face The female-fronted leftfield synthpop. Showtime Goma you will, or maybe will not, recognize as the Asian-American singer in A Sunny Day In Glasgow. Her voice you’ll definitely know: she sang lead on “Life After Life” and “Kelly” from the last Pains Of Being Pure At Heart album. Freed from the exacting copycat demands of Kip Berman, she is at liberty to screw around and be herself, and who herself is is kind of an utter goofball. Tape experiments, stabs at cheesy presets, guitar used as if it is a sample, samples used as if they are weapons, or backscratchers, layered vox not always in tune, bizarre shots at mainstream pop, indifferent mastering. For too much of this album Goma behaves like a woman under the influence of Deerhoof, but it’s all redeemed by “Big Disaster”, which plays like a dedicated Jenny Lewis fan making fun of The Voyager. Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast is an Asian-American woman too; it’s almost like the provisional success of Mitski opened a few eyes in the biz. (Cut to: the boardroom.) Hey guys?, I have heard some rumors about an enormous worldwide demographic that we’ve been pointedly ignoring for years. (Scratches beard.) I dunno what it could be. Anyway, Soft Sounds is as smooth as Smiley Face is jerky and blippy, and if there’s a sci-fi through-story here, as I’ve heard there is, I’ll be damned if I can tease it out. Her very real talent for soundscaping is consistently undermined by a vocal approach that suggests constipation. Allison Crutchfield is, to paraphrase KRS-ONE white, I believe. Just like her twin, her chord vocabulary is dangerously laconic: lots of vamps here and big, empty airport-hanger verses. But Tourist demonstrates a better feel for specifics than any Waxahatchee stuff has so far, and also a firmer grasp on the rudiments of new wave. She also, I notice, has a slight weakness for romantic corn that may serve her well in the long run should she decide to make this pop thing a going concern for her. I don’t even mind when she says she’s going to dance with the Devil in the broad daylight. She’s from Alabama. By birthright, blues cliche is hers to invert.
Matthew Sweet – Tomorrow Forever What alarms me about this album is that not much has changed. Matthew Sweet is still doing his modern day Raspberries/Badfinger act with the same bit of Lindsey Buckingham tossed in. There are still guitar solos, right at the spots where they used to be; the song architecture, while not at the level of “I’ve Been Waiting” or “All Over My Head”, remains sound. So why is this a tough listen? Well, it’s because Matthew Sweet’s voice, which was never a particularly supple thing, has deteriorated to the point where it is no longer an asset to the material. As it turns out, in music like this, when that plank gives way, the whole house comes down. It’s not like he’s a disaster: he can still hold a tune and communicate a lyrical idea. It’s just that in guitar pop, the slightest millimeter separates the acceptable from the untenable. Once you’ve given that ground, I am afraid the game is up.
Migos – Culture At least Lil Yachty has stupid hair and an unfashionably sunny outlook; these stylish ciphers won’t even give you that much. If you ever want to understand the political bankruptcy of music sites such as Pitchfork and etcetera, just cross-reference the rhetoric in their social-justice editorials with their assessments of the Migos. These folks who are oh-so super sensitive about gender nomenclature and the fragility of queer identity and the creation of safe space are awfully quick to rave about a group that never misses an opportunity to put on a sexual objectification clinic, and whose homophobia is very much on the record (and on their records.) And this exception, like many other exceptions of a similar complexion, is made because… well, why? Because the Migos are poor and underprivileged and therefore deserve Whitey’s sympathy? They’re from Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. Because Whitey lacks the positionality to lodge a moral objection against this particular expression of black culture? Lame, and chickenshit, too. Because Negroes are zany? Hey, I could give a fuck about the things Migos say, but then I’m a loudmouth and it’s hard to offend me. All I ever ask is that they come up with some original, or at least unusual, content. Because right now all they’ve got is catchy singles, and that’s just not enough. The Motley Crue of hip-hop.
Morrissey – Low In High School Cut out the handwringing, guys – Morrissey has always been a cot damn problem. He was a handful in 1984 when he was sensationalizing the Moors murders, and he remains big trouble at 58. Now that he’s signed on as a volunteer UKIP spokesperson, the xenophobic implications of his worldview have become impossible for his devotees to wish away. But they were always there. They were there in “National Front Disco” and “Bengali In Platforms” and “Asian Rut”, in his weird fetishization of Mexican gangsters, and in dozens of asides, lyrical and non-lyrical, that made it clear that he believes – strongly – in national identity. It was he, after all, who recommended capital punishment for the deejay who dared to play music that didn’t correspond with his outlook. Misanthropy inevitably curdles into something indistinguishable from right-wing politics. That’s because general hatred of humanity, like budget austerity, always falls hardest on those who can afford it least. Now I am a thousand and one awful things, but I am no closed-borders fascist, and like many long-time fans I was prepared to kick my Morrissey habit once and for all. Imagine my surprise when I found myself shaking my head and nodding along to the observations on low in high school in equal measure – just as I always had. I am pleased to report that his sex talk remains gruesomely entertaining, his anti-war sentiment pleasantly scathing, and his identification with the humpback whale amusing. He’s dead right about the news industry, too. He’s also singing as well as he ever has, and after a year of White Reaper, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Rostam, etc., it’s a pleasure to hear a vocalist dispense with the effects and artful obfuscation and communicate straight to me. We’ll take our Morrissey as we always have: strong and piping hot, with no cream or sweetener. A marketer’s worst nightmare, just as a real artist ought to be. See also: O’Connor, S.; Hill, Ms. L.; Parker, L. K.; MacManus, D.; Okonma, T.; Blair, Eric A.; and so on; and so on.
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me If you took all my many fears – obsolescence, global warming, being eaten alive by giant spiders, etc. – and added them all together, they still wouldn’t come close to my number one fear of watching my girl get sick and die horribly right in front of me. I think many people who have a girl would concede that that’s the biggie right there, and that there’s no other experience we wouldn’t happily live through instead. Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie has, or had, a girl: Genevieve Castree, who I knew as a webcomic artist long before I knew her as a patient. She was exactly the sort of twee bird who engenders protective feelings, just to turn the screw harder. She contracted pancreatic cancer in her early thirties, which is basically unheard of, and kicked the bucket after a year of unbelievable pain and suffering and a Gofundme campaign. A Crow Looked At Me is an autobiographical chronicle of Elverum’s grief: it doesn’t rhyme, it’s barely orchestrated and mostly mumbled over bone-rattle acoustic guitar, and it’s chock full of gruesome emotional and medical detail. Straight through the set, Elverum sounds like he’s about to blow his brains out, and can you blame him? To make matters even worse, the story is set in the rural Pacific Northwest, so there’s a depressive, piney-scented deep-woods chill running through every line. The theme here is that death is real and it gets all of us, strangers and loved ones alike, and if you had any doubt about that going in, you won’t have any doubt coming out. To call this unflinching is an understatement, and it will certainly get some Album Of The Year consideration, and I will know why when it does. But this is not a listening experience I am eager to revisit often. And I’m pretty sure Elverum wouldn’t blame me.
Natalia Lafourcade – Musas You think you’re mad. Consider how pissed off you’d be right now if you were a Mexican. You might load up a trebuchet with frijoles refritos and fire it over the border. Satisfying but messy. Actually, that’s a very American thing to do; real Mexicans have too much class to chuck their beans at problems. Natalia Lafourcade is nothing if not classy, but trust me, her tortilla is thoroughly steamed at the moment. She is taking her stand on tierra Veracruzana with this, an album of trad guitar folk with the music supplied by two eighty year old fretboard gymnasts called Los Macorinos. They’re ridiculous. She also sings a duet with Omara Portuondo, who is pushing ninety and sounds like a desert wind. Do I miss the B&S moves of Hasta La Raiz? Sure i do. That was the indiepop-Espanol hybrid I’d been waiting for all my life. But I feel her pride, and I understand the significance of her gesture. I get why she made Musas, and acknowledge that it’s a hell of a lot more constructive than, say, mailing out anthrax. I’m also impressed — nay, amazed — that she wrote half of the songs on this set herself, and that the ones she wrote are actually the best ones. I’d mistake “Soledad Y El Mar” and “Rocio De Todos Los Campos” for Latin jazz standards from the 1930s if that wasn’t her name next to the titles in the liner notes. Imagine building a wall to keep this individual out of the country. That’s barbarism. That may be the single stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.
Nelly Furtado – The Ride Smelly Foot Tardo, I call her. But why? Why would I do that? I have mental problems. Hanging out with Devonte Hynes has had an effect on her: Smelly wants to be alternative now. To that end she has hired John Congleton to angle up her music as if her name was Annie Clark, which it most certainly is not, but we all can dream. He’s brought his client some of his favorite funhouse mirrors plus a Blackberryful of good contacts. Imagine getting Bobby Sparks, the meanest synth player around, as a throw-in; she must have thought she’d died and gone to alternaheaven. As it turns out, slanted St. Vincent-style production is a pretty good match for the elliptical, slightly mysterious pop she likes to write. The outcome: the best album she’s ever done (and I like Loose a lot) and proof positive that she’s the rare pop singer flexible enough to handle oddly-stacked song structures. Maybe the only one willing to share the spotlight with her organist, too; check out that amazing ride on “Pipe Dreams”. Sadly, critics either panned or ignored the album, and it didn’t sell, leaving the artist in no-man’s land. Same as it ever was. Remember?, she don’t know where her home is. She’s like a bird. A smelly bird.
Noga Erez – Off The Radar It is odd that Israel has never produced a pop star. Kinda disproves the international Zionist conspiracy right there, doesn’t it? Noga Erez looks the part, and she’s said all the right condemnatory things about Likud, plus her music bears a guided resemblance to M.I.A. Us phony fake liberals ought to be getting behind her in droves. No dice, though. Let me take this moment to say: I love Roger Waters, but he’s absolutely wrong about the BDS thing. Boycotts never do anything but kill the vibe of the people you say you want to help. Why punish rockers in Israel for the sins of a regime they don’t even support? The people who’d show up in Tel Aviv for a Radiohead or Nick Cave show probably hate Netanyahu as much as Roger does. More, since they’ve got to deal with him on a day-to-day basis. Fight the real enemy, Roger.
Offa Rex – Queen Of Hearts Back when the rest of the Decemberists were bad at their instruments, Colin Meloy was good. Even when his bandmates caught up in a hurry, I always thought Colin was leading by example as much as by diktat. But if you’d asked me last year whether I thought he could give us a genuine Martin Carthy imitation, I would have laughed. Goes to show what I know, even about the artistic reserves of musicians I’ve been following for fifteen years. It’s also worth pointing out that Colin’s version of “To Make You Stay” is just as good, if not better, than the original on Bright Phoebus. These are legends and masters he’s chasing on this Dukes Of Stratosfearish project, and for the most part he acquits himself well. We make fun of him for the purloined bicycle and the sailor in the whale schtick, and we don’t fight the critical consensus that Will Sheff is a surer hand with the ten cent word rock. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged: this is an extraordinarily talented dude, and we’re lucky to have him around.
Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream/Milo – Who Taught You To Think??!!?!?!?! Just like this year’s Saint Etienne album, the Open Mike Eagle joint is pitched directly at my sweet spot. A concept rap record narrated by the spirit of the Robert Taylor Housing Project in Chicago? Yeah, I’m going to make that a part of my life. Turns out the flaw in Brick Body Kids is exactly the same as the flaw in Home Counties: the lead vocalist. I tend to cut all kinds of slack for laid-back, mush-mouthed rappers, but Open Mike Eagle is a straight-up novocaine swab. I like him and all, but his absence of swag tends to undermine his authority in a genre that demands emphatic declamation from time to time. Without it, there’s too much distance between the storytelling and the subject matter. Sometimes it feels like Michael Eagle is just a well-meaning social studies teacher. Not a disaster, but nothing to get your pulse racing. Open Mike Eagle’s buddy Milo is super clever even though he thinks he is. When he says his vocabulary pays his rent, I believe him, because it sure ain’t the beats. His set is straight wordplay in a style that Yoni Wolf would probably recognize as indebted to him, and I do appreciate his love for videogames and Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy lit. Yet after awhile it becomes clear that he’s mainly dropping references for nerd points. Oh so permissible around here, but get your references tight, Milo. you don’t want to be Salazar Slytherin. That guy was a straight-up wizarding racist.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – The Punishment Of Luxury These guys are robot pop legends, and it ought to please you that they’re not content to lie on their synthetic laurels. But there’s a big difference between complaining about consumerism on album number three and complaining on album number thirteen. Get in or get out, OMD.
Paramore – After Laughter This is now as much a control experiment as it is a band: what if we do an album with X and Z but not Y? What if we bring Y back for the next album and commence litigation against X? The one variable that is invariable is Hayley Williams, which is, I take it, the crux of the issue for those who’ve angrily departed. One day they’ll call off the lawyers and we’ll get a proper Yes Union from a ten-member version of Paramore; until then, it’ll be albums like this one where Williams is the star and storyteller. The band, which now re-includes Zac Farro (but not Josh) has found a sound to match her mood: glassy synth gamelan and vibraphone over new wave beats. It’s pretty and brittle and so is she. After Laughter is a straight up bad attitude record, and Williams, who spent lots of the self-titled album sneering at former Paramores now outside the circle, just sounds exhausted with the whole thing. Not the good kind of tired after a fight or a run, but fed up and cornered and tired from kicking at a door that won’t budge. Elvis Costello and Graham Parker used to make albums in this frame of mind too, and we all thought it was droll when they did. But we don’t like it when girls do. I say she’s just as entitled to her snit as any of the boys are. She’s no recently-fallen angel – that mean streak was visible from the start.
Partner – In Search Of Lost Time A couple of pleasant lesbians from the frozen north. Worship KISS, pose like Weezer, sound, often, like Veruca Salt. Lovable-bullshit guitar solos, skits with such names as “Piss Pants Tampon”, lyrics about Judge Joe Brown, smoking pot in the grocery store, and snooping for sex toys in a roommate’s room. They really don’t have any idea what they’re doing yet, but even when they’re groping around, they do so with humorous effect and genuine comic timing. Also at least one of them is adorable. So a few of the basics are covered. Very little chance they develop into consistent songwriters: most of the time they just mudslide down that flume of distortion into the Sweet Home Alabama chord progression, or something quite like it. I understand. It’s the path of least resistance, and there’s good slacker insouciance to be had in following that.
Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps More slooooow songs akin to those of Julien Baker and Haley Bonar. Struggles with depression and anxiety, chemical imbalance, difficulty concentrating, the whole panoply of twenty-first century popular diagnoses. They’re not going anywhere, so why not make some pretty poetry out of them? If anything guides Bridgers out of her sad So-Cali cul-de-sac, it’s going to be her black humor; that and the caustic streak she occasionally turns on her addressees. I notice that the music picks up some needed verve whenever her tongue gets sharp. “Why do you sing with an English accent?”, she asks a boyfriend on the best song here, “guess it’s too late to change it now”. tee hee. bet that stung.
Phoenix – Ti Amo Bleh, this band sucks now. Arguably they always did, though I have a place in my heart for It’s Never Been Like This, if for no other reason than the superb rhythm guitar playing. That’s long gone. The guitars have been replaced by a glitter ball. Then the string on the glitter ball snaps, and it shatters on the dancefloor, and it was hollow all along and filled with poop, which splatters all over Danny Zuko. Does hilarity ensue? Man, I wish.
PnB Rock – Goin Through The Motions He said it, I didn’t. Guess his fans at Chi Phi don’t mind: this keeps right on selling. People buy cheap Chinese knockoffs, too, and there’s still a market for cubic zirconia. Epigones are funny – they rarely sound excited about what they’re ripping off. If you’re going to be a Drake biter, the least you can do is sound like a Drake fan. But they never do, do they. Instead, they wear their production like a resentful intern in an itchy business suit. Now his bitterness and lack of identity can be yours for the low low price of $0, given the economy of streaming services. The music biz: nobody is happy.
Portugal. The Man – Woodstock If I’d made an album like Evil Friends, I think I’d give up on alternative music and go Hollywood, too. So I don’t begrudge them their Billboard hit. They were miscast as an avant-garde group. They’re a frat rock operation and they always have been.
PWR BTTM – Pageant I’m writing this one last because I want to be able to blather and rant a little and maybe craft my phrases with a little more care than I do when I’m just slinging shit at the Arcane Fire for your amusement. The PWR BTTM debacle was the year’s biggest music story by far, and deservedly so, but there are some curious holes in it that I want to stick my big nose into. Most of the press has gawked at the power of the Internet, or to be precise the power of Internet mobs, to pull a couple of wacky and morally challenged clowns from the brink of stardom to total nonpersonhood faster than you can say Scaramucci. One day they were getting featured in the New York Times and doing over/unders on Pitchfork, and the next their discography was wiped from streaming services; that sounds like hyperbole, but it really isn’t. Polyvinyl Records has the right to protect its brand, built as it is on honoring popular conceptions of queerness and otherness – it’s still a free market economy, sort of, and if their actions seem a little candyassed to me and maybe you, rest assured that they were cheered by thousands upon thousands of others. Shit hit the fan, and nobody was still a fan. A few writers – but not nearly enough – worried about the rush to judgment and noted that by the time Ben Hopkins was ready to tell his side of the story, such as it was, he’d lost his access to the platform with which to do it. Justice was delivered by public consensus, and that consensus was based on social media posts and word of mouth. Transgender people are rightly suspicious of rock stars and the mainstream media that enables them, and if they felt that Hopkins was putting on makeup and glitter just to take them all for a ride, it’s understandable that they’d be put out. That’s a legitimate reaction, even though PWR BTTM would hardly be the first entertainers to resort to drag to distinguish themselves. Yet here’s what amazes me: despite the saturation coverage this story got in the music press, we still don’t know any of the salacious details that might help us understand what the fuck went on. For instance, was Hopkins ever really transgender, or was he just pretending? Did he use that masquerade to get in people’s pants, or were his partners in on the playacting? The person who called him a predator: was that a transsexual too, or a man or a woman with no personal experience of gender dysphoria? The unusual decision by journalists to tiptoe around this stuff is characteristic of the way we handle trans issues – the language hasn’t been codified yet and nobody wants to accidentally offend. In part, this is because of genuine sensitivity to people who are treated badly by the rest of society, and in part, it’s out of fear that the flash mob that turned on PWR BTTM could just as easily roast a commentator who messed up his alternative pronouns. The Internet audience seems to have an unlimited appetite for humiliation. Nobody wants to be the next target of a Twitter shaming campaign. Now I am not part of the PWR BTTM audience and I couldn’t have picked Ben Hopkins out of a Ru Paul Drag Race lineup before this story broke. He may be the exact menace his accusers say he is. He may be worse. Lord knows rock is full of people with roaming hands who misbehave long before their pants are off. It would not surprise me at all if Hopkins was a rapey dude, as those guys are all over the place, even in alleged safe spaces. I don’t mind a rock concert doubling as a type of safe space, though that’s certainly not my preferred use of a concert venue. But if that safe space becomes a zone where sexual overtures can’t happen — or where they can only happen with a permission slip from your mom and a certified social worker — that, to me, is 100% antithetical to pop music as I understand it. And way too much of the discussion around PWR BTTM has been, to put it frankly, terrified of sexual possibilities and sexual chaos. We get into this, or we used to, anyway, because we are looking for an arena to project our fantasies and blow off the steam we feel from our frustrations; we’re not football stars or actresses or millionaires, so we’re not getting what we want, but we damn well want it. Think back to the uses of androgyny that we grew accustomed to during the 1980s: Annie Lennox and Nick Rhodes and all that pink hair and eyeliner. Those artists weren’t blurring the line between the stereotypically male and female (just) because they wanted to express something essential about themselves. They were doing it because they wanted to make you horny – or just tap into the horniness you were already feeling. It was fanservice. They had a fantasy that they were acting out, and you, the listener, had a fantasy of identification, and where those two vectors met there could be some productive friction, or at least a singalong chorus. There is a long, long tradition of this, going back through Little Richard to Big Mama Thornton and hundreds of thousands of half-remembered androgynes before them. Yes, those people were “queer” in a sense, but that wasn’t actually what was important about them. What was important was what they did to *you*. If you came to them with a limited suite of fantasies, they expanded it. Suddenly your field of desire was wider than it had been before. The current spike in music made by non-binary artists seems like it’s an extension of this tradition, and maybe some of it is. Maybe PWR BTTM tried to be before their own fratboy behavior tripped them up and gave their game away. But a lot of it exists to drive a deeper wedge between our conceptions of gender and sexuality. That may be important cultural-studies work, or biology, or some combination of the two. But there’s no place for it in pop. Ben Hopkins may or may not have done something awful to another human being; I’m not part of the special victims unit, so I won’t pretend to know. But he definitely ran afoul of people interested in policing the parameters of adult sexuality on behalf of progressive aims, and I would like to introduce those people to the opera or continental philosophy or some such stuff. Carly Rae Jepsen would just be wasted on them; Marc Bolan, too. Oh, about the PWR BTTM album: it’s basically just Moogless Motion City Soundtrack with flimsier song architecture. Justin Pierre should consider wearing a dress.
Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains/Brand New – Science Fiction Regardless of where the All-Music Guide and Absolute Punk files them, these are essentially grunge bands. Good grunge bands, mind you – more Afghan Whigs than Seven Mary Three – but grunge bands nonetheless, and latter-day examples of why grunge was a dead end street. Sludge plus angst plus timeworn riffs plus liberal application of testosterone to all wounds. No thanks. Earlier this summer, there was an attempt by critics to rehabilitate Brand New’s shaky rep; now that it’s been established that Jesse Lacey was (nearly) Senator Moore’s molestation partner, expect the encomiums to die away. I do not hold out hope that Max Bemis will ever be recognized as the class of that scene: he’s too Jewish, too heterodox, and, frankly, too smart. But I do notice that he got the girl. I believe Jesse noticed too.
Randy Newman – Dark Matter As Colonel Tom Parker once said, if I could find me a Jewish intellectual boy who sings and plays piano like a colored boy, I’d make a million dollars. In thirty years, mind you, once that Pixar dough starts rolling in. On the real, Randy has managed to parlay a quasi-ironical Ray Charles/Fats Domino impersonation into a place on the songwriters’ Mount Rushmore, and even as it has always more than a little racist and almost one hundred per cent exploitative, that’s no mean feat. The “joke”, if you even want to call it that, is that you, cracker-ass cracker, don’t expect Ray or Fats to be singing about Vladimir Putin or the Supreme Court, let alone paralyzing neurosis. If he did songs like “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country” in the nerdy white broadcaster’s voice that the lyric implies, that’d just be Tom Lehrer, wouldn’t it? Randy’s skilled application of black styles to his subject matter is the key to his artistic success. To my mind, his acts of appropriation make Paul Simon look like a petty shoplifter by comparison. It puts him in an optimal spot to tackle his (and our) big subject: race in America. Because there are no innocent analysts. Those worth a damn are always compromised.
Ray Davies – Americana Argument for approaching End Times: all four great lyricists of the apocalypse have saddled up their horses over the last eighteen months. Paul Simon, the grimmest, scariest, most hopeless rider, took the first trip across the blasted landscape. Number Three, Roger Waters, the finger-wagger and excoriator, is still galloping around and kicking up dust; Randy Newman, the great avatar of white guilt and shame, closed the reconnaissance in force in lethal style. Ray Davies, who went second, seems from a distance like the warmest and cuddliest harbinger of doom, and in a way he is. But because his irony conceals a depth of feeling unrivaled in classic rock – that’s what it’s there for, and why it’s always laid on so thick – Ray’s slow-acting poison is more painful than the daggers his peers are packing. On his umpteenth album as principal songwriter, the balladeer of the Edwardian village green takes on America. While Roger is withering, Ray is just discouraged – and that’s harder to take. There’s very little tonality left in a voice that used to be sprightly, but the incisiveness that has always characterized Ray’s performances hasn’t gone anywhere. The Jayhawks provide music commensurate with the theme, and there’s a country bird who does add some sweetening to the vocals from time to time. But what makes Americana worth it is the songs, none of which are anything that isn’t implied by Muswell Hillbillies, but their tunefulness is welcome nonetheless. I dig the one about looking for poetry at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the one about overhearing domestic violence, and especially the one that draws subtle parallels between the reaction to the British Invasion and our present nativism. Long drives, fast food and fake cowboys, America as an empty quarter, a long hollow hall for rock and roll to resonate.
Real Estate – In Mind Developments: Matt Mondanile is out, acrimoniously, I believe, and fellow Ridgewood-ite Julian Lynch is in. This makes the band a little jammier, a little hippier, a little safer territory for Alex Bleecker to write embarrassing liberation anthems like “Diamond Eyes”. But any change real estate makes is going to be incremental. Martin Courtney made his intentions clear from the outset – he’s out to get lost in those green suburban aisles. He’s found his shallow groove and he’s not going to budge. Of course it’s boring: that’s the brand.
Ride – Weather Diaries Every single review of this album slagged Carnival Of Light and Tarantula. All these years later. These were positive notices, by and large, but the reviewers still had to go and knock around the Britpop sets. Even though Weather Diaries picks up exactly where the band left off. Even though there are at least two songs on the comeback album that are essentially “Black Nite Crash”. Even though there’s nothing here that would ever make anybody gaze at a shoe, let alone the band members, who sound as fractious and combative as they did in the late Nineties. To me this is an object lesson in the power of schadenfreude. If you call your album Carnival Of Shite in the press, no matter how good it is, people are going to agree with you. If your band falls apart and your label remainders your final set on the day it is released, and you won’t defend it, the jackals will feel comfortable laughing at you. Folks are jerks and love to pile on. It’s a tough business, life is, and Noel Gallagher is right about it: you need to behave like everything you’ve done’s fantastic, even when you know damn well it isn’t. Otherwise the sharks smell the blood in the water. You need to stand up for yourself, because nobody else will. Rockers have to learn what rappers know instinctively: better a to be a conceited bastard than a self-deprecator.
Robert Plant – Carry Fire Funny that it took Robert Plant of all people to follow up The Joshua Tree properly. Lord knows U2 wasn’t going to do it. This is the exact record that I’ve been waiting for Bono and Co. to put out for thirty years now: American but not too American, spiritual but not too religious, folk forms and elemental lyrics, charged-atmospheric, impassioned and questing, big as the desert, etc. Now U2 rarely breaks the three star barrier, and time will tell if Robert Plant has managed the trick himself. Early returns suggest no. But the mansion of three stars contains many rooms, and this one is beautifully appointed, with a hardbacked chair made of good wood for you to settle down in and ruminate. Some of the bluesier stuff is deadly, but that was true of Led Zeppelin, too. You already know the singing is fantastic. Hey, here’s something about solo Robert Plant that you probably didn’t realize: that was Phil Collins playing drums on Pictures At Eleven and Principle Of Moments. Nothing tougher than filling the shoes of a legend who has just overdosed at what, 31? When you’ve got an impossible task, Phil is the man to call.
Roger Waters – Is This The Life We Really Want? I truly believe that it was his Pink Floyd fandom that kept Kasich off the trump train. It certainly wasn’t his temperament, which is ornery enough for a ride in the tank engine. But once you’ve heard and internalized the lessons of The Wall, not to mention The Final Cut, how the heck are you going to turn around and vote for closed borders and all the rest? Of course millions did, and if anybody has the right to be miffed right now, not properly heeded, it’s Roger Waters. This is what democracy looks like, and it turns out it’s maybe not so hot. SEO-hungry journalists have seized on a couple of political insults; “nincompoop” is everybody’s favorite, because it lands so nicely. But to Roger’s credit, very little about Is This The Life We Really Want? is about the President: the message in this music applies equally well to any alleged enlightened country. Age was never going to lay a glove on Roger’s voice – at 25, he already sounded like a wailing revenant. As always, he reminds us what rock lyrics are: not poetry, or just another percussive instrument, but a means of matching specific words to specific sounds that reinforce the meaning of both. I particularly dig the last stanza of “Broken Bones”, where an exhausted Roger grumbles “we cannot turn back the clock/we cannot go back in time/but we can say fuck you we will not listen to/your bullshit and lies”. That’s redundant, it doesn’t scan, and it doesn’t even rhyme. But damn if it doesn’t give me the chills every time.
Rose Elinor Dougall – Stellular Some former members of the Pipettes sing sci-fi concept albums in Welsh and Cornish. Others do standard synthpop. It was mostly because of the Gwenno connection that I checked out Rose Elinor Dougall in the first place. What I got sure sounded pretty, and smart, and produced to fuck and back, but I can’t sing back a single song. Heard it a bunch; still open to the possibility of a click.
Rostam – Half-Light NO MOM I don’t want to write about this tuneful, poised, mild-mannered and middling album that sounds like a cellphone commercial. What’s to say anyway? It’s Modern Vampires minus the melodic architecture (Ezra), the drive (Tomson) and the ethnopiracy (Baio, maybe?) Instead let’s discuss something more interesting: how many members of Vampire Weekend do you reckon are in the Illuminati? There’s quite a bit of supporting evidence for Ezra, including the Pitchfork raves, Columbia University, strange proximity to Beyonce, and, um, joking around on Twitter about being in the Illuminati. These people love to hide in plain sight. Consider how every Katy Perry video is loaded with MK Ultra signifiers and Eyes Of Horus and whatnot. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid has got to be Illuminati or at least Illuminati in Training – otherwise Baphomet would never have allowed him to do the Haim albums. Chris Tomson, on the other hand, cannot be Illuminati. If he was, Dams Of The West wouldn’t have gotten panned the way it has. It must be awkward to have the singer in the Illuminati and the drummer on the outside looking in. Imagine the conversations in the tour bus. EZRA: I’m hungry. Let’s stop at Comet Ping Pong. TOMSON: Again? There’s way better pizza in Washington. ARIEL: Ah, but there are ***special toppings*** you can get at Comet Ping Pong that you simply cannot get elsewhere. TOMSON: What the fuck are you doing on tour with us?, you’re the producer. EZRA: You’re going to have to wait in the van again, Chris. ROSTAM: (all guileless) You boys fight it out; I’m afraid I simply must leave the band. See, Rostam plays it cagy. He knows that his buddy Carly Rae Jepsen is already Internet-suspected of vampirism. Can’t leave too long a breadcrumb trail. Making records is just a sideline; misdirection is the name of the game.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3 This is a very strange album. Well rapped, of course, and neatly produced by Mr. Meline, but still a headscratcher. I suspect it’s mostly a matter of bad timing: RTJ was, like the rest of us, wrongfooted by the election. They’d written a set that would have made sense if Clinton had won like she was supposed to. Instead, it plays like a protest album that fell through the cracks from a parallel universe. I suspect this resonates well for the sort of person who reads Zerohedge and Counterpunch and dreams of a Trump-Sanders teamup to smash the deep state, whatever the fuck that is. But the intersection between that crowd and genuine hip-hop heads is virtually nil. I begin to wish for El-P something more than an audience of woke white bros (Mike doesn’t seem to mind). Killer Mike’s circular logic and El-P’s monotone aside, they never make bad music per se – they’re too talented for that. But I continue to believe that the best Run The Jewels songs are on the two solo sets released the year before Run The Jewels began.
Saint Etienne – Home Counties The year’s Tris McCalliest album and then some, designed by Sarah Cracknell and company to fit the exact dimensions of my sweet spot. Tweepop/disco (but not danceable) band does songs inspired by and set in the London suburbs, complete with interstitial radio, superbritish accents and word choices, sophistipop pitched somewhere between Steely Dan and Trembling Blue Stars. Copious, but never obnoxious, synthesizer, plenty of piano and B-3, too. Criticism of the Home Counties themselves delivered with a wry smile and the warmth of a woman who obviously loves the place. There’s even an essay in the liner notes that references Orwell and P.G. Wodehouse. Needless to say, this is the 2017 album I’ve listened to the most. The flaw in the code, so to speak, is Cracknell herself: as usual, she sings everything with the unctuousness of a game show host trying to excite the contestants about their year’s supply of turtle wax. This can be an issue whether she’s on about love or the train schedules in Surrey. It’s because of my long aversion to Sarah Cracknell’s voice that i’d always counted Saint Etienne as the one tweepop/dance-pop band that Steven liked better than I did. Anytime these three put an album out, I’d always think, well, I ought to pay attention to this as it is possible that it will be a Steven favorite. As I learned in the parking lot of Great Adventure this May, mine was a complete misapprehension. Steven does not like Saint Etienne (or the Pet Shop Boys, or the Kinks) more than I do, preferring the heavy heavy monster sounds that better fit his identity as a famous promoter man. Preference expectations based on temperament are hereby restored.
Sampha – Process/Thundercat – Drunk It’s just the nature of the game, and maybe the nature of humanity, too: if you’re the featured performer, you wish you were the main attraction. Thundercat is just about the best bass guitarist around at the moment; To Pimp A Butterfly wouldn’t have been the same without him. Sampha is great at dropping by the studio to do his new Michael McDonald schtick for a few bars before he gets the fuck out. As frontpeople they are stretched like an anchorman’s hairpiece. Both these albums feel interminable, but who knows, they might be fifteen minutes long. (They aren’t.) Hey, I get it, it sucks being a sideman. It’s all of the blisters and maybe one sixth of the groupies. In general, people who know their limitations don’t make good artists. There just aren’t that many Danny Kortchmars out there. Even he cut some crummy solo discs.
San Fermin – Belong This year’s answer to Lucius: dense arrangements, lusty but impersonal female vocals, pop ambitions of conservatory musos who not-so-secretly think they’re beyond pop, classical girls gone (provisionally) wild. Given that we sold Lucius back to Tunes, you can see my reluctance to pay Yankee dollar for the San Fermin album. But I got some jollies with Lucius before giving it the heave ho, and I’ve gotten a jolly or two with belong during its free-streaming period on some highfalutin chamber-pop website. There’s a song here I like called “Dead” that basically uses the riff from “The Man From Nantucket”. It sounds pretty rad on cello. We could have made Sheryl Galvin play it that way, if I’d written it in the 90s, which I couldn’t have, since I wasn’t yet in my Chappaquiddick phase.
Sleaford Mods – English Tapas/Idles – Brutalism/Metz – Strange Peace The Brexit rock. Not that any of these outraged Limeys actually voted for Brexit – bet you a tuppenny that they didn’t. I just think these are good albums to hear if you want to understand what happened outside of the London pleasuredome. The abstract: the punters in Farage country are rather far gone. In the twenty plus years since the height of the Blair Administration, the mood in the UK has slid from the spice girls doing that zigazig ah shtick to the dude from Idles screaming, happily?, about his uncle’s brain cancer. Brutalism is savagery on a level that I don’t think americans can fully comprehend – we’ve got our own version of nihilism here, but if you really want to hear some burn-it-all-down sentiment, you turn to the Guy Fawkeses on the far side of the Atlantic. As usual with music like this, it goes as far as the rhythm section takes it, which in this case is pretty far, but keep those analgesics handy. Romantic verse from “1049 Gotho”: “I pissed in the kitchen sink/as she slowly undressed”. Since English Tapas is their nine millionth album, Sleaford Mods is a band I really should have caught up with years ago. Luckily for me, it’s all more or less the same stuff: an elderly but well-built gentleman raving profanities and class-warfare invective over bass and a cheapass drumbox. Songs tend to be about drinking, crisps from the convenience store, and the fooking toff coonts. Superficially it may remind you of Andy Falkous (on a very very dark day) diddling around with Radio Shack beats, or Prinzhorn Dance School minus the antipsychotics, but to me it recalls Gang Of Four in its singlemindedness, its catchiness and subtle artfulness, and, ultimately, its political uselessness. Most of the statement songs are spitework of the “if I’m gonna go down/you’re gonna come with me” variety, which is occasionally gratifying – especially when they’re making fun of Boris Johnson’s hair. But it’s the deadest of dead ends. Oh, and I threw Metz in here because I didn’t know what else to do with them. They’re not even British, they’re from some dull former English colony north of America?, Otranto, or something like that?, Perhaps you’ve heard of it. But their album plays like Britpop reimagined by Big Black. I dunno, it seems like a record that could only have been made in the year of England’s self-trauma.
Slowdive – Slowdive I have to let the dreampop crowd handle this one, because it’s made enough of an impression on them that they’ve been bringing it up all year. All I got out of it was a vigorous pursuit of a rather dreary sound. Lots of midrange soup; chunky soup, mind you, not a clear, piping-hot ramen-style broth but something room temperature like gazpacho. I do understand the urge to gaze at shoes, but not your own shoes, silly – that’s not how a foot fetish works.
Soccer Mommy – Collection Slow songs from a sad girl. Vintage six-string, reverb, social and sexual anxiety, missed connections, empty suicidal threats. Nothing you haven’t heard a thousand times before, but in general, not a bad formula. Until the lead guitar noodling starts. At that point (which arrives far too early) I advise a pivot to Phoebe Bridgers.
Steven Wilson – To The Bone Regardless of Prog Nation’s feelings on the subject, there’s a lot of really good stuff here: the outro to “Refuge”, for instance, bears a sonic resemblance to Patrick Moraz in mid-flight. Given that Wilson remixed Relayer, that’s bound to be intentional. But this is Steven’s non-prog album – a stab at pop relevance from a man on the far side of fifty – so these were always going to be treacherous waters for him to navigate. Of course his idea of pop is something like Tears For Fears covering ABBA; if that doesn’t sound intriguing to you, I guess you ought to stick with the trending topics on Twitter. Dangerously, Steven seems to have decided he’s a good singer, which he sure isn’t, although it’s downright cute that he thinks he can pull off a modern-day “Don’t Give Up” with some chanteuse who is world-famous in Tel Aviv. Even more dangerously, he’s dismissed his band, which might have been an act of charity: why drag a neo-prog samurai like Guthrie Govan into a doomed attempt at chart-scaling? Now, wilson has always aimed for philosophical significance, and that’s a good thing about him – it shows he really does understand prog rock. But in the absence of the frame narrative provided by Hand. Cannot. Erase, Wilson’s arguments about modern alienation-dehumanization come dangerously close to those of the cranky old cellphone-haters club. We don’t need a rocking version of The Shallows; we didn’t need The Shallows to begin with. If you’re referencing Facebook in your love ballad, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not going to have a hit that way. Just ask Greyson Chance.
St. Vincent – Masseduction Stooopidity: not a mode we’re used to getting from Annie Clark. Not knocking it or anything, mind you – she wears it well. If you, like me, thought that prior St. Vincent records were finicky and abstruse, you might welcome a little ham-handedness. Some straightforward sex chat, too. Think of this as her version of Under The Blacklight, right down to the fixation on showbiz sleaze. Then again, Jenny Lewis had the rest of Rilo Kiley to back up her streetwalky storytelling with cheesy strip club music. Clark is saddled with timid producers – including Jack the Ripper (of female singer-songwriters) – who fail to fit stuff like “Los Ageless” with the horny hair metal thump the sentiment requires. Instead, it’s all half-measures: a little guitar skronk here, some au courant synth there, midrange mush everywhere. The result is Clark’s second straight “transitional” album, although what she’s transitioning to is anybody’s guess. Insert insensitive remark/trans-exclusionary radical feminist slogan here.
Sunny Sweeney – Trophy/Little Big Town – The Breaker Whenever possible, I have tried not to blame red state music for the poor choices of red state voters. But there is territory out there that is too Trumpy for me to inhabit, and in them thar hills is where Lori McKenna maintains her address. This is why I ultimately choked on The Bird And The Rifle; sure, McKenna is an effective writer, but so is Peggy Noonan. Spare me the panegyrics about rural America, McKenna: too many of those people are ass clowns who need to stop torching the village. On paper McKenna’s writing isn’t all that far removed from the small-town nostalgia that Hemby & Lambert & Monroe keep on pumping out, what with the motherhood and the munitions and all that stick-shifting junk we tolerate in order to get to the chorus. It’s mostly a question of tone: not irascible and scary-clairvoyant like Angaleena Presley, but surly like a Wal-Mart clerk who will resentfully ring up your purchase but wants your city slicker ass out of this holler by sundown. McKenna only sold four numbers to Sunny Sweeney, but they dominate the Trophy album – there’s one about a barren woman desperate to trade all these high-heeled shoes for a high-chair in the dining room, and another about how Texas oughta beat some respect into uppity you, and a love-in-the-weathered-
Susanne Sundfor – Music For People In Trouble This turns out to be a Soft Skeleton kinda thing. Susanne Sundfor is an electropop star in Norway who has put aside the beats for a season and taken instead to piano unadorned. Much of this is the sort of moody doomed nonsense that makes Scandinavian music a difficult proposition, even when it’s well written and recorded. But Music For People In Trouble contains something that most Scandi albums (and real albums) don’t: a legit showstopper. “Undercover”, a piano voice and choir ballad, is worth the cost of the album and then some. It’s bombastic enough to have been a bathhouse classic in the heyday of Barry Manilow. Bet my dad would dig it. That’s just his style.
Sylvan Esso – What Now All things considered (and I have considered those things), most musicians seem like the sort of people that we’d get along with. Then there are these two miscreants. One with a bad case of generic girl voice and the other is “the guy in the group”; both cynics straight up. I tolerated the first album because a folkie/trip-hop hybrid tends to vibrate my Beth Orton bone, even if the best Beth Orton songs are the ones that don’t trip or hop. Anyway, this new one isn’t alt- or hybrid- anything, it’s a wholly predictable move on the pop market; since Phantogram did it, kinda sorta, why not us? Well for one thing, Phantogram did not complain about the meager success they’ve had – they seem to like scoring Gillette commercials, and hey, knock yourself out if that’s what floats your boat, says Hippy Jonny over here. If radio wants them, they’re happy to be there. They did not waste time complaining, in song, about the same industry they are increasingly desperate to join. Hey, Sylvan Esso, you don’t want to do this?, don’t do this. Go water gardens. There are more than enough people who’ll be glad to take your place. Some of them have actual star quality.
SZA – Ctrl Like “scissor”, not “Caesar”. I don’t know my supreme alphabet as well as the RZA does, but I believe the S stands for self, which certainly fits here, and the Z for the zigzagging path of life, and the A for Allah, who is otherwise a no-show on this album. Much has been made of the fact that SZA is the Smurfette in the Top Dawg Entertainment Smurf village, which cannot be much fun for her even as it guarantees her a certain position of cultural prominence. But she’s not a Californian: she is, like Ms. Lauren Hill before her, straight outta Maplewood. Yes, she has had the Arturo’s pizza (most likely). Roar, cougars, roar. Naturally Miseducation is a touchstone for her, as it is for everybody else slinging around the black girl magic these days. But the real influence on Ctrl – right down to the inflections to the note choices to the listless tempos and meandering melodies – is Frank Ocean. Now, Channel Orange was about as novelistic as an album can be, and Ctrl is more of a notebook dump – other-woman stories and capricious men who can’t be satisfied and tortured deliberation about who to screw. Details about press-on nails and valium and watching Narcos (the TV program) on DVD, all of which are designed to be relatable, as the twentysomethings say. She worries that her ass is not fat enough. And I do think that she’s a reporter who has gotten it right: this is the rather tepid space that sex inhabits for millennials, medicated as they are. Not sitting at home with dick on hard or Cyndi Lauper with hot hands down the jeans, but sex as something obligatory and bothersome, more a tedious itching that leads straight to trouble than a drive-off-the-cliff compulsion. Whitney Houston would not understand. Oh, labelmate Kendrick, aka Brainy Smurf, drops by to deliver the year’s most nauseatingly sexist verse. SZA just shrugs it off. She’s got her own problems. It’s a good thing she can sing.
Taylor Swift – Reputation Welp, this completes her guided evolution from fantastically great soft rocker to pretty good pop star. And possible alt-right supervillain, and possible roaring drunk. Nice work if you can get it, but still. I’m sure there’s a master plan, right?, she usually knows what she’s doing. As a dedicated fan, I do hope she’s enjoying that Max Martin money and pumping it back into the beleaguered economy of the city she claims she likes. Those mains at ABC Kitchen won’t buy themselves.
The Big Moon – Love In The 4th Dimension/Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life When online magazines do those twenty year retrospectives of Britpop, I notice they’re always a little sheepish about it. Writers are embarrassed of the ideological underpinnings of the movement – its lily-whiteness and emphasis on Englishness – and ought to be concentrating instead on Skepta or whatever. These people need to man up and own their tastes. There was nothing wrong with Britpop. In fact it was pretty great, and for the same reason early ’00s tweepop and the first blush of new wave were great: tight songcraft was an absolute must. When Britpop bands didn’t get their notes and chords straight, we understood that it wasn’t for lack of trying. They’d just fucked up. Good songwriting isn’t a sufficient condition for a worthwhile album: you’ve also got to perform well, and develop an intriguing sound, and project the proper attitude, and, to paraphrase “Supersonic”, find a way for what you’ve got to say. But even if you do all that other stuff perfectly, you’ll be left with a record with a huge hole in the middle of it if you neglect the songcraft. The rest can be faked or approximated: you can hire a great engineer to impart some gloss, you can practice until your chops are straight, you can deliver your innermost thoughts with enough conviction to give them an air of profundity. But you can’t fudge melodic and harmonic development over three minutes. That either happens in your songs or it doesn’t. The vast majority of musicians – even good ones – will never get it. That makes precious birds out of those few who have developed a distinctive songwriting signature. After some study I have determined that Marika Hackman is one of those artists, which by now I hope you realize is not the same as saying her albums are any good. But the ceiling for a real songwriter is as high as the sky. She becomes a woman to follow to the end. (See Elizabeth Ziman comment above.) The Big Moon is the band on this year’s Marika Hackman album, and while they haven’t developed a novel approach to writing like their friend has, you can tell by their obvious antecedents – echobelly and elastica – that they’ve got their value system straight. At their brief peak, the Sonya Madan/Glenn Johansson composition team was about as good at song construction as it got. Ellie Roswell of Wolf Alice sometimes sounds like Madan. But too often, her band attempts to get over on sheer bigness, which was the very thing that ruined Britpop. Anybody can push that fader and crank that amp up to eleven. There’s no dial for songwriting.
The Clientele – Music For The Age Of Miracles/Alvvays – Antisocialites I have a working theory that indiepop punishes change harder than any other style does. If you make indiepop, you’re expected to run off, in perpetuity, carbon copies of the album that made you indie-popular. This is why you get many twee people on a cupcake diet who will tell you with a straight face that Belle & Sebastian hasn’t made a worthwhile album since Arab Strap. B&S are the big boys and girls in the tweepop playpen, and they had latitude that most of the competition does not. Ben and Sarah Average on Average Sarah Records, on the other hand, make damn sure never to grow up. For instance, was there ever any doubt that Alvvays II would be a straight-up continuation of Alvvays I? same instrument sounds, same concerns, same attention to the same songwriting details, maybe played a tiny bit rougher and louder, but always within the margin of error. Then there’s the curious case of The Clientele. When these guys started out, they were a stripped-down trio with a distinctive aural signature: MacLean ran a fingerpicked electric through a vintage reverb amp and added space echo to his voice, and Keen and Hornsby tiptoed around like jazz guys scared of waking the neighbors. It was perfect, it was complete, and it was theirs. Since then The Clientele hasn’t altered the formula as much as they’ve gradually and glacially added to it. Every successive record has featured more and more players and more colors, strings and horns and piano and overdubs galore, right up to the latest, which basically has the Boston fucking Pops on it. What’s really funny is that no matter how much weight they add to the frame – no matter how much the chassis sags under the freight – the original three members proceed exactly like they always have. Well, that’s not true: at some point MacLean switched from electric to nylon string acoustic. This does make space for his accompanists, but parts that used to have a spooky grandeur to them now sound a little dinky. We’ve got every Clientele album and we can quote them chapter and verse, and since it’s more than likely that you do too, I challenge you: can you think of a single time when the expanded arrangements imparted something essential to the songs? Because I can’t. Since the band is more or less oblivious to them, it’s worth wondering why they’re there in the first place. I’ve come to the conclusion that these guys felt an artistic obligation to evolve, and did so in the only way that they felt was permissible to their audience. They were probably right.
The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here? Pretty much everything that’s made Steve Wynn a rewarding fellow to follow for the nine hundred years and nine thousand albums of his career is present here. Some creepy western storytelling a la Medicine Show, some guitar rave-ups in the general style of Days Of Wine And Roses, some handsome grownup alt-whatever akin to his ’90s solo records, some Gutterball-type grungy garage rock, etcetera. No Baseball Project, but that wouldn’t have fit in on a Dream Syndicate album anyway. Sadly, he still does not seem to be on speaking terms with Karl Precoda, and yeah, that’s a major loss. You can certainly make the case that without Precoda’s guitar, it’s not really the Dream Syndicate. The new guy he’s brought in doesn’t do quite as well as Peter Hook’s replacement in New Order did on Music Concrete, but he tries his best. As for Kendra Smith, she’s back to deliver a monologue on the final song. Dassit, as Mariano Duncan used to say. It’s hard to keep these superwillful supercharged California gangs together, even when you’re the second greatest artist ever to attend classes at UC Davis. The first greatest would have told you that.
The National – Sleep Well Beast. Couldn’t bring myself to listen to this one, or the one before it. The last National album I subjected myself to was High Violet, “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” and all that. I understand why people appreciate them. But I’d heard that this was a political album, and i can’t bear to put myself in the way of Matt Berninger’s views on the state of the world. I’d (almost) rather listen to NPR.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Echo Of Pleasure/Surfer Blood – Snowdonia The league-average indiepop. Last year I said that Death Cab was a good as a band could possibly be without ever prompting me to spend twelve bucks on a new album. The pains are riiiiiight on the other side of that line, practically mingling fingers. They’re just good enough to overcome my initial reservations and get me to the store, and not a bit better. If you’re a believer in orthodox evolutionary theory, you might think that makes them the perfect band. Surfer Blood, on the other hand, hadn’t ever opened my wallet before. But I dug the dollop of ambition they added to their guitar-pop: a few extended song forms, some beep beep backing vocals, a gleeful, hi-energy number about babysitting care of a grown imbecile. Plus there’s a very nice glossy picture of an iceberg on the album cover. As a penguin I appreciate this.
The Shins – Heartworms/The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions/Spoon – Hot Thoughts Old friends, maybe not your best friends, are in town. Are you going to visit them and catch up with what they’re doing, knowing full well that it’s nothing you haven’t heard about before, or are you going to make up an excuse? Oh I have a doctor’s appointment. My sick mother needs me to carry her safe to West Jersey. Quit treating your old friends that way and allow them to remind you why you were friends in the first place, and also why you never, you know, smooched. For instance, it turns out that Dan Bejar was never integral to the sound of the NPs (and you knew that) but the drummer was (you knew that too.) As for Uncle Carl, he has not had a surprise for you since Challengers and that is still so. As sole songwriter he still comes with the same basic basket of goodies: one or two songs for the ages, another couple that are elevated to top-drawer status by Kathryn/Neko, and a bunch of fussy numbers where he just seems to be shuffling chords around like a nervous blackjack dealer. Periodic attempts at emotional transparency and political commentary, but mostly wordplay for fuck’s own sake. In a way it’s amazing that he’s kept the streak going as long as he has; he’s like one of those borderline Hall of Famers who keeps piling on the .280 seasons forever. The Andre Dawson of indie rock. James Mercer has neither been as prolific or as consistent, but he is intelligible if you put in the work. And when you put in the work on Heartthrob, what you discover is that he is singing about his dong. This is Mercer’s sex album, which is sort of like Kanye doing a modesty album or me doing a fistfight album. Given the messenger, you may feel some ick coming on, and he knows it. So in order to reassure you that no other human being could penetrate his hermetic universe, he has arranged this business like Mighty Like A Rose: every corner of the mix is stuffed with electrojunk. This can be amusing, but it is no way to express your libido unless you want to fuck a chandelier. Britt Daniel, on the other hand, is not a guy who has ever hesitated for a second to let you know that he is horny, and i thank him for that. It is a matter of public safety and we should all be notified. Unfortch, he still believes that sex = dumb funkouts, so once again he is turning that camera on and off and back on and back off, and yeah this aural spooge gets very sticky very quick. Hot Thoughts is worth it for “Do I Have To Talk You Into It”, which is howlingly blue-balled in the best rock tradition; it’s only when he settles into one of those sleek, simmering grooves that he really puts you straight to sleep. For my popstar fantasy team, I dream of putting Daniel in a lineup with Bruno Mars. I think they could address each other’s shortcomings. Bruno could pour on the hot melted cheese, and Britt could add some hooks that don’t sound like they were workshopped by a committee of shitty theatre kids doing The Wiz.
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding Indie-rock beefs aren’t supposed to take, but I believe “War On Drugs Suck My Cock”, horrible as it was, did more damage than anybody thought it was doing. The general feeling in 2014 was that Mark Kozelek had made a royal ass of himself and exposed Sun Kil Moon as an exercise in misanthropy and resentment. It looked very much like Granduciel had won the feud by taking the high road. But three years later, I suspect the critique stuck. The reception of Deeper Understanding felt more than a little lukewarm to me. Critics felt obligated to respect this beer commercial rock; hey, it’s a new War On Drugs, that’s an event, sorta. But in their black hearts they knew: Kozelek had them pegged.
The xx – I See You So you go to a party, and there are all these beautiful people you’ve never met. Everybody has the most current hairdo and revolutionary shoes. Inside it is perfectly climate controlled. Never in your life have you felt so comfortable. A lovely young woman carries a silver tray of champagne glasses. She hands you one. The ambrosial aroma washes up and fills your stylishly flared nostrils. Then you take a sip and BLEAGH that’s not champagne, it’s overpriced perfume. What are you doing serving me overpriced perfume? The woman laughs and speaks to you. It’s really *good* overpriced perfume, Mrs. Presky.
Tinariwen – Elwan Despite the turbans and the Tuareg language, this is and has always been a blues band. Something like a maghreb hootenanny, or a circle jerk: a bunch of desert dudes with their electric guitars plugged straight into a dune at an oasis somewhere near the Ahaggar Massif. It’s a zillion degrees out and they’re gonna rock a little before they roast to death. This time around, the militia has kidnapped Kurt Vile and they’re letting him ransom himself with hot licks, or whatever it is he does. No, I have no idea what they’re singing about and nothing here makes me all that curious to find out. But you know their blues are real. You’d be blue too if you lived near the equator. Do you realize the daily high in baghdad this July was 125 degrees? And we wonder why they hate our freedoms: we’re using them to destroy the planet. Or more pointedly, the part of it where they live. Crusades take many funny shapes, but they never really end.
Tori Amos – Native Invader I A/B-ed this baby with Unrepentant Geraldines and decided to my satisfaction that yes, this one is better. Think I’ll get with this/’coz this is kinda phat. But why, I ask you? These “new” songs are variations on the same themes Tori has been flogging since Choirgirl Hotel. The wrinkle here is that this is supposed to be her political album, but a) she’s always been political, and b) her feelings about the fossil fuel indooostry are precisely what anyone with passing familiarity with the artist would assume they’d be. Nothing to learn here. Honestly, I think they just pushed the piano in the mix. Oh, and also, Native Invader contains the first lead vocal by her daughter that does not feel like child abuse. That helps too.
Tye Tribbett – The Bloody Win You might recall that I had Tye’s Greater Than at number five in 2013. That was a five-star assessment, and I see no reason to take it back. Greater Than featured vintage prog chops on the organ and drums plus dynamite performances by the principal plus the sort of superhero Jesus who fries devils with flames shooting out of his mouth and ears and eyeballs. Course I loved it and still do. Bloody Win, the follow-up, is in theory a live album, but you won’t hear any crowd noise or yes yes y’alling. Nonetheless, it does approximate an experience of live gospel in a real church setting, and by that I mean that the star is missing in action for songs at a time. Maybe the fat lady takes the verse and the chorus and Tye swings by occasionally to go “woo” and then scurries back to the confessional, or wherever Pentecostalists go. The whole experience is a bit like ordering crab rice. When you get your plate, there’s a mess of greasy, overcooked rice and some sorry pimento-like substance, and maybe two or three strips of crab. Now you are banging your knife and fork on the table and yelling at the waitress: where is the crab. There is no goddamned crab in my crab rice. Twenty three dollars for this plus tip is highway robbery. J/k I would never ever treat the waitress like that. She’s nice. Also I do love contemporary gospel, and Tye Tribbett. But this is not where you want to start with either one.
Tyler, The Creator – Scum Fuck Flower Boy Beautiful music from a still-young man who bleeds aural beauty, even back when he was rapping about sex with corpses. I believe this contradiction was explored once or twice in the media until everybody got sick of it and moved on to Harvey Weinstein or whoever. But it seems Tyler’s latest rebrand ought to be a bigger story than it is: here you have one of hip-hop’s most notorious gay-bashers (at least on record) suddenly kissing white boys. Even when he was effortlessly engendering thinkpieces, I always had the strong sense that it was all a gigantic put-on for him, and this new chapter is probably more of the same. But if we take him at his word for once, some of that Odd Future hooey begins to make sense. “I’m a walking paradox/no i’m not” becomes the hip-hop version of Pete Townshend’s “I look pretty tall but my heels are high”. Too neat?, too history-repeaty? Probably. There’s a nonzero chance that he’s just making fun of the entire concept of coming out and the trauma thereof, which, granted, does seem a little precious in desensitized ol’ 2017. Times have changed and Tyler will kiss whoever and whatever he wants. NPR will not devote a weekend segment to his newfound fagularity. There will be no amber alerts.
Ulver – The Assassination Of Julius Caesar Red flag city here. Norwegian black metal band goes pop? Ugh. Writhing naked torso on the cover? Has to be a bad sign. Intimidating song lengths and pretentious neoclassical theme? That’s… well, TBH, I have been known to appreciate such things. As it turns out, Assassination is only poppy relative to Arkenpliersdoomgate, which is what I imagine their last album was called (I didn’t check.) Like all metal guys, the dudes of Ulver do have a idea of pop, and that idea is Depeche Mode: Personal Jesus is probably as close as they ever get to the radio. So what we have here is DM plus occasional proggy, Floyd-y excursions, or maybe Steven Wilson fronting Nine Inch Nails. Maybe not so surprisingly, the long and tortured songs are the best ones, including a journey into the fjords called “Rolling Stone” that starts with a whiplash “Master And Servant” synth groove and ends like a Guitar Center on fire. So not something we’ll spin often, nor a real candidate for a Top Thirty. But I have to admit: it’s kinda impressive, and shit, now I have to go back and listen to Arkenpliersdoomgate. Fuck you, Ulver. Don’t drag me into your Viking underworld.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory More straight talk from the city where the skinny carry strong heat. I recently finished a book called The God Of Old by a rabbi named James Kugel. There’s a really good chapter and a half about biblical starkness, which he doesn’t call an aesthetic because he’s too much of a believer to, but he may as well. He’s talking about the literary usage of starkness as a storytelling backdrop: how it tends to simplify and cartoonize (the rabbi loves cartoons) and make it easier for the reader to catch the symbolic resonances of human actions. Rabbi Kugel sees starkness as a filter on reality that the author drops in front of the eyes of the reader and suddenly everything looks different – some stuff shines white and some stuff glows black, and lots of other stuff irrelevant to the human struggle just gets tuned out, and he thinks this may be the proper attitude with which to receive God: angels and demons that you didn’t notice were there are suddenly there. This, he suggests, is what the Bible does when it’s read right: it adjusts the settings on your field of perception. First I thought, hey, that’s right; that’s a good way to look at the Tanakh. Right after that, and not even a split second later, I thought of Vince Staples.
Wand – Plum A bit surprised that the psychedelic press, such as it is, hasn’t been flogging this, since it comes to you straight outta the Ty Segall cult compound. Moreover, I believe a few of these guys were in Ty’s band. Anyway, this is a hell of a lot better than Ty Segall: good arrangements, very good singing and playing, inventive song structures and interesting harmonic ideas, ambitious, rock like Momma used to make it. In the old neighborhood, back in nineteen shee shev. Maybe it’s a little too classic rock for the psych crowd? They might demand something more zonked, or just less overtly accomplished.
Weezer – Pacific Daydream/The Front Bottoms – Going Grey I understand why these two albums are getting trounced by critics and loyalists alike. For one thing, they’re slick as slimeballs. It is a little disconcerting to hear the Front Bottoms, of all bands, machine-pressed so ruthlessly; song-doctored, too, and not particularly well. This is the price one pays for playing the Fueled By Ramen game: those are some ruthless fuckers over there. They’re not in this for the artist development. Luckily Brian Sella is more or less developed and has been since he was a teen, so when they leave him alone and let him do what he does, he tends to come through. Turns out those flat, cheerful exercises in democracy on the last album actually dragged him down farther and faster than the suits did. As for Rivers Cuomo, word around town is that he’s back to the bad old practices of Raditude and whatnot. He’s sure never chased an electropop hit single any harder than he does on the first half of the new set; you might call “Feels Like Summer” an outright embarrassment when you aren’t singing along. I’m not going to try to convince you that this is USDA prime Weezer: for one thing, Pat the drummer appears to be on vacation for much of this album. However, no matter how soft he’s pedaling these days, when Rivers Cuomo hits those bridges of “QB Blitz” and/or “Weekend Woman”, he reminds you why he’s an indispensable man. 2017 has not been a good year for songcraft. At this point he could show up and sneeze and it would be a better-structured melody than anything Katy Perry has had for you lately.
White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band/Alex Cameron – Forced Witness As a songwriter myself, I often get quite nostalgic for shitty eighties music. Sometimes I wanna write something redolent of post-Sports Huey, “Hip To Be Square” or something like that, or Warrant-style lite metal. So I understand how this happens. White Reaper intends to make Camaro music, apparently; the sort of music you’d hear blasting out of a muscle car parked outside the 7-11 at 1 a.m. Music to give deadlegs to. And I regret(?) to inform you that they’ve absolutely succeeded. The singer has that post-coke-binge stuffed-up out of tuneness, the lead player sticks his blooze licks in totally inappropriate places, and the drummer goes hard, and fast, and venereal diseasy. It is, however, not 1983 out there and Jeff Spicoli is no longer smoking bones in history class. Thus this becomes a pure exercise in stylization – closer to Phoenix than Cheap Trick. They’ve got very little to say about their source material and nothing whatsoever to add. As an exercise in hitting targets, it’s successful, but there’s a reason you don’t hang out at the archery range. It’s repetitive and tiring, and you might just get run through. Greasy Australian Alex Cameron wants to be more than just a throwback; alas, his chops are pretty darn shaky. Therefore, he looks to distinguish himself via unseemly character: on Forced Witness he “plays” a douchebag internet sex predator. B/c they’re all the rage right now. Do you think the idea of a sleazebag Mr. Mister or Cutting Crew is funny? Take these broken wings and grope a co-ed? Irreverent, huh? Not really? Well, Alex is hoping you change your mind about that. And it’s pretty much the only hope he’s got.
William Patrick Corgan – Ogilala Definitely the year’s most balding middle aged album. Which is impressive, since the National released an album this year. It’s not bad or anything. The songwriting just doesn’t compensate for the obvious shortcomings.
Why? – Moh Llean If this really is the coda that it sure feels like it is, how are we gonna remember Yoni? Probably not as a rapper, even though his best music was usually rapped. Certainly not as a singer; he was always more of a mumbler than anything else. No, I think he’s destined, or doomed, depending on how you look at it, to go down in history as a chatty indie rocker, one who came to prominence at that peculiar moment in musical history when it was possible for Will Sheff, or Colin Meloy, or for that matter Tris McCall, to get a rise out of a rock audience with a literate number about a whale hunt, or a renegade robot, or setting up cellphone service in Damascus, or whacking off in the shower. As a bookworm/pseudo-singer, I enjoyed those days, but I can’t say I really miss them as a music fan. I recall a great outpouring of words, turned phrases, and memorable lines, but not too many great rock lyrics. Of course it was way preferable to Thomas Mars singing about nothing. I’ll stick to my guns about that. I’m a word person forever, and i’ll always insist: words don’t get in the way of anything.
Outraged rejoinders, recipes, bomb threats, absurdist poetry to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Now and forever.