The Year in Music

Algorithms and Blues
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 20 2006 6:44 PM

The Year in Music



You want localism? There's nothing quite like a having a music-obsessed 2-and-a-half-year-old in your house to snap you out of your pop critic's myopia and put you in touch with some fundamental questions—i.e., what song will soothe a child back to frigging sleep at 3:30 in the morning? I sang more in 2006 than any year in my life, usually lullabies at ungodly hours, but sometimes during the day at my son's request and only rarely in tune. (Randy Jackson would call my singing "pitchy." Simon would be blunter.) Needless to say, I now have much deeper respect for American Idol contestants and for the legions of YouTube amateurs whose videos Carl rightly points to as one of the year's highlights.


My vocal misadventures aside, it's been fascinating witnessing the formation of a musical consciousness, watching my little boy sponging up songs, from "Wheels on the Bus" to "I Have a Little Dreidel" to the "grown-up" records I play him in my lame attempts at indoctrination. (I felt vaguely sinister the day that I sat him down to listen to Lefty Frizzell's "Mom and Dad's Waltz.") Among other things, this experience has convinced me that in 2007 and beyond, music writers should pay more attention to science—to the exploding field of biomusicology, with its revelations about the role that music played in human evolution and the formation of language, and especially to neuroscientists who are literally mapping musical pleasure, discovering the neural centers that ignite when we hear a beautiful tune. If all this seems a little removed from rap and rock and the Billboard charts, consider the increasing reliance of the record industry on companies like Platinum Blue, which has developed an algorithm—a "spectral deconvolution software" program—for determining the likelihood that songs will be hits. It's amazing and terrifyingly dystopian at the same time, and it gives a music critic pause: The new hit-song science is telling us that our vaunted musical preferences may well be hard-wired and mathematically quantifiable. And just guess which 2006 song, according to Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker piece, scored a whopping 755 in Platinum Blue's hit-grading system? Why, "Crazy," of course. Jon, you might find Gnarls Barkley annoying—I do, too—but I promise you that your temporal lobe likes that one damn song a lot.

Of course, having a young kid takes its toll on the other, sweatier kind of localism: Daddy did not get out to the clubs as much as he would have liked in 2006. It's true, there's no substitute for being there, in the places music is made and people move their bodies, and that's one reason why it's hard for stateside critics to get behind the "new European dance sounds" that Carl mentions. There's no pop more context-dependent, more resolutely regional, than dance music. I suspect dubstep makes far more sense in a South London nightclub than it does anywhere else.

But you don't need to be a club habitué to soak up your town's local musical flavors. One reason I've been grooving on Latin music in '06 is that I hear so much of it on the street in my Brooklyn neighborhood. (Reggaeton is always blasting out of an apartment building up the block—lately Wisin y Yandel's "Pam Pam" is the jam of choice.) At the cafe around the corner, the whitey hipsters have Brooklyn's own Grizzly Bear on heavy rotation, and that band's busy, burbly psychedelia is starting to speak to me. (Do they count as freak-folk?)

My favorite New York group is still Brazilian Girls. They released a strong second album this year, less lounge and more garage than their debut, and thus more in tune with the ferocious dance party they throw when they play live. I did mange to catch them a couple of times in 2006, and it's at those shows that I felt the surges of musical uplift and civic pride that a great hometown band can give. For me, Brazilian Girls embody a peculiarly New York kind of romance and cosmopolitanism—because of the melting pot punk-meets-house-meets-Kurt Weill sound and the lyrics in five languages, to be sure, but most of all because of the festively polyglot audience they attract, and the way everyone's differences seem to dissolve in the dance-floor scrum. Ann thinks that New York represents the rock 'n' roll past—but it sure doesn't feel that way when Brazilian Girls lean into "Jique" in a packed club. Plus, no one is repping wacky downtown fashion better than singer Sabina Sciubba, who is waging a personal campaign to out-freak Björk and her swan dress.

So much more to discuss, but it's time to wind down. So, I guess I'll have to skip my riff on Daughtry (no thanks) and Elliot Yamin (yes, please); my praise songs to Sugarland's super-charismatic Jennifer Nettles and to Stargate, the Norwegian production collective responsible for Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" and Ne-Yo's "So Sick"; my further country thoughts, including the suggestion that blue-state secularists looking to challenge their preconceptions about red-state religiosity should check out Trent Tomlinson's touching and tuneful "One Wing in the Fire"; my apology to the readers who've been e-mailing, chastising me for ignoring the Decemberists and Belle and Sebastian (sorry, but: zzzzzzzzzzzzzz); and my fond hope that the Neptunes and other underperforming hip-hop producers learn to turn down work every now and then instead of doing three crappy tracks on every B-lister's album. Instead, I want to say a quick word about protest music.

Something tipped this year, and musicians reclaimed the territory that for several years had been ceded to comedians. The combination of Iraq fatigue and, especially, Katrina, prompted eloquent, furious, and funny musical responses, and not just from the predictable scruffy guitar- bard types—listen to Nashville hunk Darryl Worley's singing about "a land where our brothers are dying for others who don't even care anymore" in "I Just Came Back From a War." But rappers like Lupe Fiasco and New Orleanian Lil Wayne made the most powerful protest songs. My favorite is Killer Mike's "That's Life," in which the rapper digs into the subject that dare not speak its name in American political discourse or in most hip-hop—poverty: "George Bush don't like blacks/ No shit, Sherlock/ And his Daddy's CIA flooded the hood with rock/ And his mama said the women oughta feel at home/ Getting raped in the bathroom in the Superdome/ The comment Kanye made was damn near right/ But Bush hate poor people, be 'em black or white."

Jon, Carl, Ann, it's been a blast—here's hoping we'll do this again sometime. For now, I'm gonna make like OK Go, hop on my treadmill, and glide on out.




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