I think the haters in the Fray are right, Jody—what with all this pop talk, we're doing a disservice to some of music's lesser-appreciated lights. Let's talk about some real victims, some artists who are facing adversity in this cruel climate for artful, high-minded, craft-oriented song.
Let's talk about Jay-Z.
Not only did he invent a subgenre this year—post-social-climbing adult-contemporary rap—he was its only member. Like the Dixie Chicks, he made an album about middle-age and personal growth and settling comfortably into a new set of roles that, even five years ago, would have seemed unattainable and possibly undesirable. He was rewarded with the biggest opening sales week of his career.
Unfortunately for him, though, he's not a country group lambasted for leaning left. He's a rapper who always seemed to be getting away with something whenever he boasted of improbable wealth and power. Now he's arrived, comfortable, unimpressed. He doesn't seem to be striving for anything, a pose that's more crucial to hip-hop than political rabblerousing or street-corner swagger or free-for-all abandon. He also seems to have largely forgotten how to rap—and, unlike his late-year rival Jim Jones, he's got no idea how to use that as an asset. Telling Baba Wawa that he was pretty good at selling drugs and kicking it with Ellen DeGeneres while the missus is out shilling for her own play for grown-up respectability only confound further. The result: an 81 percent drop-off in sales the second week (an almost unheard-of figure) and some vivid vitriol.
Meet Jay-Z, underdog. Paradoxically, by releasing the worst album of his career, he's created the circumstances for just the sort of hunger that's always been his best motivation, and his continued appeal to ever-younger generations of fans, even as he aged out (and priced himself out) of the demographic. (Jim Jones taunted: "You say 30's the new 20/ But you're 40, I'm 30, so who's 20?") In other words, Jay had to fail. If that's the case, Kingdom Come is quite possibly the greatest performance art project of our time.
Even at his worst, though, Jay goes platinum easily, a feat that's looking more and more impressive. This year, not counting the recent spate of major-label fourth-quarter Hail Mary tosses (Jay-Z, the Game, Young Jeezy), only one rap album went platinum: T.I.'s King. For almost everybody else, gold is the new standard, and I don't mean Nas' Sphinx-laden dookie rope. Used to be, earnest, straightforward, pop-averse groups like Gang Starr were the only ones for whom selling half a million records was something to strive for. This year, everyone from Diddy to Rick Ross struggled to make quota. Blame downloading. Blame an overcrowded market. Blame ringtone sales for obviating the need for, you know, actual records. None of it changes the fact that the shape of the long-player is due for a revamp, to say nothing of the price (funny how people lament Tower's demise only once CD prices dip into the single digits—how they lasted as long as they did sticking with $18.98 list prices is a mystery for the ages).
Really, it's time for diversification. Just being a singer or a rapper or a guest horn player on a Stars side project isn't going to cut it moving forward. I'm excited about performers who are also crafting niches in other spaces. TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek barely sits still, producing for Massive Attack, Celebration, and the Liars in between band commitments. Ne-Yo released a strong album this year but has also been responsible for writing several other people's hits, some of which (Rihanna's "Unfaithful," Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable") are bigger than his own ("So Sick," "Sexy Love"). He's basically killed emo (and not just the time he actually killed emo). These artists are developing into stealth brands, most notable for their flexibility. Not a new phenomenon, but certainly an exciting one that holds out hope that true polymaths might be the ones running the show in decades to come.
Quick hits on maligned genres:
As for alt-country, quelle snore (a nod, though, to the sly solo debut from former Jayhawks drummer Tim O'Reagan), but bluegrass certainly seems to be getting more interesting and diverse—the Duhks, Cherryholmes, Rhonda Vincent, and the decidedly weird moments on the Yonder Mountain String Band album all gave me cause for excitement.
Agree with Carl that the new Mastodon doesn't quite hold up to the last one. Same goes for Lamb of God and also Killswitch Engage. But for all the settling at the top end, bizarre and elegant things are happening in the nooks and crannies, particularly in U.S. black metal, not long known as a hotbed of innovation. Two of the most beautiful records I heard this year were Nachtmystium's Instinct: Decay and Agalloch's Ashes Against The Grain. That's black metal from, respectively, Chicago and Portland, folks. Norway, take note.
Quick hit on maligned critics:
Carl, I definitely agree that the fact that we all like Clipse and Justin and Joanna is some sort of progress. Nevertheless, it still sounds a lot like consensus to me; sometimes it seems like we're all looking over each others' shoulders. Jody, your smart introduction of the science of music appreciation into this conversation makes me fear, though, that maybe we're all just wired the same way. Coupled with who-knows-what genetic predisposition toward obsessive listening and chest-puffing exposition, canons are born.
Still, consensus is a slow death—let's all disagree a little more next year. I've enjoyed this thoroughly, and hope we get the chance.
P.S. To start that off, here's a list (finally!) of 10 artists who made their debut (or debutish) in 2006 and show even more promise for 2007.
Young Dro, Best Thang Smokin' (Grand Hustle/Atlantic): Grossly underserved by his club-oriented debut single, "Shoulder Lean," Atlanta's Dro revealed himself as one of hip-hop's most kinetic and frankly bizarre MCs on his debut album. Some call him the Southern Ghostface.
Earl Greyhound, Soft Targets (Some): Widely lauded and rightly so. The Brooklynites are shameless in their pillaging of '70s arena rock, but they never play it for laughs or lean on conceit over attitude.
T. Duggins, Undone (Thick): I've never been much for Chicago's unsubtle Celtic punk band the Tossers, but the solo debut of frontman Tony Duggins felt small and spare and all the angrier for it.
Traxamillion, The Slapp Addict (Slapp Addict): The Bay Area's hyphy scene is hip-hop's most consistently innovative from a production perspective, a tradition upheld on this collection of eccentric beats backing a who's who of the region's rap royalty.
Catfish Haven, Please Come Back (Secretly Canadian): Utterly plain and yet oddly impactful amalgamation of indie-rock styles—garage rock played with roots influences and just a touch of 50s harmony. (I prefer this EP to their later-in-the-year full-length, Tell Me.)
120 Days, 120 Days (Smalltown Supersound/Vice): Somewhere amidst the hype over the Knife, Norway's 120 Days got lost, in spite of songs that sprawl and float and unfurl into blissful synth-rock.
Lavender Diamond, The Cavalry of Light (Lavender Diamond): This EP technically came out in '05, and threatens to be unforgivably precious, but singer Becky Stark has a healthy pop ear to go along with her airy vocals and chamber-folk backing.
Gyptian, My Name Is Gyptian (VP): 2005's devastating "Serious Times" was a Jamaican hit, and even though his proper Stateside debut was more love-oriented, it showcased his alluringly sweet singing voice, which is best when put to work enlivening grim subject matter.