The Music Club
Ann and Jody,
Let's get this party started quickly. Journey sucks. They sucked in 1981, they'll suck in 2033, and they suck now. Who gives a fuck what Tony Soprano thinks? What I love about Tony Soprano when he's not killing people (and sometimes when he is) is that he prevails with his brain but isn't above bringing his body into the contest. That's very rock 'n' roll. But does it mean that I want to eat at Artie Bucco's (the diner, maybe, no onion rings please), or live in that McMansion (unless he installs a lot of bookcases)? Uh-uh. Of course he likes hyperemotional arena rock from his flaming youth. In 10 years, he'll be ordering up Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
Now, Kanye West's version may well be great. Love can always transform schlock, and there are many arguments for it. Then again, there are arguments for everything as evolving sensibilities adjust to new realities and/or get all Oedipal on history's ass—and I'm not buying them. This is an old story in popular music. It happened when pre-Civil War family values infiltrated the first wave of blackface minstrelsy in the late '40s. It happened when ragtime and the foxtrot supplanted the tear-jerker ballad. It went the other way when vocalists took over the big bands. And, although the pop that rock 'n' roll rebelled against was more insipid and also cuter than Journey, as part of the rebel generation, I'm committed to my core values.
Two zingers and then on to the real 2007. "O Superman!" proved an essential song post-9/11, which it eerily anticipated, and smoked everything else on a 2005 Laurie Anderson best-of that has many other high points. That same year, the Rolling Stones mounted their best tour in a decade or two—scoff if you like, but you know it beat Journey's—and started up each concert with, what else, "Start Me Up." The song was then more than half a career old. As Ann says, pop music is full of strange stories.
But that's hardly its chief distinguishing characteristic. Its chief distinguishing characteristic, at its best, remains re-articulations of a democratic vitality that shakes us free of our staler habits without destroying the fabric of our daily life. Well, that's one of them, anyway. I've been reviewing records for 40 years, since before Ann was in kindergarten or Jody was born. In preparing my 38-years-old-and-counting Consumer Guide column, I've developed a rather strange way of doing it, which is, to overstate slightly, to listen to albums every minute of the waking day. This method is obviously unnatural and has other disadvantages, one of which is that it's been 30 years since I listened to the radio in any even vaguely active way. So in rock criticism's great singles-versus-albums/poppist-versus-rockist debate, my practice comes down firmly on the albums/rockist side, even though my theory is pop and always has been. But never mind that. Jody gave you 30 singles and 10 albums. I'll reverse that, with the proviso that naming your favorite albums of the year before the year is even over is impossible by definition. I really need till Feb. 1 to get the year under my belt. As of this writing, I've just gotten hold of two great Lil Wayne mixtapes I couldn't find by the time I heard tell of them in August, and Da Drought 3 sounds top 10 to me. There are also new Wu-Tang and Ghostface Killah albums with top 30 potential. Maybe by the time we're done here I'll have nailed those two. But accept this provisional list.
1. M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope)
2. Gogol Bordello: Super Taranta! (Side One Dummy)
3. Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness (Stern's Africa)
4. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible (Merge)
5. Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway)
6. Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony/BMG Nashville)
7. Rilo Kiley: Under the Black Light (Warner Bros.)
8. Lily Allen: Alright, Still (Capitol)
9. Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather (Virgin)
10. Against Me!: New Wave (Sire)
11. Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rakka (Give and Take) (Nonesuch)
12. The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc)
13. Les Savy Fav: Let's Stay Friends (Frenchkiss)
14. Wussy: Left for Dead (Shake It)
15. Balkan Beat Box: Nu Med (JDub)
16. Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (Saddle Creek)
17. Imperial Teen: The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band (Merge)
18. Public Enemy: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (Slamjamz)
19. White Stripes: Icky Thump (Warner Bros.)
20. Fanfare Ciocarlia: Kings and Queens (Crammed Discs)
21. Mary J. Blige: Growing Pains (Geffen)
22. Babyshambles: Shotter's Nation (Astralwerks)
23. Soulja Boy: Souljaboytellem.com (Interscope)
24. Go! Team: Proof of Youth (Sub Pop)
25. Jill Scott: The Real Thing (Hidden Beach)
26. 3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (Shanachie)
27. Authenticite: The Sylliphone Years (Stern's Africa)
28. Kenge Kenge: Introducing Kenge Kenge (Riverboat)
29. Willie-Merle-Ray: Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 (Lost Highway)
30. Hyphy Hitz (TVT)
Ten singles? Give me a break. With all the blather about how everything is songs not albums now—the iTunes model—a single is any song we say is a single. For me, it's songs I play for myself and—crucially—others as songs. I'll start with a partly annotated top 10, and then discuss some related candidates.
1. Gogol Bordello: "Ultimate" (Side One Dummy). "There were never any good old days/ They are today, they are tomorrow/ It's a stupid thing we say/ Cursing tomorrow with sorrow." My theme song.
2. Britney Spears: "Piece of Me" (Jive). Perfect impersonal beatsploitation and exactly what she deserves, maybe not morally—who can tell?—but for sure aesthetically.
3. LCD Soundsystem: "North American Scum" (Capitol). No-longer-young citizens of the coalition of the willing, which now consists of us.
4. Rihanna: "Umbrella" (Def Jam). When I told a convocation of indie fans at NYC's CMJ Music Marathon that this was the most iconic song of 2007, they got mad. Couldn't it at least be Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"? I prefer this.
5. Of Montreal: "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" (Polyvinyl). Long, grotesque, autobiographical song by affected, perverse, grotesque band.
6. Paul McCartney: "Nod Your Head" (Hear Music). So you're on your deathbed—you can still rock a little, can't you?
7. Lucinda Williams: "Are You Alright?" (Lost Highway). Self-consciously simple song about caring when love is gone and, next to "Ultimate," the most striking opener of the year.
8. Brad Paisley: "Ticks" (Arista). Sly dirt as good clean fun.
9. Akon: "Smack That" (Universal). There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.
10. Prince: "Guitar" (NPG/Columbia). Encountered it on a friend's car radio. Wondered how I could have forgotten it. Hadn't.
There could have been others. Maybe I should make a mixtape that includes all those plus the new Fantasia collab on one of the fall's three Aretha Franklin vault exploitations ("Put Up on Game"), the Springsteen track of the year from a live double Sony didn't bother to send me ("Open All Night"), the Harlem Experiment's moralistic anti-rap ("Lil' Bit"), the reason people got sucked into that not-bad-at-all Robert Plant-Allison Krauss collab ("Killing the Blues"), T-Pain in love ("Bartender"), Jason Isbell in mourning ("Dress Blues"), and Maurice El Medioni and Roberto Rodriguez's "Oran Oran," my favorite track by a lot on two albums I liked, one entitled The Rough Guide to Latin Arabia.
Ann asks what our private loves are, but though there was old stuff I discovered for the first time—Rufus Wainwright's Judy Garland album got me to buy the concert it replicated, and finally, hearing her perform, I understood what the big deal was—these were my private loves, just about every one already known to those who grok the Consumer Guide code. My real private love is leisure time, which when you listen every waking hour is so hard to come by. So what I treasure especially is vacations when I get to play beloved music in the car and talk it over with my wife. And there's always more of it. Sure, I bring old stuff; yes, I've got an 80-gig iPod I'm working on filling. But I always bring CDs, too, and I always bring plenty of recent music I've graded A or A– and then shelved too quickly. It's a parlous time for pop music; we'll get there. Indie rock, arghh (only look at all the young and now youngish bands on my list, and there are more of those, too). But every year I keep hearing more wonderful stuff than I'll ever be able to fully access again, all re-articulating a democratic vitality that shakes me free of my staler habits without destroying the fabric of my daily life.