The Music Club

Weirdo Indie Boys and the Stagnation of Hip-Hop
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 14 2009 5:40 PM

The Music Club

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Dear Carl, Ann, and Jody,

My favorite Gaga ensemble of 2009 is one Jody missed: The Muppet Poacher. No, this Kermit jacket isn't the loveliest shade of green—and it looks like it'd be hell to clean—but I enjoy its spirit of sacrilege (hunt for hides at Jim Henson's Workshop and you spill blood on hallowed ground), its oblique fur-is-murder undertones, its (intentional?) Mike Kelley reference, and its morbid take on the romantic notion that the fabric of our childhood dreams is the most luxurious material of all. That I've never found nearly as much to chew on in one of Lady Gaga's songs as I have in her outfits and videos and interviews doesn't diminish my appreciation of her. If this was a year in which extra-musical events trumped actual music, as Jody put it, then Lady Gaga—whose appeal is extra-musical to an extreme, conceptual degree—is indisputably 2009's poster act.

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I'm not quite ready to turn my launch key on a "Favorite Albums of 2009" list just yet (Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM and R. Kelly's Untitled just plopped onto my hard drive the other day, and they're good), so instead I'll mention some of the likeliest contenders. Jibing with Ann and Jody's "Ladies' Year" theory, three of the best rock records I heard this year came courtesy of (three very different) women: Karen O. on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sleek dance-floor offensive It's Blitz!, Mica Levi on Micachu and the Shapes' art-school-cum-romper-room rave-up Jewellery, and Hayley Williams on Paramore's Brand New Eyes. Along with Kelly Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up," which ranks high in my singles list, Brand New Eyes seems to represent the last gasp of a venerable aughts tradition: indignant, spring-loaded, female-fronted pop-rock. This tradition kicked off in 2002 with Avril Lavigne's debut, peaked two years later with Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," and seems a touch passé these days—its sound too earnestly oriented around big riffs and soaring choruses, its emotional temperature too hot compared to the cheeky electro-hussy maneuverings of reigning pop princesses like Gaga, Katy Perry (who, ironically, co-wrote "Hook Up"), and the fast-rising Ke$ha. Whoever crowned Avril "The Britney Slayer" gravely underestimated the Canuck's quarry—as the saying goes, Britney didn't die, she multiplied.

Much of my favorite male-fronted rock in 2009 came courtesy of weirdo indie boys who like their music warped and wooly. In a downbeat year that many of us wanted to spend hiding in bed, there was a comforting bumper crop of upbeat, bedroom-born rock: I'm referring to the so-called "lo-fi," "DIY revival" scene, specifically the amniotic lap-pool of Dolphins into the Future's "On the High Seas," the ecstatically scribbled scuzz of Ducktails' "Landrunner," the bratty singalongs of Wavves' Wavvves(a lock for my top 10 albums list), and the howling sunrise of Kurt Vile's "Freak Train." This was lovely, galvanizing music, warm and fuzzy and caked with sonic muck. Very broadly speaking, all of these musicians are operating to a degree in the wake of Animal Collective, a long-running art-rock act that enjoyed its biggest year yet. Its January album Merriweather Post Pavilion and its December EP Fall Be Kind bookended 2009 with thumping, lilting lullabies. 

In bleaker moods I soundtracked some rainy walks with the Hyperdub label's 5 anthology, a handy introduction to the cavernous, desultory side of dubstep, a London club-music genre that has recently appeared stateside, in more aggressive form, via Eve's "Me N My," Rihanna's "Wait Your Turn," and Lil Wayne protégée Nicki Minaj's gloriously filthy "Saxon."

Speaking of Lil Wayne, he was a ghost this year by his omnipresent 2006-08 standards, but his fourth-quarter mixtape, No Ceilings, reminded us that he can pretty much flip open his brilliance-spigot whenever he pleases. The other big mixtape story of the year was Atlanta's Gucci Mane, who released three tapes in a single day, organized loosely, if mysteriously, around a Cold War theme. Gucci charms me, but I don't quite love him yet as anything more than a guest artist—his mush-mouthed, goofy punch lines helped make Jamie Foxx's "Speak French," and Mario's "Break Up" two of the year's most entertaining R&B songs. My rap album of the year might well be Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. 2, and part of the reason I adore it is that it sounds like it could have been my favorite rap album of 1995—murky samples, hard-cracking drums, gnomic crime yarns, even an Acura shout-out.

Which brings me to the question of hip-hop's health. Did the genre age out and stagnate this year, as the critics Sasha Frere-Jones and Simon Reynolds think? Tuning out all the noise surrounding Sasha's piece, this is the nub of his argument: "[H]ip-hop is no longer the avant-garde, or even the timekeeper, for pop music." This feels more or less right to me, although I'll put a question to the rest of you: If we agree that hip-hop isn't the avant-garde or timekeeper in pop music anymore, then what is?

Before I make way for Carl, I'll add one partially formed idea to the Death of Hip-Hop debate. The genre was born in the impoverished, smoldering South Bronx; it enjoyed its stripped-down "golden age" during a late-'80s crack epidemic and an early-'90s recession; and it became the blinged-out, bloated, and restlessly innovative sound of global pop during boom times. When the economy crashed, it was obvious that hip-hop was going to readjust itself, both lyrically (its tendency toward overblown, complexity-shunning articulations of wealth didn't just feel played out, it felt out of touch) and musically (what was Jay-Z's intention with "D.O.A." if not an indictment of glossy, decadent sonics?) So far, the most visible forms this readjustment has taken seem to be 1) idiosyncratic, isolated experiments (Ghostface's Wizard of Poetry, Kid Cudi, the dubstep-influenced tracks mentioned above), 2) a reversion to bygone styles better suited to leaner times (Raekwon, Wale, Freddie Gibbs, Pill, and a personal 2009 favorite, Fred the Godson), and 3) less a readjustment than a holding pattern (Gucci Mane). But that doesn't mean some new style, fermented in the 2008-09 crash, isn't in the offing as we speak, probably right under our noses. 

I have my own thoughts on the significance of the West-Swift fiasco, but Imma let you all finish first.

Jonah

Singles
1. Phoenix, "1901"
2. Grizzly Bear, "While You Wait for the Others"
3. Major Lazer, "Hold the Line"
4. Mario feat. Gucci Mane, "Break Up"
5. Kurt Vile, "Freak Train"
6. Kelly Clarkson, "I Do Not Hook Up"
7. Jay-Z, "On to the Next One"
8. R. Kelly, "Club to a Bedroom"
9. Miley Cyrus, "Party in the U.S.A."
10. Animal Collective, "What Would I Want? Sky"
11. Bloc Party, "One More Chance"
12. Jamie Foxx feat. Gucci Mane, "Speak French"
13. Das Racist, "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"
14. The Xx, "Islands"
15. Yeasayer, "Ambling Alp"
16. Dirty Projectors, "Stillness is the Move"
17. Yacht, "Psychic City"
18. Vampire Weekend, "Cousins"
19. DJ Quik & Kurupt, "Hey Playa (Moroccan Blues)"
20. The Very Best, "Kamphopo"
21. Hot Chip, "One Life Stand
22. Charlotte Gainsbourg, "IRM"
23. Dolphins into the Future, "On the High Seas"
24. Fred the Godson, "King Kong"
25. Nicki Minaj, "Saxon"

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

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