Happy 2011— The Year of the Willow, I believe the Chinese call it. We're launching our annual Music Club a bit late, which works for me: As usual, I've spent the last few weeks scrambling to catch up with all the stuff I missed. It's a humbling rite. Just when a critic is feeling sure of himself, firm in his opinions, confident in his taste, along comes another record —another genre —to drive home the point that he hasn't heard anything and doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. So it's with a little extra unease that I offer up my best-of lists. I'm sure 2010 will sound different to me by the end of 2011—with your help, by the end of our conversation. Anyway:
1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
2. Sleigh Bells, Treats
3. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me
4. Busy Signal, D.O.B.
5. Trey Songz, Passion, Pain & Pleasure
6. Vampire Weekend, Contra
7. Calle 13, Entren Los Que Quieran
8. Fabolous, There Is No Competition 2 (The Funeral Service)
9. Standard Fare, The Noyelle Beat
10. Justin Bieber, My World 2.0
1. Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris, "Baby"
2. Kanye West, "Runaway"
3. Sade, "Soldier of Love"
4. Cage the Elephant, "Shake Me Down"
5. Taio Cruz, "Dynamite"
6. Rihanna, "Rude Boy"
7. Lloyd Banks featuring Juelz Santana, "Beamer, Benz or Bentley"
8. Ke$ha, "Your Love Is My Drug"
9. Easton Corbin, "A Little More Country Than That"
10. Trey Songz, "Love Faces"
11. Busy Signal, "How U Bad So"
12. Alejandro Escovedo, "Anchor"
13. Katy Perry, "Teenage Dream"
14. Easton Corbin, "Roll With It"
15. Lindstrom & Christabelle, "Lovesick"
16. Waka Flocka Flame, "Hard in Da Paint"
17. Best Coast, "Boyfriend"
18. Chris Brown, "Deuces"
19. Nicki Minaj, "Did It on 'Em"
20. Lyfe Jennings, "Statistics"
21. Little Big Town, "Little White Church"
22. Rihanna featuring Drake, "What's My Name?"
23. Arcade Fire, "Ready To Start"
24. Wavves, "Post Acid"
25. E-40, "The Server"
At some point in our discussion, I hope to make a case for my pet favorites: Busy Signal, the Jamaican dancehall star who's one of the world's slickest and most musical MCs; Trey Songz, who's oozed ahead of the other R&B Casanovas; Standard Fare, an indie-pop trio from Sheffield, England, whose songs are sharp in all senses. But I think we should start where all musical discussions seemed to begin, and crash land, in 2011: with the epistemological and existential conundrum known as Kanye West.
In a Times piece a couple of weeks back, our colleague (and Music Club alumnus) Jon Caramanica described the acclaim that greeted My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as critical "group-think." (The album came in at No. 3 on Jon's list.) Kanye did seem to swallow 2010 whole, on record and online. As for the critical consensus—five stars from Rolling Stone, 10.0 from Pitchfork—I think it's less an instance of music writers falling in lockstep than succumbing to a steamrolling force. For sheer oomph and audacity, nothing touched MBDTF; the year's other Epic Album By A Major Artist, Joanna Newsom's sprawling Have One on Me, sounds like a tea party by comparison. The power of MBDTF is first and foremost sonic. The album has a huge, nutty sound, rococo extravagance that some—perhaps thinking of that King Crimson sample—likened to prog-rock. Dan Kois, in a terrific post in Slate's Movie Club, outlined a different theory. Kois called MBDTF an example of "trash" art, linking it to Black Swan, Inglourious Basterds, and other "wonderful recent trash" that "gleefully appropriates any and all tropes—camp tropes, horror tropes, Expressionism, first-person shooters, long Chris Rock routines—and combines it with top-drawer talent and inspiration as a way of bashing high and low together to generate sparks."
There's a term that I prefer to trash: hip-hop. The genre has always run on the combustion Kois describes; I'm sure, whether they realize it or not, Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino owe an aesthetic debt to hip-hop producers. Kanye, of course, is one of the greatest beat-makers in history; he's certainly the most musically omnivorous and melodically gifted. On MBDTF, he harnessed both strengths, with results that snatch you by the ears. (Those drums in "Monster"; those luscious vocal refrains in "Lost in the World.") Kanye has made better albums—I still like The College Dropout and Late Registration best—but none offers so much aural sensation, music that startles and enchants and overwhelms. I'm not sure about dark and twisted, but beautiful gets it right.
As a record producer, Kanye is something close to a genius; as a rapper … not so much. There are a dozen MCs who are wittier, hundreds more technically polished, with better flow. Kanye is an overachiever who's elevated himself to the upper tier by trying really, really hard. The strain is audible; it gives his songs a bracing quality, a grainy texture. He's turned a liability into a style.
Of course, the other thing West does is—pardon the expression—keep it real. Candor has always been his calling card. Which is not to say confession. This year, confessional mope-rap became a certifiable subgenre, led by Kanye's followers, the talented-and-boring Drake and the plain-old-boring Kid Cudi. Kanye has been known to wallow, but he's got so much more on his mind. Sex, for one thing. And mammon. And art and ambition and—as Jonah pointed out in the best piece of Kanye criticism I read all year—race. On MBDTF, he aired it all out, with the same unfiltered abandon that characterizes his Twitter feed.
It helps that he's just smarter than other pop stars. Compare the two most celebrated singles of the year, Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" and Kanye's "Runaway," both of which happen to have naughty words in their choruses. Cee-Lo's song is a cute, cheap joke. Kanye's is a welter of braggadocio and self-loathing and defiance, an apology to the world and a fuck you to the world, and a warts-and-all meditation on hip-hop's Topic A, promiscuous sex: the glories, and the psychic and spiritual costs, of being a douchebag, an asshole, a scumbag, a "baller-nigga" with "plenty hoes" in his "matrix."
"Runaway" was also an apology, of sorts, to Taylor Swift. (It was a fuck you to Taylor Swift, too.) I've been an early-and-often champion of Swift, but I fell out of love watching the VMAs, when she premiered "Innocent," her painfully patronizing postmortem on L'Affaire Kanye. Kanye's 2009 VMA's bum-rush was bad form, but Swift outdid him in 2010: the spectacle of a pop princess, done up like a Depression-era Opry moll, offering "absolution" to a 32-year-old black man with lines like "Who you are is not what you did/ You're still an innocent"—this was cringe theater at its awkward worst. What a contrast it made with "Runaway," which Kanye debuted at the close of that same broadcast. And not just because, unlike Taylor, West sang in tune.
Swift lost me this year in the unlikeliest fashion: by being a spoiled brat. Generally speaking, personal likability isn't high on my list of record-review criteria. (I'm a huge R. Kelly fan.) But Speak Now forced the issue. There are some great moments on the album, notably that line in "Mine"—"You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter"—a feat of narrative compression that many, including Carl, singled out. And who could fail to be impressed by the architectonics of songs like "Sparks Fly" and "Back to December"? These days, Taylor is as much a master of High Nashville craft as the ninjas who've been toiling on Music Row since decades before she was born.
But while Speak Now sounds good, it feels bad. For one thing, Swift is still clinging to her unicorns-and-princesses vision of romance. This was cute when she was a teenager, but it's a little sick-making coming from a grownup (she turned 21 in December), especially a grownup who, theoretically, sings country music, the genre we turn to for lived-in, real-world love songs.
But Taylor isn't a grownup—that's the problem. Whatever she's like in real life, on record she's an entitled adolescent, with a raging victim complex and little capacity for introspection. She specializes in casting blame: at Kanye West, sometimes; at ne'er-do-well boys, mostly; and in the malicious "Better Than Revenge," at the "actress"—rhymes with "mattress"—who stole her BF. She almost never concedes fault of her own. ("Maybe it's just me and my blind optimism to blame" is about as close as she comes.) Let's not forget, this is a girl who names names in her zillion-selling songs. She does it on Speak Now, in "Dear John," her swipe at John Mayer: "Dear John, I see it all now that you're gone/ Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?/ The girl in the dress cried all the way home." (What can you say about the naiveté of a young woman who expects a fairy tale ending with John frigging Mayer?) Swift's vengeance anthems once seemed like spunky feminism—This Guitar Kills Cads—but today, they're just creepy. If a male singer kissed-and-told like she does, we'd call him a louse.
The centerpiece of Speak Now is "Never Grow Up," a very pretty, entirely nauseating bit of kitsch that culminates with Swift going to sleep for the first time in her new apartment: "It's so much colder than I thought it would be/ So I tuck myself in and turn my night light on/ Wish I'd never grown up." Swift fancies herself an innocent, adrift in the fallen adult world; she wants to claim the purity of childhood, even while behaving like a very nasty teenager, using the platform of her megastardom to bludgeon those who've dared to shatter her white-wedding fantasies. "Oh darling, don't you ever grow up, don't you ever grow up/ Just stay this little …/ It could stay this simple," she sings. But life doesn't stay simple, not even for millionaire pop stars from fine homes. For the sake of her art, Taylor should pack up her moral certainties, along with her nightlight, her PJs, and other childish things.
In my next entry I want to talk about a superstar who excels at acting his age, Justin Bieber. Other topics I hope we'll get to: the insidious genius of Dr. Luke and Max Martin; The Comeback Kid, Eminem; and the continuing success—the menace?—of neosoul, a genre that brought us the year's most overrated album (Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid), and even put R. Kelly in one of Sam Cooke's old suits.
But enough of my yakking. What did you guys hear this year?