The Music Club

Pure Pop Craftsmanship Is Not Enough
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 24 2011 3:47 PM

The Music Club

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Vampire Weekend’s CD "Contra."

I have a Bieber jam on my singles list, Jody, but I picked "Runaway Love"—the My World 2.0"deep cut" (ha!) that Kanye made it cool to like. It's fat, slow-rolling, and synthy where "Baby," that pop skipping stone, is spry and plinky. With the longing for "purer jukebox hits of yesteryear" in mind: One could draw a pretty straight line in 2010 from "Baby" to Bruno Mars to Best Coast (who took up the '60s-jangle-throwback, just-a-lovelorn-kid-doing-bong-hits-in-my-basement mantle from 2009 indie faves Girls).

I'm frequently awed by the craftsmanship such artists display—so "pure" and sturdy in its pop formalism as to seemingly represent the Platonic ideal of what three minutes of Top 40 radio should sound like. But as a musical virtue that sort of craftsmanship takes me only so far. I'm capable of rejoicing to aesthetic conservatism done well (as my love of Max Martin and Dr. Luke attests), but I'm also all too willing to forgive crimes of wankitude and formlessness in the name of music that discombobulates and surprises me. I give props to Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops & Hooligans, but I'd rather get lost in Ariel Pink's trippy Before Today, which sounds like an album made by an alien who visited Earth in 1976, listened to a ton of AM gold, then tried to replicate the sounds he heard, from very imperfect memory, some 30 years later—check out "Can't Hear My Eyes" and "Menopause Man."

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Craftsmanship is, of course, relative: Before Today features the songliest songs Pink has written—his Worn Copy and House Arrest are a bit too loopily assaultive for me to embrace outright—and its "hit" single "Round and Round" went down just fine on Jimmy Fallon earlier this month. It's hardly news that many of the most formally radical musicians gravitate, however gradually and obliquely, toward a songly norm as their careers progress—I'm thinking, most recently, of Pink's boosters in Animal Collective. But another way of seeing this trajectory, especially as such artists get broader and broader exposure (thanks largely to "indie"-minded TV music supervisors, commercial licensers, and talk-show bookers) is that, however slightly, they are not approaching the songly norm passively but tugging it back toward their own rabbit holes.

Putting aside the debate of whether or not Janelle Monáe's album is successful, I think a lot of music critics adore it for the same reason we adore Kanye's—not because it announces its genius emphatically, though it does ("Suites II and III!"), but because it bursts with ideas and references and signifiers that can be like oxygen to people whose jobs necessitate that they find interesting, involved things to say about music all day.

Two oxygen-stuffed releases that I loved in 2010 are Vampire Weekend's Contra (my pick for the year's best until Kanye steamrolled along) and Das Racist's Sit Down, Man mixtape. Ezra Koenig, Himanshu Suri, and Victor Vazquez are especially popular among music critics, I think, because, at their best, they are music critics, as smart, sharp, well-versed, and funny on the subject of music as us actual music critics like to think we are. The most tender song on Contra, "I Think Ur a Contra," features a subtle reference to music geekery, a line about reading "The Source and The Wire."

Das Racist are virtuosos of hypertext rap, quoting obscure Cam'ron and Styles P rhymes, shouting out Dwight Schrute, Arundhati Roy, and manhunt: Theirs is an extreme vision of identity as composed of a tangled tissue of references. They balance sloppiness and rigor in their 16-bar pile-ups, but rigor typically wins out, by a hair. At the very start of "All Tan Everything" (the title is a tweaked throwaway Jay-Z lyric), the "tan" theme yields a sonorous shout-out to Mantan Moreland—bug-eyed black character actor and '30s "race movie" graduate—which feeds directly into a line that mingles hip-hop paper-chasing and reparations: "All tan man, Mantan Moreland, demand more land, more ends, more land."

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