Dear Will, Jason, Lindsay, and Ann,
I’m tempted to suggest, instead of the traditional Music Club back and forth, that we fire up a webcam, record a group rendition of “Call Me Maybe,” and call it a day. You know: 10 hands, one guitar. Wailing sax solo. Copious horse-dancing. Kazoo.
I’m almost serious. In 2012, more than ever, music seemed inseparable from moving pictures, from the strobe-lit flow of images that pour through our computers and smartphones. I’m struck by how many of the big musical moments of ‘12 were televisual, from Frank Ocean’s stirring debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to M.I.A.’s jaw-dropping “Bad Girls” video to the year’s most important performance, Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour—a Situationist détournement staged for streaming video.
It wasn’t just the music itself. Increasingly, our pop music (pardon the expression) discourse is conducted on YouTube: a conversation between artists and audiences, unfolding in binary code. The chief example from 2012 is Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit, an adorable little pop song that turned out to be awfully big—sturdy enough to stand up to countless tributes and cover versions, capacious enough to hold a wide world’s worth of meanings, including the homoerotic ones that Ann zeroed-in on in a great piece. And, of course, there was “Gangnam Style”—the freakiest freak hit in history; a novelty song send-up of South Korean yuppies that seduced everyone: Indonesian flash mobbers, Naval Academy midshipmen, Hasidic wedding revelers, MC Hammer; a testament to pop’s dissolving borders and crumbling fourth walls.
Speaking of the fourth wall: The savviest music essay that I encountered in 2012 wasn’t written by one of our critic colleagues. It came from everybody’s favorite Australo-Belgian pop star, Gotye. I’m talking about “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra,” Gotye’s video remix of his breakthrough hit, collaged together from the unnumbered bedroom covers that made the song a sensation in the first place. Gotye’s stunt reminded me of an argument I first heard from the academic Karl Hagstrom Miller: In the 21st century, we have circumnavigated back to the late 19th, when pop was a participatory sport, and the amateur was the star. As in 1890, the real musical action these days is taking place at home. And the laptop camera is the new parlor room piano.
Now, this video-centric view may well be a warped one. I’m 43-year-old guy with an 8-year-old kid; I don’t get out much anymore, and when I do, it’s usually to eat something locally sourced and pan-seared. Today, more than any time in the rock era, musicians are making their living by playing music live; if you went to a Springsteen concert this year, or experienced the sweaty communal bliss of a dance club, you might have a different perspective on things than I do. And yet: While I didn’t make it to Jay-Z’s Barclays Center concerts this fall, I sat in my living room a couple of miles away and watched a livestream on Jay’s Life+Times website. Do you know what I saw? I squinted at my laptop and watched thousands of people holding their cellphones aloft to film Jay-Z. They weren’t filming the rapper himself, mind you—they were filming his gigantic video doppelganger, flickering on the Jumbotron above the Barclays Center stage. Screens facing screens facing screens: a clusterfuck of opposing mirrors that would baffle the imagination of Borges.
All of which adds to the unsettling feeling that records, while not quite beside the point, are definitely not the point—and may not even be a good starting point for a state-of-the-music discussion in 2012. Which in turn makes the annual agony of compiling best-of lists more agonizing, more absurd. Nevertheless, here are my top albums and songs:
- Future, Pluto
- Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof
- Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox
- Bob Dylan, Tempest
- Micachu and the Shapes, Never
- Melanie Fiona, The MF Life
- Ka, Grief Pedigree
- Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
- JB and the Moonshine Band, Beer for Breakfast
- Usher, Looking 4 Myself
- Lionel Richie, Tuskegee
- Jeremih, Late Nights with Jeremih
- fun., Some Nights
- R. Kelly, Write Me Back
- Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn't
- Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
- Prinzhorn Dance School, Clay Class
- 2 Chainz, Based on a T.R.U. Story
- Keyshia Cole, Woman to Woman
- Action Bronson, Blue Chips
- Frank Ocean, “Thinkin Bout You”
- Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
- Justin Bieber, “Die in Your Arms”
- fun. ft. Janelle Monée, “We Are Young”
- Alan Jackson, “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”
- Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
- Santigold, “Big Mouth”
- Ca$h Out, “Cashin' Out”
- Miguel, “Adorn”
- Rhye, “The Fall”
- Tim McGraw, “Better Than I Used To Be”
- Usher, “Climax”
- Ka, “No Downtime”
- Kendrick Lamar, “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe”
- Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra, “Lost”
- Danny Brown, “Grown Up”
- Luke James, “I Want You”
- Gerardo Ortiz, “Amor Confuso”
- Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid”
- RDX, “Jump”
- Anthony Hamilton, “Pray for Me”
- Taylor Swift, “22”
- Solange, “Losing You”
- Blonds, “Run”
- Gotye, “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra”
Click here for a Spotify playlist of these songs.
Roughly speaking, my favorites fell into two categories: 1.) straight-up genre records and 2.) genre-of-one records, in which musicians accentuated their eccentricities and pursued obsessions past the bounds of good sense and, sometimes, good taste. In the former category are things like JB and the Moonshine Band’s Beer for Breakfast, a great country-rock album, with songs as witty and catchy as they are rollicking; 2 Chainz’s delectable punchline rap; and R. Kelly’s Write Me Back, a suave ‘70s soul throwback that finds Kells doing slightly bonkers impersonations of Barry White and Marvin Gaye. The purest genre music of the year was Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof, a beautiful country record that struck the sweet spot between trad and contemporary. I’m still not quite sure how the American Idol also-ran turned into such a fine singer, with the gravitas to handle old-fashioned honky-tonk and acoustic weepers and the brass to pull off Nashville pop. In any case, country is the genre I turn to for comfort food, and Pickler, of all people, served the tastiest, most nourishing dish.
As for the weirdos: Two in particular stood out. One is Mica Levy, the London art-pop ragamuffin behind Micachu and the Shapes, whose clangorous Never was the rare “difficult” album that I loved without having to try hard. I hope to make a case for this odd, noisy music in a future post. But first let me talk about Future’s Pluto.
Future, from Atlanta, is nominally a rapper; denominationally, spiritually, he’s a kind of bluesman. To be precise: He’s a heartsick, sex-crazed, sci-fi bluesman, strapped to the chassis of the Mars Rover, bellowing out his pain and perversions, lit by ghostly glow of Phobos. Over the previous couple of years, Future released a string of mixtapes, establishing himself as a spirited but unremarkable rapper. But for his first official album, he had a great, gauche idea: He slathered on the auto-tune, wrote a bunch of songs about sex and loneliness, and let rip, rap-singing in a demented sob.
A few years back, auto-tune was everywhere; today, it’s déclassé. But Pluto is great: It’s the album that everyone was trying to make circa 2008, when T-Pain ruled radio and Kanye released 808s and Heartbreak. I love the sound: Listen to “Astronaut Chick,” with Future’s effects-strafed croon gusting over plaintively tinkling synth chords and a windswept whirl of percussion. It’s a song as tuneful, as shamelessly maudlin, as “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” and I don’t think I need to tell you guys that I mean that as a compliment. The real surprise of Pluto is the pathos—the way Future twists gangsta clichés, including some nasty misogynist ones, into touching puppy-love plaints. When’s the last time you heard rap singles as earnestly lovelorn as “Neva End” and the startling “Turn on the Lights”?
Turn on the lights
I'm looking for her, too
I heard she keep her promises and never turn on you
I heard she ain't gon’ cheat and she gon’ never make no move
I heard she be there anytime you need her
She come through
In short, Future has pioneered a new style: Afrofuturist schmaltz. Of course, you could also call Pluto R&B, a category whose boundaries continued to expand in 2012. In last year’s Music Club, I bellyached about the joyless sex of the Weeknd/Drake school of nu-R&B. Miguel remedied that problem in 2012, with an album that embraced the new production palate and old-school sensuality. But I remain suspicious of the late-breaking blog-love for R&B, especially for Miguel and Frank Ocean. Don’t get me wrong: I love those guys and hope to write about them in depth before we’re through. But am I wrong to think that Miguel and Ocean’s music—which flaunts its arty ambitions and steers away from R&B’s traditional deep groove—is R&B for people who don’t really like R&B, R&B for self-styled aesthetes, whose ears are clapped closed to more commercial/traditional R&B: to Jeremih and Usher and the redoubtable Kelly, not to mention women like Keyshia Cole and Melanie Fiona? Anyway … let’s discuss.
In the meantime, a quick note about a sonic trend. Did you guys notice things quieting down in 2012? Wherever I turned this year, I heard musicians playing with dulcet sounds, and silences—lowering their volume, and letting stillness and space creep into their songs. Consider some examples. Ocean and Miguel, of course. And “Climax.” And Jeremih’s awesome “Fuck U All the Time,” with its slow, leaky-faucet tempo and eerie emptiness. I heard the new sound in the music of young chanteuses: Jessie Ware, Cooly G, Lianne La Havas, Jhené Aiko, Nite Jewel, and the sublime (and mysterious) Rhye. I heard it in dancehall and hip-hop; in “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe” and on my favorite New York rap album of the year, Ka’s noirish Grief Pedigree. Of course, I heard it in The xx—the masters of menacing quietude–and in the spiky miniatures of Prinzhorn Dance School. Even Nicki Minaj hushed up a bit, for one song at least.
What’s happening, here? Is this a predictable pendulum swing, a reaction to the bludgeoning roar of four-on-the-floor club music, which has dominated pop in since the rise of Gaga? Is it a response to technology: Are the ubiquitous Beats by Dre headphones transforming our tastes, fostering demand for softer music, with more sharply etched details, and some room for our ears to breathe? Are we seeing a stealth British invasion? Notice how many of the artists in the above paragraph are Brits, and the music’s genetic links to British styles like trip-hop and Sade’s jazz-soul. Or is this “trend” merely wishful thinking on my part, another sign of incipient fuddy-duddyness? Am I slouching into middle age, like millions before me, by reaching for the easy listening?
Let me know what you think—but keep your voices down.