The Music Club, 2012
Entry 2: Mainstream music got really trippy this year.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Greetings. Thrilled to be jamming with y'all.
I hear you, Jody (head cocked, neck craned) re: the New Pop Quietude, a welcome respite from pop’s head-kick aesthetic. Although I guess this stuff happens in cycles: What struck me about, say, “Beez In The Trap” was its echo of Schooly D’s “P.S.K.” and other mid-‘80s drum-machine minimalism; ditto XX and their sepulchral Factory/Cherry Red Records throb. I, too, suspect the hushing trend has something to do with the popularity of Beats By Dre and other noise-isolating, over-the-ear headphones (with actual bass response!) replacing earbuds, just like boom boxes shaped earlier sounds. Nuance has acquired new market value!
What’s related, I think, and even more striking, is how balls-out trippy even mainstream records sound lately: strange, warped, elaborate, fantastical sci-fi arrangements; wildly abstracted, distorted vocals. Should we call it the New Alt-Consciousness? It was most startling in r&b, which had its richest year in memory, trumping any genre in the pop arena, I’d argue, in terms of creative vision. I know there’s disagreement in our ranks about TheWeeknd, but I think Abel Tesfaye’s EPs (and Drake productions) from last year are masterful, moody and psychedelic, and surely helped spur what’s feeling like a new golden era. Miguel and Frank Ocean made the most celebrated—and sure, “blog-approved”— LPs. But there was also Usher’s deliciously-teased “Climax;” Ne-Yo’s “Don’t Make ‘Em Like You,” with that sick scratch-groove (on an otherwise-middling set that gamely tried to get with the program); and yes!, that freaky stutter in Jeremih’s “Fuck U All The Time.” And much more. That’s not to mention records by Tesfaye’s outlying Canadian neighbors/fellow internet darlings Grimes and Crystal Castles, which flickered with deeply mutant strains of r&b.
You could hear that trippiness in rock, too, most tunefully on Tame Impala’s Lonerism—Syd Barrett-styled psychedelia that topped that old-school British pop-crit yardstick, the NME’s year-end list—and Kevin Parker’s other excellent 2012 LP, Melody’s Echo Chamber. I was more charmed than wooed by Alt-J, whose laptop-tweaked freak-folk chorales on An Awesome Wave won the U.K. Mercury Prize and sounded like nothing else. Ditto my beloved Animal Collective, who dosed indie-rock’s punchbowl a while back, but whose latest felt a bit fried.
No doubt the cultural/commercial rise of EDM and its sonic vernaculars figured in this FX-pop renaissance, too (Taylor Swift riding dubstep breaks, yee-ha!). Meanwhile, it’s been interesting to hear how the experimental wing of EDM— what we used to call, erm, IDM back in the day—is circling around to vocals, using AutoTune as a conceptual jumping-off point for more imaginative cybernetics. Burial, whose Kindred EP was spooky-delicious, is a godfather of this approach, which James Blake somehow made (somewhat) commercially viable. This year, Andy Stott, Actress, and Flying Lotus (the latter with nominal contributions by sonic thrill-seekers Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu) made three of my favorite records along these lines, playing with hallucinatory abstractions I imagine will be mirrored in actual pop songs down the line.
Me, I’m all for this. I like to be taken somewhere otherworldly when I listen to music—it’s certainly takes less of a toll than drug use, especially at my age. And if a record grounds those sound reveries in palpable, narrative emotions, that’s my pop ideal.
Which brings me back to Ocean, whose music wasn’t always spaced-out but whose storytelling and delivery created such fully-realized alternate realities—hallucinations of the heart that were sultry, snarky and crushing by turns. And holy shit, that Jimmy Fallon appearance: a tough, handsome young black man in an American flag-striped bandana singing lovesick blues for a dude and perhaps God— “I can never make him love me, no”—on national television while a string section in formalwear saws away behind him, a song whose central metaphor, indirectly but unmistakably, dismisses any culture that would demonize same-sex love, all in a offhandedly colloquial storyline cast as a conversation with a presumably amiable Muslim cab driver while stuck in traffic. Intentionally provocative? Hell yes. Breathtakingly powerful? I sure thought so. Well-nigh revolutionary in a year where the acceptance of gay marriage made its greatest poll gains in history? Maybe Nate Silver can do the math.
And while he’s at it, maybe he can gauge the effect of Rihanna and Lady Gaga, repping for weed on Twitter and elsewhere like a mad-hot Cheech and Chong, on the success of marijuana legalization bills in Colorado and Washington state, and what effect all this may have on pop. I mean, even Bruno Mars is getting his dub grooves on. (Then again, that’s a longtime Hawaiian tradition.)
One thing, Jody: Why should the “blog-approved” success of Ocean and Miguel make us suspicious? Because it appears tokenistic? Shouldn’t the good stuff fire up as many imaginations/libidos as possible, especially those who don’t usually respond to mainstream R&B? I admit I’m frequently bored by its loverman clichés, soapy drama, and bottle-service grooves. But Channel Orange and Kaleidoscope Dream, both of which I adored, made me listen harder and dig deeper into the genre this year. I can only applaud if they do the same for others. Otherwise, it’s like the reverse of indie fans who get all sniffy when their favorites play Madison Square Garden.
Two last notes. First, the Pop Quietude theory had no bearing whatsoever on my favorite rock record of the year, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, which was loud as fuck. Massed-holler choruses aside, it fits no trends I can discern. It simply boiled down assorted traditions/clichés of ‘80s Husker-Replacements post-punk and highway-hungry Petty-Springsteen hoodrat melodrama into a perfect two-man-powered 35-minute scream-along head rush that made me feel embarrassingly adolescent. I’ve played it in the car so much, it’s a miracle I haven’t been popped for speeding. I had other noisy pleasures this year, but I’ll save that spiel for a later post. That and some thoughts about pop music gun lust that’ve been troubling me anew. I'm sure I'm not alone.
On a lighter note, Jody’s webcam idea hit home as I wrestled with one of 2012’s oddest releases, Beck’s Song Reader, his “LP” portfolio of 20 new songs in sheet-music form (along with an excellent introductory essay by Mr. Rosen himself). Literally wrestled, since, in order to hear them, I had to sit down with an acoustic guitar and wring the songs out myself. At first, anyway: The album website now has dozens of video performances by fans, with more coming every day (Stephen Merritt recently covered a song on WNYC). Some ambitious acts are even booking gigs to perform the album. But no, I did not post any of my own performances. Let’s just say that, for a pop-music critic, it was a sobering exercise.
YouTubing aside, I still love LPs, however irrelevant they may be in the marketplace. Like novels, they’re immersive experiences that force me stop, focus and feel—to take a trip, at least when artists take the trouble to craft them well. This year plenty did.
Will Hermes is the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, senior critic for Rolling Stone, and a longtime contributor to NPR's All Things Considered and the New York Times.