The Music Club, 2013

I Found Pop Utopia—At a Bruno Mars Concert
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 20 2013 6:33 PM

The Music Club, 2013

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Entry 12: I found pop utopia—at a Bruno Mars concert.

187763106
Joy is a Bruno Mars concert.

Photo by Sven Hoogerhuis/AFP/Getty Images

Lovelies,

I’m done. When we started this thing I thought we might be dry on material—as I said at the beginning, winter’s contemplative season started early this year, and I’d already read so many provocative, enlightening attempts to sum up what now seems like an unusually rich musical year. But look at how far and widely our conversation has ranged. And we haven’t even really touched on what’s happening in African music, Asian pop, regional Mexican song, or the vital world of young composers. Any of those subjects could have dominated an entirely different club.

My brain needs time to regroup, though, partly to prepare for what I believe is going to be an outstanding 2014. Maybe a month ago, I started realizing that I already had in my lucky critics’ hands advance music that would likely make next year’s best albums list. Not to weight future debates, but I’m excited for you all to hear the brilliant mind and unforgettably poignant singing of Alynda Lee Segarra, whose band Hurray for the Riff Raff is releasing its ATO Records debut in February. Want a new pure heroine? Check out this album cover. And then listen to the band’s blend of country, blues, surf, and soul, all structured around a voice that, in my admittedly besotted opinion, belongs to a spiritual daughter of greats like Lucinda Williams and Linda Thompson. The future is bright with young women like Segarra breaking through.

Advertisement

And with young men like Robert Ellis, a Nashville-based Texan whom I hadn’t followed much before randomly sliding his third album The Lights From the Chemical Plant into my Mazda’s CD player. (I know, the hooptie’s old school.) Women in country had such an incredible 2013 that it made the dudes, with their waffle shirts and gimme caps and imbecilic party anthems, seem all the more pathetic. Ellis isn’t mainstream, but his elegance as a singer harkens back to greats like the recently deceased Ray Price and the legend whom his tenor most obviously invokes, Willie Nelson. Working with the producer Jacquire King, whose diverse résumé ranges from Tom Waits to Nora Jones to Kings of Leon, Ellis has produced something new in country or Americana: an album that’s roots-deep yet pop-refined, based on story songs that refresh familiar themes through a formalist’s awareness and feelingful honesty. I love it when artists make leaps like the one Ellis has accomplished. And he does a great cover of “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

There’s much more to anticipate in the first few months of the new year. Neneh Cherry, whose “Buffalo Stance” defined cross-cultural cool for my crowd when we were in college, is releasing her first album in 16 years. Glee star Lea Michele, offering her debut album in March, finally has a chance to live up to her hype as the next Barbra Streisand. The thinking rabble-rouser’s favorite Southern rock band, the Drive by Truckers, return with another epic barnburner. (Lots of Cooley songs, Truckers fans!) Rosanne Cash will be supporting her beautiful mediation on her own Southern inheritance, The River and the Thread. I could go on. We will go on, when we talk about the wealth of surprises that will swell this little list when December comes again.

Until then, I leave you with one small story of pop utopia. I think we all deserve that, after these seasons of pop as a source of outrage and controversy and troubling if necessary conversations. This past summer I went with my husband and daughter to see Bruno Mars and his great band on his first headlining tour. I love this guy: He’s funny and sexy, he puts his heart into music that honors the past while working to stay up to the minute, and he incessantly releases songs about how women should feel proud and strong. The show unfolded smooth as the band’s silk jackets, but what I loved the most was the audience, a rainbow of race, ethnicity, age, class, sartorial sense and dancing abilities.

A few yards away from me a Latino family—the youngest were twins, around 7 years old—sat, all dressed up, in a happy row. Behind me a Japanese woman about my age waved her handbag around and sang loudly on every hit. Three friends—a young African-American guy and his two white friends, maybe officemates—rushed in after the first song and never sat down. Some fans had clearly worn their designer outfits, others were in Target attire.

Many of these folks may have never otherwise spoken to each other. But in Key Arena, for that one night, they laughed, they hugged, they made that grunting noise that makes “Locked Out of Heaven” more than just a Police rip-off. Onstage, the band modeled cooperation and joy in the process of creation: there was no spectacle beyond a few fancy stage lights, no ego-driven star’s grand narrative. Music ruled, and music moved us. We were all together in big-hearted bliss.

I know it’s risky to read more than momentary release into this scene. But for 2014, can I propose a resolution? Let’s all live our lives more like we’re all dancing to a Bruno Mars song.

Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.