My dear royals,
So many thoughts here. I’m going to post my list of top 2013 albums and singles, but first I’ll address Ann’s wide-reaching question: It might seem paradoxical, but when I think of boho-ism in 2013, Kanye West is the first puzzle I want to crack. Despite his long alliance with Jay Z, they came to bourgeois status from contrasting directions.
Jay was the street outsider who wanted in and made it so thoroughly that one of Magna Carta … Holy Grail’s preoccupations is the upper reaches of the contemporary-art market—the album isn’t great, but getting half the art world into a boogie/staring contest with him in a Chelsea art gallery was a coup de théâtre. The signifiers in those songs are telling: Is he the owner of a Picasso, or is he, the artist, a new Picasso, or is he a Picasso, the object of acquisition as well as the collector? It’s a problem embedded in the word token. I’d bet there are black people and others moving in elite circles who can identify—certainly Jay favorite Jean-Michel Basquiat could have. (Otherwise, on both their albums, the Carters seem to be vying to make a raunchy new-parenthood sex the latest ultimate status symbol.)
West’s nouveau-riche angst is very different. As the child of a Black Power activist and an English professor, he’s always had the same sort of cultural capital and insight that Lorde is alternately lauded and blamed for possessing as the daughter of a mid-level New Zealand poet. (To people who figure that means she’s a rich kid: Unless New Zealand poetry is a way more lucrative game than the Canadian kind, those big poetry bucks mean maybe she got grocery-store kale instead of iceberg lettuce in her bag lunch at a public school.)
So, for Kanye, wealth and status have always been even more double-edged than for Jay—he covets them and sees them in racial terms as collective payback, as his 40 acres, but he remains conflicted about whether they make him complicit with white power. His drive and ego are wrapped up with lifelong grooming to see his own story as a liberation narrative, and so is his rage at people who block or mock him, even on trivial issues—his confrontation with Jimmy Kimmel this year was a tour-de-force of culture clash, with Kimmel’s frat-boy smirk the most satisfying goad to Kanye’s resentment since George W. Bush’s. I was one of those critics, Ann, who shuddered at his use of the Nina Simone “Strange Fruit” sample, but you’re right about Ye’s ability to personalize the political and vice versa, however disproportionately. Yeezus reaps that whirlwind sonically even when the album is knocked off-kilter by it verbally.
Still, that’s not the kind of bohemianism that’s gotten the most focus this year. Both Lorde and Macklemore have faced insinuations of racism and privilege for songs that question the aspirational materialism of black pop. In both cases it seems unfair. As their sounds attest, they’re each young enough to have grown up in the era of hip-hop and R&B as dominant forces. Despite the cultural complications, to insulate that branch of the mainstream from informed critique feels too convenient—to use the critical buzzword of the month, it’s smarmy.
As Ann said, given the growing wealth gap, the unattainable mirages of pop aspirationalism cry out for puncturing. And it’s not only white artists doing it—younger hip-hop voices like Earl Sweatshirt and Frank Ocean present bleak looks at their own middle-class circumstances, while Chance the Rapper scrambles it psychedelically and Killer Mike (whose collaboration with El-P on Run the Jewels is one of my top 10 albums) carries the torch for an older form of socially aware rap—as does M.I.A., more subtly, when she titles her new album’s first single in tribute to the 1987 Public Enemy track “Bring the Noise.”
Lorde’s critics, meanwhile, practice Internet gotcha criticism (so it’s snarky, too) when they pounce on the first line of the chorus of “Royals” for its invocation of black-pop tropes—“Every song’s like, gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom.” If they bothered to listen to the second line, they’d find her thumbing her nose just as hard at the rock equivalent—“bloodstains, ballgowns, trashing the hotel room.” In the context of the album, the picture is of an adolescent questioning the culture and her life in the round, and concluding she and her peers have to cleave together and invent for themselves some more modest but genuine ideal—a classic boho solution and sometimes a life-saving one, the sort for which many mourners thanked the late Lou Reed last month. It’s not unlike the spirit of “We Are Young,” 2012’s anthem from Fun, whose members include Jack Antonoff, the romantic partner of Lena Dunham, who as a target for art-kid backlash is pretty much the Lorde of quality cable. (Girls did good things for a lot of left-field pop this year, by the by, including Solange, Icona Pop, and Angel Haze.)
I’m not as concerned to defend Macklemore and his crew, whose music I like less and who can handle their own heat. But I have stood up for “Same Love” against purists who think it thieves oxygen from queer hip-hop voices such as Haze (whose new single is a collaboration with the tremendous Native Canadian electronic band A Tribe Called Red), Le1f, Big Freedia, or Zebra Katz. It seems like a misreading of pop dynamics to set them against each other: If anything Macklemore’s solidarity song can help make space for those artists, for many of the same reasons that Dan Savage this year reached out to credit straight allies’ contributions to marriage equality. It’s an old-fashioned element of bohemianism to act as envoys between margins and mainstreams. Macklemore at least doesn’t do it as clumsily as the Beats did with bebop.
OK, now I’ve gone and called Macklemore “bohemian” and that makes me scrunch my face up painfully. It brings me to Ann’s question about mainstream crossover. I don’t think there’s anything new here, as this year’s widespread ’90s comebacks and sound revivals remind us—“the year punk broke” always had the double meaning of “broke through” and “cracked up.” Co-optation is an occupational hazard for undergrounds, and more so now that the bar for chart success has lowered, as Chris has demonstrated. That doesn’t mean opposition is fruitless. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Old weapons go rotten: make some new ones and shoot accurately.” How to forge them is always the challenge.
The indie stalwarts of Arcade Fire faced the dilemma of how success can distance artists from their initial sources and intentions and, like many past bohos and rock stars, they looked to more “unspoiled” cultures (whether indigenous music abroad or dance music at home) for inspiration, with mixed results. I was tough on Reflektor in my Slate review. But I still adore the group’s expansive hearts, exploratory minds, and foppish commitment to dressing up.
In the less fraught territory further off the pop charts, this year I was enticed by depictions of hungry arty youth, gender asymmetry, sexual binaries, and even dire mortal peril from the likes of Parquet Courts, Neko Case, Rhye, underrated British Columbia songwriter Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) and musically radical Swedish duo the Knife. Some new weapons, some old, some borrowed and some blue, but none rotting yet.
Still, as I grow older I admire most the artists who are able to tangle the lines between insider and outsider, like the recent wave of frankly feminist, class-critical, sometimes queer, possibly pot-smoking singer-songwriters in Nashville. I found Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park a letdown as a whole after being so captivated by lead single “Merry Go Round” last year. But it did have further front-line-dispatch highlights such as “Blowing Smoke,” and “Follow Your Arrow” was country’s “Same Love”—too inspirational-speechy but remarkable for its context (“kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into”). Meanwhile the more seasoned Brandy Clark and our 21st-century-Dolly Ashley Rose told tales well out of macho-truck-driving-partying country-radio school. I hope the year-end kudos they’re getting betters their commercial fortunes. Am I crazy to think that the maturing part of Taylor Swift’s audience might find something here to love?
Finally, to round out this boho rhapsody, there’s David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” The subsequent The Next Day album was patchy for me, but that ode to the Berlin of his artistic salad days was one of the most moving songs I heard all year, not just for its elegiac tone but for its fond sense of humor toward his own legend—when he sings about doing something as mundane as catching a train, he adds, “You didn’t know that I could do that.” It’s true: Ziggy Stardust on a commute? Come on.
I saw the comprehensive “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario this fall and—much as I was dazzled by the Alexander McQueen stage outfits, rare videos, and even his Heroes-era coke spoon—what ruffled my own bohemianism was that the place was packed, for months on end, with aging parents and grandparents and young acolytes alike. (Geeta, as a Bowie–Eno specialist, did you catch it there or in London?) It was hard to surrender my territorialism about Bowie, as it was during the posthumous love-in for Reed: to grasp not only intellectually but viscerally that they weren’t just the avatars of willful oddity I clung to growing up in small-town Ontario but artists who changed the culture for millions. The benefit is that, for instance, they both helped break the ground on which marriage equality is blooming today. The loss is that every distant outpost eventually gets built up with malls and cops and tax collectors. We can settle in comfortably or keep on travelling, and both choices have a lot to recommend them.
On that note, from all kinds of sides of those fences, here are my 10 favorite albums and 21 favorite singles or near-singles of 2013, in alphabetical order. Each one links to something you can listen to. I eliminated duplication between the songs and album lists. Picks range from novelty songs to near-masterworks, but they’re what I would play anyone who wanted to sample the spectrum of a year I was especially grateful to be around to hear, in spite of everything.
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Frog Eyes, Carey’s Cold Spring
HAIM, Days Are Gone
Tim Hecker, Virgins
The Julie Ruin, Run Fast
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Lorde, Pure Heroine
Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose
Run the Jewels (Killer Mike & El-P)
Autre ne Veut, “Play by Play”
David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?”
Neko Case, “Man”
Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop”
Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”
Anna Kendrick, “Cups (When I’m Gone)”
Jessy Lanza, “5785021”
M.I.A., “Bring the Noize”
Janelle Monae ft. Miguel, “PrimeTime”
Okkervil River, “Down, Down the Deep River”
Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving”
Pet Shop Boys, “Love is a Bourgeois Construct”
Pusha T, “Numbers on the Boards”
Omar Souleyman, “Wenu Wenu”
Superchunk, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”
Earl Sweatshirt ft. Frank Ocean, “Sunday”
Rokia Traore, “Mélancolie”
A Tribe Called Red ft. Black Bear, “The Road”
Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey”
Kanye West, “New Slaves”
Ylvis, “What Does the Fox Say?”