I hope you’ve enjoyed my explorations and misadventures through the great big world of pop music this year, because it’s the last weekend in February and I’m done playing catchup — I have officially reviewed 100 albums from 2013. The general consensus presented 2013 as a momentous point in rock history after a fairly uneventful couple of years, and I basically agree. I’m still skeptical of rockcrit’s collective auteur fetish, and suspect that much of the hype has been based on grand artistic statements that crumble when subjected to analysis. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of good music released in 2013 was astonishing. With markets collapsing, you should go out and buy some.
R. Kelly: Black Panties
(RCA, 2013) [BUY]
From Celine Dion duets to ill-conceived gospel records to countless songs about mean journalists making his life miserable, R. Kelly has made lots of ghastly gaffes for such a major R&B star. Although he is remarkably prolific, he’s not above churning out whole albums of filler and often bogs down into generic sex simulations and the moony avowals of love and fidelity that win him sincerity points from the pop audience. But he’s also capable of the kind of exquisitely pornographic erotica that makes the pop audience pay attention in the first place, and this album has plenty.
Most new jack love men are slick, suave connoisseurs, urbane fantasy objects that entice partially because they’re so clean and polite, hence thrillingly suggestive of what might be lurking under their good manners. They’re connivers, manipulators, always coming up with tricky new ways to wheedle girls into bed with them. By contrast, Kelly’s hallmark has always been brash candor; where Babyface, say, would cook his woman dinner by candlelight, Kelly insists that they fuck immediately. There’s a fluffy, lightweight feel to his music, and his creamy soul melodies seem to float by expertly, craftily, with ingratiating ease. At his best, he commands a magical simplicity, the transcendent bliss of the idealized sexual experience. Sublimely hooky confections dominate this record, its lyrics filthy and surreal in equal measure. However, the overall mood gets undercut towards the end by a number of resentful gripes against the media, hardly a turn-on in a celebrity of his stature.
The first half of this album could seduce you into countless one-night stands, into buying a fantasy you know has been artificially manufactured, into utter domestic bliss. Then he shoots his wad.
Luke Bryan: Crash My Party
(Capitol Nashville, 2013) [BUY]
In this great golden age of bounteous major-label product, bad corporate country singers take after bad corporate rappers more and more every year. Instead of cocaine they drink beer, instead of Maybachs they drive old beaten-up trucks their fathers gave them, instead of hood solidarity their group mentality tends vaguely patriotic and/or confederate, and instead of angry they act saccharine, but in both cases the macho blowhard has become a genre cliché. Luke Bryan epitomizes the modern country singer as much as Lee Brice or Jake Owen, and he’s better at pining for his lost youth than anyone.
Bryan isn’t the soulless commercial puppet his reputation suggests. Not only does he really seem to believe in what he’s doing, but he can sing, possessing a resonant baritone suggestive of finely toned muscles and fruity beefcake. I love “That’s My Kind of Night”, in which Bryan and his girlfriend have sex in the wilderness while listening to their favorite rappers (“A little Kanye a little T-Pain,” seriously). But that song is all upbeat drive and kickass banjo, whereas his typical formula relies on cornier materials: straightforward literal anecdotes, usually about falling in love or partying like a good old boy, are fondly remembered by an older and wiser narrator. He masks his longing to be twenty-one again in droll self-deprecation and such evocative yet familiar details as the first song he and his honey danced to, the scar he got in a barfight protecting his buddies, the abandoned parking lot where he and said buddies would always meet, and the girl who once got his heart all twisted like an old beach roller coaster. Because he’s a painstaking professional, he backs his tales with careful acoustic strumming, twangy power riffs, and huge, yearning choruses that hammer every confession home. Then he starts spouting more generalized homilies.
From his surface toughness to the appalling sentimentality underneath, Bryan aims to sucker you in with good old-fashioned American romantic individualism. Don’t be intimidated, though; underneath that red-blooded strut he’s got a heart soft as a teddy bear. He’s a real authentic regular guy like you just don’t get anymore, the kind of guy you could share a beer with.
Sky Ferreira: Night Time, My Time
(Capitol, 2013) [BUY]
If Romantic new wavers had been this weird in the ‘80s, they never would have topped the charts. In the 21st century, Sky Ferreira might. Not only does her futuristic dance-rock split the difference between hipster fashion and the cravings of the pop marketplace, it’s warmer and more heartfelt than such a robotic genre typically allows for, enabling a voracious drive equally suited to the radio and the dancefloor.
Even for such an inventive glitz apocalypse, this album’s layers of sticky electronic distortion densely splatter across the mix, Ferreira’s pumped-up keyboards obsessively droning away as the beat keeps kicking forward. The tempos flow and rush, yet the overall mood is woozy, pickled in acidic blankets of organ and tangled, quavering reverberation. But for all the hypnotic gleam, her melodies are big and catchy enough to energize this sound with grand hummability, martial drum machines, and the classic new-wave combo of whooshing synthesizer atmosphere and raw guitar riffs. Ecstatically girly and emphatically defiant in equal measure, she bellows and giggles her way through these disco-bleached declarations of Anglophilia. “Heavy Metal Heart” celebrates herself, “Boys” honors her boyfriend, and neither means as much as the hooky little blip that embellishes the chorus on “I Blame Myself.” “24 Hours” will light up arenas all over the country when she goes on tour.
As a standard psychotic indie babe, she’s familiar enough as a type, singing all sorts of stubborn, mocking confessions of neurosis and terror. Only it’s the rare psychotic who can articulate her paranoid emotional crises like this. Let alone shape them into perfect synthpop.
Fall Out Boy: Save Rock and Roll
(Island, 2013) [BUY]
These Chicago bubblegum punks have always defeated emo’s crippling stream of dramatic bullshit by treating the genre’s whiny balladry and dramatic melodicism as mere stylistic conventions, as a worthy pop form, lending even their sensitive songs an exuberant charge few bands anywhere can match. After a five-year hiatus, this triumphant comeback is as good an introduction as any. It’s way better than 2008’s Folie à Deux and holds its own with 2007’s Infinity on High, fashioning blaring hooks so intense you feel exhausted but enlivened once the record’s through.
Predictably, they’ve cut down on the guitar noise now that they’re professional veterans. More loyal to their audience of starstruck girls squealing at their every move than their audience of angry boys raging about how much they’ve sold out, they know all too well that callow adolescents can only top the charts for so long before finding a change of pace. While this album isn’t a maturity move, it definitely harnesses a more stylish European dance groove than their punkier material does. Their booming arena-rock beat now accommodates automatic drum-machine rhythms, their blood-soaked crunch backed by synth patterns and Hollywood strings. But that just makes everything glitzier, and their sonic signature remains Patrick Stump’s harsh, shrill, hysterical vocal cadence. Whether they’re writing heartsongs or grand statements of defiance, the sheer release in their energetic theatricality and campy swagger adds gauche wit to the tearjerkers and obsessive oomph to the anthems. Riding wave upon wave of tight, dynamic uproar, soaring, interlocking guitar jets, and blistering power riffs, this is rock performance at its hammiest and most irresistible.
If you’re sufficiently suspicious of pomp and bombast, you might take objection to Pete Wentz’s lyrics, which read like artsy collegiate poetry. But sung over music this tough and daring they just sound hilariously tongue-in-cheek and self-aware. Which is a stupider metaphor, “We are the jack-o’-lanterns in July” or “When Rome’s in ruins/We are the lions free of the coliseums”? I’ll be playing this album over and over to find out.
Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana
(Carpark, 2013) [BUY]
Any bunch of noisy slackers with too much free time on their hands can toss off a barely coherent album of rickety indie-rock, but it takes real craft to sound as simultaneously inspired and amateurish as these Massachusetts art students do. Even after you’ve listened past the muddle and absorbed their basic sound, they remain firmly entrenched in their slovenly lo-fi principles. But their addictive shredding is so layered and immersive it makes scratchy recording a virtue, and their friendly songwriting adds human warmth to their cold axe wonderland.
Like many scruffy alternative freaks (c.f. Parquet Courts, Yuck), this band sounds so classic at first that similarly alternative-identified rockcrits tend to get carried away with the ‘90s comparisons, especially those to indie godfathers Pavement. As it happens, they sound less like Pavement than the Archers of Loaf, less like the Archers than Veruca Salt with Helium’s guitar sound, and less like any of the above than themselves. Sadie Dupuis’s twisted little tunes and warbling whine project a charmingly inarticulate adolescence, but it’s the guitar playing that rips your ears with enough bemused, cheerful edge to cut steel — as sharp, jangly chords get subsumed in a messy expanse of thick, grungy riffage, blasts of distortion bite down quickly, thrash for a chorus or two, and fade out as quickly as they came in only to lurch around again. They somehow crank a remarkable number of distinct and fuzzy textures out of their amplifiers, screeching and rasping and clanging enticingly over melodies that often gradually shift throughout the song. But however chaotic the guitars are, they never overwhelm or overpower the demented verse-chorus structures that lend them their pissed-off punch.
This album crackles and buzzes like hardcore bands never do, and its terse comprehensibility realizes a sublime pop cartoon. Simplistic, bratty, ‘toonful songs mock their own clumsiness with sneer and savor. Stubborn melodies butt heads with willfully sloppy execution, sounding altogether more triumphant in their perversity.