Since January I’ve been squeezing an extra review into each catalogue, and, nearing the end of February, it finally cost me a deadline. I’m pretty satisfied with the way things turned out, though. As of this post since March last year, I’ve reviewed 100 2012 albums, not bad. High points here are a Canadian teenpop singer and an angry, stealthy metal band. The low point is what I believe to be the worst album of the year – beat Deadmau5 by a hair. If you think the Dirty Projectors sound contrived, wait till you hear this 70-year-old cult artifact.
Death Grips: The Money Store
Epic, 2012 [BUY]
Unlistenable at first, shouting their social commentary as if they took themselves seriously, taunting the big bad label responsible for their exposure anyway, Death Grips is the modern revolutionary/anarchist/pirate’s dream band. They’re so ridiculously aggressive and righteously over-the-top it’s hard to imagine them reaching more than a tiny slice of the population. Over-the-top used to mean fun, though, and I find this album immensely enjoyable.
Their electronic cryptometal bites down so hard and fast you think it’s not metal, but it is; it shares a similar self-aggrandizing macho purism, as well as a putative militancy that’s all too vague. Though the words MC Ride bellows could be conceptual or political, I can’t quite parse them, and I don’t care, because most likely, they won’t hold up to the revolutionary music. These guys have a sheer technical edge over the competition, their synthesizers all clean and cold and sneering, their drums miniature lessons in total catharsis. Ride’s bullish chanting lends the songs some semblance of formal conventionality, vitalizing them in the process. Like so much recent techno, everything charges your brain with a tense, tight vacuum of a band sound, sucking any and all potential listeners in with its furious momentum.
While the type of pure, raw anger they specialize in never endures, ride it for 41 minutes and you’ll have a blast. This is music with which to alienate people. So go ahead, download it illegally if you must. They want you to, after all.
Taylor Swift: Red
Big Machine, 2012 [BUY]
As the National American Sweetheart, Taylor Swift’s career is a great feat of crossover compromise. She’s at once “country” (i.e. authentic and down-home) and “pop” (i.e. accessible and commercial), and her songs really do have the potential to reach anybody: aesthetes who prize sincerity, young girls in danger of growing up too soon, old men who want their daughters back. That is, anybody who doesn’t resent taking romantic advice from a 22-year-old Nashville careerist.
On her most lighthearted album, Swift sounds simultaneously vulnerable and independent, and despite the considerable amount of influence from her namesake singer-songwriter, James Taylor, she’s no Carly Simon. What’s more, she demonstrates a knack for melodic sloganeering, something that always wins the pop audience over one way or another. But the glossy production irons out all the wrinkles in her already-polished soft-rock and sounds insufferably cloying and disingenuous, something else that always wins the pop audience over one way or another. Even if you believe high-schoolers are capable of experiencing true love at first sight, it’s no easier to identify with her than it is an American Girl Doll. “Stay Stay Stay” is the big exception, in which Swift’s reserve blossoms into playfulness so exuberant you can’t help but giggle along.
Whether you like this album or not depends on how naïve or how jaded you are, respectively. Personally, I like it plenty until the slow-burning duet with expert-in-sentimentality Gary Lightbody, who I hope isn’t her next boyfriend.
Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
Domino, 2012 [BUY]
Ever since Radiohead, bands have been a lot subtler about hiding their progressive-rock influences, even this acoustic lo-fi collective. This album is supposed to be their exercise in straightforward, conventional songform, which only goes to show their fans have no idea what songform is. From the voices to the song titles to the clicking percussion, their mannered eccentricity pervades everything they touch.
A couple of these songs are pretty hummable, largely thanks to the female backup singers. But it’s hardly surprising that Dave Longstreth once studied composition at Yale, because his melodies are also ridiculously complicated. Everything I find inaccessible about contemporary classical I find inaccessible about this. Excessively tangled and strident, the record brims with key changes, alternating time signatures, you know, all the devices quasi-composers use to prove how clever they are. In contrast to their musicological eminence, they play their instruments like clunky amateurs, and Longstreth’s whiny, sophomoric singing matches his writing exactly. This type of album is called an irritant – something that just sounds silly until people start getting inexplicably mad at it, at which point they turn it off and listen to something simpler.
The technical accomplishments here will reveal themselves eventually, but only to people who’ve worked through a lot of music theory. Just as with contemporary classical, I fail to see the value in music that takes an instruction manual to understand.
Scott Walker: Bish Bosch
4AD, 2012 [BUY]
Commander of one of the weirdest, most incomprehensible cult audiences ever, this ‘60s pop star turned experimentalist guru often makes music that attempts to confound previous notions of structure and quality, and this album is no exception. In fact, by journeying so far into the avant-garde so as to be intolerable, he has mastered the special art of innovation. Pitchfork’s Mike Powell calls it a “catalog of basic human cruelty,” which it is: cruelty towards rock critics, the only people alive crazy enough to listen to it.
It’s remarkable, really. Walker has managed to assemble a detailed list of all my pet peeves and, miraculously, combined them into one. Over slow, coarse electrotextural patterns, with scratchy percussion and orchestral blares occasionally interrupting, he drones his obscurantist poetry in a dreary, onanistic-operatic murmur. Entirely monotonous, completely devoid of any pleasure, everything here seems to go on forever. Fans are supposed to immerse themselves in the swamp, slowly getting used to its grating sonics and contempt for conventional musicality, and after weeks of trudging, finally find a couple details about it they can enjoy. Gradually, they are to condition themselves to how painful the record is. This is a familiar aesthetic strategy; it’s called masochism. Walker simply happens to be more committed to it than most.
On the longest track here, he squeezes out all his adenoidal aching, wheezing “What if shit were music?” I couldn’t answer his question, but switch those two nouns and you’ve got a readymade album review.
Carly Rae Jepsen: Kiss
Who knew, the girl who did “Call Me Maybe” has an actual album to go along with the biggest single all year. Friendly, light, youthful, she recalls Marion Raven circa 2000. By ignoring the power-ballads currently circulating around the marketplace and sticking to straightforward bubblegum hits, this album achieves a sweet, genuine innocence that’s almost unheard of. It’s like she truly believes in pop commodity out of the goodness of her heart.
Jepsen’s high spirits unsurprisingly come across as pretty vacant. Nothing much distinguishes her from the Canadian Idol competition besides her lispy childlike slur, and she doesn’t really have much of a persona. On the whole, her songs strike me as pieces of pure, emotionless formalism. Usually, this would equal content-free. But in this case, it’s so extreme there’s something amazing about it. The hooks she and many others love have become so ingrained in the culture they’ve nearly fallen out of fashion, and where once they seemed universal, they now constitute a distinct and immediate style. That’s why it’s possible for her to reclaim them for the sheer pleasure of it. Always she hits the melodies on the head, and her slick synthesized discobeats flow like liquid. Even when her songs end too soon, they loop inside your head for days. If Jepsen were worth caring about as a person, well then she obviously wouldn’t be the perfect pop machine she is, right?
Utter fun the whole way through, the album peaks with “Good Time,” where Jepsen brilliantly utilizes corny, geeky guest singer Adam Young to produce rich, delicious teenpop. Who cares that she’s 26 and sounds 16? On “Good Time” she’s immortal. One Direction, Rebecca Black, and “Call Me Maybe” itself are revealed as crass exploitations by comparison.