Happy Thanksgiving everybody — the season of premature year’s end lists, sudden booms in album sales, and James Taylor singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is just around the corner. There’s no resisting it; holiday songs have already taken the radio by storm. Though I too find this obnoxious when I’m in the wrong mood and refuse to listen to holiday albums on principle (A Very She & Him Christmas, no thanks), only the bitterest cynic could resist the Carpenters’ gloriously kitschy and utterly absurd Christmas Portrait. Come to think of it, Zooey Deschanel is kind of like the modern Karen Carpenter, isn’t she? How did I not realize this when I was reviewing her album in May? Only Carpenter is way better. Anyway, here are four albums that have fascinated rock critics this year, not to mention the wider public.
Arcade Fire: Reflektor
Merge Records, 2013 [BUY]
On their previous three albums, this Montreal-based collective achieved a direct emotional punch that renders their giant arena ambitions cathartic and inspirational, culminating in 2010’s absolutely classic The Suburbs. This album takes their concept-mongering too far. While still mining a distinctly resonant band sound whose musical nuances take weeks to sort out, it’s several steps down the road towards the strained, extravagant indulgence one might expect from indie heroes who wear their hearts on their sleeve.
Musically, this is no major departure. They continue to launch big, heroic, singable anthems in their organic, synthetic baroque style, coloring typical guitar-rock with strings, horns, accordions, hurdy-gurdies. Mature and soothing where similar bands favor the ornately affected, their relaxed, humane calm is often genuinely comforting and beautiful, as it had better be when Win Butler and Régine Chassagne are singing about crippling existential fear and middle-class ennui. New producer James Murphy, however, has coated their richly expansive sound with slick electronic glaze, hardly in accord with current market fashion but hardly an appropriate sonic move either. Where the band was once warm and affirmative, they’re now cold and mechanical, their preening violins and moist synthesizers the most precious kind of high kitsch. And while Butler’s grand quest for Authentic Emotion in the Modern Age has always been a front for hauntingly powerful songwriting, here he takes himself seriously, following a song called “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” with “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” and “Porno” (“Little boys with their porno/Oh I know they hurt you so”).
Some of these songs rank among the band’s most arresting, like “Joan of Arc” or “Here Comes the Nighttime” or the staggering “Normal Person,”the guitar riff on which has been blasting through my head for days. The album just doesn’t cohere as a whole. Here’s hoping they learn to laugh at themselves before they record the next one. Or at least find a new producer.
Miley Cyrus: Bangerz
RCA, 2013 [BUY]
Recalling the theory that defines media controversy as the result of sententious liberals confronted by cultural artifacts that challenge an ideology of politesse, I had hopes for this album — I’m perfectly willing to overlook the most embarrassing of gaffes in exchange for the privilege of hearing great pop music. But the sententious liberals were right, because this is truly lousy pop music. Not one memorable song emerges from fifty minutes of thrashing about as an increasingly desperate Cyrus tries to position herself on today’s charts.
Millionaire country-singer father and all, Cyrus is quite familiar with both Nashville conservatism and Disney vapidity. Going through an adolescent-rebellious phase, it makes sense that she should find the beefy hip-hop and sneaky dance music of modern American fashion so thrillingly transgressive compared to her Hannah Montana childhood. Nevertheless, these are the Top 40 genre exercises of a rich, spoiled daddy’s girl, one whose embrace of pop shockery smacks of dilettantish hobbyism. From strutting electrohooks to synth-coated basslines to fist-pumping club hits to the occasional guest rapper to, what else, a whole lot of heartfelt power ballads, she’s bought every cliché on the market, dabbling in some Auto-Tune here, some chopped-and-screwed beats there, even a touch of country sometimes, all unified with drippy keyboard color and her whiny karaoke voice. Unfortunately, given how many styles she’s appropriated, she shows remarkably little aptitude in any of them.
To Cyrus, this album is a daring expression of explicit sexuality and chic sensationalism; to the outside world it’s dull commercial schlock of the blandest order. Feigning edgy defiance even while asserting her sincerity, she gives it up to corporate cowardice in the end.
Omar Souleyman: Wenu Wenu
Ribbon Music, 2013 [BUY]
Supposedly producer Kieran Hebden has commercialized this Syrian party singer’s visceral style with the intent of turning it into Western club music, and so what? Rather than a visionary punk album, they’ve achieved a visionary disco album, a polished groove that just keeps building and building into rhythmic overdrive, indeed recalling such Western club touchstones as Skrillex, Death Grips, and Boney M’s “Rasputin.”
Souleyman has essentially hijacked and marketed a Syrian genre called dabke, turning traditional wedding music into sped-up, wacked-out, abrasive chaos. His lyrics concern conjugal relations and his politics are in the music. Over crisp, syncopated percussion, energetic oud figures weave in and out of a smooth electric veneer, with keyboard maestro Rizad Sa’id’s superfast synth solos achieving a hyperactive forward momentum that never stops bleeping or yapping. The music’s strength hinges on constant riffage — Souleyman will shout out some majestic proclamation, then Sa’id will comment on it with an aggressively squiggly hook, and it circles round and round like that ad infinitum. Because of such call-and-response arrangements, the rough masculine melodrama in Souleyman’s voice takes on an ominous authority, like some crazed autocratic bandleader. You feel that maybe the backing musicians shouldn’t be treating their boss with such reverence; still, the explosive intensity they all achieve drags you under his hypnotic sway.
Absurdly simple, trashy, and hedonistic, the overall effect is cartoonish. If this album gets played in American dance clubs, it would probably be for all the wrong reasons. But its fevered potency is vivid and thrilling. It proves how complex pop cartoons really are, and how much we need them.
Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap
Self-released, 2013 [BUY]
Unlike Chief Keef, an angry brutalist whose thug posturing makes the Chicago South Side sound even shittier than it is, competing South Sider Chancelor Bennett’s persona conveys a real human being, and his flow has few precedents in hip-hop: imagine a giddier, more juvenile Childish Gambino, capable of both caffeinated verbal overflow and piercing, plaintive lyricism. On this free mixtape, he clowns around, gets celebratory, gets introspective, and thoroughly bubbles with musical ideas.
Chance’s beats range from laid-back, feelgood jazz accompaniment to smooth keyboard noodling to chunky organ chords, from metallic percussion tracks to slinky acoustic basslines to a haunting Willie Hutch/Dr. Dre flute sample. Beyond the flute sample, though, everything realizes a cheerful, comic feel, with Chance’s knotty, chattering raps adding bite and wit to the music’s eclecticism. Although his funny, outgoing odes to juice, the local drug dealer, and his favorite song match the easygoing mood exactly, don’t let his good humor fool you; on “Paranoia,” his terrifyingly serene meditations on Chicago gang violence, and “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” a heartbreaking lament about his mother’s refusal to hug him (“I miss my cocoa butter kisses”), he’s possessed by profound and utter sadness. He starts and ends on high notes, though — from the opening “Good Ass Intro” to the closing “Good Ass Outro,” hard-earned enthusiasm triumphs over mortal anxiety.
Veering from hyped-up hilarity to disturbed agitation, he makes the most of his goofy eccentricity. His vocal signature is a silly but also somehow insightful way of chanting the word “Yeah.” “Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah! Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!”