CHICAGO — I didn’t plan it this way, but between Madonna, Jack White, and Johnny Jewel, this month’s theme is clearly the self-involved dilettante, the exception being a great breakthrough album from South African gloom-rapper Spoek Mathambo, who could turn into a major artist if he doesn’t watch out. But in the end, I liked Madonna’s even more. In a world with unemployment, blood diamonds etc, “Ooh la la/you’re my superstar” is very reassuring to me. Also, I have to get this awful pun from last month out of my system: Sleigh Bells is Big Black Box Recorder.

Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music Society

Heads Up, 2012 [BUY]

You know the times have changed when what would normally be called neosoul now gets pigeonholed as jazz just for being formless. Whoever says the Grammies are vulgar better explain how Esperanza Spalding beat the Canadian child star in 2011, because she’s the very opposite of the unprincipled schlock moralists accuse pop culture of harboring. She even has social awareness, imagine that, and rarely loses sight of structure. But I have to wonder if too often she gets by on her conscience.

However squishy the band gets, Spalding plays both electric and acoustic bass and always makes sure to ground the fluttering horns and organ. Unlike obvious predecessor Erykah Badu, she’s not a funkateer – never gets down, doesn’t even get up. Instead her sense of swing, which may sound dead at first, is actually unusually restless, always on the move. So this time she gets away with her meaningless shows of purity. In the media, she talks about pressing issues such as how jazz has lost its “street value” and how pop stars should stop “sexualizing themselves” (not bad potential song topics, come to think of it), but on record everything she sings is human rainbow. Pleasant, that’s for sure.

With music so delicate, tone determines everything, and her tone here is one of extreme classiness. Those craving ethics in their music will find her a breath of fresh air. Me, I hope Hollywood corrupts her a little. B+

Madonna: MDNA

Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

Madonna’s sound is so strong, so flexible, so inexhaustible, that unlike the vast majority of musicians she actually can go on forever. For thirty years now she’s been toying with the same sonic palette, fleshing out an already all-encompassing style with unbelievably rich results. Such accomplished trendsetters don’t even have to try to stay up to date, but here she does anyway.

Unsurprisingly, she has great taste in stars and hires M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, neither of whom makes much musical difference, but they help maintain the chart control. In fact, the very important topic of celebrity figures even more here than usual. “Girl Gone Wild” is a clear tribute to Cyndi Lauper, “I’m A Sinner” one-ups Gaga with an elegant, knowing wink, and on “Superstar” she names many somebodies (Brando, Caesar, etc), some of whom are nearly as famous as Madonna herself. With their simple up-and-down motions, these throbbing electrobeats are straightforward enough to sound like she was born yesterday, which really takes practice. She’s made a calm, predictable science of hookcraft – the one purely mechanical pop star. That’s her trick and always has been.

Like nearly everything, the album title is open to interpretation. Madonna, maybe. Or Madonna DNA. Or ecstasy. A pop star who specializes in the blank slate really can do anything and everything. A- 

Black Dice: Mr. Impossible

Ribbon, 2012 [BUY]

Famous for completely unlistenable concerts, this avant-sludge band is as abstract as what is known in the classical world as “new music” (what a title), only they’re emotionless. Best used as comic relief, their greatest trick is sound effects goofy enough for a sci-fi movie. While those are usually used for embellishment, here they’re the basis for these guys’ entire technique.

This album is totally instrumental, but it still has a number of interesting surprises hidden in its angular movement. Its sneaky lack of musicality can be very entertaining. With the drumbeats and looped, deranged-sounding keyboard squiggles dominating, the band has to be grooveful, right? Only it isn’t – too often all they come up with is amelodic noise babble. The beats are harshly architectural, sometimes achieving what could be called the musical equivalent of cubism. But their end product still boils down to, say, depersonalized Art of Noise, or metal machine music with a sense of humor.

For some absurd reason, these guys are admired for being “psychedelic”, but that’s due more to having toured with Animal Collective and told stories about smoking “$100 worth of grass” than their actual sound. Robots don’t do drugs. B

Spoek Mathambo: Father Creeper

Sub Pop, 2012 [BUY]

Between K’naan, Nazizi, and this guy, African hip-hop is really blazing into the pearly gates nowadays. With a mix so rich and harmonic it would sound live-in-the-studio if it didn’t rely primarily on texture, Spoek Mathambo is the most complex of them all. He’s no good as background music. This record needs focus.

His musical environment recalls the world he draws up in the lyrics, one of eerie anecdotes and political protest and off-kilter chording. I can’t be the first to notice that low buzzing bass sound common to so many of his contemporaries, but on top of that, Mathambo adds high, clear guitar lines, keyboard beds, and other such elements, making for a polished sheen I suspect French producer Marvy da Pimp deserves much credit for. It’s the electronic jive long ago spearheaded by Dr. Dre, a sound cool enough to get me past how spacey he is, not to mention how dramatic. Whether he’s coining creepily suggestive idioms like “Venison Fingers”, writing songs about blood diamonds, or exclaiming, “We should also get paid”, the brutality he describes really gets me down. But never does he stoop to manipulation.

His verbiage alone is impressive, but it helps he has the hooks to back it up. This album peaks at the title track, what with its high, determined synth strike, an inspirational beat if I ever heard one. Also terrifying. A-

All-American Rejects: Kids In The Street

DGC/Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

For some inexplicable reason, nobody really notices the great commercial genius of boy bands these days, at least this type of boy band. They manage to attract both rock dogmatists who admire their heavy riffage and teenage girls (who, contra the stereotype, can also be rock dogmatists) enamored of sensitive studmuffins who never have to ask, “Am I sexual?” Both are symptomatic of the bottom-pandering that destroys so much of the American mainstream these days. Pop universality didn’t used to be like this.

This particular band keeps getting blander, impressive given where they started. Nobody expects great lyrics from them, but I wouldn’t mind some thoughtful structure, like on “Time Stands Still” or “Top of the World”. They come close several times, but they’re both schmaltzy and angry, and it shows in the music. Take the ham-handed lead single, “Beekeeper’s Daughter”: “You’re a pretty little flower/I’m a busy little bee/honey that’s all you need to see/I can take you for an hour/then I’m gonna leave/honey I know you’ll wait for me/la-da-da-da-da”. This type of admittedly thrilling chauvinism has been powering rockists ever since Mick Jagger was a monkey man. Adding such elements as emotional trauma, actual misogyny, the way Tyson Ritter’s voice cracks when he hits the high notes, and “la-da-da-da-da” buys into the sentimental idealization of celebrity usually reserved for schoolchildren who believe everything they read in the tabloids.

They muscle right past the pop they’re accused of straight into AOR, a trick as old as Rick Astley. Plenty of people romanticize rock stars, but rock stars themselves usually avoid this. C

Rusko: Songs

Mad Decent/Downtown, 2012 [BUY]

Dubstep is hardly the purest form of music, and people who insist on sticking to its “roots”, whatever that means, are just a bunch of lying gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, it works best as stuff to grind to. The subculture is breaking its way into the mainstream right this minute, and the music’s getting better. Don’t try to tell me those two are unrelated.

So if you find Skrillex passé and Deadmau5 a progmaster in literal disguise, Rusko is probably your man. Relatively straightforward, devoid of textural aspiration, his synth stabs make for a good dance record. This could be a stretch, but I think “Somebody To Love” could be this summer’s crossover hit – better that than “Dirty Sexy”, which is too wordy and has too much swag. Most of all, I’m down with his rhythmic, computerized reggae. Willing to engage in the decadence of modern chart-toppers, it still maintains aural intrigue even when played in the background. Incidentally, given how it was Lee Perry and King Tubby who preceded the genre, Rusko’s actually pretty close to origins deeper than most fans are up to hearing.

At this rate, he could become a minor tastemaker, or, more likely, a producer. Both are welcome. For now, just enjoy the backbeat. B+

Jack White: Blunderbuss

Third Man, 2012 [BUY]

Jack White plays the genius so clearly that his disciples actually think he is one, while skeptics dismiss him as arrogant. When I first heard this album, I worried he’d become even more bigheaded than before, but don’t be fooled by his lyrical gimmicks. He’s only gotten warmer. Since the artiste’s retro act was his own from the get-go, the changes he goes through solo are minimal.

With Alison Mosshart having effectively taken over the Dead Weather, White cuts his most pleasing album since the last White Stripes one five years ago. A decent singer except for his occasional falsetto, he still attempts significance too often, never a good idea for someone who wants to be taken seriously. But with Meg gone, he’s outgrown his musical purism, which is good since her drum sound (or lack of one) was what defined it anyway. This is the best kind of solo debut, stuffed with personalized experiments and fantasies rendered immediately accessible by their concision. Though only “Sixteen Saltines” really rocks out, I’m enjoying the love ballads more than I expected to, not to mention the Longhair-style piano.

Having founded three major bands and his own label, this guy has an unstoppable drive to make music. He’s constantly trying out new variations on his blues-rock setting, and yet this still sounds like a White Stripes album, only with more sonic range. A-

Chromatics: Kill For Love

Italians Do It Better, 2012 [BUY]

Back in 2007, when LCD Soundsystem ruled electropop, the genre was pretty arch and mechanical, and these Italo-disco aesthetes made the modestly kitschy Night Drive. Now that we’ve been softened up by the expressionism of Beach House and M83, we’re ready for this huge, 17-song chef-d’oeuvre. People who claim that the “album” as artform has died out are wrong, and how.

Weeping significance at every turn, this record winds up feeling unnecessarily long far before the last track’s fourteen minutes of nearly inaudible humming. The melodies enjoy their share of refined lyricism, but they’re not the focus here. Even the Neil Young cover is primarily a vehicle for their slow, mournful waterfall of gushing synthesizers, is-that-a-guitar?, and the breathy affectations of whoever happens to be singing, be it Ruth Radelet or a machine. Tonewise, they’re not even sad. What they want is your respect, but they only sound cold – mastermind Johnny Jewel says “I’m just making pop music. To me, it all sounds like Madonna and Depeche Mode”, but this is elevator music that thinks itself great art. Maybe it could be background music for college oddballs to have séances to.

That twinge in Radelet’s voice reveals aspiration towards greater feeling, but sonically, she’s just used as another sound effect, and without any memorable lyrics (besides Neil’s lyrics), the only emotion asserted is that they’re serious. Don’t underestimate this seriousness, though. They really, really want to sound important. C+

*   *   *

There’s a reason Madonna is still around after twenty years. “Girl Gone Wild” is a stronger single (her 69th, or 85th, or 243rd single, or some such number) than anything Karmin, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gauthier or the icky little Canadian child star could dream of. Or Maroon 5, or Taylor Swift, or Katy Perry, or the icky little British male vocal group – you get the idea. In murkier territory, my quest for good dubstep singles has led me to Kölsch’s “Opa/Der Alte” (for some reason, techno has an undeniably German aesthetic) and also Dillon Francis/Kill The Noise’s “Dill The Noise.” Both will probably grow on me, but neither matches Skrillex’s “Right In,” which is also the most commercially successful. So much so, in fact, that the giant subculture he’s standing on the shoulders of has disowned him. A Madonna/Skrillex collab sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Then she might make a dubstep album — now that would be fun.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...