I’m often torn over where to side in the old-vs-young war, or rockism-vs-postmodernism, or the question of whether musicians should face mandatory retirement at 65. It’s worth considering that all the good records this month are by career rock stars, guys who started decades ago and are still going strong. That is, except for Nicki Minaj: a very different kind of career rock star.

Far East Movement: Dirty Bass

 Cherrytree/Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

I know Far East Movement is unhip, even among chart-toppers, but 2010’s Free Wired was fun. At first glance, the follow-up is the same, and with music this superficial, that’s probably all that matters. But there are a number of turn-offs, starting with how much they talk about “bass”, a techno-derived fetishization that goes beyond DJ wannabe lingo (their idea of a pickup line is “Girl you’re a bass head”). In half of these tracks I can’t even hear a bass.

Their megacommercial dance music isn’t as irritating as you might think. For “pop rap”, they’re less pop and less rap than rocking really good. But they’re also so shallow they can only be a singles group, and without “Like A G6” to carry the record, this is just more clubstep. The same bouncy synth carries all the hooks, making them blend into each other, and at times the frontmen come across as so unintelligently horny they’re indistinguishable from LMFAO. They still like having famous people featured in their songs, for the publicity if not the team spirit. But where last time Snoop Dogg was King VIP, now they hire Tyga, who unlike Snoop is vocally relaxed because he doesn’t have anything to say.

What they most likely want is to make a record so common-denominator you could play it on the radio start-to-finish and nobody would notice, pretty difficult when you think about it. They succeed. B

Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now

 2nd Story Sound, 2012 [BUY]

Oh, great, a concept album about being old – when rock stars sing about being past their prime, they usually are. However, it’s all redeemed by the fact that it’s by Loudon Wainwright III. Hardly a new subject for him, his age has been a fixation for quite a while, and as a guy who’s resisted growing up for most of his life, he has every right to it.

Since Wainwright never carried the moral weight or maturity of other veterans like Leonard Cohen or even Dylan, even the most depressed, fatalistic moments here are rendered lighthearted by his twangy monotone. When his playfulness dominates, manifested in the trembling harmonica and classy-to-corny piano, the songs about his children, ex-wives, and countless other family members are as funny and mind-blowing as they’ve been since “Rufus Is A Tit Man”. When it doesn’t, they’re acutely personal and impossibly moving. Sometimes the record gets too fusty to take seriously, but overall it’s clear that despite his more inane instincts, this troublemaker has become a respectable Southern gentleman.

Theoretically, this overview of his entire life could end up way out of proportion, but Wainwright is mostly amusing throughout, and he comes up with some great one-liners: “I remember sex/that thing we used to do/where you’d lay down and usually I’d lie on top of you”. A-

Kimbra: Vows

Warner Bros, 2012 [BUY]

Kimbra was propelled to international stardom through her cameo on Monsieur Gaultier’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”, where she tried to cover for him the way Nico used to cover for Lou Reed. But like so many others posturing as femme fatales, she’s no Nico. Without a realistic persona, or at least memorable lyrics, she also lacks the seductive charm that can make this kind of album exciting.

If Making Mirrors was an exercise in experimental songform, this is baroque pop without the songs that term implies. Those airy background noises could be cheesy strings and harps, or they could merely be keyboard simulations of such, but either way they’re orchestrated dramatically enough to eclipse her putative vocal personality, which tends towards yelpy-breathy. Though fans might call her a singer-songwriter, her basic attraction is pop-as-fashion-show. All of her content is contained in her style, that of a coy lounge-chanteuse who blows too much money on fancy instruments.

Since her voice isn’t beautiful, the music never pulls off the operatic glory it reaches for. Instead it tickles the European market’s itch for the kitsch that fools you into thinking it’s midcult. Just like the guy who made her famous. C

Lee Ranaldo: Between The Times & The Tides

 Matador, 2012 [BUY]

In case you missed it, Sonic Youth just broke up. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore separated after nearly thirty years of marriage, signifying the end to one of the best bands ever. Responding to Thurston’s acoustic song album last year, the band’s third member, Lee Ranaldo, one-ups him with an electric song album. If like me you’re a fanatic, then Ranaldo’s first solo record in which he stands up for himself will help calm your initial panic.

Though Ranaldo’s solo career has mostly consisted of weird experimental fantasies, this traditional rock record doesn’t surprise me. Having outgrown the straight-up insanity of his musical childhood to become relaxed and mature, he can tackle straight-up insanity without valorizing or trivializing it, which is why songs like “Off The Wall” and “Xtina As I Knew Her” are as scary as they are. As always, his guitar rocks especially relentlessly and beautifully in the context of his precise melodic structure. The same goes for his voice – he sings in that typical flat, not-quite-sententious drawl beloved of art-punks like himself, but knowing understatement renders his cadences clearer and more expressive than those of any mannerist diva or technical exhibitionist.

Given his unstoppable work ethic and determination to carry on his own legacy, I hope he keeps making records like this forever. He is a grownup, and this is his job, after all. A

Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts

 Blue Note, 2012 [BUY]

Norah Jones will never get away from being seen as a commercialized singer-songwriter, even if she’s less commercialized and less songwriter than her Grammy-conscious admirers claim. This breakup album won’t do much to change that, being a breakup album, and it plays right into the agonizing self-expression expected from a pop star you can “take seriously”.

These are typical gloomy relationship songs, but her presence is vocal: her smoothly demotic voice comes across as honest, modest, friendly, which is why people like her. However, the music she surrounds herself with is less commanding – it’s not “jazzy”, but the improvisational energy and relaxed dissonance it shares with jazz are stifled by her down-home folkie simplicity, and in turn they hamper the emotional foundations to that simplicity. Usually producer Danger Mouse makes collaborators conform to his own standards, but those were too exacting for Jones’ massive audience, so all the would-be auteur provided was textural filth that only makes the music feebler. It’s more immediate than a lot of Mouse’s other work, especially last year’s spaghetti western soundtrack tribute, but that’s just because Jones is more conventional.

This reconfiguration of her technique will probably go towards rumors that “indie is back!”, proving yet again – really, how many times do I have to say this? – that what we call the indie scene has lost its irony. Either that or the pop scene has suddenly become elitist. B-

Royal Thunder: Cvi

 Relapse, 2012 [BUY]

Metal is the subculture to end all subcultures, and those outside of it can rarely differentiate between its various styles, but this Atlanta band has somehow become a next big thing. What’s new about them is that instead of coming on too strong, they come on too weak. In a genre dominated by aggression, the band that gets the press is the one that fails to assert itself.

At first I was heartened by the fact that someone was finally reacting to all the Eddie Van Halen clones clogging up the market. But this is meandering, ineffectual, watered-down. People emphasize their Southernness not because they’re bluesy or gothic or anything like that, it’s because their music evokes Southern weather. The plodding beat, the long-winded instrumental breathers, and most of all the droning, echo-ridden reverberations mucking up the guitar all make for a clammy aura of detachment, and no matter how many tempo shifts or cymbal crashes they stick in, they never succeed in shaking this suffocating aura off of them. Many times, however, they do succeed in lingering on one note longer than I thought possible.

Since this is supposed to be metal, I really don’t think the atmosphere was deliberate. I suspect they set out to prove how real they are, wound up proving how unprofessional they are instead, and the way they placidly burble in their own mold is accidental byproduct. D+

Rhett Miller: The Dreamer

 Maximum Sunshine, 2012 [BUY]

Since Rhett Miller’s songs are what power the Old 97’s, the only difference between his band and his solo career is that the band rocks more. This record is more painstaking than usual, but that also gives you more room to hear the melodies. It’s just as good a showcase for his careful, earnest intelligence as anything else he’s done.

Even so, opening with “Lost Without You”, passing through “This Summer Lie” and “As Close As I Came To Being Right” before he finally allows himself “Sweet Dreams”, it’s not sad exactly, but sort of sodden. The ambient production, dominated by pedal steel that on this largely personal material sounds far too sincere, slows everything down. Somehow, this makes his sincerity credible, but all this affects the album insofar as it obscures the songs, all of which are vehicles for his self-examination. That’s a lot more than you can say for most sensitive guys writing about failed relationships. Even if there’s routine in his delivery, you can relate to it because it’s normal, or at least normal for this career rock star. At the end of the day, this is just another collection of good Rhett Miller songs.

He doesn’t pull out any new ideas to change the world here, but he still knows how to think. This is why you can always identify with him. This is also why he needs to  rein in his emotions. B+

Nicki Minaj: Roman Reloaded

 Cash Money, 2012 [BUY]

Unlike Lil Wayne, who can sometimes act like a real human being, the self-proclaimed “female Weezy” is all cartoon, a ghoul with Chinese tattoos whose hair alternates between pink and blonde. This album is basically a trip through her many alter egos, which range from psychotic to sappy, and to say the least, it’s a lot of fun.

When I say people don’t like her, I don’t just mean she’s a pop star. I mean her name has become synonymous with “everything that’s wrong with the record business” among certain circles of privileged smartasses. But did we learn nothing from Eminem? If she warrants such a negative reaction, she’s worth at least taking seriously, and if it’s her fabulosity that turns you off, that’s your problem. The beats are so in-your-face that they’d be hilarious regardless of how pleasurable they were. These ones are pleasurable enough to hold together as a coherent, overlong, annoying, but definitely glorious album, one held together by her ugly voice, screeching and yelling and babangbanging so as to make singing and rapping indistinguishable.

If you think she’s incapable of ironies subtler than “Imma put my dick in your face”, note the way she imitates Rihanna on the Chris Brown track. Then again, the way she closes with “Stupid Hoe” is even funnier. “Stupid Hoe” is the one that goes “You a stupid hoe, yeah you a stupid hoe/you a stupid hoe, yeah you a stupid hoe/yeah you a stupid hoe”, in case you didn’t know. A-

*   *   *

Report on Ice-T’s The Art of Rap, a movie I saw in a theater filled with B-boys who kept getting up to breakdance: good showcase of mostly good MCs; what they have to say about rap usually pretty tired but their performances usually pretty good, especially Eminem’s freestyling. Funniest story: KRS-One explaining how he got started, apparently when a battlerapper he was watching said something along the lines of “You wack/like this dude,” pointing to KRS, and he had to step in and defend himself. Best performance: Kanye’s extended verse, the best because it was rehearsed from “Gorgeous”, on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Too much Compton and not enough Nation of Millions for my tastes. True, there are more villains than heroes in the genre. But as the guy who turned hip-hop into a proactive pop community, Chuck D deserves more than a brief explanation of how MCs had to have strong voices (physically). Speaking of which, I have not seen the Flavor Flav roast yet. Still looking for someone willing to watch it with me.

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 dregs...