After looking around and wondering where all the great singles were, I realized I’d forgotten to do original research in hip-hop. Rye Rye’s is the most conventional good rap album all year. But there will always be great singles as long as people make beats. Go for “Sunshine”, my favorite Rye Rye track; Danny Brown’s “Grown Up”, a kiddie song about weed pretending to be words of wisdom about the human condition; Azealia Bank’s “212”, named for an area code that used to be my area code. And then, over in the rock department, the best Patti Smith album since… Wave? Easter?

Curumin: Arrocha 

Six Degrees, 2012 [BUY]

Sao Paulo singer Curumin was first discovered and hyped by alt-rap kings Blackalicious, which makes sense – fans of “underground hip-hop” and fans of “world music” are both renowned for being permissive. But if this is a record progressives use to prove how hip they are, it’s still entertaining. Though he also plays cavaquinho, more than anything this guy is a singing pseudo-DJ. That’s less a novelty than it is a neat trick.

I don’t hear “reggae” or “funk” or “hip-hop” or any combination of those. To me it sounds like he’s setting traditionalist Brazilian pop songs to a slinky electrogroove that sneaks right past the language barrier. Though this does make the groove rather delicate, it also strengthens his songcraft. He adapts his singing to the beat on each track, shouting in one place, getting all gentle somewhere else. Since everything is so individualized, the overall effect is that he’s having fun fooling around, just to see what he can do. It’s pleasing to see where he goes.

Any smart, wimpy humanist can aspire to “speaking with a lot of feeling and getting closer to people”. He actually belongs behind the turntables at a club, where getting closer to people is the whole idea. B+

Tyga: Careless World: Rise Of The Last King  

Cash Money, 2012 [BUY]

Lil Wayne has a real talent for recruiting clones of himself to his vanity label. All the rappers on the label simplify Wayne’s persona in their own unique way, from complacent Cory Gunz to dinky Lil Twist to brain-dead Gudda Gudda. Having scored an actual hit or two on his own, meaning without celebrity guest verses, Tyga is one of the more successful ones.

Despite countless lines like “Treat her like a dog/call the bitch Lassie”, he’s actually friendlier to people too sensitive for rap than most of his crew. Over nearly an hour and a half of music, he maintains pop appeal without imposing too much on the listener, and also without being sissy. He doesn’t shout, either. He drones, commanding a toneless, sluggish voice that manages to be whiny and mechanical at the same time. I blame this kind of voice on Snoop Dogg – aspiring gangstas have been stripping Snoop’s vocal insouciance of subtlety since the mid-‘90s. But Tyga is the one doing the stripping, and his cold, minimal beats make the record unusually slow.

I admit “Rack City”, bassline and all, is ridiculous enough to hum along to, but still, “ten ten twenties and them fifties bitch” is not my idea of a catchy pop hook. It’s the freshest thing here. B-

Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang!  

N.E.E.T./Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

Rye Rye is the most conventional of M.I.A.’s many disciples. The hustlers in that crowd tend to be more international, or at least more drugged-out. But only the boss herself is more fun. Providing the cheap thrills and aesthetic universality most of her peers don’t know exist, this album reimagines pop-rap as the tough version of commercial bubblegum.

Thematically, this is pretty slight. None of the songs deviate from her standard formula of chattering on in her dinky little squeal about what can only be described as nightclub warfare. But at her chintziest, she’s also at her most convincing. With M.I.A. and Robyn supplying crucial hooks and choruses, everything becomes infectiously melodic and rhythmically overpowering. Her jittery intonation in combination with these stuttering electrobeats make constant partying actually sound enjoyable. And the root of her partying isn’t money, which she never ever brags about, but more approachable pleasures in life: sex, too much energy, and having nothing better to do.

Because she’s having a really good time, you do too. Fast, brazen, fully outrageous, she might get even me to dance. A-

Waka Flocka Flame: Triple F Life: Fans, Friends, & Family  

Warner Bros, 2012 [BUY]

The sound of Waka Flocka Flame’s repetitive crunk is just as macho as his idol Lil Jon, and he talks about shooting people just as much as your average thug. But as thugs go, this one is rather tame. Essentially he panders to the part of the rap audience that mistakes stupidity for “realness”, though there is the possibility that he himself belongs to this demographic.

I heard the rumors that “all Flocka says is ‘bow’, ‘blam’, and ‘flocka’” long before checking out the album, so the lead track “Let Dem Guns Blam”, the chorus to which goes “Let dem guns blam bow/let dem guns blam bow/let dem guns blam flocka/let dem guns blam flocka”, naturally cracked me up. So did “Round of Applause”, the chorus to which goes “Make that ass clap”, and then there was the skit where he ate a bag of chips, burped, and went “Scuse me”. But boy, did the amusement fade. Shouting everything as loud as possible, Flocka earns his reputation as the dumbest, crudest rapper in the biz. Made up of big blustering synth-horns, high-hats, and gunshots, the music he raps over suits this ethos. So does his lyrical technique, namely mouthing off random comments about the party life that barely even rhyme.

Some prefer Flocka’s aggression to the effeminate Eurodisco that dominates the airwaves, and I see the point, kinda. But guys like this are the reason Eurodisco dominates the airwaves in the first place. Hopefully the next album will drop the gangsta wannabe side of his personality in favor of the equally gross but more complicated opportunist who poses nude for PETA. C+

Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape 2  

free download, 2012 [DOWNLOAD]

Mike Volpe’s second instrumental mixtape is another installment in his minor quest to conquer the hearts of beat aesthetes everywhere. What bowled me over about the first one was the sheer sound of it. Now that he’s continuing to explore the musical template he’s invented, it’s clear how singular he is as a producer, with a style as unique as Daniel Lanois or Dr. Dre.

Overall, this isn’t as dependable as Instrumental Mixtape 1. Slower, more relaxed, it gives you plenty of room to breathe, plus he’s made the drums quieter. This has the effect of diluting the hissing sonics seeping into your brain, making the arty excess I’ve learned to ignore just a little greater. But only a little. I have to wonder why he hangs out with Lil B (the tiny-pants guy) and Mac Miller (the Donald Trump guy), when he himself seems like a perfectly normal human being. Still, since the rapper’s presence on his beats imposes structure as coherent as any pop songform, the music that emerges when he banishes them is surprisingly danceable. That’s why out of a whole bunch of aspiring post-rockers, he’s my pick.

None of those neat-sounding textures are varied enough to amount to a soundscape. But the consistency with which he programs them is simultaneously calming and exciting, even after the novelty wears off. A-

Patti Smith: Banga  

Columbia, 2012 [BUY]

The thing about rock & roll elders is that they really know how to make great music with the added benefit of maturity, slowly perfecting the great tradition they’ve invented for themselves. Patti Smith’s great tradition, a long-running conflation of rock and spoken word and probably some performance art too, is still speaking truth to whoever is listening. If she’s too weird, the chances are she’s also smarter than you, and now that she’s reached the 21st century, wiser.

Even in the mid-‘70s, she was never as punk as you might think. But this record is positively soothing. The jangly guitar noise is kept under enough control to lash out all over the place, but still move as she wants it to. Hearing her babble her unreconstructed psychopoetry over music this laid-back is spiritually comforting, and the overall tranquility channels the divine much the same way the uncontrollable momentum of her earlier music did. Not withstanding themes of discovery or hope for the future – most Patti albums have similar metaphysical aspirations – the reason the record feels so calm is the melodies. They’re among her clearest and most precise.

Though this is hardly one of her major albums, it’s a good collection of songs detailing her emotional subconscious and primal impulses, which are also mine and yours. Big arty centerpiece: “Constantine’s Dream”, an epic poem about the material gift of man, featuring Piero della Francesca, the Patti Smith of fifteenth-century Italian painting. A-

The Gaslight Anthem: Handwritten  

Mercury, 2012 [BUY]

With heartfelt honesty as viable as any other fashion statement right now, I have to wonder whether most bands advertised as sincere really mean what they say (Coldplay, for example), but this one is unfashionable enough to be the exception. They maintain their integrity and originality and still claim to be real people, only their originality is kind of old-fashioned. The last track alone, called “National Anthem”, starts “I will never forget you my American love” before moving on to an attack on space travel rationalized with “What’s left for God to teach from his throne”.

They may be from New Jersey, but please don’t bring the honorable name of Springsteen into this. Really, Bruce has nothing to do with it. Brian Fallon’s rock roots are at once more punk and more sententious; he’s less traditionalist than he is a 32-year-old fart cursing all this newfangled irony – the lead single is an ode to a vinyl record player that happens to symbolize a lost girlfriend, in the title track he’s writing his letters by the light of the moon. He sings with so little inflection, his tuneless scream dominates the band sound, overshadowing the crashing guitars, chugging guitars, strutting guitars. Not that he’d have it any other way, because this is the kind of guy who believes that every man kills the thing he loves.

Sure he’s still young, and, ahem, free. But his youthful rebellion isn’t just reactive, it’s reactionary, exclusively for young people who associate rock with the establishment and like it that way. C+

A Place To Bury Strangers: Worship

Dead Oceans, 2012 [BUY]

In the “hard rock”-filled late ‘80s and early ‘90s, My Bloody Valentine was pegged as New Romanticism; now that sentimentality and irony have become indistinguishable, this supposedly similar band is the hardest rock out there. Their emphasis on instrumental color sometimes veers into instrumental indulgence, but the sheer power of the attack makes up for that.

Far from a clever hype, this really is “the loudest band in New York”: the mix on this album is about twice as loud as on most, so go ahead and turn down the volume. They’re a one-trick band specializing in smashing their guitars on your face, and here, they assemble eleven crackling instances of such into a giant wall of sound. This has the effect of making all the songs sound the same, all with thunderous drums and murmuring vocals and hissing distortion pedals, which only gets painful when they lose sight of melody. Each hook builds on the next so consistently Oliver Ackermann might have a shot at dethroning Derek Miller as the incumbent guitar god in contemporary indie. But all the echo filters interfere with the riffage a little too much to hear what the songs are saying, so in the end it’s just a clever experiment: a bunch of disparate, disagreeable textures bouncing around in a closed space.

Musical scientists like these guys are too eager to let anything get in their way, and I fully expect them to tear down the Garden one day. Then they’ll get to customize their amp, market it, and make many aspiring avant-guitarists very happy. B+

 * * *

More fascinating than Worship is the accompanying EP, A Place To Bury Strangers’ Onwards to the Wall. Its eerie fascination with sound effects rationalized with the grating slam-dunk guitars rather than vice versa, it masters the trick that distinguishes them from other shoegaze bands: sound on sound on sound on sound. Elsewhere, the new Dirty Projectors album, distinguished by a lead single about, um, “a society that’s just devoted to making images of itself” suffers from that very problem: “The Sound of Silence”, “Speak to Me/Breathe”, and “In Bloom” all go farther with the same pop-culture-is-derivative idea. So does Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, an immensely inspired piece of work whose pros and cons I’m still weighing. The hype is probably worth it, but the record hasn’t cohered yet. Stay tuned.

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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...