This month, I’m abandoning the letter grades. If one thinks of rock reviews as didactic, which the best ones are, then the letter grade system makes a certain perverse sense. It’s a great joke on “academic” criticism. In my experience from reading Robert Christgau (who first introduced letter grades to rock criticism), or Tom Hull, or the A.V. Club, or anyone who uses letter grades, the system risks canonization, which in my book always equals trivialization. Christgau specifically, in part because he’s so prolific, commands a certain tone of authority that’s very convincing: his reviews are one-sided ideological set pieces. You can have a conversation with them; you can use them as stepping-stones on which to base your own personal opinion. The problem is when you stop challenging and start accepting their hegemony, which is also when you stop thinking for yourself. Of course, the man is a genius, a brilliant writer, the greatest of the rock critics, and I like everybody else who writes rock criticism have absorbed a huge amount of his influence. But that doesn’t mean I have to copy his form. Here goes.

Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid M.A.A.D. City


Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012 [BUY]

Ever since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which this album recalls rather vividly, rap heroes have gotten a lot more insecure, and why not? In theory, there’s no reason rappers can’t have real anxieties just like the rest of us. Compared to West, or Drake, say, Lamar also sounds strikingly modest, which is why it’s impressive he’s had so much commercial success. Then again, since critics constitute a good percentage of his fanbase, it’s just as likely that people are also responding to his conceptual audacity in addition to his pure technical talent.

Like many concept albums, not to mention virtual rock operas, this one confuses you easily, at least if you’re trying to track his coming-of-age narrative through the numerous skits and character-development verses. But even if you don’t follow the plot exactly, the verbal content is delightful, dealing with the humane side of Compton, the psychology of being a wimp in a genre founded on aggression, and everything implied by “I’m real, I’m real, I’m really, really real”. The album is also about the subtle, distilled electronic setting, a relatively ambient sound for producer Dr. Dre, and the nerdy musicality of Lamar’s babbling voice. Flipping gangsta self-seeking into existential fatalism, he’s a mature voice who sounds cultured even when committing burglary.

Though this giant, ambitious package isn’t the most listenable thing in the world, each song here could stand alone, a testament not only to Lamar’s consistency but also to his pop credentials. After all, if his analysis didn’t reach the hip-hop audience, what would it tell us? That explicit art is the easiest way to follow up a single as amazing as last year’s “HiiiPower”? That critics like art?

Sofrito: International Soundclash


Strut, 2012 [BUY]

Well-meaning lover of foreign music I may be, but I don’t find the all-embracing tolerance that drives many Westerners to foreign music an ideological strength. The banality of this London-assembled collection of “raw dancefloor rhythms” comes not in the music, which rocks, but from the selection. Evidently Sofrito, the compiling organization, is focused on how exotic elements fit in with modern clubs, but since there’s no one club scene unifying the record, nothing here quite adds up.

Basically, this is the type of album selected by people who believe in “world music” – no genre or sound connects these artists, and it seems like they were chosen simply by virtue of being nonnative. So did the predecessor, Sofrito: Tropical Discotheque, but those were all disco songs, while this one appears conceptually vaguer and hence looser as a whole. Nevertheless, these African, Caribbean, and South American tracks all come across as some kind of roots music, as they all share a fiery concision with each other, and with early rock & roll. La Pesada’s “Cumbia y Tambo (En la Lluvia)” features, in that tradition, a spiraling piano riff that’s easily my favorite moment here. But many other songs have their own guitar licks, or driving grooves, or vocal charms, or, in the case of the Melodica Teens band, names that should have gone to British boy groups.

The universalizing ethos is a little suspect here, but the music itself is rather listenable, and often warm and friendly. Keep your eyes peeled for a cumbia compilation with this La Pesada song, as last year’s Original Sound of Cumbia itself lacks it.

Miss Pooja: Jattitude


Speed Records India, 2012 [BUY]

Apparently this Indian singer is some kind of international sensation. To my ears, she sounds like Western dance music put through an exotica filter, which ironically seems to remove a lot of the excess crippling the radios this side of the Atlantic. If I’m right and this album is intended for the dancefloor, the hedonistic tone here fits with a younger, crasser, audience that has been fueling great pop music since antiquity.

Though I have no idea how this record has been received in other parts of the world, for potential American consumers, once you get over the always-problematic language barrier you’ll be free to enjoy a great piece of product. These bouncy electrobeats foreground choruses and melodic structures just the way pop addicts like me want them. Combined with bhangra rhythms and tumbi riffs, they add up to an outlandish style, effectively “Mundian to Bach Ke” pumped up to unheard-of levels of technotronic ebullience. Featuring Indian acoustic instruments fused with drum machines and keyboards set to folk percussion, the synthesis becomes all the more engaging with Pooja’s supercharged vocals, evoking an ubermensch on the order of any arena-rocker. Or, even better, any video-game protagonist.

On the whole, this record is probably too experimental for the club circuit. But if Ban Ki-Moon can call a Korean bubblegum single about funny dancing a “force for world peace”, there’s no reason Miss Pooja can’t conquer the charts as well.

Bat For Lashes: The Haunted Man


Parlophone, 2012 [BUY]

Typically, art-rock is what happens when privileged kids get bored. Not only can they channel their inner dilettante on command, but they also have the resources to buy whatever sounds they want, resulting in a self-contained style founded on mannerisms and artifice. Like most other novelties in this vein, British flower-child Natasha Khan’s New Age revival escapes me.

Beyond the occasional love song, this album is all ghostly ambience, only capable of speaking to those whose tribulations are equally abstract. While Enya types have been pretty widespread in their weird subcultural way, I swear I can hear a whimsical nostalgia for a time when spiritually gooey Muzak conquered alternative radio back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The aesthetic here is one of romantic excess, of dazed rapture, emotions only occasionally achieved by Khan’s posturing as a mystical chanteuse. Despite her relatively high level of breathy vocal exaggeration, this music recedes into the background faster than, oh I don’t know, maybe the horses of the sun rising into the stars. This is probably a good thing; otherwise Khan might embarrass herself further with the string-driven orchestratics that cloak the record in ethereality.

Though she does have her own distinctive melodic techniques, the instrumentation softens the effects considerably. In case you were expecting a bunch of weird erotica on the basis of the album cover, don’t worry, it’s only pseudoscience.

The Funkees: Dancing Time


Soundway, 2012 [BUY]

Deeply goofy, playful, and profound, the Funkees are the Ohio Players of the Eastern Hemisphere. As an Eastern Nigerian band from the mid-‘70s, they escaped their country’s craze for juju by virtue of geography, and at their best functioned as a simple African disco collective. Since their success was through dancefloor concerts, where they would play for hours, I’m not sure how many “greatest hits” they had; I myself have trouble telling many of these songs apart. Their combined cadence, though, is instantly recognizable.

Probably, this album is beyond overlong, with eighteen tracks that often drag on individually as well. I would argue that this is essential to the musical effect: all the songs blur into each other and you lose track of sequencing, but that’s just because they all add up to one vigorous, cathartic supergroove, one designed to be played live but that translates compellingly to record. It’s led by the relentless whacking of the percussion set, which includes both metal snares and softer wooden drums – often just clattering on when the rest of the band needs to take a break. Around it chimes a chunky, somewhat geometrical union of moist guitar riffs and muscular bass. It’s all hyperactive rhythmically while staying grounded, straightforward without sounding primitive.

However intense of a journey this is, it’s extended enough that you can tune out, think about other things, and when you return they’ll always be there grunting and bellowing. They claim you can dance to this in the nude, and why not? Go ahead, try it.

Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect


RCA, 2012 [BUY]

Unlike the theatrical American Idol graduates who dominate commercially and conceptually in a marketplace that seems to have room only for bland celebrities, Elle Varner has character. She alternates between horribly insecure and brashly assertive, and if this means she won’t sell, she sounds smart enough to just suck it up and make another record. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy this one, which sets her in place as the most humane pop darling since Lily Allen. What jumps out of the speakers at you is the voice. She belts her words in hyperdrive, utilizing a strikingly expressive, somehow rubberized style that’s probably a glorious affectation but grabs you by the ears anyway. Filtered through this sound – it’s less a voice than a sound – ordinary love ditties become messages of wisdom and potential hit singles become blazing headbangers on the warpath. The velvet-guitar-strumming funk backdrop colors her melodies smoothly enough, in contrast to the thick basslines and percussion blasts mimicking her singing. Her songs convey the wild intensity of a great vocalist whose voice outshines the material, and sometimes the material kicks back, charming you with sexual puns and shows of feeling that are both intelligent and earnest.

She might convince you that she’s a real person, simulating the craze and confusion of emotions that actually exist. It’s an obvious simulation, though, the result of a very real, engaging persona. Crazed she may be, but not confused.

Pitbull: Global Warming


Mr. 305/Polo Grounds/RCA, 2012 [BUY]

Miami pop-rap star Pitbull was introduced to the world on Lil Jon’s Kings of Crunk, which makes sense: occasionally he scores a smash as irresistible as Jon’s on “Get Low”, but everything else is just banal dance/workout music. In this case, the enjoyable hit is “Back in Time”, which appeared in Men in Black 3, sampling both the vocals and the guitar riff on Mickey & Silvia’s “Love Is Strange”. Musically and thematically, the rest belongs exclusively to the club.

Where Jon’s filler is crude and gross, Pitbull’s is ingratiatingly pleasant, making for a nice, congenial, forgettable record. Typical synth-cranking dominates, and I have trouble telling these hooks apart, but at least they’re nice enough to listen to at the time. I like the way the intro copies “Macarena”, the definitive single for Latin hip-hop, and there are probably some more samples that I haven’t even noticed yet. As one MC, he has an edge over other groups in the same genre where the members all morph into each other. Then again, if he belonged to one of those groups, he wouldn’t have much more personality than the other members.

As someone who prefers partying to music that can also be listened to in other contexts, I find this rather limited. Check out “Back in Time”, though, it’s really cool.

Gudda Gudda: Gudda Grindin’


Big Kanaka – SoSouth, 2012 [BUY]

Eureka, I’ve finally done it – I’ve found a rapper dumber than Waka Flocka. Gudda Gudda belongs to the Young Money collective, and though like many rappers in that group he’s rather derivative of leader Lil Wayne, he’s almost unique in that he’s only derivative of everything people hate about him. This record is jam-packed with guest rappers, not that you’d notice.

While Lil Wayne’s lyrics aren’t completely nonsensical, their themes are traditional but vague. They provide a context for free-associations and his ability to rhyme anything with anything, shot through with an inarticulate immaturity that brings out the inarticulate immaturity in all of us. When his humor falters, he occasionally sounds literal and hence unfathomably stupid. In those moments, Wayne is an intellectual giant compared to Gudda. This guy always sounds literal when he tries such fancy lyrical devices, convincing you that he’s really a member of Al-Qaeda and that he really believes that penises go in ovaries, an impression reinforced by his aggressively tinny synth loops and the crude “gangsta gangsta” vocal sample that actually appears in over half the tracks. At least I’m pretty sure that’s Gudda. Except for the girly Wayne I cannot for the life of me distinguish between Tyga, LA the Darkman, Mack Maine, Big Sean, Gudda himself, whoever. They’re all the same, all with the same dinky-gritty drone and same punchline-oriented style of rapping. Seeing as DJs on hip-hop radio get these particular artists mixed up too, I’m not too worried about my critical credibility.

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Since none of his jokes make logical sense, it’s unlikely any of Gudda’s fans will start imitating him. Still, in case you feel inspired, I might point out that “I got a sign on my dick: bad bitches only” is hardly an adequate pickup line. Neither is “If the feds come and get me, I’ll make you fuck the judge for a lighter sentence”. Don’t question him, or else he might pretend to threaten to intimidate you.

As the end of the year nears, we’re deep into the holiday season, a.k.a. list-making season. I’m curious to see how many people endorse “Gangnam Style”, which was to 2012 what “Rolling in the Deep” was to 2011 or “Paper Planes” was to 2008: simply the biggest, most ubiquitous, most notorious single. Specifically I’d like to know how people justify endorsing it. As musical content goes, I’m pretty sure the only message is look-at-me-I-exist, but once something goes viral you never know what new meanings a song can take on. At the very least, it might get a couple bored collegians to learn Korean.

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...

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