Business as usual — more 2012 catchup this month, probably won’t get to the current year until March. I’d like to warn you about something, though. It’s likely you’ll get seduced by my favorite album below just like I was. Under no circumstances, however, should you seek out Lil Wayne’s horrifying, cringe-inducing remix of Future’s “Turn on the Lights.” It ruined a perfectly good song for me; now I can’t listen to the original without thinking “that dick make you feel retarded,” etc. Who does he think he is?
Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream
RCA, 2012 [BUY]
With half of “neo-soul” getting absorbed by hip-hop and the other half sinking into an astrological swamp, this guy channels a straightforward love-man persona and sounds twice as involved as anybody else pandering to the same market share. Hardly chart-friendly, this record buries its rewards in a deep sonic mix you can relax to. The songs here are so unified I’m surprised they also get airplay, but what can I say? It’s a classy market share.
While it may seem a pretty simple commercial formula, it isn’t — he’s one of the few singers who understand that sexual ballads sell so well because they model the performer-audience relationship. On record he’s seducing some girl, in real life he’s seducing the listener, and either way he’ll never let you down for the duration of eleven sublime songs. Riding steady, lavish beats that double down on the vocal hooks while spacing out the instrumental ones, he recalls Marvin Gaye without the pathology. This leaves a sweet blend of hazy keyboard beds and automated drum machines, all soaked in the rich, sugary syrup of his romantic promises. Even when he acts all sensitive, he does it so affectionately you forgive him.
He may come on a bit too strong, but I suggest you just give in to his demands. Anybody who makes his catchiest song the one where he spouts vague social commentary, saves it for the end, and preludes it with a slow acoustic heartsong where he wails “Tell me that the pussy is mine” in a faux-serious falsetto is bound to get into your pants sooner or later.
Tame Impala: Lonerism
Modular, 2012 [BUY]
I was a bit skeptical of this band at first — Australian electronic group praised for being psychedelic, oh boy! — and indeed, they often seem stuck in blurry torpor. Usually, though, they’re pretty entertaining, the key factor being that they write uptempo choruses rather than indulging in post-rock noodling. Occasionally I even find myself humming their songs, unheard of in the land of indie fantasy.
Unlike most modern-day hippies, these guys really sound like they’re tripping. With a present-day global economy that’s simply not conducive towards the space-out ethos, let alone towards producing people who can express it in music, the vague, distracted aura here sounds particularly willful; they even sing about conventional alienation as if it still existed. After the first couple songs, they step out from under the shadow of “The Kids Are Alright” and “I’m Only Sleeping” to fashion fuzzy, glowing dreampop, awash in queasy synthesizers and basslines. When Kevin Parker’s shrill, wimpy voice penetrates the atmosphere, it’s like the word of God speaking to you from heaven down through the clouds.
The cute little tunes are all that prevents this record from floating off into new, undiscovered realms of foggy indolence, into the dazed romanticism/escapism that has blessed and plagued indie-rock ever since the early ‘90s. But this is a worthy romantic escape. All I’d like to know is why its best songs are the ones that shake off the daze.
Swans: The Seer
Young God, 2012 [BUY]
There are very few albums over, say, an hour and a half that I’d ever listen to casually. Chuck Berry’s The Chess Box, probably, or Rochereau’s The Voice of Lightness, or either gigantic Parliament-Funkadelic compilation, Tear the Roof Off or Motor City Madness. But those are all anthologies of titanic artists with deep canons at their disposal. This is a 119-minute double album of avant-garde anti-rock by a band who always stayed pretty marginal in their heyday. They’ve now returned, absurdly beloved by critics pretending to like their old albums so they can hype this one as a comeback.
Though the general ominous aura remains, there are subtle enough differences between this album and their previous expeditions into white noise. It’s drearier, more “ambitious,” more willing to repeat a piddly little melody ad infinitum so they can brag of having songs that last 32 minutes. The musical strategy includes stretching strings, accordions, dulcimers, and occasional bagpipe symphonies over monolithic guitar plodding, sometimes reaching a pompous climax, sometimes petering out entirely. Whenever they get bored, they’ll sing, decorating their philosophizing with existential generalities and nature imagery (“In the now that is not, on a ladder to God, on a mountain stripped bare, with your hand in my hair”). Supposedly, the grandiose nature of the music represents the entire universe, sucking the listener into a suffocating black hole. Unless, of course, you decide to turn the record off.
Back in the day, this kind of apocalyptic extravagance was called progressive rock. That was silly kitsch, though, whereas this is High Art, making it infinitely worse.
Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music
Williams Street, 2012 [BUY]
A throwback to the days when gangsta-rap was thought of as having an explicit political message, this Atlanta rapper establishes his street bona fides through social commentary. Though he doesn’t really sound like he’s enjoying himself, and the musical attack is heavy and somewhat ham-handed, he can convince you that his anger at the world is justified like almost nobody else. If he could only just crack a smile, he might even convince you it matters.
The centerpiece here is “Reagan”; everything else is programmatic fuck-tha-police boilerplate by comparison. The intro to “Reagan” packs enormous pathological power, comprised of a Reagan quote about how we did not trade weapons for hostages, then Mike’s short verse in a gravelly snarl, then another Reagan quote about how we actually did trade weapons for hostages, all over deep banging piano chords that resonate fury and despair, sending chills into your brain. Then he speeds the beat up and descends into collegiate pseudomarxism. His analysis of American politics blames Oliver North for first bringing cocaine into the ghetto, equates prison time with forced slavery, and proclaims the existence of secret villains who control the U.S. president. In short, his emotional impact is masterful and his content is fatuous, not unlike Reagan himself. But thanks to producer El-P’s dense, gritty funk bombs and vigorous turntable scratching, Mike’s rage never dominates.
Mike’s social opinions are largely received (from Boots Riley, most likely), but his determination and nerve are bracing enough to carry the record. Hopefully the exposure this breakthrough affords him will teach him about the world, about which most other conspiracy theorists can only speculate.
Epic, 2012 [BUY]
Right when pop-rap starts looking like a static common-denominator, along comes this throaty ATLien to move the genre forward. Screaming about his gangsta credibility, drawling unintelligible rants about the solar system, Future is entirely crazed, hence the ideal crossover artist. People who hate top 40 radio need to hear his deconstruction of chart convention.
The most distinct musical trick here is his marked use of the T-Painful Auto-Tune growl, a sonic irritation that at best has only managed to parody the human voice. But for the first time ever, this guy has made me realize why so many rappers want T-Pain on their songs. Imagine a filthy-melodic, nasty-rhythmic synthesis capable of bridging Snoop Dogg, Kelly Rowland, and R. Kelly, all of whom he gets quality work out of, and you’ll imagine what has become a new universalist pop form whether you like it or not. His glossy, silvery production sound zooms out of the speakers like a rocket, its high-pitched squeaks and metallic percussion exercising unnerving, mechanistic power. The guttural musicality he extracts from his own vocoded singing reaches an irresistible capacity for tune, in part due to all the phlegm he coughs on the microphone.
However suspicious you are of the modern hip-hop life, the way he’s aestheticized a commercial force is worth your money. G-funk enthusiasts will love lyrical gaffes like “long live the pimp” and “I got you begging to catch my semen.” Anybody else will be too preoccupied with the record’s slick hookiness to care.