MusicWeekend

Bubble Bath: Deconstructing Pazz & Jop

fagens-critical-catalogue-september-20121“ … the word ‘bubble’ gets used, ever more frequently, to describe the closed cultural loop you can fall into if you start thinking of this slightly rareified circle as being the whole of the world, and put on such blinders that you don’t realize how very easy it is to step outside this particular circle and take a break from it – or notice that, for most [everyone] else, it is just one very small, exotic corner of the world, which might seem glamorous or interesting or terrifying or loathsome, depending on the viewer.” —Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork, 4/27/12

Every year, the Village Voice holds an annual poll, inviting nearly every critic in the biz to vote on the best albums and singles of the given year. Because of its size, it’s generally the best way to measure yearly progress in pop music: the numbers actually mean something. The thing is huge; 493 critics voted in 2012. Although  there’s less change than I would have liked, there’s been definite progress since last year. The 2011 Pazz & Jop albums chart contained only one major album, a collaboration between two artists who have both done better work elsewhere. The singles chart alternated between arty album tracks and crass pop-rap rampages beloved by opportunists always on the lookout for new ways to one-up their colleagues. What made it onto Pazz & Jop last year was not what people really loved, but what they didn’t hate, the result of a standoff between the ideologically opposed magazines Rolling Stone and Pitchfork — the winners were the albums mediocre enough to survive. Rather than a consensus, I thought, we had a lack of consensus.

At the time, I found this maddening, but I’ve cooled a little. In contrast to the early days of rock & roll, fifty years ago, pop music is now a cultural given. It can afford to expand and experiment. Since it has found a comfortable niche, it no longer has to be forceful, and it has been given free range. It is easier for musicians, especially indie-rock musicians, to branch out and try new, unprecedented things. Musicians are allowed to fail, so increasingly they take more stylistic risks. Through this process they often produce tiny-little-sounds unique to the artist and irrelevant to everybody else. Although it may seem almost tautologous to assert that aesthetic disunity would naturally produce cultural disunity, this is nevertheless the subtext of rock criticism today. In compensation, critics have become accustomed to searching for obscurities and trifles with which to proclaim their individuality; everything is potentially for the taking. This is a matter of genres — from “rock” to “R&B” to “world” to hip-hop to techno to jazz, our range has greatly expanded and will expand more. There is a way in which the freedom to create these tiny-little-sounds is liberating, but few of them sound at all major. Don’t believe me, ask Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene, who specializes in this: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed to make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.”

url-1Often, consensus and range come at each other’s expense. Ideally, one would enable the other, but only too often critical hubris gets in the way, and stylistic curiosity gets sacrificed in favor of feeling one is in touch with the American public — or, more likely, formal commitment gets sacrificed in favor of antimainstreamist individualism. It could very well be that, as Chuck Eddy claims in 2009’s cannily titled “The Year of Too Much Consensus,” that the antimainstreamists have all been homogenized into a herd, with its own mindless canon. But in the three years since Eddy published that piece, individualism has started looking a lot more like expansion, and expansion has started looking a lot more like formal commitment. So it makes sense that both consensus and range increased markedly in 2012. Perfectly encapsulating this struggle are the two opposing factions that dominate rock criticism right now: Rolling Stone speaks for a mass audience and Pitchfork dilettantishly unites several subcultural ones. In 2011, the gridlock between the two ripped any potential consensus apart. Everybody wanted something different. Throughout 2012, they agreed on a number of records, but I was wary; you never know when the conservatives and the progressives will start getting on each other’s nerves. For a long time I thought the only album that really appeased both camps was Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and I didn’t make that title up either. It suited Rolling Stone because Apple writes songs in a conventional rock format, and suited Pitchfork because she also writes lyrics that show off her wide, allusive, awkward vocabulary. This was pretty heartening, actually: as a perfectionist songpoet who spent her entire career trying to make a masterpiece, she’s finally made one, 43 minutes of scratchy, visceral, exploratory pop that channels the kind of heartfelt human emotion that more traditional artists so often fail at. She deserved the recognition she got. But while The Idler Wheel and many more 2012 albums sounded major, I was worried we’d face a similar gridlock at the end of the year. I’m pleased my cynicism was unjustified.

tumblr_massuj3Ubf1reomiao1_1280The progressive/conservative dichotomy symbolized by Pitchfork vs. Rolling Stone is perhaps inevitable. But that doesn’t mean resolution is impossible. In the 2012 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, the top three albums were also the only ones that appeared in both Rolling Stone’s and Pitchfork’s top 10 lists: The Idler Wheel, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, plus maybe Japandroids’ Celebration Rock at #4 if you’ll allow Pitchfork’s #11 ranking. Add Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream at #5, and the top 5 albums are also the best albums in, say, the top 20, with the exception of Jack White at #12. I wish those numbers were bigger, but it’s a consensus all right, and a huge improvement over 2011’s great divide. Anyway, who could argue with winner Channel Orange? Ocean’s victory wasn’t as  comprehensive as Kanye West’s in 2010 or TV on the Radio’s 2008, but I’ll take all three of them over the 2009 and 2011 winners, Animal Collective and tUnE-yArDs.

Mediocre records are still popular, of course. There’s Dirty Projectors at #11, for example, whose strident prog-rock sank under its own weight; there’s Swans at #7, an old, oddly respected indie band whose weird, arty album contained songs lasting up to 32 minutes and was for some unfathomable reason loved by weird, arty critics; there’s Grimes at #9, a pseudonym for a French-Canadian woman who squealed a bit and convinced people she was deep, and those are just the most beloved out of a bunch of eccentric obscurities. But on the whole, albums that last year might have gotten dismissed by one faction or another – albums that might have drawn subcultures so fanatical so as to separate them from the rest of the populace – have gotten better and have hence gotten more respect. It’s not just the conservatives anymore who esteem records of quality by old-timers such as Dr. John at #21, Leonard Cohen at #22, and Loudon Wainwright III at #33, or else they wouldn’t have placed so high (although in Wainwright’s case, I suspect at least four or five of the critics who named Older Than My Old Man Now album of the year and who weren’t Tom Hull were members of Hull’s fan club). Likewise, you don’t have to be a college hippie to get excited about The xx at #49, Death Grips at #45, and Cat Power at #23, who after a decade of being an overrated indie icon came out with a record as moving, challenging, and irresistible as groupies find her previous work.

You could claim that the increased consensus doesn’t really cross over to the singles chart, but then again it never has. Let’s face it, thousands of records get released every year. If out of all of those records, the average has, say, eleven tracks, that’s eleven thousand singles to choose from, and the number of albums itself keeps spiraling up each year. Even if you narrow the definition of “single” to “officially released single” rather than “song,” you’re still facing the same dilemma with smaller proportions. Typically, officially released singles are chosen because they are the best songs on their corresponding album, and they tend to dominate critically for that reason. Critics will always have the liberty to choose their eccentric favorites, but these will never have as much exposure. So in the end, Beach House’s “Myth” at #44, Chairlift’s “I Belong in Your Arms” at #31, Tame Impala’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” at a 6-way tie for #25, and Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” at #19 had nothing on Usher’s “Climax” at #3, Solange’s “Losing You” at #7, or even Monsieur Gauthier’s cutesy Eurodisco revival “Somebody That I Used to Know” at #8. Compare this to the 2011 singles chart, where album cuts by M83, tUnE-yArDs, Drake (he did, in fact, have great singles in 2011, but the slow, soupy “Marvin’s Room” was not one of them), EMA, Wild Flag, and the Black Keys all made top 20.

Anyway, given the singles chart’s general fragmentation, it comes as no surprise that singles winner Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” only accrued 94 mentions to album winner Ocean’s 170. Compared to other singles winners, though, she was a weak statistical choice. Except for Jay-Z’s 89 mentions in 2009, Jepsen received the lowest number of votes for a singles winner in sixteen years, the lowest number since 1996, when “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” got 34. Actually, this doesn’t shock me either. With its bouncy synth hook and breezy melody, “Call Me Maybe” was plenty agreeable, generating not just the single but also the catchphrase of the year. But runner-up Miguel’s “Adorn” at #2, a slow, spellbinding sex jam that functioned both as a shake-your-booty readymade and deep baby-making-music, was more memorable. So was Jepsen’s collaboration with Owl City, “Good Time”, which was widely thought of as the most irritatingly catchy song of the year. I loved it.

If people were voting for songs, not singles, things would get a lot more interesting. When a song as hard-rocking and in-your-face as Skrillex’s “Bangarang”, for example, features virtually no lyrics and no singing, just some really awesome booming and a vocal sample, does it make sense to include it on your list? I can only say yes, and if more people agreed with me, I suspect singles such as “Bangarang” at a 14-way tie for #59, TNGHT’s “Higher Ground” at a 43-way-tie for #103, and Burial’s “Kindred” also at #103 would all have received more votes. Note that these are all dubstep singles. I like that type of whomping, earth-shaking variant on techno more than most critics do, and apparently so do a lot of pop stars. Dull dance-rappers LMFAO, feisty-but-inconsistent bigshot Ke$ha, and mad Korean genius Psy – whose “Gangnam Style” at #12 is without question the most lively, dynamic, irresistible single all year, fusing a million different clichéd pop hooks into one big blast of fun — have all subtly incorporated dubstep-influenced keyboard tricks into at least a couple of their songs. Even Madonna, whose largely snubbed MDNA at an 8-way tie for #253 is also one of her most brilliantly hedonistic studio albums ever, has toyed a bit with wub-wub-wub. Conceivably some strain of techno might soon break through the way hip-hop did in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. That’s not how things seem to be going, though. If it conquers the world at all, more likely it will do so through osmosis, by slow assimilation into other styles and genres until the “true” DJs and turntablists are revealed for the purists they already are. As long as music-making technology keeps advancing, this is perhaps inevitable. For now, though, techno no more satisfies our craving for the “underground” single than hip-hop does, the former kept in check by its typical lack of lyrics/singing, the latter having gone pop ten years ago, with pop itself having gone uncool much longer ago than that.

With this in mind, what happened on the singles chart seems predictable. While the populist vs. contrarian gridlock has now been resolved on the albums chart, the singles chart features a much scarier, more permanent gridlock, that of the single vs. the song — the cultural artifact that brings a mass audience together vs. the cultural artifact that sets an individual apart from a mass audience. Because no sane critic could ever choose one side or the other, there remains no solution to this dichotomy at the moment. Certainly some of my favorite songs/singles in 2012 were completely eccentric and unique to me, and some of them, like “Gangnam Style”, were totally obvious and unoriginal choices. But despite the high number of commercial singles, there was no cultural artifact that brought a mass audience together. “Gangnam Style” never crossed the language barrier, “Climax” was hardly Usher’s catchiest tune, “Somebody That I Used to Know” was just too damn irritating. That the winner was too modest and insubstantial hardly mattered to voters faced with any of these alternatives. For all practical purposes, “Call Me Maybe” was as close as we came.

By contrast, the gridlock that plagued the album chart in 2011 has basically been resolved. Where in 2011 artists were cut off from the culture as a whole, in 2012 they succeeded in reaching specific individual components: in the absence of any huge record at the top aggressively enforcing its dominance, specialized, more individualistic subcultures are now capable of rising to the fore in a marvelously pluralistic way that seemed impossible ten years ago. In this context, it’s only natural that the singles chart should suffer. Since singles are shorter and more specific, they have at once more reach and less reach — ideally they can bring massive amounts of people together, but when those people are partitioned into smaller groups, which appears to be what is happening now, singles easily get stuck in a box. Albums, on the other hand, can function as complex statements, which is why it’s easier for them to cross more barriers. Because subcultures seem so self-contained, I often refer to them as “bubbles.” In 2012, we were floating in bubble bath.

This type of generalization is very hard to prove. Due to the poll, critical consensus is easy to measure, but global consensus is tougher. The conjecture that in 2010 Kanye West went so over the top he exhausted our tolerance for the “great” album, in 2011 everything broke down as a result, and in 2012 everything got equalized vastly oversimplifies things, but examine sales, the easiest way to quantify any kind of global consensus, and you’ll see what I mean when I talk about individual records sitting at the top, enforcing their dominance. The only Pazz & Jop top 5 album to match West’s first-week sales was Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and even then it only sold about 31% of what West sold. In 2011, the only big seller was Jay-Z & Kanye West’s magnificent Watch the Throne, but it came in at #3 surrounded by indie-rock standards that couldn’t sell to save their hip cachet, and anyway, every record by both rappers always sells millions. In the 2012 Pazz & Jop top 5, sales have evened out a little. Although the biggest first-week seller this year was Kendrick Lamar at #2, not Frank Ocean at #1, both records sold a lot more than the runners-up, and a lot less than West sold in 2010, as Lamar’s first-week sales were about 49% of West’s. This is the type of equalization that happens when the reach of records is limited — limited to a particular audience.

First of all, this is bad for rap. Hip-hop has commanded a mass audience ever since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I typically trace the moment it burst out of its subcultural bubble to 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, but you could make a case for 1988 with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, to name only the  most obvious examples. Being completely different in structure from any other popform on the planet, it is also home to all sorts of different blindly loyal, fiercely stubborn, acutely narrow-minded purists and militants, everything Kendrick Lamar summed up so brilliantly with “I’m real, I’m real, I’m really, really real.” For the first time ever, whatever social force causing this partitioning has put hip-hop at risk of becoming as marginalized as it was before the bubble burst. Rappers will take whatever excuse to dig their heels in, and without any magnetic force drawing the culture together, it’s easy to imagine them slowly getting more insular. What’s more, critics recognize this. We have Lamar at #2 and Killer Mike at #8, but I challenge you to name three other rap albums that were anywhere nearly as popular among critics. (Okay, I’ll do it for you – Future’s Pluto at #18, El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure at #26, and then it’s all the way down to Nas’s Life Is Good at #62.)

good-kid-mAAd-cityHow marginalized can hip-hop be, you ask, in the year of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Kendrick Lamar’s epic “short film”, complete with numerous skits and plot twists, told an absorbing, inspirational story, and many critics including me responded to his ambition accordingly. It’s a very classy, powerful album, and I recommend it unconditionally. The most compelling argument I read in Lamar’s favor was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Hip-Hop Speaks to the Guns” in the New York Times, in which he, correctly, contrasts Lamar with rappers who, rather than adhering to conventional morality, construct “a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable.” Where most gangsta-rappers present themselves as criminals, Lamar is the victim of the crime. But for all his verbal skills, conceptual daring, and poignant keyboard figures, the record sounded just a little too soft, too cushy given the subject matter. Strictly speaking, Lamar has become a wimp. Certainly the new album harbors nothing as edgy as last year’s “HiiiPower”, a song about carving out black identity in America whose chorus playfully cribbed from Kanye West, blues-derived chords, and fight-the-power rhetoric. He reminds me of the young West in many ways, so I’m a little disconcerted that he’s already jumped to his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Unlike West, he comes across as modest and nerdy, which many critics found a breath of fresh air and I didn’t. I was too busy being alarmed by what his nerdy modesty is a reaction against.

Specifically, Lamar sounds especially great in comparison to one of the biggest, dumbest, most appalling waves of bad-rappers out there, particularly a common type I’ll call the Lil Wayne model even though I think Wayne is pretty talented. It’s the lazy, inarticulate babbler, which Wayne sometimes pulls off gloriously and just about nobody else does. The two most interesting things about these rappers are their complete confusion over how to use figurative language (Gudda Gudda’s “She don’t even wonder, cause she know she bad/and I got her nigga, grocery bag!”, and he probably treats women like grocery bags too) and their sexual objectification of men as well as women (a Big Sean line I swear I thought was the anatomically ridiculous “You gonna get some dick today/no, fuck that, just the tip today” until I learned it was actually the disappointing “You gonna get a tip today/no, fuck that, you gonna get some dick today!”, but either way, it’s not “let’s fuck” or even “you gonna get my dick today,” it’s just any old dick). The worst example of this type of rapper, I believe, has got to be witless, macho crunkateer Waka Flocka Flame, whose 2010 album Flockaveli garnered 15 votes in Pazz & Jop two years ago. This year, however, critics mentioned Triple F Life: Friends, Fans & Family a total of zero times.

On another note, this pluralism is a triumph for the tiny-little-sounds musicians are now free to pursue: neo-psychedelia, noise-prog, ethereal squealing, retro-folk, Auto-Tuned ballads, tragicomic disco, rich-girl self-pity, and the unclassifiable/unlistenable Dirty Projectors were all pretty popular in 2012. Some of them were more pleasant than you’d expect. While the art-rock albums that defined 2009 may have seemed portentous at first, it might very well be that young bands have made something of it. My standard gripe against art-rock is that the fancy equipment typically going along with it is all fine and  good, but you have to be really privileged to buy that fancy equipment. Privileged kids have historically shown little aptitude for making compelling pop music, and when you add in harps or atmospherics or what have you, the odds are not in your favor. Pitchfork’s resident indie-classical fan Jayson Greene says as much: “This is music that does not have to argue for its very right to exist, which means it’s free to drift into dreamy cul-de-sacs, to explore drift and texture, to smear the borders of form.” However, art-rock’s recent spike in popularity has perhaps induced it to produce more listenable music than it would otherwise. Having an audience has inspired art-rockers to start actually making music that would please an audience, through such devices as intelligible lyrics, hummable melodies, comprehensible rhythms, faster tempos, everything pop fans like me so rudely demand as prerequisites for listenability and that, as “experimenters”, such musicians have the privilege to deny.

The quintessential art-rock staple is the artistic “statement”, sometimes called an “analysis” or an “exploration.” Basically, what these albums try to do is to ironically or at least impartially employ hallmarks belonging to an aspect of society in order to say something about that aspect of society. For an “experimenter,” I would imagine this type of detached dilettantism to be irresistible. Think of the Pet Shop Boys acting all kitschy and genteel and fabulous, of Beth Gibbons’ simulations of romantic depression, of Radiohead’s technological disguises. What these artists share is an acknowledged pretense. They study their subject matter by becoming their subject matter. Through this nuanced specificity, they often draw cult audiences equally fascinated with their topics, which is also why they rarely draw mass audiences (except for Radiohead, who became famous before they started obsessing over machines). From a purely critical standpoint, they’re more promising than your average art-rock because they have more capacity for nuance. Radiohead makes a good example here: while both 1997’s OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A address themes of humans-vs-robots and the resulting alienation that comes from such a conflict, I prefer the electronic Kid A because it actually engages with the material. Due to how trendy art-rock is getting among critics, records like this are getting more and more common, but like everything else that’s getting more common, they rarely play to big audiences. Jens Lekman’s explorations in sensitive repression at #51 were too sensitive and repressed for the average voter, Loudon Wainwright III’s fun with old age came across as geriatric from a distance, and while I’m told that Grimes at #9 analyzes themes of female sexuality and angst, her album is just too squeaky and unfocused for me to hear them. But the biggest artistic statement in 2012 by a mile — incidentally, by the only black artist I’ve mentioned in this paragraph, which says something about the art-rock demographic’s relationship to compelling pop music — was our winner, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.

One of the most deliberate, incredible artistic triumphs in a decade, Channel Orange is definitely one of these “statements.” Most obviously, Ocean is obsessed with a Hollywood myth that has been with us since the Beach Boys and no longer seems so innocent, but there’s all sorts of hidden meanings and contradictions concealed in the thing. What’s not open to interpretation is the album’s potency. Though his songs are packed with literary devices that could alienate even an English major, they tug and tug on your aural nerves, immersing you in smooth, intense submission. He’s come up with a rich, seductive pop sound that’s sumptuous and escapist, the perfect realization of his California dream. What’s more, it evokes his California dream in multiple ways, not just in slickness but in emotional impact, because the best way to enjoy this album is to lie back and let it wash over you like a wave. I still enjoy my little piece on Ocean, but go seek out Nitsuh Abebe’s “Uncomfortably Numb,”  in which he contrasts Ocean with “music wherein a lifestyle of glamour and excess provokes sullenness, emptiness, loneliness, anhedonia, and spiritual/moral crises.” By contrast, Channel Orange provokes feelings of gentle, sensual, lyrical happiness. Hypothetically, Ocean’s record drew no bigger an audience than Apple’s or Lamar’s did. But critics were more than willing to go the extra mile for the most masterful artist. With everyone on equal ground, the better records will have better chances at coming out on top. That’s why this pluralism is so beautiful.

Again, the type of aimless experimentation Pitchfork favors has not suddenly started sounding amazing. But plenty of fun, accessible art-rock albums are emerging, and I’m delighted. There’s Sleigh Bells at #60, whose style is microscopic, very specific, and rocks harder than you’d believe. There’s The xx at #49, who sound soft, unassertive, and emotionally overpowering. There’s Flying Lotus at #64, who makes banal cut-and-scratch trifles that are also charming and sublime. There’s Beach House at #10, whose tunes have finally burst through their feckless dreaminess. My favorite is Death Grips, at #45, a post-guitar screamo-hardcore band who made a brave, violent album on Epic, then got dropped from the label by making a follow-up with a dick on the cover. Could you imagine any of those becoming popular in 2006? The thing about art-rock that draws so many critics is that it’s so varied; it’s the sense that a whole plethora of artists equal in pretension can make vastly different records through formal experimentation and, often, formal meandering. This meandering is what turns away large masses, and it’s nice that more and more art-rockers have actually started rocking for once. It’s not like the audiences for any of these records have suddenly increased, though in some cases they have a little. It’s that without any one hegemonic album, culturally marginal ones can somehow get exposure among a lot more people, despite having core audiences that are self-contained. And I really do mean self-contained – Beach House’s core is young people in Brooklyn, Flying Lotus’s is young people into turntablism, Sleigh Bells’s is super-young people into cutoff jeans, pink sweaters, and Pabst beer.

Art-rock isn’t absolute, nor is it the whole story. After all, the poll also featured such established mass-audience pleasers as Taylor Swift at #17, Bob Dylan at #16, Bruce Springsteen at #15, and many more, plus a whole bunch of imitators. There are plenty of household names in the upper reaches of the poll, especially Swift, whose record can be heard over the speakers of any mall in the country. Rolling Stone, for one, has always championed conventional, conservative rock that paints with big brushstrokes. In fact, where in 2006 any one of these records might have commanded cultural influence as well as sales, now they just sound conventional and conservative, which limits their outreach and confines them to audiences that have now effectively become subcultures. Dylan’s record is for old men nostalgic for the days everybody thought they were clever, Springsteen’s is for old men nostalgic for the days everybody thought they were masculine, Swift’s is for old men nostalgic for the days their daughters lived at home and also for daughters who still do. Actually, that’s not quite fair; Swift’s fans are a lot more diverse. She even panders to rock critics with “You said you never met one girl/who had as many James Taylor records as you/but I do”, because Taylor is one of the most underrated musicians in rock & roll, though what records of his she thinks are worth owning beyond James Taylor, Sweet Baby James, and Greatest Hits are beyond me. But teenage girls who like top 40 pop still constitute her core audience, one whose limits I doubt she will escape anytime soon, and she still resembles a walking American Girl Doll, Carly Simon edition. Anyway, these records are just the tip of the iceberg.

Conservatism is one of my least favorite ideas ever, and old-fashioned musicians are just as intolerable as anyone in their refusal to admit that things only ever make sense in historical context. But it’s inescapable as long as we have formal innovation that often tends towards the unlistenable. Just like the art-rockers, the traditionalists have become sufficiently marginalized that they’ve had to adjust, and consequently their records have improved. Sure, we were also reminded of the painful limitations of living in the past this year. As for Mumford & Sons, the first Christian-rock band ever to win a Grammy, whose lyrics are about as profound, transcendent, and woman-friendly as those of that learned sage Cat Stevens, Chuck Eddy writes: “They don’t seem remotely musically curious.” And, oh yeah: “Pope-rock will never die!” But for every preaching session like the Mumfords’ Babel at #111, we had a disarming formal goof like Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Americana at #76, and for every dull nostalgia hound like the Alabama Shakes at #19, we had a masterfully demotic songwriter like Iris DeMent at #48. For once artists are choosing the old styles for more audacious reasons than stick-to-the-roots rhetoric.

todd-snider-agnostic-hymns-stoner-fablesThat this should be happening to a basically reactionary movement is hilarious, not because heartland-rock is validated by maintaining equal critical support as art-rock, but because it is diminished. Along with mawkish boy-band exploitations like One Direction and Justin Bieber (whose new album is also his worst, keyed to an odious song whose chorus goes “As long as you love me we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke,” just what we need, a wealthy child star advocating antimaterialism), I typically think of traditionalist rock, especially traditionalist Nashville-rock, as moving the most units in America. Its audience may be somewhat limited, but that’s still one of the biggest limited audiences out there. Under the equalizing force that somehow emerged this year, traditionalist rock is on even ground with everything else, its flaws no more crippling than any other genre’s. So although Chris Knight at a 59-way tie for #421 deserved more than two votes from Tom Hull and Tom Lane, on the whole the poll rewarded the smart original traditionalists over the mundane ones: Wainwright at #33, Jack White at #12, and definitely Todd Snider at #38, whose Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables contained the toughest, edgiest, funniest, most refreshingly political music all year.

As a pop fan often alienated by common-denominator sellouts, my musical taste and ideology both tend toward the democratic, so I’m glad the poll turned out the way it did. Musicians are definitely getting more and fairer representation than last year. The top two are perfect examples. While I’m going out on a limb here when I say that Kendrick Lamar is soft and Frank Ocean is seductive, Ocean’s record is definitely less cluttered; there’s more sex in it. But beyond superficialities, one can find a number of similarities between the two: nice, nerdy-but-cool, lower-middle-class African Americans, they both make art about what people call the American Dream, and both are rather musically calm. On the whole, those similarities are coincidences. That critics responded so positively to them shows that critics like coherent content, not that they like albums within a formally narrow range. This might not be a coincidence — certainly the subject matter is growing all the more relevant — but I don’t want to generalize. If sensitive rappers start imitating Kendrick over Drake, which they will because Kendrick knows how to put a record together, that can only portend a larger, nicer audience for the genre. And if Channel Orange never goes platinum, that’ll just prove how irrelevant rich kids are to compelling pop music.

1332454405-m840-karantamba-front-cover-1329935422After all this talk of genres and subcultures, it would be dishonest not to mention my personal taste. If I were voting, the records I would endorse are for the most part as weird as anyone else’s; just like elections, gotta play it straight. All my standard anti-singer-songwriter, anti-prog, pro-disco, pro-“world” (mostly African, Brazilian/Latino, and Islamic) prejudices rose up in 2012, but most of those are gut reactions, and I’ll be the last to claim they have universal value. Some people hear music in terms of melody, some in terms of rhythm (that would be me);  to be worth one’s time it has to combine both, and after that it’s a free-for-all. In fact, it is due to the subjectivity of people’s judgment that the effort put into consensus is worthwhile. I spent hours this year digging up quality obscurities in alt-rap, country, techno, trance even, and especially various shades of foreign pop. Although I don’t like these kinds of generalizations, it makes sense that Third World countries have some of the richest, most compelling music in the world — while dependent on material enablement, music has a way of keeping people sane that few middle-class Americans require. Stateside, these various foreign pop traditions are reduced to yet another subculture, but it’s nice knowing that in some parts of the world, my chosen subculture moves more units than Tame Impala. To my ears, the only album to rival Channel Orange formally was Karantamba’s vicious Ndigal, in which Gambian guitar god Bai Janha & co lay down a skewed version of early mbalax that in terms of sustained intensity has Orchestra Baobab, early punk, and Delta blues to compete with. Harsher and more violent than anything Americans have recorded for a long while, this record maintains its furious momentum for over an hour. The only other album this year to come across as so wild and unrestrained was The Idler Wheel, but even Apple’s cathartic piano banging was contained within conventional structures. I’d also recommend the breezy Rough Guide to Highlife, which documents the genre that started sunny African escapism; the wacked-out Istanbul 70, a collection of Turkish bands who with their rock guitars and psychedelic keyboards defeat/apotheosize the grandiosity that plagues so much Arabic music; the Funkees’ gloriously goofy Dancing Time. If you’re feeling curious and have some spare time on your hands, check these records out.

Internationalization isn’t as sidelined as you might think. I mean, have I mentioned “Gangnam Style”? In a year when the singles chart was otherwise splintered beyond belief, the biggest foreign breakthrough in 2012 came as a single and not an album. Sure it could have done better: even Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield, whom I usually think of as the pop advocate around here, preferred “Call Me Maybe.” But the pop fan in me, taking inspiration from Sheffield at every turn, insisted that “Gangnam Style” was the deeper, braver, more ridiculous choice. Anyway, it got plenty far for K-pop. For someone hopelessly in love with it, it would be easy for me to claim that it did so on quality alone, but that seems unlikely given the singles chart’s general fragmentation. “Gangnam Style” got as far as it did because it improves on the specific type of single that can dominate the singles chart, speeding up Far East Movement’s and LMFAO’s ever-familiar synth loops into rampaging cartoon glory. Essentially, it was enabled by our own lameness — given the failure of commercial American dance-pop to dominate internationally, Psy took it upon himself to conquer the world, and he did, simple as that. His beacon of light was bright enough to shine through the shitstorm and swim through the bubble bath.

Anyway, like it or not, bubble bath is what 2012 looks like. Ever since the late ‘70s, we have been living in a postpunk world. After the punk movement commoditized and equalized pop music, our range has been continually growing, as we view everything as commodity and potentially viable. On occasion, we sometimes outgrow ourselves, and the range becomes greater than the consensus. The last time such a crisis occurred was around 1987–91, but the growing hip-hop movement and/or Nirvana drew us back together. And now, starting approximately 2009, we are undergoing another. Whether albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Channel Orange, of which the latter is definitely album of the decade so far, will jolt us back to agreeing over cultural artifacts remains to be seen. Personally, I hope it does, and I can’t imagine any preferable alternative. But for the next couple years, feel free to enjoy the rich, diverse, democratic pluralism that marks the modern pop scene. If there’s ever a time to be weird, this is it.

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By the way, here’s my list. The only one I didn’t get around to reviewing was Nehru Jackets, which is basically a sequel to last year’s Relax.

Albums

  1. Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Def Jam)
  2. Karantamba: Ndigal (Teranga Beat)
  3. Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless/30 Tigers)
  4. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw (Epic)
  5. Himanshu: Nehru Jackets (free download)
  6. The Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network)
  7. Istanbul 70 – Psych, Disco, Folk Classics (Nublu)
  8. Plug: Back On Time (Ninja Tune)
  9. Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times & the Tides (Matador)
  10. Madonna: MDNA (Interscope)

Singles

  1. Psy: “Gangnam Style” (Universal Republic)
  2. Miss Pooja: “Jattitude” (Speed Records India)
  3. Madonna: “Girl Gone Wild” (Interscope)
  4. Frank Ocean: “Sweet Life” (Def Jam)
  5. Domo Genesis/Young Gunshot: “BBW” (free download)
  6. Carly Rae Jepsen & Owl City: “Good Time” (604/Schoolboy/Interscope)
  7. Skrillex: “Bangarang” (Owlsa/Big Beat/Atlantic)
  8. Solange: “Losing You” (Terrible)
  9. Pink: “Slut Like You” (RCA)
  10. Future & R. Kelly: “Parachute” (Epic)
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