There’s nothing rock critics like better than big artistic statements, and even I find them quite fun at least to analyze, so here are four albums that consider themselves very important. In fact, due to their unique individual relationships to modern pop music, they are all at least moderately important. So go listen to them! Try the first one!
Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City
XL, 2013 [BUY]
Like the Hollies or the Popinjays, these charming collegians win over unbelievers with meticulously perfectionistic craft. They’re friendlier than any other chamber-pop band out there, and definitely more compelling. Here, they establish and celebrate various paradoxes beloved of musicians — youthful maturity and especially lively splendor — while pushing their trademarked baroque sound as far as it goes.
What’s immediately noticeable about this record compared to the other two is its greatly expanded sonic palette, which sounds suspiciously like dilettantish art-rock from a distance. But they’ve always cultivated the childish simplicity of their melodies and chiming clarity of their Congo-styled guitars, and now they’ve just added Western classical. Combining influences and styles from all over the place into a blend that pays tribute to human diversity even as it asserts its own rich, comforting, exciting, intensely irresistible style, this album is genuinely innovative and emphatically committed to sheer pleasure, its synthesis a delight to hear. It merges Europe and Africa, lucid guitar lines and arresting piano tunelets, canny harpsichord jangle and electronic orchestration, exuberantly existential lyrics and Ezra Koenig’s softly vivid, eloquently adorable New York accent (you know, the kind of guy who says “Asta Place”). Then it condenses all this into bright, sunny four-minute pop songs.
In theory and in practice, I’m usually wary of “beauty” in music, especially when it discourages hedonism in favor of formal purity. But this album sure is beautiful. There’s nothing pure about it. Ecstatically, joyously syncretic, this is an unbelievably positive and generous affirmation.
Janelle Monaé: The Electric Lady
Bad Boy/Wondaland, 2013 [BUY]
Continuing the grandiose sci-fi narrative delivered on ambitous diva Janelle Monáe’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid, this album does indeed count as funk, but it’s definitely on the progger side. Nominally danceable, it strays not just from commercial pop but from coherent songwriting, opting for an opulent, suite-like fragmentation.
Her elaborately conceived, Afrofuturistic world is very derivative of George Clinton’s, particularly but not restricted to ’76-’78 Parliament. Not just conceptually, either: compare the DJ on her skits to the DJ on Clinton’s “P-Funk Wants to Get Funked Up”, or the garbled voice at the end of “Dance Apocalyptic” to the garbled voice Clinton uses for his Sir Nose character. Monáe has in fact gotten funnier (and more Clintonlike) since The ArchAndroids’s sententious Egyptology. Her heroic robot messiah stands in for both progressive forward-thinking and an allegorical representation of the constitutive other, which is clear enough to make the convoluted plot accessible. Nevertheless, her musical environment tends toward ornate, fusion-derived jazzle-dazzle, her palatable basslines undercut by the blossoming of violins and the fluttering of horns. Beyond the hooks on “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.”, all she can manage is a kind of florid art-music that reveals her aspirations as indulgence.
It’s easy to see why many have made Monaé their neofunk auteur of choice, as she’s quite spirited and vivacious. I just wish she weren’t so hopelessly pretentious. Once she starts applying her significant pop gifts, she’ll outgrow mere auteurship in favor of something more generous and immediate.
The Weeknd: Kiss Land
XO/Republic, 2013 [BUY]
Hip-hop gets a lot of flak for horrible gender politics, but this guy is truly lecherous. Having packaged his three fairly solid 2011 mixtapes into a widely purchasable “trilogy”, neosoul crooner Abel Tesfaye now releases his studio debut with the hopes of finally making some cash. What do you know, it’s lusher and less sexually menacing than any of the mixtapes save House of Balloons. Maybe he’s trying to look more respectable in public.
Sonically, this is both spacey and immediate, devising a darkly frothy ambience through which yearning high-pitched vocals echo and fade over sluggish, buzzy-atmospheric keyboards, all while Tesfaye groans and whispers creepily suggestive lyrics about you-know-what. Less outrageous than, say, The-Dream, he’s just as candidly tasteless (“I make her suck with gold grills”, thanks for sharing). His romantic strategy is to win over the ladies by telling them exactly what he wants as descriptively as possible. Definitely there are some gross moments here, like the awkward Drake cameo and especially “Kiss Land”, in which he brags about violating drunken groupies. Many other tracks are tantalizing, especially “Belong in the World”, which starts slow and just keeps on building up its electrobeats.
Smug musical luxury has taken the place of calm intensity, and in the end this album is nowhere near as gripping as House of Balloons. But his pushy drone is so audaciously horny that the record sticks with you anyway.
Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Anti, 2013 [BUY]
Sad singer-songwriters are mostly interchangeable except when they can actually sing, but every now and then you get a total character, like this Seattle folk-rocker and aspiring Canadian. Topping 2009’s acclaimed Middle Cyclone with this stronger and stranger sequel, Neko Case just keeps getting more daring and eccentric.
Case nominally belongs to the Americana scene, only don’t expect casual listeners to notice. If not entirely Southern-identified, “Americana” connotes a particular traditionalist-inflected niche within the wider range of American folk music, and traditionalist she’s not. Imaginative in a densely rhetorical way, possessor of a vast supply of chewy melodies, with her feelings occasionally approaching kindness but more often resembling the assertively vindictive, her natural instinct is to spout verbiage over subdued accompaniment. But the backing musicians lock in their rhythms tightly, naturally gliding through smooth acoustic riffs and smoky piano texture. With Case’s thoughtfully conversational vocals foregrounded, the music is predominantly acoustic, yet warmly hummable nevertheless. It’s what would in an earlier age be called soft-rock, only it’s never nostalgic or pastoral, or soft.
In a world where emotional songs are sold in mass quantities, what distinguishes Case is easy to miss: self-expression so raw and straightforward it takes a while to acclimatize yourself and disable any inclinations you have to sneak around and find hidden meanings and nuances. Everything she has to say is right there on the surface. That’s why she counts as Americana.