On Monday, I discussed some of the TV show music cues I liked from this year. Today I’m providing a list of my favorite albums. I’m not really one for hierarchies. There is a top three (kinda), but after that it’s unranked because what does it mean to be the seventh-best record of the year really? That said, it’s no accident that many of these entries interrogate citizenship in a year profoundly defined by malevolent structures and forces that unequally restrict and allocate who gets to be a citizen and under what conditions. It’s also quite deliberate that many of these albums were self-produced by women resisting the pressure to justify themselves. It’s not a comprehensive list, as undoubtedly soon I’ll unearth a treasure or someone will recommend something. Year-end lists are comforting narratives we craft about our own tastes to cope with the passage of time and I always like returning to the past and finding things I missed in order to challenge canon-making’s ossification. Your music may be part of that unceasing process of discovery, and I look forward to hearing it later.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq)
Last month Badu released this mixtape, which she co-produced with Zach Witness. End of the year, and just in time. Badu always sounds warm even when what she’s saying is cold, and peerlessly scribbles in the margins of song form. That’s how she’s able to turn Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into a revision of her 1997 hit “Tyrone” and a character study of the woman on the other end of that booty call. But what resonates most is Caint’s aching heart. Badu pursues a thematic interest in mobile technology through the lens of nostalgia, as though she wants to return to a time when we didn’t constantly use our phones to broadcast out and look in. Smartphones give us the ability to connect, whether we’re touching base with old friends or documenting instances of social injustice that have always been there but social media can differently illuminate. But you can’t unsee Eric Garner getting the life wrung out of him. However, you can channel the anger that comes with that realization into art and community and try to keep who you have and grow with them. That’s probably why she’s a doula. And it may be why so many of her albums’ final songs—“Green Eyes,” “Out My Mind (Just in Time)”—are about Andre or him in relation to other partnerships that fell apart or shifted. And that’s also why their reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me,” which concludes Caint, is lovely and bittersweet like divorced parents sharing a slow dance at their kid’s wedding reception. This year Badu came on silly like a LOL cat meme, flirty like a dirty joke told in emojis, weary like a 2 a.m. Facebook lurk, and contrarian like a flip phone or documenting a hate crime in vertical mode. Says the artist in another song that’s hot and cold: “that’s so me.”
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock has a lot of folk heroes. Often successful execution determines heroism, whether it’s getting strangers to chant a chorus with total sincerity or smashing a guitar with balletic force for a photographer. Heroes don’t miss, because men get to be heroes and we often make excuses when they do. We also make exceptions of women when they try, which is why Broad City’s Ilana Glazer offered a great corrective to the “all-girl band” questions that haunt this band by asking them in a recent interview “does rocking hard mean gender equality to you?” But in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein celebrates the virtue of near-misses, which goes hand in glove with the memoir’s other major contribution: fandom’s equalizing potential to the creative process (or: why so many of Sleater-Kinney’s songs are about making music).
Earlier this year, I saw Sleater-Kinney perform at Riverside Theatre. My adolescence did not make room for Sleater-Kinney because I couldn’t hear the electric guitar’s feminist potential or entertain sexist assumptions from boys at shows about my fandom. Our paths finally crossed with No Cities to Love, an “electric” record in every sense, but particularly in how Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss wield their instruments, voices, and words to convey the spark and heat of idealism sharpening into wisdom. One of riot grrrl’s biggest contributions to contemporary feminism was how it prioritized young women’s equal participation in music’s production and reception. “Girls to the front” wasn’t a slogan. Stopping a set to teach fans how to play your song wasn’t a gimmick. It rearranged space to put young women in the middle. Even though I had a birds-eye view of the set, they sounded so close that it felt like I was on stage with them. But the girls in the front—campers from Milwaukee’s chapter of Girls Rock Camp—could make out their chord and drum patterns, sweat, and discarded pics, and take notes. That’s heroism.
Lizzo – Big GRRRL, Small World (Totally Gross National Product)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
At a recent speaking engagement, a UW-Madison student asked Ta-Nehesi Coates what he thought about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prefacing his question with the explanation that it was one of the first hip-hop albums to deal with race. Coates countered this statement by name-checking Public Enemy before admitting that he hadn’t listened to Lamar’s record, which came out a few weeks before the event. In the back of the hall, this question seemed like a missed opportunity on three fronts. First, shoulda asked Coates about comic books dude. Second, why assume that one of race relations’ most vital critical thinkers has listened to your new favorite hip-hop record? Third, check the footnotes. Butterfly’s sound and collaborators situate Lamar’s flow within G-Funk’s grammar, one of his hometown’s major innovations and a sub-genre heavily indebted to 70s funk’s radical streak as a way to turn living in a police state into art. How do you process Rodney King? Your auntie’s record collection may have answers.
But young people often turn to their immediate context to figure out how to become adults. A necessary part of that process is realizing that some people get to go to college while others end up in prison or profiled or killed, confront the profound injustice at the root of this realization, and do something transformative with that knowledge. And it’s also why listening to records isn’t in itself a political act, but can be a resource for social change. Two records offered that kind of equipment for living this year. In April, Lamar released his third album. Eight months later, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo reached the same milestone at the tail end of the year after many year-end lists were drafted. Both are kaleidoscopic, ambitious efforts that impressively demonstrate the range and personality of the talent at their center. Both quote liberally from hip-hop’s past, as well as nod to its proximity to other genres (Lamar has jazz, Lizzo has dance). One rapper productively tests the commercial recording industry’s artistic limits, while the other demonstrates her entrepreneurial acumen by shirking interest from the majors to run her own label. Lamar struggles with hip-hop’s entrenched misogyny, while Lizzo applies an intersectional feminist critical lens to the genre and in doing so opens it up as a productive space for commentary and women’s artistic collaboration. Oh, and they’re both fun, immersive listening experiences. Lamar’s music evokes night-driving as a way to clear an unquiet mind and defy racial profiling. Lizzo’s music sees beyond #SquadGoals to observe how the giddy female energy of slumber parties and their rituals—dance routines, beauty and masturbation life hacks, gossip that chips at hegemony—resemble consciousness-raising sessions. Blast these albums in the dorms, kids. And learn their lessons. You are the future, and there’s work to do.
Empress Of – Me (XL Recordings)
Lorely Rodriguez makes music that sounds like a woman throwing a jewelry box against the wall, or my kind of pop. Me is Rodriguez’s follow-up to 2013’s Systems and her proper full-length debut. Its title may double as a form of clarification. Rodriguez produced this album and released it in a year when Jessica Hopper’s interview with Björk (a kindred spirit, if not a direct influence) spawned a Tumblr archive of images of female musicians, producers, and engineers to demonstrate that, indeed, women make music and authorship cannot be dead until it is equally applied to them. What follows is one of the most exquisitely textured and assured debut efforts of the year, propelled by Rodriguez’s clear, insistent voice. “What do you see in the mirror when you’re feeling restless? Do you see a man who isn’t there?” she asks on the breathtaking “Standard,” negotiating a distorted 4/4 beat pattern before catapulting over it. “Living for the sake of living, I can promise you no one cares,” she concludes on the other side of the chorus. That may be true, and pictures of women working behind mixing desks cannot change that for some people. But I care, and this music sounds like the future.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Oscar Isaac said in a recent Details profile that “[i]n order to be a leading actor everyone has to be an action star, to a certain extent.” Female pop stars have known this for generations (see also: LaBelle’s intergalactic girl gang drag, Kate Bush in the “Army Dreamers” video, Madonna’s biceps, Beyoncé standing fifty feet tall like Gene Simmons in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs). To follow up her 2012 breakthrough Visions, Claire Boucher emerged from playing video games in her basement and found the end of world. More accurately, she scrapped an album’s worth of songs that didn’t interest her and commandeered Pro Tools like Imperator Furiosa steering the War Rig and circled back to find that Art Angels’ apocalyptic Jock Jams sound was always there. Extending the Fury Road comparison to geopolitics, I haven’t settled my opinion on Boucher’s cultural omnivorousness. But the decision to work with Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes suggests coalition-building over colonization. And I would’ve left “REALiTi” alone, but sometimes we must destroy what’s beautiful to taste Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Here’s something Courtney Barnett revealed about herself in a recent conversation with Kim Deal: Sometimes shy people have so much to say and they don’t talk often because they’re forever turning over phrases in their heads and searching for the right words so they say them all at once. And sometimes they just sit. Barnett shreds too. If these masterfully written songs sound pear-shaped, you may need to lay down because she’s approaching them sideways.
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
“Sons of Bob Dylan” appears in the middle of novelty folk singer Wally Pleasant’s 1994 album, Houses of the Holy Moly. Its argument is simple: every singer-songwriter (Lou, Bruce, Neil, etc.) is derivative of Bob Dylan, who was himself billed as the next Woody Guthrie, and the recording industry is always willing to commodify their constructed authenticity. That they’re all dudes is no accident. Toward the end of The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna muses “I just think there’s this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” As someone who is often written off as twee because of her harp, brittle voice, and decorously feminine self-presentation, Joanna Newsom must feel this sentiment in her bones. That’s why it was so punk when she listed her wardrobe’s textures and fabrics to conclude her last album as a nod to the empty closet her lover would get back after their break-up. On this album, she ponders what it’s like to love someone so deeply that you’re willing to watch them die after a long life together through a collection of intricate, masterfully arranged compositions. There’s nothing less twee than spanning time and death do us part. Joanna Newsom is not the next Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Karen Dalton, or Kate Bush. She’s growing into something else: herself.
Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
Mickey Mouse croons to a lover he wants or doesn’t, reads yuh’ to filth, then sashays away. Most parties aren’t as fun as this record, including the records about parties, thanks to Shamir’s magnetic self-possession and Nick Sylvester’s buoyant production. In an alternate reality, Shamir rescues Alessia Cara from the party she’s withstanding in “Here” (an excellent rejoinder to Can’t Feel My Face-core, by the way) and they fire up the smoke machine at his house.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
Album title of the year, no question. And Hval’s ear for composition implies a steady diet of late 90s R&B—particularly the airy presence of Aaliyah’s dexterous soprano—and liturgical music. Its sense of the divine corresponds with its theoretical ambitions, a pursuit that Stuart Hall memorably compared to “wrestling with the angels.” Crafting a concept album about how ambivalence organizes feminists’ daily lives offers listeners few immediate rewards. Feminism is often co-opted to tell comforting narratives about progress and autonomy that privilege the concerns of middle-class white women; essentialize and condescend to women committed to leveling gender inequality without exploiting imperialism; and comply with capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources at work, home, and in public. In the West, its historical narrative is often organized in metaphorical waves, which justifies generational factions, misapprehends political gains’ uniform distribution, and ignores undertow. Finally feminism can bend toward dogma and splinter into contradiction, which often means to apply it is to misapply it. This might be why so many of these songs—“Why This?” the end of “That Battle Is Over”—sound like they are resisting their own disintegration. But this album is so alive with words and ideas—including the radical potential of “soft dick rock” and self-care—that it’s a pleasure to wrestle with it again and again.
fka twigs – M3LL155X EP (Young Turks)
Earlier this year I scrapped a comparative analysis of Under the Skin and Ex Machina, which put Mica Levi’s eerie score from the former in conversation with the pulsing sounds Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow produced for the latter. It never materialized, as the comparison praised Jonathan Glazer’s film to hang Alex Garland’s three-hander and that’s lazy criticism. Also, such comparisons reduce the individual merits of Scarlett Johansson’s and Alicia Vikander’s uncanny valley performances as an extraterrestrial seductress and an Edenic robot. Both offer incisive, particular critiques about what it means to have beautiful female bodies and grapple with men forcing their will upon them. In the real world women distance themselves from their bodies all the time to cope with this trauma, looming or endured. These actresses metaphorize that experience and demonstrate the thrill of sentience scaffolding resistance as their characters wonder: “what is my body if I can’t enjoy it?”
What does this have to do with M3LL15X? For one, the long-form video is a nice pairing. In particular, “I’m Your Doll” will be used in gender and media studies classes to talk about consent and objectification for as long as graduate programs hire hipsters to teach college students about feminism. Ultimately, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa,” perhaps the name of one of Ex Machina’s discarded prototypes) investigates how sexiness curdles into body horror out of twigs’s boredom and disgust with the commodification of the female form. And it offers an alternative to the post-racial implications of Ex Machina’s ending by imagining a future where black female pop stars rebel alongside artificial intelligence. As an EP, it trades songs for Concepts. But it’s also one of 2015’s best science fiction movies about technology’s fraught relationship with sexuality.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (anticon.)
The best thing about part-singing is the moment when everyone breathes together and blends their voices to create a unified sound that vibrates like a beam of light you can hear. That’s way trippy, but Angel Deradoorian is clearly after this moment because she creates it time and again—most magically with her sister Arlene and Niki Randa–on this beautiful, unassuming record that breaks through the air like sun through windows after a rainstorm. It’s a sound she helped chase as a member of Dirty Projectors, who were basically choir nerds with psychedelic tendencies. But there’s a stabilizing force to part-singing on this record, which Deradoorian wrote largely as a manifestation of her doubt and loneliness as a Los Angeles transplant without a band. And a lesson too: good solo artists always find their way when they collaborate with other musicians.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION (Interscope/School Boy)
This album’s modest chart performance is baffling, but the music critics know about this one like they knew about Kylie Minogue in 2001. Pop music is ultimately about interpreting personal e*mo*tions with your voice that large audiences can immediately identify with and share. For female pop stars this often means “pretend that you like it.” This is why so many women (and Harmony Korine) have complicated feelings about Britney Spears. Such expectations also lay bare authenticity’s contradictory and unequal allocation between male and female artists (see also: Newsom, Joanna). What I like about this record—apart from how its airbrushed synths, resilient programmed drums, and neon-bright sax flourishes bullseye the pleasure center (kudos, production team)—is Jepsen’s embodied conviction as a singer. Listen to how she whispers “I’ll find your lips in the streetlight” on “Run Away With Me,” E*MO*TION’s launch pad. It’s a slyly sexy turn of phrase and an excellent line reading, because even if the song’s subject is undefined (you), Jepsen conjures a real person. As listeners we can only witness the ease of their intimacy within the ellipsis of a pop song, but we can also delight in finding our own specific people to fly with over the city, city. Which is where pop lives anyway.
It’s hard to write a tone poem to your favorite coffee mug, but you’re glad to hold it every morning. Here are some more great albums that found their way into this year’s dark corners and small moments, even though I couldn’t find clever words to describe their charms.
THEESatisfaction – EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Gavin Turek + TOKiMONSTA – You’re Invited (Young Art Records)
Noveller – Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Kelela – Hallucinogen EP (Warp/Cherry Coffee)
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Overcoats – Overcoats EP (self-released)
The Selecter – Subculture (Vocaphone Music)
Erase Errata – Lost Weekend (Under the Sun)
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)
Demi Lovato – Confident (Universal)
Frankie Cosmos – Fit Me In (Bayonet)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD/Rvng Intl.)
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wildness (Domino)
Bouquet – In a Dream EP (Ulrike/Folktale)
Upon its release in early 2010, Joanna Newsom’s third full-length album, Have One on Me, received comparisons to frayed West Coast valentines like Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. Despite her travels as a performer and her association with Chicago-based indie label, Drag City, Newsom’s Californian-ness is foundational to her work, particularly on songs like “In California.” Such material may have doubled as an audition for her role as the narrator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice. Though Newsom hails from Nevada City and Anderson reps the Valley, they met in fictional Gordita Beach to retell Thomas Pynchon’s post-60s shaggy detective novel.
Paul Thomas Anderson expanded the role of hippie minor character Sortilège for his adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel after discussing the writer’s work with Newsom at a dinner party. Perhaps he used the singer’s vocal fry, loose phrasing, and linguistic dexterity as guideposts for developing images and worlds that corresponded with Pynchon’s prose. As a musician, Newsom cuts a divisive figure. Like Pynchon and Anderson, the density of her work is at times mistaken for weirdness. Inherent Vice isn’t incoherent—it’s just that it’s about the illusion and the reality of the collapse of social order. Newsom plays the harp, which seems novel until one considers the expense and muscularity nested within its feminine gentility. It doesn’t transport itself to the parlor. She has that voice, an ember-like mezzosoprano, that has been bestowed with descriptors ranging from “lacy, shimmering” to “Lisa Simpson.” And she has an especially literary ear for language. She’s prone to construct rhyme schemes around words like “palanquin” and turn a phrase like “amazing tantric cougars” when profiled by journalists. In other words, Newsom can effectively play a character who says things like “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.”
At some point during production, I wonder if Anderson turned to Have One’s second disc, upon which “In California” appears. Many of Inherent Vice’s cinematic influences—Cheech and Chong, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, the Zucker Brothers—add up to slapstick. On songs like “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom channels Randy Newman’s ability to commit jokes to a time signature. But disc two of Have One sustains a deceptive sadness that neatly mirrors Inherent Vice’s faded Polaroid palette of washed-out blues, browns, pinks, and whites. Underneath its silliness there’s a sun-shot melancholy to Inherent Vice. It knows that the ruling class—in this case, Silent Majority Southern Californian real estate developers—can co-opt and exploit countercultural practices, seizing upon the circuit between addiction and rehab as an opportunity for vertical integration. It’s aware that sunburns share a dangerous proximity with heroin, the Manson family, and murder. Its gumshoe protagonist entangles himself in a conspiracy by using his broken heart as a compass. At points it’s unclear whether Have One recounts a break-up or investigates a crime, a fitting ambiguity for a record that makes oblique references to thwarted motherhood and lost children and is speculated to detail the disillusion of Newsom’s relationship with Bill Callahan.
But who is Sortilège, exactly? In Anderson’s film, Newsom splits the difference between a close friend, a scenester, an inner monologue, and a mirage. She’s an omniscient yet transient presence. She offers counsel to private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), slipping in and out of a beach-side eatery, his car, the corners of his memory, and offering guidance in voiceover like a viewer warning the screen during a horror movie.
Inherent Vice isn’t interested in arias, so it doesn’t have the naked emotional resonance of Have One’s loftier moments. It’s biggest payoff is a couple’s tender reunion, and it’s seen from a distance. It’s not bittersweet like “Baby Birch.” There’s no anger in its loneliness to match “Go Long.” And no character is committed enough to deliver a devastating kiss-off like album closer “Does Not Suffice,” which borrows its melody from “In California.” Perhaps this would be different if Inherent Vice was told from the point of view of Sportello’s mysterious ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). But the protagonist cannot really know her, or at least chooses to see only certain parts of her (mainly the angel and the devil).
At face value, Sportello is not a chauvinist. But in his film, Sortilège is but one woman among many—informants, lovers, suspects—who appears periodically, reshaping his investigation with each encounter. If this film and its source material is about the death of the dream of the 60s, its promise of free love and radicalism was a hollow one for women. In one scene, Sportello tracks down a missing person he’s been hired to find at a happening for Vigilant California, an organization that obscures its support of Richard Nixon behind love beads. They’re staging a re-enactment of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are eating pizzas their old ladies made. In “Go Long,” disc two’s operatic peak, Newsom bristles at “the loneliness of you mighty men, with your jaws, and fists, and guitars, and pens, and your sugarlip” rejecting the gender segregation that keeps her from “the firepits with you mighty men.” Can you call it a revolution if the men still sit at the table while the women mind the kitchen?
Sortilège’s presence in Inherent Vice hints at possible alternate histories and narratives beyond Sportello’s case. What potential connections could these women have with each other irrespective of Sportello, co-ops, and the LAPD? What if Sortilège did bong rips with Valley Girl massage therapist Jade (Hong Chau) and spacey waitress Chlorinda (Jillian Bell)? What if ex-junkie drug counselor Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) worked with lawyer Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on a patient’s rehabilitation? What if the story followed Sportello’s taciturn receptionist, Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), and found Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair) waiting in her apartment? The film crowds the frame and soundtrack with the distinct voices of interesting women. The Summer of Love could not dislodge the misogyny and sexism embedded in the American male psyche, but feminism would continue to trouble it in the decades ahead. Newsom’s narration dares us to imagine a present where women no longer lend their voices to recount men’s stories, but instead raise them to tell their own.
Earlier this summer, I had Grimes’ Visions and THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE on a loop. Though critics were generally favorable to both records, some even claiming them to be among the year’s best, I was struck by Jody Rosen’s conclusion that there was “an emptiness at the center” of Visions.
That emptiness is actually what I found most compelling about Visions. It’s something Lindsay Zoladz addresses more favorably in her review, unpacking the term “post-Internet” and attributing the artist’s self-professed short attention span as evidence of a pop architect’s young, fertile mind. I hear it in awE naturalE too. True, it’s hard to find the chorus—or at times a coherent train of thought—on either record. The former uses songs to gather crowded thoughts by a very loose thread. The latter doesn’t press on its own ideas, content to keep songs short and hovering somewhere between a fragment and an afterthought.
Both are invested in repurposing detritus. One is obsessed with clashing synth pop with early 90s R&B and new age; the other is invested in free jazz, funk, and hip hop. Both are, in some sense dealing with identity by using abstraction to think past it. Claire Boucher harnesses the studio and recording software to “be a body” of her own making through bursts of melody and sound that defy coherence for a deeply felt immediacy. For Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, words often curve past the margins of awE naturalE in a dense, textured prose delivered with an ease that belies its complexity. Both albums are unmistakably “female”, even if both acts are trying to blow up such categories.
Put simply, what I like about both records is that they lack a center entirely. Visions and awE naturalE are open texts. But how do we listen to open texts? Usually listeners require some kind of center—the hook, the bridge that links chorus to verse. This is not to suggest that a listener is unsophisticated for requiring a center or that a songwriter is pandering when s/he provides one. I don’t think Rosen is saying “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” in his appraisal of Visions. Nor am I suggesting that it’s so easy to provide a center. I recently sat in on a songwriting workshop for my local chapter of Girls Rock Camp. The instructor played The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and Taylor Swift’s “Mean” and asked the girls to identify compositional units like the intro, pre-verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, hook, bridge, and the outro. Among other things, this exercise proved that Swift is a more sophisticated songwriter than I realized.
Though I have argued the limitations of formalism in the past, there’s value in abiding by grammar and structure. Those restrictions aren’t inherently oppressive or indicative of creative stagnation. Nor does their limitations suggest that you can’t absorb the rules only to break them effectively. Listen to Azealia Banks. Joanna Newsom and Agnès Varda care very deeply about form. They couldn’t be able to undertake, much less complete, challenging work like Ys or Lions Love if they didn’t.
My medium is language. I work with words all the time but I think I’m only now starting to appreciate the rigor necessary to harness their power. When I started this blog, I was a bored archival aide trying to channel my restlessness into something productive. I didn’t care how my words fit together if the ideas were there. Actually, I fetishized the tangent. But after spending a year in course work and teaching college students the impact of effective communication and a summer spent editing Antenna and revising a book chapter, I really care about my words.
I don’t care about my words so much in terms of how they are received, discredited, or remixed as I do in how I present them in their final form. A friend noted that as he developed as a scholar, he placed less value in abstraction and began studying Richard Dyer’s compositional style in order to be a clearer writer. I get that. I want my work to be clear. I want to be able to spot the thesis rather than bury it with verbiage and equivocation. I want my sentences to be shorter. I want my argument to cohere. I want to be understood, even if I’m not.
Though I claim to listen for what I don’t recognize in music, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim dance music as demonstrative of this. All music can be broken down into compositional units. New Order and the Pet Shop Boys care a great deal about form. Dance music requires an adherence it, as much of its effectiveness is tied to listener response. Music is a time-based medium, no more evident than when the Chemical Brothers deploy the eight count (pick a song) to pay it off with an epic climax or cathartic reintroduction of the theme (5, 6, 7, 8….).
One way that dance music engineers listener response is through repetition. This helps listeners locate the beat. It’s not uncommon for musicians or deejays to build or elaborate upon a theme or passage in order to keep listeners engaged. This is harder than it sounds, which makes deejaying—developing a playlist in real time to keep people’s bodies moving—a Herculean task you only notice when executed poorly or compromised by faulty technology. This is why I haven’t bothered to deejay for dance parties yet. Recognizing that Planningtorock’s “Patriarchy (Over and Out),” Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows,” and Purity Ring’s “Lofticries,” and Jimmy Ross’ “Fall Into a Trance” are great songs is one thing. Getting people to dance to them is another matter.
I still fetishize the tangent. And fragments that articulate or challenge the truth can land like bullets regardless of whether they’re missing a subject or a verb. Echoing Zoladz’s piece on failure and Nicki Minaj, I believe incoherence and misrecognition have value. They represent struggle. They recognize the value in not finding the center. As much as I see the value in declarative theses, I will always treasure records like Visions and awE naturalE which seek to bury or blow up the idea that one can ever come to such conclusions. Because in rejecting a center, they provide at least one listener with unlimited possibilities.
I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin'” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin'” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.
Last Friday, I was catching up with Off Chances’ podcasts while wrapping up some things at work. As it was around 4:30 and the mix was food-related, I was getting hungry. My appetite intensified after hearing the opening track three times. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to listening to late jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. I knew of Ashby because James Murphy mentioned her in that generation-defining novelty song that launched his career. Her music is sampled by hip hop artists like Ugly Duckling, Murs, and Pete Rock. And I feel pretty ridiculous that I hadn’t noticed her work on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Billy Preston’s Late at Night, but this blog is as much a repository for lost treasures as anything else. But after stumbling upon the stark, elegant “Joyful Grass and Grape,” I’m hooked. Ashby fans, should I start with The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby?
Since starting this blog, I’ve always prioritized contemporary female musicians who steer away from the traditional rock set-up. Lately I keep thinking about harps, which may only rival the piano as the most conventionally feminine instrument. PJ Harvey foregrounds the autoharp on her bewitching Let England Shake, which gets better with each listen.
After seeing Joanna Newsom at the Paramount last November, it’s clear to me that the novelty of the instrument can eclipse the difficulty of playing it. Detractors may think Newsom’s association with the harp ups her quirk factor, but she’s pretty virtuosic at an unweildy instrument. It requires great strength and dexterity to pluck and strum a harp. It’s a challenging instrument to approach, as you have to straddle the instrument and nestle your head against it to see the strings. You can’t shred on it as easily as you can with a guitar, which has been naturalized as an extension of the musician’s genitalia. It’s a tricky instrument to keep tuned. What’s more, harps are really expensive. Newsom doesn’t use a practice harp from her middle school days to keep in touch with her childhood; the one she’s saving up for costs $50,000.
Ashby showcased her formidable skill with the koto on Rubiyat, which seems to employ an entire musical grammar I can’t yet wrap my head around. Being able to master two tricky instruments and create sublime music out of it? Oh yes, Dorothy Ashby, I’m going to spend more time with you.
We’re in February now, which means people are releasing albums again. Yesterday, I listened to new stuff from Toro Y Moi, PJ Harvey, and Adele. I giggled at Urban Outfitters streaming Underneath the Pine, but that’s not unexpected. UO and retailers like American Eagle sell compilations upon occasion. As I mentioned in my review of TOKiMONSTA’s Midnight Menu, the first time I heard an Air song was at the mall. It makes sense. Both artists make music for looking at your ass in expensive jeans. Matter of fact, Chaz Bundick is straight up trying to make Air records.
By the way, if anyone has written on department stores using music as a part of brand identification, please let me know.
In anticipation of their official release dates later this month, NPR is streaming Harvey and Adele’s new albums. I’m sure most readers would expect that I’d devote some space to Harvey’s Let England Shake. However, I’d imagine that regular followers of this blog are already digging the new album and are excited about the short films that are accompanying it. They can probably also tell you that she didn’t peak with Rid Of Me and continues to make great records. They might even say that White Chalk is far more intense than To Bring You My Love. Regardless of whether you know this or not, do check it out.
But I thought I should trumpet my excitement about Adele’s 21. It might be a populist vote, and I strongly encourage fans who want to check out lesser-known artists to give a listen to Orgone and Andreya Triana. However, I’m a believer in supporting good musicians with universal appeal–folks like Jill Scott, Sharon Jones, and fellow Texans like Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones. My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played “Sawdust and Diamonds” for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?
The Grammys are this Sunday, and I plan to tune in and perhaps live Tweet alongside the folks over at In Media Res, who are devoting this week to critical explorations in pop music. I’ve got a cocktail riding on the Album of the Year winner. If it goes to Katy Perry, the hellmouth will open and we won’t have any new Septembers. You’ll recall Adele won two awards in 2009, including the contentious Best New Artist prize. I totally think she deserved it. I admitted my love for her (and my scorn for Vogue‘s sizeism) early in this blog’s run. My only reservation with 21 is that I don’t think there’s a song that matches lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” which opens the album and is powerful enough to bring about a Biblical flood. But “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go” are also in heavy rotation, and her version of the Cure’s “Lovesong” honors the original (which I have tepid feelings for, as I don’t need Robert Smith when I have Siouxsie Sioux) and far exceeds the 311 cover. Adele’s sophomore album is exactly what it needs to be–accomplished, singular, and lousy with hits. She’s well on her way to becoming the Dusty Springfield of my generation, and is becoming our Adele in the process.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.