THE END

OK, folks, that’s it. #250. Thanks for all of you who’ve followed along, added comments and corrections, and encouraged me to wrap the damn thing up (only two years later than I’d hoped).

I may start posting more contemporary music-related stuff here eventually. But that may just be wishful thinking, and in any case it won’t be like, tomorrow.

Thanks again!
Keith

 

Jay-Z feat. Swizz Beats — “On to the Next One”

Released: 12.15.09

Peak: #37

Significance can be a real motherfucker. No MC had maintained fame and relevance for fifteen years, and The Blueprint 3 offered uncomfortable suggestion why. That sequel’s sequel’s might not have been as dreadful as heads who think Jay never topped Reasonable Doubt thought, but its lame drizzle of singles sure showed the strain of his prolonged tenure on top. Not content to drag down a weirdly sui generis No I.D. track with tired complaints about Auto-Tune (this decade’s answer to tired complaints about drum machines–if not tired complaints about rap), he then teamed with two of megapop’s spoiledest-sounding celebs to sneer at you nobodies on the wrong side of the velvet rope.

But if “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” and “Run This Town” were merely a big shot’s hymns to himself, the album’s hugest hit smugly carved a victors’ history into a lumbering white elephant with the sort of tasteless provincial triumphalism that only thrives east of the Hudson. Sure it’s Alicia Keys’ soaring vacuity and Al Shux’s dire lounge piano that render “Empire State of Mind” as chintzy as a Statue of Liberty snow globe or a powder blue Yankees cap, but let’s not excuse Jay’s telling “eight million stories,” quoting “New York, New York,” and implicitly demanding that we admire his restraint in not specifically ID’ing a referenced “apple” as “big.” Few songs are not half as hated as they should be. This is one.

“On to the Next One” may be no less a boast, but it’s lighter, more offhanded in its mastery, with Jay’s flow as good-humored and insinuating as the ride-cymbal pattern that Swizz Beats pairs with a chopped Justice vocal sample (“under the spotlight,” fittingly). Flaunting his long-lived resilience and new-found access to presidents, dropping a more casual (and therefore smarter) dis of Auto-Tune than “D.O.A.,” and once more obsessing over the slovenly fashion sense of young black men as critically as Bill Cosby, Jay goes about his business with such confident nonchalance that “Y’all should be afraid of what I’m gon’ do next” comes across as no empty threat–even after you realize that what he did next was “Young Forever.”

Rihanna feat. Young Jeezy — “Hard”

Released: 11.10.09

Peak: #8

Public adversity doesn’t transform a minor artist into a pop genius any more than platinum sales do. But tragedy–be it death or disfigurement–can increase the resonance of solid craftsmanship as surely as stardom. “Russian Roulette,” a creepy little slo-mo melodrama on paper, curdled into a much starker confession when 2009’s most famous victim of domestic violence sang it. And on “Hard,” that ballad’s invulnerable mirror image, Rihanna sounded sexier, more self-possessed, more above-it-all than ever before — partly because we’d witnessed the “all” she’d risen so unfuckwithably above.

As tough-chick R&B pop goes, “Hard” handily laps the “Black Cat”-on-its-ninth-life insta-rock posturing Ri had relied on for “Shut Up and Drive.” At its cold core is a great Nash/Stewart production: a dead piano plink, an ominous synth swell rising from the deep, and a whip-crack beat disciplining the distant clatter of a trash can full of cymbals rolling down a hill. But this mastery never upstages the star, who rides the rhythm and fills its gaps with articulate cockiness–“Brilliant/ Resilient/ Fan mail from 27 million.” scans emotionally and metrically as pure hip-hop, while the brilliantly absurd gauntlet toss “Where dem bloggers at?” smartly leaves names unnamed. And that occasional catch in her voice reminds us that hardness is a mode of transcendence not chosen but thrust upon her.

After Rated R, Rihanna retreated on two fronts. She channeled her impulse for self-assertion into the huge, bland anthems “Only Girl in the World” (which radio made virtually true) and “What’s My Name?” (amnesia victim incessantly begs her nana to reveal her identity). And with “S&M,” her marketing of rough sex as fantasy seemed less brave and defiant than utterly, depressingly confused. In the three or so years since “Hard,” Ri has had her moments for sure. But ubiquity has not always become her.

Best Albums 2009 (1-5)

5. Oumou Sangare — Seya

seya

Y’all love those Malian guitarists, I know — something about the mystic, ancient, manly roots of the blues. And yeah, those guys can smoke, lots of ‘em, even if they’ve got nothing on their more elegant Congolese counterparts. But West Africa’s woman belters proffer a more exhilarating and more social art, and Oumou is their queen. She entered her 40s with her first U.S. album since 1997 (excepting a two-disc compilation where the unconvinced should start) after a decade spent mostly as a mother and entrepreneur, to propound on her version of Wassoulou feminism in a undiminished voice that exemplifies the sound of power and generosity not just coexisting but bolstering one another.

4. Sonic Youth–The Eternal

ole-829

Following Thurston and Kim’s split, what was once just another excellent Sonic Youth record has become the last Sonic Youth record, a testament (or tombstone) capping the close of great group’s late period. Gossip detectives are free to ferret out lyrical hints of discontent, with Kim’s impossible but not unreasonable demands of sexual transcendence all the more likely to now nettle the flinch-prone. But no rock band has ever sounded so confident a quarter-century into its existence. Even the Beat namedropping that once seemed an affected route to borrowed cool has come to mark their commitment to a NYC bohemian past of which they would soon become the latest chapter. Not quite as concise and hooky as Rather Ripped, but I’ll take Mark Ibold and his unobtrusive bass over Jim O’Rourke and his diffuse ideas.

3. Wussy — Wussy

wussy

Chuck Cleaver started his decade with a great Ass Ponys comeback and a pretty good follow-up, then left his comic Americana in the ’90s to collaborate with off-and-on mate Lisa Walker on an imperiled-relationship album worthy of comparison to Rumours or Shoot out the Lights. Rather than describing direct confrontations, Wussy’s songs more resemble furtive journal entries or whispered phone calls to friends. Cleaver yelps desperate abstractions like “Your punctuation hit me like a truck”; Walker prefers deadpan reports of concrete sensation like “Your hollow teeth are tasting my lower lip.” When they harmonize, or their guitars combine to split the difference between jangle and drone, you can hear why they stayed together.

2. Mos Def — The Ecstatic

ecstatic

Chalk up those rumors that Mr. Smith had fallen off to unrealistic expectations easily thwarted, not to mention rap fans’ reluctance to trust anyone over thirty. Fact is, Mos had a stronger decade than many more a la mode underground heroes, not to mention most of the genre’s blockbuster titans. But though I’ll rep for The New Danger all night — much of what makes this supposed “return to form” succeed is in embryo there — you don’t have to agree with me there to hear this as a triumph, flaunting a decidedly non-heroic willingness to within the mix, a fluidity with beats skipping internationally meaning, a narrative ebb and flow. And as a bonus, a Slick Rick rhyme about Iraq to remind us that the Ruler’s overdue for a new album.

1. Leonard Cohen — Live in London

cohen

Live albums by singer-songwriters are mostly useless. Though sometimes those sets significantly reinterpret familiar material, that alchemy occurs far less often than we’re led to believe, and it’s not exactly what makes this 2008 concert recording so special. Fewer still are live albums that transform an artist you admire into an artist you love, and for me, this is one. I prefer the old sage’s thick voice to the young poet’s questing tenor–at eighty-three what once sounded like well-phrased guesses at the ineffable now carry the heft of something like accrued wisdom. And in the presence of an adoring yet unobtrusive audience, I can even hear “Hallelujah” anew. So I excuse him for not dying.

Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”

Released: 10.26.09

Peak: #2

For me, the artist who Lady Gaga first brought to mind wasn’t her obvious precursor. It was gloomy ol’ Marilyn Manson. From her earliest photo ops, Gaga auditioned for the role of Iconic Cultural Figure with a singlemindedness that Madonna, driven and image-conscious as she was, didn’t wholly acquire until she’d heard academics carelessly bandying about words like “bricolage.” As with Manson, though, it’s possible to imagine Gaga, had musical success eluded her, deploying her visual aesthetic in some alternate route to showbiz notoriety.

But if Brian Warner was a fraud with a philosophy, Stefani Germanotta was a hack with a dream, and the latter make for sturdier pop stars, or at least peddle snazzier soundtracks to their hype. Gaga may never love disco as unconditionally as the young Madonna so obviously did (and probably still does). Still there’s still an audible affection for second-hand shtick she peddles — even if, in her enthusiasm, she sometimes forgets to separate the recyclables from the trash.

The lyrical conceit of Gaga’s debut single, “Just Dance” — disoriented club dolly hides out on the dancefloor til she figures out where she is — is funnier than its aggressively generic vocal fully conveys. Which brings us to Gaga’s greatest weakness: Though her voice is notably heartier (go ahead and call it “better”) than Madonna’s, sharing the Cher-ier side of Xtina, her chops don’t always translate into personality.

So she overcompensates—not just visually, but, on the single entendre “LoveGame” and the sexually opaque “Poker Face” lyrically and melodically as well. And yet, though its hint at the Grand Statement could’ve been a real turnoff, “Paparazzi” showcased her voice was at its most vulnerable—maybe because she seems to care so much more about celebrity (or, to put a kinder spin on that, her fans) than she does about sex.

“Bad Romance” was no less willing to irritate than what came before, but it was doubly eager to please. The “Gaga/ Ooh la-la” fanfare and the untransliterable, tortured faux-francais “r” of “I don’t wanna be friends” indicate Gaga in full try-anything, I’m-gonna-make-you-love-me effect. Correspondingly, her emotional range expands, veering from the down-low swagger of the verses to the transcendent ecstasy of the “Ohs.” Sure “I want your psycho/ Your vertigo stick [shtick?]/ Want you in my rear window” reads like cocktail napkin rough draft scribble. But Gaga’s lyrics, like her outfits, don’t jumble together signifiers in the hope that meaning will accrue from the overkill. She’s just out to show you that she’s beyond embarrassment.

Taylor Swift — “Fifteen”

Released: 9.1.09

Peak: #23

Whenever I hear Taylor Swift’s songwriting gift credited to her youthful perspective, I think of a bygone 60 Minutes segment on studios axing older screenwriters because the bosses thought only young people could write for their contemporaries. One wizened pro who’d been set adrift on an ice floe (guy musta been forty, at least) explained that a good writer can write from varying perspectives thus: “Antz wasn’t written by ants.” I also think of Michelle Branch. She was the worst.

Still, Swift has been able to turn a young writer’s greatest weakness — lack of life experience — into a strength, by homing in on the most vivid moments of the few years she has lived, perhaps to no greater effect than on “Fifteen,” an enlightened eighteen-year-old’s counsel to her younger fans. If nothing else, the song shows up the term “teenager” as so meaninglessly overbroad that anyone who’s ever encompassed thirteen- and nineteen-year-olds in the same thought should feel embarrassed — hard to think of a six-year span where humans undergo more drastic emotional and physical changes. And Swift’s vocals capture the different character of those ages, as the eager breathless anxiety is progressively flattened by adolescent skepticism, then repeatedly returns at the end of each chorus to the songwriter’s own late teen perspective with “I didn’t know when I was fifteen.”

Despite Swift’s insistence that high school is “life before you know who you’re gonna be,” “Fifteen” never condescends. And though Anti-Swifties have simplified the song’s take on the story of her real-life pal Abigail — who, we’re told “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind” — Swift isn’t referring merely to virginity here. And she treats teen sex, non-judgmentally, as a complicated font of emotion. In fact, that verse culminates with “And we both cried,” because Swift is really concerned with two girls sharing an intense experience. Because if “in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy of the football team,” this kind of bonding with another woman may just be one of those things.

Shakira — “She Wolf”

Released: 7.13.09

Peak: #11

Pay any attention to the past century of music history and it’s hard to unconditionally oppose the practice of industry suits peeping over artists’ shoulders to second-guess their decisions. Uncomfortable and undignified as such top-down collaboration must be, the inextricable commingling of creativity and commerce is what makes music pop. Unfettered individuality is no less likely to spawn self-indulgent goo than imposed commercial strictures are to compress the artistic impulse into aural styrofoam.

Still, I wish the check-writers at Epic would let Shakira be Shakira. Her own skewed misapprehension of pop form is always preferable to someone else’s idea of how she should sound. After Oral Fixation Vol. 2 slipped on the charts, the label tacked on “Hips Don’t Lie” as a bonus track; Shakira sounded exactly as bored as any reasonable person would be to hear Wyclef shouting her name in 2006. Annoyingly enough, “Hips Don’t Lie” became a number one hit — her first, in case you wondered whether pop audiences could be just as wrong as label heads about how a star should sound.

Just as wrong as Amanda Ghost, that is, who was responsible for “Beautiful Liar,” which was less a song than an idea — that idea being “Beyonce and Shakira are singing on the same song!” Ghost also brokered the existence of “Give It Up to Me,” Shakira’s most expedient bit of chart-bait to date. Occasionally, the star’s throaty sing-song, gone all rap-like, makes it sound like she’s willing to give it a go. But post-OneRepublic Timbaland is no longer the unsurpassed international beat thief of the early ’00s, and here’s the bellydance preset to prove it. As for Lil Wayne, by ’09 his guest raps were so ubiquitous and phoned in they were the 21st century equivalent of a David Sanborn solo.

“She Wolf,” on the other hand, is uncut, idiosyncratic Shakira. Even the song doctors on call here are oddball picks: Sam Endicott, frontman of everyone’s least favorite New Strokes, the Bravery, and Apples in Stereo guitarist John Hill (who also lent a hand in production). With its Baleiric burble, liquid guitars and, above all, the strings that mimic and then elaborate upon the freefall melody of the chorus, the track insinuated its into a radio-scape that was all bland boom. Even that electronic “S.O.S./ She’s in disguise” was weirder and more deliberately robotic than the prevalent Auto Tune homogenization.

A lesser weirdo might have taken the lupine slavering over the top, but Shakira’s dancing in the video, which splits the difference between porn and contortionism, is the sole concession to excess here. Instead, Shakira convincingly inhabits the fantasy world of a meek woman willing herself to have a wild side, a gal whose idea of putting her foot down is to complain of “not getting enough retribution or decent incentives to keep me at it” — a lyric that, in true Shakira fashion, leaves you puzzling to locate the border between ESL syntax and metaphorical absurdity. And to cap it all there’s that timid “awoo,” straining to earn an exclamation point. You’d almost think that Shakira is kidding around. But darling, it is no joke. This is lycanthropy.

Best Albums 2009 (6-10)

10. Micachu and the Shapes — Jewellery

Though this trio’s acoustic guitar noise has spooked a few timid souls, its tuneful clamor should put off no one passing familiar with basic indie dissonance, nearly as trad a musical element by now as the 12-bar structure or the flatted fifth. Producer Matthew Herbert steadies the band’s inspired amateurism; at times — when “Lips” stumbles inadvertently onto bhangra, for instance — it’s like hearing No Wave accidentally (maybe unknowingly) inventing pop music. And humanizing (if not normalizing) it all is Mica Levi’s boyish-not-mannish voice.

 

9. Nellie McKay — Normal As Blueberry Pie–A Tribute to Doris Day

 

Like her spiritual peer Rufus Wainwright, McKay seemed doomed to never progress much beyond a flawed debut that might have aged better had she (or he) outgrown its youthful excesses. But even more so than Rufus’s, McKay’s brilliance has always felt inextricable from a non-rock sensibility, and her acting chops allow her misinterpretation of the first American virgin to handily trump his Judy Garland tribute. By uncovering a distinctively Middle American sensuality rooted in Day’s exaggerated normalcy, McKay also finds a novel approach to the musty old American Songbook.  And she was smart enough to leave “Que Sera Sera” to Sly Stone.

 

8. tUnE-yArDs — BiRd-BrAiNs

On paper, Merill Garbus sounds like the kind of “free spirit” you’d carefully avoid at parties, protests, and grad seminars: a former puppeteer with a ukulele who studied African singing styles and expresses herself with an outsized voice and eccentric typography. Oh, and did I mention she loops her own drums? And yet it’s her free-spiritedness that sells an avant-clatter that appealed to but didn’t quite gel for me till I caught her live, where she proved to be the best imaginable version of the kind of person she can’t help but be–for starters, the kind of person whose willingness to differentiate between self-pity and self-scrutiny allows a lyric like “What if my own skin makes my own skin crawl” to hit home.

 

7. K’naan — Troubadour

Not sure what makes K’naan’s NPR-ready backstory any cornier than your favorite goon’s made-for-Hot-97 bildung — maybe that he’d like to play culture hero to his fellow Somali refugees rather than just snap his upwardly mobile claws at those below him in the barrel. As on The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the first single-artist African rap record worth recommending, his flow bears the influence of Eminem’s (rarer than you’d think) and his beats suggest Africa without necessarily adapting its music. “What’s Hardcore?” one-ups his competitors while belittling the competition itself, “Waving Flag” is a bona fide anthem, and “If Rap Gets Jealous” gets a re-recorded manhandling from Kirk Hammett. Plus, Chubb Rock. I love Chubb Rock.

 

6. Amadou and Mariam — Welcome to Mali

There are more gifted West Africans offering themselves up for Western consumption, but few with this savvy duo’s knack for crafting albums. Damon Albarn jolts them into his inaccurate idea of the present on “Sabali,” while K’naan chimes in from another desert on “Africa,” but unlike Dimanche à Bamako – which was often like a Manu Chao record featuring Amadou and Mariam — this isn’t about the guests. Marc Antoine Moreau, who produced the duo’s earlier music, helps them expand the bluesy, somewhat touristy core of their sound without sacrificing intimacy. I just wonder if they sound as cute to French speakers when they pledge their love on “Compagnon de la Vie” as they do in English on “I Follow You (Nia Na Fin).”

Iyaz — “Replay”

Released: 7.7.09

Peak: #2

The verses are little more than voice and handclap. The chorus is the sort of tune you’d whistle offhandedly and forget, rendered somehow unforgettable, its lyric updating the hoary conceit of the beloved as a inescapable melody with the homely and timely comparison “like my iPod stuck on replay.” Pop music’s charms rarely come so guileless anymore.

Not that the 22-year-old British Virgin Islander singing “Shawty’s like a melody in my head” is some outsider naïf who stumbled across fame. Keidran Jones hustled plenty before he became the protégé of the weirdly popular Sean Kingston. And yet, compare the airy effortlessness of “Replay” to Kingston’s clumsy “Beautiful Girls,” which, despite undue assistance from Lieber/ Stoller and the singer’s digitized Caribbean lilt imbuing the word “suicidal” with puppy-dog yearning, failed to create as breezy a vibe.

“Replay” producer J.R. Rotem was also behind the forced retro lope of “Beautiful Girls.” Rotem, after crafting a great Rihanna hit, had made his name by servicing scumbags like Rick Ross and Plies; he later lazily reworked Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” into “Whatcha Say,” Jason Derulo’s bald apotheosis of post-Usher manslut self-pity (“I don’t want you to leave me/ Though you caught me cheatin'” and so forth). He owed us, then. And here the overall sparseness of his track sets up nice decorative bits: squelchy synths, orchestral synths, washy synths, and bros who chime in with a supportive “Hey!”

Iyaz would later score a minor hit with his Janet-jacking follow-up, “Solo,” and he’s gone on to collaborate (if that’s what you call those forced exercises in synergy that have come to dominate pop) with Miley and Demi and Travie. He may have a long career of callow work-for-hire stints that neither you or I notice ahead of him. But for three minutes, Iyaz was able to approximate the feeling of awe for another human being that love can inspire, and without being either neurotic or possessive about it. That’s no small thing. You could say that his best moment is behind him. But the whole point of “Replay” is that such moments can go on and on. Na na na.

Phoenix — “Lisztomania”

Released: 7.7.09

Peak: #111

For obvious demographic reasons, music critics overrate the importance of indie rock. Even so, the critical consensus was absurdly indie-heavy in 2009, a watershed year for a certain strain of Pitchfork-approved post-collegiate pop that beat a genteel retreat from its punk heritage. Skeptics tagged this movement’s frontrunners with the dismissive (and supposedly clever-by-fiat) abbreviation GAPDY, casting a net wide enough to take in hibernating aesthetes Grizzly Bear, stoned menagerie Animal Collective, wan Frenchmen Phoenix, avant-glee-clubbers the Dirty Projectors, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ triumphant new-wave-is-back move. Don’t ask me if either the consensus or the backlash mattered much. For obvious reasons, music critics also overrate the importance of music critics.

Notably, these darlings fared no worse in the “singles” portion of Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, usually the domain of poppier blacks and women, than they did in the “albums” tally. This success was indicative of some lazy habits among insular critics (as Chuck Eddy noted), but it maybe wasn’t wholly undeserved either. New Indie had managed to spit up some distinctive stand-alone songs in a weakish year for chartpop. And yet…

Animal Collective’s “My Girls” voiced an honest desire to balance material security and spiritual freedom — and yet, I hope whoever it is that’s struggling to learn to clap while watching Nova reruns finds a cozier place to raise his daughters than the bottom of that well he’s singing from. The Dirty Projectors “Stillness Is the Move” was catchy enough to elicit a cover version from Beyonce’s arty little sister Solange — and yet, I wish the awkwardness with which David Longstreth pairs lyrics to melody would conjure up more amateurish charm and less arch willfulness. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero” was a vital celebration of transcendent anonymity — and yet, it leaves me wanting to hear the rest of It’s Blitz! as well. As for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” a frilly operetta number that mistakes Hal Blaine fills for math-rock, that prissy falsetto is almost enough to make an effete pencilneck like me buy Vikings season tickets.

Which leaves us with Phoenix. Thankfully, “Lisztomania” gives up far more mania than Liszt (you never know with Europeans), though the spazzy energy that’s its key asset doesn’t quite obscure the nifty bits assembled here: a bass fill here, a guitar commenting melodically there, everywhere a two-note keyboard bit reminiscent of “Friday on My Mind.” What’s more, “Lisztomania” is a triumph of dynamics: when guitar and drums drop out on the chorus, and the electric piano plinks on, Phoenix achieves the same emotional effect that ’90s alt-rockers strove for when they blasted into a loud chorus. And if the lyrics never quite evoke the interrupted flirtation and a pop phenomenon they hint at, I like how “jugulate” is introduced purely for the way it sounds.

Then again, Pazz & Jop voters preferred the less exuberant “1901,” which is probably indicative of nothing other than how tastes are even more arbitrary than usual when it comes to content-free indie fluff.

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