Listening notes #3: Chart toppers

There have been five number one albums so far in 2016, and here they are. One was released in 2015, I know, but I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. 



If this feels like her most personal album, that’s partly because it’s messy enough to suggest a glimpse at how much effort being and making and presenting Rihanna requires. But it’s mostly because her serrated vocal attack, often a free-floating expression of defiance and hurt upon which we each project our own particular desire and pain, rings out for once like the property of a specific individual struggling to get past a sense of fucked-over world-weariness to find something like love. If this sounds like her best album that’s partly because it feels like her most personal album, so even the weaker songs feel lived in. But it’s mostly because it has more good songs than her other albums.




“I got way, way too many issues” is his way of pushing you off — Future is the perfect rap star for the social media age, where unlimited psychic exposure requires that everyone besides genuine sociopaths and the supernaturally well-adjusted grow a protective exoskeleton. He’s through moanin’ the AutoTune blues with that profane horn of a voice, instead flexing cool rhythmic mastery: He escalates on “Ain’t No Time,” lags on “In Her Mouth,” falls out of meter entirely on “Savage Time,” repeats the title of “Fly Shit Only” till it blurs. But you know how it goes: Fewer emotional risks, fewer emotional rewards.




I respect the time-honored tradition of immolating misery through immersion in emotional immensity, but because I’m the kind of pop fan who relies on melody and wit to remind me that there’s a life beyond heartbreak and on rhythm and groove to get me there, Adele’s never gonna be my girl. But if her burnished sob doesn’t automatically trigger my tear ducts, it doesn’t poke my gag reflex either — she’s too subtle to consistently belt you in the chops with her chops, and when she’s not prematurely eulogizing her youth (save something for 29, girl) this nestles warmly in the sweet spot between plaintive and wistful. But only twice does her voice jolt a lyric beyond the literal. She rides the hook word “lo-o-ver” on the Max Martin/Shellback track “Send My Love” with an openhearted amusement that suggests a plentiful store of warmth and growth and empathy behind it. Then there’s the chorus of “Hello,” which I’ve been slow to acknowledge because I only grudgingly admit that some kinds of regret — the kind roused by unobtainable forgiveness, for instance — can’t be laughed or danced or loved away.



David Bowie

This past month I listened closer to Bowie’s music than I had in a quarter-century and thought harder about what I heard then I had maybe ever, confirming my longstanding suspicion that his work pole vaults right over petty critical evaluations like this one because his flaws are not only more interesting than many other artists’ successes — they’re essential to his successes. Bowie’s greatest musical (rather than cultural) innovations were rhythmic because he always approached a beat from the outside, getting it wrong in defamiliarizing ways, though Lodger remains my personal go-to because I prefer him knocked back on his heels, struggling to regain his footing, and casting about for a groove that might remedy his alienation. The mood of measured composure he sustains here grew instantly more impressive on January 10, of course, and it’s a masterful showcase of his most questionable musical innovation — the ability to represent emotion vocally without conveying it. There’s only so much trouble Donny McCaslin’s sax can stir up with Mark Guiliana’s drums falling into precise patterns and delineating the four corners of each composition, so many of these performances still remain intriguingly opaque for me. And yet, I keep returning to the simple ballads that close this out to hear Bowie at his prettiest and gentlest, a man who, at the end, still wanted more, but didn’t let that yearning trouble his soul.



Panic! at the Disco
Death of a Bachelor

If you’re too young to have had to vote for John Kerry and if Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were your Beatles and Stones (or Nirvana and Pearl Jam), maybe you’re nostalgic for a time when these guys were your, what, Kinks? (Or Smashing Pumpkins?) But all that’s decadent about Brendon Urie is a hyper-electicism (hyphen optional) that tries to pawn off overstimulation as inspiration — anyone who thinks you can expand upon the sensibility of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by interpolating the riff from “Rock Lobster” just doesn’t get so very many its. The chorus to his Big Bad Voodoo Daddy rip (“you’re just like Mike Love/ But you wanna be Brian Wilson”) suggests an ironic consciousness about his delusions, but so what? This is 2016 — even Larry goddam King is self-aware. And Urie croons the title track with the conviction he could be Michael Buble tomorrow if he could just remember to fill that dang Ritalin prescription.

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  • Hugh Resnick (@HughResnick)  On February 17, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    OK. So, if I have a daughter who’s a huge P!ATD fan, where do I point her to get her back on the straight-and-narrow?

    • usefulnoise  On February 17, 2016 at 5:34 pm

      Oh, it’s a perfectly acceptable teen developmental phase. I’m no parenting expert, but I’d just let it run its course.

      • and then she thought better of it.  On February 22, 2016 at 12:59 am

        dunno, man. Maybe he went wrong early on? We had a low-tech environment here that fostered early enthusiasm for the Beatles (thank you, hippie daycare), Elton John (via Muppet Show), Motown, Soul Train, and Michael Jackson, even a little sprinkle of Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie, and it all set my daughter up just right for L-O-L-A Lola. It was a moment I’ll treasure. She’s conversant in a pretty good chunk of synthpop and New Romantic now, and reacted with shock and disgust to Nirvana (which she has trouble pronouncing, keeps calling it “Ninerva”). Still wants nothing to do with the 90s.

        She does swoon for Michael Bublé, though.

  • usefulnoise  On February 27, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Oh I had awful teen taste — way too much late-stage ’80s Boomer rock — and I turned out all right. Though I sometimes think that if I’d listened to better music as a kid I could have moved on by now.

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