You know the drill – I drummed up one of these last year. Just like back then, it still seems more worthwhile then posting a top ten albums list, especially given that what we tend to mean by a top ten critics’ list album now is one which gives us four songs for a playlist, as opposed to one and two. Waiting until after the Xmas holidays to do this also gave me a chance to see what a couple of the big-players had to say about the year (New York Times, The AV Club) and savagely disagree with them. Still, I’m grateful for a jumping-off point.
Real Estate – Easy
Writing for the AV Club, Steven Hyden pontificated on 2011 as the year of no Important Albums (but many Good Records). The caps are His and Not Fucking Mine. The litany of lamentation gets a bit confusing when you read him. He laments the lack of albums with the heft and ambition of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion; he puzzles over the fact that there wasn’t quite the typical hegemony in website, magazine and newspaper year-end lists. Also, at some point Adele’s 21 is hailed as at once 2011′s “most transcendent release” and also the antithesis of an Important Album.
For all that, he gets round to citing Real Estate’s Days as his number one album of the year, albeit damning it with faint praise. “Not terribly consequential in the cultural world…I don’t think it will change the course of music or anything…it will probably get pulled off the shelf every couple of months or so.” I’d hate to see what the dude thought of the stuff he didn’t like.
Fact is, I could pick any number of songs to rep hard off of Days. A bit like that Phoenix album a couple of years ago, it’s one of those records you end up playlisting two-thirds of. The New Jersey band’s matriculation on album number two isn’t marked by any colossal sea-change or world music elements or anything – the quiet amendments and developments, like the Strokesy bass that gives “It’s Real” its propulsion, or the way you can picture “Out Of Tune” coming out had they recorded it three years ago – a haphazard drift, rather than the hard-fought exercise in concealed discipline we get here.
“Easy” wins out by managing to achieve Days’ lyrical and musical preoccupations in microcosm – and considering the album’s autumnal sense of wistful resignation, functioning as an upbeat opener is definitely a balancing act. The sense of gratification I got hearing it for the first time swept aside the “spot-the-influence” game, or questions of Importance, or whatever. It conjures up a lot for me, emotionally speaking (ie: I’m trying to find a taciturn out rather than saying something as trite as “it makes me happy and sad!”). I can’t stand the notion that critics have to be guarded about this, that a conversation about “Easy” or any of the other songs on here needs to be prefaced with “I liked it a lot, but…” It’s a halcyon teenhood in four minutes, and its lack of flash and quiet cultivation of a sound shows up so many of the artists pitching for critical-darling status as so self-important, so vulgar. I didn’t have a hope in hell of not loving this.
Radiohead – Codex
What would happen if Radiohead put out an album and nobody cared? It felt like we got as close to that as we’ve ever got this year, with the group occupying what I think has become a very odd, anachronistic place in the lives of most twentysomethings.
Part of this was the realization that the band is now on album number eight and has now existed for approx 20 years. They are, indisputably, in the realm of old person music that I don’t give two shits about and will never listen to. Stuff like Pink Floyd, Genesis and The Who, that whole “fat libertarian politics blogger” subgenre of 70s classic rock. Bands that continued to exist in some languishing form five, ten, or fifteen years after their expiry date. They’re of that same vintage – and though they don’t seem as embarrassing as any of the above, I can’t help but wonder – is this the sort of entrenched, received wisdom “real music” that all the kids coming up the ranks are going to fight?
I mean, I grew up embedded. OK Computer on CD as my twelfth birthday present, huge and infinitely sad. The Bends and Pablo Honey paid for in gold coin Xmas money, realising that Pablo Honey was, actually, just a little bit shit and feeling the first incipient pang of a critical faculty. Kid A/Amnesiac listening parties. Not “getting” either and wanting to get them badly, something I know I will never have the time or patience for again. Hail To The Thief‘s hysterical melodrama as a hysterical and melodramatic 17-year virgin who hated George Bush. In Rainbows presaging an imminent quarter-life crisis and feeling like a sort of emotional salve. We’re still here, and we still push the same buttons. It’s not an original story, and I know that while I’ll never cop to calling them my favourite band and I don’t even talk about them in gushing tones, I look sideways at friends who claim to hate them, or more bafflingly, say they never got into them. How did you get here from there?
But here we are. In Rainbows landed out of nowhere with a kinghit online release strategy and some pretty good tunes. Kingy Limbsy comes out accompanied by a ream of Stanley Donwood fanwank overkill (yo, I peeped the secret booklet in the back of the Kid A jewel-case guys. This is some weak shit in comparison) and a set of songs that just feel desultory, workmanlike. I’m used to liking an album from some bloggy Pitchfork act and then being let down by a follow-up, but this is the slow-decay twilight of something bigger in a way that I haven’t experienced in my lifetime before. They are the last of the bands of this size and this reach, and they caught us square-on and held us captivated for over ten years.
“Codex” is still very good and best in show here, although given that Thom Yorke wrote “The Tourist“, “Pyramid Song” and “Sail To The Moon” I sort of feel like he just can generate songs like this in the bat of a lazy eye. Then I just think, is this how (terrible) people defend their favourite songs on late-period Yes albums (“reminds you that this is the same band that made “Heart Of The Sunrise”…this is great!!”). Fucc you Thom I hate classic rock I only listen to mixtapes and Coco Solid.
Parallel Dance Ensemble – Shopping Cart
Looking out from the survivor’s side of 2011, Possessions And Obsessions is the best full-length release by a NZ artist this year by so far it’s not actually even funny. It’s a collaboration between Dane Robin Hannibal and Coco Solid (nee Jessica Hansell) that seems demographically unlikely at first – how’s decadent, dilettantish Europop going to go down with a mouthy and unmistakeably Kiwi girl, and how’s Coco going to sound outside of the scrappy, kitchen-sink backing of Casio fuzz and guitar scree that marked albums like The Radical Bad Attack?
As it turns out, they both bring their A-game. Hannibal’s project with Philip Owuzu could suffer from that post-Dilla malaise: dudes paralysed by their own immaculate record collections and making beautiful wallpaper. Coco Solid forces him to put together songs rather than tracks; likewise, partnering with an established producer, she didn’t let anything throwaway sneak through on here.
“Shopping Cart” is case in point – dig how it moves through from the spacious, polyrhythmic glide at the start (could be a long lost Tom Tom Club) to slinky, melancholy R’n B. Sounds fantastic, and it’s got the substance to match. “Shopping Cart” takes a trope of classic caveman pop, country and hard rock – the wild,wandering woman who’ll take your cash and gifts and fail to prostrate herself in return – and completely flies with it. Hansell gives us an ice-cool lyric that makes us feel hostile toward (“she’ll never stop-stop/’til she gets all your money”), cheered by (“sometimes a girl has to be smart”), and sorry for (He ain’t her prince, but then who is?”) the protagonist in as many seconds.
I compared Possessions And Obsessions to Pulp’s Different Class earlier this year – as a peer, not a echo – and I stand by that. Fundamentally there’s not any jet-setting glamour to the song, or anything else on the record – the titular shopping cart image, the toastin’ with friends on the deck – it could be Outrageous Fortune. So it’s a triumph of social observation in pop (see also: Hansell’s cutting anti-materialism in “Possessions”, the on-the-money TVNZ-style news commentary she reels off between verses in “Wildchild”), and also feels like music that couldn’t have been generated anywhere else, despite the trans-continental connections. I’d hate to think that that’s limited or hampered its success in any way.
Kimbra – Cameo Lover
While Hansell waits for national accolades and plaudits, 21-year old Kimbra Johnson has ended up a sort of Russell Crowe pavlova creation. We want her just as badly as the Australians who gave her her boost, but probably didn’t have the domestic apparatus to push an debut album with the art-rock pretentions of Vows (safer to go with your Brooke Frasers or your Gin Wigmores on our end, neither of which are likely to try and make their quasi-Bjork track anytime soon. Lovely though Gin is.)
Let’s not gloss over it – Vows is mostly horseshit, but it’s admirably ambitious horseshit. I can’t stand the awkward blend of indie-twee and burning-dollhouse symbolism 101 in her “Settle Down” video, but the song is good (in fact, my friend Hannah suggests it’s her lyrical peak, a sort of freak-out anthem for twentysomething girls expected to reconcile myriad social expectations as expected lover, wife, mother, and worker – ie: the imperative of the title is meant to be ironic) and “Cameo Lover” is one step better, an endless crescendo of girl-group tropes that has the good sense to propel itself forward with an 808 beat rather than get mired in quirk. The backlash has been interesting: the thread that The Corner spawned when their critics’ panel covered her for Great Sounds Great is seriously worth reading. Lot of haters pointing to the obvious chinks in her armour – middle-class, Christian, in-your-face kooky chic – oh yeah, and it turns out speaking to the Sunday Star-Times in October 2010 she inferred that she considered pre-marital sex, abortion and homosexuality a “grey area” that she was still trying to work out.
Responding on The Corner’s discussion, Auckland promoter and musician Matthew Crawley had this one down straight: though it’s easy to get the blinders when you’re out on the town in these parts, we don’t all get to be born to liberal-arts Grey Lynn parents who were into Flying Nun and equal rights. Some of us end up in Hamilton instead and grow up going to those vile mega-churches with surfer-bro pastors and promise rings. Johnson has to work through issues which I wouldn’t even blink at. I don’t envy her, or the surprisingly large number of remarkable NZ artists and musicians who have to reconcile a religious-conservative upbringing with creating work in the diverse, challenging secular world. Frankly, I think it’s a more subtle and interesting backstory for an emerging pop star than most, and the value of her future work will probably depend on how much of it she’s willing to thrash out with us as her audience.
On the other hand: the idea that homosexuality is even a ‘grey area’ is pretty abhorrent to me, and there’s almost something way more insidious about imagining 12-year-old girls who love Kimbra reading a even-sounding, ‘moderate’ statement like that that than there is about a group of young black men throwing the word “faggot” into a hip-hop track. You know what happens now.
5. Tyler The Creator – Yonkers
Faced with the thorny question of Odd Future’s hissing-rape gag schtick, music critics got one lucky, lazy out when Tyler The Creator released Goblin – “it doesn’t matter ‘cos the album sucks anyway”. It’s as if we were in high school again and all about to be asked a question in fifth-period Stats that we hadn’t revised to only to be saved by the 3.10 bell. Nice save everyone.
“Yonkers” is really good though, with a great, unhinged delivery (love the edge to his voice on “for a fucking shrink/sheesh I already got mine and he’s not fucking working/I think I’m wasting my damn time”) and a sound like knife of bone which feels as close as we’ll get to a 36 Chambers/6Feet Deep 21st-century redux. Then he went and made “Bitch Suck Dick” a single.
A few pretty useless and stray thoughts: I’ve no idea how everyone in the media reacted as if OFWGKTA and Tyler became the first hip-hop artists in history to use homophobic slurs in their lyrics when the kerfuffle began that got them shit-canned from the Big Day Out. It sort of felt neither better or worse than when thousands of other rappers use the word – a thoughtless, non-malign throwaway on their part, hugely hurtful if you get tagged with it everyday because you’re actually gay. No amount of equivocating can really get past the fact that “faggot” still gets used with specific derogatory intent towards gay people on a constant basis, pretty much everywhere. It hasn’t been “reclaimed’ under a countercultural movement (cf: queercore, NWA). A shift in who uses language, and how it gets used, is inevitable and organic, but that doesn’t really help the plight of the individual stuck on the receiving end in the interim. But Tyler and Odd Future aren’t out on their own for doing it.
I definitely don’t think it’s on the same level as Beenie Man, banned from the BDO in 2010 for calling for gays to be executed in a new Jamaica in his songs – advocating genocide out of some batshit mixture of genuine belief, transformative nationalism, and twisted-in-translation Christianity seems to be on the next level. Long story short, I don’t know why it was specific allegations of homophobia around Tyler/OFWGKTA that caused a stir when it’s the shit they say about women that makes me genuinely blanche.
I won’t repeat the most trenchant criticisms of Tyler’s lyrics, though I’m onside with them, but I’ll suggest that the creative paucity of most of Goblin didn’t help his cause. The overture for 2010′s Bastard – all abandonment, debasement and caustic self-hatred – created the context of a damaged, sick persona for the rest of his boasts, threats and sneers to sit within. An album that traces the arc of the abused as abuser, however objectionable his statements or behaviour, has got to have more merit then the “walking paradox” cop-out he makes his M.O on Goblin – a sort of ex post facto justification for him to flip back and forth out of rape-rap as he sees fit, but without any sense of catharsis or self-reflection.
It’s like a billion other bloated CD-era 75 minute rap albums where the dude talked about dealing drugs, murdering people, bunch of other despicable shit and then did a quick (and by quick, I of course mean five-to-ten minute) shout-out to Mum, brothers and sisters and God at the end. The whole idea of “rapper as paradox” is just a tiresome, expository version of that. If all Tyler has to offer beyond that is some sort of endgame ante-upping in the depictions of raping and killing women, this is going to fall off pretty fast.
One final thought, going back to that idea of insidiousness (ie: my belief that it’s worse for a peaches-and-cream middle-class white indie starlet to go on the record and say that homosexuality is a ‘grey area’ than it is for a 2K11 rapper to say ‘faggot’). Goblin is like a grand guignol of misogyny, but the whole world of male-dominated popular music is streaked with a soft, subtle touch of it. Sexism is nimbler than racism or homophobia, and so we get a straight line of music from 1966′s “Under My Thumb“, where Mick Jagger exults in his final, exacting leverage in a sexual power struggle through to 2008′s “Skinny Love“, in which Justin Vernon doesn’t win the battle but wins the war by recording I Fucked Off To A Cabin Because I Instructed My Girl To Be Patient, Balanced And Kind And She Left Me: The Album. Is a world where we shut down Tyler completely but ejaculate joyously all over Bon Iver’s tales of woe, his mythos of the struggling/noble male artist torn in two by these little wandering women, necessarily a more progressive one? Or are we just feigning disgust at things we’ll never do, while continuing to sit in cosy thrall to a Paleolithic view of men and women’s lives together?
Tune in next week for the “thrilling” conclusion – five more songs, five more rambles.