Friday, December 26, 2014

Not the Best of 2014: The Year in Music - Part 1 of 3

The overall impression I’m left with of this past year’s music is one of being underwhelmed. There was a lot of music I liked, but very little I loved. Even artists whose works I’ve loved in the past turned in efforts that were serviceable - good but not great.

Sometimes it’s useful to judge a best-of list by its omissions along with what’s included. With that in mind, here are some records that didn’t make my list this year. These are not honorable mentions: records that I liked but narrowly missed the list. Neither are they records I hated. They’re records that showed up on other best-of lists or left a large commercial footprint this year, but made little or no impression on me. These are records that made me feel out of step because I just didn’t get it. Do you remember Spin magazine’s original stoplight rating system (green, yellow, red)? These records are solid yellows for me.

This list isn’t meant as a critical attack on these artists; it’s more of a response to other best-of lists. I’m sure plenty will disagree with some of this list, if not call into question the need for such a list at all. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world without having to call out records for not being as good or excellent as some people think? Absolutely. But this is the internet, and you’ve entered my dark corner of it, so enjoy.

Taylor Swift - 1989: Taylor Swift won 2014. Lots of people (my wife included) like this new record. It aims to please and has a professional polish that is hard to dismiss. It’s even become hip to listen to TS. So, what’s my problem? Taylor Swift makes music that is not just cute, but cutesy. I have a hard time with cutesy. Gwen Stefani and No Doubt are cutesy. So are Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists, for that matter (see also: Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, etc.). 1989 was a pivotal year for pop music (one of the very best), and for me personally - I started high school. Taylor Swift was born that year. This record makes me feel old even without that factoid. I know it wasn't created with me in mind. I don't judge anyone for liking this record; I just reserve the right to ignore it without being considered a snob even though everyone will think I am anyway. Oh well, haters gonna hate, right?

Ariana Grande - My Everything/Iggy Azalea - The New Classic/Charlie XCX - Sucker/Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive Tastes/Lana Del Ray - Ultraviolence/Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint: It’s completely unfair of me to lump all of these artists together considering how different they are from each other stylistically, but I feel they’re all being marketed to the same audiences under the same rationale. That pluralization of “audience” was on purpose. This is music designed to cross over. Taylor Swift could have easily been lumped in here as well, but her success makes her worthy of her own note. All of it is blown up to obscene proportions and none of it is compelling to me in the least. I don’t really hate any of it, but I don’t understand why these records are showing up on other lists. I’ve also lumped them together because as women they are being marketed in a way that I find grotesque. Men aren’t marketed this way. A great deal of noise has been made about how each of them write their own material in a way that’s completely condescending while at the same time treating them in a sexually exploitative way. This isn’t new behavior, but whereas it used to de rigueur when talking about female musicians, it’s not always the case now. Looking over the names of the female artists whose records did make my best of list (see part 2), it’s the music that people talk about, not the artists themselves as mannequins. Maybe I’m being a unfair to Banks and Minaj who have genuine talent. I won’t go into the whole Azalea vs. Azealia feud. White person exploiting black art and culture?  That’s another old story.

Ed Sheeran - X/Hozier - Hozier/Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour/Ray Lamontagne - Supernova/Beck - Morning Phase: This category is the other end of the gendered spectrum to the previous one. Stylistic differences aside, these male artists are marketed in the same way as each other: sensitive, earnest men who are serious artists. It sounds like a lot of self-important, navel-gazing baloney to me. I’ve even liked some of Ray Lamontagne’s music in the past, but he’s always tread a fine line for me. These kind of records make me want to put on Ted Nugent’s Free-for-All. Jeff Tweedy’s album that he did with his son as a tribute to seriously ill wife is an example of how to make a heartfelt record without falling into sentimental dreck. That record, Sukierae, didn’t make my best of list either (a little too long and scattershot for me), but it expresses honest emotion in a more - pardon me - manly way.

War On Drugs - Lost in the Dream/Sun Kil Moon - Benji: These are two records from two talented outfits which I just couldn’t get into. Both of them are also ending up near the top of a lot of best-of lists this year. It just so happens that the groups themselves were involved in a silly feud with each other. I’d like to think that the public spat didn’t affect my opinion on their actual recordings, but I can’t say that for sure. War On Drugs’ record sounds like recent Destroyer doing a humorless imitation of Dire Straits covering Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Although I’ve never been a huge Mark Kozelek fan, after seeing his live solo show a few years ago I was really impressed with him as a guitar player and performer. His new record, however, sounds like a bitter, old crank recounting every depressing tragedy he’s ever witnessed - like a bizarro world Dan Fogelberg. It’s harrowing and humorless in its own way. I can appreciate it, but from a distance. Kozelek’s two one-off songs mocking WOD were more interesting (and hilarious) than either full-length. It’s a shame he didn’t press them up as a special Record Store Day Black Friday 7”. That would have been a keeper. Kozelek may be a jerk and everyone may have sided with WOD, but there’s no question he won the feud.

Spooky/Post-Punk: There were a bunch of records in this category that came out this year. I’m not putting any of them on my list because I didn’t feel compelled to listen to them more than a few times. This doesn’t mean that they aren't worth listening to, but it’s just not where I’m at right now. If you’re interested, here are some of the records that came out this year in this vein.

  • Have A Nice Life - The Unnatural World: There’s potential here if the singer ever stops being embarrassed of his own voice and afraid to let the hooks shine through.
  • Cult of Youth - Final Days: Has Douglas P. heard these guys? If not, he should take a listen and call his lawyer. A track like “Of Amber” would make a great parody if DIJ weren’t already the perfect parody of themselves.
  • Total Control - Typical System: Stylistically this is a mess. It sounds like people who got into post-punk from a Spotify playlist where there’s no differentiation between Young Marble Giants and Ultravox, which makes it kind of funny. Welcome to the context-free future.
  • Protomartyr - Under Color of the Official Right: Everyone kept telling me to listen to this. It’s okay, I guess. Meh.
  • Iceage - Plowing Into the Field of Love: For fashion.
  • Merchandise - After the End: Rufus Wainwright fronting the Hoodoo Gurus. No, really. For real.
  • Interpol - El Pintor: Worst/funniest lyrics in rock. Now with falsetto.

Metal: Heavy metal just isn’t made for me anymore. It’s splintered into a million sub-genres, and none of them do anything for me. There are people who get close: Mastodon, Electric Wizard, High on Fire, Witchcraft, etc., but nearly all are missing those things I want most out of metal. Jesus people. Am I going to have to make the metal album that I’ve been contemplating for years, just to make the music no one else will? Even the mighty Black Sabbath put out a new Ozzy-fronted record this year, which sounded as perfunctory as expected. Maybe if Bill had been a part of it would have been better. Maybe if they had a different producer (does Rubin even “produce”) it could have been something (I would have loved to hear what Albini or John Cale would have done with them). On the other hand, probably not. Mastodon, Electric Wizard, Pilgrim and Pallbearer all put out some fine records this year; I just can’t fool myself into thinking that they satisfy me.

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways: The HBO documentary series was great. The album that resulted from it didn’t move me though. Dave Grohl is apparently a really great guy. Pat Smear is cool and graceful. I’m glad post-SDRE bassist, Nate Mendel, will be able to retire. Guitarist Chris Shiflett is a perfectly competent studio dude. And drummer Taylor Hawkins makes the best golden retriever Grohl - or any dog lover - could ever wish for. I’m glad that the FFs are likeable, but their music bores me. Their friends and peers, Queens of the Stone Age, are an infinitely better band with a fraction of the FF’s following. Many of my friends love the Foos (THEY ROCK!). Good on them. May they have a long career and continue to print money.

The Black Keys - Turn Blue: To be fair, I haven’t listened to this record very much. I’ve liked what I have heard, but it sound too much like what they’ve already done. I’d love to hear another Dan Auerbach solo record produced by someone who won’t obscure his vocals - in other words, not Auerbach or Danger Mouse. The production is just a little too self-consciously retro-hipster to penetrate.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues: I’m happy for Laura Jane Grace’s recent self-actualization, but it still doesn’t change the fact that her band sounds like a second-string, Americanized Manic Street Preachers at best.

Perfume Genius - Too Bright: A not-bad Art Garfunkel solo record.

Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2: I’ve never been much of a Killer Mike fan, and I seem to be the only one. I first heard him on the great Outkast track from 2001, “The Whole World,” and I remember thinking he did nothing but dumb the song down. I never cared about El-P either, but again, a lot of other people would disagree with me. Some critics put this record as their number one. Number ones on best-albums-of-the-year lists are always politically safe picks: records that are usually pretty good, or least records that people will have a hard time saying are bad. Everyone knows that the number two spot on a list is usually the writer’s real number one.

(Almost) Anything Nominated for a Grammy: See my previous post. Wow, what a compelling list of reasons to forever ignore music. Some of the aforementioned artists up above would be included in this category as well as Sia, Meghan Trainor, etc.

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