In a year during which my consumption of live music declined considerably I found myself more attuned to the peculiar decisions that musicians make on their recordings. Logistics were the main reason for my not attending as many shows as I used to, but there was the aging thing, too. Though I still appreciate a good performance, my capacity for distraction has grown, especially when trying to get into an act I may not be that familiar with—and I don’t even own a smart phone! As I mentioned in this space last year, much of my listening has transferred over to the space between my ears rather than outside of them. During my sunset-evening walks through the fields of Inzai I tend to focus more on my iPod, and at least two of the albums on the following list rose considerably in my estimation thanks to this ambulatory auditing mode and probably wouldn’t have made as much of an impression if I had only listened to them on speakers in my office, which comes with its own distractions. As far as my number one pick goes, much of the enthusiasm I developed for the album was second-hand. When I received the advance copy in the mail, Masako snatched it up immediately, having been a stone P!nk fan ever since Missundaztood, and during her nightly teeth-brushing ritual she’d be hopping up and down in front of the mirror, earbuds secured for the ride, yelling out all the lyrics she could understand. (Based on the vociferousness of the delivery, her favorite couplet was “I want to hug you/I want to wrap my hands around your neck,” which I’d like to think explains the resilience of our marriage) I liked the album just fine, but M’s enthusiasm was contagious if only because she’s normally rather blase about this sort of Western pop music. It’s P!nk’s fundamentally spunky attitude that appeals to her sense of independence, and while I think P!nk is much more intelligent than she’s given credit for, that appeal is almost anti-intellectual. Rebelliousness can be a con, especially when it comes to entertainment, but M’s reaction to the record made me listen more carefully to the choices I mentioned above because I knew how hard-won M’s own personal independence has been. Under such scrutiny, the record just became irresistible.
1. The Truth About Love, P!nk (RCA/Sony)
Everyone has her own truth when it comes to love, but after splitting up and reconciling with her husband, and then producing a baby to seal the deal, Alecia Moore has a better reason to explain hers, and she makes the most of it: A roller coaster pop ride whose emotional pronouncements you don’t have to buy to appreciate, but it’s a lot more fun if you do.
2. Night and Day, Andre Williams & the Sadies (Yep Roc)
Despite what he may have you believe, Andre Williams is as much of an O.G. as Ice Cube, but at 75 he can at least lay claim to the “original” part. Like Cube he makes nastiness a turn-on through the conviction of his blues-based bullshit, which is so weird as to be charming. Whether bailing his partner out of jail, acquisitioning a friend’s old lady, or deriding Mississippi, he’s got your attention.
3. En Yay Sah, Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang (Luaka Bop)
Lately there’s been some good crossover stuff by African artists playing with non-African musicians, but this session by Sierra Leone singer Janka Nabay and a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters offers the best of two unique worlds. Rather than adapt to Nabay’s chaotic, insistent grooves wholesale, the instrumentalists compel him to meet them halfway, and the tension never lets up.
4. True, Solange (Terrible)
Having dropped out of major label boarding school, Beyonce’s little sister appropriates the electro-indie aesthetic that better reflects her uncompromising musical sensibility on a mini-album of churchless soul. Pure-toned, romantically yielding, tuneful to a fault, she plays Diana Ross to her own Supremes in a club at the end of a short but eventful night, in love but wishing for something better.
5. Older Than My Old Man Now, Loudon Wainwright III (2nd Story Sound)
Loud-O has been working the aging thing for entertainment value since he started counting ear hairs on stage in 1993, and while he still rakes himself over the coals for his sins, looming mortality has sharpened his masochism. He enumerates his meds, waxes epistemological over the International Date Line, and musically exploits friends and family, including the old man and the ex-wife who went before him.
6. Channel Orange, Frank Ocean (Def Jam/Universal)
Fresh without being particularly original, Frank Ocean’s year-definer is all about the passion, which sounds earned in ways that most mainstream R&B isn’t. Love is the (bad) religion, clouding perception and wreaking havoc on common sense, so he’s painstakingly taught himself how to convert it into music before it gets polluted by reason. Orange is the color of rapture.
7. Street Halo/Kindred, Burial (Hyperdub/Beat)
The muffled, squelched beats; the pauses; the processed, typically female vocals; the strategically positioned hiss and crackle. What other producer-artist is so immediately identifiable just by his preferred textures? Which says nothing about melodic ideas that are melancholy without being sentimental, hopeful without being bright, emerging from a place so deep they must be organic.
8. Cancer 4 Cure, El-P (Fat Possum/Hostess)
As an MC, the currently-on-hiatus CEO of Def Jux isn’t famous for his hip-hop flow, but his crisp matter-of-fact tone is perfect for the news, especially when it’s about war-all-the-time. The dense dystopian rock beats conjure up an environment where constant surveillance is the norm and torture an acceptable method of “defense.” He doesn’t mean for you to give in to paranoia, only to acknowledge its effects.
9. Cut the World, Antony and the Johnsons (Secretly Canadian/P-Vine)
Antony Hegarty’s songs are vivified in new ways on this live album, recorded in Copenhagen with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. The material gains in beauty what it loses in emotional directness, but that isn’t a problem since Antony’s voice is already a theatrical instrument. He makes more sense in a venue that can absorb his histrionics. Besides, he was made for strings.
10. The Money Store, Death Grips (Epic/Sony)
As confrontational as a subway drunk and musically out there as Eye Yamataka, this California trio still nags at the pleasure center, with Stefan Burnett’s anguished raps counterpointing Zach Hill’s complex drumming and Andy Morin’s aggressive keyboards. It’s nice of them to include Burnett’s lyrics in the CD booklet and on their website, but to appreciate the band you have to listen closely to determine just what it is they’re so pissed about. Everything, apparently.
Celebration Rock, Japandroids (Yoshimoto): Successfully solves the problem of inhabiting the classic idealism of rock without being slavishly reverent toward forebears. Visceral in the best sense.
Perfectly Imperfect, Elle Varner (RCA/Sony): Most R&B singers won’t cop to anything but the thrill of sexual abandon, but Varner also admits to the attendant emotional confusions with a vocal style that can barely contain itself.
Hospitality (Merge/Hostess): Amber Papini can write a winsome rock ditty about English literature or that special feeling you get when you slip off campus for the weekend because college seems to be the only thing she knows. She’s still too young to be nostalgic about it, but a lot of us aren’t.
Sing the Delta, Iris DeMent (Flariella): The drawl is thicker, which doesn’t make her gospel-inflected country songs any less effective, only a bit cornier. The muscular piano playing, however, is what gets you to God, even if she’s as uncertain about Him as ever.
Sorry to Bother You, The Coup (Anti-): Old school hip-hop in the sense that the head follows where the ass leads, and Boots Riley is uncompromising in his dedication to steering you toward the lefty light. I’m already there, so the funky beats are just gravy.