Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 in Music: More Top Ten and the Inadvertent Individualism of Grimes

Continuing the Author’s purposely disordered summary of the ten least worst albums he heard come out of 2015, which also happened to be the year in which he courageously started identifying hipstelf as hipstgender.  Pound Sign Dumb Wins.  For part one of hipst countdown and the other sections of this year-end recap, links have been helpfully appended at the bottom.

BØRNSDopamine –

Borns with a slashy thingy through the O isn’t the most original dude to leave a mark on indie pop this decade; he is basically aping Lorde’s singing and production style while swapping out the pessimistic teenage brooding for sappy love lyrics (“She’s sweet like candy in my veins.”  “Baby, baby, baby, baby... I’m thirsty for your ecstasy / so open up your heavenly gates.”) and more uptempo electronic beats, which people have gravitated to in the absence of any new Lorde LPs on the horizon.  While I want to knock him for veering too close to an innovative artist I’ve enjoyed much more for slightly longer, he’s still a decent, barely male substitute I have no difficulty recommending to Lorde, Glass Animals, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, or maybe even Kanye fans until the inevitable day he gets discovered by distributors and passes into the overrated club.

I do have some problems with Dopamine that have yet to be addressed.  First of all, when I said I’d recommend this to Taylor Swift and Lorde fans, I meant I’d recommend portions of it to people who want to hear almost exactly the same thing as portions of a Taylor Swift or Lorde album.  Take American Money, for example, which is an aggravatingly familiar copycat of Wildest Dreams, I Know Places, and Glory and Gore all in one. Maybe this is more indicative of the interchangeability of Taylor Swift’s melodies than anything, but it still bumps me how unoriginal this tune is.  Secondly, why did he take out one of the more fun songs from his EP (Seeing Stars) and replace it with some stinkers like Dopamine and Fool?  Thirdly, why is he staring at a naked girl on the hideous cover picture?  Is this supposed to indicate that he’s a big boy or a serious, grown-up artist now or something?  I give up, like I can’t even.  I’m just going to listen to the pools song or Dug My Heart again and forget the rest of this album’s nonsense happened.

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, & Sometimes I Just Sit

If Lou Reed was still alive and kicking but in a woman’s body, he would probably be making music like Courtney Barnett’s.  Barnett has a knack for grafting humorous lyrics and noisy guitar tracks that recall the best of The Velvet Underground’s regrettably short discography.  Sometimes she gets a little carried away in the clatter and the album becomes too brash for its own good.  Pedestrian At Best happens to be the most popular and most annoying single on the record simultaneously.  Just as Heroin, Venus in Furs, and All Tomorrow’s Parties were among the longer and finer cuts off of Velvet Underground & Nico, the better songs on I Sit Blah Blah Blah are those moderately paced enough to escalate to a point where the grandeur and clamor have been fully earned (Small Poppies, Depreston).  Anyway, even the songs that don’t make much of an impression musically still succeed in stringing the listener along with clever and unorthodox lyrics.  “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables / And I must admit that I was a little skeptical, at first / A little pesticide can't hurt,” she muses on Dead Fox.  I should also note that the gayness level of this album is relatively high on the lyrical side of the equation, somewhere between Coldplay and Macklemore on the spectrum of heteronormatism, but I don’t like it strictly on account of that. It’s just good rock and roll.  Plus, that’d be pretty gay.  

Blur, The Magic Whip –

If you don’t know who Blur are, they’ve been around for quite some time, but you can excuse your own ignorance in this case seeing as how they took a 12-year break between The Magic Whip and their last venture Think Tank, which was perfection.  Blur are comprised of Gorillaz’s real-life founder Damon Albarn, who has brainstormed three additional bands on the side, insane guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree.  The British band certainly has better albums under their belt than The Magic Whip, but their latest sticks within their traditional style of not having a style that carries over from each album to the next.  As the neon-lit cover might suggest, there are some video gamey, Nintendo-like loops speckled throughout, and I’d say the album as a whole has a poppier, more funky sound than past Blur projects, which depended more on Coxon’s aggressive guitar work.  It doesn’t veer as closely to the Gorillaz aesthetic as Think Tank did, but it’s still a good crossover point for Gorillaz fans to acquaint themselves with the rest of Albarn’s astonishing volume of composition.  As always, Albarn’s buttery, precise voice is a reassuring companion in what can be an off-putting, eccentric musical wilderness.

Elle King, Love Stuff

If you listen to the radio or go out in public, you’ve probably heard the lead single from Elle King’s debut album Love Stuff, and you might just even hate it by this point.  It’s still bad-a.  The surprisingly gifted daughter of Rob Schneider first entered the music scene in 2012, with an EP that included both the bluesy Playing For Keeps and a frankly awesome live cover of the dirtiest song ever written, My Neck, My Back. Her first LP scales back the grime and sexy stuff to a radio-friendly proportion of innuendo (“They always want to come, but they never want to leave.”), but it retains a lyrical maturity and credibility that evades a lot of alternative rock releases.  Even saying nothing of Elle’s unique and powerful voice, the music represented here features a wide range of influences, from rock to bluegrass to R&B to actually bearable country, especially on later songs like Make You Smile.  Contrariwise, Under The Influence sounds like the James Bond theme that never was, and would have made a much better choice for opening Spectre than freaking Sam Smith, while the gloomy folk rocker Ain’t Gonna Drown with its dramatic aesthetics could have been pulled straight from True Detective, season one of course, because the second totally messed it up.  The album’s not without its weaknesses:  Kocaine Karolina rips off Bon Iver’s Skinny Love almost chord for chord and I find America’s Sweetheart rather irritating and trite.  For the originality and catchiness of her album, though, Elle King more than earns a spot on George Stefano Pallas’ still relevant 10 Mean Old Things To Watch list.

Grimes, Art Angels –

Up until this entry, I feel I’ve taken careful pains to avoid coming across as a mindless, undiscriminating sheep a la others in the hipstgender community, but I’ll probably be dispensing with all that discretion hereon out.  To listen to Grimes for the first time (or maybe second or third, all variables not being equal) is to experience an epiphany, one that hits you like a brick and a stolen kiss at once; in that moment you will realize just how shallow and bland and lame the rest of the music you’ve been indulging really is, but you will also see the reason for music’s being, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause, and it will incapacitate you with joy.  Going straight through Art Angels from beginning to end with headphones or the loudest home theater setup you can manage short of upsetting the neighbors is positively euphoric, there being not a single stumbling block in the 50-minute endeavor aside from maybe the finisher Butterfly, which sounds a tad generic after everything else until the guitar kicks in at the third minute.  This is an astonishing collection of music, one in which each unit not only works on its own but works in conjunction with the rest of a well kept machine, where all the songs draw inspiration from some different source yet masterfully adapt it to the central vision of a brilliant mind who knows exactly what she’s doing and how to do it.

How much grander does this feat appear when one recognizes that Art Angels was written, sung, played, and produced by one person who was working, for all intents and purposes, in creative isolation; who then conceived of, edited, colored, and directed all the music videos accompanying the lead singles, handing only cinematography duties over to her brother; who crafted not only 13 perfect songs but verily the 13 most enthralling and blissful songs of the year; who accomplished all of this and more without the interference of record label forces or collaborators trying to coerce a familiar, broadly marketable and “popular” sound?  It’s kind of a shame that Claire Boucher is such a Canadian eco-leftist in her private life, because she’s arguably created the quasi-Randian, individualist record of our times.  Some of her older fans have greeted this fourth LP’s “poppier” tone with cynicism and nostalgia for her stranger, dreamier landmark Visions, but Art Angels essentially does to pop music what Sandman did to comic books, what Myst did to 1st-person adventure games, or what Descent Into Hell did to fantasy novels, taking something widely celebrated and pushing it so far into the realm of uncorrupted, inexplicable sub-creation it sheds whatever made it knowable and archetypal – whatever made it popular – in the first place.

Those who admire Grimes admire her music intensely, but they know they’ll always be a small minority of the population, and I doubt the wiser of them would have it any other way.  If Grimes had made the professional connections and executive compromises necessary to produce a true and proper pop album that could gain traction in the mainstream market, Art Angels would be ruined.  The more people Grimes could theoretically have piled onto this project, the more the opportunities would have emerged for someone to neuter a once expressive, interesting piece of art into something soulless, safe, and dull.  Look at the sobering artistic nosedive that Maroon 5 have taken over their career, from the entirely self-written and enduring Songs About Jane, produced by two people, to the vapid dance-pop pablum that’s defined their last three unavoidable records, built by hordes of unassociated co-writers, instrumentalists, programmers, and producers like Sia, Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, Shellback, etc.  Again, what has Gwen Stefani made in her “solo” career that can rival the glory days of No Doubt and Sublime?

We could go on, but for the sake of time I’ll close it here: socialist pushover and millionaire elitist John Green would probably insist that an album of this stature shouldn’t exist without a team of hired editors and helpers – other writers to provide a different perspective, experienced producers to cut back on all the superfluous layers that Grimes naively puts in her initial drafts, maybe even backup vocalists to lessen the load on her of recording dozens of tracks all by herself –, all of them working in concert towards the utilitarian goal of making an album that the group as a whole finds pleasing and market-ready.  I don’t think a group of music industry professionals could have given us Art Angels as it exists today, nor do I think a team of 50-something animators in Activision could have made a better Portal game than the ten developers in Valve who did, nor do I think it’s better to marry multiple spouses than one, nor do I think that diversity and/or inclusion invariably enhance the product of one or a couple people’s imaginations.  I think Art Angels more than proves this point, and I think it proves that Mr. Green is full of stuff.

John Green and his New Castrati associates, posing as proponents of free expression and stronger “artistic” awareness in education (that being awareness of their own commercial dreck, which kids can buy for $15 on paperback at Barnes & Noble or $20 at their local cinema), remind me of a pivotal scene in Miloš Forman and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, in which Emperor Joseph II tells Wolfgang, “There are, in fact, only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of anything… Just cut a few and it’ll be perfect.”  “Which few did you have in mind?” answers Mozart.

Who moves the world?  Is it the John Greens and their YA death porn groomed by editing cosmetologists to pristine bestseller condition, or is it the Grimes, the Mozarts, the Ayn Rands, the Lars Von Triers, the doers, the makers, the shakers, those who write and direct and sing and orchestrate not because society needs to hear them but because they need to do it for themselves, to carry out their own purpose?  History will show.

Fast-travel to other parts:

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