The good, the bad and the unchanged: the 2014 Grammys

I admit I gave up hope for the Grammys last year. After witnessing the most popular music awards show all but shun Frank Ocean (despite ubiquitous critical praise and tremendous commercial success, Channel Orange won a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — a category created for the purpose of giving Ocean the award), and reward — surprise, surprise — the record with the best sales figures (Mumford & Sons‘ Babel), I crossed my arms and stamped my feet and rashly declared the whole ceremony a wash. (It wasn’t; The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach came out all right.)

Granted, my opinion of the show dwindled significantly after Adele won everything two years ago, and when Kanye West’s peerless, hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow failed to earn an Album of the Year nomination. Ergo, wholly embracing my dispositional pessimism and writing off the Grammys as a farcical popularity contest where sales quantity was positively correlated with quality, and artistic merit only mattered in dollars and cents, seemed inevitable. (Again, not true; a number of critical darlings including Ocean, Miguel, Fiona Apple and the aforementioned Keys were recognized last year.)

All that to say I didn’t watch the telecast this year, I didn’t watch it last year either, save for the AotY announcement, but I did read up on the winners and, I have to say, as much as it pains me, there remains some justice in the music world. I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which won Album of the Year, and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant, iconoclastic Same Trailer Different Park, awarded Best Country Album (the trenchant and acerbic “Merry Go Round” was also a winner), topping the heavily-favored Red, to my overwhelming delight. (Despite popular opinion, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. The message of her music is misleading, and her new sound is at best nominally country, but she writes a killer hook and cranks out Top 40 hits, one after another, like a Gatling gun.)

Moreover, “Get Lucky” won a bevy of awards, Record of the Year among them, and was performed live to great success by Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams,  Stevie Wonder and, most surprisingly, the imitation robots themselves. (OK, I watched the performance, but on YouTube, ex post facto.) And Vampire Weekend snagged a gilded gramophone, Best Alternative Music Album, for Modern Vampires of the City. A real awards-show coup, right? Critical acclaim still means something! There’s hope yet for the Grammys! Hoorah!

Well, not so fast.

That Jay-Z (Or is it “Jay Z“?) won anything (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) for a song off the phoned-in drivel titled Magna Carta Holy Grail borders on sinful, and Ben Haggerty’s sweep of the remaining rap awards, for his gay-is-OK anthem “Same Love” and The Heist (with Ryan Lewis), somehow trumping Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, feels to me like political posturing and message mongering from the industry that blew their chance at it last year. (Frank Ocean famously announced that the inspiration for Channel Orange came from his romantic entanglements with another man.) Though, if that is the case, at least Macklemore’s ideology and this quasi-endorsement of it share a shameless heavy-handedness. So they’re honest about their myopia.

And Imagine Dragons’ Best Rock Performance win, for “Radioactive,” is baffling to say the least, mostly because the song has more in common with EDM than rock (Think maybe the song’s popularity bolstered its chances?), but I suppose it was silly of me to carry a torch for Queens of the Stone Age, who as yet have not won a single Grammy award. (Seriously though, …Like Clockwork kicked major tuchus.)

Disappointment and confusion aside (“Holy Grail,” really?), I didn’t turn away from 2014’s list of winners with disgust and indignation — though I will never forgive nor forget the snubbing of Frank Ocean — which I consider a major step forward for someone like me, whose baseline temperament, especially regarding the Grammys, hovers near contempt. And, in a way, the list made me feel validated. Some of the albums I adored received their due recognition and admiration, and I’ll be the first to tell you there’s little else I enjoy more than being right.

Which rightly begs the question, have I changed my mind about the Grammys? Has my faith been restored, my skepticism vanquished?

Well, there’s always next year.

Art Imitating Life

They're ba-ack.

They’re ba-ack.

Album review:

The goal of any artist — be he (or she) an actor, a musician, a painter or a writer — is to push creative boundaries. Not simply to recreate, but to redefine; to re-imagine. And innate within that desire lies an eagerness to take risks — to discover what doesn’t work in order to reveal what does.

Unfortunately for Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Chritso, a lot of those missteps showed up on Human After All (2005), the French duo’s third and, until about two months ago, most recent studio LP. Though not entirely without its shining moments (see: “Robot Rock” and “Technologic“), HAA was widely regarded as a smudge on Daft Punk’s otherwise-stainless oeuvre, which most notably includes their turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece Discovery (2001).

Long story short: we’ve been waiting eight years to hear from the perpetually-helmeted pair again. Waiting to find out if they had anything new to offer the EDM zeitgeist sweeping through contemporary pop music — a sound they practically invented. Searching for any signs of rust or exhaustion. Waiting, for eight long years.

And after a roll-out promotional campaign that can only be described as the longest, marketing, red carpet runner in recent history, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo broke their silence and presented Random Access Memories to the listening public on May, 17 2013. Not a moment too late.

If HAA was largely a miscalculated effort, then RAM is a flat-out reclamation of their je ne sais quoi — an emphatic reinstatement of their relevance and a spectacular success.

How, you say? By eschewing the computer-generated sound of their imitators (those basement-dwelling mouth-breathers who guzzle Mountain Dew by the liter and use their MacBooks to churn out more of the derivative drivel that “Top 40” radio stations play on a loop) for live instrumentation. Daft Punk successfully reinvented their sound by embracing the music that inspired them to play, and it’s these aural arrangements that make RAM as much a tribute to the past as it is a glimpse into the future.

The album is saturated with the funky disco grooves and the modular synthesizers reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s. And, as usual, the vocals are consistently — though not entirely — mechanized with the help of a vocoder. What’s more, the collaborator’s lineup reads like a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee list. There are some old-school heavyweights like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers,  and modern hit-makers, namely Julian Casablancas and Pharrell Williams, and every combination of the two pays off.

“Give Life Back to Music,” the first hype-busting track on Random, repetitiously declares the record’s creed (“Let the music of your life/Give life back to music”) — here, a more literal translation of Aristotle’s mimesis — to a crackling rhythm from Rodgers that’s so smooth it glides.

Four songs later, Casablancas shows up on “Instant Crush” to ponder the peaks and valleys of young love and explore the meaning of friendship. Miraculously, his signature, listless vocal delivery transforms into something sweet and even mournful when filtered through an encoder.

But it’s Williams (Pharrell, that is) who fortifies the nucleus of the album. His first feature, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” contains one of RAM‘s most infectious hooks, buoyed again by the breezy strokes of Rodgers’ guitar and some crescendo-ed backing vocals. And then of course there’s song-of-the-summer shoe-in “Get Lucky” — the other dance floor-flooder.  This is premium-grade Daft: pure hip-shaking funk, with a bass line so fat it’s got its own gravitational pull and a semi-computerized bridge that effortlessly evokes “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”

If you’re aching for some technological mastery, pick up some noise-cancelling headphones and look no further than “Giorgio by Moroder,” which contains an amalgamation of production techniques that amount to a sonic history of the past 40 years, as well a brief (and somewhat self-indulgent) autobiography from the eponymous narrator.

It all coalesces into one helluva of a ride, and it makes you wonder if, perhaps, Human After All was a necessary album; a chance for Bangalter and de Homem-Christo to excise all the bad mojo bouncing around in their tin-covered heads. Because it sure feels like it. Random Access Memories has all the components of a great Daft Punk album. It’s fun, whimsical, innovative and epidemically catchy and one playthrough will not be enough.

After “Contact” — a six-minute ode to a shuttle launch — concludes the album, you’ll be donning a robotic helmet of your own while thumbing the repeat button and saying, More, s’il vous plaît!

Album score: 9.2/10

Key tracks: “Give Life Back to Music,” “Instant Crush,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Get Lucky”

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