Music roundup: A beginner’s guide

The game-changers, fist-pumpers, claptrappers and the Johns

As we countdown to the annual Pazz & Jop poll, and because I have no other way of publishing this list, I present the inaugural year-end rundown of music worthy (and not so) of your attention and consumption. Of course I’m not a professional critic, which means I’m not sent advance copies of albums, which means my record selection is generally limited to what’s popular or what I’m interested in or — sometimes —  what my friends recommend. That, in turn, implies I’m likely to miss at least one sleeper sensation. But don’t reach for your pitchforks or torches just yet; remember when I said this was my first. Because, like any truly great album, I’m bound to get better the next time through.

(** Albums are listed in no particular order **)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (RCA)
Like a lout who ogles himself at the gym, this Long Play (at 74 minutes) demands more patience than it deserves. Bloated song structure, extended codas and libertine lyrics abound; and for all the sonic muscle producer Timbaland flexes in Part 2’s protracted cuts, he – and Mr. Timberlake – now share the hubris of any fitness-center peacock: the person most impressed by the show is the one in the mirror. (Album score: 5/10)

The Wonder Years The Greatest Generation (Hopeless)
Billed as the third in a trilogy of albums about growing up, this one doesn’t charm so much as it enthralls; the songs layered with existential crisis (“the devil’s got a rifle on my front porch/with me in his sights/ he knows I came looking for a fight”), coming-of-age angst (“I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times”) and a yearning for greatness (“I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given”). So they got the emotion, how about the sound? Protean pop-punk at its finest: forceful mid-tempo tracks, resonant ballads and standby turn-of-the-millennium melodies with some torque. You could say it’s an LP with courage, brains and a heart. That’d be the trifecta then, which makes sense because good things are supposed to come in threes; except a trio of listens won’t be enough. (9.5/10)

Parquet Courts Light Up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
Give their hipster cred a serious boost for releasing a debut on cassette, but dock twice as many points for stonewalling commercial (and popular) viability in the process. This time round, the brothers Savage and Co. minded their pocketbooks and got a proper release. Good thing, too, because theirs is a sound lacking in the mainstream (well, since the Japandroids anyway). Maybe this Brooklyn-based quartet plays a little loose with pre-hyphen genre modifiers, but the music’s rock all the same, sometimes post-punk, garage, even stoner. Besides, malleability is the hallmark of a craft mastered; and this lot oozes virtuosity whether contemplating mortality – with Ramones-esque urgency – or battling the munchies. (8.5/10)

Daft Punk Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The premise: a record from two faux robots that never lost their kid-like fascination with music, or their love for the music that fascinated them as kids. The players: Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, naturally; additional highlights include Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas (among others). The product: an alacritous and anthropogenic soundscape; the amalgamation of disco, funk and house, breezy guitars and bouncy synths and buoyant hooks. The verdict: lubricate your hips, the dance floor beckons. (9.2/10)

The Front Bottoms Talon of the Hawk (Bar/None)
You know that friend on Facebook who overshares? The guy who cultivates space age cyrstals? Yep, that’s Brian Sella. He makes you wonder if he can’t process tragedy (or happiness) without a microphone, digital or otherwise. And, of course, some lines could use a proofreader; “I feel f***ed, but in a good way,” for instance. But there’s also, “[This is] for the warning signs I’ve completely ignored/there’s an amount to take, reasons to take more,” and “Tonight I’m the only one left, and I’m bettin’ it’s a fact that you will never learn.” And then there’s the music, which seems to obey exactly one rule of pop: four minutes or less. The sound is a fusion of power pop and rock (more rock), and Sella’s voice is always on the verge of cracking. But despite his talking without thinking (just feeling), you like him because unmitigated honesty’s rare these days. (8.5/10)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience (RCA)
The working title must’ve been The Honeymoon Metaphors. In any case indulge me an apropos simile. The songs are like ingredients in a love potion: some you expect (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), some you don’t (“Let the Groove Get In”) and each has a distinct flavor (i.e., bizarre musical influence); ingested together they make for a potent concoction. But every subsequent gulp (listen) has the potential to introduce a new fixation (Favorite Song). Not always a bad thing; this time though it means these tracks have another thing in common with a magician’s philter: most of their powerful effects don’t last. (7/10)

Kanye West Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Recordings)
A Dark Fantasy sequel this ain’t. Call it what you want: polarizing vanity, sales suicide, downright abrasive. I call it boredom, artistic squirming; dissatisfaction with the safety of pop’s status quo, groundbreaking; the anti-pop record from our generation’s most definitive pop superstar. Here, the sonic milieu, aptly inspired by architecture, is as spare and industrial as the lyrics are galling and provocative. (Think: the “Monster” video on acid.) Ergo Yeezus might cost him some bandwagon listeners, but Kanye’s appeal always seems to border enigmatic. That’s how friends of mine can discuss their hatred of his recidivistic tendencies and their love for at least one of his songs in the same breath. Such contradictions typify this release: it’s radio-incompatible and addictive, proto-‘Ye and not, minimalistic and exasperating. In short, what you should expect from a guy who pummels expectations like they disrespected his mother. (9/10)

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
The Girl Who Changed My Mind About Country Music (but not country radio). Here’s why: she largely eschews popular, epicurean lyrical tropes for stories of the recurrent lifestyles of small townsfolk; people who’ve disciplined themselves to settle for second best because personal ambition is, like arriving late to church, for them an unfathomable concept (and an unforgivable sin). Though there’s some lighter, bucolic fare as well. A song about the mobility of “home” and a YOLO anthem with a shoulder-shrugging (“If that’s something you’re into”) endorsement of same-sex relationships — take note, Macklemore — similarly shine. The results – despite some very tangible radio-friendly sensibilities – aver Musgraves to be disenchanted with becoming a pop artist. She’s trying to be something much more interesting: a good one. (9.3/10)

A Day to Remember Common Courtesy (Self-released)
Hey, McKinnon, if the document speaks for itself, why’d you write a song about it? Or, if you had to write the song, why’d it make the album cut? The sun rises, sets, label execs short you on royalties. Haven’t you heard? Living well – not muckraking – is the best revenge. Naming the pre-release tour after the best song on your new album? It’s a start. The existence of that song, maybe the best you’ve ever written? That’s the middle finger you’re searching for. All the broken relationships (record label not withstanding) and the hometown jingoism and the silencing of naysayers, or, better yet, the making converts of ‘em? That’s what I want to hear about because that’s what sells concert tickets. And guess what? Those execs are the naysayers now, and selling well is the better revenge. So right back at it again? Can I get a “f*** yeah”? (8.8/10)

Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork (Matador)
Necessity may boast the longer tenure as mother to invention, but near-death experiences are also a fine source for fecundity. And when an artist, like Josh Homme, who has in reserve enough creative juices to fill a sixth Great Lake, glimpses the Afterlife one can (and should) expect a deluge of lurid imagination. And that’s just the cover art. The music plays out like the Songs for the Deaf sequel that never was: crunchy guitars churning out mammoth riffs; songs both woozy and propulsive, the sound constructed with a mosaic of musical influences and rubber band-ish genre bending. Not to mention reinserting the inimitable Dave Grohl, and reinstating the erstwhile Nick Oliveri, into the famously revolving lineup. Clockwork isn’t Homme’s opus (that’s SFTD) or his swan song (that’s TBD), but it’s his latest classic and Deaf’s proper successor — and it’s about time. (9/10)

Chance the Rapper Acid Rap (Self-released)
The first marvel is the veracity of this line, the last on a prophetic opener: “This your favorite [expletive] album and I ain’t even [expletive] done.” The second is how this kid — and, at 20, he’s still a kid — doesn’t have any label support, Young-Kanye comparisons and all. The rest, if you can convince yourself to take that first track off repeat, equally stuns: an eccentric but not esoteric flow, clever hooks, soul-inspired production as trippy and euphoric as an all-day high and mic-dropping freestyle raps that pile up in greater number than Chance’s myriad personas (a sometimes paranoid dealer, incisive social commentator, love-struck teenager; sometimes all three at once). Here, the sophomore effort, Chance proves more than equal to the task of eclipsing the hype, his own grand self-assessment, “even better than I was the last time, baby,” serving as both the standard and the conclusive evidence. (9.3/10)

Ariana Grande Yours Truly (Republic)
Refreshing as it is, this year enormously, to see a former female child star shirk the customary “clothing optional” attitude, no discussion of Ariana Grande is even half complete without mention of her prodigious vocals; the first time I heard “The Way,” I couldn’t differentiate Grande from Mariah Carey — and, I assure you,  a more favorable comparison does not exist. Similarly noteworthy, courtesy of producers Harmony Samuels and Babyface, is her homage to the staccato synths of ’90’s R&B (another nod to Mariah) and the piano flourishes of ’50’s doo-wop, though both unfortunately tail off towards the end. What remains (and endures) however is a fresh perspective on love as grownup as her iconoclastic modesty, network mandate or otherwise: “I wanna say we’re going steady like its 1954/… so just call me, if you want me/’cause you got me.” Got me, too. (8/10)

Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)
AM, like the latest QotSA record, owes a small measure of its bravura to Josh Homme‘s contribution and endorsement. Credit the rest to artistic maturation. But, also like the latest QotSA record, Homme’s influence isn’t the only one apparent from the opening moments. On “Do I Wanna Know,” the album’s first track, lead single and the only AM song I know to get consistent radio play, the sound is vintage, stoner-rock Queens (tinged with bluesy diversions a la Brothers), chugging out a greasy, slithering melody over a simple, march-worthy drum patter; even the lyrics line up: “the nights were mainly made for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” the narrator laments, aping Dan Auerbach‘s howl. The next 11 tracks exist in that morally ambiguous twilight. The album proper described best in Turner‘s own words: “Mad sounds in your ears/they make you feel alright/they bring you back to life.” (9.1/10)

Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
There are gradations, a friend likes to remind me, where music and creativity collide after a breakthrough album. At the bottom, a great risk that fails. More of what made a band popular takes second place, and, at the pinnacle, a sonic overhaul that yields tremendous results. Fitting then that Vampire Weekend follows just such a progression, minus the misstep. The idiosyncratic indie rock of their self-titled debut propelled the band onto the mainstream, Contra held them there and then we get City, which finds them not unveiling hidden weapons but discovering a brand new arsenal. It sounds like the epitome and the antithesis of pop music, wholly electronic and unflinchingly original. They even take a potshot at the popular lyrical zeitgeist: “Diane (Get it, “dying”?) Young.” And wouldn’t you know it, the gamble pays out. Cheeky bastards. (8.5/10)

Jason Isbell Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
His lyrics (e.g., “we’d burn these joints in effigy/cry about what we used to be”). If not his lyrics then his voice; the twang present but not hyperbolic. If not his voice then his sound, which, on this record, is nominally (“alternative”) country, but not in a Taylor Swift, electrono-pop way. If not his sound then his discursions; there’s carnal love and bacchanalia, but poetry (“home was a dream/ one that I’d never seen/till you came along”)in the former and black humor in the latter, and also loneliness (“what good does knowing do/with no one to show it to?”), death and rehabilitation (“so high the the street girls wouldn’t take my pay/they said ‘come see me on a better day'”), the clarity of hindsight (“all the things she’d suspected/I’d expected her to fear/was the Truth that drew her to me when I landed here”). If none of the above then why bother? (8.8/10)

Guilty Pleasure: Chris Brown, “Fine China

Favorite Obscurity (single): John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts

Favorite Obscurity (album): John WizardsJohn Wizards


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