I once said some disparaging things about the Grammy Awards on this site, but while I still think the concept of pitting all forms of music against each other in competition is the most ridiculous of any merit ceremony, I also cannot deny that the Grammys have their place in capturing the diversity and the zeitgeist of American taste, no more so than in the Album of the Year category, in which rock and pop meet blues, country, jazz, classical, and soundtracks on equal terms, and after a somewhat reactionary first decade (three awards, two definitely deserved for Frank Sinatra, but also Vaughan “JFK” Meader and GLEN CAMPBELL (winning over RICHARD HARRIS) taking home honors), the category more or less hit its stride and may, more than the Oscars, give us a reflection of the country’s mood.
A look back at winners reveals Sgt. Pepper, the 70s pop experimentalism and rebellion, a straining for a return to the idealistic 60s, of Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and George Harrison, the slick sheened surfaces of 80s pop by Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, and George Michael, the nostalgic baby-boomer longing for simpler times of Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Generations X and Y grit of Alanis Morrissette and Lauryn Hill, the Bush-Obama era’s earnest romanticism of Adele and Arcade Fire. And the diversity continues, my favorite example being 2007, when Herbie Hancock won for a half-instrumental album of Joni Mitchell covers over the Foo Fighters, Amy Winehouse, Kanye West’s Graduation, and a four-record set from Vince Gill.
It’s far more intriguing than I was willing to credit.
With this in mind, I decided, being the one member of our staff foolhardy enough for the task, to listen to the five 2013 Album of the Year nominees, which are a mix almost as unique as 2007, with two female singer-songwriters, two rappers, one white, one black, and French duo whose songs are almost uncategorizable. I actually wrote about some of this music in my summertime column which I now dub “Andrew With Writer’s Block,” and here is my atonement for that: the waters of our culture in a way that goes beyond books and films.
The Blessed Unrest
I have had four previous associations with Sara Bareilles. My mother enjoys her as a judge on The Sing-Off. My ex-girlfriend liked putting on the chart-topping Kaleidoscope Heart album during afternoons of snuggling (which meant I wasn’t really paying attention to the music). And she recorded “Love Song,” which we should all know and is a worthy number to be unable to escape from—strongly melodic to the point of catchiness, and genuinely witty in a low-key Cole Porter-Noel Coward vein. From this, as well as her duet with Ingrid Michaelson, “Winter Song,” a brilliant modern Christmas tune with one of the cutest music videos ever made, I have long wanted to get better acquainted with her work, and her Album of the Year nod presented a good opportunity.
The Blessed Unrest opens with “Brave,” a song that has gotten stuck in my mind in relation to Microsoft commercials, the way U2’s “Vertigo” will forever be tied to the iPod, and the lyrics are the flat on-the-nose preachiness which we’ll see more of before this piece ends and makes me really despise albums like The Times They Are A-Changin’, but Bareilles and Jack Antonoff (of fun.) come up with one of those rare things, an original powerhouse of a melody that reminds me of nothing else. Why Katy Perry had to immediately make a variation on the melody is beyond me, but it makes for a dynamite opener…
Which the rest of the album completely fails to live up to in a way reminiscent of how disappointing Elton John’s The Diving Board turned out to be earlier this year. Admittedly, Bareilles’s lyrics instantly improve and remain at a high quality, full of clever word choices, imagery, and unfeigned sincerity, with a great running theme of being just past 30, single, and looking, but musically she keeps making terrible choices: too often, her best and catchiest ideas are stuck in the harmony part while the main melodies are weak and unmemorable, as if she felt it might be too “obvious” to stick the hooks up front. In one interview, she described “Cassiopeia” as her favorite song on the album, which makes sense: after a stretch of lightweight or derivative tunes, this one features an original arrangement for droning synths set against her light-as-air piano and vocals, and it works. When she follows this with “1000 Times,” an outstanding song about unrequited love with gorgeous music and brilliant lyrics, sung in a voice on the edge of quavering, one thinks The Blessed Unrest could pull itself up. Unfortunately, in the song’s final minute, Bareilles changes the key and her straining voice in the last chorus tatters the melody. As if to drive home how snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the four remaining songs just sit there doing nothing until the disc closes.
Why this was nominated is beyond my comprehension. It’s not a bad album, but it’s not a good one, and there are no unqualified good songs. The best adjectives to describe it are “lackluster” and “tentative, “almost as if Bareilles is unsure about letting out all of her ideas. She should take her own advice in “Brave” and get more risky the next time around.
The next two albums are the hip-hop ones, and both of them find Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty and Kendrick Lamar having very important messages to share with the world, only they go about it in completely different ways. One works partially, one works brilliantly, and how they do so is worth considering.
I had not been sure why Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis titled their debut The Heist until I heard the opening track “Ten Thousand Hours” (and yes, he does name check Malcolm Gladwell in it), in which Macklemore describes the heist as stealing every moment he could and devoting those moments to mastering his art. It’s clear from the lyrics that Macklemore wants to create a life-affirming, streets-based record, a change from the increasing grandiosity of Jay-Z and the psychodrama of Kanye West—not that those icons are making bad music, the exact opposite, but it’s always refreshing to have a change of course. However, The Heist presents TWO Macklemores who share their message differently, united only by the inventive, funky production and sampling of Lewis.
On the one hand, it’s hard to dislike his Song of the Year nominee “Same Love,” especially Mary Lambert’s beautiful vocals, but the power is in his unequivocal support for gay marriage and not the embarrassing, subtext-free lyrics of his rap, in which he takes great pains to spell out for all of us why prejudice and discrimination are wrong with terribly childish and clunky rhymes. On the other hand, “Thrift Shop” is a message song which works to perfection, the sly anti-consumerism buried in hilarious descriptions of thrift-shop wares worn by our grandparents and good-natured put downs of people trying too hard to be noticed for what they own, set to a swinging sax riff and perhaps the most danceable beat of the year, which itself rides out of the album’s other number-one single, “Can’t Hold Us,” mixing Ray Dalton’s belting with Macklemore’s “carpe diem” enthusiasm.
Whenever Macklemore keeps up the vibe of partying-with-something-on-your-mind, The Heist is a wonderful romp, the last two tracks combining with the hilarious “White Walls,” an ode to driving a serviceable near-clunker which still allows you to get it on with a willing girl in the backseat, and the street-corner philosophy pub-sing-a-long of the closing “Cowboy Boots” among others. But one sense a problem when he starts telling us about his SAT scores and his studying Escher, Haring, and Basquiat (and yes, those are IN THE LYRICS) in “Ten Thousand Hours,” and goes on to put himself down while dispensing nuggets of wisdom in tracks like “Neon Cathedral,” “Starting Over,” and “A Wake,” the most egregious offender. Macklemore in these songs seems to be humbly saying his life’s been full of struggles in a way which suggests you should be listening to him as someone who’s got the secrets to love and happiness the hard way and thus demands your attention and respect, although he’s too nice to ask for your attention and respect. Not even great guest vocals from Allen Stone and Band of Horses can erase the tiny cringing feeling of these songs.
The Heist ultimately works best when Macklemore and Lewis are having fun, and their ideas come across all the better and more palatable. Whenever the rapper tries to paint himself as a role model, the album sputters, but the highs outnumber the lows.
good kid, m.A.A.d. city (A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar)
good kid, m.A.A.d. city sounds like a rap version of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in that Kendrick Lamar, only 26, waxes poetic in an unaffected voice, moving in its starkness, over little more than percussion and a low hum of bass and synthesizer. Samples are spare, the most extensive being the long Janet Jackson backbeats on his duet with Drake, “Poetic Justice,” and the overall mood is kept low-key, all the better for one to pay attention to Lamar’s words. And one needs to keep up; in the tradition of so many from his other duet partner Dr. Dre to Van Dyke Parks, Lamar tells a story, a non-linear story at that (and thanks to Ryan Basill for pointing out its intricacies), about growing up in Compton, a locale I never set foot in during my time in Los Angeles but did drive through, enough to feel the charges and burning and power of the city. This atmosphere pervades every minute of the running time, the sense that danger, highjinks, sex, mind-alteration are lurking around every corner, and the possibility of death is never far away. It’s a mood I’ve never heard captured quite so well.
It also helps that Lamar is a wordsmith of the highest quality. His rhymes never sound forced, and his long, complex sentences, as dense as his narrative, are reminiscent of Henry James, building one detail on another until we can see and feel the places, the people, the bottles and stolen goods, all in living color and three dimensions in front of us. Of course, James and most of the writers who followed in his wake were not telling a story like this, although Lamar does share their need to capture a defining moment in life: in this case, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a tale of a teenager whose casual exploits with his friends, acquiring alcohol and breaking into near-abandoned homes just to have something to do (in a fine recapturing of the aimless malaise of adolescence) suddenly shifts when his hook-up with a local beauty becomes part of the ongoing gang violence, and he determines to find a way out. The mix of comic, dramatic, secular, spiritual, with a triumphant finish, is best listened to as a single 68-minute-long song, a concept helped by the musical continuity and Lamar’s firm foundation, working on variations in arrangement and vocal quality like the tonal shifts in a symphony.
The time needed to experience good kid, m.A.A.d. city is more than worth it, and it’s hard to think of it as individual songs, but there are some moments to pick out. My personal favorite is “Money Trees,” a perfect summing up of the album’s dualities and contradictions searching for a resolution, set to a pounding, danceable beat with the words tripping over each other. The title tracks “good kid” and “m.A.A.d. city,” placed back to back, feature some of Lamar’s most impassioned rapping over the most ornate arrangements, while “Swimming Pools” boasts a fantastic hook and, despite some of the simplest lyrics, is also one of the densest songs, mixing the chorus’s witty imagery of drinking a pool full of alcohol with the planning of a shooting, an event whose aftermath is chronicled in the 12-minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” with jazzy guitar, piano, and a string choir providing the backdrop for Lamar to impersonate the dead, their families, those who love Compton and those who dream of something better, and finding the need at last to get out. This is described in the closing, uplifting “Real” and “Compton,” songs about being comfortable in your own skin and thriving in love and faith. And the journey has been so well described that when Lamar describes his need to tell this story to the world, it doesn’t feel like Macklemore’s self-congratulation but a sacred duty.
(Two last notes…the dialogue between songs veers between prayers, the language of contrition and baptism, and family life, highlighted by Lamar’s father’s craving for Domino’s Pizza. And despite the title, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a song about self-reflection which is as philosophical as hip-hop’s ever been.)
Random Access Memories
Apart from “Get Lucky,” I’d only heard the newest musical venture of Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, aka Daft Punk, on a warm summer Belmont Harbor evening when it was used to test the speakers before It Happened One Night, and I remember it filling the air around us with delightful feelings of nostalgia, or heightening what nostalgia there was.
As it turns out, Random Access Memories is the album that looks back to the past more than any other this year. Daft Punk wanted to pay tribute to the figures who inspired them, so instead of modern synthesizer sounds and programmed instruments, the keyboards are the retro synthesizer and acoustic piano of the 1970s and 80s, the bass, drums, and guitar (supplied by Nathan East, Omar Hakim, and NILE RODGERS among others) are live, orchestral samples weave in and out, and the grooves are slick, shiny, and made for the dance floor. But it isn’t straight disco: it’s more a bizarre mixture of Giorgio Moroder, Chic, and the most successful yacht rock bands playing arrangements by Steely Dan with Fleetwood Mac’s rhythm section and special guests from the Buggles, Human League, and other New Wave acts, a swirling postmodern recombination of sounds cut up and pasted together and full of exuberance, from the great opener “Give Life Back to Music” with its relentless 4/4 time and finger-popping bassline to the final “Contact” before it dissolves into noise, which sounds like 8-bit chamber music.
I will definitely admit to feeling underwhelmed by parts of Random Access Memories. Initially exciting, the groove and aura Daft Punk establish begins to wear thin by the end as the same keyboard sounds and rhythms reappear, and reappear, and reappear again. And while I can easily forgive the pedestrian lyrics on most songs since this is not the point of the album (compared to Bareilles and Lamar’s paramount importance in lyrics interacting with music), it is awfully hard to take the vocoder vocals of the duo themselves. After “Give Life Back to Music,” the trick wears thin and the processed voice boxes fill one with dread.
The guest vocalists on the album are what make it successful and fill it with delights, allowing Homem-Christo and Bangalter to concentrate on their keyboard runs. Moroder himself takes center stage on the delightful “Giorgio by Moroder,” which begins with a crushing disco beat and switches to symphonic textures and a bass-drum duet and back while Moroder narrates his early experiences in the music scene. Julian Casablancas gives a classic feel to “Instant Crush,” a tune as lightweight but perfectly produced as anything by the Doobie Brothers or Little River Band. Panda Bear from Animal Collective has fun on “Doin’ it Right.” We’ve all heard, and thrilled to, “Get Lucky,” but Pharrell Williams is equally terrific in “Lose Yourself to Dance” with its stinging guitar; a double-A side of those would have been the single of the year, maybe the decade. The other two vocalists join Pharrell in top honors and also contribute the two moments when emotions beyond grooving on the floor pop through. Todd Edwards is perfect on the pure pop confection “Fragments of Time,” a celebration of the times music shapes our existence. And in one of the more bizarre but successful collaborations in modern pop history, Daft Punk makes the centerpiece of the record, placed in between Pharrell’s two cuts, the song which ties together all their nostalgic memories, “Touch,” a Broadway-esque but driving piece about experience, passion, and striving for fulfillment featuring lyrics and vocals by Paul Williams, in what all three men intended to be an homage to Phantom of the Paradise. Williams’s gentle, twangy croon somehow fits perfectly with the electric world of Daft Punk and makes the song sound like the great outtake from Phantom we’re kicking ourselves didn’t make the final cut—enough to dream about an entire album alternating Pharrell and Paul on lead.
Random Access Memories is comparatively lightweight, but done with such fun and heartfelt sense of tribute…and besides, the bands Daft Punk revere, except for Steely Dan, were pure hit-making machines. Why not have a hit-making album just like theirs now?
In the very first article I wrote for this site, I expressed the opinion that Taylor Swift was one of the best living pop songwriters, but I worried that she might get stuck in Nashville’s hit machine and never progress or change her sound. Well damn was I wrong. On her fourth album, Red, that inspired one of the only stadium tours in America, Swift does change and grow. It’s clear from the opening “State of Grace,” with pulsing guitars resonating into the ether, dance music drums, and piano-synthesizer underpinnings. Whatever country Swift still had was eradicated, replaced by intelligent pop-rock in the great mainstream tradition. And yes, I say intelligent, for with maturity, Swift has finally begun shedding the teenage girl fantasies and heartbreaks of “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” to deliver on the promise of “Back to December” and “Safe and Sound.”
The title track alone was enough to get me excited, a rocker which could have been written by Chrissie Hynde with its poetic language of simile and metaphor that isn’t easily obvious at first, and the change becomes evident in the next few songs, all about falling into and out of love, all showcasing Swift’s impeccable melodic sense but now recognizing the realistic difficulties essential to worthwhile love (“Treacherous” with its perfect “two headlights” bridge) and lamenting the end of relationships with a regret touched by not tears-on-my-pillow sap but wisdom and recognition. (“All Too Well” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”—which, incidentally, has a giant video directed by the admirable Anthony Mandler in which he basically puts Swift through the same paces Lana Del Rey came up with for their “Ride” video. Swift’s is, at six minutes, four shorter than “Ride,” but it still mixes Leone-style shots of the heroine in the west, saturated and sexually-charged shots of her with very handsome men, and pretentious opening and closing narration that makes me laugh.) This theme continues on “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” a lovely acoustic ballad which recaptures the stripped-down “Safe and Sound” atmosphere.
“I Knew You Were Trouble” his #2 and is a damn sight better than the #1 “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a song that has hooks galore but also boasts lyrics which…might be serious? Might be a giant put-on? Might be appealing to the lowest common denominator? (Its schizophrenic follow-up, “Stay Stay Stay,” also combines terrific hooks with much wittier lyrics.) Thankfully the third-biggest single, “22,” is a total reversal of her last age-number song, the slut-shaming “Fifteen.” The lyrics to “22” see Swift poking fun at herself, celebrating freedom, and implying she’ll sleep with this guy she met at the club if the situation arises and why not? In her career, this is refreshing.
What’s equally refreshing is that Red’s quality maintains the standard set by the beginning all the way to the end. She sings two duets, “The Last Time” with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol (the depressing break-up one) and “Everything Has Changed” with Ed Sheeran (the joyful falling-in-love one), and on both songs she lets her voice blend with her partner to set moods together, with no trace of ego. (Incidentally, “Everything Has Changed” is my favorite song on the record, getting the moment when you realize after a few months that you’re really in love exactly right, and Swift and Sheeran’s harmonies are sterling.) The closing “Begin Again” is a quiet little surprise, a great 70s-style folk-rock tune which ends things on a highly optimistic note. But the big surprise is “The Lucky One,” a strong, memorable song which sees Swift humbly paying tribute to Joni Mitchell and wishing that she could one day have what the greatest female songwriter of the past fifty years has.
My overall praise for this album doesn’t mean it is perfect. It’s not up to the ranks of Mitchell’s best, for one…it’s a bit too long when it doesn’t have to be, and the egregious offenders see Swift clinging to some of her more youthful tendencies. But an edited down version of it WOULD be reminiscent of, dare I say it, Tapestry and the James Taylor records she references in “Begin Again:” serious pop music that no one should hate themselves for listening to, and crammed with great melodies the way the best pop should be.
If I could split a vote between Swift and Lamar, I would. But I can’t. I’m not a card-carrying member of anything the way Travis is.