Poker Face

I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.

The Best Albums of 2016

After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.

  1. ★ – David Bowie

blackstar_front_cover

David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.

Blackstar

Lazarus

I Can’t Give Everything Away

2. Lemonade – Beyonce

Beyonce_-_Lemonade_(Official_Album_Cover)

Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.

Formation

Sorry

Hold Up

3. Hopelessness – Anohni

hopelessness_front_cover

Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.

Drone Bomb Me

Hopelessness

I Don’t Love You Anymore

4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

skeleton_tree_album

This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.

Jesus Alone

Magneto

I Need You

5. This Is Acting – Sia

Thisisacting_albumcover

Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.

Alive

Cheap Thrills

The Greatest

6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John

Elton-John-Wonderful-Crazy-Night

Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.

Looking Up

Wonderful Crazy Night

Blue Wonderful

7. Joanne – Lady Gaga

lady_gaga_-_joanne_official_album_cover

Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.

Perfect Illusion

Million Reasons

A-Yo  

8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon

stranger_to_stranger_cover

Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.

Wristband

Cool Papa Bell

 The Werewolf

9. Super – Pet Shop Boys

pet_shop_boys_-_super

How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.

The Pop Kids

Say It to Me

The Dictator Decides

10. AIM – M.I.A.

aim

M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.

Borders

Bird Song

Freedun

 

Perfect Illusion

Remember when Lady Gaga, at the height of her Bad Romance-era meat-dress notoriety, claimed that she would never step off the towering platforms and appear in public looking ‘normal’? Because that’s not how her fans want to see her. Because she exists, as an artist, to provide fantasy and escapism. Well, here she is now, in her newest incarnation, rolling around in the dirt in little more than cutoffs and smeared eyeliner. She’s been promoting her new album in noticeably diminished form, mostly barefaced, her only flamboyance an unflattering pink hat. So what changed? Gaga has learned what many artists before her have; that success and acclaim are no protection against pain, and that fantasy and escapism are no match for a broken heart. Since her last solo album, Lady Gaga suffered the dissolution of her engagement, a tough trip for anybody, and one she was forced to take with the whole world watching. No wonder she didn’t have any more empowerment anthems in her; she had to write her most personal record yet, and she had to appear as her most naked self. It’s a whole new side of Lady Gaga, and a new sound. Less pop more rock, less glitz more real emotion. Audiences eventually tire of pure spectacle, and artists tire of providing it. Sooner or later, every larger-than-life stage creation will revert to their real self, too exhausted to maintain the illusion. Ziggy Stardust has to die; the meat dress has to come off. If we’re lucky, that’s when things become really interesting.

Nature Boy

This old chestnut comes around yet again. Every few years, ever since 1948, this song hits the Zeitgeist. And I’ve always found it ridiculous. It’s not just corny in the typical 40’s fashion; it’s downright campy. There’s no way a song about a boy ‘strange and enchanted’ isn’t loaded with innuendo. It has to be the gayest American Standard in the great book of American Standards. Witness the smirk with which Nat King Cole delivered it. He knew! Despite or because of its nature, Nature Boy has been revived again and again, by everyone from Sinatra (who, I think, made a point of singing ALL THE SONGS) to Sarah Vaughn to Grace Slick to Celine Dion, just to mention the most notable of notables. In my day, the song came to pop culture prominence via the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, delivered by no less than David Bowie, with a degree of conviction that may have been more than the thing deserved. On last year’s Cheek to Cheek, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga jumped in, with surprisingly straight faces. Gaga, gaycon aspirations aside, can be a  very earnest lady, and that record was her chance to put on her ‘serious artist’ hat, so it’s reasonable that she delivered it without a sideways wink. But what a missed opportunity! If anybody can camp the hell out of an old classic, it’s her. Here’s hoping that sometime down the road she merges her radio monster flamboyance with her serious chanteuse classy side and delivers some serious remixes of this and other standards.

Monster

Lady Gaga’s a classed-up bitch now, with her jazz album and vintage cars. Which is delightful. For anyone who’s conquered the mountain of pop, there’s two ways to go; straight back down into irrelevance and obscurity, or sideways onto a different mountain. It’s called evolving as an artist. Nobody conquered pop more thoroughly than Lady Gaga, and a precarious descent seemed inevitable. Good on her for pursuing other interests and showing herself in a different light. I think she has decades of new permutations ahead of her, and she’s going to go on being fascinating. But even if she doesn’t, if she crashes and burns or fails to display any more levels of talent than she already has, Lil’ Monsters can rest easy that she’ll always be remembered just for having made some of the very finest unadulterated pop music and pop spectacle of her time.

2014 Albums of the Year

2014 was a year of extremes. It was, in terms of world events, rather extravagantly bad, marked by violence and unrest. If there was any piece of music that could sum it all up, it would be Merry Clayton wailing out a warning of rape and murder for The Rolling Stones. That was many years ago, but the storm is threatening darker than ever. For myself…it was a year of extremes, ranging from about as good as it gets, to close to as bad. Most of the defining moments of the year are things I’d rather not talk about publicly. Let’s just say that there was more drug use and anonymous bathroom sex than usual. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good music. So without further ado, the year’s best albums.

1. Lazaretto – Jack White

You knew this would happen. Of course Jack White would take the top spot. I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything Jack does, and he doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing feels tight and angry, fierce and confident. He’s really become a master at what he does, and Lazaretto is exactly everything you would want from a Jack White album. And, of course, it all comes with the usual visual delights; Jack never shorts us on imagery and artistry. The videos make me wish he’d go ahead and make a movie. The songs range from wordless to heartbreaking. Once again, Jack White presents the total package.

High Ball Stepper

Lazaretto

Would You Fight For My Love?

2. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen

I had marked Cohen’s previous album as good, but this one is better than good. It’s his best since The Future, and it’s been a long time. Cohen is a sprightly 80 years old now, and somehow he sounds livelier than he has in years. It helps than the songs here are more catchy than somber, and the poet’s graveyard wit is still about him. The favored themes of love and desire and death and life are all lined up, along with darkly comic commentary on the bleakness of the world. “There’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…”

Almost Like the Blues

Did I Ever Love You

Slow

3. This Is All Yours – Alt-J

Congratulation to Alt-J for avoiding the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that affects so many people’s second albums. They escaped the twin pitfalls of either repeating their debut note for note or abruptly reinventing themselves to better suit their newfound fame. They’ve remained satisfyingly weird and clever, while also growing into their sound. It’s great to see a band keeping psychedelic weirdness alive – and being successful while at it! (Also 10,000 bonus points for taking Miley Cyrus’s boneheaded affirmation of Confederate pride and making it into something awesome and actually empowering.)

Hunger Of the Pine

Left Hand Free

Every Other Freckle

4. Ghosts of Download – Blondie

Blondie has consistently produced good albums since their late 90’s comeback, so it’s no surprise they’ve made another good one. However, this one feels particularly timely. Right now, Blondie’s euphoric New Wave pop sound is really having a moment, with so many new bands striving to emulate their energy and sass. So it’s right on cue that the original punk princess returns. The new record is unabashedly high on hooks and dance-floor ready. I first heard many of these songs live in concert, just about a year ago, and the new material stood well beside the classics. It’s like the 80’s never ended.

A Rose By Any Name

Sugar On the Side

I Want to Drag You Around

5. Hotel Valentine – Cibo Matto

I can’t believe I’ve never listened to Cibo Matto before! They’ve been flying just under the radar for years, and this album for some reason received more than the usual amount of publicity. Let me tell you, it was a case of instantly falling in love. Why would’t I love a concept album about a haunted hotel? Or a song with “Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me” as a chorus?  If the ghost in the hotel appears to be that of Yoko Ono, it’s no coincidence; Ono is a longtime friend and mentor. It’s nice to discover a band of serious eccentricity.

Mfn

Deja Vu 

10th Floor Ghost Girl

6. El Pintor – Interpol

*Belated discovery of the year*

Another band I’d never listened to before that really struck a chord this year. Interpol are just back from a hiatus, so the new record came with loud and serious buzz. Well earned, it turns out. Having done my research with all of their previous albums, I can safely say, this is awesome by their own and any other standards. It’s Mancunian New Wave reborn, in a different decade, as New York City grunge.

All the Rage Back Home

My Desire

Everything Is Wrong

7. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is a divisive artist, to say the least. She gets flak for her looks (plastic surgery or nah?), her stage presence (wooden), her public statements (dumb), her fanbase (hipsters), her everything basically. She’s both blessed and cursed for having arrived on the scene fully formed in the age of internet-based instant gratification, and she’s sparked some deep debate about image and authenticity. Right away she struck me as an interesting songwriter and an original voice, and she’s grown since then. On her  new album she’s more mature, less in love with her own sex kitten image, more emotional and more perceptive. And she’s ready to parody herself and her hipstery ilk as well.

West Coast

Shades of Cool

Ultraviolence

8. Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant 

Robert Plant had some bad years as a solo artist, mostly in the 80’s. (Didn’t everyone?) In recent years he’s reinvented himself as something of a folksy man of the world, in the sense that the world is his inspiration. On his latest, he’s gathered musicians from all over the globe to form The Sensational Space Shifters, and they’ve all brought a piece of their home culture. It’s Plant’s liveliest and most diverse album, and it might actually be the most diverse album by anybody this year. And he still has the voice of a golden god. No wonder he’s ‘not bored enough’ to get the Led back on.

Rainbow

Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

House of Love

9. Give My Love to London – Marianne Faithfull

I love it when Marianne Faithfull rocks out a little. Nobody does gloom and doom better than she, but high spirits become her too. She’s definitely in a spirited mood on this outing. And she brought friends! Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Mick Jones and Steve Earle all show up, and it seems that collaborating with the masters of morbid really brings out everyone’s cheery side. Some of the tracks sound like they’ve been piped in straight from the sixties, others like they’ve escaped from one of Cave’s own albums, all delivered with a hint of a wink. Faithfull sounds like she relishes digging her teeth into everything from Cave’s extravagantly morose Late Victorian Holocaust to classic Everly Brothers to standout late period Leonard Cohen.

Give My Love to London

Sparrows Will Sing

Going Home

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St.Vincent has become quite the critics’ darling – and rightly so. She’s quirky enough to satisfy lovers of eccentricity, and yet (just barely) accessible enough to actually sell an album or two. She also has the David Byrne stamp of approval (not that she needs the validation); the two made an album and toured together. But Annie Clark is in no one’s shadow. She’s the thinking man’s new rock goddess.

Birth In Reverse

Digital Witness

Prince Johnny

11. Cheek to Cheek –  Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga 

All is forgiven, Lady Gaga! If Born This Way was all gigantic choruses, then Artpop was all drawn-out middle eights. It felt like Gaga, having concurred the world of pop, was treading water in search of a new direction. So she did the last thing anyone would ever expect. She made a jazz album. With Tony Bennett. Does it add something profound to the genre? Not really. Is it campy and bombastic at times? Yes, somewhat. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard those old standards belted out with such joy and enthusiasm. Lady Gaga finally shows off her vocal chops, and she sounds swell. It’s plain to hear that Gaga and Bennett had an absolute ball working together. It’s a contagious feeling.

Anything Goes

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love

I Won’t Dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marry the Night

Sometimes Lady Gaga frustrates me. Outrageousness  for its own sake can come off as self-indulgent. And why does she insist on collaborating with known sexual predators? Yes, there have been questionable friend choices, tone-deaf public statements, sub-par musical offerings. But when she’s at her best, she reminds you why she’s the best and biggest thing in the pop music stratosphere. Pure, unadulterated pop music can be a magical thing, a euphoric delight, and as Gaga proves again and again, it can be a vehicle for artistic vision and deeply felt personal expression. Marry the Night is more than a music video; it’s a short film telling the (fictionalized) story of Gaga’s rise to fame. Gaga has often alluded in interviews to unspecified traumatic events she experienced in her pre-fame years as a struggling musician. The video seems to be about those times. It shows her being hospitalized in what appears to be a fantasy psych ward, then shows her freaking out after getting  kicked out of ballet school – which is a direct reference to the time she was dropped from her first record label, Def Jam. Although I don’t know if she was ever in a loony bin, she did say that she suffered from depression as a result, and may have had something of a nervous breakdown. More recently, she revealed that before her success, she had been raped by a powerful producer, possibly Dr. Luke (an acknowledged asshat known for being abusive towards some of his other female protegees.) All in all, in her early years, she’d had a rough time of it. And like in the video, she used her hard times to fuel her creative ambitions. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.