This is my favorite MGMT song. (Sorry, Kids.) It is a small gem that really captures the MGMT magic. At only two minutes and thirty seconds, it might feel a little bit like a toss-off. It starts off wavering, then it gets all climactic. But doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s the trick with really catchy things: it’s tempting take a good hook and hammer it to exhaustion. But you gotta leave ’em wanting more. Just when you’re pumped for it to build up for another round, it ends. It’s magic like that. MGMT are a band who know their way around a really good hook, but don’t take themselves to seriously, and that’s magic too.
It’s time to take stock, yet again, of the year past and – yep! – it was a shitty one. I don’t know where we go from here, but I suspect it’s nowhere nice. In the meantime though, we can enjoy the one upside to witnessing the fall of civilization in real time: the myriad ways all that angst and turmoil can be fueled into art.
1. Negative Capability – Marianne Faithfull
In a world burning with senseless violence and Orwellian horror, what we really need is to hear from one of the Summer of Love’s last survivors. The survivor’s place, it seems, is a lonely and sorrowful one. Faithfull laments the passing of old friends, she laments the fear that haunts our time, she admits that her own faith in love is deeply shaken. Did she really need a third re-recording of As Tears Go By? Yes, as the song’s melancholy deepens with the singer’s voice. Did the pagan feminist anthem Witches’ Song need to a revisit? If it means throwing Nick Cave into the mix, absolutely yes.
2. Always Ascending – Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand proves, as they have been for years, that all anyone really needs is killer hooks, killer riffs and great stovepipe trousers. FF are rock dandies who could have been early-60’s mods, 80’s New Romantics or 90’s Cool Britannia lads – their brand of crunchy rock and swaggering attitude is that timeless, whether or not they choose to add synthesizer arpeggios or just lean into the three-guitar format. When you’re handsome and clever, the whole world’s an afterparty.
3. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
For a change, FJM is actually one of the less depressing entries on the list. His last album, as much as I loved it, was far from bright. He must have gotten tired of gazing into the abyss; this time he’s looking at his own celebrity lifestyle, and finding it absurd and amusing. His humor has always been one of his most appealing qualities, and it’s nice to more focus on that, rather than the total failure of all mankind. The vibe wouldn’t be out of place on the record charts in 1972, and that’s high praise.
4. American Utopia – David Byrne
How did David Byrne, long one of rock’s great neurotics, become a self-appointed champion of “reasons to be cheerful”? He set himself the challenge of writing only optimistic songs, making it the theme of his last tour and of this album. That may feel counterintuitive in these trying times, but Byrne, when he’s not being acerbic, has always known just how much joy a good pop song can incite. Cheerful doesn’t have to be boring or earnest, either – in these hands it’s gratifyingly bonkers, from the wordplay to the herky-jerky tempo changes (so reminiscent of his famous dance moves.)
5. Tell Me How You Really Feel – Courtney Barnett
Like me, you were probably waiting eagerly to see how Courtney Barnett, the grandmaster of turning the most intimate and mundane of everyday things into clever and insightful pop poetry, would develop as an artist now that she’s world famous. I was expecting a lot of songs about hotels and airports. Barnett, however, is several levels above that. She’s ready to tackle the whole fucking world and the constant battle of living in it as a woman. From walking in the park to appearing on television, being a female person is a constant confrontation with danger, and Barnett is taking none the bullshit that comes with the territory.
6. High as Hope – Florence + the Machine
I fell in love with Florence Welch for her baroque aesthetic. Her lyrics evoked mythology classic and pagan, her productions shied away from no harp solo. But more than anything else, it was always about the voice. This time, she sheds most of the theatrics and focuses on the very real. Even the most magical witch person struggles with bouts of self loathing, faces heartbreak and leans on her own role models for inspiration. Those are the personal revelations Flo is ready to make, turning her voice and gift for drama towards the intimate. Every artist has to strip down to the roots of what made them become an artist in the first place.
7. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life – Tune-Yards
If you were listening to a lot of indie radio in 2014, you’ve probably heard Water Fountain by Tune-Yards, and you may have dismissed it as a novelty song. However, Tune-Yards is no novelty act, but an avant-garde musical project. Their new record is, indeed, boundary-pushing and just plain weird, in the best possible way. It’s also inspired by the state of the world we’re in, so file it under the ever-growing and trending banner of angry feminist protest art.
8. Little Dark Age – MGMT
The world needs MGMT. They’ve had some creative ups and downs since their moment of peak success in 2008 (my god, has it really been so long?) It’s hard living down a big hit, especially when you never set out to be hitmakers in the first place, but it seems like MGMT have made their identity with or without oceans of hype. They just make really catchy, sometimes trippy, sometimes snarky, always recognizable tunes. Eccentricity should always be this much fun.
9. Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt – Moby
Moby is another artist who outlived his moment at the top of the Zeitgeist, who kept working and evolving slightly below the big-hitmaker radar. He was never the pop star type, anyway. His music reflects his mild-mannered persona: just a regular guy who loves animals, cares about issues and thinks about his place in the world. And composes music that ranges from ambient to uptempo, music that’s been equally melodic and melancholic lately, but ultimately positive in spirit.
10. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
This is the year Janelle Monae went from acclaimed outsider to for-real superstar. This is one of those albums that will be remembered as a definitive part of its cultural moment. Not just a good record that fans enjoy, but an important record that contributed to the conversation far beyond the confines of one fandom. It’s been a year when artists like Monae – women, women of color, queer women of color, et al. – who used to be relegated to the dusty ghetto of ‘special interests’ swung into the center of the conversation and announced that their voices would be heard whether the gatekeepers liked it or not. And then it turned out that everyone did like it, and can we have more of this, please?
11. Shake the Spirit – Elle King
In 2015 Elle King’s Exes and Ohs was the gleefully naughty bad girl anthem of the year. Then she disappeared. Was she going to be yet another promising young artist lost in record label purgatory or burned to death by the insane strobe lights of fame? Almost. She lived the shooting star trajectory that should take decades – hype, hits, rock bottom, rehab, comeback – in just a few years. Being a bad girl is tough, it turns out, and Elle King is here to tell you just how much. It’s the insecurity, the desire to be liked at war with the urge to rebel, the judging eyes of others, the thirst for more thrills, the wild ups and downs of it all that make the tough girl who she is. Elle King is the bottle-blonde, zaftig floozy with the heart of gold that every girl who’s ever been slut-shamed can relate to.
12. Isolation – Kali Uchis
Kali Uchis is the surprise big pop breakout of the year. She is the standout in a dense field of young pop divas with obscurely exotic names: Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Sky Ferreira, etc. etc. Kali Uchis can outsing each and every one of them. Her voice is way better than any mere pop star’s needs to be, and her music, while unmistakably heady pop sugar, draws on her Colombian background with touches of salsa and Reggaeton, and also harks back to the girl groups of Motown and the breezy sound of 70’s soft rock, among a myriad other influences. It is so refreshing to hear a pop record that’s this fun, smart and diverse. Is this the new Shakira?
13. Castles – Lissie
Lissie has somehow, inexplicably, been flying under the radar, although she’s been making records since 2010. In that time she has consistently delivered smart songwriting, powerful vocals and a down-to-earth sensibility. Once again, she doesn’t disappoint. She knows how to write a good pop hook, but she also leans into 70’s-style country rock influences. Her vocals can be folksy or tinged with gospel. Her approach to the commonplace topics of love and heartache is levelheaded and honest, revealing emotion without resorting to sentimental cliche – as befits an artist who chooses real life over glamorous artifice.
14. Remain in Light – Angelique Kidjo
When Talking Heads incorporated African beats into their post-punk rock music on their 1980 album of the same name, it was many Americans’ first introduction to what we know know as ‘world music’. When Angelique Kidjo emigrated from Benin to Paris in 1983, she heard her first Talking Heads album and felt instant recognition. She understood the unbroken musical lineage that connected the folk music of Africa to modern-day rock and roll, and grasped that Western audiences were open and hungry to rediscover rock’s African roots. Now, so many years later, she pays homage to that culture-bridging moment and the record that made her feel that the European world was open to her and her music. And it’s far from being an exercise in nostalgia: Kidjo makes every song relevant in entirely new ways. When Kidjo sings “All I want is to breathe” it’s a whole new message with a whole new context.
Remember when MGMT was, like, the next big hot thing? And then it turned out that they were too weird and eccentric to be major mainstream hitmakers, and the press was all like, “where did they go?” Well, they didn’t go anywhere very far. They just stayed weird. Little Dark Age is their first record in five years, and an aptly titled one at that. It’s not going to recapture the freak popularity of Kids, but nobody is asking for that anyway. It’s exactly what you signed up for as an MGMT fan; it’s humorous and spacey and catchy, psychedelic pop with a spring in its step. I don’t know if it’s going to become one of the most remembered records of the year, but certainly it was one of the most welcome upon arrival. It’s happy music for unhappy times, and honestly, that’s actually a lot to ask for.
So what’s MGMT up to? I haven’t heard anything about them lately. I’m sure they’re probably off somewhere responsibly enjoying their money. It’s a shame, like I noted earlier, that promising young bands are no longer forced to churn out dozens of hit singles a year and spend months on the road touring. Fuck overexposure, give the people what they want. But of course the music system no longer works like that, and I don’t think anyone feels very bad about it except the corporate suits themselves. The internet has given us the ability to discover cool music by word of mouth and purchase it directly from the artists. I generally don’t feel too terribly guilty about illegally downloading entire discographies. So what that I’m not helping to financially support Elton John? It’s well known that he sleeps on a mattress stuffed with shredded hundred dollar bills. They all do. I do feel bad when it comes to indie bands who aren’t prancing around cashing million dollar royalty checks every day. So I buy merchandise and concert tickets to make up for it. That’s not entirely unfair.
So it’s time again to take stock of the year past and take in some of the highlights. 2010 was a very good year. It was the first year in a long, long time that I could afford to buy food at Central Market instead of Wal-Mart. I could purchase lingerie at Victoria’s Secret instead of Wal-Mart. I did my holiday shopping at real boutiques instead of Wal-Mart. You get the general idea here, I think. In short, I earned a living wage, went to a lot of shows, ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine, traveled, dated intensively, learned a lot and generally enjoyed a high caliber quality of life.
Highlights include in no particular order… getting thrown out of an English Beat show for, um, I don’t remember what, but probably fighting. Not getting thrown out of an encore English Beat show. Making out with a cute stranger at a Valentine’s Day Nouvelle Vague show. Having a Dead Weather roadie tell me my outfit is “very Karen O.” Getting dumped for the second time in my life and not crying about it. Many instances of drinking myself into a rolling blackout. Free wiener-on-a-stick at ACL courtesy of my parent company. Groping M.I.A.’s ass at ACL. Getting to see the full Cremaster Cycle on the big screen courtesy of the now defunct Dobie Cinemas. Going overseas, including a flyover glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Meeting family members I didn’t know existed. Seeing A Night At The Opera, and also seeing a night at the opera. Getting certain bad influences out of my life once and for all. Getting my first tattoo, courtesy of the lovely and gracious Dresden Dolls. Completing my self-appointed Year of Living (for lack of a better term) SATCily. Seeing the old one out in, not exactly style, but definitely with a sense of achievement. I just can’t wait to fall right into my next big mistake.
Now, musicwise…What a good year! So many great records streaming in! In fact, there’s been so many good ones that I won’t limit myself to just ten. Because there’s more than ten albums I’ve been listening to this year. There was a disappointment or two, sure. The Knife put out a virtually unlistenable opera based on the works of Charles Darwin. Vampire Weekend is still insufferable. Matt & Kim aren’t as great as everyone says they are. Broken Bells literally made me fall asleep standing up (not that their album was bad or anything). And as usual, the top forty was an orgy of the bland, the talentless and the downright terrible. But on the bright side, I’ve found so much to love. Here’s the ones I couldn’t stop playing…
- Sea of Cowards – The Dead Weather
- Here Lies Love – David Byrne & Fatboy Slim
- The Ghost Who Walks – Karen Elson
- This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem
- Treats – Sleigh Bells
- Trans-Continental Hustle – Gogol Bordello
- /\/\/\Y/\ – M.I.A.
- Olympia – Bryan Ferry
- Congratulations – MGMT
- Body Talk – Robyn
- Soldier of Love – Sade
- Endlessly – Duffy
- I Learned The Hard Way – Sharon Jones &The Dap-Kings
If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, my feelings about Jack White must be known to you. I think the man is a god-put-on-earth. He can do no wrong. He has vision. He makes me want to find my demon. Plus, he’s a really nice guy. The first Dead Weather album was pretty great (it was on my list last year) but it was just an appetizer. It’s a feast of dirty, sexy, crazy energy. The collaboration between Jack and the incredible Alison Mosshart has fully blossomed at last. The difference is that unlike the other Jack projects, this one is dripping with female energy. Isn’t it tiresome that it’s always the boys who’re getting their rocks off? Not anymore.
Leave it to David Byrne to do something completely random and make it so brilliant it starts to make sense. A collaboration between the polyglot Byrne and master DJ Fatboy Slim was sure to yield interesting results. Byrne reached into his bag of ideas and out comes a two-disc concept album rescuing Imelda Marcos from the joke-bins of history. If anyone remembered her at all, it was as a symbol of vulgar consumption in the face of poverty – she owns thousands of shoes. Thousands! Whatever her crimes, Mrs. Marcos is still a person; an aspiring singer and beauty queen who married into wealth and power, felt shame about her poor education and less-than-lavish upbringing, endured exile and her husband’s infidelities and found a late-life political career of her own. All this and more you’ll learn, all complete with Fatboy beats, Byrne’s dry wit, and perfomances from an A-list parade of singers. I’ve heard that Marcos herself gave the project her blessing and even wanted a chance to sing something.
I’ve admired Karen Elson’s modeling career since circa 1997 – that’s more than a decade, centuries in model years. I loved her look, her fiery red hair, her porcelain whiteness, her eyebrow shaving boldness. When she started to talk about going into music I wanted to see her succeed. Then she scored a real coup in her personal life – you know of what I am speaking – and it looked like the music dreams would be shelved forever. After all, nobody wants to be seen as the talentless spouse riding her man’s coat-tails towards her own ambitions. But guess what! She finally made a record and it’s incredible any way you slice it and she is incredibly talented. Her voice is as beautiful as her visage, and her songs are beautiful too. Songs she wrote, literally, in the closet. Where any number of model-slash-whatevers have fallen flat on their face, Karen nailed it. Besides being a great singer, she has her own distinct sound, a kind of goth-folk with strains of Nashville and maybe just a hint of whatever planet Tom Waits is broadcasting from.
Ok, this is something I downloaded on a whim because the buzz on it was so good. (I think some reviewer evoked the mythical Berlin Trilogy founding fathers as influences.) And guess what! The buzz was all true. I love to dance and I love dance music and I love electronica and great beats and blippy sound effects and all that. But it’s hard to know where the good stuff is. Because so much dance/electronic music is utter rubbish. It’s what the old folks say; any idiot with a keyboard can cue up a beat, add some pings to it and a loop of someone chanting nonsense, and there’s your big dance single. I’ve tried randomly downloading electronica that I’d been told was good and just thinking “this is a brainless waste of gigabytes”. For example, the much hyped Deadmau5 record I found simply mind-numbing. So here’s something with brains you can dance to. And even harder to find on the dance floor, it’s got heart. Starring James Murphy, a doughy aging hipster smart enough to know he’s doughy and aging, and to write an album about it.
This might be the authentic sound of now. Or not. I believe they’re calling it ‘noise pop’. That’s not a terribly appealing name, but I guess the point is to scare off the oldsters. To me Sleigh Bells sound so fresh. Alexis Krauss has a lovely voice, and the ‘ah ah ah’s and ‘oh oh oh’s she emits in every song are straight from some long-lost girl group from the pre-Fab sixties. The lovely’s hidden underneath a storm of feedback, so you may not notice it at first. However it makes a balance – lovely vs loud, sugary vs dirty. Beauty and noise.
Gogol Bordello are looking to go widespread. Hence a record sleeve of Eugene Hutz looking almost presentable and production courtesy of Rick Rubin. They sound professional for the first time, and it’s good. Their earlier albums, brilliantly alive though they are, didn’t have the highest production values. Also, they suffered from energy overkill, or rather they didn’t suffer but some listeners might have. This is their most accessible record, but don’t say they’ve sold out. (Or maybe they have – Eugene is on speaking terms with Madonna. If that’s not selling out I don’t know what is.) You can still shake a leg to it, or more likely your booty. This time around there’s more room for Eugene’s thoughtfuller side. He’s always had thoughts, sure, but sometimes they got a little lost underneath all the PARTY! If you thought the more lyrical songs where the highlights of Super Taranta! you’ll appreciate how much more autobiographical and open-hearted Eugene’s songwriting has become. Or maybe it’s always been that way but everybody was too drunk to notice.
Alright, M.I.A. was never for everybody to begin with. So it’s not big shock when nothing on her new album was as easily accessible as Paper Planes or Boyz some armchair judges decided she wasn’t cool anymore. No, she’s still cool. Maybe she’s cooler than ever because she more interested in pursuing her interests than being fun or accessible. Yeah, the album is built on noise, and there’s liberal dollops of weird autotune, and cryptic lyrics as usual. The lady holds true to her convictions, whatever they are. And really, it’s almost admirable – it’s her most high profile, hotly anticipated release yet, and still it sounds like she threw it together in a basement with a box of tapes.
The new Bryan Ferry album sounds exactly like a Bryan Ferry album. That’s kind of the point.
Again, not so much with the big hit singles ready for chart domination. But a more sophisticated moving on up the ladder. I was a bit leery of MGMT at first – they have been such hipster darlings and what’s cool isn’t cool. But hey, guess what! They’ve only gotten smarter, and more melodic with relative age. And anyone who writes a rapturous ode to Brian Eno (Brian Eno) gets mega super bonus cool points. Apropos of god knows what, but the more I listen to this album the more I suspect these boys may have, at some point listened to the works of the Brothers Mael. I don’t know why I think that…
It’s been a long cold winter since the last Lady Gaga record came out and you’re needing something to fill the void. You need some dancefloor crazy, euphoric, slightly guilty pure sugary rush of pop music. See, bubblegum doesn’t have to suck. Sometimes the purest sugary fluff is just what the doctor ordered. As far as fluffy pop songs go, too, Robyn’s are surprisingly thoughtful, at least sometimes. How many times have you heard the words ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ while grinding it out on the floor? That’s what I thought.
The new Sade album sounds just like…a new Sade album. Not unlike Ferry, Sade has found the sound that works and she’s polished and perfected it over the years. So what if every Sade album sounds the same. There aren’t that many of them to go around. Her eponymous band works like a smooth operating machine, the lady’s voice still sounds like sex and honey, and she hasn’t aged a day. She’s still writing inscrutable love songs. Still showing the young girls how it’s done.
I’ve decided I do quite like the new, marginally modernized Duffy. She’s strayed across the street from her regular crystal ball evocation of sixties Stax girl-group-iness, adding exciting elements like faster tempos. So maybe Endlessly isn’t the glossy beast the first album was, but it’s ok, it’s still fun. I’m waiting with baited breath for some Disney executive to have a Eureka moment and ask Duffy to voice some singing cartoon frog princess. She’s got a cartoony voice, does she not? She even looks a bit like a sassy cartoon kitty. You know what would be cool? A Duffy musical cartoon series. She’d definitely be a kitty, and it would be set in the swinging sixties and she’d ride a Vespa, and sing and solve crimes.
Sharon Jones is keeping old-school r’n’b music alive. Not that dumb crap they file under r’n’b nowadays. None of them ‘guest raps’ here. If the best part of your song is a sample from someone else’s song, that’s cheating. None of that here. No drum machines, either. Absolutely none of that damn auto-tune. Real musicians don’t need those props. Sharon and the Dap-Kings belong at the top of the top of the pops, real soul music should be topping the forty, but the world isn’t fair like that, and that’s what Sharon Jones is talking about.
Speaking of Brian Eno…If everyone in the world who owes him a debt, whether literally or stylistically, or directly or indirectly needs to thank him for helping them preserve their mental health, well, the line would stretch…a really long way, probably. Eno’s had his finger in the evolution of everybody who’s anybody. He’s affected popular culture as much Elvis, but more anonymously, being the man behind the curtain, producing, advising and influencing a who’s who of rockers. It was only a matter of time before someone wrote him a tribute song with his name as the title. As it turns out, MGMT are the first to the punch, and for that they should win a prize.
I followed the sounds to a cathredal
imagine my surprise to find that they were produce by Brian Eno
past the gates
the roses trimmed and the windows dark
I see the walls through a limestone crack
not red not blue not yellow but black
and all the space left for you
if the sky was synthesized you’d probably know
he taught me many things
the wisdowm of o bleak stratagems
the prophet of a sapphire soul
presented through creative freedoms
and everything i say is true
cuz if i was telling lies it’d probably show
i can tell that he’s kind of smiling
but what does he know?
we’re always one step behind him, he’s Brian Eno
when I was stuck he’d make me memorize elaborate curses
tinctures and formulas to ditch the chori and flip the verses
my whole foundation came unglued
when i tried to humanize by ambient light
dipping swords in metaphors yeah but what does he know?
he’s go the whole world behind him he’s Brian Eno
he promised pretty worlds and all the silence
I could dream of Brian peter George St John Le
Baptiste De La Salle Eno
well all alone by the oldest stone where the shade
trees grow the creature by the water feature with a
ghostly glow making sure that time’s preserved
well we reap what we sow he’s go the whole
world behind him he’s Brian Eno etc. etc.