So, have you heard about Moby? Apparently he’s a sad schmuck loser who consistently strikes out with women who are far out of his league and then lies about it. Like when he wrote in his memoir that he dated Natalie Portman and she was all like “wut, lol, no I was 18 you creep” and he was like “but we’ve been photographed together, please pleeese tell them we dated” and she was like “hard no!” and then he was so humiliated he canceled his book tour. Which is hardly terrible or earth-shaking as far as celebrity gossip goes, but it does put me once again in the exhausting position of evaluating my fandom of a person who got caught soiling their pedestal. Which, in this case, is hardly a scandal. Moby’s pedestal was never that high, and he didn’t even do anything particularly wrong besides being an average delusional sad dude who thinks that a few hang-out sessions and/or misguided hook-up add up to a ‘relationship’, and being a self-deprecating sad schmuck who gets rejected by women has kind of always been his ‘brand’, so. I mean, I was just evaluating my fanhood of Michael Jackson, and although I decided that I was perfectly okay with not being his fan anymore, I still spent the rest of the day singing “Annie are you OK?” in my head, so… this is child’s play, really. The only thing that gets me is that, unlike full-blown pedophiles, delusional sad schmucks with creepy intentions are fucking everywhere, they’re an everyday part of every woman’s life, and though they may be thinner on the ground once you’ve aged out of being potentially dumb enough to fall for them, they don’t ever entirely go away, and the fact that Natalie Portman still has to waste her time clarifying that she did not in fact ‘date’ a creepy sad older man who imagined himself dating her because they hung out a few times, well, just…. eww, squick. Moby not canceled, but unfortunately revealed to be a mediocre human being, flawed in a very conventional, boring, and pathetic way.
Maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve been digging into post-Zeitgeist Moby, and, you know, I’m digging it. Say what you will about the guy, I know he annoys people because he’s the granddaddy of every insufferable Brooklyn hipster, yeah, and you can say that what he makes music for wimpy kids or whatever. That’s what you get when a resoundingly uncool person accidentally becomes ‘cool’ for a minute. I just really want to listen to some chill music right now, and Moby is my chill music man. Don’t underestimate a nice atmosphere, man.
Moby is here with a simple lesson about cherishing your loved ones, and it’s possible that this may press some sentimental buttons for a few people. Those of you who get misty-eyed about the magic of family, for example. Family is the web of ties that makes us who we are, and if we don’t have that, then who even are we. Some people have shitty families, of course, and don’t find images of granddads twirling babies idyllic. Nonetheless, the message should still find a button to push. The people in our lives, whether chosen or born to, will slip away when we least expect them to, leaving nothing but memories and the vague nagging sensation of their absence. That’s life, inexorably. But you can at least try to appreciate your here and now before it becomes the sepia-filtered past. And, yes, appreciate your folks, appreciate your memories of them, appreciate that web that made you. There’s nothing wrong with getting a little sentimental about your friends and family, it’s just our human nature, even for those of us who’ve chosen to become the end of the family line.
I appreciate a good meditation on loneliness, solitude and alienation, especially when my own love life is on track. Loneliness and solitude, of course, are distinct things that only incidentally intersect. Alienation, longing, love and the rest are yet more circles in an imperfect diagram of the human condition. Many of us sleep just fine alone in our beds – in Moby’s case, most likely on organic whole wheat sheets. There’s always the dream, even for the most incorrigible loner, of finding someone to sleep with holding hands. I mean, sex is cool, but have you ever slept with someone holding hands? (As the meme goes.) We humans are just habitually oversexed and undersnuggled, I guess, and we want feel warm and safe in our sleeptimes. And loved.
Music for teatime is a made-up genre that I often come back to, because for my needs, it’s an important distinction. Can I sit and relax and drift away to this? Moby is very much the master of music that fills those drifting-away needs. I can sleep to this, and I can write and create to it. It’s not quite full-ambient, but it’s close. I think that we should not underestimate the power of the near-ambient; it discreetly does a lot to tinker with our mood, and we need all the discreet spirit-lifting we can get, in this age of darkness that we live in.
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.
Moby really makes the romantic yearnings of an unassuming schmuck sound, well, romantic. In the general scheme of things, as things stand today, mediocre dudes who have the sad feels are out of favor, let’s leave it at that. But Moby is not your average mediocre sad dude. He only looks like one. He has great things inside that eggy bald head of his. Artistic greatness, as we all know it, is taking your own mundane and inherently selfish emotional landscape, and transposing it into something that sparks other people’s souls with recognition. Great art makes you look anew at people you normally dismiss, barely visible people, people you would mock if you noticed them at all. Like that aging hipster with his vegan latte and his limited edition laptop and his beanie – he’s a person too, and he has the same great depths you have. He may even have great sounds and visions inside his head that could touch the world with their beauty and universal truth. All this because art is empathy. Art is awaking others to their own depths of feeling. Art is sharing those depths of feeling. (Art is shorthand for emotional communication for people who suck at talking about their feelings.)