Find all the music in Robert Christgau’s 2012 Dean’s List here.
My fellow citizens, we have a consensus. The two most significant parties in the ongoing rock-etc. culture wars have reached an unnegotiated provisional agreement. It’s very partial, and the fissures subsisting below it are certain to branch further and gape wider in years to come. Nevertheless, for the first time ever, the representatives of feckless youth at Pitchfork and gaseous maturity at Rolling Stone have identified what I have no doubt — well, make that little doubt — will prove 2012’s top three titles on the only album list that matters: the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll scheduled to go public in The Village Voice just after this wrap-up appears in BNR. The general level of agreement between the print and Internet titans is unchanged from 2011 — namely, not much. But where last year not a single album appeared in both the Rolling Stone and Pitchfork top 10, Pitchfork’s new top three finished top six in the print mag: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city at six, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange at two, and Fiona Apple’s — oh hell, I’ll abbreviate — The Idler Wheel at five.
I predict that these will finish Ocean-Lamar-Apple or Ocean-Apple-Lamar in the older, larger, and more ecumenical poll I long oversaw (and don’t miss laboring over). It’s conceivable Bruce Springsteen’s politically explicit return to form, Wrecking Ball, which topped Stone’s list, will disrupt the party, but I bet it gets underrated. As it happens, Wrecking Ball was the only album in either periodical’s top 10 to wind up in mine, which you’ll find atop my annual Dean’s List; in fact, the only other album in my top 10 to make either of their top 50s was Todd Snider’s politically explicit Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, ranked 47th by Stone. But I’m content to be an outlier, a less smitten admirer of all three consensus picks. The Idler Wheel is familiar enough as a type, the known artist of quality outdoing herself, but its success is propitious in an era when corporate quants are increasingly reluctant to make the patient investments major-label songpoets require. Ocean and Lamar, meanwhile, point forward by culminating and metamorphizing trends of varying definition and potential.
Because “trend” is a boilerplate hook designed to be forgotten before it doesn’t come true, I try not to use the term. But despite the stubborn resistance of older listeners and the chronic anxiety of longtime partisans, the continued prospects of hip-hop are so obvious that they’re more fact than prediction. This was such a slack year for mainstream hip-hop’s art heroes — Kanye West’s off-brand posse album and Big Boi’s half-fast r&b move were it — that both Stone and P4K kept their street cards active by sticking reformed parole officer Rick Ross’s fake-gangsta opus in the 40s. But by keeping an eye on the unchartable virtual universe of alt-rap mixtapes and official releases, I put 20 hip-hop albums on the Dean’s List, with just five artists providing 12 of them: the deftly p.c. Homeboy Sandman and fertile persona generator Serengeti, both now supported by tiny labels; doom-rapping Death Grips, who after convincing Epic they might pass as a nihilist rock band self-released a follow-up album just to prove they were still antisocial; and Himanshu “Heems” Suri trailed by his Flushing homeboy Big Baby Gandhi. More important, big-time hip-hop finally started banking on the artier undergrounders as well. Produced by Dr. Dre himself for Interscope, good kid, M.A.A.D. City is Kendrick Lamar’s third album, and his fellow Black Hippy hopefuls Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul are sure to follow him to a major label soon.
That’s two “trends” right there: hip-hop itself and an alt-rap farm system like the alt-rock farm system. But although Frank Ocean has hip-hop connections too-he made his name with LA’s fast-fading Odd Future posse and broke as a performer guesting on Kanye & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne — he sorts out as an r&b crooner-songwriter with major production talent. The son of a Los Angeles musician who walked out when he was six, Ocean grew up in New Orleans with a single mom who took him to her college classes. Kendrick was raised around Compton’s gang culture by young parents who stayed together and urged him to rise above. Different stories, yet similar in telling ways — both grew up in a black underclass they worked hard to leave without getting bent out of shape by the effort.
That journey is the subject of Lamar’s album. Ocean, whose mother earned a grad degree and became a housing contractor, had accrued his own music-business cash and cred when professional frustrations drove him toward Odd Future and his sample-heavy 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. So he sets Channel Orange amid r&b-bizzish affluence and anomie that I’d guess was imagined from life. That makes both albums reports from storied African-American locations by artists who offer white rock critics a bracing whiff of difference and authenticity. Hence both embody the “post-racial,” with Ocean’s brave public avowal that a love affair with a man inspired many of his songs a bonus.
These days critics praise hip-hop popcraft more readily than rock popcraft — that’s why many will downgrade Wrecking Ball, not to mention Pink’s felt and feisty The Truth About Love, records I applaud because I believe artists can just as well replenish or reinhabit formal strategies as well as demolish or redesign them. Always on the hunt for music they can call their own, younger critics are less tolerant, a bias that meshes conveniently with the black pop audience’s long-apparent appetite for innovation to boost the hip-hop older critics once stupidly ignored. But in addition Ocean and Lamar are drawn to sonic ideas that — whatever their cognates in the overwrought emotions of Maxwell et al. and trip-hop’s concrète soundscapes, respectively — are most fashionable in the progger precincts of alt-rock. Unlike conventional r&b and hip-hop, they’re not song- or hook-driven. They’re atmospheric — Channel Orange in its soft-edged melodies and gentle enunciation, good kid, M.A.A.D. city in the way it flows and layers Lamar’s talky raps, Dre’s evolved jeep-beats, chirpy female chorus commentary, and a bunch of skillful verité skits into a single piece of percolating liminal music. Yet unlike all the archly noncommittal alt-rock songwriters who couldn’t say something evocatively if they knew what they meant, both are lyricists first — their primary appeal isn’t musical, but verbal.
As critical consensus goes, this is plenty — even momentous if it turns out to signal a historical tendency or two. Yet as someone known to say that the only sure musical trend of the current era has been its un-momentousness, I can’t claim great personal excitement about either record — Lamar was 17th on my list, Ocean 40th — nor about the less momentous albums I preferred. I continue to marvel at the democratic productivity of what so many consider an arid period. Replaying some hundred of the new albums I graded A or A minus in 2012, I actively enjoyed every one. But while I remain an original rock and roller with a permanent thing for songs and hooks, which is why I wish Ocean had appropriated more samples and Kendrick had fashioned more choruses, I also found myself looking askance at the rock band as such.
Among newcomers I hear just two major exceptions, both anointed as well by Stone and P4K: punky duo Japandroids and basement project turned roadhogs Cloud Nothings. I’ll also keep an ear on U.K.-Australian Allo Darlin’, whose well-named follow-up Europe sounded either mature or slightly bummed, and pray Emma Kupa will reconvene Standard Fare or start another band. But I find such Stone faves as hippie-manque Edward Sharpe and trad-fluke Mumford and Sons far ickier than the P4K-favored drum’n’synth “psych” of Tame Impala. And although publicists adjudge beaty electronica age-inappropriate for the Social Security set, I’d rather take a flier on Plug’s Back on Time or Dobie’s Nothing to Fear — or especially the dumbed-down dubstep of my squarest fave of the year, Skrillex’s Bangarang — than the folk-rock goop other publicists regard as fit sustenance for a fellow of my advanced years.
This goop’s honorific of choice is “Americana.” Much like the hootenanny goop of half a century ago, it’s an inexplicitly liberal attempt to make peace with a Middle American culture that damn right deserves more respect than pointy-headed bicoastalists give it — that damn right nurtures its own public-spirited home truths and scrumptious fruit pies. And because you never can tell with artists, Americana-associated ones are always surprising me the way boozy chanteuse Carolyn Mark and barely domesticated Tommy Womack did in 2012, usually with words and personas spikier than alt-folkiedom tends to have room for — sometimes so much so that the music spikes too. But usually Americana’s received sonics, structures, and grooves goop over the normal division between the homespun and the safe and smug.
All of which I bring up not just because Neil Young and his rude buddies in Crazy Horse dubbed my number one album of 2012 Americana, but because three and five were by Loudon Wainwright III, whose 2009 Charlie Poole tribute High Wide & Handsome is a triumph of the Americana concept, and Todd Snider, who quickly followed Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables with an album of songs associated with Americana hero Jerry Jeff Walker. The Nashville-based Americana Awards failed to recognize any of these albums, and I doubt any will finish Pazz & Jop either. So why shouldn’t I have my dander up a little?
With Americana itself, the awards snub computes, because the album gives the finger to its whole setup: the least rootsy of Young’s many bands overrunning an assortment of American folk songs that’s launched by Stephen Collins Foster’s international pop phenomenon “Oh Susannah,” alights on the Silhouettes’ rock and roll protest raver “Get a Job,” and reminds us that Young is Canadian by climaxing with “God Save the Queen” in a standard royalist version that is then handed off to a children’s chorus singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Musically and politically, the thing is complex and outrageous, its tunes and lyrics messed with everywhere. But critics didn’t get it, preferring the endless-to-deadly Crazy Horse jams of October’s two-disc Psychedelic Pill if they noticed Young’s latest incarnation at all. Less audacious but more exquisite, Wainwright’s album pins a theme he’s been sallying toward for a decade or two — his own ever more proximate death. And Snider’s Goldman Sachs ditty isn’t even his most incisive new song. That would be “In Between Jobs,” where he muses about killing you so he can take your shit.
A reasonable person could conjecture that my failure to feel truly excited about any of these underappreciated albums is a function of the aging process. Maybe I’ve become so goop-averse in my battle against creeping cornballism that I’m turning cynic-not-skeptic like too many bad critics do. But that’s not how it feels to me. I have a lot of fun for someone actuaries believe should no longer be working, and working in the fun business is one reason why. Instead I’d say the fissures subsisting below the year’s provisional consensus get me down. If twentysomethings want to like Kendrick Lamar’s album more than Loudon Wainwright’s, I say more power to them. The Cloud Nothings’, even — there’s an imagined future there that neither Loudon Wainwright or I will ever know firsthand again, and why shouldn’t someone whose life stretches ahead cherish that? But it bums me that it doesn’t go the other way — that the residual formal mastery of someone like Wainwright seems incapable of touching musical aesthetes of a certain age, who as children of 9/11 know better than they’d prefer that death is in the cards for everyone. Which does in turn cut into how much possibility I can feel in that mastery.
Anyway, while aware that I don’t understand my number two album as thoroughly as I’d like, I do get pretty excited about it. In a year when my usual African-etc. explorations yielded not just archival treasures but such promising new artists as Jo’burg-to-London electronicat Spoek Mathambo and cross-generationsal Kinshasa street ruffians Staff Banda Bilili, no Third World music stood out like Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran. Featuring six different artists recorded live in a region since blown apart by civil war, it has no explicit political content I know of. It’s just wild wedding music yoking cheap electronics, buzzy reed flute, and the male chauvinism in extremis of Arab romance. My guess would be that some of the guests who heard this music are now enemies — maybe even some of the musicians who played it. But not then. Weddings are known by all to be sendoffs — some trouble lies ahead for every one. But as the brief trot for the finale puts it, “Let us celebrate and sing / The sad one doesn’t have a place here.” That’s a possibility I still believe everyone can share.
POST SCRIPT (Friday, January 18): Actual Pazz & Jop results confirmed my not exactly Teresias-quality prediction: Ocean-Lamar-Apple one-two-three. Biggest surprise by me was the fifth-place finish of r&b up-and-comer Miguel, who is half-Chicano and also accounted “post-racial” by some. As I doubted would happen, both Loudon Wainwright and Todd Snider came in top 40: Wainwright at 33 (with eight of his 16 supporters commenters on my Expert Witness blog) and Snider at 38 (where his EW support was more modest).