So this is the album people chose for the M.I.A. backlash. Well, OK. I can see why, I guess: the album title is basically a goofy stunt, the cover is real dumb (not that she ever had good album art), she decided to take her music in a more, rather than less, abrasive direction (for the most part), and, you know, icky normal people heard "Paper Planes" a few years ago. That last is, if you ask me, the big one, and it's also broader than that--she is in many ways no longer the hip hop star who can be interpreted as pandering to indie critics; despite the Suicide sample (excellent, by the way), she's no longer dropping helpful-hint references to the Pixies and Lou Reed, or at least not at as high a rate.
And perhaps her biggest sin is that she can, by definition, never be as new and exciting as she was originally. After the negative reaction the album got, I was surprised how much I ended up liking it, and the only reason that it hasn't been as big a sensation in my life as Arular and Kala were is simply because M.I.A.'s sound is, at this point, an establishment in my head. But come on, people! This stuff is great! "Arm-bone connects to the hand-bone, hand-bone connects to the internet, connected to the google, connected to the government"! The song that makes a dance beat out of a power drill is followed by the song that sounds like Girls Aloud! And, my favorite of all, "Tell Me Why" seems to be saying, "So, you were able to turn 'Paper Planes' into a pop hit? Yeah, try it with this."
(On New Year's Eve, M.I.A. released a mixtape called Vicki Leekx, but I haven't heard it yet. Also, at some point I could write a post about M.I.A.'s politics, but I don't feel like it right now.)
Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
I, like seemingly everyone else, love Janelle Monae, and I don't know what else to say. From her dystopian-but-joyous, seemingly Maya Deren-referencing video for "Tightrope" to her James Brown-referencing live performances to her wonderful face to her playful interpretations of everything from science fiction to the very roots and sounds of hip hop and r&b to race and gender roles, she's just a frickin' delight.
Her album this year was Suites II and III of her still-ongoing story; Suite I came out back in 2007 and was only 17 minutes long; as far as I can tell, I'm not the only one who didn't hear of it at the time. I wish the music industry was composed in such a way as to allow her to continue releasing the suites one at a time; if the current album could have been split up into the 37 minute Suite II and the 30 minute Suite III rather than cramming both together, the overall experience would I think have been greatly improved. Nevertheless, The ArchAndroid is a delight.
My Chemical Romance, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys
OK, dirty laundry time. I considered, and continue to consider, My Chemical Romance's 2006 The Black Parade to be an absolutely magical album; back then, and still occasionally, listening to it once would lead to week-long orgies of listening to nothing else. I imagine the way I feel about it is similar to the way some of the more clear eyed but nevertheless fanatical fans feel about Star Wars, in that it is obvious that no element of the object of fanaticism is unique or original (in fact they could hardly be more derivative), but that there is something in the specific combination of those elements that is transformative, some sort of Philosopher's Stone that transmutes the leaden elements to gold. I fully understand that the fact that I feel this way about, of all things, a My Chemical Romance album, is terribly embarrassing.
Danger Days does not provoke the same strong response in me, but it is entertaining. It takes the emo-based pan-influenced utterly mainstream rock of their last album and adds in some of the homogenized dance music that pretty much all Top 40 music is dabbling in these days, and, well, it's bouncy, and the song titles are goofy, and it's stompy and shouty and enjoyable, and it's absolutely nothing special. I imagine I might put it on from time to time, but it'll never replace The Black Parade in my heart.
Natural Snow Buildings, The Centauri Agent
Remember what I was saying about drone/ambient music? Yeah, here's some more great new stuff. For all my complaints about overlong albums, sometimes it's OK to go on for an hour and forty-six minutes. Largely organic, with some electronic elements (I think), this is just absolutely killer, cosmic, psychedelic folk. The first disc is more superficially static (and, to my ears, a bit better) than the second: two long tracks that, for lack of a better word, just sparkle (i.e., they sound like they're sparkling, that's not just me running out of synonyms for "great" although I clearly am). One of my all-time favorite albums, Eliane Radigue's Kyema, is subtitled Intermediate States for the way the apparently still music is actually always in flux; like that album, this entire disc is a succession of intermediate states, always on its way somewhere else, but subtly, slowly, almost imperceptibly.
The second disc takes the basic sound established on the first and turns it into something that might almost be called songs (even with vocals, sometimes), and, while as I said I do prefer the first disc, well, that's a personal problem. The whole thing is just breathtaking, gorgeously creative work. I've been hearing about Natural Snow Buildings for a while now but only just got around to checking them out; in situations like these, a sizable back catalog is one of the most exciting things in the world. Another for the best list.
Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me
You will be shocked to learn what my objection to this triple album is. It's not the idea of transferring Newsom's on-and-on songwriting style from the realm of Vashti Bunyan weirdo folk to that of the 70s singer-songwriters; that was I think a very clever idea, and while at first one misses the old sound, interpreting it as a loss of some part of Newsom's idiosyncrasy, one quickly realizes that it is nothing of the sort, and that while we'll always have Ys we don't always need another one. In fact, Newsom here sounds if anything more singular, more wonderfully unusual than before; while one expects unconventional songwriting from a woman so consistently (and understandably) described as pixieish or elfin or faeaeaeaerielike or whatever, the same writing style emerging from stylistic elements we recognize more from such concretely ordinary people as Carly Simon or (post-Brill Building) Carole King is much more startling and every bit as satisfying.
So, all that sounds great. Unfortunately, this is a triple (!) album and over two hours long, which is quite the obstacle! I may be missing something, but I have yet to divine any reason for the great length beyond an inability on the part of the artist to part with any of her songs. Which, though entirely understandable from her point of view, is not particularly justifiable from mine. And as much as I love this sound and this songwriter and this singer, by the time we get to the end of the eighteen tracks (only three of which are under five minutes, most of which are well over) I am exhausted. My advice: listen to it in parts only, and it will reward you.