We’ve reached the end of the year, and the annual collection of retrospective lists in the media. I’d be remiss not to add one myself. Instead of a typical “Top 10”, here are a few songs I had some thoughts about.
One of the songs that just would not leave radio, “Blurred Lines” had a bit of a slow burn for me. The first time I saw it was in a Radio Shack commercial for the Beats By Dre BeatsPill. The capsule-shaped speaker would be in several other videos afterward. At the time, my interaction with traditional radio was infrequent and I didn’t hear the song as much. When I did hear it, it was inescapable.
The song itself finds Robin Thicke just making some statements about how he might be blind and asking what rhymes with hug me, interspersed with Pharrell interjecting with hey-hey-hey-everybody-get-up. T.I. adds a phoned-in verse no one remembers. Essentially, “Blurred Lines” is about Thicke’s protagonist getting drunk and maybe not having one hundred percent consensual sex?
Superficially, I don’t think most of the listening audience ever got that from the song. Perhaps they just heard Thicke being so disappointed that he just doesn’t get what the hell is going on. A closer inspection of the subtext finds that maybe he’s got some troubling ulterior motives. As such, it was given an extremely close scrutinization for a few weeks over the summer. Robin Thicke had a thinly-veiled response and quite honestly, it failed to make much of an impression.
“Blurred Lines” is not necessarily the worst song in terms of this subject matter and Thicke did nothing to help its weak defenses.
Pharrell ruled the summer by having a hand in “Blurred Lines” and being the focal point of Daft Punk‘s return single, “Get Lucky”. Initially previewed in an ad during Saturday Night Live, the song made a buzz due to how celebrated the French house duo have become.
Daft Punk are ultimately kind of boring. They’re electronic music people for who hate electronic music, pop scientists who come up with the same formula that casual fans fall for every single time. By adding Pharrell and Rogers, they veer a little bit in a different direction and add a disco-reminiscent style to their oeuvre.
“Get Lucky” is another song in the long history of tracks about gettin’ it, with no complexity to it all. Pharrell does not try to cloak his message in metaphors or anything poetic. Why is everyone up all night? We’re up all night to get lucky and possibly for some good fun.
As a party-friendly song with one of the preeminent hitmakers of the past fifteen years, it was the most palatable song for casual fans of Daft Punk ever. As such, it became their biggest hit. Still, it’s Daft Punk and they’re not that great.
If Daft Punk needed to earn a new spot after being out for a while, Timberlake and Jay-z needed to reclaim places they already had. Justin Timberlake hadn’t released an album since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Jay-Z was just around but you know he had to compete in a busy year for rap.
Timberlake went orchestral with the lead single for The 20/20 Experience, accentuating the occasional couplet with a trumpet flare here and there. He’s madly in love with someone-his wife, I guess- talking about having a nice night out and then getting down to business. “Suit and Tie” had a nice run, but didn’t get the dominating radio play that Timberlake had become accustomed.
Jay-Z’s feature could have been eliminated, an addition that was probably a calculated move to get on rap radio. Whereas Pharrell reclaimed his spot with a vengeance, Timberlake and Jay-Z came up flat.
Kanye West has barely left the spotlight since he became a household name sometime around 2005, when “Gold Digger” reached deep into the American conscience. Since then, he’s done everything to his liking, with little to no care about how we would be received by the press, fans, or his peers.
In his mind, he has never failed at making music. West is somewhat right. He has never made a bad album, and records like The College Dropout and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are perfect. In between solo records, West collaborated with Jay-Z on Watch The Throne and the haphazard Cruel Summer compilation. One of the singles from Cruel Summer, “Clique” was a great precursor for where Kanye was headed. No longer light and playful, he was showing a vulnerability and distress.
While much was made of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on his latest, Yeezus, I found “Blood on the Leaves” to stand out. Over a sample of “Strange Fruit”, Nina Simone’s classic depiction of racism in America, spliced among a pounding beat from TNGHT, Ye expresses all of his problems. He’s clearly still distressed from his mother’s death and trying to explain away all of the distractions in his highly public relationship with Kim Kardashian.
West takes time in the song’s third verse to explain the false hope and promises in relationships. He’s been here before and it acts a warning shot more than a confession, Ye using his experiences as example. Like the entirety of Yeezus, the song’s importance outweighs its musicality.
Musicality is the single most important part of the emergence of HAIM (Haim?). The three sisters from Los Angeles made the rock album with the biggest impact in terms of debut, being another one of those albums that crossed Pitchfork lines into places like SNL.
The era the Haims are trying to recreate is hard to pinpoint. It’s somewhere between 1976 and 1992, as far as I can tell. Guitar sound wise, it’s definitely trying to replicate sounds from the late seventies. Where they really get me, at least, are the flourishes in the drums and rhythm section from the mid to late 80s. Doing such sounds so perfect, now.
Haim’s album doesn’t really deviate track-to-track, but that’s a good thing. They’ve found a nice style, and there’s not necessarily a need to tinker with it this early. “The Wire” is their calling card, after “Forever” had garnered some satellite radio play.
“The Wire” has all of the flourishes and guitars you might expect, with the Haims sharing vocals. A song about heartbreak, its refrain of “I fumbled and came down to the wire” a constant reminder of how the narrator has lost control of the situation at hand.
When you’ve been called “soft” your whole career as a rapper, you have two options. You can either claim that you know some people or you can just fucking go with it. Drake does both on his newest, Nothing Was the Same. Drizzy took on all comers this year, addressing his peculiar rise to fame on “Started from the Bottom”, his softer side on “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and I-know-some-gangsters-or-whatever on “The Language”.
“Hold On” has become his biggest single for radio from Nothing Was the Same, the type of track that dominates every possible station. Drake does not attempt to rap at all on the song, and it’s one of the best moves he’s made. Simplistic and utilitarian, he’s committed to making the best decision possible for his relationship.
Commitment Drake, as we’ll call him, is the main calling card for other rappers and critics. They have a cognitive dissonance between seeing the same guy who is full of brag-raps on “Worst Behaviour” have any type of compassion whatsoever on “Hold On”. As much as people want artists to explore and try new things, they certainly get defensive when it happens.
You can try new things, and if you’re Phoenix, you’ll succeed. Not varying too much from their usual system, they made another solid album with Bankrupt!. Now, I realize the comments I made about Daft Punk. The difference in the French artists? Phoenix manages to be enjoyable every time out.
After the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they certainly had a lot to live up to. While nothing got as much attention as “1901” the album was certainly a solid output from one of this era’s best bands. “Entertainment” is a testament to solid songwriting and honing your craft.
It stops and starts in the right moments, creating anticipation and excitement right when it’s needed. Too often, song craft becomes weaker with each passing album from a band. Some artists, like Spoon, can make that same solid album consistently. Phoenix rose to that occasion this year.
Arcade Fire certainly have rocketed up the charts from unknown band to indie darlings to Grammy-winning monsters in the span of a decade. After the mega-successful The Suburbs, the band went back into the studio with a new influence. Enter James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame, who added a bit more of his trademark dance sound to the normal Arcade Fire situation.
Unlike The Suburbs, Arcade Fire went all out on the new record. To announce their new album, also titled Reflektor, they premiered their video on the Internet with an interactive video. The distraction of the site took away from the song at first. Coming in at seven minutes, it’s a long study in grooves and the island influences that mark the album as a whole.
Win Butler’s yelp of “It was just a reflector!” is at once a punctuation mark on each measure at is annoying. Nonetheless, it will get stuck in your head along with the infectious groove, again courtesy of Murphy. Reflektor was another great effort from Arcade Fire, though ultimately falling short of its predecessor.
Jay Electronica has been one of rap’s biggest mysteries for years, a guy who refuses to put out his first full-length despite growing older and less relevant by the moment. Kendrick Lamar is rap’s critical darling of the moment, a guy who had a fantastic debut and brought relevance back to Los Angeles. Big Sean is a popular radio rapper whose label has enough money to afford Jay Elec and Kendrick.
With such a roster, one might expect Big Sean to at least show up and then Kendrick and Electronica to best him by half-assing it. Instead, Lamar took the song by the throat and called out anyone he could name off the top of his head and declared himself king. No one had done that in a while, and he did this all unprovoked. Perhaps feeling slighted, he went on a verbal rampage that got the internet talking for a week or so. Such a timeframe is an eternity online.
Jay Electronica, who’s usually the guy who steals these things, is subjected to some other corner of thought. Had he released his verse by himself, it might get more traction. Instead, he’s a passenger to one of the most dynamic actions of the year.
Lorde is the success story of the year, even if she’s had a recording contract for a while. From New Zealand, the teen songwriter/performer made quite the splash with “Royals” which has found its way to every speaker possible.
I’ve written at length about the importance of “Royals” and Lorde’s debut record, Pure Heroine. As entertaining and important as “Royals” is, I think “Tennis Courts” better represents Lorde’s overall message an artist. On tracks like “Team” she uses her modest upbringing as a model for the acceptance and consequent rejection of the lifestyles eschewed in the media being presented to her and her friends.
At her core, Lorde is still a teenager and has to deal with fitting in, defining who she wants to be, and a host of other influences. The opener on Pure Heroine, “Tennis Court” serves as a springboard for the rest of the album. In the hook, she proclaims “it’s a new art form, showing how little we care”. Her youth speaks, as this has been an act that’s been put on for generations. Still, she manages to convey how she understands the need to present some sort of image for people to label for better understanding.
Lorde’s music is a reaction to everything Taylor Swift has done in her career. Swift is clear and to the point about her endless storybook romances and disasters, set to innocuous country-pop melodies. Lorde’s clearly been influenced by rap radio and independent rock, with more poetic songwriting that clearly acts as a rhythmic confessional. T-Swift has grown up in the spotlight, but her music has barely grown up with her. Lorde has hit instant stardom, and would be nice not to see her music suffer because of it.
Friday: some albums I thought about.