As is custom, a new decade ushers in an abundance of ideas. It seemed as if every artist or band created some form of music this year and when it was good then hell, it was good. Album sales continue to peter off but somehow the creative process flourished. The album, a medium of conversation that critics felt was being eroded, is back as a talking social point across the world. This final part- of three parts-- looks at the very best of the year and how hip/hop records have totally dominated the year. Here we go:
1: Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West returns after a forgettable past year and he’s immediately astride the current resurgence in hip/hop. Monster grooves for days amid the subservient lyrics. How he manages to swirl Jay Z, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver into it is his own secret. Runaway name-checks his ego and those who put up with it over a soulful groove but nothing tops the no-holds barred Power, with its catchy yet deft chorus. So Appalled is self-depreciation magnified with a sense of sarcasm. West also continues his hot streak as king of reinvention; he juxtaposes Pharrell Williams and a Foxy Brown sample to great effect on Don’t Stop. Ditto for the retro vibe of Devil in a New Dress. Devil, indeed.
2: Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me
In the end, love or hate the format, Newsom has yet again successfully pushed the boundaries of her art-form up a notch. She has forced us to view contemporary music as progressive and clever. This feat mirrors the re-positioning of pop that Bjork achieved in the 1990s as well as the way M.I.A viciously detonated the genre with third-world consciousness a mere decade later. Newsom may never be seen as revolutionary as those women but that’s exactly where all this is heading. What she shares with them is a stubborn, singular vision that will have its way and succeed despite being antithetical to everything else around it. Similarly, she may never reinvent sensuality as rabidly as Tori Amos did nor be as hallucinatory as Kate Bush in full flight. Neither is this some sort of Joni Mitchell-like folk revivalism. Instead Newsom resides somewhere betwixt them all in a fantastic web of complexity. And in this lovely process that lasts for two hours, she has given us yet another great album.
3: Janelle Monae
Dance or Die is a nifty club number with a stunning guitar rave up towards its end. Faster flames out into a Badu-esque last few minutes that literally bring the funk curtain down on any thoughts of insincere flattery. Locked Inside juxtaposes her lovelorn vocals with a warm chorus and rhythms that wash over in seamless bliss. Come Alive literally does just that under her screams and electronic guitars. Oh Maker is a simplistic ballad but the multiple-vocal work is brilliantly layered to full effect. Mushrooms and Roses, a track dipped into so much Prince-like energy that by the time the electric guitars trip in you’ve already died and gone to heaven. These are simple songs but when the music is this glorious then it feels miles ahead of anything else R&B has now sake for Badu and Santi White. Cold War and Tightrope, the first two singles, both gloriously expand on Monae’s funk credentials. Tightrope evinces so much dirty funk that it’s hard to imagine your midsection not quivering under its command. Cold War ups the amps with its horns and irresistible beats. At such groovy moments, she becomes inhabited by a huge source of proto-funk, the source origin I’m still trying to figure out but all those years hanging around with Outkast have clearly influenced her.
4: Big Boi
Sir Lucious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty
A stunning opus that serves as a tool of red-hot revenge against his many naysayers. It doesn’t feature a single Dre moment either in its near hour long spell. Patton’s gift has always been to produce a comfort zone for others around him to bloom Tangerine, a clear interpolation of Eve’s Tambourine—gets a star turn by T.I but Patton hijacks parts with some brilliant wordplay. After their magic on her own opus, Janelle Monae turns up to direct the action on Be Still. Sir Lucious sees him taking more centre stage though. Follow Us is pure black swagger that takes a swipe at Jive (‘before the fame I was the s-it/now I’m just big’). He even drags the overrated Gucci Mane into some potent lines on Shine Blockas before stealing back all the thunder. Daddy Fat Sax finds him in his best tongue-tying form, almost seeming to show off his level of flow and emceeing. Lead single Shutterbug creeps over a steady 808 groove replete with shimmering textures. Turns Me On features a jazzy chorus and Joi, beautifully refrained as always, as Patton changes up his flow to deliver yet again.
5: Sufjan Stevens
The Age of ADZ
The immediate difference between The Age of Adz and its predecessors though is the fact that instead of interpolations of ideas, Stevens now is sharing real, actual things that we’ve all felt during our lives. The relatable factor is what makes the opener Futile Devices touching even amid his trademark acoustic arrangement. I Walked, the standout, starts out with a quasi-R&B beat but mutates into a mournful wall of reverb that ricochets so sumptuously that it’s exhilarating and sad at the same time. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same Sufjan Stevens we’ve thought on as a Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, Republican-voting and lily white moralist the past decade.
6: Summer Camp
Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey are more than lovers; they’re the duo behind Summer Camp, the duo responsible for the year’s best EP. It’s just over twenty minutes but the breezy brilliance contained on these six songs should be criminal: Jake Ryan features Sankey’s easy vocals wrapping around a lithe beat but it’s so damned catchy that it shows up the distance other electro-pop bands have to catch up to. Why Don’t You Stay features a newer blues hybrid than that coming from bands like Best Coast. Round the Moon sounds ethereal with its pockets of day-glo beats. Was it Worth It loops the opposing vocals into a neat, tidy ribbon but still feels fresh. Veronica Sawyer slumbers drunkenly along but when Sankey repeats the line, ’I’ve got so much more than this’, over and over again then it’s the stuff of greatness, leaving the listener humbled yet totally indebted.
7: Twin Shadow
We’ve spent such a long time trying to unearth the latest Prince reinvention that we haven’t realized that indie’s real hero remain David Bowie. Twin Shadow is George Lewis Jr, who is Dominican-born. Yes indie-heads, you’re newest messiah isn’t white but as assorted as his masterful music. If Bradford Cox is reinventing shoegaze as mini-operas then Twin Shadow’s debut is bringing the 80s pop scene back massively. Everything is technically masterfully in place, all the vocal work tweaked to perfection, just as Bowie does it. Tether Beats slams so subtlety that the vocals seem like ghostly musings. Slow reverses that order, pasting its voice as the main tool. The nostalgia is overwhelming but brilliantly so and voila, like FrYars last year, this is the best batch of pop songs by a new artist.
MAYA panders too much to expected fame, is an imperfect blueprint, rails too hard to be noticed and bloats on its own excess...all traits that are uniquely American. All M.I.A has done is captured these elements, jotted them down and delivered a Sandburg-esque ode to a country she must surely love and hate in equal measure. Indeed, that is the uncompromising sentiment that hovers around this record. Hate her now but it’s also worth asking that if this is her ‘worst’ album then how comes it’s still ten times more interesting than anything her counterparts can produce even at their best?
9: Tanya Stephens
Infallible continues Stephens’ trend of jetting away from the crowd even while exploring the same issues. She’s added so much more melody too: No Strings Attached is a perfect example of this. The song examines the current state of the ‘sex buddy’ system but never sounds dated or trite. Elsewhere, social and ethical responsibility are explored, particularly the struggles of the discriminated and women. What Stephens does better than her peers is bring a point across without being preachy. Still Alive raps hypocrisy square on its finger. The title track is dedicated to her daughter and is a precious examination of her own life and legacy. She maintains her femininity though without the crassness dominating the dancehall culture with tasty tracks like Try Me (‘try me/ when you climb up on it/ you a go think/ you Spanish-fly me’) and Bury a Bone that’s a devilish ditty.
10: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
There’s always been some untested genius level in Ariel Pink but here, finally, it gets tastefully measured on the stunning Before Today. If the opener Hot Body Rub serves as a mere introduction then consider what follows as a smorgasbord of the most filling post-punk air you’ve had the privilege of inhaling in a while. He’s kept it full of fun too: Fright Night (Nevermore) is a sun-drenched scare that fits best in dreams as well as Halloween. Butt-House Blondies best illustrates the lo-fi recording tactic of Pink to give his textures the extra cheese and glam. This is punk for contemporary ears; ears that can wax metrosexual on Menopause Man without a second thought.