I don’t know if it’s just that, as I write this, an excellent article on the influence of internet market pressures on music writing, and so on music, is blowing up my Tumblr, but it does feel like music in the last year has been structured by the internet in a qualitatively new way. The internet has been the way I (and I’m sure many people) have primarily found out about new music for years now, but it seems like the specific differences of the internet both accelerated and went mainstream this year. 2012 opened, more or less, with Lana Del Rey on Saturday Night Live and with her the mass-media arrival of FULL TROLLGAZE. I’m still not sure I get the economics of trollgaze. I mean, we don’t literally live in an attention economy, and at some point you have to monetize this attention; I see how Buzzfeed can monetize Lana Del Rey’s controversy, but how does LDR make money by trolling people? But, then, I’m not sure her project is entirely about trollgaze; her music is actually quite good, particularly her more recent EP, which is more self-conscious in its deployment of the oddness of her voice and the creepiness of her lyrical choices, culminating with her summing up the sticky-sweet erotics of nostalgic Americana on “Cola.” The other side of the Buzzfeedification of music is the meme-ification of the one-hit wonder; a foreign-language song becoming a novelty hit on the basis of a dance video isn’t exactly new, but the way “Gangnam Style” became popular through YouTubed reinterpretations is kind of new (what effect will this have on the form of future one-hit wonders?).
Of course, you’ve read all the think pieces, you’re saying “But Psy isn’t a one-hit wonder, he’s a respected satirist in his native Korea.” Which, maybe, but a one-hit wonder is more a matter of context than the career of an artist or the quality of a song, and the transfiguration of song into meme probably assists this process: witness the case of Carly Rae Jepsen, a respected artist in her native Canada. “Call Me Maybe” is extraordinary (I’ve heard it god knows how many times, and I’m still amazed every time; what is it that is so seductive about the way those strings cut off a fraction of a second before they would naturally decay?), but, even more extraordinary, most of the other tracks on her album are close to being as good. I think my favorite non-Call-Me-Maybe track is “Tiny Little Bows,” which could be a parallel universe track from Kylie’s filter house phase; I was tragically slow to realize the early-Britney brilliance of “Your Heart is a Muscle” (it was the stop-start synths in the post chorus which finally converted me). This is rather slim evidence on which to manufacture a trend, but I wonder if Jepsen’s butterflies-in-the-stomach flutteriness is part of a pendulum swing against the abject obliterativeness of the kind of rave-pop that’s been popular for the last few years. You can perhaps see this a bit in the euphoric fizziness of my favourite bit of rave-pop from 2012, “Light Me Up” by Parade; hopefully they’ll release some more records in 2013. More significantly, Ke$ha managed to smuggle heart-in-mouth flutteriness in apocalypse-pop’s clothing in “Die Young,” the lead single to an album that wasn’t the “cock pop” she’d claimed the record was going, more “crush pop.” For reference, see the enormously adorable lyric video for the album’s crushiest song, “C’Mon.”
Something else which, if not a reaction to, is at least a contrast to banging rave-pop is something that I think I’ve seen called Goth R&B; that seems like a good name, anyway, for various recent R&B, or R&B-influenced, artists who combine a certain excess of emotional intensity with a cold and controlled production. I first encountered the term as a description of Melanie Fiona’s “4AM,” which I love for the way the slight vocal processing on the swelling vocals of the chorus alienates what would otherwise be a too-intense emotion (it also reminds me of Riskay’s 2008 classic “Smell Yo Dick,” a track which is way more affecting than the title suggests). “4AM” is the only track from Melanie Fiona which fits this goth R&B tag, from an album which is curiously divided between incredibly generic and really quite unexpected tracks, like “Bones.” The artist who has developed this Coldness and R&B aesthetic most fully is Dawn Richard, in two great EPs, Armor On and Whiteout, which use some of the same dance resources as the big rave&B hits to create a very different mood; my favourite tracks are “Black Lipstick” and “Miles,” respectively. You could probably also include JoJo’s recent records here, particularly “Demonstrate,” which manages to compress much more erotic yearning than I would have expected into the banal-seeming word, “demonstrate” (this may be off her forthcoming album? Following the difficulties she’s having actually releasing music is a full-time job); her (musically excellent and diacritically accurate) mixtape seems to be moving in a different direction, though. Arguably Cassie has been making this kind of music for her entire career, although I think there’s a subtle difference between Dawn Richard’s exquisite control of emotional expression and Cassie’s expression of willed emotional blankness. Cassie released one excellent track, “King of Hearts,” and another track on which she was excellent alongside a bafflingly out of place swaggering Jeezy verse. Expanding consideration to this kind of willed affectless, though, includes some other tracks from this year: Charli XCX’s “You’re the One” (which for my money isn’t anything like as good as her more obvious 80s revival track from last year, “Nuclear Seasons”), and Sky Ferreira’s wonderfully indifferent “Everything is Embarrasing”; “maybe if you tried then I would not bother” is the new “should’ve known, should’ve cared.” Nothing else on the follow-up EP was as good, and indeed the EP featured a re-edited version of “Everything is Embarrassing” which subtly made it shit, overstuffed and fussy, rather than minimal.
Both Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira worked with Dev Hynes, as did Solange, who might also fit into this goth R&B category I’m manufacturing, or its close relative, Tumblr&B (despite sometimes valiant efforts, I’m not sure how easy it is to draw a sharp line between the two). “Losing You” is great, a beautifully simplistic melodic line, augmented with just enough producerly flourishes to draw out the full perception of its ennui. The full EP from which it’s drawn shows Dev Hynes songwriting and production at greater length, and does make me more sympathetic to people who have criticized his songs as unfinished: there’s a fine line between being simple and being slapdash; “Losing You” is absolutely the right side of that line, but “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work” relies slightly too much on a great title and not quite enough on actually writing a song (splitting “wo-ork” over two notes as it is in the chorus is an obvious crutch for not having a tune which surely wouldn’t have survived a second draft of the song), and none of the other tracks are as masterfully tightly put together as “Losing You,” though “Lovers in the Parking Lot” comes close (and also gets bonus points with me for reminding me of “Parking Lot” by Nivea).
If Solange’s evident interest in the opinions of indie hipsters marks her as part of the Tumblr&B trend, Frank Ocean seems to end up there more because of the interest indie hipsters have in him (which ambivalence, not to mention the reliance on the dubiously coherent category of the hipster, marks the difficulty in trying to make Tumblr&B into a clear enough category to really say anything about). I don’t think Channel Orange is quite as good an album as Nostalgia, Ultra was, but clearly Ocean knows how to write a song: “Pyramids,” “Thinkin Bout You,” “Pilot Jones,” and “Pink Matter” with a lovely rap from André 3000 (he also knows how to write a really terrible song: “Super Rich Kids,” which has a tune as boring as its lyrics are clichéd). Depending on how you parcel it up, Miguel may be Tumbr&B (because indie kids on Tumblr like him) or real R&B (because urban radio likes him); anyway, “Adorn” is great, primarily because of its beat constructed out of throbs, squishes, and pops. Probably the most uncontested members of the Tumblr&B category would be The Weeknd and How to Dress Well, neither of whom I have any interest in.
Usher presumably counts as proper R&B, and released a pretty excellent album; most of the critical attention seems to have been paid to “Climax” (written in part, I’ve just noticed, by Ariel Reichshaid, who worked with Charli XCX and Sky Ferrera, so maybe Usher is Tumblr&B after all) and “Scream,” a rave&B track that really benefits from Usher’s vocals. I’d like to draw attention, though, to “I Care For U” and “I. F. U.” which are both part of what I think is an underground trend in late-90s-Timbaland-revivalism.This is also on display in Justin Bieber’s album, specifically on the track “Out of Town Girl,” which I suppose makes sense as part of his ongoing plan to be Justin Timberlake. I hadn’t previously been a particular fan of Bieber, but the best track on Believe is one of the best tracks of the year. “As Long as You Love Me,” which uses the youthfulness of Bieber’s voice to project a frail but resilient beauty in the face of the sublime storm conjured up by brostep drops. You could perhaps view this divergence of brostep sounds away from full-on banging tunes as a similar move to that made by Dawn Richard in relation to dance-influenced R&B. I do like dumb brostep drops a lot, but I think I like this modulation of brostep even more, so I hope there’s more of it in 2013.
A surprising number of bands from my youth released fine new albums in 2012. Orbital released a record which is more restrained than I would have expected, but beautiful; even better is Words and Music by Saint Etienne, one of the best albums of the year. Saint Etienne have perfected their sound to such an extent it seems effortless, which makes the evident enthusiasm of the record all the more engaging: it thematizes Saint Etienne’s theory of the value of pop in a perhaps more explicit way than their previous records, which could be too on the nose but to me seems like a perfect adequacy of content to form. “I’ve Got Your Music” and “Last Days of Disco” are particularly good. Less enthusiasm in the Pet Shop Boys Elysium; the title is presumably ironic, as the Pet Shop Boys may be over the hill, but they haven’t gone to a better place. It’s a slight and weary record about anxieties about ageing and withering away, most obviously on “Invisible.” It’s an interesting record, but not one I love; the last track, “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin,” at least suggests a certain rapprochement with the slipping away of time. I kind of want to include Jessie Ware’s Devotion here, because although she’s not an artist of my youth, she does seem to be extending Katy B’s project of reviving the tasteful side of 90s dance pop; indeed, there are points where the record goes FULL M PEOPLE in its dinner-party soundtrack mode, like “Night Light,” and “Wildest Moments” is lovely, but comes a little too close to sounding like it was designed to play under a BBC Olympics montage. “110%” is also very mid-90s tasteful, but in a Nellee Hooper way which is more to my personal taste.
2012 was the year of female rappers! IDK, this kind of declaration always seems a bit problematic, driven by the “three examples is a trend” school of journalism. But maybe it’s true that a bit more space is opening up for women in rap to be more diverse? There are some well-worn scripts for women in rap: either sexy, or gangster, or, very occasionally, both; the successful female MCs of the past have managed to be great while navigating these stereotypes, while female MCs now maybe have more opportunities outside these stereotypes. I’m thinking especially of Angel Haze, whose Reservation EP is introspective and painful with hard-won wisdom, as well as being boastful and banging; and also the terribly-named 3D Na’Tee, who illustrates the kind of diversity women in rap have traditionally struggled to have recognized, as well as explaining the situation explicitly on “Hi Industry,” while also turning in a fluttery and gorgeous record with Keri Hilson. I wonder if you could say something similar about the diversity of Nicki Minaj’s output; some people have considered this a result of the intensified pressure on artists to chase ever smaller and more fragmented demographics, which it may be, but, then, Minaj has always been interested in being a pop artist at the same time she’s a hip-hop artist (listen to the career plans she lays out on her mixtapes). And, particularly with the added tracks on the Re-up EP, Roman Reloaded is a great record: “Roman Holiday,” “Beez in the Trap,” “Starships,” “Pound the Alarm,” “Gun Shot,” “Freedom,” “The Boys,” “Va Va Voom”; pop and hip-hop tracks which add up to “those few seconds, [when] 8,000 fans – tweens in tutus there with their dads, teenage girls in puffa jackets who had made the pilgrimage all the way from Somerset, jagged-haired hipsters on day release from East London – raised their voices to sing lustily, meaning every word: ‘Dick in your face. Put my dick in your faa-aaa-aaace.’” In other hip-hop news, Killer Mike released a great album (I’d previously managed to miss his transformation from the leering goof on “A.D.I.D.A.S.” to a really sharp political artist), The Guardian published such an awful article on Kendrick Lamar’s album (“Zap! Pow! Rap Isn’t Just for Kids,” basically) I, probably unfairly, still haven’t got round to listening to it; and I’ve just remembered that Nas released an album, which I definitely listened to a couple of times and can now remember nothing about, not even what it’s called, so it must have been pretty fucking boring.
And then there was Kitty Pryde, the rap-game Taylor Swift, which leads me to what I’m increasingly thinking is 2012′s best album, Taylor Swift’s Red. I’m going to chalk it up to Swift’s commendable orneriness that, just as I was writing something about Swift’s defensive use of language, she releases an album that largely drops the defensiveness, although not through finding safety but through giving up on the need for reassurance. There’s an interesting comparison between “Holy Ground” on the new album and “Our Song,” from her first. “Our Song” charms with its worldly love story, in which “our song” is made up of the mundane sounds of a relationship, but there’s an odd transcendent moment, in which these fragments of life are held together by God (“and when I got home / before I said amen / asking God if he / could play it again”). “Holy Ground” flirts with a similar religious theme (“that was the first day / and darling it was good”) but pointedly refuses transcendence (“and right there where we stood / was holy ground”). That seems to be the theme of the album: an embrace of the bodily ecstatic along with an awareness of the risk of dissolution that accompanies this oceanic feeling. This is reflected lyrically and musically on the gorgeous “Treacherous” (“I can’t decide if it’s a choice / Getting swept away / … / And all we are is skin and bone”) which twinkles on the edge of dissolution until words (and identity) run out as the music swells and Swift stammers “I I I / I I I.” It’s also one explanation of Swift’s pop turn, justifying the move to a more affectively manipulative musical palette. I did worry about where Swift would go after Speak Now, that her defensiveness might curdle into unpleasantness; by embracing the risk of materiality, on Red Swift also opens herself up to the possibility of the new (“and every time I don’t / I almost do”).