Since Purity Ring, Death Grips and Tame Impala didn’t exactly take off this year like Arcade Fire or Animal Collective, Pitchfork’s cultural influence might be cooling off, which is bittersweet since their writer stable is probably better now than it ever was (some of us don’t miss those novelty reviews), and their point-of-view has gotten less indie-elitist and more friendly to female artists, pop and r&b in particular in 2012. But the overarching editorial tastes still tend toward a certain narrative that so many artists do not follow, the whole “victory lap” adage, people ascending until their career crashes and burns, before a triumphant comeback. This sort of sensationalized trajectory really doesn’t happen with most artists, who sometimes make good albums and sometimes make disappointing ones. And many artists who’ve stagnated or are on their way “down” still make more essential music than whoever du jour is on the rise. So here’s a bunch of good records that Pitchfork missed the forest for the trees on. (Full disclosure: I’ve written there in the past. We didn’t agree a lot. Also a few fellow Sound of the City people write there too, don’t judge them based on my haterade.)
David Byrne/St. Vincent – Love This Giant
Pitchfork rating: 5.9
What they said: “With precious few exceptions, neither Clark nor Byrne seems willing to push the other into new musical territory that might contain revelations about either. The songs merely stand apart from life and dryly comment on its strangeness.”
Au Contraire: As someone lukewarm on St. Vincent and completely astringent towards Byrne’s post-Talking Heads career, I’ll definitely vouch for the falseness of that first part. The herky-jerky horn arrangements give Annie Clark an upright, marching urgency that her own albums lack (this year’s Big Black-channeling “Krokodil” single also helped show she can do more than boring art-prog indie), and somehow she must’ve edited Byrne’s songwriting into funky little nuggets again. The leadoff “Who” and oddly danceable “Lazarus” take rhythm ideas from tUnE-yArDs, while “The One Who Broke Your Heart” unabashedly recalls Buster Poindexter’s ’80s craze “Hot Hot Hot.” That’s not new musical territory? Giant is Byrne’s best venture since Music for the Knee Plays, which was also horn-based. As for the dry comments on life, they have their moments, like Clark’s gorgeous Occupy-inflected chorus for “Optimist”: “I’m the optimist of 30th street/ How it is is how it ought to be.”
s/s/s – Beak & Claw
Pitchfork rating: 4.8
What they said: “The downcast, emo-rap slam poetry he works in has a perilously high carnage margin, but he keeps from plummeting off a cliff here”
Au Contraire: As a huge Serengeti fan, I’ve gotta shut down that “emo-rap” claim right quick. Serengeti is a Chicago-based indie rapper who creates sitcom-like characters he raps as, most notably Kenny Dennis, a 40-ish suburban husband who loves non-alcoholic beer and the Bears. Maybe it’s “emo” or “slam poetry” to work completely outside of the rubric typically associated with rap (drugs, money, swag blah blah), but more likely the involvement of Sufjan Stevens on this experimental one-off is the reason the reviewer signed on. So yeah, of course he keeps from plummeting off a cliff, he’s goddamn Serengeti. This is one of four very good records he made this year.
Big K.R.I.T. – 4Eva N a Day
Pitchfork rating: 6.8
What they said: “The problem with K.R.I.T.’s rapping is not that he lacks a personality; it’s that he refuses to settle into the one he has.”
Au Contraire: So much of this review places the onus on K.R.I.T.’s personality and how he fails to live up to it on this mixtape. But he really doesn’t have much personality unless you’re really, really impressed by the wizened-old-pimp thing. His two best assets are in tandem: 1) he doesn’t distract from the beats 2) that he produced himself. 4Eva N a Day was very quietly the year’s best rap album on a purely musical level; if some young buck producer released it as his debut instrumentals tape a la Clams Casino he’d be drowning in year-end hype. And in hindsight, now that we know how much the Big Boi album sucked, maybe it’s time to revisit this perfect synthesis of down-home Aquemini spaciness and butt-simple bedroom production. And if you actually remember any of the words on this thing, they’re pretty winning and sweet: “You help me sleep,” he says to his girl. That’s enough of a personality for me.
A Place to Bury Strangers – Onwards to the Wall and Worship
Pitchfork rating: 5.8 and 6.5
What they said: “It amounts to a mostly homogenous, toothless EP that seems to be aiming for a greater appeal, but ends up appealing very little.” … “Perhaps the most problematic thing about Onward to the Wall is its timing.”
Au Contraire: The absolute worst tendency of Pitchfork is the assumption that the artist makes music for them and has to change their music according to current shifts in the landscape or risk being branded as “more of the same,” unless it’s a pet artist where all the reviewer wants is more of the same (see: M83, Real Estate, any rapper). A Place to Bury Strangers made a debut that excited everyone (8.4 Best New Music), then people were dismayed that they made the same record over and over (although they really didn’t), and that reviewer’s own boredom with covering the artist somehow becomes diminishing returns on the page. A Place to Bury Strangers do one thing and they do it well: stiff, macabre ’80s guitar noise with vampiric vocals buried in the momentum. Over four records they’ve subtly added a pop chorus here, a female voice there, but they are and will remain unfashionable until someone suddenly decides they’ve made a comeback. Their two records this year were as good as everything else they’ve done.
Lana Del Rey – Born to Die
Pitchfork rating: 5.5
What they said: “Del Rey’s gem-encrusted dreamworld, meanwhile, relies on clichés (“God you’re so handsome/ Take me to the Hamptons”) rather than specific evocations. It’s a fantasy world that makes you long for reality.”
Au Contraire: Lindsay Zoladz did a great job of explaining the Lana Del Rey conversation and major pitfalls by fellow critics about it, like the shots at her appearance and her perceived inauthenticity, but like most reviews of Born to Die, it doesn’t quite climb out from under the rock of that anti-hype itself. Yes, she’s sexually backwards–so’s Waka Flocka Flame, Rick Ross, Tyler, the Creator and Drake, all recipients of an 8.0 or higher last year. Yes, she rather joylessly crawls around looking for money and dominant males. But all that does is point to how truly harrowing the point of view is. These are expert pop songs slowed to a miserable crawl by a singer who doesn’t have it in her to rebel against her basest desires for validation. That’s more horrifying and vivid than any of Kendrick Lamar’s tales of being jumped. So many pop stars are strong women in 2012; the one who uncomfortably is not can be a compelling artist too. And Lana really is a true original weirdo: “She laughs like God/ Her mind’s like a diamond”–what the hell is that?
[Except Lana Del Rey’s album really is garbage. I don’t read Pitchfork and I think they missed the point on Big KRIT but the 5 point whatever they gave Lana’s magnum of piss is actually too high. Combining knock-off old movie soundtracks with meaningless lyrics isn’t art.]
Dan Weiss – Village Voice