At its most utopian, pop music offers up a cheerily inclusive "we" for all to join. Every fan, no matter how knowing or aware, yearns at some point to be swallowed into something greater than her tiny life. This blob of desire we immerse ourselves in can be as benign as true love (manifested in the ethereal harmonies of adolescence), or as churlish as hating your parents (emerging through the Wagnerian punishment of guitar thud.)
Either way, in good times, behind this yearning is a decent yen: to realize one's true self within an imaginary community of others.
But now we is a loaded word, meaning "not you" with a vengeance. And the nature of that amorphous mass sensibility has shifted to knee-jerk patriotism or unlicensed group therapy. Whether "we" prefer Creed or Aaron Tippin, Enya or Celine Dion, there are plenty of big vacuous places being prepared for us to lose ourselves in and feel like good, spiritual people who'll never need to think about what our group participation means. Suddenly, the mere escapism of a Britney extravaganza seems like an almost noble pursuit.
So please excuse me for opting out of the first-person plural this twelve-month. Thank you Beyoncé and Ja Rule and Petey Pablo and J to the Izzo V to the Izzay for all you've done to try to convince me otherwise. But the steep decline in the quality of black pop, teen pop, and dolt rock meant the real pleasures this year were less publicized. So here, in all their shameful subjectivity, are my thoughts on ten aural realities I found worth visiting repeatedly over the past year. Each is idiosyncratic, the product of sharp brains and industrious little fingers. Not coincidentally, even the most "commercial" of these sold less than projected. None is likely to seriously affect the pop world I still love from a distance.
Maybe next year will be different. God bless whoever.
1. BOB DYLAN
Love and Theft
Forget all that felgerkarb about Bob's rasping parables prefiguring 9/11. That's just desperate Dylanologists bestowing belated cultural relevance upon a wily pro whose end-time prophecies are no longer necessarily more acute than the millennial divinations of Dave Mustaine or Busta Rhymes. 'Course, Bob's apocalypse is much funnier, as punchy with epigrammatic non sequiturs as when it seemed he could reel off fractured couplets over 12-bar slash-and-stagger like this in perpetuity. Now that we know the coot can't keep it up, his fallibility lends him a previously unappreciated vulnerability. Who knows--if his next two records stink up the joint, this may even sound, um, prophetic. Well, prescient, maybe. Forward-thinking, anyway.
Lurching where trance glides, leering where house winks, overheating where techno chills, this cramped, pleasing funk is as stylistically akin to Frankie Bones as Hendrix was to Charlie Christian. Vulgar beatmen Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe jostle their way across a crowded dance floor crotch-first, make new friends as they slink into an Erotic City grind, spill your drink leaping to a sudden football cheer, and promulgate the timeless message of utopian hedonism: All you need is love, so if you can't find a partner, hump a wooden chair.
3. THE WHITE STRIPES
White Blood Cells
Sympathy For the Record Industry
Even back when trashy teen protopunks ruled the garage, they were lucky to haul off with one just-right hook. So these 16 riff-tunes are such a miracle of primitive wonderment that the accompanying hysterical rants (about being a sane and decent fella who likes you a lot) are just frosting on the beater. Jack White quotes Charles Foster Kane out of context, he finds it "harder to be a gentleman every day," he counts to seven and demands, "If I'm the man you love the most/You could say 'I do' at least." Meanwhile, Meg White, who apparently did once say, "I do" to her guitarist before deciding she didn't and masquerading instead as his sis, mutely bashes more cymbals than any drummer since Ringo--as if to shrug and say, "Boys."
4. THE COUP
Let's pretend, just for a moment, that we live in a country where civil liberties are being curtailed by a shady regime intent on siphoning government funds to bloated, inept corporations. Sure is one way of looking at things, huh? And it calls for some response greater than turning "What's Goin' On" into an all-star "Kumbaya." MC Boots Riley never lets the righteousness of his rage dull the incision of his wit. Pam the Funkstress never allows the buzzing electrodetails of her mix to distract from the lope of her P-Funk bump-and-shimmy. And if the disenfranchised won't dance to homicidal fantasies about offing the shiftless rich, then the terrorists have already won. United we stand, muhfuh.
5. BLACK BOX RECORDER
The Facts of Life
Right as rain and just as damp, Luke Haines's synth patterns trickle past spare drumbeats in a languid contest to see which can seem the most innocuous. Call it drip hop--aural drizzle as an indicator of romantic malaise, of the Brit variant, natch. But just because Sarah Nixey coos with the calm tenderness of a latent sociopath doesn't mean she wants to hurt you. It's just the facts of life, that's the way love goes, and anyway, it's not her, it's you.