Friday, December 19, 2014

Beasts of the Best of 2014: Rolling Stone

By: Ben Johnson

If you close your eyes and imagine that the way things have been presented here is the actual way they happened this year, you will then open them and find yourself quantum leaped into one of two bodies. One is a 50 year old white man, currently listening to Bob Seger on purpose and checking his investment portfolio’s performance via Google Glass while riding an recumbent bike through unnamed Suburbia at dusk. The other is a precocious but pre-embarrassment white boy of ten or eleven who has recently discovered that video games are fun to play while listening to music, and thanks to new information gleaned from friendships with slightly older but no less awkward boys from Chess Club, is now eagerly digesting whatever current crop of cynical teenybopper bands are slated for the Warped Tour this year.

This list, aside from a few subtle nods to surrounding culture (note: it only really gets going in the mid-30’s), is the exact combination of these two, a grab bag of survivalist MOR legacy acts and “edgy” bands of corporatist aural pedophiles whose logos populate the Hot Topics t-shirt aisle. It is the mawkish year-end list equivalent of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” for the self-isolated, incurious, dead-middle American white male and the eternal child trapped inside him. And like all weak-chinned American white males whose station has allowed them to float through a life untraumatized by any system more oppressive than the passage of time, emitting no characteristic more defining than a vaguely inert inner childlike oblivious softness punctuated by occasional stress-induced impotent rage, this list is kind of sweet, in an infuriating way.

This list is by and for a father and son duo who got really into flying remote control planes this last Spring. There is nothing technically wrong with flying a remote control plane, except maybe that watching somebody fly a remote control airplane provides 95% of the enjoyment of flying one yourself for roughly one four hundredth the cost, and also that watching somebody other than yourself crash a four hundred dollar remote control airplane and then go “aw shit!” is possibly the single most enjoyable form of human entertainment. This list comes close to that.

So let’s all watch as the music staff of Rolling Stone reads up on their hobby mags, holds up in the basement with Dad for weeks painstakingly soldering their 50 album list, wakes up extra early to make a full day of it, carefully hauls their gear out to a secluded field, and then immediately pilots the whole operation into the nearest big dumb obvious tree.

50. Yob, 'Clearing the Path to Ascend'

When I say this list is “for” father and son duos who got really into flying remote control planes, one of the ways it does this is with ego-inflating language, for instance this description of this Yob album: “With their seventh album – four sumptuous, sludgy tracks delivered across an hour – Yob staked their claim on doom metal's throne. Lumbering Sabbathian riffage and Neurosis' build-to-burn dynamics abound, but what sets the record apart are its gorgeous moments of peace and introspection, which shimmer like moonlight on a tar pit.” Really this is the perfect soundtrack for when your hormones make you disproportionately upset at your parents for making you do the dishes, but if you want to go with “moonlight on a tar pit” as a placeholder for that, be my guest.

49. Tinariwen, 'Emmaar'

Apparently Tuareg Rock can support the kind of big dumb sound-flattening vibe that you get from putting Buddy Guy in a 48 track digital studio with a 12-piece band of doofy session guys (the drummer has a splash cymbal) backing him. As in, whoa, this can actually support that amount of soul-deadening overproduction and still be damn good. In spots.

48. Coldplay, 'Ghost Stories'

The ghost of Gwyneth haunts my soul sometimes too. My butt soul.

47. Gary Clark Jr., 'Gary Clark Jr. Live'

Recorded live at Blues Fest in front of an audience of white people who showed up because they “love live music.” What kind? “Any.”

46. Tweedy, 'Sukierae'

Oh this is Jeff Tweedy. You know, from Wilco. Oh, okay.

45. EMA, 'The Future's Void'

This is annoying and not good.

 44. Interpol, 'El Pintor'

They should make a t-shirt that’s the Unknown Pleasures design but says Interpol underneath it. I would wear that shirt. Under the rest of my normal adult clothes, but still.

43. Future, 'Honest'

Okay guys. We get it. You’ve been to a strip club.

42. Perfume Genius, 'Too Bright'

Okay guys. We get it. You’ve performed at a strip club.

Look, these are not good jokes and I know that, but what do you want me to do? Care?

41. Aphex Twin, 'Syro'

I’ve been tolerating electronic music a lot more than usual for me recently. I’ve even listened to entire Burial tracks all the way through. On purpose. And I thought “huh, I’ll be damned, turns out I can listen to this.” Then I immediately bought a Scion, got my lip pierced, and sold hard drugs to a teenager. True story.

40. Jack White, 'Lazaretto'

Have you heard that vinyl records are making a comeback? It says it right here in this Parade Magazine that came with the Sunday paper. Ben Vereen’s on the cover this week.

39. Caribou, 'Our Love'

My girlfriend likes regular-ass pop music, and when she cranks it up in the car or the living room I tell her that she loves dancing to techno. It makes her upset, like I’m calling her an idiot. I am not calling her an idiot, though. I am saying the words “you love dancing to techno” in a non-judgmental, observational way, and if somehow “idiot” is implied in these words, that is more several other people’s fault than it is mine. Most current pop music just sounds like techno to me, maybe because I want to call it that to amuse myself, but also because maybe all pop music just is techno now. Like all genres of popular music. Kanye West is techno. That “All About That Bass” song is techno. Vampire Weekend is techno. Taylor Swift is techno. It’s the MTV Techno Awards, featuring performances by Techno Wayne, Tech No, and The Foo Fighters of Techno. This, Caribou, is techno too, but it’s like actual techno, with like the tiniest, sparest hints of “maybe these techno tracks are also indie pop songs that somebody sat down and wrote lyrics to.” This is the future of pop music to the extent that my theory about techno is right. Techno in pop music is like that weird space grass that swallowed Stephen King until he blew his grassed-up head off in Creepshow. All that said, I should buy this for my girlfriend. It’s actually not bad.

38. Hurray for the Riff Raff, 'Small Town Heroes'

This makes me uncomfortable. Physically. Like listening to it hurts my back. It’s like watching a long movie in a movie theater with bad seats. At a certain point I can’t care how good the damn movie is. I feel like I’m sitting on an old cardboard box full of loose knives, and the only thought I’m capable of is “box of loose knives box of loose knives.”

37. Benjamin Booker, 'Benjamin Booker'

Associating with Jack White does strange things to language. It replaces “late-career The Jam power pop and/or major label Replacements” with “punk” and “young black dude doing a slightly more soulful version of blue-eyed soul” with “blues” and erases all mention of “folk” and “Mississippi John Hurt if he didn’t hate electric guitars,” which is the most interesting part.

36. Alvvays, 'Alvvays'

These guys are like the next step in a line that goes Mazzy Star, Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast, These Guys and just gets cuter and cuter every time and always makes you wish you were just hanging out with them and listening to The Ronettes and My Bloody Valentine instead of expending all that effort in the middle where they make this and you listen to it.

35. Lenny Kravitz, 'Strut'

NOW. Now is when this list really kicks into high gear. Go back and read the intro again if you want to. Lenny Kravitz. Holy shit. You know what thought I had at a CVS the other day? “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” is a decent song. Sure it’s a dumb goofy love song that oversimplifies all the urgency and passion of “Let’s Stay Together” into an ad for Target, the message being equivalent to “please don’t dilute our brand identity as a couple by leaving me,” but it’s got those syrupy pop vocal strings on it, so it’s like it knows what it is. Lenny Kravitz can only really ruin something I care about if he has a guitar in his hand, otherwise he’s just an empty pair of bellbottoms. This? I’m not going to listen to this, are you kidding me, it’s Lenny Kravitz. I’ll happily wait 25 years until it’s playing in a CVS and I’m buying a catheter or something.

34. Prince, 'Art Official Age'

Remember that part in High Fidelity where they’re playing the demo from the skateboard kids and Jack Black rears up on both hind legs of his acting abilities and delivers an I-will-reluctantly-admit-this “it’s really good,” but it very clearly isn’t?

33. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, 'Midnight Sun'

Rufus Wainwright fronting one of the more annoying Elephant 6 bands.

32. Damon Albarn, 'Everyday Robots'

Thank God this rich old white guy stepped in. I was about to enjoy the connectivity and democratizing aspects of modern communication technology without also considering its alienating psychological effects. If only there was a better way, like say writing a song about getting my head shaved by a jumbo jet and then making enough money that my money can make a large portion of all the money I’ll ever need, then thinking “Forgive me for having this crazy original thought, but I think people would be more emotionally healthy if they got rid of their cell phones like how I, thanks to my wealthy celebrity musician status, am capable of doing,” and then getting rid of my cell phone and having that work out totally fine for me. That would be awesome. I bet then I’d record a bunch of sadsack songs about how alienating technology is, and not pause for an instant to consider what a colossal privilege it is for me to have that opinion, to not even need the abundant access I am afforded to all of the technology whose desperate mastery constitutes almost the entire retention mechanism of the rapidly evaporating modern middle class.

Like how Louie CK went on Conan and said the same thing. I should hang out with Louie next time I’m in New York. I’ll have my assistant call his assistant and set that up.

31. Young Thug and Bloody Jay, 'Black Portland'

Maybe I’m listening on the wrong speakers. Mine work.

Listening to Thom Yorke for twenty years like a boss

30. Thom Yorke, 'Tomorrow's Modern Boxes'

I heard “Optimist” from Kid A on the radio the other day and listened for the first time in years and thought it was more good that I’d given it credit for in a long long time. But at the same time I was like “no no no no I can’t go back there” because when Kid A came out I listened to it obsessively while being as depressed as I’ve ever been in my life. Thom Yorke is still huge and I don’t get it. How did that many people manage to stay alive for that long while listening to and enjoying this man’s music the whole time? I’m impressed by their emotional constitution. Being a fan of this guy must be like one of those 30 for 30 documentaries about some troubled dude like Elijah Dukes where you realize that it’s probably a more impressive feat of athleticism to hit any major league home runs while stoned than it is to hit like a hundred of them sober.

29. Spoon, 'They Want My Soul'

I like the lyric “They Want My Soul” because it reminds me of “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates, and that reminds me that maybe Spoon is the modern equivalent of Hall & Oates, which even if not true is a fun thought. Spoon should do an album of all Hall & Oates covers.

28. Parquet Courts, 'Sunbathing Animal'

There was some awards ceremony thing on MTV that I remember watching when I was a kid where for some reason Ugly Kid Joe “I Hate Everything About You” was nominated in a category which included both the word “Best” and the word “Rap.” This is better than that, obviously. That was a real low point in culture.

27. Alt-J, 'This Is All Yours'

I wonder if “prog” will ever mean anything to me other than “get away, I am poisonous.” It’s the bright colors on an Amazonian tree frog of ways you can describe music.

26. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 'Hypnotic Eye'

This is actually a useful calibration tool. By triangulating the quality of this with where it is ranked, I am able to say with reasonable certainty that the worst possible Tom Petty album would rank no lower than 32 on this list. That’s if Tom Petty recorded a polka album called “A List Of Great Reasons To Own A Pet Ferret.”

25. YG, 'My Krazy Life'

Has there been an “epic Twitter flame war” between a “social justice warrior” and one of these guys over whether or not it’s “socially responsible” for them to use the “n word” and talk about “beat the pussy” yet? If not I just want to be prepared for it. Last time I didn’t prepare for something like that, what happened next shocked me.

24. Leonard Cohen, 'Popular Problems'

What the fuck is it going to take for Leonard Cohen to die of old age?

23. War on Drugs, 'Lost in the Dream'

You know what? All these new wave “indie” singles from the 2000’s and early 2010’s are perfectly fine. Those are fine songs. One hit wonder bands with names like Peter Bjorn and John doing the twenty years later reincarnation of “99 Red Balloons?” Sure. Fine. Earmark me for a “Greatest Whooshy Hits Of The Internet Era” CD that I can lose in the back seat of my car. Don’t try and tell me that Men At Work has some underrated album cuts, though. They don’t. Listening for underrated Men At Work album cuts is a giant waste of time, and Men At Work has already claimed enough of it.

22. Skrillex, 'Recess'

This is a much more introspective effort than I would have expected from Skrillex at this point in his ascendancy. Like for instance that part where the bass goes “BWUH BWUH BWUH BWIH BWIH BWIH” is so beautifully melancholic. Like it knows it’s dying.

21. Eric Church, 'The Outsiders'

I enjoy it when I haven’t heard something shitty like this since the last time I made fun of the same shitty dude for making his last shitty thing. It’s like a shitty reunion. “John? JOHN SHITTY?! Oh my Gosh it’s John Shitty! Hey John Shitty, what have you been up to?” “Being shitty.” “Ha ha, I bet! Ho man. Classic Shitty.”

20. Sharon Van Etten, 'Are We There'

Sharon Van Etten facts I know: Sharon Van Etten is a whole different person than St. Vincent. Different name, different person.

19. Jackson Browne, 'Standing in the Breach'

Of all the legacy acts on this list, this one made me laugh the hardest. Rolling Stone says “Browne confirmed his place as an essential voice in the wilds of the 21st century with this powerful set of songs about love and progressive ideals – forces that a corrupt world can never truly defeat.” Thank God for Baby Boomers and their big ideas about love and progressive ideals, forces that the corrupt world they created can never truly stop them from claiming to have invented. Don’t all die at once, Baby Boomers. Never die all at once in a big fiery explosion.

18. Sturgill Simpson, 'Metamodern Sounds in Country Music'

A little while ago I was in the basement of an antique mall looking through box after box of old country records, and in the heat of battle I was kicking myself for not knowing more about what to look for. I know record dudes who have country down cold, I think the trick is they know all the best Nashville session musicians. They go “Oh, they got Jim Groggins on lap steel, he’s probably my third favorite lap steel guy of 1974, I bet this is probably pretty good.” Meanwhile I’m like “I think George Jones is supposed to be good, but what if I’m really thinking about George Strait? I might want this record, but not if it’s the wrong George. I am paralyzed enough by indecision not to buy this.” It bothers me at the time, but later, after I go home and don’t have any old country records, I never regret it. Anyway, this is pretty good.

17. Jenny Lewis, 'The Voyager'

Who’s Jenny Lewis? Oh. Jenny Lewis is Rilo Kiley’s real name.

16. FKA Twigs, 'LP1'

I know you guys are super interested, so I’ll just share my basic process here. I pull up a YouTube of the album in question, then play it for as long as it takes to come up with a joke or thought that’s good enough to write, and then I get to stop listening. No longer listening is like my reward. I do this roughly 40 or so times, excluding the albums I don’t even need to listen to because their existence is enough of a joke on its own. When you go from one of these to the next one 40 times, trying to come up with gags and spoofs before you’re allowed to move on with your life, the task itself takes over the actual music, and everything I hear makes me feel like I’m searching for a parking spot at a crowded shopping mall for hours on end. This is as good a soundtrack as any for a shopping mall parking lot stress nightmare. It’s boring R&B without hooks that sounds like it was produced by M83.

15. Against Me!, 'Transgender Dysphoria Blues'

How I feel about this is pretty irrelevant. I’m a white hetero cis male and not everything should be for me to judge. But since nobody asked, what I most like about it is picturing the freaked outedness coming from America’s uptight parents as they hear “God bless your transsexual HEART” blasting from their teenager’s bedroom. It’s making me smile real big. I might not be in love with the megarock overproduction here, but 90% of what makes rock and roll great is how worried and upset it makes your shitty uptight parents, and I imagine this is a HUGE success in that department. In fact, now that I think of it in those terms, it’s probably the rock record of the year.

14. Weezer, 'Everything Will Be Alright in the End'

Weezer has recorded ten albums. Ten. Magic fact: if you can name all ten Weezer albums from memory don’t say all of them in a row out loud or else you will transform magically into a fart.

13. Ought, 'More Than Any Other Day'

I googled these guys and they’re from Montreal and this is their debut album and they’re the “sure fine but why these guys and not any other band” critical pick of the year. Thanks to an unnamed publicist, members of Ought are now hanging out with Ice Age and Parquet Courts at the music biz kids table, having a conversation about the “if you turn the hotel shower on all the way hot you can steam your suit and that way you don’t have to iron it” trick. Albums like this should have a “publicized by” credit in the title so we can thank the real auteur.

12. Foo Fighters, 'Sonic Highways'

I love Dave Grohl. Not his music at all, of course. His music is fucking terrible. I just love his whole affable guy with no self-awareness persona, that using this persona he’s somehow apparently shooting for venerable emptyheaded goofball dad, which is a category of person that does not exist, and also I love how only coincidentally related to actual rock and roll his whole life is. He’s like a rock and roll-themed human, the way Olive Garden is an Italian-themed restaurant. Dude thanked his accountant when Nirvana got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, every aspect of which is just delicious. He’s fantastic.

11. Flying Lotus, 'You're Dead!'

There’s a YouTube clip of a Flying Lotus performance in the middle of the day at some summer festival in Wisconsin. The crowd looks like a bunch of bored white people doing their best to pretend not to be bored in order to justify how much money they just spent on drugs. Shit like this dicks up my YouTube viewing algorithms real bad every year.

10. Taylor Swift, '1989'

Trying to write anything about this is like in ninth and tenth grade where the whole school let out after 7th period but I and the other kids in the “gifted” program had an 8th period, so you’d have to just sit there in 8th period math class looking out the window at all the happy frolicking kids whose parents didn’t force them to overachieve.

9. Mac DeMarco, 'Salad Days'

I like how Mac Demarco took the guitar sound from that Ween song that’s just a Mexican food order and made a whole album out of it.

8. Run the Jewels, 'Run the Jewels 2'

The great thing about the whole genre of hip hop is you can just blink your eye and everything currently happening goes away and is replaced by something else. It’s like listening to a View-Master.

7. Lana Del Rey, 'Ultraviolence'

I agree with YouTube commenter Capucine chaussonpassion. This is the perfect album to listen to when you have an entire hour’s worth of beans to eat.

6. Charli XCX, 'SUCKER'

Ever wonder what MC Skat Kat from the Paula Abdul “Opposites Attract” video is up to now? He produced this.

5. Miranda Lambert, 'Platinum'

In retrospect, after imagining the reality of this list, I guess you could also quantum leap into a suburban mother letting loose in the car while driving to a surreptitious weekly indulgence in TCBY Treats that she pretends is a secret just to feel interesting even though she knows nobody cares, or a teenaged daughter currently dismissively texting “so random” to a best friend she doesn’t even actually like as a way to seek soothing validation for feeling threatened by the confusing actions of a person, in this case Damian Wells’ decision to wear combat boots, which might reflect any experiential background that is not her exact own.

4. St. Vincent, 'St. Vincent'

St. Vincent is probably the Kate Bush of all these female singer songwriters in that she’s the one I feel most guilty for not giving a shit about, and I will probably eventually buy her albums and love them. Recorded music is great like that. It doesn’t go away. It waits until you’re ready.

3. The Black Keys, 'Turn Blue'

I think in music as in all things you do not have to get any better or more talented, you can just keep doing the same thing for 15 years and people will eventually say “that guy knows what he’s doing.” Really all you have to do is just keep doing whatever you’re doing and not get bored and start doing something else. It’s like a kind of success that you can have that is just available to anybody, which is kind of great. The Black Keys are the Tiny Tims of blues rock.

2. Bruce Springsteen, ‘High Hopes’

Just this week there’s been like this auxiliary holiday overflow mailman driving a U-Haul van through my neighborhood and throwing packages on doorsteps at like 7:00am, and he’s been absolutely blasting the Christmas music station. I keep hearing the Bruce Springsteen cover of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” and I have decided it’s hilarious. It’s like in the Anchorman how Ron Burgundy has to read the teleprompter, except for Springsteen giving max-effort song renditions. I want to make him do “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (picture a raspy Springsteen max-effort “wimoweh” repeated ad nauseum). FYI, over half the songs on this feature Rage Against The Machine Guitarist Tom Morello, so yeah, probably it’s the second best thing that’s happened this year. Second only to…

1. U2, 'Songs of Innocence'
I hope a lot of people go to a retail outlet and physically buy this album on the strength of this recommendation. A U2 “Songs of Innocence” CD is maybe the single funniest physical music artifact of all time. It’s even funnier the more you pay for it in a retail setting. I would not want to pay any less than $18.99 for it. The price tag is a part of the whole effect. I want to bankrupt myself buying $18.99 copies of the U2 “Songs of Innocence” CD, and I want to spend the rest of my life leaving the price tag on it and giving them to people at holiday gift exchanges. If somebody else gave me this CD with an $18.99 price tag on it I would never, ever get rid of it, and I was one of the people Googling “how to get U2 off my phone” before even checking to see if it was there in the first place.

Well okay. I did that.