The Music Club

Braff Rock

Amy Winehouse. Click image to expand.
Amy Winehouse

Dear Bob and Ann,

Quickly, per Bob’s request, some albums that both Pitchfork and I liked. From my top 10, there’s of course M.I.A. (8.9 on Pitchfork) and Feist (8.8), who, as Ann says, has a bit of Carole King in her. (Feist’s a better singer, though!) Then there’s the great LCD Soundsystem (9.2), aka James Murphy, who over the past few years has evolved from a cowbell-happy beat maestro into one of the slyest songwriters around. (My favorite on Sound of Silver is “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which looks at Manhattan’s New Gilded Age transformation with fury and humor but above all ambivalence—a more complicated lament than you might expect from the toast of le tout Williamsburg.) And let’s not forget Battles (9.1; funky—and funny—electronic prog rockers), Bonde Do Role (6.5; my favorite party record of the year), Junior Senior (7.9; second-best party record), Robert Wyatt (7.5; orchestral pop protest songs from a skeptical old lefty), 1990s (8.1; cheeky Glaswegians), Jens Lekman (9; aphorisms worthy of Morrissey, Muzak worthy of Bachrach), Wiley (7.5; love his flow), Nick Lowe (7.1, classy classicism, with jokes and bite), and, oh yeah, Grinderman (7.7; what a racket).

And there are indie favorites that Pitchfork didn’t deign to review, like the Pierces: close-harmonizing sisters Allison and Catherine, who write terrific, witty folk-pop songs, including the funniest single I heard all year, “Boring.” And alt-rock superheroes like the White Stripes, whose Icky Thump barely missed my top 10. And Arcade Fire, whose millennial howl blew me away when I saw the band play a Greenwich Village church last February. And I am also a fan of Bob’s beloved Gogol Bordello.

You’ll notice that the above list includes Scandinavians and Brazilians and Slavs alongside the inevitable Brooklynites and Canadians. Also notice how many of them, from M.I.A. and LCD on down, aim their songs at the dance floor. I mention this because of the recent cause célèbre in critical circles, Sasha Frere-Jones’ New Yorker essay “A Paler Shade of White,” which decried indie rock’s lily-whiteness and lack of swing. I don’t intend to wade into that debate, which has played out in these pages and elsewhere. But I do want to point out that indie gets pretty interesting, and pretty rhythmic, once you venture outside the axis of Zach Braff-approved balladeers.

Unfortunately, there is agreement in certain circles about the greatness of Braff Rock (and adjacent subgenres), and since those circles are disproportionately represented in the blog world and in media generally, that music gets a lot more play than it might warrant. Witness the comments piling up in Slate’s “Fray” message boards. As a rule, the posts proceed through ejaculations like “RIAA-manufactured robots” (directed at Kanye West and Amy Winehouse) and “you are the ones who suck” (directed at Judy [sic] Rosen and Robert Christgau), before rising to a pitch of indignation to demand: Where’s Iron and Wine/Wilco/Josh Ritter/Ryan Adams/The National, etc.??? Answer: They’re not on my best-of list, or my iPod, but they are, alas, ringing in my ears. In the Brooklyn cafe where I am currently seated, the baristas are mountain-man-bearded, and the soundtrack is All Shins All the Time.

Not that the Shins (and the others) are so terrible. They’re just a little boring, a little ineffectual, and a lot musically unadventurous. And as showmen … they’re not. The lines in Sasha’s piece that resonated with me most strongly were: “In the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor. … Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain?” Amen. I mean, c’mon, this is showbiz!

The artists I like—from megastars to bohos, from R. Kelly to L. Feist—take seriously their charge to put on a show, to make bodies move, or at least stir strong emotions. I find it difficult to give too much time to musicians who aren’t shameless enough let it hang out a bit—and find it easy to at least respect those who do. Last year in this space, I dissed themanwould go onto sell more albums than anyone in 2007. (Even more than High School Musical 2!) And then last winter, on assignment for a music magazine, I went to see Chris Daughtry play a tiny theater in frozen Denver. And you know what? There’s a good reason he calls his band Daughtry. The dude is a natural, a real-live rock star, with lungs the size of duffel bags, and more catchy choruses in his bulldozing post-grunge songs than Pearl Jam, whose singer’s macho-sensitive quaver he’s borrowed and bettered. (Plus, he wears guyliner with more conviction than any rocker since Robert Smith.) It turns out those 3.2 million CD buyers and millions more American Idol voters—and Jon Caramanica, the critic who stuck up for Daughtry in the 2006 Music Club confab—were all onto something.

Pop is short not just for popular (or poppist or poptimist) but populist. Personally, I’m interested in the ways that music touches people’s lives—particularly the music that touches the lives of millions of people, as opposed to a few thousand enlightened aesthetes. To all you incredulous Fraysters, I say: Although I would never decide which records to love on the basis of (as Fray poster coffeebeanbrown suggests) “who got the most Grammy nominations,” the populist mainstream isn’t such a bad place to begin the search for great music. According to Wikipedia, five artists have sold more than 500 million records: the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. If those are RIAA-manufactured robots, I’ll take robots.

Anyway … let me end with a few hopes for the coming year. I’d love to see some great women rappers emerge in 2008. When and why exactly did hip-hop get all bifurcated, with the ladies shipped off to sing R&B and the guys left to handle the MCing? Let’s start with a great Missy Elliott record in ‘08 and take it from there, shall we?

Clearly, Lil Wayne’s virtuosity cannot be contained by the record industry as traditionally configured. And although he can keep himself gold-roped and high on his favorite pot recording the odd collabo while pouring dozens of other songs onto mix-tapes, I hope he releases an actual SoundScanable album in 2008, just to see a few million more minds melt when confronted with blurts like “Sky’s the Limit.” (Sample lyric: “Them birds don’t fly without my permission/ I’m probably in the sky, flying with the fishes/ Or maybe in the ocean, swimming with the pigeons/ See, my world is different.”) Maybe Wayne’s CD should be the last one ever—the music we cue up to watch the biz collapse, once and for all, into bits and bytes.

Finally, I wish Amy Winehouse better health in the year to come. She was this year’s consensus star, uniting young and old, indie and mainstream, the Dap Kings (who played on her album) and Snoop Dogg (who sweetly offered his house as a crash pad “if she needs to just chill”). Despite my general aversion to retro, I love her record—probably because it’s not exactly retro. Her mix of Junior Walker and the Shangri-Las is original and even a little weird; Mark Ronson’s production has a contemporary snap to it; and her smart, occasionally obscene tales of doomed love are very 2007. The main attraction here, as is so often the case in pop, is the voice. She’s a wonderful singer. The most stirring live music moment of the year for me was Winehouse’s stormy run through “You Know I’m No Good” at a TV show taping in Paris—a performance, by the way, that took place not 10 minutes after I tried and failed to conduct an interview with her, because she kept nodding off midsentence. She’s a total mess, careening toward a pathetic end at a frightening pace. I hope she lives to collect her Grammys and, as much as I like her wounded-barfly Sturm und Drang, to write some happier songs.

Bob, Ann, it’s been so much fun. Maybe this time next year President-elect Obama will join us and we can ask him what’s on his iPod.