Fagen?s Critical Catalogue (October 2013, Part 2)

When pop music is as pluralistic and hegemonic as it is right now, it makes sense for critics to have weird taste. In a way, it’s impossible for them not to — a consensus that champions Vampire Weekend, My Bloody Valentine, and the Knife is pretty weird, and I love all of those albums. Nevertheless, beyond Vampire Weekend, my own personal ultrafavorites have never been so obscure, from Belgian techno to Yemeni disco to this month’s jewel. Of course, the former two are fabulous semipop records. And this month’s jewel is certainly more avant-garde than anything Pitchfork has been hyping this year.

Songs of Summer 2013: 60-Min Non-Stop Workout Mix

SongsofSummerPower Music Workout, 2013 [BUY]

Before this record, I guess I deemed workout-remix compilations silly and one-dimensional when I even thought of them as music, but never did I dream that the genre might prove compelling. If this is indeed a great album, its greatness is accidental; it wasn’t created with active listeners in mind. It’s also tighter, tougher, and crazier than anything actually on the pop charts.

Theoretically, this was intended to give people a soundtrack to their jumping-jack sessions: twelve radio hits from rap to techno to country, sped up and simplified so people can move their bodies in time. But I swear you’ll have the most fun if you regard this album as a real artistic statement, a gleefully postmodern deconstruction/recontextualization of cultural artifacts parodied and deepened simultaneously. Each song is made faster, stupider, and with the exceptions of “I Love It” and “Mirrors,” which are already pretty great, vastly improved. Bending everything onto the same mechanical superfrenzied beat, compressing hooks until their jacked-up bounce is all adrenaline rush, turning pricey textures into big slabs of synthesizer, carefully worked-out rhythms into turbocharged drum machines, and big choruses into insanely catchy tunelets, this record’s cartoonish speed and squeaky riffs would quickly get old if every hit song sounded like this. For aesthetes looking for albums that stay intense start to finish, though, you could do worse than this explicit idealization of pop music.

Who knew Jennifer Lopez was so masterful? How did I never notice that gut-wrenching riff that rips apart “Get Lucky” before? Finally I can listen to “Blurred Lines” without feeling like a douche! If it means access to music like this, I may have to start taking aerobics.

Drake: Nothing Was the Same

DrakeUniversal, 2013 [BUY]

With soulful sincerity as marketable as fun hedonism right now, it may feel new for stars to bare their hearts on Twitter and reality TV, but on record it’s just standard-issue introspection. Aubrey Drake Graham has been commercial rap’s Great Hope for four years and running, and here he takes this bloated state of celebrity to new levels of gross candor, bringing new shades of meaning to the idea of too much information.

Beyond a few verses about the material contradictions of hip-hop, this album is largely personal, just like 2011′s Take Care. The focus is on his whimpering nasal chatter and his aching, heartfelt avowals of insecurity, his pathological confusion and genuine sorrow, with a lot of invective leveled against former girlfriends, a lot of guilt about having leveled such invective, and a lot of guilt about nothing in particular. He does reach occasional moments of human generosity, but even though he feels very strongly about his feelings, they’re pretty banal without the context of narrative or persona. In all this he resembles your average singer-songwriter much more than any self-respecting rapper, and musically, this album is even laxer than the last one. These echoey percussion tracks creep along ominously, with maybe some tinkly-ethereal synth atmosphere for decoration; where once his beats were subtle, now they’re just insubstantially impassive, so gentle and muted they barely convey an emotional tone.

However perversely fascinating it is to hear him muse endlessly about his personal life, he’s too feckless for you to ever really like or care about him. For fans, this anxious ego-trip of an album will presumably feel revealing. Perhaps a more appropriate audience would be a patient therapist.

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2

Justin-TimberlakeRCA, 2013 [BUY]

Although the second installment of Justin Timberlake’s ambitious art-funk project isn’t as solid as the first, its hooks are more immediate and the tempos are more galvanizing. Having released two complementary albums in the same year, each longer than an hour, Timberlake could easily be accused of overkill. I do get tired of his cadence when I play the albums back to back. But his synthesis is so novel I’m fantasizing about a Part 3.

Simultaneously experimental and accessible, Timberlake has made a remarkable stylistic breakthrough. Having written a solid collection of pop songs and fabulously concocted rhythm tracks, he paints their faces with ornately diverse sound effects both slick and eccentric, an oddly original distancing strategy: here some jingling piano, here some symphonic texture, here some glitter and swirly confetti and plummy mascara. The juicy R&B hooks in the center render their tweaked electronics substantial, and the electronics make the hooks pleasingly complex. Unlike the last album, this one has a number of filler tracks. With his “cabaret” song, his retro-AOR song, and his Southern booze song, he’s started playing around with bizarre genre pieces. His radio-friendly hits are also more voracious than before, especially “TKO.” Yet it’s all glossy enough for its various flavors to cohere.

As visionary as Parts 1 and 2 are, this flawed double could have been cut in half to make a perfect single. Like this one, for example: 1) “Don’t Hold the Wall” 2) “True Blood” 3) “Suit & Tie” 4) “Gimme What I Don’t Know” 5) “Tunnel Vision” 6) “TKO” 7) “Take Back the Night” 8) “Strawberry Bubblegum” 9) “Let the Groove Get In” 10) “Mirrors.” Now that would be a great album.

Lorde: Pure Heroine

LordeUniversal, 2013 [BUY]

Proponents of next-big-thingism hype this New Zealander because she’s sixteen and writes her own songs, but come on, this is also true of half the American adolescent population. Lorde’s appeal has to do with the way she typifies indie-electronic minimalism, a sound lots of music industry salespeople desperately wish were more commercial than it is.

It’s easy to see why connoisseurs of craft might think of Lorde as the next queen of Top 40. Her music is precise, shuddering, buzzing with arty splashes of those abrasive synthesizers that used to sound edgy and now sound slick; it’s hermetically sealed and antiseptic, awash in melancholy despite its bright production values. It’s fashionably Euro, pop-modernist without alienating those discerning epicures fundamentally averse to corn, intent on the appearance of a polished surface yet suspiciously hookless, the lack of which it compensates with impeccable atmosphere. Ambience can only take you so far, though. Basically she’s just another mediocre singer-songwriter with more musical savvy, a few hummable melodies, and lyrics that tint vague social commentary with opaque metaphor. In other words, she’s not exactly the kind of star Top 40 radio stations squeal for.

With the chart-topping “Royals” having introduced her to the international public in March, now she delivers a misty, spaced-out album, just the thing for fans longing to believe their heroes are real artists with integrity. There are millions of equally worthy, frustrated sixteen-year-old singer-songwriters who would sell their soul to a major label for the success afforded her.