Other Ten Percent 12/9/14

Dec 09 2014

It’s been a shit year for music, right? Like I’ve been locked in a room down here in LA trying to write words in an order where they actually make sense and seem good for most of the year but I’ve still kept my eye on the internet enough to say that the musical output of 2014 has been…subpar.

That’s not to say that nobody’s put out any good work. There have been some real standouts. Taylor Swift put out an album so finely crafted it totally turned me around on her and honestly earned itself a whole other 800 word essay from me down the line somewhere. (short version- Swifty is the Tracy Flick of pop music and God bless her and her terrible, terrible understanding of what romance is.)

But If I wanted to make an Other Ten Percent Top 10 albums list for the year I honestly think I’d run out of albums I listened to for more than a day somewhere around 8. Is that true? I was just bullshiting let me write this out real quick.

Run The Jewels 2, TuNe-YaRdS, Swifty, St. Vincent, Isaiah Rashaad, Jenny Lewis, Caribou, Royksopp & Robyn,

Yep. I’m sure I’m subconsciously forgetting something just to be EXACTLY right but honestly that last one wasn’t even a full album so lets just call it even.

When Rolling Stone declared the new U2 album of the year even after everybody angrily deleted it off of their phones every music reviewer on earth lost their goddamn minds about what a dumb pick it was and, sure, Songs of Innocence is a dad-jams pick par excellence. But if I was in Rolling Stone’s place I’m not sure I’d have had a better Rolling Stone approved option at the ready.

The last plausible contender for “biggest rock band in the world” put out an album and it was…fine. It’s a U2 record about a decade after that prospect was exciting to anybody but U2 fans but it is undeniably a record of competently produced music that lasts about an hour and has guitars and Bono singing on it.

I know, high praise, but if you’re looking for Album of the Year that at least has some historical weight to it. Bono’s smirking sunglass wearing version of gravitas is at least gravitas of some form and that trumps whatever forgettable Indie Rock warbeldry The Gen X-ers at your favorite music publication decided to describe as “Transcendent” before dropping Run The Jewels into the #2 spot. (Oh, by the way, Run The Jewels 2 was the Best Album of the Year. We’ll circle back around to that in a minute.)

I wrote at the start of summer that the summer jam shortlist seemed like it was waiting for a winner that never arrived (thus allowing the continued career of Iggy Azalea) and that feeling ended up permeating the whole year in music. Everybody seemed to be awaiting some other “next big thing” and that gave even the best albums the feeling of an opening act for a headliner that never bothered to show.

Both Grimes and Kendrick took shots at pushing things forward but in both cases the singles were so divisive they decided to go back to the drawing board for a bit. Other than that we got a lot of albums that were largely enjoyable extensions of bodies of work that are bordering on the predictable with two notable exceptions.

The first is Swifty, who was so on point synthesizing the last few years of pop that she managed to write that better version of Video Games that Lana Del Rey has been looking for for three years and then tossed it off on the back half of her album. Swifty’s lyrics are still cringe-inducing at least once a song which disqualifies it from album of the year consideration but 1989 is such a triumph of pop music as pure craft it earns special recognition.

The second exception is Run the Jewels 2.

Before I sound too disappointed that RTJ2 is taking the top spot let me take a moment to make it clear that it’s an absolutely phenomenal album. Easily the best work Killer Mike or El-P have done in a run of fantastic rap albums from the two of them over the last few years. It’s the only album this year that manages to grapple intelligently with the widespread institutional disfunction that’s come to define this year and sound fucking cool doing it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is another one of those largely arbitrary distinctions I love so very very much: while Run The Jewels 2 sounds like the Best Album of 2014 it doesn’t sound like an Album of the Year.

The Album of the Year has a sense of incumbency about it or at least inevitability. It was already the album of the year before somebody called it that. It already knew. It feels IMPORTANT in all caps and you can see it being marked down next to that year in the grand procession of history. “Ah, yes” they will say in a thousand years “1997 was a very good year. The album for THAT year was…”

Some years have a lot of Albums of the Year to pick from. I’d say last year had at least 4 plausible contenders with Yeezus (the rap answer), Modern Vampires of the City (the correct answer), Daft Punk (the summer jams answer) and Haim (the impeccably crafted answer). Also I guess there was a Drake album but I continue to find his popularity inexplicable. In other years there’s just one clear answer. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy kinda blew away all possible contenders that year for instance.

But 2014 is the first year I’ve ever seen where NOTHING has that feeling about it. Nothing demanded to be called the best. Run the Jewels 2 demands a lot of things. It demands your attention. It demands you stop ignoring institutional racism and all the other fucked up things about our world. It demands you give them the fucking jewels. But it doesn’t demand to be album of the year.

I mean the two of them have pretty much admitted Run The Jewels is just a passion project so they can keep fucking around making music together and the album sounds like it in the best possible way. It’s an album that’s utterly uninterested in being album of the year. It’s just two guys trying to make a damn good rap album who fully expected some other album to come along as the critical darling that gets the award. But that other album never showed up, and even when they’re fucking around Killer Mike and El-P don’t fuck around so RTJ2 is popping up in top fives all over the goddamn place.

2014 still feels like a strange void in the history of popular music. A pause before some huge shift I can still just make out the edges of, (Or that I’m just making up entirely) But that’s not on Run the Jewels, they’re just two guys that put out an amazing fucking album in an otherwise off year.

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