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      Best of the Best of 2012: NPR’s Top 50

      December 10, 2012

      By Ben Johnson

      It’s that time of year again: anus itch season. Talkadoodles and decidamathons. Music music guess what’s what. A time when publications that talk about music release their you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours list of artists whose record labels bought ad space or sent free download codes. Or, less cynically: music from the year, presented in a more digestible form than most of the time, cranked out and hastily invoiced by beleaguered critics everywhere, hopefully in time to get the poor bastards on the bottom rungs of the biz a little extra holiday cash, and editors and mid-tier scramblers can wait out the clock until the new year by dicking around on Twitter and calling it business. Yes, that’s the least cynical version I can think of for what happens every December with the lists. It’s a mad dash to be the first to limp to the finish.

      The good news for regular citizens is you can finally just read one thing and get some straight answers out of people. Or at least less crooked answers. Most of the time music reviews are complete bullshit, like that time somebody at VICE didn’t like the new Metz album because apparently in that particular 20-minute chunk of their lives they had a migraine and the drums kicked too much ass for them to handle without pukeyfacing. Music reviews are bullshit because the person writing them is getting paid somewhere between zero and some piddling useless amount of dollars, and therefore there’s no stakes, and therefore say whatever you think is best to keep the piddling useless dollars coming in, and do it quick with the first thought that pops into your head because your opinion will never matter as much as word of mouth plus time anyway, and it’s not like the free download is a huge favor because the internet exists. BUT: End of the year lists pare down all that regular bullshit and focus on the bullshit that these people apparently actually believe.

      I am a fan of year-end lists because they serve as a roadmap to what kind of people believe what outlandish bullshit things. I like to take these lists, most of which consist of stuff I never heard of because I’ve managed to limit my informational intake to hyper-specific, reliable filters which generally do not waste my time telling me about stuff I have a low chance of actually liking, and attack them with my own kneejerk bullshit. Why? Because that’s even lazier and more cynical than writing a list of my own, and it results in more piddling useless dollars for me. You’re welcome.

      Take for example the alphabetically arranged non-hierarchical list supplied by the poor deluded fucks at NPR. Alright gang, let’s riff. Let’s have an NPRty.

      Ab-Soul, Control System

      I’m sure NPR likes this because this guy is saying some moderately thoughtful stuff and the beats are less predictable than usual, but who actually wants to listen to a song called “Double Standards”? Why stop there? Why not a club banger called “Airport Security”?

      Alabama Shakes, Boys And Girls

      Making music your parents would like isn’t just for the Fleet Foxes anymore.

      Alisa Weilerstein, Cello Concertos (Elgar & Carter)

      Look out Yo-Yo Ma, there’s a new cellist in zzzzzzz

      Alt-J, An Awesome Wave

      Here’s the first of probably many entries on this list which seems like its primary reason for existing is to be transition music on NPR. Like there’s some report on a Peruvian ballet troupe struggling to make art with their limited resources, and then this pops on for fifteen seconds to help convince you that what you just heard was in fact very interesting and not a desperate attempt at interestingness which combines several things you don’t care about. It is relatively high energy, but stark and dramatic at the same time, and it’s constantly throwing “interesting” sounds at you, like bassoons and toy pianos, and layering everything a million times for no reason. And now here’s Terry Gross with “Fresh Air.”

      Andy Stott, Luxury Problems

      This is the kind of electronic music you’d hear in a modern art museum and it’s actually more boring than silence.

      Astro, Astro

      A nice lil’ multi-culti entry for NPR, this one apparently a Chilean version of MGMT. There is actually some very cool shit going on in Chile right now. This is the Wavves to that cool shit’s Thee Oh Sees.

      Berlin Philharmonic, St. Matthew Passion

      You know who I love? Classical radio DJs. They’re the best. Just in general, when people are only into classical music: the best. I mean, terrible, yeah, but taking the stance that nothing good has happened for over a hundred years is incredible. I can just picture them wincing at the overbearing city noise and fully bear hugging not just their ears but the entire sides of their heads in agony as a wailing ambulance drives by them on the street. Classical-only people are so prim and snooty and delicate they’re like some vestigial form of cultural renegade. I imagine if you pushed one over they would just lie there totally fucked like an upside-down turtle. You’ve got to love it when human society subverts nature and allows people like that to exist.

      Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2

      I feel like hip hop at this point is as horrible and predictable and soul-crushing and ceaseless and artless and stagnant as the poverty and violence on the streets it comes from. This guy tells the narrative of how he grew up in a terrible place, sold drugs, and then became successful while so many others didn’t, and his embrace of every trapping of his prosperous lifestyle is fueled by guilt and regret. You may be familiar. Also: you can dance and fuck to it and play it real loud in a car with a lot of bass. Not that NPR listeners are doing those things. Instead they’re nodding their heads to the narrative and saying “oh, isn’t it awful” and “good for him.”

      Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The Universe

      Damon Albarn picked Womack up off the scrap heap and produced this album. It’s kind of like an extremely crappy version of the Rolling Stones reviving Muddy Waters’ career, or a more commercial and electric version of Jon Spencer and R.L. Burnside. I wonder if Bobby knows or cares what the hell is going on here.

      Bomba Estereo, Elegancia Tropical

      You can guess what this sounds like: an impulse buy CD at a fair trade coffeehouse.

      Brooklyn Rider, Seven Steps

      If you type “Brooklyn Rider, Seven Steps” into Google, the first results are Amazon, Brooklyn Rider’s website, Brooklyn Rider’s website, Brooklyn Rider’s website, and NPR First Listen. They’re a string quartet, FYI. An extremely well organized one. With a name that sounds like they should be a 2000’s synthpop version of Bachman Turner Overdrive.

      Cafe Tacvba, El Objeto Antes Llmado Disco

      If a band from Mexico sounds like 70s Italian prog (think Gentle Giant plus opera) meets Animal Collective (i.e., post-digital American prog), are you allowed to not like it? Not if you’re NPR.

      Carla Morrison, Dejenme Llorar

      The score so far. Hip hop: 2, soul revival: 2, classical: 3, Spanish language pop: 4, bland Indie pop: 1, minimalist techno: 1, boring: yesalways.

      Cat Power, Sun

      Cat Power is the musical equivalent of Say Yes to the Dress (the least intolerable reality show my girlfriend watches).

      Cody ChesnuTT, Landing On A Hundred

      I was just wondering what happened to this guy. Turns out he was holed up in the studio producing something slick as fuck. For ten years. I might have liked him a little better when he was a scatterbrained stoner self-producing rambling, overlong CD-R’s about pushing seeds in somebody’s bush, but hey, we can’t stay young forever. Fine with me if he wants to go full-blown Billy Preston. At least he’s qualified.

      Dan Deacon, America

      Dan Deacon went from Baltimore’s yelling things that make no sense into a series of weird homemade electronics scene, aka drugs, to now he is Tortoise. His Wikipedia page says he is an “American composer.” That’s what happens when you go from “this art is a joke” to “this joke is art.”

      Death Grips, No Love Deep Web

      This is the best. Make an album of crazy screaming hip hop with a dick on it, leak it, get dropped from your major label as a result, don’t give a fuck. The music is one thing. I like it. But the biz end is the fucking BEST. True story: in the midst of trying to drum up a little extra cash I tried to sell the first Death Grips LP for $100 on the internet (yes, you read that figure right), and some dude wanted me to take a high-quality video of it playing so he could make sure it wasn’t warped. I’d expect that level of anal retention if I was trying to flip a rare Frank Zappa record, but for these guys? They give not one fuck. You’d think their fans would understand and reflect that attitude. Looks like instead there are some very uptight Death Grips fans out there with more money than they need. I was confused about it, but I bet that dude heard about them from NPR. It’s all starting to make sense.

      Debo Band, Debo Band

      Sub Pop is getting really into smooth jazz these days.

      Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan

      Dave Longstreth is David Byrne. In a few years he’ll be writing a treatise on how to ride a bike properly. Hint: have enough money that you don’t have to be anywhere, then calmly and politely obey all traffic laws in between appointments with whatever two different people are kissing your ass that day.

      Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears

      God bless middle-aged NPR men. Without them we wouldn’t have pretentious beer or beard-measuring contests or the Discover Channel or Crocs. Here you go, guys: Dwight Yoakam. Enjoy.

      Exitmusic, Passage

      “Exitmusic” is such a serious-sounding thing to call yourself it’s actually hilarious. The music is the same way. This is the surprise comedy hit of the year. I haven’t laughed this hard since that time I accidentally heard Spires That in the Sunset Rise.

      Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel

      Confession time: I’m not a woman. So instead of the empowerment of wallowing in justifiable emotions that I’d otherwise suppress for fear of being gaslighted, I just feel shitty and guilty whenever the name “Fiona Apple” appears anywhere. The good news is I don’t have to ever listen to her music, because just saying “Fiona Apple” is like a friendly reminder to not be such an asshole all the time, and that alone gives me a little extra strength that I need as a man to be a better listener, and then I can continue on with the rest of my day without voluntarily listening to an upset person warble about her troubles. Pretending not to be an asshole takes a lot of energy and I only have so much. I’m sure Fiona would either understand or else be deeply hurt by that, in which case the cycle begins anew.

      Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes

      That was some grad student’s essay titled “How I hung out with an Ecuadorian family this one time,” followed by some “interesting”-sounding electronic music nobody can dance to by Flying Lotus. Now here’s a story about somebody’s beekeeping stepmother with huge dramatic pauses interspersed between every seven words. “She had bees; beehives, hives of bees. (pause) She was tall and she had bees. (pause) Those were the first things I noticed. (pause) I last saw Dad nine years ago…”

      Frank Ocean, channel Orange

      I got no problem with this appearing on everybody’s year-end list. If Frank Ocean does something and you want to tell me it’s the eighth best thing anybody did, who am I to argue? Hell, if you want to tell me that something Frank Ocean did is your favorite thing ever, I’ll be more fascinated than mad at you. If you want to neglect to remind me that Frank Ocean did something, that’s cool too, we’ll just proceed as planned.

      fun., Some Nights

      Dexy’s Midnight funners.

      Homeboy Sandman, First of a Living Breed

      What is “First of a Living Breed” supposed to mean? “I sound exactly like Aesop Rock”?

      Iris DeMent, Sing The Delta

      Listening to this is like watching your parents give each other a sensual massage.

      Janka Nabay, En Yay Sah

      This guy is from Sierra Leone. His music is upbeat. I don’t know how you feel about the world or your place in it, but odds are you’re doing pretty good if you’re not from Sierra Leone. So… you know. World music. Cough cough (holds out hand).

      Japandroids, Celebration Rock

      Japandroids sneak into my good graces under the “first let’s get the electric guitars going, and we can work out the rest later” provision. They’re waiting in the outer lobby with Lenny Kravitz, picking at some old cheese cubes. I might have one of my brain associates ask if they want a sandwich because they’re not hideous. What kind of a sandwich? A 764-HERO.

      Karriem Riggins, Alone Together

      OK NPR. You got me. Thanks for this one. Thanks for sifting through all the contemporary instrumental jazz albums until you found me a drummer who collaborated with Madlib and Milt Jackson. Thanks for reassuring me that creativity, technical prowess, and taste are not mutually exclusive and that there’s therefore still some hope at the root-level of American popular music. I find that actually interesting. (pause) Now here’s Marketplace.

      Kendrick Lamar, good kid, M.A.A.D. city

      How does NPR like hip hop more than I do? What happened?

      Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music

      Seriously, what the fuck is going on over there? I have this strange feeling that Ira Glass just got a cursive neck tattoo that says “GET MONEY SON.”

      Leila Josefowicz, Violin Concerto (Salonen)

      I was all ready to drop some more pithy shit about classical, but after being bludgeoned half to death by NPR’s Golden Age of Hip Hop Music, I’m actually coming around to this. Josefowicz does a masterful job with a truly sadistic piece of composition for solo violin which… Ahhhhh. Nooooo. An ambulannnnnce. Whyyyyyyyyyy is it so louuuuuuud…

      Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas

      Aha ha ha. Thanks Leonard Cohen. You’re the best. I was worried about my sanity for a second there, and you jump in with the best joke of this whole piece. Now I’m right back on track. “Old Ideas.” What a kneeslapper.

      Matt Ulery, By a Little Light

      NPR has to pick this one since they used it as the theme song for the Steampunk Report. It’s on every Thursday at thirteen o’clock.

      Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream

      Minimalist R&B filth that fails the Smoky Robinson test (no matter what it is, it’ll work if you can sing along by the end of the first time you hear the song) but passes the Prince test (do something unexpected and hopefully they’ll call you a genius).

      Neneh Cherry and The Thing, The Cherry Thing

      Neneh Cherry? Doing neo-primitive jazz renditions of a Suicide song and a Stooges song? This is the reinvention of the year. Also: “Buffalo Stance” isawful, and now I have it stuck in my head.

      Now, Now, Threads

      It’s almost impossible to listen to everything in the NPR’s Top 50 and not turn into Johnny Crankypants about music. I want to be so dismissive of these girls, but moody overproduced rock is better than no rock. They could very easily just not rock at all, and then they’d be moody overproduced not rock. So this is better, right? I’m trying. This is hard.

      Pallbearer, Sorrow And Extinction

      Oh cool, guys. A little progressive doom metal. Just what I needed. Do these guys at least dress up like Druids? I just looked up Pallbearer live on YouTube to see if they dress up like Druids. They don’t. But: there’s live footage of them playing at the Knitting Factory, which is the perfect venue because sitting down. These guys will made you yawn so hard your jaw will fall off like Alec Baldwin in Beetlejuice.

      Patrick Watson, Adventures In Your Own Backyard

      Somebody’s got to pick up the mantle now that Bon Iver died.

      Pink, The Truth About Love

      If you think I’m going to listen to Pink for twelve seconds just to help me come up with a better joke about how much her music sucks, you’re wrong, NPR. Nice try.

      Regina Spektor, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

      Regina gives you two choices: overwrought piano bar balladry or a cloying Prius commercial. That’s it. That’s all you get. It’s like eating uncooked potatoes for dinner, and desert is a pair of pliers so you can rip your teeth out. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love her voice.

      San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas, Harmonielehre/Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Adams)

      Finally, somebody combined the bombast of Wagner with the repetition of Phillip Glass as Adams originally intended with his… psyche. Just fuckin’ with you guys.

      Sharon Van Etten, Tramp

      In several places on this high personal and intimate showcase of her songwriting, Sharon Van Etten perfectly encapsulates the agony of listening to Sharon Van Etten. As the years advance and attitudes become intractable to the point of unsustainability, more heartbreaking than the bitterness is the resignation: you are listening to Sharon Van Etten. That’s just what you’re doing now.

      Swans, The Seer

      Great work, NPR. Swans are a totally kick ass pretentious band. They kick ass as pretentiously as Faust, or Chrome, or Pop Group. You know, the all time pretentious greats.

      The 2 Bears, Be Strong

      This is the perfect soundtrack for sucking your own dick. I hope that comes across as the glowing compliment I intend it to be.

      The Very Best, MTMTMK

      I’m all about Africa. I’m like Africa’s best friend over here. We hang out all the time. For real. Actually for real. Like seriously. Me and Africa are tight. Good dude. Solid dude.

      Ty Segall, Twins

      Well well, what do you know? NPR doesn’t hate music.

      Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando

      Then again, they do have some interesting points to make about NAFTA’s impact on trade imbalances, and Ty Segall’s not gonna help them with that as much as Vince Gauraldi plus Art Tatum minus balls will.

      Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers

      This thing is FIVE HOURS LONG. Five hours of jazz. And that’s why the NPR Top 50 list is more like a dare than anything else. If five hours of jazz showed up at my house I would blow out the pilot light, turn up the stove, and walk away.

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