It struck me late last week, upon hearing who would be the artists making an appearance on the sad, tired, and now more dismal than ever MTV Music Video Awards, that I cared about absolutely none of them.
I realize that's not a bold statement. I mean, really, aside from the few people who still care about the sort of music that MTV was honoring—most of it not only forgettable, but fascinating for the inevitable, record-setting brevity of the celebrity it will enjoy—who really thinks Nicki Minaj will even be remembered in 10 years?
If she had any inkling of the astounding number of young people of music-buying age who have absolutely no idea of what she actually sounds like—not looks like, but sounds like—I believe it would depress the hell out of her.
I mention this only because this week's album releases feature a surprisingly diverse, rich array of artists—all of whom are musicians, rather than television celebrities, and all of whom, despite the inevitable dwindling record sales they are all uniformly experiencing, will likely be making music for the duration of their lives. None of them appeared on the VMAs, of course, and in the scheme of things, it was very much to their benefit. Rather than celebrating the best of today's popular music, it would appear that MTV's awards ceremony is instead painting bullseyes on the backs of its most celebrated and conspicuous performers.
And with this year's massive drop-off in viewers, I wouldn't be surprised if they're noticing that very much over there right around now.
Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia) Praising the new Bob Dylan album—which emerges now 50 full years after his very first—after ragging on last week's MTV video awards may seem like the height of predictability, but it must be done: This is a strong, vital album that was made with virtually no concern for celebrity or record-setting sales or any of those standards that currently drive the business in 2012, and it's fine indeed. Bolstered with fascinating musical arrangements, complex lyrics that merit repeat listening, and a voice that sounds desperately in need of a throat-clearing, Tempest is a fine showing for a legendary artist, a meaty, substantial work that will enjoy much listening in years to come. More relevantly in this current musical climate: There's absolutely no one who tells this man what to do, and we're all the better for it. Enjoy this.
Little Big Town: Tornado (Capitol Nashville) If you haven't been paying attention, Little Big Town has been pegged by some as the "country" Fleetwood Mac—it's the sort of thing that happens when you've got a quartet featuring two males and two females, all of them conspicuous, all of them quite skilled—but don't let that "country" tag fool you. There's enough going on here musically, in terms of texture, harmonies and subject matter, to excite fans of nearly any music genre, and it's likely Tornado will make that more evident than anything this group has recorded before. In 2012, they're the right band at the right time—and this is the right record.
David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant (4AD) A wholly successful collaboration here between former Talking Head Byrne and Annie Clark—aka St. Vincent—bolstered by some fascinating horn arrangements and the sort of sonic subtleties you'd expect from either of these artists' other solo projects. Very much the work of both of them—lead vocals switch on and off, accompanied by unexpected harmonies—Love This Giant at times sounds like the Original Broadway Cast recording of a music theatre piece that never happened, but on its own, with no visual distractions, it's absolutely fine, forward-looking music. A great showing for both of them.
Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (Astralwerks) However cute and quirky their music may be—and however inescapably English it seems—the Pet Shop Boys are first and foremost great pop artists with an enviable grasp of the clever melodic hook, and Elysium will sound quite fine in any language. Recorded in Los Angeles, a first for the duo, the album is more moody and melodic than usual--but more so than for most bands, several repeated listenings will offer up musical subtleties that might go unnoticed the first time around. They are really rather good. Have you heard them lately?
The xx: Coexist (XL Recordings) One of the week's finest albums, Coexist marks the return of London's the xx. It's a subtle, intimate disc that now arrives with a growing fanbase building for the band—especially here in the States—and following recent work with the likes of Drake and the late Gil Scott-Heron, will likely be heard by a broader audience than the band might've reasonably expected since its 2009 debut. A mature work, and one that signifies an important band still in their early days, this is the sort of thing that accidentally becomes quite popular. See for yourself.
I'm Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco) A wonderful account of esteemed singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen by distinguished writer Sylvie Simmons--whose prior account of French cult icon Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes was similarly fact-filled, colorful and notably enhanced by the unique warmth that is Simmons' stock-in-trade. Very well-researched, boasting a deep familiarity with the artist's full repertoire—not as small a deal as that may sound—Simmons' book is delightful, informative, and exactly the sort of biography that an artist of Cohen's stature deserves. A top-notch account—one of the year's best—of one our finest artists, very much worthy of your attention.
Neil Halstead: Palindrome Hunches (Brushfire) The third album by Neil Halstead, the Brit singer/songwriter whose prior work with Slowdive and Mojave 3 might not have suggested the path he's currently taking: That of the thoughtful, profound guy-with-guitar who for better or worse has spent this phase of his career being compared to Nick Drake, mainly because that's the sort of comparison music writers like to make, even though they should know better. Now on Jack Johnson's label, which does indeed make sense, Halstead continues penning beautiful, thoughtful tunes and delivering them with a subtlety that continues to surprise.
Seapony: Falling (Hardly Art) As always, I inadvertently remain a sucker for music featuring a female vocalist, a heavily reverberated guitar, and the occasional minor chord—I think between the Marine Girls and the Young Marble Giants, the early '80s really scarred me—and this, the second set from Midwesterners-gone-westward Seapony, is exactly that. Fine tunes, carrying with them a noticeable haze of sentimentality, inaudibility and simplicity that evokes no era in particular but, at least for me, sounds like exactly the right music at the right time. Do check them out.
The Presets: Pacifica (Casablanca) Australian synth/dance combo the Presets are back after four years with what appears to be their fourth album, and as these things go, it's quite commercial, almost rocky, and very likely to take them up a step internationally. Upbeat and still very danceable, Pacifica succeeds on a number of levels—and, not incidentally, provides EDM the sort of recognizable face that, even at this stage of its commercial ascendancy, it could use for pure pop crossover purposes. It has a good beat and you can dance to it: Presets = good.
George Martin: Produced By George Martin (Blu-Ray) (Eagle Rock Entertainment) A full-length video feature documenting the career of distinguished producer Martin—whose work with pop music's royalty, most notably the Beatles, has made him the sort of legendary figure that full-length video features are made about—this disc takes an existing UK video program, adds in 50 minutes of bonus footage featuring the likes of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jeff Beck and Cilla Black, among others, and mixes in music clips galore. It is a worthy project, the music is inarguably classic, and it is both educational and entertaining. As they say: Everyone's a winner, babe.