Q32013: The Year in Music (So Far), Part 2
Nirvana – In Utero (Reissue)
As a diehard Nirvana fan—diehard to the point where I used to trade concert bootlegs via CD-R in the mail and via .SHN files over Direct Connect—any new Nirvana releases make me happy on a near-cellular level. In Utero's rerelease includes the original album, B-sides, an updated remix from producer Butch Vig, a few demos and instrumentals, and a 1993 MTV concert recording, all packed into three discs. The album is indisputably a classic: listen to the frenzied, avart-garde ‘Milk It’, the funereal ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, or the simple yet devastating ’Heart-Shaped Box’ and try to tell me that this isn't a shining example of what rock music can be. Vig's ‘2013 mix’ doesn't stray too far from the original material, but Cobain's guitar sounds a bit more immediate and ragged, Krist Novoselic's bass headier and more massive, and Dave Grohl's virtuosic drumming just a little bit more explosive. Don't miss the dark, wistful pop of the Nevermind-era ‘Sappy’ or the extraordinary solo acoustic demo of ’Marigold’ from Grohl.
The concert record, while well-mixed and varied in its setlist, doesn't come close to the raw power of their Live at Reading set or Unplugged performance (which in turn are are similarly outclassed by the unofficial yet widely-bootleged 11/25/1990 show, perhaps the greatest live rock recording I've ever heard). Critics have dedicated untold verbiage to the idea of In Utero as Cobain's swan song; it's hard not to view it in that light, but ultimately what makes the album so immortal is its complete sonic reversal from the glossy pop melodies of Nevermind. Nirvana were never really punk (and, for that matter, never really grunge), but In Utero is the incarnation of punk spirit: uncompromising to a fault, brutally honest, and loud as hell. Along with Kid A, it's always offered as the archetypal example of an abrasive, avant-garde response to critical and commercial success, and for good reason—it proved that the deepest, bravest genius lies in reinvention.
Drake—Nothing was the Same
Oh, Drake. What are we going to do with you? His debut mixtape/EP So Far Gone was so well-engineered and so interestingly honest that it managed to overcome the fact he was previously best known as the kid who got shot on Degrassi. His spot on Lil Wayne's Young Money crew put him in touch with excellent producers and feature opportunities, and he was there to fill the void as Wayne's untouchable streak faded. I never got into his first two records—Thank Me Later was undistinguished, and Take Care lugubriously self-pitying—but his latest, Nothing was the Same, is actually quite compelling.
Drake hasn't abandoned his specific brand of brooding self-reflection, but he's lightened up recently, seemingly more comfortable in his own skin: the melancholy piano-driven beat of ‘Started From the Bottom’ could have been the scene of yet another pity party, but he turns it into a surprisingly fun, confident tale of beating the odds. He's also learned that angry catharsis can be as touching as melancholy confessionals: the chorus of the terrific ‘Worst Behavior’ is a spiteful, repeated “motherfucker never loved us”. It's not exactly a fun record, and not one I play often, but I enjoy it when I do. And I can forgive Drake pretty much anything—he discovered The Weeknd, after all.
The album title doesn't lie—at 32, Detroit native Danny Brown is old by rap standards, accented further by the fact that this is his major-label debut. But then again, he's an anomaly in a myriad array of ways: he sports skinny jeans, a Win-Butler-inspired wacky haircut, a delivery like a strangled cat, and musical tastes that range far beyond the typical rapper's (he has professed that Love's 1967 Forever Changes is his favorite album).
Old succeeds because it embraces every aspect of Brown's weirdness: though his mixtape XXX was brilliant in its concentrated raunch, on Old Brown gets introspective and even occasionally abandons his standard guttural yawp. Its insular and eclectic nature is distinctly post-Yeezus album: just as Kanye turns to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon for extra melodic texture, Brown enlists indie darlings Charli XCX and Purity Ring. You might not be able to get past Brown's distinctive timbre or his fondness for molly, but I hope not: you'll miss out.
I was sold on Janelle Monaé as soon as I heard the phrase "seven-part concept series inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis concerning a time-traveling messianic android." She's a consummate oddball, more daring in her fashion sense than Lady Gaga on mescaline (and unfailingly successful), and one of the finest talents in R&B's recent renaissance. A listen to The Electric Lady, her third release, makes it clear why Prince co-signed her: her music is dreamy, futuristic, funky and soulful but ultimately unclassifiable. ‘Primetime’, a duet with Miguel, is a gorgeous exercise in vocal harmony: her voice is her strongest asset, powerful, rich, lush, whether crooning or rapping (the last verse on lead single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.‘ puts most rappers to shame). A delightful, irresistable album.
P.S: Earl Sweatshirt's Doris was better than all these albums, but it got its time in the sun here on TCoI already.