I spent more time reading the 2010 Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” poll this year than I have any year since Robert Christgau’s dethroning, and that includes back when I was being asked to contribute. Since I hadn’t really read it in some time, I can’t say it’s better than it had been, but I can say this: It’s been a long time since I’ve been as interested in reading about mainstream (yes, “mainstream,” VV) pop as I am in the wake of the just-past fun and fascinating year on the charts.
I don’t mind that I don’t get to contribute to the annual critics’ poll anymore. I’m not really a good juror for the pool, and after I took to the WFMU's Beware of the Blog to chastise not just the Voice’s abandoning of jazz in the poll (I do contribute to Frances Davis’s stopgap jazz poll) but the whole idea of annual besties lists, I didn’t really expect them to keep calling. (For further reading, see my Brooklyn Rail colleague Katy Henriksen’s drawing and quartering of the Top 10 tradition.)
But now — do I wish I could get back in on the cool kids’ table so I too could talk about Cee-Lo and Bruno Mars, and say that M.I.A. is getting short shrift and Nicky Minaj is getting long shrift even while she’s barely getting any shrift at all? Yeah, I kinda do. It’s not just that there were more songs in the mainstream last year that I wanted to hear (enough to allow for the luxury of not having to try to like Katy Perry just to feel some connection with the pizza parlor and America at large). It’s that a cultural shift has been happening tantamount to the Nile reversing its current (which didn’t really happen), and that’s that blacks are making records with guitars and drums while the white are singing over anonymous backing tracks.
Are there exceptions? Sure, scads of them, shut up. And my point is not that the Gaga/Beyonce “Telephone” video was not the greatest thing since Pulp Fiction. But a thing has been going on within the trappings of hip hop which isn’t about rapping anymore and is about bands, instruments and songs. And I don’t care if we call it “Urban” or “Adult Contemporary” or “Newer Jack Swing” or “21st Century Soul.” It is fresh and sweet as a honeydew.
Sometimes it’s easier to make a point using mediocrity as an example, so take as Exhibit A Keri Hilson’s "Pretty Girl Rock” (seen here on Letterman because the band didn't make the video):
It's a cute song, catchy enough, but not great. While the white kids have taken pensive nerdcore to an exhausting level, however, Hilson delivered a straight-up pop song, hovering over the race line like the ghost of Diana Ross, and with people playing instruments. Real people playing real instruments. And I’ve got not a thing against turntables and laptops. But how refreshing is this to see?
Round Two: Will.I.Am vs. Mark Ronson.
Two of 2010’s hottest hits. “Check It Out” vs. “Bang Bang.” Titles that don’t deceive. These are songs designed to make you have fun now. And each has the added plus of a weirdee girl: Minaj (aka Onika Maraj aka Roman Zolanski aka The Harajuku Barbie) in the first instance and Amanda Warner (aka MNDR) in the second.
Maybe what it really is is a Motown revival. Sweet soul sounds abounded in 2010, and the young and pretty genius tunesmith Bruno Mars, with his Strat strapped on, was behind a lot of it. The 25-year-old Hawaiian-born Hispanic singer/songwriter is nominated for seven awards in the upcoming Grammys. He released his own album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, with the hit “Just the Way You Are” and was behind, and in front of, the gorgeously catchy “Nothing On You” with B.o.B.
Sweet little Bruno was also behind Cee-Lo (look hard, you’ll see him) (sorry) for his smash hit “Fuck You,” who plays it with a band that puts Robert Palmer’s ’80s attempts to shame. The video for the song is equally great, but this clip (from British TV, where he didn’t have to change it to “Forget You”) shows the band at play.
Of course, there’s one man who’s never given up on having a band, even if more often than not he’s the whole band himself. He released a new album, but you can’t buy it (thanks to my British friends who got me copies from the Daily Mirror), and there’s no videos or TV appearances. Since he’s declared the internet over, the best out there is a fan vid. But it’s all supposed to be about your ears anyway, right?