It's strange that in a year when the two biggest pop music stories dealt with the renaissances that R&B and dance music are undergoing, we lost icons from those respective genres: Whitney Houston and Donna Summer. Long gone is the time when what those divas brought to their respective genres was fresh and, for that matter, commercially relevant—but the passing of the baton, the out with the old and in with the new, rarely feels so pronounced and tangible.
Where R&B was concerned, the big movement was one toward a heady, humid permutation big on ambiance, thick layered synths and a feeling of sonic vastness and depth. A year ago, when people were writing think pieces about Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and other purveyors of so-called "PBR&B," this stuff breaking into the mainstream seemed unlikely, but thanks to Drake's leading the way with last year's Take Care (and, more to the point, his right hand man Noah "40" Shebib's beats), moody music made a massive comeback. Ocean and Miguel released exceptional full-lengths, Usher's "Climax" redefined what an R&B ballad was for at least the first half of 2012 while people like Brandy and Keyshia Cole briefly dabbled in the clouds as well.
It's great to have so many listeners and critics on R&B's jock, especially because it repeatedly has proven itself as the most liberal of the commercial genres (pop's forward thinkers from Prince to Timbaland tend to converge around the form), but some of the most interesting work, I think, marked an alternative to the alternative. Georgia Anne Muldrow, who dabbled in soulful haze long before it become commercially viable, released her most down-to-earth album yet, Seeds, thanks to the organization of Madlib's beats. Elle Varner combined 808s and relentless fiddles to make one of the year's most gently out-there singles, "Refill" – the rest of her adventurous debut, Perfectly Imperfect, was stellar. R. Kelly released another vocal album that reminds everyone what a virtuoso singer he is (a point easily lost in the hype and unsavory reputation) – Write Me Back found him mimicking Barry White and Michael Jackson to tremendous effect at every turn. New jill swing trio SWV released their first album in 15 years, and it was as though no time had passed at all – with the second biggest trend being the reintroduction of breakbeats for a neo-hip-hop-soul look, they sounded remarkably contemporary doing what they always did. British duo Alunageorge invoked the melodies and forward-thinking spirit of the late '90s and Solange teetered on a tightrope pioneered by Janet Jackson, making music somewhere between electronic pop and R&B that doesn't seem noncommittal but in complete mastery of everything it suggests.
The dance music thing was all about EDM – festivals, the drop, synths so chafing they sound programmed to rub your skin off. For all of its popularity, EDM remains the redheaded stepchild of pop – I haven't read any prominent critic take a poptimist stance and actually defend it, but maybe that's because it needs no defense. It just works. Stand in the middle of a crowd that is waiting like a pack of drug addicts for their next hit of bass as it pulls out and build and builds and builds and you will understand exactly how infectious it is. Oh, and David Guetta/Sia's "Titanium" is the genre's premier crossover classic, not just a great EDM song, but a great pop song that just happens to be EDM.
Speaking of Frank Ocean, what a beautiful story it was that a man so closely affiliated with hip-hop, so entrenched in R&B tradition, could come out as having loved another man and be so warmly embraced by critics, audience and the establishment (six Grammy nominations, what?). Had his channel ORANGE not been a remarkable, specific, clever, gorgeous release, his celebrity would have quickly faded. However, that queerness seemed to work for a burgeoning superstar's image and not against it is wonderful evidence of how far we have come as a society (or at least, an audience of pop culture consumers).
That said, there were a number of other gay or gayish music releases that Frank's legend may have eclipsed in terms of mainstream attention, but not necessarily creatively or in terms of their crucial ability to represent all of the rainbow's colors. These include Scissor Sisters' gay anthem of the year, "Let's Have a Kiki," Adam Lambert's wonderfully flamboyant sophomore album, Trespassing, as well as his performance of Madonna's "Ray of Light" during VH1's recent Divas Live concert, the gay twist to the video for Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," the rash of decent-to-great gay rappers including Le1f and Mykki Blanco ("Wavvy" was but one highlight on his consistently excellent Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss mixtape) and the chillest bitch track of all time, Zebra Katz's "Ima Read." These works were cohesive, they made it their thesis that being gay in music is an asset, with an infinite expressive range.
Last word on Frank: To reinforce his assertion in "Sweet Life" that "the best song wasn't the single" here is a list of album cuts that proved him right, or at least close enough:
Frank Ocean featuring Andre 3000 "Pink Matter"
Brandy "Paint This House" and "Let Me Go"
Killer Mike "Southern Fried"
Santigold "The Riot's Gone"
Christina Aguilera "Red Hot Kinda Love"
Saint Etienne "Popular"
Elle Varner "Sound Proof Room"
Usher "Say the Words"
Miguel "Don't Look Back/Time of the Season"
Solange "Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work"
Nicki Minaj "I Endorse These Strippers"
Sky Ferreira "Lost in My Bedroom"
Vitalic "Under Your Sun"
Corinne Bailey Rae "Chains"
Keyshia Cole "Stubborn"
Alicia Keys "When It's All Over"
Legowelt "Elements of Houz Music"
Ke$ha "Last Goodbye"
Wiz Khalifa "No Limit"
Big Boi featuring Little Dragon and Killer Mike "Thom Pettie"
Madonna "Love Spent"
Carly Rae Jepsen "Turn Me Up"
And speaking of Carly, even though she has gone Top 10 now twice (with her Owl City duet "Good Time" and, of course, "Call Me Maybe"), she isn't quite out of the woods from being branded a one-hit wonder per Chris Molanphy's new rules for the designation in his extremely clever 100 & Single column. Essentially, if Carly can't pull out another hit six months after her huge one, it will threaten to define her career, making her as good as a one hit wonder. While iTunes has done a lot to ensure relative longevity to artists that, in another era, would have lived up to their brand of disposable pop entirely, this year did contain a lot of hitmakers who seem destined to fade away as quickly as they came: Jepsen, Gotye, Psy, Karmin, Alex Clare, Phillip Phillips, Cher Lloyd, Imagine Dragons, Ellie Goulding (though she'll probably continue to make critically acclaimed work and retain a following, another hit like "Lights" seems unlikely)…hell, One Direction and the Wanted still have just one bona fide hit a piece. If any of these names seem unfamiliar now, just wait until five years from now. Long live throwaway pop!
Feminism also seemed particularly releveant to pop with Camille Paglia writing a smear of the megagrossing "mannequin posturing" Taylor Swift and "manic cyborg cheerleader" Katy Perry for The Hollywood Reporter. "Middle-class white girls will never escape the cookie-cutter tyranny of their airless ghettos until the entertainment industry looks into its soul and starts giving them powerful models of mature womanliness," wrote Pags in a piece that also praised Beyoncé and Rihanna. On the former: fair enough. On the latter: ehhh.
Rihanna certainly makes a compelling argument that she is going to do whatever the fuck she wants, public opinion be damned – this is why she hangs out with her abuser (after claiming she would never) Chris Brown and then proclaims in a duet with him that this "ain't nobody's business, but mine and my baby." That argument is less compelling. Rihanna makes choices so haphazard that they seem only her own – a feat in this media-trained, ironed-out day and age – but they often seem to be the wrong ones, and here we are left to judge. Rihanna's 2012 album (her third in that many years), Unapologetic, is a sloppy, unpleasant mess while she remains radiant and unmissable. She is better at being a star than a singer, and that is enough for her.
More to the point than Paglia (imagine!) was Crystal Castles' Alice Glass, who told NME:
We need an army because the mainstream hates women. I think a lot of kids are more sexualized now than they were now than they were years ago and I'm not sure it's a coincidence. Like fucking Katy Perry spraying people with her fucking dick, her fucking cum gun coming on fucking children. And little girls, like six-year-old girls wearing a shirt with 'I wanna see your [pea] cock' on it. Don't prey on vulnerable people like that. Don't encourage little girls to get dressed up, to have cupcakes on their tits to get people to lick them off 'cos that's what you're insinuating.
I enjoy this statement more than anything on Crystal Castles' 2012 album, III.
And then there was Grimes, whose unabashed girlishness in her music (high vocals, candy-apple melodies, girl-group sensibilities) and merchandise (pussy rings!) bespoke a determined embrace of femininity. She blew minds (at least mine) when she revealed to Spin that "Oblivion" is about sexual assault and she just as unabashedly described herself as a feminist in the same interview. "The more I've had to work in this industry, the more I've just been shocked at the way people behave," is how she explained it, as though invoking a survival mechanism. There's hope yet.
Hooray to what seems like a movement for the return of narrative hip-hop, led by Kendrick Lamar and his excellent album-long story about youth fuck-ups and redemption, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Other notable entries include Killer Mike's "JoJo's Chillin'," Joey Bada$$' "Update" and "Little Rachel," Nas' "Daughters" and Big K.R.I.T.'s "Praying Man." For a while, it seemed like no one was saying much about anything, but that's turning around in a big way. The most impressively cohesive narrative and flat-out bravest song I've heard all year is Angel Haze's spin on Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet," in which the young rapper details years of sexual trauma in an astoundingly accessible manner. In raw honesty, the only thing that came close this year was Andre 300's apology to his OutKast partner Big Boi on T.I's "Sorry" ("And this the type of shit that'll make you call your rap partner / And say I'm sorry I'm awkward, my fault for fuckin' up the tours / I hated all the attention so I ran from it / Fuck it if we did, but I hope we ain't lose no fans from it").
Nicki Minaj grows more inconsistent over time – now three albums deep, she's yet to make one that's even close to listening to in its entirety, as her taste level couldn't be lower or more focused on generating revenue. She's open about it, which I suppose is admirable on some level, but she's taken the art out of celebrity, churning, churning and churning and squeezing out whatever happens to materialize. Her aesthetic has always included a breathless devotion to entertaining, but never has she sounded as joyless as she does now. She's still capable of hitting it out of the park (if she did nothing besides "Beez in the Trap," she still would have contributed more than most to music), but she runs the risk of diluting her importance with bullshit – let's not forget that just a few years ago, she showed a forgetful industry that female rappers could be commercially viable. At least the doors she reopened have been flooded with talent from Azealia Banks to Rapsody (her Soul Council-produced debut, The Idea of Beautiful, was shamefully overlooked) to Iggy Azalea (who's at least fascinating) to Angel Haze, the most likely newcomer to cut a future classic. And there's always Jean Grae, who's been around and brilliant for years and who runs maybe the best damn Twitter in existence.
The list, by the way, excludes Kitty Pryde, a shitty, young Tumblr rapper who is still young enough to think self-deprecation excuses incompetence. She seemed like a big deal for a hot second this summer. Thankfully, we are cooling.
(Oh, and could we cut it out with the self-drawn Marilyn Monroe comparisons? Nicki and Rihanna both employ them on their 2012 albums – neither makes a convincing case. It's been done. Neither of them are close to Marilyn Monroe or pop's original Marilyn biter, Madonna, for that matter.)
This is just a short word of praise for the reissue company Funkytown Grooves, which was responsible for some of my favorite releases this year, including an expanded version of Kashif's self-titled 1983 debut that sparkles like new. Shit, they made La Toya Jackson's Hot Potato sound good. It's not exactly polishing a turd, but polishing a potato didn't seem much likelier. And yet they did it.
And speaking of old-school, two of the very greatest concerts I attended in 2012 were from R&B vets: Millie Jackson at B.B. King and Grace Jones at Roseland. Millie, the definitive cranky old lady of soul, sang classics like "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" and "Phuck You Symphony" while imploring the crowd to eat berries ("If you gonna forget shit, at least you know you forgot it") and mocking her own material (after "Hurt So Good," she told the crowd, "If you believe that, I got a couple of bridges I wanna sell ya. Nothing hurts me good!"). Grace Jones, meanwhile, changed her outfit about a dozen times during a setlist that included tracks from throughout her catalog. "Oh god, do I need to suck some dick. You heard me," she said between songs to a sea of mostly gay men. She knew her audience well.
Oh, and here's my favorite video of the year, SSION's "My Love Grows in the Dark."
They had me at the dough.