I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I believe there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.
If you like a song, if it makes you happy and brings a little joy to your existence, then you shouldn’t feel even slightly guilty about it, no matter what it is. Others may try to dissuade you from the thing you love, but don’t let them. You should give not one shit what they think, be they famous and influential music critics or people you know. Or hell, both, if you know some famous and influential music critics. Art is between you and the work, and no one else needs to be in that relationship.
Hopefully I’ve succeeded in keeping this column about what I like, what I’m responding to, and not what you should like or respond to. At the bottom of this column you’ll find my First Quarter Report for 2013, essentially an early look at my top 10 list. In no way am I suggesting these are the albums you should like best. They’re the ones I like best at this point in time. I’d love it if you checked out the ones you haven’t heard, but beyond that, it’s not my place nor my business to tell you what to like.
I get some flack for some of the things I enjoy. For more than a decade, Marillion has been one of my favorite bands, despite the fact that virtually everyone else I know finds them bland and boring. I put the Click Five in my top 10 list a few years ago, and their infectious power pop still makes me smile, but some of my readers just couldn’t stomach them. Same with Hanson, a band I will defend to the death. They write top-notch blue-eyed soul-pop, and they keep getting better at it. They have a new record coming out this year – the first single, “Get the Girl Back,” is pretty great – and you can expect me to wax ecstatic about it when it drops, no matter what anyone thinks.
With that in mind, I have two records on tap this week that most people who don’t know me won’t believe I actually like. One’s a modern soul-pop masterwork from a former boy-bander, and one’s a mariachi throwdown from a former country-swing band. And both of them have occupied my CD player for weeks. Here’s what I unashamedly like about them.
* * * * *
The rise of Justin Timberlake has been fun to watch.
I’ve never been a teenage girl, so the appeal of ‘NSync, Timberlake’s ‘90s-era prefab boy band, has always eluded me. I get them mixed up with the Backstreet Boys, and I couldn’t name a single song of theirs, despite being unable to escape them during my Face Magazine years. (All right, I just looked. I do know “Bye Bye Bye.”) I enjoyed “Cry Me a River” when I first heard it, but I never picked up Timberlake’s first solo album, the idiotically titled Justified. He was a pop star from a boy band, and I wasn’t interested.
Oddly enough, it was “Dick in a Box” that first commanded my attention. Timberlake has all but established a second career as a Saturday Night Live host, and his collaboration with the Lonely Island was one of the funniest things the show has ever aired. When I heard Timberlake was performing “Dick in a Box” in concert, my admiration grew. His second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, was a huge leap forward, thanks to his burgeoning partnership with producer Timbaland. It was still radio pop, but it was sophisticated radio pop, interesting and mature.
Six years later, here he is with The 20/20 Experience, and his evolution into full-fledged artist and superstar appears complete. He’s now sold enough records that he can get a major label to bankroll an album like this, which could only have been made by someone who doesn’t care if he sells any more records. The 20/20 Experience is vast and patient, full of long, flowering, soulful songs without easy hooks. I’ve been comparing it to old Isaac Hayes records, but that’s not quite right – it doesn’t sound like old soul, but it captures some of the essence of it.
Timberlake collaborated with Timbaland again on every track here, and the two are remarkably (ahem) in sync. They throw down the gauntlet early – “Pusher Love Girl” is eight minutes long, slow and slinky, with old-school strings and horns and a decidedly Prince feel. Timberlake has a high and thin voice – he’s no John Legend, by any means – but he works it, stretching it over the groove. The last three minutes find Timbaland riffing on the theme – the song relates a girl to an addictive drug, and Timberlake drops a sotra-rapped verse: “I can’t wait till I can get you home and get you in my veins.” You wouldn’t hear this on the Mickey Mouse Club, but you also wouldn’t hear it on the radio.
In fact, only a couple songs here sound like Timberlake could even send them to radio. One of them, “Suit & Tie,” is a bona fide hit, which makes sense – it has the album’s most obvious chorus, and a (relatively uninspired) verse from Jay-Z. It’s clearly the single, and it’s fine, particularly its odd vibes sample, but it’s the worst thing here. Much better is “Don’t Hold the Wall,” a strange yet compelling crawler that extends to seven minutes, and the great “Strawberry Bubblegum,” a smooth, minimal mood piece that evolves into a jazzy pop treat.
These songs take their time – the Prince-like “Spaceship Coupe” took me a few listens to appreciate, but now I can’t get enough of the thick synth bass and the ripping Elliott Ives guitar solo. “That Girl” is one of only two songs that doesn’t surge past six minutes, but I wouldn’t have minded if it had. It’s the most classic-sounding soul number on the record, with delicious horns and guitars. The vocal arrangement is marvelous, dripping honeyed harmonies and lovely countermelodies.
The 20/20 Experience ends with three songs unlike anything Timberlake has done, and for my money, they’re the three best. “Let the Groove Get In” is an ecstatic rewrite of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” that spins out its Latin-inflected rhythm and repeated vocal for seven minutes. It glides into “Mirrors,” the most straightforward pop-rock song here, but as it goes along, it expands and blossoms. The breakdown in the final three minutes is splendid. And then there is “Blue Ocean Floor,” a drumless ambient lament than ends the album on a melancholy note. This is the record’s biggest surprise, a song that is equal parts Thom Yorke and Moby, a shimmering and heartfelt sink to the bottom.
I hear this is just the first volume of The 20/20 Experience. If the second can maintain this album’s inventiveness, maturity and willingness to serve the song more than the singer, it should be another winner. Justin Timberlake didn’t have to make an album this interesting – whatever he released would have sold, so he could have just followed the winning formula. The fact that he did, and that the resulting album is one of the finest mainstream pop albums I’ve heard in years, is worthy of respect. It’s a little masterwork from an unexpected source, and one I can’t stop listening to. Can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
* * * * *
When I was in college, I lived in a house with three other guys. We all pitched in for cable, and somehow we all got addicted to Country Music Television. We compiled a list of elements that had to be present in every country video – the hat, the truck, the guitar, the girl – and I think we were proud of ourselves when we discovered bands that broke the mold.
One of our favorites was The Mavericks, a band that didn’t seem to belong on CMT at all. Their hit at the time was “There Goes My Heart,” a bit of traditional western swing with a horn section, and all of their third album, What a Crying Shame, traded in the same old-school stompers. They only got more interesting from there, kicking in genre walls while keeping one respectful eye on the past. Their seventh album, In Time, was a long… well, time in coming – the band took a decade off while lead singer Raul Malo pursued a solo career. They’ve now evolved into a fascinating, goofy, damn fun outfit that I unabashedly adore.
On much of In Time, the Mavericks sound like Roy Orbison fronting Los Lobos. Malo has really cultivated the Orbison in his voice – it’s always been there, but he sounds even more like him now than he did in the ‘90s. The songs, as usual, are simple ditties, traditional in scope, but the band leaps genres with even more ease and confidence here. Opener “Back in Your Arms” is a ‘50s shuffle with some fine organ touches, “All Over Again” is full-on Mexican folk music, with some awesome horns, and “In Another’s Arms” is a delicate torch song with strings and sweet melodica. Malo sounds fantastic on that one, like a born crooner.
While every track is good – try the Jerry Lee Lewis boogie of “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight,” or the jazz balladry of “Forgive Me” – there are two standouts that set this album above anything the Mavericks have done. The first is “Come Unto Me,” a minor-key Tex-Mex-flavored stunner that makes full use of Malo’s powerful tenor. The ascending chant that kicks off the pre-chorus is just awesome. And then there is “(Call Me) When You Get to Heaven,” an eight-minute gospel-infused slowly-building epic, complete with insistent choral backing vocals. It’s terrific.
I’m glad I stumbled onto the Mavericks when I was an undergrad. Without that months-long fascination with CMT, I might never have heard them, and I certainly wouldn’t have the attachment to them that I do. In Time is a swell reunion record for a unique band. They’ve evolved into a genre-oblivious beast, beholden to no style, yet always cognizant of the history they’re steeped in. And they’re a lot of fun to boot.
* * * * *
Hard to believe it’s the end of March already. Below you’ll find my First Quarter Report, essentially what my 2013 top 10 list would look like if I were forced at gunpoint to publish it now. This is not a great list, although I’ll stand by the top four. I sincerely hope it gets better. You’ll also see a couple of entries that I have not yet reviewed. Rest assured, I’ll get to them.
Without further ado, here’s the list as it stands now.
#10. Johnny Marr, The Messenger.
#9. Young Dreams, Between Places.
#8. Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories.
#7. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience.
#6. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero.
#5. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots.
#4. My Bloody Valentine, m b v.
#3. The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law.
#2. Everything Everything, Arc.
#1. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse.
I go back and forth between Everything Everything and Frightened Rabbit, since they spark very different parts of my musical brain. You caught me in a lyrical mood today, so the Rabbit wins. Come back in three months to see how the list has changed.
See you in line Tuesday morning.