A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
As 2012 comes to a close, we look back and try to figure out what to make of this puzzlingly erratic year – one where some awesome stuff happened, and everything was not totally terrible! To help sift the dirt and the gold, Ducker brought in always apt pop-culture opinionator Zach Baron. Baron wrote several great stories this year that provided strong insights into what we should be paying attention to in the music world, including profiles of Ariel Pink, James Murphy and Diplo for The New York Times; compelling features on Fiona Apple and Azealia Banks for SPIN ; trenchant essays on Gil-Scott Heron and Mountain Goats for The Daily; and a surprising trip back to Morocco with French Montana for The FADER. Previously an editor at The Village Voice and a critic and reporter at The Daily, Baron currently serves as “a film critic for the sports and culture website Grantland.
Eric Ducker: Take a moment to step into your personal time machine: going into 2012, what were you excited about musically?
Zach Baron: This is an interesting question because, in retrospect, I suppose I didn’t really see any of the really exciting stuff coming before it arrived. I was not ringing in the New Year saying, “Man, I hope Fiona Apple makes a new record about heartbreak and redemptive sadness.” Looking at my Pazz & Jop ballot last year, you can see inklings of some of it: Future, Meek Mill, A$AP – all things I was waiting for more of. But one of the things I enjoyed about 2012 was how often I was surprised. Maybe that’s just because this is the year I became more of a dilettante music critic than a real one, but there you go.
ED: What do you mean by that?
ZB: A social-media guru just had a shiver go up the back of his neck like, “Somewhere on the planet, a writer just destroyed his brand,” but I’ve had jobs for probably the last six years that required me to listen to and write about music every day, and that was less true this year. I still reviewed a ton of records and wrote a good amount of longer features, but compared to, say, my friend Jon Caramanica, I am barely paying attention.
ED: Going back to your for statement about how often you were surprised, what were the biggest positive surprises for you this year?
ZB: Frank Ocean. You look at that guy a year ago and say, “This is a fascinating artist – it will be really interesting to watch him evolve.” You don’t really expect Channel ORANGE, which seems likely to still be bowling people over anew in 2025. I didn’t anticipate losing it over Fiona Apple, since I didn’t lose it over Fiona Apple the other three times she put out records. I’m a hardcore kid from way back when, and I never really expected music that so clearly comes out of that world – here I’m thinking of Japandroids and the Crutchfield twins, who are behind Swearin’ and Waxahatchee, two bands that made two of my favorite records of the year – to be as vital and part of the conversation in 2012.
ED: So you went all in on Japandroids this year?
ZB: The first time I heard “The House That Heaven Built,” I thought someone was playing a prank on me. It was like, “Here are all the things you like at once!” So yeah, I did. I spent a lot of my teenage years chasing bands like Jawbreaker, who could sort of balance all the angry punk nihilism I thought I was feeling with melody and feeling and heart. Choruses too, probably. Celebration Rock is like the platonic version of that.
ED: What was your opinion of them before Celebration Rock?
ZB: That they were the ersatz version of that stuff. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is an astonishing song. The rest of that record, not so much. But this is a conversation! A “rational conversation.” This is the time of year where I start to think about narratives, because that is what we do in December, when we enter the list and year-end retrospective salt mines. If you had to put a story on the year – wrap a bunch of disparate and disconnected albums and trends and conversations with a neat little bow – what would that story be?
ED: You’re on to something about artists surpassing expectations in 2012. One of the reasons people got so geeked on Japandroids was because they improved from their last album to this one, and that can feel so rare with bands this days. Baroness got super ambitious and made a double album that explored lots of possibilities within their sound, and it was great. There weren’t a lot of albums that disappointed me. Some people were let down by certain rap albums – Waka Flocka, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz – but I didn’t have high hopes for them. There were plenty of mediocre and unmemorable albums this year, but unless I’m blocking them from my memory or I’ve already deleted them from iTunes, I can’t think of anything that seriously didn’t come close to what I hoped from it.
ZB: Rap, which has been trending in a singles direction for a very long time – which is one of the great things about the genre – kind of reached its apotheosis in 2012. There was Kendrick Lamar, and I was very moved by Future’s album, but there’s almost a gap you can see forming between certain R&B artists; I’m thinking here of Frank Ocean, and Miguel, and Usher, and Bobby Womack, and – hell, put Future in here again as well. They all made really thoughtful and complete “album” albums this year, versus rap artists who had their whole year play out in singles: Chief Keef, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, French Montana, Trinidad James (ahem), and so on. Some of those people put out proper albums this year. But past good kid, m.A.A.d. city, it was a pretty YouTube-y year for rap, even by the genre’s already pretty advanced YouTube standards. That’s anything but a complaint, by the way.
ED: I was giving 2 Chainz’s album another chance earlier this week and started thinking of the parallels (or not) between his song “Ghetto Dreams” with Scarface and John Legend vs. Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city” which features MC Eiht. I don’t even like MC Eiht’s verse that much – and I love MC Eiht – but “m.A.A.d. city” does such a better job articulating Kendrick’s viewpoint and putting him in context. In theory, “Ghetto Dreams” could have done that, but on top of everything, they threw on that awful adlib at the end of John Legend doing the line from “My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me” that is so ridiculous. That was indicative of 2 Chainz’s whole approach of not even taking seriously the fact he’s making album and asking people to buy it. Earlier on the record dude literally makes a fart noise after a lame punchline about his car needing pampers.
ZB: It’s important not to condemn artists for not doing things they’re not trying to do. I like 2 Chainz because he enlivens the proceedings whenever he shows up: he’s a character, a personality, vivid and specific and often ridiculous, yeah, but also charismatic and funny. He has presence. It seems weird to ask him to take things seriously. That’s pretty much the last thing I’d want from his music.
ED: Then don’t get Scarface on your record, dude.
ZB: And, the “asking people to buy it” is now a bit of a canard, too. Record sales do matter, of course, but increasingly certain major-label releases are as much meant as really expensive business cards as they are consumer products. It’s just to give Jimmy Fallon a square object to hold up, and provide art for the tour poster, not to mention to provide a reason to tour in the first place. It’s not that simple, but expecting cohesion from records that most consumers no longer pay for or listen to as discrete album-units seems like a lot to ask. That’s why the Kendrick thing is maybe so amazing. It’s actually disorienting to drop into the middle of m.A.A.d. city. He insisted on an album at a time where the only real upside to that insistence is artistic, rather than commercial. In fact, an album as dense as his is probably commercially counterproductive – where’s the way in?
ED: The way in is for people to stop pretending that they don’t have 68 minutes in their lifetime to stop and give at least half their attention to an album that may or may not speak to them in some way. I won’t pretend that many records from the past five decades of recorded music aren’t cobbled together or jammed up with filler, but I don’t think we can just give a blanket pass and say that it’s too much to ask of artists to at least try and make something cohesive. If artists have low expectations of what people are willing to devote their time and money to – either through the actual album or through subsequent avenues – they’re more likely to create weak art, and that will hurt them in the long run. Because Kendrick Lamar insisted on focusing on the album format, and many would say he succeeded at it, he’s going to be able to get high-paying gigs at festivals next year if he wants them, he’ll probably be able to get the other members of Black Hippy on some of those festivals. If he chooses to, he’s going to be able to coast on the success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city for two or three more years.
ZB: Ah, but who has those 68 minutes though? Rock & roll was a singles genre before it was an album genre, and so was rap. Sure, Kendrick helped himself making such an impressive album, and as someone who roots for him, I think that’s great. But I’d hesitate to generalize: I wasn’t broken up when, say, Kreayshawn failed to make a listenable record. But I wouldn’t try to take “Gucci Gucci” away from her either – the month that song was everywhere was really fun. I think it’s important to take satisfaction where you can find it.
ED: I heard you on the Hollywood Prospectus podcast and you mentioned that this was a good year for movies, partially because nothing infuriated you. Maybe that’s changed since you saw The Hobbit, but can the same be said for music in 2012? Was there anything that infuriated you?
ZB: There was a time when I was editing The Village Voice‘s music blog and nearly every week I would write a long angry screed about something. Those screeds were genuine. They also were probably the result of what happens when you need to render eight opinions a day, no matter whether or not there are eight things that day that might merit serious thought. And past that, I was probably motivated to some extent by the fact that getting mad constituted, in the perverse logic of the medium, doing my job well: more people looked at the stuff and talked about it. Remove those imperatives, and I find myself generally less rage-filled. This notion of “troll-gaze,” that there is music specifically made to anger Zach Baron or whomever the listener might be, seems ridiculous to me. Lana Del Rey may not be the most talented person, but I seriously doubt that she thinks all that much about upsetting people on Twitter. It’s this weird kind of reverse engineering: “It irritates me, therefore that must have been the creator’s intention.” That doesn’t exactly answer your question, I guess, but the honest answer is, I tend not to get infuriated because I tend not to take things I don’t like personally. But maybe you have an example or something in mind that I’m not thinking of, or that was reprehensible on its own creative terms?
ED: Nothing much in music infuriated me this year. There were things that probably should have. Maybe parts of me have been numbed to awfulness or crassness or craven manipulation and opportunism; perhaps I’ve realized it’s just not that big a deal. I’m not currently in a position where I have many reasons to get upset about “Why are you paying attention to that rather than this”? in terms of either the general population’s tastes, or what my co-workers think we should be covering. I’ve never been one of the furious critics. You do your best to help people realize that there is good stuff out there they might not be aware of, or encourage them to be experimental in their listening, but it’s pretty pointless to get bent out of shape if they don’t listen to what you recommend. I get frustrated when I see artists do things that they probably know are bad ideas or when they ignore their potential; still, I don’t know what’s going on in their head or what responsibilities they have or what they feel they have to do in order to sustain their lives and the people who rely on them. I wish they wouldn’t do it, but as I said, I can always ignore them if they do a bad job and just focus on someone doing something interesting. Lana Del Rey, Riff Raff et al – I listened to that stuff, didn’t find much for me there, and moved along.
ZB: I don’t doubt that Riff Raff or Lana Del Rey want my attention and will do anything to get it. I actually appreciate that. More than ever, music is a 24/7 performance; Riff Raff is really good at that part of it, even if he’s not always good at the music part of it. I adore Kitty Pryde: she is really good at occupying all the spaces at once.
ED: I’ve been thinking about who did a good this year keeping my attention without actually releasing a sizable amount of new music this year. Danny Brown has managed to maintain my interest without putting out a new full-length, and never seemed insufferable. This is generally a rap-music issue. Rockers seem to want to hibernate and stick to the traditional “release an album, tour too much, recover, record, release an album, then repeat” approach.
ZB: It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the stuff I care most about has retained some degree of mystery. Frank Ocean did a really good job being very selective in terms of what he disclosed about himself: it was all on his terms, and those terms were admirable and intelligible, and still left room for a lot of mystery and romance. Ditto for Fiona, who I profiled for SPIN earlier this year. She sat in front of me and spoke for probably two and a half hours straight with no filter about herself and her neuroses and her fears – and yet there is something about her mind that remains unknowable. While she gives away a lot, she does not give away that key that you would need to decrypt what she says. You could throw The Weeknd in here, too. I find myself drawn to the ones I don’t fully know about, and am comforted by the ones who will sort of give me everything – Riff Raff and Kitty Pryde and Heems, formerly of Das Racist, are all people that I would put in that latter category.
ED: I got really excited every time a Cat Power article came out this year. Chan Marshall was basically telling the same story again and again, which understandably happens, about her breakdown around the time of The Greatest and recording the new album; she’d throw in new elaborations here or there, but her asides were amazing. That was more revealing to me, someone who had become so willing to reveal her perspective on how she sees the world – not in her preferences in drum machines, but what she thinks about clouds.
ZB: Yes, you’re right. It wasn’t the signal, though the story behind Sun is totally fascinating – shout out to Giovanni Ribisi and Agyness Deyn – but the noise: the way that she was so emphatically Cat Power without necessarily further explaining what exactly that might mean. If I could wrap “Nothing But Time” around my neck and wear it like a scarf I would, and that fact has very little to do with knowing that she wrote it for Ribisi’s kid.
ED: Want to do a lightning round?
ZB: Of course.
ED: Will A$AP Rocky’s album really come out in January?
ED: Drawing on two artists you profiled this year, what will come out first, Azealia Banks’ album or Major Lazer’s?
ZB: Major Lazer at this point is mostly castoffs from Diplo’s other production work, and he doesn’t exactly have a lot of those, being as in demand as he is, so Banks. Though it will be fascinating to see what happens there. She’s had that February 12, 2013 date for months now, which sort of makes me actually believe it. I know they didn’t want to release it in the fourth quarter, and I get the sense that she’s been working. Whether or not when she walks into Jimmy Iovine’s office and plays him the record, he actually lets her put it out, that’ll be the question.
ED: Whose final album will be the most rewarding: A$AP, Major Lazer, or Azealia Banks?
ZB: I’d love to see Azealia win, though I have no evidence to suggest that she will, beyond her talent. A$AP is probably the one who will be with us for the longest, that’s my guess. By which I mean A$AP Ferg, of course.
ED: Did you see Shut Up & Play the Hits the one night it was in theaters? If so, were people around you crying? And if so, were you one of those people?
ZB: I did not. I saw it in a screening room, and may or may not have teared up briefly.
ED: Do you think the repeated cutting to the overweight young man in the audience who was crying at the actual show was manipulative?
ZB: A lot of that documentary was manipulative: people have a really hard time making documentaries about rock musicians without suggesting everything those musicians do is incredibly important. Shut Up & Play the Hits is certainly no exception to that rule.
ED: James Murphy made is really clear in that movie that he thought him ending that band was important.
ZB: Right, and I agree. But it’s the job of the filmmakers to find another frame for it – one that might work for someone less enamored with LCD Soundsystem than me or James Murphy. I should say that I really liked it. That band was a force and the documentary definitely gives you that sense.
ED: Aside from over-cutting to the crying guy and cutting off “Sound of Silver,” the live performance stuff was great. Not performance stuff, not so great. Enjoyed it. Didn’t cry. Ate Whole Foods sushi in the theater.
ZB: I can’t wait for the oral history of the day we all watched the LCD Soundsystem documentary.
ED: Did Cloud Nothings sustain your interest for twelve months? Did they ever attain it?
ZB: I liked the Cloud Nothings record; “No Future/No Past” is the greatest Slint song Slint never wrote.
ED: When’s the last time you listened to it?
ZB: Well, I’m listening to it right now, but before that, I dunno, June? You are right, whatever spark you get kind of went missing for me with that record.
ED: I’m not trying to insult them and say that the album is disposable – I like that record. It’s just always weird to me that we can be so psyched for something in January, and yet it will feel so old by December. And since we’re in the year-end list season, I’m curious if writers and editors who loved Cloud Nothings’ album in January even have it on their radar now.
ZB: The new thing is always shinier. Oh I forgot the end of this song sounds like Portraits of Past! Speaking of the ghost of hardcore past.
ED: Sorry to call you out on this, but earlier this year I asked you to do a “Rational Conversation” that involved Animal Collective, but you said one of the reasons you couldn’t do it was that you hadn’t even listened to Centipede HZ. Have you listened to it yet?
ZB: Pretty sure I still have yet to hear a note of Centipede HZ.
ED: Do you think there are people who make out to Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes?
ZB: Sure. I profiled him in August, and one of the things I came away thinking was that the “weird” thing he represented had been well and truly normalized- not necessarily by him, but by an online music culture that had found a home for all this stuff that used to be defined by its homelessness. Pitchfork had “Round and Round” as their #1 song of the year in 2010. You think some pair of randy bankers or college librarians didn’t take that to heart?
ED: Did Rick Ross end 2012 in a higher or lower position than when he started the year?
ZB: Lower, but not meaningfully lower – he’d made two amazing records in a row before this one. Speaking of things people forget, Rich Forever came out in January, and that’s as good a rap record as came out all year. He just happened to release it as a mixtape, because Rick Ross can afford to do that, and why not?
ED: Why don’t I find the “Trapped in the Closet” saga hilarious or a sign of R. Kelly’s musical genius? There are plenty of other things he’s done that make me think he is hilarious and a musical genius.
ZB: It’s certainly not a sign of his musical genius – that would be his actual music. There are many reasonably funny video clips on the Internet. “Trapped in the Closet” is like 17 of them in a row, but not much more. It’d be more compelling if everything else R. Kelly did wasn’t also equally, if not more, compelling – with “compelling” in this case being an evasive word that encompasses both sides of the moral spectrum.
ED: Lots of “real New York hip-hop” came out this year, why is everyone into the Roc Marciano album so much?
ZB: “Everyone” is a dangerous thing for me to speak to, probably. Love you, Chris Weingarten!
ED: Okay, let me put it this way: Why do you think many critics particularly gravitated towards Roc Marciano’s album over other “real New York hip-hop” albums?
ZB: Because Roc Marciano is talented? Not sure if it’s more complicated than that. Obviously we, as aging critics, are all going to deal with the fact that at a certain point, music that reminds us of our youth is going to seem like “real hip-hop” in a way that “Love Sosa” may not. Let’s all promise not to do that anytime soon though.
ED: Blue Chips or Rare Chandeliers?
ZB: Probably Blue Chips, but the cover of Rare Chandeliers over everything.
ED: What’s the worst music-related Twitter feed you still follow?
ZB: I’m sure my own is pretty unbearable these days. If only Kristen Stewart had put out an album this year.
ED: What band do you wish hadn’t broken up in 2012?
ZB: Bands don’t break up anymore. They just wait for the money to double.
ED: What album should we have paid more attention to in 2012?
ZB: I am probably the least prescriptive music critic of all time; I generally think people should pay attention to whatever they choose to pay attention to. That said: Sharon Van Etten.
ED: What did you think of Cat Marnell’s performance as a video model in Riff Raff’s “Midnight Sprite”?
ZB: I hope she defeats Anne Hathaway for “Best Supporting Actress” at the Oscars.