I’ve strung the albums of 2021 together in alphabetical sequence, and I’ve popped off, impulsively as I can, about each. Writing is done as close to the speed of (screwy) thought as I can manage, and since there’s lots of ground to cover — fifty thousand words on two hundred records — I’m forced by circumstances to chase escape velocity. My main rule: I’m not allowed to go back and edit; if I have an opinion, I’ve got to write it down, and then I’ve got to live with it. If it’s ugly, or dumb, that’s okay: I’ve learned something about myself and about the way in which I interact with the recordings that frame my experience on planet Earth. Just as a musician can’t un-sound the notes she plays, I don’t allow myself to alter the words as they roll out of my brain and down my arms and into my fingers. I’m attempting to achieve the spontaneous quality of a soloist, only my instrument is the English language.
You’ll also see plenty about mushrock, which is my name for the inescapable monogenre that now dominates popular music. It’s my position that most current celebrated styles — shoegaze, dream pop, neopsychedelia, cloud-rap, avant-R&B — are actually just mushrock. They’re all expressions of the same artistic impulse, unified by certain aesthetic characteristics: murk, reverb, phasing, obscurantism, indirection, and, I think, no small amount of avoidance. There’s a long explanation of mushrock in last year’s Abstract, which I’ve re-posted to the site so I can link to it, over and over. It’s my way of coping with a landslide of mush.
The Abstract only lives on the site for a short time. After a few weeks, in an effort to declutter the Internet a bit, I pull it down. This one-of-a-kind funnoying experience is available to you for a limited time only, so get Abstract while you can.
Lewis Spears grew up in the Booker T. Washington housing projects. Those are just a ten-minute bicycle ride from the towers on the Waterfront, but to many wealthy Downtowners, they may as well be on the moon. Spears talks about losing a cousin to gun violence, right before his eyes, right in the middle of the projects where he was raised. He’s got a degree from NJCU, and he’s taught at Dickinson High School, and Kismet of Kings, the nonprofit he founded and runs, holds events at Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center on MLK Drive. His perspective is not that of a condominium owner in Paulus Hook. He’s not thinking about how to create value for real estate developers. He’s got other things on his mind. After the last eight years, that alone ought to feel like a shot of oxygen.
I am a Downtowner; I’ve eaten the tomato sandwich at the Downtowner. I speak from personal experience when I say that the policies of the last eight years haven’t been particularly good for us, either. They might have lined our pockets (well, some of us), but they’ve impoverished our souls. There’s a heavy psychological cost to living on a casino floor. We’ve coped as best as we can with constant renovation, building on every available lot, street closures to prioritize the building needs of developers, day-ruining power line and water main accidents, storm runoff from paved lots, big, impersonal towers rising over previously human-scale neighborhoods, everything calibrated to feed the hunger for elevated property values, and the mayor’s desire to stuff as many people into Jersey City as possible. The Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza has been a messy construction zone for a year. In our quest for higher prices per square inch for property owners and profits for developers, we’ve made the Downtown a hard place to live. If you’re a Downtowner yourself, you’re probably exhausted. You might prefer a mayor who’ll direct the redevelopment emphasis elsewhere — or, perhaps, one who thinks about redevelopment differently.
If you aren’t from the Downtown, I cannot begin to understand the rationale for a vote to return the current administration for a third term. Inertia is powerful, and the lure of the devil you know is seductive, but things have been so sharply slanted against you and your neighborhoods that self-respect ought to guide your hand to the Spears column. Supporters of the status quo have made much of the challenger’s inexperience, and the incumbent’s grasp of policy detail. But it’s not at all clear that the mayor has been able to translate that expertise into anything tangible. His record on public safety has been spotty. His crisis management has often been nothing but spin. The inclusionary zoning ordinance he pushed was a developer-friendly disaster. Most problematically, the mayor’s mind — and, perhaps, his body too — is not always fully present to the city he’s supposed to be leading. When Hurricane Ida swamped many of the town’s poorer neighborhoods, the chief was radio silent for days. I do not believe anything like that would ever happen in a Lewis Spears administration.
Political experience isn’t meaningless, and education and training are important qualifications for office. But there is no degree or course of study that can adequately prepare a person for the unique job of running a complex city. When we rule out voting for people with unusual or unorthodox backgrounds, we don’t merely lock ourselves in to the status quo. We also shut out arguments that deserve to be heard, and perspectives that ought to be respected.
When I vote for a chief executive, I’m asking myself the following three questions:
Is the candidate reflexively compassionate? In a dispute between the powerful and the disadvantaged, is he instinctively on the side of the powerful, or instinctively on the side of the overlooked?
Can the candidate keep his in head in a crisis? Does he have an even temperament; does he refrain from blowing up at subordinates and wasting energy on petty feuds? When bad times come — and they always do — will he be on the scene, helping out, or will he try to govern from a distance?
Does the candidate have the humility necessary to hire good people and take their advice? Or is he going to ram his agenda through, regardless of the consequences? Will he listen and keep the door open, or will his administration become an exclusive province of the well-connected, and inaccessible to everybody else?
Lewis Spears passes my test. The focus of his campaign hasn’t been on wealth generation; it’s been on opportunity and fairness. This has confounded those who believe the role of the mayor is to increase the resale value of their condominium units, but I hope you’ll agree that those people have dominated local political discourse long enough. Spears’s personal story testifies to his level-headedness in the face of challenges, and everybody who has met him describes him as a genuinely kind, open, and enthusiastic person. He strikes me as the first guy to grab a bucket when the street floods.
Most of all, he’s surrounded himself with grassroots activists, good-government groups, affordable housing advocates, religious leaders, teachers, business owners in some of the remote corners of the city, and ordinary people interested in a new direction for a town that desperately needs one. He is not a creation of real estate developers. Their role in his administration will be minimal. If you’re looking for a mayor who you can actually access — one for whom claims of transparency are more than just a bait and switch — Spears is your man.
Neither I, nor you, nor the Jersey City Times, expects Lewis Spears to win. The Times’s tacit approach to the election — abstain from a mayoral endorsement and work instead to change the City Council to something that might be productively oppositional — isn’t illogical. I’ll be voting for James Solomon tomorrow; he’s one of the few politicians in town who has had the guts to stand up to City Hall, and he merits re-election. Frank “Educational” Gilmore is the most interesting politician to emerge in Jersey City in many years, and I’d like to see him victorious in Ward F. Kevin Bing in Journal Square, Josh Brooks in Ward B, the Gadsden-Jones-Dominici ticket for the At-Large seats: I am rooting for all of these people.
But that doesn’t mean the top of the ballot ought to be ignored. A strong showing for Lewis Spears tomorrow would send a message to everybody in town who believes we can do much better than we’re doing. That message would say: you are not alone. Those who see that complicity with City Hall as the only way to get anywhere in Jersey City public life may recognize that there are other routes to unity and progress. A Spears boomlet would embolden officials who are too worried about the wrath of the mayor to speak out about the direction the government has chosen, journalists who couch their words of criticism in exchange for limited access, artists who believe they’ve got no choice but to play ball with the powerful in order to win favor, and independent businesspeople who feel pushed around, but who’ve decided that popular consensus is too thick and too general to inveigh against. It would also remind everybody in Jersey City, and in Hudson County, that Downtown priorities aren’t the only priorities, and the Downtown outlook isn’t the only outlook.
For eight years, real estate developers have called the tune in Jersey City. That’s the song we’ve all had to dance to. It’s been fun (at times), it’s been lucrative (for a select few), and it’s been genuinely transformative, but that transformation has been neither an aesthetic nor a political success. It’s also been loud, brash, and extraordinarily divisive.
Friends, it is time for a new song. It’s time for Lewis Spears.
Imagine you’re walking through the woods, and you encounter a tree. Suppose you knew that you could have your voice amplified, and your projects circulated, and you could capture the esteem of your peers, and all you have to do to make that happen is chop that tree down. You’d do it, wouldn’t you? If you’re an artist driven to communicate an idea, even if it’s just an idea about you, I’d wager you would. There are lots of other trees in the forest. Another might grow in its place. You may reason that all of our activity on the planet does damage to something or other; why be squeamish about this one tree?
But what if it was more than one tree? Suppose it was five? Would you still do it? How about ten? Twenty? How many trees must be felled by the blade of your ambition before you’re satisfied? Would you destroy an entire habitat — all the plants and bugs and beasts — if it meant you could put a record out, or sell a painting, or get a screenplay filmed?
You know this isn’t science fiction. You know this is a choice you face every day. Even word writers, plunking away at our keyboards, need to blow through electricity in order to bring our humble text-scratchings to an Internet audience. We might not be drinking as deeply from the fossil fuel reserves as a traveling airshow does, but slurp we do, and our contribution to worldwide habitat destruction isn’t negligible. We must believe that what we’re doing is significant: that the impression on the planet made by our words is worth whatever we’re removing from its energy reserves.
If you’re the guilty type, you don’t want to think about this too much. You don’t want to envision a gopher, its meadow destroyed and its biome immutably altered by human activity, wandering around in desperate search for a drink of water. You might reason — this time a bit more disingenuously — that if your art found a mass audience through the Internet, you’d be in a position to help that gopher. You might transplant it to a beautiful farm where it might live out the rest of its days in harmony, or at least until somebody else’s ambition destroyed that farm.
Which, at the rate we’re going, may well be tomorrow. Looming eco-catastrophe has not curbed the human appetite for recognition, and it certainly hasn’t slowed down those whose ambition is to accumulate as much wealth as possible. For instance, if you’ve got an Internet connection, it’s a lock that you’ve heard about the utterly bananas market for NFTs, and the race among artists and investors to release new material through this new channel. You may also have heard that the NFT is the future of whatever branch of the culture industry you happen to inhabit. This may be true. But if nothing changes, it’s going to be a desolate future for the gopher, and the farm, and the tree, and, sooner or later (but probably sooner) me and you.
To understand the scope of the problem we face, we have to understand what NFTs are — and, more importantly, what they aren’t. NFTs are not tangible objects. They’re not even digital files of the kind that we’ve all grown accustomed to. They aren’t JPEGs or MP3s, or anything widely shareable. An NFT is a link to a single, exclusive copy of a digital work. Theoretically, this work is the original, but since the entire point of digital art — its sole advantage over its analog cousins — is reproducibility, authenticity and primacy on the Internet oughtn’t mean anything to anybody. The NFT exists on the blockchain that is the habitat for cryptocurrency transactions, and is, in effect, a kind of cryptocurrency itself. The owner possesses it in the same imaginary way he might possesses a Bitcoin.
But heck, even that isn’t true. Although your NFT guarantees access to an exclusive iteration of a file, it doesn’t mean that other people can’t reproduce other versions of that file. Since that file is indistinguishable from the NFT, there’s no difference between copying that one and copying yours. You cannot stop other people from using that file, and you’re not buying a share of the copyright, either. You have no influence over the work you’ve purchased, and you can’t restrict or monetize other people’s access to the art. This is not like Martin Shrekli with the magic box with the sole copy of that Wu-Tang album in it. Everybody can hear those Kings Of Leon songs that were initially released as NFTs earlier this year.
You might be wondering who in their right mind would pay thousands of dollars for one of these codes. Unfortunately we’re not in our right minds and haven’t been for quite some time. Collectors have convinced themselves that the exclusivity conferred by an NFT is worthy of investment, and the wild spikes and crashes of the NFT market demonstrates that human beings will speculate on anything. Imagine, if you can, a million dollar exchange of those certificates that say the holder possesses a share of a star. And if that was all there was to the NFT trade, it could be dismissed as another irritating Internet craze; a get-rich quick scheme for artists who kinda wish they were stockbrokers, and excitable bankers who’ve had a little too much punch at the gallery opening. But it isn’t. Not even close.
The problem with the NFT market is that it runs on the blockchain used for minting, or “mining”, cryptocurrency — Ethereum, specifically — and mining cryptocurrency is spectacularly wasteful. You’re using a computer right now, sipping silently but steadily from the pool of fossil fuels, and you’re likely thinking, how much worse could crypto activity be? I am here to tell you: boy howdy, it’s worse. A lot worse. The electricity needed to create a cryptocoin will stagger you. The Guardian estimated that the 2020 carbon footprint of Bitcoin was equivalent to that of the entire nation of Argentina; those radicals at Morgan Stanley conceded that the network consumes as much electricity as 2 million American homes. And Bitcoin, alas, is not the only cryptocurrency.
Waste is not a byproduct of cryptocurrency mining. It’s the heart of the system. A cryptocoin is a tokenization of waste: it represents the guarantee of expenditure of electricity. Most cryptocurrencies require proof of work (usually abbreviated PoW), which means that value is generated through intense computer activity. The system is designed to make it increasingly difficult to mine a new bit of currency — this is the means by which those who originally bought into the scheme maintain value in a closed economy with a fixed number of coins. At the dawn of Bitcoin, a home investor with a quick connection to the Internet could mine currency by himself. A decade later, it requires an armada of high-powered computers, yoked together in a server farm and guzzling huge amounts of electricity, to achieve the same effect. If we continue on this mad trajectory, we’re soon going to turn the world inside out in an effort to mint funny money.
Being the richest man on a burned-out planet is not, I hope, anybody’s ambition. In order to avoid an association with waste, Ethereum — the cryptocurrency that hosts NFTs on its blockchain — has announced its intention to abandon PoW and switch to a system called Serenity. If there’s a crypto-apologist in your life, you might have already heard about Ethereum 2.0, and the greener Serenity upgrade, and you may have been told that the cryptocurrency has already put in place a “beacon” chain that runs on something called proof of stake (usually abbreviated PoS, I kid you not). Unlike proof of work systems, proof of stake chains generate value and validate ledger transactions on the basis of your prior investment. In other words, if you hold a large amount of a particular currency, that’s a kind of leverage — you’ll generate rewards within the system, and you won’t necessarily need to nuke the planet while doing so.
The organ-grinders at Ethereum have been playing this verse for quite some time, and they haven’t once come to the chorus. You don’t have to be a cynic or a luddite to have noticed that proof of stake has been the carrot on the end of Ethereum’s stick from the moment the currency was launched (2015, if you’re keeping score.) The beacon chain, on closer inspection, isn’t a particularly load-bearing economic instrument. No big transactions are happening on there. It’s mostly a guide for steps that Ethereum wants its investors and coin-holders to believe they’ll take in the near future. Even the Ethereum website owns up to the fact that the roadmap to Serenity, as they call it, is no brief joyride. By their own estimates, it’s going to take them another five to ten years to roll the system out.
Ladies and gentlemen: we don’t have five to ten years. We probably don’t have five to ten seconds. If we’re going to check the widespread habitat destruction that’s happening worldwide, we need to change what we’re doing and how we are living — right now. When Mr. Blockchain comes knocking with a deal with the Devil for you, you should politely decline. Even if Ethereum does switch to a proof of stake system, there is no reason to believe that it’ll be carbon-neutral. By contrast, there’s quite a lot of reason to be suspicious of every single thing that fintech people say. The crypto arena is the home field for the old bait and switch. Don’t go for it.
I’m not a neophobe, and I know you aren’t, either. I, too, like technologies, and things that run on fossil fuels, and I’m hoping that all of this investment in science — including financial science — will yield real results in the ongoing battle to bring humanity into better alignment with the biosphere. Given their horrendous track record, though, you’ll pardon me for doubting that greening the blockchain is a major priority for any of these currency salesmen and digital hucksters. No matter what Ethereum says, it’s unlikely that PoW is about to budge. My great fear is that in order to dislodge this horrific system, the cryptocurrency market is going to have to crash.
Currencies are either fixed to a standard or they float free. On balance, institutional investors and bankers prefer a free floating currency because it gives them greater creative latitude. Since the second Nixon Administration, the U.S. dollar has been a fiat currency, which meant that there’s nothing to support the dollar bill except the government’s word. This has been a good thing for the government: it means the treasury has the ultimate control over how much money there is in circulation. If they want to fund a war, or a social program, or a public-financed political campaign, they sell some bonds, phone the Mint, and start rolling the greenbacks off of the presses. Printing money doesn’t cause inflation — printing money is inflation. In 1950, the average American home cost around $7,500. Today, that figure is more than $220,000. Those homes didn’t get any bigger or better. The value of the dollar has shrunk. If you held nothing but dollars under your mattress for the past half-century, you’ve watched as the purchasing power of that currency has whittled away, year by year, until there’s nothing left but chump change.
This was one of the problems that cryptocurrency was created to address. In a PoW scheme like Bitcoin, there’s a fixed amount of currency that exists, and the escalating electricity costs of mining a new coin is a feature deliberately designed to generate artificial scarcity in a system that is wholly imaginary. The great benefit of this is that the currency does not inflate. Investors loathe inflation. It eats away at the foundation of their portfolios like a swarm of termites. As long as those computer servers continue to run harder and harder, and the necessary proof becomes more prohibitive to secure, the value of the coin will always be set by the market alone. This is the elegance of the system, and it is exactly that simplicity and purity that draws techno-utopians into the crypto trade. It is, in a scary way, incorruptible. This libertarian fantasy is only made possible by burning unspeakable amounts of fossil fuels. That’s usually glossed over by those who need you to enter the marketplace in order to ensure that the value of their original investment continues to rise.
Proof of stake doesn’t guarantee anything like that. There are no equivalent safeguards against currency inflation. Because proof of stake rewards those who hold a great deal of cryptocurrency, a big PoS system is always going to be at risk of overheating. With mining costs eliminated, there’s no artificial check on the number of blocks that can be added to the chain. The brakes are gone. There are, no doubt, financial innovators who are cooking up ways to make PoS chains more appealing to investors than PoW chains are, and maybe they’ll succeed. But in 2021, it’s not hard to see why most cryptocurrencies and their enthusiasts are sticking with proof of work. And if you need further evidence, consider that there are already many cryptocurrencies that are running on a PoS system, including Peercoin, NXT, and PIVX. You haven’t heard of any of those, you probably never will, and the NFT marketplace and its gigantic transactions is, unsurprisingly, right there on a PoW chain.
You may have heard it said that Ethereum will run whether or not NFTs are present. This is true. But it’s also misleading. It misrecognizes the role of the artist in the planned popularization of the blockchain. Artists who’ve pitched their tent in the crypto arena like to think of themselves as investments. They’re not. They’re advertisers. They’re fancy names, there to get more people excited about the possibilities of cryptocurrency, even though they don’t understand it, and to entice entertainment journalists, who don’t understand it either, to place stories in online periodicals with eye-popping dollar figures in the headlines. The artists’ famous fear of missing out is getting monetized in a manner that passes that fear on to the general population. Investors encourage this to happen because cryptocurrencies are pyramid schemes. The people who hold the lion’s share of the currency know damn well that none of these invisible coins are pegged to anything. If new investors stop entering the market, the coins will vanish back into the digital ether from which they were summoned by the illusionists of capital. Sound investments do not need evangelists, and no ethical person should voluntarily participate in a bubble — especially one with such a steep ecological cost.
So: you don’t want any of this. You don’t want to be a shill for institutional businessmen, you don’t want to dehumanize and depersonalize your work by turning it into a plaything for capitalists, and you don’t want to burn the world to a cinder. There’s nothing that the NFT sphere can give you that you can’t already get from the Internet, or, Lord help us, from an art or pop scene once the doors to the clubs and galleries are back open. The impressive new abbreviations and proper nouns that have entered the vernacular are only kept arcane in order to confuse and swindle people. There’s nothing novel going on here. A blockchain is just a ledger with technologically enforced security safeguards. A cryptocurrency is just another speculative investment based on a standard confidence trick. An NFT is just a trading card. You didn’t want to go to business school for a reason, and friends, you are looking at that reason. If you’ve got a name, and even if you don’t!, they’re going to come calling for you. Just say no. The gopher will thank you, and so will I.
In 2021, I doubt it’s possible to overestimate the wearisome degree to which constant sustained promotion has become standard practice for public figures in all branches of the culture industry. For instance, my neighbor Wanda* is engaged in constant sustained promotion. She’s a wannabe influencer, and the whole block hears her hitting Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch every other day. Surely somebody with a how-to guide told her to: she was advised that in order to gain traction, she needs to be all over the Internet as much, and as regularly, as she can. This may or may not work for others. I am 100% positive that it’s not going to work for her. There is a limit to the amount of Wanda-related content that Planet Earth can handle. At a certain point, she’s going to be annoying people. Every subsequent post and dance and pitch past that point detracts from whatever profile she’s building. What Wanda needs is what nobody gets anymore: periodic targeted promotion. She needs a marketing plan that gives everybody a break, including her.
There is no such thing as a great influencer. There is certainly such a thing as a great artist. Great artists will adapt to whatever the world slings at them: if the biosphere runs out of trees and there’s no more paper, they’ll scratch their stories into rocks. If participation in the industry requires the practice of constant sustained promotion, they’ll figure out a way to square that demand with what they do, no matter how awkwardly it fits.
In 2021, this means being extremely online. That artist obsessively dropping new projects every two weeks has become an anachronism already – she’s lost ground to the artist who is constantly present via social media, and putting out an amalgam of tweets, posts, scraps of songs, backstage glimpses, whatever. We require the artist to remain in character 24/7, and to project a persona via social media in perpetuity throughout the universe. Great artists are acceding to this demand. I have the highest regard for Aubrey Graham and Elizabeth Grant, and I admire the discipline they demonstrate; they’re as brand-consistent as Reese’s Peanut Butter, and to me, that’s very pop. Then there are artists like Moriah Pereira, who has used the Poppy character as an instrument for commentary on all sorts of things, including constant sustained promotion. Yet Elizabeth Grant is one in a million. Her talent for keeping a straight face is supernatural. It is unrealistic to ask random singer-songwriters to do what she does. It’s become necessary to ask the question nobody seems to ask anymore: is it psychologically healthy for the artist to be behaving like this? Is it right for people in the industry – heck, people in the audience – to demand that our entertainers never leave the stage?
I think the answer to this question is that it isn’t healthy at all. For proof of this, it’s helpful to look to hip-hop, where we’re losing an entire generation of talent to constant sustained promotion. No longer is it permissible for the artist to put on a roughneck costume for storytelling purposes, and then take off that costume when the show is over and live to the ripe old age of 35. Now rappers must play to the cameras constantly, and actively indulge in self-destructive behavior in order to advance and reinforce the characters they’re playing. If an artist demurs, he risks losing his audience to somebody who won’t. So these dudes are dying of overdoses at 20 and heading to prison on gun charges, and even if people in the industry aren’t tacitly encouraging this, they’re clearly not doing enough to stand in the way of it. They’re burning through artists at a staggering rate, asking them to stay in “relatable” (read: self-destructive) character constantly, overshare on the Internet perpetually, and drop new material whether it’s ready or not. In teen-pop and Nashville machine country, the horror stories aren’t quite as graphic, or as visible, but they’re just as prevalent, and just as upsetting. As a big fan of all of this stuff, I am tired of seeing talented artists crash and burn because their handlers aren’t paying attention to the awful psychological repercussions of never-ending promotion. Human beings can’t be treated this way – especially creative human beings. It’s unsustainable.
I imagine that people in the industry might say that they’re just giving the audience what it wants: this is what the fan asks of the idol, and the executive’s role in the modern era is merely that of a facilitator. To me, though, that’s just passing the buck, and ducking culpability for the exploitation of talent that’s all too prevalent in ’21. We all have a moral responsibility to cool it – and an aesthetic one, too! – because I don’t think it’s difficult to see where this is headed. Those insiders who tell artists to work harder and accelerate the pace of their promotional efforts aren’t geniuses. They’re just amplifying a signal that’s already ear-splitting. A truly visionary thing to do would be to figure out how to reintegrate periodic targeted promotion into marketing campaigns; that’d be thinking long-term, which is something that nobody in showbiz seems capable of doing anymore.
Honestly, it makes my stomach drop to hear people in the music industry call compulsion, addiction and addictive behavior part of the human condition, and talk so blithely about it, as if it’s something worth chasing. This isn’t merely because I’ve watched so many lives destroyed by addictive behavior. Addictive thinking is something cultivated by the vampires, dopamine-jugglers, and algorithm-runners at the social-media companies. It’s not something that arts advocates should have any time for. Addiction is antithetical to art. That’s true for many reasons, and none more important than that we’ve lost far too many great artists to it. If the artist’s representative isn’t there to stop the artist (and the artist’s audience) from racing down the cliff, what, really, is he good for?
You probably think of Elvis Costello as a genial presence in pop music: a sophisticated lyricist and concept-master, and an occasional thoughtful talk show host, too. But in March 1979, Elvis Costello was an idiot. He referred to James Brown and Ray Charles as “ignorant niggers”, and once his vicious blue streak made it out into the public, there were press conferences, there were apologies, there was embarrassment all around. When your dad feels the need to write letters to the editor to assure your fans that you aren’t a racist, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve stepped in it hard. Elvis wasn’t exactly cancelled, but he did substantial damage to his commercial prospects. His ’78 and ’79 albums both went platinum in the U.K. After the incident, he’d never go platinum again.
I didn’t become a superfan of Elvis Costello until many years afterward, so I can’t say how bugged out I would have been by his early edgelord activities. His early albums make his anger manifest — there’s an assaultive quality to that music that was intrinsic to his initial appeal to audiences. Students of his album know that the working title of Armed Forces was Emotional Fascism, and he liberally peppered his lyrics with references to Hitler, Quisling, goon squads, concentration camps, decapitation, puns about the final solution. The hit single, written in response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, contained the phrase “white nigger.” In retrospect, it’s apparent that he was spoiling for a confrontation. Somebody was going to read him the riot act.
Lyricists understand the power of words; that’s the business, and if you’re trying to make yourself an attraction, you light the fuse on the loudest firecrackers you can find. It’s not possible to argue that Morgan Wallen is a great lyricist — he’s far too willing to advance his narratives via Music City cliché. He’s an effective one nevertheless. Halfway through the first disc of Dangerous, you’ll have a character portrait in full. You’ll know exactly what sort of an ornery character you’re dealing with, and you’ll have a pretty good measure of the chip on his shoulder and the strip-mine depth of his resentment. You might see Morgan Wallen as a shit-kicking Appalachian analogue to Elvis Costello in the late ‘70s: a talented, opinionated, red-assed guy with an urge to provoke that often outpaces his desire to entertain.
In February, Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using the n-word. Industry reprisals were immediate: he was kicked off of satellite radio and streaming services, his major label record contract was suspended, and Dangerous, his album, was disqualified from CMA consideration. Nevertheless, the records kept selling. Dangerous held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for ten weeks, and songs from the set remained on the streaming charts; much as gun sales spike in the wake of school shootings as ammo enthusiasts fret that the government will use the controversy as a pretext to take their weapons away, Wallen fans raced to get their hands on his music before he got shipped to entertainment Siberia. Those who don’t like contemporary country music were sure they knew what had happened: recalcitrant red-staters were sticking it to the virtuous and censorious, and infuriating the social-justice warriors by standing by their man, no matter how insensitive he might be. Even those of us who do like contemporary country music had to acknowledge that, yes, some spitework was going on.
But we also know that’s an insufficient explanation. The real reason why the Morgan Wallen album keeps selling is because of the state-of-the-art craftsmanship it contains, that, and the sincerity and strange purity of its sentiment. A shocking number of the 32 (!) songs on the set are keepers; they’re undeniable, even when they’re unpleasant. Dangerous, which is appropriately titled, reveals Wallen to be a messed-up person — one conscious of every sneer directed at the sticks, suspicious of the condescension of outsiders, and defensive of his way of life; i.e., “country-ass shit.” Not since Jamey Johnson’s Guitar Song has a mainstream artist expressed such tacit contempt for coastal city slickers. But while Johnson was convinced that California would soon burn, and only those who’d gotten back to Macon (love allll night) would survive the meltdown of the liberal order, Morgan Wallen grudgingly accepts that none of his vengeance fantasies are going to be realized. The girl at the beach bar isn’t going to follow him back to the Eastern Tennessee hills, beer isn’t really colder or tastier in the mountains, a “little ride around the farm” won’t pry anybody away from the metropolis, and all of these realizations magnify Wallen’s insecurity and bitterness. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the past decade, it’s that Wallen is speaking for an awful lot of Americans here — maybe not Americans who you want anything to do with, but your neighbors nevertheless, determined to impose an ill will on a country that they share with you. We ignore them, and shame them into silence, at some peril.
This isn’t to excuse Morgan Wallen’s (or Elvis Costello’s) stupidity. Hitmakers have big platforms, and when the sensitivity and openness that the job requires turns them into a channel for ugly stuff, they ought to be called out on it. Most good artists recognize that they’re vessels for volcanic forces, and when they’re pulled back from the edge, they tend to be grateful to those who do the yanking. Elvis Costello has spent decades apologizing to Ray Charles in various ways; Morgan Wallen was quick with contrition, agreed with his critics, and dropped off his summer ’21 tour to work on himself, which, given the context surrounding the incident, probably mean some kind of detox. And I can’t help but think of another legend who loved to make the normies uncomfortable — David Bowie, who claimed to have no recollection of his mid-‘70s praise of Hitler and fascism, and his bizarre fascination with Nazi memorabilia and iconography. Convenient, yes, but I doubt that was a case of selective amnesia. During the Thin White Duke period, Bowie was zonked out of his mind on every pill and powder in Eurasia. Costello, too, was drunk and high when he went on his tirade; ’79 was probably the apex of his speed ride. Morgan Wallen’s n-bombs were dropped near the bleary end of a three-day bender. Intoxicants don’t just make people stupid. They corrode morals, too. Give a nonstop supply of whiskey and coke to St. Peter, turn the digital recorder on and roll the camera, and it’s dead certain you’ll catch him saying, or doing, something regrettable, and maybe even cancellable.
We’re reluctant to lean too hard into this, because we don’t want to accidentally argue that the fault is in the bottle and not in the man. Maker’s Mark did not create our racist society, and perhaps the hippies are right that puffing on a spliff might have improved Hitler’s disposition. But in our rush to expunge bigoted discourse from the public sphere, we keep missing salient details that might help us evaluate the offenders, and their offenses, fairly. There’s very little chance that Morgan Wallen is a member of the Klan, or a legitimate threat to race relations, or much more prejudiced than the next self-identified Tennessee redneck lout, but anybody who gives Dangerous a cursory listen can tell that the guy has a ferocious drinking problem. It shouldn’t have taken a national scandal for his handlers, and his listeners, to acknowledge this and attempt some sort of intervention. All the evidence of a booze-induced mind meltdown is right there in the lyrics, and in the star’s occasionally scary performances. When Wallen sings that living the dream is killing him, and runs down a list of the pharmaceuticals that have been propping him up as he tours, his voice is heavy with that precise combination of fear and exhaustion that any addict, or even a friend of an addict, will immediately recognize.
Unfortunately, the default position for fans — and not just country fans! — is to cheer their heads off at any mention of alcohol. Self-destruction brings the house down. When Wallen tells the bartender to set ‘em up, over and over, this is supposed to be a thrilling recapitulation of bad boy tradition; when the chickens come home to roost, and Wallen acts the goat and says or does something idiotic, we’re all supposed to turn on a dime, assume the moral high ground, and wag our fingers. Can you see how we’ve lost the sense of proportion necessary to respond to Wallen, and Wallen’s fans, in a manner that suits the offense? We encourage angry, talented young men to broadcast recalcitrance and indulge in anti-social behavior, and then act shocked when those young men stumble over the line into the widening sphere of the problematic. When this happens, we’re being as dumb as Morgan Wallen on a bender, because we, too, are failing to see the obvious consequences of our actions. Ultimately, cancellation is a fantasy of direct audience control that doesn’t actually exist: it’s easy enough to make PWR BTTM vanish, because they were always a media-driven mirage, but Wallen, like Costello and David Bowie, is actually talented, and talent is no cheap commodity. If he takes himself off the table, it won’t be because of anything he says. It’ll be because of what he does — to himself.
Ideally, our pop heroes would be unimpeachable people as well as magnificent singers and writers. I’m not sure it ever works that way. Most good artists are deeply troubled people: they’re driven to do what they do because of some unquenchable desire that they can’t satisfy through sane means. Elvis Costello, famously, cited revenge and guilt as his motivations; someone with such an ill wind in his sails was always going to head straight into trouble. Morgan Wallen is driven by furies, too — that’s hard to miss, and it’s what makes Dangerous more than just typical Nashville machine music. It’s not incumbent on you, or anybody else, to accept Wallen’s apology. If a slip of the tongue keeps him civilian, he certainly wouldn’t be the first drunk to mess up his life while he was blacked out. I just wish we were all a little more honest about what we ask of these guys, and a little less stunned when they go ahead and give us what we want.
It should not be as hard as it has been to see the next sunrise. We made it through 2020, but a month after the calendar turned, I’m still not sure how we did it. There were many days when no betting man would have taken odds on our survival. Often, I assumed that our problems were greater and more intractable than those of my neighbors. Perhaps they were. But if there’s a single thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that there are wolves at every door. We’re all beset, and there’s nowhere to run.
There are those among us who didn’t experience a feeling of constant existential threat in 2020. They didn’t feel jeopardized by poor leadership, or by the police, or the proliferation of guns, or by the growing sense of entitlement among those who prefer violent solutions to everyday problems. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the virus was a network news exaggeration or a political ploy. They had no crippling psychological or physical problems to contend with. We all know people like that. But chances are, you don’t count them among your pals. They’re certainly not voting in this annual Poll, brought back from oblivion, by me, to help ease the chill of a treacherous winter: one where we’re busily binding up wounds, warily looking out our windows at days we’re not permitting ourselves to enjoy, and girding ourselves against what’s to come.
Fifty-three voters submitted Poll ballots. Almost all of them came from regular respondents. It was a tough year to make new friends, and this exercise has always been, at its essence, a roundup of friends’ opinions. Because I know you, I can say with some authority that you’re part of an anxious tribe. Even during sunnier days, we’ve tended to pick stormy soundtracks: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy in 2011, Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? in 2007, The Loud Family’s Days For Days in 1998. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not your number one jam. In 2020, there was always very little chance that this resurrected Poll would be topped by anything other than a ghost story.
Phoebe Bridgers put a scribbled apparition on the cover of her debut album. For Punisher, she’s dressed in a skeleton suit, and she poses, bent backward under the weight of night, contemplating a vast and starry sky. She wears the same suit in the video for “Kyoto”, and surfs through a green-screened Japan like an animate memento mori. But a spirit in the material world she is not — she’s a flesh-and-blood woman, grappling with cosmic forces, cracking jokes as her stride quickens near the gates of the cemetery. “A slaughterhouse/an outlet mall/slot machines/fear of God”: this is her ten-word State of the Nation report on “I Know The End”. Once older listeners (and we voters are now more than three decades older than we were when we began this tradition on placemats in a Jersey sit-down deli) might have found her fatalism premature. Times have changed. These days, the ghosts rattle their chains in earshot of everybody. Phoebe Bridgers was the reporter who gave it to us straight, and with no small amount of gratitude for her candor and courage, we’ve put her second album atop the thirty-first edition of our Poll.
The music on Punisher is not extraordinary. The arrangements are straightforward. Melodies don’t take unusual turns. It’s stark and spectral West Coast folk-pop, aligned with that of college rock practitioners, and it is descended in spirit from the ’70s records of the songwriter who Phoebe Bridgers reminds me of the most: Jackson Browne, another generational spokesperson with one eye on his deteriorating interpersonal relationships and another on doomsday. The words, however, are uncompromising, and, at times, downright scary. Her narrators live too close to the hospital; they’re hearing ambulances and getting spooked. One love song is called “ICU”, another chronicles an affair with a married man who “might be dying”. A character stalks the songwriter Elliott Smith, even though he killed himself two decades ago. Romantic metaphors are delivered with an undercurrent of terror: a lover is a “work of art”, but she stands too close and “sees the brushstrokes”, another pulls her in so deep that her feet “can’t touch the bottom”, and there’s a strong intimation of death by drowning. She thinks of the things she’d do for love, and when her mind flashes to the Brian Stow beating in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, it somehow makes perfect sense. Characters duck ontological anxiety by picking fights: a pointless quarrel about John Lennon, invective about “Tears In Heaven”, condemnation of a boyfriend’s mother who is probably neck-deep in QAnon propaganda. In one pivotal sequence, a character gets into a shouting match with Westboro Baptists, only to admit to herself, in the solitude of her room, that she envies their certainty that the soul will transmigrate. She tries to hear the ghosts in the walls, but is confronted by the limits of her own materialism: that’s impossible, she concludes, to her dismay. All things are sliding inexorably to the same finish line, and when she passes the “End Is Near” sign on the highway, she stands up straight and confronts its blank back side. The world Phoebe Bridgers is describing is not a pretty one, or a particularly survivable one. But it’s most certainly our world, and if we must live in it, it’s nice to know we’ve got company.
Punisher finishes, comfortably but not thumping-ly, ahead of 2012 Poll winner Tame Impala. I chalked up the popularity of Lonerism among our voters to Kevin Parker’s occasional vocal resemblance to John Lennon, and the enduring popularity of pop-psychedelia. I now acknowledge it’s more complicated than that. Tame Impala lyrics are candid and incisive, and although Kevin Parker often makes you fight through the machine processing to get to them, they’re always worth riddling out. Many of the respondents who voted for The Slow Rush mentioned the album’s themes: the inexorable passage of time, romantic disillusionment, the awful inevitability of growing up. Sorry about that; it happens to us all, if we’re lucky. Fiona Apple’s celebrated Bolt Cutters wears its theme more boldly, and that figures, since outspokenness as a means toward self-definition is one of the things she’s angling for. The Canadian-Colombian Lido Pimienta makes many of the same points, only en Español, which, given the emotional clarity and pure vehemence of her performances, ought to be no obstacle to appreciation of her music. I’ve been waving the flag for Miss Colombia since its release this spring, so if its appearance at #5 seems a little high to you, you might blame the Pollmaster for that. It’s the highest finish for any Spanish-language album in the history of our Poll.
I’ll have a lot to say about T. A. Swift over the next few days, and I don’t want to start the engine roaring just yet. For now, I’ll just point out that over the last fifteen months, she’s released fifty-two songs and three albums. I believe that’s unprecedented. Even if you don’t like what she’s written, it’s hard to knock the productivity. I’m reminded of the crazy streak that Roger Waters was on in the late ’70s, but Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking — which was apparently written at the same time as The Wall and The Final Cut — didn’t come out until 1984.
Those who voted for Punisher and Fetch The Bolt Cutters tended to place those albums at the very tops of their lists. Nobody had Football Money very high, but it appeared on many of your ballots: 15 of the 53 submitted. Because I hadn’t even heard of Kiwi Jr. until December, this surprises me. Maybe it shouldn’t. Many of the voters in this Poll are veterans of power pop and indiepop bands, and Football Money has the verities in place: sardonic lead singer as mentally restless as early Joe Jackson, plenty of guitar textures, jangle and snap, copious chord changes and hooks delivered at high velocity, brevity, wisecracks, references to being broke. Indie musicians can relate. Kiwi Jr. finishes in a flatfooted tie with perennial Poll favorite Of Montreal, and The Beths, whose Jump Rope Gazers is moody and lovelorn but never less than tuneful. Several Jump Rope voters made it clear that they don’t like this one as much as Future Me Hates Me, the Beths debut, and an unadulterated exercise in New Zealand power pop. I know ’em both, and I’m pretty sure the new one is better. It’s certainly less frantic.
You might assume that this is friendly territory for Springsteen: we’ve got lots of Jersey voters, and I’m a Jersey guy. But the truth is that the Boss has usually taken a beating on our Poll. Some of our most reliable voters are passionate E Street detractors, and he’s been a landslide winner in certain negative categories in the very recent past. The embrace of Letter To You isn’t even a restoration, because he’s never finished in the Top Ten before. Our voters just liked this one. Most of those who tapped Letter To You had never submitted a ballot with a Springsteen album on it before.
Hip-hop arrives in the early teens. None of that kid stuff: these rappers are skills-heavy veterans with loud mouths and personal agendas to push. The Alchemist provides Freddie Gibbs with a silky backdrop for his pleasantly vicious storytelling, Quelle Chris matches spy music and weird, off-balance beats to Homeboy Sandman’s latest clever/curmudgeonly verses, and Jaime Meline fires up the RTJ machine for another trip to the barricades with co-pilot Killer Mike delivering broadsides from the shotgun seat. Superficially, Andy Shauf couldn’t be more different: on The Neon Skyline, he’s a mumbling barfly who, through his own romantic inaction, has allowed the girl he wants slip through his fingers. But even though he isn’t as assertive as the rappers are, his dilemma — which is elaborated in some detail on a concept set that features the sort of linear storytelling that our voters always like — isn’t too different from theirs. He’s dealing with thirtysomething desperation, and the creeping feeling that he’s about to enter a period of irrelevance. Mike blames the government, Homeboy Sandman blames his girlfriend, and Freddie blames his rivals on the street. Andy blames himself. By the end of The Neon Skyline, you might feel that he deserves a good scapegoat.
Juice WRLD was less than half Killer Mike’s age when he died of a drug overdose a little over twelve months ago. We’ve lost too many promising rappers over the last few years: Pop Smoke, whose posthumous release Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon narrowly missed this Top 40, was shot to death in February. Stepa J. Groggs of the excellent Arizona group Injury Reserve — Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018 and 2019 — died this summer. Emcees with the potential to make it through their twenties and deliver solid music, Homeboy Sandman-style, well into their forties are getting waylaid by a combination of violence and self-destructive compulsions. It’s another horrible American phenomenon, and one that ought to concern everybody who loves music.
A few interesting names in this section, and at least one that’s become a genuine hot potato. Even as his venomous statements have pushed him past the periphery of pop music and into the netherzone of the non-personed, many of our voters have not turned on Morrissey. I couldn’t agree less with the political positions he’s taken — I don’t even want to dignify them by calling them a coherent ideology — but as an appreciator of pop records, I find his recent ones aesthetically successful. I’m not sure he’s ever sung more passionately or more communicatively than he has on his last three albums, including the covers set California Son. Morrissey was adamant that I Am Not A Dog On A Chain was his best work, and he complained, Curt Schilling-like, that critics were intentionally withholding the approbation he deserved. That’s probably true. If we can agree that he did it to himself, and if we can further agree not to feel bad for him when he whines (I sure don’t feel bad for Schilling), I think we ought to be able to approach his records and appreciate them for what they are: very solid pop-rock recordings from a talented but deeply unpleasant practitioner of the style. He’s always been highly misanthropic. If you remember him differently from his days with the Smiths, well, I think you were missing the essence of the man.
Moz comes in three places and three points after a musical hero of mine: the Berkshire folk-rock singer Laura Marling, who, if we’d held this Poll in 2017, would’ve likely won it. Our voters were less enthusiastic about Song For Our Daughter. She hasn’t finished in the twenties since Alas, I Cannot Swim, her debut, in 2008. Going in the other direction: Nada Surf is a group that has always gotten votes here and there, but has never finished in the Top 30 before; their (early) association with Ric Ocasek and the talkiness of Matthew Caws’s approach and the er, power in their pop are all hallmarks of groups that do well in this Poll. Finally, it’s always gratifying to see Sparks on a year-end list. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate that group, and yes, if you’ve read this far, I reckon you’re that type.
In 1996, our swaggering Poll winner made a memorable boast on his own behalf. “No one writes them like they used to”, sang Stuart Murdoch, “so it may as well be me.” He then demonstrated what he meant. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” runs on a sturdy chord progression – one in which the chords don’t fall exactly where you’re expecting them to fall. More importantly, the song’s melody isn’t tethered to those changes. Instead, it develops. It keeps on dancing and spinning and twirling across the chords until it reaches a logical and satisfying peak, and then the tune pushes you over the top and you slide, sled-like, down the mountain. Whee. Because it’s a pop song, there’s some repetition, but there isn’t much of it. The melody leads the accompaniment – and Stuart stays in firm control of the melody throughout.
But is he right? Is this the way they used to write them? There have always been composers who’ve done it like that: Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Carole King, and Elvis Costello, who showed us that there’s no contradiction between melodic development and rocking like your pants are on fire. Critics have always rewarded this skill. If you can develop your melodies in a clever fashion within the strict confines of the three-minute pop song, you stand a pretty good chance of winning this Poll, and many others, too. Yet even during the heyday of the Beatles, there were plenty of songs – great songs – that weren’t composed with an emphasis on novel melodic trajectory. Instead, there’d be a standard chord progression, usually a basic blues, and the melody would stick pretty close to the roots of those chords. Often, the rhythmic pattern of the melody wouldn’t change even when the chords did: it would be the same thing, only a little higher, or a little lower. That’s because the world, or trad., was suppling the progression, and the band was simply singing on top of something that already existed. They were toplining, even though they wouldn’t have called it that then.
We barely call it that now. Most music listeners aren’t familiar with the concept of toplining; given how infrequently it’s mentioned in reviews in which it would be salient to mention, I’m forced to the conclusion that many critics aren’t aware of it, either. But in 2021, toplining is standard music industry practice, widely discussed by the people who assemble the hits that score our lives, and in order to understand modern pop, it’s essential to know what it is and how it works. Most modern pop songs are assembled through a topline process: the producer creates the backing track first, and then somebody else writes a lead melody (there may be secondary melodies implied by the track) and lyric, and the two halves are steam-pressed together by mixers and mastering engineers. Sometimes, I’m sure, the producer and the topliner are in the studio together, giggling and experimenting and having a great time, as Carly Rae Jepsen and Jack Antonoff are depicted doing in the video for “This Love Isn’t Crazy”. More often – especially during quarantine conditions – the producer and the singer will be on opposite sides of the country, or the world, exchanging data files and working in isolation. In electronic dance music, the producer will often send the same beat out to many different topliners at once, and the writer who welds the catchiest and most commercially compelling melody and hook to the beat gets the gig, and the glory.
It probably sounds to you like I’m deriding toplining. I’m not. I think it is a perfectly valid way to work. It might not sound as fun as the traditional rock band dynamic does, but it has its advantages: it’s quick, it all happens in the box, everybody gets to concentrate on what he or she does best, and nobody passes out drunk or gets into fistfights in the practice space. There are some who believe that those fistfights are essential to pop; as a shy and retiring sort hunched over my computer, I avoid that crowd. Hip-hop has always run on a topline model: the RZA would make the music and cut the bars, carpenter-like, into the shapes he wanted, and then he’d ask the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan to compete for the space he’d created. The ascendancy of the topline model in pop means that most hitmaking producers are treating singers the way rap auteurs have always treated their emcees and hook writers. Get in the booth and vocalize over this sick beat, and keep doing it until you come up with a keeper.
I have absolutely no doubt that Beyoncé Knowles could sit down at a piano and write really good songs from scratch if she wanted to. Superfan that I am, I could point you to places in her deep discography where it’s pretty clear to me that she did just that. Nevertheless, she prefers to topline, and it’s not hard to understand why. She’s getting the wildest, catchiest beats from the most creative producers on the planet, and as a superstar with immense clout, she’s got the capacity to insist on amendments to whatever it is she’s opted to sing over. If Beyoncé feels a bridge coming on, you can be sure that Boots, or whoever else she’s hired, is going to back into the ProTools and switch around the beat to accommodate her request. Yet few artists have the clout that Beyoncé does. As the monoculture continues to agglomerate all music on all levels into a single glossy post-genre pop style, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that many “indie” artists (whatever that means in 2021) are toplining, too. They’re singing over pre-made loops. Sometimes they’ve created those loops themselves and tailored them to their peculiar tastes, as Kali Uchis did on her Drunken Babble mixtape. More often, the loops are fixed by somebody else, and they’re working within a producer’s super-tight parameters.
Again, this is just another way of composing, and every year, thousands of wonderful songs are made like this. But in order to understand why modern pop (and modern “indie”, too) sounds like it does, it’s necessary to be honest about the aesthetic limitations of toplining and the effects of its widespread adoption. Think back to the Belle & Sebastian song that I opened this essay with – it’s probably still stuck in your head – and notice how everything is designed to advance the melody through time. The tune leads the composition: it comes first, and the accompaniment follows. Because there’s a single songwriter, in this case likely sitting on a chair in a church basement, it may have come a split-second first. But it was certainly guiding Stuart as he strummed away on his acoustic guitar. He is at liberty to extend that melody as far as his chord progression will allow him, and if he feels like modifying that progression, it’s as simple as moving his hand from one fret to the next. The topliner does not have that ability. She’s forced to operate after the fact of writing, and wholly within somebody else’s vision. She might coin a delightful melody, but no matter how it sparkles, it’s not driving the composition. It’s the hood ornament. The producer supplies the engine.
This means that it’s impossible to mint a melody like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” through toplining. That thrill ride – the dips and drops and crests and turns, and that sense that the tune has gathered its own irresistible momentum and is carrying you along with it – can only happen if the melody is leading the accompaniment. In order to compensate for the lack of forward motion that developmental melody naturally provides, the vocalist must generate the kinetic effects on her own. If you’ve ever wondered why modern pop so often sounds like a sing-off, loaded with melisma, vibrato, feats of strength and ear-shredding FX, that’s because the topliner has few compositional options to generate excitement, and the star at the microphone must take up the slack. I’m a fan of showy vocalists, but even I’ll admit that the glee club model gets tiresome after a while. There are other, better ways to keep the listener interested.
Which brings us to an irony of modern music: even as the vocalist (who is often the topliner), is forced to work harder than ever before, her influence over the direction of the song has been attenuated. The producer has wrested power away from the singer. Advances in processor speed and connectivity has made this possible, and it’s inevitable that composing musicians would avail themselves of all the file-transfer tech they can get their hands on. It makes their jobs easier.
Nevertheless, that’s not the whole story. The consolidation of producer power and the proliferation of toplining is, I believe, also a reaction to the spike in female autonomy and authorship that occurred during the end period of the twentieth century. Pop producers are overwhelmingly male. Their stars – their topliners – tend to be women. When their contribution to the composition is reactive by design, the male author feels more comfortable, especially since he holds the eraser and, therefore, the final word. In the 21stcentury, the woman with the guitar, operating as Stuart Murdoch did on If You’re Feeling Sinister, has virtually been expunged from pop, and she’s lost a lot of altitude in independent music, too. The best we can hope for is that the man working the mouse is sensitive to her desire for artistic expression, and is willing to treat her topline as part of a dialogue, rather than a commercially necessary but ultimately frivolous decoration. Many of the best producer-topliner relationships do feel respectful and symbiotic, and demonstrate that intra-sex cooperation didn’t go away after the disbandment of Fleetwood Mac. One of the reasons that audiences found Billie Eilish so endearing was because we all knew her brother handled the production. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, it was easy to imagine that Finneas was her male doppelganger, and he couldn’t be too controlling or it would ruin Thanksgiving dinner at the Eilish house.
Then there’s the artist who Billie Eilish reminds me of: Fiona Apple, another irritable theater kid whose latest album was received as an instant classic. The doomed-feminist arguments on Fetch The Bolt Cutters are powerfully underscored by Fiona’s complete refusal to enter into a modern toplining relationship with her producers. Kick her under the table all you want, she won’t tailor her melodies, or her bars, to rhythms or progressions generated by somebody else. Tempting as it is to see her production and composition choices as atavistic – the acts of a hermetic auteur holding out for an old way of doing things – there’s actually no reason why other artists couldn’t follow her lead. Fiona Apple, for better and for worse, is wedded to the compositional logic of the mid-20thcentury masters, and that just doesn’t fit very well in a quantizer. If we’re going to call her old-fashioned, maybe it’s best to see her as a throwback to the false dawn when Nina Simone, and Sandy Denny, and Carole King, and Joan Armatrading, and Phoebe Snow, and Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush, and Laura Nyro sketched the outlines of a new type of pop authorship. Pissed off, funny, and warm, all of them. Good men in a storm. And when the fall is torrential… well, you know the rest.
“Because you’re a Springsteen fan, I think you’re missing the point of why so many of us are so taken by Letter To You. I hadn’t liked an album of his since Born in the U.S.A., and even there, the repetitiousness of the arrangements made those songs less than the words and tunes deserved. Letter To You is him noticing ‘Wait a second: our music was much more interesting in the 1970s, when I let my very talented band run loose. What if we tried to sound like that again?’ Of course, it’s a great idea! An easy idea, but we didn’t think they would ever have it! Abandoning the terrible ideas of the Reagan and post-Reagan era: if only the world would catch up in more areas than Springsteen records.”
Brian’s objection to my assessment of Letter To You reminds me that I was always miscast as a Springsteen correspondent. Although I count the Boss among my favorite recording artists, my view of his catalog is idiosyncratic: I prefer his ‘80s albums to his ‘70s albums. Not by a little, either. Springsteen in the ‘70s was a great bandleader and a wonderful live attraction, but he hadn’t eluded the long shadows cast by his influences: Dylan, certainly, but also the Stones and the Animals, and a bunch of other man-rock bands. His solution to every aesthetic problem he faced was to go over the top, as far as he could, and assert his own virility and lean hard on what we now call masculine imperatives.
Springsteen in the ‘80s was incomparable. Through the traditional language of rock he delivered a critique of Middle American consciousness and the institutions at the dark heart of the country — the factory, the dysfunctional family, the prison, the church — that’s still resounding in Nashville, Los Angeles, and every college town in the country. The conceptual work he began on The River took the shape of a desperado’s diary on Nebraska, a recidivist’s confession on the even more desolate Born In The U.S.A., and a husband’s exhausted prayer on Tunnel Of Love. To listen to those albums in the proper spirit is to confront America.
In order to become the songwriter he was always meant to be, he needed to redefine his relationship with his band. The Boss had to stop thinking about what he was doing as a form of theater, and begin imagining himself as a correspondent instead — a kind of emotional journalist, transmuting national pain into poetry for the masses. That meant using the band as an instrument, which, when you think about it like that, isn’t a very nice way to treat some of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history. But it had to be done, and do it he did. He bypassed arena rock and Dylanesque fever-dreams altogether (at least in the studio) and went all the way back to Chuck Berry and the rock take on the American Dream. He turned over some of those rotting planks, and took a good long look at what struggled out of the mud.
This is not a popular take on Bruce Springsteen, and I still have the disgruntled letters from readers to prove it. The far more common line on the Boss is that the ‘70s records were life-giving, the wildly exciting, cathartic, optimistic, interminable concerts were the point, and he only stumbled when he matched his songs with synthetic ‘80s production. I find those ‘80s arrangements a much better match for the stark, distraught subject matter of his best songs, and wish only that some of the better tracks on Darkness could have been recorded in the style of his ‘80s albums. And I think that in spite of the ecstatic reception of Springsteen’s nostalgia move on Letter To You, 2020 did quite a bit more to advance my argument than it did to disprove it. This was a big year for Springsteen, but not for the reasons that the fist-pumpers in General Admission at the Izod Center think. Other, far younger artists cemented the legacy of the Boss by recording insta-classics indebted to his ‘80s records. 2020 showed why Springsteen still matters deeply: not because of “Born To Run”, which will always belong to 1975, but because of the music he made that remains salient to the ugly present.
Consider, for instance, our Poll winner. Phoebe Bridgers’s two most visible influences are Elliott Smith, who she sings about on “Punisher”, and Conor Oberst, who she actually recorded an album with. But the actual writing on Punisher (and Stranger In The Alps) reminds me more of ‘80s Springsteen: the recursive symbolism in the lyrics, the sturdy folk melodies warped by the metamorphic pressure of contemporary pop, the stark-eyed view of America as a place of constant conflict, the pad-like synthesizers and occasional lonesome electronic sounds meant to connote vast, wide-open spaces and a backdrop for emotional desolation. After my first listen to Punisher, I told Hilary that I’d just heard the best Springsteen album since Devils & Dust.
That was before the surprise release of the Folklore/Evermore monster, which wasn’t greeted with copious references to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘80s records, and I wish I knew why. Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift’s most prominent collaborator for the past few cycles, is a Springsteen fanatic who drags all of his pop productions into the swamps of Jersey; check out that outro on “Paper Rings” if you’re hungry for a nice helping of Turnpike grease. Steel Train, his old band, was an attempt to harmonize his Boss obsessions with the prevailing style on the Warped Tour; eventually he gave up on that and just imitated Springsteen. Justin Vernon has always made his affection for ‘80s man-rock apparent (and what was For Emma if not an Upper Midwest stab at Nebraska-like insularity?) Then there are the dudes from the National, who’ve been pinching from Springsteen for two decades, and hiding what they’d stolen in the bushes behind the conservatory. I see you, dudes from the National. You can’t fool me.
This was the crew that made the music for Folklore and Evermore; a bunch of Springsteen nuts. Actually, that’s to sell it short. It’s more accurate to say that these are contemporary popular musicians who learned basic skills via osmosis from Springsteen records, and whose own records ooze essence of Boss. Then there’s the principal herself, who has always been vocal about her profound admiration for Bruce Springsteen (he’s returned the favor). Taylor Swift has switched genres, but even as she has, she’s never made anything more than small modifications in her basic approach: harmonically and melodically, she’s still very much the same songwriter who gave us “Picture To Burn” and “I’m Only Me When I’m With You”. Her frame of reference from her emergence has always been ‘80s mainstream radio. Which is funny, since she was born in ’89, but there it is.
I may be a little older than Taylor Swift. I remember purchasing Bruce Springsteen cassettes upon their release in the mid-‘80s. The thing that struck me the most about those albums – even more than the sound, which was evocative, and the performances, which were thunderously intense – was the Boss’s use of intertextuality. This was what distinguished him from his peers, even those who, like Paul Simon, were very good at writing lyrics. On his ‘80s albums, Springsteen made hay out of recurring lines and patterns of discourse, and called across the years from one set to another. One narrator says “I’ve got debts no honest man can pay”; a few songs later, another narrator in a completely different circumstance says the same thing, and you’re meant to feel the resonance between the two stories. People in one song may or may not be physically related to people in the next, but they’re conceptually related – they’re inhabitants of the same sociopolitical universe, linked by Springsteen’s masterful use of motif. On Born In The U.S.A., character after character is detained, arrested, incarcerated, handcuffed to the bumper of the state trooper’s Ford. The repetition and association is how the Boss makes his points. He pulls you into a world of echoes.
Since Tunnel Of Love, many other songwriters and album-makers have tried their hands at Bruce-style intertextuality. Some have even done it well. But no major commercial artist has ever dedicated themselves to callbacks and mirrors and echoes and lyrical shadows with the assiduousness, or effectiveness, of Taylor Swift in 2020. What’s more, she (and her producers) did it exactly like Springsteen did it in ‘80s: emphasizing certain lines, subtly underscoring elements of repetition, abridging the story here and there for dramatic effect, introducing dopplegangers, inviting the listener to imagine relationships between her characters, investing the stories with specificity via scene-setting detail, playing evenly on the heartstrings and the puzzle-solving impulse among listeners who she knew damn well were hanging on every syllable. Like Springsteen once did, Taylor Swift made the most of the attention she knew she commanded. She had different arguments to make. Nevertheless, she could not have run the ‘80s Springsteen playbook any better than she did, and when she did, she generated many effects familiar to me: a glimpse of a haunted universe, filled with figures who’d been rendered spectral by the mistakes they’d made. Scary stories suitable for scary times, brought to life by artists of acute sensitivity and formidable expressive power.
Punisher was one of the year’s best-reviewed albums. Folklore and Evermore were chart-toppers. These albums extend Springsteen’s influence and signature songwriting techniques into the second decade of the new millennium, just as Springsteen extended the techniques of Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie into the final decades of the last one. That’s the great relay race, and he’s still right in the middle of it, with his hand on the trailing half of the baton, and Taylor Swift’s hand on the leading half. Yet we’ve been missing this – and part of that, I’m afraid, is the Boss’s own fault. Because he can’t let go of the ‘70s (and because he can’t break the arena-rock habit) he continues to be identified with the music he made before he reached full artistic maturity.
Many of those early albums are fantastic, particularly The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle, and they deserve to be celebrated. Nevertheless they aren’t the ones that establish Springsteen’s centrality to the present moment and the many moments to come, and I think a comparison to Tom Petty might be helpful. Everybody knows and loves the music that Tom Petty made in the late 1970s with the Heartbreakers. But nobody would ever try to argue that those singles are as tightly-knit into the story of pop as the ones he made once he shook free of the confines of his band, and the theatrical demands of arena-rock in general, and defined who he could be on his own terms. I believe that Springsteen did his legacy no favors by releasing Letter To You, even as I acknowledge that he’s setting us up for a heck of a nostalgia tour. And if in thirty years, Taylor Swift chooses to align herself and her artistic identity with “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” rather than the material on Folklore, she’ll have made the same mistake.
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Whew, that took awhile. Okay – let’s move through the miscellaneous categories quickly, and then I’ll drop in some of the observations and predictions you sent me. Not everybody who contributes a ballot contributes commentary, but I appreciate those of you who do. The essay questions on the exam are always the tricky ones.
For the first time ever, Taylor Swift picked up significant support in the Best Singing category. I remember when it wasn’t just the dude from “Mean” who said she was no good in the booth. I always thought that was a silly position to take, and I’m glad I never hear it anymore. Brad Luen put it like this: “It’s grossly unfair that on top of everything else, she’s become the best indie rock singer since Jenny Lewis, but it turns out that savvy plus near-unlimited money does in fact make your dreams come true.” Anyway, the winner by plurality was Fiona Apple, who also won in 2012 for her performances on Idler Wheel. Awards season; the season of awards.
Some votes for Juice WRLD and Open Mike Eagle, but this was the year that Freddie Gibbs finally outpaced Killer Mike and Run The Jewels in the Best Rapping category. Freddie becomes the first straight-up gangsta rapper to take the top prize in our Poll. I’m glad to see that you all recognize that violent imagery and murderous rage is just another part of showbiz. I think.
Laura Marling skidded to 22nd place on the Poll, and didn’t place any singles on the list, either. But five voters did tap her for Best Songwriting, and I reckon she’d be happy to make that exchange. Interestingly, only one of those five Marling voters gave any points to Song For Our Daughter. Seems like you were more impressed with Laura Marling’s writing than you were with her execution, which is a complete reversal from the MySpace days when listeners were losing their minds over her vocal resemblance to Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson, but were justifiably leery of such stuff as “You Crawled Out Of The Sea.”
Phoebe Bridgers took the Best Lyrics category handily. I have never seen older rock guys embrace a young female artist more firmly, or immediately, than they’ve embraced Phoebe. That includes reactions to Liz Phair and Joanna Newsom, and it goes way, way beyond this Poll. Phoebe Bridgers seems designed to speak directly to the unconscious fears of the ‘70s soft-rock audience: that unnerving sense that Los Angeles represents the end of a long road westward for European civilization, and life in laid-back California is just an easygoing prelude to global cataclysm. This isn’t meant to be a damning criticism in any way; I dig Jackson Browne, too.
Most respondents didn’t bother to vote in the Best Album Cover category, which is a shame, because there were some very good ones this year. Given all the votes for The Slow Rush elsewhere on ballots, I’d have thought that Tame Impala would win this category by a, er, sandslide. The cover image is an actual photograph, by the way: they actually flew to a remote part of Namibia to get a shot of an interior half-eaten by the desert. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Pink Floyd would have done in their heyday. Roger Waters wouldn’t have been satisfied with an artist’s rendition; to make his point about inexorable deterioration, he would have insisted on documentary realism. I appreciate the effort.
For Best Album Title, D.P.K. voted for Chris Crack’s White People Love Algorithms. But do they? Guess I’ll have to see what Google tells me about that. Anyway, the winner, by a nose over Fetch The Bolt Cutters, was Poppy’s I Disagree. Not finished being disagreeable, she followed that up with an EP called I Disagree (More); this pre-dated Evermore by at least a month. Phoebe Bridgers would later tweet her intention to release Punishermore (it was a joke). It’s all derived from Pottermore, I imagine. One day we’re going to add up all the cues we’ve taken from J.K. Rowling over the past two and a half decades, and it’s going to be enough to fill up a Room of Requirement.
Here’s Tom Snow on Elizabeth Cook, his nominee for Most Welcome Surprise: “Evidently this woman has been singing at the Opry for two decades, but this is closer to Kula Shaker than Roseanne Cash. Overdriven vox, tight-but-not-uptight backing band, and lyrics that sound like they’ve been written by someone with some actual Life Experiences.” In addition to traditionalist country-rocking, she’s a radio host, and she does a fishing show called Upstream on something called The Circle Network. Yeah, I’m not tuning in to that, either. I’m all for breaching cultural divides, but there are limits to how far into the Kentucky hills I’m willing to go. But the Aftermath album is worthy of your attention, and you don’t even have to mine any coal to get it.
I was a little surprised to see votes for Lady Gaga in the Biggest Disappointment category. I thought she made a sure-footed return to the disco on Chromatica, but I can see how it might have struck some of you as safe, or automatic, or exhausting in its predictability. She was never a pioneer – she always looked a hundred times weirder than she sounded. Almost a decade after “Born This Way”, should she still be ripping off Madonna?
Fiona Apple won Most Overrated by a landslide, garnering some votes from Poll respondents who put Fetch The Bolt Cutters in their Top Tens anyway. I get it, but it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for 10 out of 10; it’s pretty clear she wasn’t even shooting for a perfect score. The album is, among other things, a passionate argument against the very notion of flawlessness. To accuse it of perfection was the meanest thing the critics could have done.
A couple of you breezed through Purple Noon, the latest by Washed Out, and you probably didn’t realize that there was music playing. But your Crummy Album You Listened To A Bunch Anyway was None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, the Streets comeback. You’re Mike Skinner loyalists; if he’s got something to say, you’ll let him say it, and that includes sexist cracks and soused pub humor. Anna Howe even evinced disappointment in the verb tense error in the album title. I don’t think that was pedantic. Mike’s a word man. He ought to know better.
Opinion was sharply divided on The Strokes: same as it ever was, right? It’s still 2000, coke-binge sunglasses and hoop earrings are in, and there are twin towers casting shadows on Vesey Street. Some of you wanted them to stop bugging you, and some of you evinced surprise about how much you enjoyed The New Abnormal. The former whipping boys of the Manhattan garage-rock revival took Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking and Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot BetterThan You Initially Thought It Was. Interestingly, Julian Casablancas thematizes this on the record: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” he sings on “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” articulating the lament of every aging white guy who feels socially stuck. Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe we’re all wrong. Maybe a pandemic is no time to find out.
Now, what sort of monster would vote for McCartney III for Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy? I’m not going to name names, but I’m ashamed of you people. After all Paul has done for you, the least you can do is rock out to “Lavatory Lil” a time or two.
There was no consensus in the Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like category, but I count a few votes for Moses Sumney and Yves Tumor. They’re both making daring music, but it isn’t exactly user-friendly stuff. Funky as he is, Yves Tumor can be awfully abrasive. Moses Sumney seems disinclined to hammer his sonic and formal experiments into the recognizable shapes of pop songs. Maybe he never will. That’s his prerogative, but it’s worth remembering that the artists whose experiments reshaped the sound of modern music – Kanye, Prince, Joni Mitchell, James Brown George Clinton – started out earthbound, and pushed into the stratosphere from there. The wilderness is an inhospitable place to begin.
Everybody votes in the Worst Song Of The Year category. It’s a neat place to vent; about “Death Bed”, for instance (“the second-worst thing to go viral in 2020,” that’s Brad Luen again), or Asher Angel’s “Do U Wanna?” Justin Bieber put out about forty chart toppers in 2020, and quarantine meant that you didn’t have to hear any of them. Or maybe you did: he certainly took his lumps here. But you didn’t hate anything more than you hated Eric Clapton and Van Morrison for making awkward interventions in the global discussion by singing clumsy protest songs about lockdowns and masking. Regardless of their past glories, neither of those guys have ever been able to read a room.
There isn’t usually consensus about the Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat. This year, there was, and it goes like this: body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. Body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. And so on. I can’t really disagree, but perversely, irritation just makes my admiration for Megan Thee Stallion increase. The entire Good News was a throwback to the glory days when hip-hop beats were made from cheap drum machines and airhorns and car alarms, and the producers and rhymers didn’t care at all if they annoyed the fuck out of you. In fact, they rather wanted to. In this era of artfully muffled kick drums and every song sounding like Drake featuring Drake, it was refreshing to find a rapper who cared enough to pester me.
On this Poll, Bob Dylan gets the praise, and his acolyte Bruce Springsteen is generally relegated to the negative categories. This year, their roles were reversed. Unless I’m miscounting, the Boss didn’t get a single vote in the Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire, which is a first for him. Dylan, on the other hand, was subjected to a thorough examination of his expiration date. That, too, is a first. Oh, and Oliver Lyons bucked the Morrissey-apologetic trend I wrote about two days ago. He voted for Moz in this category, and wrote with such vehemence that I feel the need to quote him here: “Like, come ON! My man has been trash for the better part of two decades now and has destroyed almost all the goodwill his early work endeared to sensitive white men. I can barely describe his most recent songs as even ‘phoning it in’. Even the cover art for his last several albums look like made them himself in a cracked version of Photoshop. Stop singing and go join whatever the British equivalent of Fox News is until you die of Covid. Fucking asshole.”
Jack Harlow is this year’s Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning. I rather liked “What’s Poppin’”, but I didn’t bother to check out anything else he did, so I guess I concur that he’s inessential.
Finally, and somewhat grudgingly, you’ve decided that Taylor Swift is the artist who Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2030. You’re resigned to reality: she’s just going to keep coming at you, relentlessly, like the Space Invaders. At this point, I’m not even sure what tectonic event would be sufficient to slow her down. The financial crisis and the fights with her label didn’t stop her. Scandal didn’t lay a glove on her. Global catastrophe only seems to have quickened her pace. I guess it’s always possible that she could lose interest, but anybody who has seen her in concert knows that she loves pop too much to give it up for long. When she sings along to the other nominees’s performances during awards shows, that’s no bullshit – she really does know all the words. One of the main things that separates a star from a flash in the pan is the star’s true belief in the enduring value of what she’s doing, no matter how frivolous it may seem in the moment: she came to rock, and rock and roll is here to stay. In this context, the title of Evermore is a kind of promise. The road stretches farther than what we can see. No matter how uncertain the future, no matter how dark the forest gets, she’ll be there to hang some fairy lights for us.
OK, allow me to turn the floor over to you. Thank you, friends.
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Ben Krieger: The Killers were the only band that mattered to me in a year that felt like something out of the Book of Job. I needed a record that swung for the fences, and they delivered. AC/DC delivered as well, as did Carl Stone in his own way. I know I missed out on a lot of great records, or gave others (Fetch the Bolt Cutters) a lazy pass and then was done with them. I just didn’t care about music this year. I listened to my own projects, pain-numbing ambient albums, and the Killers and that’s pretty much all I remember. I threw myself into marches and bike protests and taking over the Williamsburg Bridge. For me, pop music failed to rise to the challenge of 2020. And if to drive the point home, Prince came back from the dead with a gazillion bonus discs of Sign of the Times material that put everyone to shame. I blasted that from my bike, and Beethoven on the way to work and Curtis Mayfield on the way home. I don’t even care enough about 2020 music to complain at the whole “locked-in-my-apartment” shtick. I just want to rise from the ashes of this year and forget it.
Adam Copeland: I spent almost all of 2020 inside my house, trying to calm my anxious mind. Familiar music became a great comfort, and I found it really difficult to muster up enough courage to confront the reality of the moment. Some things backslid.
Mike C: I listened to more music in 2020 than any other year of my life. By probably a decent margin. But it was the year that I returned to passive curation as my dominant form of consumption for the first time since I was 12 or 13. Back then it was MTV and the radio. Now it’s DJ livestreams, which began in March-July as mostly Questlove, D-Nice and others on YouTube Live and Instagram. Since August it’s been almost exclusively on Twitch. And it’s changing my life. After 21 years of grinding it out locally, I’m actually beginning, in some corners, to “enter the chat” of the global DJ world. This is Chevy Chase in the motel pool with Christie Brinkley kind of stuff. A blindingly bright silver lining that’s been overwhelming all the darkness outside the walls of my one-bedroom with study.
Jonathan Andrew: In 2020, I leaned on music like never before. (And I am someone who cares about little other than music.) I bought new releases by my contemporary faves (as well as lots of live stuff on Bandcamp). I watched livestreams by music-making friends. I remote-recorded with collaborators. I made mixes on Spotify and shared them with my life mates. I rediscovered forgotten gems (hola, first Crash Test Dummies album!) and nestled in the bosom of all-time favorites (Forever Changes and Aqualung on repeat). I was reminded that Pavement’s Steve West is a heckuva drummer and that Peter Gabriel might have the best voice out of anyone. I remembered how much I love ‘80s Metallica. And I finally found a way to enjoy a record by Sonic Youth (Dirty, for those keeping score.) Music was a distraction, a thing to do, a way to connect, a balm. I am ever grateful that, through some cosmic accident, I found the thing I am about at a young age and have had the privilege to devote so much time and mental bandwidth to it, as both listener and music maker.
Enrique Lavin: There is too much fucking good music and I don’t have time to properly digest it. So for last couple of years, I’ve been leaping from decade to decade, genre to genre, continent to continent. An addict looking for the next hit, no matter the place or time. I probably heard more Fatboy Slim this year than I’ve heard since 1999. (He did a series of DJ sessions for Apple Music that I devoured – and then replayed.) Such a traumatic year. I bet I wasn’t alone digging into the mental catalogue looking for comfort music. For me, Beck, Manu Chao, Bob Marley, Bjork, Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Juana Molina, Flaming Lips, Lana Del Rey, late Beatles, all Jack White projects, Radiohead, Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin. I even revisited my high school sweethearts Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. Nicola Cruz and Lido Pimienta and other ZZKs were playing on regular rotation. Lots of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann. But I also took in a lot of hip-hop radio; found myself dipping into these on a regular basis: Clipping, Run The Jewels, Jurassic 5 and Chali2na – I remember playing Midnight Marauders for my kids more than twice last summer. Speaking of radio: I give plenty of money to KEXP. I think of my contributions as tips. If I need a fix, they’re there to satisfy the itch. For music discovery, KEXP is my go-to.
George Pasles: I can’t explain how reassuring it was when the Rolling Stones song “Living In A Ghost Town” was released in April. Sure, everything since Some Girls has been pretty much the same, but 1.) it represented a shared global experience of fear and loss, and 2.) showed life, even in some constrained form, was still continuing.
Michael Flannery: We’re going to hear more records that focus on making live shows into parties. Lady Gaga was prescient making a stadium record.
Oliver Lyons (on the Worst Song Of The Year): Do I jump on the Bieber bandwagon and pick any number of the awful songs he put out this year? I honestly kind of respect that one song where in the video he dresses up as a coal mining man of the people and tries to get the MAGA chuds’ money by kinda doing a country song. I’m all for draining those monsters of what little material wealth they have.
Belinda Portman (Least Believable Perspective): The guy from the National on “Coney Island”, just because he sounds like he has no idea what he’s singing, why he’s singing it, where he is, who Taylor Swift is…etc.
Tom Snow (Album That Should Have Been Shorter): Everything that was longer than 39 minutes. If 2020 taught us nothing else, it was that many artists were capable of delivering a perfectly satisfying, fully realized LP that could still easily fit on one side of a 90-minute cassette.
Brian Block (in defense of Sufjan): I take Sufjan Stevens at face value, as an ambitious, sincere, geeky dilettante who’s making the music he genuinely wants to make. I loved Illinois. I mostly loved Age Of Adz even though it was willfully defying us to do so. Planetarium was soothing and my kids are happy to sleep to it and that’s worth appreciating. This year he gave us The Ascension, and there’s an incredible amount going on there; so many layers, so many creative choices, songs that evolve as they go. My kind of record! And I just keep wishing he’d thrown 3/4 of the layers out and figured out which parts were the good parts. Based on Carrie & Lowell, I have to admit he might have chosen dead wrong (by my lights). I keep wishing anyway.
Brad Luen (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “Toosie Slide”. At least the “Cupid Shuffle” gives clear instructions.
Marisol Fuentes (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): You must not have children! Otherwise you would know the answer is “Baby Shark”, and you would retire this question out of mercy.
Hilary Jane Englert (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “WAP”. I will be making no further comment at this time. I ask only that you respect my privacy and that of my family during this painful and difficult period.
Brian Block: How the hell did 1970s Laurel Canyon/ Fleetwood Mac soft rock become dominant again? I was discussing this with my friend Miles: he said it’s one of those twenty-year-cycle things. I said no it wasn’t. In the 1990s, there were major songwriters who *could* have gone that direction, but instead let punk shape their work into alternative rock (Alanis Morissette, Belly, Soul Asylum) or let Kate Bush inspire them to something a little weirder (Tori Amos, Paula Cole, even Sarah McLaughlin a little). Miles said, wait, but what about Elliott Smith, and the High Llamas, and Cardinal? And I was like “What about them?”. Eventually I realized we’d been talking past each other. He was saying “You could find this stuff in the ‘90s if you looked”. I was saying “For most of my time on earth, it had been incredibly easy to avoid the damn stuff, and suddenly it’s everywhere”. Major stars. Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrienne Lenker, now even Billie Eilish: they all have skill and talent, but they’re all infected. Why are these kids making this bloodless non-racket?
Brad Luen (major trends of 2020): Young women working out their identities through pop, which was kind of always what pop was for except the young women are writing the songs now.
Anna Howe (major trends of 2020): Songs that restore to the listener her best adolescent self, that return her to the kind of pure, hopeful, pained but unjaded erotic desire, that yearning for the kind of love and sex and freedom and play that the summer brings to a kid whose life is still organized around the school and the school year—(Taylor Swift, Front Bottoms, Troye Sivan, 2nd Grade, The Beths, Tyson Motsenbocker, the list goes on, as Nancy Pelosi might say). There’s always lots of nostalgia in pop music, but these songs felt somehow special to me last year, in their dramatization of not just youthful longing but excitement, expectation, faith. Maybe it was the quarantine and the social isolation, but so many of these representations of desire felt so real and powerful and joyful to me that I never found myself dismissing them (as I often do with nostalgia numbers) as just older people’s distorted memories. Among the responses to the Covid crisis (the empty houses, the Tik-Tok and social distancing jokes, the disaffection and loneliness stuff), this one was by far the most life-affirming, at least for me.
Brad Krumholz (major trends of 2020): Looking back on abusive relationships.
Dave Willis (major trends of 2020): Musicians and venues directly asking for financial support. And me giving.
Oliver Lyons (major trends of 2020): I no longer hear from self-righteous musicians about things like Patreon being “e-begging.” Curious, no?
Enrique Lavin (major trends of 2020): Sofa and garage YouTube concerts. Elevated NPR’s Tiny Desk format. Some of them worked. Mostly made one ache for live music in person.
Belinda Portman: I think we’ll be surprised at how many small and mid-sized venues re-open in NYC and the environs (obviously a good thing) and attempt to resume business as usual with very little innovation, new ideas, or changes to their business models (not so good).
Paula Carino: It is tragic what happened to live music venues this year, and at the same time, I do hope it puts an end, forever, to the “bar scene,” to shows at 1 AM on a Tuesday that I will never go to, to overpriced tickets, etc., and transform into something better, more egalitarian, more accessible to all.
Eugene Valdez: Not everybody practicing at home is posting progress reports on YouTube, but everybody who is practicing is getting better. Just wait. The shows to come are going to be great.
Kevin Dailey (on Ariana Grande and Positions): No one sings better than she does. The album crescendos beautifully into the title track, and her production team has been cranking out so many great hits over the years. I can honestly say I loved her 2018 “No Tears Left to Cry” without knowing she wrote it. Same was true for “Into You” from the year before. Along the way, she employs humor, honesty, and a deep longing and fragility. “Trippin’, fallin’ with no safety net” – hits me right in the gut. When the album finally peaks with “Positions”, I am absolutely hers. I never in a million years thought I would state emphatically: Ariana Grande’s songs own my heart. I don’t think I’m emotionally regressed. I think I just feel young again.
Tom Snow (On Folklore): A convincing Liz Phair impersonation, from the laid-back throatiness of her delivery to the carefully placed f-bombs. This being Taylor Swift, I’m not sure if the casual act is convincing, but the songs are certainly good enough. Oh, look, she just dropped another album this year as well. I suppose one can only make so much sourdough.
Hilary Jane Englert: (On Evermore): There’s quite a bit of Taylor Swift signature sophomoric diction and a painful number of mixed metaphors on Evermore. For some reason it all bugs me way more than the empty, nonsensical romantic poetry allusions on “The Lakes” (though that drove me nuts at first). She’s got a spell over me, that one. Eventually I forgive her everything.
Tom Snow (On Poppy’s I Disagree): Like the demonic love child of Mr. Bungle and Girls’ Generation, which, at first glance, might seem like she’s trying to ride in the slipstream of the latest Harley Quinn major motion picture release. But the songs are really good, and the backing band is really, really good. Not something I’d spin on a quiet, rainy Sunday afternoon, but this demands attention.
Tom Snow (On Good News): It’s “of a piece” with “W.A.P.,” though the album doesn’t quite reach the raunchy glory of the single, and a full-length becomes extremely tiring. Her producer’s incessant employment of her vocal quirk of saying “aaah” like there’s a tongue depressor (or, um, something) jammed into her throat becomes anxiety-triggering after a while.
Tom Snow (On Football Money): You listen to this and you realize that Pavement didn’t need to themselves so seriously.
George Pasles: (predictions for 2021): Terrible people twisting themselves in knots trying to describe liking Ariel Pink’s music.
Adam Copeland (predictions for 2021): I really hope the Wrens’ next record comes out. In 2021, we’re back to the heyday of JT and Britney with Disney stars feuding. Lin-Manuel Miranda will make something awful and aggressively neoliberal, and everyone will eat it up. Nu-metal makes a strong comeback on the heels of the success of Parler. TikTok charts begin to influence numbers to a point where all major artists begin to put parts in their songs that are exactly the right length and pattern to loop only 8 bars, perfectly, forever. I put out a song and it is a single byte of data, revolutionizing the record industry.
Brian Block (predictions for 2021): Might as well bring back analog synthesizers from 1968, treating every adjusted knob and switch as a leap into the sonic unknown. Its return would make just as much sense as all these girl James Taylors, but it also would be awesome.
Oliver Lyons (predictions for 2021):I know we’re going to be awash in Covid-19 metaphors for the better part of the next decade (or until the next plague comes along) but, can we maybe not? Can we all agree now that’s not going to be something that anyone will enjoy? Thanks.
Enrique Lavin (predictions for 2021): There just might be another Latin boom. With Biden signaling that Dreamers can dream again, there may be a rush of celebratory music coming from the U.S. Latino scene. Another trend could be that we’re all so fucking happy that we’ll return to some notion of normalcy under Biden that pop music gorges itself with escapist boy bands.
DPK (predictions for 2021): A banner year for hip-hop and rap (especially production)… an outpouring of a quiet year’s worth of exploration and deep crate digging. Dare I dream? A return of boom bap at the top of the game?
Jim Testa (predictions for 2021): Punk rock will have a big comeback as cities return to hosting live music.
Mister Guch (predictions for 2021): There will be a hybrid of pop and metal, with easy to digest lyrics and adorable metalheads. Additionally, Devo will go on tour again, as will the Go-Go’s.
Brad Krumholz (predictions for 2021): Pared-back lo-fi guitar rock.
Tom Snow: (predictions for 2021): More quality songs per capita coming out of New Zealand.
Steven Matrick (predictions for 2021): Songs about being alone.
Ben Krieger: I do wish The Weeknd would retire, but he should have done that after his first record.
Brad Luen: I suspect mushrock (and mushrap) may have peaked—there are plenty of recent models for clear messaging and decent enunciation, plus two minutes a song is about optimal for streaming revenue.
George Pasles: The best songs I find every year are always decades old, but of course they’re new to me. So this year, my favorite new songs are simple bubblegum pop numbers written for a late ‘60s cartoon called Cattanooga Cats:
Paula Carino: Music saved lives and sanity this year, so go easy on it.
Brad Krumholz (Best Live Show You Saw In 2020): ALAS.
All my life, I’ve been an enthusiastic book-reader. I’ve covered most of the classic kids’ stuff and plenty of the longer (but certainly no better) novels designed for grown-ups. While there are some famous movies I’ve missed, I think I’ve watched most of the celebrated ones. I never got into superhero comics, but I’ve been attentive to most of the other exercises in sequential art that have penetrated mass consciousness.
Yet the stories I remember best are always from records. The ones that are right there for me, the ones that I keep, perpetually, at the forefront of my mind, are the tales that have been told to me through the medium of the 45+ minute album. I don’t have to rummage through the mental stacks to retrieve The Final Cut; that’s part of my bloodstream now. De La Soul Is Dead, Arthur, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Whip-Smart, Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws, Scarlet’s Walk: these are the tales I know best. If you want me to remember something – details and themes, colors and character voices – the surest way to make an impression is by singing it at me.
Maybe this seems wrong to you. Instinctively, it seems wrong to me. Randy Newman’s Land Of Dreams contains only a tiny fraction of the words, voices, and characters in Gravitys Rainbow. Why is Randy’s story so much more present to my thoughts? Why did it penetrate my consciousness and become part of the frame through which I see the world? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why can I “see” the characters and scenarios elaborated on the first Rickie Lee Jones album so much clearer than those in The Deer Hunter, especially given that I never saw them at all?
After more than four decades of this, I’m forced to conclude that this is simply how my noggin works. There are millions of music listeners – including many who live for the rock – who aren’t particularly concerned about the relationship between Randy’s side-one observations of New Orleans and his side-two examination of Los Angeles. If they want a tale of two cities, they’ll break out the Dickens. The fate of Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid and the Prince Among Thieves doesn’t trouble them. Music is to dance to, to sing along to, to feel inspired by; pop, with its strict formal rules, its metered verses repetitive choruses, might seem like an awkward carrier of plot and setting.
Yet it does occur to me that the man who broke the ground we all stand on – I mean the master, progenitor, and universal teacher Chuck Berry – was also pop’s greatest storyteller. Chuck brought his narrative imagination to life in fast, gutsy, broad-stroke sketches that, in their execution, evoked the roar of the internal combustion engine and acceleration of the automobile on the open road. He introduced figures in two-minute songs that remain as vivid to listeners now as they were when he wrote them. The mythology with which he invested his 45s is our heritage – our folklore, as a certain descendent might say. Storytelling may not be the point of the pop-rock project, but it was there at the inception, and it has always been its animating spirit.
But three acts of visionary storytelling stood out for me. The first one I’ll mention isn’t on the list below, and that’s because even though it was made by a pop star, it isn’t a pop record. Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grasswas marketed (and just barely that) as an anthology of Lana Del Rey’s poetry, and if that’s all it was, it would likely have been every bit as dreadful as you’ve heard it is. But that’s not what it is. She calls it poetry because Lana Del Rey is the sort of person who refers to her writing as “my poetry”, and Elizabeth Grant never breaks character. Violet is actually a collection of interrelated short stories set in a specific place at a dangerous time: Southern California, during the worst of the wildfires, Since it’s all narrated by Lana Del Rey, it’s mystical, absurdly sincere, busy with name-drops, and obsessive about romantic autonomy and artistic integrity. Yet as airy as the protagonist makes it seem, Lana Del Rey is as determined as a detective to get the details right. She sticks pins into the map and reads local landmarks into the record, and she’s always careful to contextualize her personal struggles within the larger story of a “paradise” (greater L.A.) that’s in genuine peril. When she tells herself to “check date” about a photograph of Jim Morrison, you know she will. The specifics matter; names are important; the flames threaten to wipe out the capital of the dream industry, and with it, the most creative, compassionate part of the American mind. There’s a reason why Violet plays like a whisper in your ear. Lana Del Rey knows you’re dreaming. She wants you to wake up, gently, and remember.
The rigorousness of Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass – so easy to miss on first listen! – is worth celebrating. But what impresses me most about the album is the way in which Elizabeth Grant uses an established character to explore ideas and feelings that don’t always fit comfortably in her pop songwriting. In order to tell the story of Violet, Elizabeth has to detach Lana from her defining device: melody. Although I learned long ago never to underestimate this writer, I’m astonished by the skill with which she performed this extraction. The application of a character who was originally dismissed as two-dimensional to subject matter as deep as this reminds me of the development of Philip Marlowe, who began as an archetypical tough guy, and who, by the time of The Long Goodbye, had become a vehicle for the author’s reflections about Los Angeles and American Dream-making. Lana Del Rey, another archetype, has some not-dissimilar observations to make about the state of Californian consciousness and the steady worsening of the national predicament. Raymond Chandler had the luxury to retreat to a private life once the writing day was done. We don’t afford our contemporary pop stars the same sort of detachment. Lana Del Rey is who Elizabeth Grant must be, 24/7, or we’ll stop hearing the voice on her records as authentic. She’s responded by making Lana’s face, and voice, a conduit to a different kind of story. The more you concentrate on Violet, the more it all coalesces – the more you feel the heat and hear the crackle of the flames as they consume the houses in the Malibu hills.
* * * * * * *
Serengeti uses spoken-word elements on Ajai, too: there are moments when the rap cadences stops, and the emcee begins talking to you like a sportscaster, giving play-by-play accounts of the characters’ actions. Luckily, he’s matched throughout with music from producer Kenny Segal, who provides moment-to-moment reinforcement of the storytelling with every beat he can manipulate and every sample he can pull out of the crate. That makes Ajai an underground hip-hop instaclassic in spite of itself – one with dazzling rapping by Serengeti, no matter what guise he’s wearing at any given moment, and vibrant, ever-shifting soundscaping by Segal, who somehow improves on the astonishing work he did on Hiding Places, his collaboration with Billy Woods. Segal provides the punctuation that Serengeti, who is famous for run-on sentences, has never quite had on his prior releases. His intimate understanding of the story, and his acute sensitivity to its emotional resonance, means that there’s never a moment that this complicated story lacks a sonic motor.
On prior sets, Serengeti has rapped as Kenny Dennis, a washed-up, working-class, bratwurst-and-onion-loving Midwestern emcee who missed his shot at the big time, but still harbors dreams of participation in the hip-hop conversation. Kenny narrates the back half of Ajai, which follows a slight uptick in his fortunes prompted by the accidental receipt and resale of an expensive set of designer sneakers. Those shoes were originally bought by the title character, an Indian immigrant and “super-fly guy” obsessed with product drops, and delivered to the wrong address. Ajai is married to an upwardly-mobile medical professional (Serengeti raps, convincingly, in her voice, too) whose exasperation with her husband’s fixations ultimately dooms the relationship. Much of what Ajai does is embarrassing – he messes up the company softball game, he tries to get an epidemiologist interested in a shoe lottery, he leaves his wife at a bistro and searches Paris for a stain remover – but it is all completely, utterly purpose-driven, and Serengeti’s rendering of a mind defined by fashion, exclusivity, social-media verification, and outward appearances is airtight. The story flies by with such dizzying velocity that it’s not immediately clear how deep it goes, or how tightly constructed it is. Once the narrative clicks into place, the Herculean storytelling becomes apparent, and you’re able to fully appreciate this portrait of an entire society going over the cliff in a landslide of collaborations, drops, Balenciaga frames, and other expensive junk.
* * * * * * *
In any other year, Ajai would be my example of outstanding story art and storytelling innovation. But 2020 was the year of Folklore, and Folklore is the best application of intertextuality I’ve ever encountered on a pop album. That’s a big claim, but I don’t believe it’s a particularly controversial one. At the risk of boring Swifties, to whom all of this will be old hat, I want to take a few moments to explain how Folklore works to those who, for some reason or another, still can’t see Taylor Swift as a master storyteller.
The storytelling on Folklore has three components:
There’s a narrative frame. This is narrated by “Taylor Swift”, a woman in love who is, nonetheless, having trouble opening herself up fully to her boyfriend, and wants to understand her own hesitation, and maybe melt some of the autumnal frost around her heart.
There’s a narrative spine. This is the “teen love triangle”, a series of old-fashioned, Costello-worthy cheatin’ songs sung by the three characters involved: James, who has a summer affair with an unnamed girl who we’ll call August, and then asks his old girlfriend Betty for forgiveness. The song “August” is sung by August, “Betty” is sung by James, and then there’s “Cardigan”, which is Betty looking back, ruefully, on the whole sorry thing.
There are side-stories — snapshots and vignettes meant to resonate with the themes of the album and, through the writer’s steady use of motif and recurring imagery, deepen and sometimes complicate our understanding of the four main characters. For instance, early in the album, Taylor Swift tells the story of her summer mansion its prior owner, on “The Last Great American Dynasty”. Rebekah Harkness is described as a mad woman, unruly and presumptuous, and insulated from consequences (but not male disapproval) by her assumed class position. Taylor Swift identifies herself, and her frame-narrator, with Rebekah, and also calls forward to “Mad Woman”, a song designed to underscore the frustration of the two female characters in the teen love triangle.
A particularly cool thing about the design of Folklore: each subsequent listen blurs the line further between categories two and three. Recurring symbols in the side-stories — the closed door atop the doorway, the movie reel, the parked car inviting the cheater to get in for a ride — links the vignettes with the story of betrayal at the heart of the record. Is that James in “This Is Me Trying”, still on Betty’s front step, still begging for absolution? Is this a glimpse into his mind, or are we just meant to understand how common this gesture is? What about “Illicit Affairs” — is that August repeating a self-destructive dynamic with another man who’ll never be hers? Or is this just the story of a hundred thousand Augusts, in a hundred thousand relationships, each one banging their heart against a stone wall, each one rendered abject by our collective assumptions about the motivations of “other women”, each man’s bad habits forgiven?
I’m a male human, as far as I can tell (more on that in a subsequent essay); I’ve heard Folklore and, alas, I do feel seen. There have certainly been times when I’ve acted like James does: jealous of Betty’s innate sexual power, acting out stupidly in order to remind myself that I might be have some power of my own, on my knees, begging for another chance, eager to separate my lover from all her “stupid friends” in order to better control the circumstances of our relationship. One of the strengths of Folklore is that Taylor Swift manages to make James sympathetic and identifiable, even as she’s raking him over the coals, and making it clear, once you’ve put the story together, that there are terrible and destructive consequences to his casual actions. August, too, is given some of the record’s most rapturous moments, and we’re invited to understand that her desire, however illicit, is worthy of respect and maybe even celebration.
But insofar as Betty is a proxy for the frame narrator, this is her story, and it turns on the central question of the set: does she relent and open the door? Does she let James back in? Stopped at a streetlight, do they kiss in the car again? Or is Betty left with the stupid sweater and a reputation for iciness? Diabolically, Taylor Swift renders “Betty” in the style of her early records: James is meant to sound humble and ingratiating, and all the world loves a love story. But innocence, she’s implying, is just another strategy. James tells her he’s only seventeen and doesn’t know anything; Betty replies that when you’re young, it’s assumed that you know nothing. Betty knows better, and so do you. By the end of the record, when the frame narrator lets her boyfriend through the door, it’s neither a moment of triumph nor surrender. It’s a small victory, but a significant one, won over corrosive forces, with implications for everybody who’d like to fall, and stay, in love.
This is not an idiosyncratic reading of the text. The artist, you may have noticed, has a few fans, and they put all of this together with impressive speed. Those who mourn the death of close reading have never been to a Taylor Swift concert. Her words matter deeply to her listeners, and that should give hope to all fans of all writing, across all disciplines. Great players make great plays, the sage Jeff Van Gundy once said, and what he meant by that was that the viewer should never be surprised when Michael Jordan wins the game with a miracle shot. Taylor Swift, I hope we can all see by now, is one for the ages, and would have been a Hall of Famer even if she hadn’t pivoted back to linear storytelling on Lover and completed that pivot with her pair of titanic folk-rock albums in 2020. There are those who’ll tell you that Evermore is the better set, and I’m not going to fight them, because Evermore is fantastic, and it contains plenty of great narrative tricks of its own. It doesn’t have the fearsome coherence of Folklore, though. Given a choice, I’m always going to ask for the bedtime story — even when the bedtime story was written, explicitly, to give me some restless sleep.
Unless you’re a Nashville country fanatic, Taylor Swift introduced herself to you with a song about an older woman remembering what it was like to be a teenager. This act of imaginative exertion was made when she was, herself, a teen: she voiced an older woman giving love advice to someone not unlike the girl she then was. Even then, it was apparent that she was interested in playing with time, looking through telescopes and mirrors and making up characters, examining how romance might persist in a dangerous world. She set out to write love stories, and if her latest ones can’t be resolved as easily as Juliet just saying yes, she’s no less compelled by the prospect of romantic attraction now than she ever was. She’s now twice times fifteen, but the proposition is still the same: when someone tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them. What you do with that belief is up to you. And what matters most is whatever happens next.
Traditionally, I use this space to write something political. It’s part of my brand, and I’ve been assured by several editors that personal branding is indispensable to the modern writer. I’ve got to admit, though, that I’m not really feeling it this year. I thought the Capitol rioters were a bunch of yahoos, and therefore no more interesting than the next gang of hooligans. They had an opportunity to do something really destructive, and therefore scarily consequential, and they blew it; as far as I’m concerned, that’s the entirety of the story. They’re never going to get a wide-open shot like that again, thank goodness. QAnon is incredibly stupid, and its proliferation has ruined conspiracy theory, which used to be shadowy and spy-like, and now just feels like empty calories for bored senior citizens. Trump’s board position has been deteriorating from the moment he caught the coronavirus, and I see no reason why that will change. There’s a very good chance that American politics will go back to being dull, a niche interest for nerds, and this, I believe, would be a welcome development.
But I do have one politics-adjacent thing I’d like to get off my chest, and I’m going to do it right here. Every time a newscaster, or even a peer, places an American politician on a left-right spectrum, I throw up a little in my mouth. It’s not that I oppose the ordinal classification of human beings who are straining to be two-dimensional; that’s fine, honestly. But as people who take discourse and syntax seriously, I think we have to be more scrupulous about the terms we use and their accidental effects.
For starters, think about the hand you’re favoring right now, for the serious business of scrolling through this message or paging through your phone. If you’re like ninety per cent of humanity, you’re a righty. Outside of championship bullpens, those who favor their left hand are pretty rare. When we call ourselves leftists, on some unconscious level, we’re drawing on this association: we’re already accepting that we’re a minority, and that we’ll always be outnumbered and outvoted by those boxers who lead with their right. Then there are the dictionary definitions of the words: right is synonymous with correct, or proper, or squared away. We also talk about rights, and these are good things, natural things we’ve all fought for and like to defend. The right has pleasant connotations.
By contrast, there’s the left behind, warmed-over leftovers, the left hand of darkness, garbage left in the gutter after the street sweeper comes by. As every beginning etymologist knows, sinister is Latin for left. Gauche is French for left. You catch my drift. Left equals bad, and always has. It bugs the heck out of me that people who generally argue for a fair and egalitarian distribution of power (not that this has ever exactly described me, but I do have my sympathies) have embraced this particular bit of anti-marketing.
Mostly, I hate the imposition of European nomenclature on an American society where it has never fit. Many so-called European leftists have a misty vision of the French Revolution and the Left Bank and the revolutions of 1848; it’s all hooey and less than half understood, but it’s part of their heritage, so you can’t begrudge them their terminology. The vast majority of Americans couldn’t tell you much about any of that. There are enough empty terms in American public life; we don’t need to muddy the waters with additional meaningless descriptors. Our politics aren’t rocket science. In America, we have Democrats and we have Republicans. If you can’t figure out what that means by now, you probably shouldn’t be talking about politics at all.
Kacy Hill’s Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again. I also want to acknowledge the accidental relevance of Hotspot. The Pet Shop Boys could be referring to a trendy nightclub, an erogenous zone, or a placed where armed conflict or infectious disease is breaking out. Tennant and Lowe always know where we’re headed.
Best Album Cover
Check out Dua Lipa in the car above, eyes down, big moon egging her on. You know it’s a summer night, because he shirt is unbuttoned and provocatively tied, and the convertible top is down. She’s put some thought into the ensemble: the lipstick, the big earrings, the white gloves with the rings over the covered fingers. But what’s she thinking? She’s probably heading out – she’s a little too smartly attired and unsmudged to be returning from the club. It’s pretty clear that she’s looking for adventure, but there’s something hesitant and contemplative about her expression, too. Superficially, she’s driving a signifier of the past (the vintage auto) into the future, symbolized by the road ahead. Her determination is clear, but she doesn’t exactly look unswervable. Is she really the “female Alpha” she tells us she is? Or do we just have a tricky time recognizing what that might look like?
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Straight across Folklore and Evermore: the photos, the clothing, the layout, the now-customary from-me-to-you notes from the star, the woodsy, throwback font choice. Cabins in the woods are pretty dull places. There’s nothing to do in there but sweat the details, and whittle away.
Most Welcome Surprise
Because his imagination is vast and insular, and his capacity for self-amusement is enormous, Paul McCartney was a good quarantine companion. But I didn’t expect him me with a new release that’s better than anything he’s done since Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. At 80, his voice is shot, but he still knows how to use it to generate some beauty and mystery. “Deep Deep Feeling” was one of the year’s weirdest and most profound songs, and it came from a guy who is far weirder and more profound than his jovial public image might lead the uninitiated to believe.
Ice Cube. That hurt a thousand times more than Kanye, and a million times more than Lil Wayne, who was clearly just sniffing out a pardon. I don’t care how much money he lost on that stupid basketball league; there’s no excuse for cozying up to wannabe oligarchs. By getting in bed with the authorities, Cube blew a hole in the greatest dis track ever recorded, which turned on the line that emcee felt the need to reiterate for emphasis: I never have dinner with the President. Remember: he wasn’t just running down Eazy-E. He was making a declaration of autonomy meant to apply to all artists and all independents. It doesn’t matter what people in power promise you; you don’t need it, and you certainly don’t need them. You stand on your own and you never compromise. And yes, it’s pathetic that a weenie like me has to explain what it means to be gangsta, but we can’t depend on Cube to do it anymore. He abdicated that responsibility entirely. If I look stupid doing so, blame him: he drove me to it. Oh, and I never have dinner with the President. No matter who that President might be.
I Disagree covers about nine thousand genres in its first eight minutes. Poppy, who didn’t demonstrate much flexibility on the microphone on her prior albums, never makes an errant step. Touring is an incredible thing. It’s still the quickest way to turn a lump of coal into a diamond.
Album That Closes Most Strongly
Hit To Hit, by 2nd Grade. In accordance with college rock tradition, the final fifth of the album contains the wistful reflections, the eager anticipations of summers to come, and some casual (but genuine) observational poetry. The members of Camper Van Beethoven would nod in recognition.
Megan Thee Stallion. This was the easiest question on the Poll for me. I continue to be astonished by the number of rhyme styles and flows she’s able to yoke together on Good News: Dirty Southern, Golden Age NYC, quick-spitting Midwestern, classic Southern Californian, even a little hyphy for good measure. But no matter how deep into the crates she digs, she remains identifiably Houstonian, and thoroughly contemporary, too. Her broad record collection, her deep connection to history, her tart tongue, her charisma, her battle-of-the-sexes subject matter, and her taste for violence all remind me of another favorite Texan vocalist of mine: Miranda Lambert. Country and hip-hop remain the two faces of the same golden American coin.
Best vocal harmonies
“Marjorie,” from Evermore.
Best bass playing
Robert Earl Thomas of Widowspeak, and the cast of thousands who cut those tremendous, disco-ready bass parts on Future Nostalgia.
Best live drumming
I want to vote for Mighty Max, but I can’t front: the answer is Matt Uychich of The Front Bottoms. At least I’m keeping it Jersey.
Best drum and instrument programming
Kelly Lee Owens
Best synth playing/programming
Kevin McDowell of the Australian prog-jazz group Mildlife. Everybody in that band is a genuine virtuoso.
Best piano, organ, or electric piano playing
Roy Bittan, over all the imitators.
Best guitar playing
Charlie Hunter on Lo Sagrado, with special recognition given to Devon Williams for his gorgeous textures on A Tear In The Fabric. That would have been a good answer for Best Album Title and Best Album Cover, too. It’s just so understated that it rarely comes to mind, but when it’s on, it’s a delight.
Best instrumental solo
Poppy’s guitarist on “Don’t Go Outside” and “Bloodmoney”. No instrumental credits in the liner notes, alas.
Andy Shauf played everything on The Neon Skyline, including more clarinet than I’ve heard on a record since the heyday of chamber pop.
Kenny Segal. See yesterday’s essay for further discussion. My single favorite production of the year was “Tis The Damn Season”, from Evermore. That’s the one where the icicle-dripping sound that the National dudes developed for Taylor Swift meets the storytelling in the most satisfying, totalizing, vision-generating way. I can see the frost clouding the windows, and the white steeple of the Presbyterian Church across the street, and smell the wood smoke. Just thinking about that song makes me reach for a blanket. Job well done, dudes from the National.
Sevdaliza’s Shabrang. When I wrote in the Abstract that Phil Collins had invented trip-hop with “In The Air Tonight”, I was just kidding. Sorta.
I’m not sure anybody moved melodies across chords with the grace and majesty of Maria McKee. You probably didn’t notice, and that’s because that record is so bombastic that you blushed. Yes, you blushed so hard that it was audible, and palpable, and your burning cheeks set the piano ablaze. If you can fight through that initial embarrassment, songwriting riches await. I promise.
P.F. Rizzuto award for best lyrics over the course of an album
I’ve come to see Lupe Fiasco’s House as a magnificent tightrope walk: a quick but oh-so-potent album about how artists might possibly navigate capitalism and oppression and keep their creative spirits intact. Lupe neither indulges in the upwardly mobile materialism that defines so much of g-rap, nor does he cast stones at it the way, say, Homeboy Sandman does on Don’t Feed The Monster. Instead he looks to carve out spaces within consumer culture for people with creative spirits to operate. It’s the same affirmative impulse that’s always prompted him to write in a laudatory fashion about various subcultures – i.e., “Kick Push” – and upon reflection, I think it’s kinda beautiful, and very, very hip-hop. He’s not stupid about it – he knows how predatory the world is. He sees all the dangers. But his advice to the aspiring model on “SLEDOM” is sincere, and his examination of the dynamics of the sneaker-drop line on “SHOES” is an inspiring and necessary counterpoint to Ajai. Thanks, Lupe, for reminding me again that it’s all one big and continuous argument, and the only really irresponsible thing you can do is stop speaking.
A word about the amazing clip for the “Toosie Slide”
First we’re shown Toronto, deserted. Drake lets us know that it’s 10:20 p.m.; under normal conditions, these streets would be choked with cars and pedestrians. For a moment, you think it’s a special effect. Then the moment passes, and you remember. This isn’t sci-fi: this is a real life disaster we’re living through, one that’s still unfolding all around us, outcome indeterminate. Then Drake takes you inside his mansion. He’s masked, dressed in a hood and a camouflage jacket, and the contrast between his attire and the sterile nouveau riche opulence of the interior of his house is striking. Everything looks fragile, smash-and-grab-able – bottles of expensive whiskey, designer lightbulbs in gaudy chandeliers, trophies behind glass cases. You know Drake; you know he’s won all of those awards; you may have even watched him receive them. Furthermore, you know why he’s masked – it’s the same reason why you’re masked. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the sense that you’re watching a home invasion. He’s daring you to imaginatively dispossess him – challenging you to accept him as the rightful owner of all of this grotesque and conspicuous wealth. He asks you: why do you see me as an interloper? Have I not done enough for you to prove to you that I belong? Is that not my profile on that platinum disc of Nothing Was The Same on the wall? When he does the ridiculous TikTok dance between two KAWS statues, on the marble floor of his foyer, decked out with LEDs and the alarm system flashing in the distance, it’s all so incongruous that the pathos of the present moment comes crashing in on you like a battering ram. Even the fireworks display in the backyard is no release, because he’s got no one to share it with. Lonesome cousin Drake, thematizing his solitude and ostracism once again, chilling you to the bone with an ice cold clip, shot on a cold night in a cold city, in the midst of a cold, cold time.
I Disagree still shows up in my nightmares, “Bite Your Own Teeth” in particular. Poppy’s entire body of work — with and without Titanic Sinclair — is one ongoing horror movie. True, sometimes it’s funny as hell. Good horror movies often are.
I was going to give this one to Morrissey, since he sees no point in being nice, and boy howdy does he ever act out those words. But Of Montreal‘s “Don’t Let Me Die In America” is such an unrelenting sneer directed at the unfashionable quadrants of the country that it’s liable to kick off another Capitol riot. Not that I don’t agree with Kevin, and rather deeply at that. But then I’m an elitist scumbag, too.
Homeboy Sandman’s “Alone Again” and Open Mike Eagle’s “The Black Mirror Episode,” and for the same damn reason, because they’re the same damn song. Neil Sedaka said it in ’62: breaking up is hard to do.
I’m impressed by Taylor Swift’s ability to squeeze value out of all of her dicy collaborators. She managed to get two semi-coherent verses out of Justin Vernon, which something I didn’t think was possible once. I thought he was completely committed to the garbled robot act. It helps that they’re all Springsteen fans/imitators to one degree or another: they have that appreciation of “Two Faces Have I” and “Tougher Than The Rest” in common. They knew what they were shooting for. But mostly I just think that the presence of an intelligent and talented woman tends to make guys get their shit together. I know it’s the only thing that ever works for me.
Honestly, it’s the Hot Country Knights. It’s a parody act, but they really do nail the sound and feel of ’90s country.
Crummy album you listened to a lot anyway
Khruangbin‘s Mordechai. That bass player is really good. It’s empty calories otherwise: junk food in the international terminal at JFK.
Album that felt the most like an obligation to get through and enjoy
Caroline Rose‘s new one. I loved Loner so much – it was #5 for me in 2018 – and I kept searching, hard, for the through-story on Superstar that I was told was there. I got lost in the synthesizer overdubs every time. It didn’t seem like Caroline was the sort of artist who’d fall into the mushrock trap, but fall she did, and there’s only so much fighting the listener can do to pull a past favorite out of the tar pit.
I don’t even know what language Idd Aziz is singing in on Umoja, but I definitely comprehend that organ sound.
Most consistent album
Mission Bells by the Proper Ornaments. Forty minutes of pure, uninterrupted lite-psychedelic swirl.
Most inconsistent album
Hey Clockface. After a pair of late career triumphs, Elvis gets scattershot: a few spoken word pieces, a couple of scruffy rave-ups, some old-man jazz, and a couple of killer ballads (“We Are All Cowards Now”, “The Whirlwind”) that are worth the price of the album. Also, I love “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”, a story about the demise of a gossip columnist that could only have been written by Elvis, and which reminds us that an aging king still beats the heck out of a callow knave.
Troye Sivan‘s In A Dream. It works well as a brief encounter, but Troye is in the zone throughout, and it’s hard not to wish that he’d extended that studio stay and knocked out a few more tracks.
Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better that you initially thought it was
Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios). I wanted reggaeton fire from Kali Uchis, and was a little bummed out to get a bunch of zoned-out Bond themes instead. What I have come to realize is that they’re really good Bond themes. Impeccably sung, too. I’m going to be listening to this one all year, I’m sure.
Album that was the most fun to listen to
How could it be anything but Future Nostalgia?
Thing you feel cheapest about liking
American Love Story. Butch Walker, I love you forever, but everything about this rock opera of yours is beneath you – including the conciliatory politics. You don’t live in Rome, Georgia anymore for a good reason. You wanted to get the heck away from those people, and you were right to. You knew it then, and you still know it now: they’re not going to come to their senses.
Morrissey on I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the album. I found some of those Smiths albums pretty alienating, too, wonderful as they are. I’m pretty sure I would’ve been in that disco he wanted to burn down.
Most sympathetic or likable perspective over an album
Peter Oren‘s The Greener Pasture. Peter understands that if you’re going to do a critique of social media, half-measures won’t do. You’ve got to go all the way with it.
Album you learned the words or music to most quickly
In Sickness & In Flames
Album you regret giving the time of day to
Every time I listen to Grimes, I feel gross for days afterward. I warned you all years ago, people. Moreover, I warned you about Ariel Pink. Pay attention to me, and save yourself embarrassment down the line.
Young upstart who should be sent down to the minors for more seasoning
That falsetto outro on “House Of A Thousand Guitars” is pretty deadly. Sorry, Boss.
Worst rapping and Worst lyrics by a good lyricist who should have known better
Will Toledo on “Hollywood Makes Me Want To Puke”.
Worst lyrics, period
“Wine, Beer, Whisky” by Little Big Town. I call a moratorium on country artists directly addressing the corporate logos on alcohol bottles. It’s embarrassing for everybody. Jose Cuervo is not your friend, Ms. Fairchild.
Most unsexy person in pop music
Tekashi 6ix9ine has been trying very hard to win this category. I’m going to be a sport and give it to him.