another links page! i’m mainly doing this because instagram doesn’t play well with outgoing links. also, instagram irritates me. i know: social media is a professional responsibility. still, i’d much rather have you come here. i am my own social network.
anyway. the calendar is about to turn to october, and the studio tour is about to mash up with art fair 14c and send us all into a tizzy. especially me! i will fight through my tizzy and cover as much of it as i can. but before we get to the big blowout in jersey city, we have some unfinished business to attend to:
for the wonderful nj arts (which you should be reading every day), i covered the ann trauben and mona brody shows at the watchung arts center.
i also had this to say about the current show at the zimmerli, which, like many zimmerli shows is a piece of new jersey arts history:
for the indispensable jersey city times, i rounded up some of the openings and closings happening this busy weekend. my column includes katelyn halpern’s disaster place at smush, andrea mckenna’s spectral disintegration show at art house, caridad kennedy’s surreal acrylics and watercolors at saint peter’s, the latest at imur gallery, kirkland bray at the artwall, and a few other events worthy of your attention:
if you missed my review of the slow selfie show at novado gallery, here it is:
okay — before the fair kicks off, expect reactions to the new gallery shows in montclair, valerie huhn’s opening in princeton, maybe a few other things? maybe your exhibition? keep bugging me.
thank you for making our return to the sugar factory such a happy occasion. more rock soon. but now: a truckload of art. and reporting.
I trust you are coming to the Return to the Sugar Factory on Friday night at 8 p.m. But — perhaps you are wondering how to get to the new theater. In order to rock, is a trek into the mysterious, uncharted interior of Jersey City required?
Fear not. This is a very easy show to get to! Art House Productions is only a block from the Grove Street PATH. No matter which PATH line you take from NYC, Grove will be the second stop in New Jersey. It’s the main station dedicated to Downtown Jersey City. When you reach the station, exit at the eastern end of the platform. You will emerge reborn from a cylindrical glass chrysalis on to Marin Boulevard. Walk north toward Morgan Street. 345 Marin Blvd. will be on the left — between Morgan and Bay.
If you are coming by car, there are quite a few underground lots near the train station. For instance, there is an SP+ Parking at the corner of Marin and Columbus. You could also try your luck with street parking and wander about, getting ice cream and pizza and other regional delicacies.
If you are coming from Jersey City or nearby, you are already familiar with our arcane ways. These instructions will be old hat to you. Do not become impatient or enraged. Here is a poster by BARC the Dog and Camp Tokar at Wonderbunker Studios to get you absurdly excited. I know I am.
This is a free show for Jersey City Fridays, so there’ll be lots of worthy things to do all over town. We are not telling you to ignore these other things. We are just hoping to electrify your itinerary.
Since outgoing links are difficult to include in an Instagram post, I’m just going to drop these here. For starters, you want to get a seat at our twentieth anniversary celebration of Shootout at the Sugar Factory, don’t you? I bet you do. It’s the first rock show at the new Art House Productions theater, it’ll feature slides by photographer Dorie Dahlberg and projections by Frank Ippolito, and a track-by-track full band reanimation of the second and fritziest Tris McCall album. This is a Jersey City Friday show — 8 p.m. on September 8 — and that means it’s free. But you’ll still want to reserve a seat before they’re all taken:
When in Jersey City, you might get hungry. That’s been known to happen. If you’re a non-carnivore like me, you’ll want to consult by Vegetarian Option series of trip reports/reviews of acclaimed restaurants for Jersey City Times. Here’s what I’ve covered so far:
If you’ve attended services and done some wild worship in the club, you already know. Nevertheless it bears repeating like all good things do: everything you see and hear at a pop show derives from the African-American church. That means the rhythms, the arrangements, the hooks and melisma and harmonies, the cosmic stakes, the relationship between the performer and the audience, the showmanship, the physicality, the beauty, and the close encounters with God in the infinite ways He might be approached. All of those techniques for getting over on the pop congregation were honed in the pulpits and the pews by true believers and half-believers and those just along for the ride; travelers all, there in fancy dress, participants in a true culture.
The best album of 2022 owes massive debts to forms of electronic music that haven’t always gotten much critical respect: Detroit and Chicago house, New Orleans bounce, candy-painted Houston hip-hop, Hi-NRG, throwaway pop-disco and ephemeral white label techno, pure strip club and drag show jams, the funkier edge of the new wave, and the kind of lovable everybody-on-the-floor business that pours from the speakers at the sweaty Fire Island beach bar. The producers have been open about their antecedents, and for good reason — part of the project here has to do with a reconstruction of the lineage of African-American music, and demonstrating how much creativity there’s always been lurking at the bottom of these booty grooves. Journalists have duly followed the breadcrumb trails back to their immediate sources, just as the star and her co-workers expected us to do in a year that was distinguished by records of great danceability.
But if that’s where the investigation stops, then we’re only uncovering the superficial part of the story. Because if you talk to those house and hip-hop producers, those funk musicians and those sine-wave explorers on the synthesizer, and especially the singers whose charisma and sexuality make the pop enterprise go, you learn that almost all of them had their early musical education in the church. That goes for the bandleaders who mimic the cadences and strain to capture the command of preachers, instrumentalists who endeavor to whip ’em up and leave ’em in the proper state to receive the holy spirit, and the soloists who pour it all out, backed by a choir of the dedicated, each member committed to the collective effort but individual in the site of God and the audience. We pop fans thrill to singers who follow the example of Whitney Houston, daughter of Cissy Houston, the Minister of Music at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark; she who took the torch from Aretha Franklin, daughter of Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, pastor at New Bethel Baptist in Detroit. This is our heritage. Take the church away from pop, and it would be as cold and lifeless as the music made in hypersecular societies. We would be stuck with the imitators, the contrivers, the stiff and unmotivated, alienated from the driving force and purpose that only religious inspiration brings.
This is what we mean when we say that a piece of music has no soul. We mean that it has drifted so far from pop’s underpinnings in the African-American church that no matter how well it’s performed, it’s missing the essential element that raises the stakes to the universal level. We mean that the ecstatic experience of communal worship which is central to the church participation isn’t present. “Soul,” as a genre handle, described the application of church style to secular subject matter: mostly sexual romance, but also some sociopolitical heat for the topical dancers, too. When you’re really doing soul, when you’re knee-deep in it, you realize that there’s no separation between the hymnal and the pop charts; that it’s all the same damned stuff. It’s pain and pussy, power, struggle, longing, the joy of being alive, and what it means to be a human being on a planet as alien as earth. My favorite album, delivered with absolute conviction, is all about sex and ass and carnality, from the swish of the fan on the club floor to the testimonials to the unbreakability of the soul to the last delicious drop of honey from a lover’s body. It is, in other words, sacred music.
It’s also music made for a congregation. In the year of the dreaded pandemic project designed by the quarantined auteur trapped in the solitary sweat-lodge of the mind, here was an album that said no to all of that. The bigger the crowd of people listening, the better it sounded. Here is a record to score your dance-off, your disco freakout, your LBGTQ rally, your church social, your rapture — an album that acknowledged that the most intimate moments often happen amidst a crowd. Yes, it was electronic; what’s that to Jesus, Lord of all things, including alternating current? As if your modern God doesn’t carry a laptop? The better to capture and digitally preserve the soul claps and the thunderous stomps and group shouts, and the choir, even if the choir was nothing more than the star harmonizing with herself. Because who, really, could touch the hem of her robe?
So there it was: devotional music, religious music, gospel for those who aren’t afraid of machine beats, and who know how to locate and express the holiness that exists between two (or more) people who are getting it on. It’s a record that shared more with African-American church music than sound, inspiration, and simple, everyday transcendence. It also shared ecclesiastical strategies of presentation, too.
For instance, there were those omnivorous interpolations familiar to those who frequent church, huge chunks of familiar music brought into the infinite playlist, whomped up and reframed and yoked to the service of the preacher’s charisma. The nonbelievers, few though they were, didn’t get this: why the heck are the producers importing material from Soul II Soul, Moi Renee, Twinkie Clark, Right Said Fred and fucking RuPaul and acting like it’s theirs? Those who have stood in the cathedral in the middle of a raucous service know better. They know that the music does not belong to these producers any more than it belongs to Right Said Fred. All music belongs to God. It is all under celestial copyright, and He may put His melodies on the lips of his chosen instruments. He may bend Big Freedia to his purposes if he sees fit. As His earthly emissaries, it is up to the ministers of music to get the congregation singing as one, and then slap us upside the head with something revelatory, and then get back to the roots of rhythm, and then blast off to the stratosphere, back and forth, never stopping, always taking us higher and higher, showing glimpses of the gates of heaven, keeping our sorry asses on track.
Christianity is a temporal religion. It’s based on linear narratives — narratives that unfold over time. Those narratives have been interpreted and reified over the centuries, but no matter how purely their theological essence is distilled, you can’t take causality out of the faith. Things are the way that they are because of consequential events that have reverberated across the cosmos: the fall of man, the incarnation, the passion, the coming judgment. We even give them dates when we can. Unlike other religions that wallow in timelessness, Christianity is an arrow.
To reflect this, church music is developmental music. Ideas introduced at the beginning of the hymn will change and build and achieve greater harmonic significance as the performance goes on. Melodies will twist and eddy into complex harmonies, the rhythmic intensity will build, and fall back, and build again. Each seed sprouts. All great gospel is like this. I once heard Bishop Hezekiah Walker shepherd the Love Fellowship Choir through “Every Praise” for a half an hour, astounding me and leaving me as breathless as I’d be after a charge up a hill. Every time I thought he was done, he’d find a new gear or follow a new rhythmic or melodic path.
The album that will define 2022 for millions is a similar beast. No compositional element is left unexpressed. Phrases that seem extraneous or merely decorative will suddenly achieve centrality a stanza later. Beats start as percussive but soon carry tonal information relevant to the harmonies, and harmonies that at first feel simple intensify to near-supernatural richness. Every breeze becomes a whirlwind. In this way the star teaches us to open our ears and listen, and open our hearts to catch the spirit. In this way, with each entreaty to drop the booty, the star takes us to church.
Some years I try to convince you that a critically reviled project by Max Bemis is the cream of the crop. Sometimes I direct your attention to an extreme outlier in Mike Posner’s discography. This is not such a year. In 2022, I loved the same album that everybody else loved. Given who I am and what I believe in, it might mean something slightly different to me than it does to you, but c’mon, it probably doesn’t. I’m putting it at the top of my list for the same reason you likely did: I heard the rest, and this one took me higher. Way higher; so high that the first time I heard it, my first reaction was that the dancefloor competition ought to pack up their MPCs and go home. Allow me to be the umpteenth writer to say so, and if you stick with me as I post my answers to our annual exercise, you’ll discover I’m not done talking about it. I won’t even apologize for that. An album like this engenders a collective experience, and prompts us to express ourselves in whatever medium we have command over. Certain human beings have terrific voices. Others have terrific asses. Me, I have the Word. Brothers and sisters and beautiful in-betweens, I am here to testify.
Album of the Year
1. Beyoncé — Renaissance
2. The Weeknd — Dawn FM
3. Tim Bernardes — Mil Coisas Invisíveis
4. Natalia Lafourcade — De Todas Las Flores
5. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul — Topical Dancer
6. Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
7. The Beths — Expert In A Dying Field
8. Richard Dawson — The Ruby Cord
9. Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
10. Carly Cosgrove — See You In Chemistry
11. Silvana Estrada — Marchita
12. Denzel Curry — Melt My Eyez See Your Future
13. Sebastián Yatra — Dharma
14. Pusha T — It’s Almost Dry
15. Office Culture — Big Time Things
16. Elvis Costello & The Imposters — The Boy Named If
17. Taylor Swift — Midnights
18. Caracara — New Preoccupations
19. Aaron Raitiere — Single Wide Dreamer
20. Bad Bunny — Un Verano Sin Ti
That’s two from Toronto, two from Veracruz in Mexico, one from Colombia, two from Philadelphia, one from Belgium, one from Brazil, two from New York State, one from Puerto Rico, one from Nashville via Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, one from Costelloland, one from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, one from New Zealand, one from Compton, one from Virginia Beach, one from Kentucky, one from Florida, and a chart-topper from an artist who continues to represent Houston, even as she belongs to the galaxy. We’re spreading it around in 2022. Showbiz: it takes a globe.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you know what kind of a year I had. If you’re reading this and you’re also aware of Abel Tesfaye and The Weeknd, you might wonder why I was messing around with Dawn FM at all. That couldn’t have been good for me mentally, or spiritually, or ethically. Here was an ice cold shower of an album on which the star relentlessly pointed out the ways in which the language we use in pop music shadowed the way we discuss mortality. Asphyxiation, suicide pacts, the steady tick of the clock, murder and sacrifice, frailty, the lure of oblivion: it was all there, set to music so sleek, mechanical, and inevitable that it seemed supernatural, well beyond the sphere of human influence. It was absurdly on the nose, but so, I have learned, is death. The concept was the bardo as a traffic jam where the only entertainment was a lite radio station (and Jim Carrey, of all people), and Tesfaye realized it all with such dead-eyed precision and unswerving commitment to scene-setting that it really did take on the quality of a descent into a synthetic netherworld. The Weeknd has often tried to be scary and come up short, and the legit spookiness of Dawn FM hints at why that was. He’s often sung, ominously, about partying and empty casual sex as a vague cover for deep self-destructive feelings. But his real muse has always been the death drive itself, and this time, he’s finally cut to the chase. This album is the apotheosis of every corrosive idea he’s had since he first gave us the creeps with House Of Balloons, and its relative absence from the year end roundups suggests to me that it scared the fuck out of everybody. Me, I was already frightened, fixated on the transition between being and nonbeing and already half in the tunnel to nowhere that Dawn FM asks us to inhabit. So maybe I was the target audience, and maybe I was particularly susceptible, and maybe my elevation of Renaissance (just barely) over the album I played the most reflected my choice (just barely) of life over death.
Best Album Title
Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Best Album Cover
Topical Dancer. Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul look like two halves of a cell dividing — made of the same substance, but stretching apart and achieving conditional autonomy. For this album at least, they’re still linked, sharing the same bloodstream, finishing each other’s thoughts. Charlotte is the face; Bolis has his back turned to the camera. She’s leaning back and taking a step while he’s steadying himself, and the silly putty figure they make with their elongated arms is a lasso big enough to ensnare the unwary.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
It pleased my pop kid soul that Midnights came in different flavors with different fanservice shots of Taylor on the cover. I got the green one.
Most Welcome Surprise
Good as Two Hands was, I didn’t think that there was enough variation in the Big Thief sound for the group to sustain interest over the course of a double album. Not only did they manage that, but they picked up a sense of humor, too.
Megan Thee Stallion remains one of the very best rappers in the business — a vocalist capable of synthesizing syrupy H-town flow, throwback gangsta rap, hyphy, and old school boom-bap hard rhyme every time she steps to the microphone. That hasn’t changed. This year, though, she retired the grossmusing sex rhymes and applied that voice to earnest material that foregrounded her personal destabilization. All autobiographical specifics aside, her confessional turn meant that you didn’t have to delve too far into the deep structure to recognize that she was rhyming about the same stuff that everybody else was rhyming about. For the first time ever, her verses felt predictable. Even that would have been permissible and maybe even enjoyable if she hadn’t handed Traumazine over to a team of pedestrian beatmakers. I’m reminded of the early-middle stretch of Nas’s career when he wasted strong autobiographical lyrics on motor-free productions that sounded, at best, like they’d been knocked off in an hour, and at worst like outright sabotage. Nas was young and had plenty of time to recover. Megan Thee Stallion is pushing thirty. She’d better keep an eye on that hourglass.
Album That Opens The Strongest
Expert In A Dying Field. This is the best Beths album — the one that finds the right balance between the frantic indiepop of the debut and the meditative mush-leaning sound of Jump Rope Gazers. The first three songs give you everything that makes this band great: indelible melodies, lovelorn lyrics, smart small-combo arrangements, decorative lead guitar, a pinch of Kiwi gloom, romantic fatalism, action and drama and Bananarama, and a tendency to push everything right to the brink of the red without ever giving into the twin temptations of obscurantism and effrontery. After the clamor of “Silence Is Golden” ceases, the best one is still six songs away. That’s “When You Know You Know,” a folk-rock confection with a tune and chord progression worthy of a Finn brother, and and atmosphere as immersive a storm on the Tasman Sea.
Album That Closes The Strongest
If I have one piece of advice today for all my friends who love music, it’s this: get the Tim Bernardes album. Mil Coisas Invisíveis is brilliantly written and shockingly beautiful, and somehow manages to feel like a lost album from 1974 without ever being the least bit annoying about it. It’s all in his neighborly relationship to the microphone, his wizardly command of the string section, his internalization and easy expression of Brazilian rhythm, and his absolute faith in the expressive possibilities of pop melody and performance. The album is in Portuguese, which is, for some reason that I don’t understand, always ten thousand times harder than Spanish to grok; Google Translate is your friend, but even if you just sit with it, you’ll get the gist. A version of Mil Coisas Invisíveis that omitted the last four songs would still make my Top Twenty. But the stretch of the record from “A Balada De Tim Bernardes” to the conclusion finds a perfect middle ground between Robin Pecknold and Caetano Veloso that didn’t previous exist at any latitude I knew, tropical or otherwise. One might say that the album itself engendered the map. Or one might just shut up and listen.
Best Production Over The Course Of A Full Album, and, not so coincidentally, the Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To
You’d think I’d say Beyoncé here, and yeah, that’d be an excellent answer. The seamless integration of samples from African-American drag and ball culture into beats that would play equally well at a campus LBGTQ mixer, a theater opening, a political rally, and a sports stadium is both a remarkable technical feat and a subversive work of smuggling worthy of El Chapo. But I cannot tell a lie: Sebastian Krys made the Impostors sound ridiculously good on The Boy Named If, with every instrument playfully elbowing every other instrument, and every musical gesture tickling the next one in the ribs. It was as if he’d spent his life studying every Elvis Costello album and inhaling all the details, and I wouldn’t know anything about that, nope, no sirree Bob.
Band Of The Year
2022 Album That Wore Out The Quickest
Hold On Baby by King Princess. Lots of good melodies, but those hamfisted Jim Steinman gestures got old in a hurry. When you solicit Taylor Hawkins to play drums on a track, and the whole thing is already so grandiose that it barely registers, you’ve got a problem of scale that needs to be corrected at the fundamental level.
Most Convincing Historical Re-Creation
GIFT, a letter-perfect revival of early shoegaze by a singer-producer with a bright future in studio sound matching if the rock star thing doesn’t work out for him. I’ve seen him live, and I kinda think it’s going to work out.
Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy
Of Montreal’s Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck. Even typing that out feels onerous. I’ve got ninety other albums by this artist (just barely exaggerating here); why wouldn’t I dig the ninety-first? Welp, eventually, even the deepest well runs dry.
Most Consistent Album
Un Verano Sin Ti. On Grammy morning, I thought to myself: a win for Harry Styles will make me happy. A win for Beyoncé will make me happier still. A win for Kendrick and hip-hop will thrill me, and I will be tickled pink if Bad Bunny takes home the Album of the Year trophy for a set recorded entirely in Spanish. Seemed like a long shot, yeah, but it’s hard to argue that any 2022 set was more significant. Un Verano was a Caribbean wave that swelled so high that you could see it from Indiana, and proof positive that merengue, reggaetón, dembow, and all other forms of urbano were going to be major forces in the worldwide marketplace for the foreseeable future. As for Kendrick, I figured that if a rapper couldn’t win Best Album for a set where the songs explicitly apologize for homophobia and praise transgender relatives, it’d never happen. Beyoncé is always a good sport when she’s not stuck in traffic, but sitting in the audience and watching Lizzo and Adele tacitly apologize to her for getting hardware that, on the merits, should rightly go to her has got to be getting old by now. Harry ended up taking the prize, but the consensus seems to be that his performance of “As It Was” was kinda lackluster. Bad Bunny, by contrast, stormed through “Despues De La Playa” in front of eight million people, backed up by a team of cabezudos and a Puerto Rican drumline. That was better than Shakira at the Super Bowl, and more gratifying to a fan of pop en Español than any golden gramophone could ever be.
Most Inconsistent Album
Regina Spektor. Yes, she is as irritatingly off-Broadway as ever, but it’s kind of cool hearing her stick to her guns in the mushrock era, standing by the Pine Sol-scrubbed production and crystal-clear elocution that was always her stock in trade. There used to be a lot of stuff like this; now it’s pretty much just Regina. But… what’s with the eight minute showtune with Moribund The Burgermeister voices? What about “Loveology”, what in the name of Irving Berlin is that?
Album Most Scrupulously Designed To Annoy Me
The Smile. This sounds like the glitch music that gets played during a videogame when your avatar is stuck in a corridor and you can’t advance, and you know the computer is about to crash. Thom Yorke gives me insight into the way other people experience Jordan Pundik or some other deliberately annoying pop-punk vocalist. Instant revulsion: it’s what I feel.
Saddest Turn Of Events
Donda 2. It feels strange to avert our eyes and ears from this. On the other hand, it’s debatable whether Kanye even intended it to be an album. I don’t even know if the version I heard was the real set, or if the parameters of a real set are discernible amidst the fog. Do we need to buy his stem player to fairly assess this? How far must we go to humor him? Kanye is one of the great artists of the 21st Century, or was, but he is presently on social media saying that Elon Musk is a Chinese clone. That’s how he is spending his time — doing Nazi salutes with actual neo-Nazis. He’s gone from sessions with Paul McCartney and Beyoncé to hanging out with the likes of Candace Owens. Kanye’s ingratitude to his backers, supporters, co-workers, and mentors is a matter of public record, and it’s worthy of disapproval. His decision to squander the goodwill of his fanbase by indulging in stupid controversies that are far beneath him is contemptible, and an insult to show business and his formidable artistic gifts. When so many great artists struggle to get the attention they deserve, watching Kanye throw away his platform on a bunch of nonsense has been excruciating. The whole thing is heartbreaking and unprecedented. He’s one of the great conceptual musicians in pop history, and we’re losing him in broad daylight.
Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To
Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive.
Lizzo’s Special. She’s been good in the past, but this one is like Cee-Lo singing over Katy Perry’s worst beats with lyrics by the facilitator of the campus self-empowerment seminar. Hard pass.
Album You Learned The Words To Quickest and also Least Believable Perspective On An Album
Pusha T, “Cocaine’s Dr. Seuss,” is a 45 year old professional entertainer. There are many gray hairs in his beard. I am 100% certain that he does not want to stand on a streetcorner and peddle narcotics. I’m even surer that he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of murdering anybody. It’s awfully fun to indulge in his ludicrous kingpin fantasies, though.
Most Sympathetic Perspective Over The Course Of An Album
Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time. This year’s Carly Rae is not the most consistent Carly Rae: some songs on the new one follow Dua Lipa to the disco only to get lost among the strobe lights. It was also surprising to hear this connoisseur of melody choose uninteresting notes from time to time. But the character comes through beautifully: she’s still an enraptured romantic who finds kindness and trust sexy. They are. This is also a good place to give props to Jensen McRae, whose bildungsroman Are You Happy Now? narrowly missed the albums list above. She writes with great frankness about sexual assault, racial discrimination, and the discovery of her own desires. Gotta love that young adult fiction — at least some of which is bound to be young adult reality.
Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was
Component System With The Auto Reverse. At first the constant quipping bugged me. Once I learned to live with it, I began to appreciate it as an expression of Mike Eagle’s peculiar personality and an irreducible element of a tranche of very good rap songs from a very good rap career. I’m still not sure I find it very funny, though, and sometimes I fear that funny is the point.
Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway
Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make
A cool thing about King’s Disease III is that Nas is utterly relaxed throughout. He neither worries about his status or his age; in a year where other artists were consumed with thoughts of their own mortality, he kicks back, lights up a cigar, pops open a case of vintage flows, and pours it all out into a pyramid of champagne glasses. The way in which he takes his continuing relevance for granted is pretty badass. His late career exercises in male bonding with Chauncey Hollis don’t feel like creative adaptations to his biggest perceived weakness — his occasional struggle to find beats worthy of his lyricism — it just seems like he’s found a friend. I hope they keep it up.
Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make
The Arcade Fire, WE. Somebody needs to grit his or her teeth and pull the plug on this project. Nobody’s getting much out of it anymore except the publicists, and even they didn’t seem to have their hearts in it.
Rookie Of The Year
2022 was the best year for emo music in a long while. Part of the reason it was so gratifying was that the exemplary albums, while recognizably emo, all sounded very different. A Korean guy going by the name of Asian Glow put about about fifty projects that incorporated elements from shoegaze and noise pop. The Pool Kids narrowly missed by Top Twenty with a mainstream-leaning singalong set that played like Paramore three and a half. Oso Oso got weird and fragmented, Joyce Manor revived the spirit of Weezer Blue, Anxious combined borderline-screamo vocals with Beach Boys-style group harmonies with no dissonance whatsoever. A Worcester, Massachusetts band called Peregrine startled me with a record of tremendous raw force, while the superb Caracara of Philadelphia stole tricks from smoothed-out ’90s bands like the Gin Blossoms and The Wallflowers. But my favorite of the bunch was Carly Cosgrove, a trio led by a formidably talented guitarist who spun out barbed, mathy six-string patterns while howling about expectations and various misadventures. Turns out they were recorded by Joe Reinhard of Algernon Cadwallader. This scene may be getting long in the tooth, but its practitioners still take care of their own.
Before we get to my singles list, I’ve got something I really want to clarify. Very often — way too often — progressive rock will be described as “white” music; i.e., music defined by its estrangement from African-American traditions and the roots of culture as they are expressed in such institutions as the black church. I’m ashamed to say that some fans of progressive rock do this. This is not just woefully inaccurate. It’s a calumny against many of the greatest musicians ever to rock, almost all of whom have been vocal about their antecedents and inspirations. It doesn’t withstand the least bit of scrutiny, and though it is borderline insulting to prog rockers to do this, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.
Many of the most significant figures in the history of progressive rock began their careers by playing African-American music and doing it well. Jethro Tull was a blues band for their first two albums; an expansive, imaginative blues band, but pretty authentic nonetheless. Before Tull, Ian Anderson was in a beat group, and Martin Barre, who joined the band for Stand Up, was part of a a pickup combo that supported visiting R&B artists like The Coasters. The young Steve Winwood sounded like Ray Charles, and this was very much on purpose.Keith Emerson had learned how to play boogie-woogie, ragtime, and club organ music a la Jack McDuff, and thus The Nice could, and did, back P.P. Arnold, an American soul singer straight from the gospel tradition. Pink Floyd was famously named after two Carolina bluesmen. It suited them: no matter where they set the interstellar controls, they were always in touch with R&B ground control.
None of these artists did a sudden pivot away from African-American music and toward the hut of Baba Yaga. On the contrary: it was the expansiveness and fundamental mutability of these African-American musical models that allowed progressive rock as we know it to evolve in the first place. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul: this was already recognized as progressive music, music made for chance-takers and radical individuals, if not radical individualists. Innovators were drawn to these styles because they were determined to testify at length. It was a form of pop that was wide enough to accommodate the personal stories of musicians who had, to put it mildly, lots to say. Conventional styles weren’t going to cut it.
Progressive rockers had their own baggage to bring to the station; they all loved the Beatles, who were deeply indebted to American music themselves, and they were aware of The Beach Boys, psychedelia, and California sunshine pop. The music of Yes, for instance, is full of agglomerative collisions — harmonies from the Association plus the rhythms of Bill Bruford, who was schooled in jazz, the Anglican hymnal plus Southern Baptist transcendence, music hall silly business and country boogie like Steve Howe’s back half of “I’ve Seen All Good People.” All of this got stuck together, Katamari-style, in a big rolling blob that approaches the listener at thrilling velocity. You either got swept up in it yourself or you ran like hell. This is exactly how church music works. Snatches from popular songs, bits of classical music, lengthy solos, grand, rafter-rattling climaxes, all of that stuff gets chucked into the groove and yoked together in the service of the Holy Spirit. It’ll take you higher, and lower, and higher again; above all, it’s made to move you.
Progressive rock arose in Britain at the same time that another movement was happening in America: progressive soul. Artists like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Parliament-Funkadelic empire were motivated by the same impulses and employed many of the same compositional and arrangement strategies that prog rockers did. They, too, pushed themselves harmonically and rhythmically, accumulated influences, sought transcendence, and expanded the limits of conventional pop. They, too, were drawn to big concepts and existential themes. Peter Gabriel was much farther from the experience of the Southern church than these artists were, but the logic with which he approached songwriting and performance wasn’t too different. Their influences were similar, too: Peter loved soul music, and that’s always come through on his records.
Peter Gabriel was also unburdened by the legitimacy crises that trouble contemporary artists. Many modern songwriters don’t feel at liberty to borrow shamelessly from traditions they’re not part of, or chuck a riff they pinched from a blues record next to a snatch of Brahms. Hip-hop takes some of the blame for this, since faking the funk has always been a preoccupation of emcees looking to discredit their foes via claims of inauthenticity. I think we do have a bad tendency to apply this retroactively to old masters, and imagine that Neil Pearl lacked the authority or knowledge to incorporate reggae into his drum parts, or that the gospel inflections of mid-period Floyd or Barclay James Harvest are examples of cultural tourism. But Robert Wyatt learned jazz before he learned pop. These guys knew exactly what they were doing, and the fact that they did it so extraordinarily well shouldn’t be held against them. They were reckless with some of their juxtapositions, sure, but chances are, your corner Minister of Music is the same way. He’s not squeamish about appropriation, because he’s on a mission from God. So were the titans of progressive rock — and that’s why the music they’ve made is immortal, and needs no apologies made for it.
Single of the Year
1. Sebastián Yatra & Aitana — “Las Dudas”
2. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Western Wind”
3. Bad Bunny — “Titi Me Pregunto”
4. Pusha T — “Diet Coke”
5. Metric — “Doomscroller”
6. Beyoncé — “Break My Soul”
7. Spiritualized — “The Mainline Song”
8. Julia Jacklin — “I Was Neon”
9. Ezra Furman — “Forever In Sunset”
10. Kiwi Jr. — “The Sound Of Music”
11. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Surrender My Heart”
12. Aaron Raitiere — “Everybody Else”
13. Office Culture — “Elegance”
14. Dayglow — “Second Nature”
15. Drake & 21 Savage — “Jimmy Cooks”
16. Pool Kids — “Arm’s Length”
17. Years & Years — “Sweet Talker”
18. Oso Oso — “Computer Exploder”
19. Amber Mark — “Foreign Things”
20. Joyce Manor — “Gotta Let It Go”
Most Romantic Song
Dayglow’s “Like She Does.” In general, we pro cynics and heartless cretins owe major apologies to Adam Young.
Funniest Songand Song I Needed The Most
Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, “Thank You.” After the last few years of relentless and unwarranted positivity and artists kissing ass in exchange for breadcrumbs, finally somebody was willing to send the whole thing up in the most savage manner possible. Executives and gatekeepers may or may not be necessary, but they’re certainly not your friends. I also love the one where Charlotte dumps the nachos into her bra. Topical Dancer is the sound of that woman (and her BFF) hitting the bullseye over and over.
Most Frightening Song
Everything on Dawn FM.
Most Moving Song
Natalia Lafourcade, “Pajarito Colibrí.” De Todas Las Flores was, among other things, an album about learning how to say goodbye. Turns out it hurts just as much in Spanish.
“Virgo’s Groove.” If Renaissance had been nothing but self-empowerment lyrics, I still think I could have swung with it. But when Beyoncé gets down to a genuine come-on, she lets you know that she’s been readying herself for the main event.
Most Inspiring Song
That said, if you are determined to do self-empowerment numbers,“Heated” is the way to go.
There’s a savage breakup number on the Aaron Raitiere album called “Dear Darling” that could have been written and sung on the worst day of Terry Allen’s life. Nevertheless, I’ve got to give this one to Drake for the song on Honestly, Nevermind that goes “I found a new muse/that’s bad news for you/why would I keep you around?” It’s not just the tacit confession that he was only interested in the girlfriend as a writer’s prompt, or the unceremonious way he lets her know she’s been rendered obsolete. It’s how blithe he sounds about the whole thing, and the prevailing feeling that he’s going to be churning through muses indefinitely, and tossing them as soon as they’ve exhausted their inspirational capacity.
Bruce Hornsby’s “Days Ahead.” His exhaustion is our exhaustion. What sort of future do we have under these conditions?
Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation
Overlord played the Beatles song “Hey Bulldog” at the International Pop Overthrow. George sang it beautifully, I thought. That number was just knocked out by John Lennon, possibly waiting at a red light on the way to the recording studio. But as always, grappling with a Beatles song — even a minor one — means marveling at the pop architecture and coming to terms with how much sturdier its compositional construction is than just about everything else out there. A little depressing, yeah. But somebody has to set the pace.
Best Guest Appearance Or Feature
Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio on “Hold Me Tonight.” This track is quintessential Metronomy: Joe Mount’s narrator is a young man screwing up the courage to speak to an attractive woman who he clearly considers himself outclassed by, and when he does, we discover that she’s as messed up and desperate for affection as he is. He goes after a sexual fantasy, and finds himself with a flesh and blood human being on his hands — which, it turns out, is both sexier and more dangerous than the game of cat and mouse he was determined to play. But none of it would work if Margolin didn’t play the part of the beautiful and tormented woman to the hilt. She understands Joe Mount, which is not always the easiest thing to do.
Best Music Video
“Titi Me Pregunto,” though I have to admit I love Pusha T’s sneering performance in “Call My Bluff.”
P.F. Rizzuto Award For Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album
Charlotte Adigéry. It’s all exactly as lacerating as she wants it to be, and it’ll cut exactly as deep as you’re willing to let it. Even the track designed to be a compendium of pop clichés is so confidently written that it feels poetic in spite of itself.
Best Lyrics On An Individual Song
Yard Act, “Tall Poppies.” James Smith split the difference between Richard Dawson and Mike Skinner with a story-song about small-town fatalism, the curse of aspirations, and the perils and pleasures of low horizons at a time in the history of the world where most of us are having to keep our heads down. Special commendation for scene-setting on Billy Woods’s “Francie,” and on Church in general. Billy gets criticized, and not unfairly, for jumping in and out of his narratives too abruptly, but when he’s on, he air-drops you right in the middle of a roiling city without a rescue helicopter in sight, and it’s thrilling.
I’m not going to get cute and write anything other than Beyoncé. Sometimes the answer is the obvious one.
After a few years of voting for Megan Thee Stallion in this category, I am, er, pivoting back to Saba.
Best Vocal Harmonies
Best Bass Playing
More Renaissance, sorry; I am sure next year’s ballot will be more contrarian. Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! applies thick, melting layers of butter to these slices of Texas toast. The tone is fantastic, the parts are fluid, and the note choices demonstrate fidelity to the house music tradition and classic ’70s funk-pop.
Best Live Drumming
Pete Thomas on The Boy Named If. The album also preserves Davey Faragher’s best bass performances since joining Team Costello. As for Steve Nieve, he mostly repeats himself this time around, but that’s not to say he doesn’t do it excellently.
Best Drum Programming
Bolis Pupul. I also love the way he cuts up Charlotte’s giggle.
Best Synthesizer Playing And Programming
The firm of Tesfaye, Lopatin, Martin & Holder on Dawn FM. Even in electronic music, so much effort has been expended on the effort to make synthesizers feel human. Here was the synth as the epitome of anti-human tech, with all the blood and breath leeched out of the signal, and every impossibly smooth passage leering out at us like the gloating of our AI overlords.
Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing and Best Instrumentalist
The playing on De Todas Las Flores is so good that it’s possible to spend measure after measure just paying attention to a trombone track tucked in the corner of the mix. Mark Ribot came down to Mexico to skronk on the set, and the stupendous Cyril Atef makes the whole thing go. Natalia Lafourcade is no slouch on acoustic guitar. Yet they unearthed a musician who laps them all: pianist Emiliano Dorantes, who plays with flair, confidence, and humor, and keeps this project firmly tethered to Mexican soil.
Best Guitar Playing
Lucas Naylor of Carly Cosgrove. Mathy, dextrous, inventive, as raucous as the demands of emo require him to be without ever crossing the line into noise for its own sake.
Richard Dawson on The Ruby Cord. He keeps “Hermit” going for forty-one minutes without any redundancy or dull stretches. Props, too, to the Brooklyn band Office Culture, who handle hair-raising chord changes with consummate sophistipop grace. Prefab Sprout would be proud.
Hello, friends. A tumultuous year is coming to an end, and that means it’s time for another Tris McCall Arts Annual. You’re getting this because you’re involved in the arts, or you like the arts, or, for some odd reason, you like me. In any case, thank you for being you. I wouldn’t have made it through 2022 without you.
I really don’t like to be negative; it makes my extremities go numb. But sometimes I’m miffed, and in 99% of the cases where I’m miffed, it involves the Jersey City government or its satellite organizations. I promised Hilary that I’d never stop speaking out. She would have been bugged to no end by the Jersey City Arts Awards. On her behalf, if not my own, I’m afraid I had to say this.
The Pop Music Abstract is an annual exercise in automatic writing. In the Abstract I attempt to write at the speed of thought about the subject that dominates my rambling internal monologue. I go through the albums of the year in alphabetical order and I type the very first thing that enters my head. I don’t allow myself to revise, and I’m only permitted to use the delete key to fix immediate typographical errors. Once an opinion is registered, that’s it; I’ve got to live with it, even if I violently disagree with it a few seconds later. An entry in the Pop Music Abstract should, theoretically, take no longer to write than it does for my brain to string the words together.
Sometimes it feels like it’s faster. When I’m in the middle of an Abstract, the typing outpaces the thinking. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I learn what I think, or what I thought in one errant moment, a few seconds after I put it on the screen. This is not how I usually operate. If I’m doing a review or a story, or sending e-mail to a friend, or making a normal post to this site, I’ll write a sentence, and then I’ll stop to consider what I’ve done. I’ll turn clauses around, or swap out a weak verb for a better one, or prune it a bit and position it differently in the paragraph. I will ask myself: does what I’ve written reflect how I really feel, or does communication demand a more nuanced explanation? When I make an Abstract, I don’t do any of that. Many of my immediate thoughts are irresponsible or offensive. Many more are just wrong. If, at the end of the process of writing the Pop Music Abstract, I’m not at least a little bit mortified, I haven’t done it properly.
Why would I bother to do it at all? The Pop Music Abstract is written quickly, but thirty to fifty thousand words takes time to type, no matter how fast I go. Shouldn’t I apply that time to more grown-up pursuits, such as currency manipulation or archery practice? It’s a legitimate question. The Abstract isn’t even a permanent feature of this website: it’s only up for a few weeks. I tend to pull it down the minute I figure out what I really think about all these records. It’s not fair criticism or a consumer’s guide; it isn’t even the first draft of my evaluations. It’s more of a record of a testy arbitration session between my ears, my memory, my hands, and my feelings. My brain is deliberately late to the party. My conscience is not invited.
I didn’t think I’d be capable of doing this exercise in 2022. It’s been a turbulent year. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from listening to albums as much as I usually do; signal problems on the Hackensack River Bridge delayed the arrival of my trains of thought. When I sat down to retrieve words, the transmission signal was not always as strong as it had been in the past. Abstract 22 took longer than prior versions did. It was harder to find the time to do it. Yet once I started, I found that I was far more interested in learning what I thought, and the way that I thought, than I believed I’d be, even if those thoughts were themselves less interesting than they’d been during prior Abstracts.
So I did it. This year’s Abstract consists of forty-five thousand words on one hundred and fifty-nine albums; shorter than usual, but still a workout for a scrolling finger. There are no pictures or letter grades or anything like that. It’s not user-friendly. I did put the 20 and 21 Abstracts back on the site so I could link to them, and associate current impressions with prior ones, and if you’re interested in the course of my brain-waves as they bend, it’s possible to trace them through the pandemic period. The usual characters are present: Drake, naturally, and Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, etcetera. The longest, and, I believe, the most pedagogical entry is the one for Caracara’s New Preoccupations; in it, I write about the differences between emo and pop-punk, and for once, I back up my work with some citations that you can rock out to. If you’re looking for the sociopolitical digressions, I’m sorry to say they’re there again — this time in the entries for Kids On A Crime Spree, and poor Daniel Rossen, who ends up as a springboard for my too-personal reflections on the January 6 riot at the Capitol.
In a few days, I’ll post a listening schedule to this site. I’m looking forward to changing my mind about some, or all, of these albums. Will I go back to the Abstract and post corrections? Oh, heck no. Sorry, Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg. I’ll make it up to you two somehow.
Hello, my name is Tris, and I do not drive. I have a license, but I don’t have a car. I can operate one if I need to, but as a dweller in a pedestrian-intense area of an East Coast city, I’ve never deemed it wise to have four wheels.
Two wheels, on the other hand, are mandatory. I take my bicycles everywhere. I’ve got a nice copper-colored Trek that’s a good option if I’m going to leave town and contend with gravel roads. But if I’m sticking to local routes, I will always choose to ride my Brompton folding bike — a wiry little hop on/hop off guy not that much bigger than a scooter. To the endless dismay of those foolish enough to care for me, I do not wear a helmet. When implored to do so, I politely demur. I don’t want any impediment standing between me and my ride; I want the act of getting on and off the bicycle to feel as natural as it would be if I’d decided to walk down the street. A helmet, I’ve often reasoned, isn’t going to save me from the worst dangers of the road. Should I be struck by a speeding SUV, I expect to die.
But maybe I wouldn’t. Andy Black didn’t die. On July 19, 2022, he was broadsided by a black Nissan Rogue at the intersection of Forrest Street and MLK Drive; a few days later, he was giving interviews. It was no glancing blow he took. His trajectory was intercepted by a front grill that came on like an All-Pro linebacker. Initially, Black told the press that he had the right of way. Footage posted on New Jersey Globe (don’t watch if you’re squeamish) demonstrates that he went through a red light.
Incidents like this happen in the city all the time. Those painted-white ghost bicycles chained to fences and signposts testify to the risks we run every time we take to the streets, and they remind us of the terrible anonymity of tragedy. The world isn’t going to stop if we get run over. They’ll come out with the sweepers if there’s anything obstructing traffic; forty-five minutes later, it’ll be like nothing ever happened. The only reason that Andy Black’s accident drew attention was because of the identity of the driver: city councilperson Amy DeGise, daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise. The Councilwoman did not brake to investigate what she’d done. She left a man down on the pavement and kept on driving.
This has become a metaphor for the relationship between City Hall and the citizenry. More specifically, it feels like commentary on the disposition of Grove Street toward the part of the city where the accident happened: Bergen-Lafayette, a poorer neighborhood that has often been neglected by the authorities. Here is a working stiff, on his way to take an Uber Eats delivery order; there is a gas guzzler with tinted windows blowing down the block as if it was the Autobahn. A man lies bleeding on Ward F pavement. The city official who put him there won’t even stop. Does she not care about his pain? Or, shielded by steel, speed, and the arrogance of those on official business, did she somehow fail to even notice?
I can’t speak to the legality of what she did. She left the scene of an accident, which seems like a pretty big deal to me, but I’m no attorney. That Black ran a red light is salient to the legal case, but exactly how meaningful it is, I’ll leave to the traffic cops to decide. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that many locals on social media have refused to express any sympathy for Black: he wasn’t following the rules of the road, and he found out the hard way that disobedience has consequences. Fair enough, I suppose. If you want to be a stickler for the specifics of the code as it’s written and enforced, I’m sure you might even find yourself with the tacit blessings of a local hanging judge or two.
But I don’t think you’ve got to be a Green Party voter to believe that it’s absurd to apply the same rules to a bicyclist that you’d apply to a motorist. An SUV is a five-thousand-pound assembly of steel with an internal combustion engine that can achieve speeds unimaginable for most of human history, and can reach those speeds as easily as you can depress your foot. A bicycle goes no faster than ordinary leg power and sweat can take it. Any encounter between a machine like that and a human being, is, quite literally, weighted massively in favor of the machine. In most of Jersey City, the cyclist must share the street with motor vehicles moving at terrifying velocity. Navigating that street is an act of faith: we have to believe that the people behind the steering wheels are rational actors in full possession of their faculties. To make matters worse, those streets where we must practice that faith are designed to accommodate the driver, not the cyclist. The system of signals and procedures that govern conduct assume that road-users are in cars, and are therefore protected from the elements and the vagaries of their neighbors. The cyclist must accommodate that system, and work with it, even as he knows that any departure from that system by a driver might be the end of him.
What this means — and every city cyclist knows this — is that there will be times when, in order to survive, the person on the bicycle simply must bend the rules. If he’s chugging along on a busy street with no bike lane, and with cars speeding by, it might not be the wisest thing for anybody to wait at a light as if he’s sitting in a monster truck. If he tries to get ahead of the cars, he’s not doing this because he’s stunting, or flaunting the law, or engaging in an act of petty civil disobedience. He’s trying to find a safe place for himself in the rhythms of traffic — rhythms that are established by the motor vehicles around him, and which he can do very little to influence.
Andy Black had a tough task. Circumstances put him on MLK Drive at 8 in the morning. There’s not much space to ride on that street when the road is deserted; during rush hour, it’s an obstacle course. Ride too close to the curb and you’re liable to be doored. Go too close to the central dividing line, and you’re going to bother every driver you pass. Black had cars in front of him obstructing his vision, another car pressing him from behind, and many other cars parked on the side of the street, making it impossible for him to let any cars pass. Pedestrians are in the crosswalk. Everybody is hurrying. He is acutely aware that he’s not going fast enough for the liking of the drivers around him, and they’re viewing him as an obstruction to their designs. To make things easier for everybody, he tacks toward the center of the road. He does this to improve his own recognition of the streetscape, and as an acknowledgment that his presence is an annoyance to the motorists.
Black slows at the light. Then he accelerates into the intersection. He sees daylight and a car-free stretch of pavement, and he takes advantage of that. He receives the red light as a blessing for everybody: he can have a few seconds of relative calm, and the cars behind him can be free from his presence. What he did not anticipate was a City Councilwoman racing down a residental street at speeds best left for the highway. Struck full on, he spins in space, tumbles over, lands right on his side in the middle of the road. Then, even before the bent bicycle stops bouncing, he retrieves a sandal, picks himself up, and limps to the sidewalk.
As for Amy DeGise, she’s already long gone. The consequences of her actions — or her inaction — will catch up to her later, but for now, she’s speeding to her destination. Yet, to me, a cyclist there but for fortune on the MLK tarmac, the inaction of the rest of the motorists is just as meaningful, and just as telling. Yes, DeGise doesn’t stop. The other cars don’t, either. The moment the light turns green, they roll through the intersection without hesitation. Some of the pedestrians on MLK Drive try to assist. One makes him comfortable on a cooler, while another (the rascal) defies the light to bring him his other sandal.
But the drivers remain indifferent. Right before their eyes, a man is nearly killed — a man with whom they’d just been interacting in an attempt to navigate a crowded street. Yet that man is not a fellow driver, which means he is to be treated as an enemy: an interloper in a zone that belongs to them and them only. He was using a modality of transportation imported from communist Czechloslovakia or somewhere like it, and who was likely supportive of new rules meant to protect his fellow two-wheeled commies. He got the beating that was coming to him, and that that beating came from another motorist simply absolved them from any legal responsibility for their unarticulated feelings. He could have a concussion, he could have broken bones, he could have damaged pride, whatever; that was his problem, not theirs. They’re home free.
This, to me, is an extension of the hit and run. Not quite as dramatic or irresponsible as what the Councilwoman did, but a completion of her nearly-lethal gesture of contempt for cyclists. The message board and social media posts dismissing Andy Black are the final flourishes of that same gesture. It’s a wave of dismissal that those of us who ride bicycles are all too familiar with. And on behalf of all of us two-wheeled characters — those struck physically by city officials, and those who’ve merely been slighted by them — I’d like to remind non-cyclists that our manner of getting around is not merely legally valid and therefore entitled to protection and special accommodation. It’s the logical way to negotiate distance in a city like ours. Moreover, pedestrian-friendly cities like this one were not meant to accommodate fleets of sport-utility vehicles. SUVs are loud, they’re noisy, they’re right in your face, they’re spacehogs, they’re ugly, they extract a social and environmental cost. They desensitize drivers to the vulnerabilities of other citizens who are not so protected. And sometimes, as Andy Black learned, they run you right down. So if you must drive in Jersey City, please find a nice garage in Somerset County to stash your unstoppable death machine, and ride something more sane. And if you are elected to public office in Jersey City, boy oh boyshould you know better.
I’m a simple person with simple peeves. Nothing makes me angrier than those lists of the greatest drummers in the history of rock. Oh, I have no issue with the consensus favorites: I love John Bonham, too, and Keith Moon, and Charlie Watts, and Mitch Mitchell, and I’d love it if Ringo would get listed, but he never does, and that’s a whole ‘nother article right there. (See, I’m getting heated up already.)
But when my index finger slides down the list, there’s only one name I’m looking for. That’s Phil, the incisive, impeccable Phil Collins, who is usually tucked away around #50, maybe next to the guy from Journey, and some master of arcane Swiss percussion who we’ve never heard of. That’s when he’s on there at all. When Phil is dissed like this, enough steam comes out of my ears to power an Industrial Revolution. And if you’ve got a moment for me, I’d like to explain exactly why.
A musician could not be in a progressive rock band unless he had chops: those Huts of Baba Yaga didn’t move without a complicated and well calibrated motor. But of all the prog-rock drummers, Phil Collins had the hardest job. The great Nick Mason had to exercise plenty of tricky bits without losing the R&B feel, but in Pink Floyd songs, there were always long stretches where he could set the controls for the heart of the sun, and slip into a groove while Gilmour handled liftoff and ignition. Phil never had that luxury. He had to fuse together Tony Banks’s multi-part storytelling epics while keeping the tale comprehensible, and he had to navigate through an Epping Forest crammed to the treetops with Peter Gabriel’s thick verbiage.
Other progressive rock bands indulged in stretches of pure sound. Genesis was always shoehorning in extra ideas and extra phrases, keeping it theatrical and West End-dramatic, skipping around from section to section in order to serve the through-narrative. Even their instrumentals were frenzied. It was Phil who made sure that when supper was ready, it was piping hot; Phil who turned the crank on the musical box, Phil who somehow got us dancing, and skipping around, on the surface of that volcano that spewed its magma in the strangest of time signatures. Could other progressive rock drummers have turned the trick? Well, maybe, but it’s worth noting that Bill Bruford, fantastic as he is, could never get comfortable in the driver’s seat when he was briefly handed the keys.
And if that’s all there was to Phil Collins, he’d still deserve a position alongside Bruford and Neil Peart atop those drummers’ lists. It wasn’t — not by a long shot. Uniquely among prog-rockers, the classic era isn’t where the Phil Collins story ends. It’s where the Phil story begins. Once fashions changed and multi-part dramas about the Giant Hogweed were out of vogue, Phil was the man who adapted best to the new reality. Arguably, he did his most ambitious and far-reaching work during the heyday of ’80s soft rock, which is not considered a playground for fantastic drummers. When other timekeepers of the classic period fell back on naturalism and turned a skeptical eye toward new wave innovations, Phil Collins was getting down with early drum machines, figuring out a way that he might use mechanical beat generators to enhance his own vigorous pulse.
Even nonbelievers who mock Phil know in their bones that he changed music forever with his fill on “In The Air Tonight.” Right there, at 3:41, the world turned upside down; he stood sonic expectations on end and invented a true sound of the future. But the first three and a half minutes of Roland CR-78 was just as radical. It’s the contrast between the slow-dripping, ominous drum box and the thumping, adrenalized, man-made tom roll that puts the primal terror in “In The Air Tonight”, and created a paradigm for ambitious pop producers to follow. Noah “40” Shebib and Francis Farewell Starlite sure were listening, as was Genesis fan Jeff Bhasker, and The Weeknd, and what was “Love Lockdown” if it wasn’t Kanye assuring us that if we were drowning/he would not lend a hand? When I wrote that Phil invented trip-hop on Face Value, I was only half joking. He showed us all the power of a sudden irruption in a slow, mesmerizing groove, like the head of the alien bursting through the sternum of pop that was, and streaking onward toward pop to come.
There’s plenty in the Genesis prog catalog that foreshadows “In The Air Tonight;” check out, just to give you a for instance, the stupendous fills that carry home “Eleventh Earl Of Mar.” But it’s unlikely that Phil would have reoriented the sound of ’80s pop if he’d only played in one sandbox. Yes, that’s Phil Collins hammering away on every single Genesis progsterpiece (and there were oh so many of them). Phil also hit the skins on a series of albums that, while not progressive rock per se, split the difference between ’70s bombast and ’80s sophistipop sleekness. Drum aficionados know that Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham came up with the “In The Air Tonight” drum sound while monkeying around with the talkback microphones during sessions for Peter Gabriel’s third album. Yet for some reason, few people realize that Phil Collins played the drums — quite brilliantly, too — on the visionary Brian Eno solo sets that continue to cast a long shadow over adventurous pop music. Robert Fripp is associated with Eno for very good reasons, but Phil was every bit as valuable to the team of lunatics that made Another Green World. Only Phil Collins could have provided the tailwind for John Martyn’s Grace + Danger, and only Phil could have played those parts, and sung those backing vocals, in a manner that calls no attention whatsoever to the guy doing them, but, once concentrated on, couldn’t have been done by anybody else. When Robert Plant needed an accomplice for his artier, more auteur-like solo albums, it was Phil he called; when Bruce Hornsby needed someone to shake a tambourine, unobtrusively but expertly, on Harbor Lights, he did the same. A long history of subordinating his own star to that of his flower-wearing frontman, and putting his creativity to the service of his cranky piano player’s fantastic stories, made him an ideal side-person for an ambitious songwriter.
So it’s particularly galling to me when Phil gets knocked for his turn as a pop star. It’s not just that he earned it via substantial dues-paying and self-effacement. It’s that he’s the only one among his peers who could have managed it in the first place — and that demands respect. Could you imagine Ginger Baker singing “One More Night”? Would Barriemore Barlow have come out from behind the kit to do a spot-on early-’80s soul duet with Phillip Bailey? Phil Collins wasn’t just a drummer turned singer: he was a drummer who stepped into the shoes of progressive rock’s most charismatic vocalist and stage performer and barely missed a trick. Wind & Wuthering is just as progressive and ambitious as the Gabriel albums, and when the group pared back and charged into the new decade with Abacab, it was Phil who led the way. There is no story in the annals of pop and rock that’s remotely like his, and it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be one again.
Why, then, is it so hard for people to give Phil his props? No doubt the pop career is at least partially to blame: those driven to distraction by “Sussudio”, “Just Another Day In Paradise”, and other Collins numbers played to death on Top 40 radio are still pissed off about it. There’s an entire generation of listeners who associate Phil Collins with ’80s lite radio and couldn’t tell you the first thing about Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid, and the scary thing is that the members of that generation are now fairly long in the tooth. Phil is the first to admit he was overexposed during the Reagan-Thatcher years, so omnipresent, in fact, that some seem to have mixed him up with Reagan and Thatcher themselves. For awhile he was everywhere, guest performing, acting in movies, hopping the Atlantic to play both halves of Live Aid. It was hyperactive go-getter stuff, delivered with a gremlin’s grin, compatible with Phil’s inexhaustible creativity, but easy to conflate with the worst of the era of the Coffee Achievers.
The irony is that Phil Collins wrote some of the most pained, vulnerable, candid music of the era — excoriating songs that sting plenty once you peek behind the pop veneer. Unlike Peter Gabriel, who sang his songs of paranoia and destabilization from the perspective of fantastical, outlandish characters, Phil played an everyman: short, scruffy beard, working-class cap on his largely bald head. He did not look the part of a rock god. That underscored the power of his best performances, all of which demonstrated that ordinary joes had the ability to feel immense anguish. Among the roles inhabited by Phil on Duke, the saddest album in progressive rock history, are a delusional television addict, a shmoe stood up by a two-timing girlfriend, and a divorcee crying to his inaccessible ex-wife about how much he misses his children. (Tony and Mike contributed a few doozies to that set, too; they all must have felt like the prog-rock jig was up.) Being a little pathetic became part of Phil’s public image, and helped endear him to a mass audience.
Rage, frustration, and rejection were motivating forces for his solo writing, too, including many songs that became huge hits: the shitfit of “I Missed Again,” the searing dismissal of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the rubber room balladry of “Take Me Home.” On the outro of “Against All Odds,” Phil has a microphone meltdown intense enough to make Chris Conley blush. Emo fans should recognize and respect the technique: freight the arrangement far past its carrying capacity, and make the contrast between the poised music and the bananas vocal performance as stark as possible. It’s supposed to sound a little wrong, too much, a berserk transmission from a man who has snapped, and who is determined to call your attention to a major meltdown.
Phil Collins learned to be a frontman by modeling himself after Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel got his wigged-out compositions and concept albums to move by leaning, hard, on his imaginative drummer. So I don’t like to participate in those Peter vs. Phil debates that have roiled Genesis fandom since 1977. I prefer to recognize them as two seeds that grew symbiotically but blew apart (but never all that far apart) in the stiff breeze of rock history. Neither one is my very favorite member of Genesis, anyway: I’ve been attempting to emulate Tony Banks for decades, and the only reason you might not have noticed is because I’m a damned klutz.
If I was forced to choose, I’d have to agree with the consensus that Genesis with Peter was a better group than Genesis fronted by Phil — with the caveat that Peter had Phil in the band, while Phil did not have the benefit of Peter’s legendary imagination. But all sledgehammers lain aside, there ought to be no doubt about which of the two is closer to the main thread of the story of popular music. Phil Collins was a world-class progressive rock drummer in one of the best bands ever banded, he was a sympathetic sideman on some tremendously influential albums, he rewrote the rules for arena rock and new wave drumming, and he was, in his way, a pioneering electronic musician whose use of early drum machines was both audacious and effective. We associate the TR-808 with early hip-hop and Detroit techno, but it was a balding gremlin from London who first brought it mainstream and took it to the top of the charts.
Even his covers were audacious.* As a singer, Phil had passion, which made up for his technical imperfections, and his version of blue-eyed soul was substantially less appropriative than that of most of his peers. (His fake Mexican accent on “Illegal Alien” is another matter altogether, but I still say the time is right for somebody pleasantly problematic to bring that song back.) His true mark of distinction was his way with a tune: at his peak, he was, like Kanye or Taylor Swift, practically inerrant at the art of finding just the right note in the chord to advance the melody and move the composition from introduction to conclusion with the proper balance of inevitability and surprise.
Why am I writing this now? Well, folks, I’ll tell you why. It bothered me that I let Neil Peart die before I registered my appreciation. I did it with an essay that corrected some of the popular misapprehensions about his writing, but posthumous honors bug me. Genesis is presently touring, sort of; Phil can’t play the drums at all anymore, and has to front the group from a chair. Clips from the tour are moving — but only in the way that reminiscences of past glories and showers of affections directed at elder statesmen sometimes are. So I felt that I’d stick up for Phil while he was in the living years: give a little love to a master who has never quite gotten the recognition that his talent and achievement warrants. Phil Collins belongs in the pantheon of pop game-changers, inimitable, visionary artists with unrepeatable career trajectories, and if that seemed unwarranted to you a few paragraphs ago, it’s probably because you didn’t know the whole story.
Now you do.
*While I’m at it, let me register another hot take. In my considered opinion, Phil’s version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” is better and more affecting than the Supremes original. Phil’s take is a stealth grimdark reimagining of a strand of spun sugar from Holland-Dozier-Holland. In the Supremes version, the narrator is a teen girl with her whole life ahead of her: momma is right there, giving her solid advice. The listener sympathizes with her frustration, but there’s every reason to believe she’ll find love. The song turns on her urgency: she’s worried about never getting something she’s obviously going to get. She doesn’t know that, but you do, and the result is charming.
In Phil’s version, the narrator is a thirtysomething man. He may never have experienced true love or anything like it. Momma is probably dead. Waiting, for him, is much more consequential, because he’s running out of time and staring at a future of emptiness. When he sings “I can’t bear to live my life alone,” the listener is confronted by the very real possibility that the narrator is sentenced to a life of solitude.
When Phil Collins cut that cover, he’d just come off of a brutal divorce. If you take the songs on Duke and Face Value at… um… face value, it’s pretty clear that Phil was worried that he was a deeply unloveable person. That’s the perspective from which he does that cover. He sure made me feel it.
Okay, on to the annual individual achievement section:
Megan Thee Stallion
Best vocal harmonies
Parcels. I strongly undersold these guys in the Abstract. Protracted exposure to Day/Night has convinced me that they’re more than just a Daft Punk copy act. There’s lots of early ’70s Beach Boys in what they do, and ELO, and a little Floyd, and more than a little Steely Dan, and yes, they do rip off Daft Punk shamelessly. But they’re buddies; Bangalter and De Homem-Christo produced their first album. If you’re going to stay up all night to get lucky, you’re going to want some friends around in case you don’t.
Best bass playing
Nick Movshon on Aaron Frazer’s Introducing… Nick had a tough job: he couldn’t just deliver an ace James Jamerson impersonation. He had to evoke classic soul as it might be understood by a millennial who mostly knows about it through hip-hop samples. Any old bass virtuoso can mimic Stax or discipline himself enough to suggest that there’s a loop going. But a musician who can sound like Philly International and Wu-Tang at the same time has got to be some kind of visionary. I don’t know how he did it, but do it he did.
Otoniel Nicolas on Tanda. Well before Graceland, Paul Simon hired the great bossa nova percussionist Airto Moreira (check him out on Jobim’s Stone Flower, particularly their rendition of “Brazil”) to liven up his singer-songwriter material. Alex Ferreira isn’t an ethnopirate, but he sure is an appropriator, and his gentle, gorgeous Latin Alternative pop songs are quite a bit closer to Simon than they are to reggaeton. Otoniel Nicolas takes to the Airto Moreira role with relish, and he makes Ferreira’s songs shimmy and shake in the Dominican sunshine. Every year, there’s one album I associate with clear skies and perfect weather. In 2021, this was it.
Best rock drumming, best synthesizer playing, best band
Steven Buttery/Katie Dvorak/The World Is A Beautiful Place. I don’t know exactly what happened to these guys after Always Foreign, but I’ve got to think it involved a great deal of woodshedding.
Best piano playing
Craig Potter of Elbow
Best guitar playing
Bad Bad Hats, my indiepop guitar heroes.
Best instrumental solo
Annie Clark, “Living In The Dream”. I thought Daddy’sHome was a nice try, and a more interesting set than Masseduction, but I do understand how some of Annie’s choices put off longtime fans. I hope we can all agree that it’s a good thing that she’s playing more guitar these days.
Hayley Williams handled everything on Flowers For Vases/Descansos, including the drums. It’s all beautifully rendered, of course. If I’m ever on a plane with Hayley, and the pilot passes out and she’s forced to take the yoke, my heart wouldn’t even race. I’d expect a perfect touchdown with minimal turbulence. Bet I’d get just that.
Best drum programming
Pahua. It’s a testament to Paulina Sotomayor’s ingenuity that I can never tell what she’s programmed and what she’s banged out with her hands. Not that it matters around the rim of the digital Caribbean, where synthetic tradewinds blow just as warm as organic ones do. Is that the whisper of an ocean breeze through the palm fronds, or is it pink noise plus a low-frequency oscillator?
Noah “40” Shebib. I hear you groan. You’ve had enough of it, haven’t you?, the muffled kick drum and the distant synthesizer, the downtempo rhythms and mid-song beat switches, the smoke curls of sound, the late-nite rumination, the pulse-quickening rush of string pads, the long, drawn out sections where next to nothing happens, followed by sudden irruptions and moments of emotional acceleration. It’s been over a decade of this, and it’s everywhere, bleeding out from 40 headquarters like an ink spill, saturating the entire pop landscape. I now recognize 40’s influence on genres that have nothing to do with hip-hop or even trip-hop; I hear bluegrass that’s Drake-aware, big band jazz with Drake tricks in the background. We’re long overdue for a course correction. But. The producer’s task is so fashion a sonic environment for the storytelling to inhabit — that’s it; that’s the whole job. Drake made meaningful adjustments to his approach on Certified Lover Boy and 40 was right there to shadow every step and enhance every phrase. Their symbiosis is such a part of the tapestry of modern pop that it’s practically taken for granted, but when 40 is nowhere to be found, Drake has a tendency to drift: see, for instance, Dark Lane Demo Tapes. They both showed up for the Certified Lover Boy sessions with new stories to tell, and a new mood to generate, and they did what they’ve been doing since the beginning of October’s Very Own. They made each other make sense.
Production gambit that, against the odds, worked out pretty damned well
Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross + Halsey. And so what if it sounds more like the Social Network soundtrack with pop vox than Nine Inch Nails? It was a throw of the dice for everybody involved, and they came up with something cohesive and even, may we say, brave, because the label couldn’t have been thrilled that their hitmaker opted against the delivery of a red-hot single. What could she say? She’s from Jersey. It’s artistry over commerce forever, here on these benighted Turnpike exits.
Jeremy Gaudet of Kiwi Jr.
Rookie of the Year
Much as I appreciated Black Country, New Road’s klezmer-meets-Crimson amalgam, this trophy belongs to Olivia Rodrigo.
Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning
Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire