The Song That Shook The World
At the risk of stating the obvious, 7 is by no means a good set. Then again, it’s not like the principals were trying to make one. If you were in Lil Nas X’s position, you probably wouldn’t sweat the details, either: you’d figure the sell-by date was coming at you like the Kamchatka meteor, so you’d better do your best to get something — anything — out before the milk curdles. Simple business practices to suit a simple business man.
That business used to be social media and reality television, and it surely will be again; cue J. Cole saying “in five years you gon be on Love And Hip-Hop.” But no matter what happens next, Lil Nas X can go back to the clickbait grind with his head held high. He’s made his contribution and he ought to be out looking for some nice laurels to lie on. His place in pop history is secure: the biggest streaming song ever, bigger than Drake, bigger than T. Swift, bigger than Oppan Gangnam Style, and never you mind that it came from a social media platform best left to Chinese incels. Straight outta Tik-Tok, (not so) crazy motherfucker named… whatever his name is. You don’t care, and doubtless he doesn’t, either. Artists did not make this technodystopia we’re inhabiting, and idea people with loud mouths will take any platform you give them. That Lil Nas X turned sixty seconds on the flimsiest platform of them all into the year’s biggest music story is not a testament to anybody’s genius, but it wasn’t just a bolt from the blue, either.
To recap: “Old Town Road” was essentially a salvo in the sort of meme game that gets played on social media a thousand times a day, only this one (and maybe just this one) didn’t have anything to do with the President. It was called the Yeehaw Challenge, and it required the participant to give himself a hick makeover and post the results to the site. Apparently most of the people who played around with the hashtag just donned a cowboy hat and acted like an idiot, which makes them no different from most senators from Western states. Lil Nas X took it farther and made a country song — sung through processing and matched to machine beats, of course, but Kacey Musgraves knows all about that. Before you could say Charley Pride, “Old Town Road” was number one on every chart imaginable, including the country chart.
Until it wasn’t. The story from Billboard was that there were elements of “Old Town Road” that were inconsistent with country music at its essence, and gosh, I can’t even imagine what those “elements” could be. Can you? Music City, to its credit, came to his defense, sort of: sniffing an opportunity, Billy Rae Cyrus put his zero credibility on the line with a slot on the remix, and Keith Urban, who knows a commercial C&W hook when he hears one, covered the song on a banjo and posted the results to the Internet. That sounded great, and you know why? Because “Old Town Road” is a great country song. Not a novelty, or a reinterpretation, or an exercise in condescension and appropriation; no, it’s a great song for the same reason that Kenny Chesney’s numbers are great when they’re great. It’s got a hook, and a boast, that Jason Aldean would kill for — a hook so good that it deserves a closer reading.
Lil Nas X says he’s got the horses in the back. That, to me, is utterly brilliant, and not just because it scans so well. The horses might represent the engine of a car: horsepower, junk in the trunk, revving up like all good rock and roll does. Or the horses could be the narrator’s goons, waiting in the back of the shack to administer a beatdown on fools who dare to violate. Then there’s the sexual connotation of horses, doing the pony, the horse as a traditional figure for a man’s dong, sliding in and out of somebody’s back, i.e., their buttcheeks. Then there is the crucial sense in which the horses represent horses, majestic things that gallop deep in the national psyche, beautiful animals that used to get celebrated in song all the time, but not so much anymore. Most of these country cats are so busy singing about their stupid trucks that they couldn’t tell a horse from a damned goldfish.
And why is that? It’s because everybody in Nashville is doing the Yeehaw Challenge. All day, every day. They’re all in costume, putting on accents, hemming and hawing and drawling like Hollywood caricatures of hillbillies. Even Dierks Bentley, who is the soul of sincerity, will tell you with a straight face that his role model is Bo Duke. None of these people are actual cowboys, and would you want them to be?, that’s not their job. The job is poetry. They’re here to animate certain powerful symbols and archetypes that resonate for people of a certain disposition. I can only hope that the curious case of Lil Nas X reminds everybody of that, even as it provides me Exhibit Z in my ongoing argument that says country and hip-hop are different expressions of the same basic American creative impulse. They’re the Bumgarner and Puig of musical genres. “Can’t nobody tell me nothing” applies in both cases, and equally snugly. And I think we would do well, for once, to defer to the wisdom of crowds, and understand that American listeners received “Old Town Road” as a country song in every way in which “country” is meaningful as an artistic descriptor — no matter what the industry says.
They can make their own rules and draw their own lines, but real fans of popular music understand. The institutional gatekeepers wouldn’t have Lil Nas X for the same reason that jerks always throw up walls. They can’t stand to see a black man beat them at their own game.
Single Of The Year
- 1. Vampire Weekend — “Harmony Hall”
- 2. Sego — “Neon Me Out”
- 3. Maren Morris — “The Bones”
- 4. Charly Bliss — “Hard To Believe”
- 5. Lana Del Rey — “The Greatest”
- 6. Julia Jacklin — “Head Alone”
- 7. Metronomy — “Salted Caramel Ice Cream”
- 8. Oso Oso — “Impossible Game”
- 9. White Reaper — “Might Be Right”
- 10. Better Oblivion Community Center — “Dylan Thomas”
- 11. Ximena Sariñana & Francisca Valenzuela — “Pueblo Abandonado”
- 12. Maxo Kream — “Meet Again”
- 13. 2 Chainz — “Money In The Way”
- 14. King Princess — “Prophet”
- 15. Denzel Curry — “Ricky”
- 16. Gang Starr — “Family And Loyalty”
- 17. Silvana Estrada — “Carta”
- 18. Jimmy Eat World — “All The Way (Stay)”
- 19. The Rocket Summer — “Peace Signs”
- 20. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — “Flat Tummy Tea”
Honorable Metal Mention
“Shoot For The Sun”. I don’t know much about metal, but I do know what I like. This is it.
Most Romantic Song
Homeboy Sandman’s “Picture On The Wall”. I’m sappy like that. The whole Dusty album was a bit of a relief, to be honest. After Veins and “#neverusetheinternetagain”, (not that I didn’t dig both), I figured he was about an inch away from joining the militia. Dusty catches Homeboy Sandman in the best mood he’s been in for years, celebrating his love for his girlfriend and his move to Mello Music with music that’s, er, surprisingly mello. By his standards, I mean; in real terms it’s still spazzier than a bag of cats. But if you, like me, prefer Sandman when he’s relaxed and optimistic and rapping about sun-dried tomatoes, you may dig. Or maybe you won’t? For the first time in a long time, it seems like Sandman might not see that as a direct reflection on your intelligence and character. I must add: Pitchfork slagged this album on the absurd grounds that Homeboy Sandman is out of ideas. They couldn’t be more wrong. If there’s anybody with a case to sue Pitchfork for sustained defamation in reviews, Homeboy Sandman is that guy. I don’t know what’s going on there. He must have murdered Ryan Schreiber’s hamster or something.
Danny Brown’s “Belly Of The Beast”, which isn’t to say it’s a wonderful song, or a particularly thrilling direction for the artist. Danny has likened his new set to stand-up comedy, and I think I see what he means. Like a stand-up comedian, Danny believes that his personality alone is sufficient: he can just appear in the spotlight and behave like the zany goof he is, and everybody will clap. Also, Danny is funny, pretty much always. The Roy Orbison gag gets me laughing every time. It’s all in the delivery — the way he says “Orbison” in a manner that highlights the sheer fun of saying such absurd words as “Orbison”. Yet we’re now nearly a decade removed from “Trap Or Die”, and it’s increasingly clear that that version of Danny isn’t coming back. So in honor of the departed, allow me to eulogize the emcee we’ve lost. That Danny was an extraordinary storyteller: he could set a scene, and animate characters, and drive home a point with distinctive amalgam of efficiency and empathy that was his alone. He also demonstrated that he didn’t need to sound like a freakazoid to hold your attention. After XXX, he decided that the only tale worth telling was the one about partying to forget the pain/suffering through the pain of partying. That just can’t compare to a thick description of a junk raid in abandoned houses in Detroit. Also, he’s not really from Detroit anymore. Where is he from? The Internet, I guess. Like all the rest of the comedians.
Most Frightening Song
Jenny Lewis’s “Little White Dove”. If you forget about Nice As Fuck (and you did), On The Line makes two smart ones in a row, smart as anything to come out since that last Pistol Annies set, whip-smart, even. To be fair to the rest of the field, you don’t have to be smart to make a good record. There are marks out there to hit and talented dummies can hit them fine. That’s the magic of pop music – its egalitarian essence. Sometimes it even helps the public profile to play it stoopid. What Jenny Lewis shares with, say, Scott Miller is a profound disinclination to do anything like that. Instead, she makes pop records that are crammed to their corners with ideas and associations – records that always have something new for us when we re-engage with them. Just as The Voyager used the three-way as a figure for social disengagement in the guise of sexual adventure, On The Line presents addiction not as a spiral into rock and roll debauchery, but another way of dealing with the pain of interpersonal contact. It’s the same line she’s been pushing since her days with Rilo Kiley, really: this wry, terrifying examination of the many many things we do to forestall or dodge closeness with other people. Forget the heroin you’re shooting or the cognac in the glass, aunt Jenny knows why you’re hooked on Candy Crush. It hurts to stop phubbing. You might have to connect with somebody. To drive the point home, she’s taken a big risk here – she’s mixed at least half of this album like it’s coming through an old transistor radio, or, to be more metaphorical, through an old phone that’s breaking up (are we breaking up/is there trouble between you and I, etc). To transcend the limitations she’s set herself, she needs to sing, and write, and play at a world-class level. How do you figure she did?
Most Inspiring Song
“Diamond” by Jimmy Eat World. Old emos never die; they just keep on emoing. Some don’t even need crutches to ease the walk down the backside of the hill: while newly stable guys like David Bazan raid their childhood memories for tearjerkers, Jim Adkins just goes right on squeezing all the emo out of his hair-dye bottle. Now that he’s done with his divorce, he’s back to uplifting various girls in the middle/ in the middle of their rides with impossibly straight-faced, earnest inspirational verses and exhortations to persevere. God, I do love this wide-eyed, passionate, ridiculous motherfucker. His tensile strength is legendary — he’s absolutely unbreakable. Neither the passage of time nor harsh reality can lay a glove on him. Twenty years after “Lucky Denver Mint”, I even begin to understand the secret wisdom of his inane band name. Because Jimmy really did eat world!, and he’s going to keep on eating it, pith and pits and all, until he’s tasted all the sweetness (whoah-oh-ee-oh-oh) he can taste. It’s arguable, I guess, that an artist this adolescent has nothing to add to a sociopolitical moment that requires some adulting. But if that sax ride on “All The Way (Stay)” doesn’t cure your millennial blues, Dr. Rock cannot help you. Go on and obey the backing singers: let those feelings show.
While We’re Emoing, Here Is, At Some Length, The Most Moving Song
“God And The Billboards”, by Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties. Yes, indeed, Soupy is back with some more crafty Aaron West stories for you. I guess that answers the question about whether Aaron kills himself at the end of We Don’t Have Each Other. In retrospect, though, Soupy wouldn’t use a symbol as broad and boring as the ocean to represent suicide, would he? He wouldn’t have used a symbol at all. That’s not how Aaron thinks, and Soupy is at one with the character. He would have sung something like: “Oh these crappy raaaaazor blades/are of such pooor manufaaaaaacture these days/they don’t even slash me right/someone call my mooooom toniiiiight.” Whether the world needed a continuation of Aaron West’s story is between Soupy, his audience, and his conscience. But even though I’m the guy who didn’t think Empire Strikes Back was necessary, I found myself compelled by this particular Chapter Two. In many ways, it’s richer, more thoughtful, and more literary than the first album, and I’m already looking forward to Chapter Three.
At the level of the plot, much of Routine Maintenance is a reiteration of the first album: Aaron stumbles around and gets drunk, runs away to Los Angeles, puts a band together, and is called back home by a crisis in which he finds Soupy-approved redemption over the carburetor of the family jalopy. Along the way he kvetches about everything, sometimes hilariously, sometimes curmudgeon-ly, but always with strict attention to the rules of poetic justice as they operate within the moral universe of working-class East Coast emo. You might think that it’s a bit of a cop-out, or just unimaginative, that Soupy briefly sticks Aaron in a Wonder Years-like touring band (the guys are even from Philly, sheesh), but Aaron’s rock and roll detour serves two important narrative purposes. First, it gives Soupy and co-conspirator Ace Enders an excuse to live out some Springsteen fantasies on “Running Toward The Light. Just like the Boss, Aaron sees Jersey as a dead end, which is a tougher case to make in 2019 than it was in 1973, but we’ll let that slide.
More importantly, it sets up the familiar drama you’ll remember from all those Wonder Years records: the protagonist must choose between artistic self-indulgence and family responsibility. “If I’m in an airport/and you’re in a hospital bed/what kind of man does that make me”, etcetera. Soupy promptly kills off Aaron’s brother in law so that the main character can become a father figure for his nephew, which is downright evil, when you think about it, and the kind of thing that gets an author in trouble on Quora and TV Tropes. If this was a kitchen sink drama on Lifetime Television For Women, we’d all be groaning under the weight of the plot mechanics, not to mention the narrative convenience.
Luckily for us, it’s a pop-rock record, and Soupy continues to be a steady hand at pop-rock set pieces: the brutal divorce scene in “Just Sign The Papers”, for instance, or the description of life in the flat in Reseda where Aaron, broke and on the run, squats with some Mexican immigrants, or “Bloodied Up In A Bar Fight”, which is funny, even though it isn’t. I’m sure I would have liked the story better if it had ended with Aaron’s return home; he really didn’t have to drag the nephew and the church and all the gruesome filial business into it. He could have left that implicit, and I still would have gotten it. But I’ve got to appreciate how he names all of the characters, and how nimbly he jumps between the many cross-references and Wonder Years callbacks into the lyrics, and the many easter eggs in the verses for those who he assumes are listening carefully. For instance, there’s the delightful moment where Aaron shows Colin – that’s the nephew – the chords to the hymn he’s playing at his father’s funeral, and they turn out to be the same chords to the Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties song that both characters are inhabiting. Does anybody else go for this kind of shit? I mean, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s cheese with complex taste notes; nothing fruity, more like spice, aged oaken barrels, the funk inside Soupy’s sneakers.
In the long race to make records that sound like those of Richard and Linda Thompson, it sometimes helps to be the child of Richard and Linda Thompson. Sometimes it doesn’t; IMHO, Teddy has never had much success in that department. The Rails consists of Kami Thompson and her husband Mitchard Bompson, and… oh, wait, that’s not his name? Huh, it says here in the press release that he’s called James Walbourne, and, wisely, he doesn’t attempt to play guitar like his father-in-law. But when these two harmonize on their better folk-rock numbers, they do manage to generate a cool, lacerating Sunnyvista vibe. At other times, they suggest a more evil Crowded House. For instance, there’s the one that goes “save the planet/kill yourself”, and, um, I think Kami is kidding? It’s hard to say. Breaking the news about the void at the end of the rainbow is kind of the family business.
Mikaela Straus, aka King Princess, possesses a tasty pop-R&B voice with sweet-and-sour tough-girl phrasing, so you might guess that it would be tough to get her lost in the dream pop mist. I’ll be damned if they don’t try, though. Nothing about last year’s swell EP suggested to me that she was about to drop a chill playlist on us, but that’s what Cheap Queen is, and funnily enough, I don’t mind at all. She pulls it off because she’s a good nuts-and-bolts pop songwriter (check out “Prophet”, mmmmm) and a better communicator, even if there’s nothing too unusual about anything she has to say. You’d think they would have run out of powdery eighties synthesizer patches by now. Regardless, this is a strong choice for those who deem Billie Eilish too spider-eaty and tonally restricted, or for those who don’t find Troye Sivan’s butthole all that fascinating.
Everything on Julia Jacklin’s searing, well-titled Crushing. Look, Julia does not want to be touched. I believe her. Her plea for proxemic autonomy has been read as a feminist statement, and… sure, what the hell, if Cardi B in ass pants can be strip-mined for feminist significance, so can Julia Jacklin’s high-strung disposition. But what do I know, I’m not even a girl. Fans of Big Thief probably dig this, as Julia’s agitated warble is not dissimilar to Adrienne Lenker’s, but the storytelling on Crushing lands with the sort of straight-to- the-jaw roundhouse punch that Lenker, talented as she is, has either been unable or unwilling to pack. All of these narratives are trapped in that agonizing moment when a romantic relationship is over but neither partner will pull the rip cord and jump. The result is the year’s most harrowing album, and its most intense, even as Julia promises us she’s eventually going to come out of the funk, open a window, and air things out.
Most Notable Cover Version
Morrissey’s California Son, and — hey, where are you going?, hear me out here. I thought we were supposed to be friends. More to the point, I thought we were both friends with Morrissey. Shit hit the fan and you are no longer a fan? Well, you’re missing a…, well, certainly not a great one, or even a good one, but a remarkable one. Noteworthy, as Homeboy Sandman might put it.
Eye-popping as it is, the tracklist is only the third most notable thing about this crazed late career covers set. Whatever his faults – and we’ve lately been as busy enumerating them as we were ignoring them in the eighties and nineties – Morrissey has always had good taste. Why wouldn’t that extend to an appreciation of “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow”? That leads us to the second most notable thing about the set: just how well he sings songs that you’d figure he has no business singing. Did you think Morrissey could handle Laura Nyro soul and make you present to every syllable and every inflection? Right, you didn’t think about it at all, and that’s because the very notion would have seemed ludicrous to you. But here we are, with Moz riding around on the melody like a fucking stunt pilot, and Billie Joe Armstrong in the background, contributing awed support vocals. Great players make great plays, as the philosopher Jeff Van Gundy used to like to say, and Morrissey is coasting down the lane, straight to the hoop, dribbling through an arm and a leg and slam dunking, over and over.
Reviewers are not appreciating this, and that is because of the single most notable thing about this album: it’s a world-class troll job. Morrissey raiding the vault for classic protest songs in 2019 – and singing them all with front-lines fist-in-the-air vigor – presents the critical listener with the sort of conundrum unusual in pop, where the political lines are usually broad and blatant, and done in fluorescent paint, and offset by traffic cones with arrows that say look right here folks. What do we make of the apparent contradiction between Phil Ochs liberation lyrics associated with the civil rights movement and Morrissey’s loud and visible support of odious white nationalist politicians?
In order to grok, we need a more subtle understanding of Morrissey’s project – which, mind you, is not an apology for it – and maybe a better take on the malicious politics of the dreaded 55+ demographic. Morrissey sees Islam as an affront to the sort of secular humanist values that are usually called progressive by those who have no problem throwing stones at the church. Never mind its ahistoricity; this belief is not incompatible with his support for gay rights and animal liberation and his longstanding condemnation of all forms of religious faith. Remember that Ann Marie Waters, the infamous politician Morrissey supports, does not view herself as a reactionary: she wants to keep Muslims out of the UK because she believes their worldview is incompatible with science and progress and feminism and buttsex and a whole bunch of other delightful stuff that isn’t in the Koran. She sees herself as a descendent of the suffragettes, fighting agents of ignorance and intolerance.
And it is a sad truth that many (though not all) of the people down with the Great Replacement theory feel just as she does. They hear “Only A Pawn In Their Game”, and they imagine that that pawn is the beleaguered working class white man, assaulted by a press corps in the pocket of national security agencies and billionaire corporations, all conspiring to rig the system against the little guy. And never mind that that’s not what Bob Dylan meant, because… look, what did Bob mean, anyway? That guy was always vague. Gauche populism was part of the marketing strategy from the outset. He was more than happy to be whatever you wanted him to be, as long as you believed that you, and he, were in the know.
So even if we haven’t learned anything new about Morrissey today, maybe we’ve learned something important about Bob Dylan. And maybe we’ve learned even more about certain members of the Baby Boom generation – those now turning to radically unpleasant solutions and voting for demagogues, former hippies who view their belligerent non-cooperation with orthodox liberal institutions (they’d call them neo-liberal) as an extension of a resistance culture they misremember from the sixties. Maybe the ugliness was always there. And maybe they told us not to trust anybody over 30 because they always knew, deep down, exactly where they were heading.
Worst Song On A Good Album And Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better
Taylor Swift, “London Boy” and “ME”. Good news and bad news, people. Take the bitter with the sweet, as Carole King put it. I’m happy to say that the fetching version of Taylor is back, as it had largely been M.I.A. on the last two sets, rife as they were with stories of getting borracho at celebrity events plus the obligatory complaints about social media. Way beneath her talents, if you ask me. She’s also writing lyrics with the sort of observational specificity that’s awfully rare in pop, even if she’s still unwilling to observe anything that doesn’t affect her personally. However, she no longer has the patience or discipline for the sort of linear storytelling that she did so effortlessly on the first four records. Or maybe she doesn’t think synthpop can accommodate it? Who can know the mind of a Taylor Swift. Popularity at this level does lead to warped priorities and scrambled synapses.
The bigger problem is that she refuses to push her composition into new territory. Too many of these eighteen newies are straight-up reiterations of tracks from her back catalog, and only so much of this conservatism can be pinned on the rigid Mr. Antonoff, slave to the relative minor. Taylor Swift wrote so much so quickly that it was inevitable that she’d start repeating herself as her production outpaced her experience. But this is, as you’ve noticed by now, a very intelligent woman. If she cares about her art as much as she says she does, you’d figure she’d recognize the problem and take some evasive action. In all art forms, risk aversion plus attenuation of urgency equals mush, and some of the weaker tracks on Lover are the sonic equivalent of baby food. Even as her (pop) star continues to ascend, she’s been stuck in neutral as a writer and musician for three albums now. If she wants to be remembered as a writer and musician first, rather than as a (pop) star, she ought to plot a course correction.
Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat
Vampire Weekend’s “Sunflower”.
Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year
“Wasted Youth” by Jenny Lewis.
Worst Song Of The Year
The Mountain Goats — “Doc Gooden”. In general, I do not think I hold, or value, idiosyncratic opinions. I like The Wizard Of Oz and Elizabeth Warren and Harry Potter books and Monet’s Water Lilies; that’s about where my tastes are. I do defend a lot of unpopular music, but that’s only because I like music in general. I pitch a pretty big tent. Similarly, there’s not a lot that I don’t like because everybody else likes it; we all know about me and Radiohead, but I’m happy to give credit when it’s due to Greenwood and Selway, who are outstanding musicians.
But the Mountain Goats are different. Not since Leonard Cohen has there been an act about which I’m at such sharp variance with critical opinion. For the life of me I cannot figure out what the attraction is: the band doesn’t rock, beauty is beyond them, Darnielle isn’t much of a singer, and his lyrics always strike me as the sort of stuff that Will Sheff might chuck into the wastebasket with some vehemence. Even the concept on In League With Dragons seems designed to piss me off: this is supposed to be an album about D&D, but there’s no D&D content here at all, and I resent having been made to sift through this tedious hunk of junk in order to look for it.
To make matters more insulting, the Doc Gooden song is a total embarrassment. For starters, the timeline is wrong: if you’re older than 35 and you were in the NYC metro, Gooden is still quite present to you; he’s not a lost or forgotten anything. The LL Cool J quote doesn’t fit no matter how hard the band forces it, and the reference to the “speedball” is so corny and on the nose that I think Harry Chapin just rose from the dead. Finally, he’s got the scene-setting detail wrong – Gooden didn’t pitch his no-hitter in Seattle, he threw it at Yankee Stadium. if Darnielle was a baseball fan rather than a dilettante mining baseball (and Dungeons & Dragons) for crummy metaphors, he’d know that. I imagine he would say that’s beside his point, which is something stupidly obvious about the ephemerality of magic, I guess. But you open yourself up to pedantic criticism when you make pedantic songs. Because you know what would be cool?, an actual song about Dwight Gooden. Not Gooden as a vehicle for your dumb observations about life. He doesn’t deserve that. He didn’t resurrect the Mets franchise so he could be pity-used by some strumming fakeademic from Indiana. Spare us.
Okay, sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Positivity next, I promise.