So I wrote some more songs. I didn’t stop with the bunch I came up with in 2015; I’ve continued on in 2016. More cities, more narrators, more observations about America. For instance, we went to spring training in Arizona and caught the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, and a few days later I woke up with a chorus. Then I came up with another Valley of the Sun song, and Phoenix reminded me a bit of Las Vegas, so I got song number three out of the trip. Last week I fitted an old tag line to a new poem about Columbus, Ohio. It goes on: on Easter morning, I stumbled into a hook about a chocolate rabbit that inflated rapidly, as these things sometimes do, to the size of a song. A terrible song, probably; apologies to the bunny.
And that is the problem, to be frank: I don’t know which of these ideas are worth pursuing and which are just bad leads. Some of my songwriting inspirations — Tennant and Lowe, for instance, or Van the Man — were able to release song after song and maintain a high level of quality. I’m… pretty sure that’s not me. In retrospect, it’s easy to see which of my compositions were mediocre (too many) and which were good enough to make public. Unfortunately for me, it’s always a long ride to Retrospect. When I’m coming up with a new one — these Arizona songs, for instance — I always imagine that they’re the best, most exciting songs ever written, and that I’m going to perform them and the crowd at the rock club will go wild. This is as true for the stinkers as it is for the ones that actually deserve to go into the repertoire, so by now, I should rule myself out as a decent arbiter of the quality of my own work.
Noel Gallagher (there’s that guy again) once said something to this effect: if you come up with a song at night, sleep on it, and if you don’t remember how it goes in the morning, by this sign you’ll know that it wasn’t so hot. This is sensible advice, even if it does feel overly solicitous of the radio gods. Yet there’s a big part of me that rejects it outright. Many of the best songs on any album aren’t immediately recognizable as such. They don’t come up with a smile and shake your hand; they tap your shoulder and wait, coyly, to be noticed. One of my favorites of the new bunch is a song that I wrote when I was sick, and for a week afterward, I was pretty sure it was a throwaway piece of junk. If I hadn’t demoed it, I would have forgotten it. But I did, coughing and sneezing and cursing my need to always have a new one to send to my friends, and about a month later I realized that it was indispensable to the project. In fact, a line from that song is now prominently displayed on this page. That song is now so deeply embedded in my consciousness that it’s hard to imagine my musical life before I wrote it. If I’d followed Noel Gallagher’s guidance, it would have been vaporware.
An old bandmate who doubled as an astute critic of Tris McCall once told me that the longer I work on something, the more trouble I get into. It was this bandmate’s position that I did my best work when I was excited and confused and unsure about what I wanted to say, and once I figured it out, I’d start writing to serve the concept rather than the other way around. I’d get where I was going and then settle into a formula, and instead of discovery, I’d become a musical journalist, stamping out new tunes based on theoretical arguments I’d already settled with myself. This critique fit very well into this bandmate’s worldview. To be honest, it also fits well into mine. I took it to heart, and in the past, I’ve tried to be careful about it, and to switch things up and confuse myself once I feel like I’m getting complacent. But if this were true, these additional American Almanac songs would be crummy, or tired, or deadly formulaic, and I don’t believe they are. Maybe it’s the size of the subject that’s helping, or maybe America just makes me feel unsettled. Either way, I’m going to keep them coming until I run out of cities or my collaborators cry uncle. If I look back with total embarrassment on some of this stuff in five years, that won’t be a new experience for me. It’s unlikely that I’m now reaching the stage where every musical idea I come up with is worth following, but who knows?, maybe I’ve turned a corner. A fellow can hope. Maybe I’ve attained a baseline level of quality control, and they’re all pretty good now. Except for the one about the bunny. That one sucks.
Me ‘n’ Steven differ on many subjects, including cycling, otters, and the proper condimento to heap on top of a plate of linguine. Yet there is one thing on which we always agree, and that thing is: power ballads. We love them. Many are the mediocre albums we’ve sifted through just to locate the big, cheesy fist-pumper to play and replay. I thought I knew everything I could possibly know about the tight relationship between Steven and ballads.
So I was recently surprised to learn — straight from the horse’s mouth, or text messenger — that Steven doesn’t think that a power ballad should be placed fourth on a standard pop-rock album. He believes that a band jeopardizes its forward momentum by downshifting early in a set. This not-uncommon sequencing phenomenon reminds him of the miserable days when the ’83 Mets batted the lead-footed George Foster cleanup. Foster had plenty of power, but no speed. Everything got clogged on the basepaths, innings died, and Frank Cashen spent late nights crying on the phone.
Now, if you’d ever asked me where the power ballad ought to go on a pop-rock album, without hesitation I would have said fourth, and I would have been deadly resolute about that. Yet it occurs to me that I have no clear idea why that is. When I have no clear idea, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, the bad vibes I produce are harmful to my house plant (a jade). Certainly I have listened to a buttload of albums, but Steven, in his capacity as the major domo of Piano’s Blooze Bar & Grill, has experienced a buttload of his own. Could he be right? Was I jumping the gun on the big ballad? A few days after writing an essay about, among other things, the new possibilities of record sequencing in our zany digital era, here was an example of a music listener to whom the order of songs matters deeply. I, alas, cannot and do not write power ballads; I write disempowerment chants, protest songs, uptempo synthesizer freakouts. But if I did (and perhaps you do), I’d want to know how to sequence it in order to achieve maximum vainglory. Where should the power ballad go? Where, historically, has it gone?
Well… Aerosmith stuck “Dream On” third on their debut album. KISS buried “Beth” on the second side of Destroyer, and Poison put “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” in the same position. “November Rain” was somewhere in the bowels of Use Your Illusion I, while “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Stairway To Heaven” were both in that magic number four slot. So was the less-epic “Sister Christian,” and “The Search Is Over,” and “Love Bites” and Bryan Adams’ classic “Heaven”; all of those were cleanup hitters. Heart was a little bolder about frontloading the balladry: both “What About Love” and “Alone” were placed second on their sets. “Always,” the gooiest power ballad in Bon Jovi’s boardwalk-caramel repertoire, slotted in at number four on Cross Road; “Wanted Dead Or Alive” closed side one of Slippery When Wet in the fifth spot. “Faithfully” did the same honors in the same position on Frontiers, but Journey fans had to wait for the very end of Escape to hear “Open Arms.” “Home Sweet Home”? That was another number five, right before you flipped the cassette (or didn’t) on Theatre Of Pain.
But wait a second: while some of these are awesome records, I can’t say I care for many of the albums that they’re from. I learned most of these songs straight from MTV. Even if it was a hair metal convention to put the power ballad fourth or fifth, I couldn’t possibly have acquired my ideas about pop-rock sequencing from Survivor. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Survivor album in my life. I must have gotten my funny ideas somewhere else. Maybe I just take the essentialist position that after twelve minutes of rock crunch and howling abandon, the stage is set for a slow-burning, heartrending, grotesque showstopper, and maybe Mutt Lange arrived at the same conclusion years earlier than I did.
More likely, I learned power ballad sequencing from the pop-rock albums I do listen to. Our favorite artists don’t usually talk about power ballads, since they don’t want to be associated with the worst excesses of the 1980s. But they certainly make them. Their power ballads may be more lyrically and harmonically sophisticated than “When I See You Smile” (or maybe not), but they’re stamped out from a similar template. Game Theory and the Loud Family, for instance, wrote many songs that were essentially power ballads — usually one per album, but sometimes more. Scott Miller used those ballads just as Steven Tyler might have: they came after a series of songs that attempted to make an impression on the listener by flashing hooks and choruses at a breakneck pace, signifying ‘tude, insouciance, musical ideas to burn. “Amelia, Have You Lost” took the cleanup spot on 2 Steps From the Middle Ages; “If And When It Falls Apart” closed the first side of Real Nighttime (fifth position, if you don’t count the eight second opening track), “Blackness Blackness” marked the end of the front half of Attractive Nuisance, and Days For Days had a medium-wattage ballad fourth and then a total slow-building powerhouse — “Sister Sleep,” the band’s version of “Stairway To Heaven”¹ — at the tail end of the set. My two favorites, though — “Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony” from Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things and Lolita Nation‘s sublime “Nothing New” — were strategically placed at the climax points of narrative/emotional arcs on long albums.
Paramore arrived at the mutually assured destruction stage of band development quicker than many, but I hope we can all agree that at their non-litigious best, these kids made first-rate pop-rock. They, too, tend to slot the power ballad deeper in the album than the lite metal bands generally did. “When It Rains,” the first ballad on Riot! , comes fifth, but “We Are Broken,” the real showstopper, is saved for the back half of the album. Brand New Eyes features five tracks of sturm und drang in various flavors before Hayley Williams hits you with “The Only Exception”²; “Misguided Ghosts,” a gentler number, sets up the proggy, sludgy conclusion. I count “Last Hope”, which is probably what they used to call a midtempo ballad, among the lighter-wavers, but the real tender track on Paramore, “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” is saved for the home stretch. The turn away from the power ballad, which is a Warped Tour circuit staple, was probably part of the band’s strategy to shed the emo tag once and for all. I’m not sure they did that. Once they’re through suing each other, that’s something they should work out.
I know nobody is trying to hear this, and I completely understand why. But before they turned the songwriting over to Deep Blue, Maroon 5 was an exemplary pop-rock band (yes, band!) with exemplary showstoppers. “Never Going To Leave This Bed” and “Won’t Go Home Without You,” which are similar songs, held down the fifth position on Hands All Over and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. “She Will Be Loved,” the sopping-wet power ballad that made them a Thing, hit cleanup on Songs About Jane. Adam Levine kinda abandoned the power ballad once he capitulated utterly to contemporary Top 40 logic, rather than try to bend it to his will, which was the group’s initial strategy. Not coincidentally, the same thing has happened with the modern master of crowd-pleasing traditionalist songwriting: Taylor Swift. In days of yore, a fan could set his watch by her sequencing — a big, yearning mid-tempo number would come third, followed by a coy genre piece, followed by the devastated, torchy, confessional ballad designed to bring down the house for the star and opprobrium on the rake who’d wronged her (“Dear John,” “White Horse,” “All Too Well”). On 1989, there aren’t any ballads until the second side, and the one we got was mostly an attempt to nose a fender into Lana Del Rey’s lane. Power ballads and electropop are incompatible: process the analog signals to hell and back if you must, if you don’t have a real drummer and a real guitarist, you end up with a pile of digital mush.³
Which is probably why they dig them in Nashville. Pop-country outfits love power ballads. Some music-mill artists — including some very good ones — attempt to freight every album with multiple power ballads, which does get grueling even for Mayor McCheese over here. Male country singers have taken to frontloading their ballads: Blake Shelton ran “Lonely Tonight” third on Bringing Back The Sunshine; Brad Paisley put “Perfect Storm” in the same position on Moonshine In The Trunk. Miranda Lambert, my favorite practitioner, is a little more judicious about it: since she’s got her tough-guy reputation to maintain, she tends to lead with barnburners. “Love Letters,” the first ballad (and fifth track) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is more of a Western saloon song than an arena rocker, for instance, and “More Like Her,” the real showstopper, doesn’t arrive until two songs later. “Dead Flowers” does bat third on Revolution, but the most traditional power ballad in the Lambert repertoire — “Over You,” from Four The Record — waits in the grass until number nine. “Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” the cleanup hitter on Platinum, is a ballad of sorts, but it’s more mid-period Mac than musclebound masher, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, I didn’t get into Miranda Lambert, or any other mainstream country album, until 2010. By that point, I’d already been making records with various pop-rock outfits for a million years. I must have gotten my ideas about sequencing from somewhere else — likely something I was spinning when I made my first serious decisions about the order of a songs on an album. Back in 1995, I helped sequence the first Favorite Color album, and as it was my first time stringing together real studio tracks, I wanted to get the order right. The biggest proximate influence on that Favorite Color album was Blur, which was just about the only group in the world that everybody involved in the group could agree was good. The Great Escape, Blur’s ’95 album, does indeed contain a power ballad, even if Damon Albarn would never, ever call it that: “The Universal,” my favorite song of theirs by a wide margin, and the seventh track on the set. Not coincidentally, we ran “Mergers & Acquisitions,” the closest thing the Favorite Color had to a power ballad, seventh on our album.ª
Blur wasn’t the only Britpop band we were paying attention to, though, and they weren’t my act of choice. In the hyped-up battle of the U.K. then occurring, my sympathies were with Oasis, since their big goony-bird sound suited my big goony-bird personality. Oasis also had an album out in 1995: What’s The Story (Morning Glory). Might there have been a huge, fish ‘n’ chip greasy, beer-swinging power ballad on that set? Let’s check the tracklist and see….
…well, yes. Yes there was. “Don’t Look Back In Anger” contains pretty much everything I want from a power ballad. It’s played at top volume, its lyrics contain a long skein of fist-pumping slogans, the band wrings every ounce of drama out of each step in the chord progression, there’s a woman’s name in the chorus, there’s a prominent major-to-minor change in the chorus, there’s a guitar solo that transcends cliche through pure conviction and nothing but, the drummer hits the skins like he’s trying to break them, and the singer takes it to the outer limit of his modest vocal ability (Liam Gallagher, you’ll remember, was on the bench for this one, and Noel sang lead himself.) Sure enough, Oasis batted that one cleanup, and clean up it totally did. Heavy metal album pacing aside, I believe that the entire reason I expect the power ballad to be sequenced fourth because of my fond memories of the “Don’t Look Back In Anger” experience. Noel Gallagher was such a committed formalist that it’s likely he put his power ballad fourth because John Lennon or Marc Bolan did. He slotted “Stand By Me,” another power ballad, fourth on Be Here Now; “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” a “Don’t Look Back” redux, ran #4 on Heathen Chemistry. Worth noting: the British rock star most respectful of classic rock precedent (if never any of his peers or bandmates) firmly believed that the showstopper went in the number four position, which suggests, if anything does, that there’s something to the notion that it’s the proper home for a power ballad.
I’ve mentioned forty-seven songs in this post. Even if you’d like to quibble about the power they pack, they’re certainly all ballads, and they sure are dramatic ones. The average tracklist position of those ballads is 4.936. Just about every song I chose to list came off the top of my head, so confirmation bias inclined me toward cleanup-hitters. Steven, I conclude, may well have a point — but it’s probably not a fine a point as the one on the needle of his favorite deejay’s turntable. Most sabermetricians now argue that it doesn’t really matter that much where players bat in the lineup — as consequential as the decision to hit Speedy Johnny ahead of Slugger Pete feels, it’s worth, at the very most, a handful of runs over the course of a single season. I wonder if something similar could be said about album sequences. Everything I believe I know about music tells me otherwise, and probably you feel the same way too, but if My Aim Is True or More Adventurous had been presented to you with tracks shuffled, how much quality would they have lost for you? Imagine the most suboptimal running order you can, and then ask yourself: after a couple of plays, would this begin to feel natural to me? After a time or two through a set, the first couple of tracks are no longer a handshake to the uninitiated: they’re just part of series of songs that’s best apprehended as a body of work. Many great albums do tell a linear story, but with a few notable exceptions, I’ve come to believe that line could be radically redrawn without losing the conceptual essence of the whole. That’s not to say I’d ever want to; like Noel Gallagher, I cherish classic rock conventions and take no small satisfaction when they’re reinforced. If brilliant sequencing makes 1% of difference in the quality of an album, I still believe it’s worth sweating that 1%, because everything about an album is worth considering carefully. But whether you want to run your power ballad fourth, or fifth, or last, or as a hidden track available at Wal-Mart only, chances are, you’re in good company.°
¹”Stairway” and “Sister Sleep” aren’t exactly built like lite the metal power ballads are — they’re much longer and more intricate, for one thing. You might insist that songs that begin slowly and snap midway to an uptempo section require a different category. I don’t; I think they’re power ballads, or at the very least, kissing cousins of power ballads. The power ballad in sequence is, at heart, an attempt to extend the intensity of a pop-rock album by means other than speed and effrontery, and an attempt to intervene in the monotony of the single-tempo album. That’s why they’re so wonderfully bombastic. They pour the thermoactive liquid compound into a wider and clearer vessel.
²Likewise, I’ve heard it said (by cretins) that a true power ballad can’t be in 6/8. To me, the hallmarks of a power ballad are a pleasantly hamfisted approach by the drummer and rhythm guitarist, an overwrought performance by the frontperson that demonstrates technical and emotional range, and maybe a screaming solo. That can happen in any old time signature.
³Just now, in the car, Hilary explained the appeal of the power ballad like this: “You need real drums, hitting hard, to get your heart pumping, and the blood coursing through your veins to remind you you’re alive.” We were listening to “Change,” the last number on Fearless. Blood was coursing.
ªCome to think of it, I badly wanted “Mergers & Acquisitions” to sound like “Hand In My Pocket,” which was the quasi-ballad in the magic number four spot on Jagged Little Pill. The rest of the band plus the producers much preferred Blur to Alanis Morissette, so I probably talked up “The Universal” in the control room as a reference point. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know what I was doing.
°Just for the hell of it, and because I’m shooting the breeze and having fun here, I thought I’d look at the sequencing decisions of some of my favorite pop-rock albums of the last couple of years. “Aluminum Crown,” the cleanup hitter from Aureate Gloom, starts out slow and dramatic and then speeds up. But Kevin Barnes throws so many variations into his songs that it’s probably more accurate to treat him like a prog-rocker with a penchant for formal experimentation than the power pop champ he could be if he ever wanted to be. After a frantic start, Ezra Furman takes down the tempo on track number four of Perpetual Motion People, and then gets slower yet for number five, but waits until seven for the statement ballad. Natalia Lafourcade’s Hasta La Raiz is another pop-rock album that gets slower and more serious as it goes along. “No Mas Llorar,” an American- style power ballad, closes the set, right after “Estoy Lista,” a long-and-winding-road power ballad. She probably didn’t need both of them, but she’s such a great singer and songwriter that I don’t mind a bit; really, people, I can’t recommend Natalia Lafourcade highly enough. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is another classicist who likes to put the first slow song fourth — but the real power ballad on Currents, “Cause I’m A Man,” doesn’t come until the album’s second side. Short Movie also downshifts after a couple of electric guitar numbers — “Walk Alone,” track number four, is an acoustic ballad, but for my money, it’s more intense than all the ’80s hair metal showstoppers put together. Laura Stevenson made the unusual decision to kick off Cocksure with the power ballad “Out With A Whimper.” She probably thought it was too good to be buried, and if she did, she was right. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness doesn’t really have a ballad on it — it takes off easy, cruises at a steady altitude without much chop, and lands smoothly without circling the airport. Okkervil River got mid-tempo-ish on “Down Down The Deep River,” slowed down to a psychedelic stroll two tracks later with “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” but saved the power ballad “All The Time Every Day” for the penultimate track on Poll winner The Silver Gymnasium. Finally, Carl Newman actually has a designated cleanup hitter in the New Pornographers: Dan Bejar, who has contributed song number four to the last three albums. On the three albums before that, he handled song number five. Get enough hits, and the manager will move you up in the order.
As you probably know by now, Kanye West has a new project called The Life Of Pablo. Chances are good that you also know that the publication of The Life Of Pablo has been unorthodox. After months of delays, an initial version of Pablo was either leaked or released — it’s hard to tell — right around Valentine’s Day. After many people thought they’d gotten their hands on the new Kanye West album, he withdrew Pablo, remixed some of the songs, and added several cuts (he blamed the switcheroo on junior partner Chance The Rapper, who’d argued for the inclusion of a song that hadn’t been on the first release.) There was also a Madison Square Garden performance that may or may not have been an album release party, some high-profile Twitter battles with other musicians, and angry, early-P.E.-style notes from the artist asking white critics not to review music made by black musicians anymore. When West restricted the release of Pablo to the Tidal streaming service, thousands of fans chose to rip the album rather than buy a subscription. West has refused to report the official Tidal streams to Billboard, so we’ll never know how much money his decision cost him¹. The Daily Mail estimated that he left ten million dollars on the table. I think they’re full of it, since many fans would have swiped the album anyway, but the point remains: Pablo didn’t make the money it could have if Kanye West had released it conventionally.
To add to the confusion: even though The Life Of Pablo has been out for two months and many fans have already paid for it, it’s now clear that West isn’t finished with the album. He’s been tinkering with the tracks, and he reserves the right to continue working on Pablo until he’s satisfied with it. So are you willing to purchase a Tidal subscription to get a Kanye West album that may not be the same as the Kanye West album you’ll get the next time you check in? Or are you going to rip today’s Pablo, call that the album, and hope that tomorrow’s Pablo isn’t substantially improved?
This may sound like a mess to you, and if so, you’re not alone. In the public discussion of The Life Of Pablo, Westhas been pilloried for the disastrous quality of the album’s rollout. This is supposed to go to character — Kanye is a loose cannon, a screw-up, and a mixed signal-sender who does and says crazy things and gets out of line and hurts Ms. T. Swift’s feelings, and is therefore deserving of a public comeuppance. But wait a second: why the heck am I supposed to care about Kanye West’s finances anyway? What difference does it make to me if his marketing strategy is faulty or weird? I’m not his business manager², I’m just a music fan. As a collector and occasional completist, it annoys me that West won’t release The Life Of Pablo on CD; there’s a shelf in our living room with the rest of his records on it, and it would be nice to add another. As a fussbudget critic who writes essays for fun, I would like Kanye West to finish The Life Of Pablo so I can bloviate about it to friends and compare and contrast it with his prior projects. In other words, the pleasures he’s denying me here are kind of silly, stunted ones. And when I look at the publication of Pablo objectively, I begin to suspect that West, who never encounters an apple cart without trying to upset it or a henhouse without foxing around in it, might be on to something.
By releasing Pablo before it’s done, West isn’t just calling into question whether an album needs to be finished by its publication date. He’s questioning whether an album needs to be finished ever. A collection of songs called The Life Of Pablo now exists in the world, and it always will: once music is released, it can’t be unreleased. But given the flexibility of digital technology, there’s no real reason why an artist can’t keep fussing with — or maybe even radically reinterpreting — an album to his heart’s content. It’s possible that doing so will alienate or bewilder or frustrate more listeners than it attracts. But it’s equally plausible to me that fans of the artist will find the alterations fascinating and want to follow them all in the same obsessive way they might follow his tweets and posts³.
I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict that mutability is going to be a major and widely accepted characteristic of art in the 21st century. Nothing is going to stand still for long, and that’s because nothing has to. The hard-and-fast release date was a product of an era that fetishized the physical object: an album had to be released by a certain date because it was contained on a piece of plastic that needed to be manufactured at a plant and distributed to a retail outlet. This isn’t true anymore. I think we haven’t even begun the transformation in artistic forms that are likely to follow the de-coupling of works of art from artifacts. I’m going to guess at the implications — for the world, and for me — in a separate post.
¹Maybe it’s the San Francisco Giants fan in me (or maybe it’s just the song “Barry Bonds”) but I’ve always strongly associated West with Barry Bonds. Their similarities are so plentiful that they kinda demand their own Critics Poll essay; for now, I’ll just say that West’s self-imposed disappearance from the Billboard charts feels very much like Bonds’s decision to withhold his image from baseball cards and videogames. They both believe that their talent entitles them to a different set of rules than the ones that everybody else follows. And if there weren’t a few people around who felt and acted that way, the world would be a duller place with fewer balls in McCovey Cove, and slower croissant service.
²I believe that’s Pusha T’s problem now. I love Pusha T, so maybe I ought to be mad at Kanye on his behalf.
³I can’t help but notice that aficionados love to go behind the scenes, too; if you make music, you’re probably acquainted with people who play around with the stems of Beatles recordings, and the like, in their home studios.
In the early days of the Internet, nobody knew exactly how to write on these digital walls, so by and large we scribbled graffiti up here — sometimes of monstrous dimensions — and hoped for the best. This was wonderful, in my opinion: early Internet was wild, and irresponsible, and full of overwriting and formal experimentation and seeing what might stick. What made the Internet a rewarding place to write was that if you happened to change your mind about what you wanted to say, you could just hop back online and amend your piece as often as you wanted. This was an marvelous, revelatory thing for those of us who were accustomed to the brutal finality of print, and its liberating power had much to do with the first efflorescence of ‘net literary creativity. The web promised no limitations. A post was something alive and permeable. Pieces of writing were never totally finished, because they never had to be. Print seemed barbaric by comparison.
That changed. Money poured in, and investors sought credibility by mimicking the conventions of offline publications. Websites started to look and feel like the established newspapers and magazines many of us hoped they’d obviate. The early ‘net writers, who weren’t too professional (bless them) about what they were doing, were replaced by actual journalists who led with their integrity. Once they published a post, it almost never changed. It was as if they were still writing in ink, and the screen was an endless scroll of paper, and once words were written, they were seared into the mainframe processors and couldn’t be budged.
You might argue that this is the Internet grown-up; that the Wild West days couldn’t last because that’s not what people want. I look at it a little differently. I see the current state of the Internet as a predictable overreaction to the frightening openness of the first iteration of the web. The present conservatism and conformity of the ‘net strikes me as unsustainable — not because people are craving innovation, but because the sheer volume of possibilities will eventually overwhelm our reservations and force a course correction. The ugly truth is that we’re acting neurotic, and like all neuroses, ours can be cured if we confront it with courage. If a document can be amended, and changed, and pushed around and stretched, and reinterpreted, and multiplied, and blasted into rainbow-colored shards by users, why the hell wouldn’t we do all that, every time? We’re clinging to vestigial forms because we’re comfortable with them, and for no other reason. The pendulum will swing back in the direction of mutability, and it’s going to have consequences for all forms of expression. Writing, and recording, and all the rest of it — sooner or later, it’s all going to get jailbroken.
I have always believed that the people who don’t see a future for the album are confusing the physical artifact, which is doomed, with the essence of the form, which is totally imaginary and therefore immune to technological shifts. Songs just sound too good in sequence and make too many statements when placed next to each other for the album to budge from its place as one of the basic units of consumption for music listeners. The aesthetic and popular success of records like To Pimp A Butterfly and the Donnie Trumpet project and Short Movie, just to name a few examples — all sets made by young musicians — proves to me that artists still believe very much in the album as an optimal carrier of musical and lyrical ideas. That’s probably never going to change. Nevertheless, I believe we’re all still treating the album like something etched into the grooves of a piece of plastic, and therefore fixed forever like a snapshot. I sure could be wrong, but I think this is vestigial, and bound to change soon.
One thing that may disappear, quick, is the release date. As long as there are musicians willing to celebrate their accomplishments, the release party isn’t going anywhere, but it might soon announce the inauguration of a period of changes done in public, Pablo style, instead of a finishing point. A comma, in other words, rather than a period. If an album exists, primarily, on a computer server, there’s no good reason why it wouldn’t be open to reinterpretation by its authors. Suppose, for instance, an album was left intentionally open-ended — the artist makes it public with eight songs, and then continues adding tracks, updating a website regularly, like a webcomic might. That’s not so different from what Kanye just did with The Life Of Pablo — he introduced it with a bunch of tracks, some of which had already leaked, and then pulled it back and added a bunch more. He was ridiculed for this, and the way he did it made the project look sloppy and incomplete. But what if he’d said from the start that he reserved the right to release Pablo slowly, over time, and make alterations while his fans watched? Some of those fans might have lost interest, but I think others would’ve be intrigued by the experiment.
Our popular model of an artist who can’t leave well enough alone is George Lucas, who keeps screwing with Star Wars movies that were fixed in the public imagination decades ago. We don’t like what Lucas is doing with his own creation; his autoapostasy has engendered a whole industry of second-second-guessers who believe they know better what’s appropriate to the Star Wars universe. But regardless of my feelings about whether Han Shot First, I have come to believe that Lucas, too, is ahead of the curve here. And now I’m giving you nightmares about a senescent Roger Waters adding a Netanyahu beef track to an album as seamless as The Dark Side Of The Moon. But what about the thousands and thousands of albums that aren’t The Dark Side Of The Moon? It’s the very rare set that wouldn’t benefit from an after-the-fact editorial revision or tracklist shuffle. In days of yore, if Andy Partridge wanted to add “Dear God” to Skylarking (not that he necessarily should have), that required an additional pressing and shipping and all the associated record company expenditures and accompanying guilt trips. When it’s as easy as clicking a mouse, why the heck wouldn’t you click that mouse? Convention is the only thing staying the artist’s hand.
There is probably a point at which even the most resolute tinkerer would cease monkeying with a project, because he’d moved on to different themes and concerns, and the time had come for a new conceptual frame for his work. Part of the reason we don’t accept the Lucas revisions of Star Wars is because he feels like a totally different man now than the space hellion he was in 1977, and how could he not be?, that was forty damn years ago. But that’s a call for the critics to make. Artists can go ahead and kickstart the process by bending some rules. For instance, what’s to stop an established musician from announcing that everything she intends to post on her website in the year 2016 constitutes a single album? She’d introduce some songs to general circulation in January, and maybe she’d amend them in February, add a few in March, remix it all in April, upload videos in May, and etcetera? Or add or amend a song every week for fifty-two weeks? Come December, she could put a bow on it, call it a completed work, and begin afresh with a new album in 2017. I think her fans would find that very exciting. Wouldn’t you tune in for regular updates to Superpablo? I know I would.
Likewise, I think there’s a very good chance that album sequencing is going to open up, too. The single-sequence album is, once again, prisoner to physical realities that don’t really apply anymore: every song had a specific position on a reel of tape, and that position had to be determined by the artist and producer and the tracks couldn’t budge once they were dedicated. Many musicians put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the sequencing of their tracks, and that’s understandable — the order in which songs are presented to the listener is a non-negligible part of the experience of the album. But there’s nothing that says the musicians couldn’t present fans with two sequences, or twenty-two, or, for that matter, they could give them none at all and encourage them to choose their own adventure. Some progressive rock sets are so linear that the song order can’t really be fudged — I’m thinking of Scarlet’s Walk now, but there are a few others. But the vast majority of albums — even concept albums — are linked by theme and tone and don’t necessarily follow a straight narrative. King Of America is an extremely coherent album, but I bet Elvis Costello could shuffle that deck and deal all kinds of winning hands. A future release could have an artist-sanctioned, “official” sequence supplemented by alternate sequences, or different sequences meant to suit different moods. Albums could be designed to accommodate various sequencing: a set of twenty tracks could be broken down into two sequences with separate titles, and those might contain subsequences, like Russian nesting dolls. All this seems inevitable to me. Artists love the ambiguity of forking paths.
Most radically of all, I think the new digital conditions of musical production are bound to prompt a redrawing of the dividing line between the artist and her listener. I can imagine an album in the not-so-distant future released unfinished and incomplete, along with a set of instructions left for you to fill in the blanks. Wouldn’t you be compelled by that? Say Paul McCartney put out an album of stems and vocal tracks, and provided you with the tools and codes to do the rest. Remixers have been working like this for many, many years, but they’ve usually taken tracks that are already complete and they’ve turned them inside out. An officially authorized incomplete release — a coloring book — would make every listener into a potential remixer. Now that nearly everybody has an audio suite on their computer, it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising artist figures out how to release music directly to the software, and also how to allow fans to upload their versions to a central clearinghouse. Q: are the original stems the album, or is that collaborative website the album, or is the album something in between? A: Yes, and yes, and yes; it’s all the album. The album was and is bigger than anybody realized. We’ve only begun to probe its parameters.
All of this is contingent on the continued migration of the album to the Internet. Which is something that’s not going to make everybody happy, I realize; independent artists lost a very valuable tool for self-promotion when the CD became obsolete. Barring a technological meltdown that isn’t going to happen, those days aren’t coming back, so I figure it’s better to light a single computer screen than curse the darkness. I will save my feelings about Spotify and other streaming services for another post, but it’s safe to assume that if Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom agree about something, I’m going to agree about it, too. But I don’t think that just because record companies are allowing a bunch of Swedes to royally screw their artists means that technological change and the decoupling of the album from its physical form spells doom for professional musicians. That’s how the cookie is crumbling at the moment, but there’s no reason we can’t turn it around if we’re willing to get creative, stand up for our rights, and maybe tell some of these parasites to take a hike. It would really grease the gears of change if artists embrace the creative commons license and release their music for free, but I am aware man cannot live on barre chords alone. I just hope we all realize that there’s no contradiction between experimentation and enterprise. Reality may or may not be silly putty, but the album definitely is — so let’s stretch it, and pull it, and press it into strange shapes, and roll it up and mash it down, and use it to copy the funnies.
Patrick Hambrecht of Flaming Fire dropped me a line about an electronic music festival that’s happening this weekend over on West Side Avenue. Apparently Patrick and Michael Durek — who you might know as an ace theremin guy — have been doing these events for awhile now, and I guess I’ve been too busy playing videogames to notice. The name of the party is Zip Zap Vroom, and that handle alone should have caught my attention. Anyway, I’m going to be talking to Patrick about it today for a Jersey City Independent piece, and then I’ll be able to report a few more details. Show’s on Saturday and the spot is 746 West Side. Camilla Ha, whose performances tend to be completely nuts, is on the bill, as is Leon Dewan, who will likely be bringing some of his homebrew synthesizers.
I’ll know better when I speak to Patrick, but offhand this sounds like one of those old-school, weirdass multimedia events that I associate with the freewheeling era of Jersey City — which might not be surprising, since Flaming Fire was part of that Perhapstransparent scene that used to art-prank this town semi-regularly. Looks like he’s still at it, and I’m glad he is. Meanwhile, over here in the supervised downtown, there are a few spots booking music semi-regularly, including Porta Pizza, where tireless Tony Susco has been presenting bands, and the Citizen, which was once the Dopeness. About a week ago, I caught Brother Stephen from the Multi-Purpose Solution with a new outfit called Lip Action at Jersey City Studios, which is in that yellow building at 143 Columbus that has been an arts location from time immemorial¹. Add that to Lucky 7 and Monty Hall and that vape shop on Monmouth, and we may have something cooking even if White Eagle Hall never bothers to open.
Usually on St. Patrick’s Day I duck and cover, but I am aware that there’ll be music out there amongst all the beers and shamrocks, and I’d like to direct your attention to some of it. For instance, from the Nothing Ever Dies department, Experiment 34 is celebrating a CD release at the Court Tavern in Hub City on Thursday night. Experiment 34 is a relatively new band, but the Court is no new place — it’s hosted a trillion CD releases since I first became aware of it in the early ’90s, and probably a trillion more before that. The band’s nervy hard rock feels equally informed by the Doors, Led Zep, and the early Chili Peppers, which makes these guys the latest carriers of a tradition that has kept the Court buzzing through its many near-death experiences. Thursday night is likely to feel very much like 1996 and 2006 did, and also much like 2026 in Hub City, too. Mercy Brown would approve.
Finally, on the subject of Jersey clubs that are forever: I made my debut at the eternal Crossroads in Garwood on Sunday night. I say this not to toot my own horn (especially since I am still as rusty as an abandoned bike) but to remind you that the show was a fundraiser for Jay Lustig’s NJarts.net, which still needs your assistance and support. I helped Jim Testa out on a protest number about Chris Christie, played a solo version of “Sugar Nobody Wants,” and covered Lyle Lovett’s “Walk Through The Bottomlands”. The last one was the fun part of the evening for me, since I was able to rope Ronni Reich, who I will always think of as the classical music critic at the Ledger no matter what else she does, to sing the Emmylou Harris harmony on the chorus. Ronni was able to impart some dignity and class to my performance — plus she wore cowboy boots. Now that I discovered that she works on 23rd Street, I’m going to get her to help me out with the new recordings. She’s been drafted into the Tris McCall marines. Sorry, Ronni. And thank you.
¹143 Columbus was the first place I ever saw live music in Jersey City — back in ’92, it was home to the Teaux Jam, who, despite their horrific name, were a really fantastic outfit. They lived together in a loft space that contained a sculpture by Brian Dewan, who always seemed to be around that building. See, it’s all connected. Later that space became the Waterbug Hotel, which was definitely an honest name to hang on it.
“To write about one’s own country is the most problematic form of autobiography. The knowledge one accumulates of one’s homeland, like the knowledge of one’s self, is so varied and complex, so objective and subjective at every turn, that one interpretation soon gives way to another. In the end, for all the careful notes and no matter how much one has read and pondered, one is left with the problem of one’s unconscious motivations.” — Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness
When writing journalism, it’s usually best to be responsible. When writing songs, it’s always best to be irresponsible. Journalism ought to be clear and transparent; pop music should be translucent and messed up. Sometimes I’ve confused the two. I’ve gotten my chocolate in your peanut butter. Tell me if it’s yummy like a Reese’s or just a nasty mess.
An Empire Wilderness was one of the initial working titles I was considering for this suite of songs I’m putting together. I’m not gonna use it; that’s Robert Kaplan’s elegant phrase and he doesn’t need my filthy fingerprints on it. Since all I seem to want to write about lately is my own country, I want to take his words of warning seriously.
Are these songs problematic? I certainly hope they are. It has come to my attention that all good pop is problematic. As for my unconscious motivations, I’m going to leave them to the critics to riddle out. That means you, partner. I’ll be counting on you, OK?
Every one of these new songs is set in a different American city. First I imagined a setting, and then I made up a character who lived there, or who was just passing through, and I recorded his impressions, or his predicament, in the lyrics. Some of the songs mention the city in which it’s set, others just allude to landmarks, and a few don’t give away their geopositioning at all. My only guideline: once I’ve written a song about a city, I’m not allowed to make a return trip. I have to direct my attention to another part of the USA. The album as American travelogue is nothing new: Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, just to give you two examples, follow similar logic. But I believe that my unconscious motivations are sufficiently peculiar to me, and my roll around the map is going to feel like a singular experience for anybody who jumps in a bucket seat beside me.
Twenty-nine songs covering twenty-nine different cities: that’s too much cot damned music for a conventional indiepop album. But in a big country dreams stay with you, and as I said yesterday, I’m determined to fill out the map by cutting and releasing as much of this stuff as I can. That presents me with a conundrum, which is not quite as nice as being presented with a corundum (ruby). I could allow a producer, or a confidante, to help me select the best twelve songs irrespective of their place on the map, or I could honor the concept by forcing through a road-trip that covers the territory I want to reach. I could get really silly and make a double LP. Or I could try something else.
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you already know most of what I’m about to write. But on this big Internet there is still a chance that a stranger will darken the digital doorway, and if that’s you, I’m happy to have you here. My name is Tris, and I am a word-writer who spends an unjustifiable amount of time making music. In my life, I have written hundreds and hundreds of songs, many of which are, to be frank, downright awful. Songs come to me while I’m riding my bike, while I’m eating breakfast, while I’m in the swimming pool, even when I’m dreaming — and since everything feels like a winner to me when it’s fresh, I’ll always take the time to bring those ideas to some kind of tentative completion. (Later — sometimes much later — I’ll realize that some of these songs weren’t worth finishing, but I never learn my lesson.) For years, songwriting was like a tap that I could turn on as I pleased, which is not at all the same as saying that the water was pure or drinkable. I wasn’t always proud of my musicianship, and I didn’t have any claim to quality control, but I sure did like that the pilot light of inspiration never gutted out.
Around the beginning of this decade, I took a word-writing job that absorbed all of my energy. During the time I did that job — more than four years! — I didn’t write a single song. I didn’t mention this to my friends; I tried not to mention it to myself. But on a semi-conscious level, this bugged me. Soon, I reasoned, that job would come to its natural end, and the water would start rushing through the pipe again. Maybe the spigot would be rusty and there’d be pellets of lead clanging around in the bucket at first, but the plumbing was still intact. I hoped. It also occurred to me that nothing is forever, and just because I had no problem writing when I was a kid didn’t necessarily mean that I could switch it back on now that I’m an ancient red dragon. I started to wonder whether the batch of songs I’d written in 2009 might be the last I’d ever come up with. If so, was that really the way I wanted this story to end?
As it turned out, I couldn’t get the tap to work. Not even a trickle. The part of my brain responsible for music composition seemed to have burned out. I still loved music as much as I ever had, and listened as much as I ever had — I just had no ideas of my own, and I wondered whether I had anything left I wanted to express. Nothing came to me in the shower, or when I was reading the newspaper (that always used to do the trick), or when I was asleep. I attempted to console myself with the knowledge that I’d made four albums that were each, in its own way, pretty good, and that there were millions of people in this world who’d never heard them. Maybe instead of generating new material, I could turn my attention to my back catalog and move some digital copies. Then again, Hayden once sang “Write a song/all your old ones don’t mean a thing/If you don’t sing any new ones,” and I know exactly what he means. Besides, I’m not a marketer, I’m a mess-maker.
Then one day it changed. Like the flu, or a sleazy dude at a bar, it came on pretty quick. In Richmond I saw a guy leave a hardware store and stick a flag on a drape. On the same Carytown block, a couple of aggro kids with red, white and blue pins on their lapels hawked historic tours to gullible Yankees. Everything felt symbolic and ritualized. And I thought to myself “Saturday morning, shopkeeper yawning, hangs on the awning an American flag.” This is a very Randy Newman-ish stanza, and I heard it in Randy’s voice, and I put it to a Randy melody. Which I realized wouldn’t do at all. It’s one thing to be influenced by an artist you respect, and quite another to engage in mimicry. When I got back to Jersey, I turned the tune around, added a few more verses and a chorus, and called it a new number. The next day I wrote another. And then another.
I wrote 29 songs in 2015. Today I consider them the best I’ve ever done, but deep down I fear I’m dead wrong about that, and a year or two will give some perspective and throw some cold water on my delusions. So I decided not to give myself that year or two: while I’m enthusiastic about the material, I want to cut it all, while it’s fresh, and find a good way to put it out. Lucky I am that the people who are closest to me are entirely (and maybe unaccountably?) supportive of my renewed musical ambitions – they seem to want this happen as much as I do. They believe that I can pick up where I left off in 2009, and they want to help me get there.
I wish I shared their confidence. It occurs to me that many things may have happened over the years that might make it difficult for me to regain my footing as a performing musician. As a young person, I was usually able to draw and hold a crowd. I don’t know if I can do that anymore. My singing has always been an iffy proposition even when I was in practice, and vocal muscles do deteriorate over time. When I’m not playing with a band, my skills atrophy at an alarming rate. It’s depressing, not to mention time-consuming, to work every day just to get back to the level of functional competence that I believed I’d attained a few decades ago. There’s no guarantee that I can get in step with contemporary trends in recording, and writing, and presentation.
But what the hell, I was never in step with any of that stuff. If you liked my music, chances are you never did because it was au courant in any way, or because I had any relationship with the zeitgeist beyond total estrangement. Come to think of it, my awkwardness was probably part of the charm for the people who’d call themselves Tris McCall fans. As there was never any sex sell involved in my project, my advanced age and physical decrepitude shouldn’t be much of a hurdle to clear (at least for you.) As for the other stuff – playing and singing in tune and in rhythm – I’ve heard there have been further computerized advancements in this area since the turn of the decade. I intend to avail myself of all of them. You think I have shame? I have no shame.
So there you have it: I’m getting back into the music game. I expect this to be a long and agonizing process – a climb up a high and rocky hill – and I’m going to chronicle it here for the ill amusement of Whom It May Concern. If you came looking for the Critics Poll, well, that’s a February thing, and February is over. The calendar flips by quick; it’ll be poll time again before we know it. Until then, I hope you’ll join with me on my gurney, as Nordom the rogue modron from Planescape: Torment once said. The very worst that can happen is that I fall on my face and you get to indulge in some authorized schadenfreude. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It might just be the early spring sun, but today I think this may just be, in spite of everything, a story with a happy ending.
Think of your favorite movie, or your favorite book, or your favorite painting, or pop song. Think of an argument that reached you through print, or a scene that moved you through the power of celluloid. It is a dead cinch that not so long ago, that scene, or that speech, or that argument or that lyric would have been considered way out of bounds. Somebody would have deemed it indecent and suppressed it in the name of the common good. The only reason you are humming that song, or watching that film, or hearing that voice, or reading that passage today is because an artist was brave enough to risk ostracism, and condemnation, and career-threatening obscurity, and, in some cases, jail time to say something that was dangerous to say. Things we now experience as pleasantly explosive had to be fought for. Things we view as tame had to be fought for, too. Every foot of ground had to be taken from the forces aligned against free expression, and it was artists and writers who had to do the hard fighting.
So the next time you are prompted to sign a declamatory petition or join an online shame campaign directed at an artist or a writer who said or did something you consider pernicious, I want you to remember this. Remember that we are only having this discussion in an open forum today because artists were willing to do and say the transgressive things necessary to broaden the field of human expression. Remember, too, that whatever is thrilling you today would have earned you an official censure, or worse, if you’d expressed enthusiasm for it at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Because those forces aligned against expression are never held in abeyance for very long. Give them an opening, an opportunity to shake a finger, and they will stifle, and muzzle, and ban, and shut down, and turn out the lights on anything they don’t like. And if you don’t think that they will get around — sooner than you can say PMRC — to things that you, personally, deem kosher, you’re fooling yourself, and you’re underestimating them.
Consensus worries me. When I was seven, a strong consensus developed at summer day camp that I was funny-looking. Nobody wanted to sit with me. This consensus opinion may well have been accurate; current conditions around the orbit of my face suggest to me that it was. But you can see how I might be drawn to dissenters and their alternate theories.
By the time I was a college-aged record collector and amateur critic, I was enchanted by the aesthetic of opposition, and I wasn’t the only one. There were the many, who listened uncritically to whatever played on the radio and played beach volleyball in the beautiful sunshine as they did, and then there were those like me for whom the music was crucial to our lives and required dedication, and who would spend hours ferreting around in dusty shops for discs unsung. Only a few recognized our favorites, and this was okay — as pluralist culture fragmented, it made sense to celebrate the infinite permutations of taste. By the time 2015 happened, there’d be no overlap between the records I would love and anybody else’s collection. We’d each have our own personal artist to call ours. The popular music we tolerate would, in due time, be replaced by unpopular music we adored.
Boy howdy has this not happened. There is no shortage of unpopular music to explore or subcultures to experience, but with a few exceptions, modern critics do not tend to make the case for the rare, unloved, and weirdly personal. Instead, we’ve turned our attention from the art to the culture, which in practice means engaging with the records that reach the largest audiences and broadcast universal or sociopolitical messages. I am not sure we really trust ourselves to write about taste anymore, which is messy and subjective; instead, modern reviewers too often use records as a pretext to engage with various movements and -isms, and opinion tends to coalesce around a handful of widely distributed artifacts that provide for the listener some readily accessible talking points. For instance, there were an estimated million zillion albums released in 2015, every one of which was a potential favorite. But nearly everybody with a podium agreed that the very best one was made by a Christian rapper from the culturally significant town of Compton, California. The press said so, the polls said so, even the President of the United States said so — and unless they want a meltdown on their hands that’ll make the protests over the whiteout at the Oscars look like a game of patty-cake by comparison, the Grammy Awards will soon say so, too.
Don’t look here for an alternate pick. The 71 voters of Critics Poll 26 also chose To Pimp A Butterfly by a comfortable margin over Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Kendrick Lamar’s third album was named more frequently than any other, and topped more ballots, too. It was a solid win for a confrontational, uncompromising rapper on a poll that has not always embraced hip-hop.
I, too, loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t have it at the top of my list, but there was no album I thought about more frequently. I further admit that when I did think about it, it wasn’t always the outstanding musicianship or the virtuoso rapping that was on my mind: more often, I thought about the relationship between Kendrick’s poetry and the Baltimore riots, or the Cleveland police department, or the Cosby case, or the centrality of the black church in the civil rights movement. Just like you, I was impressed by Kendrick’s challenge — he set out to make a nation-sized record that elicited a thoughtful response from everybody who heard it, and he got what he wanted. To Pimp A Butterfly entered the culture, and insofar as it was judged as a cultural artifact, we deemed it laudable. The Black Lives Matters protesters who integrated the chorus to “Alright” into their chants understood that the power of pop was worth harnessing. Those of us who love popular music had to be heartened by this demonstration of its capacity to inspire.
Yet inspiration is only a small piece of what pop music is about, and although Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles might tell you differently, it’s not the desire for self-affirmation that compels most listeners to play and play and replay a tune. I do sometimes wonder whether any of us who make criticism our business were ever really able to hear To Pimp A Butterfly through the noise, or if we were too swept up in the narrative concerning the album’s cultural importance to judge it fairly. No anarchist collective recorded and distributed this record. Its ascendance was engineered by Kendrick, Top Dawg Entertainment, and their many friends and supporters in the same mainstream music industry that gave us Meghan Trainor and “Cake By The Beach”. Patrick Stickles’ dismissal of Kendrick as a “shoe salesman” was crass, but not entirely inaccurate — marketing is one of the rapper’s many talents, and one of the things he successfully sells (in addition to shoes) is Significance. Or to put it another way: To Pimp A Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. By April Fool’s Day, it had already been anointed the year’s best, and you knew and I knew that it was going to win this poll and every other poll under the sun. Instant unanimity ought to make you queasy, regardless of the album’s quality.
“Impact,” a horrible term that’s been ported over from military applications and weapons demonstrations, is used all too often when discussing works of art. In 2015, an album was quite frequently judged by the size of its impact, as if the listening public was a placid lake, and the record was a boulder-like projectile slung into it by a catapult or other violent siege-breaking implement, and the task of the critic was the measurement of the splash. No album caused a bigger wave than To Pimp A Butterfly did. But the height of the crest is really only relevant in those Internet dick-slinging contests decided by numbers of followers or retweets or blog posts or dittos. As I type this, the embodiment of arithmetic thinking stands before the electorate in Iowa, where he has made the case, over and over, that he is worthy because of his poll numbers and his opponents are losers because people don’t like them as much. The critic needs to stand against that kind of thing, and make the harder, trickier case that 1.) merit is ultimately subjective, and not contingent on the ratification of the crowd, and 2.) works of art should, nonetheless, be put in context with other works and evaluated on the basis of how well they deliver the experiences they promise.
All records are examinations of the times and places in which they’re made, and it’s possible to argue that the political situation in America has deteriorated so badly that it’s irresponsible to write a review that does not also double as cultural commentary. I get that. Then again, our world is already lousy with punditry, and I would like something better for you, music critic, than that. The reason that cultural commentary is always so uninviting is because the culture itself is pretty dull: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be given the advanced state of capitalism we’re living through. (That’s also what makes it easy to do.) Music criticism has been, at its best, an escape from all of that, but as the standardization of taste continues, it may turn into simple balls-and-strikes umpiring: Album of the Year and Song of the Summer determined somewhere else, possibly by strategy and generally by algorithm, and the critic left to pick up the pieces, report about the size and velocity of the associated trending topic, and invited to rhapsodize about What it All Means.
This year, we were, in a way, lucky. To Pimp A Butterfly really is a great album, and it deserves the accolades it’s gotten. If a rapper really does feel the need to deliver a State of the Union address (and, honestly, I hope they’re not going to start making a practice of it), this is how to do one. But nobody could deny that there was real pressure — some of it accompanied by a moral charge — on music listeners to appreciate and celebrate the Kendrick Lamar album. Much as we critics love to believe we stand up for the underdog, nobody was impervious to the centrifuge of 2015 conventional wisdom. Unpopular music never stood a chance.
1. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (347)
2. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (269)
3. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (250)
4. Tame Impala — Currents (205)
5. Laura Marling — Short Movie (203)
Kendrick is such a talented rapper and writer that nobody ever seems to notice what a total cornball he is. The seductress named “Lucy” who is secretly Lucifer? Television-movie corn. How about the song the President likes — the one where the homeless man he disrespects turns out to be God in disguise? That’s the sort of corny plot twist you’d expect to get on a Kenny Chesney album. What about the Al TV-style interview beyond the grave with Tupac, the spoken-word “Dick Ain’t Free” interlude that feels lifted from Spike Lee’s freewheeling, imaginary jazz clubs, the fight that breaks out in the audience during “i” that the rapper pacifies with powerful words of unity and inspiration? All of this works, of course, but what it demonstrates (at least to me) is that Kendrick is far more of a showbiz kid than a revolutionary, steeped in the tropes of the entertainment industry and well aware of the tasty applications of American cheese. Nothing new there: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was loaded with melodrama, some of it as emotionally manipulative as anything you’d find on the Lifetime Channel. I don’t fault him for a minute, mind you. Like prior conceptualist crowd-pleasers — Michael Jackson, Roger Waters, Barack Obama — Kendrick Lamar realized early that it isn’t enough to demonstrate excellence in craft and make a strong, smart argument: for the mass audience to eat it up, some hefty helpings of corn and cheese need to be ladled on top. Strip To Pimp A Butterfly of its cheesy elements and you’re left with something like Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 (number 11 on this poll) — another masterpiece of Southern Californian hip-hop, albeit one that didn’t score anybody’s social movement, and one that sold a mere fraction of Kendrick’s total.
For another example of the power of cheese, consider Currents, the third full-length by Tame Impala. On Lonerism, Kevin Parker added a little modern pop sparkle to his ’60s-psych swirly-eyed throwback sound, and won the 2012 poll. Nobody was beating Kendrick in 2015, but Currents, the follow-up, got plenty of love from critics while charting a new direction for the act: Parker dove into the vat of Velveeta headfirst. Parker traded the guitar workouts tailored to hit the sweet spot of the psych subculture for an overload of Wang Chung synthesizer and rubbery basslines reminiscent of ’80s cheese-R&B. “Maybe fake’s what I like,” he sang on the last song, and has been rewarded for his faith in the artificial with a Rihanna cover and a seat in the canoe riding the rapids of the pop mainstream.
6. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion (188)
7. Joanna Newsom — Divers (174)
8. Hop Along — Painted Shut (159)
9. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (152)
9. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear (152)
See, we critics like Rihanna now — or, rather, we won’t be caught dead suggesting that Rihanna’s approval might be indicative of an ideological problem. (Leave that to Max Bemis.) Once upon a time it would have been scandalous in certain circles for, say, D. Boon to be caught hanging with Jody Watley, but since there’s no real underground anymore and no standard of value but popularity, it’s assumed that everybody with a guitar simply wants as much exposure as he can get. These days everybody is under the same umbrella ella, and even weirdos who really ought to be interested in nonconformity applaud loudly when “perfect pop songs” are correctly identified as such by the great unwashed, and are spun at bars and become “songs of the summer” and what have you. This is why critics tore their hair out over the conundrum of Carly Rae Jepsen: E-mo-tion checked all the boxes of solid formula art, so why oh why wasn’t it selling? For awhile, everybody with a platform and a will to compose thinkpieces became Jepsen’s business councilor, alternately chastising the marketplace, Scooter Brown, the star’s producers, and the star herself for failing to achieve the financial returns commensurate with such a thrilling capitulation to formula. I know I did. I dedicated a scandalous amount of thought to Jepsen’s portfolio — it monopolized my thinking on several long bike rides — and I still couldn’t figure out her problem. What did she do wrong, America? Was it the sweater? Because I think the sweater is sensational. E-mo-tion is designed to fit right in the sweet spot between Heartthrob and 1989, which means that digital cash registers filled with Bitcoin ought to be spewing whatever cryptocurrency you crazy kids are spending these days. Granted, Jepsen does not have the microphone presence or airtight authority of Taylor Swift, but in all other ways her disc measures up well to its models.
My great fear is that Jepsen has been damaged by her reluctance to sing bland self-actualization anthems, preferring instead to concentrate on songs about how horny she is. Back in the good old days, this is exactly what we asked of pop stars — shut up about your interiority and, instead, point at your genitals and howl animalistically. Basically, that was pop music in the ’80s, which suited me fine. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But end they did, and at the end, we got Rachel Platten singing inspirationally about taking back her life from whatever it is that’s dogging it. And this, not that pretty business over there, is what rides high on the charts. My hypothesis is that all the Adderall and legal doobage has withered the private parts of a generation, and people are no longer sensitive to Carly Rae Jepsen singing tell me that you want me that I’m all that/I will be there I will be your friend. In 1985, that would have worked. If you were at those bar mitzvahs too, you know it.
Further proof that pop ’15 was inundated by a wave of cheese: even Joanna Newsom was susceptible. Last we heard from her, she complained about “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart”; now, she is peddling a bunch of winsome hooey about the time-transcendent power of love. Hey, I’m a hippie, too. I hope she’s right.
11. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06 (151)
12. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (149)
13. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon (141)
14. Grimes — Art Angels (131)
15. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People (130)
15. Chvrches — Every Open Eye (130)
To Pimp A Butterfly was the year’s landmark album, but to really understand 2015, you have to listen to the celebrated Art Angels. Grimes, in case you don’t know her, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved notoriety and critical acclaim in 2012 with a mildly experimental electropop album called Visions. While it was clear even then that she had mainstream aspirations, she hadn’t quite misplaced her youthful ambivalence about all things mersh; for instance, rather than the requisite big ole butt, there’s a cartoon skull on the album cover. At some point between Visions and the release of Art Angels, the artist shook off her hesitancy, and decided that if Lady Gaga was going to run off and join the cast of Planet of the Apes, or whatever the hell she’s gone and done with herself, Grimes would just go ahead and become Lady Gaga. Art Angels, which Grimes produced herself, is 100% cheap-seats pop in the Gaga freaks-but-not-too-freaky style, complete with streamlined dancefloor numbers, periodic stabs at cartoonish aggression, and occasional independent-woman sloganeering. In other words, it’s the exact album Gaga should have made after The Fame Monster, or, at any rate, the album her accountants would have liked her to have made. Unfortunately, on her very best day, Grimes, whose vocal resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk has been noted, cannot begin to approximate Lady Gaga’s singing. The result is an album that treads the line between ingratiating and irritating: a set of critically approved “perfect pop songs” made by a pseudoalternative artist who really has no business singing pop. Mind you, I am not bothered at all by the flood of hyperbole that this album rode in on, and I’m even happy to contribute to it. Every era has its figures who are hailed by the press as supergeniuses for no discernible reason. Grimes just happens to be one of ours. In ’93, it would have been a grueling, goatee-having dude who sang YAHHAHAUUUGHAR about his Oedipal rage. In ’93, a trip to munchkinland such as Art Angels would have been a fucking delight.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in twee little Glasgow, a not-dissimilar act made a not-dissimilar move. Apparently Chvrches is a stadium rock band now. Not what I expected from Lauren “Bro” Mayberry, but hey, she and her bros have identified an opportunity and they’re going after it while they’re fetching. “Empty Threat” is practically a Paramore song, which makes me wonder why they didn’t cave and employ a real drummer who could have made the song what it wants to be. The self-affirmation anthems range from summer festival-blithe (“bury it and rise above”) to downright meatheaded (“we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold,” eww.) By the way, I hope Vince Clarke is getting some residuals for the massive “Just Can’t Get Enough” bite in the middle of the best song on Every Open Eye. He’d probably settle for a hug.
In 2015, there’s really no such thing as a sellout: for there to be, there’d have to be a counterculture with elements that could be raided and packaged for sale on the mass market. In the absence of one, it’s natural for these guys to shoot for the top — if the only place they’re ever going to experience any kind of artist’s community is by dancing with Taylor Swift at the awards shows, they might as well crank up the EDM, hold their noses, and take the dough. As for all the cheese and corn and crowd-pleasing gestures, well, you might have noticed the big blue “like” button appended to your songs and statements. When everything you do is immediately evaluated — in a public setting by your peers, no less — that’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular demand. It takes an asshole with the stature of Kanye West to say “as soon as they like you, make them unlike you.” From what I can see, he’s been test-marketing Waves out the wazoo, so maybe even he’s become a slave to the approval rating. We are playthings for historical forces. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s so.
17. FFS — FFS (129)
18. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material (128)
19. The Decemberists — What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (124)
20. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer (122)
Let’s check in with some poll veterans to see how they’re weathering the hurricanes of time. If you’re a newcomer to this game, you might have been surprised to see the latest Belle & Sebastian set at #3. Don’t be: they’re the house favorites. B&S is one of only two acts to win this poll twice — If You’re Feeling Sinister in ’97, and The Life Pursuit in ’06 — and any time they put a record out, they’re a threat to take a third title. I’ve never made a secret of my affection for them, and several bands I’ve played with (including my own) have profitably ripped them off, I must have bumped into ten regular poll voters at their Radio City show this summer, and I’m the goon who counts this up and writes it up. Sufjan Stevens, regular high scorer, didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but Carrie & Lowell did place in the top 30; Destroyer, a frequent top ten finisher, crashed to #32. Drake, on the other hand, made a return to the upper reaches of the poll after an album cycle spent missing in action. For reasons I still can’t figure out, nobody voted for Nothing Was The Same. This year, you all remembered your awkward cousin Drake on your holiday list. Must have been “Hotline Bling” that did it. After a strong 2013 finish for Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the more complicated and darker Of Montreal album Aureate Gloom finishes at 30 — a relatively unimpressive landing place for a perennial contender that took the ’07 poll. Metric squeezed into the top 40 with the widely-maligned Pagans In Vegas, while the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ hardly got any support at all. Guess you folks don’t love professional wrestling like John Darnielle does. Richard Thompson didn’t get much love on the poll for the iffy Dream Attic or its superior followup Electric, but Still put him back in the top 30, where he was a regular finisher in the ’80s and ’90s. I believe he’s got a future in showbiz. Lana Del Rey continues her grim-faced march up this list; she remains a pretty good bet to win one of these contests someday now that she’s been exonerated for her capital crimes.
The Decemberists deserve their own paragraph. Since Her Majesty, the group has always placed on the poll, but enthusiasm is waning. This I know because you told me so: many of you who put What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful world on your ballot expressed your disappointment with it. I, too, was partial to the version of Colin Meloy who sang goofily about chimbley sweeps and bombazine dolls and who stuffed unsingable words into his lyrics like a Victorian infantryman with a musket and a ram. In his old age, he’s become a singer that even your momma would recognize as good — although I think he was more fun when he was sloppier. But Meloy in ’15 is like a guy who used to be a polymath and a mischief-maker, and who grew up and took a position at a respectable NGO. On some level you admire it, but the constriction marks are visible all over his personality.
21. Lupe Fiasco — Tetsuo & Youth (119)
22. The Front Bottoms — Back On Top (114)
23. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (110)
23. Miguel — Wildheart (110)
25. Ashley Monroe — The Blade (106)
26. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden Of Delete (100)
27. Richard Thompson — Still (98)
27. The Chills — Silver Bullets (98)
29. Beach Slang — The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (96)
30. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom (93)
Jersey alert: the Front Bottoms continued to run strong in this poll, placing 22nd and gathering plenty of votes and mentions from the lands beyond the Delaware. All that touring pays off, kids. Meanwhile, the Roadside Graves picked up where they left off four years ago with Acne/Ears, the band’s first disc for Don Giovanni. The Graves slightly outpolled their labelmates the Screaming Females, who finished in 43rd place. Deliverance, which turned out to be a swan song for River City Extension, came in right behind that at 45th. Once again, Titus Andronicus barely got a handshake on this poll. What do they have to do to impress you folks, I ask? — if a five-act rock opera doesn’t get your attention, maybe nothing ever will.
31. Jeffrey Lewis — Manhattan (92)
32. Destroyer — Poison Season (91)
33. Bjork — Vulnicura (89)
33. The Roadside Graves — Acne/Ears (89)
35. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf (87)
35. Dawes — All Your Favorite Bands (87)
37. Hot Chip — Why Make Sense? (86)
38. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free (84)
38. Metric — Pagans In Vegas (84)
38. Blur — The Magic Whip (84)
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll check in tomorrow with the singles, and another long and cranky essay about a certain media company that bugged the heck out of me in 2015.
Other albums getting #1 votes:
Alberta Cross — Alberta Cross
Algiers — Algiers
Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
Bruce Springsteen — The Ties That Bind
Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
Dornik — Dornik
Enter Shikari — The Mindsweep
FIDLAR — Too
FKA Twigs — M3LL155X
Future — DS2
Haitus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon
Jamie xx — In Colour (narrowly missed the top 40)
Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
Kamasi Washington — The Epic
Mac McCaughan — Non-Believers
Palehound — Dry Food
Pollyester — City Of O
Quarterbacks — Quarterbacks
Rachel Grimes — The Clearing
Snacks For Y’All Qaeda — Snacks For Y’All Qaeda (note: probably imaginary)
I used to think of Pitchfork as the critical equivalent of the Outback Steakhouse — not a destination in itself, but a place you might wind up at for reasons beyond your control. There you’d be served up something thick and oily, overseasoned yet somehow bland, and you’d consume it joylessly. At the end of your visit, you’d wonder why you bothered. During the long Outback period, I barely mentioned Pitchfork in any context. There wasn’t much to say. It was sort of bad and sort of boring, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well let it carry on with its brand development effort.
But during the past decade, Pitchfork has gradually been deteriorating, and in 2015, it fell off a cliff. Just as the 2008 Merrill Lynch meltdown had to worry you even if you don’t own stock, Pitchfork’s abominable year ought to ring the alarm for all critics, regardless of where you direct your web browser. Somebody in power seems to have decided to turn the the most visited review website in the world into People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon. Pitchfork’s new interest in consumer feminism clashes with its apparent mandate to cover — and praise — every crappy, two-bit mixtape released by a coterie of misogynist rappers, and like many institutions on the wishy-washy left, it is currently groaning under the obvious contradictions of its own worldview. These people are absolutely, embarrassingly determined to show the reader that they’re down with various liberation movements and worldwide underclass struggles, which is odd, considering most people still go to the site in order to find out how the new Modest Mouse compares to the old one.
The turd pimento atop the crap sandwich that was Pitchfork ’15 was the Year in Rap piece. It’s worth checking out, because without meaning to, the author does illuminate much of what’s wrong with contemporary writing about music — particularly writing about hip-hop. The Pitchfork piece attempts to summarize the year in rap by fixating on the one and only thing in hip-hop that’s not particularly interesting: beefs. The main reason why beefs are uninteresting is because they are 99% bullshit. They tend to start as childish tiffs that would dissipate on their own were they not seized upon by managers and marketing people and gullible journalists. Mainstream writers love beefs because they’re a prime source of clickbait; also, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, they love to watch black people fight. They’ve got click quotas to meet and they can’t help themselves. Music writers should know better. All the crappy, half-assed diss tracks on mixtapes and internet-only releases ought to tell critics everything they need to know about the true importance of beefs to artists. Not quite zero, but pretty damn close.
The beefs examined in the year end summary both involve Drake — an artist not exactly known for battle rapping. To make matters worse, one of them is, I kid you not, imaginary. The front half of the article addresses Drake’s dreary, engineered exchange with Meek Mill, which dominated garbage-press headlines in July, and the back half attempts to trump up, on the scantiest of evidence, a “cold war” with Kendrick Lamar. Who knows?, Drake and Kendrick might indeed not like each other. Chances are, they’re too busy making music to give it much thought. It’s justifiable, if more than a little reductive, to cast Drake as the protagonist of hip-hop 2015: he put out an album and a half, sold more than a million records, and continued to exert influence over his peers. But after years spent fellating him in posts, reviews, features, and what have you, it’s now clear that Pitchfork doesn’t understand Drake at all.
Drake’s beef with Meek — which will continue as long as they’ve got upcoming releases to promote — was an old-school hip-hop authenticity feud the likes of which we’ve seen a hundred thousand times since De La Soul wrote “Potholes In My Lawn”. Meek Mill, rambunctious Philly emcee, accused Drake of buying his rhymes, which is technically true: Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper, contributed verses to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. A dis track was cut, Drake responded with a couple of dis tracks of his own, and when the digital dust settled, the blogs agreed that Meek had gotten the worst of it. (Some of them said he was “murked” or “bodied” in, I suppose, an effort to sound like idiots.) That was Round 1, mind you; round 2 is going on right now. Having seen a few Rocky movies and knowing how this goes, I suspect that Meek will now land some effective counterpunches only to be decisively rebuffed right before Drake decides to release Views From The 6.
Pitchfork pointed out that Drake’s battle verses were not particularly adept or scathing. This is true. But instead of concluding the obvious — that Drake wasn’t really motivated to damage Meek Mill’s career but was instead beefing for the headlines — the year-end piece decried the verdict and shat all over Drake in the process. According to Pitchfork, the inauthentic Drake “won” over the authentic Meek because he understood Instagram and Twitter better than his opponent. A Year in Rap summary piece in a major publication claimed that Drake had attained an unearned win by, essentially, Internet-bullying his peer.
This is a conclusion that could only have been reached by a critic so caught up in the social media spin cycle that he cannot see the world beyond his computer. There was never any possibility that Drake could lose a feud with Meek Mill. Meek is a talented emcee who has yet to figure out how to translate the energy of his live show to the studio; his records sell well, but so does Campbell’s soup. Drake, on the other hand, has been making popular musical history since the release of So Far Gone. He hatched out of his egg with a sound all his own, and that sound is one of the indelible cultural artifacts of the second decade of the 21st century. Real music listeners know this, and would never accept a version of events where Drake was humbled by a mere genre practitioner. Drake “beat” Meek Mill for the same reason that 50 Cent beat Ja Rule, or, for that matter, a diminished 50 was unable to lay a glove on Rick Ross: the battle is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a ratification of the facts in the air.
It is also preposterous for Pitchfork — still allegedly a music publication, at least for the moment — to imply that Drake simply hopped into Kanye West’s lane. Like everybody else in contemporary pop, Drake owes plenty to Kanye and his successful experiments in sound and storytelling. But Drake and his producers have a peculiar and flexible sense of melody derived from Southern soul and blues records, and which does not overlap all that much with Kanye’s own harmonic vocabulary. From the very beginning, Drake has been toeing a narrow line between the arty midwestern style of Kanye West’s records and the swampy blues-rap favored in his beloved Houstatlantavegas. Drake recognize both the pop audience’s appetite for blues melody and the growing blues strain in his songs released by his principal competition (Young Thug, Future, Boosie, et. al.) — and he’s been able to anticipate and co-opt their moves. It’s no coincidence that he went shopping for verses in Atlanta, or that he pinched the groove for “Hotline Bling” from a Virginia artist: instinctively, he realizes that an American pop audience that’s been force-fed soulless Eurodance for the better part of a decade is desperate for a little Dixie dirt. Unlike many other celebrated storytelling vocalists, he does not cut corners by lifting his musical backdrops from filmed entertainment. The emotional effect of a Drake song is generated by sonic phenomena alone: muffled kick drum, distant synthesizer and guitar, and the rapper’s own introspective vocal performances. One of the reasons I find If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a more compelling album than To Pimp A Butterfly: while Kendrick’s producers work in a sophisticated jazz and soul idiom that’s been covered to fuck and back and therefore capitalize on the resonances produced by familiarity, Drake continues to push his own sound into uncharted territory while paring it back to its unsettling essence. He now owes very little to anybody he’s not crediting in the liner notes, and it’s not hard to argue that the paranoia and detachment that he communicates through his music is every bit as trenchant a reflection of the current American predicament as Kendrick’s poetry is.
Since they’re both late-twentysomething rappers making essential music, it’s inevitable that Drake and Kendrick will be compared. Yet to imply that they’re currently locked in a rap war is sheer bloodthirsty wishcasting. The evidence Pitchfork gathers is circumstantial and scanty at best: a few Kendrick lines from Compton: A Soundtrack that allude to Drake lyrics, and the umpteenth airing of the “Control” verse that felt to me like a simple challenge made among colleagues to shoot for excellence. The core of Pitchfork’s case is “King Kunta,” on which Kendrick famously complains about “a rapper with a ghostwriter.” But the emcee doesn’t specify the target of what is a pretty standard hip-hop putdown — he could be rhyming about anybody. For what it’s worth, Quentin Miller isn’t a ghostwriter; just as Kanye did after he bought the first verse to “Jesus Walks” from Rhymefest, Drake credited his collaborator in the liner notes to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Moreover, “King Kunta” was released months before Meek Mill accused Drake of inauthenticity, and was presumably composed long before that. Kendrick Lamar is a writer of uncommon depth and perspective; he has, as I am sure you’ve noticed, a lot to say about race, power, the police, surveillance, yams, what have you. To suggest that the first single released from his third-album megastatement was written about Drake is unbelievably insulting.
But Pitchfork is oh so eager to register that insult. They really, really want Drake and Kendrick locked in mortal combat, trading subliminal insults and sucking up the attention that would otherwise go to real reporting. They want blood on the floor and all the filthy clicks that go along with it. They’re willing to simplify and reduce Drake’s artistry to do it, and if that requires making Kendrick look like a battling idiot, too, they’re willing to accept that collateral damage. They’re even willing to map Drake vs. Kendrick on top of Jay-Z vs. Nas, and never mind that Kendrick shares little with Nas and Drake shares even less with Jay, and never mind that 2015 is not 2001, and also never mind that there isn’t even any Drake vs. Kendrick in the first place. This would be unfathomably irresponsible if it wasn’t so consistent with the voyeuristic trash heap that the Internet has become.
The irony, of course, is that Pitchfork is in the best position possible to know better: their writers deal with artists all day, and must realize on some level that this is not how musicians operate. Musicians tend to be collaborative people; they’re magpies, they like to borrow ideas and lose themselves to dance. They’re not boxers or gladiators, and they do not, in general, care about the authenticity of their peers or wipeout supremacy unless their feelings get hurt. The best way to hurt their feelings is to provoke them in a public forum, and as far as I can tell, many so-called journalists do nothing all day but attempt that provocation. Let it be known: in 2015, this is what the biggest and best-known music site on the Internet decided it’s going to use that pitchfork for.
1. Drake — “Hotline Bling” (162)
2. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (140)
3. The Weeknd — “I Can’t Feel My Face” (118)
3. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan — “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” (118)
5. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta” (114)
6. Courtney Barnett — “Pedestrian At Best” (112)
7. Belle & Sebastian — “Nobody’s Empire” (112)
8. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue” (111)
9. Adele — “Hello” (108)
9. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey” (108)
9. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me (108)
12. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen” (103)
13. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach” (102)
14. Drake — “Energy” (100)
15. Grimes — “Flesh Without Blood” (94)
16. Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (93)
16. The Decemberists — “Make You Better” (93)
18. Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney — “FourFiveSeconds” (90)
19. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams — “WTF (Where They From)” (88)
20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy” (84)