Poll 33 — The Best Albums of 2022

Church girl, don’t hurt nobody.

If you’ve attended services and done some wild worship in the club, you already know. Nevertheless it bears repeating like all good things do: everything you see and hear at a pop show derives from the African-American church. That means the rhythms, the arrangements, the hooks and melisma and harmonies, the cosmic stakes, the relationship between the performer and the audience, the showmanship, the physicality, the beauty, and the close encounters with God in the infinite ways He might be approached. All of those techniques for getting over on the pop congregation were honed in the pulpits and the pews by true believers and half-believers and those just along for the ride; travelers all, there in fancy dress, participants in a true culture.

The best album of 2022 owes massive debts to forms of electronic music that haven’t always gotten much critical respect: Detroit and Chicago house, New Orleans bounce, candy-painted Houston hip-hop, Hi-NRG, throwaway pop-disco and ephemeral white label techno, pure strip club and drag show jams, the funkier edge of the new wave, and the kind of lovable everybody-on-the-floor business that pours from the speakers at the sweaty Fire Island beach bar. The producers have been open about their antecedents, and for good reason — part of the project here has to do with a reconstruction of the lineage of African-American music, and demonstrating how much creativity there’s always been lurking at the bottom of these booty grooves.  Journalists have duly followed the breadcrumb trails back to their immediate sources, just as the star and her co-workers expected us to do in a year that was distinguished by records of great danceability.  

But if that’s where the investigation stops, then we’re only uncovering the superficial part of the story. Because if you talk to those house and hip-hop producers, those funk musicians and those sine-wave explorers on the synthesizer, and especially the singers whose charisma and sexuality make the pop enterprise go, you learn that almost all of them had their early musical education in the church. That goes for the bandleaders who mimic the cadences and strain to capture the command of preachers, instrumentalists who endeavor to whip ’em up and leave ’em in the proper state to receive the holy spirit, and the soloists who pour it all out, backed by a choir of the dedicated, each member committed to the collective effort but individual in the site of God and the audience. We pop fans thrill to singers who follow the example of Whitney Houston, daughter of Cissy Houston, the Minister of Music at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark; she who took the torch from Aretha Franklin, daughter of Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, pastor at New Bethel Baptist in Detroit. This is our heritage. Take the church away from pop, and it would be as cold and lifeless as the music made in hypersecular societies. We would be stuck with the imitators, the contrivers, the stiff and unmotivated, alienated from the driving force and purpose that only religious inspiration brings.

This is what we mean when we say that a piece of music has no soul.  We mean that it has drifted so far from pop’s underpinnings in the African-American church that no matter how well it’s performed, it’s missing the essential element that raises the stakes to the universal level. We mean that the ecstatic experience of communal worship which is central to the church participation isn’t present. “Soul,” as a genre handle, described the application of church style to secular subject matter: mostly sexual romance, but also some sociopolitical heat for the topical dancers, too. When you’re really doing soul, when you’re knee-deep in it, you realize that there’s no separation between the hymnal and the pop charts; that it’s all the same damned stuff. It’s pain and pussy, power, struggle, longing, the joy of being alive, and what it means to be a human being on a planet as alien as earth. My favorite album, delivered with absolute conviction, is all about sex and ass and carnality, from the swish of the fan on the club floor to the testimonials to the unbreakability of the soul to the last delicious drop of honey from a lover’s body. It is, in other words, sacred music.  

It’s also music made for a congregation. In the year of the dreaded pandemic project designed by the quarantined auteur trapped in the solitary sweat-lodge of the mind, here was an album that said no to all of that. The bigger the crowd of people listening, the better it sounded.  Here is a record to score your dance-off, your disco freakout, your LBGTQ rally, your church social, your rapture — an album that acknowledged that the most intimate moments often happen amidst a crowd. Yes, it was electronic; what’s that to Jesus, Lord of all things, including alternating current?  As if your modern God doesn’t carry a laptop? The better to capture and digitally preserve the soul claps and the thunderous stomps and group shouts, and the choir, even if the choir was nothing more than the star harmonizing with herself. Because who, really, could touch the hem of her robe? 

So there it was: devotional music, religious music, gospel for those who aren’t afraid of machine beats, and who know how to locate and express the holiness that exists between two (or more) people who are getting it on. It’s a record that shared more with African-American church music than sound, inspiration, and simple, everyday transcendence. It also shared ecclesiastical strategies of presentation, too.

For instance, there were those omnivorous interpolations familiar to those who frequent church, huge chunks of familiar music brought into the infinite playlist, whomped up and reframed and yoked to the service of the preacher’s charisma. The nonbelievers, few though they were, didn’t get this: why the heck are the producers importing material from Soul II Soul, Moi Renee, Twinkie Clark, Right Said Fred and fucking RuPaul and acting like it’s theirs? Those who have stood in the cathedral in the middle of a raucous service know better. They know that the music does not belong to these producers any more than it belongs to Right Said Fred. All music belongs to God. It is all under celestial copyright, and He may put His melodies on the lips of his chosen instruments. He may bend Big Freedia to his purposes if he sees fit. As His earthly emissaries, it is up to the ministers of music to get the congregation singing as one, and then slap us upside the head with something revelatory, and then get back to the roots of rhythm, and then blast off to the stratosphere, back and forth, never stopping, always taking us higher and higher, showing glimpses of the gates of heaven, keeping our sorry asses on track.

Christianity is a temporal religion. It’s based on linear narratives — narratives that unfold over time.  Those narratives have been interpreted and reified over the centuries, but no matter how purely their theological essence is distilled, you can’t take causality out of the faith.  Things are the way that they are because of consequential events that have reverberated across the cosmos: the fall of man, the incarnation, the passion, the coming judgment. We even give them dates when we can. Unlike other religions that wallow in timelessness, Christianity is an arrow. 

To reflect this, church music is developmental music. Ideas introduced at the beginning of the hymn will change and build and achieve greater harmonic significance as the performance goes on. Melodies will twist and eddy into complex harmonies, the rhythmic intensity will build, and fall back, and build again. Each seed sprouts. All great gospel is like this. I once heard Bishop Hezekiah Walker shepherd the Love Fellowship Choir through “Every Praise” for a half an hour, astounding me and leaving me as breathless as I’d be after a charge up a hill. Every time I thought he was done, he’d find a new gear or follow a new rhythmic or melodic path. 

The album that will define 2022 for millions is a similar beast. No compositional element is left unexpressed. Phrases that seem extraneous or merely decorative will suddenly achieve centrality a stanza later. Beats start as percussive but soon carry tonal information relevant to the harmonies, and harmonies that at first feel simple intensify to near-supernatural richness.  Every breeze becomes a whirlwind. In this way the star teaches us to open our ears and listen, and open our hearts to catch the spirit. In this way, with each entreaty to drop the booty, the star takes us to church.    

Some years I try to convince you that a critically reviled project by Max Bemis is the cream of the crop. Sometimes I direct your attention to an extreme outlier in Mike Posner’s discography. This is not such a year. In 2022, I loved the same album that everybody else loved. Given who I am and what I believe in, it might mean something slightly different to me than it does to you, but c’mon, it probably doesn’t.  I’m putting it at the top of my list for the same reason you likely did: I heard the rest, and this one took me higher. Way higher; so high that the first time I heard it, my first reaction was that the dancefloor competition ought to pack up their MPCs and go home. Allow me to be the umpteenth writer to say so, and if you stick with me as I post my answers to our annual exercise, you’ll discover I’m not done talking about it. I won’t even apologize for that. An album like this engenders a collective experience, and prompts us to express ourselves in whatever medium we have command over. Certain human beings have terrific voices. Others have terrific asses. Me, I have the Word. Brothers and sisters and beautiful in-betweens, I am here to testify.

Album of the Year

  • 1. Beyoncé — Renaissance
  • 2. The Weeknd — Dawn FM
  • 3. Tim Bernardes — Mil Coisas Invisíveis
  • 4. Natalia Lafourcade — De Todas Las Flores
  • 5. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul — Topical Dancer
  • 6. Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
  • 7. The Beths — Expert In A Dying Field
  • 8. Richard Dawson — The Ruby Cord
  • 9. Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
  • 10. Carly Cosgrove — See You In Chemistry
  • 11. Silvana Estrada — Marchita
  • 12. Denzel Curry — Melt My Eyez See Your Future
  • 13. Sebastián Yatra — Dharma
  • 14. Pusha T — It’s Almost Dry
  • 15. Office Culture — Big Time Things
  • 16. Elvis Costello & The Imposters — The Boy Named If
  • 17. Taylor Swift — Midnights
  • 18. Caracara — New Preoccupations
  • 19. Aaron Raitiere — Single Wide Dreamer
  • 20. Bad Bunny — Un Verano Sin Ti

That’s two from Toronto, two from Veracruz in Mexico, one from Colombia, two from Philadelphia, one from Belgium, one from Brazil, two from New York State, one from Puerto Rico, one from Nashville via Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, one from Costelloland, one from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, one from New Zealand, one from Compton, one from Virginia Beach, one from Kentucky, one from Florida, and a chart-topper from an artist who continues to represent Houston, even as she belongs to the galaxy. We’re spreading it around in 2022. Showbiz: it takes a globe.

Lots more soon, friends.

Poll 33 — 2022 Albums, Continued

Siri, can you tell me where I belong?

Album I Listened To The Most In 2022

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you know what kind of a year I had. If you’re reading this and you’re also aware of Abel Tesfaye and The Weeknd, you might wonder why I was messing around with Dawn FM at all. That couldn’t have been good for me mentally, or spiritually, or ethically. Here was an ice cold shower of an album on which the star relentlessly pointed out the ways in which the language we use in pop music shadowed the way we discuss mortality. Asphyxiation, suicide pacts, the steady tick of the clock, murder and sacrifice, frailty, the lure of oblivion: it was all there, set to music so sleek, mechanical, and inevitable that it seemed supernatural, well beyond the sphere of human influence. It was absurdly on the nose, but so, I have learned, is death. The concept was the bardo as a traffic jam where the only entertainment was a lite radio station (and Jim Carrey, of all people), and Tesfaye realized it all with such dead-eyed precision and unswerving commitment to scene-setting that it really did take on the quality of a descent into a synthetic netherworld. The Weeknd has often tried to be scary and come up short, and the legit spookiness of Dawn FM hints at why that was. He’s often sung, ominously, about partying and empty casual sex as a vague cover for deep self-destructive feelings. But his real muse has always been the death drive itself, and this time, he’s finally cut to the chase. This album is the apotheosis of every corrosive idea he’s had since he first gave us the creeps with House Of Balloons, and its relative absence from the year end roundups suggests to me that it scared the fuck out of everybody. Me, I was already frightened, fixated on the transition between being and nonbeing and already half in the tunnel to nowhere that Dawn FM asks us to inhabit. So maybe I was the target audience, and maybe I was particularly susceptible, and maybe my elevation of Renaissance (just barely) over the album I played the most reflected my choice (just barely) of life over death.

Best Album Title

Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong

Best Album Cover

Topical Dancer. Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul look like two halves of a cell dividing — made of the same substance, but stretching apart and achieving conditional autonomy. For this album at least, they’re still linked, sharing the same bloodstream, finishing each other’s thoughts. Charlotte is the face; Bolis has his back turned to the camera. She’s leaning back and taking a step while he’s steadying himself, and the silly putty figure they make with their elongated arms is a lasso big enough to ensnare the unwary.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

It pleased my pop kid soul that Midnights came in different flavors with different fanservice shots of Taylor on the cover. I got the green one.

Most Welcome Surprise

Good as Two Hands was, I didn’t think that there was enough variation in the Big Thief sound for the group to sustain interest over the course of a double album. Not only did they manage that, but they picked up a sense of humor, too.

Biggest Disappointment

Megan Thee Stallion remains one of the very best rappers in the business — a vocalist capable of synthesizing syrupy H-town flow, throwback gangsta rap, hyphy, and old school boom-bap hard rhyme every time she steps to the microphone. That hasn’t changed. This year, though, she retired the grossmusing sex rhymes and applied that voice to earnest material that foregrounded her personal destabilization. All autobiographical specifics aside, her confessional turn meant that you didn’t have to delve too far into the deep structure to recognize that she was rhyming about the same stuff that everybody else was rhyming about. For the first time ever, her verses felt predictable. Even that would have been permissible and maybe even enjoyable if she hadn’t handed Traumazine over to a team of pedestrian beatmakers. I’m reminded of the early-middle stretch of Nas’s career when he wasted strong autobiographical lyrics on motor-free productions that sounded, at best, like they’d been knocked off in an hour, and at worst like outright sabotage. Nas was young and had plenty of time to recover. Megan Thee Stallion is pushing thirty. She’d better keep an eye on that hourglass.

Album That Opens The Strongest  

Expert In A Dying Field. This is the best Beths album — the one that finds the right balance between the frantic indiepop of the debut and the meditative mush-leaning sound of Jump Rope Gazers. The first three songs give you everything that makes this band great: indelible melodies, lovelorn lyrics, smart small-combo arrangements, decorative lead guitar, a pinch of Kiwi gloom, romantic fatalism, action and drama and Bananarama, and a tendency to push everything right to the brink of the red without ever giving into the twin temptations of obscurantism and effrontery. After the clamor of “Silence Is Golden” ceases, the best one is still six songs away. That’s “When You Know You Know,” a folk-rock confection with a tune and chord progression worthy of a Finn brother, and and atmosphere as immersive a storm on the Tasman Sea.

Album That Closes The Strongest

If I have one piece of advice today for all my friends who love music, it’s this: get the Tim Bernardes album. Mil Coisas Invisíveis is brilliantly written and shockingly beautiful, and somehow manages to feel like a lost album from 1974 without ever being the least bit annoying about it. It’s all in his neighborly relationship to the microphone, his wizardly command of the string section, his internalization and easy expression of Brazilian rhythm, and his absolute faith in the expressive possibilities of pop melody and performance. The album is in Portuguese, which is, for some reason that I don’t understand, always ten thousand times harder than Spanish to grok; Google Translate is your friend, but even if you just sit with it, you’ll get the gist. A version of Mil Coisas Invisíveis that omitted the last four songs would still make my Top Twenty. But the stretch of the record from “A Balada De Tim Bernardes” to the conclusion finds a perfect middle ground between Robin Pecknold and Caetano Veloso that didn’t previous exist at any latitude I knew, tropical or otherwise. One might say that the album itself engendered the map. Or one might just shut up and listen.

Best Production Over The Course Of A Full Album, and, not so coincidentally, the Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

You’d think I’d say Beyoncé here, and yeah, that’d be an excellent answer. The seamless integration of samples from African-American drag and ball culture into beats that would play equally well at a campus LBGTQ mixer, a theater opening, a political rally, and a sports stadium is both a remarkable technical feat and a subversive work of smuggling worthy of El Chapo. But I cannot tell a lie: Sebastian Krys made the Impostors sound ridiculously good on The Boy Named If, with every instrument playfully elbowing every other instrument, and every musical gesture tickling the next one in the ribs. It was as if he’d spent his life studying every Elvis Costello album and inhaling all the details, and I wouldn’t know anything about that, nope, no sirree Bob.

Band Of The Year

The Beths

2022 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Hold On Baby by King Princess. Lots of good melodies, but those hamfisted Jim Steinman gestures got old in a hurry. When you solicit Taylor Hawkins to play drums on a track, and the whole thing is already so grandiose that it barely registers, you’ve got a problem of scale that needs to be corrected at the fundamental level.

Most Convincing Historical Re-Creation

GIFT, a letter-perfect revival of early shoegaze by a singer-producer with a bright future in studio sound matching if the rock star thing doesn’t work out for him. I’ve seen him live, and I kinda think it’s going to work out.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy

Of Montreal’s Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck. Even typing that out feels onerous. I’ve got ninety other albums by this artist (just barely exaggerating here); why wouldn’t I dig the ninety-first? Welp, eventually, even the deepest well runs dry.

Most Consistent Album

Un Verano Sin Ti. On Grammy morning, I thought to myself: a win for Harry Styles will make me happy. A win for Beyoncé will make me happier still. A win for Kendrick and hip-hop will thrill me, and I will be tickled pink if Bad Bunny takes home the Album of the Year trophy for a set recorded entirely in Spanish. Seemed like a long shot, yeah, but it’s hard to argue that any 2022 set was more significant. Un Verano was a Caribbean wave that swelled so high that you could see it from Indiana, and proof positive that merengue, reggaetón, dembow, and all other forms of urbano were going to be major forces in the worldwide marketplace for the foreseeable future. As for Kendrick, I figured that if a rapper couldn’t win Best Album for a set where the songs explicitly apologize for homophobia and praise transgender relatives, it’d never happen. Beyoncé is always a good sport when she’s not stuck in traffic, but sitting in the audience and watching Lizzo and Adele tacitly apologize to her for getting hardware that, on the merits, should rightly go to her has got to be getting old by now. Harry ended up taking the prize, but the consensus seems to be that his performance of “As It Was” was kinda lackluster. Bad Bunny, by contrast, stormed through “Despues De La Playa” in front of eight million people, backed up by a team of cabezudos and a Puerto Rican drumline. That was better than Shakira at the Super Bowl, and more gratifying to a fan of pop en Español than any golden gramophone could ever be.

Most Inconsistent Album

Regina Spektor. Yes, she is as irritatingly off-Broadway as ever, but it’s kind of cool hearing her stick to her guns in the mushrock era, standing by the Pine Sol-scrubbed production and crystal-clear elocution that was always her stock in trade. There used to be a lot of stuff like this; now it’s pretty much just Regina.  But… what’s with the eight minute showtune with Moribund The Burgermeister voices? What about “Loveology”, what in the name of Irving Berlin is that?

Album Most Scrupulously Designed To Annoy Me

The Smile. This sounds like the glitch music that gets played during a videogame when your avatar is stuck in a corridor and you can’t advance, and you know the computer is about to crash. Thom Yorke gives me insight into the way other people experience Jordan Pundik or some other deliberately annoying pop-punk vocalist.  Instant revulsion: it’s what I feel.

Saddest Turn Of Events

Donda 2. It feels strange to avert our eyes and ears from this. On the other hand, it’s debatable whether Kanye even intended it to be an album. I don’t even know if the version I heard was the real set, or if the parameters of a real set are discernible amidst the fog. Do we need to buy his stem player to fairly assess this? How far must we go to humor him? Kanye is one of the great artists of the 21st Century, or was, but he is presently on social media saying that Elon Musk is a Chinese clone. That’s how he is spending his time — doing Nazi salutes with actual neo-Nazis.  He’s gone from sessions with Paul McCartney and Beyoncé to hanging out with the likes of Candace Owens. Kanye’s ingratitude to his backers, supporters, co-workers, and mentors is a matter of public record, and it’s worthy of disapproval. His decision to squander the goodwill of his fanbase by indulging in stupid controversies that are far beneath him is contemptible, and an insult to show business and his formidable artistic gifts. When so many great artists struggle to get the attention they deserve, watching Kanye throw away his platform on a bunch of nonsense has been excruciating. The whole thing is heartbreaking and unprecedented. He’s one of the great conceptual musicians in pop history, and we’re losing him in broad daylight.

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive.

Also Brutal

Lizzo’s Special. She’s been good in the past, but this one is like Cee-Lo singing over Katy Perry’s worst beats with lyrics by the facilitator of the campus self-empowerment seminar. Hard pass.

Album You Learned The Words To Quickest and also Least Believable Perspective On An Album

Pusha T, “Cocaine’s Dr. Seuss,” is a 45 year old professional entertainer. There are many gray hairs in his beard. I am 100% certain that he does not want to stand on a streetcorner and peddle narcotics. I’m even surer that he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of murdering anybody. It’s awfully fun to indulge in his ludicrous kingpin fantasies, though.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loneliest Time. This year’s Carly Rae is not the most consistent Carly Rae: some songs on the new one follow Dua Lipa to the disco only to get lost among the strobe lights. It was also surprising to hear this connoisseur of melody choose uninteresting notes from time to time. But the character comes through beautifully: she’s still an enraptured romantic who finds kindness and trust sexy. They are. This is also a good place to give props to Jensen McRae, whose bildungsroman Are You Happy Now? narrowly missed the albums list above. She writes with great frankness about sexual assault, racial discrimination, and the discovery of her own desires. Gotta love that young adult fiction — at least some of which is bound to be young adult reality.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was

Component System With The Auto Reverse. At first the constant quipping bugged me. Once I learned to live with it, I began to appreciate it as an expression of Mike Eagle’s peculiar personality and an irreducible element of a tranche of very good rap songs from a very good rap career. I’m still not sure I find it very funny, though, and sometimes I fear that funny is the point.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Sometimes, Forever

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

A cool thing about King’s Disease III is that Nas is utterly relaxed throughout. He neither worries about his status or his age; in a year where other artists were consumed with thoughts of their own mortality, he kicks back, lights up a cigar, pops open a case of vintage flows, and pours it all out into a pyramid of champagne glasses. The way in which he takes his continuing relevance for granted is pretty badass. His late career exercises in male bonding with Chauncey Hollis don’t feel like creative adaptations to his biggest perceived weakness — his occasional struggle to find beats worthy of his lyricism — it just seems like he’s found a friend. I hope they keep it up.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

The Arcade Fire, WE. Somebody needs to grit his or her teeth and pull the plug on this project. Nobody’s getting much out of it anymore except the publicists, and even they didn’t seem to have their hearts in it.

Rookie Of The Year

2022 was the best year for emo music in a long while. Part of the reason it was so gratifying was that the exemplary albums, while recognizably emo, all sounded very different. A Korean guy going by the name of Asian Glow put about about fifty projects that incorporated elements from shoegaze and noise pop. The Pool Kids narrowly missed by Top Twenty with a mainstream-leaning singalong set that played like Paramore three and a half. Oso Oso got weird and fragmented, Joyce Manor revived the spirit of Weezer Blue, Anxious combined borderline-screamo vocals with Beach Boys-style group harmonies with no dissonance whatsoever. A Worcester, Massachusetts band called Peregrine startled me with a record of tremendous raw force, while the superb Caracara of Philadelphia stole tricks from smoothed-out ’90s bands like the Gin Blossoms and The Wallflowers. But my favorite of the bunch was Carly Cosgrove, a trio led by a formidably talented guitarist who spun out barbed, mathy six-string patterns while howling about expectations and various misadventures. Turns out they were recorded by Joe Reinhard of Algernon Cadwallader. This scene may be getting long in the tooth, but its practitioners still take care of their own.

Singles, individual accomplishments to come soon!

Poll 33 — Singles

The embodiment of dexterity, intellectual and otherwise: Natalia Lafourcade

Before we get to my singles list, I’ve got something I really want to clarify.  Very often — way too often — progressive rock will be described as “white” music; i.e., music defined by its estrangement from African-American traditions and the roots of culture as they are expressed in such institutions as the black church.  I’m ashamed to say that some fans of progressive rock do this. This is not just woefully inaccurate.  It’s a calumny against many of the greatest musicians ever to rock, almost all of whom have been vocal about their antecedents and inspirations.  It doesn’t withstand the least bit of scrutiny, and though it is borderline insulting to prog rockers to do this, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.   

Many of the most significant figures in the history of progressive rock began their careers by playing African-American music and doing it well. Jethro Tull was a blues band for their first two albums; an expansive, imaginative blues band, but pretty authentic nonetheless. Before Tull, Ian Anderson was in a beat group, and Martin Barre, who joined the band for Stand Up, was part of a a pickup combo that supported visiting R&B artists like The Coasters. The young Steve Winwood sounded like Ray Charles, and this was very much on purpose.Keith Emerson had learned how to play boogie-woogie, ragtime, and club organ music a la Jack McDuff, and thus The Nice could, and did, back P.P. Arnold, an American soul singer straight from the gospel tradition. Pink Floyd was famously named after two Carolina bluesmen. It suited them: no matter where they set the interstellar controls, they were always in touch with R&B ground control.

None of these artists did a sudden pivot away from African-American music and toward the hut of Baba Yaga. On the contrary: it was the expansiveness and fundamental mutability of these African-American musical models that allowed progressive rock as we know it to evolve in the first place. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul: this was already recognized as progressive music, music made for chance-takers and radical individuals, if not radical individualists. Innovators were drawn to these styles because they were determined to testify at length. It was a form of pop that was wide enough to accommodate the personal stories of musicians who had, to put it mildly, lots to say. Conventional styles weren’t going to cut it. 

Progressive rockers had their own baggage to bring to the station; they all loved the Beatles, who were deeply indebted to American music themselves, and they were aware of The Beach Boys, psychedelia, and California sunshine pop. The music of Yes, for instance, is full of agglomerative collisions — harmonies from the Association plus the rhythms of Bill Bruford, who was schooled in jazz, the Anglican hymnal plus Southern Baptist transcendence, music hall silly business and country boogie like Steve Howe’s back half of “I’ve Seen All Good People.” All of this got stuck together, Katamari-style, in a big rolling blob that approaches the listener at thrilling velocity. You either got swept up in it yourself or you ran like hell.  This is exactly how church music works. Snatches from popular songs, bits of classical music, lengthy solos, grand, rafter-rattling climaxes, all of that stuff gets chucked into the groove and yoked together in the service of the Holy Spirit.  It’ll take you higher, and lower, and higher again; above all, it’s made to move you.

Progressive rock arose in Britain at the same time that another movement was happening in America: progressive soul.  Artists like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Parliament-Funkadelic empire were motivated by the same impulses and employed many of the same compositional and arrangement strategies that prog rockers did. They, too, pushed themselves harmonically and rhythmically, accumulated influences, sought transcendence, and expanded the limits of conventional pop. They, too, were drawn to big concepts and existential themes. Peter Gabriel was much farther from the experience of the Southern church than these artists were, but the logic with which he approached songwriting and performance wasn’t too different. Their influences were similar, too: Peter loved soul music, and that’s always come through on his records. 

Peter Gabriel was also unburdened by the legitimacy crises that trouble contemporary artists. Many modern songwriters don’t feel at liberty to borrow shamelessly from traditions they’re not part of, or chuck a riff they pinched from a blues record next to a snatch of Brahms.  Hip-hop takes some of the blame for this, since faking the funk has always been a preoccupation of emcees looking to discredit their foes via claims of inauthenticity. I think we do have a bad tendency to apply this retroactively to old masters, and imagine that Neil Pearl lacked the authority or knowledge to incorporate reggae into his drum parts, or that the gospel inflections of mid-period Floyd or Barclay James Harvest are examples of cultural tourism. But Robert Wyatt learned jazz before he learned pop. These guys knew exactly what they were doing, and the fact that they did it so extraordinarily well shouldn’t be held against them. They were reckless with some of their juxtapositions, sure, but chances are, your corner Minister of Music is the same way. He’s not squeamish about appropriation, because he’s on a mission from God. So were the titans of progressive rock — and that’s why the music they’ve made is immortal, and needs no apologies made for it.

Single of the Year

  • 1. Sebastián Yatra & Aitana — “Las Dudas”
  • 2. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Western Wind”
  • 3. Bad Bunny — “Titi Me Pregunto”
  • 4. Pusha T — “Diet Coke”
  • 5. Metric — “Doomscroller”
  • 6. Beyoncé — “Break My Soul”
  • 7. Spiritualized — “The Mainline Song”
  • 8. Julia Jacklin — “I Was Neon”
  • 9. Ezra Furman — “Forever In Sunset”
  • 10. Kiwi Jr. — “The Sound Of Music”
  • 11. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Surrender My Heart”
  • 12. Aaron Raitiere — “Everybody Else”
  • 13. Office Culture — “Elegance”
  • 14. Dayglow — “Second Nature”
  • 15. Drake & 21 Savage — “Jimmy Cooks”
  • 16. Pool Kids — “Arm’s Length”
  • 17. Years & Years — “Sweet Talker”
  • 18. Oso Oso — “Computer Exploder”
  • 19. Amber Mark — “Foreign Things”
  • 20. Joyce Manor — “Gotta Let It Go”

Most Romantic Song

Dayglow’s “Like She Does.” In general, we pro cynics and heartless cretins owe major apologies to Adam Young.

Funniest Song and Song I Needed The Most

Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, “Thank You.” After the last few years of relentless and unwarranted positivity and artists kissing ass in exchange for breadcrumbs, finally somebody was willing to send the whole thing up in the most savage manner possible. Executives and gatekeepers may or may not be necessary, but they’re certainly not your friends. I also love the one where Charlotte dumps the nachos into her bra. Topical Dancer is the sound of that woman (and her BFF) hitting the bullseye over and over.

Most Frightening Song

Everything on Dawn FM.

Most Moving Song

Natalia Lafourcade, “Pajarito Colibrí.” De Todas Las Flores was, among other things, an album about learning how to say goodbye. Turns out it hurts just as much in Spanish.

Sexiest Song

“Virgo’s Groove.” If Renaissance had been nothing but self-empowerment lyrics, I still think I could have swung with it. But when Beyoncé gets down to a genuine come-on, she lets you know that she’s been readying herself for the main event.

Most Inspiring Song

That said, if you are determined to do self-empowerment numbers,“Heated” is the way to go.

Meanest Song

There’s a savage breakup number on the Aaron Raitiere album called “Dear Darling” that could have been written and sung on the worst day of Terry Allen’s life. Nevertheless, I’ve got to give this one to Drake for the song on Honestly, Nevermind that goes “I found a new muse/that’s bad news for you/why would I keep you around?” It’s not just the tacit confession that he was only interested in the girlfriend as a writer’s prompt, or the unceremonious way he lets her know she’s been rendered obsolete. It’s how blithe he sounds about the whole thing, and the prevailing feeling that he’s going to be churning through muses indefinitely, and tossing them as soon as they’ve exhausted their inspirational capacity.

Saddest Song

Bruce Hornsby’s “Days Ahead.” His exhaustion is our exhaustion. What sort of future do we have under these conditions?

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

Overlord played the Beatles song “Hey Bulldog” at the International Pop Overthrow. George sang it beautifully, I thought. That number was just knocked out by John Lennon, possibly waiting at a red light on the way to the recording studio. But as always, grappling with a Beatles song — even a minor one — means marveling at the pop architecture and coming to terms with how much sturdier its compositional construction is than just about everything else out there. A little depressing, yeah. But somebody has to set the pace.

Best Guest Appearance Or Feature

Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio on “Hold Me Tonight.” This track is quintessential Metronomy: Joe Mount’s narrator is a young man screwing up the courage to speak to an attractive woman who he clearly considers himself outclassed by, and when he does, we discover that she’s as messed up and desperate for affection as he is. He goes after a sexual fantasy, and finds himself with a flesh and blood human being on his hands — which, it turns out, is both sexier and more dangerous than the game of cat and mouse he was determined to play. But none of it would work if Margolin didn’t play the part of the beautiful and tormented woman to the hilt. She understands Joe Mount, which is not always the easiest thing to do.

Best Music Video

“Titi Me Pregunto,” though I have to admit I love Pusha T’s sneering performance in “Call My Bluff.”

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album

Charlotte Adigéry. It’s all exactly as lacerating as she wants it to be, and it’ll cut exactly as deep as you’re willing to let it. Even the track designed to be a compendium of pop clichés is so confidently written that it feels poetic in spite of itself.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

Yard Act, “Tall Poppies.” James Smith split the difference between Richard Dawson and Mike Skinner with a story-song about small-town fatalism, the curse of aspirations, and the perils and pleasures of low horizons at a time in the history of the world where most of us are having to keep our heads down. Special commendation for scene-setting on Billy Woods’s “Francie,” and on Church in general. Billy gets criticized, and not unfairly, for jumping in and out of his narratives too abruptly, but when he’s on, he air-drops you right in the middle of a roiling city without a rescue helicopter in sight, and it’s thrilling.

Best Singing

I’m not going to get cute and write anything other than Beyoncé. Sometimes the answer is the obvious one.

Best Rapping

After a few years of voting for Megan Thee Stallion in this category, I am, er, pivoting back to Saba.

Best Vocal Harmonies


Best Bass Playing

More Renaissance, sorry; I am sure next year’s ballot will be more contrarian. Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! applies thick, melting layers of butter to these slices of Texas toast. The tone is fantastic, the parts are fluid, and the note choices demonstrate fidelity to the house music tradition and classic ’70s funk-pop.

Best Live Drumming

Pete Thomas on The Boy Named If. The album also preserves Davey Faragher’s best bass performances since joining Team Costello. As for Steve Nieve, he mostly repeats himself this time around, but that’s not to say he doesn’t do it excellently.

Best Drum Programming

Bolis Pupul. I also love the way he cuts up Charlotte’s giggle.

Best Synthesizer Playing And Programming

The firm of Tesfaye, Lopatin, Martin & Holder on Dawn FM. Even in electronic music, so much effort has been expended on the effort to make synthesizers feel human. Here was the synth as the epitome of anti-human tech, with all the blood and breath leeched out of the signal, and every impossibly smooth passage leering out at us like the gloating of our AI overlords.

Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing and Best Instrumentalist

The playing on De Todas Las Flores is so good that it’s possible to spend measure after measure just paying attention to a trombone track tucked in the corner of the mix. Mark Ribot came down to Mexico to skronk on the set, and the stupendous Cyril Atef makes the whole thing go. Natalia Lafourcade is no slouch on acoustic guitar. Yet they unearthed a musician who laps them all: pianist Emiliano Dorantes, who plays with flair, confidence, and humor, and keeps this project firmly tethered to Mexican soil.

Best Guitar Playing

Lucas Naylor of Carly Cosgrove. Mathy, dextrous, inventive, as raucous as the demands of emo require him to be without ever crossing the line into noise for its own sake.

Best Arrangements

Richard Dawson on The Ruby Cord. He keeps “Hermit” going for forty-one minutes without any redundancy or dull stretches. Props, too, to the Brooklyn band Office Culture, who handle hair-raising chord changes with consummate sophistipop grace. Prefab Sprout would be proud.

Best Songwriting

Tim Bernardes

Okay, more tomorrow! We’re not done yet!

The 2022 Arts Annual

(Only on Jersey City Times and NJArts!)

Hello, friends.  A tumultuous year is coming to an end, and that means it’s time for another Tris McCall Arts Annual.  You’re getting this because you’re involved in the arts, or you like the arts, or, for some odd reason, you like me.  In any case, thank you for being you.  I wouldn’t have made it through 2022 without you.

Jersey City Arts 2022 — What Happened? is my overview of the local arts landscape in six (relatively) succinct sections.  I tried to be as fair and even-handed as I could be.  

I really don’t like to be negative; it makes my extremities go numb.  But sometimes I’m miffed, and in 99% of the cases where I’m miffed, it involves the Jersey City government or its satellite organizations.  I promised Hilary that I’d never stop speaking out.  She would have been bugged to no end by the Jersey City Arts Awards.  On her behalf, if not my own, I’m afraid I had to say this.

If landslides of superlatives are more your thing, here’s my list of the 11 Best Jersey City Art Shows of 2022.  You might also want to go statewide with the 11 Best New Jersey Art Shows of 2022.  

Finally, this is my official position on the Pompidou Jersey City.  

Okay, let’s get ready for a superior 2023.  Please keep letting me know what you’re up to, and I will keep popping off about it. 

With love from New Jersey,


Understanding The Pop Music Abstract

Fast trains and telegraph wires.

The Pop Music Abstract is an annual exercise in automatic writing.  In the Abstract I attempt to write at the speed of thought about the subject that dominates my rambling internal monologue.  I go through the albums of the year in alphabetical order and I type the very first thing that enters my head.  I don’t allow myself to revise, and I’m only permitted to use the delete key to fix immediate typographical errors.  Once an opinion is registered, that’s it; I’ve got to live with it, even if I violently disagree with it a few seconds later.  An entry in the Pop Music Abstract should, theoretically, take no longer to write than it does for my brain to string the words together.

Sometimes it feels like it’s faster.  When I’m in the middle of an Abstract, the typing outpaces the thinking.  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I learn what I think, or what I thought in one errant moment, a few seconds after I put it on the screen.  This is not how I usually operate.  If I’m doing a review or a story, or sending e-mail to a friend, or making a normal post to this site, I’ll write a sentence, and then I’ll stop to consider what I’ve done.  I’ll turn clauses around, or swap out a weak verb for a better one, or prune it a bit and position it differently in the paragraph. I will ask myself: does what I’ve written reflect how I really feel, or does communication demand a more nuanced explanation?  When I make an Abstract, I don’t do any of that.  Many of my immediate thoughts are irresponsible or offensive. Many more are just wrong.  If, at the end of the process of writing the Pop Music Abstract, I’m not at least a little bit mortified, I haven’t done it properly.

Why would I bother to do it at all?  The Pop Music Abstract is written quickly, but thirty to fifty thousand words takes time to type, no matter how fast I go.  Shouldn’t I apply that time to more grown-up pursuits, such as currency manipulation or archery practice?  It’s a legitimate question.  The Abstract isn’t even a permanent feature of this website: it’s only up for a few weeks.  I tend to pull it down the minute I figure out what I really think about all these records.  It’s not fair criticism or a consumer’s guide; it isn’t even the first draft of my evaluations.  It’s more of a record of a testy arbitration session between my ears, my memory, my hands, and my feelings.  My brain is deliberately late to the party.  My conscience is not invited.

I didn’t think I’d be capable of doing this exercise in 2022.  It’s been a turbulent year.  Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from listening to albums as much as I usually do; signal problems on the Hackensack River Bridge delayed the arrival of my trains of thought.  When I sat down to retrieve words, the transmission signal was not always as strong as it had been in the past.  Abstract 22 took longer than prior versions did.  It was harder to find the time to do it.  Yet once I started, I found that I was far more interested in learning what I thought, and the way that I thought, than I believed I’d be, even if those thoughts were themselves less interesting than they’d been during prior Abstracts.

So I did it.  This year’s Abstract consists of forty-five thousand words on one hundred and fifty-nine albums; shorter than usual, but still a workout for a scrolling finger.  There are no pictures or letter grades or anything like that.  It’s not user-friendly.  I did put the 20 and 21 Abstracts back on the site so I could link to them, and associate current impressions with prior ones, and if you’re interested in the course of my brain-waves as they bend, it’s possible to trace them through the pandemic period.  The usual characters are present: Drake, naturally, and Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, etcetera. The longest, and, I believe, the most pedagogical entry is the one for Caracara’s New Preoccupations; in it, I write about the differences between emo and pop-punk, and for once, I back up my work with some citations that you can rock out to. If you’re looking for the sociopolitical digressions, I’m sorry to say they’re there again — this time in the entries for Kids On A Crime Spree, and poor Daniel Rossen, who ends up as a springboard for my too-personal reflections on the January 6 riot at the Capitol.  

In a few days, I’ll post a listening schedule to this site.  I’m looking forward to changing my mind about some, or all, of these albums.  Will I go back to the Abstract and post corrections?  Oh, heck no.  Sorry, Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg. I’ll make it up to you two somehow.

Wolves and rabbits

Simply unacceptable.

Hello, my name is Tris, and I do not drive.  I have a license, but I don’t have a car.  I can operate one if I need to, but as a dweller in a pedestrian-intense area of an East Coast city, I’ve never deemed it wise to have four wheels.

Two wheels, on the other hand, are mandatory.  I take my bicycles everywhere.  I’ve got a nice copper-colored Trek that’s a good option if I’m going to leave town and contend with gravel roads. But if I’m sticking to local routes, I will always choose to ride my Brompton folding bike — a wiry little hop on/hop off guy not that much bigger than a scooter.  To the endless dismay of those foolish enough to care for me, I do not wear a helmet.  When implored to do so, I politely demur.  I don’t want any impediment standing between me and my ride; I want the act of getting on and off the bicycle to feel as natural as it would be if I’d decided to walk down the street.  A helmet, I’ve often reasoned, isn’t going to save me from the worst dangers of the road.  Should I be struck by a speeding SUV, I expect to die.

But maybe I wouldn’t. Andy Black didn’t die.  On July 19, 2022, he was broadsided by a black Nissan Rogue at the intersection of Forrest Street and MLK Drive; a few days later, he was giving interviews.  It was no glancing blow he took.  His trajectory was intercepted by a front grill that came on like an All-Pro linebacker. Initially, Black told the press that he had the right of way.  Footage posted on New Jersey Globe (don’t watch if you’re squeamish) demonstrates that he went through a red light.  

Incidents like this happen in the city all the time.  Those painted-white ghost bicycles chained to fences and signposts testify to the risks we run every time we take to the streets, and they remind us of the terrible anonymity of tragedy.  The world isn’t going to stop if we get run over.  They’ll come out with the sweepers if there’s anything obstructing traffic; forty-five minutes later, it’ll be like nothing ever happened.  The only reason that Andy Black’s accident drew attention was because of the identity of the driver: city councilperson Amy DeGise, daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise.  The Councilwoman did not brake to investigate what she’d done.  She left a man down on the pavement and kept on driving. 

This has become a metaphor for the relationship between City Hall and the citizenry.  More specifically, it feels like commentary on the disposition of Grove Street toward the part of the city where the accident happened: Bergen-Lafayette, a poorer neighborhood that has often been neglected by the authorities.  Here is a working stiff, on his way to take an Uber Eats delivery order; there is a gas guzzler with tinted windows blowing down the block as if it was the Autobahn.  A man lies bleeding on Ward F pavement.  The city official who put him there won’t even stop.  Does she not care about his pain?  Or, shielded by steel, speed, and the arrogance of those on official business, did she somehow fail to even notice?

I can’t speak to the legality of what she did. She left the scene of an accident, which seems like a pretty big deal to me, but I’m no attorney. That Black ran a red light is salient to the legal case, but exactly how meaningful it is, I’ll leave to the traffic cops to decide.  It doesn’t particularly surprise me that many locals on social media have refused to express any sympathy for Black: he wasn’t following the rules of the road, and he found out the hard way that disobedience has consequences. Fair enough, I suppose. If you want to be a stickler for the specifics of the code as it’s written and enforced, I’m sure you might even find yourself with the tacit blessings of a local hanging judge or two.

But I don’t think you’ve got to be a Green Party voter to believe that it’s absurd to apply the same rules to a bicyclist that you’d apply to a motorist.  An SUV is a five-thousand-pound assembly of steel with an internal combustion engine that can achieve speeds unimaginable for most of human history, and can reach those speeds as easily as you can depress your foot.  A bicycle goes no faster than ordinary leg power and sweat can take it.  Any encounter between a machine like that and a human being, is, quite literally, weighted massively in favor of the machine.  In most of Jersey City, the cyclist must share the street with motor vehicles moving at terrifying velocity.  Navigating that street is an act of faith: we have to believe that the people behind the steering wheels are rational actors in full possession of their faculties.  To make matters worse, those streets where we must practice that faith are designed to accommodate the driver, not the cyclist.  The system of signals and procedures that govern conduct assume that road-users are in cars, and are therefore protected from the elements and the vagaries of their neighbors.  The cyclist must accommodate that system, and work with it, even as he knows that any departure from that system by a driver might be the end of him.

What this means — and every city cyclist knows this — is that there will be times when, in order to survive, the person on the bicycle simply must bend the rules.  If he’s chugging along on a busy street with no bike lane, and with cars speeding by, it might not be the wisest thing for anybody to wait at a light as if he’s sitting in a monster truck.  If he tries to get ahead of the cars, he’s not doing this because he’s stunting, or flaunting the law, or engaging in an act of petty civil disobedience.  He’s trying to find a safe place for himself in the rhythms of traffic — rhythms that are established by the motor vehicles around him, and which he can do very little to influence.  

Andy Black had a tough task.  Circumstances put him on MLK Drive at 8 in the morning.  There’s not much space to ride on that street when the road is deserted; during rush hour, it’s an obstacle course. Ride too close to the curb and you’re liable to be doored. Go too close to the central dividing line, and you’re going to bother every driver you pass. Black had cars in front of him obstructing his vision, another car pressing him from behind, and many other cars parked on the side of the street, making it impossible for him to let any cars pass.  Pedestrians are in the crosswalk. Everybody is hurrying. He is acutely aware that he’s not going fast enough for the liking of the drivers around him, and they’re viewing him as an obstruction to their designs. To make things easier for everybody, he tacks toward the center of the road. He does this to improve his own recognition of the streetscape, and as an acknowledgment that his presence is an annoyance to the motorists.

Black slows at the light.  Then he accelerates into the intersection.  He sees daylight and a car-free stretch of pavement, and he takes advantage of that.  He receives the red light as a blessing for everybody: he can have a few seconds of relative calm, and the cars behind him can be free from his presence. What he did not anticipate was a City Councilwoman racing down a residental street at speeds best left for the highway.  Struck full on, he spins in space, tumbles over, lands right on his side in the middle of the road.  Then, even before the bent bicycle stops bouncing, he retrieves a sandal, picks himself up, and limps to the sidewalk.

As for Amy DeGise, she’s already long gone.  The consequences of her actions — or her inaction — will catch up to her later, but for now, she’s speeding to her destination. Yet, to me, a cyclist there but for fortune on the MLK tarmac, the inaction of the rest of the motorists is just as meaningful, and just as telling.  Yes, DeGise doesn’t stop.  The other cars don’t, either. The moment the light turns green, they roll through the intersection without hesitation.  Some of the pedestrians on MLK Drive try to assist.  One makes him comfortable on a cooler, while another (the rascal) defies the light to bring him his other sandal. 

But the drivers remain indifferent.  Right before their eyes, a man is nearly killed — a man with whom they’d just been interacting in an attempt to navigate a crowded street.  Yet that man is not a fellow driver, which means he is to be treated as an enemy: an interloper in a zone that belongs to them and them only.  He was using a modality of transportation imported from communist Czechloslovakia or somewhere like it, and who was likely supportive of new rules meant to protect his fellow two-wheeled commies.  He got the beating that was coming to him, and that that beating came from another motorist simply absolved them from any legal responsibility for their unarticulated feelings.  He could have a concussion, he could have broken bones, he could have damaged pride, whatever; that was his problem, not theirs.  They’re home free.

This, to me, is an extension of the hit and run.  Not quite as dramatic or irresponsible as what the Councilwoman did, but a completion of her nearly-lethal gesture of contempt for cyclists.  The message board and social media posts dismissing Andy Black are the final flourishes of that same gesture.  It’s a wave of dismissal that those of us who ride bicycles are all too familiar with.  And on behalf of all of us two-wheeled characters — those struck physically by city officials, and those who’ve merely been slighted by them — I’d like to remind non-cyclists that our manner of getting around is not merely legally valid and therefore entitled to protection and special accommodation.  It’s the logical way to negotiate distance in a city like ours.  Moreover, pedestrian-friendly cities like this one were not meant to accommodate fleets of sport-utility vehicles.  SUVs are loud, they’re noisy, they’re right in your face, they’re spacehogs, they’re ugly, they extract a social and environmental cost.  They desensitize drivers to the vulnerabilities of other citizens who are not so protected.   And sometimes, as Andy Black learned, they run you right down. So if you must drive in Jersey City, please find a nice garage in Somerset County to stash your unstoppable death machine, and ride something more sane. And if you are elected to public office in Jersey City, boy oh boy should you know better.

Long overdue: A tribute (and individual achievements)

I’ve been waiting to write this essay all my life. Hold on.

I’m a simple person with simple peeves. Nothing makes me angrier than those lists of the greatest drummers in the history of rock. Oh, I have no issue with the consensus favorites: I love John Bonham, too, and Keith Moon, and Charlie Watts, and Mitch Mitchell, and I’d love it if Ringo would get listed, but he never does, and that’s a whole ‘nother article right there. (See, I’m getting heated up already.)

But when my index finger slides down the list, there’s only one name I’m looking for. That’s Phil, the incisive, impeccable Phil Collins, who is usually tucked away around #50, maybe next to the guy from Journey, and some master of arcane Swiss percussion who we’ve never heard of.  That’s when he’s on there at all. When Phil is dissed like this, enough steam comes out of my ears to power an Industrial Revolution. And if you’ve got a moment for me, I’d like to explain exactly why.

A musician could not be in a progressive rock band unless he had chops: those Huts of Baba Yaga didn’t move without a complicated and well calibrated motor. But of all the prog-rock drummers, Phil Collins had the hardest job. The great Nick Mason had to exercise plenty of tricky bits without losing the R&B feel, but in Pink Floyd songs, there were always long stretches where he could set the controls for the heart of the sun, and slip into a groove while Gilmour handled liftoff and ignition. Phil never had that luxury.  He had to fuse together Tony Banks’s multi-part storytelling epics while keeping the tale comprehensible, and he had to navigate through an Epping Forest crammed to the treetops with Peter Gabriel’s thick verbiage. 

Other progressive rock bands indulged in stretches of pure sound. Genesis was always shoehorning in extra ideas and extra phrases, keeping it theatrical and West End-dramatic, skipping around from section to section in order to serve the through-narrative. Even their instrumentals were frenzied. It was Phil who made sure that when supper was ready, it was piping hot; Phil who turned the crank on the musical box, Phil who somehow got us dancing, and skipping around, on the surface of that volcano that spewed its magma in the strangest of time signatures. Could other progressive rock drummers have turned the trick?  Well, maybe, but it’s worth noting that Bill Bruford, fantastic as he is, could never get comfortable in the driver’s seat when he was briefly handed the keys.

And if that’s all there was to Phil Collins, he’d still deserve a position alongside Bruford and Neil Peart atop those drummers’ lists. It wasn’t — not by a long shot. Uniquely among prog-rockers, the classic era isn’t where the Phil Collins story ends. It’s where the Phil story begins. Once fashions changed and multi-part dramas about the Giant Hogweed were out of vogue, Phil was the man who adapted best to the new reality. Arguably, he did his most ambitious and far-reaching work during the heyday of ’80s soft rock, which is not considered a playground for fantastic drummers. When other timekeepers of the classic period fell back on naturalism and turned a skeptical eye toward new wave innovations, Phil Collins was getting down with early drum machines, figuring out a way that he might use mechanical beat generators to enhance his own vigorous pulse. 

Even nonbelievers who mock Phil know in their bones that he changed music forever with his fill on “In The Air Tonight.” Right there, at 3:41, the world turned upside down; he stood sonic expectations on end and invented a true sound of the future. But the first three and a half minutes of Roland CR-78 was just as radical. It’s the contrast between the slow-dripping, ominous drum box and the thumping, adrenalized, man-made tom roll that puts the primal terror in “In The Air Tonight”, and created a paradigm for ambitious pop producers to follow. Noah “40” Shebib and Francis Farewell Starlite sure were listening, as was Genesis fan Jeff Bhasker, and The Weeknd, and what was “Love Lockdown” if it wasn’t Kanye assuring us that if we were drowning/he would not lend a hand?  When I wrote that Phil invented trip-hop on Face Value, I was only half joking. He showed us all the power of a sudden irruption in a slow, mesmerizing groove, like the head of the alien bursting through the sternum of pop that was, and streaking onward toward pop to come. 

There’s plenty in the Genesis prog catalog that foreshadows “In The Air Tonight;” check out, just to give you a for instance, the stupendous fills that carry home “Eleventh Earl Of Mar.” But it’s unlikely that Phil would have reoriented the sound of ’80s pop if he’d only played in one sandbox. Yes, that’s Phil Collins hammering away on every single Genesis progsterpiece (and there were oh so many of them). Phil also hit the skins on a series of albums that, while not progressive rock per se, split the difference between ’70s bombast and ’80s sophistipop sleekness. Drum aficionados know that Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham came up with the “In The Air Tonight” drum sound while monkeying around with the talkback microphones during sessions for Peter Gabriel’s third album. Yet for some reason, few people realize that Phil Collins played the drums — quite brilliantly, too — on the visionary Brian Eno solo sets that continue to cast a long shadow over adventurous pop music. Robert Fripp is associated with Eno for very good reasons, but Phil was every bit as valuable to the team of lunatics that made Another Green World.  Only Phil Collins could have provided the tailwind for John Martyn’s Grace + Danger, and only Phil could have played those parts, and sung those backing vocals, in a manner that calls no attention whatsoever to the guy doing them, but, once concentrated on, couldn’t have been done by anybody else. When Robert Plant needed an accomplice for his artier, more auteur-like solo albums, it was Phil he called; when Bruce Hornsby needed someone to shake a tambourine, unobtrusively but expertly, on Harbor Lights, he did the same. A long history of subordinating his own star to that of his flower-wearing frontman, and putting his creativity to the service of his cranky piano player’s fantastic stories, made him an ideal side-person for an ambitious songwriter. 

So it’s particularly galling to me when Phil gets knocked for his turn as a pop star.  It’s not just that he earned it via substantial dues-paying and self-effacement. It’s that he’s the only one among his peers who could have managed it in the first place — and that demands respect. Could you imagine Ginger Baker singing “One More Night”? Would Barriemore Barlow have come out from behind the kit to do a spot-on early-’80s soul duet with Phillip Bailey?  Phil Collins wasn’t just a drummer turned singer: he was a drummer who stepped into the shoes of progressive rock’s most charismatic vocalist and stage performer and barely missed a trick. Wind & Wuthering is just as progressive and ambitious as the Gabriel albums, and when the group pared back and charged into the new decade with Abacab, it was Phil who led the way. There is no story in the annals of pop and rock that’s remotely like his, and it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be one again.

Why, then, is it so hard for people to give Phil his props? No doubt the pop career is at least partially to blame: those driven to distraction by “Sussudio”, “Just Another Day In Paradise”, and other Collins numbers played to death on Top 40 radio are still pissed off about it. There’s an entire generation of listeners who associate Phil Collins with ’80s lite radio and couldn’t tell you the first thing about Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid, and the scary thing is that the members of that generation are now fairly long in the tooth. Phil is the first to admit he was overexposed during the Reagan-Thatcher years, so omnipresent, in fact, that some seem to have mixed him up with Reagan and Thatcher themselves.  For awhile he was everywhere, guest performing, acting in movies, hopping the Atlantic to play both halves of Live Aid.  It was hyperactive go-getter stuff, delivered with a gremlin’s grin, compatible with Phil’s inexhaustible creativity, but easy to conflate with the worst of the era of the Coffee Achievers.

The irony is that Phil Collins wrote some of the most pained, vulnerable, candid music of the era — excoriating songs that sting plenty once you peek behind the pop veneer.  Unlike Peter Gabriel, who sang his songs of paranoia and destabilization from the perspective of fantastical, outlandish characters, Phil played an everyman: short, scruffy beard, working-class cap on his largely bald head.  He did not look the part of a rock god. That underscored the power of his best performances, all of which demonstrated that ordinary joes had the ability to feel immense anguish. Among the roles inhabited by Phil on Duke, the saddest album in progressive rock history, are a delusional television addict, a shmoe stood up by a two-timing girlfriend, and a divorcee crying to his inaccessible ex-wife about how much he misses his children. (Tony and Mike contributed a few doozies to that set, too; they all must have felt like the prog-rock jig was up.)  Being a little pathetic became part of Phil’s public image, and helped endear him to a mass audience.

Rage, frustration, and rejection were motivating forces for his solo writing, too, including many songs that became huge hits: the shitfit of “I Missed Again,” the searing dismissal of “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the rubber room balladry of “Take Me Home.” On the outro of “Against All Odds,” Phil has a microphone meltdown intense enough to make Chris Conley blush. Emo fans should recognize and respect the technique: freight the arrangement far past its carrying capacity, and make the contrast between the poised music and the bananas vocal performance as stark as possible.  It’s supposed to sound a little wrong, too much, a berserk transmission from a man who has snapped, and who is determined to call your attention to a major meltdown.

Phil Collins learned to be a frontman by modeling himself after Peter Gabriel, and Peter Gabriel got his wigged-out compositions and concept albums to move by leaning, hard, on his imaginative drummer. So I don’t like to participate in those Peter vs. Phil debates that have roiled Genesis fandom since 1977. I prefer to recognize them as two seeds that grew symbiotically but blew apart (but never all that far apart) in the stiff breeze of rock history. Neither one is my very favorite member of Genesis, anyway: I’ve been attempting to emulate Tony Banks for decades, and the only reason you might not have noticed is because I’m a damned klutz.

If I was forced to choose, I’d have to agree with the consensus that Genesis with Peter was a better group than Genesis fronted by Phil — with the caveat that Peter had Phil in the band, while Phil did not have the benefit of Peter’s legendary imagination. But all sledgehammers lain aside, there ought to be no doubt about which of the two is closer to the main thread of the story of popular music. Phil Collins was a world-class progressive rock drummer in one of the best bands ever banded, he was a sympathetic sideman on some tremendously influential albums, he rewrote the rules for arena rock and new wave drumming, and he was, in his way, a pioneering electronic musician whose use of early drum machines was both audacious and effective.  We associate the TR-808 with early hip-hop and Detroit techno, but it was a balding gremlin from London who first brought it mainstream and took it to the top of the charts.

Even his covers were audacious.* As a singer, Phil had passion, which made up for his technical imperfections, and his version of blue-eyed soul was substantially less appropriative than that of most of his peers. (His fake Mexican accent on “Illegal Alien” is another matter altogether, but I still say the time is right for somebody pleasantly problematic to bring that song back.) His true mark of distinction was his way with a tune: at his peak, he was, like Kanye or Taylor Swift, practically inerrant at the art of finding just the right note in the chord to advance the melody and move the composition from introduction to conclusion with the proper balance of inevitability and surprise.  

Why am I writing this now?  Well, folks, I’ll tell you why. It bothered me that I let Neil Peart die before I registered my appreciation. I did it with an essay that corrected some of the popular misapprehensions about his writing, but posthumous honors bug me. Genesis is presently touring, sort of; Phil can’t play the drums at all anymore, and has to front the group from a chair. Clips from the tour are moving — but only in the way that reminiscences of past glories and showers of affections directed at elder statesmen sometimes are.  So I felt that I’d stick up for Phil while he was in the living years: give a little love to a master who has never quite gotten the recognition that his talent and achievement warrants. Phil Collins belongs in the pantheon of pop game-changers, inimitable, visionary artists with unrepeatable career trajectories, and if that seemed unwarranted to you a few paragraphs ago, it’s probably because you didn’t know the whole story.

Now you do.  

*While I’m at it, let me register another hot take. In my considered opinion, Phil’s version of “You Can’t Hurry Love” is better and more affecting than the Supremes original.  Phil’s take is a stealth grimdark reimagining of a strand of spun sugar from Holland-Dozier-Holland. In the Supremes version, the narrator is a teen girl with her whole life ahead of her: momma is right there, giving her solid advice. The listener sympathizes with her frustration, but there’s every reason to believe she’ll find love. The song turns on her urgency: she’s worried about never getting something she’s obviously going to get. She doesn’t know that, but you do, and the result is charming.

In Phil’s version, the narrator is a thirtysomething man.  He may never have experienced true love or anything like it. Momma is probably dead.  Waiting, for him, is much more consequential, because he’s running out of time and staring at a future of emptiness. When he sings “I can’t bear to live my life alone,” the listener is confronted by the very real possibility that the narrator is sentenced to a life of solitude. 

When Phil Collins cut that cover, he’d just come off of a brutal divorce. If you take the songs on Duke and Face Value at… um… face value, it’s pretty clear that Phil was worried that he was a deeply unloveable person. That’s the perspective from which he does that cover. He sure made me feel it. 

Okay, on to the annual individual achievement section:

Best singing

Mon Laferte

Best rapping

Megan Thee Stallion

Best vocal harmonies

Parcels. I strongly undersold these guys in the Abstract. Protracted exposure to Day/Night has convinced me that they’re more than just a Daft Punk copy act. There’s lots of early ’70s Beach Boys in what they do, and ELO, and a little Floyd, and more than a little Steely Dan, and yes, they do rip off Daft Punk shamelessly. But they’re buddies; Bangalter and De Homem-Christo produced their first album. If you’re going to stay up all night to get lucky, you’re going to want some friends around in case you don’t.

Best bass playing

Nick Movshon on Aaron Frazer’s Introducing… Nick had a tough job: he couldn’t just deliver an ace James Jamerson impersonation. He had to evoke classic soul as it might be understood by a millennial who mostly knows about it through hip-hop samples. Any old bass virtuoso can mimic Stax or discipline himself enough to suggest that there’s a loop going. But a musician who can sound like Philly International and Wu-Tang at the same time has got to be some kind of visionary. I don’t know how he did it, but do it he did.

Best percussionist

Otoniel Nicolas on Tanda. Well before Graceland, Paul Simon hired the great bossa nova percussionist Airto Moreira (check him out on Jobim’s Stone Flower, particularly their rendition of “Brazil”) to liven up his singer-songwriter material. Alex Ferreira isn’t an ethnopirate, but he sure is an appropriator, and his gentle, gorgeous Latin Alternative pop songs are quite a bit closer to Simon than they are to reggaeton. Otoniel Nicolas takes to the Airto Moreira role with relish, and he makes Ferreira’s songs shimmy and shake in the Dominican sunshine. Every year, there’s one album I associate with clear skies and perfect weather. In 2021, this was it.

Best rock drumming, best synthesizer playing, best band

Steven Buttery/Katie Dvorak/The World Is A Beautiful Place. I don’t know exactly what happened to these guys after Always Foreign, but I’ve got to think it involved a great deal of woodshedding.

Best piano playing

Craig Potter of Elbow

Best guitar playing

Bad Bad Hats, my indiepop guitar heroes.

Best instrumental solo

Annie Clark, “Living In The Dream”. I thought Daddy’s Home was a nice try, and a more interesting set than Masseduction, but I do understand how some of Annie’s choices put off longtime fans. I hope we can all agree that it’s a good thing that she’s playing more guitar these days.

Best instrumentalist

Hayley Williams handled everything on Flowers For Vases/Descansos, including the drums. It’s all beautifully rendered, of course. If I’m ever on a plane with Hayley, and the pilot passes out and she’s forced to take the yoke, my heart wouldn’t even race. I’d expect a perfect touchdown with minimal turbulence. Bet I’d get just that.

Best drum programming

Pahua. It’s a testament to Paulina Sotomayor’s ingenuity that I can never tell what she’s programmed and what she’s banged out with her hands. Not that it matters around the rim of the digital Caribbean, where synthetic tradewinds blow just as warm as organic ones do. Is that the whisper of an ocean breeze through the palm fronds, or is it pink noise plus a low-frequency oscillator?

Best production

Noah “40” Shebib. I hear you groan. You’ve had enough of it, haven’t you?, the muffled kick drum and the distant synthesizer, the downtempo rhythms and mid-song beat switches, the smoke curls of sound, the late-nite rumination, the pulse-quickening rush of string pads, the long, drawn out sections where next to nothing happens, followed by sudden irruptions and moments of emotional acceleration. It’s been over a decade of this, and it’s everywhere, bleeding out from 40 headquarters like an ink spill, saturating the entire pop landscape. I now recognize 40’s influence on genres that have nothing to do with hip-hop or even trip-hop; I hear bluegrass that’s Drake-aware, big band jazz with Drake tricks in the background. We’re long overdue for a course correction. But. The producer’s task is so fashion a sonic environment for the storytelling to inhabit — that’s it; that’s the whole job. Drake made meaningful adjustments to his approach on Certified Lover Boy and 40 was right there to shadow every step and enhance every phrase. Their symbiosis is such a part of the tapestry of modern pop that it’s practically taken for granted, but when 40 is nowhere to be found, Drake has a tendency to drift: see, for instance, Dark Lane Demo Tapes. They both showed up for the Certified Lover Boy sessions with new stories to tell, and a new mood to generate, and they did what they’ve been doing since the beginning of October’s Very Own. They made each other make sense.

Production gambit that, against the odds, worked out pretty damned well

Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross + Halsey. And so what if it sounds more like the Social Network soundtrack with pop vox than Nine Inch Nails? It was a throw of the dice for everybody involved, and they came up with something cohesive and even, may we say, brave, because the label couldn’t have been thrilled that their hitmaker opted against the delivery of a red-hot single. What could she say? She’s from Jersey. It’s artistry over commerce forever, here on these benighted Turnpike exits.

Best arrangements


Best songwriting

Jeremy Gaudet of Kiwi Jr.

Rookie of the Year

Much as I appreciated Black Country, New Road’s klezmer-meets-Crimson amalgam, this trophy belongs to Olivia Rodrigo.

Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning

Daniel Quien

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Dave Grohl

Most Overrated

Jazmine Sullivan

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

Spirit Of The Beehive

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

J. Cole

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2031

Hayley Williams

Forecasted best record of 2022

Whatever Julia Jacklin puts out.

Long overdue: My favorite singles of 2021

Everything is all reused.

Taylor Swift has never won our annual Poll.  Neither has Hayley Williams or Paramore. Elastica hung them up a long time ago; they got their votes, but they didn’t come close to the top. Fond though we all are of Carly Rae Jepsen, she’s never sniffed a Poll win, either.

Yet if I tallied up the Top Ten lists of the people I know well, and who vote in this Poll during the years when I have it in me to tally, our winner would have been an artist whose borrowings from Elastica and Carly Rae were barely disguised, and who pinched so shamelessly from Taylor Swift and Paramore that she had to put their names in the credits. We’re hardly alone. Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour topped critics charts all over the world: mainstream showbiz ones like Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the BBC, and placed on aficionado’s lists in Pitchfork, Spin, Consequence of Sound, etcetera. All three New York Times critics placed Olivia Rodrigo in their Top Tens; Robert Christgau had Sour at #4. Hey, I dig it too. I may not have listed Sour, but I sure did sing along to it with a huge smile on my face.

So here’s my question, for you, and me, and everybody else who makes assessments of the merits of pop records for fun and occasional profit: what the fuck happened to us? We, who used to thrill when Carl Newman stacked chords in gravity-defying arrangements, when Kevin Barnes extended melodies into the ether, when Liz Phair turned the structure of the pop song inside out, when Kanye and Kendrick and Lauryn Hill found unexplored intersections between soul and gospel, hip-hop and R&B?  Do the virtues implied by those records mean nothing anymore?  Originality, or innovation at least, was once everything to us. Then we were taught that everything was borrowed, and nothing is new under the sun, and every artist’s notion of sui generis songcraft was nothing but a high-romantic conceit.  We’ve internalized that lesson and kept on going.

You might remember when Stefani Germanotta took it on the chin, hard, for a similar infraction.  A million Madonna-wannabees cried foul, justifiably so, after the release of “Born This Way,” and Jay Lustig responded with one of my favorite Ledger headlines ever: Lazy Gaga.  I didn’t like the record either, but I thought she did us all a favor. She reminded us that plagiarism was real, and it’s absolutely unwelcome in pop music. Pop requires practitioners to work within strict parameters, but it also requires novelty. A pop song needs to remind you of songs you already know — it’s got to be familiar — but it can’t be a copy.  That’s what makes this such a murderously difficult art form to master: it’s a tightrope walk between recognition and surprise.  One errant step in either direction, and you either plummet into the abyss of experimental music (usually bad) or you land in the net of the tribute acts and revivalists (usually worse).  

That every pop song recycles elements of other pop songs is a given, and it usually isn’t a problem. Elvis Costello, broadminded as always, waved off Olivia Rodrigo’s reuse of the “Pump It Up” riff  (on a song called “Brutal,” no less!) as fair play: we’re all magpies, flying off to feather our nests with what we’ve stealthily gathered from our friends and neighbors.  But what distinguishes a written pop song — and all great pop is written, even if the writer is simply directing a team of song technicians — from one assembled by a mainframe is that the writer shuffles around the pieces and adds the irreducible mark of her personality; “spell a brand new world with the same old letters,” Robyn Hitchcock gave us our marching orders in 1985. That’s exactly what Lady Gaga didn’t do with “Born This Way”. She put “Express Yourself” on the stovetop, warmed it over, and tried to serve it even before it sizzled. It was an affront to pop from an artist who is usually a credit to it, and we were right to receive it as a betrayal.

Since then, those of us holding the line against facelessness have lost ground to the Death of the Author team: those who believe that pop is simply a can of beans, as Billy Joel inelegantly put it on “The Entertainer,” production like any other production, stamped out according to algorithms calibrated to light up human pleasure centers. So why bother insisting on originality?  Even Damon Albarn, who really ought to know better, accused contemporary pop of being a center-free team sport. Sour, some of its supporters (!) argue, is a glittering example of the triumph of craft. There doesn’t need to be an author, because everything is so tightly assembled and beautifully performed. 

But wait a second: Sour does have an author, or a pair of authors, anyway.  It isn’t one of those pop albums made by a zillion contributors holed up in a compound in Hawaii.  It was created, almost in its entirety, by two people, one of whom is the star herself. Olivia Rodrigo isn’t exactly a rookie. She was the main character on the High School Musical television program, which you certainly didn’t watch, but which fluttered around the Disney Channel for a while. During that time, she sang a lot, and even did some writing, and those songs exhibit many of the same compositional and performance characteristics of her world-famous 2021 hits.

Those songs caught the attention of author number 2.  Daniel Nigro sprouted from the same fertile Long Island soil as Taking Back Sunday and Straylight Run: his old band, As Tall As Lions, split the difference between parking lot emo and schmaltzy, super-immediate Coldplay-ish pop-rock.  They were good, honestly; I remember seeing them at some wonderful-stupid emo blowout. (Probably in a parking lot). He caught on with another thirdwave-emo refugee — Ariel Rechtsheid, who is best known for his work with Haim and Vampire Weekend, but who I, an emo kid in old crank’s clothing, will always think of as the man behind Valencia’s amazing We All Need A Reason To Believe. As a Rechtsheid henchman, Nigro got to inject some Southern State Parkway grease into a few of the best pop records of the teens, including Carly Rae’s E-MO-TION and “I Blame Myself,” Sky Ferreira’s unbeatable declaration of autonomy through excoriation. 

This is exactly how Jack Antonoff wormed his way into command position — he parlayed his experience in a theatrical, over-the-top post-emo outfit into tight, sympathetic relationships with talented female pop singers. And in 2021, Nigro had a better year than Antonoff did.  “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” one of several numbers he co-wrote and co-produced on Caroline Polachek’s Pang album, caught fire on TikTok, and spawned a trillion dances and cover versions from Squirrel Flower and Waxahatchee. “Roots”, his track with Cautious Clay, was a neat demonstration of his flexibility. Then there was Sour, which he’s all over, playing nearly every instrument, programming the drums, producing the whole shebang, and sharing compositional credit with Olivia Rodrigo on everything but the back-to-back tearjerkers “Happier” and “Enough For You.” Others assist here and there, but this is mainly the Rodrigo-Nigro show, and Nigro’s particular sensibility and mallpunk attitude does lend the album some coherence. That Nigro, who is pushing 40, has conjured up these tales of high school betrayal with a girl half his age is a matter best left for his priest and his psychiatrist; what matters to us as fans of pop is that the collaboration is dynamite.

Nevertheless, they both should have known better. Nigro comes from an emo scene where everybody sounds rather similar, but nobody was ever trying to sound similar.  The Bamboozle belonged to kids who thought of themselves as geniuses, and whose songs, they believed, emanated from individual, inimitable souls.  The artists he worked with alongside Rechtsheid epitomize the pop star as auteur, especially the prolific Jepsen, who is the master of the invaluable trick of minting melodies that you think you’ve heard before, but are always hers alone. As for Rodrigo herself, she’s supposedly a Taylor Swift superfan. She didn’t just pick a songwriter for the ages to emulate. Her hero is the one who works out minute and ingenious variations on formula within some of the tightest compositional restrictions (those of country-pop, new wave, indie folk) ever invented. If you’ve got to know one thing about Taylor Swift, Damon, that’s the thing to know.

Olivia Rodrigo’s lyrics suggest that she’s either fully in on the joke, or the heist, or that she’s too close to her primary topics — imitation, and envy, and our envy of those we can’t help but imitate — to see things clearly. She can’t swerve away from the mimeograph; she’s consumed by jealousy-jealousy, and of course the things we criticize most fiercely about others are those things we hate the most about ourselves. One of the primary implications of Sour and other 2021 albums like it, including Ora Gartland’s under-appreciated Woman On The Internet, is that the social media game has scrambled our synapses so thoroughly that we have no choice but to walk around in a fugue state, desperately attempting to match the achievements of those whose like tallies are higher than ours. Obviously this is no way to live, and I’ll take Olivia Rodrigo’s word for it that many young people have fallen head first into this trap. The, er, rampant borrowing becomes both a cautionary tale and a metaphor: an actualization of the album’s themes, a token authenticating the star’s insecurity and paralysis. 

Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that all of that is bullshit — that Rodrigo is an actress, and by all evidence a very good one, and she’s playing at contrition for her copycat act and laughing, arm in arm with Daniel Nigro, all the way to the bank.  Every teacher who has ever caught a kid plagiarizing (which means every teacher) knows how the reaction goes.  First comes the bewilderment, then comes the stonewalling, then the tearful confession that they were just doing it to live up to impossible standards.  It’s all nonsense, of course. People plagiarize for one reason and one reason only: writing is hard. It’s far easier to be Lazy Gaga.

Which brings us back to my original question: why have we chosen to give Olivia Rodrigo a pass?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because of that very talent as an actress, which makes her a powerful pop singer, able to express desire, rage, and petulance in one continuous breath.  Your tolerance for overwrought teenagers might not be too high; as an arrested overwrought teenager myself, bawling over jilted love is and will always be right in my lane.  I also think that the questions of authenticity and sympathetic identification raised by Olivia Rodrigo’s best songs are interesting ones, and have much less to do with online competition than with the age-old race for attention.  She’s also incredibly adorable, a proper Filipina pan-de-sal bun of a human being: possibly the nicest-looking American pop star in decades, and in beauty is virtue and all of that. 

But mostly, I think this is what baseball fans refer to as a make-up call.  Many critics missed the boat, badly, on Taylor Swift and have been playing catch-up ever since; Pitchfork declined to review Red upon release, only to later place “All Too Well” atop its list of the best songs of the decade. Many of the fustier rockers among us dismissed her writing for years as little girl’s stuff, ignoring that the same was said about The Beatles, and Michael Jackson, and The Wizard Of Oz, and everything else that’s ever been worth paying attention to. Hayley Williams still hasn’t been properly recognized for what she is, and that’s because two of the four styles she manages to catalyze in the heat-furnace of her diaphragm are considered embarrassing to acknowledge an interest in. (I mean mallpunk and Christian Contemporary music; gospel and pop-soul are cool with everybody). As indispensable new acts cite Paramore as a primary influence, the critical neglect looks increasingly egregious.

Critics don’t want to miss again. We want to get into the elevator on the ground floor, so we’re going to look the other way. Unfortunately for us, Olivia Rodrigo isn’t Taylor Swift, or Hayley Williams, nor is she a visionary culture-scrambler like Kali Uchis, or somebody who is going to bend the tastes of the listening public in her direction through sheer obstinacy like Lana Del Rey did. She’s a little too palatable for any of that. This is somebody who comes along with a bag of seeds after other, braver artists have broken the ground, spills them, and gets some beautiful flowers to bloom. While there’s a lot of value in that, of course it matters that she’s well past the legal limit for biting in pop. Of course it’s a black mark on her record, and of course it means that she’s off to a shakier start than her idols and role models, no matter how many hits she’s scored. Of course it’s a little bit shameful, and as critics, we shouldn’t hesitate to point that out, and stand up for originality, which is now and always will be a real thing. And I will say so, loudly, right after I get this damned song out of my head:

Best Singles of 2021

Song Of The Year


Best Lyrics (Over The Course Of An Entire Album)

KRS-OneBetween Da Protests. We were having a pseudointellectual conversation about the political thinkers whose writing influenced our worldview, and while I’ve read everybody in the canon from Plato to Hegel to Arendt to Irigaray to the dude who wrote Tipping Point (not the one by the Roots), I had to admit that for me, the answer was Mr. Lawrence Parker from the South Bronx, the South South Bronx, and there wasn’t anybody close. The dynamics of power and the justifications given for its exercise that are outlined on “Illegal Business,” the Sex & Violence album, “Sound of the Police,” “Invader,” you name it, resonate so profoundly with my experience of life that I would be fronting, to use a very KRS word, to pretend that my guiding star was Amartya Sen or somebody like that. I mean, I doubt that guy can rap at all. Not a day goes by when I don’t apply a KRS-One lyric to a headline; sometimes I think the only good thing about following current events is that the news tends to get Boogie Down Productions songs caught in my head. KRS says a lot of crazy shit, and sometimes it seems like he’s just stirring the pot for his own ill amusement. But as the old autodidact just proved again on his umpteenth album, nobody slices up conceptual Gordian knots with the same skill as he does. Nobody believes in teaching, or heritage, or literacy, or peace, with any more ferocity. Nobody mixes up realism and idealism so audaciously, or shakes it up so vigorously, or lights the match and hurls it against the authorities with such glee. He’s been on a roll for about eight years now, and you probably didn’t notice, because he does not always bother to match the interesting sentiment with interesting sound. But if the words are powerful enough, and the vocalist is charismatic enough, sometimes, in very rare cases, once in a blue moon, lyrics are all you need.

Best Lyrics On A Single Song

Aubrey Graham doesn’t get much love for his lyrics, even as he continues to supply us with memorable ones. I think I know why. It’s because the guy won’t get out of our faces for forty seconds. There’s no way to get any historical perspective on Drake when there’s a new Drake quintuple-album project to digest every time you turn around. There’s a lot of Drake out there for you to sift through, and its not exactly hiding on the left of the dial. As a professional Drake-sifter, allow me to draw your attention to a mid-album stretch on Certified Lover Boy — roughly “Yebba’s Heartbreak” through “Get Along Better” — that contains some of the best writing he’s ever done. The ride peaks with “Race My Mind,” a song that is such an elegant restatement of major Drake themes (late night longing, interpersonal friction, romantic possession, ass-grabbing in the cluuuuub) that you might miss the specificity of the language, and the very real way it differs from other songs in his catalog. It’s an unsparing portrait of a man with an alcoholic girlfriend, and a close examination of his racing thoughts as he waits for her to get home from wherever she’s at, possibly in one piece, and possibly not. Drake nails everything about the experience: the loneliness, the blinding jealousy, the brief declarations of independence and autonomy that quickly resolve to fretting resumed, the flashes of clarity, the intimations of sudden death, the constant watching the window, the desperate prayers. Notice how the lyricist and the producer (the great Noah “40” Shebib) respond to each other; Drake keeping things recursive during the dreamier sections, repeating Drakish signifiers, and launching into gear when the beat smooths out and provides him a spacious lane to speed ahead on. Even as he’s stuck in one place, waiting for release. Does she make it back before sunrise? Does she make it back ever? He’ll keep checking that driveway, and pacing a groove in the floor.

Most Romantic Song

Courtney Barnett — “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”. Among other things, she understands separation anxiety.

Funniest Song

Black Country, New Road — “Sunglasses”. That singer, who isn’t even in the band anymore, can be a bit much, but I did laugh out loud when he set the high-strung, upper-class suburban scene like this: “with frail hands she grasps the Nutribullet”. That’s practically a Zach Lipez line. Also, I’m sure Zach hates this group.

Funniest Song About Which It’s Impossible To Explain Why It’s Funny

Cool Ghouls — “Look In Your Mirror”. This is a comically plaintive number about the narrator’s love for his car. The second verse goes “I rode the train/but it’s just/not the same/it belongs to everybody/not to me.” Makes me crack up every time. I think you’ve got to hear it to get it.

Most Frightening Song

Everything on By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Injury Reserve‘s requiem for group member Stepa J. Groggs, who died during the pandemic. Also, I admit that no matter how many times I play it, Any Shape You Take still makes my stomach drop. I don’t believe that Indigo De Souza really wants her boyfriend to kill her — at least I hope she doesn’t — but the part on “Bad Dream” where she sends up a hopeless entreaty to God always gives me the chills. It’s the way her voice breaks when she confesses that she’s having a hard time. In case you couldn’t tell.

Most Moving Song

Ka‘s “Need All Of That”. It’s the pain of institutional racism, and the residue of hundreds of years of discrimination and injustice, oozing out of an exhausted emcee’s wounds.

Most Moving Performance

Miranda Lambert — “Waxahachie”. Nobody tells a breakup story like she does. It’s that combination of venom and ache, that unquenchable desire to be held, and also to murder the motherfucker who broke her heart. You could drop the needle anywhere in her unbeatable discography, and you’d get it at once.

Sexiest Song

Mon Laferte — “Amado Mio”

Most Inspiring Song

I think I covered this yesterday, but my answer is “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins. An Overview On Phenomenal Nature might’ve made my Top 20 if it was just a wee bit longer.

Meanest Song, and also Most Disgusting Song

Sleaford Mods — “Shortcummings”. Not that Dominic Cummings didn’t deserve it, but the Sleaford guys really laid the jizz jokes on thick and goopy. I’m sure he’s been getting that all his life. Might just have driven him to join the Tories.

Saddest Song

Julien Baker — “Ringside”. It’s hard to evaluate Julien #3, because listening to it feels like rubbernecking. Little Oblivions is a brutally frank set narrated by a woman who is losing herself in the bottle and finds it impossible to arrest her slide. “You can either watch me drown/or try to save me as I drag you down”; that’s about the size of it. Billy Sunday said it long ago: there’s a place for beer and liquor, and that place is Hell. Nothing but the Devil at the bottom of that glass, Julien.

Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation

Gotta thank Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys for hypnotizing me with Hill Country blues covers on Delta Kream. I also loved Spanish Model, the reinterpretation of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model done, at Elvis’s request, in Español by Latin American singers. I may well have been the only one.

Least Believable Perspective On A Song

I don’t believe Halsey is a god. I’m pretty sure she’s a woman. Were she really a god, she wouldn’t pronounce it “gaaaaaahd.” Gods are all-powerful; they have better elocution that that. Unless she means she’s the god of the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. If she were, that would actually explain a lot.

Best Music Video

Because it pissed off the Moral Majority and precipitated some excellent Twitter quips, everybody went wild for Lil Nas X’s Satanic lapdance clip. And that is pretty great, but my queer three dollar bill is on the “Industry Baby” video instead. Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow subvert a bunch of prison clichés, send up Shawshank Redemption, bend over enthusiastically for the soap, and deck themselves out in some excellent pink jumpsuits. The gag, see, is that Lil Nas X has managed to turn the penitentiary flamboyantly gay from the inside, as this is his homosexual superpower, and the final crane shot of the dance in the prison yard and the Pride Parade breakout is so glorious that it almost makes you believe it’s possible.

Best Choreography In A Music Video

Usually, my Busby Berkeley dreams prompt me to tap something grand and over the top, but I really liked Ora Gartland’s humble pas de deux with her Internet role model in “More Like You.” She’s trying to make a statement about the futility of jealousy and social media copycattism, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t achieve what she set out to do.

Best Musical Moment Of 2021

It saddens me that the last sixty seconds of “Died In The Prison Of The Holy Office” by The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die is exactly what I was trying to do on my song “Midnight (Now Approaching)”. It gladdens me that somebody actually did it.

Best Line Or Rhyme

Drake says: the world is yours but the city is mine.

Worst Song Of The Year

Van Morrison — “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”. Dude really thinks we’ve got nothing better to do than to listen to him whine about his ex-wife’s profligacy. If he keeps this up, he’s going to get kicked out of the Hall of Fame.

Worst Singing

Rostam Batmanglij

Worst Rapping

The guy who busts into the remake of Natalia Lafourcade’s “Tu Si Sabes Quererme” and coughs all over the track. I realize Natalia feels that her songs are infinitely flexible, and maybe they are. But she’s pushing it.

Worst Instrumentalists


And While We’re At It

Matthew Sweet is an excellent songwriter. A one-man band he is not.

Worst Lyrics

Toby Keith — “Happy Birthday America”. Love it or leave it, pal.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should’ve Known Better

Jackson Browne — “My Cleveland Heart”

Worst Song On A Good Album

Weezer — “Precious Metal Girl”

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Guess who’s going to jaaaaail tonight?”

Song That Got Stuck In Your Head The Most This Year

Ingram/Lambert/Randall — “Homegrown Tomatoes”. They really are delicious.

Okay, individual awards (and a heartfelt essay) tomorrow!

Long overdue: My favorite albums of 2021

Poised to put a bike track and a zipline in the other-other crib: Tyler, The Creator.

One of the many things that hip-hop has in common with the Internet: before it belonged to the world, it belonged to the nerds. It was nerds who reveled in the minutia of the genre, and nerds who converted hip-hop from the Bronx party music of the yes y’allin’ period to the dense, skills-based, language-intensive, self-referential ‘80s and ’90 art form we remember so fondly. Golden Age hip-hop was extraordinarily nerd-driven, and we know this in part because only history nerds talk about Golden Ages. Rap’s pivotal early movers were nerdy people — politics nerds like Chuck D, obsessive record collectors like Rick Rubin, clever-clever culture jammers like Prince Paul, budding literati like Slick Rick, true gamesters like Kool Keith, theologians like Prince Be, autodidacts like KRS-ONE. Only a nascent form of popular music could have accommodated this. Lucky you, you got to live through it.

We nerds like block parties as much as the next normie, especially if there is a contest to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. We’ve got a formula for that. But once we got our hands on hip-hop, it was never going to stay in the park. We nerds are not in the mood to throw our hands in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, and that’s because we do care. It’s been a bad day; things did not go right.  We need a larger-than-life scenario to insert ourselves into, some elbow-throwing braggadocio, some declarations of superpowers and application of those superpowers in a detailed storytelling context, words to memorize and samples to recognize. The brain requires some lighting up. The booty needs some backup.

Those crowd-pleasing Internet rappers who tickle millions via TikTok do not satisfy the same cravings. Idiosyncratic dudes wrote the original hip-hop rules, and there are still plenty of nerds out there experimenting with language and form and making grand statements. Take Tyler Okonma, creator of a sound that resembles no one else’s — a sound that amalgamates Stevie Wonder chords, sunshine pop, syrupy backing vocals and thick, blocky drums, a little tropical nonsense and murk in the mix, melted butter synthesizer, energetic, growly stung-on-the-ass-by-a-bumblebee rapping. These days, Tyler’s profile is like something straight out of the Sarah Records catalog: lovelorn, yarn-spinning, melody-drunk, fussy, bisexual, identified with Baudelaire. And butthurt, of course, because nerds are so often butthurt.

The reason Tyler is upset is one that ought to be familiar to nerds worldwide. A pretty girl has led him on and let him down. The catch, explained in detail on Call Me If You Get Lost, is that the pretty girl wasn’t fair game: she was already involved with one of his friends. Ever cagy, Tyler doesn’t come out and tell you this straight away — he hints at it, insinuates it, and dances around it for a good forty minutes, playing little mind games with his audience, his collaborators, himself, and with the girl, who he continually addresses out of the corners of his mouth while he’s yelling to the rest of us about his lifestyle. Then, on the penultimate track, the dam breaks. “Wilshire” is eight and a half minutes of sustained storytelling, and a full, minutely detailed catalog of the entire non-affair, from its flirty beginning to the acts of self-deception that sustained it to its inevitable conclusion in tears. “My shirt look like a showerhead got it,” Tyler concedes, proving himself as artfully lachrymose as Robert Wratten of Trembling Blue Stars, and just as adept at investigating the treacherous dynamics of infidelity. It was never going to end in dry eyes; Wratten could have told him that. The effect of “Wilshire” is seismic, excoriating, scalding; Tyler questions his motivations, her motivations, the motivations of his nearly cuckolded mate, searches around for an appropriate place to assign the blame, gives up, calls himself a bad person, and finally points the finger at love itself. “All the morals and power you have just vanish when a certain energy is nearing,” Tyler mumbles, exhausted, in the outro. He claims to have done the whole thing in two possessed takes. I believe him.

Why does it take Tyler fifteen songs, some of them ostentatiously blithe, all of them amped and frazzled and more than a little mad, to get around to telling us what’s eating him?  Well, remember: he’s a huge nerd. One who introduced himself with kill people/burn shit/fuck school, sure, but anybody who mistook that for an actual act of provocation didn’t know thing #1 about the desperate one-upmanship that characterizes the competition for attention among rappers, and teenagers, and boys in general. Even during the days when Odd Future was the scourge of the Moral Majority, Tyler was a master of indirection, a smoke-and-mirrors conjurer, concealing his wounded heart (and his queer sexuality) behind the monstrous mask of the angry emcee. Here and there, he’d let the façade slip; it’s not inaccurate to say that knowing when to let that guard down was, and is, central to his artistry. The Flower Boy album was one great game of peek-a-boo that culminated in a dance through a field of daisies. On Igor, Tyler falls for a male friend, but ultimately fails to outflank the friend’s heterosexual partner. But not until Call Me If You Get Lost does he rap the line that explains these sets, and maybe his entire writing career: “everyone I have ever loved had to be loved in the shadows,” he tells us on “Massa.” And as the sun goes down, no shadows hang longer than the ones we create ourselves.

To get him through those first fourteen tracks of darting from shadow to shadow, limping, hemorrhaging, and hollering as he dashes, switching styles and flows, entertaining/distracting you with lovely tessellations of words, Tyler demands a pep talk. And since, as he often reminds us, he’s got a big budget now, he’s shelled out for copious hype from hip-hop’s cheesiest, and therefore most effective, hype man: DJ Drama. For those who don’t remember the craziest excesses of the mixtape era, Drama was the big-voiced dude who screamed all over those Gangsta Grillz compilations he put together in the ‘00s. No bragging too outrageous, no superlative too absurd, every hypercharged claim designed to make the fact-checkers’ hair stand on end and turn white. On Call Me If You Get Lost, Drama is Ricky Linderman to Tyler’s Melvin Moody, Jordan Catalano to Tyler’s Brian Krakow, Drillbit Taylor to Tyler’s Ryan the Geek. He’s the authenticator, the bodyguard, the cool guy, filling the air with boasts about Tyler-supremacy so wonderfully ludicrous that they practically satirize themselves: “This is what it sounds like when the moon and the sun collide!” “Just too lavish to post on the ‘gram!” “We on a yacht! A young lady just fed me French Vanilla ice cream!” Soon it becomes apparent that without this supersonic act of sustained puffery, Tyler would be sunk — he’s taken an L, as he tells us several times, of the worst kind. He’s wiped out and weary, unsure of his ethics, worried about his desirability, and angry that his opulence hasn’t bought him what he really wants.

Is this not what we’ve asked of hip-hop from time immemorial?  What rap fan among us hasn’t chased away a terrible event by hollering along to a ridiculous boast track, or lost ourselves momentarily through identification with a bad boy or girl, someone irresistible, larger-than-life, able to fend off slights and laugh away heartache in the offhand manner we always wish we could?  Because swagger is just the wounded soul’s attempt to transcend its own frailty.  If hip-hop wasn’t a tonic for misfortune, we wouldn’t keep mixing it up with the blues. Tyler once tried to dispel his own insecurities by being as foul-mouthed and equal-opportunity-offensive as he could. That’s an old game, and one that was a little beneath him, even when he was a teenager; older, wiser, and more heartbroken, he’s more self-conscious about his own strategies.  Funnier and more ironic, too.  

As he does not have patience with half-measures, he’s also all in with the mixtape conceit. Call Me If You Get Lost is full of guest verses — amazingly good guest verses, including some actual quality rapping from Pharrell (!) and searing bars from Lil Wayne that had to have been unearthed from a mid-’00s time capsule. Astoundingly, none of this upstages Tyler in the slightest, or interferes with the through-stories or scene-setting; it’s all perfectly paced to generate excitement and add color to the protagonist’s journey to self-excoriation, or enlightenment, or some amalgam of the two.  It helps that Tyler is, when he wants to be, one of the very best rappers around: an oaken-voiced growler with immediate vocal I.D., supreme intelligibility, and a wry undercurrent running through everything he says.  

I’m not often right about artists’ futures.  With Tyler, I always knew.  Back in 2011, when the New York Times and NPR were wringing their hands over Odd Future and Australia was considering extradition, I wrote in a family newspaper that Tyler was a traditionalist entertainer at heart, one with a firm grasp on pop compositional strategies and an ear for jazz and soul harmony, and that this would all become apparent in the long run. Anybody who watched Tyler at awards shows, sitting with his momma and clapping like a schoolyard goof to artists he liked, had to recognize that this was not the goblin of the popular imagination.  He was always a good bet to make classic albums.  He’s done three of them now — none better than the brilliant, beautiful, lovelorn, generous, travel-happy set he gifted us last summer. One for the aficionados and the rap obsessors, the heartbroken and bewildered, and those willing to have a good laugh, and a good cry, at Tyler’s expense: 

Best Album of 2021

Best Album Cover

Caroline Kingsbury — Heaven’s Just A Flight. What can I say?, I like kissing, and nice shoes, and well-lit parallelograms.

Best Album Title

Saint Etienne‘s I’ve Been Trying To Tell You. Good handle for a mostly-instrumental set from a normally wordy group.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Natalia LafourcadeUn Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 2

Most Welcome Surprise

I thought I had Magdalena Bay pegged as mere ‘net content providers, not synth-disco provocateurs with a stack of prog classics to pinch textures from. They sure showed me.

Biggest Disappointment

For instance, this year, Magdalena Bay out-progged the suddenly ham-handed Steven Wilson. I’m not really sure what he was doing with The Future Bites. While I agree with his points about commodity fetishism and alienation, it all sung about as well as treatises usually do. I love an argumentative record, and I’m usually willing to sacrifice a little melody on behalf of a good polemic. But some albums are better as essays, and this was one of them. And if Steven were to sit down and write that essay, I’m sure I’d read it. So maybe he should?

Album That Opens Most Strongly

The first three songs on Mito by La Lá (Giovanna Nuñez) are a gorgeous fusion of Peruvian folk, pan-Latin jazz, bossa nova, and tweepop. The rest of the album isn’t up to that very high standard, but it’s all very good; this was a strong contender for the #20 position on the list above.

Album That Closes Most Strongly

It’s hard to beat the one-two-three punch that closes Any Shape You Take: the party at emotional ground zero of “Hold U,” followed by the gesture of radical acceptance on “Way Out,” followed by the suicide chorus — so dark it’s downright hilarious — of “Kill Me”. But there’s simply no topping the conclusion of Illusory Walls. The World Is A Beautiful Place caps two fifteen-plus minute epics with the fiercest accusation hurled at God since Randy Newman’s Sail Away, and then marches through a glorious callback to “Getting Sodas,” the finale of their first album, with David Bello and Katie Dvorak singing, as hard as they can, keeping their little flames lit against the odds. For an hour and change, they outline, in unsparing verse, all the ways in which the cruel and competitive world we’ve made is killing us all. They know they’re going under, too. But they won’t go down without a fight. And to that end…

Album That Most Deserves A Laser Show

Illusory Walls might be the best progressive rock album any band has made since Fish left Marillion. That it’s also 100% emo is largely incidental, but it does further raise stakes that were already high. I’ve got to think Roger Waters would approve.

2021 Album I Listened To The Most

Cassandra JenkinsAn Overview On Phenomenal Nature. We saw Phenomenal Nature at the Breuer, too, and I believe we talked to the same security guard that Cassandra did. Maybe she was there when we were there. We wouldn’t have known. We’d just staggered up from the hospital after getting bad news from the doctors, and we were reeling. I would have identified with Cassandra’s flight from grief and psychological disintegration in any case; the fact that we shared the experience of the Mrinalini Mukherjee show was too sweet a coincidence to waste. So when Perry with the gemstone eyes assures Cassandra that 2021 would be a good year, and encourages her to take a deep breath and count to ten, you can be sure I counted along.

2021 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Pom Pom SquadDeath Of A Cheerleader

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

Cool GhoulsAt George’s Zoo. Moby Grape, somebody still loves you.

Best Sequenced Album

I always kinda liked the loopy, pot-zonked Uruguayan singer-songwriter Juan Wauters, but I doubted he had the focus necessary to make a great album. Sometimes strange circumstances catch you and blow you wide open, though, and in 2020, Wauters was between cultures, cornered by the global health crisis, and possibly out of doobage. The fog lifted, and Wauters delivered what I’ve come to see as the definitive musical document of the early pandemic era in New York City: bewildered, guarded, hopeful, sometimes hippie-angry, and sometimes even angry-angry, spiked with the voices of those left to bear the brunt of the storm. And for those who skipped town for Wyoming or wherever, hiding out on a farm while poor people kept NYC running, Wauters has a message: to you, the city was never camaraderie/it was only a commodity. He’s not going to forget. So I won’t, either.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Ashley MonroeRosegold. I love Ashley enough to give her the benefit of every doubt, but those were some limp corn cakes.

Album That Sounded Like It Was Fun To Make

Aaron Frazer‘s pure soul workout Introducing…

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

CHVRCHESScreen Violence

Album You Learned The Words To The Most Quickly

The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita. Hey, I remember entire episodes of The Dukes Of Hazzard, too. Also…

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Dood And Juanita. I needed one more expository number in between the tragic death of Sam the Hound and Dood’s miraculous rescue by the Cherokee. Maybe something with Uncle Jesse in it.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Donda, of course. It’s very good, though. Don’t deny yourself it’s pleasures because… aw heck, I’m tired of running interference for this fucking guy. If you never want to hear Kanye’s voice again, I can’t blame you.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was At First

Montero. Initially, I was annoyed that Lil Nas X had exchanged wry, subversive Internet-era commentary for over-the-top mallpunk. Then I remember that I’m from New Jersey, and here in New Jersey, we know that one good over-the-top mallpunk song is worth all the wry, subversive content on the Internet. And Montero has more than one good over-the-top mallpunk song on it.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Kiwi Jr. — Cooler Returns

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Lorde’s phone-it-in Solar Power.

Album You Feel Cheapest About Liking As Much As You Do

See tomorrow’s essay.

Album You Don’t Feel Cheap About Liking In The Slightest

I’ve written a lot about Morgan Wallen this year, and I don’t suppose I’ve convinced anybody of anything, because Morgan is a very hard guy to warm up to, and this is not a time in American history when we ought to be humoring the perspectives he gives voice to on the aptly-titled Dangerous. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out that a lot of country bumpkins have attempted to fuse roots music and hip-hop rhythms. Some have even done it pretty well. But nobody has even made that integration happen half as seamlessly as Morgan did on Dangerous, and yes, you can go ahead and call that ironic if you like. I’m just glad it happened, and I’ll continue to celebrate it. When Morgan closed 2021 by saying he’d like to work with Kendrick Lamar, I don’t think that was just a marketing move. I see that as a backchannel in the culture wars, and one that our showbiz diplomats might do well to keep open.

Okay, singles and stuff tomorrow!



The 2021 Pop Music Abstract

The Pop Music Abstract is an annual exercise in automatic writing which uses the year in music as a prompt.

I’ve strung the albums of 2021 together in alphabetical sequence, and I’ve popped off, impulsively as I can, about each. Writing is done as close to the speed of (screwy) thought as I can manage, and since there’s lots of ground to cover — fifty thousand words on two hundred records — I’m forced by circumstances to chase escape velocity.  My main rule: I’m not allowed to go back and edit; if I have an opinion, I’ve got to write it down, and then I’ve got to live with it.  If it’s ugly, or dumb, that’s okay: I’ve learned something about myself and about the way in which I interact with the recordings that frame my experience on planet Earth.  Just as a musician can’t un-sound the notes she plays, I don’t allow myself to alter the words as they roll out of my brain and down my arms and into my fingers. I’m attempting to achieve the spontaneous quality of a soloist, only my instrument is the English language.  

I free-associate sometimes; I go off topic; I declaim and make sophomoric jokes. But sometimes the paragraphs cohere into something interesting — for instance, there’s one, the longest one, where I PolitiFact-check the new Marina album. Hey, she asked for it. The Anchoress album prompted the only thing I’ll ever have to say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Further reflections on the encroachment of NFTs into the crypto-imperiled realm of good taste and sanity are deposited in the Kings Of Leon and Glass Animals entries. I’ve got some opprobrium for an all-time favorite, a defense of the indefensible, and a summary statement (so don’t read it first) under Toby Keith. Since I couldn’t bring myself to write about The War On Drugs, I pivoted in panic, and plunked down my reflections on The Mandalorian instead.  And there are plenty of paragraphs on old buddies, of course: Lana Del ReyMon LaferteDrakeKanyeElvis Costello, and everybody else whose music made a ripple in my consciousness this year.

You’ll also see plenty about mushrock, which is my name for the inescapable monogenre that now dominates popular music. It’s my position that most current celebrated styles — shoegaze, dream pop, neopsychedelia, cloud-rap, avant-R&B — are actually just mushrock.  They’re all expressions of the same artistic impulse, unified by certain aesthetic characteristics: murk, reverb, phasing, obscurantism, indirection, and, I think, no small amount of avoidance. There’s a long explanation of mushrock in last year’s Abstract, which I’ve re-posted to the site so I can link to it, over and over.  It’s my way of coping with a landslide of mush. 

The Abstract only lives on the site for a short time.  After a few weeks, in an effort to declutter the Internet a bit, I pull it down.  This one-of-a-kind funnoying experience is available to you for a limited time only, so get Abstract while you can.