As you probably know by now, Kanye West has a new project called The Life Of Pablo. Chances are good that you also know that the publication of The Life Of Pablo has been unorthodox. After months of delays, an initial version of Pablo was either leaked or released — it’s hard to tell — right around Valentine’s Day. After many people thought they’d gotten their hands on the new Kanye West album, he withdrew Pablo, remixed some of the songs, and added several cuts (he blamed the switcheroo on junior partner Chance The Rapper, who’d argued for the inclusion of a song that hadn’t been on the first release.) There was also a Madison Square Garden performance that may or may not have been an album release party, some high-profile Twitter battles with other musicians, and angry, early-P.E.-style notes from the artist asking white critics not to review music made by black musicians anymore. When West restricted the release of Pablo to the Tidal streaming service, thousands of fans chose to rip the album rather than buy a subscription. West has refused to report the official Tidal streams to Billboard, so we’ll never know how much money his decision cost him¹. The Daily Mail estimated that he left ten million dollars on the table. I think they’re full of it, since many fans would have swiped the album anyway, but the point remains: Pablo didn’t make the money it could have if Kanye West had released it conventionally.
To add to the confusion: even though The Life Of Pablo has been out for two months and many fans have already paid for it, it’s now clear that West isn’t finished with the album. He’s been tinkering with the tracks, and he reserves the right to continue working on Pablo until he’s satisfied with it. So are you willing to purchase a Tidal subscription to get a Kanye West album that may not be the same as the Kanye West album you’ll get the next time you check in? Or are you going to rip today’s Pablo, call that the album, and hope that tomorrow’s Pablo isn’t substantially improved?
This may sound like a mess to you, and if so, you’re not alone. In the public discussion of The Life Of Pablo, Westhas been pilloried for the disastrous quality of the album’s rollout. This is supposed to go to character — Kanye is a loose cannon, a screw-up, and a mixed signal-sender who does and says crazy things and gets out of line and hurts Ms. T. Swift’s feelings, and is therefore deserving of a public comeuppance. But wait a second: why the heck am I supposed to care about Kanye West’s finances anyway? What difference does it make to me if his marketing strategy is faulty or weird? I’m not his business manager², I’m just a music fan. As a collector and occasional completist, it annoys me that West won’t release The Life Of Pablo on CD; there’s a shelf in our living room with the rest of his records on it, and it would be nice to add another. As a fussbudget critic who writes essays for fun, I would like Kanye West to finish The Life Of Pablo so I can bloviate about it to friends and compare and contrast it with his prior projects. In other words, the pleasures he’s denying me here are kind of silly, stunted ones. And when I look at the publication of Pablo objectively, I begin to suspect that West, who never encounters an apple cart without trying to upset it or a henhouse without foxing around in it, might be on to something.
By releasing Pablo before it’s done, West isn’t just calling into question whether an album needs to be finished by its publication date. He’s questioning whether an album needs to be finished ever. A collection of songs called The Life Of Pablo now exists in the world, and it always will: once music is released, it can’t be unreleased. But given the flexibility of digital technology, there’s no real reason why an artist can’t keep fussing with — or maybe even radically reinterpreting — an album to his heart’s content. It’s possible that doing so will alienate or bewilder or frustrate more listeners than it attracts. But it’s equally plausible to me that fans of the artist will find the alterations fascinating and want to follow them all in the same obsessive way they might follow his tweets and posts³.
I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict that mutability is going to be a major and widely accepted characteristic of art in the 21st century. Nothing is going to stand still for long, and that’s because nothing has to. The hard-and-fast release date was a product of an era that fetishized the physical object: an album had to be released by a certain date because it was contained on a piece of plastic that needed to be manufactured at a plant and distributed to a retail outlet. This isn’t true anymore. I think we haven’t even begun the transformation in artistic forms that are likely to follow the de-coupling of works of art from artifacts. I’m going to guess at the implications — for the world, and for me — in a separate post.
¹Maybe it’s the San Francisco Giants fan in me (or maybe it’s just the song “Barry Bonds”) but I’ve always strongly associated West with Barry Bonds. Their similarities are so plentiful that they kinda demand their own Critics Poll essay; for now, I’ll just say that West’s self-imposed disappearance from the Billboard charts feels very much like Bonds’s decision to withhold his image from baseball cards and videogames. They both believe that their talent entitles them to a different set of rules than the ones that everybody else follows. And if there weren’t a few people around who felt and acted that way, the world would be a duller place with fewer balls in McCovey Cove, and slower croissant service.
²I believe that’s Pusha T’s problem now. I love Pusha T, so maybe I ought to be mad at Kanye on his behalf.
³I can’t help but notice that aficionados love to go behind the scenes, too; if you make music, you’re probably acquainted with people who play around with the stems of Beatles recordings, and the like, in their home studios.
In the early days of the Internet, nobody knew exactly how to write on these digital walls, so by and large we scribbled graffiti up here — sometimes of monstrous dimensions — and hoped for the best. This was wonderful, in my opinion: early Internet was wild, and irresponsible, and full of overwriting and formal experimentation and seeing what might stick. What made the Internet a rewarding place to write was that if you happened to change your mind about what you wanted to say, you could just hop back online and amend your piece as often as you wanted. This was an marvelous, revelatory thing for those of us who were accustomed to the brutal finality of print, and its liberating power had much to do with the first efflorescence of ‘net literary creativity. The web promised no limitations. A post was something alive and permeable. Pieces of writing were never totally finished, because they never had to be. Print seemed barbaric by comparison.
That changed. Money poured in, and investors sought credibility by mimicking the conventions of offline publications. Websites started to look and feel like the established newspapers and magazines many of us hoped they’d obviate. The early ‘net writers, who weren’t too professional (bless them) about what they were doing, were replaced by actual journalists who led with their integrity. Once they published a post, it almost never changed. It was as if they were still writing in ink, and the screen was an endless scroll of paper, and once words were written, they were seared into the mainframe processors and couldn’t be budged.
You might argue that this is the Internet grown-up; that the Wild West days couldn’t last because that’s not what people want. I look at it a little differently. I see the current state of the Internet as a predictable overreaction to the frightening openness of the first iteration of the web. The present conservatism and conformity of the ‘net strikes me as unsustainable — not because people are craving innovation, but because the sheer volume of possibilities will eventually overwhelm our reservations and force a course correction. The ugly truth is that we’re acting neurotic, and like all neuroses, ours can be cured if we confront it with courage. If a document can be amended, and changed, and pushed around and stretched, and reinterpreted, and multiplied, and blasted into rainbow-colored shards by users, why the hell wouldn’t we do all that, every time? We’re clinging to vestigial forms because we’re comfortable with them, and for no other reason. The pendulum will swing back in the direction of mutability, and it’s going to have consequences for all forms of expression. Writing, and recording, and all the rest of it — sooner or later, it’s all going to get jailbroken.
I have always believed that the people who don’t see a future for the album are confusing the physical artifact, which is doomed, with the essence of the form, which is totally imaginary and therefore immune to technological shifts. Songs just sound too good in sequence and make too many statements when placed next to each other for the album to budge from its place as one of the basic units of consumption for music listeners. The aesthetic and popular success of records like To Pimp A Butterfly and the Donnie Trumpet project and Short Movie, just to name a few examples — all sets made by young musicians — proves to me that artists still believe very much in the album as an optimal carrier of musical and lyrical ideas. That’s probably never going to change. Nevertheless, I believe we’re all still treating the album like something etched into the grooves of a piece of plastic, and therefore fixed forever like a snapshot. I sure could be wrong, but I think this is vestigial, and bound to change soon.
One thing that may disappear, quick, is the release date. As long as there are musicians willing to celebrate their accomplishments, the release party isn’t going anywhere, but it might soon announce the inauguration of a period of changes done in public, Pablo style, instead of a finishing point. A comma, in other words, rather than a period. If an album exists, primarily, on a computer server, there’s no good reason why it wouldn’t be open to reinterpretation by its authors. Suppose, for instance, an album was left intentionally open-ended — the artist makes it public with eight songs, and then continues adding tracks, updating a website regularly, like a webcomic might. That’s not so different from what Kanye just did with The Life Of Pablo — he introduced it with a bunch of tracks, some of which had already leaked, and then pulled it back and added a bunch more. He was ridiculed for this, and the way he did it made the project look sloppy and incomplete. But what if he’d said from the start that he reserved the right to release Pablo slowly, over time, and make alterations while his fans watched? Some of those fans might have lost interest, but I think others would’ve be intrigued by the experiment.
Our popular model of an artist who can’t leave well enough alone is George Lucas, who keeps screwing with Star Wars movies that were fixed in the public imagination decades ago. We don’t like what Lucas is doing with his own creation; his autoapostasy has engendered a whole industry of second-second-guessers who believe they know better what’s appropriate to the Star Wars universe. But regardless of my feelings about whether Han Shot First, I have come to believe that Lucas, too, is ahead of the curve here. And now I’m giving you nightmares about a senescent Roger Waters adding a Netanyahu beef track to an album as seamless as The Dark Side Of The Moon. But what about the thousands and thousands of albums that aren’t The Dark Side Of The Moon? It’s the very rare set that wouldn’t benefit from an after-the-fact editorial revision or tracklist shuffle. In days of yore, if Andy Partridge wanted to add “Dear God” to Skylarking (not that he necessarily should have), that required an additional pressing and shipping and all the associated record company expenditures and accompanying guilt trips. When it’s as easy as clicking a mouse, why the heck wouldn’t you click that mouse? Convention is the only thing staying the artist’s hand.
There is probably a point at which even the most resolute tinkerer would cease monkeying with a project, because he’d moved on to different themes and concerns, and the time had come for a new conceptual frame for his work. Part of the reason we don’t accept the Lucas revisions of Star Wars is because he feels like a totally different man now than the space hellion he was in 1977, and how could he not be?, that was forty damn years ago. But that’s a call for the critics to make. Artists can go ahead and kickstart the process by bending some rules. For instance, what’s to stop an established musician from announcing that everything she intends to post on her website in the year 2016 constitutes a single album? She’d introduce some songs to general circulation in January, and maybe she’d amend them in February, add a few in March, remix it all in April, upload videos in May, and etcetera? Or add or amend a song every week for fifty-two weeks? Come December, she could put a bow on it, call it a completed work, and begin afresh with a new album in 2017. I think her fans would find that very exciting. Wouldn’t you tune in for regular updates to Superpablo? I know I would.
Likewise, I think there’s a very good chance that album sequencing is going to open up, too. The single-sequence album is, once again, prisoner to physical realities that don’t really apply anymore: every song had a specific position on a reel of tape, and that position had to be determined by the artist and producer and the tracks couldn’t budge once they were dedicated. Many musicians put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the sequencing of their tracks, and that’s understandable — the order in which songs are presented to the listener is a non-negligible part of the experience of the album. But there’s nothing that says the musicians couldn’t present fans with two sequences, or twenty-two, or, for that matter, they could give them none at all and encourage them to choose their own adventure. Some progressive rock sets are so linear that the song order can’t really be fudged — I’m thinking of Scarlet’s Walk now, but there are a few others. But the vast majority of albums — even concept albums — are linked by theme and tone and don’t necessarily follow a straight narrative. King Of America is an extremely coherent album, but I bet Elvis Costello could shuffle that deck and deal all kinds of winning hands. A future release could have an artist-sanctioned, “official” sequence supplemented by alternate sequences, or different sequences meant to suit different moods. Albums could be designed to accommodate various sequencing: a set of twenty tracks could be broken down into two sequences with separate titles, and those might contain subsequences, like Russian nesting dolls. All this seems inevitable to me. Artists love the ambiguity of forking paths.
Most radically of all, I think the new digital conditions of musical production are bound to prompt a redrawing of the dividing line between the artist and her listener. I can imagine an album in the not-so-distant future released unfinished and incomplete, along with a set of instructions left for you to fill in the blanks. Wouldn’t you be compelled by that? Say Paul McCartney put out an album of stems and vocal tracks, and provided you with the tools and codes to do the rest. Remixers have been working like this for many, many years, but they’ve usually taken tracks that are already complete and they’ve turned them inside out. An officially authorized incomplete release — a coloring book — would make every listener into a potential remixer. Now that nearly everybody has an audio suite on their computer, it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising artist figures out how to release music directly to the software, and also how to allow fans to upload their versions to a central clearinghouse. Q: are the original stems the album, or is that collaborative website the album, or is the album something in between? A: Yes, and yes, and yes; it’s all the album. The album was and is bigger than anybody realized. We’ve only begun to probe its parameters.
All of this is contingent on the continued migration of the album to the Internet. Which is something that’s not going to make everybody happy, I realize; independent artists lost a very valuable tool for self-promotion when the CD became obsolete. Barring a technological meltdown that isn’t going to happen, those days aren’t coming back, so I figure it’s better to light a single computer screen than curse the darkness. I will save my feelings about Spotify and other streaming services for another post, but it’s safe to assume that if Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom agree about something, I’m going to agree about it, too. But I don’t think that just because record companies are allowing a bunch of Swedes to royally screw their artists means that technological change and the decoupling of the album from its physical form spells doom for professional musicians. That’s how the cookie is crumbling at the moment, but there’s no reason we can’t turn it around if we’re willing to get creative, stand up for our rights, and maybe tell some of these parasites to take a hike. It would really grease the gears of change if artists embrace the creative commons license and release their music for free, but I am aware man cannot live on barre chords alone. I just hope we all realize that there’s no contradiction between experimentation and enterprise. Reality may or may not be silly putty, but the album definitely is — so let’s stretch it, and pull it, and press it into strange shapes, and roll it up and mash it down, and use it to copy the funnies.
Patrick Hambrecht of Flaming Fire dropped me a line about an electronic music festival that’s happening this weekend over on West Side Avenue. Apparently Patrick and Michael Durek — who you might know as an ace theremin guy — have been doing these events for awhile now, and I guess I’ve been too busy playing videogames to notice. The name of the party is Zip Zap Vroom, and that handle alone should have caught my attention. Anyway, I’m going to be talking to Patrick about it today for a Jersey City Independent piece, and then I’ll be able to report a few more details. Show’s on Saturday and the spot is 746 West Side. Camilla Ha, whose performances tend to be completely nuts, is on the bill, as is Leon Dewan, who will likely be bringing some of his homebrew synthesizers.
I’ll know better when I speak to Patrick, but offhand this sounds like one of those old-school, weirdass multimedia events that I associate with the freewheeling era of Jersey City — which might not be surprising, since Flaming Fire was part of that Perhapstransparent scene that used to art-prank this town semi-regularly. Looks like he’s still at it, and I’m glad he is. Meanwhile, over here in the supervised downtown, there are a few spots booking music semi-regularly, including Porta Pizza, where tireless Tony Susco has been presenting bands, and the Citizen, which was once the Dopeness. About a week ago, I caught Brother Stephen from the Multi-Purpose Solution with a new outfit called Lip Action at Jersey City Studios, which is in that yellow building at 143 Columbus that has been an arts location from time immemorial¹. Add that to Lucky 7 and Monty Hall and that vape shop on Monmouth, and we may have something cooking even if White Eagle Hall never bothers to open.
Usually on St. Patrick’s Day I duck and cover, but I am aware that there’ll be music out there amongst all the beers and shamrocks, and I’d like to direct your attention to some of it. For instance, from the Nothing Ever Dies department, Experiment 34 is celebrating a CD release at the Court Tavern in Hub City on Thursday night. Experiment 34 is a relatively new band, but the Court is no new place — it’s hosted a trillion CD releases since I first became aware of it in the early ’90s, and probably a trillion more before that. The band’s nervy hard rock feels equally informed by the Doors, Led Zep, and the early Chili Peppers, which makes these guys the latest carriers of a tradition that has kept the Court buzzing through its many near-death experiences. Thursday night is likely to feel very much like 1996 and 2006 did, and also much like 2026 in Hub City, too. Mercy Brown would approve.
Finally, on the subject of Jersey clubs that are forever: I made my debut at the eternal Crossroads in Garwood on Sunday night. I say this not to toot my own horn (especially since I am still as rusty as an abandoned bike) but to remind you that the show was a fundraiser for Jay Lustig’s NJarts.net, which still needs your assistance and support. I helped Jim Testa out on a protest number about Chris Christie, played a solo version of “Sugar Nobody Wants,” and covered Lyle Lovett’s “Walk Through The Bottomlands”. The last one was the fun part of the evening for me, since I was able to rope Ronni Reich, who I will always think of as the classical music critic at the Ledger no matter what else she does, to sing the Emmylou Harris harmony on the chorus. Ronni was able to impart some dignity and class to my performance — plus she wore cowboy boots. Now that I discovered that she works on 23rd Street, I’m going to get her to help me out with the new recordings. She’s been drafted into the Tris McCall marines. Sorry, Ronni. And thank you.
¹143 Columbus was the first place I ever saw live music in Jersey City — back in ’92, it was home to the Teaux Jam, who, despite their horrific name, were a really fantastic outfit. They lived together in a loft space that contained a sculpture by Brian Dewan, who always seemed to be around that building. See, it’s all connected. Later that space became the Waterbug Hotel, which was definitely an honest name to hang on it.
“To write about one’s own country is the most problematic form of autobiography. The knowledge one accumulates of one’s homeland, like the knowledge of one’s self, is so varied and complex, so objective and subjective at every turn, that one interpretation soon gives way to another. In the end, for all the careful notes and no matter how much one has read and pondered, one is left with the problem of one’s unconscious motivations.” — Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness
When writing journalism, it’s usually best to be responsible. When writing songs, it’s always best to be irresponsible. Journalism ought to be clear and transparent; pop music should be translucent and messed up. Sometimes I’ve confused the two. I’ve gotten my chocolate in your peanut butter. Tell me if it’s yummy like a Reese’s or just a nasty mess.
An Empire Wilderness was one of the initial working titles I was considering for this suite of songs I’m putting together. I’m not gonna use it; that’s Robert Kaplan’s elegant phrase and he doesn’t need my filthy fingerprints on it. Since all I seem to want to write about lately is my own country, I want to take his words of warning seriously.
Are these songs problematic? I certainly hope they are. It has come to my attention that all good pop is problematic. As for my unconscious motivations, I’m going to leave them to the critics to riddle out. That means you, partner. I’ll be counting on you, OK?
Every one of these new songs is set in a different American city. First I imagined a setting, and then I made up a character who lived there, or who was just passing through, and I recorded his impressions, or his predicament, in the lyrics. Some of the songs mention the city in which it’s set, others just allude to landmarks, and a few don’t give away their geopositioning at all. My only guideline: once I’ve written a song about a city, I’m not allowed to make a return trip. I have to direct my attention to another part of the USA. The album as American travelogue is nothing new: Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, just to give you two examples, follow similar logic. But I believe that my unconscious motivations are sufficiently peculiar to me, and my roll around the map is going to feel like a singular experience for anybody who jumps in a bucket seat beside me.
Twenty-nine songs covering twenty-nine different cities: that’s too much cot damned music for a conventional indiepop album. But in a big country dreams stay with you, and as I said yesterday, I’m determined to fill out the map by cutting and releasing as much of this stuff as I can. That presents me with a conundrum, which is not quite as nice as being presented with a corundum (ruby). I could allow a producer, or a confidante, to help me select the best twelve songs irrespective of their place on the map, or I could honor the concept by forcing through a road-trip that covers the territory I want to reach. I could get really silly and make a double LP. Or I could try something else.
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you already know most of what I’m about to write. But on this big Internet there is still a chance that a stranger will darken the digital doorway, and if that’s you, I’m happy to have you here. My name is Tris, and I am a word-writer who spends an unjustifiable amount of time making music. In my life, I have written hundreds and hundreds of songs, many of which are, to be frank, downright awful. Songs come to me while I’m riding my bike, while I’m eating breakfast, while I’m in the swimming pool, even when I’m dreaming — and since everything feels like a winner to me when it’s fresh, I’ll always take the time to bring those ideas to some kind of tentative completion. (Later — sometimes much later — I’ll realize that some of these songs weren’t worth finishing, but I never learn my lesson.) For years, songwriting was like a tap that I could turn on as I pleased, which is not at all the same as saying that the water was pure or drinkable. I wasn’t always proud of my musicianship, and I didn’t have any claim to quality control, but I sure did like that the pilot light of inspiration never gutted out.
Around the beginning of this decade, I took a word-writing job that absorbed all of my energy. During the time I did that job — more than four years! — I didn’t write a single song. I didn’t mention this to my friends; I tried not to mention it to myself. But on a semi-conscious level, this bugged me. Soon, I reasoned, that job would come to its natural end, and the water would start rushing through the pipe again. Maybe the spigot would be rusty and there’d be pellets of lead clanging around in the bucket at first, but the plumbing was still intact. I hoped. It also occurred to me that nothing is forever, and just because I had no problem writing when I was a kid didn’t necessarily mean that I could switch it back on now that I’m an ancient red dragon. I started to wonder whether the batch of songs I’d written in 2009 might be the last I’d ever come up with. If so, was that really the way I wanted this story to end?
As it turned out, I couldn’t get the tap to work. Not even a trickle. The part of my brain responsible for music composition seemed to have burned out. I still loved music as much as I ever had, and listened as much as I ever had — I just had no ideas of my own, and I wondered whether I had anything left I wanted to express. Nothing came to me in the shower, or when I was reading the newspaper (that always used to do the trick), or when I was asleep. I attempted to console myself with the knowledge that I’d made four albums that were each, in its own way, pretty good, and that there were millions of people in this world who’d never heard them. Maybe instead of generating new material, I could turn my attention to my back catalog and move some digital copies. Then again, Hayden once sang “Write a song/all your old ones don’t mean a thing/If you don’t sing any new ones,” and I know exactly what he means. Besides, I’m not a marketer, I’m a mess-maker.
Then one day it changed. Like the flu, or a sleazy dude at a bar, it came on pretty quick. In Richmond I saw a guy leave a hardware store and stick a flag on a drape. On the same Carytown block, a couple of aggro kids with red, white and blue pins on their lapels hawked historic tours to gullible Yankees. Everything felt symbolic and ritualized. And I thought to myself “Saturday morning, shopkeeper yawning, hangs on the awning an American flag.” This is a very Randy Newman-ish stanza, and I heard it in Randy’s voice, and I put it to a Randy melody. Which I realized wouldn’t do at all. It’s one thing to be influenced by an artist you respect, and quite another to engage in mimicry. When I got back to Jersey, I turned the tune around, added a few more verses and a chorus, and called it a new number. The next day I wrote another. And then another.
I wrote 29 songs in 2015. Today I consider them the best I’ve ever done, but deep down I fear I’m dead wrong about that, and a year or two will give some perspective and throw some cold water on my delusions. So I decided not to give myself that year or two: while I’m enthusiastic about the material, I want to cut it all, while it’s fresh, and find a good way to put it out. Lucky I am that the people who are closest to me are entirely (and maybe unaccountably?) supportive of my renewed musical ambitions – they seem to want this happen as much as I do. They believe that I can pick up where I left off in 2009, and they want to help me get there.
I wish I shared their confidence. It occurs to me that many things may have happened over the years that might make it difficult for me to regain my footing as a performing musician. As a young person, I was usually able to draw and hold a crowd. I don’t know if I can do that anymore. My singing has always been an iffy proposition even when I was in practice, and vocal muscles do deteriorate over time. When I’m not playing with a band, my skills atrophy at an alarming rate. It’s depressing, not to mention time-consuming, to work every day just to get back to the level of functional competence that I believed I’d attained a few decades ago. There’s no guarantee that I can get in step with contemporary trends in recording, and writing, and presentation.
But what the hell, I was never in step with any of that stuff. If you liked my music, chances are you never did because it was au courant in any way, or because I had any relationship with the zeitgeist beyond total estrangement. Come to think of it, my awkwardness was probably part of the charm for the people who’d call themselves Tris McCall fans. As there was never any sex sell involved in my project, my advanced age and physical decrepitude shouldn’t be much of a hurdle to clear (at least for you.) As for the other stuff – playing and singing in tune and in rhythm – I’ve heard there have been further computerized advancements in this area since the turn of the decade. I intend to avail myself of all of them. You think I have shame? I have no shame.
So there you have it: I’m getting back into the music game. I expect this to be a long and agonizing process – a climb up a high and rocky hill – and I’m going to chronicle it here for the ill amusement of Whom It May Concern. If you came looking for the Critics Poll, well, that’s a February thing, and February is over. The calendar flips by quick; it’ll be poll time again before we know it. Until then, I hope you’ll join with me on my gurney, as Nordom the rogue modron from Planescape: Torment once said. The very worst that can happen is that I fall on my face and you get to indulge in some authorized schadenfreude. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It might just be the early spring sun, but today I think this may just be, in spite of everything, a story with a happy ending.
Think of your favorite movie, or your favorite book, or your favorite painting, or pop song. Think of an argument that reached you through print, or a scene that moved you through the power of celluloid. It is a dead cinch that not so long ago, that scene, or that speech, or that argument or that lyric would have been considered way out of bounds. Somebody would have deemed it indecent and suppressed it in the name of the common good. The only reason you are humming that song, or watching that film, or hearing that voice, or reading that passage today is because an artist was brave enough to risk ostracism, and condemnation, and career-threatening obscurity, and, in some cases, jail time to say something that was dangerous to say. Things we now experience as pleasantly explosive had to be fought for. Things we view as tame had to be fought for, too. Every foot of ground had to be taken from the forces aligned against free expression, and it was artists and writers who had to do the hard fighting.
So the next time you are prompted to sign a declamatory petition or join an online shame campaign directed at an artist or a writer who said or did something you consider pernicious, I want you to remember this. Remember that we are only having this discussion in an open forum today because artists were willing to do and say the transgressive things necessary to broaden the field of human expression. Remember, too, that whatever is thrilling you today would have earned you an official censure, or worse, if you’d expressed enthusiasm for it at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Because those forces aligned against expression are never held in abeyance for very long. Give them an opening, an opportunity to shake a finger, and they will stifle, and muzzle, and ban, and shut down, and turn out the lights on anything they don’t like. And if you don’t think that they will get around — sooner than you can say PMRC — to things that you, personally, deem kosher, you’re fooling yourself, and you’re underestimating them.
Consensus worries me. When I was seven, a strong consensus developed at summer day camp that I was funny-looking. Nobody wanted to sit with me. This consensus opinion may well have been accurate; current conditions around the orbit of my face suggest to me that it was. But you can see how I might be drawn to dissenters and their alternate theories.
By the time I was a college-aged record collector and amateur critic, I was enchanted by the aesthetic of opposition, and I wasn’t the only one. There were the many, who listened uncritically to whatever played on the radio and played beach volleyball in the beautiful sunshine as they did, and then there were those like me for whom the music was crucial to our lives and required dedication, and who would spend hours ferreting around in dusty shops for discs unsung. Only a few recognized our favorites, and this was okay — as pluralist culture fragmented, it made sense to celebrate the infinite permutations of taste. By the time 2015 happened, there’d be no overlap between the records I would love and anybody else’s collection. We’d each have our own personal artist to call ours. The popular music we tolerate would, in due time, be replaced by unpopular music we adored.
Boy howdy has this not happened. There is no shortage of unpopular music to explore or subcultures to experience, but with a few exceptions, modern critics do not tend to make the case for the rare, unloved, and weirdly personal. Instead, we’ve turned our attention from the art to the culture, which in practice means engaging with the records that reach the largest audiences and broadcast universal or sociopolitical messages. I am not sure we really trust ourselves to write about taste anymore, which is messy and subjective; instead, modern reviewers too often use records as a pretext to engage with various movements and -isms, and opinion tends to coalesce around a handful of widely distributed artifacts that provide for the listener some readily accessible talking points. For instance, there were an estimated million zillion albums released in 2015, every one of which was a potential favorite. But nearly everybody with a podium agreed that the very best one was made by a Christian rapper from the culturally significant town of Compton, California. The press said so, the polls said so, even the President of the United States said so — and unless they want a meltdown on their hands that’ll make the protests over the whiteout at the Oscars look like a game of patty-cake by comparison, the Grammy Awards will soon say so, too.
Don’t look here for an alternate pick. The 71 voters of Critics Poll 26 also chose To Pimp A Butterfly by a comfortable margin over Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Kendrick Lamar’s third album was named more frequently than any other, and topped more ballots, too. It was a solid win for a confrontational, uncompromising rapper on a poll that has not always embraced hip-hop.
I, too, loved To Pimp A Butterfly. I didn’t have it at the top of my list, but there was no album I thought about more frequently. I further admit that when I did think about it, it wasn’t always the outstanding musicianship or the virtuoso rapping that was on my mind: more often, I thought about the relationship between Kendrick’s poetry and the Baltimore riots, or the Cleveland police department, or the Cosby case, or the centrality of the black church in the civil rights movement. Just like you, I was impressed by Kendrick’s challenge — he set out to make a nation-sized record that elicited a thoughtful response from everybody who heard it, and he got what he wanted. To Pimp A Butterfly entered the culture, and insofar as it was judged as a cultural artifact, we deemed it laudable. The Black Lives Matters protesters who integrated the chorus to “Alright” into their chants understood that the power of pop was worth harnessing. Those of us who love popular music had to be heartened by this demonstration of its capacity to inspire.
Yet inspiration is only a small piece of what pop music is about, and although Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles might tell you differently, it’s not the desire for self-affirmation that compels most listeners to play and play and replay a tune. I do sometimes wonder whether any of us who make criticism our business were ever really able to hear To Pimp A Butterfly through the noise, or if we were too swept up in the narrative concerning the album’s cultural importance to judge it fairly. No anarchist collective recorded and distributed this record. Its ascendance was engineered by Kendrick, Top Dawg Entertainment, and their many friends and supporters in the same mainstream music industry that gave us Meghan Trainor and “Cake By The Beach”. Patrick Stickles’ dismissal of Kendrick as a “shoe salesman” was crass, but not entirely inaccurate — marketing is one of the rapper’s many talents, and one of the things he successfully sells (in addition to shoes) is Significance. Or to put it another way: To Pimp A Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. By April Fool’s Day, it had already been anointed the year’s best, and you knew and I knew that it was going to win this poll and every other poll under the sun. Instant unanimity ought to make you queasy, regardless of the album’s quality.
“Impact,” a horrible term that’s been ported over from military applications and weapons demonstrations, is used all too often when discussing works of art. In 2015, an album was quite frequently judged by the size of its impact, as if the listening public was a placid lake, and the record was a boulder-like projectile slung into it by a catapult or other violent siege-breaking implement, and the task of the critic was the measurement of the splash. No album caused a bigger wave than To Pimp A Butterfly did. But the height of the crest is really only relevant in those Internet dick-slinging contests decided by numbers of followers or retweets or blog posts or dittos. As I type this, the embodiment of arithmetic thinking stands before the electorate in Iowa, where he has made the case, over and over, that he is worthy because of his poll numbers and his opponents are losers because people don’t like them as much. The critic needs to stand against that kind of thing, and make the harder, trickier case that 1.) merit is ultimately subjective, and not contingent on the ratification of the crowd, and 2.) works of art should, nonetheless, be put in context with other works and evaluated on the basis of how well they deliver the experiences they promise.
All records are examinations of the times and places in which they’re made, and it’s possible to argue that the political situation in America has deteriorated so badly that it’s irresponsible to write a review that does not also double as cultural commentary. I get that. Then again, our world is already lousy with punditry, and I would like something better for you, music critic, than that. The reason that cultural commentary is always so uninviting is because the culture itself is pretty dull: it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be given the advanced state of capitalism we’re living through. (That’s also what makes it easy to do.) Music criticism has been, at its best, an escape from all of that, but as the standardization of taste continues, it may turn into simple balls-and-strikes umpiring: Album of the Year and Song of the Summer determined somewhere else, possibly by strategy and generally by algorithm, and the critic left to pick up the pieces, report about the size and velocity of the associated trending topic, and invited to rhapsodize about What it All Means.
This year, we were, in a way, lucky. To Pimp A Butterfly really is a great album, and it deserves the accolades it’s gotten. If a rapper really does feel the need to deliver a State of the Union address (and, honestly, I hope they’re not going to start making a practice of it), this is how to do one. But nobody could deny that there was real pressure — some of it accompanied by a moral charge — on music listeners to appreciate and celebrate the Kendrick Lamar album. Much as we critics love to believe we stand up for the underdog, nobody was impervious to the centrifuge of 2015 conventional wisdom. Unpopular music never stood a chance.
1. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly (347)
2. Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (269)
3. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (250)
4. Tame Impala — Currents (205)
5. Laura Marling — Short Movie (203)
Kendrick is such a talented rapper and writer that nobody ever seems to notice what a total cornball he is. The seductress named “Lucy” who is secretly Lucifer? Television-movie corn. How about the song the President likes — the one where the homeless man he disrespects turns out to be God in disguise? That’s the sort of corny plot twist you’d expect to get on a Kenny Chesney album. What about the Al TV-style interview beyond the grave with Tupac, the spoken-word “Dick Ain’t Free” interlude that feels lifted from Spike Lee’s freewheeling, imaginary jazz clubs, the fight that breaks out in the audience during “i” that the rapper pacifies with powerful words of unity and inspiration? All of this works, of course, but what it demonstrates (at least to me) is that Kendrick is far more of a showbiz kid than a revolutionary, steeped in the tropes of the entertainment industry and well aware of the tasty applications of American cheese. Nothing new there: Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was loaded with melodrama, some of it as emotionally manipulative as anything you’d find on the Lifetime Channel. I don’t fault him for a minute, mind you. Like prior conceptualist crowd-pleasers — Michael Jackson, Roger Waters, Barack Obama — Kendrick Lamar realized early that it isn’t enough to demonstrate excellence in craft and make a strong, smart argument: for the mass audience to eat it up, some hefty helpings of corn and cheese need to be ladled on top. Strip To Pimp A Butterfly of its cheesy elements and you’re left with something like Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 (number 11 on this poll) — another masterpiece of Southern Californian hip-hop, albeit one that didn’t score anybody’s social movement, and one that sold a mere fraction of Kendrick’s total.
For another example of the power of cheese, consider Currents, the third full-length by Tame Impala. On Lonerism, Kevin Parker added a little modern pop sparkle to his ’60s-psych swirly-eyed throwback sound, and won the 2012 poll. Nobody was beating Kendrick in 2015, but Currents, the follow-up, got plenty of love from critics while charting a new direction for the act: Parker dove into the vat of Velveeta headfirst. Parker traded the guitar workouts tailored to hit the sweet spot of the psych subculture for an overload of Wang Chung synthesizer and rubbery basslines reminiscent of ’80s cheese-R&B. “Maybe fake’s what I like,” he sang on the last song, and has been rewarded for his faith in the artificial with a Rihanna cover and a seat in the canoe riding the rapids of the pop mainstream.
6. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-mo-tion (188)
7. Joanna Newsom — Divers (174)
8. Hop Along — Painted Shut (159)
9. Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (152)
9. Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear (152)
See, we critics like Rihanna now — or, rather, we won’t be caught dead suggesting that Rihanna’s approval might be indicative of an ideological problem. (Leave that to Max Bemis.) Once upon a time it would have been scandalous in certain circles for, say, D. Boon to be caught hanging with Jody Watley, but since there’s no real underground anymore and no standard of value but popularity, it’s assumed that everybody with a guitar simply wants as much exposure as he can get. These days everybody is under the same umbrella ella, and even weirdos who really ought to be interested in nonconformity applaud loudly when “perfect pop songs” are correctly identified as such by the great unwashed, and are spun at bars and become “songs of the summer” and what have you. This is why critics tore their hair out over the conundrum of Carly Rae Jepsen: E-mo-tion checked all the boxes of solid formula art, so why oh why wasn’t it selling? For awhile, everybody with a platform and a will to compose thinkpieces became Jepsen’s business councilor, alternately chastising the marketplace, Scooter Brown, the star’s producers, and the star herself for failing to achieve the financial returns commensurate with such a thrilling capitulation to formula. I know I did. I dedicated a scandalous amount of thought to Jepsen’s portfolio — it monopolized my thinking on several long bike rides — and I still couldn’t figure out her problem. What did she do wrong, America? Was it the sweater? Because I think the sweater is sensational. E-mo-tion is designed to fit right in the sweet spot between Heartthrob and 1989, which means that digital cash registers filled with Bitcoin ought to be spewing whatever cryptocurrency you crazy kids are spending these days. Granted, Jepsen does not have the microphone presence or airtight authority of Taylor Swift, but in all other ways her disc measures up well to its models.
My great fear is that Jepsen has been damaged by her reluctance to sing bland self-actualization anthems, preferring instead to concentrate on songs about how horny she is. Back in the good old days, this is exactly what we asked of pop stars — shut up about your interiority and, instead, point at your genitals and howl animalistically. Basically, that was pop music in the ’80s, which suited me fine. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. But end they did, and at the end, we got Rachel Platten singing inspirationally about taking back her life from whatever it is that’s dogging it. And this, not that pretty business over there, is what rides high on the charts. My hypothesis is that all the Adderall and legal doobage has withered the private parts of a generation, and people are no longer sensitive to Carly Rae Jepsen singing tell me that you want me that I’m all that/I will be there I will be your friend. In 1985, that would have worked. If you were at those bar mitzvahs too, you know it.
Further proof that pop ’15 was inundated by a wave of cheese: even Joanna Newsom was susceptible. Last we heard from her, she complained about “dulling and dumbing in the service of the heart”; now, she is peddling a bunch of winsome hooey about the time-transcendent power of love. Hey, I’m a hippie, too. I hope she’s right.
11. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06 (151)
12. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (149)
13. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon (141)
14. Grimes — Art Angels (131)
15. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People (130)
15. Chvrches — Every Open Eye (130)
To Pimp A Butterfly was the year’s landmark album, but to really understand 2015, you have to listen to the celebrated Art Angels. Grimes, in case you don’t know her, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved notoriety and critical acclaim in 2012 with a mildly experimental electropop album called Visions. While it was clear even then that she had mainstream aspirations, she hadn’t quite misplaced her youthful ambivalence about all things mersh; for instance, rather than the requisite big ole butt, there’s a cartoon skull on the album cover. At some point between Visions and the release of Art Angels, the artist shook off her hesitancy, and decided that if Lady Gaga was going to run off and join the cast of Planet of the Apes, or whatever the hell she’s gone and done with herself, Grimes would just go ahead and become Lady Gaga. Art Angels, which Grimes produced herself, is 100% cheap-seats pop in the Gaga freaks-but-not-too-freaky style, complete with streamlined dancefloor numbers, periodic stabs at cartoonish aggression, and occasional independent-woman sloganeering. In other words, it’s the exact album Gaga should have made after The Fame Monster, or, at any rate, the album her accountants would have liked her to have made. Unfortunately, on her very best day, Grimes, whose vocal resemblance to Alvin the Chipmunk has been noted, cannot begin to approximate Lady Gaga’s singing. The result is an album that treads the line between ingratiating and irritating: a set of critically approved “perfect pop songs” made by a pseudoalternative artist who really has no business singing pop. Mind you, I am not bothered at all by the flood of hyperbole that this album rode in on, and I’m even happy to contribute to it. Every era has its figures who are hailed by the press as supergeniuses for no discernible reason. Grimes just happens to be one of ours. In ’93, it would have been a grueling, goatee-having dude who sang YAHHAHAUUUGHAR about his Oedipal rage. In ’93, a trip to munchkinland such as Art Angels would have been a fucking delight.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in twee little Glasgow, a not-dissimilar act made a not-dissimilar move. Apparently Chvrches is a stadium rock band now. Not what I expected from Lauren “Bro” Mayberry, but hey, she and her bros have identified an opportunity and they’re going after it while they’re fetching. “Empty Threat” is practically a Paramore song, which makes me wonder why they didn’t cave and employ a real drummer who could have made the song what it wants to be. The self-affirmation anthems range from summer festival-blithe (“bury it and rise above”) to downright meatheaded (“we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold,” eww.) By the way, I hope Vince Clarke is getting some residuals for the massive “Just Can’t Get Enough” bite in the middle of the best song on Every Open Eye. He’d probably settle for a hug.
In 2015, there’s really no such thing as a sellout: for there to be, there’d have to be a counterculture with elements that could be raided and packaged for sale on the mass market. In the absence of one, it’s natural for these guys to shoot for the top — if the only place they’re ever going to experience any kind of artist’s community is by dancing with Taylor Swift at the awards shows, they might as well crank up the EDM, hold their noses, and take the dough. As for all the cheese and corn and crowd-pleasing gestures, well, you might have noticed the big blue “like” button appended to your songs and statements. When everything you do is immediately evaluated — in a public setting by your peers, no less — that’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular demand. It takes an asshole with the stature of Kanye West to say “as soon as they like you, make them unlike you.” From what I can see, he’s been test-marketing Waves out the wazoo, so maybe even he’s become a slave to the approval rating. We are playthings for historical forces. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s so.
17. FFS — FFS (129)
18. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material (128)
19. The Decemberists — What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (124)
20. Speedy Ortiz — Foil Deer (122)
Let’s check in with some poll veterans to see how they’re weathering the hurricanes of time. If you’re a newcomer to this game, you might have been surprised to see the latest Belle & Sebastian set at #3. Don’t be: they’re the house favorites. B&S is one of only two acts to win this poll twice — If You’re Feeling Sinister in ’97, and The Life Pursuit in ’06 — and any time they put a record out, they’re a threat to take a third title. I’ve never made a secret of my affection for them, and several bands I’ve played with (including my own) have profitably ripped them off, I must have bumped into ten regular poll voters at their Radio City show this summer, and I’m the goon who counts this up and writes it up. Sufjan Stevens, regular high scorer, didn’t do quite as well here as he has on other polls, but Carrie & Lowell did place in the top 30; Destroyer, a frequent top ten finisher, crashed to #32. Drake, on the other hand, made a return to the upper reaches of the poll after an album cycle spent missing in action. For reasons I still can’t figure out, nobody voted for Nothing Was The Same. This year, you all remembered your awkward cousin Drake on your holiday list. Must have been “Hotline Bling” that did it. After a strong 2013 finish for Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the more complicated and darker Of Montreal album Aureate Gloom finishes at 30 — a relatively unimpressive landing place for a perennial contender that took the ’07 poll. Metric squeezed into the top 40 with the widely-maligned Pagans In Vegas, while the Mountain Goats’ Beat The Champ hardly got any support at all. Guess you folks don’t love professional wrestling like John Darnielle does. Richard Thompson didn’t get much love on the poll for the iffy Dream Attic or its superior followup Electric, but Still put him back in the top 30, where he was a regular finisher in the ’80s and ’90s. I believe he’s got a future in showbiz. Lana Del Rey continues her grim-faced march up this list; she remains a pretty good bet to win one of these contests someday now that she’s been exonerated for her capital crimes.
The Decemberists deserve their own paragraph. Since Her Majesty, the group has always placed on the poll, but enthusiasm is waning. This I know because you told me so: many of you who put What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful world on your ballot expressed your disappointment with it. I, too, was partial to the version of Colin Meloy who sang goofily about chimbley sweeps and bombazine dolls and who stuffed unsingable words into his lyrics like a Victorian infantryman with a musket and a ram. In his old age, he’s become a singer that even your momma would recognize as good — although I think he was more fun when he was sloppier. But Meloy in ’15 is like a guy who used to be a polymath and a mischief-maker, and who grew up and took a position at a respectable NGO. On some level you admire it, but the constriction marks are visible all over his personality.
21. Lupe Fiasco — Tetsuo & Youth (119)
22. The Front Bottoms — Back On Top (114)
23. Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell (110)
23. Miguel — Wildheart (110)
25. Ashley Monroe — The Blade (106)
26. Oneohtrix Point Never — Garden Of Delete (100)
27. Richard Thompson — Still (98)
27. The Chills — Silver Bullets (98)
29. Beach Slang — The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (96)
30. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom (93)
Jersey alert: the Front Bottoms continued to run strong in this poll, placing 22nd and gathering plenty of votes and mentions from the lands beyond the Delaware. All that touring pays off, kids. Meanwhile, the Roadside Graves picked up where they left off four years ago with Acne/Ears, the band’s first disc for Don Giovanni. The Graves slightly outpolled their labelmates the Screaming Females, who finished in 43rd place. Deliverance, which turned out to be a swan song for River City Extension, came in right behind that at 45th. Once again, Titus Andronicus barely got a handshake on this poll. What do they have to do to impress you folks, I ask? — if a five-act rock opera doesn’t get your attention, maybe nothing ever will.
31. Jeffrey Lewis — Manhattan (92)
32. Destroyer — Poison Season (91)
33. Bjork — Vulnicura (89)
33. The Roadside Graves — Acne/Ears (89)
35. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf (87)
35. Dawes — All Your Favorite Bands (87)
37. Hot Chip — Why Make Sense? (86)
38. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free (84)
38. Metric — Pagans In Vegas (84)
38. Blur — The Magic Whip (84)
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. I’ll check in tomorrow with the singles, and another long and cranky essay about a certain media company that bugged the heck out of me in 2015.
Other albums getting #1 votes:
Alberta Cross — Alberta Cross
Algiers — Algiers
Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
Bruce Springsteen — The Ties That Bind
Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up
Dornik — Dornik
Enter Shikari — The Mindsweep
FIDLAR — Too
FKA Twigs — M3LL155X
Future — DS2
Haitus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon
Jamie xx — In Colour (narrowly missed the top 40)
Julieta Venegas — Algo Sucede
Kamasi Washington — The Epic
Mac McCaughan — Non-Believers
Palehound — Dry Food
Pollyester — City Of O
Quarterbacks — Quarterbacks
Rachel Grimes — The Clearing
Snacks For Y’All Qaeda — Snacks For Y’All Qaeda (note: probably imaginary)
I used to think of Pitchfork as the critical equivalent of the Outback Steakhouse — not a destination in itself, but a place you might wind up at for reasons beyond your control. There you’d be served up something thick and oily, overseasoned yet somehow bland, and you’d consume it joylessly. At the end of your visit, you’d wonder why you bothered. During the long Outback period, I barely mentioned Pitchfork in any context. There wasn’t much to say. It was sort of bad and sort of boring, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well let it carry on with its brand development effort.
But during the past decade, Pitchfork has gradually been deteriorating, and in 2015, it fell off a cliff. Just as the 2008 Merrill Lynch meltdown had to worry you even if you don’t own stock, Pitchfork’s abominable year ought to ring the alarm for all critics, regardless of where you direct your web browser. Somebody in power seems to have decided to turn the the most visited review website in the world into People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon. Pitchfork’s new interest in consumer feminism clashes with its apparent mandate to cover — and praise — every crappy, two-bit mixtape released by a coterie of misogynist rappers, and like many institutions on the wishy-washy left, it is currently groaning under the obvious contradictions of its own worldview. These people are absolutely, embarrassingly determined to show the reader that they’re down with various liberation movements and worldwide underclass struggles, which is odd, considering most people still go to the site in order to find out how the new Modest Mouse compares to the old one.
The turd pimento atop the crap sandwich that was Pitchfork ’15 was the Year in Rap piece. It’s worth checking out, because without meaning to, the author does illuminate much of what’s wrong with contemporary writing about music — particularly writing about hip-hop. The Pitchfork piece attempts to summarize the year in rap by fixating on the one and only thing in hip-hop that’s not particularly interesting: beefs. The main reason why beefs are uninteresting is because they are 99% bullshit. They tend to start as childish tiffs that would dissipate on their own were they not seized upon by managers and marketing people and gullible journalists. Mainstream writers love beefs because they’re a prime source of clickbait; also, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, they love to watch black people fight. They’ve got click quotas to meet and they can’t help themselves. Music writers should know better. All the crappy, half-assed diss tracks on mixtapes and internet-only releases ought to tell critics everything they need to know about the true importance of beefs to artists. Not quite zero, but pretty damn close.
The beefs examined in the year end summary both involve Drake — an artist not exactly known for battle rapping. To make matters worse, one of them is, I kid you not, imaginary. The front half of the article addresses Drake’s dreary, engineered exchange with Meek Mill, which dominated garbage-press headlines in July, and the back half attempts to trump up, on the scantiest of evidence, a “cold war” with Kendrick Lamar. Who knows?, Drake and Kendrick might indeed not like each other. Chances are, they’re too busy making music to give it much thought. It’s justifiable, if more than a little reductive, to cast Drake as the protagonist of hip-hop 2015: he put out an album and a half, sold more than a million records, and continued to exert influence over his peers. But after years spent fellating him in posts, reviews, features, and what have you, it’s now clear that Pitchfork doesn’t understand Drake at all.
Drake’s beef with Meek — which will continue as long as they’ve got upcoming releases to promote — was an old-school hip-hop authenticity feud the likes of which we’ve seen a hundred thousand times since De La Soul wrote “Potholes In My Lawn”. Meek Mill, rambunctious Philly emcee, accused Drake of buying his rhymes, which is technically true: Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper, contributed verses to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. A dis track was cut, Drake responded with a couple of dis tracks of his own, and when the digital dust settled, the blogs agreed that Meek had gotten the worst of it. (Some of them said he was “murked” or “bodied” in, I suppose, an effort to sound like idiots.) That was Round 1, mind you; round 2 is going on right now. Having seen a few Rocky movies and knowing how this goes, I suspect that Meek will now land some effective counterpunches only to be decisively rebuffed right before Drake decides to release Views From The 6.
Pitchfork pointed out that Drake’s battle verses were not particularly adept or scathing. This is true. But instead of concluding the obvious — that Drake wasn’t really motivated to damage Meek Mill’s career but was instead beefing for the headlines — the year-end piece decried the verdict and shat all over Drake in the process. According to Pitchfork, the inauthentic Drake “won” over the authentic Meek because he understood Instagram and Twitter better than his opponent. A Year in Rap summary piece in a major publication claimed that Drake had attained an unearned win by, essentially, Internet-bullying his peer.
This is a conclusion that could only have been reached by a critic so caught up in the social media spin cycle that he cannot see the world beyond his computer. There was never any possibility that Drake could lose a feud with Meek Mill. Meek is a talented emcee who has yet to figure out how to translate the energy of his live show to the studio; his records sell well, but so does Campbell’s soup. Drake, on the other hand, has been making popular musical history since the release of So Far Gone. He hatched out of his egg with a sound all his own, and that sound is one of the indelible cultural artifacts of the second decade of the 21st century. Real music listeners know this, and would never accept a version of events where Drake was humbled by a mere genre practitioner. Drake “beat” Meek Mill for the same reason that 50 Cent beat Ja Rule, or, for that matter, a diminished 50 was unable to lay a glove on Rick Ross: the battle is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a ratification of the facts in the air.
It is also preposterous for Pitchfork — still allegedly a music publication, at least for the moment — to imply that Drake simply hopped into Kanye West’s lane. Like everybody else in contemporary pop, Drake owes plenty to Kanye and his successful experiments in sound and storytelling. But Drake and his producers have a peculiar and flexible sense of melody derived from Southern soul and blues records, and which does not overlap all that much with Kanye’s own harmonic vocabulary. From the very beginning, Drake has been toeing a narrow line between the arty midwestern style of Kanye West’s records and the swampy blues-rap favored in his beloved Houstatlantavegas. Drake recognize both the pop audience’s appetite for blues melody and the growing blues strain in his songs released by his principal competition (Young Thug, Future, Boosie, et. al.) — and he’s been able to anticipate and co-opt their moves. It’s no coincidence that he went shopping for verses in Atlanta, or that he pinched the groove for “Hotline Bling” from a Virginia artist: instinctively, he realizes that an American pop audience that’s been force-fed soulless Eurodance for the better part of a decade is desperate for a little Dixie dirt. Unlike many other celebrated storytelling vocalists, he does not cut corners by lifting his musical backdrops from filmed entertainment. The emotional effect of a Drake song is generated by sonic phenomena alone: muffled kick drum, distant synthesizer and guitar, and the rapper’s own introspective vocal performances. One of the reasons I find If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a more compelling album than To Pimp A Butterfly: while Kendrick’s producers work in a sophisticated jazz and soul idiom that’s been covered to fuck and back and therefore capitalize on the resonances produced by familiarity, Drake continues to push his own sound into uncharted territory while paring it back to its unsettling essence. He now owes very little to anybody he’s not crediting in the liner notes, and it’s not hard to argue that the paranoia and detachment that he communicates through his music is every bit as trenchant a reflection of the current American predicament as Kendrick’s poetry is.
Since they’re both late-twentysomething rappers making essential music, it’s inevitable that Drake and Kendrick will be compared. Yet to imply that they’re currently locked in a rap war is sheer bloodthirsty wishcasting. The evidence Pitchfork gathers is circumstantial and scanty at best: a few Kendrick lines from Compton: A Soundtrack that allude to Drake lyrics, and the umpteenth airing of the “Control” verse that felt to me like a simple challenge made among colleagues to shoot for excellence. The core of Pitchfork’s case is “King Kunta,” on which Kendrick famously complains about “a rapper with a ghostwriter.” But the emcee doesn’t specify the target of what is a pretty standard hip-hop putdown — he could be rhyming about anybody. For what it’s worth, Quentin Miller isn’t a ghostwriter; just as Kanye did after he bought the first verse to “Jesus Walks” from Rhymefest, Drake credited his collaborator in the liner notes to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Moreover, “King Kunta” was released months before Meek Mill accused Drake of inauthenticity, and was presumably composed long before that. Kendrick Lamar is a writer of uncommon depth and perspective; he has, as I am sure you’ve noticed, a lot to say about race, power, the police, surveillance, yams, what have you. To suggest that the first single released from his third-album megastatement was written about Drake is unbelievably insulting.
But Pitchfork is oh so eager to register that insult. They really, really want Drake and Kendrick locked in mortal combat, trading subliminal insults and sucking up the attention that would otherwise go to real reporting. They want blood on the floor and all the filthy clicks that go along with it. They’re willing to simplify and reduce Drake’s artistry to do it, and if that requires making Kendrick look like a battling idiot, too, they’re willing to accept that collateral damage. They’re even willing to map Drake vs. Kendrick on top of Jay-Z vs. Nas, and never mind that Kendrick shares little with Nas and Drake shares even less with Jay, and never mind that 2015 is not 2001, and also never mind that there isn’t even any Drake vs. Kendrick in the first place. This would be unfathomably irresponsible if it wasn’t so consistent with the voyeuristic trash heap that the Internet has become.
The irony, of course, is that Pitchfork is in the best position possible to know better: their writers deal with artists all day, and must realize on some level that this is not how musicians operate. Musicians tend to be collaborative people; they’re magpies, they like to borrow ideas and lose themselves to dance. They’re not boxers or gladiators, and they do not, in general, care about the authenticity of their peers or wipeout supremacy unless their feelings get hurt. The best way to hurt their feelings is to provoke them in a public forum, and as far as I can tell, many so-called journalists do nothing all day but attempt that provocation. Let it be known: in 2015, this is what the biggest and best-known music site on the Internet decided it’s going to use that pitchfork for.
1. Drake — “Hotline Bling” (162)
2. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (140)
3. The Weeknd — “I Can’t Feel My Face” (118)
3. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan — “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” (118)
5. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta” (114)
6. Courtney Barnett — “Pedestrian At Best” (112)
7. Belle & Sebastian — “Nobody’s Empire” (112)
8. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue” (111)
9. Adele — “Hello” (108)
9. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey” (108)
9. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me (108)
12. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen” (103)
13. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach” (102)
14. Drake — “Energy” (100)
15. Grimes — “Flesh Without Blood” (94)
16. Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (93)
16. The Decemberists — “Make You Better” (93)
18. Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney — “FourFiveSeconds” (90)
19. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams — “WTF (Where They From)” (88)
20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy” (84)
At the time of David Bowie’s death, the poll ballot had been up on the site for a couple of weeks. Many of you had already voted; a few people even used the miscellaneous section to register disappointment with Blackstar. Once Bowie was with us no longer, that stopped — although I did get a couple of expressions of bewilderment from younger voters about the ensuing wall-to-wall coverage. I was a latecomer to the cult of Bowie: I first encountered him while he was singing “China Girl” into a thin white microphone. This was not my favorite song or my favorite video; even at the time, I found it kinda exploitative. Later I would learn how many of the songs that were my favorites were total Bowie rehashes, and this knowledge sent me to the record store to grab the back catalog. I discovered that David Bowie was an absolute master of the architecture of pop songwriting — one of the best to ever do it — and an excellent singer, too. But my emotional relationship with Bowie never went much beyond that. I did not develop the powerful feelings of identification and fellow-outsider recognition that many of you wrote so eloquently about elsewhere. He made music that I admired, and danced to, but, with the exception of “Life On Mars,” nothing I took into my heart.
A little more than two weeks after the death of Bowie, we lost another rock star. This one shared with David Bowie both an interest in science-fiction and a dim, dystopic worldview. But while Bowie was fascinated and inspired by the questions sci-fi asked about the mutable nature of identity, Paul Kantner was drawn instead to its sociopolitical implications. I haven’t seen too many panegyrics for Kantner online, so if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to explain to you what Jefferson Airplane meant to me:
There was a social history course offered to sophomores in my high school. It was spring 1987; I didn’t take it. I had no interest whatsoever in the 1960s — I’d never heard of Haight-Ashbury or the Monterey Pop Festival, or the Summer of Love. I didn’t watch the news, I watched MTV, and MTV meant Debbie Gibson and Glass Tiger and “Livin’ On A Prayer.” If I was very lucky, I might catch a Suzanne Vega video. Randee of the Redwoods was my idea of what a hippie was like. Woodstock was something for grownups to reminisce about, only none of the grownups in the staid automobile suburb where I lived would have ever admitted to attending.
Then somebody sent a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s 2400 Fulton Street collection to the shopping mall record store where I worked. And I did something that I never did before or after, and, to this day, I still don’t know where I got the nerve: I stuck the two cassettes in my bookbag and dashed out.
Would Grace Slick have approved of my petty theft? Probably not. By then, she was trying to hammer out a living on mainstream radio, singing with Starship in a connection I wouldn’t make until months after my initial introduction to the Airplane. The entertainment industry runs on property rights; nobody gets any money without them. But 2400 Fulton Street told me that all my private property was target for my enemies. It seemed a reasonable outlook. It still does.
I could trace the beginning of my musical education to the moment I pressed play on my cassette player in ’87 and heard the Airplane for the first time. That would be accurate, but I’m afraid that it would shortchange the band’s power. Midway through my first listen to that collection, the walls of the high school and the shopping mall and my suburban bedroom started shaking. All my life I’d been taught that black was black, white was white, sky was blue, and that was that. Paul Kantner suggested that if I was a cloud, my sky would be green. I got the point.
Remember that I knew nothing of the Airplane’s history: the first tentative flights through the San Francisco underground, the unlikely chart successes in 1966, the controversies, the collaborations, the counterculture reputation, the riots, the exhaustion, the psychedelics. The only drug I was doing at the time was Cap’n Crunch. With no context whatsoever, Jefferson Airplane spoke directly to me, trapped in the 1980s, just as they once spoke to thousands liberated in the ’60s and the ’70s. Open your mind, they said, use your imagination, do things that don’t have a name yet. The proper response to abusive authority is laughter, because that’s the one thing they can’t take, or take away from you. And if all of that makes you an outlaw in the eyes of America, well, there’s plenty of harmony on the other side of that line.
They became my favorite band. Though I considered myself surrounded by people whose ideas and values opposed mine, the Airplane was my proof that there once existed people who felt the way I did — and my promise that it could happen again. When Kantner and his bandmates raised their voices together, it sounded to me like an entire nation was singing. That nation certainly wasn’t the one I was living in. But it didn’t sound undiscoverable, either. It sounded like it was right there beyond a thin barrier; a wild world, a playful world, a world where people of all kinds could be together without losing their individual personalities. Paul Kantner’s music was, essentially, an entreaty to go out and find it — and if you couldn’t find it, go ahead and make it. Because he was generous, he even gave us a cryptic recipe, right there on his best-ever song, an anarchist’s pamphlet set to glorious music. “We must begin here and now,” he sings with his mates, “a new continent of earth and fire.” No matter what’s happened since 1967, I still believe it’s possible.
Okay, I’m gonna hit you with some plurality favorites in the miscellaneous categories, and then I’ll turn the floor over to You the Voter:
Best singing: Laura Marling. Erykah Badu and Father John Misty got some love, too.
Best rapping: Kendrick Lamar by a landslide.
Best lyrics: Joanna Newsom. Bet you guys like Thomas Pynchon, too, huh?
Best album title: Earl Sweatshirt‘s antisocial I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Best album cover: No plurality at all.
Biggest disappointment: The Decemberists and Panda Bear.
Nicest surprise: New Order minus Peter Hook is still pretty damn good. Carly Rae Jepsen, too. I’m listening to her right now.
Thing you don’t know, but you know you should: A few votes here for Vince Staples.
Hoary old bastard who should spare us all and retire: Some more votes for the Boss, but I’m sorry to say Damon Albarn takes the category.
Young upstart who should be send down to the minors for more seasoning: Ed Sheeran. A nice handful of votes for Tobias Jesso, too. Ben Krieger voted for Chelsea Clinton, and… yeah, that’s a really good answer.
Most overrated: Grimes and Drake. Only one vote for Kendrick, by the way, and my location app suggests that the call might be coming from somewhere inside this very house. Poll runner-up Courtney Barnett got more blowback than I expected her to.
Album that felt most like an obligation to get through: Titus Andronicus.
Thing that wore out the quickest: Chvrches by a nose over Metric.
Artist you respect, but don’t like: Bjork.
Worst song of the year: “BB Talk,” Miley Cyrus. Some scattered loathing for David Guetta songs, too.
Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better than you initially thought it was: Four votes here for Drake‘s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and four more for Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey. Nothing decisive, but that’s good enough for me.
Trends for 2016
Zach Lipez: Filling out Conde Nast paperwork.
Jay Braun: Recording music and playing it back again.
Brad Krumholz: A return to ragamuffin in mainstream hip-hop.
Hilary Jane Englert: Songs sung from the perspective of animals.
Katherine Furman: The robots are coming!
Mike Cimicata: Bieberification.
Brian Block: Computers overthrowing the producers and making their own soundscape records. Oddly, most of their albums will be full of vocals, but most of the vocals will sound like either Miss Krabappel from the Simpsons, the elementary school teacher from Charlie Brown, or the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Different theories will be advanced on what this indicates, but none of them will be flattering.
Thomas J. Snow: Hyperanxiety masquerading as nonchalance.
Jason Paul: Dance music producers Diplo and Skrillex went pop and proved to be really good at it, keeping eccentricity. Trap is mainstream and proved it could make hits in Fetty Wap.
Jim Testa: A reawakening of politically-aware pop, rock, and rap.
Andrea Weiss: Musicians finally smashing rock’s sexism and homophobia.
Ben Krieger: Sorry, I’m all out of clever. It’s an election year, so I’m sure some artist will annoy me.
Steven Matrick: Pink Floyd.
Matt Houser: Overlord. [We’ll see, Matt.]
George Pasles: Finishing albums.
Best shows you saw in 2015
Steven Matrick: Laura Marling at a church during South By Southwest.
Stephen Mejias: Thurston Moore Band at Monty Hall, JC.
Terrance Pryor: Between The Buried and Me @ Irving Plaza.
Allison Tuzo: Jason Isbell @ Prospect Park.
Dillon D.: Jason Isbell.
Steven Slagg: Tenement.
George Pasles: Jupiter Boys, anywhere.
Pat Pierson: Marjorie Fair (Evan Slamka) solo acoustic @ Mexicali Live, Teaneck, NJ, Hamell On Trial at Sarah Street Grill, Stroudsburg PA (Dec).
Brad Krumholz: Eleanor Friedberger @ Pianos.
Jason Paul: Shilpa Ray album release @ Rough Trade guest James Chance.
Morrissey @ Madison Square Garden.
Brian Block: Rasputina, with Daniel Knox opening, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Rasputina because Melora Creager is a delightfully droll frontwoman, improvising some of her jokes in direct response to crowd suggestions while never losing her pseudo-upper-class-Brit cool. A new album she’d made all by herself for cd-only release was worked smoothly into the trio format, and old band songs had been overhauled to accommodate keyboards and beat-boxing along with the electric cellos. Knox, meanwhile, has the cranky self-effacing drunk-tavern-piano thing going on; nothing novel, but fun.
Jim Testa: I spent 90% of my weekends in 2015 working at Aviv, so I didn’t see a lot of other shows and I don’t think I attended one “concert” per se at a large venue. But… best live bands I saw at Aviv: Ronnie Hunt,
Deerpeople, PWR BTTM, Donovan Wolfington, Kal Marks.
David Nagler: FKA twigs presents Congregata @ The Hangar, Neneh Cherry @ The Highline Ballroom, Stevie Wonder @ Barclays Center, Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.
Mike Cimicata: Brian Wilson at The State Theater, Future Islands at Terminal 5, Stevie Wonder at Prudential Center, My Morning Jacket at Beacon Theatre, The Original Pinettes Brass Band at Bullet’s Sports Bar, New Orleans.
Bob Makin: Experiment 34.
Zach Lipez: The Mekons @ Bowery Ballroom.
Paula Carino: Even Twice & Fireking @ Freddy’s 1/17/15.
Matt Houser: Weird Al @ Mann Music Center, FFS @ Terminal 5, Death by Unga Bunga @ Cakeshop.
Andrea Weiss: R. Ring @ Jonny Brednda’s Philadelphia PA, Dar Williams/Jill Sobule @ World Cafe Philadelphia, PA.
Katherine Furman: The stage show of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore was amazeballs!
Jonathan Andrew: Nada Surf @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 11/14/15, Hum @ Webster Hall, Manhattan, 8/13/15 Ben Nichols & Rick Steff (from Lucero) @ The Shop, Brooklyn, 6/12/15.
Anna Howe: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.
Hilary Jane Englert: Belle & Sebastian @ Radio City.
Oliver Lyons: Mark Burgess (Chameleons Vox) @ The Middle East, Cambridge, MA.
Ben Krieger: Rush’s farewell tour @ MSG. [snif.]
Random comments and various wiseguy category answers
George Pasles: Best video — Peaches, “Rub”. It’s porn, in the way ’50s rock started. It’s the last gasp of Big Mama Thonrton left in music.
Jer Fairall: Kendrick Lamar was not at all overrated in 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly is one for the ages. My #1 choice [FIDLAR’s Too], I suppose, hints at both my contrarian streak (rank an album at #1 that everyone else in the world is touting? What?!) and my self-consciousness about loving something I am unqualified to understand. Granted, a white 37-year-old doctoral candidate claiming to identify with a band of booze-‘n-drug-addled twenty-something punks is probably no less laughable than identifying with the current voice of Black America, but it is less offensive.
Ben Krieger: Kendrick Lamar is King Of The World this year. And that’s outside of the fact that it was a ho-hum music year for me; in terms of quality, I could fit at least 5 of my favorite records since 2012 between To Pimp A Butterfly and everything else I enjoyed in 2015. I don’t think there’s been as deserved a consensus on a #1 record since Elephant, and To Pimp A Butterfly is much better.
Steven Slagg: We expect our black laureates to save the world as troubled, brilliant, tireless crusaders/saints (Kendrick, Chance, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brittany Howard), but we only really ask our white laureates to be clever, self-aware, and charming (Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Destroyer). Seems like the arrangement’s unfair to everybody.
Ben Krieger: Whitest album – The Sleeping Tapes by Jeff Bridges. But hey, I got into it, go figure.
Thomas J. Snow: Drum-geeks among us have to appreciate the fact that the hi-hat patterns on the Drake album could have been lifted straight from George Lawrence Stone’s “Stick Control for the Snare Drummer” (see page 14, “Short Rolls and Triplets.”). Rudiments: they’ll never let you down.
Jonathan Andrew: Adele sold 15 million copies worldwide in 10 weeks on the strength of her songcraft, her extremely down-to-earth (and thus likable) persona, and that effing voice. She’s not an Aretha- or Whitney-level virtuoso, but there is something incredibly relatable about the way she puts her songs across. It is a joy to hear.
Thomas J. Snow: Not that I was camping out in front of Sam Goody waiting for 25 to come out, but I kind of expected a little better from Adele. “Rolling in the Deep” had a winning vocal performance and some thoughtful production; “The Other Side” is not just bad; it’s uninteresting and bad.
Brian Block: Tunde Olaniran doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet; that’s serious oversight territory, because his Transgressor could easily have been the massive hit it deserves to be. Olaniran is an excellent singer and good rapper (reputedly a fine choreographer as well), and his album’s seeming influences are multiracial mega-sellers: Kanye’s Yeezus and U2’s Achtung Baby, Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Art Pop and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. He puts interesting new spins on their ideas and seems like a thoroughly decent, pleasant person. He’s young; perhaps the world will catch up soon.
George Pasles: Will still be making good albums in 2025 — United Pressing.
Brian Block: Best lyrics — Joanna Newsom, obviously. Or I say obviously; according to my best of 2012 ballot, where I discussed Ian (Aesop Rock) Bavitz, I was still hesitant about brilliant lyrics best approached using Wikipedia and the collective annotations at genius.com. Now it feels entirely normal to me to learn new things about birds, 19th century politicians, and 26th century interplanetary wars in the cause of approaching an album. Maybe now I’m ready to enjoy Shakespeare? I’ve had a bit of leftover sympathy for Couch Flambeau’s lyric (“I hate Shakespeare! He’s boring and he’s too hard to read! I wish he was dead!… He is? Good”), but of course he’s dead. That’s what happens to folks. Newsom almost summarized one of her key themes in Divers’s last song title, but — distracted by another interesting idea — she misspelled “Time, as a Merciless Bastard”.
Thomas J. Snow: Allow me a moment of blasphemy, but I found it almost impossible to listen to Divers from start to finish. As thematically and technically impressive as she is, Joanna Newsom seems to have mislaid her groove. The fussy arrangements, with every little penny whistle and bassoon and tasteful tambourine shake in the mix like tchotchkes in your grandmother’s china cabinet, are simply hard to live with for a full long-player. I wish I could blame Van Dyke Parks or Dick van Dyke or Andy van Slyke or whoever that guy was who produced Ys, but, looking at the liner notes, it looks like Joanna took the reins on Divers herself, so…ah wait! Steve Albini was involved in this project! Let’s blame him.
Zach Lipez: I still love pop-punk. Feels great.
Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year — The Apartments – No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. The first proper album from The Apartments (who were always just Peter Milton Walsh anyway) in almost 20 years. Of course it was crowdfunded. In The Apartments long history of would have beens, should have beens, a stable label is the least of its problems. Regardless, with 20 years to prepare, Peter Milton Walsh has had plenty of time to pick the best of what he’s written over the past two decades and it shows. The songs on No Song… can compete with anything going today. You think the guy who wrote “Mr. Somewhere” is here for the play play? No. Singing about the death of a relationship or the death of his son, PMW can sew heartache to melody like almost no one else. No Song…combined with “hip” “”Brooklyn”” label Captured Tracks reissuing The Apartments first album, I’m sure The Apartments won’t stay secret much longer.
Oliver Lyons: Album of the Year Runner-up: The Unlovables / Dirt Bike Annie – Reunion Show – A Split LP from two of NY’s best early 2000’s pop-punk bands and they don’t miss a beat. Besides my hair and these bands, there’s not much else I miss about that time.
Matt Houser: My Kids (age 4 + 6) liked: Caspar Babypants, Plastic Bertrand “Ça plane pour moi”, The B-52s “Rock Lobster”, Basement Jaxx “Take Me Back to Your House”, Chipmunk Punk album.
Terrence Pryor: 2016 needs more obscure bands reuniting than well known acts. Also, someone needs to do a concept album about sloths because those cute creatures deserve some love.
Zach Lipez: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Loving the abhorrent, the racist, the dishonest, until, say, three other people call them out…then everybody jumps on. If it took you till 2016 to realize Tao Lin or Kil Sun Moon were fucked as humans, i don’t know what to tell you.
Steven Slagg: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Female country artists fighting tooth and nail for success, brilliantly walking the cultural tightrope. Male country artists coasting on bland tastefulness.
Andrea Weiss: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — More musicians coming out — more power to them.
Hilary Jane Englert: Prevailing theme(s) or trend(s) of 2015 — Use of the beach as a figure for a less difficult, troubled life, ruminations on the relationship between the mind and the body, abbreviated song titles.
Oliver Lyons: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Bands still hate vowels.
Mike Cimicata: Prevailing theme or trend of 2015 — Blinded by science.
George Pasles: 2015 was an ominous year for too many friends and for the world in general. Hard to watch. My year was largely nondescript, spent listening to podcasts or WFMU. I spent my nights with rats in the basement of Saltlands. I started and completed ZERO songs for the first year since 1990. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Steven Slagg: Six queer artists I paid close attention to — Courtney Barnett is casually out and tremendously popular and her gayness doesn’t factor much into the narrative around her; Shamir is also very popular, identifies as genderqueer, SOUNDS fashionably queer, while Le1f, Ezra Furman, and Angel Haze deal directly with all the troubled, knotty parts of queer experience in a way that strikes me as more interesting and in-your-face but less palatable (though I like Shamir too); and then Sam Gleaves, a traditional country/bluegrass singer who writes about gay coal miners and country boys, and who splits the difference between some really fascinating storytelling and sort of patronizing pride exercises that feel about 15 years behind their time.
Jonathan Andrew: I really shouldn’t weigh in since I haven’t given her a fair shake, but I can’t believe the enjoyment many seem to get from listening to Courtney Barnett. I find it far more charming when my pop singers can sing.
Brian Block: I’m torn between being happy for Courtney Barnett, because she’s smart and amusing and I enjoyed her songs “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” in 2014; and being puzzled because I don’t think putting 11 of her songs in a row, with almost one combined melody and a musical style centered around “the part of a Bonnie Raitt song where they’re just trying to pad everything out to radio length”, does her any favors at all. Apparently I’m outnumbered.
Brian Block: I hope your poll is much more loyal to Belle & Sebastian than the Pazz/ Jop poll was [no worries there, ever, Brian], because Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is, for me personally, their breakthrough album. I’m not saying it’s objectively better than your poll-winner If You’re Feeling Sinister — they’ve always written well — but I’ve rarely liked my music wispy or pastel, and my liking for B&S has generally risen during the moments when they’ve asserted pop and dance smarts. For me Girls in Peacetime was like an entire album imagined outward from “I’m a Cuckoo”, “Stay Loose”, and “the Blues are Still Blue”, sometimes even converted into ‘80s synth-pop…. which, by being straightforwardly fun for me to listen to, also helped me attend to and enjoy their lyrics more than ever. Obviously, the rest of the world is entitled to dislike polish, jauntiness, and synth-pop; but with Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes near the top of the polls, I don’t think that’s the issue. It feels more as if the smart kids will be loved if they know their place, but aren’t welcome at the dance. I like to dance, and I like to bloviate smart-kid style, so I’m not super-delighted if those are the rules.
Ben Krieger: Most sympathetic perspective — Fenton Lawless on the song ‘Chicago, Chicago.’ Like many local artists who spew their dregs all over Facebook, Lawless is best when he’s sitting behind his guitar. ‘Chicago, Chicago’s “what about black on black crime” perspective is not one that I agree with, but I get that—in what I feel is a misdirected way—he means well. For a full albums worth of songs about what drives many of Trump’s supporters, you need to go back to Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class record. All I’ll say here is that the Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame for the cultivation of frustrated white Middle America; liberals fucked up big time. Randy Newman was trying to warn us about this all the way back in 1974 with Good Old Boys: there is no cause righteous enough to be excused from the necessity of respectful dialogue with people who don’t seem to agree with you. I don’t blame oppressed and underprivileged groups for this. I blame what I can only describe as the New Yorker crowd, who have the responsibility of creating a dialogue bridge between the disenfranchised and the more-privileged groups who don’t quite understand what all the anger is about. If you’re the type of white, middle class liberal who is fond of using the term “flyover country;” if you think that anyone who votes Republican must be an idiot; if you memed something condescending over that fucking asinine image of Kermit sipping tea; if you snickered and jabbed at mainstream country music, then you failed. I don’t think that the internet is necessarily set up to communicate peacefully with others; lord knows I’ve left enough Facebook threads foaming at the mouth. But when I finally got around to listening to “Chicago, Chicago,” I was reminded that behind many a person with whom you don’t agree with is someone who, in their own way, wants the world to be a better place, and is worth having a sit-down conversation with. (https://soundcloud.com/fenton-lawless/chicago-chicago)
Jim Testa: Pop music really let me down in 2015. Where was the “Shake It Off,” the “Call Me Maybe,” the “Best Song Ever?” Everything sounded safe, tired, boring. I am tried of Nickelodeon child actors being groomed into pop stars – Ariana, Demi, Selena, Miley, go home. I am tired of Taylor Swift surrounding herself with female pop stars and supermodels and branding it as “feminism.” I am tired of a hip-hop community that’s still more consumed with bling than Black Lives Matter. I am sick of an alternative rock community that doesn’t seem to realize there’s a crucial presidential election on the horizon.
Katherine Furman: Worst song of the year — All the manufactured indie songs with big choruses. I don’t belong to you, you are not my sweetheart. Stop trying to play me!
Stephen Mejias: I’m somewhat troubled by how similar my list is to Pitchfork’s. Ah well. Whatever.
Jonathan Andrew: Most alienating perspective — “Only by returning to vinyl (which has doubled in price since the early 2000s when one could purchase Oh, Inverted World! for $7.99 at Vintage Vinyl) can we combat the irresistible, instant-gratification, ADD-addled experience of listening via streaming services!” I was raised in the Church of Townshend, Springsteeen, and Waters. Whatever medium I am using, I listen to albums in sequence, all the way through, and evaluate them according to classic rock and pop orthodoxy: the album is the unit of measure by which we judge artistic greatness. It is still possible, denizens of 2016. You just need to exercise impulse control. Now, to Spotify to stream The Division Bell yet again (which is way better than its critical reputation would suggest).
Jer Fairall: Most welcome surprise — how much I’ve come to love and depend on Spotify now that I live in an area that offers high speed internet.
Ben Krieger: I made a pact with the Devil this year and signed up for an Apple Music subscription. I don’t know what else to do; I’ll gladly buy anything that appeals to me, but I couldn’t figure out another way to afford listening to a lot of music that, after a spin or two, I realized I had no desire to ever hear again. I figured at least this way the artist got royalties of some sort, as opposed to if I’d streamed the songs off of YouTube.
Oliver Lyons: Everyone who slept on the Mini-Disc is in for a rude awakening.
KRS-ONE once said that he didn’t understand how a person who didn’t know hip-hop could call himself an American. This is the sort of inflammatory (not to mention self-serving) rhetoric we all expect from the Teacher, but I expect you know what he means, and you might even agree. Hip-hop is American culture. If we didn’t have hip-hop, what the hell would we have?; X-Man movies? Buffy the Vampire Slayer slash fiction? Company softball? If you believe that capitalism had deleterious influence on culture — that our mode of productions has, as a collateral effect, a tendency to reduce all social and artistic movements to mass-market commodities — you have to admire how hip-hop, alone among modern forms of art, has risen to its challenge. Hip-hop simultaneously reflects American capitalism and turns it inside out. It’s why we can have Kendrick Lamar, revolutionary and shoe salesman, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton, coke dealer and philosopher, Janelle Monae, free spirit and cosmetics pitchwoman, and Beyonce Knowles, part-time feminist and Black Panther admirer and full-time possessor of a highly salable derriere. Hip-hop is the only force with enough muscle to wrestle with American life as it is lived by most citizens, and it has the right and authority to do so because it speaks the symbolic language of the American dream. (This is also why it doesn’t export very well, and why rap music made in other countries, no matter the skills of the emcees, always feels kinda counterfeit.)
Thus it doesn’t make all that much sense to call 2015 a hip-hop year. In America, all years are hip-hop years. Current events just made the intersection between rap music and our national obsessions and conundrums impossible to miss. Much has been written about the appropriateness of To Pimp A Butterfly to the year of Freddie Gray, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment (not to mention Hamilton), and he deserves credit for forcing statements as polemical as “The Blacker The Berry” and “King Kunta” into the mainstream conversation. But his was hardly the only rapping State of the Nation address. Some were overt, like Lupe Fiasco’s demanding Tetsuo & Youth, CyHi’s second installment of his Black Hystori Project, and Fashawn’s high-minded Ecology. Others took some decoding. Drake is the farthest thing from a perfect political rapper (like everyone he knows), but nobody has ever nailed the pathos and paranoia of the wealthy man any firmer than he has. With America adrift in an impoverished and irritable world, its people rich, besotted, and contemplating the efficiency of border walls, this crooning Canadian might have caught the alienated national mood even better than Kendrick did. Vince Staples’s grim g-rap confronts poverty porn and the exploitation of urban conflict by the news media and entertainment industry, and we certainly didn’t see any of that in 2015. The wisest head of all belonged to Erykah Badu, whose sly, sharp, and painfully sad interpretations of pop songs played as a corrective to the many, many recent albums decrying technodystopia. The fault, Badu implies, is not in our phones but in ourselves.
The very best album, though, felt less like a polemic than it did a parliament. The Social Experiment brought in a quorum: local Chicago roughnecks (King Louie, Joey Purp), nerds (Saba, KYLE), pop-rappers (B.o.B., and, delivering the best verse of his life, Big Sean), spoken-word types (Noname Gypsy, J. Cole in his introspective mode), legends (Busta, Badu, who shows up here, too), giddy avant-soul singers (Jesse Boykins, Monae, their neighbor Jamila Woods) and a bit of A-town stunting by Quavo of Migos. The moderator here is Chance The Rapper, and he keeps the discussion running smoothly, which, given the varied styles and microphone approaches of the guests, feels like something of a miracle; and in fact there is a song here called “Miracle,” which is less a statement of intent than a prayer. Chance is a funny guy, but directs conversational traffic toward serious topics that aren’t usually covered with this degree of emotional specificity and richness: first heartbreak, divorce, the death of a family member, the threat of incarceration, the responsibility a boy has to an ex-girl after the failure of a relationship. When Chance raps that his grandmother smells like “light, gas, water, electricity, rent,” your neighborhood nihilist might call it corny. But in hip-hop tradition, he’s getting at a much deeper reality — in this case, a child’s tentative but deeply-felt understanding of the foundations of his world — than popular music is generally willing to confront.
The whole thing is suffused with the guarded optimism Chance is rightly becoming famous for, and his presence was probably the flypaper that caught so many big names; he’s the ringleader, and everybody else is 100% down with the program, which, given the egos involved, is a testament to the centrifugal force of his vision. But this isn’t a Chance the Rapper album, and his rhymes, magnetic as they are, aren’t even the best thing about it. The Social Experiment, as Chance takes pains to point out in interviews, is a band in the old-fashioned sense — five guys who have joined their talents together and who are pushing toward a collective musical vision informed by everything they’ve heard and loved. Which in this case means high school band jazz, the Soulquarians, Chicago drill and g-rap, MJ, lots and lots of church music, Native Tongues albums, Kanye and Drake but especially Kanye, the part of the new wave that Prince was directly responsible for, cheesy love ballads of the ’70s, cheesy love ballads of the brief but wonderful period on the cusp between the ’80s and ’90s, and whatever hissing cassettes their grandmothers were playing during their formative moments.
Hip-hop is often considered brash and shoutable, even by its biggest fans and most ardent practitioners, and very often it has had to be just to be heard above our national clamor. You know how it is out there; to be an American is to be bombarded with everything. But the most beautiful music I’ve heard in my life has been hip-hop. That includes “They Reminisce Over You” and “I Am I Be” and DJ Premiere’s work with Gangstarr, J Dilla and Lauren Hill and everything PM Dawn ever did, “Umi Says” and “Kick Push,” “Lil Ghetto Boy,” Traxamillion’s glittering hyphy productions and Swishahouse’s slowed-down deliciousness, Take Care and Graduation, Aquemini and the Roots’ undun. Think of the crunkest, most spastic, most assaultive hip-hop album you can, and I guarantee that there’ll be moments of jaw-dropping beauty on it: this year, some of the prettiest music I heard was buried on Future and Young Thug mixtapes. The sign by which you know a inessential hip-hop act is not by its corniness — because all of the big boys and girls are corny from time to time — but by its inability to generate the effortless beauty that has always been a secret cornerstone of the form. Surf starts out winsome, ends winsome, and in between, reaches peaks of musical gorgeousness (especially “Windows” and its heart-stopping backing vocals) that match those of any of the records I mentioned above. At first, Donnie Trumpet’s effect-drenched brass instrumentals felt like artifacts from a Spike Lee soundtrack in search of a movie, but by my third time through, they seemed as essential to the experience of the album as Nick Drake’s orchestral tracks on Bryter Layter, or the outro of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to Wish You Were Here. For an old aesthete like me, there can be no other judgment besides:
Album of the Year
1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf
2. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
3. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
4. Steven Wilson — Hand. Cannot. Erase.
5. Tame Impala — Currents
6. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06
7. Joanna Newsom — Divers
8. Erykah Badu — But You Cain’t Use My Phone
9. Laura Marling — Short Movie
10. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom
11. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
12. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon
13. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People
14. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
15. Hop Along — Painted Shut
16. Laura Stevenson — Cocksure
17. Young Thug — Barter 6
18. Home Blitz — Foremost & Fair
19. Pusha T — King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
20. New Order — Music Complete
Best Album Title
The Night Took Us In Like Family by Jeremiah Jae and L’Orange. When I go out, I always hope that’ll happen to me.
Best Album Cover
Metric’s boarded-up facade and seedy-looking marquee on the cover of Pagans In Vegas. This is how Emily Haines has come to see showbiz: a hollowed-out industrial dead end in a part of town nobody would ever want to visit, even for voyeuristic purposes. A lot of Metric fans didn’t like Pagans, and I think I understand why — of all the synthpop crossover albums released in the wake of Heartthrob, this one is, by far, the grimmest and most disenchanted. It’s strange that they’re still making arena-pop even as they’ve given up on reaching an arena-pop audience, but they’re ironists at heart, so Emily Haines is probably never going to stop lashing out at capitalism from the belly of the beast. It’s part of the art, as I understand it.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Ezra Furman’s Perpetual Motion People. In his frank liner notes essay, he explains that he often feels feminine and will dress and act accordingly. I can dig it. He has some funny things to say about his bandmates, too. But what I really like about the packaging is the little map of Chicago on which he’s plotted each of the songs. I’ve been a sucker for that since Sammy’s Tales Of Great Neck Glory. Big plus: it’s hand-drawn.
Most Welcome Surprise
Lil B and Chance The Rapper — Free (Based Freestyles). Straight from the Should Not Work But Somehow Does Department, this is Chance and Lil B freestyling over six very long tracks. Before you conspiracy theorists say that it was probably written out, or at least planned out, rest assured that it really does sound like they’re winging it. By definition this cannot be authenticated by Lil B, who, in his relaxed style, has always sounded like he’s making it up as he’s going along. Chance is a different story, though. When he grasps for words or pauses a millisecond before the beat, he gives the impression of a slightly intoxicated line-walker at a DUI check. And if you like him — and of course you do — you never want to see his ass in the squad car. This becomes part of the fun. All that said, these nice-guy rappers really didn’t need to drag Noname Gypsy into the experiment as a foil for their ingenuity. (She’s a girl, so according to hip-hop typology, she doesn’t know how to extemporize — instead, she just dissolves into giggles.) The production is tight, as it has to be. Also, while we’re still in this category, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent Peter Hook’s replacement sounded, and how consequential Gillian Gilbert’s return to the fold turned out to be. Usually when bands hit that inevitable stage in litigation with former members, the music they put out turns out terrible, out of guilt as much as anything else. Not only is Music Complete a much better record than Momentary Lapse Of Reason, it’s become one of my favorite New Order albums.
Kacey Musgraves is a born panderer. This you can tell from all the songs she writes about how one ought not to care about what the neighbors think. In her timid C&W voice, she makes it clear that she does care, very much, and these little pep talks she gives herself aren’t exactly sticking. Right now, the principal target of her pandering is me, and you, and everybody else who lives in the blue states and who’d really rather not hear another country song about a truck, or a gun, or brewskis with the bros. It’s working: as we entered the Trump Era, Northern critics fell over themselves to thank Musgraves for the small favor. Pitchfork, which never reviews Nashville-machine records (and that’s what Pageant Material is — check the credits), called Musgraves the Kendrick Lamar of country, which was the stupidest thing printed on the site all year, even stupider than the piece that called Stuart Murdoch an accidental racist because he didn’t stick any brothers in his goofy movie. If you can get past all of that — and on many days I can’t — you will notice that the writing has improved, as has the production, as has the singing. Hey, nobody said she wasn’t a talent. But her reliance on cliche, her familiarity with the machinery of emotional manipulation, and, above all, the listlessness of her performances do not augur well. I forecast a lucrative future as a Tennessee hack.
It’s the rare artist who’d chase Englebert Humperdinck schmaltz in 2015, but Nate Ruess and his talented producers did so, and by God, they attained it. About two-thirds of Grand Romantic is treacle so thick it could melt your molars into calcium carbonate slush; the other third is a bizarre, assaultive Off-Broadway greasepaint screech. I believe every bit of it plays exactly as it was intended. God bless them.
Album That Opens The Strongest
Perpetual Motion People
Album That Closes The Strongest (and culminates in Song Of The Year)
To Pimp A Butterfly. The Tupac “interview” sounds like a bad idea on paper, but in the context of the two poems that frame it, it does feel like an expression of a rapper searching for in his place in history. And when he mentions Nat Turner, I admit a shiver of anticipatory horror. As for “Mortal Man” itself, I take the challenge seriously. I searched my conscience, and I can say with confidence that I’m still a fan, and I will be, no matter what defecatory material hits the oscillating cooling device. Hope you can say the same, fellow rider.
Okay, that’s the albums. We’ll get to the singles and the individual categories tomorrow, I promise! Thanks for hanging with me for the past few days — I was cooking up something I believe you’re going to like, and which won’t be top secret for long.