Before we get to my singles list, I’ve got something I really want to clarify. Very often — way too often — progressive rock will be described as “white” music; i.e., music defined by its estrangement from African-American traditions and the roots of culture as they are expressed in such institutions as the black church. I’m ashamed to say that some fans of progressive rock do this. This is not just woefully inaccurate. It’s a calumny against many of the greatest musicians ever to rock, almost all of whom have been vocal about their antecedents and inspirations. It doesn’t withstand the least bit of scrutiny, and though it is borderline insulting to prog rockers to do this, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.
Many of the most significant figures in the history of progressive rock began their careers by playing African-American music and doing it well. Jethro Tull was a blues band for their first two albums; an expansive, imaginative blues band, but pretty authentic nonetheless. Before Tull, Ian Anderson was in a beat group, and Martin Barre, who joined the band for Stand Up, was part of a a pickup combo that supported visiting R&B artists like The Coasters. The young Steve Winwood sounded like Ray Charles, and this was very much on purpose.Keith Emerson had learned how to play boogie-woogie, ragtime, and club organ music a la Jack McDuff, and thus The Nice could, and did, back P.P. Arnold, an American soul singer straight from the gospel tradition. Pink Floyd was famously named after two Carolina bluesmen. It suited them: no matter where they set the interstellar controls, they were always in touch with R&B ground control.
None of these artists did a sudden pivot away from African-American music and toward the hut of Baba Yaga. On the contrary: it was the expansiveness and fundamental mutability of these African-American musical models that allowed progressive rock as we know it to evolve in the first place. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul: this was already recognized as progressive music, music made for chance-takers and radical individuals, if not radical individualists. Innovators were drawn to these styles because they were determined to testify at length. It was a form of pop that was wide enough to accommodate the personal stories of musicians who had, to put it mildly, lots to say. Conventional styles weren’t going to cut it.
Progressive rockers had their own baggage to bring to the station; they all loved the Beatles, who were deeply indebted to American music themselves, and they were aware of The Beach Boys, psychedelia, and California sunshine pop. The music of Yes, for instance, is full of agglomerative collisions — harmonies from the Association plus the rhythms of Bill Bruford, who was schooled in jazz, the Anglican hymnal plus Southern Baptist transcendence, music hall silly business and country boogie like Steve Howe’s back half of “I’ve Seen All Good People.” All of this got stuck together, Katamari-style, in a big rolling blob that approaches the listener at thrilling velocity. You either got swept up in it yourself or you ran like hell. This is exactly how church music works. Snatches from popular songs, bits of classical music, lengthy solos, grand, rafter-rattling climaxes, all of that stuff gets chucked into the groove and yoked together in the service of the Holy Spirit. It’ll take you higher, and lower, and higher again; above all, it’s made to move you.
Progressive rock arose in Britain at the same time that another movement was happening in America: progressive soul. Artists like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Parliament-Funkadelic empire were motivated by the same impulses and employed many of the same compositional and arrangement strategies that prog rockers did. They, too, pushed themselves harmonically and rhythmically, accumulated influences, sought transcendence, and expanded the limits of conventional pop. They, too, were drawn to big concepts and existential themes. Peter Gabriel was much farther from the experience of the Southern church than these artists were, but the logic with which he approached songwriting and performance wasn’t too different. Their influences were similar, too: Peter loved soul music, and that’s always come through on his records.
Peter Gabriel was also unburdened by the legitimacy crises that trouble contemporary artists. Many modern songwriters don’t feel at liberty to borrow shamelessly from traditions they’re not part of, or chuck a riff they pinched from a blues record next to a snatch of Brahms. Hip-hop takes some of the blame for this, since faking the funk has always been a preoccupation of emcees looking to discredit their foes via claims of inauthenticity. I think we do have a bad tendency to apply this retroactively to old masters, and imagine that Neil Pearl lacked the authority or knowledge to incorporate reggae into his drum parts, or that the gospel inflections of mid-period Floyd or Barclay James Harvest are examples of cultural tourism. But Robert Wyatt learned jazz before he learned pop. These guys knew exactly what they were doing, and the fact that they did it so extraordinarily well shouldn’t be held against them. They were reckless with some of their juxtapositions, sure, but chances are, your corner Minister of Music is the same way. He’s not squeamish about appropriation, because he’s on a mission from God. So were the titans of progressive rock — and that’s why the music they’ve made is immortal, and needs no apologies made for it.
Single of the Year
- 1. Sebastián Yatra & Aitana — “Las Dudas”
- 2. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Western Wind”
- 3. Bad Bunny — “Titi Me Pregunto”
- 4. Pusha T — “Diet Coke”
- 5. Metric — “Doomscroller”
- 6. Beyoncé — “Break My Soul”
- 7. Spiritualized — “The Mainline Song”
- 8. Julia Jacklin — “I Was Neon”
- 9. Ezra Furman — “Forever In Sunset”
- 10. Kiwi Jr. — “The Sound Of Music”
- 11. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Surrender My Heart”
- 12. Aaron Raitiere — “Everybody Else”
- 13. Office Culture — “Elegance”
- 14. Dayglow — “Second Nature”
- 15. Drake & 21 Savage — “Jimmy Cooks”
- 16. Pool Kids — “Arm’s Length”
- 17. Years & Years — “Sweet Talker”
- 18. Oso Oso — “Computer Exploder”
- 19. Amber Mark — “Foreign Things”
- 20. Joyce Manor — “Gotta Let It Go”
Most Romantic Song
Dayglow’s “Like She Does.” In general, we pro cynics and heartless cretins owe major apologies to Adam Young.
Funniest Song and Song I Needed The Most
Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, “Thank You.” After the last few years of relentless and unwarranted positivity and artists kissing ass in exchange for breadcrumbs, finally somebody was willing to send the whole thing up in the most savage manner possible. Executives and gatekeepers may or may not be necessary, but they’re certainly not your friends. I also love the one where Charlotte dumps the nachos into her bra. Topical Dancer is the sound of that woman (and her BFF) hitting the bullseye over and over.
Most Frightening Song
Everything on Dawn FM.
Most Moving Song
Natalia Lafourcade, “Pajarito Colibrí.” De Todas Las Flores was, among other things, an album about learning how to say goodbye. Turns out it hurts just as much in Spanish.
“Virgo’s Groove.” If Renaissance had been nothing but self-empowerment lyrics, I still think I could have swung with it. But when Beyoncé gets down to a genuine come-on, she lets you know that she’s been readying herself for the main event.
Most Inspiring Song
That said, if you are determined to do self-empowerment numbers,“Heated” is the way to go.
There’s a savage breakup number on the Aaron Raitiere album called “Dear Darling” that could have been written and sung on the worst day of Terry Allen’s life. Nevertheless, I’ve got to give this one to Drake for the song on Honestly, Nevermind that goes “I found a new muse/that’s bad news for you/why would I keep you around?” It’s not just the tacit confession that he was only interested in the girlfriend as a writer’s prompt, or the unceremonious way he lets her know she’s been rendered obsolete. It’s how blithe he sounds about the whole thing, and the prevailing feeling that he’s going to be churning through muses indefinitely, and tossing them as soon as they’ve exhausted their inspirational capacity.
Bruce Hornsby’s “Days Ahead.” His exhaustion is our exhaustion. What sort of future do we have under these conditions?
Most Notable Cover Version Or Interpretation
Overlord played the Beatles song “Hey Bulldog” at the International Pop Overthrow. George sang it beautifully, I thought. That number was just knocked out by John Lennon, possibly waiting at a red light on the way to the recording studio. But as always, grappling with a Beatles song — even a minor one — means marveling at the pop architecture and coming to terms with how much sturdier its compositional construction is than just about everything else out there. A little depressing, yeah. But somebody has to set the pace.
Best Guest Appearance Or Feature
Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio on “Hold Me Tonight.” This track is quintessential Metronomy: Joe Mount’s narrator is a young man screwing up the courage to speak to an attractive woman who he clearly considers himself outclassed by, and when he does, we discover that she’s as messed up and desperate for affection as he is. He goes after a sexual fantasy, and finds himself with a flesh and blood human being on his hands — which, it turns out, is both sexier and more dangerous than the game of cat and mouse he was determined to play. But none of it would work if Margolin didn’t play the part of the beautiful and tormented woman to the hilt. She understands Joe Mount, which is not always the easiest thing to do.
Best Music Video
“Titi Me Pregunto,” though I have to admit I love Pusha T’s sneering performance in “Call My Bluff.”
P.F. Rizzuto Award For Best Lyrics Over The Course Of An Album
Charlotte Adigéry. It’s all exactly as lacerating as she wants it to be, and it’ll cut exactly as deep as you’re willing to let it. Even the track designed to be a compendium of pop clichés is so confidently written that it feels poetic in spite of itself.
Best Lyrics On An Individual Song
Yard Act, “Tall Poppies.” James Smith split the difference between Richard Dawson and Mike Skinner with a story-song about small-town fatalism, the curse of aspirations, and the perils and pleasures of low horizons at a time in the history of the world where most of us are having to keep our heads down. Special commendation for scene-setting on Billy Woods’s “Francie,” and on Church in general. Billy gets criticized, and not unfairly, for jumping in and out of his narratives too abruptly, but when he’s on, he air-drops you right in the middle of a roiling city without a rescue helicopter in sight, and it’s thrilling.
I’m not going to get cute and write anything other than Beyoncé. Sometimes the answer is the obvious one.
After a few years of voting for Megan Thee Stallion in this category, I am, er, pivoting back to Saba.
Best Vocal Harmonies
Best Bass Playing
More Renaissance, sorry; I am sure next year’s ballot will be more contrarian. Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! applies thick, melting layers of butter to these slices of Texas toast. The tone is fantastic, the parts are fluid, and the note choices demonstrate fidelity to the house music tradition and classic ’70s funk-pop.
Best Live Drumming
Pete Thomas on The Boy Named If. The album also preserves Davey Faragher’s best bass performances since joining Team Costello. As for Steve Nieve, he mostly repeats himself this time around, but that’s not to say he doesn’t do it excellently.
Best Drum Programming
Bolis Pupul. I also love the way he cuts up Charlotte’s giggle.
Best Synthesizer Playing And Programming
The firm of Tesfaye, Lopatin, Martin & Holder on Dawn FM. Even in electronic music, so much effort has been expended on the effort to make synthesizers feel human. Here was the synth as the epitome of anti-human tech, with all the blood and breath leeched out of the signal, and every impossibly smooth passage leering out at us like the gloating of our AI overlords.
Best Piano, Organ, Or Electric Piano Playing and Best Instrumentalist
The playing on De Todas Las Flores is so good that it’s possible to spend measure after measure just paying attention to a trombone track tucked in the corner of the mix. Mark Ribot came down to Mexico to skronk on the set, and the stupendous Cyril Atef makes the whole thing go. Natalia Lafourcade is no slouch on acoustic guitar. Yet they unearthed a musician who laps them all: pianist Emiliano Dorantes, who plays with flair, confidence, and humor, and keeps this project firmly tethered to Mexican soil.
Best Guitar Playing
Lucas Naylor of Carly Cosgrove. Mathy, dextrous, inventive, as raucous as the demands of emo require him to be without ever crossing the line into noise for its own sake.
Richard Dawson on The Ruby Cord. He keeps “Hermit” going for forty-one minutes without any redundancy or dull stretches. Props, too, to the Brooklyn band Office Culture, who handle hair-raising chord changes with consummate sophistipop grace. Prefab Sprout would be proud.
Okay, more tomorrow! We’re not done yet!