If you’ve attended services and done some wild worship in the club, you already know. Nevertheless it bears repeating like all good things do: everything you see and hear at a pop show derives from the African-American church. That means the rhythms, the arrangements, the hooks and melisma and harmonies, the cosmic stakes, the relationship between the performer and the audience, the showmanship, the physicality, the beauty, and the close encounters with God in the infinite ways He might be approached. All of those techniques for getting over on the pop congregation were honed in the pulpits and the pews by true believers and half-believers and those just along for the ride; travelers all, there in fancy dress, participants in a true culture.
The best album of 2022 owes massive debts to forms of electronic music that haven’t always gotten much critical respect: Detroit and Chicago house, New Orleans bounce, candy-painted Houston hip-hop, Hi-NRG, throwaway pop-disco and ephemeral white label techno, pure strip club and drag show jams, the funkier edge of the new wave, and the kind of lovable everybody-on-the-floor business that pours from the speakers at the sweaty Fire Island beach bar. The producers have been open about their antecedents, and for good reason — part of the project here has to do with a reconstruction of the lineage of African-American music, and demonstrating how much creativity there’s always been lurking at the bottom of these booty grooves. Journalists have duly followed the breadcrumb trails back to their immediate sources, just as the star and her co-workers expected us to do in a year that was distinguished by records of great danceability.
But if that’s where the investigation stops, then we’re only uncovering the superficial part of the story. Because if you talk to those house and hip-hop producers, those funk musicians and those sine-wave explorers on the synthesizer, and especially the singers whose charisma and sexuality make the pop enterprise go, you learn that almost all of them had their early musical education in the church. That goes for the bandleaders who mimic the cadences and strain to capture the command of preachers, instrumentalists who endeavor to whip ’em up and leave ’em in the proper state to receive the holy spirit, and the soloists who pour it all out, backed by a choir of the dedicated, each member committed to the collective effort but individual in the site of God and the audience. We pop fans thrill to singers who follow the example of Whitney Houston, daughter of Cissy Houston, the Minister of Music at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark; she who took the torch from Aretha Franklin, daughter of Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, pastor at New Bethel Baptist in Detroit. This is our heritage. Take the church away from pop, and it would be as cold and lifeless as the music made in hypersecular societies. We would be stuck with the imitators, the contrivers, the stiff and unmotivated, alienated from the driving force and purpose that only religious inspiration brings.
This is what we mean when we say that a piece of music has no soul. We mean that it has drifted so far from pop’s underpinnings in the African-American church that no matter how well it’s performed, it’s missing the essential element that raises the stakes to the universal level. We mean that the ecstatic experience of communal worship which is central to the church participation isn’t present. “Soul,” as a genre handle, described the application of church style to secular subject matter: mostly sexual romance, but also some sociopolitical heat for the topical dancers, too. When you’re really doing soul, when you’re knee-deep in it, you realize that there’s no separation between the hymnal and the pop charts; that it’s all the same damned stuff. It’s pain and pussy, power, struggle, longing, the joy of being alive, and what it means to be a human being on a planet as alien as earth. My favorite album, delivered with absolute conviction, is all about sex and ass and carnality, from the swish of the fan on the club floor to the testimonials to the unbreakability of the soul to the last delicious drop of honey from a lover’s body. It is, in other words, sacred music.
It’s also music made for a congregation. In the year of the dreaded pandemic project designed by the quarantined auteur trapped in the solitary sweat-lodge of the mind, here was an album that said no to all of that. The bigger the crowd of people listening, the better it sounded. Here is a record to score your dance-off, your disco freakout, your LBGTQ rally, your church social, your rapture — an album that acknowledged that the most intimate moments often happen amidst a crowd. Yes, it was electronic; what’s that to Jesus, Lord of all things, including alternating current? As if your modern God doesn’t carry a laptop? The better to capture and digitally preserve the soul claps and the thunderous stomps and group shouts, and the choir, even if the choir was nothing more than the star harmonizing with herself. Because who, really, could touch the hem of her robe?
So there it was: devotional music, religious music, gospel for those who aren’t afraid of machine beats, and who know how to locate and express the holiness that exists between two (or more) people who are getting it on. It’s a record that shared more with African-American church music than sound, inspiration, and simple, everyday transcendence. It also shared ecclesiastical strategies of presentation, too.
For instance, there were those omnivorous interpolations familiar to those who frequent church, huge chunks of familiar music brought into the infinite playlist, whomped up and reframed and yoked to the service of the preacher’s charisma. The nonbelievers, few though they were, didn’t get this: why the heck are the producers importing material from Soul II Soul, Moi Renee, Twinkie Clark, Right Said Fred and fucking RuPaul and acting like it’s theirs? Those who have stood in the cathedral in the middle of a raucous service know better. They know that the music does not belong to these producers any more than it belongs to Right Said Fred. All music belongs to God. It is all under celestial copyright, and He may put His melodies on the lips of his chosen instruments. He may bend Big Freedia to his purposes if he sees fit. As His earthly emissaries, it is up to the ministers of music to get the congregation singing as one, and then slap us upside the head with something revelatory, and then get back to the roots of rhythm, and then blast off to the stratosphere, back and forth, never stopping, always taking us higher and higher, showing glimpses of the gates of heaven, keeping our sorry asses on track.
Christianity is a temporal religion. It’s based on linear narratives — narratives that unfold over time. Those narratives have been interpreted and reified over the centuries, but no matter how purely their theological essence is distilled, you can’t take causality out of the faith. Things are the way that they are because of consequential events that have reverberated across the cosmos: the fall of man, the incarnation, the passion, the coming judgment. We even give them dates when we can. Unlike other religions that wallow in timelessness, Christianity is an arrow.
To reflect this, church music is developmental music. Ideas introduced at the beginning of the hymn will change and build and achieve greater harmonic significance as the performance goes on. Melodies will twist and eddy into complex harmonies, the rhythmic intensity will build, and fall back, and build again. Each seed sprouts. All great gospel is like this. I once heard Bishop Hezekiah Walker shepherd the Love Fellowship Choir through “Every Praise” for a half an hour, astounding me and leaving me as breathless as I’d be after a charge up a hill. Every time I thought he was done, he’d find a new gear or follow a new rhythmic or melodic path.
The album that will define 2022 for millions is a similar beast. No compositional element is left unexpressed. Phrases that seem extraneous or merely decorative will suddenly achieve centrality a stanza later. Beats start as percussive but soon carry tonal information relevant to the harmonies, and harmonies that at first feel simple intensify to near-supernatural richness. Every breeze becomes a whirlwind. In this way the star teaches us to open our ears and listen, and open our hearts to catch the spirit. In this way, with each entreaty to drop the booty, the star takes us to church.
Some years I try to convince you that a critically reviled project by Max Bemis is the cream of the crop. Sometimes I direct your attention to an extreme outlier in Mike Posner’s discography. This is not such a year. In 2022, I loved the same album that everybody else loved. Given who I am and what I believe in, it might mean something slightly different to me than it does to you, but c’mon, it probably doesn’t. I’m putting it at the top of my list for the same reason you likely did: I heard the rest, and this one took me higher. Way higher; so high that the first time I heard it, my first reaction was that the dancefloor competition ought to pack up their MPCs and go home. Allow me to be the umpteenth writer to say so, and if you stick with me as I post my answers to our annual exercise, you’ll discover I’m not done talking about it. I won’t even apologize for that. An album like this engenders a collective experience, and prompts us to express ourselves in whatever medium we have command over. Certain human beings have terrific voices. Others have terrific asses. Me, I have the Word. Brothers and sisters and beautiful in-betweens, I am here to testify.
Album of the Year
- 1. Beyoncé — Renaissance
- 2. The Weeknd — Dawn FM
- 3. Tim Bernardes — Mil Coisas Invisíveis
- 4. Natalia Lafourcade — De Todas Las Flores
- 5. Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul — Topical Dancer
- 6. Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
- 7. The Beths — Expert In A Dying Field
- 8. Richard Dawson — The Ruby Cord
- 9. Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
- 10. Carly Cosgrove — See You In Chemistry
- 11. Silvana Estrada — Marchita
- 12. Denzel Curry — Melt My Eyez See Your Future
- 13. Sebastián Yatra — Dharma
- 14. Pusha T — It’s Almost Dry
- 15. Office Culture — Big Time Things
- 16. Elvis Costello & The Imposters — The Boy Named If
- 17. Taylor Swift — Midnights
- 18. Caracara — New Preoccupations
- 19. Aaron Raitiere — Single Wide Dreamer
- 20. Bad Bunny — Un Verano Sin Ti
That’s two from Toronto, two from Veracruz in Mexico, one from Colombia, two from Philadelphia, one from Belgium, one from Brazil, two from New York State, one from Puerto Rico, one from Nashville via Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, one from Costelloland, one from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, one from New Zealand, one from Compton, one from Virginia Beach, one from Kentucky, one from Florida, and a chart-topper from an artist who continues to represent Houston, even as she belongs to the galaxy. We’re spreading it around in 2022. Showbiz: it takes a globe.
Lots more soon, friends.