My comrades in headphone-rash ears and achy-breaky fingers,
As we reach the climactic stretch of our 2014 rear-view, I feel torn about all the sonic highways we have not yet traveled. Dave Grohl: Friend, Foe or Useful Idiot? Why haven’t we yet collectively willed into existence the so-called Kathleen Hannah Montana project that the riot-grrrl founder floated to Miley Cyrus this summer?
Instead, I’ll turn briefly to country, the sector of the music business so stubbornly prosperous that Rolling Stone this year spun off a sub-website devoted to it, as well as a genre full of promise and frustration. (Like all the others.)
There have been two persistent themes of late: first, that new and not-so-new female country artists keep turning out pertinent, bracingly honest, compelling work. And second, that mainstream radio and charts keep ignoring those women in favor of what our colleague (and, sadly, Club absentee this year) Jody Rosen in 2013 indelibly dubbed “bro-country”—drinkin’ and flirtin’ music with four-wheel-drive beats and big helpings of arena rock, hip-hop, EDM, and lately even R&B. I’m by no means anti-party-music—Craig is right to object to that mode of thinking. But when it always sounds like the same old keg/bush/sausage party, it gets damned dull.
I’m glad Craig also shouted out the new albums from Lee Ann Womack and Angaleena Presley, whose incisive American Middle Class dramatized a woman’s perspective on the 99-percent experience even more assertively than Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ’Round” did last year. Womack’s indie-label The Way I’m Livin’, with its unsparing portraits of hard-drinking, hard-loving, self-snafu’ing lives, would gobsmack anyone who knows only her hit high-school-grad valedictory, “I Hope You Dance.” There was also Sunny Sweeney’s Provoked, Lydia Loveless’s Somewhere Else, and the big sister many of us have mentioned, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, one of the most fully realized albums of the year, which still earned it only middling airplay.
I’ve been just a tad chagrined to see Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music get so much more notice on year-end lists than most of the above. Maybe people are thankful to hear a male pick up the clue, or maybe when they think of trad country they just want to hear someone with a deep Johnny/Conway/Merle voice. Not that Simpson’s music isn’t singular and strong, but it’s also the sort of album we heard fairly routinely at the peak of “alt-country” a decade-plus back, a period many critics seem to scorn. Why the turnaround? To me Metamodern didn’t have the crackle of necessity that, say, Presley’s set did. What’s more, why always Simpson and never Ray LaMontagne’s Supernova, for instance? As with hip-hop, there’s a rock-crit default country album every year, too.
On the bro side of the scale, there were a few high points (pun intended) this year—Sam Hunt’s grooves, Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane,” Florida Georgia Line’s uncharacteristically ruminative “Dirt,” and an irresistible Kenny Chesney song (never thought I’d write that phrase) that’s like a pop-music cento, “American Kids.” But not as many as usual. Unlike Craig, I can’t warm up to Eric Church’s album—the resentful undertow puts me off—and Brad Paisley’s Moonshine in the Trunk had little of his peak fizz.
The year’s best Nashville story was the thunderclap when the two sides met, though, in newcomer duo Maddie & Tae’s insouciant anti-bro anthem “Girl in a Country Song.” It emerged in the summer and then slowly sidled its way up to No. 1, a sign that part of the audience is truly tired of bro tropes. While the song is satirical, there’s some yearning in it—I was startled to find it could make me tear up. If you find it too basic, allow me to introduce you to its evil twin, Maggie Rose’s “Girl in Your Truck Song,” in which the singer is begging for the chance to shut up and look pretty, as well as the abomination that is the ingénue RaeLynn’s “God Made Girls,” the conservative counterpart to Lambert’s razor-sharp “Girls.” When our social-media peers drill down into feminist bona fides, as Lindsay was saying, it’s worth recalling what a luxury that is, given what lurks in the real world.
And out there, it’s been a punishing year. In Ann’s galvanizing intro to her Top 15 list on NPR, she said it was the sort of year that makes one “wonder if anything is worth thinking about beyond the most obviously serious questions. … Should every song be a protest song?” And in her latest post here, she asked each of us what music we sought out in 2014 for “deep listening.” I have a few picks that respond to both those inquiries.
When the improbable, invigorating news broke this week that Obama is finally powering down the Cuban embargo, I thought about an album I’d been captivated by this summer and then neglected: Multi_Viral by the Puerto Rican band Calle 13. For almost a decade, Calle 13 has been supercharging the Latin American tradition of melding party and protest, and the range of its musical inputs—rock, rap, reggaeton, salsa, cumbia, jazz, tango, and electronica—generates the ambience of a multinational movement, like a more ghettotech Manu Chao. It’s a tonic whose label advises that the energy be put to generous use.
These days I rely on other people’s year-end lists to hip me to what’s been vital in jazz, so it was only in the past few weeks that I discovered Wiring, the latest in a series of albums by veterans Trio 3 (Oliver Lake, reeds; Reggie Workman, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) with guest pianists. Here the guest is Vijay Iyer, one of music’s most exploratory fusionists and theorists in recent decades. Wiring is patient, serious, and investigative, but still, as the title intimates, electric. Its centerpiece is Iyer’s three-part composition “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More),” which like some of the best politically committed music in jazz history, serves as a kind of guided meditation, in this case on the history and present of racialized violence. As the late Amiri Baraka (whom we lost early this year) wrote in the liner notes, it’s “four great musicians trying to change your world. There is nothing superficial or frivolous in this music … [but] a way of seeing ‘into things.’ ”
Best of all, though, is Tanya Tagaq’s Animism, which claimed the annual Polaris Music Prize for Canadian album of the year, at a ceremony where Tagaq, accompanied by the conducted-improvisation group the Element Choir, gave the greatest live performance I saw in 2014. Tagaq is an indigenous woman from northern Nunavut who’s drawn on her community’s ancient throat-singing practices to create a viscerally postmodern idiom all her own, which I can best describe as Björk gone metal. Indigenous issues in Canada are at least as fraught as U.S. African-American concerns (including on the level of police violence and incarceration), and confrontations over climate change and oil pipelines sharpened them this year. Tagaq traces those contours and sounds those alarms even as her vocal expressionism links larynx to landscapes. Plus, she way outpaced Miley Cyrus’s VMAs handsome-homeless-boy stunt with her own awards-show gesture, declaring “Fuck PETA” as she accepted the Polaris, because of the animal rights group’s hostility to the fur economy that helps sustain many native communities. If you miss musicians who stand for something, look north. She’s my hero.
Finally, I want to close by nodding to the other kind of deep listening I did a lot of in 2014—to podcasts. A special package in Slate this week toasted the 10th anniversary of the term, and many of us have had the medium on our minds with the finale of Serial. Podcasting’s audio intimacy has been a formidable rival to music for my ear-time for quite a while, so this fall I sought to reconcile them by seeking out all the music-focused but chat-heavy podcasts I could find (less rock, more talk—also my taste in movies). Therefore, here’s one last year-end list, of 10 high points from that (very partial) survey.
1. The New York Times Popcast: I’m not trying to flatter our final Music Club guest, Jon Caramanica—but he’s the bearishly boisterous star presence in this weekly exchange between Times music critics. It’s a privilege to listen in to these informed, insightful, convivial conversations, like a weekly mini-Pop Conference.
2. Pitch: Echoing the This American Life/Radiolab template, in its first year this weekly podcast by Whitney Jones and Alex Kapelman has told stories about pop in pre-revolutionary Iran, what happens to a singer’s voice in the transition between genders, and why the longbox release of R.E.M.’s Out of Time made it the most politically important album ever. Along parallel lines, check out the many music-themed episodes of KCRW’s The Organist, the podcast of the magazine the Believer.
3. Song Exploder: Brilliant concept—twice a month, host Hrishikesh Hirway helps artists break down their most well-known tunes and how they were made, with audio evidence. Guests have included the Postal Service, Garbage, and Spoon, though my favorite was Loren Bouchard, who explained how he created the theme to his own Bob’s Burgers.
4. Mastertapes: In another variation on the how-things-work approach, this BBC program interviews artists such as Billy Bragg, Sinead O’Connor, and Rufus Wainwright in front of an audience about the creation of one of their classic albums, usually with live musical demonstration.
5. Sodajerker on Songwriting: The anxiety of influence probably looms large over Liverpool-based songwriting team Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, so they assuage it by talking about the craft with everyone from Brill Building veteran Jeff Barry to Johnny Marr to Chromeo.
6. The Cipher: Rap Genius presents this (newly rebranded) series of in-depth conversations with hip-hop heavies old and new.
7. Turned Out a Punk: A new project by the gregarious Damian Abraham of post-hardcore band Fucked Up, talking about personal punk roots with figures such as Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy, Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves, and members of Arcade Fire.
8. Wireless Nights With Jarvis Cocker: I couldn’t resist tipping you off to this award-winning, nocturnal BBC novelty, now in its third mini-series, in which the Pulp lead singer explores the witching hours all over creation, from a high-rise office block to the lava fields of Iceland.
9. Soundcheck: Along with WBEZ in Chicago’s long-running Sound Opinions, this New York broadcast from WNYC is one of the few full-fledged music-themed radio talk shows. I think most of the Music Club members have been guests at one time or another. But this is also a bit of an RIP, as after a dozen years, the show is going off the air, and the future format of the podcast seems uncertain.
10. WTF With Marc Maron: Can’t have a podcast list without him, it seems. Musicians are beginning to edge out comedians on Maron’s guest list, and while he’s not quite as deft outside his wheelhouse, he is often able to draw out emotions you won’t hear anywhere else. Past interviews with John Cale and John Darnielle were extraordinary, and more recently I loved his talks with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s and, just this week, St. Vincent. If that’s all too old-news, let me refer you to an interviewer out of Guelph, Ontario, who’s still honing his chops but gets great guests, Vish Khanna of Kreative Kontrol.
With that, I’ll cede the floor to Jon and genuflect before the whole Club, especially Ann and Lindsay, for passing the week in our own intimate exchange. Be glad I spared you my Dr. Seuss-styled verse about why I don’t care for those critics’ darlings the War on Drugs.