Dear music massive,
Jewly, you’re right I was partly thinking about the sauce that women in country made out of the “tomatoes” remark when I mentioned a kind of renaissance. But more so I was thinking about the way that the homoerotic tease of “Girl Crush” overcame the sort of conservative radio resistance that once brought down the Dixie Chicks, as well as the contemporary country-soul renewal that artists such as Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, and, I would add, Sam Hunt are bringing into the genre, as you mentioned. (Hunt’s sing-speaking delivery doesn’t always click, but it’s effective on “Break Up in a Small Town,” for example.)
Like you, I was fond of Kelsea Ballerini’s debut, particularly “Secondhand Smoke,” in which she conveys the way the grown-up children of divorce can struggle to find their own faith in relationships: “Sometimes I hear myself saying hand-me-down words/ It’s so easy to forget that he ain’t him and I ain’t her.” And as big a fan as I was of the bro-baiting “Girl in a Country Song,” I hadn’t been sure Maddie & Tae could follow up with the kind of fully realized album they did. Refreshingly, Start Here consistently deals with their experiences as young women feeling out their own identities; on songs like “Fly” and “Downside of Growing Up,” their directness on the subject can bring me to tears, on the right side of the line between universality and cliché. For a while it seemed that after Taylor Swift moved away from country, no one would take up the concerns she sang about, but here they are.
I’m also glad you mentioned Vince Gill. Even with its recent youth obsession, country usually surpasses pop in giving older artists their due. This year brought us a characteristically solid George Strait album, for instance, as well as one from Reba McEntire, including the tough, lonely single, “She Got Drunk Last Night.” Another that nearly made my list was the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duo album Django and Jimmie, whose title cut both recalls their first collaboration on 1983’s hit Pancho and Lefty and pays tribute to two of their own musical heroes, the early-20th-century Romani-Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and country-music founding father Jimmie Rodgers. Later on the album they also warmly eulogize their mutual friend, the late Johnny Cash, but the general tone is hardly downbeat—they make fun of their own advanced ages and Willie’s best-known pastime on “It’s All Going to Pot.” (As they sing elsewhere here, “We’d have taken much better care of ourselves/ If we’d’a’ known we was gonna live this long.”)
In rock, the year started with Sleater-Kinney’s return after a decade with an album as strong as they’ve ever made, No Cities to Love—coming back to a world in which their legacy is obvious from the plethora of superb nonconformist rock bands led by young women (Waxahatchee, Lower Dens, Girlpool, Chastity Belt, Bully, Hop Along, Screaming Females, Childbirth, White Lung, Joanna Gruesome, Perfect Pussy … we could go on till New Year’s). One of the most amazing live encounters I’ve had of late was hearing a 14-year-old graduate of Girls Rock Camp in Toronto cover Sleater-Kinney’s “Good Things” solo: a song from five years before she was born, and she killed it. This town is full of barely adolescent bands now, as your cities probably are, too, and so much of it is down to the labor of S-K’s generation of post-punk women.
I imagine that 14-year-old probably ripped right into Carrie Brownstein’s recent memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, as well, with its keen insights into family, sexuality, self-perception, and finding oneself as an artist—which benefits from Brownstein’s curious ability to render her own experience with a kind of cool distance (unlike Kim Gordon’s unfortunately all-over-the-place 2015 memoir).
Elsewhere in 2015 comebacks, Janet Jackson released her best album in years, disco legends Chic and Giorgio Moroder followed up their work with Daft Punk with their own first records in decades. Delightfully, Missy Elliott surfaced alongside Katy Perry early in the year at the Super Bowl and then in November gave us the bangin’ single, “WTF (Where They From?),” fostering hopes that the promised new album really will materialize next year. Despite Nicki Minaj’s best attempts, there’s nobody else who brings to hip-hop quite what Missy does. And while David Bowie’s heralded return was in 2014, his balmy Scott Walker–ish single late this year, “Blackstar,” encourages me that the 68-year-old cracked actor’s 2016 album may be more exploratory and less of a retread than The Next Day generally was.
I also want to highlight this year’s fantastic album by that pioneer of First Nations social protest and musical exploration (seek out her 1969 synth album Illuminations), Buffy Sainte-Marie. Power in the Blood deservedly won the annual Polaris Music Prize here in September. Featuring both new songs and retakes on a few classics, it’s as rocking and rousing a record as the 74-year-old’s ever made. And it comes at a moment when the climate crisis, among other matters, makes indigenous perspectives more urgent than ever. Reportedly Sainte-Marie is planning to follow up with a symphonic collaboration with (past Polaris winner and Oscar-nominated composer for Her) Owen Pallett, whose In Conflict was one of my favorite albums of 2014. But she can go the opposite direction, too, as on a track she did this year with the young aboriginal Canadian EDM group A Tribe Called Red, called “Working for the Government.”
But many great return acts were less high-profile. Sometimes they were “reinventions,” as Jewly suggested, sometimes just artists stubbornly carrying on. Nobody but me and Ann Powers seems to have noticed Rickie Lee Jones’ The Other Side of Desire, that eternal boho’s most musically satisfying set in years. It’s less airily spiritual, more tuneful and gritty than her last couple of recordings, thanks to its grounding in Jones’ adopted home of New Orleans, its street sounds and bar smells and Cajun lilt and lexicon. Jones is truly one of the great American music-makers, but also a woman who does not traffic in other people’s bullshit—and with so many young people (see Tobias Jesso Jr., Father John Misty, etc.) getting into the tilt-headed 1970s California singer-songwriter vibe on which she built her many-chambered musical towers, she’s overdue for rediscovery.
As well, I wrote at length this fall about that rare thing, a new album from Iris DeMent. The Trackless Woods is made up of the country-folk singer’s settings of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and I paralleled it in some ways to Joanna Newsom’s Divers—they sound nothing alike, except in that neither of them sounds much like anyone else in the world. In a time of too many destructive fanaticisms, The Trackless Woods is like a hymnal of hard creative doubt.
While I left it off my list because somehow April has come to feel to me like more than a year ago, I want to nod to Beat the Champ, the latest in the ever-expanding oeuvre of the Mountain Goats, and my favorite among John Darnielle’s last few. It’s a concept album about the tales, gimmicks, and legends of professional wrestling in the era of his California childhood, and manages in Darnielle’s inimitable way to turn grown men playacting in tights into figures of parable and philosophy.
Finally, one name on my album list few Americans will know is Scott Merritt. Full disclosure is needed here: Merritt hails from my hometown of Brantford, Ontario, and was a mentor to me when I was the age of that girl I saw covering Sleater-Kinney. But he was also prominent in Canada’s left-field songwriting world of the 1980s, along the same spectrum as Jane Siberry, whom a few of you might recall(?)—until a series of snafus with record labels and other bad industry mojo drove Merritt mostly out of performing, to work as a producer on other musicians’ projects in his own small studio. Since 1990’s Violet and Black on IRS, he’s put out only two albums independently, 2002’s The Detour Home and this year’s Of. It is a small, exquisite record played with glittering precision mostly on a tenor ukulele (which does not sound anything like the strummy-strum ukuleles that were on way too many twee-rock records a few years ago). The sound is ideal for these elusive, imagistic songs about memory and mortality. If you seek it out, it will take hold of you.
I’d love to hear what comebacks and releases by more seasoned artists mattered most to you all in 2015. But before I close, I’ll answer Lindsay’s question about songs we hated. There are way too many candidates—my God, have any of you heard CeeLo Green’s tribute to Robin Williams, an inarticulate tone-deaf ode to the death of laughter that at least solves the problem it’s addressing because all one can do is laugh at it? It stands alongside that (absolutely yes, Lindsay) deplorable piece of Puth, “Marvin Gaye,” in the blaspheming-the-dead category.
Also, since I’ve been praising so many old hands, I feel obliged to mention that ex-Poison frontman Bret Michaels apparently has noticed the confluence between the hair-metal ethos and the bro-country way. His entry into the genre out-awfuls even the lowest of Luke Bryan lows, as you might gather from its title, “Girls on Bars” (as in dancing on them, of course)—its Neanderthal soul is best summed up in the line, “Cold beer, hot chicks, both feel good when they hit your lips.” In better days, when Michaels informed us that every cowboy sings a sad, sad song, I had no idea that this was what he meant.
I could name so many more atrocities—Iggy Azalea and Britney Spears’ “Pretty Girls”? Halsey’s “New Americana”? David Zowie’s “House Every Weekend”? Chedda Da Connect’s “Flicka da Wrist”? Galantis’ “Peanut Butter Jelly”? Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband”? Chris Brown & Tyga’s “Ayo”? Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance”? Hell, “See You Again” itself? Not to mention the extended stay of Taylor Swift’s lousiest hit ever, “Bad Blood,” even with its Kendrick Lamar cameo, on the charts? It’s been a long year.
But I will stick with country, though in this case the faux, almost skiffle-esque kind, and shift back to the young’uns, to name my No. 1 Most Irritating Song of the Year. It outdid Omi’s “Cheerleader” as a song in which a dude congratulates himself for his heroic grudging fidelity (and how many chicks he could score if he only wanted to), but without a smidgen of Omi’s goofy charm. Instead it wears the loudest musical shit-eating grin of any song in recent memory and really does make me want to knock out its shiny, white, relentlessly chattering teeth.
I speak, of course, of “Honey, I’m Good.” It makes me sad that the sentimental gimmick of the video, in which couples of all ages hold up handwritten signs saying how long they’ve been together, was wasted on this song, because I thought it was kind of sweet (or at least equal parts sweet, creepy and ultimately heteronormative even though I think it included some same-sex couples). But I cannot allow it to redeem this monstrosity, which I would hunt down all my remaining days until the manically giddy life was crushed from its rubbery simulacrum of humanity, were there any justice.
But of course, there is not, for as we all know, no justice, no Chic.
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