Dear Lindsay, Julianne, and our guest stars to come,
Now the end is near, but before we face the final curtain, in this the year of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, we turn our attentions to Slate’s annual year-end music roundtable, for which I’m grateful and thrilled to have you join me. Hasn’t 2015 felt like an unusually long year, with many phases, each altering and eclipsing the mood of the last? That mutability has made it exciting for music, although often harrowing for the world. It may be the first year this decade when I stopped second-guessing where popular music was heading, because it was getting there so fast. There seem to be various kinds of renaissances underway in hip-hop, R&B, and country, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, while the penthouses of the pop charts teem with enough new names to mark the era as distinct.
The final phase of the musical year, of course, has been dominated by the return of Adele with 25, an album that, commercially, keeps surpassing its already stratospheric advance expectations (as Chris Molanphy, our first-round guest here, recently explained in Slate)—no matter what anyone might think of it artistically. Critics and industry insiders will be debating how to interpret the records it’s setting for months if not years. But the topic that it keeps leading me back to is the significance of the voice in pop music.
Perhaps because of this century’s combination of high-tech record production (studio figures like Max Martin and the “Jack Ü” duo of Skrillex and Diplo were big stories this year, as I’m sure we’ll discuss) and low-fidelity music listening (on our phones and computer speakers), voice has become kind of a side issue outside of TV singing competitions. But Adele makes it her singular value proposition: She doesn’t let the other musical elements distract from her singing and her presence.
Out of curiosity I recently asked on social media for people to name other singers under 45 whose voices are as affecting as Adele’s. Some respondents thought I was making a rhetorical point—that there aren’t any, which isn’t remotely true (though I did add the age limit to keep out veteran heavy hitters). Others mocked the question by asserting they didn’t find Adele’s voice affecting at all, which I think must require some deliberate willpower.
Otherwise, though, the suggestions took up pages in my notebook, including many artists who contributed some of 2015’s best music: Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Jazmine Sullivan (who’s not nearly well-known enough outside R&B), Lianne La Havas (another Londoner whom Adele fans might enjoy), niche folkiste Sufjan Stevens (who made by far the best record of his career this year with his family tragedy Carrie & Lowell), Miguel (whose Wildheart should have made a bigger impact), Sia (a power holding up many chart-pop thrones and a force in her own right), Erykah Badu (who won the “Hotline Bling” cover competition with her wry, womanist reconstruction), country newcomer Mickey Guyton, experimentalists Jenny Hval and Julia Holter, the vocal chameleon Shamir, and even Carly Rae Jepsen (whose Emotion is a favorite 2015 album for me, too, though the singing is not the first aspect I think about).
The matter of voice is tangled up with identity (the year’s great social theme, according to the New York Times Magazine), in terms racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic, sexual, and more. We talk about Black Lives Matter protesters raising their voices politically, for instance, and also about the voices that are suppressed. In some genres, such as country and soul, vocal virtuosity is a requirement, while in more bougie realms like folk and art-rock, it can be considered a bit much—uncool and faintly gauche. This is a symptom of privilege, of being able to take your voice for granted. So it’s intriguing to find more and more artists in those categories, particularly women, from Grimes to the amazing Torres, crossing boundaries between hip DIY projects and loud brazen pop. (And then there are the metamorphoses in the reverse direction, too, like Justin Bieber’s voice turning into the whistles of a space dolphin on “Where Are Ü Now.”)
Uber-hipster Bob Dylan stands well outside my survey’s age restrictions, but it’s worth nodding here to his standards album Shadows in the Night, his contribution to the Sinatra celebrations—a peace declaration in the old battle between rock auteurists and Tin Pan Alley interpreters and proof that he’s always been alert to nuances of phrasing and timing—even with Bob’s current battered instrument, which is just one more reason that nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.
Dylan helped make pop open to more unconventional voices, and arguably hip-hop was one of the long-term beneficiaries. The texture of a rapper’s voice is critical to the music, but acknowledging it too openly can be viewed as “soft.” Yet much of today’s new energy in hip-hop is thanks to the vocal fluency and vitality of artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Future, Earl Sweatshirt, Young Thug, and Chance the Rapper (who flaunts delightfully blatant softness on his great tribute to his grandma, “Sunday Candy,” with Donnie Trumpet). I’ve even come to embrace Drake this year, for the first time, because I think he’s become less lazy and more expressive as a vocalist.
Music Club veteran Ann Powers of NPR, who sadly couldn’t join us this year, has pointed out another aspect of Adele’s output that I never considered: that it belongs to a centuries-long musical lineage of ballads, from lullabies to mourning songs, that are meant to soothe and enfold in a way that might be called motherly. For an even more direct illustration, listen to the new album Songs in the Dark by the Wainwright Sisters —Martha Wainwright (whose voice should be more legendary) and half-sister Lucy Roche Wainwright. It’s a collection of songs they heard in childhood from their own musician mothers (the late Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle sisters, and Suzzy Roche of the Roches, respectively), songs written by their mothers and their father (Loudon Wainwright III), and songs they’ve both sung to Martha’s children. The kinship between sleep and death and the tenderness and harshness of kinship itself are ever-present in their ravishing close harmonies.
That maternal aura of both threat and comfort is elemental to the lush, expansive style of Antony Hegarty, the great trans British singer, who came up often in my survey. One of the most extraordinary songs of the year is “4 Degrees,” released under Antony’s new name Anohni this month to coincide with the climate summit in Paris. The song details the potential calamities of exceeding the 2-degree warming limit sought by international negotiators, but in seeming to revel in these visions of disaster, it both admits personal complicity and asks if humanity is beyond saving.
Thanks to that double-sided strategy, not unlike Kendrick Lamar’s multiviewpoint narratives on To Pimp a Butterfly (which includes Barack Obama’s pick for song of the year), “4 Years” becomes just about the sole effective song I’ve ever heard about this urgent but elusive topic. It makes me keen to hear the rest of Anohni’s upcoming 2016 album, tellingly titled Hopelessness.
In a year when popular music itself came under attack by fundamentalist killers at the Bataclan in Paris, what other ways did musicians find to throw their voices into the fray and forward beyond the specter of despair? I’m eager to hear what you’ve all heard.
Best of 2015
Top 25 Albums (in alphabetical order by artist)
Africa Express, Africa Express Presents Terry Riley’s In C Mali
ASAP Rocky, At. Long. Last. ASAP
Eric Chenaux, Skullsplitter
Iris Dement, The Trackless Woods
Destroyer, Poison Season
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf
Elvis Depressedly, New Alhambra
Frog Eyes, Pickpocket’s Locket
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, Girl
Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion
Rickie Lee Jones, The Other Side of Desire
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Lower Dens, Escape From Evil
Maddie & Tae, Start Here
Scott Merritt, Of
Joanna Newsom, Divers
Max Richter, Sleep
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood
Stara Rzeka, Zamknęły Się Oczy Ziemi
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too
Top 25 Singles
Anohni, “4 Degrees”
Kelsea Ballerini, “Secondhand Smoke”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Cam, “Burning House”
Eric Church, “Like a Wrecking Ball”
Chvrches, “Never Ending Circles”
Daughter, “Doing the Right Thing”
Lana Del Rey, “High by the Beach”
Drake, “Know Yourself”
Eagles of Death Metal, “Save a Prayer”
Missy Elliott ft. Pharrell, “WTF (Where They From)”
Florence and the Machine, “Ship to Wreck”
Future, “F*ck Up Some Commas”
Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free”
Jack Ü ft. Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now”
Janet Jackson ft. J. Cole, “No Sleeep”
Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”
Thomas Rhett, “Crash and Burn”
Jazmine Sullivan, “Let It Burn”
Earl Sweatshirt, “Grief”
The Weeknd, “In the Night”
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See all of Slate’s best culture of 2015 coverage here.