Lindsay, that is a great question. Before I delve into unheralded producers, though, I’d like to mention one of the more troubling stories of the year: the continued silencing of Kesha by Sony despite her efforts to untangle herself from her contract, after she accused her producer Dr. Luke of various infractions, the worst of which was sexual abuse. That suit, and Dr. Luke’s countersuit alleging extortion, were shelved by a California judge over the summer, but the singer continues to fight Sony for her freedom; until she’s released from her contract she’s effectively gagged from ever releasing new music. This week, Sony argued for keeping her on because, its lawyers told the courts, an extended hiatus from the public eye has actually helped artists like Adele, Justin Timberlake, and D’Angelo. Perhaps preventing her from releasing music could be beneficial to her career!
It’s a disingenuous line of thinking at best. I like Kesha as an artist—I profiled her for a Vibe cover in 2012—but her skills aren’t quite on the globe-uniting scale of Adele or D’Angelo, two artists who enjoyed a swathe of critical consensus this year. (Though, lest we forget, Kesha was doing Flaming Lips noise experiments when Miley’s Dead Petz were still alive; RIP that blowfish.) That said, her predicament is a continuation of an issue artists have had with their labels for years, but especially since the Internet blindsided a backward-thinking music industry, in which the majors scoop up artists by waving dazzling contracts in their faces, only to let them fester. It’s an example of a woman with a glut of skills as a singer and songwriter in a soul-crushing limbo, in a time when some writers are calling for women to be more self-sufficient.
Grimes is the perennial example of this, as the deliberately sole producer and songwriter of her own project. I didn’t love Art Angels the way everyone else did—“Flesh Without Blood” had a chorus that hit my sweet spot but the rest did not, primarily because of a difference in aesthetics—but I respect her hustle. I’d also like to mention a few other women who are overlooked for a similar vision. Writer Rachel Syme’s Medium piece just solidified how vehemently I feel about Santigold as a visionary, a woman who’s been songwriting, producing, and performing with female dancers for years, from her work as co-writer and executive producer on Res’ ahead-of-its-time 2001 debut How I Do, to her singles from next year’s highly anticipated 99¢, her third album. She works with artists like Switch, Diplo, and Ricky Blaze—in fact, the dancehall-style riddims on 2012’s Master of My Make-Believe prefigured this year’s “Lean On” explosion—but it’s unmistakable that she’s got the lion’s share of top-down control in the process. This year she released an interesting collaboration with ILoveMakonnen (another person who bucks easy categories of gender and sexual orientation, to throw back to your great shout to trans artists, Carl), and expanded her skill set, rapping on a nearly mournful sub-bass about how beloved she is around the world. No argument here!
Another female producer/songwriter/artist who’s perpetually overlooked is the brilliant Amanda Warner, aka MNDR, who began her career in the late ’90s as an IDM producer. She’s a full-blown pop artist who is as well-versed in the vagaries of beat-making and engineering as anyone I’ve interviewed, if not more. She’s also got one of my favorite voices in the world, an alto that cracks where necessary but sounds perpetually glossy. (But maybe that’s her production.) She had a great year, too; you probably heard the single “Kimono” in the promo spots for Keeping Up With the Kardashians (how’s that for a sync), but I also loved Dance 4 a Dollar, her unlikely project with Sweet Valley (Nathan from Wavves and his brother Kynan). In retrospect, it was 2015 in a nutshell: semi-sorrowful strip club anthems drenched in honey, a seamless union of trap, pop, and electronic dance music with choruses that could knock your block off.
And, as producers go, let’s not forget the aforementioned Zora Jones, whose 100 Ladies EP took maximalist beat experiments to their next logical conclusion, and Wondagurl, young co-producer of “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
It’s been a pleasure, everyone. Here’s to a prolific 2016.