The Music Club

Beyonce’s Lemonade and the importance of owning your mistakes.

The biggest mistake I made as a music critic this year.

Beyoncé - Sorry
Still from “Sorry” off of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.


Hi again, fellow pop kids,

Chris brought up my original Lemonade review. I’d already been thinking of raising it as a mini-study in the problems of criticism in the surprise-and-streaming era. We’ve been challenged to write instant reviews of sudden major album drops for years, but Lemonade added an extra twist (ouch, sorry) as we simultaneously had to absorb a rich, full-length film overnight. It was clear that it was a masterpiece, but in reaction I underestimated the music. Lemonade does have weaker tracks—I still drift away during the “Love Drought,” “Sandcastles,” and “Forward” sequence. But I’d been too in love with “Formation” (and sad about Prince), and was kind of let down that more of the album wasn’t explicitly in that vein. (Although in a larger sense it was.) So I wasn’t won over by “Hold Up” musically right away, for example, hearing it as a tropical-house exercise instead of grasping its full textured complexity. Now it’s one of my favorites.


My main mistake was feeling bound by an old-fashioned sense of my role as a music critic to separate the album from the visuals. One reader went so far as to call that an act of white, male “epistemic violence,” and I can understand why, though I did attempt (as I always try to do) to take account of my social position in the piece. It was at least as much due to aging: My aesthetic reflexes weren’t fast enough to kick it with Lemonade’s immediate multimedia paradigm shift. I’ve been fretting about it ever since. One byproduct was the droll spectacle of me at my computer in midsummer, diligently watching all 45 minutes of Frank Ocean building a staircase to nowhere, while the song-sketch tracks of Endless played. When Blonde followed the same weekend, I knew exactly how I’d been punked (though not as punked as Ocean’s record company). I still like the music on Endless, though, and the video is cool as at once a work of durational-process art and a parody of it.


My Lemonade experience raised a McLuhanesque medium-and-message issue, but it’s also a reminder of the obligation, despite the harsh velocity of 2016 culture and marketing, of truly active, participatory listening. One of the lesser-known figures we lost this year, composer and performer Pauline Oliveros, promoted such “deep listening” throughout her life, as a mode of ecological and feminist knowledge, power, and resistance. Oliveros was an inheritor of John Cage, and her influence reverberates through all kinds of ambient, site-specific and drone-based music, and in turn lots of more open-ended electronic and dance music.


Ann mentioned Tanya Tagaq’s Retribution, which in many ways bridges Oliveros and Beyoncé. Tagaq draws on the throat-singing traditions of her Inuit heritage in Nunavut, but reshapes it as a contemporary art practice. (Full disclosure: We are friendly, and a lengthy audio interview we did was part of Retribution’s publicity, but no money changed hands.) Her pieces are carved out of longform improvisations with her collaborators Jean Martin (percussion and electronics) and Jesse Zubot (strings and electronics). They can be heady but also emotionally visceral, a personal manifestation of presence, witness, and protest. On that level, she aims in a way to be pop. Her previous album Animism won Canada’s annual Polaris album of the year prize, and the new one includes a sort-of single called “Centre” featuring the rapper Shad. At her most aggressive, she can sound like heavy metal.


Up here, at least, that pop reach is connecting: When she performed at a large Toronto hall last month, the lines went around the block, which is pretty remarkable for experimental throat-singing. That’s partly because she speaks (and growls and shrieks) to a political moment that has been to the Canadian public what Black Lives Matter has been to America: the rise of First Nations activism, at first led by a youth group called Idle No More, and the movement around missing and murdered aboriginal women. With Justin Trudeau’s government approving fuel pipelines through unceded indigenous territory (sadly, he’s not all cuddles and selfies), the uprising is spreading. The standoff at Standing Rock in North Dakota this year is at one with that struggle.


Musically, this movement is also repped by the Ottawa-based dance-music group A Tribe Called Red (obviously named after A Tribe Called Quest), which combines beats and raps with traditional drums and chants. Tagaq appears on their new album, We Are the Halluci Nation, which combines spoken text and music in ways comparable to Solange’s A Seat at the Table.


As well, no doubt most of you heard that the beloved Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip—sort of our R.E.M. and Bon Jovi rolled into one—went on its final tour this summer, because lead singer Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. They packed stadiums, and their final show was simulcast across the country and set viewing records. (In fact, when Blonde dropped, I was watching the Hip broadcast in a Toronto park with thousands of my neighbors.) What you might not know is that Downie has devoted his remaining days to the cause of Native and Canadian reconciliation.


He didn’t merely preach it to his audiences. He’s raising money and awareness with The Secret Path, an album and a film about the damage done by abusive colonial residential schools throughout the 20th century via the story of a little boy named Charlie Wenjack, who froze to death in 1966 while trying to hike back home to his reservation. Downie’s brave show of stoic allyship was a stirring contrast to the callous self-interest white voters showed at the polls this fall. Those who hurry to forget past crimes are in denial about how far we are from remotely undoing them.

So I’ll leave you all with the question of what you might have gotten wrong this year. And let you decide where I might have gone wrong with my list of some 2016 faves that don’t come from any of my best album picks from my last post. Most of them reflect the unsettled state of the times—BTW, I struggled with whether to include Bieber, the Chainsmokers, Daya, or Twenty One Pilots, because I’m not actually opposed to or even surprised by the sour and confused moods of young pop artists right now. Given my own rules, though, I’ve cheated with Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks’ Texas-to-Texas team version of Lemonade’s great “Daddy Lessons” from November’s Country Music Association Awards: It was its own freestanding event, part reconciliation, part retribution.


What did you expect? To never feel regret?


Top Songs of 2016

(alphabetically, excluding tunes from my favorite albums list)

Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks, “Daddy Lessons”
Frankie Cosmos, “On the Lips”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend soundtrack (ft. Pete Gardner as Darryl), “Gettin’ Bi”
Desiigner, “Tiimmy Turner”
DIANA, “What You Get”
Drake ft. WizKid, Kyla, “One Dance”
D.R.A.M., “Cash Machine”
Robert Ellis, “Perfect Strangers”
G.L.O.S.S., “Give Violence a Chance”
KING, “The Greatest”
Lady Gaga ft. Father John Misty, “Sinner’s Prayer”
Kendrick Lamar, “untitled 06”
Miranda Lambert, “Sweet By and By” (from the Southern Family anthology)
Magnetic Fields, “ ’02: Be True to Your Bar” (a preview of next year’s 50 Song Memoir)
Aimee Mann, “Can’t You Tell?”
Cass McCombs, “Bum Bum Bum”
Tim McGraw, “Humble And Kind”
The Mekons, “Fear & Beer (Hymn for Brexit)
Parker Millsap, “Heaven Sent”
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
NAO, “Girlfriend”
Rihanna ft. Drake, “Work”
Xenia Rubinos, “Mexican Chef”
Sia, “Cheap Thrills”
Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Swet Shop Boys, “Zayn Malik”
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Martha Wainwright, “Around the Bend”
The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk, “I Feel It Coming”
Wussy, “Hello I’m a Ghost”
YG ft. Nipsey Hussle, “FDT”