I was touched by the sweetness and the steel in what you all had to say about how musicians constructed both escape bridges and solid shelters for the resolve that 2018 required. As Ann said, there are many “old ways” that we’re better off bidding goodbye—worn-out scripts that are being trashed and/or rewritten by young women, queer and nonbinary artists, black and Latino and indigenous artists, and many others. On the other hand, there are also legacies and ideas that aren’t invalidated but deepened by age and history. This time of year, when we pause from the daily onslaught of events, feels like an apt juncture to ruminate on some of those, which I’ll do later in this post.
I was particularly struck by Hanif’s comment that in 2018 “even music that is not popular by definition of the charts angles itself toward the construct of pop music,” that it’s felt “like everything was trying to get into the same handful of doors, sonically.” This is ironic in the sense that one of the talking points of the past two years has been that the kind of megapop that monopolized attention earlier in the decade has been displaced in the charts by hip-hop and by the kind of downbeat sounds I was talking about in my last post. I recently wrote for Billboard about one of the curious side effects, that pop as a genre has become in itself a kind of niche or boutique interest, nurtured particularly by queer listenerships. On the other hand, Hanif is right that it often seems there’s been a default across most genres to what might be considered pop priorities of hooks, repetition, and immediacy, of novelty within limits, and of charm, at least as defined by the audiences with whom any given artist is simpatico. While I wouldn’t want to overstate the case, there are also sonic markers like trap beats and vocal fry that have become so pervasive that I wonder if a decade from now they’ll sound as dated to the 2010s as big gated drums do to the 1980s.
Several critics, Liz Pelly most rigorously among them, speculate that these are epiphenomena of the dominant consumer technology, streaming, expressing a will to what Pelly calls “streambait,” music that consciously or unconsciously designs itself to play well with others on playlists. Similarly, on the New York Times’ Popcast, Jon Caramanica and his colleagues have been on the alert for “Spotifycore” (one of my favorite recent coinages). There’s no question that every period’s sounds are shaped by the tools available to create them and the main media through which people listen. Is all music “mood music” now, and (as we’ve been asking ever since downloading began) how long can albums remain a significant concept in this ecosystem?
I’m sure Chris, as our resident chart scholar, will have much to add here. But I do worry that this conversation flips over too readily into conspiracy theory, which is an entertaining but pretty much always misguided mode for cultural criticism. Pitchfork’s controversial 1.6-point review in October of the young arena-rock-revival band Greta Van Fleet fell into that trap by calling them “more of an algorithmic fever dream than an actual rock band.” Crediting the music industry with that kind of manipulative genius was a paranoid fantasy even back when the music industry was still rich and powerful. (This recent quote from Music Trades magazine that our colleague Karl Hagstrom Miller shared on Facebook feels clarifying: “At $16.1-billion, the music-products industry is barely a rounding error in the scheme of the global economy. It’s the equivalent of about a day of oil production, six days of beer consumption, and half the global market for disposable diapers.”) I happen to agree that Greta Van Fleet is pretty awful (though it should be noted that the Zeppelin/Allmans strain of boogie rock they channel was never a critics’ favorite, until it became hallowed and venerable). But as I tell my criticism students, just because an artwork is stupid, that doesn’t mean it’s evil.
Still, contemplating algorithms and Spotifycore does remind me how crucial it is to expose my senses to music that travels far out from the territory of pop. Take perhaps my personal favorite album of the year, Neko Case’s Hell-On—while Case’s voice and songs offer plenty of traditional musical pleasures, their architecture is brilliantly idiosyncratic, such that every smooth carpeted passage is apt to veer over a waterfall or down into a musical cavern at any moment. While she’s always been a magnetic personality, Case’s concerns by this point in her career have little to do with charm. She won’t lead the listener by the hand but rather simply dares you to keep up, learning with her as she goes.
The same goes in spades for artists such as Julia Holter, Kelly Moran, and Grouper, whose compositional pieces are made out of ambient electronic textures along with voices and instruments, expressing abstract levels that pop in any form is seldom certified to handle.
And while, like Lindsay and Hanif (respectively), I love the declarative post-punk of Parquet Courts and Idles, I was dizzily thrilled this year to discover the Australian band Tropical Fuck Storm, which in a perfectly contemporary way recaptures how radical that thorny 1980s florescence once seemed.
A very pleasant surprise on many year-end lists (mine included) has been the appearance of Sun Ra–influenced British group Sons of Kemet and their album Your Queen Is a Reptile, adding at least one name to join Kamasi Washington on the short list of jazz that’s recently gotten hip. But listen to them alongside the equally Afrofuturist but far more ornery senior citizen Lonnie Holley and his album MITH (start with “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America”), or Ambrose Akinmusire’s startling mélange of avant-jazz, soul-funk, and racially militant spoken word, Origami Harvest.
Obviously the landmark musical loss of the year was the death of Aretha Franklin, whose marathon livestreamed memorial service was, among other things, an extraordinary event to educate a mass audience in the gospel tradition, an effect that continues with the 46-year-awaited release of Amazing Grace, the concert documentary chronicling the making of her transcendent 1972 gospel album. But speaking of jazz and the avant-garde, less remarked-upon were the passings of titans such as pioneering free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, whose work in many ways is just as electrifying to me and as deeply rooted. Then there was composer Glenn Branca (whose layered-guitar-feedback ensembles presaged the sounds of bands such as Sonic Youth and Pavement), quintessential U.K. post-punk maverick Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and Hardy Fox, one of the two core members of the long-running Bay Area cult art-rock multimedia project the Residents, who for decades made all their work under personal anonymity (often in giant eyeball masks) and took full advantage of that freedom. My intimacy with the Residents’ 1980 Commercial Album, made up of 40 one-minute-long songs (plus some of the first music videos, now collected at the Museum of Modern Art), may be part of why I’m less taken with Tierra Whack’s one-minute-songs-and-videos project, Whack World, than some critics are.
Recently, as well, news emerged that Genesis P-Orridge (Coum, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, etc.) is mortally ill with leukemia. As the Guardian covered well, P-Orridge’s career was at once ahead of its time in its nonbinary vision of gender and other aspects and, given allegations of her past abusive behavior, entangled with fraught 20th-century concepts of violently transgressive art.
So let the old ways die, as they must, but never forget, either. While we hail new generational voices, let’s toast how many elders and veterans released vital work this year too. Yoko Ono, Neneh Cherry, Marianne Faithfull, Tracey Thorn, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sade, Rosanne Cash, Sam Phillips, Laurie Anderson, Loretta Lynn, the Breeders, and Liz Phair all reappeared to remind us potently that boldly autonomous women’s music isn’t just a millennial and post-millennial innovation. Decades-running bands such as Superchunk, Low, and Yo La Tengo, as well as the long-laboring experimental guitarist Marc Ribot, all released albums that cried out (loudly and softly) about the current state of America and the world. And Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, John Prine, and Willie Nelson, among others, put out less topical records that were still bursting with experience, wisdom, and life.
One performance that traversed time in stunning ways this year—which I discovered just lately, in part thanks to Ann—was by indigenous musician Jeremy Dutcher. The day after his album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, won Canada’s critics’ award for album of the year, the Polaris Prize (I’m among the voters), he was a guest on a live online series in Toronto, House of Strombo. After doing one of the tracks from his album—which consists of, as Ann mentioned, the once–colonially outlawed songs of his native Wolastoq First Nation community, which Dutcher recovered from wax-cylinder recordings more than a century old—he made a startling turn: In honor of Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday, he gave his first performance of a cover of her song “Cherokee Louise” from her 1991 album Night Ride Home (from a once-scorned era of Mitchell’s work that critics have only lately been returning to). The song is about a childhood friend of Mitchell’s who was sexually abused in foster care and ended up on the streets. Dutcher put the song in context, including that the foster-care crisis is far from over and his doubt that this teen on the Canadian prairies was actually Cherokee, saying that it probably should have been called “Cree-Dene Louise.” His burningly sad rendition created uncanny continuities between the contours of the ages-old music he’d just been singing and Mitchell’s signature clustered harmonies, while also somehow surfacing the strain between an account of bearing witness by a well-meaning white Canadian baby boomer (even a genius one) and the knowledge borne by a young member of today’s artistic “indigenous renaissance.” That the two could meet and intermingle so undeniably on music’s mysterious plane was also more hopeful than most 2018 realities let us dare hope.