The 2019 Music Club features critics Carl Wilson, Lindsay Zoladz, and Ann Powers, with additional entries from Jack Hamilton, Julianne Escobedo-Shepherd, Jewly Hight, and Chris Molanphy.
Here we go friends, you’ve got me running in circles,
Lindsay, love and thanks for the props about us wizened critics motivating you as a young cupcake slinger. You inspired me to search up a dusty best-of list from the Los Angeles Times, my place of employ in 2009, and I found evidence that (re: the hit song I quoted in my greeting above) the world’s shaggiest trust-fund rapper isn’t the only guy caught in a loop. In 2009, I was struggling to process the tragic story of Michael Jackson, hoping that country music was finally getting more diverse, appreciating a surge in powerful songwriting from women, thanking my stars for Leonard Cohen, and wondering what Rihanna would do next. Plus ça change, as Post Malone might (NOT) say.
Yet things have changed. Cohen is no longer with us in earthly form, three years gone in fact. In November, his son, Adam, released a final collection, culled from fragments and completed as an heir’s labor of love, and announced that there’s no more new material in the vault. The closeness of Leonard’s voice within Adam’s arrangements—not swathed in background vocals as they often were, but plain and imperfect, often intoning without commitment to melody—makes these last missives not just a novelty, but precious. Cohen was a great poet of the body who recognized that the lessons taught by hormones and sore muscles are as valuable as those achieved by meditation and prayer. “My animal howls, my angel’s upset,” he wrote in one of those last songs, “The Hills,” capturing the predicament of a spiritual striver still grounded in flesh. But also: “I’m living on pills, for which I thank God.” Humanity. Cohen always reminded us that it shines through the indignities.
But what is “humanity” in the time of Instagram Face, the habit of self-presentation Jia Tolentino incisively identified as the ongoing management of screen filters, chemical and surgical alteration, and posing? In 2009, Kourtney and Khloé had just taken Miami, and the world was not so accustomed to the sight of young people openly transforming themselves into cyborgs. The Black Eyed Peas ruled the pop roost with vocal effects that announced themselves and made a toast. Alongside Instagram Face, we could (and many, including me, have) also talk about the evolution of SoundCloud Voice, a melding of synthesizer-generated distortion and disarmingly hushed speak-singing that has superseded old expressions of the ghost in the machine with a sense of the personal that’s utterly enmeshed in artifice. The shocking recent loss of so many young rappers from this realm requires us to remember, as Carl pointed out, that artists are vulnerable people. Yet I also hope that the musical innovations of these scions of cyberpunk aren’t overshadowed by scandal. One more tip of the skully to Billie, who’s shown on a platinum level how SoundCloud and YouTube have allowed young artists to recast musical fundamentals to serve the technologized soft self: ASMR whispers blend with Audacity-built distortion and old-school nonsense talk, capturing what it feels like to grow up not simply supported by software, but feeling intertwined with it. Making similar moves in the experimental art world, Julianne’s favorite and mine Holly Herndon mined a telling metaphor by calling the artificial intelligence who vocalizes on her ancient-future-gazing Proto her baby, and giving the creature a name—Spawn—though not a gender. Lindsay, you mentioned the gender fluidity of many kids these days. I think we’re on the verge of what this year’s eerily prescient English sci-fi program Years and Years made a storyline: fully accessible transhumanism. In music, it’s already arrived.
Whoa, though, I’m getting pretty speculative here. Let me come back down to the broken (but, I have to believe, salvageable!) present day, and to my hometown of Nashville, where old styles of human flourishing still warmly present themselves on the regular. I love living here because it’s a city of musicians—not just bros and hoedowns, as outside observers sometimes suggest—and, as Jewly pointed out in her stellar report from the Music Row trenches, they’re always hard at work shoring up old ways and pairing them with new perspectives. I want to shout out old-fashioned virtuosity, the kind that makes your fingers tingle when you hear it: I’ll single out the dazzling picking skills of Molly Tuttle, whose iridescent solo debut helped initiate a new era in bluegrass this year, and the free-climbing fiddle of Lillie Mae, whose second release on Third Man Records, Other Girls, was among my favorite genre busters of the year.
Living in a working musicians’ town grounds me in the process of music-making in ways I didn’t experience when I worked in the more media-driven cities of New York and Los Angeles. As much as I value the new ways of music-making in the post-millennial Diamond Age, I hope we never devalue the craft and practice of creativity reflected in albums like Country Squire by Tyler Childers, whose gimmick-free devotion to storytelling and playing in a hot band has earned him a huge, devoted following; or Front Porch by Joy Williams, the erstwhile Civil Wars singer-songwriter who offered remarkable, quiet insights into 21st-century private life in arrangements that felt as easy as an afternoon chat with a best friend; or Kingfish by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a 20-year-old Clarksdale, Mississippi, native who renews the supposedly worn-out blues form with zero fuss, just dazzle grown from hours and hours of playing. Whatever political signs we critics read in the public stances (or marketing plans) of our favorite hit-makers, Nashville always reminds me that it’s important to consider the ground of music’s creation, too. Ideology touches that ground in ways that can only change step by step, decision by decision, opening mind by opening mind.
I’ll sign off this year by sending love to two of the nation’s most remarkable musicians, still with us and with seemingly inexhaustible legacies to explore, and whose living legacies were honored at Washington’s Kennedy Center in ceremonies that bookended 2019. Last December Wayne Shorter was honored by that institution, and this year I spent much of my listening time immersed in his oeuvre, which I sought out as I tried to understand the history of genre-bending (and defying!) in the classic album era. Even if “fusion” remains a dirty word to most critics, the impact of Shorter’s work with Miles Davis, in Weather Report, and in collaboration with artists ranging from Brazilian master Milton Nascimento (their 1975 album Native Dancer was my second-most played in 2019, Spotify tells me) to Joni Mitchell exemplifies the generative artistic restlessness that remains the standard in our fruitfully, frighteningly unstable present. I had the immense privilege of spending a couple of hours with the 86-year-old Shorter this past October, in his day-basement office, where his Grammy awards were lined up on the windowsill and his desk overflowed with sheet music from several compositions in progress and notes from admirers and potential future collaborators. Rarely have I encountered a mind so relentlessly engaged in exploration—his talk, a gift to me, ranged from his memories of Davis, Malcolm X, and Billie Holiday to speculations on the metaphorical power of science fiction and the far-flung journeys of 19th-century adventurers. Throughout his life, Shorter has never accepted a boundary, though plenty presented themselves in his journey from Newark Arts High School to the Hollywood Hills. He is made of wonder—and grit. We can all take a lesson from his life, best learned by immersing in his music. It’s nearly all available on your favorite streaming service.
Finally, I send love and unending admiration to Linda Ronstadt, the ruling spirit of Nashville, and arguably of much popular music, in 2019—alongside Dolly Parton, anyway. Though she is a woman of the American West through and through, Ronstadt is, I think, the most influential artist among young singer-songwriters I meet here in Music City. Not only do they treasure her monumental vocal talent and the body of work that she created: 20-plus albums that showed how a curator and interpreter can be as creative as any songwriter. They look to her as a pioneer in defining “post-genre” as early as the 1970s, when she blended soul with country and rock to shape a new approach and then leapt beyond it into jazz standards, operetta, and mariachi. The Ronstadt documentary The Sound of My Voice cemented the legend status her younger emulators have been working to establish for her for years now, and her Kennedy Center celebration was pure love (with a little classic Boomer-style political protest thrown in). Ronstadt doesn’t sing now, her goddess-level pipes diminished by Parkinson’s disease. But her career and life—her independence, resilience, and down-to-earth devotion to the work of art, the attention that generates delight—serve as a model for us all.