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.
Hello Lindsay and the rest of you full-, temp, and flex-time clubbers! It’s good to share this virtual WeWork space with you for the next few days. JUST KIDDING! The Music Club is one of my favorite environments to inhabit, not a toxic one with a failed IPO, inappropriate tequila shots, and formaldehyde in the phone booths. And Carl looks cuter in a leather jacket than WeWork’s Adam Neumann (though hey, that disgraced tech bro is soon to be played by Cousin Greg! In deck shoes, I hope!) Now let me get started before I seek something tasty in the snack kiosk.
Lindsay, your mention of burnout made me think about the strange state of work in 2019. Burnout may be a psychological condition, but it’s rooted in socioeconomic realities. The plummeting unemployment rate belies the fact that nearly half of Americans are stuck in low-wage jobs. Gig work unites writers like ourselves with musicians, who continue to struggle with penny-ante streaming rates, and also with the people who drive us to shows, deliver takeout when we’re on deadline, and increasingly often, edit our work or even sit beside us (temp… orarily) in our offices, if we have them. Labor activism is on the rise, and even those archetypal gig workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, are attempting to organize.
But the old union model is having to adapt to new realities, with mixed results. People are working 24/7. And while the kids who epitomize everything defiantly hopeful in the world (including in pop music—I love Billie and Lil Nas X, too) are showing remarkable maturity as activists, they’re also getting duped on the regular by corporations turning their labor into influence. It’s enough to make everybody feel like the Sisyphus of singer-songwriter Andrew Bird’s acerbic song named after that demigod, one of the funniest of 2019. This eternal laborer finally gives up on pushing his rock up the hill. “Let it roll, let it crash down low,” Bird sings before breaking into his signature virtuosic whistling. “We had a house down there, but I lost it long ago.”
Whether they’re thinking about work or the rising temperature, I think it’s a tough time for artists to find a clear path toward protest music—the most pressing issues can seem so daunting, so insurmountably complex. Instead, this year they took refuge in the personal, as always, but also in the poetic. My favorite punk band of 2019, Dublin’s Fontaines D.C., addresses its country’s anxious state in the face of Brexit not with anthems but with character studies and angular, poetic glimpses into modern Irish life. The band does have a pretty, dirge-like climate change song, but it’s called “Television Screens.” Invoking the image of Arctic ice melting on a newscast, singer Grian Chatten moans in a monotone, capturing the feeling of futility: “All your tough man looks for which you had reserved a room full of mirrors, on the television screen.”
Elsewhere, the band gets feistier, tackling how capitalism feeds toxic masculinity on “Big,” inhabiting the thoughts of a racist cab driver on “Boys in the Better Land,” pondering addiction in “The Lotts,” named after the syringe-strewn neighborhood where they rehearse. “You’re so real, I’m a show reel,” Chatten barks in “Sha Sha Sha,” channeling the vitriolic wit of the late Fall singer Mark E. Smith and a bit of the rogueishness of the great Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. No U2-style messianic gestures for this band—or for other remarkable Irish musicians to make a mark this year, including the drone-grounded folk revolutionaries in Lankum, the wild writhers in Girl Band, and the riotous Lizzie Fitzpatrick of Bitch Falcon. Along with U.K. noisemakers like Black Midi, these young rockers crashing real-life borders with guitars fashioned into battering rams fed my hope in the clarity of the young.
The poeticism of Fontaines D.C. was characteristic of a year in which many artists took on music’s storytelling conventions in compelling ways. Everybody wants to be a storyteller in our podcast-besotted era; the most exciting creators do this by unseating our preconceptions about how stories can form and what they can be. When I was first considering what unites my favorite recordings of 2019, I thought it might be a resurrection of the concept album: Now, instead of sci-fi-flavored social commentary or whimsical fantasy, it’s become a site of cultural autobiography. Just as many of the most influential books of the year, like Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, weave together history, poetics, and personal remembrance to illuminate overlooked or repressed corners of American life—and just as the year’s best film, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, explored memory itself as the ground of cinematic structure as well as story—so did many of 2019’s most unforgettable albums mine sonic histories to enrich personal ones.
Brittany Howard’s stunning Jaime, her leap from the inventive rock revivalism of the Alabama Shakes into a whole new queendom at the border where jazz meets funk meets soul, went deep to reveal the joys and pain of her experience as an embodiment of that elusive state: intersectionality. Raphael Saadiq’s masterful Jimmy Lee had the R&B Jedi master using all of his wisdom as a serious soul nerd to create a tragic but ultimately transcendent saga from the real travails of his very broken family. Chicago hip-hop soul polymath Jamila Woods and North Carolina rap visionary Rapsody both crafted tributes to their ancestors that spoke volumes about black life today with Legacy! Legacy! and Eve. Jenny Lewis confronted the ghost of her mother by invoking the musical touchstones they had shared in the fearless On the Line. Julia Jacklin redefined the edges of intimacy within the singer-songwriter mode on Crushing, which considers how women set boundaries and constantly face the violation of them, not just in love but in every aspect of their lives. Coping with loss, in fact, was a major impetus for many artists to reconsider narrative. Faced with a daunting cancer diagnosis, Joe Henry wrote a whole new hymnal, in the form of a song journal written at 4 a.m., and called it The Gospel According to Water. And Nick Cave offered a grand tour of his own haunted house of mourning four years after the accidental death of his son, Arthur, on Ghosteen.
I could go on to talk about Solange’s Houston-screw opus, When I Get Home; Michael Kiwanuka’s song cycle alchemizing violence through compassion, Kiwanuka; iLe’s journey into the heart and spirit of Puerto Rico, Almadura; or Helado Negro’s bilingual love letter to his family, This Is How You Smile. But I think I’ve made my point. The album is not dead in 2019. It’s in metamorphosis.
The more I considered this rich musical reworking of narrative form, however, I realized it’s also happening at the level of song. I could reel off plenty of examples: say, “Old Town Road,” built not for the radio but for a social media platform that didn’t even exist before 2014. Or “Cellophane,” the three-minute opera that centers FKA Twigs’ remarkable album Magdalene. But I’m going to leave you with a question, Jack: Do you think all of this deep play with pop form is taking place now because story itself has become so unstable? Did we have such a real year in music because everything else feels like fake news?
Hit me back, I’ll be watching telly,