In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate music critic Carl Wilson emails with fellow critics—this year, Rolling Stone staff writer Brittany Spanos, New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, and four special guests—about the year in music.
Chris, as always, thank you for indulging my request for chart nerdery. I too harbor an outsized disdain for the modern phenomenon that is the here-today-gone-tomorrow No. 1 chart debut, which too often feels like an artist’s attempt to game an algorithm rather than create a genuinely appealing piece of music—the streaming-service version of clickbait. And while I agree that “Trollz” was probably the year’s worst offender—infamously, after debuting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in June, it fell to No. 34 the following week, setting a record for the steepest plunge from the top of the chart—I’m hard pressed to think of two people who hold the integrity of the Billboard chart to account as diligently as you and your supposed nemesis Tekashi 6ix9ine. Now there’s a TikTok duet I’d love to see.
Carl, I sometimes felt like the music industry was struggling to respond, in real time, to the ever-shifting political movements of the year. Which is fine—I’d rather have activists leading the charge than celebrities, as the notorious “Imagine” video reminded us early on in the pandemic. Plus, there’s a robust back catalog of tried-and-true anthems to pick from. For perhaps the fifth year in a row, the protest song I heard most frequently (at least in my deep-blue neck of the woods) was YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT.” Though it was released in March 2016, before Trump got the Republican nomination, I have little doubt “FDT” will go down as the defining protest anthem of the Trump presidency, if not the entire past decade. A vulgar president deserves a vulgar response, and few finely reasoned and rhetorically elegant retorts felt as appropriate in the face of the last four years than just throwing up two middle fingers and yelling, “Fuck Donald Trump!” about 50 times in four minutes. On Nov. 7, when the networks called the election for Joe Biden, I walked around my neighborhood in Brooklyn and heard this song blaring from open windows, passing cars, and wearable Bluetooth speakers on every block for miles. It was like the national anthem. I only wished the late Nipsey Hussle could have lived to see it—though, Carl, I do think there’s something powerful about what you called “protest by haunting.” That’s what I felt this year whenever I revisited the music of, say, John Prine, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, the sublime composer and Brian Eno collaborator Harold Budd, country trailblazer Charley Pride, or countless others silenced senselessly by a mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic.
Nov. 7 was a notable day in my year for another reason: It was the only time since March I got to dance with anyone other than myself. After spending the afternoon at a park—where periodic cheers of joy and relief rippled through the socially distanced crowd spontaneously every 15 minutes or so, like the wave at a sporting event—some masked friends and I ended up outside Spike Lee’s production headquarters in Fort Greene, where the unofficial mayor of Brooklyn was hosting an impromptu block party, complete with a DJ playing joyful tunes (and, occasionally, some topical slow jams like “Georgia on My Mind”). The outdoor crowd was diffuse, but it was still the largest group of people I’d been around in half a year. That made me a little anxious at first, but once I’d found a spot near the edge of the group that aligned with my comfort zone, I could not believe how blissful it felt to dance in a large group of people again, the invisible force uniting us not the threat of a virus but the lure of the beat.
But for the most part, 2020 was, as NPR put it recently, “the year of dancing by ourselves.” (Shoutout to the patron saint of dancing on her own, Robyn, who occasionally livestreamed some very necessary DJ sets throughout the year.) Chris, as you noted, this was certainly a year of disco revival. I’m not sure there was an actual reason for it any more concrete than the dependably cyclical nature of trends, since almost all of the albums that comprised this shimmery wave—Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine, Kylie Minogue’s aptly titled Disco—were recorded before the pandemic, but a lot of these records nonetheless provided the soundtrack for my seclusion. The outlier is Charli XCX’s manic and glorious How I’m Feeling Now—not a disco album so much as a hyperpop album about wanting to turn your home into a makeshift discotheque—which she did write and record entirely during the pandemic. The result is a vivid time capsule of pent-up early-quar zaniness: “I’m online, and I’m feeling so glamorous,” she vamps on the opener “Pink Diamond,” “In real life, could the club even handle us?” To be determined, hopefully sooner than later.
Chris’ pick for album of the year, Future Nostalgia, was indeed the first big pop release of the lockdown, and perhaps the only one that was pushed up on the release schedule. It was a bold choice for Dua Lipa, and it paid off, producing a string of hits that, by pure coincidence, could easily be turned into pro-lockdown PSAs. (“I should have stayed at home …”, “Don’t show up, don’t come out …”—what did Dua know and when?!) There was something breezy and escapist about the sleek Future Nostalgia, while Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, released a little while later, spent equal time delving into the realities that prompted that need for escape in the first place. In some ways it was a return to the driving beats of Gaga’s early days, but I’m not sure the Gaga of the “Just Dance” era would have released a song with a chorus that goes, “I’m not having fun tonight.” That acknowledgment of darkness and past trauma made Chromatica an appropriate mood for a year that, proverbially speaking, wouldn’t stop raining on us. One of my favorite Chromatica songs is “Free Woman,” a thumping track of hard-won empowerment on which Gaga proclaims, “This is my dance floor, I fought for.” She utters it like the stakes of a great night out couldn’t possibly be higher—and I think I know the feeling. May that be one of the many lyrics we all finally get to scream along to on a packed dance floor sometime in the next year or two.
My favorite 2020 soundtrack for sashaying around my apartment, though, was Jessie Ware’s sumptuous time machine What’s Your Pleasure? Part of its unexpected resonance, I think, came from the fact that Ware wanted the album to be about the fulfillment of fantasy: As a married mother of two small children, and the co-host of a hit podcast, Ware didn’t exactly have as many opportunities to go clubbing as she did in her younger days. “I wanted to be a storyteller of these imagined, heightened moments that maybe I wasn’t being able to take part in, in that very moment,” Ware told me when I interviewed her earlier this year. “The agenda was for people to want to dance and flirt and be sensual, and for it to absolutely step away from real life.” Disco’s lush, orchestral melodrama allowed her to amplify the heightened, almost dreamlike quality of songs like “Spotlight” and “Save a Kiss.” And while I couldn’t fit this quote into my article, I’ve often thought of the vision of the future Ware laughingly conjured at the end of our chat: “We will get sweaty again. We will make sure that happens. I just want everyone to look like Britney Spears in the ‘Slave 4 U’ video. That’s what I’m imagining post-COVID.”
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the quintessential dancing-on-her-own anthem of 2020, Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola.” Julyssa, I’m sure you have a lot to say about Benito’s big (and busy!) crossover year. What other 2020 songs had you dancing on your own?