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 special guests Ann Powers, Jack Hamilton, Chris Molanphy, and Julyssa Lopez—about the year in music.
Season’s greetings, fellow Clubbers,
It’s so great to be here with all of you again. At the end of this year of suddenly doing everything at a distance, at least getting to hang out with all of you in this virtual space feels familiar.
Figuring out what to write about at the end of this year has made me realize how deeply my relationship with music is entwined with sociality, something that’s been so absent these past 9½ months. On the evening of Tuesday, March 10, I got together with some friends at a rehearsal space to practice for a gig that was supposed to happen a couple of weeks later. (Ha, ha.) The following day, my employer sent an email telling all faculty that we should prepare to move our classes online until at least April 5. I’ve yet to set foot in a classroom since.
It wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized that the very last thing I did in the “old” world was hanging out with a small group of people, learning songs, drinking some beers, arguing about records, nervously joking about a pandemic. Then I thought about a time not too long before that when a friend of mine who likes to organize impromptu jam sessions in his garage asked me if I wanted to come by and play, and I told him I couldn’t because I was too busy, probably grading papers or some other task that could have absolutely waited until the next day. Once we’re out of this, I hope it’s a long while before I’m dumb enough to turn down another such opportunity. Be thankful for what you got, as the song says.
So what was my musical year in isolation? I watched some charming music movies and read some terrific music books. I wrote about people who died, including Little Richard and Eddie Van Halen, two absolute giants who fit well in the same sentence. I composed and recorded the theme music for a great podcast that my partner hosted and produced over at Public Books (shameless household plug!). But mostly I listened to a lot of hip-hop that sounded like music made when I was in high school—mostly made by artists who were actually in high school around the same time I was—while building intricate and time-consuming toys out of little plastic bricks. Allow me to explain.
Early in the pandemic I decided to get (back, I guess) into Legos. It was late March, around when it was sinking in that this might be a prolonged and so it might be time to start investing in a new hobby, something low-key and (literally) constructive that wouldn’t annoy the living shit out of the person I was now spending 24-ish hours a day at home with. So I bought a Lego X-wing fighter set online. I don’t exactly know why I chose that one, other than that it wasn’t that expensive, and it felt like something I would have wanted to build the last time I messed around with Legos, i.e., when I was 8 years old. And let me tell you, it was a revelation: relaxing, fun, and immensely satisfying. In a year that often felt like the whole world was distressingly spinning its wheels, building my Legos gave me a sense of progress and achievement. And while I’ve never been able to read or write while listening to music, I found that Lego-ing demanded the perfect level of attention at which I could do something and listen to music at the same time. Even if that something was building a spaceship for a little plastic Resistance pilot to sit in.
The album I associate most indelibly with my X-wing fighter is Boldy James’ The Price of Tea in China, which had come out about a month prior to my purchase but which I listened to with near-obsessive frequency while building the thing. James, who’s from Detroit but is affiliated with the Buffalo-based collective and record label Griselda, had an absolutely breathtaking 2020, to my mind maybe the most extraordinary year an American musician in the past five years. James released no fewer than four projects this year (and it was almost five—his Boldface EP came out in late December of 2019), each of which are excellent in remarkably different ways. He’s 38 years old and sounds every day of it, weary and bedraggled but also shrewd and assured and just utterly masterful, a pro’s pro and an artist’s artist. The Price of Tea in China was produced by frequent James collaborator and fellow hip-hop lifer Alchemist, a musician I’ve been listening to since Bill Clinton was president.
After finishing my X-wing fighter, I decided to expand my Lego ambitions and purchased a large and intimidatingly elaborate 4,000-piece rollercoaster set near the start of summer. While building my rollercoaster I spent a lot of time listening to 38-year-old Griselda founder Westside Gunn’s album Pray for Paris, which featured Gunn’s nasal, propulsive flow ricocheting over production by ’90s rap luminaries like DJ Premier, DJ Muggs, and Alchemist (again), as well as Griselda house beatsmith Daringer. I also listened to an album by yet another 38-year-old rapper (what the hell was going on in 1982? Oh right, this), Freddie Gibbs, his full-length (and, as of a few weeks ago, Grammy-nominated) collaboration with, once again, Alchemist, Alfredo. I also spent a lot of time with Armand Hammer’s Shrines and Ka’s Descendants of Cain, two albums from New York underground stalwarts whose white-knuckled impressionism and creaky claustrophobia mapped disconcertingly snugly onto my experience of lockdown summer.
Around the start of fall I allowed myself one more brick-head indulgence, this time sinking myself (and a sizable chunk of cash) into a startlingly faithful replica of 742 Evergreen Terrace, aka the Simpsons’ house. This one took a while, as teaching on Zoom and other professional obligations led to extensive delays—construction didn’t wrap until shortly before Thanksgiving. While building I listened to Body James’ haunting, gorgeous Manger on McNichols, a self-released collaboration with Detroit musician and producer Sterling Toles that’s largely made up of vocal tracks that James recorded more than 10 years ago. The result is something that feels simultaneously urgent and ancient, a time warp that I happily lost hours of my life to. I also listened to a few other terrific Griselda releases, including Conway the Machine’s From King to a GOD, Benny the Butcher’s Burden of Proof, and Armani Caesar’s The Liz Tape. (Caesar is a few years younger than the rest of the Griselda crew, but she’s been rapping alongside them since she was 12.) And of course I listened to Mt. Marci, the latest release from the indefatigable Roc Marciano, a rapper in his 40s who keeps methodically building one of the most impressive careers of his generation.
I’ve thought a lot about what it was about listening to all these people around my age (in Roc’s case, older) making some of the best music of their lives that I found so compelling and moving. Professional music has such a vast middle- to lower-middle class, people who spend decades doing it while just scraping by, endless nights spent at Quality Inns or Super 8s off the highway rather than the Four Seasons. So there’s something special about when artists like the guys in Griselda finally “make it.” I’m sure some part of each of them always believed it would happen, but the reason people in that grinding world of demi-fame keep at it is because they love music. They love it for all the same reasons so many of us do, including the fact that it’s a way to hang out with your friends and make stuff and talk about Gang Starr or Mobb Deep or the Wu-Tang Clan (man, can you ever tell how much these guys love the Wu-Tang Clan). It’s music that reminded me of so many reasons why I love music, including the fact that music’s a gathering place, and I needed that this year.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up a song that hit right at the end of the Before Times, a track I was obsessed with when it first came out and have periodically returned to throughout the year because I find it fascinating, in completely different and maybe even oppositional ways than everything I just described above. To return to Ann’s wonderful discussion of the year in covers, RMR’s “Rascal,” an adaptation of the 2004 Rascal Flatts hit “Bless the Broken Road” that rewrote the country love ballad into an ode to all sorts of misbehavior, arrived in late February and seemed to instantly blow up the internet. The song’s elegant and frankly gorgeous vocal-and-piano arrangement made its “fuck 12” refrains hit that much harder, while its almost parodically menacing music video made it perfectly engineered for all kinds of virality.
At first (and 10th, and 20th listen) “Rascal” was astoundingly weird, an anti-cop trap-country hybrid performed by a guy in a ski mask who no one seemed to know anything about, MF Doom meets George Jones. Then it only got weirder. Copyright issues briefly derailed the song, but were then resolved with suspicious quickness. People began shifting their focus from RMR’s performance of criminal affiliations to his surprisingly potent record-industry affiliations, including a deal with Bruno Mars’ label and collaborations with Future and Lil Baby (as well as the aforementioned Westside Gunn) that soon appeared on his debut EP, Drug Dealing Is a Lost Art. People started wondering if the mysterious RMR (fittingly pronounced “Rumor”) was in fact an “industry plant,” a star whose seeming grassroots rise is artificially juiced by music-biz suits.
All of this is why even now, in late December, RMR and “Rascal” feel so preternaturally 2020, right down to the damn mask. This beautiful and oddly moving song that was an unabashed act of musical cannibalism; an ingenious viral artifact that may have actually been the product of cynical brand engineering; the blending of country aesthetics and hip-hop semiotics that was both totally inspired and quite possibly the result of someone in an office wondering aloud how they could get their hands on that “Old Town Road” money. It was a moment of real beauty and creativity shot through with paranoia, your enjoyment resting uneasily alongside the feeling you might be being cheated. That feeling’s probably as old as mass entertainment itself, and this year I was happy just to live with it.
And with that, here are 10 more albums I also liked this year but failed to mention above:
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
Bless the Mad, Bless the Mad
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here?
Megan Thee Stallion, Good News
Paul McCartney, McCartney III
Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon
Run the Jewels, RTJ4
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud