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.
Hello, Music Club and disco lovers! Excited to participate for the first time.
Lindsay, I am obviously so happy you mentioned “Yo Perreo Sola”—I don’t think anyone imagined how startlingly prescient that song was when we started blasting it after YHLQMDLG’s surprise release, but I know it definitely fueled some late-night, solitary kitchen dancing across the country (and the fact that Ivy Queen is on the remix brings me nothing but unbridled joy). I absolutely loved Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, too. Apart from solo dance sessions, I did a lot of masked running through Brooklyn over the summer, and the dark bliss of “Forever” and “Claws” powered me for miles. I’m kind of new to a lot of Brooklyn—I moved here after almost four years in Berlin just before the pandemic—so I’ll always associate Charli’s quarantine bops with my rare moments outside, trying to get the lay of the somewhat deserted land.
In general, though, I have to say Benito has provided most of my recent soundtracks, mainly because of how prolific he was in 2020. I’ve been writing about Bad Bunny since 2017, and I feel vindicated saying that he would stay himself as his career progressed. I’ve considered, of course, that El Último Tour del Mundo making history as the first Spanish-language No. 1 on the Billboard 200 had somewhat to do with timing, but Chris, I’m with you that at least personally, it tops YHLQMDLG. Don’t get me wrong, YHLQMDLG is, as Bad Bunny tweeted, palo after palo (banger after banger), and “Safaera” is incomparable. However, I’m a massive fan of getting to see just how experimental and unconventional he’s committed to being. I’m trying not to be ahistorical about the fusions he’s created in reggaeton: I listened to Rolling Stone’s podcast episode on Daddy Yankee’s “Barrio Fino” recently (Brittany, I think you worked on that!), and it was a good reminder that Yankee and other artists have been mixing reggaeton, merengue, and other sounds from the jump. But I’ll admit, adding some alt sounds to the scene is something I’m always into. Plus, I love when we get a little of Emo Bunny, and in this case, we got a lot of him.
I want to go back to what Carl mentioned about the year in protests and how we saw companies and institutions make “at least make superficial statements of solidarity.” I spent a lot of time grappling with what exactly this means in music. Lindsay, I’m totally with you that I’d prefer to have activists rather than celebrities leading the charge on the social front, but I think a lot about the specific responsibilities that the Spanish-speaking industry, in particular, has to remedy its ongoing issues of race and anti-Blackness. The Black Lives Matter protests this year shined a spotlight on a lot of concerns—erasure, colorism, the continued whitening of Black genres like reggaeton—that aren’t new in Latin music at all (the reggaeton scholar Katelina Eccleston, whose Perreo 101 podcast is brilliant, has been on top of these discussions for ages). What 2020 reinforced is just how woefully unprepared and, frankly, disinterested the industry can be when it comes to proposing tangible solutions.
Suzy Exposito and Bethonie Butler wrote great pieces about the reckonings that are needed in Latin music and both mentioned Conciencia Collective, a network of musicians and industry insiders working in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. It’s led by Gloria “Goyo” Martínez of the group ChocQuibTown, and I really want to see where that effort goes, especially since some of these problems are so culturally ingrained in Latinx identity. These conversations play a huge role in how artists are addressing these matters in front of millions of people: J Balvin apologized after a clueless #EveryLivesMatter hashtag and then seemed bewildered that people weren’t doing more to “teach” him; Karol G tweeted a photo of her dog and said it was an example of the beauty of “black and white” together. They’ve all pledged to do better, which, as some of the leading faces in music created by Black Caribbean communities who are so underrepresented in the industry, is the bare minimum.
On the actual music end, I’ve always felt a bit frustrated that “protest” songs in Latin pop are frequently more about embracing messages of unity and positivity than pushing head-on for change. However, there was one release that I thought gorgeously blended a radical spirit and, in Lindsay’s words, the “lure of the beat”: Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia. Lido’s work has always struck me as shimmering—not in the disco sense, but in the way she builds these luminous soundscapes using her voice and folk and electronic sounds. She’s called the album “an angry letter to Colombia,” and on it, she redefines the narrow way beauty is celebrated there and across cultures. Songs such as “Quiero Que Me Salves” are rooted in Afro-Colombian traditions from the town of Palenque and full of healing—one of the many reasons I’m rooting for her to win the Grammy next year in the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. (To the academy: No one else in that category compares!) I also kept Rita Indiana’s album—her first in five years—Mandinga Times on repeat as an example of ways that thinking about apocalyptic scenarios provides a framework for reinventing reality. (I thought about that with Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene as well.) Rita has likened the record to a “songbook for the end of the world,” and the title track is a hyperactive, infectious interpretation of how little time we might have left because of impending ecological and economic doom. I’m not going to lie, the song is stressful, but it’s so good, and it features the Dominican dembow artist Kiko El Crazy.
To me, a few other displays of powerful protest happened when artists rebelled against the sonic status quo. Arca’s Kick I was an album that I found completely jarring at first, and then it landed somewhere really deep for me. Both “Mequetrefe” and “Nonbinary” were songs I played over and over. I felt the same way about listening to Yves Tumor work their way through snarls and growls and glam rock on Heaven to a Tortured Mind, another unabashed refusal to be just one thing. Brittany, I’m curious about how this year made you rethink the idea of protest music and what moved you—both physically and otherwise—throughout 2020.
Still perreando sola,