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.
Hail again, everyone.
Brittany, I found your recap of 2020 as the year of Stevie Nicks incredibly refreshing—a real relief from the relentless drumbeat of the new that so often drives music coverage. It brought up tons of thoughts, so strap in, this is going to be a long last letter to you all.
When I consider veterans who made a difference over the past 12 months, an obvious candidate is Dolly Parton. As with Nicks, Parton’s star has been ascendant among new generations of listeners for several years now, but she had a lot of highlights this year, including the petition to replace Confederate statues in Tennessee with monuments to her, the revelation that in the spring she made a million-dollar donation that assisted the development of the Moderna vaccine, and most recently reports that she’d literally saved the life of her 9-year-old co-star on the set of her new Netflix Xmas musical (which pairs with her crackerjack new Xmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas). A new book about her was published, plus one of her own, following last year’s documentary as well as the hit NPR podcast Dolly Parton’s America. But what’s frustrating about a lot of the Dolly discourse is how often it starts from an assumption that Parton is a cipher to be decoded. Back to the time in the 1970s when her name was synonymous with boob jokes, she’s been othered as a working-class woman beloved by flyover-state fans; underestimated as an artist, when it should be settled fact that she’s one of the greatest living American songwriters; and badgered for not declaring herself a feminist, as if it were her obligation. All those attitudes are obtuse about how stars maneuver around conflicting audience expectations, but more importantly they give away the class and regional biases of many media outlets and professional explainers (like us). To millions of fans there’s no mystery to loving Dolly Parton—queer fans prominent among them, since Parton was treating gender as a construct and a performance long before such concepts were a glimmer in Judith Butler’s eye or RuPaul’s sequins. We can’t take her for granted, but we can also do without the patronizing implications that a genius who grew up in poverty is a scientific wonder on the order of a talking horse. You can plainly see there some of the sources (although, mind you, only some) of how geographic and demographic groups become irrationally set at one another’s throats.
A parallel case is the reaction New York-based media had to the B-52’s when they hit town in the late 1970s, finding it terribly exotic that a smart, hip band of art kids could emerge from a place as impossibly outré as Athens, Georgia. I learned that this year from reading (and reviewing) Grace Elizabeth Hale’s book Cool Town, which makes a case for Athens on the hinge of the 1980s as the wellspring and template for all the bohemian “indie” scenes that would pop up across the map for decades to come. My days for a spell in Phase One of lockdown were soundtracked by the playlist from Hale’s chronicle, and one of my emotional shelters became my own private Athens. Reading about B-52’s guitarist Ricky Wilson, who died of AIDS in 1985, led to reflecting that this isn’t the first plague I’ve lived through. But with AIDS, the siege mentality wasn’t nearly so broadly shared. We all worried, but the worst suffering (at least in the global north) was concentrated among marginalized people, even more intensely than today. Think governments have mishandled this pandemic? Recall how long they went back then without taking any action, or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, even mentioning it aloud. Hale’s account illuminates how bold and prescient the B-52’s were then in acting out queer culture in the Bible Belt, giving scene kids who came after them cues that later became too easily forgotten. Among those successors was the great art-punk band Pylon, a group I hadn’t listened to for ages, but one that this year also delivered a big box set of their work, for new waves (pun intended) of listeners to hear.
Another of the reissues I was excited by and took comfort in this year was the first volume of Joni Mitchell’s Archives project—five discs of early demos, live gigs, and other recordings from 1963 to 1967, the year before her debut album was released. To my surprise the full set was made available on streaming, and it’s incredibly endearing and soothing to hear this giant in her formative years, first feeling her way through old folk songs and then gradually coming into her own voice. Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about Mitchell this year—though I think about her every year—is that, like her Canadian compatriot Neil Young, she went through a bout of childhood polio that separated her from her peers, and that isolation helped drive her into her imagination and shaped her as an artist. I wondered if we could take some solace from those stories, about the generation of children who’ve been out of school and stranded at home for long stretches this year. We know that the hiatus from classrooms has been bad for their educational and social development (as well as their parents’ livelihoods), but might there be an upside of fostering more original, independent minds? It’s impossible to say, but it’s a flicker of optimism I’ve held onto. Thinking back on the scourge of polio before the Jonas Salk vaccine also led to a meaningful conversation with my mother, who recalled the relief of her own large rural Irish Canadian family when it came, along with her excitement as a child to get a day off from her one-room schoolhouse to travel to a neighboring town and line up for the shot. (Or maybe it was the sugar cube—I didn’t pin that down.) When I listen to that early Joni music now, there’s an invisible string (as Taylor Swift might put it) that ties her to those memories of my mom’s, and stitches us all into the fabric of history. Mitchell has been in uncertain health for years, but here’s hoping she hangs in for a long time and keeps sharing these treasures.
Other music veterans resurfaced this year with bits of new work that spoke to what we all were going through, making their cameo appearances in living history without demanding too big a spotlight. Ann and I have both already mentioned Billy Bragg’s Taylor Swift cover, but I’d also point out “Can’t Be There Today,” the song he put out around Mother’s Day—perhaps the first special occasion when we collectively experienced the painful paradox that in order to protect our loved ones, we had to disappoint them by staying away. It’s still one of the most poignant songs that have come out of the pandemic. For her part, the great country-folk artist Iris DeMent (also a past collaborator with the late John Prine) is unprolific at the best of times, but she did raise her head a few times in 2020, most notably in October to deliver one of the standout protest songs of the year. “Going Down to Sing in Texas” is a document of exactly those regional splits I was talking about earlier, as well as a nearly nine-and-a-half-minute chronicle of the many ills that afflict America beyond the virus—greed, guns, inequality, police brutality, and on and on. But more than the righteousness of the lyrics, as always with the Arkansas-born DeMent, the song is certified by the stark lucidity of her voice, shot through with dust and gospel and straight iron nails of intelligence. Your ears know this is a woman who cannot sing a lie.
One could say much the same about Robert Wyatt, although his voice is a fuzzy, warm, searching thing, a burrowing being of the kind his early 1970s band Matching Mole was named for. Wyatt, who was a drummer before he became paralyzed from the waist down in an accident in 1973, has spent the intervening decades layering his contemplative crooning into a vast range of experimental, electronic, and often radically political songs. His most familiar track is likely his take on Elvis Costello’s classic anti-Thatcher ballad “Shipbuilding,” which he made well before Costello cut the song himself and is still the most indelible version. I was ensorcelled, then, to find him contributing his voice to several tracks on one of my favorite records of the year, the avant-garde jazz composer and guitarist Mary Halvorson’s second song-based album under the sobriquet Code Girl. I don’t know how they connected and I kind of don’t want to. It’s one of those art dreams in which creators you love just supernaturally end up making work together. Halvorson’s a unique writer and player, and there’s not a voice I was more in need of this year than Wyatt’s, one whose grasp of pain goes so deep, but who yearns so audibly for a better world.
Mitchell is 77, Wyatt 75, Parton 74, Bragg 63, the surviving B-52’s and Pylon members also in their 60s, and DeMent will enter that decade in January. But in an era when you are only as valuable as your Instagram presence, younger artists can be in need of comebacks too. A decade ago, the English singer and composer Mica Levi, now 33, led the superb Micachu and the Shapes. I had the impression that they (Levi’s preferred pronoun) had turned entirely from songwriting to film scoring, with their striking work on 2014’s Under the Skin and 2016’s Jackie among others, and this year some parts of the aforementioned Steve McQueen Small Axe series. But this month I learned the Shapes group has changed its name to Good Sad Happy Bad, with keyboardist Raisa Khan taking over lead vocals, and put out their first new album as such, Shades, in October. If I’d caught it earlier, it easily would have made my top albums list, with its blend of punk momentum, intricate sound sculpture, and quizzically incisive writing. And because apparently anyone who managed to be at all productive in 2020 verged on being overproductive (thus all your twinned albums, Chris), Levi has also put out a solo record called Ruff Dog that I haven’t even had a chance to hear yet.
A comparable instance is Toronto multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Owen Pallett, a close associate and sometime band member of Arcade Fire who won the first Canadian Polaris album prize for his record under the name Final Fantasy in 2006 but has not put out an album since 2014’s In Conflict, which was also a Polaris finalist. In the intervening years, he also worked on soundtracks (he shared an Oscar nomination with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler for their score for Spike Jonze’s Her) and as an orchestral arranger for everyone from Taylor Swift to Frank Ocean to Linkin Park. Pallett’s also a friend of mine (not to mention a sometime Slate music writer), but his new album Island didn’t leave me saying “all personal feeling aside, etc. etc.” I was altogether gobsmacked. On his early albums, much of the charm came from the meeting of his classically trained facility with youthful raw emotion, flights of whimsy, and perhaps what the theorist Jack Halberstam has called “the queer art of failure.” Now, however, the songwriting is fully equal to the depths of the music. Listen to “A Bloody Morning” and you’ll hear what I mean.
Speaking of the somewhat overlooked, I want to acknowledge Clipping’s Visions of Bodies Being Burned. In a year when music was frequently hyped for being “relevant,” it seemed to test exactly how much relevance listeners can take. This long-standing rap-and-noise group includes Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, so it attracts some attention that way, but it’s often too conceptual and extreme for mainstream consumption. This album’s title is all too accurate for this collection of avant-horrorcore, which in 2020 America, was just another term for realism.
In Ann’s post, she suggested that one of the ways forward for music criticism is for us all to go on expanding our personal canons and attend to untapped archives. One project I loved this year for those reasons was Deerhoof’s album Love-Lore, where the veteran experimental indie band arranged pieces by their own musical heroes and pop-culture influences into medleys, where a composition by Milton Babbitt might morph into a song by Kraftwerk or Sun Ra and then into the Jetsons theme or a Maxwell House coffee commercial jingle. (And speaking of overproductive, this was just one of four albums the group released this year.) That irreverent genre-hopping spirit reminds me of Hal Willner, the great producer and impresario who was taken by COVID-19 this year near the release of his final project, a tribute album to Marc Bolan of T. Rex with contributors ranging from Nick Cave to Peaches to Kesha—and that was a relatively staid roster for Willner. As a teenager, I got my ears and my brain rearranged by records like his tribute albums to Kurt Weill or Thelonious Monk or Disney cartoons. They could leap, track to track, from Sting to John Zorn, or Bonnie Raitt to Yma Sumac, or Tom Waits to the Replacements to Wayne Horvitz to Los Lobos. Those collections inspired so many imitators that I don’t think I can even convey to readers now how insane it seemed in the 1980s. He brought a similar sensibility to his programming on the Night Music TV show, and absorbing it was part of what helped make me a critic, and the kind of heterodoxy-attracted critic that I am. So Willner’s passing, too young at 64, was another sorrowful one this year.
And on archives and canons, another late-breaking addition this month was the amazing new set Excavated Shellack from Dust to Digital, curated by the global 78-RPM recordings collector Jonathan Ward, featuring 100 tracks drawn from 89 different countries, made between 1907 and 1967. I haven’t been able to spend much time with it yet, but it’s exactly the kind of ear-embiggening challenge that Ann prescribed, where you might be listening to a South African choir one moment, an instrumental from pre–civil war Vietnam the next, and after that a Ukrainian folk dance or an Irish reel. If nothing else it should short-circuit our habit of automatically associating scratchy old recordings with old-timey blues, jazz, and country sounds.
In large part that reflex springs from one source in particular, the 1952 Folkways collection The Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by that great bohemian polymath Harry Smith—very much the Hal Willner of his generation, who wanted to preserve the vanishing stock of prewar American recordings and also undo the race-based genre segregation that kept black and white gospel or hillbilly singers and blues drawlers apart. In the process he helped inspire the 1950s and 1960s folk revival, leading directly to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan (Smith’s fingerprints are all over Rough and Rowdy Ways) and thus modern songwriting almost in toto.
This year, a new collection appeared, also from Dust to Digital, that came out of the simple realization that all the records represented in Smith’s anthology also had flip sides—thus, The Harry Smith B-Sides. Obviously that’s immediately a huge historic contribution. But there was a twist: Late in the process, Dust to Digital label heads Lance and April Ledbetter decided that they shouldn’t include the three B-sides from the 1920s and 1930s that were riddled with revolting racist language and attitudes. Instead of hiving them off somehow from the rest of the set, with appropriate warnings, for instance, they cut them out altogether. It spares listeners’ valid sensitivities, but also somewhat distorts the full historical picture. This set off a debate about historical revisionism that feels closely related to the contretemps about pulling down statues (how many Dolly Parton statues can we build, after all?), renaming institutions, and the representation of America’s past in the New York Times’ 1619 Project—not to mention the question of how to handle the work of artists who’ve been discovered in real life to be harassers, rapists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and so on. I don’t think there’s any simple answer to all of that, and the Ledbetters’ decision is completely understandable, but it does leave me with mixed feelings.
Similar fracases about language use and revisionism came this year when, after the Chicks dropped “Dixie” from their name, country group Lady Antebellum likewise decided to change their moniker to Lady A—but without doing the due diligence to find out this is a stage name that a Black blues singer Anita White in Seattle had already been using for decades. (The matter is now in court.) In more trifling language disputes, a lot of listeners noted that the radio edit of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s “WAP,” which turns “wet ass pussy” into “wet and gushy,” is arguably grosser-sounding than the original. Maybe some songs aren’t meant to have clean versions.
And that brings me to one debate where I know for sure where I stand, over the BBC’s decision not to play the original version of the Pogues and Kirsty Maccoll’s seasonal classic “Fairytale of New York,” which has a line in which one of the song’s feuding, downtrodden couple calls the other a homophobic slur. Instead, they’re playing an edit that substitutes other words in that line and another. As songwriter Shane MacGowan stated on the matter a couple of years ago, “[It] fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history, and she is down on her luck and desperate. … Sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively.” Of course that doesn’t mean that programmers necessarily should subject people to such terms of abuse coming unbidden out of their radios. I’m not a huge fan of Nick Cave, but I thought he got it exactly right with his thoughts on the subject in response to a fan question on his website: When you have a masterpiece like “Fairytale of New York,” go ahead and don’t play it, but mutilating it with vastly inferior substitutions is an insult to its artistic integrity. Unless you genuinely know what you’re doing, like Christy Moore.
Maybe I’m wrong there, but at the very least I’m sure that we can all agree that Jon Bon Jovi’s recent cover version of “Fairytale” is an abomination—not just because it rewrites that whole verse with unbelievably crap lyrics, but on every aesthetic level, from arrangement to his wan delivery. As our colleague Alfred Soto, would say, that one goes directly to the Hague.
And that leaves me to ask whether any of you want to round out this year’s exchange of laurels for the best of 2020 with a few well-aimed darts. What were some other musical and music-business lowlights of the year? I thought, for instance, of the disgraced Dr. Luke’s pseudonymous nomination for an upcoming Grammy, which has prompted Fiona Apple to start advocating for a boycott of the ceremonies (whatever kind of ceremonies they turn out to be). Or the way that Drake’s alone-in-my-mansion video in April for “Toosie Slide” (itself a candidate for most blatant TikTok bait of the year) turned out to foreshadow months of celebrities trying to tell us we were all in it together from houses that made it clear we decidedly weren’t. Or, closer to home, the closing in October of Minneapolis’ City Pages alt-weekly, which for more than 40 years had been one of the country’s best incubators of music-critic talent, most recently under the fabulous editor and critic Keith Harris. Somebody out there give Keith a job—I’d say he could be a music concierge to the rich and famous, for instance Barack Obama, except it looks like Sasha Obama has already got that one totally covered. I’m not sure any of us could have done better, though I don’t really buy that her dad was listening to WizKid and Gunna. (Jeff Tweedy, yes, for sure.) Maybe we should invite her to Music Club next year?