In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade.
What’s up, Slate Music Club?
Long time listener, first time caller, and what an honor to be among your ranks. I want to start here by sharing a few thoughts on what it meant to me to love music this year.
When I think of 2021, a year that felt like many tangled up, I’ll always think of the radio. My sister Liz and I made it our New Year’s resolutions to tune in more often, and radio became a constant (in part, I’m sure, from spending so much time at home), especially in the early months of the long, dark, and solitary winter. I was specifically flipping on the jazz-heavy Columbia University station, WKCR 89.9 FM, every morning and most nights, reveling in the thrill of having another human (pre-recorded or not) select the tunes and transform my little pocket of the universe with bossa nova or Les Rallizes Dénudés or electric Miles or Billie. When, in heartbreaking succession, we lost Sophie, Chick Corea, and Milford Graves, I listened to marathons of their work. Knowing that others were also home or in their cars communing with these visionary sounds, I felt less alone.
When I could pick a record or the radio, it was often the airwaves, because during our seasons of unrelenting routine, I could not forfeit the possibility of getting turned onto something I didn’t know or expect. I would switch on the radio and feel the boundaries of my apartment stretch. And like any committed early-morning WKCR listener, I absorbed hours upon hours (amounting to probably days) of Charlie Parker, thanks to another legend we lost in September, the DJ Phil Schaap—a heroically passionate music lover for whom obsessive fandom was itself a kind of virtue, an act of justice, an embrace of life.
“Schaap’s unapologetic passion for a form of music half a century out of the mainstream is, at least for his listeners, a precious sign of the city’s vitality,” wrote David Remnick in a 2008 New Yorker profile, words that took on new dimensions of truth when I read them this year.
I consider myself supremely lucky to be a music-obsessed person—professionally and otherwise—because in another plague year of suffering and depression and politicized ignorance, I (we?) had something to invest at least a degree of hope in with confidence, even if it was just an album, a song, or a band. Obvious? Maybe, but I felt myself clinging to my obsessions with a fervor and clarity that felt noticeably renewed. (I have to say I did not relate to Dry Cleaning’s “feel nothing” adage this year.) Seeing as I can’t even type out the year that preceded this one without my entire body stiffening, maybe this was all a kind of clawing for joy and holding tight in the wake and midst of—as you classified our international mood, Carl—so much “languishing.”
When in-person live shows returned, I was vaxxed, masked, and ready. My first gig of 2021 was the viscerally ecstatic experience of Black Sabbath Cover Band Rehearsals on a roof with friends. I had not smiled so much or so wide since the Before Times. The bar was set high, but the rest of the year, in shows, delivered. One summer night I hopped in a cab last minute to catch the future-casting poet and musician Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother—who released one of my favorite albums this year with her bracing rap record, Black Encyclopedia of the Air (more on that below)—perform with the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and others at the Prospect Park Bandshell. One August afternoon, I watched a group of improvising avant-gardists on the sidewalk in Chinatown, while befuddled pedestrians and cyclists unwittingly became a part of the set. I power-napped at 3 a.m. to go see my best friends play politically-attuned post-punk at sunrise on the Williamsburg Bridge. I saw, from the front row, modern glam-god Yves Tumor lick the strings of Chris Greatti’s electric guitar. At the lavish Beacon Theater, I heard Bob Dylan balladeer a version of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” so raspily arresting, I had to record it on my phone (sorry, Bob). At MoMA PS1, I experienced Lyra Pramuk and a seven-piece ensemble reimagining the colossal classical-ambient quest of her 2020 Fountain, my jaw dropping beneath my mask at the sight of a performance unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. One September night, I returned from a show (as for which, I’ll leave it a mystery), put the balcony-access sticker in my diary, and wrote, in earnest, “I am remembering how beautiful life can be.”
Returning to live music—uncertain as it could feel—lifted my spirit and widened my eyes in ways that I did not fully expect, even as an avid gig-goer since childhood. Consciously or not, I think I have always craved community through music, not only at shows, but also in the very act of listening. And I’m realizing that that’s what I was after this year in records, too. The music that meant the most to me recreated the prismatic, many-layered feelings of community.
Taja Cheek, who performs as L’Rain, spoke about her incandescent second album in these terms. Fatigue is her vision of soul, psych, R&B, jazz, drone, and beyond, as brought to life with a constellation of over 20 collaborators. Cheek expands her collage further with field recordings like the hand game of “Black Clap” and the gospel singer on “Find It,” which emerges, overwhelmingly, from ecstatic swells of astral jazz. Fatigue is the manifestation of an ever-in-process post-punk ethos and reckoning with “languishing” that I was looking for this year, because it simultaneously stared you in the eye and dared to ask, loudly and clearly: What have you done to change?—words delivered ferociously by Quinton Brock on the album’s first song. Fatigue feels radical to me, a record insisting on its own complexity and refusing easy legibility—an effort, Cheek said, to not be categorized or “neatly packaged” as a Black woman artist. I think of the Glissant maxim that Fred Moten borrowed for the subtitle of Black and Blur: “consent not to be a single being.”
This could be said, too, of the extraordinarily prolific multidisciplinary artist and educator Camae Ayewa, who brought together over a dozen collaborators on her staggering new album, Black Encyclopedia of the Air. With her boundless sonic imagination and fire poetry, Ayewa’s work is no less than a Black feminist intervention against historical amnesia and an indictment of the status quo. Here the beats are moonlit and her pen is ablaze—“You walk this land like monsters on top of the graves of gods,” she intones on the opener; “They Jim Crowed the air/ I couldn’t scream or shout,” she seethes on “Zami,” which, if not meant as a comment on the racial disparity of COVID deaths, sounded like one to me. As Ayewa communes with artists like Nappy Nina, Maasai, and Yatta, circling their conversations through the earth, the cosmos, and to elders, the sound of Black Encyclopedia of the Air becomes one of interconnection through time and space. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Ayewa said she hopes more people get into the blues, gospel, and free jazz because these genres are “liberation technologies.” Black Encyclopedia of the Air, while oriented towards rap and poetry, spacious beats and jazz loops, feels like liberation technology, too. I hope many more people get into this album, which I think is her best.
The last piece that the great Greg Tate wrote for The Wire, this past October, was a review of a set of newly-reissued recordings by Black Arts Movement poet-activist Nikki Giovanni, for which Ayewa wrote the liner notes. In his final paragraph, Tate traced a lineage from Giovanni to Ayewa, calling Ayewa the poet’s “heir apparent”: Her notes, he wrote, “[extend] both the Black Arts lineage and the flow of Giovanni’s observational, rhetorical and confessional strengths—and oppositional currency—well into this fervent, race and gender polarized millenium.” And I would be remiss not to mention the late bell hooks here, too, whom Ayewa and I discussed in a 2016 interview (she once put hooks’ name into a song). Briana, I love the hooks quote you closed with in your entry: “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.” I think Black Encyclopedia of the Air does both.
In August, there came another expansive album, hugely anticipated for me and emerging from an entirely different musical context, that took over my life with an endorphin-rush of collective joy that is still carrying me through in December.
I saw the Baltimore band Turnstile for the first time on the 2018 Warped Tour, when I was traveling to report on the festival’s final year for The Guardian, and immediately I was in. I had found a new favorite band, one that reminded me of, if not the sound, then the spark and physicality of the heavy music that made me into a teenage music obsessive in the first place. To me, Turnstile evokes the tidal rush of hardcore attuned to the openness of life as a curious music fan and as an empath. Its artful fourth album Glow On absorbs bits of experimental rap, cathartic dance grooves, vulnerable lyrics, and the most thrilling, careening hooks of any album I heard this year, period. As the album’s sub-two-minute blast of a thesis states overtly in its P.M.A.-like acronym—“T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection)”—inclusiveness is what Turnstile is after. (We love a Sly Stone-referencing hardcore gratitude anthem.) The emotional spectrum of this album is vast, making me laugh (“Dance-Off”??) or cry (as with the grief Brendan Yates movingly narrates on “Fly Again”). The first time I heard the lyric “I know you’re scared of running out of time/ But I’m afraid, too” (from the song “Mystery”), it really hit—a simple sentiment but one that, to me, captures how harsh it can feel right now to have our timelines slip out of our control.
I loved the shared experience of freaking out over this exuberant music with so many of my friends this year. In Brooklyn, when Yates shouted “CAN’T BE THE ONLY ONE” on the Dev Hynes-featuring daydream of a misfit ballad, “Alien Love Cry,” and spun the mic around to let the audience scream it back, not a single person there was. It felt surreal at those shows, and after so long, to be immersed in a unifying appreciation for hardcore-as-possibility where people were stage-diving and pogoing and two-stepping with glee; where there were Power Trip shirts as far as the eye could see; where Hynes suddenly appeared on stage to sing his Glow On collabs. The crowd screamed “THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME SEE MYSELF/ THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME BE MYSELF” and enacted as much in real time. The day after seeing Turnstile for the first of three times this year, I wore a shirt that says “MUSIC IS A NATURAL HIGH” on it. Existence remains insurmountably brutal, but this felt life-sustaining in its way.
The Turnstile bill at Irving Plaza also included a set by Glitterer, the new project of Title Fight’s Ned Russin. In between songs, he offered a touching reflection on the musician friends he and his peers have lost too soon, who were creating their own worlds, and how “there’s still community within ourselves that they left.” Russin added that encountering bands like Turnstile offered the feeling of having “a place in the world.”
As I isolate myself in my bedroom once again, awaiting the results of my latest PCR test, I’m grateful to be remembering all of this. Community is not only to be found in rooms: It’s encoded in notes, riffs, and beats, too. I want to leave you with a final song, “Hard Drive” by Cassandra Jenkins, which, like the radio, got me through the winter. This soul-steadying sophisti-pop tune is largely spoken-word but beguilingly musical, filled with a chorus of characters: a Queens-accented museum guard, an eccentric driving instructor, and Jenkins’ gemstone-eyed friend “Perry,” who all make her buoyant in the wake of a rough year, reassembling the pieces of her broken heart. I looped this song endlessly in January. I think I was comforted by the solitary-but-assured nature of its voice and the collectivity of the healing within it. Maybe I wanted to be spoken to clearly and directly, to feel cracked open and connected.
NOW IT’S A HOLIDAY (?),
Year-end list in process:
Blair — Tears to Grow EP
Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
Circuit des Yeux — -io
Grouper — Shade
Half Waif —“Party’s Over”
Lana Del Rey — “White Dress”
Lily Konigsberg — Lily We Need to Talk Now
L’Rain — Fatigue
Lingua Ignota — “Pennsylvania Furnace”
Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime
Moor Mother — Black Encyclopedia of the Air
Nala Sinephro — Space 1.8
Olivia Rodrigo — “deja vu”
Snail Mail — Valentine
Spellling — The Turning Wheel
Summer of Soul
SZA — “Good Days” + “I Hate U,” on an endless loop
The Velvet Underground
Turnstile — Glow On
Xenia Rubinos — “Did My Best”
Yves Tumor — “Crushed Velvet”