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.
Dear critical kindred,
Since many of you have taken your turns confessing dispiriting experiences, I’ll chime in with one of my own. During the first half of 2021, it was my responsibility to pre-record a five-hour radio show five days a week from my home office. My daily attempts to offer pithy context about songs on the playlist, interspersed with news from the business and chatty, quirky personal vignettes, had me straining to disguise the true scenario: I was holed up alone, dropping what I hoped didn’t come off as canned commentary. I toggled between feeling inspired to experiment with how to speak to the imagined, non-comm radio listeners out there and feeling a sense of futility and defeat.
That no doubt fed my fascination with how individual music-makers and thinkers, as well as entire scenes, organizations, and industry ecosystems, contended with being hemmed in by the limitations of this era. There was a disintegration of what once seemed monolithic, and also some pretty striking proof that possibility need not be diminished.
Carl, you asked me to help make sense of country music’s unruliness this year, so I’ll give it a go. I’ve thought for some time now that country, as a format, has been extremely ill-equipped to deal with contemporary definitions of identity. The color line, as Karl Hagstrom-Miller has called it, drawn around what came to be known as country music has grown more coded and cloaked over generations, even as it’s been rigorously maintained. (The book-in-progress from Amanda Marie Martinez that will bring to light the industry’s demographically targeted marketing and continual whitewashing can’t come soon enough.)
It’s true that country music still comes in for plenty of classist condescension, but it’s also true that its class identity has grown more complicated over time; the mainstream industry has been selling its audience as upwardly mobile since the ’60s and as increasingly suburban since the ’80s. Along the way, its brand became something more along the lines of downhome respectability (or, from another angle, semi-pastoral, big budget pop-rock that evolved in a manner that wasn’t threatening to white Americans drawn to the notion of social stability). As Steacy noted, Morgan Wallen’s sales and streaming numbers soared while he was put through a sort of time-out and rehabilitation by the Nashville industry for his videotaped use of a racial slur. I wondered whether Wallen’s mass of untroubled fans included contrarians or willfully disengaged listeners, or more probably, both and more besides, but I also noted the industry’s difficulty managing its image. There was a sense of desperation beneath the righteous indignation when Universal Music Nashville president Cindy Mabe composed an open letter to the Recording Academy, protesting its decision to remove Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed from the country album category; Mabe made her argument not only on musical grounds ( its songwriting and production approach shared much in common with Golden Hour, a winner in that exact Grammy category) but on ideological ones, framing Musgraves’ association with country as a necessary counterbalance to Wallen.
Carl, you described the support for Wallen as “from the bottom up,” but the ground-up action that I considered truly worthy of attention this year was the one that Ann referred to (and that I wrote about at length): the grassroots coalitions of Black and queer artists and advocates forming outside of the industry, borrowing tools both from the business and political organizing. By far one of the most stirring things I witnessed this year was the growth of an informal network, spurred on by Holly G’s Black Opry, Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” radio show, the Country Soul Songbook Summit and other efforts, where people who’d once felt utterly alone were finding each other, and finding common cause. They had little interest in the negative comparisons often made between the categories of commercial country, Americana, and folk; they were too busy welcoming working musicians who’ve struggled for any opportunity and aspiring newbies who never thought attempting was an option.
The kinds of displays that happened at this year’s CMAs, ACMs and CMTs—highly visible award platforms—to honor Black women, including newly appreciated elder Linda Martell and persevering star Mickey Guyton, were notable, but they haven’t really opened doors or altered realities on a broad scale yet. Still, this was a year when artists striving to build their careers could celebrate the breakthroughs of their Black women peers who’d worked their way to expressions of individuality that drew on both mastery of form and ownership of storytelling. That was certainly true of the way that Guyton applied her ardent, big-voiced, ’90s and early ’00s country-pop sensibilities to emotional truth-telling;how Yola asserted agency, sensuality, and virtuosity through her disco-era interests; Amythyst Kiah spun anguished, shadowy visions from Piedmont blues, old-time and alternative leanings; and Allison Russell unfurled her own tale of escape through folk balladry, supple soul, and poetic play. (That’s a much abbreviated list; Ann and I teamed with colleagues Andrea Williams and Marcus K. Dowling to collect these accomplishments in timeline form.) Well beyond roots music realms, I was enthralled with the similarly rich pairings of narrative, concept, forwardness, and feel on Dawn Richard’s Second Line and Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales, and I second Briana’s description of the latter as a “lighthouse of self-love.”
That’s not the only resourceful network-building that I’ve been watching closely in Nashville. 2020 and 2021 were the most productive years yet for a number of hip-hop and R&B music-makers in the city, who labor in the shadow of industry infrastructure and, in the case of some, like Reaux Marquez, illuminate the city’s inequalities in ways that no other circles of songwriters in town would even consider. And with no proven path to a career, they’ve been mapping their own routes. For Daisha McBride—a quick-witted rap technician in the classic sense, who veered into broody singing this year and also came out—that meant placing tracks on streaming TV shows while also shaping a song cycle about the quick-burn of relationships.
McBride made a deliberate inward turn with that project; playful bravado had been her thing before. And that impulse to burrow in, when the outer world has seemed so treacherous, is something else I was listening for this year and last. It wasn’t insularity that I craved, though. I found it thrilling to hear artists who, in their states of isolation, roamed the expanses of their minds. (I was reminded that that’s hardly a new impulse when I listened to Radiolab’s Mixtape series, a history of the musical, social and political impact of the cassette tape, especially the episode that recounts the introduction of the Sony Walkman, the OG personal, portable listening device.) Spelling did that with her fantastical, orchestrated album The Turning Wheel, and Nashville’s Houston Kendrick did it too on Small Infinity. He made it the bedroom-pop way, when he temporarily moved back into his childhood home early in the pandemic. But it’s certainly not made to modest bedroom pop scale—it’s a post-Frank Ocean exploration of young, Black, queer, Southern, suburban masculinity and multiplicity, with resplendent, hip-hop- and R&B-fluent pop melodies, embellished by Kendrick’s own feathery harmonies and vertiginous runs. Serpentwithfeet’s Deacon, the album that made me tear up the most in 2021, offered a different sort of extravagantly scaled intimacy, with its enlightened, sensual and sweetly unguarded odes to friendship and flirtation between Black men.
Serpentwithfeet managed to flesh out what felt like a whole relational worldview, using church language to depict delight in many kinds of companionship. That was a remarkable thing to hear this year, and so was the thoroughness that artists from Mustafa to Little Simz and St. Lenox brought to reflecting on or ritualizing grief, and that Lucy Dacus, Joy Oladokun, and Kendrick brought to examining, confronting or defying the moral systems they grew up under from where they stand now. In some way, they were each fashioning worlds that held enough room for them.
It can seem like young music-makers who embrace genre fluidity, including the chaotically complex and charismatic Genesis Owusu, see nothing but room around them, the antithesis of the genre tribalism that Kelefa Sanneh takes seriously in Major Labels. But some of the stuff that engaged my mind and body most, and quite literally helped me get away from danger, this year came from artists who played perversely with forms, rather than tossing them out entirely. Torres traded her past spiky abstraction for melodic directness and daredevil expressions of desire on Thirstier, which I blasted from my phone to signal that I wasn’t animal prey when hunters shot in my direction as I ran down a wooded park trail. Xenia Rubinos, on the other hand, collapsed her highbrow and lowbrow inclinations into one generative source and manipulated her highly skilled singing with mischievously dramatic effects and exuberant beat-making on Una Rosa, and I threw it on to propel me through the final segment of a 50-mile mountain race by the light of my headlamp, as I searched for the flags that were supposed to mark the way without another soul around.
21 albums that gave me thrills, within limits
Serpentwithfeet — Deacon
Xenia Rubinos — Una Rosa
Torres — Thirstier
Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
Mickey Guyton — Remember Her Name
Allison Russell — Outside Child
Amythyst KIah — Wary + Strange
Spelling — The Turning Wheel
Houston Kendrick — Small Infinity
Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Carly Pearce — 29: Written in Stone
Fancy Hagood — Southern Curiosity
Arlo Parks — Collapsed in Sunbeams
Cimafunk — El Alimento
Valerie June — The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Adia Victoria — A Southern Gothic
Lucy Dacus — Home Video
Dawn Richard — Second Line
Daisha McBride — Lemme Get This Off My Chest
Melissa Carper — Daddy’s Country Gold
Leon Bridges — Gold-Diggers Sound