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 Music Clubbers,
Thanks enormously for joining me in the what-year-is-this-again edition of Slate’s annual music critics’ roundtable. I feel as upbeat as I remain capable of mustering to have 10 of today’s brightest music writers here with me, to turn over the stones in the glitchy stream of the past 12 months and decipher the codes scratched underneath. I imagine there’ll be a spread of experiences—for instance, in how much live music was part of your second pandemic year. In Toronto, where I am, access to vaccines came far later than it did in the U.S., allowing only weeks of comparative chill before variant scares shook the foundations again. My view of the year in music ended up feeling obstructed by the ways my faculties numbed out to handle the long-haul agita. I don’t usually take my diagnoses from New York Times pop-psych articles—I usually take them from Stephen Sondheim lyrics, may his memory be a blessing—but when the Times said 2021’s dominant mood might be “languishing,” I felt called out.
A few flares of irrepressible vitality stood out, like Lil Nas X with his multimedia Montero victory parade and Olivia Rodrigo’s ascent from niche Disney TV star to emo-pop ubiquity. But as “hot vax summer” deflated into “sad girl autumn,” the more conspicuous pattern was of high-profile artists making more subdued returns that resisted audience expectations, such as Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed, Lorde’s Solar Power, Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, and, in a different way, Adele’s 30. (That they’re all women simply indicates who in pop has been subjected to the highest pressures.)
On her record, Adele made a surprising connection with U.K. producer Inflo of the radical collective Sault, whose four albums through 2019-20 had many critics fanning our brows. In 2021, Sault associates such as Cleo Sol and Little Simz were deservedly hailed for their own releases too. But when Sault’s album Nine came out in June, it was made available to stream for only 99 days before it was pulled away. Consider it part of Sault’s cultivated mystique or a political blow against consumer entitlement to artworks as commodities, especially when those works are as communally intimate as Sault’s songs about making a life in London’s racialized redoubts. But Nine’s vanishing act also befit a year when nothing was reliable, every certitude apt to slip our grasps. File next to U.S. student-debt relief and national police reform among, as a more senior London radical’s album title put it this year, The Million Things That Never Happened.
The Great Languishing has tumbled through dimensions out of joint with time and space: While some 2021 releases actually were pandemic projects, many more had been held back through 2020, in hopes that they’d be able to be backed by tours. Many of this year’s “new” sounds, then, were actually echoes from the beforetimes. Meanwhile, nearly two years confined to a limited spatial range, three-quarters of it my desk and my bed, unhitched me from any tethered sense of place. The novel that affected me the most this year was Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. Its first half invents a nonpareil poetry of extremely online-ness, the patter of an asynchronous, ungrounded self permeated by the fragments that endlessly condense and evaporate out of social media’s collective semi-unconscious. But in its second half, a real-life emergency yanks the narrator out of “the portal” and back into genuine presence. One might have supposed a global pandemic would do something similar, but it turned out only to increase our dependency on digital prosthetics.
The music that called on me most persuasively in 2021 found a way to disperse some of these layers of existential fog—most frequently through voices. It either offered up something too strikingly human to be subsumed in the churn, or it reflected the churn back to me in a way that heightens my awareness of being within it. Since, as your host, I have the privilege of speaking up in this roundtable a couple more times, I’ll save my full best-of-the-year list for a later post. But I’ll point to a few examples from its upper reaches.
Until 2021, I mostly overlooked the post-punk revival that’s been going on for several years, especially in the U.K. Much of it has been marked by a speak-singing vocal style that reflects both a generation that’s grown up with rap and a strategy to get away from how moribund someone singing over a rock band can seem in the 21st century. (Music journalists have often referenced the German term sprechgesang, although I think sprechstimme would be more precise.) But I snapped to attention this year after hearing New Long Leg by the London band Dry Cleaning (on venerable indie label 4AD). The guitar-bass-drum dynamics of the group compare favorably to everything from Gang of Four to Sonic Youth, but they are elevated by the dry recitative vocals of Florence Shaw. Shaw was a visual artist reluctantly persuaded to join her (male) art-school friends’ band, a backstory reminiscent both of Vanessa Briscoe Hay entry into the great 1980s Georgia group Pylon and of painter Sue Tompkins’ role in the cult Glasgow 2000s band Life Without Buildings. Listeners might also be reminded of early Laurie Anderson or David Byrne. But Shaw is something all her own, a hilarious monologuist and postmodern collagist who combines bits of what Lockwood would call “portal” language with commerical-speak and signage, overheard dialogue, diaristic fragments, and millennial text-chat into an oddly unified whole. This “emo dead stuff collector” then delivers it in a chilly near-monotone that floats above the angsty music to portray disassociation amid tumult.
What better representation of “languishing” could there be than the chorus of album opener “Scratchcard Lanyard,” in which—after verses that say things like, “Weak arms can’t open the door, kung fu cancel/ It’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit”—Shaw intones the mantra, “Do everything and feel nothing/ Do everything and feel nothing”? (This turns out to be a slogan from an ill-considered U.K. tampon ad campaign a few years back.) As Shaw said of her style in an interview in April, “It’s an interesting thing to write about, because it’s kind of trying to write about nothing, but it feels like an underexplored emotion. Because people always talk about huge swells of emotion, but … what if you’re not getting that?”
From an adjacent scene but to utterly contrary effect, there’s the noise-prog-jazz-punk band Black Midi. They might speak, snarl, or sing, sometimes even prettily (as on “Marlene Dietrich”), but the band’s maximalist approach is to grab for any style that suits its purpose until another one comes along. It can be almost avant-operatic, in the manner of later-period Scott Walker, or as complicatedly nasty as any group since the great, underrated 1990s band U.S. Maple. But Black Midi presents a bracingly pessimistic antidote to languishing: Its music isn’t about waiting for the bad things to come, but knowing the bad thing’s been here all along.
At the other end of the spectrum, I think of two extremely vulnerable records from artists here in Canada. One is When Smoke Rises, the brief 23-minute album by Mustafa. Since it’s acoustic-guitar-based, you might call it a folk (or R&B-folk) album. But it’s closer to emo-rap in its vice-like intensity and use of electronic undercurrents and snippets of street recordings than to forerunners such as, say, Bill Withers. Mustafa’s songs depict cycles of violence and mourning in the Regent Park housing community where he grew up, a subject he’s been chronicling since he was a teen performance poet. It’s not an unusual theme for hip-hop. But here, the creaky-smooth texture of his voice is like empathy itself coming to life, a sound that slides around all resistances and draws you into his perspective and his pain. It’s a record so quiet, it’s deafening; it won’t let a listener sleep.
Finally, there’s Ma délire: Songs of Love, Lost and Found, the second album by Montreal’s Myriam Gendron. It’s a double-album tapestry of old folk songs, blues, chansons and original compositions in French and English, often in novel recombinations and feminist-shaded reinterpretations. There are occasional guest musicians such as free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano (who also made an arresting duo album this year with guitarist Bill Orcutt). But it’s not experimental flourishes that distinguish it from a conventional folk record; rather, it’s Gendron’s own presence, with the low center of gravity of both her guitar picking and her kitchen-table voice, and the sense of both purpose and mystery that she conveys. If Dry Cleaning’s album is the one that most captures for me “the way we live now” in 2021, Gendron’s may be the one that best conveys the way we always have lived, among the trees that furnish the wood for the guitars and the cultures that furnish the stories for the songs—each of us briefly, one by one, but collectively with some kind of perverse staying power, for good or ill.
After these solo singers, I’m tempted to talk about the dual voices of the married couple in Low, a band I’ve been listening to for a quarter-century that made one of its greatest albums ever this year, Hey What. But Sasha, I know you have a lot to say about Low, so I happily cede the ground to you. Let us know how they wrestled with the Great Languishing, and what other 2021 sounds helped carry you through.
Read the next entry.