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.
Hey You, Yeah, You,
I’m writing this on the afternoon of another struggle-bound day. My family usually spends the lull between Chanukah and Jewish Christmas binging movies, and indeed, as I sit here, they’re downstairs watching that other Peter Jackson saga about a Fab Four. But I’m too distracted to join them, worried about the way our world is coming to resemble Sauron’s land of shadow. My socials direct me toward the further devolution of democracy and discussions of the weird weather that’s sent crushing December tornadoes our way. Another rapper’s senseless murder makes headlines as another elder writer’s passing fills the obituary page.
Glancing at Twitter, I see our music-writing beacon Hanif comforting his followers with some very practical self-care tips. Thank you, friend and genius—Hanif’s MacArthur and Book Prize nominations this year have proven that sometimes the good ones do still win. Still, I find myself identifying strongly with the tweet (from country music survivor Lydia Loveless) that prompted him to advise deep breaths and small actions: “So do people still have hopes and dreams? This week is rough.”
I know I’m echoing what Carl and everyone else has already said so eloquently about the Great Languishing. It seems that our experiences of loss (of mobility, optimism, or the mojo that helps words flow) is the main thing uniting us across ever-growing distances, in the virtual world as well as the material one. But I love our differences. This club is great because it brings together music lovers with many different perspectives and passions: hip hop and country, hyperpop and emo, indie bohemia and the podcast frontier and American Studies departments.
Of course, we’re all post-genre, now, right? Though niche expertise continues to be useful, the boundaries that once defined music writing have loosened in the Internet age: It’s a very different landscape now than when I worked in New York in the ’90s, and SPIN and Vibe writers only occasionally bumped bylines between the same glossy covers. (One glorious thing about Greg Tate, my colleague at boundary-crushing ’90s Village Voice, was that he invented hip-hop criticism while demanding respect as a rocker and a jazzman, too.) Today, my go-to outlets for discovery—from Pitchfork to Bandcamp to my own workplace—strive for a generalist approach that doesn’t trivialize particular contributors’ expertise. And though much work still needs to be done to create genuine equity within music writing and the industry in general, I’m heartened that the most exciting voices in our field right now belong to hip hop-grounded generalists like Craig Jenkins, Latina polymaths like Carina del Valle Schorske, and uncategorizable creative forces like Harmony Holiday.
I like the mixing, and I also like the way the Web allows for more and more outposts for music and writing about it. F#$k the pieceworker labor economy of newsletters, but I’m glad Music Journalism Insider Cabbages, and High Tea exist. There’s a lot of talk these days about the negative effects of fragmentation on our psyches and communities, but mostly I see the increased visibility/audibility of what once were called subcultures (what a problematic term! I embraced it for too long) as a crucial step in redistributing attention and acknowledgment across the pop-cult map. Briana, I think a lot about this as it relates to R&B, a realm once treated by many mainstream music outlets as Pluto — small and distant from the sun — but now, because of writers like you, recognized as a major creative engine and a precious repository of shared emotional experience. And while I agree, Steacy, that it’s discouraging to witness the failure of mainstream country to embrace risk-takers like Mickey Guyton, I have to bear witness (as you often have!) to the way she and the coalition in which she plays a key role are determining ways to thrive beyond the bros.
The grassroots coalition Guyton is building alongside compatriots like Allison Russell, Rissi Palmer, and the Black Opry’s Holly G is a model for sustenance in a one percent world. Not waiting for approval from any higher-ups, working together against their own marginalization by taking on the very definitions that have dubbed them outsiders, these folks are having a major impact even if their sales numbers remain relatively modest. (Respect to Rhiannon Giddens, a pioneer in this methodology who, with her partner Francesco Turrisi, is taking the conversation worldwide by excavating the intertwined roots of Arabic, Mediterranean, Celtic, and African diaspora musics.) For most, the goal is not necessarily country stardom. It’s to shift from a centralized model toward new realities, in which both influence and resources are more evenly distributed.
The geeks among you will recognize that the words “decentralization” and “distributed network” invoke a nearly 10-year-old model of equitable Web-based information flow, one that’s currently on fire because of the Wild West-mood surrounding Web 3.0, crypto, and NFTs. To those not on the invite list for Art Basel’s superyacht parties, this stuff probably sounds like hideous techno at best and libertarian-bro scamming at worst. As Emilie Friedlander put it in her very cogent account of venturing into the crypto space, most of it is “a mix of doe-eyed egalitarianism and financial opportunism.” She’s right: The decentralized web is a confusing and often vacuous place. I’m the least Elon Musk-like person on Earth (where I’m planning to stay), and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this stuff if not for the indispensable discussions offered by Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s $5 Grad School podcast and Cherie Hu’s team at the research hub Water + Music. And music has lagged behind visual art in monetizing (sorry) digital culture.
Yet stories like this one about the Indonesian avant-garde duo Senyawa, which released its latest album Alkisah via an app connecting a 44-label global confederation of labels empowered to package and even remix the music as its owners wished—giving its music exponentially more reach than possible through a conventional release—inspire me. So does the tricksterism of PleasrDAO, a 74-member collective that swept in Robin Hood-style to purchase the unreproducible Wu-Tang Clan album A Night In Shaolin (once owned by pharma villain Martin Shkreli), with plans to eventually make the music accessible on the Web. (They’re still working on the “how.”) And so does the work of Nashville-based nonprofit Unmanageable, dedicated to helping hard-to-categorize artists like Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla sidestep the music-biz scarcity economy and realize their community-based, genre-busting dreams through grant-writing, mutual aid and entrepreneurship. These efforts engage with the idea of “squad wealth,” which tempers the star system and capitalist competition through mutual support, digital localism and a collective redefinition of value. Such utopian visions derive from both hip hop and folk streams, honoring the lineage of the cypher and the song swap, rejecting the decadence of the one percent for a shine-theory future. It’s not mainstream in the least. But it may be sustainable.
This is all getting pretty heady! Did I listen to any music this year? It may not surprise you, given my outlier state of mind, that what moved me the most were releases that a mainstream-oriented or even critics’-favorite view might consider marginal and obscure, but which lit up the centers they do occupy with love, courage, insight, and sonic excellence.
Soul healer Valerie June’s mesmerizing collaboration with L.A. soul dreamer Jack Splash, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, topped my personal list (which you can peruse below), simply because I needed its grounding astral energy more than any other album this year. My favorite song has a similar vibe and also comes from California. “Free Wine” is the most buoyant of the six songs on the Rainbow Girls’ quarantine set Rolling Dumpster Fire, made during quarantine in the house that the trio and various loved ones/friends/musical collaborators shared. I fell in love with the Rainbow Girls after seeing them deploy gorgeous harmonies and chaotic good at their showcase for 2019’s Americana Fest in Nashville. I’ve kept up with them via their socials, where their informal jams, intimate collaborations, and behind-the-scenes goofiness grow a world that continually charms and welcomes me.
The vulnerable love song I favor has a backstory that’s redolent of the communal magic the group generates: a winery damaged by one of Cali’s myriad horrific wildfires was unloading bottles of very fine vintages whose labels had been scorched. A connection hooked up the Girls and their chosen family with 700 bottles. “We got to live like fancy wine kings for the rest of the year,” “Free Wine” songwriter Caitlin Gowdey said. It’s such a perfect story of pulling pleasurable sustenance from the worst situation and sharing it with everyone you cherish.
That’s what I found in so many of my favorite songs and albums this year— the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. I’m not talking about corny uplift; I’m celebrating the Trinidadian poet Anthony Joseph, whose cane-burning The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running For Their Lives reasserts the power of oracular jazz freedom. I’m urging you to listen to Margo Cilker, one of the many younger women in the Americana world to release stunning albums this year (others include Leah Blevins, Melissa Carper, Emily Scott Robinson, and the gloriously old-timey Sierra Farrell), whose old-soul storytelling on her debut Pohorylle unfolds like the jukebox equivalent of a Kelly Reichardt film. I’m reminding you that the Brazilian master Caetano Veloso released a deep and playful coda to his storied career, Meu Coco, to little American notice this fall. (Good for Chris Richards for being on it.) I’m begging you to not overlook Melanie Charles’ extraordinary Y’All Don’t Really Care About Black Women, in which the Brooklyn-based vocalist, flutist and producer puts herself in (literal) dialogue with some of the greatest voices in jazz, to electrifying effect.
And finally, I’m telling you to carve out an hour or so and enter the fading, golden cosmos of the Felice Brothers’ From Dreams To Dust, which utterly transported me when I stumbled upon it this fall. I expected solid storytelling and good folksy grooves from this veteran bunch of upstate New York ramblers. Instead, I found a portmanteau of tales positively Melvillean in their wooliness and skewed poignancy. “This is what the apocalypse will look like/ a tornado with human eyes,” sings the outlaw heroine of opening track “Jazz On the Autobahn,” as she spits melon seeds out of a car window. That mix of poetic portent and wild hairiness permeates every track. Main songwriter Ian Felice prevails and wails like he’s just had a triple espresso while the band lays down the four-lane road that takes him from the Catskills to eternity. From Dreams To Dust doesn’t fit any trending categories, but in its unpretentious integrity, it’s relevant as hell. “It’s like the frosting on the cake of death,” Felice moans in the exploding recessional “We Shall Live Again,” which closes the album. “And the only word that rhymes with is breath.” To use a word I think Ian Felice would appreciate, and in the face of Omicron, let’s all be thankful that we share that elemental eupnea—no matter how fragmented we become.
P.S. Here are my lists of favorite albums and songs from this year — you can also find them and many more from my colleagues on the NPR Music site.
Top 10 Albums of 2021
1. Valerie June — The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
2. Caetano Veloso — Meu Coco
3. Tre Burt — You, Yeah, You
4. Melanie Charles — Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women
5. Joy Crookes — Skin
6. Sam Williams — Glasshouse Children
7. McKinley Dixon — For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her
8. Sierra Ferrel — Long Time Coming
9. Willie Dunn — Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology
10. Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi — They’re Calling Me Home
Top 15 Songs of 2021
1. Rainbow Girls — “Free Wine”
2. Leon Bridges — “Motorbike”
3. Felice Brothers — “Jazz on the Autobahn”
4. Adeline — “Whisper My Name”
5. Alexa Rose — “Clearwater Park”
6. Jon Vinyl — “Stacy”
7. Margo Cilker — “Broken Arm in Oregon”
8. Leela James — “Complicated”
9. Dave — “Three Rivers”
10. Clairo — “Blouse”
11. Loraine James featuring Baths — “On the Lake Outside”
12. Le Ren featuring Tenci — “Annabelle and MaryAnne”
13. Serpentwithfeet — “Same Size Shoe”
14. Jackson + Sellers — “Waste Your Time”
15. Tai Verdes — “A-O-K”