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 Music Club,
“Don’t go through your camera roll,” Kacey Musgraves warned on “Camera Roll,” a gorgeously elegiac ballad I listened to plenty this year. But given the way the pandemic has distorted my sense of time, I find that, in putting together a linear story of what actually happened these past 12 months, I trust my phone’s camera roll more than I trust my own brain. The year came in with a surreal and horrifying attack on the United States Capitol and is now going out with an ominous new Covid-19 variant. But to me, at least, so much of what happened in between those starkly memorable bookends is a muted—or perhaps just exhausted—blur.
My personal return to indoor live music feels like it happened about 17 years ago now, but my trusty camera roll tells me it’s been only less than two months since I saw Yves Tumor headline New York’s Webster Hall (and snapped some photos of them decked out in full leather-daddy regalia, naturally). The show was sold out, the crowd was rapturous, and a significant chunk of what I was feeling was sheer joy that so many people were finally recognizing Yves Tumor—the neo-glam-rocker born Sean Bowie, who released The Asymptotical World EP in July—to be the superstar they’ve always seemed destined to become.
But much of what I felt that night mirrored the pandemic-scarred anxiety that you so eloquently described, Sasha. I too was tense, taking in the show from the least-populated section of the balcony, staring in both awe and envy at the apparent abandon of the people below me in the pit. (I was also acutely aware that I’d gotten two years older during this time: Was it my imagination, or had everyone else somehow grown younger?) I used to push up as close to the front as I could get to feel that sense of ecstasy and escape during a great performance. I left an otherwise fantastic show worried I might never experience those things quite so potently again—at least not for a long time.
The thing that most surprised me about seeing live music again sounds so simple: I’d forgotten how loud it often is, the staggeringly visceral way sound waves shudder through your body and seem to rearrange your very cells. It was almost violent, the way the volume shook me out of my long calibration to quiet. The closest a record got me to that feeling this year was the same one you highlighted, Sasha: Low’s magnificently unsettling Hey What—specifically the single “Days Like These,” which was far and away my favorite song of the year. It’s the clearest evocation of that ghostly “third voice,” which, in this case, takes the form of a malignant presence that seems to be decaying the song as it progresses. But what gives “Days Like These” such tension is the persistent kind of human hope that Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk embody in their voices in spite of all of this, both affirming and decrying a timelessly universal sense of longing for better times: “Always looking for that one sure thing/ oh you want it so desperately.”
Carl, I loved the common ground you found between Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This; I adore both of them but hadn’t connected those dots. (Incidentally, my camera roll contains several photos of entire pages from Lockwood’s brilliant novel; does anyone else do this with library books they’re reluctant to return?) I also found interesting your grouping of Musgraves, Billie Eilish, and Lorde as releasing “subdued” follow-ups that pushed against our expectations. I disagree with you that Adele belongs in that category (more on that in a moment), but I’d add to it Clairo, whose deeply felt album Immunity was one of 2019’s best and most influential releases. For the most part, I found her 2021 follow-up Sling to be confounding and a bit impenetrable, but it also felt—as Lorde’s and Eilish’s albums did, to a certain extent—like a conscious abdication of pop’s (heavy) “next big thing” crown. Lana Del Rey’s rich pair of 2021 releases, Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Banisters, are also worth mentioning here: After releasing what was rightly perceived as a generation-defining statement with 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, she retreated inward—as so many of us were forced to these past two years ourselves.
Lorde and Musgraves made my favorite records of 2017 and 2018, respectively (Melodrama and Golden Hour), and after perhaps unrealistically strong anticipation that they top these high watermarks, I found both of their follow-ups to be something of disappointments. Maybe that was inevitable. To me, though, the better of the two records, and the one that I’ve returned to more often, is Musgraves’ Star-Crossed, an unapologetically plangent account of her divorce from the musician Ruston Kelly.
Released in the middle of a crowded stretch that also saw new albums from Kanye West, Drake, and Lil Nas X, I think Star-Crossed got a bit buried in a no-man’s land of confused expectations: It wasn’t quite the radio-pop turn that some were anticipating after the success of Golden Hour, but it also wasn’t exactly a return to country either (even so, it’s absurd that a certain scandal-plagued award show ruled it ineligible for Best Country Album, an award Musgraves has won twice in the past). This is a thoroughly sad record, yes, but Musgraves still has a keen knack for summing up big ideas and complicated power dynamics in succinct turns of phrase, as she does on “Breadwinner” and “Good Wife.” The aforementioned “Camera Roll” and the tearjerker “If This Was a Movie …” show off her preference for chord progressions expertly engineered to produce an unceasing three-minute lump in your throat.
After a lockdown that made so many people take long, hard looks at their lives and relationships, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many albums this year were products of—in Tammy Wynette’s spelling—D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Perhaps the year’s messiest divorce album was Kanye West’s endless work-in-progress Donda, which he completed in part after moving into a monk-like room in Atlanta’s not-very-monk-like Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (As plenty of people pointed out online, moving into a place called “Mercedes-Benz Stadium” to tinker with an unfinished project was perhaps the densest concentration of rich divorced dad energy ever detected in the known universe.)
I will admit that—despite many people’s (suspiciously vehement?) insistences that it was a return to form—it took me months to even get around to listening to Donda, so exhausted was I by Kanye’s head-scratching presidential run, his irresponsible, absolutely inane public comments about abortion, and “all of that red cap,” as Jay-Z puts it on their lightning-stricken reunion song, “Jail.” In the past few weeks, I’ve cooled down enough to give Donda some belated attention, and what I’ve found is an album that is equal parts thrilling and frustrating. For all its unruly sprawl (and completely indefensible Marilyn Manson feature), I do prefer the deluxe edition that Ye saw fit to release in November; like the best parts of The Life of Pablo, he knows when to spotlight other, complementary talents. Here, it’s Baby Keem, Five Foreign, and Playboi Carti who make the most of their opportunities.
You don’t have to have read much Freud to find it telling that Ye named his divorce album after his late mother: Broken homes haunt Donda, as does the search for a stable family unit and some lasting maternal energy. “Sixty-million-dollar home, never went home to it,” he raps, later frustrated that the paparazzi “treat my married life like some type of entanglement.” At its most focused and emotionally forthright, Donda says the quiet part of 808s and Heartbreak out loud: The great romantic tragedy of Ye’s life was, and perhaps always will be, the death of his mother.
But stability and selflessness are a lot to ask of mythic, glorified maternal energy—to say nothing of a flesh-and-blood woman. What if Mummy needs to feel some big feelings? Enter Adele’s 30, my favorite album of the year and, among so many other things, the most brutally honest record about motherhood I’ve heard in some time.
I’ve always admired Adele’s music more than I actually enjoyed it, but this warm and adventurous record upended my expectations in the most wonderful way. The recent-ish pop album it reminds me most of is Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled: a bold, fragmentary reinvention of a very famous and therefore somewhat untouchable artist. Like Beyoncé did, 30 brings Adele back down to Earth not so much as a demi-god, but as an artist who is open and alive to the world around her, spiritually, erotically, and musically. For all the immaculate heartbreak of the sublime penultimate track “To Be Loved,” I also appreciate a lighter song like the cheeky “Cry Your Heart Out,” or the jazzy, flirty “All Night Parking,” which allows Adele a kind of humanity that’s so much more varied and interesting than simply being the Immortal Bard of the Break-Up Song. “I can’t believe it/ out of all the people in the world,” she sings on the swooning R&B number “Oh My God,” which incidentally, as a basketball fan, was exactly how I felt when I learned that the man who had inspired Adele’s most deeply felt love songs was NBA agent to the stars, Rich Paul. Bing bong!
Something Adele said in conversation with Oprah during the primetime special Adele: One Night Only really struck me. As a child of divorce herself, she admitted that she’d long obsessed over the nuclear family and wanted to offer a kind of stability for her son that she hadn’t had when she was young. At some point, though, she realized she was unhappy—she wanted to “live and not just survive,” she said, quoting a song from her previous album—and that, contrary to popular wisdom, ending her marriage to pursue her own happiness and sense of self was more of an act of love toward her son Angelo than it would be to “stay together for the kid.” “I don’t feel guilt, I just feel somewhat selfish sometimes,” she admitted. “But I know that I’m nearing my goal of finding happiness… and I knew as an adult, Angelo would be livid with me for [not pursuing that.] He’d be furious at me, and I didn’t want that either.”
Like so many of the tough choices of the heart that Adele chronicles on 30, that sentiment reminds me of something the late bell hooks once wrote: “Love is an action: never simply a feeling.” I know so many of us critics are reeling from the recent loss of the peerless hooks, and I imagine her words will echo throughout subsequent correspondences here. Briana, I know you have plenty to say both about hooks and the albums this year that redefined love (of both self and others) as not a passive, vague cliché, but instead an active and ongoing process. May those sentiments—and the music professing them—offer warmth in the cold months ahead.
Let it be known that I tried,
15 favorite albums:
1. Adele — 30
2. Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost
3. Snail Mail — Valentine
4. Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
5. Illuminati Hotties: Let Me Do One More
6. Olivia Rodrigo: Sour
7. The Weather Station: Ignorance
8. Low: Hey What
9. Lucy Dacus: Home Video
10. Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg
11. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever
12. Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime
13. Bitchin Bajas: Switched on Ra
14. Remi Wolf: Juno
15. Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses
15 favorite songs:
1. Low: “Days Like These”
2. Olivia Rodrigo: “Drivers License”
3. Tyler, The Creator: “Wilshire”
4. Wet Leg: “Chaise Longue”
5. Kacey Musgraves: “Camera Roll”
6. Adele: “To Be Loved”
7. The Weather Station: “Tried To Tell You”
8. Lil Nas X: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
9. Rostam: “4Runner”
10. Cardi B: “Up”
11. Aldous Harding: “Old Peel”
12. Lana Del Rey: “White Dress”
13. Snail Mail: “Headlock”
14. Jessie Ware: “Please”
15. Caroline Polachek: “Bunny Is a Rider”