Music

The Music Club 2021

Entry 2: On making sense of the disparate voices behind the year’s best music—and the machines that make them.

Two bands performing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Barry Brecheisen/WireImage and Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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

Hi friends,

Like some of you probably did too, I came back to live music this year. This past June marked my first show after 16 months sealed away from contagion. I filed into the venue hoping for catharsis, thinking the accumulated anxiety of the previous year might dissipate in reunion with thousands of strangers. Something else happened: I’d trained my body in certain nervous patterns, and when I went to shows, I brought my body with me. It tensed at the crowds, having gotten used to perceiving other people as threats. My desire to reassume old habits of joy and communion and pleasure strained against newer, fearful habits, habits meant to stave off danger. I felt split, my impulses stretching in two directions at once, leaving a hollow place at their origin.

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A lot of the music I loved this year spoke to ways of untangling this ambivalence. Low’s Hey What continued the experiments in abrasion from 2018’s Double Negative. For almost 30 years, the sound and the pull of this band has rested on the interplay between the voices of its vocalists, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, singing in lockstep harmony, their voices each distinct but tightly entwined. Mimi’s tone is purer, and she uses more vibrato; Alan’s is rougher, more creased around the edges. When they come together, it’s like quicksilver slithering down weathered bark.

The new album complicates this arrangement, which for decades has enlivened Low’s simple, glacially paced songs. On a song like “Hey,” I hear Alan and I hear Mimi, and then I also hear a third voice. Throughout the album, both singers route their voices through heavy digital processing, knocking out certain frequencies or exaggerating others until they produce a remote, metallic effect. Often, vocoders hint at the “source” voice they corrupt. A plosive or a sibilance betrays the body inside the machine; the fake sound traces the shape of the real, like shrink-wrap on skin. But I don’t hear anything inside this third voice; I can’t tell which singer is its source. It rises, ghostly, from its surroundings without a human referent, resonating all on its own.

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In Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary, released in the fall on Apple TV+, the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman recalls watching the band live and hearing overtones that had no source, that seemed to rise from the sum total of every instrument being played onstage at once. He called the phenomenon “group sound.” But what happens when a voice articulating language is just as sourceless?

In most of the music that has compelled me the most this past year, I hear voices that denature, voices that shudder and fracture, voices that sound as if they’ve issued from nowhere. There are the icy chains of half-intelligible syllables that glint across The Heart Pumps Kool-Aid, a collaborative album from Seth Graham and Mari Maurice working together under the unpronounceable name —__–___. There are the crystalline cries for liberation from Arca and Planningtorock on the former’s song “Queer.” There are the oddly authoritative snippets of text-to-speech narrative throughout Lucy Liyou’s album Practice, stiff robot voices that push the artist’s own hushed, distorted voice into stark relief. There are voices that wobble off their pitch throughout Loraine James’s Reflection, playing close to the ear and far from it at the same time, snaking between her mesmerizing and unsteady beats.

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These voices simultaneously indicate presence and absence to me; something is there, making sound, and yet that something often comes off as though it has no origin, surfacing from the void. In a destabilized year, a year marked by technologically mediated sociality and ubiquitous grief and fear like static buzzing at the bone, these voices have been like guides. They reflect the churn, as you put it, Carl, highlighting the strangeness of the arrangements and rituals that were so quickly normalized as preventive measures. They have gestured toward persistent feelings of dislocation, a sense of lapse from time and space. They help me through feelings I struggle to place. I’ve seen friends through the screen of my phone, and then those friends have died, and after they’re dead I can look at their pictures on the same screen I used to talk to them while they were alive.

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In their half-light, these unreal voices also trouble an illusion that listeners like to hold: that music is a direct current of intimacy between source and destination, musician and fan. In the emotional act of listening, it can be easy to disappear all the systems that realize music as it is now. Someone has to build the headphones that vibrate so precisely, they can mimic the exact sound of an absent person’s voice. Someone programs the computer I use and the software that runs on it. Someone records and mixes and masters the sounds that become music in our ears. When we love an album, we’re loving a lot that’s vanished. By creating vacancy inside the voice, that one instrument that most strongly cements the illusion of intimacy in listening, these artists hint at everything else that’s gone missing. They step back and expand the frame.

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I did come back to my body in the end. It was at a 100 gecs show, where Laura Les and Dylan Brady spoke and sang through hard, pixelating Auto-Tune all night. I love the dissonance that’s produced when I can see a person right in front of me and her voice sounds like it’s been wrangled through a Sega Genesis before it reaches my ears. It’s a great joke. There were huge novelty speakers on either side of the stage, like computer speakers but 12 feet tall, and those too suggested the smoke and mirrors that are part of all music, live or otherwise, that gets bought and sold. I found my body in the mosh pit, moving amid the tangle of other bodies, for a moment slipping outside the net of my well-woven fear, sensing an opening, sensing that it would only stay open so long.

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Maybe that’s the last thing you should say,

- SG

Top 10 albums (it keeps changing, but roughly):

1. Low — Hey What
2. L’Rain — Fatigue
3. —__–___ — The Heart Pumps Kool-Aid
4. Pom Pom Squad — Death of a Cheerleader
5. Lingua Ignota — Sinner Get Ready
6. Lucy Liyou — Practice
7. Reverend Dollars — PVNKHVUS
8. Body Meat — Year of the Orc
9. Loraine James — Reflection
10. SPELLLING — The Turning Wheel

Top 10 songs:

1. Serpentwithfeet — “Fellowship”
2. Shygirl — “BDE (ft. Slowthai)”
3. Yves Tumor — “Jackie”
4. Laura Les — “Haunted”
5. Low — “Hey”
6. Burial — “Chems”
7. Backxwash — “I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses (ft. Ada Rook)”
8. L’Rain — “Kill Self”
9. Arca — “Queer (ft. Planningtorock)”
10. Pom Pom Squad — “Head Cheerleader”

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.

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