At Slate’s Annual Music Club, Slate reviewer Carl Wilson writes emails about the year in music alongside other reviewers – with Lindsay Zoladz, New York Times contributor, freelance writer Briana Younger, the reviewer. musical NPR Ann Powers, Glitter in the dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville Jewly Hight editorial director, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop culture critic Jack Hamilton and Slate’s host Chris Molanphy Hit parade.
Dear music clubbers,
Thank you so much for joining me on the What Year Is It Again edition of Slate’s Annual Music Critics Roundtable. I also feel optimistic that I am still able to bring together 10 of today’s brightest music writers here with me, flip the stones in the glitch stream of the past 12 months, and decipher the codes etched beneath. I imagine there will be a plethora of experiences, for example, to what extent was live music a part of your second year of the pandemic. In Toronto, where I am, access to vaccines arrived much later than in the United States, allowing only weeks of comparative cooling before fear of variants rocked the foundations again. My vision for the year in music ended up feeling obstructed by the way my faculties numbed to deal with the long term. shake. I don’t usually take my diagnoses from the New York Times pop psychoanalysis articles – I usually take them from Stephen Sondheim’s words, may his memory be a blessing – but when The Times said the prevailing mood of 2021 could be ” languid “, I felt called outside.
Some irrepressible bursts of vitality stood out, like Lil Nas X with his multimedia Montero the victory parade and Olivia Rodrigo’s rise from Disney TV niche star status to ubiquitous emo-pop. But as the “hot vax summer” turned into “the fall of sad girls”, the most visible model was that of high profile artists making more moderate returns who resisted public expectations, like Kacey Musgraves. Star crossed, by Lorde Solar energy, Billie Eilish’s Happier than ever, and, in a different way, that of Adele 30. (The fact that they’re all female just indicates who in pop music has been under the greatest pressure.)
On her record, Adele made a surprising connection with British producer Inflo of the radical collective Sault, whose four albums through 2019-2020 drew much criticism. In 2021, Sault associates such as Cleo Sol and Little Simz were also rightly praised for their own outings. But when the Sault album New released in June, it was only made available to stream for 99 days before being taken down. See this as part of Sault’s cultured mystique or a political coup against consumers’ right to works of art as commodities, especially when those works are as intimately collective as Sault’s songs about living in. the racialized fears of London. Corn NewThe act of disappearance also befits a year when nothing was reliable, every certainty being able to escape us. File next to US student debt relief and national police reform among, as the album title of an older London radical this year says, The million things that never happened.
The Great Languishing tumbled through dimensions out of time and space: While some 2021 releases were in fact pandemic projects, many others had been delayed until 2020, in the hope that they could be supported by tours. So many of the “new” sounds this year were actually echoes from before. Meanwhile, nearly two years confined in a limited space of space, three quarters of which my desk and my bed, took away from me any sense of belonging. The novel that marked me the most this year is No one is talking about Patricia Lockwood. Its first half invents unparalleled poetry of extreme connection, the crackle of an asynchronous, groundless self imbued with fragments that endlessly condense and evaporate from the collective semi-unconscious of social media. But in its second half, a real emergency pulls the narrator out of the “portal” and brings him back to a real presence. One would have assumed that a global pandemic would do something similar, but it turned out to only increase our dependence on digital prostheses.
The music that most appealed to me in 2021 has found a way to disperse some of those layers of existential fog, most often through vocals. Either it offered something too human to be subsumed into the churn, or it reflected the churn back to me in a way that heightened my awareness of being inside. Since, as the host, I have the privilege of speaking in this roundtable a few times, I will save my full list of the best of the year for a later article. But I will cite a few examples from its upper part.
Until 2021, I mostly neglected the post-punk revival that has been going on for several years, especially in the UK. Much of it was marked by a talking vocal style that reflects both a generation that grew up with rap and a strategy to move away from how someone singing in a rock band can seem dying in the 21st. century. (Music journalists have often referred to the German term sprechgesang, although I think sprechstimme would be more specific.) But I caught my eye this year after hearing New long leg by the London-based group Dry Cleaning (on the venerable independent label 4AD). The band’s guitar-bass-drums dynamic compares favorably with everything from Gang of Four to Sonic Youth, but it’s enhanced by Florence Shaw’s dry, recitative vocals. Shaw was a visual artist reluctantly persuaded to join her art school’s group of (male) friends, a story that recalls both Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s entry into the great Georgian group Pylon of the 1980s and the role of painter Sue Tompkins in the cult Glasgow 2000s band Life Without Buildings. Listeners might also remember the early days of Laurie Anderson or David Byrne. But Shaw is something of his own, a hilarious monologue and postmodern collagist who combines pieces of what Lockwood would call “portal” language with business language and signage, dialogue heard, fragments of diaristic and chat. millennial text into a strangely unified whole. This “collector of dead emo stuff” then delivers it in a cold, almost monotonous tone that floats above the scary music to represent dissociation amid the uproar.
What better portrayal of “languishing” could there be than the opening chorus of the album “Scratchcard Lanyard,” in which — after verses that say things like, “Weak arms cannot open the door , kung fu cancel / It’s okay, I just need to be weird and hide a bit “—Shaw chants the mantra:” Do everything and feel nothing / Do everything and feel nothing “? ( This turns out to be a slogan of a reckless advertising campaign in UK for tampons a few years ago.) As Shaw said of his style in an interview in April, “It’s an interesting thing to write, because it’s kind of trying to write about nothing, but it feels like an emotion. under-explored. Because people always talk about huge waves of emotions, but… what if you don’t get that? “
From an adjacent stage, but to the opposite effect, there is the noise-prog-jazz-punk group Black Midi. They can talk, scold, or sing, sometimes even nicely (like on “Marlene Dietrich”), but the band’s maximalist approach is to grab any style that suits their purpose until another comes along. . It can be almost pre-opera, like Scott Walker of the last period, or as complicated as any band since the underrated 1990s big band US Maple. But Black Midi presents an emphatically pessimistic antidote to languor: their music isn’t about waiting for bad things to happen, but knowing that bad things have been there from the start.
On the other end of the spectrum, I think of two extremely vulnerable records by artists here in Canada. One is When the smoke rises, Mustafa’s short 23-minute album. Since it’s based on the acoustic guitar, you could call it a folk (or R & B-folk) album. But it’s closer to emo-rap in its vice-intensity and use of electronic undercurrents and snippets from street recordings than it does to forerunners like, 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 has chronicled since becoming a teenage performance poet. It is not an unusual theme for hip-hop. But here, the squeaky, soft texture of her voice is like empathy itself coming to life, a sound that slides around all resistance and draws you into its perspective and pain. It’s such a calm record, it’s deafening; he won’t let a listener sleep.
Finally, there is My delirium: Songs of love, lost and found, the second album by Montrealer Myriam Gendron. It’s a double album tapestry of old folk songs, blues, songs and original compositions in French and English, often in original recombinations and reinterpretations with feminist nuances. There are occasional guest musicians such as free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano (who also made a striking duet album this year with guitarist Bill Orcutt). But it’s not its experimental flourishes that set it apart from a conventional folk record; rather it is Gendron’s own presence, with the low center of gravity of both her guitar and her kitchen table voice, and the sense of both purpose and mystery that she conveys. If the Dry Cleaning album is the one that most captures for me “the way we live now” in 2021, that of Gendron is perhaps the one that best reflects the way we have always lived, among the trees that provide the wood for guitars and crops. who provide the stories of the songs – each of us briefly, one by one, but collectively with some kind of perverse resistance, for better or for worse.
After those solo singers, I’m tempted to talk about the double voices of the married couple in Low, a band I’ve been listening to for a quarter of a century and which made one of their biggest albums this year, Hey what. But Sasha, I know you have a lot to say about Low, so I’m happy to give you the ground. Let us know how they struggled with Grand Languishing and what other sounds of 2021 got you through.
I’m just sad about the collapse of heavy industry, I’ll be alright in a moment,