If you’re going to gather a group of experts to examine the best, worst, most sadly overlooked, most sorely overrated, or otherwise most noteworthy albums, songs, and artists of the 2015 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, you start with the people who know the ins and outs of the operation better than anyone — and who played very real parts in making it what it’s become.
These four music journalists — Robert Christgau, Joe Levy, Ann Powers, and Greg Tate — all cut their teeth at the Village Voice in various capacities. Christgau served as both a critic and an editor at the Voice from 1969 to 2006, founding Pazz & Jop along the way; he continues to scrutinize albums of every ilk for Expert Witness, his review column for Noisey, and released his memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, earlier this year. Levy — the Voice‘s music editor from 1989 to 1994 — is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, the host of Incoming, a Spotify podcast, and a frequent television commentator. Greg Tate was a staff writer at the Voice from 1987 to 2005; in addition to writing the review for To Pimp a Butterfly for Rolling Stone and other thoughts on hip-hop, r&b, and popular music throughout the year, Tate spent his 2015 serving as the bandleader of New York’s Burnt Sugar and working on his forthcoming book, James Brown’s Body and the Revolution of the Mind. Ann Powers was hired as the Voice‘s feminist editor in 1993 and became the music editor in 1994 following Levy’s departure; she’s now a critic and correspondent for NPR Music, as well as a program committee member of the EMP Pop Conference.
Between them, short work can be made of complicated records; ribbons of context can be woven between disparate threads made unlikely bedfellows by melody, rhythm, genre, geography, and perspective. The four were presented with the results of 2015’s poll, and the conversation that followed is presented here, more or less in full.
ON KENDRICK x HAMILTON x #BLACKLIVESMATTER:
Ann Powers: Nothing on this list shocks me. How ’bout you guys?
Robert Christgau: I would say the Washington was a sleeper, but it doesn’t shock me at all.
Greg Tate: I saw more people under thirty at his Blue Note shows than I’ve seen at any Blue Note show in the last twenty years.
AP: That definitely was a huge NPR Music favorite. Every kind of music person at NPR is into Kamasi Washington.
GT: Another great Compton story.
RC: So Greg — as opposed to its positive cultural ramifications, you actually listened to the Kamasi Washington three-CD set?
GT: I did.
RC: Well, I listened to it once, I don’t mean that. But do you listen to it because you think it’s really good jazz?
GT: I listened to it, and I watched him play it in concert and on various YouTube videos, certain tunes.
AP: I listened to it not a lot — a few times, because it’s super long and there’s a lot to listen to — and it certainly resonated with me, but I haven’t had the chance to see him live. It’s all about live, right?
GT: I think the album definitely holds people. I step outside of myself enough to weigh its impact on people younger than me who didn’t hear all the music that it derives from — the early-Seventies freedom swing, Charles Tolliver, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, the Black Jazz label from Oakland. All that stuff is in there. For me, it’s interesting hearing some cats that are young reclaiming that as their jazz tradition. That’s where I came in. The jazz was actually speaking to me in my nascent moment, sixteen, seventeen, in Washington [D.C.]. And for it to have all the political intentions of that music, too, the Afro-collective community intentions.
RC: Afro-collective community I’m all for. That music? Not interesting. I think it’s the Afro-collective community part that got it into the Top 10.
GT: It’s also the Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar connections. You couldn’t have asked for a better trifecta of hype that descended on them at the right time. Seeing them live, they totally live up to it, especially with Thundercat and his brother in the band.
RC: I had a student file her final paper on Kamasi Washington, and she actually consulted with Greg, and to my great surprise, she concluded at the end…that it wasn’t such a good record. What was great about it was the live show and the spectacle of it…she appreciated it in the end more as a spectacle than as jazz. That I’ll buy. I wasn’t there and I suspect I would’ve been moved by that situation, too.
GT: It wasn’t just spectacle — it was definitely hardcore, funky blues riffing, which you haven’t heard in New York. New York jazz has gotten very chamber-ish. I don’t even mean the Jazz at Lincoln Center side of it…. Everyone’s getting real contemplative. This is some fire music with some funk up under it. It’s just a roaring sound out of six or seven cats, which I love. There’s just a looseness and a freedom to it that I haven’t heard in a long time, especially in a New York club.
AP: It seems to me that the trifecta Greg mentioned has another point on the quadrant, which is Hamilton. That actually is a surprise to me, that Hamilton is not [in the Top 10]. That seems to be the other major event of the year that connects with Kendrick and the Thundercat/Kamasi world…. I haven’t been to New York and also don’t have a thousand dollars to see the play [laughs], but the soundtrack itself is a huge phenomenon.
RC: Those were called Original Cast Albums back in the day, and I listened to it this morning in a final effort to fall in love with it, which so far I have not managed to do. It’s still theater music to me.
AP: I think the thing is, though, Bob, what y’all are talking about with this new spirit of collectivity driven by a particular African-American musical legacy that is different than, say, the legacy of N.W.A — the other huge hip-hop phenomenon of the year with Straight Outta Compton — we’re looking at a generation tracing its history through hip-hop in new and exciting ways this year, whether it is through an original cast album that is as vital as hip-hop — or is it through the flavor of Kendrick rhyming? I would love to hear what you guys think of Kendrick’s rise in relationship to N.W.A making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the huge phenomenon of Straight Outta Compton, bringing that story to life for a new generation.
GT: Chuck D had the best line about the movie: He said more people saw it than bought the album. It’s funny, because that movie is so much the sanitized version. I don’t think they even touched “Gangsta Gangsta” in there, which, that’s the song that sent everybody to the ledge. There was more “Gangsta Gangsta” going on on the set than there was in the movie.
AP: The definite centerpiece of the movie is “Fuck Tha Police.” Of course, I agree with the critique of the way women’s stories, the stories of abuse, were left out of this movie, and that was super problematic. The brilliance of the movie and the one thing that I thought was truly crucial about it was the way it showed how these artists lived with the constant threat of interruption of police intervention, which is one of the biggest stories — if not the biggest story — politically right now, and in terms of striving for social change in our country. I mean, that’s #BlackLivesMatter. The way that Straight Outta Compton was recast to be a #BlackLivesMatter story is what was interesting to me about it.
GT: It’s synchronicity, it’s zeitgeist, it’s completely unplanned.
Joe Levy: Or just completely unchanged. That’s really the story, right? You don’t have to plan when to tell that story in America.
GT: The fact that there was just this voluble, volatile movement that happened while they were planning the production, it put police brutality on the front page, internationally. Nobody could’ve predicted that that movement would emerge or that it would change journalism and citizen journalism.
RC: For me, Kendrick Lamar’s album is the #BlackLivesMatter album. The thing that most impressed me at first — and this is a record I liked and admired from the beginning, but I had to allow it to grow on me — I hadn’t listened to it for several months when it came time to figure out what was going to be in my Top 10. It was interesting to see that I liked it more rather than less, that rather than saying, “Oh, where are the tunes?” that the totality of it really moved me. What impressed me about it at first was that two, three, four listens in, it occurred to me that I was not being addressed by this record. This record was addressed to black people. Its musical parameters were entirely about the black community, and obviously — I would certainly not say that Lamar doesn’t want me to listen to it, or isn’t glad that I am listening to it — but there was no attempt to appeal to the white audience at all on that record.
GT: You know, what’s interesting is that that record, to me, is its own kind of mini catalog of black music in L.A. from the Seventies to now. The other thing as well, though, sonically, when you start talking about it in terms of race, it gets interesting, because there are people — Robert Glasper, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Esperanza Spalding — that have totally changed the game in terms of what younger people are listening to, particularly the people listening to jazz in school now. They’ve really become the new standards for the Berklee kids. If you go to Harlem to the clubs where the kids from Columbia are playing, Erykah, Jill Scott, Flying Lotus, and Bilal tunes, they’ve kind of become their standard repertoire. The people who teach there tell me that’s who [the students] want to be. Predominantly, they’re white students. Sonically, that record is very much in a zone that’s crossed over in terms of instrumental, dreamy, psychedelic black music in this moment. Kendrick, he did a very Miles kind of thing, which is, “I’m gonna take my spreck and just spray it all over this aesthetic.” He pulled that aesthetic into the black mainstream, because it had been very marginal before that.
RC: That makes sense to me.
AP: How do you think of Kendrick Lamar’s move toward the mainstream in relationship to black bohemianism and the separate space that’s constructed by someone like Erykah? I have to add, that’s always appealed to white listeners as well.
GT: I don’t know how the numbers break down racially, but I’d certainly say that the audience for good kid, m.A.A.d city — and Joe can probably speak to that — is that there was a huge white audience for Kendrick before he even made this record.
JL: The truth is that Kendrick — like a lot of that Black Hippy posse — built [his] reputation at white colleges on tour. That’s how they built their business. Once they built their business, they were able to call their shots and make the records they wanted to make. ScHoolboy Q made the record he wanted to make; Kendrick’s now made two of the records he wanted to make. To me, the interesting thing about good kid, m.A.A.d city was, yeah, it had a white listenership, but everyone stopped and said, “This is the kind of record we’ve been waiting for.” This is a record that gives up nothing and reaches out to what had been an abandoned narrative impulse, and to some extent an abandoned moral impulse, in hip-hop. It made those things signify without giving up — and of course, Kendrick still does, perhaps even more so now on To Pimp a Butterfly, but that is the point of the title, right? “I give up nothing from either side of the equation.” What I remember from when good kid, m.A.A.d city came out was, “I want to see the effect this has. I want to see the records that come out in reaction to this record.” And now we’ve gotten there. This Vince Staples album in some ways is a record that good kid, m.A.A.d city makes possible.
RC: You think so?
AP: I hear you.
JL: Absolutely. In the way that it’s set up, it has a similar narrative intention to good kid, m.A.A.d city. It has a very similar intention: It wants to tell the story of being a kid, and a bad kid, and struggling with the bad and the good. It’s even more explicit than anything Kendrick has ever done about those impulses and exactly where they come from. When he says, “I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari,” he’s saying, “I listen to Public Enemy, but I listen to everything that’s risen up since, and those are my two impulses.”
RC: I think that the second impulse continues to prevail.
GT: The materialist impulse? I think that’s the battle for the soul that’s going on. Internally, it’s like, even the new Rick Ross record sounds like he grew a moral conscience that he’s wrestling with.
JL: I don’t think Staples comes down on the materialist side of that equation, Bob. I don’t think so at all.
RC: I believe he very much leaves it hanging.
GT: I think guys are trying to figure out how to balance or even merge the two impulses, which is to speak to the audience you know is there. Everybody realizes that Kendrick took this transcendental leap into creating his own genre, his own kind of following. It’s kind of a trans hip-hop.
JL: Transcendental is the operative word there, because that is a Whitman-esque record for me.
GT: It’s a mutant form.
AP: I think all of what you’re saying about Kendrick’s record is true, but what cannot be forgotten is his dexterity, his physical dexterity as a rapper. He is just astounding, and again, it comes back to this question that we started talking about with Kamasi, and I think it’s relevant to the non-hip-hop artists on the list, too, like Sleater-Kinney and Sufjan Stevens, and Courtney Barnett. Seeing these performers do their thing live is just as important as what they’re putting on record. The transitional moment of formats that we’re still living through, I raise the question of how much of the poll is now based on the impact of amazing live shows in companionship with good to great records. I think that’s absolutely true for Sleater-Kinney, who made a really great record, but the most important thing about Sleater- Kinney this year was that they returned to play, and a whole new generation of especially young women who had never gotten to see them play had that life-changing experience, which many of us had many years ago with Sleater-Kinney. I wonder if the importance of live music is at a new high precisely because the way we’re listening to recorded music has changed so much…
ON WOMEN IN POP AND ROCK AND “A SHIFT, NOT A TREND”
Hilary Hughes: Do you think that Adele put an emphasis on that? I’m thinking about the Radio City broadcast and the lead-up to the record: She was intent on making the 25 experience one that not only focused on but relied on the connection between the live show and the album.
RC: Hey look, folks: Anybody at any level of the music business, the truism now is, you make your money on the road. If you want to make a living doing it, then you have to tour.
JL: That’s not a truism now; that’s just a truism now for more people than it used to be. It’s now true for people at a high level on a major label as well as for anyone and everyone else. That’s not a sudden truth that’s been revealed. The collapse of the music industry fucked artists, but it fucked people who worked in the record industry a lot more than it fucked artists. There are many, many artists at all levels who tour relentlessly and have toured relentlessly for a lot of time, because that’s where they made their money. When “Baby, One More Time” came out, the reason Britney Spears toured too soon before she had a live show down and she was selling a lot of records was because that was where the money was. The money was there in ticket sales and t-shirt sales. That was true then, and it’s true now.
AP: That’s why when Lana del Rey performed too soon, again, same thing: She managed to recover by kind of disappearing in the U.S. and honing what she did in Britain and making a lot of amazing connections. That story is definitely still going on today. I was more interested in this from a listener’s perspective.
JL: Well Ann, I’m not 100% convinced by what you’re suggesting, only because Carly Rae Jepsen is No. 3 on this list — [and she’s] not known from her live show.
RC: Hilary, what was the Voice report? We were seeing Antibalas, and somebody else was seeing Carly Rae Jepsen — how did that come out?
HH: The reviews were overwhelmingly positive; she was sensational, apparently.
JL: So everyone who already loved her loved her.
RC: In John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, he talked about how songs were made on the fly, because even the biggest hitmaking artists, if they wanted to cash in, they had to do so on the road. Seabrook isn’t exactly accurate about this stuff, but I’ll take his word for it about that. I have another thing I want to talk about, which is that No. 2-5 on our list are all women. Lamar, Washington and Staples can all be said to be part of the same thing. I see Courtney Barnett, Grimes, Sleater-Kinney and Carly Rae Jepsen as being four entirely different approaches. And you know, since it’s Sleater-Kinney, which represents what was thought of as being the “progressive” wing of women’s rock, and they’re now the old-timers making a comeback, all three of these other women have completely different approaches, in which Grimes, in particular, she’s taken purely electronic pop and done the most convincing job so far. That’s a male-dominated field, but it’s Grimes who made the artistic breakthrough that really matters. I suppose Jamie xx could be said to be in that category, too.
AP: But Jamie xx works with a lot of guest artists —
RC: And rode on the back of his female partner to become who he became.
JL: And Jamie xx didn’t make a pop record the same way that Grimes did, and he didn’t intend to. He made a record that was supposed to be like a DJ set. And it has all the excitement of a DJ set.
AP: The thing about Grimes that resonates the most with me is that the process and product are of equal weight. She’s a completely DIY artist from conception to masters, which as I understand it, she delivers them completely done to her label. That in itself, it’s a huge — it’s a major accomplishment, but it’s one of the things people, and especially young women, love about her. It’s the fact that she is independent through and through in the realm of pop — as you said, Bob, in the realm of the male-dominated field of [electronic] pop. I was just looking at something that Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz said in an interview with NPR Music, where she was asked by Eric Ducker what the most important thing in 2015 was to her, and she said, “What’s really great is that there have been so many bands that don’t solely feature men that have been critically adored that made wonderful records. People are embracing diversity in rock more than ever.” And she goes on to say that the very fact that it can’t be pinned down to one space, one cultural space, one genre space, is exactly why it’s exciting — exactly what we’re talking about. I’m saying yes to what you’re saying, Bob; the thing that matters is that we can’t call it a trend or analyze it in a particular way. It just seems like a shift.
RC: A shift, right! Not a trend.
AP: I don’t always believe that the shift will last, but hopefully it will.
JL: I do want to say something here: These records are dissimilar and individual in an exciting way, but they don’t share nothing. Courtney Barnett and Sleater-Kinney are part of a general revival of late Eighties/Nineties indie rock. Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes … The kind of electronic music that Grimes makes is very, very quickly absorbed into the current pop mainstream. One of the interesting things about the Jepsen record and one of the reasons it’s so high up is because it draws on critically adored creators — Vampire Weekend, Dev Hynes, etc. I don’t think it draws on them in particularly interesting or exciting ways, and from what I can see of these Top 10 albums and singles lists, it seems like it’s doing the work for what looks like many people of paying any attention to pop itself — ‘cause there ain’t much pop here, besides that, and that wasn’t very popular.
AP: Carly Rae Jepsen was noticeably unpopular, in fact. She’s breaking the hearts of every critic who loves her because she had no success, commercially, and it seems to be one of the major year-end preoccupations: “Why was Carly Rae not a hitmaker?”
JL: Which means you then ignore interesting work done by people who were hitmakers.
RC: Such as?
GT: Fetty Wap.
JL: Bob’s heard me say this before: Selena Gomez.
AP: Or Demi Lovato!
JL: And once again, I would say Selena Gomez. I am not convinced by the Demi Lovato record. Though it is accomplished, and successful, and it is bold and challenging. I just don’t like it.
KACEY MUSGRAVES, OUTSIDER SYNDROME AND COURTNEY BARNETT RE-CLASSIFIED AS HIP-HOP:
HH: What about country? 2015 was a major pop-country crossover year, and I thought that country would be far more present in the Top 20 — if not the Top 10 — on both the Pazz & Jop singles and albums lists.
JL: Besides overrating the Chris Stapleton record, what are people gravitating towards?
AP: I WILL MEET YOU IN THE BACK ALLEY, JOE LEVY.
JL: You want to meet me in the alley?! You want to beat me up over the record that sounds like the record Rick Rubin wanted to make for Kid Rock?!”
RC: I gave it one last shot yesterday in preparation for this event.
AP: I have pure feelings for Chris Stapleton that I won’t argue on an intellectual basis — although I could — and that is the record that made me most at peace this year. Maybe it’s something about the fact that I’m living in Nashville, I don’t know.
JL: The good songs are awfully good. It’s hard to deny that. He’s interesting, for sure.
AP: But not to you!
RC: I don’t even think he’s interesting!
JL: I think it’s great to hear someone singing about marriage in that way, working with his wife, with them supporting each other musically.
BC: I do love that.
JL: I just think the dull songs on that record are skating by on the good songs. There’s no denying the good songs.
HH: What did you think of him performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs?
JL: The Timberlake thing is a breakthrough moment, and it is joyful and triumphant. I wish the record was every bit that joyful and triumphant, but it is not quite that joyful and triumphant. THAT is a remarkable moment.
AP: He’s incredibly versatile. The story is well-known by now, his work in the pop and the bluegrass realms. The folks who voted for him at the CMAs, when he had the sweep, that actually made the album the year-end chart-topper that it is, both commercially and critically. Before that, it was still beloved by very few people outside a certain Nashville tastemaker world… Those folks love his professionalism, love his versatility, love his wife, Morgane, their sweetness and presence in the community here. All of those qualities, which are qualities of craft and reconciliation and professionalism, in some ways, Joe, those are not things certain critics tend to like. It’s not an oppositional stance; it’s not a rough game-changing stance. It’s not Sturgill Simpson or even Eric Church, Mr. Outsider, Mr. Misunderstood. I’m someone who’s interested in [how] Americana and country music can be shifted and moved forward without necessarily having to be oppositional. I’m a huge Sturgill fan and a huge Eric Church fan, but I feel that role as the outsider is just as tired — if not more tired — than the professional craftsperson, the spirit of reconciliation that Stapleton represents. To me, that’s more interesting and contains more potential for depth and power than yet another dude — it’s almost always a dude! — standing up and saying, “This genre is so messed up. I’m gonna bowl it over with my cojones.”
HH: But Kacey Musgraves does that too, to a certain extent; Kacey doesn’t subscribe to the standards of Music Row.
RC: She’s one of the good folkies that moved to Nashville.
AP: She’s not, though.
JL: Let’s not argue about Kacey Musgraves until we have to. Ann, do you really believe that for the majority of critics outside of Nashville, Chris Stapleton is not an outsider? Do you really believe that critics don’t see him as an outsider as they see Eric Church as an outsider?
AP: I’ll say that if I agree with your listen of the album, Joe, which I do to a certain extent, in that that album is in many ways a great Eagles album —
RC: I wish I thought he sang as good as Don Henley.
JL: I hear you! We’re hearing the same thing! That doesn’t mean that it’s hitting our palate in the same way.
AP: If people are hearing what I’m hearing in the record — which is a great country rock record, a great record that could’ve been made in 1974 — I don’t think they look at him as an outsider.
JL: Let me just say, to critics outside of Nashville, who are looking at Luke Bryan as defining Nashville, that a great country rock album feels like an outsider album.
GT: But aren’t country rock albums always outsider albums?! Damn hippies. (laughs)
AP: I hear what you’re saying. The story of Stapleton has been so well-told now that maybe I was wrongly assuming that people didn’t think of him as an outsider because he presents himself as not an outsider. I want to shift this slightly to say that the one thing I appreciated from the conversation I recently had with Dave Cobb — who produced the Stapleton album, the Sturgill Simpson album, Jason Isbell’s album this year, the “outsider” producer in Nashville right now — he acknowledged that it’s just as cool for other country artists like Sam Hunt to bring in hip-hop, and there’s room for both. I think the people at the top of their game in country music, they’re not living by those divisions — they’re just interested in whatever’s creative.
RC: I’m somebody who made Brad Paisley’s American Saturday Night my favorite record of one year and put Miranda Lambert’s Platinum second, so I plead innocent to not being in favor of albums that are smart about marriage and domestic life. I’ve been saying this since I was a Garth Brooks fan in the Nineties. HOWEVER, I think Angaleena Presley’s and Kacey Musgraves’s and Ashley Monroe’s albums were better than either the Kacey Musgraves or Ashley Monroe albums of this year. Kacey’s album has a reputation because it’s catching on, because it was Nashville, and they ignored the first one, and they compensate now. I put a lot of hours into all of those records, and to my way of thinking, the older ones are just better. I want the new ones to be better! It doesn’t do me any good to write an honorable mention in my life, but that’s what I find myself writing about these artists.
AP: I certainly agree that Ashley Monroe made a record that, in a perfect world, would be standing right next to Chris Stapleton’s, and the country record that non-country [listeners] are putting on their lists. I think that for a lot of the same reasons, her career parallels Stapleton’s in a lot of ways: She started out as a teenaged songwriter; she’s worked in mainstream country; Vince Gill is her producer. This was the year of the great debate about tomatoes in country music, a lot of debate about why women aren’t on the radio in country. I think the Kacey record was one that her label wished would’ve broken through on mainstream country radio and it didn’t so much. Same with the Ashley record. Beyond that, there are so many great young women working in Nashville right now. It’s kind of mind-boggling. You’re going to hear from Maren Morris and Claire Dunne. Yes Bob, I agree with you that those albums deserve the same recognition that the male artists are getting. It’s interesting to me that even more than Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson stands as the symbol for a lot of people claiming the spirit of country again away from that commercial stuff. I’ve seen Sturgill performing R&B songs live, and he covered a synth-pop song on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That guy is totally open to pop. He has some of the most open ears.
RC: I think Sturgill Simpson is slightly out of his mind. I don’t know anything about him as a person. From the artistic evidence, he plays the person who —
JL: He plays a Father John Misty character.
RC: Well that’s an interesting way of putting it.
JL: I mean, that’s one of the things he does on record, that he plays that kind of character.
AP: We never [finished talking] about Kacey! A few people have pointed this out: One of the things that’s most notable about Kacey Musgraves is that she has a true millennial voice. Her style is very reflective of her generation, her insouciance, her irony in her songwriting, her easy assumption of a stance that includes, for example, pride in LGBTQ identities. She herself is heterosexual, but the fact that she imagines a world where gay and straight people live together in the same family, where being a slacker isn’t a generational identity, but just your inherited place in the economy we live in, and the fact that humor is so important to her — all of those things are very much part of the same world that produced Lena Dunham. She’s a lot like Lena Dunham, I think. That, I think, is really confusing for people who are looking for that other kind of authenticity in country and Southern music. Traditionally, people value sincerity, and earthiness, and earnestness in their country and Americana, and Kacey Musgraves in a way is none of those things. That doesn’t mean she’s not emotional and doesn’t write beautiful ballads, or doesn’t speak about traditional values; she just does it in a different voice. I think that’s one of the reasons why that album at the end of this year is not being as acknowledged, because it truly is offering a different kind of stance.
JL: Ann, do you find this perspective in the Courtney Barnett record as well?
AP: Totally. Courtney Barnett, from the album title to every lyric on that album, it’s that same millennial blasé blasé. The emotion, to me, comes through this filter — I don’t know, is irony the right word? I’m not sure it is.
JL: I don’t know if it’s an ironic record. It’s obviously a deeply humorous record. It’s a bohemian record.
GT: It’s even a hip-hop record.
RC: What?! Greg, you’ve got to explain that. Because she talks more than she sings?
GT: It’s the ingenuity and the wordplay, the way the words stick out on top of the groove, the grunge, all of that. They made my hip-hop ear pay attention. She’s giving you cadences.
JL: I agree with Greg. You can neatly summarize No. 1 and No. 2, Kendrick and Courtney Barnett, as “Black Lives Matter” and “White People Problems.”
GT: With rhyme schemes that matter!
JANET, JAZMINE AND THE R&B RENAISSANCE:
GT: Ann, I wanted to ask you about the spectacular return of Missy Elliott and what that signals for kind of the outsider artists in R&B, and what female artists in R&B are taking to the main stage.
RC: The world isn’t ending yet. That’s what it means. I really thought she could be gone forever. I’m so glad she’s not.
GT: That whole class is kind of bounding back — D’Angelo, too. Three of the records on my live list and probably my three favorite R&B records this year were by three women who are definitely mutating and changing the form of contemporary R&B in idiosyncratic ways. It may never be heard on the radio, but radio is starting to mean so little in terms of any interesting black music outside of trap. Syd tha Kyd, the Internet, from Odd Future, Ego Death —
RC: I’ve just been hearing that, that’s not a bad record!
GT: Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show —
RC: Just reviewed that yesterday!
GT: — And Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable.
RC: Now wait a second.
JL: More, Greg! Speak more!
GT: I was really quite surprised when I sat down and listened to it, because I said, Janet, [Jimmy] Jam and [Terry] Lewis, they made a really modern sounding record that also sounds like a grown-ass Janet Jackson’s record, and this works as a complete album, song for song.
JL: On that record, there are three or four songs that are the best 3 a.m. sex music anyone’s heard in a long time.
GT: Don’t sleep on Jam and Lewis! Like Prince, they can write any kind of song and pull anything that’s interesting sonically in the atmosphere into it.
JL: That’s what that record is about, too: they had no particular designs on the radio, no particular designs on the pop chart, not even a particular design on the adult R&B world. There’s a great Jill Scott record this year no one paid a shred of freakin’ attention to! I’m not 100% sure if it was great, but it’s good, and that is a record made with real designs on the adult R&B world. The Jam Lewis record is avant-garde.
GT: We can now that black music and urban radio are like, on two entirely different planets for the most part. Black music outside of whatever’s coming out of trap or even trap-soul right now, that’s in its own dimension.
JL: Well the corporatization of radio has probably damaged R&B as a cultural force more than it’s damaged any kind of music.
GT: It’s the messenger for the black community. Radio is still just incredibly vital in terms of delivering the news. But these artists created a tour base and an audience base for themselves, and they just go their own way and make the records they want to make. Janet can come back with anything and still go out and fill stadiums, but I was like, “Oh, wow — she gave herself a new album to go out and perform, and she can go out and work the hits in, it doesn’t have to be the other way around!” It’s hooks for death up in that record, man.
AP: R&B is in a really vital place right now. It’s not vital on the radio with younger artists — I want to hear what you have to say about Jazmine Sullivan, who I think made an astounding record and I wish was higher on everyone’s list. Definitely something that my NPR colleagues and I loved, that Jazmine Sullivan record. There’s Kelela, there’s Kehlani, there’s Miguel — we haven’t even mentioned that Miguel made a great record!
GT: Definitely on the list.
JL: Don’t leave out Tinashe!
AP: Dawn Richards, FKA twigs, too. I think one of the things about Janet is that Janet and Missy together are like the mothers of this new generation. It’s very exciting to see both Missy and Janet being revered and acknowledged as progenitors of the sound, in complementary ways. I’m hoping that this Missy reemergence turns into more than one song, but a lot of that has to do with her personal situation, her health. I think that’s what’s happening with Janet: As a lifelong Janet fan, it’s fantastic to hear her in so many grooves and beats, to hear her presence, and to hear her in the way that this younger emergent generation addresses sexuality, in a very frank, very playful, very sensual, but not necessarily phallocentric way. That’s one of the things I love about Miguel, too. I don’t see why Janet can’t be acknowledged and why Missy can’t be acknowledged as two of the frontrunners in the current eroticism we’re hearing in R&B. I will say that Jazmine Sullivan stands apart. She’s much more in a Mary J. Blige kind of world, but I’m curious, Greg, about what you think about that.
GT: I don’t know this behind-the-scenes industry story so well, but she’s somebody who definitely had to let go of pursuing mainstream, major label ambitions for reasons that have to do with sizeism and trying to conform to Beyoncé’s waistline or what have you. Again, it’s somebody who’s writing very personal songs.
RC: See, I don’t see them as being personal. I see them as being fictions.
GT: What’s more personal than fiction, especially when it comes to romance?
RC: I don’t take most of those songs as being autobiographical at all. I take them as being character studies, most of them, and that’s a very unusual thing in R&B, very unusual. She’s not a junkie, to the best of my knowledge, for instance — there’s a song about being a junkie, and that’s just the most obvious example. If you listen carefully, a lot of those songs are probably based on people she knows and things she’s imagined.
GT: With all of the people we mentioned, I think they’re comfortable with writing songs that are slow-burns, that are narratives, that invite you to come into a particular kind of storytelling world for three, four, five minutes, and completely engage with the fantasy that they’re engaging with in those songs. It’s interesting: In some ways, I think this may be one of those transitional moments in terms of the definition of R&B that’s very analogous to maybe what was going on in 1970, 1971, when Funkadelic and Earth Wind & Fire were just starting to merge. It was another four or five years before they became the definite sound of black romantic music in the Seventies. Sonically, I think that everything from the trap stuff, to the Weeknd stuff, to the fringe stuff, it’s definitely kind of merging what I call dream-dusted soul of the 21st century.
JL: The imperatives of that music are psychedelic in a way, right? It’s the exploration of inner space in a public setting.
CRITICS CRITIQUING CRITICISM, ETC:
AP: I’m actually curious to know if you all feel like our job as music critics has become more difficult now that the field is so vast, and to my ears, the most interesting stuff could come from any corner. I know that was always true, but in a different way; it was coming out of subcultural scenes that were based in certain cities or based in certain communities. I just feel that we’re truly in a space that is constantly warping and changing, and it can be very difficult to grasp whatever zeitgeist — maybe even the idea of the zeitgeist is pointless now. We can always think in terms of multiple zeitgeist, of how multiple points on the time-space continuum operate … and at once I feel like I’m speaking Greg’s language (laughs).
RC: It’s impossible by definition: There are five times, ten times as much [music] recorded, if you count everything that’s on YouTube and Soundcloud as there are hours in the year. It seems to me that what the economic fate of journalism has produced is a whole bunch of what are essentially start-ups or hobby sites, each of which is striving to curate (one word I detest) its own brand (another word I detest). What I find to be true with my students is that they all have ten, twelve blogs, or maybe it’s twenty, and they listen to those records, and they listen to the choice track. One reason I’m so glad Pazz & Jop still exists is that for all of its flaws, it does provide kind of a consensus, so that if you go, if you’re still interested in album, you go down to 300, you find stuff that you’ve never heard of, and every once in awhile, you find something that’s really good. I found out about Archers of Loaf because they came in fiftieth on their first album. I had never heard of them, and they were a terrific little band for ten years. I’m very glad I was into them. This will happen a lot with Pazz & Jop. You don’t just look at the Top 40: you go down to 300 and you make a list and hear most of it in one place or another. It’s better than checking out the track of the day on fifteen different blogs.
JL: If your students actually do look at eight or ten or twelve blogs, I’m shocked, because that’s not the way behavior works now in the age of the social web.
RC: You could be right about that.
JL: We’ve now reached the point where the lamentations aren’t “This magazine closed.” The lamentations are “This website has shut down. There’s no more Grantland.” Accompanying those shutdowns is this new thinkpiece about how the first wave of — or second wave — of the web is gone, or dying quickly, and now we’re into the social web. Again, if your students do look to ten or twelve blogs, it would shock me, but it also wouldn’t make it any different than the fanzine culture I grew up in, where people consulted according to their individual tastes and interests. I don’t find it to be that different now. The difference I find is that it’s much, much, much, much easier to look at Pazz & Jop and notice something you haven’t heard before and hear it immediately, as it is in the dozen Top 10 lists I learn from this time of year. If somebody writes about something, writes about it well, writes about it enthusiastically, either thing is going to get my attention. It is almost impossible for me not to be able to hear it while I’m reading about it — and I like that.
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