“I WILL MEET YOU IN A BACK ALLEY, JOE LEVY!”
It was the penultimate afternoon of 2015, the Top Ten lists for albums and singles had been determined for the 2015 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and Ann Powers was this close to reaching through the phone to throttle Joe Levy over Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. For Powers, Stapleton’s year was a sensational one, as the singer-songwriter had the nation clamoring for more after he dropped his stunning solo debut and performed alongside a fawning Justin Timberlake at the Country Music Association Awards. Levy was unimpressed. “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?!”
They locked critical horns and chuckled before Powers defended one of her favorite records of the year, just as Robert Christgau, Greg Tate, and Levy had at various points in their conversation before that. While the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll is a comprehensive representation of the industry’s take on the notable releases of the past calendar year, votes and statistics only go so far — and that’s where Christgau, Levy, Powers, and Tate come in. Being that 2015 was a year in which each verse played out like a hard-learned lesson, gathering four of the critics who not only voted in Pazz & Jop but played a huge part in making the poll what it is to discuss the year in music was a no-brainer. It’s one thing to look at the rankings and compare ballots and favorable adjectives for To Pimp a Butterfly, Grimes, and the Hamilton soundtrack. It’s another to take four of the most esteemed critics ever to grace the pages of the Village Voice and have them examine their positions — and one another’s — on the brilliant, furious progress represented by 2015’s works of merit.
Every year-end list has Kendrick at the top, raised fists for Sleater-Kinney, and bewildered affection for Carly Rae Jepsen. But here is where you’ll find a case made for Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit as a “great hip-hop record”; here is where you’ll uncover the sinewy threads tying the talent together, from Kacey Musgraves and Kamasi Washington to Stapleton and Vince Staples and back again.
The 2015 postmortems continue — or, more accurately, morph into considerations that look back to move forward. In addition to On the Record(s), our roundtable featuring the voices of Voices past, this year’s Pazz & Jop issue features a look at Genius, the Brooklyn-based startup that’s shifting the way music fans worldwide interact with and learn about their favorite songs. Jackson Connor went to work at Genius HQ in Gowanus to shed light on its mission to “annotate the world,” its game-changing 2015, and what’s next for New York’s resident disrupters in music tech. Essays on triumphant, female-fronted rock (Paula Mejia’s “Let’s Hear It for the Not-Boys Club: Reviewing the Rock of 2015“), the state of poptimism (“Poptimism Isn’t the Problem,” by Claire Lobenfeld), and the indie bona fides of country’s unexpected successes (“The Underdog Wore Cowboy Boots,” by Dacey Orr) all stress the vitality of independent thought and action in the face of industry trends and supposed standards.
At the heart of each of these pieces lies the undeniable, educational truth in 2015’s music. This was a year that put an emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, the challenge of opening your mind and your ears to sounds and phrases that provoked, inspired, enraged, and confused you. This was a year that proudly crowned a #BlackLivesMatter opus its champion. This was a year that recognized and applauded an Aussie southpaw for her sardonic wit and uncomfortable honesty. This was a year that placed an original cast recording atop the rap charts, that preached the gospel of teen taste and legitimized the talents it worships, that coaxed beloved Nineties acts back out onto the road, that brought back Missy Motherfucking Elliott. It was a year that actually inspired listeners to take notes and study up to see if its choruses held the keys to the future. It was a year that made music about things worth fighting for, and music worth fighting for itself — and, hey, if that means heading into a back alley to work it out, so be it.
One additional note: As we were going to press with this issue, the terrible news broke early Monday morning that David Bowie had passed away at the age of 69 following an eighteen-month battle with cancer. The music world sat stunned and looked to the heavens, hoping to catch a flicker of our Starman only just past the clouds on his homeward ascent. The first thing we did was dive into the archives to look up the best of our Bowie coverage, along with the rankings of his albums in past Pazz & Jop polls. Because it was released on January 8, Bowie’s Blackstar missed the cutoff for the 2015 P&J survey, but given the adoration it has already received, it would be shocking to think that the record will go underappreciated in the coming year — something that can’t be said for the critical treatment of his discography by our own metrics in the past.
It’s fitting, then, that the conversation comes full-circle — that in this issue, we look back before we leap forward. We celebrate what Levy calls Kendrick Lamar’s “Whitman-esque” record; Bowie, in turn, was inspired by the rapper while putting together what would become his final work. “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” producer Tony Visconti told Andy Greene of Rolling Stone in a November interview. “We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
Brilliance begets brilliance, and even the most singular talents can learn from each other. If that’s what 2015 taught us, it was a masterclass.
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