Gordon Campbell on the best music of 2019

lenkerAny best music list of this sort has to live under the shadow of this offering on the Reductress site. Especially in a year where so many of the highlights came from female musicians. And not just from the obvious names (Lana Del Rey, FKA twigs, Angel Olsen and Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief) but also Rosalia, Little Simz, Jamila Woods, Nilufer Yanya, Aldous Harding, Doja Cat, etc etc. But amid all that richness, there was one standout album:

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell.

Nothing on the album refers directly to Norman Rockwell and his overripe portraits of kindly men, rosy-cheeked womenfolk and cheerful kids, with bountiful blessings right on hand for every American. Instead, the title track – hey, the entire album – subtly evoked the toxic murk that now envelops Trump’s America, and also the equivocal bargains that many of us arrive at in our early 30s. Yet rather than lament lost innocence, NFR offered a hard take on what endurance requires. For the best part of a decade, Lana Del Rey has been using American icons – Marilyn Monroe, the flag, the highway – to dramatize those kind of life dilemmas, but she’s now become a lyricist able to portray them with the emotional complexity they require.

The production (more piano, more room to breathe, less of the busier, trap-inflected pop of yore) helps a lot, thanks in large part to her collaboration with producer/kindred spirit Jack Antonoff. I liked his description of the process:

That album was made in one specific room, with one specific piano, a very specific 12-string guitar, very specific drum kit, very specific patch on the Mellotron that went through a very specific tape echo. We landed on a couple sounds that really sounded like this thing we had thought of, and then we put a helmet on all of them: Nobody touch this drum kit. Nobody move the mic from the piano. The way that piano moves is really loose but doesn’t lose you. That tempo shift going into the chorus I really love, because that was the moment that really didn’t work until it did. The flugelhorn, the strings, her vocal at the end—it sounded like the heavens opening up. ….What ended up happening was this bizarre folk album.

It isn’t all doom and gloom either. Del Rey can make the dark amusing, just like the Leonard Cohen whom she invokes with deft irony on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” On the album’s closing track (which also serves as her mission statement of optimism-despite-everything) the self mocking image she offers – “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown/ 24/7 Sylvia Plath” – is amusing, and indelible.

Obviously, we’ve all come a long time since January 2012, when Del Rey’s Saturday Night Live appearance almost ended her career. Yet IMO, that performance (and the critical trashing it received ) go some way towards explaining her Twitter dismissal of this 3,500 word essay written about her by the revered music critic Ann Powers.

Del Rey’s snarky reaction offended a lot of people. Powers had come to dissect her and to praise her. Crankily, Del Rey wasn’t very receptive to having critical canonisation finally bestowed upon her. Fair enough. More than anyone, she knows how fickle the praise of critics can be. And as she says on “Venice Bitch”, she happens to be fresh out of fucks forever.

So here’s the title track, with its laconic refusal to deny the small blessings of mediocre relationships, even though they’re being offered to her by a six foot two fuck buddy manchild who blames his bad poetry on the state of the news…Also, here’s “Mariners Apartment Complex” which someone said could qualify equally as the best single of 2018 and as the best album cut of 2019. Among its many virtues, “Mariners” also makes for a killer transition between the title track and “Venice Bitch”.


Footnote: To be fair to the real Norman Rockwell, he did his level best to engage positively with the civil rights movement, as this slideshow indicates.]

Music of Protest

Over the course of little more than a weekend, Del Rey wrote and released a moving response to two US gun massacres (“Looking For America”) but otherwise… in such a highly political year, it was a bit surprising that two of the best protest songs came from two very unlikely sources. The blues guitarist Gary Clark Jnr released a fierce song about belonging, regardless of race (“Fuck you, I’m America’s son/This land is mine!”) Just as intensely, the mainstream country act Little Big Town released a quietly blasphemous feminist anthem that listed the barriers faced by young girls, before hitting a chorus that noted while God the Father and God the Son were all well and good, where is a God for the Daughters? As I noted back in September, US country radio refused to play this song, but at over two million views now on Youtube, it has found its audience. (Thanks to Carl Wilson of Slate for alerting me to the Gary Clarke Jnr track.)


Best tracks

Fittingly, the best single cut of 2019 (“Cellophane”) came from the year’s next-best album, FKA twigs’ emotionally naked Magdalene. As the world knows by now, “Cellophane” dealt with her very public relationship with Robert Pattinson and with his very public dumping of her. She’s been through the mill on all fronts. The Magdalene album was recorded just after her belatedly diagnosed battles with endometriosis.

The official video for “Cellophane” was visually and conceptually stunning, and it demonstrated her expertise in the pole dancing that she took up to rebuild her physical strength after her illness. But the live version I’ve chosen instead exists only at the service of the song itself. (The eye contact at the end of the video is very Fiona Apple.) And in a double whammy of raging heartache, Angel Olsen released her own version of heartbreak-as-a-horror-movie… Her truly disturbing song called “Lark” is from her great All Mirrors album. Olsen discussed the making of that album in a very revealing and insightful discussion on NPR with her producer John Congleton.


Best gigs ?

Deafheaven at Valhalla in March, Steve Gunn at Moon in November. Best upcoming gig? Big Thief, Auckland, May 2020. Which brings us to:

Big Thief: Two Hands. Since 2016, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/resident genius Adrianne Lenker has completed four exceptional Big Thief albums, plus her own Abysskiss solo album as well. Only a week after the band’s UFOF album got released in May to universally positive reviews, the band started recording the Two Hands album, and while “Shoulders” and “Not” comprise its immediate one/two punch, I’ve come to like the sharpening focus of one of the closing cuts (“Replaced”) just as much…

What’s that you were starting to say?
Or have you forgotten?

Because the unlit moon would rather hide
And be replaced by the mystery of the stars
Because in your room we gather
To be replaced by the mystery of the heart…

For any newbies to Big Thief, here’s the haunting “Mythological Beauty” track from a couple of years ago. Lyrics like “There is a child inside you who is trying to raise the child in me” are merely the starting point to the places where this song goes. Plus, there’s the equally spooky “Century” from the UFOF album:


Lenker is not always so quiet about expressing her introspection. “Not” makes a strong case for denial as a positive force before the song explodes into a killer guitar solo. On May 25 next year, Big Thief will be playing the Powerstation, so this recent live version of “Shark Smile” is something to be going on with in the meantime. (It has to be said though: Buck Meek displays some of the most annoying guitar hero mannerisms in the business.)


Singles going steady

Overall, it has been a great year for singles. Despite its terrible video, the “Young Enough” by Charly Bliss sounds like an instant classic… and while Nilufer Yanya’s Miss Universe debut album contained a string of terrific tracks (eg “ In Your Head”) the “Paralysed” track proved over the course of the year to be the keeper.


Other 2019 tracks worth a mention:

“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, especially in the version before Billy Ray Cyrus came along to countrify it.

“Lover” by Taylor Swift, one of her finest songs ever, from another excellent album given the best possible framing by the omnipresent Jack Antonoff.

“The Conversation” by Sacred Paws. Everyone has their own private crush, and IMO, this Scottish duo combined airy West African guitar lines with great melodies to create the kind of airy, heady pop the year demanded.

“White Mercedes” by Charli XCX. The video she did for “Gone” with Christine was an OTT bondage self-parody, but Charli’s belated crossover to mainstream pop stardom was finally sealed by that Nasty Cherry reality TV show… and this was arguably the best single she released this year.

“Ashes to Ashes” by Jenny Hval. This was the most accessible and accomplished track by the Norwegian experimentalist, from her fine The Practice of Love album

“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish The sound of goths having fun.

Final highlight: the “Do You Love Her Now”/ He” double-sided single that marked the return of the influential London musician/producer/sonic magician Jai Paul, after seven years in the wilderness:


Hip Hop /Urban Highlights

Over the course of her Legacy! Legacy! album Jamila Woods paid generous thanks to all of the icons that have shaped her ( Nina Simone, Zora Neale Thurston, Frida Kahlo, Betty Davis and her husband Miles, Sun Ra, Basquiat etc) but this live version of the “Baldwin” track cuts the deepest. Also… hard to choose between the sombre cool that Channel Tres brought to “Black Moses” and his goofy charm on “Sexy Black Timberlake” but both were terrific cuts that demonstrated his range. “He used to ask for change in the streets/now he’s changing the streets…”


Elsewhere, and in Brit hip hop… Little Simz comes from Islington, with Nigerian-born parents. Her “Venom” track builds on the personal/social content of her 2017 “Backseat” cut, which is still pretty compelling.


Then there was “Roaches” by Maxo Kream. “Remember back when music had content and metaphor ?” was Maxo Kream’s lead-off question to this gruff, wry narrative… The song drew upon his family’s chequered history (Dad doing computer scams, Uncle Sidney taking a head shot) and his own misspent youth as a home invader, before getting to where his own neglectful lack of focus – but hey, he was at the Mayweather party in Vegas ! – almost caused his Mum and Dad to lose their lives during Hurricane Harvey. His eye for cultural signifiers (“Airforce knockoffs with Gucci print material”) was spot on throughout:

Back when the face tatts was for OG killas
Now I’m seein’ tear drops on you Soundcloud niggas

Somehow, family life endured. His Mum (“Pull up your pants, son”) and his Dad both pop in at the end of “Roaches” to say how proud they are of him, and how he should keep up with his music. In the Brandon Banks album he released mid-year, Kream expanded on his litany of family scams and misfortunes, and the results were both scarily precise and amusing….For example: on this “3am” album cut he raps succinctly (while standing between some backyard clothes lines) about the finer points of home invasion:

Black gloves, black Sigs, three in the morning, okay
Campin’ outside your crib, like I’m buying Jordans, huh
Money man, money do, Ali and Lamarcus, huh
Lookin’ for our target, ay, pull over and park it, hey
Front door, backyard, two story, one garage
Four cameras, no alarm, two dogs, burglar bars
Four deep, six sticks, one Blood, three Crips…

All going well, until Schoolboy Q makes an entrance with a levelled shotgun and a ridiculous Tibetan snowflap hat. Bad fun ensues.


Rosalia’s world

During 2019, the Spanish singer Rosalia became a global megastar, starting with 2018’s “Malamente” track which many of us heard for the first time early this year. Since then, she’s released a string of hit singles in a wild variety of styles and genres, and even scored a bit part as a washerwoman singing on a riverbank with Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar’s terrific film Pain and Glory.

On her recent single “A Pale” she headed back towards her roots in flamenco (and into faux vampirism) after a string of hits with Latin American stars like Bad Bunny, Ozuna and J Balvin and (even} with James Blake. “Aute Cuture” belongs to that mid 2019 stream of hits:


Optimism, we got that

Balm for these hard and mean times… the airy, jazzily laid back “Mr Sun (Miss Da Sun”) single by the south London musician who calls herself Greentea Peng came packaged with an ingeniously psychedelic video that bore up to repeated visits over the course of the year. Another happy place was “In The Image” by the 75 year old trans musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland.


Best Music writing 2019 Ann Powers’ essay on Lana Del Rey (link above) is worth reading, even if Lana didn’t like it. Yet IMO, the most interesting observation on music culture this year came in the midst of Matthew Perpetua’s attempt to explain to himself why he didn’t like Lizzo very much, and why that instinctive response had a lot to do with the editorial philosophy of ‘cultural cartography’ being promoted at Buzzfeed, where Perpetua used to work. Here’s the gist of his comment:

The cultural cartography system existed both to catalogue the utilities of pieces of content as well as encourage creators to fully consider what the potential use of their work could be before they even started making anything… Once you start seeing this pattern in people’s behaviour it’s hard not to notice it in everything that becomes popular. It’s the key to really connecting with an audience, and when this is done organically, it’s fabulous. But it’s also something that can result in outrageously crass content, and somehow becomes more cringeworthy when it’s done with very good intentions…..Everything is crafted to invite you to go “it me!” and then share it with other people as either “I am ____” or “we are ____.” This bleeds into how people make playlists in the era of iPods and streaming… Utility is a large part of how anyone engages with music, and the emergence of platforms with observable data and potential for virality – as well as a commercial dependence on the money that comes from licensing – has pushed many people in the music industry to approach creating songs with the same “cultural cartography” goals as anyone making content for BuzzFeed.

This line of reasoning took Perpetua towards cultural cartography’s star student: Lizzo. As in:

Lizzo is a perfect example of an artist who is thriving on creating content about identity that is highly relatable and has a clear objective utility in playlists and licensing… Lizzo’s music is perfectly engineered for all of this, to the point that it can seem like it’s already gone through extensive A/B testing and optimization. It’s glossy and immediately accessible, but signals some degree of authenticity and soulfulness. It’s aggressively sincere and every song is clearly about a particular statement or relatable situation. It’s all geared towards feelings of empowerment, and given how many ads, shows, and movies want to sell that feeling, her songs are extremely effective and valuable, especially since up until recently she was not famous and thus not weighed down in the cultural baggage of celebrity…

Which lead him on to this reaction:

I can’t hear Lizzo’s music without recognizing her cultural cartography savvy. A lot of music can achieve these goals without contrivance, often just as a natural side effect of an artist intuitively making resonant work, but Lizzo’s songs all sound very calculated to me. This is not such a bad thing – her skill in expressing herself in relatable ways is a major talent, and I’ve worked with many people who have this natural skill and hold them in very high regard. (I’m much better at telling people who they are rather than asking you to identify with who I am.) Lizzo has a good voice, and her songs range from “pretty good” to “undeniable banger” but I have mixed feelings about all of it because….I’m uncomfortable with this self-consciously audience-pleasing approach to content creation becoming the primary mode of pop culture. I appreciate the value of empowering art – and as someone who has spent his entire adult life as a fat man, I am particularly sympathetic to Lizzo’s fat-positivity – but fear mainstream culture further devolving into nothing but shallow exclamations of self-affirmation. We’re more than halfway there already, especially when you factor in YouTube.

This music makes me want to rebel against it. I never ask that any music be “for me” – I prefer art to offer a window into other lives and ways of thinking – but Lizzo’s songs are often so transparent in their intended use as a way for square, insecure people to feel empowered and cool that I can’t help but hear it and think “but I don’t actually want or need this!” She reminds me a lot of Macklemore, whose big hits “Same Love” and “Thrift Shop” had a similar quasi-cool accessibility and cultural cartography value at the time. In both cases, making fun of them feels cheap and churlish, or like a sideways attack on fat women, LGBT rights, or uh, value shopping. But for me, it’s really just developing an allergy. I hear too much of music like this, or see too many shows and movies that are obviously designed with cultural cartography in mind, and I just run screaming back towards artsy ambiguity.

Yep, we all know the crowd that we don’t want to join, even (or especially) when everything on display says that we should be feeling happy about signing up. Contrarian denial as a positive force ? Music that doesn’t sound like it was made to trigger the “like me” reflex ? Hey, this sounds like it may be time to crank up “Not” by Big Thief one more time. Maybe that closing guitar solo is the sound of what 2019 really felt like, most of the time.