For those whose musical proclivities tend to line up with their emotional states, poring over a year (or a decade!) of listening can feel like a precise and intimate kind of self-interrogation. In 2015, why did I buy every single used Frank Sinatra LP I could find with a picture of him looking lonesome on the cover? Can it be true that I listened to “It’s So Good” by Betty Davis a hundred and thirteen times in the first three months of 2018? Furthermore, what does it mean that I have already played “Sensitivity,” the début single by Ralph Tresvant, of New Edition, four times since I ate breakfast? Music, maybe more than any other popular art, is tangled up, in a granular and private way, with our lived days; objective greatness is a weird and irrelevant concept compared to what might have resonated for a single person alive in a particular place and time. In that sense, year-end lists always feel worth making, if only to have a topographical map of one’s own heart and mind.
I’ll admit that at the start of 2019 I was feeling down about popular music and the increasingly gutless way we consume it. One of the early promises of the Internet—that it might democratize criticism in a generative and exciting way—hadn’t quite actualized for me. It felt, instead, like there were fewer places to read about music than ever, and nearly all of those places—self-implication alert!—were covering the same handful of artists, in almost the exact same way. I used to feel a vague shame about how I came of age as a critic with the notion that “selling out”—making art that felt too overtly commercial, blatantly acquiescing to the market—was tantamount to a kind of creative death. It’s a bourgeois idea that has since lost considerable traction in the culture, in part because it is harder than ever for a musician to make a decent living via recording and touring alone. (The revenue generated from having your music on a streaming service is hardly equal to the revenue generated from, say, CD sales.) Selling out has also withered under the critical philosophy of “poptimism,” in which even the most cynically produced pop music is often still approached as high art. Meanwhile, corporations have more fully embedded themselves in our personal lives, making the line between business and everything else even more vague.
2019 in Review
New Yorker writers reflect
on the year’s best.
In time, though, I felt myself regressing to that adolescent state—thinking everyone and everything was bullshit (I’ll admit it’s possible that this feeling may have been influenced by current events), and being drawn, instead, toward genuinely strange, difficult, or off-market art. The kind of stuff that gets played in basements for groups of two to five people at either 4:30 P.M. or 4:30 A.M., and leaves no discernible trace, online or off. You experience it, it changes you, and it is gone.
This is certainly not a new gripe, and I don’t mean to imply that some very popular artists don’t also deserve serious critical attention (I recently listened to Ariana Grande’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” several dozen times while climbing up a mountain, and discovered new, deeper pockets of feeling with each play), but it did begin to feel as if the creative landscape had been levelled in a particularly depressing fashion. The culture had codified and exalted ambition, productivity, and material success in a way that had made those things not just irresistible but irrefutable. Where can we possibly go from here? I thought often about the opening of “American Bar,” a John Ashbery poem: “We bake a dozen kinds of muffins every day / yet we are cold and disquieting at heart.”
Even though I was slowly backing away from major-label pop, I did find myself increasingly interested in art that incorporates or addresses the ubiquity of certain technologies, preferably in a tender and humane way. I wanted to hear music that felt consonant with how phones and laptops and tablets make us behave like lunatics. The era seems increasingly rife with odd new sensations, such as the psychic turbulence of spending, say, fifteen minutes on Instagram; I was hungry for songs that could either ease or reflect those feelings, because I needed help making sense of them. Not all of my favorite records did this, but I felt especially open to the artists—Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, FKA twigs, Thom Yorke—who tried. Refining or perfecting an old tradition is a lovely and useful impulse, but, this decade (with a few exceptions), I found that I mostly wanted to be startled.
In the spirit of sanity—though perhaps not in the genre-defying mood of our times—I am limiting my best-of choices to commercially released full-length records that exist in or near the pop idiom. So, here are my twelve favorite records of this year, and my twelve favorite records of the past decade, in no particular order:
FKA twigs, “MAGDALENE”
Mdou Moctar, “Ilana (The Creator)”
75 Dollar Bill, “I Was Real”
Sharon Van Etten, “Remind Me Tomorrow”
Bon Iver, “i, i”
Big Thief, “Two Hands”
Purple Mountains, “Purple Mountains”
Burna Boy, “African Giant”
Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”
Thom Yorke, “Anima”
Jake Xerxes Fussell, “Out of Sight”
Maggie Rogers, “Heard It in a Past Life”
Frank Ocean, “Blonde”
Bon Iver, “22, A Million”
Joanna Newsom, “Have One on Me”
Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”
D’Angelo & the Vanguard, “Black Messiah”
Beck, “Morning Phase”
Lonnie Holley, “Mith”
Kanye West, “Yeezus”
Hiss Golden Messenger, “Bad Debt”
Vampire Weekend, “Modern Vampires of the City”
Solange, “A Seat at the Table”