Useful Noise #10
A very exciting (!) midyear music report
It’s the middle of the year of as we know it
A weird thing about me: I don’t like listening to people talk. Lectures, readings, podcasts, news radio—can’t you folks just write this stuff down? I learned to read a long time ago! When girlfriends or roommates look up from a newspaper, phone, or laptop and say, “Listen to this,” I groan. Maybe I’m a bad person.
But lest you think I’m a total dick (using “lest” doesn’t help my case, I know) I will say I’m a pretty good listener (I think?) one-on-one or in small groups. I do like when people talk to me, and when I can respond. Interaction, conversation, socializing—mark me down for a “yes” on all that. (I also like eavesdropping, but that’s a topic for another time.)
And here’s the twist: When it comes to music, I love voices. (O! Paradoxical me!) It’s too simple to say my primary interest as a fan or a critic is vocal—many different instruments make many different pleasurable noises, new rhythms suggest new ways for my body to (attempt to) move. And tunes? Gotta love ’em. Still, there’s a special kinship I feel with humans making sounds with their mouths. “Humans!” I think to myself. “Hey, I’m one of those too.” (Though, as noted, possibly a bad one.)
I realize I’m not alone here. There’s a reason so many songs have singers. Uh doy. Still, it bears repeating: Voices are fuckin’ cool. Good voices, bad voices, sad voices, mad voices, funny voices, big voices, little voices, loud voices, soft voices, he and she and they voices, voices singing together or alone, voices modulated or distorted or outright mutilated electronically—the albums and singles I collected on my midyear lists below (see, I am coming to a point) are full of ’em all.
After a year when people almost exclusively communicated with me through typing, I was happy to hear old faves like Liz Phair and Sleater-Kinney singing the-same-but-not-quite, and more recent acquaintances like Mannequin Pussy’s Missy Dabice testing her strength and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner refusing to accept her limitations. I even came around on Jazmine Sullivan’s expressively performed Heaux Tales, after originally finding it too slight, because of the added between-song monologues from other women that bugged me a little at first.
Some of the voices on my list I’ve already written about. I called Miranda Lambert’s The Marfa Tapes “the most thoughtfully sung album of [her] hardly careless career” and learned to love gone-too-soon Justin Townes Earle’s songwriting on J.T., where his dad Steve roughing up the songs “till they sound not just lived in but barely survived.” Others I didn’t get a chance to: Wait till you hear the women of the Ghanaian “Witch Camp,” imprisoned because of sexist accusations of supernatural power, create their own new folk music traditions from the scraps of their heritage.
Then there’s hip-hop. My favorite rappers these days, as my singles list attests, are female. Because they’re generally not allowed to play by the rules, woman have been playful, weird, and melodic by necessity while dudes proved their mettle by submitting to the constrictive discipline of masculinity (though #notallmen, tasteless Michigander Bfb the Packman interjects, probably adding a joke about the clap). The unity of flow and content Megan Thee Stallion achieves may be unprecedented, and I would listen to City Girls rap a Ross Douthat column. My most favorite song comes from the absolutely-new-to-me Iamdoechi, who floats through a multi-part childhood reminiscence that couldn’t have existed without the past decade’s achievements from stars like Nicki and Cardi and avant-gardists like Noname and Tierra Whack, all of whom made my playlist.
Even my pick for the year-to-date’s best is a singer’s album, albeit of the most eccentric variety. I first ran across Peter Stampfel’s name in Robert Christgau’s ’70s Record Guide about 30 years ago, where something called Have Moicy!, credited to “Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones,” was granted a coveted A+. Finally tracking it down a few years later, I was as initially baffled by Stampfel’s rubbery Midwestern yelp on “Midnight in Paris” as the imaginary French chick to whom he was pledging “too-zhoorz lamoor” must have been. This was great art?
Yup! (If your definitions of “great” and “art” don’t broaden as you get older, even as you clear out your personal canon of the less vital museum pieces you convinced yourself deserved respect when you were younger, you’re not maturing, you’re running in place.) While I haven’t always kept up with Stampfel’s work over the years (Christgau sure has, and his most recent piece on Stampfel guides you through it expertly) I’ve often loved what I’ve heard—“Do You Know Who I Am? I'm %$&in' Snooki!!” is even better than “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake.”
But Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century pleased, disoriented, startled, tickled, moved, reoriented, and then again pleased me like nothing else so far in 2021. Not since finishing my February review have I proceeded through in order—like Stampfel sang 45 years ago, “Life is short, art is long.” Instead I just put it on shuffle, and let some echo from the past surprise me. Voices’ll do that to ya.
Here are the 40 albums released between 1/1/21 and 6/30/21 that I enjoy listening to the most. As of 7/16/21, that is—there’s plenty I’ve heard that’s still under consideration. And, of course, plenty I missed, though if an album has received a decent amount of critical attention I’ve probably given it at least a quick listen.
I’ve linked anything reviewed in GO SLOW NO to the appropriate newsletter. It’s possible I might get around to reviewing the others in future newsletters, but more likely I’ll want to move on to what’s new.
Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti (Griselda)
Natural Information Society with Evan Parker: Descension (Out of Our Constrictions) (Eremite Records)
Witch Camp (Ghana): I've Forgotten Now Who I Used To Be (Six Degrees Records)
Mike: Disco! (10k)
Serpentwithfeet: Deacon (Secretly Canadian)
Mello Music Group: Bushido (Mello Music Group)
Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future (Impulse!)
Wau Wau Collectif: Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds)
No-No Boy: 1975 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Polo G: Hall of Fame (Columbia)
Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime (Matador)
Armand Hammer & the Alchemist: Haram (Backwoodz Studios)
Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Matador)
Pino Palladino & Blake Mills: Notes With Attachments (New Deal/Impulse!)
Bfb Da Packman: Fat Niggas Need Love Too (The Lunch Crew Company)
Backxwash: I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and Dresses (Ugly Hag Records)
Kasai Allstars: Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound (Crammed Discs)
Tyler, the Creator: Call Me If You Get Lost (Columbia)
Yeah, I still use that outdated term. What can I say? I’m a lapsed Catholic who likes working within parameters. I don’t strictly limit myself to “tracks released as singles,” whatever that could possibly mean in 2021, though I do favor songs that had some sort of independent life away from their album of origin. What’s the point of just picking my favorite song from each of my favorite albums?
Though only the top 25 are listed here (with links to my original Uselist blurbs), the full 100-song playlist is also ranked, more arbitrarily the further down you go. (I can’t promise that I won’t continue to tinker with the order even after I’ve posted.) Since it’s not arranged by preference rather than for flow, it’s probably best listened to on shuffle.
Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”
Kali Uchis, “Telepatia”
No-No Boy, “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming”
Joan Armatrading, “Already There”
Bachelor, “Stay in the Car”
Breeland feat. Mickey Guyton, “Cross Country”
Mykki Blanco feat. Kari Faux, “Summer Fling”
Lexii Alijai feat. Wale, “Hoodie SZN”
Jorja Smith, “Addicted”
Young Thug & Gunna, “Ski”
And here’s the full playlist