Good and Interesting Things in Music in 2016

This isn’t a “best of”–ranking is boring. This is a collection of things I liked to listen to and things worth thinking more about wrt music in 2016.

Things I Liked:

  1. Bangers:
    1. Ansome, “Stowaway”. My favorite hard-driving techno banger of the year. It gets a little acidy in the middle.
    2. Manni Dee, “Cameron On A Guillotine”. It’s a frantic face-melter, and the perfect aural catharsis for all our post-Brexit/Trump anxiety (I first heard it on Truss’s Monday-after-Brexit-vote Rinse FM show).
  2. Peaches, “Rub” (Paula Temple Remix). This is a pretty typical Temple track, built out of an aggressive four-on-the-floor percussion ostinato: da-dun da-dun da-dun da-dun. Given the lyrical content, it’s not a stretch to hear that ostinato as a representation of clitorial stimulation. What I like about this song is that it takes the super-aggro techno Temple is known for (and has been pretty characteristic of a certain aspect of the British techno scene that takes its cues from industrial; see also Terence Fixmer) and explicitly disarticulates it from its stereotypical hypermasculinity. It makes us hear musical structures that might otherwise get read as “churning aggression,” “sledgehammer-heavy” expressions of macho aggression and associate them with, as Peaches’ lyrics put it, “a chick’s dick.”
  3. My favorite earworm of the year was Sean Paul’s “biddy-bang-bang” on Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” It’s like the tropical house analogue of Desiigner’s vocalized trap percussion on “Panda.”

Things worth thinking more about:

  1. Simple, sing-songy vocal melodies. Some people call it “the millennial whoop,” but you can also hear it in The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” and in just about every 21 Pilots song. It’s part indie-folk influence bubbling up into pop, and part producers with limited vocal capacity relying on simple, even infantile melodies their voices can actually accommodate.
  2. Boring pop songs. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd called 2016 “an exceptionally disappointing year for pop megahits.” Similar sentiments appeared in Idolator, and Beyonce sings about it in Lemonade. YOLO maximalism grew passe and pop went full chill this year. There’s even an Apple Music playlist for “chill house.” Kelefa Sanneh came out of the not-really-writing-about-music-anymore woodwork to write about it: ““tropical” refers more to a general mood—invariably described as “chill”—than to any specific musical tradition, of whatever latitude.” I wrote about it a bit at SoundingOut!. There I argued that “chill” was a toning-down of pop’s tension-release structures, like soars. But the question remains: WHY? Why is tension/release out and chill in? This is more than just pendulum-swinging away from Baauer, Psy, Skrillex, and Miley. Why did the pendulum swing in this way? Why did we get ‘tropical’ house instead of a pop version of the recent UK house 80s retromania (like Hot Since 82’s Black Box re-edit)? Why chill and not deep (house)? Why did we get chill and not smooth (like some neo-Spandau Ballet)? The political philosopher in me has a hunch that in an increasingly overtly violent and horrible world after the UK and US votes this year, a world that makes a lot of us anxious and demands equally assertive pushback, “chill” is the neoliberal upgrade on that good ol’ liberal value of “tolerance,” which actually naturalizes inequality. Chill is the affective expression of “both sides” rhetoric. It’s also the other side of the “politically incorrect” coin.
  3. Whole albums dominate the pop chart in a given week. This happened with Bieber’s “Purpose”: all the various tracks would place somewhere in the top 100. It also happend with The Weeknd’s new album. Contrast this to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” which had singles hit #1 in 1989, 1990, and 1991–one album, three consecutive years of #1 hits. Streaming compresses the lifespan of an album: everything gets released all at once, everything factors into the singles chart all at once, and so by the end of 2016 “Purpose” is played out, chart-wise.  
  4. The political economy of visual albums. How do they circulate? They aren’t made primarily for radio, or even really the singles charts. They’re made to be watched on a computer or a phone. They’re meme-generators. They’re thinkpieced & syllabused. They’re emojied. Do visual albums make most sense for artists who own the platforms they’re distributed on? This is different than the political economy of MTV, which circulated videos of singles in a broadcast format. And visual albums have to be expensive to make.

Things that need to end:

  1. 21 Pilots
  2. Tropical house: It’s Jimmy Buffett for millennials.

Wow, the year end billboard charts are full of a bunch of white guys, again.