There is No ”Bad” Music

There is no such thing as “bad” music. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement. I know I knock some stuff that I listen to – cough, Jethro Tull – but it doesn’t mean I think it’s bad: I just don’t get why other people think it’s good, which is not the same thing. In the end, all that matters is if the music you are listening to gives you pleasure. That enjoyment can take a lot of forms. It can be an intellectual satisfaction that comes from hearing something truly original or played masterfully, or something that stirs your emotions, or makes you dance, or takes you back to an earlier time, or that makes you chuckle. All that matters is that you like it. As long as you don’t force that onto others, then you be you. 

What I will never understand is the kind of music fan who needs to slam an artist as part of elevating their personal favourite. (This seems unique to music. Pynchon fans don’t need to slag Gaddis, Tarantino fanboys can also love Nolan flicks, etc.) J. Cole seems to bring this out in people, which is nuts – he doesn’t need help to be awesome, and saying otherwise doesn’t make it true either. Or people who feel that listening to both artists in a beef (which generally means rappers, or maybe a Gallagher brother) is a betrayal of their favourite. I choose to listen to Kanye over Drake because I think Ye is the vastly superior artist and my listening time is precious. I don’t need to say “Drake sucks” as part of that choice. (On the other hand, Kanye also seems to be something of an ass, while Aubrey is one of the most naturally likeable people in music today. The wrong guy tried to get into politics. I don’t know if he’d be good at governing, but Drake would make a fantastic candidate.)

If you want to spend your listening time blasting Ariana Grande, I respect that. I don’t understand your choice, but it is undeniably yours to make, and good for you for deciding to live on what is to my ears the aural equivalent of a diet of stale Cheetos and warm Diet Coke. Some people do fine on such a diet – and I’ve consumed my fair share of both over the years – and she might just be your prime rib, while my Elvis Costello playlist is your idea of a piece of bubblegum scraped off the underside of a desk. Everyone’s tastebuds are unique – just ask anyone who thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

All of the above is a preamble to listing – yes, a few weeks late – my favourite new music of 2021. Not the ”best” music, because its not my place to say. I rarely write about it, but I listen to a lot of new music. Usually, it’s while walking (in nicer weather, I walk around 90 minutes each Saturday and Sunday), or exercising – something about physical activity and new sounds just clicks for me. A lot of these will be unfamiliar names, but I highly recommend checking them out – you may find a few here that don’t taste soapy to you either.

Here they are – my top 20 of 2021. Bracketed comments are from Twitter after the first time I played a particular record (weather conditions and my overall mood are the key factors in whether I tweet about something or not).

  • Bad Bad Hats – Walkman
  • CHAI – WINK
  • Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
  • Hana Vu – Public Storage
  • Hand Habits – Fun House
  • Hovvdy – True Love (“melodic indie pop, meditative whispery vocals, solid song craft”)
  • Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More (“endlessly clever, musically diverse, catchy hooks”)
  • Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
  • Jenevieve – Division (“languid and kind of trippy, with bracing melodies”)
  • Jordana & TV Girl – Summer’s Over (trippy, breezy, dreamlike)
  • Jose Gonzalez – Local Valley (“gentle, contemplative, soulful”)
  • Lana Del Ray – Chemtrails over the Country Club
  • Lil Nas X – Montero
  • Lily Konigsberg – Lily We Need to Talk Now
  • Macie Stewart – Mouth Full of Glass (“guitar forward, complex and rich sounding, yet decidedly not fussy”)
  • Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties
  • Nilufer Yanya – Inside Out (“soulful, honest, insistent – the melodies burrow deep and don’t release you until the next track starts up”)
  • Snail Mail – Valentine
  • The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
  • Wiki – Half God (“the (mostly) slow rolling soulful light jazz/borderline ambient backing tracks can’t hide the truth in his raps”)

Kanye West – Donda

I don’t really want to comment on this record – I need more distance from the hype before figuring out what I truly think about this mess. I’m more interested right now in what I’ve been seeing from music writers about the record. There is a lot of negative press about “Donda”, and it seems to fall into two camps.

First, there are the people who can’t separate the art from the artist. I get it – Kanye is the most exhausting personality in music today. In one way, he is the exact opposite of his nemesis, Taylor Swift. (Insert Drake’s tears here – sorry, Aubrey, but your beef with Ye can’t compete.) Swift wants to give the impression of not caring about the game, of being all about her art, but she is deadly serious about managing her image and product (see the Scooter Braun fiasco for an object lesson in this). Kanye, on the other hand, wants you to see how much effort he is putting into being in control of, well, everything.

The second issue I am seeing is that a lot of writers are talking about how it isn’t as good as his previous albums. This annoys the crap out of me. Of course, it isn’t as good as the old stuff. This is the man who gave us “The College Dropout” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. It’s like slamming Paul McCartney because Wings never made a record as good as “Sgt. Pepper”. Duh, almost nobody has. The curse of being a great artist is being compared to your greater younger self. I prefer to judge art on its own terms, which is why my Goodreads has a Hardy Boys book with a five-star rating (“What Happened at Midnight” rules!), and Martin Amis, an undeniably much, much, much better writer, gets only one star (because less than this isn’t permitted) for the pure excrement that is “Yellow Dog”. Amis should’ve done better (and has since), but that Hardy Boys book is a perfect mystery aimed at young readers.

Having said that, this is not Ye’s “Yellow Dog”. It’s weird and self-indulgent, but never boring. I picked this first over Drake’s new record because I knew Ye would hold my attention, while the most interesting thing about Drake’s release was when Kawhi Leonard turned up in a video where they all looked like the lamest Boyz II Men tribute band ever assembled. (Having now listened to “Certified Lover Boy”, I feel vindicated in my choice.) There are some tunes that I genuinely love: “Jail”, “Off the Grid”, “Jesus Lord” and especially “Hurricane”, with The Weeknd’s silky falsetto. And I have felt compelled to replay it, which is the ultimate compliment for music, right? So I will keep on ignoring the press, and keep giving “Donda” the chance to make me fall in love with it. I don’t think I will, but Kanye has surprised me before.

Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

I’m not going to make a habit of this, but when you’re wrong about something and for the dumbest of reasons, there should be a mea culpa, even if you’re the only person who knows you were wrong. There is integrity in being honest, even about internal failures.

Stay with me, because I’m going to find redemption before I type -30-. But I really only listened to ”Sour” because of the plagiarism allegations.

When “drivers license” came out of nowhere, I played about 30 seconds of it on Spotify, decided it wasn’t for me and moved on. I heard more of it in an SNL skit, which was fun, but didn’t really force me to pay attention to the song. I don’t know why I resisted so strongly. The idea of the song – and the made-for-TV drama behind that – certainly was a factor. Female singer-songwriters are one of my musical sweet spots (just this week I discovered Macie Stewart and Nilufer Yanya, and you absolutely should be listening to Mitski), but when they are super young, they seem to either be idealized (isn’t she amazing?) or disregarded (she’s manufactured) or, much worse, infantilized (isn’t she cute?). I’ve done it myself – I’m still sort of resisting Billie Eilish, and I will totally get to work on that soon.

But then I read about the plagiarism claims, and rubbed my hands together with Scrooge-like glee. Especially because one of them involved Elvis Costello. Now, Elvis was a complete gentleman about it, acknowledging the debt his own work has owed to others. What he didn’t say was if he liked the record or not. So now I had to check it out.

Well, shit.

It’s a bit awkward, being 57 and therefore old enough to be her grandfather or maybe father with a much younger wife, to admit how much I like this record. The opener, “brutal” (which owes an unavoidable debt to Elvis’ “Pump It Up”) and “good 4 u” are high energy rockers with irresistible hooks. 

But it is the ballads where she shines. They have a recurring theme of girls who love too desperately and too openly. Maybe this partly struck a chord because I’ve been caught up in the teen angst of “Never Have I Ever”. But I really think it’s because Rodrigo is so plugged in to how it feels to be young and heartbroken, and she just lets it all out in that direct and unfiltered way that only teenage girls can. Her narrators have such innocence and vulnerability, that comes from believing every idiotic thing that comes out of the mouths of the boys they love like breath itself. Though the theme is repeated, each dead or dying relationship seems distinct.

All that sadness becomes a bit much, and I don’t love the record – it might be a bit weird if I did – but I respect it, and that might be a bigger deal for Olivia’s long-term career prospects. This is a good album, and I hope she has more to offer as her artistry matures. I also hope she never holds back telling us how she’s really feeling about something. Because those songs are the ones that just might leave you in a puddle in the corner, and there really isn’t enough music like that in the world.