Happy holidays, my Molly Percocets:
As I’ve been reading your entries in this year’s Music Club, I am struck that you all seem to have had the same sort of year I’ve had, broadly speaking. In our state of permanent anxiety, we don’t know whether we’re turning to music to seek succor or root for some kind of defiance. I briefly tried the brickbats: Back in February, which now feels like 10,000 news cycles ago, Jack Hamilton and I co-bylined an article asking whether a song like YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” could ride an angry viral wave to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 the way British pop fans of two different eras made “God Save the Queen” and “Killing in the Name” U.K. chart dominators and blows against the empire. It was a pair of music-nerd dudes’ earnest attempt at pussyhat-knitting, and of course our attempt to roll a tiny snowball into a Mannequin Challenge–sized phenomenon failed outright. (Blame me more than Jack; I was all realist–defeatist in my chart data–analysis half of the article, warning how much bigger a country America is than England and how radio-dependent our charts still are.)
Since then, I’ve mostly turned to the solace-seeking side of pop, looking not so much for soothing pablum—although from “Body Like a Back Road” to “Feel It Still,” there was plenty of that this year—as for opiates that could double as purges of the soul. I’m not alone here. Julianne mentioned “political music … more centered on the self,” and that was absolutely my year. Much of 2017’s exceptional music seemed more inward and spirit-purging, more reclusive than resistance. I see it all over the albums we’ve been name-checking, most of which make my top 10, from Melodrama and Utopia to Rainbow and DAMN.
At the same time, I see you guys wrestling—and I’m right there with you—with whether it’s OK to hope for an upraised fist smuggled into a catchy chart-topper, even when it takes the form of a red-bottomed Christian Louboutin pump or an un-Photoshopped posterior. What is our rooting interest? Is culture-spanning visibility of nonwhite and female performers enough of a cause, or is it weak beer? Carl rightly brought up the dearth of women atop the Hot 100 in 2017—a complaint I’ve been making in my hits-analysis series all year, where for more than eight months dudes were dominating the chart’s penthouse and, at times, even the whole Top 10. It reminded me of how stock-market indices this year have, annoyingly, given Dear Leader a supportive data point. But how excited should we be when the Hot 100’s lady drought finally ended at the hands of pop’s most privileged woman? (Even the Year in Taylor Swift is a study in shifting rooting interests: Taylor was a hero until she wasn’t.)
I’m trying to be cool with the open-ended rhetorical-questions shtick above. To be clear, I allowed myself to get excited about moments of representation this year, from Fonsi to Cardi, even when these phenomena were merely reruns from the late ’90s. (Our 20-year nostalgia cycle used to manifest in the form of recycled fashions. Now we reboot whole pop-chart trends.) Just as it was awesome but bloody ridiculous that “Bodak Yellow” was the first No. 1 by a solo female rapper since Lauryn Hill in 1998, what both fascinates and concerns me about 2017’s boomlet in Latin music is how much it all feels like déjà vu. Will this wave be any less faddish than Crossover Boom v1.0 from 1999—the year of Ricky and Marc and Enrique and (sure, OK) Jennifer and, a little later, Shakira, all singing in English?
On the one hand, the depressingly familiar part is that English is still a factor. I agree with Julianne that it’s disrespectful to claim “Despacito” was a nonentity before Bieber got involved. But on U.S. Top 40 radio and the Hot 100, Latin Boomita 2.0 hinged on crossover popularizers: “Despacito” was a Latin megasmash but only a No. 44 Hot 100 hit before Justin got involved. “Mi Gente” had done amazingly for a Balvin record but only made the leap from outside the Top 20 to No. 3 when Queen Bey jumped on the remix. On the other hand, the fact that this generation of Latin stars (funnily enough, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are old enough to be near-contemporaries of the ’99 wave of Martin and Iglesias) didn’t feel the need to translate themselves—well, much—suggests that they are going to make the mountain come to Mohammed this time. I remain skeptical that this wavelet will persist into 2018. “Mi Gente” still feels to me like Top 40 radio tentatively sampling a genre follow-up the way they let Falco have a second hit in 1986. And much as I share Julianne and Ann’s enthusiasm for Camila Cabello’s radio-dominating “Havana” (a No. 2 hit I was sad not to get to write about, blocked from No. 1 by hegemonic white dudes Post Malone and Ed Sheeran), as a spicy crossover track by a former girl-grouper it has more in common with Jennifer Lopez in ’99 than Karol G in 2017. But I am solidly rooting for Boomita 2.0—I know not everybody was as delighted by “Despacito’s” conquering run this year as I was, but every time I heard Fonsi drop that descending hook from a passing car it fed my soul.
So, yeah, when it comes to the little multicultural success stories, we are more than passive observers. The same goes for the pop-consuming public. In my chart-nerd world, the year’s behind-the-scenes story was how big streaming would get and how Billboard should tally it, now that it’s swallowing the charts whole and even changing the way pop records sound. Ann brought up an important point about the center of payola gravity shifting from the radio to playlists. There’s no question streaming services are now profit centers for the labels and the biggest factor on the charts. So what happens when there is only one metric to measure hit success? (If that sounds extreme, a rumor going around in the final weeks of the year says that, by early 2019, Apple might abandon the whole buck-a-song download business the company created out of whole cloth back in 2003. By 2020, terrestrial radio might be the last yardstick for hit-song measurement that isn’t streaming.)
What’s the intersectional angle of this inside-baseball industry story? It’s that the general public is now invested in how Billboard and Nielsen measure streaming—and what that means for the genre and even racial makeup of the charts. The subtext is that rap—and not old-school landed-gentry rap like Jay Z and Eminem but viral rap like “Bad and Boujee” and “XO Tour Llif3”—has gotten a major chart boost from the rise of streaming. In October, Billboard announced a plan to shift in 2018 how streaming services are weighted on the Hot 100 and other song charts: They’ll count ad-supported services such as YouTube and free Spotify less than paid services such as Apple Music and paid-subscriber Spotify. This is something the old guard in the business wants: for the music you monetize directly to count more than what you consume passively. And the music blogosphere lost its damn mind. Everyone from the New York Times to Thrillist to HipHopDX weighed in on the news. I’ve been following Hot 100 minutiae for three decades, including changes far more significant than this, and no rule change I can remember has generated more chatter—and the new rules haven’t even taken effect yet. Mind you, there’s not even evidence that overindexing paid streaming would hurt hip-hop: A source at Spotify told me rap dominates the paid side of the service, too, even more strongly than the ad-supported side. I will wait to comment in full for when the new rules take effect, but in the meantime we might want to decide if we are rooting for or against our new robot overlords.
Since Jack’s and my abortive attempt at fomenting revolution, I’ve turned back to music either as sonic salve or quiet gesture. Covering both those bases was the launch of my chart-history podcast Hit Parade—I hope you won’t mind my mentioning this, as it was the happiest musical news in my life in 2017. (I get to make shameless plugs here, right? Tickets are still available for our live Hit Parade in Brooklyn next month.) I joke privately with friends that Hit Parade could be retitled This Month in Poptimism, as I pretty shamelessly use my podcast soapbox to advocate for the worthiness of such best-selling but less-rock-canonical artists as George Michael and Donna Summer. My latest HP episode ends with a short story about the rise of Kelly Clarkson, and when I recount the tale of Max Martin and his Swedish song factory, it already feels like nostalgia for a bygone era—even though Clarkson had her last Stockholm-incubated chart-topper just five years ago, and Martin had his last just 18 months ago. Carl is quite right that über-pop songsmiths like Martin and Dr. Luke appear to be cycling out of favor on the radio, and the reason is simple: the return of hip-hop to the top of the charts. It’s happened before, the last time hip-hop completely dominated the charts, between 2001 and 2004, when Martin was in the wilderness before “Since U Been Gone” rebooted female-driven megapop for the late aughts and early ’10s.
As for my favorite records, it’s been soul-soothers all year. The xx’s unnervingly buoyant (for them) I See You came out less than a fortnight into 2017—so early, most rankings of the year’s top albums have scarcely mentioned it—but I reached for it every time another iPhone push alert disrupted my equilibrium. In September, James Murphy followed my advice and scored LCD Soundsystem’s first-ever No. 1 with an elegiac album that was up-to-the-minute lyrically but about a decade old sonically, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I know Jack is 100-percent right about the curdled nostalgia and luxury branding at the heart of Jay Z’s 4:44, but as Jay’s contemporary and, I suppose, his target market, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to playing that lush, sonically sumptuous album a lot. (For now, I am trying to push out of my head the possibility that he will succeed at the Grammy podium where his wife was denied.) As everyone has already noted, even Kendrick’s dazzling DAMN. was an exercise in introversion—refining his sprawl into something closer to vintage boom bap and going full Marvin Gaye with “Duckworth.” My album of the year, St. Vincent’s Masseduction, is both resolutely current—for my money, it tops Lorde’s Melodrama among installments in the Antonoff Cinematic Universe by sounding more like Annie Clark than Antonoff—and yet it is retro in its unstated belief that centrist art pop can fortify the spirit. If, as Ann suggests, St. Vincent is the new David Bowie, this year she was the Bowie of Let’s Dance, not Lodger. Of course I loved it.
At the end of all this, I may be no closer to solving the conundrum of Music: balm or bomb? but I take comfort in the fact that I am still not so numb that I’m incapable of being dazzled. Black Thought’s 11-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show put such a wonderful bow on the year—just a pure, head-spinning display of technique by an old master. I’ve studied Mr. Tariq Trotter’s densely embroidered lyrics looking for topicality, and other than a couple of references to the government’s complicity in drug addiction, the Roots’ lead rapper appears to be mostly interested in boasting of his battle-ready off-the-dome rhyme skills, unless you choose to read more into them than is on the page. No matter: It’s resonating because his tone matches the national mood—unbowed and fierce.
Top 10 Albums
1. St. Vincent, Masseduction
2. The xx, I See You
3. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
4. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
5. SZA, Ctrl
6. Jay Z, 4:44
7. Lorde, Melodrama
8. Original Broadway Cast, Dear Evan Hansen
9. Beck, Colors
10. Kesha, Rainbow
Top 20 Singles
1. The Weeknd featuring Daft Punk, “I Feel It Coming”
2. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
3. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, “Despacito” (original sans Bieber)
4. Harry Styles, “From the Dining Table”
5. Future, “Mask Off”
6. Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
7. Shawn Mendes, “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back”
8. Taylor Swift, “Call It What You Want”
9. Calvin Harris featuring Frank Ocean and Migos, “Slide”
10. Julia Michaels, “Issues”
11. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
12. Portugal. The Man, “Feel It Still”
13. Charlie Puth, “Attention”
14. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”
15. Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”
16. Camila Cabello, “Havana”
17. Haim, “Want You Back”
18. Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3”
19. Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
20. Ed Sheeran, “Castle on the Hill”