Best Music Journalism of 2021
Scribes still do the write thing in COVID times
Congrats on making it to the end of year, which is no mean feat during an ongoing pandemic.
Music journalism might not be the most important item on everyone’s list in a desperate, uncertain time like this but it’s still something that can help us cope and think and discuss/argue.
Speaking of the disease, not counting the recent Omicron scare, earlier in 2021, COVID postponed the Grammys and knocked out festival after festival after festival after festival and more festivals, such that it was impossible to keep up after mid-year and no doubt there will be more taken off the calendar for 2022. Hitting closer to home for scribing, it’s estimated that over 60 newsrooms were closed because of COVID and over 6000 jobs were lost during this time in the new field. In addition to a study claimed that recent journalism burnout/attrition is also COVID-related.
Along with that unhappy news, buy-up’s and buy-outs were unfortunately all the rage still with the Chicago Tribune being eaten up (or as former writer Greg Kot put it, “gutted“) by Alden Golden Capital, a hedge fund known for ‘sweeping layoffs’ that got the venerable paper on the cheap, thanks in part to several board members they already have on the inside, wrestling it away from yet another billionaire whose L.A. news empire is also struggling. In another big buy by raiders, Lee Enterprises, one of last of indie chains was also bought out by Alden Golden Capital. And just because we obviously need our media consolidated in the hands of fewer companies, Vox Media and Group Nine combined to form what’s called “one of the largest digital media publishers in the U.S.,” all in the name of competing with the evil social media companies, because hey, having a digital print overlord is better than a social media one, right?
Lots of movement and shuffling happened among the big players in the entertainment scribing biz again in 2021 too.
Rolling Stone took some knocks for soliciting payments in the thousands of dollars to ‘thought leaders’ who wanted to appear in the magazine’s pages, and for having a new owner with strong ties to Trump, leading to a call for a boycott on Twitter. On the plus side, RS’s parent company bought up half of SXSW (which welcomed the help after having to cancel in 2020) and hired Daily Beast‘s Noah Shachtman as its editor, leading to a previously unimaginable harsh piece on rock legend Eric Clapton for his anti-vax insanity among other things, though it remains to be seen if they’ll stag other rock heroes when warranted.
Billboard meanwhile tried to keep up with the ever-evolving digital age in a pair of social media moves, adding Facebook music streams to its chart listings and teaming with Twitter for a ‘Hot Trending Music‘ listing. In a late-breaking end of year story for 2020, the Village Voice actually resurfaced as a print quarterly, bought out by the owner of LA Weekly, though the news wasn’t taken well by everyone considering the owner’s background with other print media. After a long battle to unionize its ranks, Conde Nast workers, including staff from New Yorker and Pitchfork, took up to authorize a strike. Buzzfeed meanwhile went public and bought out venerable publication Complex. Not to be outdone, Vice has now hit a $3 billion valuation but some of the people who won’t see that money are the staffers who were cut in the digital/print field so that the company can pivot more to video. As for alternate platforms for journalism, after the hope of a golden age of blogging, Medium and Substack ran into substantial trouble this year, though podcasting revenue is way up now.
Bits of good news managed to trickle out too this past year also. While we’re nowhere near gender parity in the writing game, the Me-Too movement has created some momentum and progress, bringing Vice finally to account (at least somewhat) and Consequence of Sound named Gab Ginsberg as its first female editor in chief not to mention Resident Advisor hired Whitney Wei as its own female editor-in-chief. There’s even a pair of industry campaigns in the UK that’s is working with festivals to make them more gender-balanced. COS also made news with their own video series in partnership with CREATV, geared towards music biz newbies. Fader decided to take its taste master status to another level too by launching its own record label. And even with the media consolidation trend reaching alarming levels, there are some signs that the opposite is happening too with more publications reverting to local ownership.
As always, I like to share some good ideas outside the music scribing realm that could/should be applied here somehow. Emmy-winning TV writer Cord Jefferson (Watchmen, Succession, The Good Place) started a fellowship to help unemployed or underemployed journalists get started in TV and/or films, which would be a great thing to carry over for music writers starting out too, right? Just to show that Rolling Stone may be onto something, Forbes is also launching a newsletter platform for a few dozen scribes (‘with large followings”) as a way to get the thing going through there will be editorial oversight and the mag’s branding to go along with it. Along with rebranding itself as ‘Meta’ since everyone hates ‘Facebook,’ the social media company launched a series of newsletters too, attracting its own group of known writers and will be covering sports, science and health (and how about music…?).
It’s worth making space to say goodbye to a few writers we lost this year who gave us new ways to enjoy, appreciate and discover music:
And finally once again, if you read an article you like, PLEASE reach out to the writer and/publication to thank ’em and also support them by subscribing so that you can keep enjoying quality work. Now here’s two pieces of quality scribing that I found this year myself.
1. Adam Aziz “Are Old Rap MP3s Hip-Hop’s Hottest New Collectible?” (okayplayer, March 2, 2021) Editor/writer Byron Coley once wondered out loud ‘can an MP3 be collectible?’ at the beginning of the digital age. What was once a laughable idea turns out to be a serious subject. Turns out there’s PLENTY of classic old school rap that actually isn’t available for streaming, which means that it isn’t available to most music fans out there nowadays. Speaks a lot to the state of the industry and how much we’re held hostage by what’s available and not available via streaming.
2. Jake Blount “The Insidiousness of “Afro-Americana” (Paste, October 6, 2021) Reacting to another Paste article by columnist Geoffrey Himes, the musician/scholar takes issue with the attempt at phrase-making that glosses over a lot of individuality not only in the music style of ‘Americana’ but also in African-American culture. Two cheers for the Paste editors for 1) noting in the original article that Himes crossed a line in a racially insensitive way with some of his writing and 2) printing Blount’s response as its own article and not just a ‘letter to the editor.’
3. August Brown “A homeless L.A. musician helped create a Daft Punk classic. So why hasn’t he seen a dime?” (Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2021) The French dance duo cashed in on a bunch of hits but neglected to give disco artist Eddie Johns any due for a sample that helped to power their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories. It’s not just Daft who denied him his due though- it turns out the labels and publishing companies are stopping Johns from getting his royalties also. And isn’t it publishing companies that are supposed to speak up for artists too? Guess not.
4. Britton-Rene Collins “Racial Profiling in Classical Music” (Blog, May 17, 2021) After a stunning, dexterous performance last summer for the National Arts Club last summer, I was curious to learn more about this classical percussionist. In her blog posts, she had this noteworthy entry to say that even nowadays, this supposed high art style still has its issues with race. She shares her own experiences, her own struggles and how she continues to strive regardless. “A reminder to my fellow Black musicians: our presence is not suspicious, and our participation is not up for investigation. You are enough, and no one is entitled to proof of your abilities / achievements.” You only wish that she had more time to share more pearls of wisdom on her site.
5. Jim DeRogatis “R. Kelly Is Found Guilty on All Counts, Twenty-five Years Too Late” (New Yorker, September 27, 2021) As told by the writer who’s tirelessly tread this story for decades, we hear of how the rightfully-fallen R&B star finally gets his comeuppance. Of course, in a case like this, there can’t be any happen endings as a lot of damage has already been done. Even with this bit of justice being dealt out, many people who were involved in Kelly’s incidents were not heard from during the trial, which prosecution declined to call. And as DeRegoatis also notes, “… how many more victims are there who we don’t know about?” and “… how the many people Kelly victimized will begin to heal.” As of right now, sentencing will happen in May 2022 for Kelly and he may face charges in other states, but as of now also, some of the girls involved with Kelly are still separated from their family. Related to the Kelly reporting, also see this powerful story from Paul Butler at the Washington Post.
6. Tavi Gevinson “Britney Spears Was Never in Control: Why did I ever believe a teen girl could hold all the power?” (The Cut, February 23, 2021) The rare documentary that actually helped its cause, the New York Times‘ Framing Britney Spears turned the ‘free Britney’ cause into Britney actually being freed from her conservatorship and her dad several months later. But, as Gevinson wonders aloud, was Britney ever really ‘free’ beforehand? A great case here is made for the answer being NO. Then again, how many teen pop stars really control their own lives, destiny, art and wealth? Not many for sure.
7. Ted Gioia “The Deadliest Song In History” (Culture Notes of an Honest Broker, May 7, 2021) The author turned blogger is easily one of the best (if not THE BEST) writers on Substack right now, is also masterful with coming up with fascinating subject matter that draws you in. He may be the most obsessive music nut you’ll ever read and I mean that as the highest compliment (and something I’d aspire to). His knowledge is deep and so is his quest for more knowledge but what’s even more admirable is how generously he shares his knowledge. Case in point- a hit parade of deadliest tunes. The runners up include a variety of battle tunes that were used to precipitate slaughter, courtesy of Aussies, Scots and Romans. Numero uno according to Gioia though is a 16th century ballad, “Fortune My Foe,” aka ‘the hanging tune’ as it was used for many an execution and proved to be an inspiration for the Bard. Don’t you think though that plenty of ‘patriotic’ songs and national anthems could have made the list here for all the wrong reasons? Other great recent posts from TG: the narcissism of “My Way” and “10 Rules for Musicians and Everybody.”
8. Michael A. Gonzales “Soul Superhero- The Massive Life and Tragic Death of King Curtis” (Wax Poetics, March 2, 2021) One of those artists who you’ve heard even if you don’t know his name, Curtis’ explosive sax is heard on many hits by the Coasters and was the one who put together the band for the classic live album Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, not to mention being a major inspiration for Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band. KC also befriended a young Ornette Coleman when they were both coming up in the Texas music circuit, with Curtis later joining Lionel Hampton’s band. Then there were sessions with Buddy Holly (who gave Curtis a songwriting credit) and an up-and-coming guitarist named Hendrix. After a career spanned so many styles and great artists, it all came crashing down tragically, senselessly with his murder in 1971 over an senseless argument right in front of his apartment.
9. Candace Hansen “Why That Fat Wreck Chords Rainbow is Still Bothering Me” (Get it Together, June 23, 2021) An OC Weekly writer and punk drummer shares her discomfort with a famous punk band/label who’s trying to be show support for Pride Month, only she can’t totally buy into it becuse of the band’s music (which includes a stupid gay joke) and her personal history with the band (getting called out by the band at a show). She admires their solidarity but can’t shake her doubts and turns her essay into a righteous rant about how the punk community still isn’t comfortable with gay culture.
10. Samantha Hissong “A Field Guide to Music’s Potential Crypto Boom” (Rolling Stone, February 4, 2021) Now that streaming music means that artists can’t even technically earn pennies on the dollar and the future of live shows is in doubt again, how the hell are performers gonna survive now? For most people, cryptocurrency is cryptic- they’ve heard of it but don’t really know what the hell it actually is. Luckily, Hissong takes the time to dissect it and translate for all the non-techies out there. Not a small deal either- there’s potentially billions involved for the music biz, and there’s already that much involved for crypto in the financial markets as of now. With the music biz though, at least two promising trends are out there. First are NFT’s which are making some artists, labels and record companies millions of dollars by selling everything from their music to associated artwork and more (you can read even more about NFT’s here). Second is the whole concept of blockchain, which is basically a security protocol behind crypto which could mean a truly safe, secure way for artists to get fans the tickets to their shows directly. Expect there to be even more ways for artists/labels/etc. to cash in on crypto. Just be careful of all of the inevitable boom’s and busts.
11. Jason Jeong “The Song That Sold America to a Generation of Asian Immigrants” (The Atlantic, May 4, 2021) Many hardcore country fans feel the same way about John Denver that Charlie Rich did back in the day. But as much as he gets roasted for the overly pop sound that he brought to the music and how much he cashed in on it, is it also possible that Denver was a hero for the Asian community? Thanks to cultural diplomacy and Armed Services radio, Denver became a bridge to Western society and even a source of aspiration for many Asian listeners. The author also relates his own family experiences with one of Denver’s most famous songs and how the longing in the tune reflected the longing that many other Asian immigrants had for their own home, which was even farther away than Denver’s West Virginia or even the Jamaican home that Toots Hibbert memorably sang about in a great cover version.
12. Davy Jones “Family Record” (Style Weekly, March 9. 2021) Zak Young is a hip-hop DJ from Richmond, Virginia who had a family connection to Nat King Cole- the singer happened to play a pre-fame gig at his grandfather’s club and supposedly, even wrote a 1941 song about Zak’s dad (then a baby). Digging through his late father’s record collection, he happened to find a set of 78 RPM’s with Cole’s name misspelled. It turns out that one of the songs there was the song that mentioned his dad- it wasn’t just an unreleased Cole tune but one that no one else even knew about. The end result was that the newly discovered song wound up on a Grammy-nominated Cole collection and the DJ had some incredible family memories to now cherish, and share with the world.
13. Amy Kaufman “Fleetwood Mac fired Lindsey Buckingham. So why won’t he let them go?” (Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2021) Mudslinging, not music, is the point here and it can get pretty freakin’ trashy at times but it’s also so goddamn absorbing. After hinting at the turmoil of the last few years in assorted articles beforehand, LB finally lets loose. What’s extraordinary isn’t necessarily the accusations (Stevie as a spiteful control freak, super manager Irving Azoff as a money-grubber) but the fact that they actually went on record to respond and throw some darts back at him, which is rare for both of ’em. That’s not even mentioning how Buckingham accuses the rest of the band of being cowards. Credit where credit is due- in the wake of his split with Mac, no one got him to open up or vent as Kaufman did here. And even as an LB fan, I always thought that when Nicks got inducted into the Hall of Fame, her entire speech should have been just three words: “Suck it, Lindsey!”
14. Hadley Hall Mears C’est Si Bon: Eartha Kitt’s Transformative Life (Vanity Fair, January 22, 2021) Most white people will only remember her as Catwoman in the Batman TV show but there was so much more to the singer/actress than that. She was a stage performer sought out by Orson Wells, and also running buddies with James Dean, an interviewer of Einstein (who chatted with him in German) and diner guest of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. And when invited to the White House by Ladybird Johnson to speak about ‘beautifying America,’ Kitt spoke truth to power, saying that one prime way to make the US beautiful was to get the hell out of Vietnam.
15. Reid McCarter “Rolling Stone‘s released a new “500 Best Songs Of All Time” list for you to get mad at” (AV Club, September 15, 2021) Funny because it’s true, just like the best Onion material. “Expect this discourse to continue for at least the rest of the day before vanishing forever into the digital ether.”
16. Frank Owen “Part 3: Hip-Hop Icon, Neighborhood Hero, Drug Dealer, Murder Victim” (Frank Owen’s Cultural Studies, October 20, 2021) A music pioneer and a member of one of the most legendary groups in rap, Jay wasn’t someone who was associated with the gangsta lifestyle behind the style but sadly, as Owen digs around to find, he was very much part of it and that’s what led to his untimely murder. Justice might finally be coming for Jay too as charges were recently filled against the alleged gunmen.
VIDEO: Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”
17. Robert Meeropol “My Father Wrote ‘Strange Fruit.’ The Capitol Rioters Had a Lot in Common With the Lynch Mobs That Inspired That Song” (Time, March 5, 2021) Drawing a line between the Trump-inspired January 6th Capitol riot/insurrection and the lynchings that inspired the Billie Holiday classic, the composer’s son thinks that his dad would have mixed feelings about how poignant and relevant the song still is now. He’d be happy that the song finds fresh interest in recent covers it but he’d also dismayed that it still describes current events.
18. Dan Reifsynder “The Oldest Song Ever Written” (Flypaper, June 2021) And the winner is… a wedding song from ancient Syria from 14th Century BC? The notation is a bit of a mystery, giving us notes but not scales or tempo. And this surely won’t be the last word or the last candidate but how amazing is it that we at least have a contender for this vaunted title?
19. Steel Panther “Steel Panther parts ways with bassist Lexxi Foxx” (Press release, July 19, 2021) Whether it’s the band and/or their press department, what scribe would come up with an announcement so hilarious otherwise now (Creem might have, back in the day)? “Lexxi has chosen to hang up his mirror and focus on his newfound passion. Making ugly dogs pretty… it is with heavy hearts – but great heavy metal memories – that we bid Lexxi Foxx farewell. We love you and we wish you a wonderful future putting eyeliner on chihuahuas.” Having seen them almost blow dry Foxx’s hair off his head on stage, we fans will surely miss him too.
20. Teenage Sequence “All This Art” (BandCamp, May 11, 2021) Musically and lyrically it bites at Dan le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip’s 2007 classic “Thou Shalt Always Kill” but not since the heyday of Hold Steady or Art Brut has a song made such good, self-reflective, chin-stroking fodder.
21. Ben Beaumont-Thomas “John Lennon names his favourite Beatles songs in newly discovered tapes” (Irish Times, September 9. 2021) A great scoop but the best parts of course come from the soon to be ex-Beatle himself, including his fave Fabs songs (including “Rev 9”), how uninfluential the Beatles actually were and how drift-less they were in their later years. And then there’s this slog at writers: “The critic can never be the artist and so never understand what is going on. He can only hope, he can only sort of judge it . . . people are wasting their time writing about music. I mean who are they writing it for?” All of which comes to you courtesy of Beaumont-Thomas and l’il ol’ me, both wasting our time.
22. Katherine Trendacosta “Cops Using Music to Try to Stop Being Filmed Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg” (EFF, February 19, 2021) We all know that YouTube and Instagram gets pretty overzealous with taking videos down over copyright claim for fear of legal retribution from artists/labels/publishing companies but their err-on-the-side-of-caution stance has veered from the comic into the tragic. To make matters even worse, some police departments are aware of the these social platforms’ stance and have misused it for nefarious purposes, namely to stop anyone from posting or streaming videos about them. Knowing that a song has a copyright notice that could get the poster kicked off these services, some police are purposely blasting some songs during incidents so that the resulting video will get taken down, leading to the possibility of zero accountability for their actions. The other problems with overprotecting copyright noted here, like taking down public domain songs used in certain copyrighted material, kind of pale in comparison though.
23. Jaan Uhelszki “Inside Creem: ‘I’m Not the Tooth Fairy” (Coda Collection, February 18, 2021) Bangs, Marsh, Meltzer, Tosches… you know the boys’ club of this (in)famous, irreverent rock magazine but there were actually women journalists there too who made their mark and deserve our attention, including (but not limited to) Lisa Robinson, Sylvie Simmons, Penny Valentine and Deborah Frost. And then there was an ace writer who was a better raconteur than any of those boys of those dizzy times at the mag, which matched the rock star lifestyle that they were chronicling outside of their offices. Beyond the star encounters, Uhelszki provides us with the personalities behind the façades of the famous scribes and the way that the magazine worked. And just to bolster the historic record, JU was also the the co-writer of the recent documentary about the magazine.
24. Nathan Whittle “A Perfect Storm: The Impact Of The Vinyl Crisis On Independent Labels” (Louder Than War, August 5, 2021) “Fuck Record Store Day and fuck ELO’s Greatest Hits,” say the smaller labels who have to scramble to get their own releases pressed. Also, Adele’s new record is REALLY gonna screw the small labels up as every pressing plant to earth will be filling orders for her. Wanna get the vinyl version of your fave indie band? You might not be able to see it until 2023, if that.
25. I know there would be howls of indignation if I included at the top of this alphabetical list but I have to give a shout-out to Fred Armisen for his bit where he “Impersonates Each Decade of Punk Music” (The Tonight Show, November 3, 2021). There, he casually picks up a guitar and strums his way through Lou Reed, the Ramones, UK punk, post-punk, indie rock, ska-punk, alternative, riot grrl (including his Portlandia co-star) and grunge in a dazzling, hilarious demonstration. Not ‘journalism’ per se but the way he explains and encapsulates each era in a multi-decade survey where no scribe has taken up the challenge yet is a wonder. And who knew that Husker Du had country influences?
VIDEO: Fred Armisen impersonates each era of punk and alternative music from 1970 to 2000
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