Looking back on the 24 best stories beyond our pages
So, what happened in the music/journo world in ’22?
Entertainment Weekly said goodbye to its print editions, Vox had a round of layoffs and Buzzfeed did buyouts. On the Rolling Stone front, CEO Gus Wenner (son o’ Jann) is going all out in a techie push and their parent company, Penske Media, look up a majority stake in the Life is Beautiful music festival. Speaking of techie, Consequence of Sound (a very fine publication) now has their own app. Even with the general labor movement in retreat, Vice’s editors agreed to a labor contract with some of their employees to be repped by the Motion Picture Editors Guild, and Conde Nast (which includes Pitchfork) finally unionized. For Vice, word is that their music property Noisey might be shuttered or downsized, which would be very sad indeed. On a happier note, congrats to Beyonce for topping Uproxx’s writer’s poll. For us old school music fans, we finally have Creem Magazine back, with a Raymond Pettibone cover no less. And let’s pay tribute to several writers of note who passed away in ’22: Terry Teachout, Joel Whitburn and Peter Cooper. Also, if you want to help in the ongoing efforts to support editor/writer Charles Aaron, you can still contribute to his GoFundMe campaign for medical expenses.
As for the best writing out there now, there’s pieces on race, the Ukrainian war and antisemitism as well as other articles breaking down the cleverness/genius of Taylor and Dylan, the sad stories of Zevon and Ian Curtis, the sordid story of Lemmy, plus technology for the better and for the worse.
And as always, when you read a story you love, for God’s sake, please take the time to spread the word and also reach out to the editors and writers to thank ’em. Lord knows that almost nobody else does and they sure as hell deserve it.
1. Lee Bidgood, Sophia Enriquez, Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, Tatiana Hargreaves, Ben Krakauer, Jordan Laney, Mark Y. Miyake “5 Ways Instructors Are Including Anti-Racism in Roots Music Studies” (No Depression, February 27, 2022) These professors, lecturers and ethnomusicologists dare to teach the dreaded ‘critical race theory’ with treacherous means like actual conversation, context, background, history, while examining song choices and connecting with local communities. The horror of it all! How subversive! And how admirable.
2. Alex Bracetti “Sorry, but open wireless earbuds are stupid – here’s why” (Laptop, September 25, 2022) Why earbuds won’t and can’t give us the right music experience- we’re distracted by everything else around us, as we should be now and then so that we don’t fall on our face or walk into traffic, etc.. The ol’ fashioned over-the-ear headphones though can give you a much fuller audio experience even if they don’t look as cool. Not that most portable ‘music’ fans care though.
3. Larry LeBlanc “Interview: Arhoolie Records Founder Chris Strachwitz” (Celebrity Access, January 28, 2022) At over 10,000 words, the Q&A might seem like a slog but what a fascinating subject. At 90 years old, Strachwitz looks back at a recording career that stretches back to 1960, chronicling ‘Americana’ before anyone called it that, helping to popularize Cajun music, reviving the careers of early 20th century bluesmen, recording in living rooms and porches to save money and later taking Country Joe McDonald and the Stones to court get royalties for the older, mostly forgotten artists that they profited off. His 650 recordings now appropriately have a home at the Smithsonian but the old record collector himself never found time to make a family for himself though he doesn’t sound like he has regrets about it. After all, he already has his legacy.
4. Rhyma Castillo “Black Women in Metal Music Are Screaming ‘We Belong’” (Elite Daily, August 11, 2022) In the world of metal (not to mention punk), white rage is usually the rule on stage and in the audience but the idea of the ‘angry black woman’ isn’t just foreign, it’s also somehow unacceptable. Racism? Of course. Sexism. Definitely. Plus, you combine those two and it’s a fight to get heard and get taken seriously. But these courageous women have found a sizable audience on TikTok and deserve the recognition. As rapper Ashanti Mutinta puts it, “our existence is inherently political.” And who has more of a right to scream about their plight in life- the whiny adolescent white boys or these women?
5. Martin Chilton “‘He made sure that she got nothing’: The sad story of Astrud Gilberto, the face of Bossa Nova” (The Independent, February 15, 2022) It wasn’t just a breezy, lovely international hit or the song that made bossa nova a worldwide craze or a Grammy-winning “Song of the Year”- it’s said that “The Girl From Ipanema” is one of the most covered songs in the world. But the voice behind it began her professional career riddled with lies about her non-musicianship, royalty rip-offs and even not getting credit for her vocals on the song. That was followed by divorce, abuse, more royalty rip-offs and continued snubbing by the Brazilian music community. Now 82, retired and taking up interests in philosophy and painting, she’s otherwise shunned public appearances. You can’t blame her but you can blame all industry people who drove her to that.
6. Cory Doctrow “The Ed Sheeran Problem, or, How the Record Industry Got What It Asked For” (Marker, April 8, 2022) Via the Boing Boing maven and sci-fi author, he also proves his bonafides as a copyright reformer, explaining why the present system is seriously fucked. Case in point is a court case that Sheeran won and yet he still lost- he settled a previous copyright case, knowingly opening the door for others in a system that encourages settlements and he’s so spooked now that he’ll record all his songwriting sessions in the vain hope that it’ll keep ‘em out of court. The major players WANT a system where they can easily wrestle money out of anyone who might seem to copy a few notes of a song they own. But then again, a case like the Marvin Gaye estate vs. “Blurred Lines” shows that the legal system surrounding this is so out of control that Doctrow can easily cite a sci-fi story that fits into this lunacy. And let’s remember the words of a great Birmingham philosopher named Ozzy: “No one’s original, we’re all thieves.”
7. Maeri Ferguson “Tami Neilson Goes Feral for Statement-Making ‘Kingmaker’” (No Depression, July 13, 2022) Someone who’s a New Zealander-via-Canada country singer is already starting out with an interesting story but Neilson is much more than that. A great rockabilly artist who deserves a bigger audience, she used her forced COVID hermitage to be incredibly productive, creating a stage play covering the story of women in country and a new album that’s woven around her sometimes-painful history with a performing family. Oh, and there’s a duet with a singer named Willie too, who she finally got to meet in March. Also kudos to Ferguson for coming up with a great and funny ending here. “..she is ready to keep using her voice and her songs to craft a better future for the next generation. She even has a head start. After all, in New Zealand it is already tomorrow.”
8. Lisa Respers France “Kanye West’s antisemitism did what his anti-Blackness did not. And some people have a problem with that” (CNN Digital, October 31, 2022) Hopefully you don’t have to be a lapsed Jew like myself to get pissed over Kanye’s ignorance and hate but while it’s easy to focus on how his antisemitism has cost him mucho bucks and his rep, let’s not forget that he also pisses on African-Americans too. Call it ‘R. Kelly Syndrome’ where some critics are hesitant to call out a major star for fear of knocking down a black icon. And another major point missed in the Kanye saga is how others in the same situation slide off much easier for painfully obvious reasons- see Karen Attiah’s “Congrats, you canceled Kanye. Call me when White guys get in trouble” (Washington Post, October 26).
9. Dhriti Gupta “How Black Fans and Artists Are Reclaiming Rock Music” (Exclaim!, March 30, 2022) You might say that this is the flipside of Rhyma Castillo’s article above, chronicling how black metal fans often live in a fear of not just being outsiders at rock and metal shows but also victims of violence there, never able to fully enjoy concerts and instead wonder how they’ll make it through them in one piece. Also, some of these fans get flack for enjoying ‘white music,’ when in fact, these styles originated with African-Americans. One answer is creating communities, including record labels and booking agencies to support not just fans but also the bands who don’t always fit in with their white counterparts.
10. David Hajdu “Bruce Springsteen’s Misguided Homage” (The Atlantic, November 19, 2022) Lots to get mad at the Boss about in ’22: The outrageously ‘dynamic pricing’ that he actually defended in an RS interview (“I’m old”) but an album covering his fave soul tunes is something different and not as easy to hate on. On one hand, Hadju makes the argument that although Springsteen has always had some soul in the mix (Van Morrison was a hero of his), his latest album doesn’t add anything to the classics. As the pithy article subtitle says, it’s ‘pointless.’
11. Michael Holmes “Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis had ‘two personas.’ Bandmates rue failure to prevent singer’s suicide” (CNN, May 21, 2022) Bernard and Stephen delve into Ian Curtis’ final days to help others avoid his fate, contending it wasn’t just the love triangle that did him in as much as his seizure meds that helped to drive him to despair. They also lament that they didn’t see the warning signs and didn’t understand that the dark lyrics weren’t just artistic contrivance. They even tried to cheer him up near the end but now contend with a laugh that the best way to do it wasn’t with a song called “In A Lonely Place.”
12. Adlan Jackson “How Long Can Music Journalism Stay Segregated?” (Study Hall, February 11, 2022) If you’re going to read any of the articles listed here, start with this one at the very least. It’s dense in the best possible way- full of thought-provoking issues that need to be addressed about black writers and black music. Read about how well-meaning publications like New York Times and Pitchfork still fall short in this regard, how black writers are siloed into covering genres, how ‘white men writing about hip hop’ is an actual movement and how hip-hop publications would get unfairly squeezed by advertisers compared to other music publications. And that’s just scratching the surface here. We also get to hear from Greg Tate, who we lost a year ago and are reminded what a powerful, potent voice he was. And still is.
13 Theoden James “Concert review: Seriously, is John Mayer just making these things up as he goes along?” (Charlotte Observer, April 12, 2022) A live write-up that actually compares an artist’s other concerts! And also checking to see if his schtick is unique to the North Carolina show. Why don’t other reviewers provide perspectives like this?
14. Leila Jordan “The Kids Aren’t Alright: Inside Gen Z’s Chaotic Introduction to Live Music” (Paste, July 14) Can Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers gracefully go from indie sensations to star adulation gracefully? Not if their young fans who are so starved for concerts after COVID that they demand to be inches away and filming the whole experience, even if the stars themselves are not on board with this. Wanna know how the virus has screwed up young lives? This is one way. Also see Tatum Van Dam’s “Why Do Live Music Audiences Suck” (Vice, December 1st), which also covers some of the same ground.
15. Declan McGlynn “Streaming Enters the DJ Booth and With It, Big Data” (Resident Advisor, June 28, 2022) Pros: when DJ’s stream their sets, copyright is paid, everything is easy to access, and you can easily track where your mixes are hits (artists can also see where/when their songs in the mixes are being played). Cons: cloud/streaming artists can be taken down when rights change, labels might micro-research and make ‘creative suggestions’ to artists.
16. John Moe “What Your Favorite Sad Dad Band Says About You” (McSweeneys, January 14, 2022) Hilarious, snarky and concise, ‘90’s and ‘00’s rock heroes get dismantled by dissing their fans. For Everclear enthusiasts, “you died seven years ago.” Bon Iver boosters- “seriously injured and lost in the woods.” LCD Soundsystem lovers- “you received a stand for your keyboard for Christmas.” Pearl Jam junkies, “four of your friends are named Josh, and one dead friend is named Josh.” I like most of these acts so I need some Prozac myself.
17. Tom Nicholson “After 60 years, we still don’t know who The Beatles really were” (i, September 30, 2022) Doesn’t exactly deliver on the title promise of the Fabs as unknowns but it’s still a fascinating look at our perception of each of the boys and how that shifted over time, especially about who was the most respected and beloved member of the band. Hint: it ain’t Ringo, though maybe it should be. If you really want a new stone unturned in Fab lore, you might try this upcoming book.
18. Alan Siegel “Thank You, and Goodbye” (The Verge, October 28, 2022) The master of cynical humor finally meets his match and it’s one of his best, oldest friends. It was 20 years ago when David Letterman helped to bid farewell to Warren Zevon by not only devoting an entire show to him, letting him be the only guest and play with the band, but also having a frank talk about the songwriter’s impending death from cancer. Letterman knew that it would be difficult, especially trying to keep up his usually chuckle-strewn show format and also by not soft-pedaling Zevon’s fate but he managed to pull it off. One suggestion though — the article’s title should have gone with the immortal line that Zevon says during the show and that Letterman repeats at the end. When DL asked what his goal was for the time he had left, Zevon replied that his supreme wish was to “enjoy every sandwich.”
19. Anu Shukla “‘An urgent need to help’: Ukrainian ravers, DJs and volunteers unite to dance, clean and rebuild their country” (Resident Advisor, August 4, 2022) Who said that music can’t help make political/social change? Russia’s horrifying imperialist war rained bombs all over Ukraine but some musicians and DJ’s are fighting back in their own way by supporting efforts to rebuild homes- their organizations provide the workforce and they provide the music to keep spirits up and keep everyone motivated. Their efforts also serve another purpose, to “distract themselves from terrible events.” The photos here, by Pasha Youz, are also remarkable, looking like they’re at excavation sites. Brings a whole new meaning to what Ze Records once called ‘dancing in the face of adversity.’ You can also help these groups by donating to Repair Together.
20. Bonnie Stiernberg “No, Old Music Isn’t ‘Killing’ New Music” (Inside Hook, January 26, 2022) Ted Gioia is not only one of the finest music writers out there, he’s also the best music blogger right now, too. Do yourself a favor and subscribe to his Substack, the Honest Broker, and you will learn plenty. But he ain’t always right about everything and that’s fine; nobody is. Stirenberg definitely isn’t piggybacking off TG’s noted article in the Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” (which even Chuck D stanned for) but instead provides very useful footnotes and counterpoints. Spotify’s top streaming songs come from the last five years and two pieces of anecdotal evidence about young folks and their listening habits ain’t necessarily conclusive evidence, plus the fact that Adele was 2021’s biggest selling vinyl artist and the lack of weeping over the Grammy’s postponement just proves what a cultural watershed the show isn’t. One thing you can’t argue about is TG’s October 3rd blog entry, “The Nostalgic Turn In Music Writing” where he lays out the painful, detailed case that music scribing in many major publications is even more antiquated than most newspaper’s food sections.
21. Mick Wall “By the time Motörhead made Iron Fist they hated each other, and it showed” (Louder Sound, December 6, 2022) By now, the whole sex/drugs/RnR thing is a tired, laughable trope. Axl, Oasis and other wanna-be’s could never top ‘kings’ like the Stones and Zep, right? Forget about all of ‘em. Even Lemmy’s bandmates were jaw-dropped by his excess. What’s amazing is that even with all the chemicals and skirt-chasing, he and the boys (all two of ‘em) were able to come up with another classic, albeit an underrated one. The fact that he managed to live a whole 33 more years is truly a medical miracle only rivaled by Keef. For the lighter side of the man, watch the self-titled 2010 documentary, which came out five years before he died.
22. Emily Yahr “Why Taylor Swift’s self-loathing ‘Anti-Hero’ already hit a nerve with fans” (Washington Post, October 21, 2022) Proof yet again that the former country star is the preeminent cultural musical force of our time and a brilliant marketeer who’s already the subject of courses at NYU and University of Texas. Her lead single from her new album set the online world on fire with people head-scratching over her cryptic notes about insecurity and frank talk about depression, a mysterious line about a ‘sexy baby,’ a refrain of “I’m the problem, it’s me” and a line from her video (“everyone will betray you”) that inspired debates that harkened back to dissections done on Dylan lyrics. She asks for no sympathy (being rich and famous after all) but her confusion and hurt were something that millions picked up on and internalized. And God bless her and her fans for finally maybe bringing Ticketmaster to task for their monopolistic practices and fouled-up handling of tix for her latest tour. Even with the TM f-up, she’s still slated to make over a half billion dollars on the tour just for the US shows, which is mind-boggling.
23. Henry Yeats “‘If I was me, I’d cover my songs too’ – the story of rock’s enduring love affair with Bob Dylan” (Louder Sound, April 11, 2022) Asking a question that’s been long overdue: why do so many people cover Dylan’s songs? One answer is that even ol’ Bob admits that his originals are sketches, which even he reinterprets over the years. Plus, an excellent, extended breakdown of Jimi’s take on “All Along The Watchtower” and how he transformed the song. Hell, for years now at his shows, even Dylan does his own version of Hendrix’s version. Also see Chris Willman’s “Why Did T Bone Burnett Record a Song With Bob Dylan That Only One Person Can Own? To Disrupt the Art Market” (Variety, June 23, 2022) where always the no-holds-barred TBD explain how he and Dylan are trying out a unique session and one-off collector’s item as a biz model. Just don’t pay extra to get Zimmy to sign it.
24. Hashino Yukinori “Okuda Hiroko: The Casio Employee Behind the “Sleng Teng” Riddim that Revolutionized Reggae” (Nippon, February 1, 2022) Today it looks like a laughably quaint li’l keyboard but back in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s, the casio was the ultimate DIY tool for many musicians / producers in the pre-MIDI, pre-GarageBand, pre-Pro Tools days. The Japanese company wanted to create backing tracks for musicians to use and that’s where Hiroko, a then-recent college grad and young reggae fan came in, originally intent on making a rock beat but unable to get her favorite music out of her mind, crafting a deceptively simple but insanely catchy rhythm. When Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng” (produced by King Jammy) came out in ‘85, it used Hiroko’s keyboard preset sound and became a hit which revolutionized dancehall music and Jamaican music, and also became a worldwide sensation. As for Hiroko herself, she’s created a new technology to react to a musician’s touch and tone to create compositions, meaning that she may yet again set the music world on fire.
VIDEO: The Roots of Sleng Teng