Looking back on the best music journalism of the year
Other than drug manufacturers, streaming services and Joe Biden, who the hell is gonna look back and cheer 2020? Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was in a divided malaise thanks to an insane leader, and then COVID changed among every aspect of our lives for the worse. As real as the misery of the publishing world is, it seems kind of small in comparison, even if it is very real for any of us involved in it.
And indeed, the general U.S. media scene is staggering now, even for the giants: McClatchy filed for bankruptcy, Gannett is going through cutbacks and layoffs, and ditto for Vox Media. Even the New York Times is enduring an ad slump, despite an uptick in subscription revenue. Online media hasn’t been spared, with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post losing editors and the former also handing out pay cuts. Even worse, many of these things began even before the pandemic hit. With the advent of COVID-19, event cancellations meant less coverage for a number of beats and less ad dollars, plus with other businesses losing revenue, advertising budgets are usually the first to get cut as ‘discretionary spending.’ Less ad money of course has also starved off many smaller publications.
Even outside of publishing, the pain’s been felt in rest of the music world too. Warner Bros. and Sony both posted losses, Live Nation took a whopping 98 percent dive in revenue once the concert business dried up in the middle of the year and didn’t do much better later in the year while online ticketing giant Eventbrite took a big hit too in the same time periods. Already becoming an endangered species, indie record stores felt the pinch, too.
With the pandemic destroying lives along with economic stability for many, the music jrurnalism world was hardly spared. Conde Nast (home of Pitchfork among others) while Vice Media had to lay off staff in the U.S. and elsewhere. Smaller music destinations fared even worse: Tiny Mixtapes went on hiatus, She Shreds came to an end, as did Q Magazine. And though he’ll continue on Sound Opinions, inimitable scribe Greg Kot left his decades-long perch at the Chicago Tribune. And as a sign of how we’re all time out of mind in this COVID world, Music Weekly is now a monthly publication. And among the many we’ve lost this year, there were three notable deaths in the music scribe world: Stanley Crouch, Robert Ford Jr. and Peter Hamill.
Big name old school brick n’ mortar pubs were having a mixed year at best. After gobbling up Neilsen music and launching a data/analytics service in late ’19, Billboard also had staff cuts in April along with cutting off their pool of freelance writers. They also faced competition from Bloomberg Media who came up with their own monthly charts (“Pop Star Power Rankings“) to weigh ticket sales, streams, social media engagement alongside album sales, though their charts don’t look that much different than BB’s. To somewhat keep up with the shifting music landscape, BB made two wise moves: they redid their bean-counting around merch bundles and digital downloads and also teamed up with Bandsintown to create a live music streaming index.
As for Rolling Stone, it followed Pitchfork’s lead with putting some of its material behind a paywall as ad sales obviously ain’t gonna keep ’em afloat. RS also kept up their wise branding strategy, leveraging it for video events- they paired off with VUSE for Sweet Relief Benefit online shows and the Democrats for some pre-election music /pol pairing in their Friday For Unity events. For chin-stroking obsessive nuts like me, the big RS news was how they rehauled their ‘greatest albums’ war horse for modern times, with Consequence of Sound accurately pegging it as ‘It’s No Longer Just White Dudes.’ And speaking of Billboard and Rolling Stone, they became siblings as they now fall under the umbrella of mega-corp Penske Media Corporation and MRC and hey, the new CEO’s said that they TOTALLY respect BB and RS, which means that they won’t make any changes at all with their brands to keep them going, right…? On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was actually a pair of decouplings from Billboard as Stereogum was sold back to its original owner and SPIN was bought by a private equity firm.
VIDEO: Save Stereogum covers comp ad
And though 2020 will be remembered as a year of some social justice reforms on the ground level (with brands not wanting to get on the wrong side of their customers), the music biz had a not-surprisingly mixed reaction to it. While Black Lives Matter made a noticeable change on hiring practices and scribe protests elsewhere, other than a bunch of indie labels banding together to support BLM-related causes on Bandcamp, the music industry responded mostly with meaningless lip service (remember Blackout Tuesday?) and a few bands changing their name to show how woke they are. Music pubs initially provided some useful BLM resources (including Paste, Complex, The Fader) during the summer of BLM protests, but quickly got a case of amnesia once the news cycle had passed.
One notable exception was punk bible Maximum Rock N’ Roll, which reconfigured its upper echelons, not working with white writers unless they cover POC. Thankfully, #MeToo is also still a potent force fighting the good fight, with revelations and recriminations happening even at otherwise-stalwart places like Complex, Okayplayer, not to mention the indie labels Burger Records and Bloodshot (see story below for more). Just to show that we still have a long way to go, a Pitchfork editor was actually hit with threats following a positive review of Taylor Swift.
In middle of the gloom/doom that is the online era for music scribing, we also had tiny bits of sunlight emerge here and there. There were a bunch of revivals, as Amazing Radio bought and restarted CMJ, actually leading to a revival of their annual fest. After getting bought back by its owner, Stereogum did a fundraiser album and made enough to relaunch the publication, Trouser Press brought back not just its archive but new articles too while Drowned in Sound came back in the form of a newsletter. Vice also beefed up their news staff by 20 people during the summer. After being told to ‘stick to sports,’ the Deadspin editorial staff told management to stick it and reformed as Defector (motto: “all of our bullshit, none of theirs”). Also, if you’re looking for a bit of consensus, there are at least two music polls still around with Uproxx prepping its third music Critics Poll for year’s end (here’s 2019’s tally) and the wonderfully named ‘Village Voice Pazz & Jop Rip-Off Poll’ continuing on Facebook after going on for a quarter-century now (here’s details about last year’s version).
Some tech innovations and trends may also point a way for survival in the future. Audio stories are catching on and actually boosting audience engagement. Some noted journalists are also making more money by going the indie route- starting their own newsletters or posting their own stories on Substack to build their audience and drum up their own revenue with virtual donations. Google is even giving back a little, pledging to spend $1 billion licensing stories from publications, though truth be known, it’s a tiny drop in the bucket based on the tech giant’s revenue and much less than what publishers have been losing to them and Facebook in ad money.
As with the other years in the online/streaming era, good music journalism thankfully still finds a way to break through, hence the listing below. As it has for the last several years, Complex remains one of the most venerable writing institutions and even if some old-school dinosaurs won’t admit it, social media platforms are still places to find good stories too. As social justice made a noticeable and lasting dent in pop culture and even in naming standards everywhere from food brands to sports teams, it also providing some excellent and much needed basis for some fine writing as you’ll see below.
And as always, please remember to compliment a writer, editor and publication for a good story when you read it and maybe even spread the word via social media. These people and places need all the help they can get and they receive so little recognition and feedback for their hard work. They deserve it and you can make it keep happening by supporting it. And if you have the dough, maybe even subscribe or tip or support them in some financial way. It’s a good deed and you’ll be helping yourself by promoting more good writing.
1. Jen Carlson “What If We Stop Making Movies About Bob Dylan For A Sec?” (Gothamist, January 7, 2020) Even if you’re a Dylan fan (hand raised here) and enjoyed the recent Scorsese bio-pic/fiction, the title here hits you right away as truth with yet another Zimmy doc on the way and surely more to come. And why aren’t there more docs about female singer-songwriters? And do you know where Joni Mitchell is from? Hint: it ain’t California. And for the record, the best ‘Dylan’ in the 2007 fake-multi-bio pic I’m Not There is Cate Blanchett.
2. Chris Castle “THE DLC FINALLY CONFIRMS (SORT OF) HOW MUCH IS IN THE MMA BLACK BOX–BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX” (music Tech Policy, November 20, 2020) Great news if you’re an artist who still hasn’t gotten your minuscule streaming royalties- the major services are holding on to “several hundred million” dollars for you and your fellow ‘unknown’ artists that they supposed haven’t been able to track down. Now all you have to do is track them down and collect your fractions-of-a-penny on the dollar.
3. Ericka Blount Danois “Play Another Slow Jam: An Oral History of The Quiet Storm” (Essence, June 26, 2020) The mellow R&B genre that pervaded the Me Decade has been vilified many times but it was also a potent force then and became part of an ongoing legacy, influencing generations of music ians. Of course it began with music ians (Smokey gave it a name after all) but it came into its own thanks to Howard University station manager Cathy Hughes who hatched the idea and disc jockey Melvin Hughes who ran with it. They’re not as well-known as many other radio personalities but they should be. Thankfully, they get their due here but really, a full length book would be more fitting to tell the story in even more detail.
4. Justin Davidson “Close the Theaters. Close the Operas. Close the Concert Halls Now.” (Intelligencer, March 11, 2020). The most prescient article to come out about the arts and the pandemic, written just days before New York State took his advice and did exactly what he asked for, followed by the rest of the U.S. and elsewhere. Well almost… For Gotham (and other cities) gatherings were limited to a few hundred people, or less. And months later, the number dropped to zero and only hovered back to a few dozen recently but as of December 2020, movies and concerts are outdoor affairs for now, as they should be. Davidson knows that the arts (which he covers and loves) will take a major hit but what good are arts if it kills off the audience? Even Joe Cole would agree. Amiri Baraka (“we need poems that kill”) too.
5. Shannon J. Effinger “Kassa Overall’s Video For ‘I Think I’m Good’ Is A Deep Exploration Of Contrasts” (NPR, October 27, 2020) As part of Public Radio’s laudable series “We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest music In 2020,” the penultimate entry is arguably the best, tracing through the details of a video of a delivery guy. On the surface, it seems inconsequential but as Effinger leads us through it, we see all sorts of cringe-worthy images about race, identity and justice, plus other unsettling details that she touches upon and we’re left to ponder. It’s all the more impressive that she gives us a heaping serving of food for thought in only 262 words. Another great entry in the series is Marcus J. Moore’s haunted impression of SAULT’s “Little Boy” and on a related tip, also see NPR’s excellent series “We Insist: A Century Of Black music Against State Violence” that provides an extensive, annotated history lesson stretched from 1927 up to right now.
6. Andrew Gee “Kanye West’s Personal Turmoil Isn’t Your Entertainment” (Complex, July 21, 2020) So, when Ye says crazy thing and pulls crazy stunts, how should we react? Mind you, this was even before his pathetic presidential bid. Gee argues that it’s not a punchline for comedians or something that should be encouraged by now, not just by fans but also stars like Chance–West needs some real help, like anyone else who suffers from bipolar disorder does. Also see Bianca Betancourt’s “Learning How to Reckon with the Artist Formerly Known as Kanye West” where fans struggle to balance out Ye’s groundbreaking music with his recent follies and another great article by Gee where he wonders how fans and entertainers balance out their art and reality when it comes to violent tales.
7. Michael Gonzales “Money Ain’t A Thang: ‘Paid in Full’ and the Culture That Rose Out of New York’s Crack Era” (Crime Reads, February 20, 2020) Launched in the ‘Golden Age of Rap,’ the Eric B. & Rakim anthem wasn’t just one of the most stunning songs to ever come out of hip hop but also a bracing reflection of the times. Gonzales grew in up in NYC and saw it happen himself, detailing how “PIF” manifested itself from the city and became a beacon of the art form. The classic tune also reflected the drug epidemic, which also made itself felt in burgeoning genre of African-American cinema, where the flicks did show the glamour and trappings of thug life but also provided some cautionary tales. As for “PIF” itself, as a measure of how it hasn’t dimmed in decades, Eric B. & Rakim reunited for a 2017 show at the Apollo where the stage looked it would buckle under the weight of the dozens of rappers and R&B artists there to honor the occasion. When it came time for the song, Rakim acted it out and let the crowd sing the lyrics- rest assured, we knew every single word.
8. Mark Guarino “Will Bloodshot Records Stay in the Saddle?” (Chicago Reader, December 10. 2020) The painful, detailed story of how a venerable music institution has gone to shit. The label wasn’t just an alt-country bastion but also an indie music figurehead and a pride point for Chi-town. But dodgy bookkeeping, harassment, back biting, rivalries and more have sunk it. It’s been on the sales block for over a year but it might be even longer until its accounts are accounted for, leaving the fate of a lot of legendary artists and back catalogs up in the air.
9. Ida Harris “Chaka Khan Shits On National Anthem And It Is music To Black Folks’ Ears” (BlackStew, February 17, 2020) Subtitle: “Fuck yo flag, too.” When I heard about the ‘controversy’ over Chaka’s rendition of the Anthem at NBA All-Star Game, I thought ‘she’s still got it’ and that I was proud that I kept voting for her for the Hall of Fame, even if she still didn’t get in. Harris sums up the divide of the nay-sayers (who compared her to Fergie’s rendition) and Black Twitter, who supported her. Plus, there’s also a worthy history lesson on a disturbing, lesser-known verse in the song that includes tracking down slaves. The only thing I found upsetting about Chaka’s version is that nobody put it out as a single- someone is gonna come in and put out remix though, right? If you wanna hear an actually-bad rendition of the anthem, try MAGA-fan Rosanne Barr (Google it if you must, I’ll spare you the link).
10. Dalyah Jones “Let’s Have A Sex Talk”: The Eras Of Sex Talk By Black Women In Hip-Hop” (Okayplayer, August 2020) In a pathetic clutch-the-pearls backlash, “WAP” was damned for talking about… women’s private parts! You know, as opposed to the millions of songs that talk about guys’ dicks, which is pretty de Rigueur by now. As refreshing and warranted as the Cardi/Megan song was, there was precedent to it in hip-hop. The same ground had been long trodden by Salt-N-Pepa, BWP, LIl’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Gangsta Boo, Nicki and others. You might say that by now, “WAP” is actually part of a tradition. And as Jones further explains, “Sex talk is a weapon that equips artists and women, gender-queer and non-binary folks for battle on the very fronts that deprive them of their humanity.” And somewhere, Millie Jackson is smiling in approval.
11. Kelsey “So Adam Levine is allowed…” (Twitter, February 3, 2020) Ah, yet another controversy about women performing at a sporting event and not acting ‘proper.’ Regarding the supposed controversy of J. Lo and Shakira wearing outfits that some wags deemed ‘inappropriate’ (including a po-faced U.S.A Today editorial that’s not worth linking to), a proud self-proclaimed half-Colombian woman has her say: “So Adam Levine is allowed to perform shirtless during the halftime show and sexually dance across the stage… but as soon as two confident Latina women do it, with just as much coverage, of not more, it’s deemed “innapropriate? (sic)” Kelsey also had good follow-ups about how the cameramen handled the show, the hypocrisy over Pitbull’s dancers and the more important issue of immigrant family separations.
12. Dan Kopf “An update to a 37-year-old digital protocol could profoundly change the way music sounds” (Quartz, January 30, 2020) MIDI (“Musical Instrument Digital Interface”) probably doesn’t mean squat to music fans but for many music ians and even more producers, it’s the staff of life, letting them connect instruments together in the production process. It’s been an important standard since it came up in the early 80’s and now it’s getting an update. Its new expansive nature can change the whole game of how music is made and as a result, the kind of music we hear. There will be a lot more possibilities and versatility or least the possibility of it. How will that change the sound of the music ? How will it affect the quality of the music ? We’ll be finding out soon enough.
13. Larry LeBlanc “Interview: Cousin Brucie Morrow” (Celebrity Access Encore, February 6, 2020) You could say that the two radio vets are pretty chummy here but any idea that Morrow is just some smiling celeb who gets by on his upbeat personality is dispelled here. Sure, he touts his early connection to the Beatles but his thoughts on Motown singles, recording collecting and general listening audiences is eye-opening, even as he takes pains to say that most listeners (including much of his own audience) can’t tell the difference between a crappy mix or reissue and a good one. He can tell the difference and wants his audience to hear the music the way it should be heard.
AUDIO: Cousin Brucie 77 WABC aircheck 2/28/68
14. Clyde McGrady “Some famous rappers backed Trump’s campaign. Did it matter?” (Washington Post, November 20, 2020) Do Ice Cube and Lil Wayne actually mean anything nowadays? They’re history for sure, both in a good/classic way and also in the now old-school, yester-year way. So did it really mean anything when they backed Trump’s failed campaign? For that matter, does ANY rapper’s endorsement matter? (good question as Biden had his own hip hop backers) Any pop culture fan or rap fan surely at least wondered this even if it obviously didn’t put the cry-baby orangutan over the top. FYI though, Cube did say that he wasn’t exactly a MAGA booster. Also recall that when Eazy-E met up with Bush Sr., Cube had his own retort for him (not to mention Ice-T saying that E ‘went out like a bitch’ for doing that).
15. Megan Thee Stallion “Why I Speak Up For Black Women” (New York Times, October 13, 2020) “In the weeks leading up to the election, Black women are expected once again to deliver victory for Democratic candidates,” she begins, making a valid, important point. Citing her own attack that she survived, “Protect Black women” is her motto. She goes on to cite Serena Williams, NASA’s Katherine Johnson (subject of Hidden Figures), Rosa Parks, Cardi B and Shirley Chisholm as the great figures that they are, who all deserve more respect. MTS goes on to demand respect for women’ figures in another way- their bodies, which are sensationalized and demeaned. Not for nothing did she name her 30 million viewed song “Body.” In its own way, her op-ed is as strong as a feminist statement as “WAP.”
16. Jessica McKinney, Eric Skelton “Lil Wayne Doesn’t Pay Attention to Current Rap: Is This Helping or Hurting His music ?” (Complex, February 2, 2020) Even for someone who thinks “Mahogany” is the only great track on his latest album, this is a conversation worth having, if only because Weezy is a G.O.A.T. candidate as McKinney points out. OK, so Tunechi thought that 21 Savage was a band (he isn’t) and admits that he’s not up to date with rap but Skelton finds that endearing. It’s another question whether this helps his music or legacy though. Conversations like this are worth having and we need more of ’em.
17. Randall Roberts “Mark Mothersbaugh nearly died from COVID-19. FaceTiming with his family kept him alive” (Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2020) Like the title says, the Devo founder/singer was laid up and in critical condition, living off a ventilator and hallucinating about his band and an imaginary attack. Now at home with his family, he’s recovering but still feeling the effects of COVID. Stories like this bring home the seriousness of the pandemic and its lasting effects. Even with 180,000 Americans dead by the time the story came out (right now, almost double that), too many of us still don’t take the virus seriously enough.
18. Sean Setaro “Why Are the NYPD ‘Hip-Hop Police’ Spying on Rappers?” (Complex, June 11, 2020) Imagine for a moment if the Nashville PD had a unit set up to spy on country music ians and harass the club owners who book them? Think there would be an uproar? NYPD’s Enterprise Operations Unit was ironically started by a hip hop fan and he’s pretty much unapologetic about their work. Civil rights? Fugetaboutit. This is one of many reasons why the idea of defunding police departments is gaining currency.
19. Eric Skelton, Shawn Setaro, and Jessica McKinney “Pop Smoke Forever” (Complex, July 9, 2020) With a career cut short that will surely get compared to Biggie or Tupac, the mysterious, unsolved murder of the NYC star is all the more tragic when we hear details of his sudden rise and sudden end of his career from everyone around him and how his posthumous debut was what could have been only the beginning of a career with so much promise. Shout out to Warren Cochrane too for the beautiful design for the story too.
20. Gino Sorcinelli “The Leon Sylvers III Interview” (Microchop, August 7, 2020) With ’70’s soul/disco, there’s many other names that overshadow them but the Sylvers had a number 1 hit with “Boogie Fever” in ’74 and a bunch of other R&B hits to follow and deserve some respect as such. Leon was the second oldest of 10 siblings, 9 of whom would make up the band. Leon went from making a demo with his bass and feet to a hit songwriter and producer, eventually branching out to multiple labels and other groups and later becoming (of course) a source of many hip hop samples. Not too shabby for a ne’er-do-well student who seemed to have a knack for trouble as a kid.
21. Dan Steinberg & Friends “Shows will be allowed to return as markets re-open…” (Facebook, April 26, 2020) The co-owner of a national concert promotion company wonders aloud about when we’re going to all go to concerts again and he gets an earful back from a bunch of other biz insiders, mostly saying that we will have to write off not only 2020 but also most of 2021 for shows. And why shouldn’t we expect shows to go on after states re-open? A: Safety, finances. Billy Cohen: “… wondering how a person in the middle of the row gets out to go to the bathroom.” Brian Martin: “…by far the overwhelming factor is economic stress. People don’t have money, and with 25 percent unemployment looming they won’t for a while..”
22. Various Writers “The Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs of All Time” (Vice, August 27, 2020) Subtitle: “An unofficial ranking of the best most average songs in (post-millennial) British music history.” At first, you might think, “wotta waste of time…” but then your curiosity gets the best of you as you wonder what could be listed here and sure, there’s some stinkers and you find yourself rubbernecking- I can’t and won’t defend Razorlight, Kooks and Libertines solo projects, plus Arctic Monkeys fell way the hell off after their debut, But then you also find some tunes you actually like and think “wait a minute!” I’m partial to the Futureheads, Glasvegas, the Rakes and the Rifles and insist that none of them belong here. Then, you’re sucked in. If we can all argue endlessly about all the ‘best all-time album lists, there should be a place in our lives for this too. In some ways, it’s just as (in)consequential.