The Best Music Writing of 2015

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Celebrating the others.

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Impose Automaton | December 22, 2015

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Lester Bangs

Lester "Phillip Seymour Hoffman" Bangs

Music journalists in 2015 live a life of complexity uncommon in most other written fields. Not only are we asked to present opinions in a fact-like manner that eschews what most journalism preaches, we also hold the role of proverbial punching bag from the musicians and industry we’re employed to write about (forgive us Donald Trump beat-writers if we shed no tears for you). 2015 also proved to be a particularly strange year for music critics, as many have reported, it was the year the music blog died, meaning fewer outlets than the internet has been accustomed to in years past. Still, here we are, with a passion and a talent that will keep us rising above the horrible pay grade and waning respect, to give readers a personal perspective on the most important art form the world has known. For as long as there is music, there will be someone to write about it. Which is why we made this list: to look outside the pages of Impose and celebrate those whose words make us think and react on a daily basis.

The Best Music Writing of 2015

 
The Lost Girls: One famous band. One huge Secret. Many lives destroyed. by Jason Cherkis for The Huffington Post.

In 1974, when she was only 14, Jackie Fuchs would wake up way before her parents and catch a ride with friends from her house in the San Fernando Valley across the Santa Monica Mountains and into Malibu. She’d hit the beach and paddle out in the quiet, pre-dawn dark.

It was the only time she could be on the water and not have to deal with the catcalls and the teasing, the good-natured gibes that gradually shaded into something harder and meaner. Before sunrise, she was just another surfer, her back to the sand, waiting for the right wave. She liked being the only girl out there.

A Narrative on Femme Practice in Punk by Katie Alice Greer for Spark Mag.

‘Femme’ is not “man” or “woman”; it is presentation of self. Most of the time, femme is not allowed. It is written off as ‘too gaudy,’ ‘distracting,’ ‘in poor taste,’ ‘unsophisticated’. “It’s just not my style,” says a figure of authority. “I just prefer the real you, with no makeup,” says your lover. “It’s not the way I like to see my employees dressed around the office,” says your manager. So, how do we practice femme in punk?

How do we practice femme in anything? Show me where in the world we thrive in heavy makeup; point to the spot in history when we wore the highest heels and they respected us for it. Who grew their hair long, clipped it back in neon bow barrettes and subsequently made more money? Who felt safer in a dress than in pants? When were we admired for the way we looked and also trusted for our intellect? When were we shown love, rather than resentment, for our ability to command visible attention?

Our Generation Needs Liberation Music, Not Protest Songs by Rawiya Kameir for Fader.

2000’s Let’s Get Free, dead prez’s radical debut album, opens with audio of a fiery speech given by Chairman Omali Yeshitela, leader of the African People’s Socialist Party. Over a track built around the sound of howling wolves and a tender piano melody, Chairman Yeshitela likens the plight of the black community to that of Arctic wolves who fall victim to a hunting method designed to trick them into thinking they are eating when they are in fact confusing their own blood for another animal’s, killing themselves slowly in the process. Accidental suicide.

“Instead of blaming the hunter who put the damn handle and the blade in the ice for the wolf, what happens is the wolf gets blamed for trying to live,” the Chairman roars. “You don’t blame the victim, you blame the oppressor. Imperialism, white power, is the enemy; was the enemy when it came to Africa and snatched up the first Africans and brought us here against our will; is the enemy today.”

Against Musicians’ Biographies by Sara Marcus for the New Republic.

Odetta is less well known today than her folk-revival compatriots Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte. Bob Dylan credited her with igniting his interest in the genre. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have called her the “queen of American folk music.” She sang “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington in 1963. Yet there is no biography of her, no feature-length documentary or biopic. Anyone who seeks out the music she recorded over her half-century-long career is obliged to listen without a very detailed picture of the life she lived. This is an injustice. But it’s also an opportunity.

‘Yankees Suck! Yankees Suck!’ by Amos Barshad for Grantland.

It was the fall of 2000, and Wilson, 22, was enrolled as an engineering student at nearby Northeastern University. When he wasn’t in class, Wilson ran in the city’s hardcore music scene. A tougher, faster evolution of punk, hardcore had flourished in Washington, D.C., and New York in the ’80s and ’90s, and was now peaking in Boston. Bands like Bane and Reach the Sky couldn’t have cared less about the radio: They had hundreds of sweat-drenched kids in VFW halls screaming their anthems — furious songs about unity and perseverance — right back at them.

Wilson earned his drug seed money from an unlikely source: bootleg T-shirts. A friend of his from the scene, Ray LeMoine, had spearheaded the operation. They capitalized on the Boston Red Sox’s infamous rivalry with the New York Yankees. Simple white tees in a blue font, they sported a combustible two-word phrase: “Yankees Suck.”

The Lossless Self by Elizabeth Newton for The New Inquiry

In June, NPR published a widely shared quiz called “How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?” It tests a listener’s ability to perceive distinctions among different recordings of the same track. Presented with six songs from a range of genres, listeners were asked to select the highest quality version of each song from among three of the same recording encoded at different bit rates.

How I yearned to ace that test, proving to myself that my ears are not only capable of perceiving slight shades of sonic nuance but also discriminating correctly, ordering such distinctions from best to worst. I took it twice. I flunked the first time. The second time I got three of six correct.

Revenge Of The Record Labels: How The Majors Renewed Their Grip On Music by Zack O’Malley Greenburg for Forbes.

Last October SoundCloud–a free music-streaming service with a massive 175 million monthly users–appeared to be running out of cash. News broke that the Berlin-based company had lost $29.2 million in 2013, and when a rumored $2 billion buyout bid by Twitter fell through, it looked like music’s hottest startup might be in danger of going bust.

Then something strange happened: Warner Music Group became the first major record label to strike a licensing deal with SoundCloud, instantly legalizing scores of songs posted to the service. More surprisingly, Warner acquired up to 5% of the company, adding to funding that’s passed $120 million; the company is now valued at over $1.2 billion.

Soft Apocalypse by Anwen Crawford for The New Yorker.

“What is soft dick rock?” Jenny Hval asks, on “Kingsize,” the opening track of her new album, “Apocalypse, girl.” She speaks the phrase, and lingers over the consonants. The effect is both comic and startling—a vivid, abrupt deflation of the machismo that has characterized so much of popular music: the hip swivels, the bare-chested strutting, the guitars that function as penis extensions or substitutes. Hval’s question arrives during a brief pause in an otherwise fidgety arrangement, which includes snippets of synthesizer, the sound of a bow being scraped across cello strings, and a series of rattling noises, as if someone were rifling through a cutlery drawer. The effect is to make the question feel balder, and bolder.

Drake: Rapper, Actor, Meme by Jon Caramanica for New York Times.

No celebrity understands the mechanisms of Internet obsession better than Drake. Online, fandom isn’t merely an act of receiving — it’s one of interaction, recontextualization, disputed ownership and cheek. For the celebrity, it’s about letting go of unilateral top-down narratives and letting the hive take control. For fans, it’s about applying personalization to the object of adoration.

The “Hotline Bling” video is built exactly for that task. It’s important at its full length, but even more so in the screenshots and few-seconds-long GIFs that it’s designed to be broken down into. It’s less a video than an open source code that easily allows Drake’s image and gestures to be rewritten, drawn over, repurposed.

Reverb 10,000: The Tiki Men Story by Aaron Gilbreath for Medium.

In 1958, when guitarist Link Wray poked pencil holes in his amplifier to record the song “Rumble,” he was only trying to muddy his guitar tone. Link’s impromptu modification ended up creating a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only paved the way for punk rock, heavy metal, the Who, you name it, but also lifted the lowly rock instrumental, or “instro,” into the popular consciousness, fueling a style that thrives to this day. What Coltrane is to jazz and Howlin’ Wolf is to blues, Link is to rock in general, and so-called surf instrumentals in particular.

Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth? by Chris Richards for the Washington Post.

If you’re truly listening, you already know that today’s music is every bit as magnificent and horrible as it ever was. But read enough contemporary music criticism and you might buy in to a more flattering hallucination.

Now, when a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame — and we’re talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here — something magical happens. They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement.

This is the collateral damage of “poptimism,” the prevailing ideology for today’s most influential music critics. Few would drop this word in conversation at a house party or a nightclub, but in music-journo circles, the idea of poptimism itself is holy writ.

I’m Breaking Up With Drake by Meaghan Garvey for Pitchfork.

I used to be a Drake fan. Not so much in the mixtape days—that stuff always seemed self-evidently embarrassing—but something clicked on Thank Me Later, and I was completely sold. I was 23, just a couple months younger than Aubrey himself, and sort of corny in the way that most 23 year olds are. I felt like Drake “got” me: constantly vacillating between unjustifiable cockiness and self-loathing, obsessed with ideas about success and intimacy that I hadn’t necessarily experienced firsthand but could almost taste. I had a Skrillex haircut, an enthusiastic Blogspot, and made minimum wage at a Chinese fast food chain that was only marginally better than Panda Express. I was in need of some direction, and it felt good to be a part of something in real time, surfing the swelling wave of this obvious juggernaut. And then there was Take Care: still a masterpiece, if a bit exhausting from start to finish. I took “Marvin’s Room” as gospel; let she without a shattered iPhone 4S full of 3AM “are you drunk right now?” texts cast the first stone. I got a “Take Care” tattoo after a particularly messy breakup, a Drake move if there ever was one. I gazed into the abyss of millennial cliche, and the abyss gazed back.

Browning The Future by Victoria Ruiz for The Media.

Originally, this introduction on Selena Quintanilla Perez was to focus on her effect on intersectionality of race, culture, Mexican Americanism, and the Brown body. She defies aspects of Western beauty and normative music culture both for Tejano music lovers and U.S. Pop music fans alike. Her music became a timeless vessel that lives on long after her body crossed back into the Earth’s ground.

In an age where there is great urgency to make connections between members of the cosmic race to build solidarity and a People’s history, we need to look at Selena’s relevancy through the totality of her physical identity, music, words, actions, and how people are still acting on the hope and the struggle that she represents. This is part of the same struggle that we remember when thinking of other brothers and sisters whose stories contribute to the fight against an imperialized world.

Rap’s Poetic License Revoked by Sam Lefebvre for East Bay Express.
(Ed note: This was written prior to Sam becoming a features editor for Impose, and the other editors deemed it worthy of mention)

In the grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor painstakingly avoided any depiction of Mitchell and his community in terms of creativity, art, or entertainment. Instead, prosecutor Satish Jallepalli elicited testimony from Richmond Police Department gang detectives that depicted Mitchell and his collaborators not as a creative community, but as a criminal enterprise; Mitchell’s lyrics not as figurative language, but as evidence of motive and a lack of moral character; and his music videos not as promotional tools mimicking mainstream genre convention, but as unambiguous proof of membership in a gang called Deep C.

According to a transcript of the grand jury proceedings, Jallepalli, a deputy district attorney for Contra Costa County, introduced five music videos as evidence in the case. He called them “gang videos.” Jallepalli’s expert witnesses—those who took the stand to expound on hip-hop—were Richmond police gang detectives.

David Lowery: “Someone Has to Be the Bad Cop” by Grayson Haver Currin for Wondering Sound.
(Ed note: This article ran December, 19 2014, but was after we published our Best Music Writing of 2014 list, thus we included this year)

In an instant, David Lowery realizes how best to explain his caustic reputation.

“Have you ever heard this expression ‘fuck-you money’?” he asks, glancing down at the piece of pizza in his right hand. It sags beneath the weight of its own prosciutto, so Lowery swoops in with his left hand to correct the droop. He looks up again, smiles and continues with the epiphany.

“We use that in the financial world. It’s like if you have enough money that you basically don’t have to listen to anybody,” he says. “You can say ‘fuck you’ to anybody you want.”

He takes a bite and puts the remainder back on his plate. “It’s not that I have fuck-you money,” he says. “But I have this fuck-you lifestyle, right?”

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