Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of “best albums of the 2010s” lists going up right now. But what’s the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s, the record that’s most representative of the music of decade? — Greg from Edwardsville, Ill.
Fantastic question, Greg. In order to pick the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s, we must define what exactly distinguishes 2010s music. This is a decade of mellow, vibe-y songs, which suits the streaming platforms that have become central to music consumption. The most mainstream pop was imbued with a modern hip-hop sensibility and swagger, and yet there was also persistent nostalgia for the comforts of the past, in a manner reminiscent of the memes that were popular on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. While 2010s music could be hyper-specific to the moment, it also had a slightly “out of time” quality, which also feels like the new internet-based normal.
More than ever, popular music artists this decade had a strong cult of personality, with fans investing themselves in the personal lives of their favorite musicians like they were comic-book characters, or reality TV show stars. When you heard a song, you didn’t necessarily think of yourself, you thought of the artist and how this latest single fit in with their overall persona. This was reiterated, again, by social media, which connected fans to artists like never before. Not that this form of media was any less curated than “old” media, though it often felt that way. At the same time, pop listeners were savvier than ever about the limits of “authenticity” and more willing to contextualize pop-star celebrity as a construct, because in a way we all exist as constructs in the online sphere.
This was also a decade in which the old separations between the mainstream and the underground essentially collapsed. The hippest artists from the fringe came to embrace pop as the most vital and relevant form of music, dialing back and ultimately marginalizing the rock-oriented and dude-centric aesthetics that had characterized indie music in previous decades.
Finally, the “most 2010s” album of the 2010s should be popular — not just for a brief window of time immediately after the record’s release, but for a sizable part of the whole decade. That way, when people in the future make movies set in the 2010s, it would be easy to imagine this music playing in the background, just as CCR inevitably scores movies set in the ’60s or grunge music instantly evokes the ’90s.
The album that best satisfies all of these criteria is Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die.
It’s very vibe-y. It’s extremely internet-y. It is exceedingly thinkpiece-y in all of the usual “who are we, really?” kinds of ways. It’s an indie record that’s also a pop record. It was on the Billboard charts for more than 300 weeks. It’s also obsessed with celebrity and the afterlife, which are the twin concerns driving our collective fame-addicted death wish. In the year 2039, someone will make a biopic about Donald Trump, and the music that will be pumping underneath all of those bad wigs and orange makeup will be Born To Die, the “Fortunate Son” of this blasted era.
What is the best album about the music industry? Sturgill Simpson’s latest album got this one bouncing around my head. — Thomas from Rogers, MN
I’m not sure that it’s accurate to classify Sound And Fury as an album entirely about the music industry, though it does seem like most of the songs comment on Sturgill Simpson’s Americana-sized celebrity. In that way, it truly does seem like a throwback to the 1970s, the glory years for artists making self-referential works about their own troubled relationships with “the machine.” In the early ’70s, the Kinks put out several bitter but funny records that detailed singer-songwriter Ray Davies’ angst with the music business, including Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1 and the underrated Everybody’s In Show-Biz, which includes some of the finest rock songs ever written about the rigors of backstage catering.
Later in the ’70s, The Eagles practically turned their second half of their career in that decade into an extended meta-commentary on their cocaine-fueled stadium-rock success, with Hotel California positing rock stardom as a kind of Faustian bargain, and The Long Run outlining the fallout of getting what you want and losing what you had. Pink Floyd — one of the primary influences on Sound And Fury — also wrote a lot of songs about the music industry at that time, culminating with The Wall, the concept album about a damaged rock star who slowly loses his mind as he achieves peak stardom.
In terms of albums about the evils of rock ‘n’ roll show-biz, The Wall is probably my favorite. But if you’re just looking for a single song, The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money” is one of the clearest-eyed and saddest tunes about how the industry can make you rich while also destroying your relationships. And then there’s the immortal “Check The Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest, which includes this classic piece of advice for young musicians: “Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty: Record company people are shady”
How should one deal with a spouse who just isn’t into listening to music as much as he/she is? — Joe from Philadelphia
I hate to put it this way but I’ll just cut to the chase: Divorce your spouse.
Here’s my real answer: It all comes down to communication and empathy. I can say that in my marriage, my wife does not like listening to music as much as I do, because she is a normal person and I am a fanatic who is also paid to listen to music for a living. I like to have songs playing in my immediate vicinity, and at a fairly high volume, almost around the clock.
My wife understands this, but even she has her limits, which she lets me know via both direct and indirect means of communication. For instance, if I want to play by South Of Heaven by Slayer in our minivan while driving our daughter to dance class, she will tell me that this is not a good idea and perhaps it would be better if I confined my metal listening to headphones at home.
Other times, if I’m playing the latest album by a mid-level indie-rock band in our living room before dinner, she will let me know that she’s had enough by loudly imitating the off-key vocals of the lead singer, or replicating the reverb-heavy twang of the guitars. And she will do this in a very conspicuous, comically grating sort of way that will instantly compel me to shut the music off. Again, communication.
Here’s my advice: Play music as often and as loud as you can until she tells you to shut off that racket. Then wait until she goes to bed, get in the car if you have one, and drive around the block blasting your music for at least 30 minutes. I promise you will sleep soundly afterward.
First of all, thanks for the compliment! Flattery will get you everywhere, or at least placement in this column.
Clearly the answer to this question is Josh Kiszka from Greta Van Fleet, who could have replaced Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin because Greta Van Fleet is obviously a better band than Led Zeppelin. Another (more serious) choice: I think Matt Berninger would have been a good potential frontman for R.E.M. if Michael Stipe had decided to quit in 1985 in order to write poetry and make experimental films. I don’t know that R.E.M. would be better; they would probably be worse. But they would certainly be drunker, which could have been fun.