“Tightrope” – Janelle Monáe

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Every so often a star shows up who’s so original and fully-formed that her ascent to cultural icon status feels inevitable. Janelle Monáe is the 2010s’ prime example. 

Raised in Kansas City, Monáe had early showbiz ambitions that couldn’t be tempered by her conservative Baptist upbringing. In a 2018 Rolling Stone article, her family tells stories about Monáe as a child that are almost too perfect – how she was escorted out of church for singing “Beat It” during services, how she won a talent show three years in a row doing Lauryn Hill every time.

OutKast found Monáe early on, and Big Boi became her biggest evangelist, convincing Puff Daddy to sign her based on her MySpace page. The influence went both ways – her debut EP, 2007’s conceptually ambitious Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), has a lot in common with post-Speakerboxxx Big Boi productions. Even so, Monáe’s futurist electro-funk style was already well-defined, and her star quality was undeniable.

In 2010, The ArchAndroid LP dropped, and that was that. Janelle made her network TV debut on Letterman, and it’s still jaw-dropping to watch now. There are traces of OutKast in the band’s hyper energy, but “Tightrope” is classic funk. Monáe proves herself worthy of pulling James Brown moves in front of an audience that has no idea who she is. At the end of the performance Letterman asks Puff Daddy to come onstage, who then bows to our new queen. What else could he do?

Throughout the decade, Monáe’s trajectory has only accelerated. She’s won awards from sources as diverse as MTV, the NAACP and GLAAD; she runs her own Wondaland Arts Society label; she penned a protest anthem that David Byrne sings on Broadway every night; she starred in two Oscar-nominated movies in the same year, including the Best Picture winner; she’s a CoverGirl model. There’s only enough room for so many stars in the world, but when you get a Janelle Monáe, you roll out the red carpet.

“Silhouette” – Julia Holter

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Julia Holter makes a kind of music that could be too cerebral to be fun. She holds multiple degrees in composition and studied under avant-garde musician Michael Pisaro. Her early records are highbrow-conceptual, inspired by Euripides and Virginia Woolf. She called her most recent album Aviary after learning that birdcages were considered storehouses for memories in the Middle Ages from a book by medieval literature expert Mary Carruthers. 

I like the heady stuff when I’m in the right mood, but Holter’s pop instincts are too strong to allow her music to feel overly academic. Listen to her records and what strikes you first is her gift for melody. It may sometimes be baked into fussy arrangements and packaged with lyrics that reference Pushkin and Etel Adnan, but her melodies are always there to draw you in deeper.

On her 2015 LP Have You in My Wilderness, Holter made a conscious decision to adhere to more traditional song structures. The result is one of the decade’s best albums, comprised of 10 delicate, baroque indie pop tracks that overflow with melody while still offering plenty of musical and lyrical surprises.

Opening track “Feel You” is instantly warm and inviting, with romantic strings swelling over stuttering drums and harpsichord. Holter’s voice, like her music, is both ethereal and precise, making lyrics like “Can I feel you? Are you mythological?” at once sensual and scientific.

Other highlights include “How Long,” which evokes Nico at her most cinematic, and the unexpectedly buoyant “Everytime Boots.” My favorite is “Silhouette,” which begins with sunny vocal echoes over minimalist keyboards before building to a dense, swirling string crescendo. While Holter has been atypically secretive about the song’s lyrical origins, one Genius.com contributor speculates the inspiration was Sweet Valley High. Not everything has to be highbrow.

“All Day” – Kanye West

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Kanye West – All Day / I Feel Like That Music Video

Do I have to write about Kanye? Of course I don’t. I’m the only one making me do this. But since I’m going to anyway, maybe the question is, why is this entry harder to write than the others?

Kanye West has always been an open wound. All the disruptive self-aggrandizing, and courting public hate with double the energy that he does adulation, and embracing celebrity merely as a step that must be conquered on the road to divinity – despite his best effort, none of this has ever read as convincing, because his vulnerability has always been so inconcealable. Kanye’s is a mind constantly at war with itself, and his only strategy is infinite escalation. 

Take away the obsession with building a fashion empire, the MAGA hat moment, and the Joel Osteen tour that hopefully won’t actually happen, and you’re left with a classic tortured artist archetype. This, I think, is the reason I’m a little apprehensive about writing about Kanye. His mental illness is not what makes him great, but it’s difficult to discuss his work without addressing it.

Evaluating Kanye got really complicated in the 2010s. In the aftermath of the Taylor Swift thing, Kanye opened the new decade with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, widely considered to be his magnum opus. It’s an epic statement record, overflowing with rich production and unexpected collaborations. For a minute, loving Kanye was easy.

Then came Yeezus, as divisive and confrontational an album as he’d released. Lou Reed wrote a glowing review shortly before he died, saying things like, “No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.” In the same piece, he used the descriptor “classic manic-depressive,” years before West made his bipolar diagnosis public. 

Then came The Life of Pablo, a record most notable for Kanye’s inability to finish it. Then there was the abbreviated tour, full of stops and starts, unnerving moments like Kanye ending a show by telling Jay-Z not to send killers after him, and a hospitalization for temporary psychosis.

Then came 2018’s Ye, a brief, confusing record whose cover reads “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome”. And finally, this year’s Jesus Is King – ostensibly a gospel album, which may or may not be part of a ploy to start a church for tax exemption purposes. It’s impossible to separate either of these records from West’s illness, or his dalliances with Trump and Osteen. And the music is not very good.

At this point people have plenty of fair reasons, both musical and non-musical, to write Kanye off. But just as I don’t think it’s fair to attribute Kanye’s artistic significance to his mental illness, I also don’t think it’s reasonable to dismiss his work in this decade because of his public behavior, or the extent to which his condition has increasingly undercut the quality of his output. I’m confident Kanye still would have been a major talent had he not been burdened by mental illness; we’ll just never know what that would have looked like. This is the Kanye we have.

Alright, so which song do I go with here? I considered a bunch: no one could argue with “Devil in a New Dress” or “Runaway,” but picking something from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy feels too safe. “New Slaves” was an option, but if I’m honest I don’t go back to Yeezus often. I actually really like The Life of Pablo, but I don’t think it has one clear standout that works as well outside of its shambolic context.

So, “All Day” it is. This 2015 non-album single is in some ways reminiscent of Kanye’s early, more beloved work, but it’s infused with an eerie haze that feels much more Pablo-era. In recent years West has rarely sounded as confident on the mic as he does here. Best of all, the melody is based on something Paul McCartney whistled, leading to a co-writing credit for Sir Paul and his comment in a subsequent interview: “It’s a great record, sonically it’s brilliant, but quite a few people said, ‘You can’t be connected with this, there’s, like, 40 N-words!’”

No one but Kanye was going to give us that.

“Snow Is Falling in Manhattan” – Purple Mountains

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It took me longer than it should have to get David Berman. Like a lot of people, I was exposed to Silver Jews mainly because Stephen Malkmus had been in the band, reducing it in my mind to a Pavement side project. In reality, Silver Jews predated Pavement and was the primary vehicle for Gen X’s best lyricist. But I was never one to put lyrics first, and so it was years before I properly heard lines like “All houses dream in blueprints / Our houses dream so hard / Outside, you can see my shoeprints / I’ve been dreaming in your yard” for what they were.

Berman released one self-titled album as Purple Mountains in 2019, ten years after ending Silver Jews. Berman committed suicide shortly before going on tour to promote Purple Mountains, and it’s hard not to hear the album as a note of intent. 

On opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” Berman sings, “Well, a setback can be a setup / For a comeback if you don’t let up / But this kind of hurtin’ won’t heal / And the end of all wanting / Is all I’ve been wanting / And that’s just the way that I feel.” It’s a characteristically pithy and pained sentiment from an artist who’d long been on record about his treatment-resistant depression. 

This time though, the cloud that hangs over the first track envelops everything. The lead single is “All My Happiness Is Gone.” Other tracks: “Nights That Won’t Happen,” “Darkness and Cold.” On the innocuously named “Margaritas at the Mall,” Berman despairs, “How long can a world go on under such a subtle god?” before using the title image to describe the meaningless limbo in which humanity finds itself. The songs are more upbeat and witty than they sound, but it’s plain that Berman had crossed the line from being cynical to something more persistently tormented.

The album’s moment of respite is “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” which seems at first to be a lovely, simple ode to winter in the city, and the act of taking people (and cats) indoors. But gradually a metaphor is revealed, one that’s now made more powerful in the author’s absence: “Songs build little rooms in time / And housed within the song’s design / Is the ghost the host has left behind / To greet and sweep the guest inside / Stoke the fire and sing his lines.” 

I can’t know if David Berman knew he was leaving when he wrote this, but he knew what he was leaving with us.

“Daydreaming” – Radiohead

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Radiohead was the most important band in the world to me between the ages of 13 and 25 or so. No other music can ever do to me what Radiohead did then, when my wiring was at its most fragile. Their mark is indelible, not only as shepherds of my musical taste, but as the emotional language my brain adopted to survive my teenage years. 

It’s a weird thing to be a brooding, introverted kid, find the band whose music speaks to you in the most profoundly personal way, and then learn they’re the favorite band of an entire generation of introverted kids just like you. In retrospect, learning this was really validating for me – at a time when I felt disconnected from people, I understood I wasn’t alone. 

I am very much not a teenager anymore. OK Computer and Kid A – the best albums of the ‘90s AND the ‘00s respectively, if you trust Pitchfork on such matters (and I certainly did at the time) – will soon both be over 20 years old. So, in the 2010s, what does Radiohead mean? What does the most important band in the world to a generation of sad teens do when those sad teens don’t exist anymore?

On A Moon Shaped Pool, their ninth LP, they found a surprisingly simple answer: age. Expose the toll the years have taken. You can’t resonate with your audience at the same extremes you did two decades ago, but there’s a different kind of power in showing where we’ve all arrived.

This unflinching focus on time is central in the video for “Daydreaming” (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which I suppose is one of the perks of being beloved by arty types). A grizzled Thom Yorke walks in and out of doors, over and over, through seemingly disconnected environments: homes, parking garages, stairwells, a hospital, a beach. People flash by in the background, visible too briefly to leave more than a fleeting impression of what they’re doing. Finally, Yorke scales a snowy hill and climbs into a small cave. His voice, backwards and distorted, repeats the phrase “half of my life,” reflecting the duration of his recently-collapsed marriage with the mother of his two children. The effect of the music and visuals together is powerful, compressing the expanse of 23 years into 23 doors with barely a moment spent between each. 

I’ve seen Radiohead live eight times. The first was shortly before my eleventh birthday, when they were R.E.M.’s opener and I had no idea who they were. The eighth was last year. The journey between the first and last was unquantifiably immense, impossible to explain in words. Radiohead opened the most recent show with “Daydreaming,” and it was an amazing night.