Sometimes, these columns are damn hard to spit out. It’s not always easy to remain enthralled with the music world, especially when the real world seems to be crumbling around us. We don’t have to pretend. 2017 has been a fucking nightmare. We’ve witnessed the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, North Korea launching a missile over Japan, devastating floods in Houston and South Asia, and rallies filled with actual Nazis, just to name few lows.

I’m not a religious person, but I’m starting to expect widespread plague and a swarm of locusts any minute now. Just visiting The Guardian’s World News webpage fills me with terror – especially when the top headline reads: “Armageddon. Scientists calculate how stars can nudge comets to strike Earth.” What the fuck?! I’m a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but you know what? Maybe there is someone up there, ready to just take us all out with a flaming space rock, because we clearly can’t keep things together down here.

“Um…what does this have to do with music?” you ask.

Here’s the thing: being a music journalist is pretty great. I love it more than any non-human in my life. However, when the world seems to be blazing in what Evangelicals would call “hellfire,” it’s hard to feel motivated to write about anything but serious shit. Rolling out a “think piece” on hidden messages in Taylor Swift’s new video feels like you’re stuffing your soul into a manila envelope and shipping it off to Satan for safekeeping. Even if you understand that it isn’t wrong to write about the VMAs, one still gets the sense that they are ignoring a towering elephant that is not only in the room, he’s bending the baseboards and demolishing furniture.

Of course, when I say “you” and “one,” I ultimately mean “me.” I cannot speak for other music writers. Though I can assume that many of my colleagues, who are intelligent, compassionate people, must feel some of this weight. It’s not possible that I’m the only person who suffers nauseating guilt reporting on Panorama Festival the same weekend journalists discover that North Korean missile tests have the capacity to reach New York.

So what does “one” do? Writing about art and pop culture in frightening times is a delicate matter. To say nothing of the floods, the violence, or the fear seems grossly irresponsible. To mention it only to alleviate one’s own guilt is possibly worse. I would never say making art in times of strife is a waste of time – I will always argue the opposite. I will even go so far as to say that it’s impossible to stall creativity in dire times, as conflict is one of art’s great muses. Critiquing art amidst global devastation, however, can be a task colored with shame. The question often clanging in my head being, “Does it even fucking matter?

I don’t know. I am unfit to answer the question. Here is what I do know. This is my job. My dream job, really. Artists and the music they make are kind of like my religion (or as close as this godless writer comes to it). Even on the worst of days, when my personal and family misfortunes could inspire an entire season of All My Children, I can still be brought to my knees by the beauty of a song. I know it’s corny. I also know that a song won’t drain the waters in Houston, or rewire the brains of white supremacists (if they have anything to rewire, that is). A song can’t do much when it all comes down to it, let alone a writer writing about a song – but artists can.

While I’ve been distraught by this year’s cruel newsreel, the artists who have leveraged their platforms for good causes have given me some sense of pride in humanity. 2017’s first cry from outspoken celebrities occurred at the Women’s March on Washington (and its sister marches around the world), where the likes of Madonna, Alicia Keys, The Indigo Girls, and Janelle Monáe either performed or gave impassioned speeches denouncing Trump’s election. That same month, Canadian electro-pop group Austra released their third LP Future Politics. The album is revelatory and filled with political insight, proving that pop music doesn’t have to be sugarcoated.

In 2017 there have been countless benefit concerts for organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and CAIR-New York (Counsel On American-Islamic Relations), to name but a few. Now the charitable hands of artists will extend to Houston. Solange has planned a benefit show later this month in Boston where 100% of proceeds will go to victims of Hurricane Harvey and its destructive floods. Fall Out Boy and rapper Bun B have planned separate but similar benefit shows, and numerous celebrities have either already given money to relief organizations (like $500,000 from Miley Cyrus and the $25,000 DJ Khaled shelled out) or promised to do so in the near future (like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Demi Lovato, and DNCE).

Many of the aforementioned performers are ones I don’t artistically care for that much, but these days I’m elated they’re around. It seems that with their immense command of the public interest and disposable income, artists have taken on responsibilities that our government should have the answers and funds for. It’s a sad and beautiful truth. That these seemingly “frivolous” celebrities go above and beyond their job title in times of crisis is noble; that they even need to in the first place is appalling.

So coming back to that initial question: what does “one” do? Let’s practice some simple logic. Things are bad right now. Things are really bad; and yet, artists both famous and obscure continue to defy the idea that humans are selfish, no-good creatures. If “you” are a music writer – why not write about those artists and their honorable efforts? It’s the least, and sometimes the most “you” can do.

ONLY NOISE: Hopefulness


The first words of the New Year can be a daunting thing to write. Even I wouldn’t be ok grumbling about the sham that is the Grammys or those horrible things Kim Burrell said right off the bat. I also have no interest in penning some twee, “New Year, New Me” laundry list of goals for 2017, and the music that somehow represents said goals. Entering 2017, I stand conflicted…ambivalent, above all else.

When we begin a new year, we don’t simply light a brand new fire. We also sit in the ashes of the annum past – we experience time more as an unbroken string of events than something parceled out neatly in weeks and months. On a personal level, 2016 was a pretty great year for me. I somehow procured a dream job. I met interesting people. I loved a lot. But looking outside of my own experience, the year was an utter shit storm.

I have spent the past few days trying to reconcile the rift between the fate I’ve enjoyed and the impending global doom that hovers above inauguration day. It ain’t easy. 2016 was the paradoxical year in which Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature, but Donald Trump was elected president. It was the year that gave us Blackstar, and You Want It Darker, but killed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, among several others. And while many may find solace in the grace of god, Pilates, or hard drugs, I turn to music as if it’s religion. I look to my records like I am reading tea leaves – and in them I find hope.

So while I have no enduring optimism for humanity, the future of music is a still-bright horizon to set my sight upon. And because of that, I have no catalog of musical new year’s resolutions – no goals etched into stone. But I do have a list of hopes.

I hope to be continually moved by musicians who endlessly reinvent the song, like Michael Gordon and a throng of producers did on Timber: Remixed, one of my favorite releases of 2016. It seems that Brian Eno may be ahead of the curve on this one, as he released his one-track album “Reflection” on New Year’s Day. The 54-minute song is whirring and pensive. It is ceaseless and ever expanding…pacifying and hypnotic in a way that only Eno can achieve. The fact that Eno eschews pause throughout seems both simple and groundbreaking simultaneously – an unrelenting wall of sound that inspires constant focus. The opposite of the high turnover, two-bit pop song.

It was a great way to start a scary new year. Fortunately, I am fearless regarding the state of music to come. Bonobo will release his new record, Migration, on January 13. The album’s leading single “Break Apart” (featuring Rhye) is a twinkling, somber lullaby merging R&B and ambient balladry. In February, New York’s coldest and cruelest month, we will at least be warmed by the experimental pop melodies of Xiu Xiu, who will drop their 11th album, FORGET, on February 24. The blissfully melancholic band helmed by Jamie Stewart, teased the single “Wondering” in late 2016, and will embark on a nationwide tour just before springtime. That is certainly something to look forward to.

This year, I hope that in addition to pushing the boundaries sonically, artists will continue to use their work to further political and social discourse the way Solange did with A Seat At The Table, Anohni with HOPELESSNESS, and Common with Black America Again. Some believe that the imminent political nightmare we face will only acclimatize artists to sincere, topical music. Protest music. ‘You need pressure to make diamonds,’ etc. One such believer is Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer, who recently said in a press conference that, “Frightening political climates make for really good, real, authentic art.”

Palmer went on to liken our current situation to Weimar Germany and the cultural renaissance that flourished there in trying times:

“But being an optimist … there is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.

If the political climate keeps getting uglier, the art will have to answer. We will have to fight.”

It seems a tarnished silver lining, as I’d gladly trade a punk rock reboot for affordable healthcare, stable foreign policy, and a safe nation for minorities. But maybe Palmer is right – maybe she is just being the dutiful optimist she claims to be, and at times like these we could all use a little optimism.

I hope that this year, we lose fewer artists. Zero, if possible. But if we must bid them adieu, I hope that they get a chance to say their farewell with a magnum opus in the style of You Want It Darker and Blackstar, because I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

I hope that somehow, we do not lose any music venues this year. 2016 robbed us of Manhattan Inn, Cake Shop, Elvis Guesthouse, and Secret Project Robot (don’t even get me started on the Record Shop fatalities), and it’s sometimes too depressing to think about. I hope that in 2017 new, adventurous venues open their doors to us. Or, at the very least, I hope that no more close their doors for the sake of new Tex-Mex joints, or high-end clothing stores, or luxury condos.

I hope to be perpetually amazed by this crazy, nonsensical thing we call the music industry, potentially the only market in which physical media, like vinyl records, can outsell weightless digital downloads in the year 2016. Maybe it’s just a temporary spike sparked by a fad, but it feels like for once quality is winning over convenience. Even if consumers are mostly hanging LPs on their dorm room walls, I’m simply happy that wax is here to stay – for now.

More than anything I hope that in 2017 we persevere. Culturally, politically, personally, artistically, socially, and of course, musically.