1. David Bowie - Blackstar
“This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent”
Aging becomes this measuring scale, and on one side is the fear of acting too young and on the other is the fear of being too old. More and more I appreciate large-format pop music in theory as opposed to in practice, save for the moments where I’m extremely high or drunk. I “get” songs more than I like songs. I have more empathy for music than I do love for it. Maybe what I actually feel is pity for young musicians and my increasingly older self. This is hard to admit.
In the shadow of my favorite album of 2015, Joanna Newsom’s Divers, I wrote about how pop albums should stand as monuments. They should exist across time, weather erosion, stretch tall and root deep. Not all pop albums need to do this, but I believe the best ones do.
I understand that this flies smugly in the face of pop’s stated purpose and contradicts the waterfall dopamine rush of a pop song being one of the greatest feelings in the world. And maybe I am feeling myself too much by saying that pop music should be architecturally sound and be built of studied form and tested against history. But as I lose even more of my hair, I need to define myself less by instant gratification not because I fear arrested development by being constantly at the mercy of what is young and mad viral, but because life is already too full of instant gratification.
The best albums demand patience and exude permanence. Good art doesn’t need to be difficult, but art (especially music) exists now in a space bombarded daily by bad-faith, tech-funded impermanence. Instant, reductive, fast-paced, anxiety-filled impermanence is how we absorb news and culture, and a wry and disaffected pose is how we got to revere 2016 as “the worst trash fire” in the first place. In the sense that music means anything in the twilight of sanity (and I have serious doubts about this), the best of it serves as a bulwark against the ephemeral horrors of modern life, or my modern life. And as I age, I believe this will be more and more the truth until I die.
Death will surely be the final note, the resolution back to the immortal tonic. Death serves as a marker for that which is so fundamentally important to society. It can’t be refuted. In this post-truth year, death is the only certainty we could verify, so we raced to it often because there was no measure of veracity greater than that. In coping with fear, we turned collectively towards the thought of walking into the ocean, of falling into the void, of setting ourselves on fire, of a mass elegant poetic suicide, of goth as an unassailably authentic posture: the gallows humor that has persisted for centuries, the rumination on mortality that has been the subject of our human rituals since forever ago. Death means it’s real, and I believe Blackstar fucks with that myth. In a year collectively defined by the death of all we held dear, Bowie recorded an album that presaged it, embraced it, and transcended it.
How rare is it that we are subjected to an album that slipped so quickly out of our grasp, one that we couldn’t manipulate or mold into our own story. Or first, how rare is it that the snare on every song sounds different. Sometimes it’s wide open like a dinner bell on “Tis Pity,” and sometimes it’s muted, or enveloped, or digitally condensed. The drummer, Mark Guiliana, a New York session guy, buries himself so deep in the pocket by the end of “Girl Loves Me” he almost disappears in between the beat. Lost in the wonder of Blackstar is this backing band who swing so spectacularly hard. They make the music big and viscous, filled with hundreds of sounds that holds court with Low and Tarkus and Geogaddi in a smear of introverted and paranoid fusion. Yet these jazz ringers remain always in service of Bowie.
Together they mold Bowie’s death mask, a permanent impression of his last visage. Not the lightning across his face, not Pierrot the sad clown, but this bleary rumination of betrayal and mores and death by way of a Jacobean play about incest, Lazarus, linguistics, and a moody saxophone. Together it forms this elliptical statement about David Bowie himself. It’s grand. “Oh, honey, I’ve got game” like for sure.
When we imbue an album with the death of the artist, we give it some untouchable credibility. Is this fair? Blackstar is art that means something, because death is, after all, the ultimate truth. When music and death collide, we’re forced to reconcile with death ourselves. Is Kurt’s setlist on MTV Unplugged a suicide note? Does Nick Cave’s last album about the death of his son cash the check on years of goth performance? No, probably not, but it’s the one thing we all know to be true in life. Death became something so popular this year that it became part of the zeitgeist, an overarching theme by the end of it. On the eve of the destruction of social and economic equity, the thing the unites us is we all are vectoring towards our graves.
Bowie knew he was dying so he wrote his eulogy. Or Bowie knew he was dying so he offered us his last words. Bowie left us secret messages in the grooves of his album for us to decode. Or maybe Bowie is chance personified, the genderless chaos of the universe, the here and hereafter, with impossibly perfect sartorial choices and eternally great hair. Maybe he’s all of this or none of this. Just because we know death, does not mean we know Bowie.
And anyway, this whole final transmission before he ascends back to space is a rather cheap summation not only of his illustrious art, but for this album of fractal sound, so finely textured and tuned to a dry and bawdy mood and theme. If you do view Blackstar as some prescient sign-off from Bowie, remember are still lines of such luxurious banality that ground him to the soil here on earth. The way he sings “Where the fuck did Monday go” has stayed with me all year, the lilting rhythm so curt in its resignation. It was my own old-man meme, my own aging Vine that I could reapply over and over. This is the trudge of life. This was made for me and all of us.
The magic of Blackstar is that in his death, Bowie retains control over this album and himself. This is like viewing a rare comet or seeing Saturn crash into Jupiter, an event so spectacular it just had to be planned. Whether it was done on purpose or achieved by fate, Blackstar remains a singular and cosmic moment in pop music. The unknowable ball of fire, who may have died long ago, still casting light because we are so far away from its center. That’s Bowie, shining and untouchable. That’s pop music, magical and monumental — and maybe something that glows brightest before it disappears forever.
2. Anohni - HOPELESSNESS
Read my interview with Anohni at RBMA, and some writing about “Drone Bomb Me” at SPIN.
3. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Read some writing about A Moon Shaped Pool at Pitchfork.
4. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Read some writing about Skeleton Tree at Pitchfork
6. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Read some writing about 22, A Million at SPIN.
7. Beyoncé - Lemonade
8. Oliver Coates - Upstepping
Hear me talk about Oliver Coates on my RBMA Radio show, Undertones
9. Young Thug - JEFFERY
Read some writing on JEFFERY at SPIN
10. Kaytranada - 99.9%
11. Cass McCombs - Mangy Love
12. Whitney - Light Upon the Lake
13. Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
14. Angel Olsen - My Woman
15. A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
16. Jóhann Jóhannsson - Arrival OST
17. Eleanor Friedberger - New View
18. Parquet Courts - Human Performance
19. Mitski - Puberty 2
20. Preoccupations - Preoccupations