by Ryan Wasoba
The annual apocalypse is nigh, wherein critics celebrate the end of the year with a debaucherous amount of self-important analysis on the previous twelve months in music. I am among the many to rank my favorite records, if only because our culture tells us it's what people who care do every December. The two records atop my list are w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs and Strange Mercy by St. Vincent. Both have already appeared on some early birds' lists and are certain to show up on many of those not yet published or posted.
I found it difficult to place one above the other, but ties are for the weak in music journalism (tUnE-yArDs eventually won in my book. That is not the point.). In the macro and micro sense, the similarities between w ho k i l l and Strange Mercy are bountiful. Both come from singular artists who perform under a moniker (tUnE-yArDs = Merrill Garbus, St. Vincent = Annie Clark). Both are pop records at heart, masked by bruised skin. Both are sonically astounding. Both offer a liberal dose of the saxophone. Both artists played jaw-dropping shows in St. Louis this year. Both even have a song that makes reference to a loved one suffering from police brutality -- "Policemen shot my baby as he crossed right over my doorstep" (tUnE-yArDs' "Doorstep") and "If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up, oh I don't know what" (St. Vincent's "Strange Mercy").
The most obvious commonality is that Merrill Garbus and Annie Clark are both female. This should matter the least, and it probably does to some. But not to me. This is the first year that my two favorite albums were made by female artists. I'm not sure what this means for me as a music lover or human. I feel dismissive saying this is completely insignificant, but trying to construct an epiphany makes me feel like I'm overcompensating, like one of those guys who references the amount of Kanye on his iPod as proof that he's not racist. The true meaning is probably somewhere in the middle.
More than any releases by female artists before, gender has little to do with how these albums affect me as a listener. The last thing on my mind when spinning w h o k i l l or Strange Mercy is gender politics or the fact that I'm hearing music from the opposite sex. I can't say as much for some other artists I enjoy. Feist and Mirah work loosely in a template that female artists have employed for ages -- Joni Mitchell comes to mind for both -- and while neither plays up their femininity, they tend to write from a traditional girl-to-boy perspective. Garbus or Clark toy with the same motifs, but always put some demented twist on the formula. It isn't cute, it's terrifying.
As a male, this whole topic puts me in an uncomfortable position. It's a no-brainer that females are as capable of creating wonderful music; I haven't felt otherwise since well before adulthood. But I instinctively feel close-minded when I don't care for a band like Erase Errata -- particularly when, artist's fault or not, its members' gender is a selling point.This complicated issue was handled beautifully in Lindsay Zoladz's article "Not Every Girl Is A Riot Grrrl" on Pitchfork. She writes:
I have a friend who likes to say that most people still talk about music as though "female" were a genre, but as today's wide stylistic variety of women making independent music attests, there is no "female" sound. There is only the sound of being perceived female: the same old assumptions, conversations, reference points, and language.
Inverting the variables makes my empathy more visceral. Some of the worst and most offensive music ever created is overtly masculine. I would be petrified if nu-metal was considered the sound of being perceived male, or if any all-male group was compared to Nickleback the way Sleater-Kinney pops up all too often when discussing girls in indie rock.
I don't hear "the sound of being perceived female" in w h o k i l l or Strange Mercy. I don't hear tired references when I read about Annie Clark or Merrill Garbus. The closest artist to St. Vincent is probably Beck. And nothing compares to tUnE-yArDs, be it a female, male, human, animal, or robot. I also don't hear this sound in Joanna Newsom or Janelle Monae or Marnie Stern, three musicians I would physically fight somebody (or at least arm wrestle them) to defend.
Maybe it's coincidence that the two most captivating albums of the year were made by females. Maybe it shouldn't matter at all. Maybe it's all that should matter, but I doubt it. Maybe we're just lucky that St. Vincent and tUnE-yArDs exist simultaneously. Maybe gender is just a side note, and the moral of these records is the same as all great albums before and those yet to come: ignore the contexts and just be yourself.