Fantastic interview on the Time Sensitive podcast with a writer I admire: “Jelani Cobb on 50 Years of Hip-Hop and the Future of Journalism.”
Fantastic interview on the Time Sensitive podcast with a writer I admire: “Jelani Cobb on 50 Years of Hip-Hop and the Future of Journalism.”
Rick Rubin, talking with Tyler Cowen, gets to the heart of what we lose as streaming music fans:
I’ll say the most difficult thing about it now is that all of it has a disposability that it didn’t have before. In the old days, you would buy a piece of music, you would own it, and you would be invested in that piece of music as yours. Now everything is available, which is fantastic and I love it. As a fan, I love it.
When something comes out by an artist that you love, it doesn’t have the same gravitas that it once had because it’s on this conveyor belt of music that’s always going by. Even the thing you love, you listen to it, but then there’s something new right behind it, coming right behind it, always something new coming right behind it. I don’t know how the music of today can get to the point of the canon of the music of the past based on that short term, the fact that the music goes by so quickly. Even the things we love, the shelf life is very short now.
In The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot explores the “melancholy grandeur” of Weyes Blood, my favorite new find of last year.
What a match: Remnick on Dylan.
For the generation that has listened to music only in earbuds, intimacy is the new punk rock.
Bono, speaking generally but also of Billie Eilish specifically, in an engaging NYT Magazine interview.
I’m just catching up with Björk’s podcast, Sonic Symobolism. One album per episode. Unsurprisngly, it’s excellent. On a few walks today I listened to a deep dive into the lush and intimate “Vespertine”, which she made after acquiring her first personal laptop. Loved this part:
And I still meet journalists today that always have this, ‘If it’s done with a computer it doesn’t have a soul’ — that argument. But it’s not about the tool. You cannot rely on a guitar to put the soul in a song. Or a violin. Or a laptop. If there is not soul in it, it’s because the human did not put it there.
What a supremely fine and lovingly crafted book this was. Astute, admiring, and entertaining scrutiny of decades of rap lyrics. Huge kudos to author Daniel Levin Becker. A few especially great passages I drew circles around in my copy:
I will go to my grave wishing my self-conscious rhetorical throat-clearings could sound so cool. What Nas seems to toss off here is not just a very efficient overview of the themes he’s spent his career elaborating—decadence, gunplay, activism, divinity—but also a rare window onto his composition process, his creative deliberations, the whole inner monologue around medium and message that is at once so tantalizing in a rapper and so often viewed as beside the point. Most of all, though, what I hear in it is a true statement about what it’s like to speak on something so much bigger than yourself, so much more expansive than the present, something inexhaustible and infinite that is also right here. It’s what it feels like, for me, to put words to a way with words that so often leaves me, before the rest colors itself in, speechless.
All the discrete and interwoven pattern recognitions in this book, assembled with joy and leaving me no closer to a unified theory of how it all fits together, seem to be proof of rap’s multitudes, its dynamism, its knack for illuminating a bigger picture by obscuring many smaller ones. This is what the best art does, and I think it’s also why we play with puzzles. It’s not about the completed image, but about the slow, oddly suspenseful progress we make toward resolution and completeness—otherwise we’d just look at the picture on the box the puzzle comes in, right? There is so much in the world that is at least provisionally more awesome, more arresting, more puzzling than good. The endlessly deferred promise of understanding, being in the dark and working ever toward the light, just might be what makes the whole thing, impossibly, float.
Since 2000, I’ve had a year-end tradition of sharing my cultural highlights of the past 12 months. For this year’s post, I’ll first note the major life change I had in 2021.
After eight years leading comms and marketing for the nonprofit conservancy Forest Park Forever, I re-entered the agency world this summer by joining The Stoke Group, a fully distributed digital marketing and content studio that focuses on the B2B tech sector.
As the Senior Director of Editorial Content, I spend most of my time on editorial projects for Adobe (a key client, and one that values great writing and design), as well as helping produce the video podcast Real Creative Leadership with its host, Adam Morgan. While I miss the connection to my St. Louis community, I’m enjoying working with strategists, writers, and designers on content work for large global clients. I hadn’t worked with clients at this scale or in this specific sector, so it’s been broadening in the way I hoped. The team’s packed with interesting, talented, upbeat people.
With that 2021 milestone covered, here’s a look at some cultural-intake highlights from the year:
1. Lanny, Max Porter
2. Second Place, Rachel Cusk
3. Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam
4. The Copenhagen Trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen
5. Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri
6. The Morning Star, Karl Ove Knausgaard
7. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney
8. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
9. Tenth of December, George Saunders
10. My Heart, Semezdin Mehmedinović
11. Fox 8, George Saunders
12. The Carrying: Poems, Ada Limon
13. New Teeth, Simon Rich
1. Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning, Philip Kennicott
2. The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life, Kyle Beachy
3. Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Bierut
4. Suppose a Sentence: Brian Dillon
5. Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake (Eds., Tamara Schenkenberg and Donna Wingate)
6. Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
7. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib
8. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand
9. Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, Paula Marantz Cohen
10. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh
11. The Monocle Book of Homes (Monocle)
12. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time, Jim McKelvey
13. Studio Culture Now (Ed. Mark Sinclair)
14. The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton
15. Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, Adam Nayman
16. This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Steven Hyden
17. After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Ben Rhodes
18. Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald
19. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
20. The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, Christopher Clarey
21. Proustian Uncertainties, Saul Friedländer
22. Seeing Serena, Gerald Marzorati
23. Graphic Life, Michael Gericke
24. How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims
25. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, paired with Twelve New Essays by Jessica Helfand
26. Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century, Tim Higgins
27. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter
28. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
29. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant
30. Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business, Adam W. Morgan
1. The French Dispatch
2. Cold War
3. Certain Women
4. Meek’s Cutoff
5. The Power of the Dog
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
7. Let Them All Talk
8. The Farewell
9. To the Wonder
11. In One Breath: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark
12. Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell
14. Untold: Breaking Point
15. WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
1. Succession, Season 3
2. The Bureau, Season 1
3. Ted Lasso, Season 2
4. Great British Baking Show, Season 12
5. The Chair 6. Only Murders in the Building
7. The Other Two, Seasons 1 and 2
8. This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
9. Lupin, Season 1
New finds I enjoyed this year: A Change of Brand, Conversations with Tyler, and The CMO Podcast. The Two Month Review’s podcast series on William Gaddis's J R delivered a ton of insights and smiles during the first few months of 2021.
This was the second year in a row with little travel (which often prompts new art-viewing) and sadly little museum-going here at home (that’s on me). That said, and acknowledging my bias, the exhibition Hannah Wilke: Art for Life's Sake — curated by my wife, Tamara H. Schenkenberg, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation — gained in richness and meaning every time I saw it. If you’re here in St. Louis, I highly encourage a visit before its January 16 close.
A million years ago, my year-end lists included dozens of individual albums and concerts. While music’s a daily essential for me, I see almost nothing live and dip in and out of all kinds of new things I learn about, often without good record-keeping.
I usually work listening to classical, then jazz is on in the evening. The only specific new recordings I’d surface this year are the terrific records from Tyler, the Creator, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker. Phoebe Bridgers didn’t have a new album, but I loved her live Pitchfork Festival set that I happened to catch the evening it streamed.
In terms of new discoveries, there was one artist — and one song — that I’ll long connect with 2021: “A Lot’s Gonna Change” by Weyes Blood (Natalie Laura Mering). I was introduced to this singer/songwriter through a Spotify station as I drove on an errand of some kind. I was transfixed.
At about 1:20, Mering sings the title phrase — “A lot’s gonna change / in your …. life / … time.” — and it swallowed me up in the way great song moments do. Likely because my wife and I spend so much of our non-working time focused on raising our young kids and thinking about what their future lives will be like, the line took on all kinds poignancy and significance in the seconds I heard it.
Later on, the second time that part of the song comes around (2:55 in the video above), Mering sings, “‘Cause you’ve got what it takes / in your … life / … time.”
Here’s to the time we’ve got ahead of us in 2022.
Nice line from Kelefa Sanneh’s “Major Labels”:
Unlike many virtuosos, Eddie Van Halen had a knack for making virtuosity seem like a good time, and all the early Van Halen albums sound as if they were recorded at house parties, with the party noise somehow edited out.
Jeff Tweedy’s new Substack newsletter, Starship Casual, is unsuprisingly great — at turns goofy and thoughtful, just like his books and interviews. Today’s post, “Heart of Glass (Rememories 5), was especially memorable. He’s a slyly penetrating artist.
Year 20 of my annual cultural-recap tradition was quite something.
Thus far my family’s had good fortune amid the global pandemic, so we’re spending most of our time feeling grateful, yet exhausted, then grateful, yet exhausted.
With lots of time at home, there was some enjoyable culture to take in. Here’s a look at some highlights:
I can’t recall a year when I saw less art — whether here in St. Louis or in cities we didn’t travel to. With that unfortunate reality, I’m especially grateful to have been able to see the fantastic exhibition “Terry Adkins: Resounding” at the Pulitzer this summer.
Favorite new discoveries: The Modern House Podcast, Distributed, with Matt Mullenweg, Siegel+Gale Says, and Simplicity Talks. Valuable mood-improver for 2020: Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.
My Spotify’s a shared-with-kids mess, and for loads of weekly hours I stream jazz and classical music that I don’t make a note of to be recalled. That said, I did especially enjoy new records from Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker, Jeff Tweedy, Lomelda, Bob Dylan, Run the Jewels, and Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist. I’m grateful to have been turned on to the music of Big Thief, Harold Budd (via the e-newsletter Flow State), Eleanor Bindman, and Haley Heynderickx, whose “Oom Sha La La” always brightened our family’s quarantine, with the kids screaming and jumping along to the swelling refrain, “I need to start a garden!” Here’s to what’s to come.
Odds and ends from the past few weeks:
What a fun treat to see Forbes spotlight ListenForestPark.org, an audio microsite my team launched a few years ago as a side project. It’s found a new audience these days.
Finished “Devs” on Hulu. Dug the style and performances; so-so on the ultimate substance.
The series “ZeroZeroZero” was, like one of the creator’s prior work “Sicario,” cinematically beautiful; it was just too grim and violent for me to continue past episode three.
Made me laugh over laundry: “The Other Guys.”
Two episodes into “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix and really enjoying it. Brilliant choice of narrator.
Two live song performances I’ve replayed a number of times recently: Clem Snide and Scott Avett’s “Roger Ebert” and Father John Misty’s “Total Entertainment Forever.”
A favorite new weekly listen: The Modern House Podcast. Search for it in your podcast player of choice. Also recommend the publication’s short video going inside architectural designer Jonathan Tuckey‘s family home in northwest London.
Delighted that we were able to snag this unusual wood and leather lounge chair from STL’s MoModerne Design Shop. Bought through an Instagram DM, now settled into our den for years.
Best for last: We finished season 5 of “Better Call Saul.” Tremendous television. (How in the world did Lalo just show up so late and start owning scenes with major talent that had four seasons of episode strength beneath them? What a character and performance.)
Borrowing the structure of a few other online writers whose websites I enjoy (Paul Robert Lloyd and Mark Boulton, among others), I thought I’d start weekly low-key look-backs on the week, bullet list-style. Perhaps weekly is aspirational. We’ll see.
Greatly enjoyed Emily Nussbaum’s long New Yorker profile of Fiona Apple, whose long-awaited record just hit my Spotify streaming today. After reading the piece, I’d been going back through Apple’s back catalogue, awaiting the new songs and relishing the old. That stellar start of “I Know”: “So be it / I’m your crowbar….”
Also in the New Yorker, I was moved by Alex Ross’s essay honoring his late mother, “Grieving With Brahms.” I admire Ross’s writing greatly.
Okay, one more New Yorker reference for the week: I was floored by Dan Chiasson’s review of Joyelle McSweeney’s new book of poetry that involves motherhood and tragedy.
I’ve been dabbling with Roam, which is getting a lot of indie attention as a networked-notes app. (See: #roamcult) At least for now, I’ve enjoyed reading in-depth use studies more than actually using it. Somewhat relatedly, it’s been a big few weeks for Notion, which I continue to use more as a work/life dashboard than a notes app. This general area of knowledge management is one I’m deeply interested in and will continue to be tracking.
Speaking of tech, I’m three episodes into “Devs” (Hulu) and plan on continuing. Intrigued. (I loved the look of Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.”)
“Knives Out” was fun.
During quarantine, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut — one of my favorite voices on branding and communications — is offering a “Virtual Bookshelf Tour” on Instagram. Mouthwatering. Starts here.
On my family’s own isolation front, lack of options breeds ingenuity. Today Leo and I played driveway tennis over a rope tied between our basketball hoop and a locked stroller, followed by foam-ball lawn golf employing our Christmas tree stand as the hole. Worked surprisingly well.
Thanks to a chance moment listening to KDHX in the car, I’ve now had Haley Heynderickx on repeat — especially her record “I Need to Start a Garden,” and especially the song “Oom Sha La La.” Looked it up, and sure enough, there’s a Tiny Desk concert in the books as well, with that tune kicking it off. Grateful for the find.
Two relatively new music books I enjoyed this summer: Jeff Tweedy’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back:) A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. (honest, often funny; really enjoyed the sections about his sons) and the bluntly titled Beastie Boys Book (their mischief has been carried over to the copy and design).
While not personally a blues guy, I loved every paragraph of David Remnick’s terrific New Yorker feature exploring Buddy Guy’s long career, the change of blues’s place in culture and what the future holds, if anything, for the genre as Guy’s been playing it. Toward the end of the piece, Remnick turns to his magazine’s own poetry editor — poet and essayist Kevin Young — for this insightful description of the form:
The blues contain multitudes. Just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways.
“Will Oldham: Unmasked” — For GQ, Alex Pappademas gets unusual access to one of my favorite songwriters.
Our house suddenly feels warmer with the recent arrival of this 1963 Wurlitzer Spinet. Props to the kind folks at [http://www.jacksonpianos.com](Jackson Pianos).
With a nod to Kottke's monthly "Media Diet" posts, I'm experimenting this year with short monthly recaps of interesting things I've read, watched or listened to. (This is as much for myself, as noting what I took in can help me better recall it.)
With this terrific Kottke.org guest post — “Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving” — Carmody had me immediately returning to the handful of albums I own. (As Carmody points out, Callahan’s not on Spotify, my own daily streaming service: “This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.")
Thanks to a surprise purchase by my wife, I’ve been enjoying the new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which takes music as its cover-to-cover subject.
I’ve enjoyed reading Lapham for years, but hadn’t known that he’d studied piano as a youth, or that he’d spent time in New York City as a young writer waiting (and waiting and waiting) to write about Thelonious Monk. After several months of sharing late-night space in the Five Spot, this happened:
At four AM on a Thursday in late March , the Five Spot’s waiters stacking chairs on tables, Monk stood up from the piano, snapped his fingers, thrust his palm in my direction. “Time to play, man,” he said, “time to hear what you know.” Out front in the back of a Rolls-Royce, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was come to carry Monk home. She did so many mornings, but I never had been around at four AM to see Monk nod to the chauffeur holding open the door. A beautiful woman of uncertain age, wrapped in fur and wearing pearls, the baroness smiled, pointed me toward the seat in front. I can’t now remember if she spoke more than four words in my direction, either in the car or after we arrived at Monk’s apartment on West Sixty-Third Street at Eleventh Avenue.
Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”
By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.
Following his exceptional profile of Father John Misty, Paumgarten goes deep with the intriguing, shrewd and self-aware St. Vincent:
When she listens to a playback, she often buries her head in her arms, as though she can hardly bear to hear herself, but, really, it’s just her way of listening hard. Once, during a mixing session, while she was at the board and I was behind her on a couch, surreptitiously reading a text message, she picked up her head, turned around, and said, “Did I lose you there, Nick? I can feel when attention is wandering.” Her cheery use of the name of the person she is addressing can seem to contain a faint note of mockery. There’d be times, in the following months, when I’d walk away from a conversation with Clark feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs.
Fascinating, entertaining profile of Father John Misty in The New Yorker.
Demo of Low’s “Will the Night.". Among the most beautiful three minutes of music I know.
Where have I been to miss this marvelous podcast for its first 101 episodes? Hrishikesh Hirway interviews musicians and asks them to break down a single song, which we hear in bits … and bits … and then in its entirety. It’s a fantastic idea executed with great polish, sensitivity and humility (Hirway is almost never heard from). I’ve so far enjoyed Jeff Tweedy/Wilco, Ghostface Killah and Bjork, with many more in the queue.
Insightful and entertaining New Yorker profile by Alec Wilkinson. I can still vividly recall seeing the White Stripes at The Pageant in 2002, a blazing tricolor duo that owned that room from start to finish.
Really enjoyed Carrie Brownstein’s impressive, observant, terrifically titled memoir.