This year was full of surprises, and what helped carry a lot of us through these times was music. From UK drill, to teen pop, hip-hop, Tik Tok hits and everything in between – the music industry churned out a lot of new artists, as well as seeing the comeback of many greats. Three music aficionados, each from a separate generation, sat down to have a conversation about their opinions on the new music that made the soundtrack to the pandemic.
It is finally the end of the year, and there is a lot of released music to uncover from this productive time for creatives. Some old artists got new faces and sounds, some new artists instead showed up with what they themselves have to offer. Vice News put together a sweet selection of intergenerational judges to review this year in music, including their favorite moments.
Firstly, we have Phil, the Boomer, just 61 years old from London. Phil is a songwriter and record producer, having been in The Cure, and a co-writer for classic hit “Torn” and currently has an NTS show.
Secondly, we have Dondré, the Millenial, straight from New York City. Just 28 years old, Dondréis currently working in pharmacy tech but an aficionado of music, having formerly ran a dedicated music blog.
Lastly, we have the Zoomer, Sohrob. Just 21 and living in LA, Sohrob is working for the visual aspects of the music industry, desigining album covers, spotify canvases, doing animation and graphic design.
What other starting point could ever overrule the impact of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album Sour, released just this May? Her smash hit “Driver’s License” smashed Spotify’s record for the most single-day streams as a non-holiday song, having firstly been released in the first week of January, 2021. Although there were some rumours about stolen samples and melodies… Rodrigo still stayed well placed under the spotlight throughout the entire year.
Phil has to comment: “To me, conceptually, being artistic [and] retooling old music – it’s always happened through every generation – Bob Dylan did it to old folk tunes and made them his own. I guess from a financial point of view, if you own the rights to the music that’s being used, you could get very upset about it, or you could be like Elvis Costello’s case and say I don’t care. But I would imagine that his publishers cared, and his lawyers cared.”
But Dondré adds: “The only knowledge I have of her music is because one of her songs went viral on TikTok. With the whole artistic licence thing, I really think a lot of it depends on the context. She’s an up and coming artist, and if you’re older, and she’s paying homage to your music, I feel like you should chill out, because you’ve already made your money.”
And Sohrob instead mentions that there was not much fuss about it: “I listened to it one time…I mainly remember the drama behind “Driver’s Licence” being all over TikTok. The only song that stood out to me was “Good 4 U”, with the “Misery Business” [by Paramore] sample.”
To be fair, it is really hard to churn out completely original pieces without being influenced by the type of music you were listening to yourself growing up. However, there is a big difference between stealing a sample without crediting, and paying an homage…
Moving on, we have another absolute pop queen champion of the charts: Billie Eilish. She released her second album this year, and topped it off with some visually dramatic makeovers – stealing the Vogue cover. Showcasing a more mature presence, proving her adulthood has come, has stirred a lot of conversation about how young pop stars can truly control their sexualization, growing up, and the look they want.
Dondré says: “One of the things that drew me to Billie when she first came on the scene was her clothing – I respected her reasoning behind it, even though obviously the onus is not on her to not be sexualised. And for her to then decide “maybe I do want to own my sexuality”, I feel like that’s something that comes with the territory of getting older and growing into a woman. I like her music because it sounds like she’s lying on a couch on her back and just recording it like that. I’ve always been a fan of how soft and smooth her voice is compared to the beats that she chooses to sing on.”
Sohrob: “I remember my timelines on social media – it was a big deal when she turned 18, and I remember suddenly seeing all these gross posts. I think the Vogue cover was her sort of taking control of that narrative. She went from just a pop star that people liked only for her music to more of a personality that people respected.”
And moving on, who can forget the great return of ‘Satanic Panic!’ With Lil Nas X’s music video for his single “Montero” and accompanying VMAs performance, social media spun in all different directions both praising him and questioning him… a lot.
Phil: “I watched the video and I thought conceptually, artistically, it’s just brilliant. I loved it – it’s what they would have called rock’n’roll back in the 50s. It’s music to upset your parents by, and long may that be the case, because that’s how music moves forward.”
Sohrob: “I remember when Lil Nas X broke out with “Old Town Road” and it had a really terrible video filmed in like Red Dead Redemption, so seeing him with these insane visuals – it’s just impossible to replicate the way that he does it. And he uses that to completely disrupt everything and is able to dominate the conversation. It’s really interesting to see, especially for an artist who completely came from the internet.”
Speaking about throwbacks, there is also the great comeback of Limp Bizkit. Yes. Them. And their newest release: “Dad Vibes”.
Dondré: “As a youth, I was familiar with Limp Bizkit because I used to watch a lot of wrestling and they used a lot of their songs, particularly for Wrestlemania 17. It wasn’t until I got older that I realised people were trashing nu metal back in the early 2000s. I guess people just didn’t like Fred Durst, but I’m glad they’re giving them their flowers. “
Sohrob: “Growing up I heard about them but for me it was just a vestige of the early 2000’s. I didn’t really care much for it… to me it just seems like stuff AJ Soprano would listen to. “
(Honestly, “Dad Vibes” is a banger.)
Over onto the British side of the wee pond, we have “Body” by Russ Millions and Tion Wayne. This tune shot straight to number one during the summer, making history for UK drill as the first number one in the genre!
Dondré: “I’m a big Tion fan – his album Green with Envy was one of my favourites that came out of the UK this year along with Skepta’s All In EP and Dave’s We’re All Alone in This Together.”
Phil: “I listened to the record because you told me about it, and I actually thought it sounded kind of…weedy. You know what a powerful beat sounds like, and a powerful vocal delivery, and this sounded quite homemade to me. Maybe that’s the charm of it, but I didn’t find this record as compelling as some of the others we’ve talked about.”
Dondré adds: “It wasn’t even his best effort on his album. I was never really a huge fan of it but it was big on TikTok and when people like it on TikTok…”
To be fair, at this point in the game, Tik Tok cannot be discredited in its efforts to bringing a lot of songs fame and popularity. Sure, it might not mean those songs that are over-recycled on the app are the most influential, but the streams definitely have value. Frankly, it is fun and music can also be fun and light-hearted!
Another dip in the British pond and we have the glorious Adele. The recently divorced British icon has made a celebratory return to life in the spotlight as a new and re-found self. Her fourth studio album, 30, marks this new life chapter she’s been working on behind the scenes. This is what our three commentators had to say:
Dondré: “I respect the fact that her label came to her and said that they wanted her to make a song for TikTok and she said no, because that’s not her audience. She’s very talented, I love her personality, but the music is not for me.”
Sohrob: “Adele makes very melancholy music, and if I’m in that mood, I’m not really listening to Adele. But I did listen to “Easy On Me”, and I loved that.”
Phil: “I’ve always found Adele is held in such reverence. When her album comes out, you’re feeling the power of a major – also because so much rests on it, because she’s gonna pay for all the interesting artists that we’ve been talking about. But personally, I find if you think of great pop artists like Prince, or Madonna, they change up every album, they look for a new sound. There’s no shame in being in the middle of the road…just watch out for the traffic coming!”
But, some of the greatest fuss stirred this year was none other than the best at making fuss about himself…Mr Kanye West. His endless album publicity stunts for DONDA landed him great appeal for criticisms this year. He collaborated with wide-ranging artists such as Marilyn Mansons and DaBaby, and released 27 songs. Kanye is quite a divisive figure in music nowadays, what with his political stunts and personal life stirring quite some suspicions… this is what our music-heads had to comment:
Dondré: “I’ve been over him since the Life of Pablo… I started seeing him show his ass during that album rollout. He released the album, and then he still had to fix all the songs for the album afterwards. I’m one of those people where I don’t want to hear anything about the album until the album is finished, mixed, mastered and ready to go. Then he started making remarks about how slavery is a choice, and hanging out with Donald Trump, and I just tuned out. Maybe it has something to do with his mental illness…I’m not excusing the behaviour because of his mental illness, but I don’t know…it’s not for me anymore.”
Sohrob: “I’ve been a diehard Kanye fan since I was like ten, and as I’ve grown up, it’s been harder and harder to deal with him as someone that I like. As far as the listening parties, I really like being let into the process, being able to see the chaos that goes into making a giant album like that. You hear the beginnings of the songs, the ideas and then they blossom into something completely different; I thought it was super cool to see that process first-hand.”
Phil: “If you reverse that process – the finished album came out first, and then the demos came out – that’s happened quite a few times. Does it matter that you switch the process and go: “I’m trying to figure this out?” I don’t know if anybody else has done that before; has said let’s reverse and sort of get it wrong, and then gradually get it right. But conceptually, that’s quite interesting.”
And last, but definitely not least (because a 10-minute song could never be the least…) we have Taylor Swift. Having evolved over the years into her finalized forms, Swift is reclaiming her artistry. She began re-releasing her old music officially under ‘her’ terms as Scooter Braun sold the master rights to the private equity firm controlling her past releases. However, with the “Taylor’s Version” of the album Red, the song “All Too Well” seemed to have stirred the pot more than any other tune. Lots of speculations about Taylor’s old flames were kindled as a music video starring heartthrob Dylan O’Brien highly suggested her brief romance with Jake Gyllenhall was released. Well… what do we say about Taylor reclaiming her music, but also re-igniting old flames?
Dondré: “I get the reasons why people don’t like her, but I’ve always been a fan of her music. I find it despicable that Scooter is holding her masters hostage, but I am glad that she is able to re-record all her music. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to her version of “Wildest Dreams” this year. When it comes to her dating life, it’s just something I do not care about. I don’t understand why people are up in arms about it – she’s not rehashing it, she’s just re-recording it. “
Sohrob: “I’m explicitly not Team Jake because why were you ever the Prince of Persia? I’m also not that big of a Taylor Swift fan, but I got to see what this album meant to a lot of my friends who grew up on her music. I can appreciate it in that sense – I always like it when artists pay homage to their old works, because there are so many people who have such visceral connections to these things.”
And that ends it, the recap of the biggest releases of this year. What do you think made the greatest cultural impact in music?
What about music publicity today? In a year where live performances were completely limited, online publicity had to do the majority of the work. Read here about Kanye’s fueling of hype culture.