The highs and lows of a year in pop

In 2019, rap took on Nashville, punk pioneers were honoured, and reality TV came to life

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      Kanye West remained 24 shades of out-there in 2019, travelling America and preaching the gospel of his favourite saviours—Donald J. Trump and Jesus Christ—as part of his Sunday Service tour.

      Taylor Swift remained the most influential person out of the millions and millions of social-media addicts on Twitter. And Lizzo not only got the most rhythmically challenged of North Americans dancing their asses off with “Juice”, but proved that positivity can be infectious even when all seems hopeless.

      As incredible as this might sound, a few other things happened this year as well. Here are some of the highlights, ranging from the sad and dubious to the undeniably educational and inspirational.


      Lil Nas X scored one of the biggest hit singles of all time with “Old Town Road”.

      Old Town Rewards

      Until this year, a trap beat based on a Nine Inch Nails sample wasn’t anyone’s idea of a formula for country-music success. And indeed, in spite of its cowboy-themed lyrics, “Old Town Road” was insufficiently “country” for inclusion on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The trouble was that Lil Nas X’s single had—after blowing up on the TikTok app—already been climbing that chart before the brass at Billboard made that determination, which sparked a debate over what exactly country music is anyway, to say nothing of the optics of yanking a black artist off of a white-dominated ranking. Lil Nas X got the last laugh, of course. With bona fide country singer Billy Ray Cyrus riding shotgun on the remix, “Old Town Road” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-setting 19 consecutive weeks. (It’s still on that chart, too, hovering somewhere in the 30s, last we checked.) In the end, Lil Nas X did get his well-earned recognition from the Nashville establishment, with the Country Music Association naming “Old Town Road” the musical event of the year.


      Mötley Crüe announced its unwelcome return to action this past fall.

      Mötley Crüe

      While it’s a God-given fact that there’s a sucker born every minute, did we really need Mötley Crüe to prove that as gospel? In November, the Sunset Strip metal survivors made an announcement that came as a shock to anyone who actually thought that they planned to stay dead, buried, and stinking worse than Ratt. Five years after making a major deal out of retiring for good—complete with a supposedly lawyer-approved 2014 cessation document—Mötley Crüe announced its return to action this past fall. Suddenly, ditch-diggers, forklift drivers, and welfare-cheque collectors around the world were left wondering why they blew six months of hard-earned wages to see the band one last time on its Final Tour. The cynical among us might suggest that Mötley Crüe “retired” as a way to trick aging hair farmers into packing hockey rinks at a point when the running-on-fumes band was headed straight for the club circuit. Mercenaries, meanwhile, have to admire the business acumen of a group in which at least two of the four members seem to have the IQ of everyone who appeared on camera in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”.


      Hardcore Heritage

      Punk rock was never supposed to be respectable. You could even make a pretty good case that defying respectability is kind of the point of the whole thing. Vancouver’s own punk godfather, Joe Keithley, however, long ago reached elder-statesman status, so let’s cut the guy some slack and let him bask in the glory of being recognized as a major part of music history in this country. Back in November, Hardcore ’81, the second LP by Keithley’s band D.O.A., was awarded the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize. According to the Polaris Music Prize website, the heritage award is “our version of a hall of fame where we try to determine who would have been nominated or won the Prize in the years before it started in 2006”. The 1981 record is often cited as being the first occurrence of the term “hardcore” to denote a particularly ballistic style of punk. Receiving the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize puts D.O.A. in the company of the Oscar Peterson Trio, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Glenn Gould, Sloan, and Alanis Morissette, among others. Pretty respectable.


      Lasting Legacy

      If the true measure of a man is the friends, admirers, and inspired people he leaves behind, then John Mann passed away one of the most successful folks who’s ever walked the rainy streets of Vancouver. The Spirit of the West founder and singer-guitarist died on November 20 after a half-decade battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. During his final hours, friends and family were gathered round his bedside, with a glass of Guinness raised as a final salute. But it was when news of Mann’s death broke to the public that it really became clear how much the musician, actor, father, husband, and famously decent human being really meant to the world. Mann’s death made all the national newscasts, led the local ones, and inspired countless written tributes on music websites and social-media platforms. Spirit of the West never packed hockey rinks or ruled the radio airwaves during its long run, but it proved that sometimes there’s something more important than platinum records and private jets. Somewhere above the clouds, Mann is leading heaven through an all-angels-on-deck version of “Political”, and everyone’s singing.


      Rammstein Returns

      You would-n’t expect Rammstein to do anything in a small way, would you? In 2019, the German industrial-metal act released its first album of new material in a decade. The album, which is either untitled or called Rammstein, depending on who you ask, was preceded by the single “Deutschland”, a hammer-of-the-gods anthem of burbling sequencers, incendiary guitar riffs, and Till Lindemann’s voice-of-doom bass singing. In other words, business as usual. It was the video for “Deutschland” that stirred up some controversy, however. Directed by Specter Berlin, the nine-minute mini-movie takes viewers on a visceral trip through the title country’s history, with stops at the Holocaust, the Cold War, and various other things most Germans would probably prefer not to dwell on. A patriotic song this one is not, with Lindemann wrestling with his simultaneous loyalty to and shame for his homeland. Casting a black woman (Ruby Commey) as the living embodiment of Germany—and thus flipping the bird at the country’s ascendant anti-immigration voices—was a stroke of genius.


      Orville Peck brought a little mystery to country.
      Carlos Santolalla

      Urban Cowboy

      The weird thing about masked men is that no one ever seems to be able to figure out who they are. We’re not talking the likes of Deadpool or Spiderman, but the Lone Ranger and Zorro. Try wearing a glorified sleeping mask into work or your favourite coffee shop, and see how long it takes for folks to a) guess your name, and b) ask why the office weirdo is celebrating Halloween in December. Orville Peck at least gave identity-obscuration the old college try when he launched his booming alternative-to-alt-country career at the beginning of 2019 with the Sub Pop–released Pony. Mining a dark and atmospheric strain of Americana that suggests David Lynch at a saloon poker table with Marty Robbins and Ennio Morricone, Peck arrived on set with a pretty great gimmick. Whether appearing on KEXP, in the pages of Vogue, or on-stage at the Commodore, he always sports a domino mask adorned with long trailing fringes. Thanks to the Internet, it took tattoo enthusiasts about two weeks to start theorizing that, instead of riding in from a settlement just outside Lonesome Town, Peck has roots that lie in Vancouver’s circa-’00s Emergency Room scene. If the Nevada mountain cat’s out of the burlap sack, the singer can at least take solace in Pony being hailed as one of the great records of the year. And in the fact that, should he decide he can ditch the mask, eating chili around the campfire will become about 200 times easier.


      Anarchy in the U.K.

      Remember back in 2016, when Donald J. Trump’s election sparked various editorials about how America’s music artists were supposedly poised to unleash holy hell on the right? And then remember how said think pieces were met with the sound of crickets? This year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Northampton rapper Slowthai released his debut album, bearing the punk-as-fuck title Nothing Great About Britain. The 25-year-old performer is pictured on the LP’s cover pilloried buck-naked in front of a block of dreary council flats, a demented grin on his face. For his sedition, Slowthai was rewarded with a Top 10 showing on the British album chart, plus a Mercury Prize nomination. Performing at that award ceremony, the rapper held aloft the severed head of the British prime minister (in effigy) and shouted “Fuck Boris Johnson!” before launching into the opening line of “Doorman”: “Shoot the messenger, string him up.” We can only pray that musicians in the States were watching, and taking notes.


      Roots Revisited

      Even though there’s plenty of work to be done, Canada has come along way on the Reconciliation front since the dark days of residential schools and the ’60s scoop. As awareness of First Nations culture has grown, there’s a new generation writing new chapters to an impossibly rich history. Following a path blazed by the likes of Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red, two Western Canada–based Indigenous acts released essential records in 2019: from Vancouver-via-Kitimat Haisla MCs Darren “Young D” Metz and Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce came Snotty Nose Rez Kids’ Trapline, while the Edmonton Plains Cree trio of Kris Harper, Matthew Cardinal, and Marek Tyler gave us nêhiyawak’s nipiy. Both albums were musically adventurous enough to hold their own on the international stage, with Trapline mashing classic hip-hop with Atlanta-trap and Yeezy-brand swagger, and nipiy mixing northern-lights guitars with traditional drums and forest-whisperer vocals. The lyrics were as important as the music, as Snotty Nose Rez Kids and nêhiyawak used their powerful platforms to discuss the often troubled history of Indigenous people in Canada. Listen and learn.


      Superkim Saves Rocky

      When you have the former host of The Apprentice occupying the Oval Office, basically all bets are off. In the dazed-and-confused nation to the immediate south of us, the line between reality TV and actual life has become so blurred that Kim Kardashian is now a person of importance in the real world and not just on Instagram. Who can forget the international tension this past summer after A$AP Rocky’s bodyguard beat up some dude in Stockholm? The rapper was detained in a Swedish prison, awaiting trial (turns out Sweden doesn’t have a bail system), when Kardashian took swift and decisive action. She reached out to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser on something-or-other, beseeching him to do something, anything, to help poor Rocky. Kardashian’s husband, Kanye West, made a similar plea to the president himself. The case went to trial, Rocky got a fine and a suspended sentence, and the United States ended up looking utterly fucking ridiculous in the eyes of the world—not for the first, nor likely the last, time.


      To tout her green street cred, Queen B rewarded vegans with free tickets for life.

      Queen V

      Here’s an interesting question: in return for free concerts tickets until death, would you be willing to doom yourself to a life of sawdustlike soyburgers, chalk-flavoured chickpeas, and bike-tire-flavoured tofu? That’s basically the question Beyoncé asked at the end of January. Queen B offered fans the chance to win free tickets for life to shows by her and her husband, Jay-Z, as part of the Greenprint Project, an initiative out to improve the environment by getting people to switch to plant-based meals. To be eligible, one had to go the vegan route, or at least adopt a Meatless Monday (or Unscrumptious Sunday or Tasteless Tuesday) menu plan. The payoff? That would be dancing one’s ass off to “99 Problems” or “Baby Boy” for zero dollars until eternity. That you’ll be too anemic to do anything but sit in your seat sipping coconut water is your problem.


      Yeezus Walks

      Having Kanye West advocate on your behalf is one thing if you’re A$AP Rocky (see above). It’s quite another if you’re Jesus Christ, who arguably doesn’t really need the publicity, what with the 2.3 billion self-identified Christians in the world. That number evidently seems too low to West, who has vowed to convert the rest of us. After declaring himself a born-again Christian in January, Yeezy set to work on his first full-fledged gospel album, Jesus Is King, which features both Kenny G and a shout-out to Chick-fil-A. West’s newfound faith also drove him to create two “operas”—Nebuchadnezzar, which the Guardian called “a giant folly”, and the hifalutin Christmas pageant Mary, which was somewhat better received. Oh, and in November he claimed that he was considering changing his name to Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West for a year. Guess none of his new Christian friends have informed him that pride is considered the worst of the seven deadly sins.


      Stephen Hamm reinvented himself as a theremin maestro.
      Angela Hubbard

      Radical Rebirth

      Reinventing oneself as an artist is never easy, which is why, for every Norman Cook, there are hundreds of musicians travelling the road to diminishing returns. Part of what makes Stephen Hamm’s Theremin Man so relentlessly interesting is the Vancouver fixture’s résumé. The city first got to know him as the bassist for the mighty Slow, and then as a member of acts including Tankhog, Jungle, Canned Hamm, and the Nardwuar-led Evaporators. A few years back, Hamm became obsessed with the theremin—initially as a fan and then as a keen student who travelled the globe to study with masters of the famously spacey instrument. Fast forward to Theremin Man, a trippy fall full-length that takes the instrument you play without touching in directions Léon Theremin never dreamed of. The album’s 10 tracks drift from deep-space techno to posteverything soul, as Hamm creates a perfect soundtrack for walking deserted West Coast beaches under carpet-of-stars skies. As sure as Fatboy Slim has made the world forget about the Housemartins, this is how you stage a reinvention.