Taking Stock of 2021: NPR Music’s Ann Powers reflected on how music was made and heard last year

As part of our series taking stock of 2021, I asked my dear friend and colleague Ann Powers, NPR Music’s pop music critic, based here in Nashville, to weigh in on what marks the music of the pandemic era within the streaming era.

Jewly Hight: Beginning in 2020, there was a considerable amount of reporting on the disruptions of music making and the workarounds that people were relying on, including the total DIY approach, like recording music solo while holed-up at home, and also remote songwriting and recording sessions. And in 2021, a lot of the music that was made under those conditions was actually released out into the world. How did you expect to hear and feel the impact of music made with those limitations?

Ann Powers: It’s interesting, because I think this was a big topic of conversation in 2020, but of course you’re right, there was a lag in terms of release, so we’re still getting albums recorded before the pandemic, like the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss record, for example. But it felt like the new conditions that were pressing on us in 2020, we’ve kind of become attuned to them. They became normalized in 2021.

I’ll push back a little on whether or not the actual making of music was as deeply affected this year as last, or maybe just not as much a topic of conversation this year as last. I think musicians were going into the studio together. I think they were taking their rapid tests. They were getting in there and making music. If anything, productivity was up. At the same time, I think other conditions kind of dovetailed with the pandemic to influence how music sounds at this moment.

JH: Other conditions such as?

AP: I really think we receive music so differently than you and I did when we were young, you know, baby music fans going to record stores and going to shows every Friday night, every Tuesday night. But now a generation of people who basically were born with headphones on and with a streaming service at their fingertips have come of age, and I think that has deeply influenced popular music across genres. Also, the general attitudes of of Gen Z—because the young always lead when it comes to trends in pop, and in music in general—the resistance to borders, to strict identity definitions, the desire to be hybrid, to be fluid, to be mobile, that is something we’re really seeing in music as well.

JH: Let’s make that a little bit more concrete. What would you say are some of the sonic signatures of 2021?

AP: One thing I noticed on my playlist for 2021, which is about eight hours long, of my favorite songs, is that, strangely, many of them kind of had a similar tempo or tone, even though they were moving across genres: you know, a beautiful, devotional meditational track by Arooj Aftab, from her Grammy-nominated album Vulture Prince, might be next to expressive, singer-songwriter storytelling from Allison Russell, and that might dovetail nicely with the work of the British rapper Dave, all of whom are people I listened to a lot this year. But something about the tempo, the mood just flowed like a river.

My personal theory about this is that it has to do with how we are listening to music now. Whether you are streaming a radio station like WNXP or using a streaming platform and letting the algorithm lead you leads to a kind of uniformity that I think you could feel negative about but you also could see it as a source of possibility. We are erasing some boundaries, even as we’re falling into a pattern in our listening.

JH: This is something that I heard certainly in in 2020 and continuing into 2021: people describing how their worlds shrank in on them. Have you noticed anything about the scale of music in 2021 that has to do with that, or with the listening patterns that you’re describing? Did you hear did you hear many arrangements, performances or production approaches that seemed like they were getting smaller? And what did you make of artists like SPELLING, who you wrote about for NPR Music year-end coverage, doing the exact opposite of paring down and really pursuing expansive visions?

AP: Well, I think one thing we’re discovering in this time of wintering or of introspection is that our interior worlds are huge, and the SPELLING record is a perfect example of that. It’s my imagined heaven, hippie, Oakland, free psychedelic storytelling, very in touch with nature, very in touch with myth and legend. And I think that’s what the inside of her head sounds like to her.

Maybe this is the thing: the music industry is really falling apart and is reconstituting itself in interesting and unclear ways. Musicians suffered so much when live performance got so reduced, because that was the main way they were making money. I think an IDGAF attitude—you know what those letters stand for—really took over. So the interiority of a lot of these records reflects the decision by many musicians to just do what they wanted, and the lack of pressure that used to exist from major labels or big labels. That’s still there for pop artists, I guess, but even in the case of pop artists, who is more free than Lil Nas X? He is free because he does not classify himself or his imagination. He does not limit himself and or his imagination. He doesn’t even distinguish between being a musician and a video artist and an influencer and a fashion icon and a political figure. He’s all of those things, and I think that sense of freedom in the face of challenges is a beautiful thing about music right now.

JH: We’ve turned from talking about the sound of music to also considering the spirit of the music that we’ve listened to over the last year. Further in that direction, have you identified particular themes, moods, tones that have been showing up in the music of pandemic year two?

AP: Two elements that have often been talked about in opposition seem to have come together in the most notable releases of this year. Think about our number one album at NPR Music, Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales. That record is all vibe and all story at the same time. If in the kind of the old dichotomy that critics upheld you had your storytellers, you had your hook-makers, and then you had your vibe-y, jazzy hip hop-y mood makers, well, those are now the same people. And artists like Jazmine Sullivan are exploring how mood enhances story and how story determines mood. Heaux Tales is such an interesting album, because it has beautifully realized songs, and then it has these kinds of testimonies or conversations with the women depicted in the songs in between every track. So it’s really an album experience, but it also takes from hip-hop in its sense of sampling and using spoken voices juxtaposed against and intertwined with the songs.

JH: I was listening to that very album while I was driving over here.

AP: There you go. And what a voice, right? I mean, she’s like an old-fashioned star and an absolutely future-thinking star at the same time.

JH: It certainly did not take a pandemic to make mental health worth addressing in songwriting. But what do you make of the ways that you’ve heard artists depicting it? And at the other end of the spectrum, who made escapist music that you felt was especially suited to the moment that we’re living in?

AP: As you say, mental health has always been an issue addressed through music, and music as a healing force is hardly a new idea. I mean, it’s about the most ancient idea there is. But I think as artists consider how music operates beyond the commodified system of the music industry, many are turning to practices and thinking about functions of music that exceed just the the boundaries of pop music. And I saw some really interesting examples of artists working directly with the idea of music as healing. Esperanza Spalding’s album Songwrights Apothecary Lab literally came out of sessions she held around the country that brought together neuroscientists and healers and and musicians to think about how music might function in people’s lives. My favorite album of the year, the one I played the most, was Valerie June’s The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. She also designated every song as as being a healing text that people could engage with when they were going through different things in their lives. So I’ve seen a lot of that.

I’ve also seen a lot of artists being very open about their own mental health, which I think is really interesting, especially the great young songwriters like Lucy Dacus or Michelle Zauner, who published an amazing memoir, Crying in H Mart, about her grieving of her mom and her experiences as an immigrant. Her record was actually really happy, but there’s a way in which these young songwriters are putting mental health and that kind of introspection upfront, even as they’re making great pop music too.

JH: When you reach the point where you are reflecting back on 2021, what do you think is going to define the output of this era for you?

AP: Yeah, that’s a hard question, because there’s so much. I’ve noticed that in this moment of year-end reassessment and lists, there’s more variety and less consensus than ever before. My husband, [academic, author and critic] Eric [Weisbard], who you know, after reading through a bunch of lists, he said, “There is no public sphere anymore!” But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think the public sphere is reconstituting itself online, through the airwaves, through the ways we reach each other virtually, even as people crave to be together and find ways to be together. So maybe that’s what this year is all about, is figuring out a new way of living and music helping us negotiate that. That’s certainly the most profound thing that’s happening in most of our lives: How do we form community? How do we connect with loved ones? How do we forge intimacies? That’s the subject of music, always. So I think you hear that in this year’s greatest music.