37 Thoughts on Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Music Writing, Animal Collective, Indie, Grizzly Bear, the XX, and How Things Change

37 Thoughts on Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Music Writing, Animal Collective, Indie, Grizzly Bear, the XX, and How Things Change

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  1. Earlier this week, music critic Evan Rytlewski made a tweet ‎that caused some online chatter regarding 2010s indie at large.‎ "Remember when all of indie rock's biggest acts released momentum-stopping albums all at once," he said, sharing images of the album covers for Grizzly Bear's Shields, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito, Animal Collective's Centipede Hz, and the XX's Coexist.
  2. I didn't quite agree with the particulars of this overall assertion, and I'll get into all of that in a minute. But I do think Evan was on to something in the bigger-picture sense, particularly when it came to pinpointing the fascination dropoff of 2000s indie acts when it comes to music writing and digital discourse in general. If you've read the newsletter over the past two years, you already know that this is a topic I've given a lot of thought to.
  3. "Why are you writing about this in a newsletter instead of just replying to the tweet?" Well, writing about this here allows me to go long and unpack things without subjecting everyone on the timeline to any of my own pedantic bullshit—and, also, I'd rather give ideas and theories their own space to critically breathe than engaging in some sort of back-and-forth that could be interpreted as adversarial when I have no intention of being such a way. I'm not looking for a fight, nor am I explicitly criticizing Evan's tweet even as I point out what I disagree with—if anything, I'm thankful that he generated a spark that got me to write another newsletter installment.
  4. OK, so, first off, I'm not quite sure any of these albums count as "momentum-stopping" as it pertains to the artists' careers, and I'm going to break this down case by case. Critically, Coexist was received by some as a second-verse-same-as-the-first situation while still receiving reasonably high marks—but it was an unqualified success for a massively-popular-with-young-people band that was still ascending towards the peak of their amassed fandom. It debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200, and its follow-up, I See You from 2017, debuted at #2. (This is to say nothing of the band's astronomical global success as well.)
  5. I'm not sure the xx ever had a momentum-stopping moment, really—save for the fact that they have not put out a new album in five years, which counts as more of a retreat. Jamie xx is still visibly doing his thing otherwise to great popularity, Romy Madley Croft put out a great solo single back in 2020, and it does seem like the pandemic delayed more solo movement from her as well as any other attendant band-related projects. Either way, if the xx decided to come back tomorrow, they would still be huge, owing to their status as a generational touchstone who inspired countless other groups to infuse electronic music and R&B into indie rock's previously spartan structural firmament.
  6. Centipede Hz is a funny one to unpack, because it was largely seen as a disappointment following Animal Collective's heavily hyped commercial peak Merriweather Post Pavilion (both albums performed roughly the same, commercially). A sizable listener group pre-MPP found AnCo to be too obtuse and annoying—qualities that seemed accentuated amidst Centipede Hz's darkly-shaded electronic rock—and so it went for most of what they released in the 2010s. Momentum didn't so much stop for Animal Collective as it did return to its previous natural progression.
  7. What is momentum when we talk about a band like Animal Collective? Their core audience—I'm talking about people who check for the side projects and film scores, not people who remember the first time they heard "Fireworks" in college—overlaps pretty heavily with jam-band crowds, who are typically and unwaveringly loyal to the groups they dedicate themselves to.
  8. In the early 2000s, much was made of finding "the next Radiohead" after the electronic soundscapes of Kid A convinced some that Radiohead didn't want to be Radiohead anymore. At some point, the discussion turned to "the American Radiohead," with a few stray ideas (Wilco, My Morning Jacket, I'm fairly certain I saw Sleater-Kinney's name mentioned in this way after One Beat but I could be wrong) thrown around until everyone moved on to a different and equally pointless thought exercise.
  9. At this point, I think you could call Animal Collective "The American Radiohead," in so much as there could be such a thing. Their respective fanbases are passionate to the point of intensity, coalescing in lively online communities that pick apart the minutiae with glee. Similar to Radiohead, Animal Collective's music might not spawn as many imitators as it did in, say, the mid-2000s (remember Our Brother The Native?)—but both maintain a loyal live following and, unlike some of their former contemporaries, spark strong feelings in discussion to this day.
  10. More importantly, I'm not sure Animal Collective themselves have any real sense of perspective on what momentum would look like. The success of MPP was at once a natural outgrowth of a particularly visible period for the band (which included the spiky Strawberry Jam and Panda Bear's Person Pitch, one of the most influential albums in any genre from the last 25 years), as well as a bit of an incidental curiosity. They're not guys who make music to be successful, they're guys who make music that sometimes just is successful, and based on what they've said to me in previous interviews I'm fairly certain they'd be making the same kind of music even if it was for an audience of one. Momentum simply does not exist in their sphere.
  11. I would also argue that momentum is a tricky thing to discuss when it comes to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Mosquito, by the way, stands to date as their chart peak on the Billboard 200 and the only record to crack the top 10—maybe that's relevant here, maybe that's not, it really all depends on what "success" means to you.) If you were to locate a potential "momentum-stopping" moment, I'd argue that you could find it in 2006's Show Your Bones, which was tepidly received upon release and only received a critical re-evaluation circa Mosquito.
  12. If I recall correctly, the existence of Mosquito itself was a bit of a surprise. At the time, it was the longest period between Yeah Yeah Yeahs releases, and the band was previously known for interpersonal struggles that threatened its very existence on occasion. Its members certainly didn't seem for lack of things to do, especially Karen O; to wit, a year after Mosquito she released her sole solo album to date, the understated Crush Songs. That's to say nothing of the many collaborations and projects she engaged in on the side, including a horrible stage musical involving lobster claws that I recall seeing in DUMBO in the early 2010s but am unable to find any record of online.
  13. I would put forth that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs haven't operated with momentum in mind since It's Blitz!, which was largely seen as a return to form post-Show Your Bones. Their recent announcement of new music and a new label home was a surprise, I think, in that many assumed they were not an active concern; they've only played a few shows in recent years, largely around the ten-year anniversary of Fever to Tell.
  14. Their comeback is incredibly well-timed, as the pandemic has left listeners starving for 2000s indie nostalgia for better and (mostly) worse. (Granted, this nostalgia existed well before the pandemic, as evidenced by the success of Lizzy Goodman's 2000s NYC rock oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom, a sometimes interesting book that mostly revealed how many music writers used to be friends with the guys in Interpol.) In a sense, the music doesn't even have to be good for Yeah Yeah Yeahs' return to be a success, as there's enough goodwill and potential for critical celebration of the band's initial run to satisfy everyone.
  15. All this is to say that, post-Show Your Bones (which really was a momentum-slower for the band, in a critical sense at least), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs became momentum-proof. When they returned in 2013, they certainly didn't fit in with almost anything that was going on in indie at the time; they were elder statespeople of a sort, and just the fact that they were back at all was fascinating enough. Unless this new era of theirs results in regular activity to come (who knows?), this is likely how their presence will continue to be received, and honestly, that's not a terrible place to be in career-wise.
  16. OK, time to take a breather before I move on to Shields. I suppose I should give my own critical opinion on these records, just because why not. Coexist is the same as the self-titled for me, in that I never really loved both records but could appreciate what they were doing as well as their subsequent impact. I think the best xx record is I See You, which I've gleaned is not a popular opinion but hey.
  17. Centipede Hz has a few solid songs, it's far from my least-or-most-favorite Animal Collective record, I feel a little bad that they had to follow up MPP at all, anything after that one would've been seen as a step down. Mosquito was something I listened to once and never again, but I should also specify that, post-Fever to Tell, I've always been a la carte when it comes to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (even as I did believe that Show Your Bones was a tad underrated upon release).
  18. As for Shields: It's the best Grizzly Bear record to date, full stop. Veckatimest was a bit overrated, I think; the live versions of those songs (I saw them live a lot around that time) were far stronger, and it was a record more cherished for what it meant regarding the trajectory of 2000s indie than for the content itself. Shields captures the band's live energy way more capably than Veckatimest did, and the dueling sensibilities of songwriters Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste had merged together almost perfectly to make a solid case for Grizzly Bear as one of North America's best rock bands at that time.
  19. Shields was also a massively successful album for Grizzly Bear. It debuted higher on the charts than Veckatimest did, and they were inarguably at the height of their popularity at the time of release. Their real and equally inarguable momentum-killer was Painted Ruins, an extremely solid rock album that was received with critical shrugs even as their touring presence continued to be formidable. It marked the last Grizzly Bear album to date, and as Daniel Rossen himself suggested in my recent interview with him, I'm not sure we're going to get another one for quite some time, if at all.
  20. I would argue that, of the four bands subjected to Evan's initial thought exercise, Grizzly Bear were the only one that experienced any sort of momentum-halting moment at all. But there was also a noticeable shift amongst the music writer scrum when Shields came out, beyond the fact that I remember several colleagues privately expressing their long-held opinion that the band had always been boring, and that nothing had changed with Shields.
  21. Centipede Hz, Shields, and Coexist all came out in 2012, with Mosquito arriving in 2013. This was a particularly stateless time for the State of Indie, which was awash in the three-headed fallout from chillwave's home-recorded deluge, the easily-replicated DIY pop-punk sugar rush of acts like Wavves and Best Coast, and an increase in electronic textures borrowing from the early 2010s' bass music scene as well as James Blake's 2011 self-titled LP (which stands alongside The xx as an essential document when it comes to charting the point of influence for so much music from the last decade).
  22. Before I go any further, I'm throwing a disclaimer in here that the use of "Indie" in this piece, as with all my pieces, is purely for marketing term purposes. Few if any of the bands and artists from this time were truly "independent," even if many of them ended up not making much money from their endeavors regardless.
  23. 2013 represented a massive sea change when it came to popular music and music writing. I've written extensively about this for my newsletter, and you can read all those posts (deep breath) here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Most notably, modern pop music—Black pop especially—experienced something of a critical Renaissance moment for the decade at that point, with seismic releases from acts like Kanye West and Beyoncé that were both singular and highly influential on every inch of popular music's overall landscape.
  24. 2013 also represented a moment in which music publications found themselves at a point where they had to start taking pop music seriously. It is funny, in retrospect, to think about Pitchfork refusing to cover releases by Adele, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift on principle of taste—but that's exactly what happened with all three of those artists from 2011-2014, even as the majority of the staff were active listeners and fans of all three artists.
  25. Those walls of taste didn't come crashing down immediately, but 2013 was perhaps the first time you saw cracks in the firmament, and seeing as how much online music writing in the first half of the 2010s had more or less followed Pitchfork's lead (or, at the very least, used it as a jumping-off point for critical derision), music writing itself was experiencing its own changes too.
  26. The rise of corporatized digital media—massive conglomerates that have since been subject to endless winnowing attrition—meant more avenues for entering into the world of music writing than existed when my career started in earnest back in 2008. There were simply more music writers than ever before, some of whom seemed deeply passionate about hearing new things and others who seemed, at best, detached from the actual act of listening to music.
  27. 2013-2017 could be defined as The Era of the Take, in which music writers seemed to have more opinions on popular artists than they did recent records that they'd listened to. (During my final year at Pitchfork, I groused to colleagues on multiple occasions that it was increasingly hard to find new contributors actively interested in digging for new artists; everyone wanted to write about Kanye and Beyoncé and Taylor and not much else.) Few from this era stuck with music writing in any meaningful way for more than a few years.
  28. The Era of the Take had an unmistakable hand in changing music writing irrevocably. Corporatized digital media prioritized numbers above all else, and Takes (especially extreme Takes, or more often milquetoast Takes marketed through headlines and social sells as extreme Takes) generated numbers. In my first job after I left Pitchfork in 2014, I was shocked to be given analytics access in the onboarding process, since writers were largely kept from knowing any analytics details at Pitchfork at the time.
  29. Mind you, that is not a criticism of Pitchfork! Giving writers access to analytics poisons their own way of working, causes them to doubt their own work based on the ones and zeroes of metrics performance, and (like much of social media) encourages writers to act on their worst, most toxic, and most attention-grabbing impulses. There's no harsher critic than the Chartbeat needle, and I imagine we've lost the potential for a lot of good writing in the last ten years as a result.
  30. The music industry almost always works hand in hand with the music media. This isn't an opinion, it's a fact. Both entities are often symbiotic enough that it's a miracle that criticism itself has existed at all. They take cues from each other, often to a fault.
  31. A brief aside: Back when I was running the Tracks section at Pitchfork, I saw a few unsigned artists we posted about get signed in the early 2010s off of the scant coverage they received. When things didn't work out for the artists in question, I felt a sense of unease about my role in it all—the idea that me posting a song I like could lead to someone's dream being fulfilled and summarily crushed, it wasn't a nice thing to contemplate.
  32. Anyway, as pop music reached new heights of acclaim through the 2010s—acclaim that, due to past skeptical attitudes often driven by misogyny and various -isms, could be hard-won in the past—the act of new music discovery, especially the type of discovery that wasn't necessarily coming from a well-known PR firm, was becoming increasingly deprioritized across music media at large.
  33. Just to be clear, I am not necessarily expressing a fondness for the era of music writing that preceded all of this. It was largely male and largely white in terms of staff job and freelance pool representation. As a man who other men have, for some reason, found themselves comfortable around, I can confirm that well into the early-mid 2010s, non-male, non-white writers were often regarded in asterisk form in conversation. Pushing back against such discourse—even suggesting that something was seriously wrong when it came to diversity in the profession at large—elicited little more than uncomfortable squirming and thousand-yard stares.
  34. Things have improved, somewhat. Having female-identifying critics write about popular music is no longer presented as a breakout curio, and an overall rise in diversity amongst visible music writers has resulted in a diversity of critical perspective as a result. You are less likely to find rap coverage dominated by white writers, and in other areas I could cite more specific examples (I will say, in brief, that the recent re-evaluation of Rilo Kiley's catalog is an example of this), but I've gone long enough as is here.
  35. I don't want to praise any institution too much, though, given that diversity in music writing is most often still found in the freelance pool—an unstable and constantly growing swirl of underpaid workers fighting for inches of disappearing space and rates that are disintegrating in front of their very eyes. When it comes to who's occupying senior positions, little (not nothing, but little) has truly changed in diversity makeup, and I still believe that nothing short of full collapse will force the changes that are actually needed.
  36. Anyway, you can attribute some of the overall momentum-halting that 2000s indie appeared to experience around and since 2013 to this critical changing of the guard that I've written about previously. Younger and different people get in the mix, they rightly ask what was so good about some of this music their presumptive elders championed anyway, and then they bring forth new stuff, and old stuff that deserves to be re-canonized, to fold into the general sphere of music criticism as a whole.
  37. All of this is healthy, and necessary, and if music writing simply continued to exist in a stasis of the same 20 white guys who worked at Blender and/or tried to convince you that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were going to be a Huge Deal, it would be even more insufferable than some claim it is now.
  38. The younger generation of writers currently coming up are also way better at music discovery than many of my former colleagues from The Era of the Take were. You can look at 100 gecs and hyperpop/digicore in general as evidence of this—several sensations that were bubbling under and cultishly beloved for at least a year before full-time music writers put aside the gift guides they were forced to work on and finally gave them a listen. I have more to say on this, but I'm saving it for a future newsletter that might be coming soon.

In the end, though, the momentum shift that Evan referred to in his tweet was more general than any specific band's era coming into scrutiny, and was really just the result of market forces—in the music industry and in the media industry—shifting focus to what could potentially yield more profit. The shifts in music writing and the music industry from 2009-2017 are interesting and instructive to look back at (as I've been doing, and will continue to do, for this newsletter) and sometimes I think the best thing you can say is that some of it just feels like a distant memory now.

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Jamie Larson