There is no way to sugarcoat the stifling rankness — specifically to listeners of color — that was the year in music. Without turning this list into the millionth diatribe on “Accidental Racist,” Miley twerking, “Blurred Lines,” Lily Allen, Kanye, misogyny, etc., let it be said that 2013 served as an overwhelming reminder that, if you are a woman of color, you are so far down the Minority Totem Pole in terms of importance to producers of music you may as well be dead. That, when nothing is left to appropriate, they will win Grammys the following year for learning to die like you but whiter. Beyoncé doesn’t change that. Nothing changes 347 days filled with endless reminders — both inside and outside the musical arena — of your worthlessness, expendability, or lack of sexual agency; the world will do everything in its power to ensure yours is limited.
There are no VIDA numbers for the music industry. Representation means something different when one speaks of non-visual time-based media. There are fluctuating quantitative charts, sure. Sometimes there are tweets. Mostly there are online reactions, and backlashes, and counter-arguments until a topic is so exhausted no one can be bothered to read an open letter; then it happens again. But there is no single damning infographic that conveys, year after year, how comprehensively screwed you are to exist in your present form with your present aspirations.
When Vol. 1 Brooklyn asked if I’d be interested in listing my favorite songs this year, my gut reaction was to spend pages reveling in the seismic wonder of Tegan and Sara’s “Drove Me Wild,” Paramore’s “Still Into You,” and Holograms’s “A Sacred State.” I wanted to talk about what a stellar year it was for women and distorted guitars, from Potty Mouth’s “Sleep Talk” and Kate Nash’s “Part Heart” to Laura Stevenson’s “Triangle” and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s devastating “Despair.” I wrote and then deleted paragraphs describing the frequency specific percussive nuances of The Blow’s “Invisible,” and how Frankie Rose’s “You For Me” made me miss Trish Keenan (and all Broadcast meant to me in my teenage/college years) so acutely it was as though she had died all over again.
At one point, the attempted list was instead an unwieldy essay on the year in country music — the good, the bad, and the Tim McGraw (or the Kenny Chesney, have your pick). It was a celebration of smart music set to even smarter words. Ashley Monroe’s “Two Weeks Late,” Brad Paisley’s “Tin Can On A String,” Caitlin Rose’s “No One To Call,” Brandy Clark’s “Take A Little Pill,” and Gretchen Wilson’s (Brandy Clark-penned) “Get Out Of My Yard.” It was about sexuality and feminine identity, from Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses” as 21st-century “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” to Gretchen Wilson’s “My Truck” (the catchiest “truck song” this year).
None of it happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” Trayvon Martin, and how the song title’s very sentiment has ruled my life since childhood. I kept coming back to Dawn Richard’s incendiary “Goliath” and its chorus of “Gotta make it count / I only got one chance” and thinking it might be more important, this winter, to write about what matters in addition to writing about what’s meaningful to me. Which is to say, I had no idea how much I needed M.I.A.’s “Boom Skit” until I heard it, because listening to contemporary music, as I am, is frequently an exercise in pursuing aurally captivating, politically neutral stimuli, or being told to settle down when abominable portrayals of identity are repeatedly written off as kind intentions. I kept coming back to Laura Mvula’s “Make Me Lovely,” Kelly Rowland’s “Freak,” and Fantasia’s “Supernatural Love” because they are all so wonderful, all of them about and by confident, assertive women of color. This representation through content is key. Entire swathes of Sydette Harry’s recent Salon essay, “Loving ‘Beyoncé’ as a black woman: The power of identification in an age of appropriation” are dedicated to the issue. “Pop culture so often shreds black women by commodifying, deconstructing or degrading them before we get a moment to truly experience them,” writes Harry. “Seeing someone who looks and moves like you do freely is a beautiful and rare thing.” It’s true. Its opposite is also true: Seeing someone who looks and moves nothing like you do — while insulting what you are — is an infuriating and common occurrence.
I’d like to see better in 2014; I enjoyed listening immeasurably.
David Bowie – Where Are We Now?
Colin Stetson – Hunted
Mount Moriah – Younger Days
The Mavericks – Born To Be Blue
Laura Marling – Undine
Rhye – The Fall
Josh Rouse – Julie (Come Out of The Rain)
Low – Holy Ghost
Yo La Tengo – Cornelia and Jane
Haim – Let Me Go
Nine Inch Nails – Copy of a
J. Cole – She Knows
The Joy Formidable – This Ladder Is Ours
Ariana Grande – Honeymoon Avenue
Kenny Rogers – You Can’t Make Old Friends (duet with Dolly Parton)
Rahawa Haile is a Brooklyn-based writer. You can find her on Twitter.