Spin.com by Bob Guccione Jr., Acting Editor in Chief
It was a great year for a lot of musicians, some who’ve been around for decades, some who are relative newbies. We don’t believe in the everyone gets a trophy bullshit, but these people do…
The notion of who is and what makes SPIN’s Artist of the Year is, by definition and appeal, subjective. There is, you’ll be surprised to learn, if you know much about us, some objective, logical criteria. But I’m not saying we follow it as such.
By almost any metrics how could Taylor Swift not be the Artist of the Year? And she’s not ours not because of any juvenile snobbery, but because—well, just because. Because although she had a more overwhelmingly successful and impactful year than any other musician, maybe ever, one does not satisfactorily live by metrics alone. Sinead is our Artist of the Year because we felt her the most. Even (and particularly) in death she towered over the musical landscape, and in retrospect we realize she had more to say and matters more than anyone else has this year, including Taylor Swift.
My personal choice for Artist of the Year is John Mellencamp, because in his later, croakier-voice years he still has a power in his songwriting and performing that is gripping and lasting and important to hear. His 2023 album Orpheus Descending is his 25th studio release and is named after a Tennessee Williams play based on the Greek myth of Orpheus descending into Hell. So, you know, not quite as airy as Taylor Swift. In many ways it’s cut from the same cloth as his best albums—raw emotion, unfiltered opinions (thank God), and a lot of that Appalachian sound he introduced to rock.
He starts by telling God off and assailing the madness of the proliferation of guns and “laws written a long time ago” on “Hey God,” launching into the song with those whirling, mountain-country instruments. That’s followed by the beautiful acoustic “The Eyes Of Portland,” about homelessness in America (“All of these homeless, where do they come from? / In this land of plenty where nothing gets done / To help those who are empty and unable to run” goes the chorus, which finishes by damning our hollow “thoughts and prayers” national default mantra). “Understated Reverence” is a beautiful song. “Perfect World” is the sort of song you imagine a country boy guitar picking and mumbling on his porch, which is, basically, how that song probably came about.
John also had a triumphant concert tour this year, his “Live and In Person” show. He’s not doing arenas and stadiums now, but there was an enveloping intimacy to the theaters he performed in across America. I’ve seen him perform to 60,000 people, and he was no less energetic and spellbinding in front of 6,000. He played the hits and he played newer, lesser-known songs, he got the audience to sing along with him, and he got us to sit down and listen. His warm up act was a video of old black and white movie clips, mostly a homage to his lifelong man-crush Paul Newman. And oddly it worked, perfectly setting up a rock show spanning about 50 years of Americana music and sentiment.
So my nod is to John Mellencamp, for not only not fading into some imagined dimming light but blazing defiantly at it. He produced one of the best albums of his career, and easily one of the best of 2023, and he transported crowds of devoted fans as if he was just starting out. Good for you, John.