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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop Comments: It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Popular music, at its top-dollar best, is either music to drive to or music to grill to; at its bestest best, it’s both. By my reckoning, track by track, the Carters’ Everything Is Love record is for: grilling, driving, driving, grilling, driving, grilling, grilling, driving, grilling. “Music has my kids sound asleep” might not be a lyric that will appeal to many, but it did to me as the year hit its crescendo, the hills on fire on every corner of America’s 8 1/2 by 11, the sky turning peach. “Summer’s light like summer’s night/It’s like Christ’s masterpiece” indeed.
— Daniel Brockman

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https://youtu.be/syi60tUIP48

On Room 25, Noname delivered on a sophomore album with a lot more dizzying raps than her first. It’s almost like she heard the masses talkin’ shit about her skills and went wild on this record. Who else’s pussy is writing a thesis on colonialism?
— Tirhakah Love

Not enough can be said about the weight of this genre-welding meeting of titanic Texas forces: On “Gone Away,” Bun B writes what is, in all likelihood, his final letter to UGK bandmate Pimp C, but does it in a way that’s broad enough to be applied to any lost kin; Leon Bridges delivers a somber and vulnerable hook, and Gary Clark Jr. cleans up with a solo reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” They’re truly the Texas triumvirate, and it’s a wonder we aren’t talking about the magnitude of this collaboration more as a culture. What’s better, it all takes place over a beat cooked up by Big K.R.I.T., whose beats have, in the wake of Pimp C’s death, given Bun’s delivery an unmatched comfort and ease. Put this one right up there with UGK’s own “One Day” in the canon of Southern rap eulogies.
Sama’an Ashrawi

Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired ByNo mere album can live up to the cultural impact of this extremely ambitious comic book movie, but it’s a great companion piece nonetheless.
— Carol Cooper

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A rundown of personal and social horrors that’s less frantic but also far less calculated than the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” Lil Peep’s Life Is Beautiful is far more devastating. “Tryin’ to keep your cool at your grandfather’s funeral/Finding out eventually the feeling wasn’t mutual/You were not invited ’cause you’re nothing like the usual” — damn, that’s bleak. And it cuts much harder than the “My girlfriend left me so I’m depressed and I’m gonna take lots of drugs to cope” lyrics Lil Peep specialized in, as sincere as they clearly were.
— Steve Erickson

Travis Scott’s world domination is more than just a crowning achievement for an artist who’s long been a critical darling, but it’s a clear statement that the South, and especially Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, has got something to say.

Drenched in Houston’s legend’s sweat, Astroworld is a referendum on hip-hop as a genre and an art form. The album is slowed down, tripped out, and bombastic, as Scott liberally references Houston’s past as a hip-hop hotbed while pushing it past its Screwston reputation. Astroworld feels both futuristic and classic at the same time, and that’s something only Kendrick Lamar has been able to accomplish in the last half-decade.

But there will be no Nobel Prize for Astroworld. No Taylor Swift collabs, no Marvel soundtracks. It’s all just too druggy. Too street. Too Southern. Too real. 

And maybe that’s how it should be. But, one thing is for sure, Travis Scott’s moment is now, and he’s going to run with it straight to the Super Bowl halftime show, and he’s going to keep running with it till someone comes to take it from him.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon

By my count, Kids See Ghosts is the seventh time Kanye has made the best album of the year. But it’s no accident that this isn’t the 2018 record he put his name on, or that he needed a co-host to pull it off, or that it’s impossible to remember a single word he says throughout  —  which, thank God.
Nick Farruggia

Drake, “In My Feelings”: Only in 2018 Atlanta could I drive crosstown from berating a Bush speechwriter in a Roman Catholic sanctuary to Aubrey & the Three Migos at State Farm Arena preaching a center-right message of Maya Angelou vibes featuring Future, Young Jeezy, and Trey Songz. Did it for the culture. But you can imagine compassionate conservative Michael Gerson kicking himself for not writing “I wanna thank God for working way harder than Satan.” Elevate.

The next morning I returned to work, where a sickle cell anemia patient almost hemolyzed to death. 2018!
— Maureen Miller

With Cardi B’s “Bickenhead,” nasty hos from across the globe finally get the anthem they so righteously deserve.
— Jessica Hopper

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The day Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” dropped was unforgettable. I listened as it rolled out on Funk Flex (the first major terrestrial radio event in a while!), and he kept stopping at every new bar, overwhelmed, and then he would replay it from the beginning. I remember wanting him to get through the whole song, but this approach made sense — it’s a lot to take in. An unbelievable achievement in diss tracks, and Pusha’s best work this year.
Evan Minsker

Childish Gambino, “This Is America”: Donald Glover’s incantatory recitation would work without visuals, but Hiro Murai’s video represents America in 2018 as acutely as the newsreel footage in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Utterly unnerving.
— Kathy Fennessy

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I like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” but Earl Sweatshirt’s “December 24” gets the Gil-Scott Heron “Winter in America” mood more right than anything else I came across this year. (Which, my annual disclaimer, amounts to 1 percent of 1 percent of whatever hip-hop was out there in 2018.) It must be my shortest number one ever at 1:46 — I wish it went on for another 7 or 8 minutes. At the risk of sounding white-guy stupid, where does the opening genuine-dialect quote come from? I’ve Googled it, looked up the album credits, nothing. The significance of December 24 escapes me, too, but it feels right: aspirations, a plan, something that came up just short. Quote I came across in a Goon Sax interview: “Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through.”
— Phil Dellio

The Carters, “Apeshit”In perhaps pop culture’s Blackest year — Black Panther, Kendrick’s Pulitzer, and Beyoncé’s own history-making Coachella set, for starters — Black America’s reigning monarchs deliver a worthy soundtrack.
— Trevor Anderson

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop Comments: My My, Hey Hey, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay

Auckland’s Beths might be the 4,000th indie rock band from ever-fecund New Zealand — let alone the entire globe. But others don’t have Elizabeth Stokes. Not to slight her bandmates on Future Me Hates Me; they’re bubbly-effervescent and post-punky-barbed excited-sounding, too. But to confront “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” “Not Running,” or the title track is to be like a trained guard dog that rolls over and seeks belly rubs instead of barking. Stokes is ridiculously infectious and disarming, making this least-ephemeral kind of guitar pop ear candy. Future us will still love her.— Jack Rabid

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It seems reports of rock and roll’s death have been greatly exaggerated. On Young & Dangerous, the Struts’ Butch Walker–produced sophomore banger, Luke Spiller (the band’s spectacularly Zandra Rhodes–caped frontman, who could have easily played the lead in Bohemian Rhapsody if Rami Malek hadn’t been available) and his fellow British glam-rockers vamp and amp their way through the disco-rock euphoria of “Who Am I?” (think the Stones’ “Miss You” or Rod the Mod’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”), the Crowes-y cowbell jam “Primadonna Like Me,” the hard-charging football terrace chant “Bulletproof Baby,” and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show themes “Body Talks” and “In Love With a Camera” with unbridled Jagger swagger. Dave Grohl, authority on all things rawk, declared the Struts the best opening act to ever tour with the Foo Fighters, but expect them to be headlining stadiums on their own in 2019.
— Lyndsey Parker

https://youtu.be/dNxCz-Iyu0g

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”: OK, the two best films of the year were First Reformed and Shoplifters, but the most thrilling moment on the screen was unquestionably when Gaga summons her inner rock goddess with “huuuh, uhhh, ahhhh ah wah haaa ahhhhhhhhh.” I mean, the film could have fallen off the cliff from there and I would have been happy.
— Ken Capobianco

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Paul McCartney, Egypt StationHis best since Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, and a nice bit of political commentary on “Despite Repeated Warnings.”
— Gillian Gaar

Mighty Mighty BosstonesFollowing a seven-year recording absence, the veteran Boston ska-rock group came back strong with the socially conscious While We’re At It, where the still-gravelly-voiced Dicky Barrett penned lyrics with vivid imagery.
— George A. Paul

Andrew W.K., “Music Is Worth Living For” 
It is.
— 
Ian Mathers

Apparently Love Is Dead is Chvrches “selling out,” even though they were already a pretty poppy band to begin with. This is music designed to boom in the big venues Chvrches have rightly earned, and it, as they say, slaps.
— Brice Ezell

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Though Will Toledo technically debuted Car Seat Headrest’s “Bodys” sometime in the late 2000s on Bandcamp, it got its chance to shine this year on the reworked Twin Fantasy. Tumbling synths, pristine drum machine loops, and an impending sense of complicated youthful bliss make this song one of my favorites of 2018. Toledo connects the fragility of young love to the delicacy of the human body, the vessels that allow us to experience life fully.
— Ellen Johnson

Amen Dunes, “Miki Dora”: I don’t listen to music to learn stuff — not stuff that can be put into words, anyway. But reading up on this song’s eponymous subject was fascinating: a guy from the Fifties who helped popularize surfing (he’s in every one of those Frankie Avalon–Annette Funicello movies) but who supposedly hated the commercialization of what he’d helped usher in, and who conveyed his disgust by acting out in various ways — swastikas, crucifixion imagery, crime, exile. I’m old enough to remember when there’d be an occasional surfing segment on Wide World of Sports; also, Laura Blears Ching in Playboy…I digress. I came across this one interesting quote from the president of the Hang-Ten Chapter of Malibu Surfers just after Dora’s swastika incident: “You had a surfer on one side that was bad, and you had a group of surfers on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.” I like the sound of “Miki Dora” fine — it starts off like a dreamy, singer-songwriter version of “Come as You Are” — but it’s primarily the story that draws me in.
— Phil Dellio

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Making her own mythologies, reassembling our monuments. Neko Case is forever.
Ann Powers

Greta Van Fleet emerged from the wide-scale savaging of social media haters loud and proud.
— Bud Scoppa

Is Parquet Courts’ “Total Football” about Colin Kaepernick? I refuse to look it up and spoil the meaning of this song for myself. Anyone who says football isn’t political is an idiot. It’s very political because it’s very capitalistic, and Parquet Courts actually understand that.… Wide Awaaaaaake! is a very relevant political evolution for PQ, with signature catchy tunes about everything from feeding cats to global warming to why Tom Brady sucks.
— Troy Farah

Parquet Courts, Wide Awaaaaaake! Even Patriots fans dig the “fuck Tom Brady” coda of “Total Football.”
— Michael Fournier

On Wide Awaaaaaake!, Parquet Courts, the last (?) of the great downtown New York art-guitar bands, get woke, attacking everything from violence and global warming deniers to Patriot QB Tom Brady in the most remarkable cultural shift since the Beasties’.
— Roy Trakin

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Pazz & Jop Comments: Ladies First

For these lists, I always gravitate toward music that says something about the year, whether it’s the world at large or simply my little place in it. Low’s Ones and Sixes helped me make sense of a chaotic 2015 that involved moving and the selling and buying of houses with two young kids in tow. A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service was the perfect antidote to a divisive election season in 2016. (If there’s one thing my friends and I can all agree on, it’s A Tribe Called Quest.) Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights was my window into one woman’s brutally/beautifully honest attempt at trying to figure it all out when you’re in your twenties. This year, Merrill Garbus’s work as Tune-Yards felt necessary and funky and brave, like both a response to, and soundtrack for, the kind of digital world we now can’t escape. And my kids loved singing along to “Heart Attack.”

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[Until this year] Pazz & Jop has awarded its Album of the Year designation to just two female artists, one of them being the woman who also happened to make my favorite record of 2018. Is this a fault specific to P&J? And maybe a fault specific to me, as one of its voters? (I’m a white guy about to turn forty, I should mention.) P&J is made up of hundreds of critics; it’s only as pure as its critics. (Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird: “A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men” — men! — “who make it up.”) Pitchfork’s track record in giving female artists Album of the Year honors over the same time period is about the same (members of Arcade Fire in 2004; brother-sister duo the Knife in 2006; Solange in 2016; Mitski in 2018), while the Grammys — whose outgoing president last year told women to “step up” if they want more opportunities in the music business — actually fare much better in this category (Lauryn Hill, Norah Jones, Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Taylor Swift, Adele), as long as we don’t think too much about gender and race at the same time. So what to even make of a “best of” list anymore? What did I miss? What did I not hear? Did holding something up mean I was pushing something else down?
— Michael Pollock

The underdog but undeniable standout project from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music’s summer rollout plan was this eye-opening project that proves Teyana Taylor has tons more to offer as a musician. Even after Pusha T declared Daytona the rap album of the year, he said Taylor’s K.T.S.E. was the best G.O.O.D. project in 2018.
— Jeff Benjamin

Taylor Swift, “Delicate”: When the fireworks of “Look What You Made Me Do,” “…Ready for It?,” and “End Game” fizzled, it was this low-key musing that gave her reputation its necessary jolt. A comforting companion on a rainy night that proves the depths of Swift’s palette are much more interesting than its flash.
— Trevor Anderson

Rosalía: Illuminating a 13th-century manuscript with beats and brains and root-chakra energy, this enrapturing 21st-century encounter with flamenco made my ears feel new the way nothing else did this year.
— Ann Powers

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Australian trio Camp Cope grab a fistful of garage punk, a fistful of bubblegum pop, and a fistful of folk and braid those strands together into a gloriously fun and endlessly catchy style. The second record from singer-guitarist Georgia McDonald, bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich, and drummer Sarah Thompson, How to Socialise & Make Friends is a jolt of energy, with sing-along anthems brimming with righteous anger, feminist critiques, and introspective determination.
— Eric Swedlund

Neko Case, Hell-OnAlmost too sprawling and impassioned for its own good, but a grand-scale reminder of Case’s skills as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer.
— Mark Deming

https://youtu.be/syi60tUIP48

Conscious hip-hop (do people still say that?) with neo-soul touches. Compared to the other two woman-fronted hip-hop records on my list, this is less pop but more “musical” than Tierra Whack, and more immediate but arguably less interesting than the Jean Grae & Chris Quelle record. However, Noname can rap, and some of her verses were the most memorable things I heard in 2018. 

“Fucked the rapper homie, now his ass is making better music/My pussy teaches ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism/In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus/Y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

“But I love you even though we’re not meant to be, I still love you/I hope you find everything that you want, and she loves you/Everything is everything just know that I love you.”

“And yes and yes, I’m problematic too.”

Musically, the tracks run the gamut from straight funk to string ballads to Caribbean faux-calypso groove, and if Noname’s not necessarily a virtuoso MC, she gets her point across with no strain. One to watch.
— Dominique Leone

Mitski, Be the CowboyEverything has gone to hell. The country, the relationship, the hope. It’s all just gone bad, and all we have is the memory, and the hope that it all gets better. Never has being sad sounded so lush and lovely.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon

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Tracey Thorn, alternative rock’s big sister in the Nineties, became a mother, yet the men who run it can’t deal with a mom who still loves to dance to the “same old shit” she calls it.
— Alfred Soto

“There is no resolution,” Robyn sings on Honey, dismantling the notion that her long-awaited full-length return will deliver answers that are easy to swallow. Still, Robyn makes the world go down smooth. In making Honey, the Swedish icon abandons many traditional structures while submerging in her club-kid roots, resurfacing through the filter of her life, loves, and losses. Robyn is still sexy without commercializing female sexuality, and still demonstrates her minimal-beat, major-chord-chorus dance pop that has been so influential on artists like Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, Troye Sivan, and more. Simultaneously happy and sad and something beyond, Honey holds truths both banal and complex — and makes them float.
— Katie Moulton

Tierra WhackWhen was the last time a brand-new artist made an opening statement this weird and lovable? We need her.
— Alex Frank

Soccer Mommy, “Your Dog”: In no uncertain terms, Sophie Allison turns the tables on Iggy Pop by kicking off the leash, pronouncing her independence, and biting the hand that presumably feeds her.
— Roy Trakin

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Kali Uchis , Isolation: As she shifts genres as effortlessly as she changes language, her obvious genius captures a mood that exists only at the yawning edges of a twilit Miami shoreline. And however real the power and sex at its core, they exist for you because she dreamt them up. She wants you to know that.
— Nick Farruggia

The Beths, Future Me Hates MePunkish pop-rock with a Nineties sheen that nonetheless totally inhabits the current moment, via sharp-as-nails songwriting and self-deprecating humor that rides an amped-up guitar-pop wave like nobody’s business.
— Dave Heaton

Lucy DacusThoroughly compelling, Historian is filled with excellent songwriting that is expertly supported by the music arrangement and production. The album also serves as a representative for her Boygenius project and her collaborators (Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker) and this whole generation of phenomenal singer-songwriters.
— Mike Berick

Pistol Annies, Interstate GospelIf a lot of modern country music is regurgitated Eagles, maybe we should start thinking of Miranda Lambert’s projects as the Stones revivified. Only since she’s not Mick, she’s not an asshole. Or at least not as much of an asshole.
— Rod Taylor

https://youtu.be/ynul6E4zUJ8

If only Boygenius was an album. If it was a full-length LP, it would be my album of the year. But it’s just a wee bit too short at six songs, its only flaw. But I’ll forgive Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus for keeping things short and sweet — they’re busy, and in high demand. And their collaborative album might just be their greatest work of all. These three women just get each other. They’ve had such parallel experiences, and their sisterly bond shines through the EP’s all-too-short 22 minutes.
— Ellen Johnson

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No album has so confidently and concisely chronicled the chaotic life of a twentysomething pop star — from a tragic bombing outside of a tour stop to a whirlwind romance and spontaneous engagement — more so than Ariana Grande’s Sweetener. And though such situations are entirely unique to Grande, she still emerged this year as one of music’s most relatable personalities. Her consistent presence on Instagram and Twitter aside, there was only one format on which her story could be perfectly packaged: the album. Despite debate over the format’s future, Grande, knowingly or not, became the poster child for its importance. (Even if she did claim on Twitter that she doesn’t want to conform to a routine or formula anymore). Sweetener gave fans the most intimate look at Grande’s life yet, one that even a selfie couldn’t capture, because it was a direct line into her heart and mind. It’s as if she tore a page straight from her diary with of-the-moment interlude “Pete Davidson,” and on closer “Get Well Soon” she gifted listeners with a swelling instructional ballad on self-care told from firsthand experience. And even though so much of Grande’s life has drastically changed in the five months since the album’s release, with some moments, like the untimely death of her friend and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, being more bitter than others, that’s exactly what makes this album so special. Its sweetness will forever be preserved.
— Lyndsey Havens

Although you can find lots of bemused critical commentary about the fact that Cardi B’s pop crossover success was largely driven by cameo appearances on a cable television series, there has been less journalistic punditry on how big a push scripted TV dramas like Star and Insecure continue to give new singles and original soundtrack albums.

The musical protagonists in Lee Daniels properties like Empire and Star might chew the scenery more than many would like, but these extra shenanigans don’t stop them from putting out some mighty fine singles. Making songs available right after viewing seems to have replaced radio rotation as the most effective way to “break” new recordings. With both Star and Issa Rae’s Insecure having successfully wrapped their third seasons, it seems imprudent not to critically address how such female-centered and music-driven shows (created and/or directed by black talent) came to enjoy repeated commercial success. It is, after all, an intriguing phenomenon.

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I suspect the teen-to–late-twenties demographic is slowly shifting established paradigms for nighttime soap operas, daytime talk shows, and reality TV. That’s why, for me, 2018 begged the musical question: “What will post-ratched pop culture look and sound like?”

This query pivots around the fact that (contrary to the online Urban Dictionary) the terms “ratched” and “wretched” aren’t really synonyms. Neither term glibly equates poverty with stupidity, or having money with intelligence. But being genuinely ratched can also be a cynical, deliberate pose, whereas being genuinely wretched cannot. Class determines the state of being wretched in ways it can neither define nor determine the fluid, deceptive role of being ratched.

Entertainers like Wendy Williams and Cardi B — despite a vast difference in their ages and backgrounds — deliberately adopted media personalities that straddle the line between being “low-class” and being streetwise. This shrewdly includes making an audience want to behave (vicariously) like them.

When performing, Cardi B currently does this better than Williams (or Nicki Minaj, or Remy Ma, or almost all her musical competition) because the emotionally complex, contemplative candor of songs like “Be Careful” steers slyly away from where the old ratched formulas of diss and shady brags have gotten stale. In her melodic and lyrical choices, Cardi B attempts a significant shift in the way the ratched meme presents and interprets itself.

Years of Jerry Springer Showstyle cat fights on various networks, plus Bravo’s Grand Guignol Housewives franchise, have addicted Americans to consuming embarrassment theater in great quantity. There is nothing morally elevated about it. Instead, the performers and themes of embarrassment theater too often earn fans by making audiences feel superior to who and what entertains them.

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Accordingly, rap stars, actors, and talk show hosts alike have become masters of snarky condescension and schadenfreude. But every major pop trend eventually starts to wane, including the unwholesome celebration of embarrassing or scandalous behavior.

2018’s ill-advised attempt to turn one of Dr. Phil’s attitudinal teen guests into a rapper named Bhad Bhabie proves it takes more than televising a laughably undercivilized demeanor to attract enough attention to launch a recording career. Appealing to people’s voyeuristic curiosity alone won’t work.

I wish Bhad Bhabie well, but even she should be wary of anyone trying to run a Kesha con on her by marketing a borderline personality disorder as comedy or as ratched wigger chic.

If Cardi B’s best tunes are any indication, she presages a new type of ratched pop star who is not content to make bank off of burlesquing herself or some train wreck of a life. Hopefully those fans looking to feel better about themselves by laughing at the ratched will develop better taste once they find a shrewd court jester has replaced the geek in the carnival.

Perhaps the popularity of embarrassment theater developed as a counterbalance to the increasingly fascist tone of politically correct rhetoric. Sneering at the whole human race became acceptable as soon as scapegoating specific individuals or groups was not. But that trend has touched the bottom of the pool and is already heading back up to the light and air. The world of music and topics to sing or rap about is wide. And if the ratched take advantage of all the opportunities this world can offer, they will transcend — not just take over — the pop chart.
— Carol Cooper

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop: A Promise Realized

I like to think about all 45 (or 46) years the Pazz & Jop poll results have been tallied. I like to think about all the different iterations of editors who’ve done the tallying, and the luminaries who’ve done the voting, and the assorted grimy nooks and crannies throughout New York that have become littered with coffee cups and cigarette butts and half-eaten donuts and god knows what else in an effort to get the thing done. I like to think about all those Wednesdays, just before dawn — the only semi-quiet time in New York City — when delivery trucks made their way through empty streets depositing bound bundles next to telltale cherry-red Voice boxes. If you stayed out late enough, you could grab a freshly baked copy on your way home. I like to think about how, in this four decade–plus span of Pazz & Jop, there have been six times that all top five albums happened to be by male artists, and, until this year, zero times that all top five albums happened to be by female artists. I like to think about how that happened.

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The Pazz & Jop poll has been a mainstay of a certain kind of New Yorker’s winter ever since its inception in 1971. I am that kind of New Yorker. In 2002, the first year I lived in the city, well before I had any hope of actually getting paid to write about music, I would grab the Voice on my way to the subway, then devour it on the F train during the long journey from the LES to the UES, where I was teaching second grade at an all-boys private school. That year was a good one: The top five albums included Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Beck’s Sea Change, and Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat. By 2006, when I’d started working at Rolling Stone, and was still brimming with enthusiasm about following in the footsteps of Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis, the top album of the year was Modern Times by Bob Dylan (great record). But TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady, two bands I would go on to write about, made the top five, too. My people were coming up! By the end of the decade, my optimism about my future as a music writer had deteriorated considerably. I’d been told by one real live boss that I was best used not as a writer but as a talking head (but also that I was too chubby for TV — he bought me a gym membership), and by another that I was not talented enough to handle assignments longer than 800 words. By decade’s end, as the recession was cresting, I was freelancing, broke, and spending a lot of time watching Alias, imagining life as a ninja spy — when I wasn’t quietly berating myself for not having gone to law school like a good girl. I was also listening to Pazz & Jop’s top album of 2010, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which felt appropriate.

I spent the first decade of my career trying to be taken seriously enough to be allowed to get better as a writer. I’ve spent these last years feeling grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had — the remarkable editors (two of whom, both men, incidentally, are behind this essay you are currently reading) and the remarkable subjects — all while simultaneously trying to avoid the tractor-beam pull of being a Woman in Music. When I first started out, I was often treated as the Girl in the Room, which both hindered and helped my career at times. Later, once I became more established, I was often treated as the Female Rock Writer. This still happens. In the #MeToo era, you would be staggered (or not) by the number of offers I’ve gotten to write a hot take (“We’d need it in two weeks!”) on this zeitgeisty new subject called sexual harassment in the music industry. Could I get some fellow ladies to speak real quick about the worst experiences of their lives? It’s of course offensive that the subject would be treated as a trend, but it’s also understandable why editors trying to cover that trend would sound so desperate when reaching out for help; the relative lack of music journalists with the background needed to write an exposé on institutional misogyny in the music business is a symptom of the very scourge that story attempts to uncover.

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You notice, as a female music writer, that even the best-intentioned attempts to make up for the chasm that stands between women and their male counterparts can wind up feeling unintentionally marginalizing. The Women in Rock package, where we showcase this rare creature called the “female musician” and often bring temporarily to the fore her companion the “woman rock writer” to document her, mean well but feel terrible. For a while, I rebelled against this request by holding kind of pathetically firm to one rule: I will not, ever, no matter who requests it (and it’s female editors as often as male) ask a woman artist the dreaded question: How does it feel to be a woman in this business? I will also not say or type “this business.” Ever. You can see how that’s worked out.

This is all to say that for me the most remarkable thing about this year’s results is how unremarkable they are. For the first time ever, the critical establishment and the Recording Academy were in agreement, with Kacey Musgraves and Childish Gambino topping Pazz & Jop’s albums and singles lists while also taking home Grammys for Album and Record of the Year, respectively. Further, in this year’s poll, five artists made the top five albums, and those artists were female. It’s just what happened. It’s not the result of a deliberate attempt to recognize art by women, it’s a result of the fact that art made by women was, according to P&J voters, this year’s best. And for all kinds of reasons. Take Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and Musgraves’s Golden Hour, the top two vote-getters for Album of the Year. The former is an explicitly activist piece of art as cultural analysis and joyful revolution, and the latter is a trippy pop-country record about falling in love in hypercolored slow motion. One has been called “feminist” because it’s overtly political (a favorite lyric of many: “Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas/While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca-Colas”), but both are works of resistance against the patriarchy, because they are albums made by women that say what they came here to say and refuse to be held to any other standard of success. What’s promising is to see both recognized as such, as good purely because they are good, not because they are good for a girl or good because they were made by a girl, which are both, of course, just different framings of the same prejudice.

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When I was a dirty city kid, going to Strokes shows by night and teaching boys in blazers by day, dreaming of one day getting to be sent somewhere, anywhere, on assignment — or, you know, being able to expense a sandwich — I didn’t read the Pazz & Jop poll as a female rock fan, I read it as a rock fan. Like all good local rock fans, I then went to the Library with my other rock-obsessed friends and played the Gun Club on the jukebox, drank too many vodka sodas, and debated the rightness or wrongness of the results. I didn’t notice until later, until I was experiencing the limitations of sexism in my own professional life, how comparably few women there were around the office. And on the charts. And in those bars with me in the first place. I assumed, when I fell in love with the world that made it, this poll was a result of some of the best critical minds in music, spending reverential time reflecting on that years’ best noise, and rendering a verdict. I thought the whole process, and the realm it served as a portal to, was sacrosanct, beyond the petty limits of bias, beholden to the bigger, better, purer metrics of rock and roll, of New York City, this place where you can go to get free. This year, it feels like that promise was realized.

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Pazz & Jop Comments: Let Us Now Praise Kacey Musgraves

2018 was the year of the non-consensus. Publications and blogs were all over the place in their choices for album of the year, which I think is a good thing and indexes a healthy music ecosystem. But for me, personally, there was no doubt in my mind. I knew my favorite album of 2018 the first time I heard it. Until I worked in music, I’d often been stingy toward country music. Despite having lived in the South my whole life, I hated the small-town tropes, weepy twang, and songs about beer and trucks. But Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour showed me country is so much more than that. Her crossover appeal is strong, somehow having found favor with pop fans, snobby hipsters, and even the LGBT community (she recently appeared on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars). So, in Golden Hour, I discovered not only my new favorite record, but also an entirely new genre. Musgraves, with her genius wordplay, sun-soaked production, and disco leanings, showed me that country music isn’t at all what I thought. Thanks to her, I’m now a proud fan of Margo Price, the Pistol Annies, and so many other progressive country women, and I’ve even learned to embrace the classics, too, like Dolly and Loretta. There’s a whole lot of room in my heart for Sturgill and Jason, too, and 2018 was the year that showed me everything country is and can be. I owe it all to Kacey. Golden Hour made a country convert out of me, and for that, I’m forever thankful.
— Ellen Johnson

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Same Trailer Different Park: weed
Pageant Material: whiskey
A Very Kacey Christmas: eggnog, but not enough
Golden Hour: acid
She can keep it up so long as she skips heroin. Nobody wants to hear: “Livin’ on a hope and a prayer/Sitting shootin’ dope in my granddaddy’s chair.
— 
Nick Farruggia

In the year when plenty of country younguns, including Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, drifted into pop, 2018’s best crossover effort belongs to Kacey Musgraves. Her country twang marries just as well to ballads as it does to disco beats. It’s a pleasant stroll through the county fair…while you’re on acid.
— Trevor Anderson

What’s most irresistible about the album it its Daft Punkness. Nearly two decades after Faith Hill went a little Cher on “The Way You Love Me,” country’s gradual embrace of EDM and hip-hop production tropes has proceeded in fits and starts (rest in peace, Avicii). But Musgraves and her ace team of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk offered a fully realized collection of from-the-ground-up electro-twang gems, with everything from banjos that sound like they’re played at the bottom of a ravine to synths that squeal with delight. I needed this album this year.
— Chris Molanphy

The whole album’s great, but with “Space Cowboy,” Musgraves reinvented her genre as coolly as someone exhaling cannabis mist from a vape pen.
— Ann Powers

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This doesn’t sound much like a country album to me, apart from the banjo played on almost all its songs. As of the time I write this, Golden Hour has only sold 120,000 copies, but it’s reached an audience that rarely listens to mainstream country music. But genre tags don’t matter much. Musgraves expresses a fairly unique perspective: She’s full of an innocent, frequently stoned wonder that’s fully capable of recognizing toxic men and telling them to fuck off out of her life.
— Steve Erickson

Because in the Trump era, the YUGE-est recording should be from a female country singer on acid.
— Steve Forstneger

Country meets Lite FM for the most earnest, heartwarming, and cohesive album of the year. Should win the top prize at the Grammys.
—Alex Frank

Country pop taken in a sunlit, daydream, philosophical direction. Filled with clever turns and breathtaking moments; it is possible still for an album to keep surprising.
— Dave Heaton

A chill ride where Musgraves celebrates the glow of her marriage, the magic of nature, and the general joys of life.
— Paul Robicheau

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Our baby boy was born in early 2018. Through much trial and error, it became clear that Golden Hour was the wee lad’s car seat soundtrack of choice. I cherish Spacey Kacey for her infant-soothing properties as much as for her innovative, clear-eyed take on contempo-country.
— Gabe Vodicka

From the electropop of “High Horse” to the rustic psychedelia of “Slow Burn” to the stadium tour with Harry Styles, Musgraves’s creative risks rankled purists, but the CMA award for Album of the Year confirms that her resemblance to the genre-spanning Bobbie Gentry is more than just skin deep.
— Kathy Fennessy

Musgraves expanded her sound — and her mind — with the psychedelic country stylings of her fourth LP. Her accomplished songwriting continues to improve, too, from the hoedown funk of “High Horse” to the twangy strut of “Butterflies.”
— Eric Renner Brown

It took Kacey Musgraves’s CMA Awards performance of “Slow Burn,” in November, to open this record up for me beyond the “country for people who don’t like country” bullshit hype. And I’m glad it finally happened, because, goddamn, the songwriting here. And — much less credited, but no less deserving — her singing! The epitome of gorgeous.
— Thomas Inskeep

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Pazz & Jop: What’s in a Number?

Did you ever try to figure out how old some famous person was when he or she died? Take, for example, the virtuosic writer Lester Bangs, who was born on December 14, 1948, and died on April 30, 1982. Before some programmer at Wikipedia designed an algorithm thingy that calculates age at time of death, the math could be vexing: What month was it? Are the years inclusive? Anyway, 82 – 48 = 34, but Bangs died before his late-in-the-year birthday and so was only 33 — the same age as Jesus Christ — when he arrived in heaven. (At least that was his final destination according to a posthumous letter that fellow music critic Dave Marsh received from “The Cloud of Lester Bangs”: “You know that jive about ‘If there’s a rock & roll heaven, they must have a hell of a band’? Don’t believe it, pal. All the talent went straight to Hell. All of it. The big acts up here are Jim Croce, Karen Carpenter, Cass Elliot, and — especially — Bobby Bloom! It’s a nightmare!… Gotta run. Literally. Another herd of hoary Harp hacks heading here. Playing Zep’s ‘Stairway’ of course. Fucking national anthem in this burg.”)

No doubt Bangs, with his perpetually scraggly mustache, paunch, and wrinkled T-shirts, appreciated the fact that during most of the time he contributed to the Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll, no one knew what number, exactly, anyone was working on. As the years passed, there would always be a question: Was this the 9th or 10th Pazz & Jop? The 20th or 21st? The 32nd or 33rd? With off-kilter pride, the discrepancy was often trumpeted on the front page.

Even the first Pazz & Jop was imbued with ambiguity, because it seemed as if its days were already numbered. In the February 10, 1972, Village Voice, Robert Christgau, the harried Grand Poohbah of the new critical survey, opened with this emphatic declaration: “I received a total of 84 entries for the first and last annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. [Emphasis added.] Fortunately or unfortunately, only 39 of these came from what by some stretch of the term might be called legitimate critics — that is, human beings with more access to print media than a lonely attack on “Led Zeppelin III” in a high school newspaper in Minnesota, which was one credential proffered. The thing is, I don’t believe credentials make much difference either. I figure that a critic ought to have three qualities: interest, and arrogance, and writing ability.” Bangs nailed that trifecta early and often, beginning with his first published review (of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams in the April 5, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone) right up to his final review, in the Village Voice, titled “If Oi Were a Carpenter,” which hit the streets the week of his death.

There was never enough space to publish all the P&J ballots — though Christgau always included his own, and Bangs was generally one of his go-to critics for conveying a sense of a given year’s sonic landscape, as in this ballot from that first poll, in 1972 (when Bangs was an editor and writer at Creem magazine):

Surely a sampler to plug into Spotify one snowy weekend for someone hoping to glean the flavor of those halcyon days of music, when, for instance, David Bowie was starting to register on critical radars. (Hunky Dory was ranked number eighteen on that year’s poll, although the album didn’t make Bangs’s ballot — it was 1976’s Station to Station that finally sold him on the Man Who Sold the World, as reflected in a positive review Bangs wrote for Creem that year.) The Rolling Stones may have been Bangs’s personal top pick, but Sticky Fingers was beat out by the Who’s Who’s Next for the number one spot in that inaugural P&J. Neither of those British behemoths were touring the States when that first poll came out, but it is interesting to note in an ad facing Christgau’s essay “What does it all mean?” that a fan could see number nine finisher Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall for the top price of $6.50, or number fourteen Kinks at the same venue for the same amount.

As long as we’re talking numbers, we should take a look at what Bangs’s number one pick, the Stones, were charging for their presence roughly two years earlier.

That was the winter of 1969, and the Stones were commanding top dollar (eight bucks) for what Christgau would later describe as “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour,” partly due to the fact that the wildly successful shows were well-praised by the critics and ended with all good intentions — a free show for the masses — on that well-traveled road to Hell: “The result was Altamont — one murdered; total dead: four; 300,000 bummed out.”

Perhaps, with the Stones rolling out another U.S. juggernaut tour this coming summer as Altamont’s golden anniversary looms on December 6, some intrepid reporter should ask if the Stones might want to try and get it right this time. After all, no other performers from that first P&J poll can command these numbers:

How much one ticket to see the Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium, this coming summer, will cost you as of February 1, 2019

Ahhh, but we were discussing how those Pazz & Jop edition numbers went awry, not commerce and death. Well, Christgau seemed, for a while, as good as his word, and the world saw nothing of Pazz & Jop for three years. Then, in the January 20, 1975, Voice, the poll was back, the Grand Poohbah apparently having had time to contemplate queries about the survey’s name: “The confusion of forms originally implied by the title (a play on the very defunct Jazz & Pop magazine, which came up with the rating system) does not show up in the [results]. The critics I polled like rock and roll, and all of the records they selected collectively (a few did name specific jazz records) fall unequivocally into the pop category.”

Pazz & Jop No. 3 arrived in a rush — barely eleven months later and, important for the Mysterious Case of the Missing Edition Number, the only Pazz & Jop Poll to appear in the same year it was surveying. It came out in the December 29, 1975, Voice, and the headline proclaimed, “1975 Pazz & Jop Poll: It’s been a Soft Year for Hard Rock.”

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That gives us two polls in the year 1975; the poll covering the music of 1976 (No. 4) wouldn’t appear until the January 31, 1977, issue. This is where that “what month/inclusive years” math gets confusing. And mid-Seventies rock and roll, in all its manifestations, was inextricably linked with mind-altering drugs, so who knows — maybe some files got misfiled, or something.

Come January 23, 1978, we’re into poll No. 5 and Christgau is reflecting once more on the wild ’n’ wooly aspects of the survey’s name and the futility of its logistics: “A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set [editor] Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?”

And how appropriate that those ironic disrupters of the pop scene, the Sex Pistols, topped a poll that by definition could never be official.

It was the next year that gave ambiguity free rein: “Triumph of the New Wave: Results of the Fifth (or Sixth) Annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll” was the headline on page one, above a picture of Elvis Costello’s nostrils. And, with harsh serendipity, bedlam on a much larger scale was foreshadowed by a headline lower on the page: “Donald Trump Cuts the Cards.”

“The New Elvis” topped the sixth P&J Poll (and, yes, the higher number was correct), but the Voice’s Wayne Barrett was doing his own digging into some decidedly shady numbers, and giving New Yorkers a warning the rest of the world would wake up to four decades too late: “At center stage is Donald Trump, the young man who managed the land deals, profiting by his relationship with a mayor and a governor. He has left a trail of tradeoffs behind him that is — in a city where political brokers learn to cover their tracks — exceptionally clear.”

Back then, in the hinterlands of Baltimore, I didn’t know from The Donald — but I was picking up the Voice at a well-stocked newsstand near the Maryland Institute College of Art. And I knew right away that Christgau was onto something with this ongoing extravaganza that took the pulse of an art form that touches us all so deeply — those heavy beats and soaring melodies that grab you by the viscera that first time they come blaring through the car radio or wafting through an open window. I still remember being on the lighted dance floor in Baltimore’s Club Roxy and being thunderstruck by “Rapper’s Delight.” As Christgau pointed out in later essays, too many P&J critics were late to realize how powerful new-kid-on-the-block hip-hop was — and would continue to be. The Sugarhill Gang’s masterpiece was the last single to make the cut in the 1979 poll, which appeared in the January 28, 1980, issue. (It should be noted that Bangs put his criticism where his art was. Check out the double asterisks below, warning readers that Bangs voted for his own single — yes, that’s the esteemed critic moonlighting as fervent vocalist — and that enough of his journalistic colleagues concurred to boost “Let It Blurt” into a six-way tie with, among others, some disco divas with serious pipes. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is….)

In 1984 I was an art school graduate and truck loader for UPS. One day, cruising into downtown Baltimore with a low sun in my rearview mirror, “Born in the U.S.A.” burst out of the 100-watt speakers connected to the Bose radio–cassette deck I’d recently installed in my 1965 Buick Special (thereby doubling its Blue Book value in one stroke). Presumably the 136 critics (out of 240) who put the Boss’s album over the top in the poll published in the February 19, 1985, issue of the Voice were hip that the title anthem’s upbeat melody was undercut by downbeat lyrics, even though Ronald Reagan happily name-checked the song on the campaign trail in 1984, much to Springsteen’s chagrin.

And so it goes. P&J got bigger every year, the various Voice publishers realizing they could wrap a lot of record-store, indie-label, and concert ads around the essays and ballots assaying the previous year in pop music. The first Pazz & Jop I worked on was in 1988, when Prince ruled the airwaves and the poll. I was a painter and the greenhorn in the production department, and hadn’t yet started writing for the paper. But I cut my teeth on those late-Eighties P&J supplements, which ran up to 28 pages’ worth of extravagantly long essays, ballot lists, critics’ comments, photos, and graphics interwoven with a cornucopia of ads covering all musical tastes, desires, and dreams.

In those heady years, even some of music’s megastars worried about just what, exactly, the Voice critics thought of them. When U2 won the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, in 1988, Bono, in a wide-ranging acceptance speech, noted, “We set out to make music, soul music. That’s what U2 wanted to make. It was soul music. It’s not about being black or white, or the instruments you play, or whether you use a drum machine or not. It’s a decision to reveal or conceal. And, without it, people like Prince would be nothing more than a brilliant song-and-dance man. That he is, but he’s much more than that. People like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a, he would be nothing more than a great storyteller. But he’s much more than that. Without it, U2 would probably be getting better reviews in the Village Voice, but…um…that, that’s a joke. Sometimes they don’t understand.”

But all things come to an end.

Except sometimes, they don’t.

Sometime before the February 13, 2007, P&J (covering the music of 2006), some editor in the Voice’s new corporate hierarchy had decreed that this number madness (sophistry?) must stop! Surely not coincidently, Christgau had been let go by the new owners, and although his essay contribution, which had appeared 33 times previously, was no longer wanted, he gamely turned in a ballot. And with that, the 34th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll had at least gotten its number right.

Yet here we are, with this 45th or 46th (we’re not telling) Pazz & Jop Poll, and Bob Christgau is all over it. And, to gussie up a cliché, to understand the present (and, we hope, the future), one should be cognizant of the past. Which brings us back to the late, and greatly lamented among his colleagues and fans, Lester Bangs.

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Bangs was always a rollicking, cantankerous, exuberant presence in the poll, and so, amid a miasma of melancholy, we thumbed through the green-bound volumes of the Voice archives in search of his last P&J contribution. There it was, in the January 27, 1982, Voice. When that issue hit the streets Bangs was still alive and kicking out the jams, and no one had an inkling that he would be dead three months later from an accidental overdose of various medications. In the 1981 ballot section, Christgau let Bangs have his head — two columns’ worth:

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block).

Bangs goes on, with an earnestness that was one of his hallmarks: “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud.”

Lester’s last ballot. Almost.

But no one should construe such sentiments as giving up. That Bangs wouldn’t do, and he does go on to list a few picks from that benighted year of 1981, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids. And that reminded us of a 1978 interview Bangs did with Hell, in which interviewer emphatically disagreed with subject:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potentials of his own soul to make the best of it. We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Bangs, it should be noted, signed his piece, which had appeared in Gig magazine, in homage to Hell: “Your fan, Lester.”

And in that final ballot, with a poignant bit of fatal prescience, he tossed this off: “Just to save time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10,” and listed ten parody albums, one of which was Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook.

Then he died. And in the 1982 poll, published in the February 22, 1983, Voice, Christgau ran, with no comment, Bangs’s “next year’s” ballot.

The End

Bangs was nothing if not a fan. Like he said, “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about.”

While we don’t all feel that way all the time, it’s a pretty safe bet that there has been a moment (or more than one) in all of our lives when that perfect song wonderfully sums up our existence — right here, right now!

Perhaps Bangs’s curse was that he wanted to feel that “bedrock joy” of music all the time.

That kind of passion, as Christgau understood from the jump, was what Pazz & Jop is still all about.

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Pazz & Jop: Welcome to the Cardi Party

Over Super Bowl weekend, Cardi B cheerfully eclipsed this year’s televised halftime show by appearing in Atlanta at a series of related events that only underscored her steadfast refusal to take the stage inside the stadium in protest of the NFL’s continued blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Only Cardi B seems able to dominate a news cycle as much by what she doesn’t do as by what she does.

Online media celebrated Cardi performing a 45-minute set at Atlanta’s Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest on Saturday night, and the Hollywood Reporter showed her joined onstage by Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who danced — while she performed Saturday afternoon during the Fanatics party at the College Football Hall of Fame. Cardi B exceptionalism strikes again! Yes, her fame seems predicated on walking an extremely fine line between moral righteousness and scandal. Millions saw her G-rated cameo in a Pepsi commercial during the game, while nearly as many have watched more R-rated cameos in videos like Rita Ora’s “Girls” and the City Girls’ “Twerk.” Although deep in the throes of resolving marital problems and a bitter multimillion-dollar lawsuit launched last year by her former manager Klenord “Shaft” Raphael, Cardi soldiers on in a labor-intensive career that gets both hotter and more controversial as time goes on.

Although you can find lots of bemused critical commentary about the fact that Cardi B’s pop crossover success was largely driven by cameo appearances on a cable-television series, there are clearly other factors at work among the P&J voter pool who’ve voted big for this scrappy hip-hop diva from the boogie down two years in a row, following up last year’s love for “Bodak Yellow” (2017’s number one single) with “I Like It” (2018’s  number two single). Part of it is respect for her work ethic. Cardi stayed in the public eye through her pregnancy last year, appeared on Ellen and SNL, made top-quality music videos, and accepted a number of invitations to collaborate with other high-profile or rising artists on singles that also ended up on Pazz & Jop lists this year.

Yet, my own straw poll research reveals that different people like Cardi for different reasons. The “secret” to her success is that she is able to simultaneously be and represent different things to different people.

To her queer following, and to fifteen-year-old “urban” teens, Cardi B is a girl who beat an entire system of outdated stereotypes that limits what they can be. To twenty-year-old college girls, she is an oddly tantalizing symbol of the courage they still lack. To thirty-year-old career girls, she is living proof that identity is constructed, the future is unwritten, and that you can thrive in a world with no rules, and fewer certainties, as long as you are brave, funny, and focused. But perhaps most importantly, to all susceptible men she frames herself as La Belle Dame sans Merci: the visually compelling, elfin woman they desire but can’t control — and have been taught to fear. With a spontaneous sense of humor that veils a fierce intelligence, Cardi B comes across as the irresistible ballbusting femme fatale men hate to love.

Part of the intimidation factor is Cardi’s often brutally unsentimental entrepreneurial drive: She must be willing to take risks without the monetary safety nets inherited by female Hiltons and Kardashians. For all her cussing and playful self-deprecation, she can be as diplomatic as Ralph Bunche when she needs to be. Cardi also makes public mistakes, sometimes big ones, with more self-confidence than a career politician, even arriving for court appearances like visiting royalty. In her radio interviews and Instagram posts, Cardi B comes across as likably candid and “regular.” She’s the ultimate practical individualist (who nonetheless retains a ride-or-die streetwise posse and close connections with her extended family). When she gives people advice — as in the lyrics of “Be Careful” or on social media — her words are often confessional, slightly profane, and laden with the wry wisdom of personal experience.

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As the daughter of a Trinidadian mom and a Dominican dad, Belcalis Marlenis Almanzár grew up internalizing both Bronx and Caribbean family values — a mix of social habits and assumptions that don’t always correlate with conservative WASP expectations. A self-avowed capitalist only because cash rules everything around her, Cardi B could teach a master class in respectful etiquette, only she won’t teach from a textbook written by Emily Post. Cardi’s personal creed is way too pre-Columbian and Old Testament for that.

The rapper’s half-Latino, half–West Indian bloodlines make her potentially heir to two islands’ musical traditions: Trinidad’s calypso, kaiso, and chutney-soca; and the merengue, bachata, and bachatón of the Dominican Republic. In the 1990s, young producers of Caribbean extraction began mixing and matching digitized rhythms and instrumentation to create dance music aggressive and edgy enough to compete with techno and hip-hop. When crunk and reggaetón upped the nightclub ante, artists like Pitbull and Erick Morillo stepped up with creative new fusions aimed at the bilingual crossover market. But the most successful singles were those that blended sex and humor in witty, memorable ways. Little wonder that a sassy mouth with no emotional filter became Cardi B’s biggest marketing asset. Long before the degendered term Latinx usurped Latino/a in the mouths of academic intersectionality advocates, explicit lyrics advertising a fluid, aggressive, or even a transgressive sexuality could win attention on a dance floor.

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If you recall, the prototype for Cardi’s voice, feisty personality, and tiny stature is actually Rosie Perez, who was elevatated from In Living Color’s dance troupe to national stardom when Spike Lee cast her in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. It took thirty years of strategic multimedia representation of blacks and Latinos to pave the way for Cardi B. The political and crypto-feminist context of Do the Right Thing is relevant here because it ties into the political subtext of most of what Cardi B says and represents, both on record and in person. Born in 1992, she belongs to a generation that grew up being educated and entertained by a thematic synergy between the way American people of color were being portrayed on records, TV, and film. Call it empowerment pedagogy, but Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, Cardi B, and even their elder brother Lin-Manuel Miranda are its beneficiaries.

The ideal of a multicultural, mixed-race, Pan-American social movement is inherent to most salsa, boogaloo, jazz fusion, and reggaetón music. The intentional combination of the implicitly political and the explicitly sexy is also part of Cardi B’s persona. Let’s face it, the loud, outrageous, sexy Latin girl has been a marketing staple in American pop entertainment since Carmen Miranda, La Lupe, and Charo. Cardi B just seems to be taking the trope in a slightly different direction. It remains to be seen if that direction stays political.

The ongoing synergy between TV, film, social media, and music industry representations of proactive, politicized Latinos is important here because that seems to be the catalytic combination we are noticing most today. Artists from the labels Fania, Tico, and Alegre were huge in the 1970s, but they didn’t cross into mainstream consciousness quite as much as Cardi B has. Throughout the last twenty years there have been dozens of smooth crooners making sexy Latin pop music, but usually only one per year would break big in the United States. We might notice Nuyorican tyro Marc Anthony one year, Ricky Martin the next; then a sultry soccer anthem recorded by Brazilian Michel Teló would catch fire, then Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi, now perhaps Colombia’s J Balvin. But these days, what seems to give such contenders more crossover mileage is hybridization between the many reggae and rap subgenres that have emerged from Central, South, and Caribbean American countries with each new generation of aspirational youth.

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In the 1960s, Latin boogaloo was funk and soul blended with big band Afro-Cuban dance musics during the political tumult of the civil rights decade. Today, bachatón and reggaetón similarly fuse soul, salsa, reggae, and rap inspired by the revolutionary legacies of Simón Bolívar, Marcus Garvey, and Bob Marley. “I Like It,” voted the second-best single of the year by our P&J electorate, shows Cardi reworking a famous Latin boogaloo hit. By reformulating the tune around looped samples, Cardi, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin take advantage of a radio atmosphere in which (thanks to the global success of the Afro-Latino-soundtracked Fast and Furious films) bachata-flavored pop, Latin trap, and reggaetón singles have been infiltrating the global charts. European pop stars have been collaborating like mad with bachata and reggaetón acts since around the same time that Justin Bieber decided to hop on the “Despacito” bandwagon. In other words, critical mass for the multilingual crossover sound of “I Like It” has been building for a while.

Cardi B and her production crew may not have invented the loops and rhythms that make every track on Invasion of Privacy vibrate with dance floor potential, yet as a co-writer and performer, Cardi innovates within every art form she adopts. On that score, never accuse Pazz & Jop voters of being late to the Cardi party. If Invasion of Privacy (which beautifully blends so many hybridized trends and musical styles into one tight female-fronted package) wins Album of the Year at the Grammys this Sunday, will it be the triumph of personality, trend-mongering, or musical talent? In the current media moment, this question may be moot. But as the unofficial soundtrack of post-AOC America, such a win makes all such questions a bit beside the point.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop: Fighting a Sense of Stuckness

Early on Twin Fantasy, the most recent album from the Seattle rock band Car Seat Headrest, singer Will Toledo recalls the time he came out to his friends. He then immediately contradicts himself: “I never came out to my friends.” Later in the same song, the thirteen-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” he continues: “It’s been a year since we first met/I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.” He sings the lines nonchalantly, like he doesn’t know how upset he’s supposed to be over the ambiguity of his romantic attachment, like he’s afraid of giving too much away.

The song is the second track on the second version of Twin Fantasy Toledo has released as Car Seat Headrest. The first came out seven years beforehand, a sketchy home recording thick with tape hiss. Toledo recut the whole thing, keeping each song’s structure intact but polishing up the production values. Paying such a visit to old material seems like an almost unbearable kindness to a former self. Instead of burying his teenage squalls, Toledo re-enacts them. The two versions of Twin Fantasy came out with the same cover art and the same track list, lending the effect of time folding in on itself, an illusion that suits the record’s recurring themes of queer anguish and adolescent frustration. Then there’s one of the several refrains running through “Beach Life-in-Death”: “We said we hated humans/We wanted to be humans.” The wanting suggests a passage into the future, toward an unclaimed goal; the hating cuts off that trajectory. Toledo moves forward and gets stuck, moves forward and gets stuck, over and over.

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If Twin Fantasy articulates the stifling conundrum of being nineteen, miserable, and queer, it also speaks to a larger sense of stuckness among LGBTQ Americans as a whole. Toledo’s refurbished blast from the past joined a host of records last year that promised hope while granting space to the sinking feeling around this country’s uncertain future. In 2018, the United States moved both backward and forward on its muddied track to queer liberation. The Trump administration made motions to effectively outlaw trans people by fixing the sex on one’s birth certificate as an irrefutable legal fact. At the same time, a handful of states began issuing driver’s licenses with an “X” printed in the sex field, as opposed to M or F. Gavin Grimm, the trans high school student who had been fighting for the right to use the boy’s bathroom since he was fifteen, saw a district court rule in his favor, a development that will likely make life easier for trans kids in years to come. We saw progress, and we saw its opposite; we saw a way forward, and we saw it barred by malicious actors.

In music, we heard queer artists dare to shoot for the moon with their boots stuck in the mud. Sophie, the experimental electronic producer known for snappy singles built on rubbery sounds synthesized from scratch, released her debut full-length LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (tied for 33 on the Pazz & Jop albums list). It boasted some of her tightest and most aggressive work to date, while hinting at an extended narrative through the murk and uncertainty of transition — from one’s assigned gender to one’s true gender, from hesitation to action, from silence to scream. The record moves from a chain of singles — “It’s Okay to Cry,” “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” — into an impressionistic reverie. It feels as if we have been submerged, and then, with the utopian climax of the album’s closing tracks, like we’ve come up for air. Choruses of voices demand a “whole new world,” declare themselves “immaterial girls” and “immaterial boys,” a nod to Madonna that cries out against the gender-determinist fantasy of materiality-as-destiny, marrying transgender experience to transhumanist ethos.

Janelle Monáe, with Dirty Computer (number two album), similarly adopts the language and imagery of science fiction to trace a vision of queer survival. She sets the musical film in a bleak future where androids must maintain untarnished fealty to their corporate creators. Any androids that abandon their servile post to, say, form a queer biker gang in the outskirts of town are recaptured, their memories wiped. Monáe plays one of these “dirty computers,” and each song’s music video is a memory, or a dream, that the corporation must delete. Its standout clip, for the single “Pynk,” includes a dance routine performed by women wearing bright-pink “pussy pants,” and served as a kind of preemptive coming-out party for Monáe, who told Rolling Stone she identifies as pansexual two weeks after the video’s release. In the album’s larger narrative, Monáe’s character is restored to factory conditions, having forgotten her girlfriend and the group of outlaws she calls friends. Only she hasn’t; somehow, Monáe and her girlfriend evade the digital lobotomy, and together with a fellow rebel, they escape the processing compound. A colorful, elastic album accompanied by playful visions of queer utopia within dystopia, Dirty Computer posits the idea that even under the most dire of circumstances, queers can find each other and make our own paradise.

Other queer and gender-nonconforming artists last year worked toward a similar vision: Elysia Crampton, the trans Aymara producer whose self-titled record unstitches colonial conceptions of time; Yves Tumor, who paired crystalline pop melodies with tumultuous noise on the stunning and thorny Safe in the Hands of Love (number 49 album); Christine and the Queens, whose drag persona Chris (tied for number 19 album) playfully dipped into gleaming masculine bravado; King Princess, whose breakthrough single “1950” (number 66 single) epitomized the uncertain territory of the lesbian crush with a wobbly electronic bassline and the ragged contours of an electric guitar. Troye Sivan, who appears on six singles that earned votes in Pazz & Jop, delivered an ode to bottoming called “Bloom” that came with a stylish video of the young gay singer adorned in lipstick and florals. Robyn, one of the gay club’s patron saints, returned with Honey (number 5 album), a simmering collection whose title track teetered on the edge of unfulfilled need and painful desire. A darkness chased all this music, and the music acknowledged the darkness, then found a way to glint all the same.

The debut EP from Boygenius (number 26 album), the indie-rock power trio of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, encapsulated the uneasy truce that marked life in 2018. As solo artists, all three women make powerful music about deep loneliness, about navigating a world that feels like it was not made for you. As Boygenius, they sing lyrics that despair similarly to those of their solo work. “I wanna be emaciated,” goes a striking line on “Me and My Dog.” “I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view.” They sing of an alienation so powerful it threatens to launch them into space, and yet there are three voices singing these words. A full band rings out around them. The members of Boygenius are not alone. Their lonelinesses braid together, and while they still bear that name — loneliness — their shape has suddenly changed. They are not desolate, not a cell without light, but something else.

At one point during Car Seat Headrest’s “Beach Life-in-Death,” which sounds like half a dozen songs stitched together with steel wire, bleeding at the seams, Will Toledo’s voice breaks like a fever. “It’s not enough to love the unreal,” he shrieks, “I am inseparable from the impossible.” He welds together negatives like he’s trying to disappear beneath them, like he’s trying to assert, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that he is not here, that he’s not singing this song, that the song does not and cannot exist. He sings and despairs and tantrums, and the more he vocalizes the feeling of his own absence, the more his presence is felt. “We wanted to be humans,” he sings, his voice multitracked as though there are many of him. Like Sophie, Boygenius, and Monáe, he sings in his own chorus; he is not alone.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2004 Pazz & Jop: Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it’s all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who’ve convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it’s good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse — good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets’ Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose “punk opera” not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I’m not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there’s American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity —  Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds — American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft — never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000’s neglected (and no less conscious) Warning — and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side “Governator”), the signature “Don’t want to be an American idiot” was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it’s about punk’s inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I’d rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself — or NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on “Idiots Are Taking Over.” Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley’s CEO-targeting “It’s a Hit” and Tom Waits’s war-torn “Hoist That Rag” and Morrissey’s waspish “America Is Not the World,” in Nellie McKay’s wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers’ worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem’s “Mosh” and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss’s “Why?” And that’s about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists’ and voters’ mindsets. Yet the election’s issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy — belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby — that “art” precludes “propaganda.” But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

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In other words, we weren’t being “liberals,” striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where “reform” would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There’s a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive — namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents’ discretionary income. It’s enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.’s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush’s determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort — to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf — has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries — which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal — and shrinks the arts’ material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, “Redneck Woman” and The Grey Album, Hotlanta’s “Yeah!” and Metropolis’s “Yeah” — all big and rather different stories. Us content providers — many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they’re editorial) — are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they’re worth, meaning more than they’re worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I’ve just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated — palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with — which isn’t required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes — Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because “One’s on the Way” and “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” were truer than “Portland Oregon” or, God help us, “God Makes No Mistakes.” The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back — from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson’s high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse’s time-seizing ’60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. “Hell yeah!” Gretchen’s sisters chorus on cue. “Yeah!” screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don’t Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem’s lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own “Yeah”s: “Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done.” I just wish he’d added, “Including me.”

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Given the general craving for affirmation, it’s no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics — the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron’s Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn’s unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics’ poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they’re the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn’t “rock.”

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year’s major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it’s effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I’d hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies — how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I’m too old to feel threatened — Devendra Banhart’s talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley’s (not just Tim’s, Jeff’s), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41–50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia “Legs” Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they’d planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all — except that she’s a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who’s vegetarian too. It’s enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk’s essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn’t much of a year for disengagement. McKay’s hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman’s solo record outran Neko Case’s solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn’s Hold Steady went alt all the way — Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn’s storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn’t write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than “Take You Out” if not “Somebody Told Me.” And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful “We ain’t going to the town/We’re going to the city,” only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. “See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race,” their charting “Slow Hands” goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

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Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I’ll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé “crunk” are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They’re often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I’ll take Kanye’s guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop’s commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year’s indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area’s arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver’s sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner’s lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal’s up-and-at-’em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC’s DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand’s No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR — dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers’ brazenly mechanical “Somebody Told Me,” the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count “Float On,” and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here’s hoping if not predicting that they’ll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand–Green Day–Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn’t coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there’s only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes — starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that’s gynephobic and xenophobic when it’s rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that — you just know they’d appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan–British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.’s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime “Galang” is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican–I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music’s way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

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Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I’d love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That’s why I was so pleased that Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N’Dour knows he’s heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he’s assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N’Dour’s career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It’s more humane than Nashville’s culture, too — and, sometimes, NYC’s.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I’ve lived for. So it’s salutory to replay The College Dropout — a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin — and hear Kanye’s kiddies wickedly chorus, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive.” That’s how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so’s the end of the world is actually the end of the world — not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f’real, West’s songs import that impulse into modern African American life — music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it’s something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won’t stop won’t stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N’Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson’s good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile — he broke down well before the ’60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to ’60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn’t have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it’s more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that’s only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson’s voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless — the apotheosis of the Beach Boys’ trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously — defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it’s worth battling for.

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

4. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

7. The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)

8. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

9. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

10. Danger Mouse: The Grey Album (djdangermouse.com)

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

1. Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out” (Domino)

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

3. Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: “Yeah!” (Arista)

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

6. Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella)

7. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Doggystyle/Geffen/Star Trak)

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Maps” (Interscope)

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Critical Democracy: Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, and Rob Harvilla on Pazz & Jop’s Past and Present

The four former Village Voice music editors who discussed this year’s results collectively oversaw Pazz & Jop for 37 (or 38) out of its 45 (or 46) years. Robert Christgau — music editor from 1974 to 1985, and a Voice senior editor until 2006 — is a columnist at Noisey, and his recent collection, Is It Still Good to Ya?was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in the criticism category. Ann Powers — music editor from 1994 to 1997 — is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. Rob Harvilla — music editor from 2006 to 2011 — is a staff writer at the Ringer. They spoke with Joe Levy — music editor from 1989 to 1994 — about Pazz & Jop’s transition from graph paper to spreadsheets, its place in today’s year-end pageants, and its confirmation of the Musgraves–Monáe ticket.

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Let’s start with some history. How did Pazz & Jop start, and why don’t we know whether this is the 45th or 46th poll?

CHRISTGAU: I was a columnist at the Voice from 1969 until 1972. As an afterthought of one of my Consumer Guide columns at the end of 1971, I described a poll and asked people to vote. I assumed only critics would; in fact, a lot of non-critics voted. So I decided everybody is a critic, tabulated the whole thing, and it was the last thing I published before I moved on to Newsday, where I stayed for two and a half years. The Voice then asked me to be their music editor and we ran the first, or second, Pazz & Jop poll, which was invitation only, critics only. I think there were 26 participants that year, 1974, and it’s continued every year since. For a while we were over 500 voters.

In 1993 there were 309 respondents; in 2000 there were 586; the last couple of years it’s been around 400. And for those who remain perplexed, why is it called Pazz & Jop?

CHRISTGAU: Because the points system was borrowed whole from a magazine called Jazz & Pop, which was primarily a jazz magazine.

So, the resemblance to peanut butter and jelly was purely unintentional?

CHRISTGAU: I never thought of it until this second.

And there was a monthly Pazz & Jop report at some point in the Eighties?

CHRISTGAU: There was a Pazz & Jop Product Report in which ten critics listed ten records that they liked, which I gathered by hand Monday nights, most of it over the phone, once a month, and then added it up.

POWERS: The by-hand aspect of Pazz & Jop was maybe my favorite part of it, Bob: the pencils, the notation, sitting around in your apartment.

CHRISTGAU: Eric Weisbard computerized the thing in ’98 or ’99, telling us that it was all for the better, and I never fully believed it. But I used to do it all by hand on graph paper, writing down every vote, and in the top a little box of the graph putting a number so that I knew who would cast the vote. Each voter had a number —

POWERS: You didn’t do it all by yourself, Bob.

CHRISTGAU: No. I did it with the help of a Poohbah, usually the music editor. Tom Carson did it for a long time.

Doug Simmons served after Tom and before me. Ann, you did after. It entailed three or four days and nights of reading each ballot out loud, giving each voter a number, and watching Bob pull a pencil from a bouquet of freshly sharpened Faber No. 2s to make notes on the graph paper. Rob, by your tenure it was computerized?

HARVILLA: If I remember correctly my first year, 2006, was the first year where you had to vote online. Previous to that you could also phone it in or mail it in. Our tabulation method was this really harrowing Excel spreadsheet, with however many journalism majors trying to do math. One of the big innovations of my tenure was handing that part over to a guy named Glenn McDonald. He literally did in 15 seconds what I failed to over the course of a month. When I came in there were still traces of the very harrowing handmade journalism.

CHRISTGAU: I don’t think there’s anything harrowing about it, and I suspect I was quite fervent about letting people vote by mail if they wanted to.

Ann and Rob, before you worked at the Voice what was your interaction with Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: Pazz & Jop is a huge part of my story as a writer. Eric Weisbard — who we’ve mentioned, and who was my boyfriend and is now my husband, and who was also a music editor of the Voice — when we started hanging out together, we would read the Voice all the time. It was the gold standard for us. I was already a music writer on the West Coast, living in the Bay Area and working for the SF Weekly, and a little bit for the LA Weekly. I had a very West Coast vision of myself and of music writing, and I didn’t really think I could ever make a connection with New York. It just felt like another world. But Eric is from Queens, he had grown up on the Voice, and he convinced me this was not a faraway land of Oz. He encouraged me to submit comments to Pazz & Jop, and Bob took a big chunk of my comments and published them as one of the essays that year. And that was the linchpin of me going from being a Bay Area writer — and potential PhD student and professor — to being a music writer. Soon after that, Joe, you commissioned me to write my first actual Voice piece, and the rest is history.

HARVILLA: I can’t say that the Voice is something that I grew up with the way Ann did. I got my first Pazz & Jop ballot around 2000 or 2002. It was my first job out of college at an alt-weekly in Columbus, Ohio, called the Other Paper. I got the email from Bob one day. I don’t remember if it was a form letter, but it was written as an email from Bob, and I wrote back: “Thank you so much. I’m very honored. This is really cool. Can you tell me a little bit more about this project?” And Bob printed that as a comment: “Hey, this is really cool. What is this? — Rob Harvilla.”

POWERS: But you know what? That’s a funny story, but it also gets at the importance of Pazz & Jop. Because Pazz & Jop always welcomed Rob Harvilla from Columbus, Ohio. It always welcomed Ann Powers from Oakland, California. Any person at any daily newspaper, anyone really. That’s so different than, say, a Rolling Stone compendium, which was always the staff, or Billboard. That is democracy in action right there.

On that note, let’s talk about the results of this year’s poll. Women dominated the albums list.

CHRISTGAU: It’s certainly the first time ever that the top five artists have been women. I think in ’93 it was three out of five.

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In ’93 Liz Phair was at the top of the albums list, and it was the first time a woman had topped the poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. The headline was “Pazz & Jop’s Fifth (or Sixth) Year of the Woman.” 

CHRISTGAU: Yes. Because whenever there was an uptick we would notice it. Liz Phair’s year is also just about coexistent with riot grrrl. And riot grrrl seems to me a crucial turning point. Even though there’s not many punk women in the poll, it was that cultural upheaval that created the extraordinary breadth and wealth of female artists, especially in the alt-rock world. Elsewhere, too — Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe are one and two; neither of them are alt-rock.  

POWERS: I think music can never be separated from other cultural developments. This was true in the counterculture and in the early Seventies, when Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Roberta Flack were topping the charts and women’s liberation was a huge movement. Great novels were being written by women, and films were being made, if not always by women, about women’s freedom, like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. A similar thing was happening in the Nineties: Feminism was reconstituting itself, there was the third wave, there was the sense of a new generation trying to figure out how liberation works for us. And so, while absolutely riot grrrl was crucial, I don’t want to say it was necessarily the prime force. Because I think it’s always a groundswell of movement from all over the vast American demographic that makes a moment like that happen.

Also, the mainstreaming of indie music in the Nineties really helped. Liz Phair was not only a very significant woman artist, she was an extremely significant indie artist, and the way that she came to the fore is really important. She had made these tapes on her own, essentially demos, which circulated in Chicago and made her reputation. I think then, just as now, you could look at the success of a lot of women, even when they’re on major labels, as being connected to the technology, the distribution, the shifting landscape of how we listen to music. So, it’s not just about gender or a moment for women, it’s also about openings and shifting in the culture of music in general.

How do we see that play out in Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: I’ll give you an example: Kacey Musgraves is a major-label artist. She made her first splash as a slightly left-of-center country artist making music that would fit on country radio, although it seems that any man who walks into a studio in Nashville can get played on country radio before a great woman can. But Kacey started her career basically in mainstream country. She gained a following. She became emblematic of a new generation. But she still couldn’t get played on country radio. So with Golden Hour she decided to step outside making a record that would be played on country radio. She worked with these two producers, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, in East Nashville, where I live, to make a record that didn’t sound like what you’re hearing within the mainstream. It still connects to country, but I think it’s fair to say it is not strictly or merely a country album.

I would say it’s barely a country album.

CHRISTGAU: The sonic signature is the keyboard, not steel guitar or the pseudo-rock of the Luke Bryan types.

POWERS: Exactly. My point is that she could make that record because she knew that even if she didn’t get played on country radio, she could still reach her audience. She could still make a mark. And that has to do with the different realities that exist because of streaming and the different ways music is received by a younger generation now.

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Musgraves and Janelle Monáe were the album winners by a wide margin. Musgraves had 1155 points, with Monáe just 100 behind. And then we take a big 400-point drop to Cardi B and Mitski, who are tied. Why are Kacey and Janelle the runaway winners this year?

HARVILLA: I happened to see Kacey Musgraves live just a few days ago here in Columbus. Two thousand people at a sold-out club. There were a lot of young women, but there were also a lot of bearded dudes like myself. The easiest way to encapsulate her appeal is she covers Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” but she also covers “I Will Survive.” She played every single song off Golden Hour, including the one where she was on acid and talking about her mother for like 90 seconds. Ordinarily in a situation like that the crowd is clamoring for the hits — and she played “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ’Round” off the first record, maybe one or two songs off the second — but it was entirely focused on Golden Hour. And people loved it. They were singing along to every word in polar-vortex Ohio in January. It’s an incredibly heartening thing to see her dominating this poll season. But to be with that many people at a live show in a hostile environment and to have it be this warm and thrilling and totally engaged thing about someone playing their entire new record in full — you don’t see that very often. It was awesome.

POWERS: Well, I had the same experience seeing Janelle Monáe here in Nashville at the Ryman, the mother church of country music. A whole different Nashville emerged. The audience was mostly black, it was very proudly LGBTQ, young, old, alternative, bohemian. And again, as you were saying, Rob, while Janelle did play some of her older favorites, her show was very conceptual, very strongly focused on the narrative aspects of Dirty Computer. Janelle is always creating visuals to go along with her music, and she made what she calls an emotion picture to go along with Dirty Computer. She’s really a multimedia artist. And I think that leads to a very important thing, which is for all of the talk of the album being dead, I think Pazz & Jop this year represents how the album is very much alive, especially in the hands of women.

Now, there’s a historical argument to be made that when technologies are changing, people who have been excluded from the dominant technologies or marginalized can emerge or re-emerge and take hold. So maybe one thing that’s happening is the supposedly dead album, well, women are like, “It’s not dead. We’re still going to make amazing, cohesive, coherent albums. We’re going to offer a chance to sync into a story, or multiple stories, all connected to our audience.” And people are loving it. Mitski, Robyn, Noname, Lucy Dacus — these are all records you want to sit and spend time with, project yourself into, and be seen and heard by.

The resurgence of the album — particularly the concept album — is most clearly defined by hip-hop artists, and goes back to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The rise of the hip-hop album coincided with the rise of streaming, with artists responding with albums strong enough that people don’t just come for one track but stay for twelve — or in the case of Migos, fifty-seven. And it’s something we see reflected in Pazz & Jop this year — albums like Dirty Computer, Golden Hour, Be the Cowboy, Honey, and Invasion of Privacy are conceptual in nature. They have either a narrative or an emotional through line.

CHRISTGAU: And a musical through line, too — Cardi B, especially. She made a bunch of mixtapes, and I doggedly listened to them trying to see how good they were. They certainly aren’t awful, but the difference is amazing. She’s said she really wanted to make an album. And her mixtapes are hodgepodges, but Invasion of Privacy just has this power that doesn’t stop.

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Well, Cardi got robbed. “I Like It” should have topped the singles list.

CHRISTGAU: I would like to say something else about the album, which has been true for a long time: If you’re an active musician, one of the things you’re going to be doing is writing songs. God knows there’s lots of people who ride their catalog — I hear the Pixies are having a completely boring tour doing precisely that — but what I’ve been finding for many years is older artists putting songs together. And my discovery of the year is a doctor from Chicago named Rich Krueger who quit music to become a neonatologist. And he started making albums again, with these old songs and new songs he had been writing. The albums are called Life Ain’t That Long and Nowthen and they were my number six and fourteen albums of the year. Similarly, this wonderful guitar player named John Kruth — every once in a while he sits down and he makes an album. He’s got enough songs, and he did it again this year. And Willie Nelson made an album called Last Man Standing; he’s 85 years old, there’s not a bad song on that record.

POWERS: He’s made I don’t know how many albums in the past three years. Five?

CHRISTGAU: At least. And they’re all pretty good, but that one is astonishing.

POWERS: I completely agree. Sometimes I think that people over 70 are the most interesting artists. David Crosby made a great record.

CHRISTGAU: Really?

POWERS: He made my list.

CHRISTGAU: No kidding?

POWERS: He’s competing with people half his age. It’s a fantastic record. He’s totally rejuvenated. Again, I think that the shift toward a different way of making music and getting music out there allows for these older artists just as it allows for women who might not have felt they had that access.

But what do you all think about the fact that the album is becoming a more multimedia form? I’m thinking about someone who is a little lower down on the Pazz & Jop album list, Tierra Whack. She made an album of very, very short songs inextricably connected to her video work. The fact that YouTube is the number one way that young people get music has changed the relationship between music and visuals. That’s one reason why Janelle Monáe can have this moment — because she’s been doing that for ten years. Finally technology has caught up to her, and to people like Tierra Whack and others, who are making whole work that goes beyond what we think of an album as being.

CHRISTGAU: I really prefer to listen to music than to watch it. Although in the case of Tierra Whack, it was watching the videos that convinced me to listen a little harder to the album and then say, “Hey, this is pretty good.” In the end I got to like that record so much that it ended up in my Top 10, and I now prefer the album to the videos. The videos were great the first time, not so great the second time, which is the way it is with visual information.

I’ve always been a skeptic about Janelle Monáe on record. I saw her live only once, in Denmark, and she was fantastic. But I’ve always felt she was kind of a thin singer, and I still do. I like this record much more than any of her others and I think it’s really good. But it’s not as good as Cardi B. It’s smarter, but not as strong.

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It’s a record I came to connect with while out of the country for a few weeks. It was one of the few things that made me miss America. How do you feel the place of Pazz & Jop has changed in an era where there are more and more year-end lists, and year-end list season seems to start earlier and earlier?

CHRISTGAU: The thing that bothers me about many magazine lists is that they are self-branding exercises. I think it ought to finally be about some combination of pleasure and satisfaction, aesthetic satisfaction, and I think a lot of people don’t do that. They try to make a list that they think represents them in a way they want to be represented in public. What I always try to persuade people to do, and what I really try very hard to do, is to ask which of these records do I like the most? Which one gives me the most pleasure? Whatever its appearance, whatever it says about politics — I mean, Superchunk made a terrific political record and I was really crazy about it. But when I sat down at the end of the year and played it I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much as the Pistol Annies or Bettye LaVette.

POWERS: To me Pazz & Jop is the final word. It’s the summation.

HARVILLA: But part of that story is the music editors who have been shepherding the Voice and Pazz & Jop in the last decade. Maura Johnston came after me; she had her own crew and a really smart popcentric approach. She and Brian McManus and Hilary Hughes — to keep this poll going and to keep it in the public eye in the past ten years, when the whole year-end list season has become decentralized, it’s really impressive.

There is a guy named Rob Mitchum. He used to write for Pitchfork, but he’s been doing a thing for five or six years now where he aggregates all the individual lists — all the publications and websites — in a hellacious Excel chart that he has a mastery over. He’s tracking it in real time, starting from right around Thanksgiving. He pulls everybody’s year-end list, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone on down. Everyone wants to do their year-end lists earlier now; it’s an arms race for sure. To watch Rob Mitchum’s tabulations as each new publication comes in and to see the pattern emerge, it demystifies things. You could definitely predict the Top 5 of Pazz & Jop or the Uproxx poll. The application of data to this process basically tells you what’s going to happen before it happens. And there are so many publications now. But it’s heartening to still see Pazz & Jop as the definitive end of it.

POWERS: Those of us who work hard on lists for our own home bases, we would all agree that in each case we have our own processes, we have our own teams, our own groups of thinkers, our own concerns about what our lists look like. I mean, when NPR’s albums list this year came up almost all women in the Top 20, that wasn’t planned, but it was a reflection of the entire year, our process as a group thinking about gender, thinking about how it relates to music. And I think in each case that individual process defines your list.

But with Pazz & Jop I bring a different mind-set to it. I am thinking about the larger community of music writers. And I care about the larger community of music writers a lot. I want us to have a home to be together, and that’s what Pazz & Jop gives us. And so, the fact that this poll still lives, it makes me feel like I still have a bigger home.