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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1985 Pazz & Jop: Virtue Rewarded

Nineteen eighty-five sure was busy-busy-busy for Chuck and Elvis’s love child. You’d think it’d have its hands full just perverting the nation and feeding the world, but those were epiphenomena. Now more than ever, “rock music” is first and foremost an engine of the culture industry, whence all the rest of its inescapable visibility flows. It didn’t set quite as many dollars in motion as in 1984, when the phony recovery of 1983 came true, but the dip wasn’t panic-worthy, maybe 5 per cent off a record year. Having caved in to the Clean Lyrics League, the companies half believe Congress is going to give them their stupid home-taping tax, and if it isn’t clear where the Next Springsteen will come from now that ZZ Top has flunked the first audition, there’s product due from Michael Jackson himself. So nobody’s complaining, yet. Nobody except us complainers.

I refer, of course, to the 238 pros, fans, hacks, and illuminati who participated in the 12th or 13th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and really, what else did you expect? As anybody who’s got more important things to worry about knows without thinking, critics are malcontents as a matter of life commitment, and though rock critics value enthusiasm more than their less callow colleagues, often that just means they holler nay at the top of their lungs rather than acting civilized about it. Having fallen in love with rock and roll when it delivered them from the goody-goody bullshit that’s shoved down teenaged throats with a trowel, they like dirty lyrics, though they can live without the baddy-baddy bullshit of W.A.S.P. and maybe Prince too. They don’t think good will can feed the world, though some of them give Michael and Lionel and Bob Geldof credit for trying. And they don’t have much use for the biz’s blockbuster recovery, especially if they prescribed quality-not-quantity three years ago, when record execs were whining about their own imminent demise.

Not that the boom looked so bad in 1984, when most of the blockbusters — Bruce and Prince, Tina and Cyndi, Van Halen and ZZ — were deemed hot enough artistically to make our poll. But the big blockbuster of 1985 was a blockbuster of 1984 — Born in the U.S.A. sold six million copies or so after topping last year’s poll (with no causal relationship implied, I assure you) — and when it came to the little blockbusters the voters pushed reject. Despite some sharp antibacklash from Barry Walters and Dave Marsh, Madonna’s sextuple-platinum Like a Virgin wasn’t hot enough artistically (or whatever, Mrs. Gore) to rise higher than 85th, while Phil Collins’s quadruple-platinum No Jacket Required finished 108th and Wham!’s quadruple-platinum Make It Big (the best of these three albums by me) got one mention. The only multiple-platinum in the top 40 is John Cougar Mellencamp’s honorably overwrought populist symbol, Scarecrow, and the Mark Knopfler Band’s contemptibly contemptuous aural microwave, Brothers in Arms, although three double-platinum items did make significant showings out of the money. Whitney Houston’s 48th-ranked diva debut vied with Sting at 21 and the Smiths at (a gratifyingly tepid) 46 for the coveted All Things Must Pass Overrated Trophy. Significant in another way were Stevie Wonder’s 61st, easily his lowest finish ever not counting the Woman in Red soundtrack, and Prince’s tie for 51st, the most precipitous flop in Pazz & Jop history. “Majors See Black Music Boom,” says Billboard. “Critics See Major Crossover Sellout,” sez I.

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Of course there were exceptions — there always are. Rick Rubin’s metal-rap powered Run-D.M.C.’s sophomore gold to a generous 32nd (and L.L. Cool J’s freshman vinyl to a hopeful 37th). Luther Vandross’s platinum return to form scored consistently enough with black music loyalists to come in 30th, and Aretha Franklin’s best album in 15 years soared in at an underrated ninth and may yet get what it deserves in the marketplace, though as of now it’s “only” gold. Sade’s platinum Diamond Life — by an African-turned-English model-turned-singer whose mood music broke in the dance market, which ought to be crossover enough to satisfy Lee Abrams himself — lulled the electorate so seductively it came in 14th (with the late-’85 follow-up Promise 56th so far). There were platinum finishes as well from old man down the road John Fogerty, former boy Don Henley, and aspiring middlebrow Sting. That brings our precious metal total up to around normal at nine, and I left the first for last: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

David Byrne wasn’t being modest when he predicted in 1977 that his debuting young band would “fluctuate between a large cult audience and a possible fluke mass success,” because he’s anything but modest — gracious, putatively self-effacing, but so proud that groveling for gold was inconceivable to him. He’d just work for it. With a big push from the press — Talking Heads ’77 finished seventh, and since then every one of his band’s studio albums has been in the Pazz & Jop top five — he’s had his large cult audience since album one. And now, on the crest of years of intelligent media manipulation (visionary videos that predate MTV, high-art cachet from Tharp and Rauschenberg and Wilson, greatest concert movie ever) he has his not especially flukish mass success: Little Creatures is Talking Heads’ first platinum album as well as their first Pazz & Jop number one. This result is jake with me even though I was rooting mildly for the runner-up Replacements — it’s gratifying to see virtue rewarded, especially when there’s no mistaking it for goody-goody bullshit. But I’m obliged to report that the Heads’ victory looks slightly tainted nevertheless.

Early handicapping slotted Little Creatures at number one for the worst of reasons — there just wasn’t any competition. Hailed in some quarters as a return to basics after five years of funk, its short songs for augmented quartet evince none of the fear of music that jammed up Byrne’s short songs for minimalist quartet in the ’70s. They’re warm and supple and at peace with the world, reflecting his long encounter with black music (and also, I get the feeling, a remarkable woman), even if they decline the deeply nervous grooves of Remain in Light and its progeny. That is, they comprise the safest music he’s ever made. I’m not one who regards safe as a damning insult when it insures this level of accomplishment, but in rock and roll it’s never praise, and my initial delight faded noticeably: Little Creatures barely squeezed into my weakest top 10 in memory, and might well have been surpassed by the Pogues or Thomas Mapfumo if I’d had another week to listen. Nor was anybody else talking up the Heads. When Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons opened the ballots, he detected a surge for Scarecrow. Tim was no Let It Be and took the L.A. Times’s in-house poll anyway. Sun City was turning into the rock critics’ Live Aid. I even began to have nightmares of R.E.M.

But when the count began, a pattern asserted itself immediately and seemed a foregone conclusion by the time we finished the first folder. This New York band has gone national. Little Creatures garnered disproportionate support outside the volatile coastal corridors — not as much as Fogerty, but more than such midwestern heroes as Mellencamp and especially the Replacements. But with platinum acceptability contributing to the impression that it was a major album, it was the only consensus possible in an unprecedentedly flat year — a year so unimpressed with itself that three of its top 20 albums (Cooke, Velvets, Dylan) were recorded in the ’60s and a fourth (Lost in the Stars) was composed in the ’20s and ’30s, a year so flat artistically that it diminishes the Heads’ achievement and perhaps “rock music”’s vaunted visibility as well.

I know, I know, you read the same shit in this space all the time. Every year various turks and curmudgeons explain how rock and roll just died right in front of your eyes and you were too stupid or complacent to notice. And every year I step in wearing my voice-of-reason costume and explain how it’s not as bad as all that. Unlike many rock and roll adepts — some inspired and almost all foolish — I’ve never been of a utopian/apocalyptic turn of mind, and no matter how grim things look in a given year I know that history progresses in cycles and years can be misleadingly arbitrary units of measurement. Still, 1985 does look pretty grim. And though it’s been a long while since I’ve had such trouble getting the Dean’s List up to 50 A LPs, this isn’t a personal complaint. It’s right there in the results.

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I mean, consensus doesn’t necessarily equal enthusiasm. At 4.5 points per respondent, Little Creatures is only the third winner ever to dip below 5.0, and two of those were instructively unmomentous precedents that came damn close anyway: Squeezing Out Sparks at 4.9 in 1979 and Imperial Boredom at 4.9 in 1982. Prorated, the Heads could have won our poll with 1979’s Fear of Music or 1980’s Remain in Light and come in a hair behind the Replacements with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. And 1981, when the top record got even softer support, had it all over 1985 in other ways. Sandinista! may have averaged just 4.3 points per respondent, but at least it was a risky mess instead of a neat retreat, and its runner-up was X’s Wild Gift, which not only outdrew Tim (4.0 to 3.5) despite indie distribution but stands as a landmark where Tim and Little Creatures and even Sandinista! are more like points on a flow chart.

And in addition 1981 had a brave future. Some of its 12 debut-album artists proved as inconsequential as the Au Pairs and Romeo Void, or failed to fulfill expectations like Was (Not Was) and the Go-Go’s and the MIA Human Switchboard, but in their own ways Joan Jett and Luther Vandross and U2 and (I hope) the Blasters have prospered mightily. I expect something comparable from Sade and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but not from 1985’s other debuts, all five of them. I’ll admit that Marti Jones isn’t a major artist if you’ll admit that Suzanne Vega isn’t a major artist, which God knows also holds for longtime Brit eccentric Robyn Hitchcock (whose Gotta Let This Hen Out! finished close behind Fegmania at 45). Jason and the Scorchers may never again recapture their old Fervor, and L. L. Cool J has the look of the (94th in ’84) Dream Syndicate or the (81st in ’85) Del Fuegos, who also snuck their B-plus-at-best intros into the top 40 on local and/or stylistic loyalty. Granted, this foreshortened debut list doesn’t include dead singers, dead composers, dead groups, or John Fogerty, all of whom made unprecedented showings that were in most cases deserved — and who between them don’t promise any more than Biograph.

Nor am I much encouraged by the continued Pazz & Jop success of the rock indies — independently owned and distributed labels like SST or Profile rather than semi-subsidiaries like Slash or Def Jam or I.R.S. Since most indies are owned by obsessive entrepreneurs with less than no penchant for collective action, I’ve never seen them as bulwarks against capitalism — just little outposts of unpredictable aesthetic principle, pockets of structural resistance in the struggle for fun. But aesthetic principle is never any sharper than the art it applies to, which despite the supposed (or real, damned if I can tell) American rock renaissance doesn’t look like any cutting edge to me — after searching every which-a-way, I’ve put only three new Amerindie bands on my A list, down from eight in 1983 and six in 1984. (Because they don’t compete so directly in the youthbuck market, the folk and blues labels — which provide four African, four reggae, and one blues album on my own list, making Shanachie my favorite corporation this side of Warner Bros. — have better luck.) And structurally, the rock indies have had it — the majors now regard them as farm teams, swooping down and snaring likely looking bands or sometimes whole labels, most recently Hüsker Dü and Tommy Boy. Not that this is necessarily so bad for band or label — unlike some resentful souls, I don’t blame the slight shortfall of Tim on Sire’s Seymour Stein, a former indie owner who’s used his signing privileges at Warners to oversee more good music than any other a&r scout of the past 10 years. Nor can I get all teary-eyed about the “commercialization” of DB’s Guadalcanal Diary or Christian Burial’s 10,000 Maniacs, picked up by Elektra for 58th- and 68th-place finishes, or of DB’s 53rd-ranked Zeitgeist or Rational’s 76th-ranked Game Theory, probably due for similar treatment. The sheer productivity of the indies, with their low overhead and lower profit margin, is welcome and healthy. But I wish I could still dream that pockets of resistance might someday connect and generate their own counter-establishment. Sponsoring enjoyable-to-important music while hanging on by their fingernails in a state of perpetual marginality, the indies have become hegemonic in spite of themselves.

Indies did manage to dominate the EP chart we devised for them five years ago, but that just illustrates my point. With ’70s cult hero Alex Chilton leading the pack and ’60s cult hero Roky Erickson bringing up the rear and album artists the Minutemen, UB40, and U2 finishing two, three, and five, the list looks almost as inauspicious as last year’s, which as predicted gave us Jason & the Scorchers, period. Full Time Men are a one-shot, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers substitute attitude for songs, and Big Black subsumes songs in attitude — Racer-X is a powerful abrasive, but not what you’d call generous of spirit. Which leaves country purist Dwight Yoakam, probably good for a better album than the Judds, and political popsters Lifeboat, probably good for a better album than Tommy Keene, to continue in the EP-launched tradition of Los Lobos, the Minutemen, the Bangles, and near misses Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

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The other lists were at least as depressing. Of course I applaud the winning single and the strength of women on the chart (six of the top 15 compared to six of the top 40 LPs), and it’s a pleasure to see the Ramones place so high after the intrepid Seymour Stein refused to release their most overt political act. But I’m distressed at the paucity of dance records, and suspect my colleagues are becoming disenchanted with rap as it abandons the last vestiges of noble savagery for the inevitable formalist phase signaled by the year’s two most remarkable records: Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Double Dee & Steinski’s promo-only three-cut 12-inch (call it The Lesson), both of which take the kitchen-sink pop-for-the-people philosophy of hip hop into the realm of full-scale information seizure. (One reads that the current owner of Lennon-McCartney’s “Michelle,” a guy named Michael Jackson, has threatened to sue Doug E. Fresh in England, where “The Show” has now sold more copies than “Rapper’s Delight.”) I mean, there are nice songs on our list, but for once I didn’t get a lot of letters about how they were the vanguard. If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 was the year AOR horned back in. Except maybe for John Waite’s “Missing You,” which I prefer to regard as a magnificent fluke like “Hot Blooded” or “You’re So Vain,” there’s never been a Pazz & Jop equivalent to “The Boys of Summer” or “Money for Nothing” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Each in its way an expression of the male rock star’s endemic and crippling cynicism, these phenomenally self-conscious pieces of popcraft were flukish only in the irresistibility of their hooks, and they bode ill — not least because each came with a high-charting video attached.

We have no intention of chucking the video category, as diehards continue to demand. But I must admit that after liking almost every title the voters picked in ’83 and ’84 I find many of the latest winners appalling. Although 1985 was the year I got cable, it was also the year I gave up nightclubs for morning feedings, and since I rarely remembered to turn MTV on with the sound off like some of my canny co-workers, I saw fewer videos than ever last year. So I missed both Heads clips and barely remember the Petty or Eurythmics. But except for “Sun City” and the perhaps overvisual minimalist tour de force “Cry,” it seems to me that the main thing the others have in common is money — for nothing, just as the diehards claim. The idea of the video list is to lay a little rock and roll anti-bullshit — the low-budget spirit and simple pop smarts you see in some current documentary montage, for instance — on a medium designed to dazzle and overwhelm the unwary sensorium. But in this vote I detect instead the exact mood of luxurious passivity that those who finance these promos hope to induce in potential consumers.

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos — the top one. I don’t want to make too much of “Sun City,” a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it’s significant that amid all this year’s corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down — Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn’t jam. In a year paved with good intentions, “Sun City” was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but “Sun City” brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It’s not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song’s album votes exemplify what J. D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the “tendency to value ‘significance’ over listening pleasure.” Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak’s comment is just as apropos: “Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll.” Litwak doesn’t bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That’s what I love about rock critics.

Pazz & Joppers do a lot of dishing — the one-upmanship can get pretty vicious. I’ve formed negative impressions of my own over the years — some of these people I’ve never met strike me as thoughtless or conventional or complacent or naive, narrow-minded or status-conscious or overly earnest or pigheadedly one-dimensional, a little pretentious or a little dumb or just plain out of it. But others strike me as so smart they can fool themselves about just how superior their smarts make them. If more democracy is one thing we’re in this for, then it had better extend to ourselves. Within certain broad limits I accept and respect the critics’ tastes, which means I believe just about every one of the 535 albums they placed in their cumulative top 10 has some genuine pleasure in it. A few of the more dubious pleasures may actively contribute to our general benightedness, but most occasion sins of critical oversight at worst, and some approach a kind of creative misreading — who knows, maybe “I Want To Know What Love Is” is a great piece of music after all. And except within very narrow limits it’s an idealist fallacy (a cynic’s idealist fallacy) to blame the malfeasances of the culture industry on the venality of critics, a venality that when it’s not completely imaginary — Pazz & Joppers may conceivably concoct their ballots to impress the Poobahs, but not to impress the record companies, who’ll never see one per cent of them — is often pretty much inevitable. A world in which critics preferred Fear and Whiskey to Little Creatures and Centerfield probably wouldn’t be a world in which the Mekons felt compelled to make Fear and Whiskey.

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In a once-removed version of Chuck Eddy’s Marsh-versus-Albini dichotomy (which see), disaffected critics explain why their mainstream colleagues like what they like with two less than harmonious theories: the same poor daily peon or free-lance moonlighter can be castigated as an arty, trend-hopping elitist from one side and a craven, trend-hopping shill from the other. As Eddy points out, the worst thing about the Marsh position is that it has a chilling effect on musical movement — without a few elitists there’d never have been an X or Pere Ubu, which to his shame would suit Marsh fine, or a PIL or Talking Heads, which wouldn’t. Yet though I too suspect that many voters could afford to stretch their tastes some, it’s willful to dismiss the music they like as reactionary. You don’t have to be a fan of our top five albums, all but Tim by artists who’ve always worked for major labels, to admit that rather than proving the biz an inhuman monolith they’re evidence of genuine and not necessarily riskless pluralism — within certain frustrating parameters, of course. The basic issue is one’s tolerance for repressive tolerance. Is it ever (where have we seen this word before?) safe, not to mention fun, to allow oneself to be “manipulated” by the pleasure merchants? Is the compulsion to great refusals a virtue, a neurosis, a mark of oppression, or some combination of the three?

If I’m defending the critics after castigating them myself in the past, it’s because in this depressing year I feel bonds with them. Especially when it comes to those pushing and past 30, rock and roll itself is one bond — and as far as I’m concerned, great refuser Richard Gehr of Spin betrays his bad faith when he complains that “we’re getting too old for this crap.” But there’s also a bond of politics. The Pazz & Jop sample is skewed — presumably, some critics who find the Voice distastefully goody-goody don’t participate. But I can’t imagine a comparably representative panel of movie or book reviewers displaying the same antiestablishment instincts — film critics are too embroiled in the culture industry’s megabuck economy, book critics too embroiled in literary “standards.” I use the dated term “antiestablishment” deliberately, because these instincts are a legacy of the ’60s vision of rock as counter-culture, a vision the music of the ’60s never bore out all that specifically. That’s changed. Needless to say, specificity still isn’t a hallmark of these politics. On the music side it probably never will be, though two of 1985’s losses suggest other possibilities: Linton Kwesi Johnson, who quit performing after releasing a definitive live album that tied for 85th despite late availability, and D. Boon, who died — damn right tragically — around the post-Christmas release of 3-Way Tie for Last, which squeezed in at 40 this year and will certainly be on the chart again in 1986. No goody-goodies, these guys. The way both combined inquiring, tough-minded politics with inquiring, tough-minded music would have been inconceivable back when we were making do with Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald, and I hope we can expect more of the same, though I note regretfully that the leading candidates — Rubén Blades, perhaps Thomas Mapfumo — don’t sing in English. Even so, more than half this year’s Pazz & Jop albums are by artists who regard social commentary as a natural part of what they do. Not always for the best, either — Richard Thompson’s and John Fogerty’s politics are bathetic, Sting’s and Mark Knopfler’s smugly ironic. But the neoprimitivist orthodoxy in which the proper study of rock and roll is sex and drugs and rock and roll doesn’t cut it any more. Just as star-eyed bizzers were attracted to rock and roll’s potential as pure entertainment, left-wing rock critics were attracted to its democratic thrust, and now both tendencies have assumed trajectories of their own. Sometimes they rocket off in completely divergent directions, but sometimes they interweave again, as in sub-Springsteen Mellencamp, or Sade, whose high-gloss music hasn’t yet rubbed off on her socialist sympathies, or Blades with his unvanquishable crossover dreams.

It’s one job of the critic to figure out just what these inchoate messages mean. Since rock criticism often partakes of the same gawky naivete as the music, it’s easy to dismiss much of this analysis. You can even exploit a tack of Gehr’s and call it liberal, but despite the sentimental meliorism that pops up here and there that’s just name-calling. Liberalism is the quintessential goody-goody bullshit; the worst you could call most of our respondents is postliberal. They crave justice but don’t trust electoral politics and aren’t so sure about any other kind, which is why they like music that puts a higher premium on realism and spirit than it does on correctness. Speaking very generally, the pointed Sun City and the well-meaning if quite inchoate Scarecrow got a big push from Marsh’s Rock & Roll Confidential fans. The other albums in the top five kept their political distance. Especially on “Walk It Down,” Little Creatures puts Byrne’s willed optimism in a context of oppression and straitened opportunity; the Replacements’ project of liberation is still individualist in the time-honored youthcult tradition; Tom Waits has made identification with the downtrodden his signature and defines downtrodden more keenly all the time, but though he croaks out Brecht-Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” with the bitterness of a longtime partisan, his own songwriting distinguishes him perhaps too sharply from Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald.

Take all this for what it’s worth — in a flat year, it’s a mistake to attribute too much significance to the critics’ choices, or one’s own. Waits’s rise is partly a tribute to 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, and Kate Bush’s sudden prominence as women’s hero also has a cumulative look. Though I love the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Ramones-Pistols fusion and credit the Golden Palominos’ early-’70s revisionism, I don’t expect either to change the world, and even if they do I think this year’s historical consciousness — which also includes Hank Williams’s Just Me and My Guitar at 42nd — will be around for a while. And yes, England has definitely made a rock and roll comeback, even on my list. Then again, my list includes five country albums, a meaningless aberration — could well go right back down to zero next time. A more meaningful statistic is the five albums from 1984. Getting a bead on the simple present becomes more impossible all the time.

I would like to say something about my number one album, which at 26 also qualifies as cult record of the year. The Mekons are an inchoate bunch of political punks out of the same Leeds scene that produced those pathetic biz casualties the Gang of Four. People like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus have been hyping them for years, but not until now have they made an album professional enough to suit my notoriously fussy standards. Cheaply recorded, immersed in American roots that sound wishful now when invoked over here, Fear and Whiskey reminds me of nothing so much as my favorite album of 1976, Have Moicy!, in which a loose alliance of old folkies headed by Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks demonstrated how aging bohemian rebels get by and have a good time. But where Have Moicy!’s old hippies live outside the law at worst, the Mekons are up against it: shot at, hunted down, interrogated. Needless to say, they don’t have as good a time as the Have Moicy! crowd, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. A difference that sums up a bad decade pretty suggestively, I think.

And if 1985 equals 1976, can 1977 be far behind? What do you take me for, some mystic? All I can say for sure is that it’s not as bad as all that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1985

1. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire)

2. The Replacements: Tim (Sire)

3. John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva)

4. Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island)

5. Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City (Manhattan)

6. Hüsker Dü: Flip Your Wig (SST)

7. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.)

8. Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising (SST)

9. Aretha Franklin: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (Arista)

10. John Fogerty: Centerfield (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1985

1. Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (Manhattan)

2. Aretha Franklin: “Freeway of Love” (Arista)

3. John Fogerty: “The Old Man Down the Road”/”Big Train (From Memphis)” (Warner Bros.)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Makes No Sense at All”/”Love Is All Around” (SST)

5. Ramones: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (Beggars Banquet import)

6. Don Henley: “The Boys of Summer”/”A Month of Sundays” (Geffen)

7. Eurythmics: “Would I Lie to You?” (RCA Victor)

8. Lisa-Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (Columbia)

9. Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew: “The Show”/”La-Di-Da-Di” (Reality)

10. Kate Bush: “Running Up That Hill” (EMI America)

—From the February 18, 1986, 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.

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Real Life Rock Top 10: Memories of Aretha

1. Tropical Fuck Storm, A Laughing Death in Meatspace (TFS)

Whether it has come as the leader of the Drones, on his own, or now fronting the mass of non-signifying words that make up his new band and its first album, Gareth Liddiard’s music has always been about war. You can’t prove that by parsing lyrics, which will tell you that the songs are about something else. It’s a matter of tone of voice, of instruments clashing until rhythm and melody feel like lies, of the fatigue of centuries: a stench that a million showers won’t wash off, because as the dead bodies of past wars fade, the dead bodies of future wars loom up before you. 

Compared to Tropical Fuck Storm — Liddiard lead singer and guitarist, Fiona Kitschin of the Drones bassist and singer, Erica Dunn guitarist, keyboards player, and singer, and Lauren Hammel drummer, all from Melbourne — the Drones, whether on their mid-2000s albums Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By and Gala Mill or at a show in Brooklyn where Liddiard seemed to be carrying a hundred pounds of flu, as fierce a band as I’ve ever seen, can seem austere. The explosions in “Two Afternoons,” “A Laughing Death,” and “Rubber Bullies” are glorious and frightening, so big they don’t feel quite real, but there’s a story trying to climb out of the noise, carried by Liddiard’s weariness, his uncynical fatalism, but shaped by the counter-vocals of Kitschin and Dunn. Liddiard is responding instinctively to the war they are all describing; they are thinking about it. Soon you may begin to hear him as the background singer, and the women in the background as the leads. The balance shifts inside the songs, back and forth, back and forth, and you can feel as if this is what history sounds like as it’s being written.

2. Telegraph Avenue between Haste and Dwight, Berkeley (July 26)

I was in Amoeba Records looking for an Otis Redding reissue. Jackie Wilson’s “That’s Why (I Love You So)” was playing in the store. “You ever see him?” a guy working there asked me. “Otis Redding?” “No,” he said, pointing to the speaker above us. “Him.” “My Empty Arms” was playing now. “I never did,” I said. “Mr. Excitement,” he said. “I heard he was a show.” I crossed the street to Moe’s Books, where Wilson was singing “To Be Loved.” “Jackie Wilson in Amoeba, Jackie Wilson here,” I said to the man at the counter. “What’s going on?” “I don’t know,” he said. “An anniversary? Of his collapse?” I looked it up: Jackie Wilson was born on June 9, 1934; he suffered a heart attack onstage while singing “Lonely Teardrops” — “My heart is crying, crying…” — on September 29, 1975; he died after years of incapacitation on January 21, 1984. It must have been that on July 26, God was simply in the mood.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flAvJe9A_Bo

3. SPF-18, written and directed by Alex Israel (Netflix)  

In which the celebrated Los Angeles painter takes five putatively good-looking young people and has them hang out at Keanu Reeves’s Malibu beach house while he’s off on a shoot. Very likely the most vapid movie, TV movie, or for that matter sunscreen commercial ever made.

4. Sasha Frere-Jones, “I Thought I Was Taking Medicine: Twelve years on benzodiazepines,” popula.com (July 22)

I’ve never read a piece on addiction, dependency, or attendant personality disorders with anything approaching Frere-Jones’s gently hard-boiled tone — or so absent self-pity, special pleading, self-congratulation, or the mandated redemptive flourish.  

5. Steve Lowenthal, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press)  

At the start, in the late Fifties, he was a collector, driving through the South, “knocking on doors, asking for old records” from the Twenties and the Thirties. It was art: the music, but also the collecting. “Occasionally,” Lowenthal writes, “Fahey destroyed extremely rare records he found but which he already had, just to make his own copy more valuable.” 

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6. David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (Penguin Random House)

As collected in her 2001 Book of Changes, in 1986, 1989, and 1992 McKenna, the unrivaled historian of the postwar Los Angeles avant-garde, published interviews with Lynch as heretical as they were hilarious: You couldn’t predict a word. For this all-new auto/biography–career survey she provides continuity while he talks into a tape recorder, and there doesn’t seem to be a line you haven’t heard before, even if there is.

7. Joe Henry, “The Ghost in the Song: Songwriting as Discovery,” Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, aspenideas.org)  

A 52-minute talk by the somewhat under-the-radar record producer (the shimmering post-Katrina Our New Orleans, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ perfect-pitch Genuine Negro Jig), performer, and composer on how to listen as the song you flatter yourself you’re writing tells you what to do. As generous and revelatory a primer on creativity as anyone has not written — delivered conversationally, without drama, without notes.

8. The Who, Live at the Fillmore East 1968 (Geffen)

The first piece I ever published was a 1968 review in Rolling Stone of an album called Magic Bus: The Who on Tour — a collection of B sides and throwaways disguised as the live album all Who fans were pining for. But I didn’t know they’d already turned into Led Zeppelin, which didn’t even exist yet. If you go for the vinyl edition you can hear more than thirty minutes of “My Generation” spread across both sides of a single LP. As instructions for a record I can’t quite place once had it, play loud and leave the room

9. Blindspotting, directed by Carlos López Estrada, written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (Lionsgate)

There are countless details around the edges of the frame and in throwaway dialogue (“I hate suspense. Fuck Alfred Hitchcock. Fuck M. Night Shyamalan. He makes me nervous”) that may come back over time with as much force as anything in the foreground, but in this great picture — with the impact of Straight Outta Compton and the inventiveness of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby Daveed Diggs is the center of gravity. It’s in the way he acts so fully, with such layers of depth and thought, altogether with his face: He makes it into a canvas where any emotional image may appear — terror, rage, shame, panic, determination, fury, control — only to be overpainted by another. It’s in the way he slips into his role as a man with three days left on his probation, knowing a single slip by himself or for that matter anyone around him will put him back in jail, and so trying to navigate the changing streets of his West Oakland standing grounds as if he’s actually, officially free, idly trying to put together rhymes as if there’s some song out there they might someday fit into, all of them shooting blanks until a climactic scene when that song arrives like the cavalry coming over the hill with Diggs’s character leading the charge.

 

 

Really, Diggs should run for president. “Nobody wants to be president,” he wrote back at the suggestion. “That job sucks. That’s how we end up with lunatics in office.” Sure, but can’t you just see the first commercial: “Hi. I’m not Thomas Jefferson. But I played him in Hamilton, and I’m here to tell you…”

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10. Aretha Franklin, 1942–2018  

August 16: A friend writes in from Mississippi: “As I was nearing the Big Black River border between Warren and Hinds County, I saw the time and turned on NPR for the news. They said something about the weather, the live from somewhere standard intro, and then the first bars of ‘Chain, Chain, Chain.’  

“I turned off the radio.” 

I don’t know how much more needs to be said. But when I heard of Aretha Franklin’s death, two voices arrived at the same time. The first was of a businessman in his thirties, sitting at the bar of a London pub in 1967. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was on the jukebox. He seized up. I was sitting next to him: I could physically feel his desire to say what he felt burning out of his body. Finally Aretha shouted the last two shouts of the song and he shouted too: “Did you hear that? Can you believe that?” I realized at that moment that a particular woman, living her own life, trying both to make a hit record and say what she felt, had drawn out of herself the ability to touch absolutely anyone on earth. She had become a world figure.

Despite a 32-year-old Donald Fagen in “Hey Nineteen” singing “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul” — and that was almost forty years ago — she was never anything less. I thought of that man in the pub when I first heard the Steely Dan song, knowing that somehow he’d given it the lie so long in advance. That’s what happens when you put something new into the world, which is what Aretha Franklin did: Time wraps its straight line from then to now into a circle. 

Thanks to Jo Anne Fordham and Bob Scheffel.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Lives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century.

With Aretha passing this week at the age of 76, I thought of her scene in 1980’s Blues Brothers, a vastly underrated musical comedy that visually centers everything good about this country around the art and personal struggles of roots musicians like Aretha, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.

Aretha — lithe and gorgeous in her waitress uniform — portrays the hardworking owner of a diner who performs a forcefully kinetic version of “Think” to warn her man not to leave his job in the kitchen to rejoin the ragtag Blues Brothers Band. Aretha (reportedly frustrated in her lifelong desire for a movie career) acts her ass off, giving this cameo role layers of depth and verisimilitude that director John Landis could not have anticipated. Her onscreen transition from solicitous waitress to battle-ready matriarch is a switch every black woman learns to flip to protect herself and her family. With every shoulder roll, emphatic shout, and perfectly enunciated ad-lib, Franklin — with three fierce customers/backup singers bearing witness — demands respect, cooperation, and common sense from the feckless men who threaten her domestic tranquility. The symbolic setting is an immaculate blue-collar work space in which Aretha looms larger than life, ruling with regal physicality as she brings one of the few songs she actually wrote to vivid life. It was electrifying for me to watch her compress all the dignity, delight, and despair of being black, female, and working-class into that one brief performance. It prefigured every Destiny’s Child hit, every riot grrrl anthem, and every female-empowerment video ever broadcast on MTV. The scene tells a universal story in some of its particulars. But also a profoundly black story.

The truth is, Americans born or transplanted into a United States reshaped (but not completely redeemed) by the civil rights decade of the 1960s no longer operate from the same intergenerational memories of fighting the kinds of embedded racism that American blues and black gospel evolved to combat or transcend. Despite the malicious intent of Jim Crow–era segregation, it unintentionally helped black leaders better organize, protect, and uplift future generations by keeping black wealth and genius circulating within predominantly black enclaves. It’s worth remembering that before civil rights organizations decided to focus on persuading whites to like, respect, and hire us, black Americans dedicated more of our resources toward cultivating neighborhood institutions and helping one another. In fact, before federally mandated desegregation, black American talent and entrepreneurship was almost wholly devoted to promoting black socioeconomic networks and self-reliant black excellence. From the late 1800s through the early 1970s, black newspapers, fraternities, and colleges groomed the self-aware black elite that ultimately produced social change through the agency of catalytic individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and…Miss Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin performing at a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden

Aretha Louise Franklin was born into an educated, religious family in 1942 — one year before a series of “hate strikes” by white autoworkers refusing to ply their trade alongside newly hired black mechanics touched off violent race riots that tore Detroit apart. Aretha’s brother Cecil, a college history major, once asked their preacher father why he moved his growing family from relatively progressive Buffalo to a church serving a city seething with racial tensions. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, a persuasive “singing minister” who infused his sermons with practical advice and philosophical metaphors, reportedly responded: “My job was to tend to the spiritual needs of the black community…but I also saw the need to raise everyone’s political consciousness.…Moral justice and social justice cannot be separated.”

Born in the Deep South, the Reverend Franklin used his ministry to support both labor organizer A. Philip Randolph’s and the Reverend Dr. King’s political agendas. As King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference transformed a 1954 bus boycott into a national crusade for equal rights and justice, Aretha’s stature within the black community rose alongside her father’s, with both becoming associated with the core leadership of the movement. Aretha’s inspired singing at rallies, at fundraisers, and on the radio during the increasingly turbulent 1960s and ’70s affirmed both her blackness and her activism as virtues. It was a civic responsibility she shouldered proudly.

During the 1940s and ’50s, independent black record companies (often housed in back of neighborhood record stores) sometimes pressed spoken-word albums for famous traveling preachers, as well as singles by gospel and r&b acts. After moving from Buffalo to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the mid-’40s, Reverend Franklin partnered with the nearby owner of Von/JVB Records to release both his best sermons and the earliest recordings featuring his daughters. All of Aretha’s four full siblings were musical, her two sisters frequently joining her in the studio or on the road. But while the Reverend Franklin deliberately steered his other children toward college degrees, leaving them music as a part-time pursuit, Aretha was allowed to focus exclusively on music.  

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A Memphis-born, Detroit-bred musical prodigy who was improvising complex chords and riffs on the family piano at seven, Aretha was also a shy, somewhat introverted middle child. At the age of ten she lost her mother to a heart attack, and high-profile friends of her father’s, including gospel star Clara Ward and blues great Dinah Washington, became mother figures who nurtured and encouraged Aretha’s talent. She would grow up to cover tunes made famous by both women. Miracles co-founder Smokey Robinson, a childhood friend of Aretha’s brother, told biographer David Ritz that they would be listening to Sarah Vaughan records at the Franklin home, only to be surprised by a still preadolescent Aretha matching Vaughan note for note. “Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer,” Robinson recalled, “yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Raised by her charismatic father to accompany him on piano and sing during church services, at twelve Aretha joined her dad on the road as part of his popular “traveling religious service.” When celebrity guests like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine dropped by to spend time with the reverend, he would proudly wake Aretha up to sing for them. In this way “Ree” achieved early recognition as one of the best of a whole generation of r&b singers who learned to move a crowd by channeling the Holy Spirit. But unlike many gospel singers who switched to “worldly” music, Aretha didn’t suffer the usual “shunning” by gospel fans when a former musical minister chooses to sing about anything other than God. In 1972, when Aretha and the Reverend James Cleveland recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace for Atlantic, she insisted the music be part of an actual worship service in a church, just like she and her dad used to do. Perhaps Ree got a pass because her father was still bringing people to Jesus; perhaps it was because of the spiritual aura that surrounded even her songs about passionate love and heartache.


At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was successfully shopped by her father to John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had previously signed Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. Born with perfect pitch and the spooky ability to learn any song or mimic any vocal delivery by ear, Aretha had already been a strong draw on the national gospel circuit for five years. Among her many early mentors was Cleveland, a master choir director who expanded her knowledge of arranging and production techniques. Ironically, her ability to do so many things so well was to delay Aretha’s rise to secular fame. Able and willing to go in multiple directions, she couldn’t decide exactly how to market herself. At first, she and her father were certain that, since Columbia was already home to Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis, it would prove the perfect launching pad for an emergent Queen of Pop Soul. But they had failed to consider that an old, established label like Columbia might be slow to understand the changing tastes of a growing youth market.  

Seeing her as an artist with Nancy Wilson potential, Columbia had Detroit’s teenage powerhouse recording mostly standards and cabaret blues material, with arrangements too sedate to appeal to hormonal postwar teens already consuming savvy Motown dance hits and sexy doo-wop. So after eight albums in six years that earned critical acclaim but negligible public response, Aretha left the home of Mahalia for Atlantic Records, the rocking house that Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Drifters, and a deal with Stax Records had built.   

In the age of Auto-Tune it can be hard to imagine a time when all live singers were expected to have perfect tonal control of their own voices; yet this was what church training sought to instill. Vocal technique was used to facilitate communication and rapport with the audience. Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato — even lyrics and emotional intensity — according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require. Gospel went beyond the more cerebral sonic explorations of jazz to connect with primal levels of instinct and psyche that would subsequently infiltrate pop music via the sister genres of r&b and rock.

Franklin, with her husband and manager Ted White, signs with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler on November 21, 1966.

Black life in America has always generated its own soundtrack. Different styles — from circle shouts to work songs to jump blues — were spread first through live performance, then via various fixed and electronic media, as a way to give voice to our collective trials and triumphs as a people. Under the severe restrictions of slavery, which only slightly loosened and shifted after manumission, black music needed to serve as both protest and catharsis, allowing us to vent the most complex and nuanced emotions — ideally, as soon as they were felt. This is why first gospel, then r&b, became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. And why Aretha, with her church training, became acknowledged as “the voice” of that movement. Released in 1967 with a sound that wedded the poppy verve of Motown to the sultry syncopations of Stax and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, Aretha’s titanic Atlantic debut served to further consolidate and strengthen the collective dream of a successfully integrated United States.

Aretha’s particular musical gift was a deeply intuitive form of interpretation that made her recordings of “Spirit in the Dark,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” sound impossibly intimate and omniscient. As with her cover of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha didn’t have to write a song in order to make it her own. Her vocal performance implied not only that she understood what her listeners were feeling, but that she somehow also understood everything any listener would ever feel. This is an illusion, of course, but one so convincing that the bewitching appeal of it never fades. It is perhaps this almost telepathic rapport Aretha can build with her listeners, as she adds layers of meaning to each phrase, that facilitates spiritual healing in church settings. It is certainly one of the factors that lifts her best recordings above those of her peers, and from there, beyond category.

As the “civil rights decade” transitioned into the “black-power decade,” all music became more political. Singer-songwriters like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield produced protest and empowerment anthems. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From took Motown into the political arena. White pop musicians from Elvis to Joni Mitchell included anti-war and ecological themes in their set lists. Within this increasingly topical and diverse musical atmosphere, Aretha’s signature renditions of “Respect,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” were especially valued for their political subtexts as well as an ability to encourage fallen fighters not to give up hope. As a child in the Sixties and Seventies, I watched nightly news broadcasts in which political violence seemed to be everywhere, at home and abroad. People were frightened and angry. But the musical response to my trepidation was not the destructive rage of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but softer, sweeter, more constructive songs. Aretha’s choruses exhorted us to have courage, to endure. Lyrics like “Baby, baby, be strong/Baby, baby, hold on” would thread their way through “Lose This Dream” like the balm of Gilead. 

Throughout her career, Aretha moved effortlessly between overtly evangelical recordings like 1987’s double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, gutbucket soul, delicate Bacharach-and-David ballads, and provocative blues-rock covers, as if to show those who would come after her how it should be done. Will today’s stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé even attempt to replicate the diversity of Aretha’s catalog? Would their existing audience tolerate such a move? 

Fans line up for a concert by Aretha Franklin at the Apollo Theater in New York on June 3, 1971.

The creative intimacy and competitiveness of the pre-digital music scene was such that all the great bands and singers knew and admired one another. They made a game out of covering each other’s hits and vying for critical acclaim. Did Aretha envy Dionne Warwick’s and Roberta Flack’s pop singles? Did Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, or Gladys Knight ever strive to snatch Aretha’s crown as Queen of Soul? They were each talented and shrewd enough to keep us guessing with every new album and live performance.

No matter how far into secular music Aretha’s contracts with Columbia (1960–1966), Atlantic (1967–1979), or Arista (1980–2003) would take her, gospel would continue to characterize her sound, whether she was recording the Chic-influenced “Jump to It” in 1982 for writer-producer Luther Vandross or duetting with Whitney Houston in 1989 on an underground dance remix of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” produced by Clivillés and Cole of C&C Music Factory. Indeed, Aretha’s extraordinary ear and willingness to experiment led to many interesting singles that kept her sound relevant. She duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” in 1987, and with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in 2006. Her legacy of delivering pop, gospel, and r&b covers that blow the doors off the originals goes all the way back to 1967’s distaff take on Otis Redding’s “Respect.” And even in her later years, Aretha managed to astonish, taking both a 1994 cover of the Clivillés-and-Cole deep-house classic “A Deeper Love” and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the top of the Billboard dance chart.

In 1980, Clive Davis signed Aretha to Arista Records, one of the few major labels willing to invest in legacy soul divas despite the recording-industry recession of 1979 and the rising popularity of the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. This happened to be the same year Aretha’s performance of “Think” in The Blues Brothers put her golden pipes back on the radar of a teen audience. Protest music, which had been an organic and central part of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies, became a more random, scattershot affair for recording acts in the 1980s. Political songs were often created more to shock or provoke than to make people think and act in more conscious ways. For every trenchant rap like “The Message,” club track like “Beat the Street,” or ska broadside like “Ghost Town,” there emerged dozens of mindless ditties about little or nothing. Topical lyrics in general became darker and more bitter. Without a progressive social context or a community mobilized around higher ideals, entertainment becomes rather hollow. Soulless. (The Eighties were additionally tough on Aretha and the Franklin family, whose patriarch had been shot in a botched robbery and would remain in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.)

To update Aretha’s appeal, Davis resolved to integrate her approach to easy-listening standards on Columbia with the party-hearty stance she took toward gutbucket funk and soul on Atlantic. The resulting synthesis included a touch of Brill Building swing that managed to respect Franklin’s iconic position among older fans while hoping to catch precocious younger consumers. Interestingly, this was the same AOR fusion Arista successfully used to launch Dionne Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston in 1985.

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Near the end of the Eighties, as vocals and instruments couldn’t sound more robotic, the stylistic pendulum began to swing back toward Aretha’s richly human modes of expression. In 1991, TLC, an Atlanta girl group that featured two young singers and a rapper, asserted their feminism and sexual freedom with the same unabashed candor displayed on “Chain of Fools.” T-Boz, whose throaty contralto makes up in precision what it lacks in range, always reminds me of Aretha’s sly lower register. In 1988, Tracy Chapman’s first album harked back to the wry folk wisdom and compassionate insights of Aretha’s solo work on piano, while in 1990 Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love revived the unbridled passion that shaped Aretha’s early recordings on Atlantic. Neither the neo-folk singer nor the pop-soul princess shares Aretha’s timbre — only a recognizable portion of her unique sensibility. In particular, her resilience.

Mary J. Blige, as Puff Daddy’s favorite protégée, strove to voice the hopes and realities of her embattled generation as Aretha had done. But it was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello who came closer to having all the skills Aretha brought to the stage. Erykah Badu came out of Texas in 1997 with the perfect voice and attitude to reinvent r&b in her own spooky punk soul sister image: irreverent, sardonic, a woman in control of herself and her men, and completely indomitable. Badu is Aretha as she liked to see herself…unbreakable. Remember those busy runs toward the end of “Respect” and “Think,” where Aretha ad-libs all kinds of sass? The diva is in the details, and nobody can throw shade into a vocal aside any better. It’s a side of the singer people are often too worshipful to talk about, but it’s an important aspect of her inner strength. She’s survived enough genuine tragedy and heartbreak in life to be allowed to own her moments of bitchiness or depression. But like many women she chooses to tough it out, refusing to be portrayed as weak or vulnerable in any way.

Two years ago, the Knowles sisters put out two albums attempting to set new standards for contemporary post-hip-hop soul. Like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, they want to deepen the lyrical discourse. Maybe even discuss some kind of social revolution. To focus attention on mood and meaning, both Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table apply a skeletal approach to melody and harmony. But the feeling conveyed within the compressed scales and digitized atmospherics Solange uses throughout A Seat at the Table is as stark and moving as anything heard on Aretha’s first live album, Aretha in Paris. It’s almost as if both women studied the palpable acoustic space surrounding the tiny combo on that stage and found a way to re-create those aural textures in a digital setting. Lemonade, in its themes and ambition, may have reminded listeners of Lauryn Hill’s deeply personal 1998 opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or even Alicia Keys’s solo debut. But what I hear in all three productions are aspects of Aretha channeled through each performer. They are heirs to Aretha and the black church in the best possible way, in that they haven’t forgotten that healing comes from not being afraid to reveal your naked heart.


Slowly and quietly, the past few decades saw increasing numbers of younger artists drinking at the font of Aretha’s legacy: Cheryl Pepsii Riley released a moving version of “Ain’t No Way” in 1991, and both Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige managed to cut successful new duets with her. But leave it to the feisty septuagenarian to have the final say on who’s zoomin’ who, by cutting the 2014 concept album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which entered Billboard’s r&b chart at No. 3. Part tribute, part cutting contest, the album shows Franklin bringing all her emotional intelligence plus a shrewd sense of historical perspective to some of the biggest singles the original performers ever had. Adele, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington, and Sinéad O’Connor come together in this context as an intriguing gallery of idols and competitors. 

https://youtu.be/XHsnZT7Z2yQ

Aretha’s reputation within the pop-music establishment is so undeniable as to render any accounting foolish. But the accolades are not why we love her. None of the presidential, civic, municipal, or international awards that came her way explain why this woman had the power to move us so much. I celebrate having been a witness to her life, and mourn her passing because she was special, and we may not see her equal again. Aretha didn’t give many interviews, nor did she explain herself much. But the quote that most reveals the inner thoughts and depths of feeling that fueled her ability to touch an audience came from an interview she gave Essence magazine in the 1970s:

“Being black means being beautiful,” Aretha said. “It also means struggles and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain, and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.”

Aretha Franklin prepares to perform during “The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2015.
Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Lives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

https://youtu.be/R29XGl2WZQo

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect”

“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.

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Looking Back to Say Goodbye to the ‘Queen of Soul’

In 1967 music and pop culture critic Richard Goldstein admitted in his Pop Eye column that he was “only a reluctant connoisseur of rhythm and blues.” After mentioning Percy Sledge, Otis Redding — check out the ad for Redding’s concert on the page — Lou Rawls, and others, he writes, “Then there is Aretha Franklin. She drops notes on me like a raincloud.” He also muses on the buoyant effect the “Queen of Soul” could have on him, one that just about anyone with a pair of ears can relate to in their own way: “Even when I’ve heard ‘Respect’ 50 times, it picks me up at 5 a. m. when I’m washed out with a stubborn article, and watching the streetlights go out.” Like many who have marveled at Franklin’s pipes, he says that he would sometimes “lie back and try to figure out how something so reverent could also be filthy and wonderful.” 

Fast-forward to 1985 and Carol Cooper compares Tina “Queen of Rock” Turner’s Private Dancer album to Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who release, noting a “difference in perspective almost as extreme as that between Robert Johnson and Marvin Gaye.” Cooper covers not only the soaring sonics of Franklin’s artistry — “Even in the throes of unrequited desire, Aretha’s creamy vibrato insinuates an inexorable will to win” — but also points out the political and social aspects of both albums, the way in which each “provides 360 degrees of insight into the human condition, which has always been black music’s only stock in trade.”

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Farewell to the Revolutionary, Influential, and Dazzling ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin

Was there a better singer than Aretha Franklin? Not one I ever heard. Not only did the “Queen of Soul” possess the pipes, but she had the improvisational skills to put them to great use on a wide variety of material while also imbuing her performances with heavy doses of passion and sass.

The daughter of the influential Detroit minister and civil rights activist Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha sang in church prior to recording a God-fearing album called Songs of Faith when she was a mere fourteen years old. But she wanted to go “secular,” like her idol, Sam Cooke, did, and in 1967 she scored as an Atlantic Records artist who fused her gospel and bluesy roots with pop and r&b sounds, a fusion that resulted in an astounding string of hits. In that one year alone, Franklin released classics like “Respect,” “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like),” and “Chain of Fools.”

The next year, she trotted out the explosive story song “The House That Jack Built,” the dynamic “See Saw,” and her idiosyncratic version of Dionne Warwick’s hit “I Say a Little Prayer,” which is practically a duet between Aretha and her backups, the Sweet Inspirations (who also sang on the Warwick version). The Inspirations were founded by Cissy Houston, whose daughter, Whitney, in the 1980s, took Aretha’s gospel-based pyrotechnic style and brought it even closer to the mainstream.

Aretha was no stick-thin, smiling Diana Ross (whom I happen to love as well). She was a little pudgy and always flashy, often dressed in fabulous clothes and sporting similarly fabulous hairstyles without ever seeming self-conscious about it; she had the pure talent to change the world’s aesthetics, as all eyes — and ears — were glued to her deeply felt magic. Elvis Presley had borrowed songs from black artists and turned them into hits, but now an African American artist was in the spotlight, using her gifts and influences to scale the charts — and with a revolutionary style, too.

In 1976, she sang a luscious version of “Something He Can Feel” on the soundtrack to Sparkle, a girl-group musical that was later remade with Jordin Sparks and, yes, Whitney Houston. In the Eighties, she got up to date with some Luther Vandross–produced hits like “Jump to It” and “Get It Right,” rollicking numbers in which she seemed to be having a really good time. More of the same followed with the breezy, Narada Michael Walden–produced “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.”

That decade also featured two irresistible duets — the feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with the fiery Annie Lennox, and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a Motown-esque duo with an adoring George Michael.

As brilliant as her originals were — like 1970’s bitterly infectious “Don’t Play That Song” — it was on her covers that Aretha got to really dig deep, reinvent, and send chills. Check out her patiently soulful versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “It’s My Turn.” She’s the only singer who would make it hard to remember the original songs after you heard her versions.

After her heyday had passed, I saw Aretha in concert and was distressed to notice that she was avoiding certain high notes — they weren’t quite as available to her as they had been previously. She was likely also conserving her energy, which is only natural. By 2014, when she covered Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” her vibrato had become way too tremulous, but there was still power and charisma in her delivery, so you had to give the woman her propers.

Favorite Aretha moments? At the 1998 Grammy Awards, after Luciano Pavarotti had fallen ill, she stepped in and sang “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot — a song Pavarotti was known for lavishing his vocal cords on. The result was exceedingly bizarre, I must say, but ultimately thrilling, and you really had to admire her chutzpah. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, she wore an eyeball-grabbing, big-bowed hat and sang “America” (“My country, ’tis of thee”) with a whole lot of feeling, making the president — and all of us — helplessly weep as history was being made.

Yes, the woman could be a diva, and her distaste for air-conditioning — because it would affect her voice — caused many concertgoers to lose weight by shvitzing. But it was worth it to see Lady Soul turn it up. Virtually every note out of her mouth was so influential that even today a lot of pop stars wish they could approximate her sound. There are scores of American Idol–style singers who think they’re being like Aretha by simply belting and trilling and loudly going up and down scales. They need to take another listen and bow down to the lady.

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Muscle Shoals Gives all the Mud, Spirit and Glory a Fresh Breath

We see Bono’s face before we hear a soul singer sing, but other than that prizing of current fame over timeless r&b, Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s engaging new doc Muscle Shoals stands as a winning tribute to the coastal Alabama studio, musicians, and engineers who laid down some of the greatest pop tracks of the late ’60s and early ’70s: Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The film and the principals—FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler, members of the rhythm section, even Aretha herself—indulge in myth-making, citing some spirit hauled up from Alabama river mud that made these white musicians play so “greasy” and “funky” (Aretha’s words!). But with music this rich and soulful, a little grandiosity is to be expected—especially considering the studio was so egalitarian about race at a time and place you wouldn’t expect. The archival footage is strong, Camalier is generous with musical clips, and the talking heads generate some drama when describing epochal moments like Aretha’s first session. We don’t really need Mick Jagger or Alicia Keys to tell us how good “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” is, of course; much more persuasive is seeing Muscle Shoals keyboard player Spooner Oldham, all these years later, hitting the opening organ chord—it’s all mud, spirit, glory, and everything else. It’s such a high that the Rolling Stones later talking us through the recording of “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” feels like a bit of a letdown. Still, the Lynyrd Skynyrd section might even make you hear “Freebird” with fresh ears.

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Aretha Franklin

Following some undisclosed health issues — and related concert cancellations — the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, has recently reported she has made a “miraculous” recovery and, as of an August interview, has been looking forward to her two Radio City gigs this weekend. Although the 71-year-old singer has issued three albums (including a Christmas LP) over the past decade or so, her concerts typically focus on the hits, both hers and ones by people like Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, and Jackie Wilson. Regardless of what she performs, though, getting the chance to see a master at work is always a rare treat.

Fri., Jan. 17, 8 p.m., 2014

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This Time

Even artists have their own working class—those hustlers with relatively steady work, ever
waiting on that one merciful break—and several of its members are the focus of This
Time
, director Victor Mignatti’s engaging but near fatally bifurcated dispatch from
the fringes of the floundering music industry. The obvious center of the doc’s larger
story (wherein three sets of lifers take one last shot at the big time) are the Sweet
Inspirations, best known as backup singers for a past generation of one-namers like
Elvis, Aretha, and Dusty. A trio at the time of shooting (Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, and
Portia Griffin), it famously counted Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston, among its members. Similar comeback story lines involving club diva Pat Hodges and a stalled cabaret singer named Bobby Belfry are well-blended by dovetailing themes and snappy editing, but it’s the Inspirations who cry out for the star treatment. Tantalizing snippets from its combative
history and rotating membership are tossed to the sidelines; the members’ personality clashes
and mutual psychoanalyzing hint at a much better story left untold. You would never
know, for instance, that two original Inspirations died during filming. Without meaning
to, Mignatti compounds the injury of several careers spent trying to step out of the
background. Michelle Orange

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HELLO. . . .

Perhaps you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but give him a solid backing band and guest appearances from the biggest stars in Nashville, and he might put out an album as good as Tuskegee, Lionel Richie’s recent country duets collection. Nearly 20 years after first gesturing towards the genre with 1984’s “Stuck on You,” Richie goes all the way with it on Tuskegee, even reworking “Endless Love” with Shania Twain singing the female lead. At tonight’s spring gala, Richie will be inducted into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame, perhaps bringing some of his new pals along for the ride. Etta James joins him in the Class of 2012, receiving the honor posthumously and joining a group that includes Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Patti LaBelle.

Mon., June 4, 7 p.m., 2012