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

2002 Pazz & Jop: Party in Hard Times

The worst one-two finish in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll couldn’t have come in a worse year, and it’s my sworn duty to tell you why. The year was so bad it quashed a worthier worst one-two finish and continued on to a worst one-two-three, so bad that a worse finish yet could come in a worse year yet — namely, the 2003 this worst year sets up. But hey — rock and roll, big deal. If next Presidents’ Day Annan has snookered Wolfowitz and Sharon is on a leash and the worst son of a bad man has failed to slip another quantum of GNP to the one percenters, I won’t care if Pazz & Jop does go to early favorite Daniel Lanois. Meanwhile, history sucks, and headed by two of the dullest works of well-turned semipopularity ever to contemplate their own impotence, our 29th or 30th poll sucks right along with it.

One way or another, artists can’t help responding to current events. The question isn’t whether, it’s how —with denial always an option. From Tweedy and Beck to Cee-Lo and Karen O, from Charles Aaron to Shannon Zimmerman, almost all our finishers and the vast majority of our respondents are dismayed if not outraged by September 11’s fallout: the imminent attack on Iraq, invasions of privacy bleeding into curbs on expression, the arrant escalation of the class war initiated by Reagan. But that doesn’t mean they know what to do about it, and this old artistic dilemma is further snarled in reactions to September 11 proper that go deeper than outrage and dismay: mourning, disorientation, uncertainty, fear. While the oligarchs in Washington jumped to arrogate more power to their cohort, the rest of us grieved, seethed, tossed and turned, worried about right and wrong, and tried to reclaim our lives. Recall if you will how brave and weird it felt to go to a club or celebrate a birthday in the early autumn of 2001. Then realize that a lot of the apparently apolitical music honored by our critics this year was created under comparable emotional circumstances.

And then add the complication that a lot of it couldn’t have been, because it predates that pivotal day. Eight of our top 40 got votes in last year’s poll: Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Super Furry Animals, Andrew W.K., Soundtrack of Our Lives, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an earlier version of the N.E.R.D. album, and our winner (do the words “back story” mean anything to you?); so did several of the information thefts expropriated for the illegal-times-two Best Bootlegs in the World Ever. Linda Thompson’s return is a life project, and many early-2002 releases — Streets, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Doves, Clinic, Cee-Lo — were begun if not finished before the world changed. Even Steve Earle’s Jerusalem, with its focus track claiming John Walker Lindh is a human being, was mostly written by August 2001. And except for Jerusalem, which insisted, and our winner, so redolent it wrapped any meaning its admirers hung on it in a haze of regret, none of these albums was burdened with ex post facto relevance. All registered as getting-on-with-our-lives records, background music for a party in hard times.

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These before-and-after distinctions will seem overly fine to two camps that concur on little else: the hedonists who scoff at any politicization of pop discourse and the moralists for whom pop discourse is never political enough. Both find that music post-9/11 was as down with its own program as ever. Even our critically sanctioned kind is escapist on the singles chart, where the artistic action is bright of plumage and light of foot to compensate, and self-involved on the album chart, where blue brontosauri, hoary anodynes, great-headed shows of significance, and other protected species still rumble across the plain: Solomon Burke’s latest comeback, which has him trading backslaps with once-famed songwriters in a push-me-pull-you bacchanal the Grammys understand too well, or Sigur Rós’s deliberately incomprehensible attempt to bring Debussyan tone color to their gray-green land. But other bands demonstrated that formalism needn’t be ponderous to be self-referential. Austin’s Spoon jacked up their groove and pared down their sound on an album that accentuates keyboard yet announces its intentions with the opening words “small stakes”; Dakar’s Orchestra Baobab ended the long retirement that followed their climactic final LP with a masterful encore CD whose four best tracks improve songs from their first life. These were spirited and resilient records that had zero to do with the world situation they helped the world survive. Career albums topping career albums, they were music for music’s sake, down with their own programs.

Which brings us — God have I been dreading this — to our underwhelming winner-by-a-mile and surprise runner-up. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Beck’s Sea Change didn’t amass near the support of Dylan and the Strokes in 2001 or OutKast-Harvey-Radiohead-Eminem in 2000; with voting up 12 percent to 695, they pulled markedly fewer points. But they’re Pazz & Jop albums of the year regardless, and I wish they were easier to tell apart. Remember folk-rock? Well, this is folk-rock — evolved folk-rock, postmodern if you must, but folk-rock nonetheless. The giveaways are (a) pedigree and (b) drumming. Beck has long served as celebrity spokesperson for an antifolk movement long turned pro, and while alt-country turned out to be where songwriting adepts Ryan Adams and Rhett Miller shored up their popcraft against the roil of grunge, Wilco chose a different kind of genius move — channeling Woody Guthrie for Billy Bragg. Beck is also the white-funk trickster of Midnite Vultures, and although I’m truly sorry about his girlfriend, his groove there was knock-kneed enough to kick off a mutation into string-swathed crooner of sad songs all by itself. Wilco’s drummer is Ken Coomer — you could look it up, and I bet you’ll still have to. His most prestigious side credit is an inert track on Jerusalem, which rocks high-octane when Will Rigby is driving.

How I tell them apart is that Wilco is the one I tried to hate and ended up respecting and Beck is the one I tried to like and ended up walking around the room until it could get home on its own. As I relistened, it happened again: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was so passive-aggressive I wanted to throttle it, Sea Change so pretty I wanted to tell it I was sorry, only then Beck’s songs vaporized as Wilco’s took on a weathered solidity. Clearly, though, the two share a genetic code: diffident vocals, winsome tunes, contained tempos, affectless rhythms, and, above all, texture as aesthetic signifier. Nothing wrong with texture, which as timbre, melisma, “microtones,” etc. is a prized delicacy in almost every kind of music; in rock and roll, it’s been sticking out its tongue at “classical” canons of tonal purity since 1955. But note that its present vogue privileges what once would have been called sound effects, and that these proceed from the sampler and hence hip hop, though in England they say techno. Most would rate Radiohead’s OK Computer the apogee of pomo texture, well ahead of Beck’s Odelay, but before those two I fell for Latin Playboys. Where OK Computer’s sound effects are also alienation effects, all dystopian gloom, fractured groove, and hate-love relationship with technology, on Latin Playboys, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez conjure places and people past and present from Tchad Blake’s audio treasure chest, blending them in with a hip, swinging, hip-swinging sense of time. My view of our dystopian prospect is that if I change my mind now about who was right, bin Bush has won.

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As a token of their transcendent genius, Wilco split the difference. Our winner is temperate rather than warm or cold, reticent rather than sociable or disaffected, and barely sampled at all — more “treated,” or just plain arranged. The way Jeff Tweedy’s tunes seep through shifting strata of complication recalls Beck’s in Odelay, but Odelay was a lot jollier than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and also than Sea Change, which signals a retreat by abandoning the sampler for sour strings, gobs of reverb, and passably parsable lyrics. Both records make a virtue of their entanglement in disconnected sound, their depressive inability to control an encroaching environment — a defeatism familiar enough from slacker days, only slackers were hyperactive, funny, or at least ironic about it. Wilco’s and Beck’s integrity comes down to a stubborn determination — distinctly American in its folksy affect and go-it-alone-ism — to tell the world how very ineffective they feel.

There’s honor in this. But right below Beck, a better way glints through yet another pokey piece of soundscape Americana, the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the psychedelic nutballs joke, cope, hope, and okey-doke with a lot more life than on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. I might have A-listed it if the pink robot was Dick Cheney instead of a stock sci-fi villain. But not even the guy I had penciled in above Beck found a way to get that specific. Had The Rising been half what it intended instead of a quarter, I could have nattered on about the matched insufficiencies of broken field run and power play, aestheticism and moralism, shards of sound and great gallumphing truckloads of good old rock and roll. But it wasn’t. It was a failure, magnificent or pathetic or tragic or self-important or merely insufficient. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s politics, as left-decent as any in the music. Then ask yourself how left-decent a reaction he got. And then try to imagine what better album might have radicalized his return. Should he have adopted the Mekons’ “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”? Earle’s “Jerusalem”? Would it have made a damn bit of difference if he had?

What, us effective? Of the finishers who responded directly to September 11, and there were several, only Earle seemed at all programmatic, a folkie without apology now. Elsewhere, politics were personal. If Sleater-Kinney and the Mekons were jolted upward pollwise, that’s because they’d been jolted themselves; if Missy Elliott name-checked the World Trade on her way to Aaliyah’s funeral and Eminem warned his army to stay out of Rumsfeld’s, they were doing what came naturally. Sonic Youth recorded at Ground Zero without getting literal about it, chalked up survivor credit, and were propelled back onto our chart by the musical machinations of fifth member Jim O’Rourke (also all over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and since I prefer the late-’90s Kim-and-Thurston Pazz & Jop snubbed, assume I don’t get him). Three “conscious” rap albums — by gabby Blackalicious, esoteric Common, and the perennial Roots — could have been recorded in 1997 for all the social science they dropped: career name-namers Zack De La Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron, for instance, contribute only righteous generalizations to Blazing Arrow, which burrows its aspersions on patriotism so deep John Poindexter will never notice. The opposition was out there. Be-Afroed Mr. Lif rhymed against the bombing of Afghanistan and finished a respectable 89th; conscious godfathers Public Enemy rhymed against Bush and won the support of a single cross-dressing punk rocker. But the voters preferred Common at his uncommon worst, dripping keyb-enhanced rectitude.

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It’s conceivable they had no way to know better. Strangely or not, all of our “alternative” hip hop albums are copyrighted information products of UniMoth MegaCorp, while Koch signee Public Enemy is now an indie act no less than Mr. Lif and his Def Jux labelmate, 41st-by-a-tiebreaker RJD2. (41–50, available online like the rest of our results: soundscaping RJD2, O Dixie Chicks Where Art Thou, third-with-its-2001-points White Stripes, AYWKUBTTODLAMF, Friends of Karen O, Tom Waits’s unbloodied Alice, she-has-my-2001-points Pink, Avril fans Boards of Canada, Boards of Canada fans Black Dice, state-of-the-union address Red Hot + Riot). Although the majors continued to bleed quality to small businesspeople less burdened by debt service, support for indie albums among our expanded electorate slipped slightly. Granted, exact counts are impossible, especially with every distribution and capitalization deal hiding its own wrinkle and the sign-’em-up farm-team model making a comeback (see Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Andrew W.K., Blackalicious, Houston ghetto boy cum former Rap-A-Lot recording artist Scarface, and soon Yeah Yeah Yeahs). But really, how was MCA’s Blazing Arrow a drastic improvement over Quannum Products’ NIA — music or promotion? Duh.

Also major-friendly is one of two significant European movements — not mashups, as indie as it gets even when 2 Many DJ’s gets permissions, but what I’ll designate Eurosemipop because Europop already means anything from ye-ye to Abba to *NSync to Coldplay itself. It would be willful to deny the tunes and sonics of Coldplay, Super Furry Animals, Doves, and Soundtrack of Our Lives, and they’re of their own culture. Stateside semipop like Spoon and (O Neko Where Art Thou) New Pornographers is altogether quirkier and more intense; the few American bands who aspire to a comparable sound — prominent melody textured with worked harmonies, whitebread emoting, and arrangements that mix trad and pomo — end up beefcake or cotton candy. Which is why only a cowboy like me could call Coldplay or Doves semi-anything — although they’re less laddish about it, in the land of Blurandoasis they were conceived to go for the gold. Gothenburg’s Soundtrack and Cardiff’s Furries are somewhat more boho. But all four distinguish themselves from, let us say, Clinic and the Hives by simple virtue of being dead on their feet — even Soundtrack, Stones fans though they may be. They hire drummers who could beat Ken Coomer within an inch of his life and then put that power in the service of the Antifunk. They aim for stasis even when they rock. Stasis is beauty. And beauty is…well, everything, innit?

Lyrically, let’s say that the Swedes and Welshmen favor alt-style allusion where the English bands cultivate well-meaning commonplaces. I feel Coldplay’s and not Doves’, but both clearly whispered radio-video to whoever was running Capitol at the time. Funk, Antifunk, what’s the diff. Just keep it vague, er, accessible — universal. When that’s the name of the major-label game — which it needn’t be, just ask such holdouts as Flaming Youth, Sonic Lips, E. Costello & His Amazing Gall Bladder, younger please, er, Queens of the Impending Stone Age, Scandinavia’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, Shadow Knows, Norah Jones is too all-ages — stasis is neither here nor there. If there’s a market for beats, business schools, it’s your job to provide beats.

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For those who favor corporate support of the arts, this has long been a piece of luck. And in 2002 the voters finally offered clear statistical indication that great-headed shows of significance weren’t the only evolutionary success in a music that remains blues-based historically whatever its chords. For the first time since “Sun City” edged Little Creatures in 1985 — after “The Message” and “Sexual Healing” whipped Imperial Boredom in 1982 — more respondents listed our No. 1 single than our No. 1 album. With a third of the electorate still standing moot on singles, this makes Missy Elliott’s “Work It” pretty universal — hoisted aloft by 46 percent of the voters in her category where Wilco limped along at 29. For some voters, radio is a vast wasteland, the record business in its death throes. But for many others, pop innovation is at a historic peak, with artist-of-the-year beatmasters Timbaland and the Neptunes come to slash and burn the extinction-bound ponderosas on the album chart.

This old argument has never had more weight. Tim and the Neps have placed 12 records by 11 different artists on our singles charts over the past two years, with the Tim-and-Missy combo twice No. 1 in a landslide and “Work It” ’s Neptunes-Nelly preamble “Hot in Herre” third by a single vote in 2002 — behind “Lose Yourself,” Eminem’s rock song about the rap agon. For purposes of argument I wish two-three had reversed — Eminem got respect by becoming less interesting and less hip hop in 2002, and “Lose Yourself” isn’t even the best 8 Mile has to offer (especially 8 Mile the movie). Inconveniently, however, I never connected with “Hot in Herre”; for me the Neps’ great triumph was the sly funk they fashioned in tandem with Tim and 127th-place Justin Timberlake. If they’re the future, as Sasha Frere-Jones isn’t alone in believing, maybe I’m just showing my age. But hear me out.

The producer as auteur is an idea whose time has come and then some; having gotten to where what are called beats sometimes reject, sometimes exploit, and sometimes just are what are called hooks, we need figureheads with more rebop than Jeff Tweedy. But it’s one thing to insist that musicality in a rhythm music doesn’t equal songcraft plus sound effects, another to explain how any kind of pure musicianship, rhythmic included, signifies in pop, which achieves meaning by any means necessary. I should have voted for the backward-unmasked “Work It,” which grabbed me right after our deadline — it’s a surreally inventive novelty, so eventful it would take thousands of words to describe (love that jackass, or is it an elephant?). But even more than “Hot in Herre,” a novelty is what it is, a novelty about the liberating power of sex — especially if you think liberation involves oblivion, an ancient idea in people’s music.

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This is a myth whose efficacy is well-known at Pazz & Jop’s anti-pop extreme, in the only alt movement of moment: the Brooklyn bohos who successfully declared themselves a scene in the wake of 9/11, embracing the soft-core porn deceptively trademarked electroclash before shape-shifting toward an alienated DOR (“dance-oriented rock,” we called such earlier overrated bands as the Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid) best understood by the DFA label. Result: three charting singles, the dominatrix tongue-in-chic of the squeaked-on Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, and the well-chilled eroticism of half-Brit Interpol’s top-20 album. Right, the sexualization of pop has been accelerating for many years — since MTV, maybe disco. And as usual — here come da “Sexual Healing,” now tell me where da “Message” — black musicians do it better. Still, this is a party in hard times however you slice it. Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before we let that happen we’ll fuck our lives away.

A believer in sex myself, I voted for Tweet-and-Tim’s “Oops (Oh My),” where Tweet strokes herself in the mirror after a hot date, a consummation much preferable to Interpol’s “You’re so cute when you’re frustrated dear/You’re so cute when you’re sedated dear.” But I’m not convinced anyone should feel obliged to get naked at the drop of a hint, and wish Missy was autonomous enough to differentiate between sex-positive and boy-crazy; when she offers to “put my thing down flip it and reverse it,” well, I like the way the image matches the music, but as a procedural guideline it seems a bit on the fancy side. I love the track, and in general prefer Tim’s gnarled beats (every one a swamp, with old sneakers, interesting deadwood, and empty Henny bottles set out like folk sculpture) to the Neptunes’ sleek, efficient ones (more like airports: strong franchise coffee, moving sidewalks, fluorescent lighting everywhere). But for me the most gratifying surprise of this poll was the Neptunes d/b/a N.E.R.D.’s In Search of…, which I now love for the same reasons I panned it in July: Obscenely wealthy, obscenely catchy thugs-by-association rationalize their ethics and throw their dicks around, only they’re consumed by doubt and hence honest enough to make themselves look like jerks. As conflicted as Biggie or Ghostface and more self-examined, they’ll be ready for the orgiasts whenever it cools down in therre — which is not to claim the orgiasts will be ready for them.

There I go, trumping a single with an album like I always do. Sorry, that’s how I hear, and how I want you to hear. I’ll never dis beatmastery, been pumping it forever, but even in hip hop I see bigger future in the Roots and Cee-Lo, both of whom chose this year to humanize their formal commitment with injections of singing and guitar. Up against my fellow citizens over in Williamsburg I’ll take the Drive-By Truckers’ underclass regionalism — or the alt logorrhea of Omaha’s/Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Brixton’s/the Streets’ Mike Skinner, one texturing with an 11-piece band featuring bassoon and cello, the other with low-end electronic junk. And when I want to escape — which I often do, music is great for it — I have plenty of living options. Heading my fuck-what-you-say Dean’s List, the longest ever, are the worldly, faithful, Muslim/Catholic, catholic/pagan Afrosalsa of Orchestra Baobab; the self-sufficient, ears-everywhere, middle-class microcosm of DJ Shadow; and the mad, bitter, guarded, indomitable truth-telling of the Mekons. I’m proud they all finished, never mind where. Jon Langford, who’s managed to put out four albums since last March including one against the death penalty, is my artist of the year, and I intend to follow his example. The world won’t end, you know. It will just get worse.

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Top 10 Albums of 2002

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

2. Beck: Sea Change (DGC)

3. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)

4. The Streets: Original Pirate Material (Locked On/Vice)

5. Sleater-Kinney: One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)

6. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia)

7. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)

8. Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath/Interscope)

9. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)

10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra)

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Top 10 Singles of 2002

1. Missy Elliott: “Work It” (Elektra)

2. Eminem: “Lose Yourself” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Nelly: “Hot in Herre” (Universal)

4. The Hives: “Hate to Say I Told You So” (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)

5. Eminem: “Without Me” (Aftermath/Interscope)

6. The White Stripes: “Fell in Love With a Girl” (V2)

7. Kylie Minogue: “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (Capitol)

8. Nirvana: “You Know You’re Right” (DGC)

9. Rapture: “House of Jealous Lovers” (DFA)

10. Tweet: “Oops (Oh My)” (Elektra)

—From the February 12–18, 2003, 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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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1999 Pazz & Jop: Flak on Both Sides

Rock critics are nerds. We like it that way. We like staying home and listening to records, then trading them in for other records (even, heh heh, beer money). We like being on the guest list, too. There’s lots of good things about this job. We don’t have to coo over John Updike or Robert Bresson. We get to use CAPITALS more than front-of-the-book colleagues who don’t know our names. And exclamation points! So say it loud — ROCK CRITICS ARE NERDS!! A nerd army, with thesauruses mightier than a ploughshare, and the up-to-the-minute vernacular weapons our chosen artform exploits so greedily. We’re paid to have fun! We’re not paid much, true. But, heh heh, see the barter part above.

All of which is to explain why, for rock critics, the turning of the millennium took a backseat to something far more important: 1999 was a terrible year to be a nerd. Or anyway, an art nerd; techie nerds did fine. Yet though the spectacle of young workaholics getting rich quick with every IPO hardly enhanced the social happiness of our community of content providers, the year’s most galling indignities were inflicted by our chosen artform. We’re used to not topping the charts; too many of us enjoy it. But usually there are status perks to compensate, and historically the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has partaken of these. The 1998 Lauryn Hill–Lucinda Williams face-off pitted the glamorous teacher-diva of rockcrit’s rap dreams against a longtime succès d’estime propelled into something resembling fame by print media; 1997 winner Bob Dylan proffered wordslingers the gift of meaningful old age if not eternal life, while in a grand old Brit tradition Radiohead’s art-rocking second-runners rode reviews to sales; in 1996 alt-folk superloser Beck transformed himself into a pop-funk best-seller by dint of the cleverness and chutzpah rockcrits live by; and before that we lived for years off Nirvana’s leavings.

Our 26th or 27th poll provides no such satisfactions, showcasing shortfall after shortfall. Not only are winner Moby and runner-up Stephin Merritt two of the shrimpiest guys ever to achieve prominence in an artform that has never competed with the NFL, but their albums are succès d’estime only: Moby’s Play clawed its way to 125 on “Bodyrock” ’s run and is now, cross your fingers, climbing again, while the Magnetic Fields’ three-CD 69 Love Songs wouldn’t have charted if Stephin’s mom had bought out Merge’s first pressing. These heroes are followed by former pop-funk best-seller Beck, whose supposed sexx album has failed to back any azzes away from the black pop that supposedly inspired it; Oklahoma’s acid-tested Flaming Lips, who floated their magnum opus heavenward in a poll where they’d never cracked 60 before but, as with all but one of their previous dozen longforms, failed to breach the Billboard 200; and the indie-rock debut of old semipop role model Tom Waits. Then the exception, Rage Against the Machine’s double-platinum The Battle of Los Angeles, album of the year in Rolling Stone and runner-up in Spin, kudos some call p.c. though clearly both rewarded Rage’s rare-in-’99 parlay of critical and commercial credibility. Fiona Apple’s solider follow-up to her megaselling 1996 debut clearly lacks the legs of the hit that made it possible, as does Beck’s sillier follow-up; released in November, both are certified gold and swooning around toward the bottom of the top 100 as I write. Sadly soothing Wilco and Beth Orton enjoyed even less impressive SoundScan debut-peaks, 78 and 110. And the sole top-10 hip hop selection, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, is on indie-rap Rawkus, a sales behemoth by indie-rock standards that has yet to command the market share galvanized by nearly every 1999 release on Def Jam or Cash Money.

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Shortfalls are business as usual on our unbusinesslike survey, of course. But except for 14th-place Nine Inch Nails, 1999 was exceptional for its dearth of crit-mersh parlays down the line; the hip hop and r&b artists we deigned to recognize don’t need us for sales or status, and with 40th-place Santana we’re just along for the ride — Carlos’s four other ’90s albums garnered nary a mention. Worse still, these fiscal embarrassments are epiphenomena. The real problem is that, just like in high school, we’re being made to look bad from two sides, and in areas where we thought we’d secured squatter’s rights. Hitters like Limp Bizkit will sell records forever, we accept that, but we never imagined that one day they’d get to smash all that Woodstock peace-and-love ticky-tacky to bits — Woodstock was ours no matter how much we made fun of hippies. And though teenpop had been coming and going even longer than metal, it had generally been reducible to a single symbol like the Osmonds or the New Kids. How annoying to have to distinguish between the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And how ominous that every goddamn one of these cheerleaders and student council suckups was selling a gazillion albums. Like Woodstock, albums are supposed to be ours. They’re supposed to have artistic pretensions. Teenyboppers get singles.

For purposes of clarity, I’ve been free with the editorial “we” here. In fact, not all rock critics are nerds, and if you don’t buy that one how about not all nerds are the same? Specifically, some have no use for the state of formal hyperconsciousness that rolls its eyes at pop’s trick bag of mnemonic riffs — they like having their buttons pushed. So our singles voters have always made room for trifles album snobs enjoy despising — “Jump,” “Lump,” “Creep,” “Jump Around,” “Unbelievable,” “La Macarena,” “C’Mon N’ Ride It,” and, most remarkably, 1997’s first-place “MMMBop,” which occasioned a P&J cover depicting three milk-drinking young Oklahomans taking a bubble ride. With teenpop all over the radio in 1999, the electorate anointed three certified cheerleaders and suckups — Britney, Christina, and the Backstreet Boys. But since “I Want It That Way” is a timeless cipher that deserved to whup the “progressive” “No Scrubs,” and the misleadingly kid-identified “Steal My Sunshine” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” are the kind of happy skyrockets the voters always go for, this showing seems pretty lackluster to me. Critic after resentful critic complained that unnamed colleagues were shilling for teen shit, but darned if I know who they mean. Does Metal Mike Saunders loom that large? Am I really not allowed to stick a Backstreet Boys column in between the Latin Playboys and the Holy Modal Rounders? Some people are so threatened by the state of the pop marketplace that any informed response to same is dismissed as a pseudointellectual betrayal just for accepting — provisionally, mind you — the marketplace’s terms.

Really, even folks who compare Max Martin to Gertrude Stein or usher symbolic schoolgirls into their sex fantasies have their doubts about this pop marketplace. So before I move on to the music I care most about — Moby and the Magnetic Fields topped my album list too — allow me a few observations and projections. Christina Aguilera could end up a cleaner if not squeakier Mariah Carey, God help us, and some kid cabal Jive Records has never heard of is sure to bust out of the rehearsal rooms. But musically, teenpop’s crucial architect so far — producer-songwriter for BSB, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and counting — has been Swedish Europop mastermind Martin, who has direct links to Ace of Base. Those who believe his songs will fast-fade into oblivion should forget Paula Abdul and the Bay City Rollers and ponder the gaudy durability of Abba. They should wonder whether in 1968 Kasenetz & Katz themselves were certain that the Ohio Express’s “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” would be remembered longer than anything ever recorded by Rhinoceros or the Electric Flag. I’m not even convinced the teenpoppers will self-destruct when their target demo graduates from high school. All these showbiz kids memorize Behind the Music. Isn’t it possible that, just like George Michael, one of them will figure a way out of its cycle of eternal recurrence?

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Boy-band pimp though I may be, I hope not. Surrounding a few telling details with feel-good platitudes that never face facts or smash up the joint, teenpop is George W. Bush music right down to its faint Latin flavor. But this fact of life is aesthetic, not political — if kids do actually fall for the latest Yalie drug survivor, blame the Democrats or the damn Greens, not Carson Daly, Vibe, and the failure of Seagrams to make role models out of Girls Against Boys. What’s remarkable about the present pop moment isn’t the ignorance, passivity, and materialism of its consumers, none of it as one-dimensional as elitists assume. Correcting for economic anxiety, which diminished in the ’90s no matter how delusory the new mood may be, do you really think Nirvana’s millions were so different? The change is almost entirely a matter of blandness quotient, in fans and artists alike. And what’s unprecedented is not just that a rather luscious aesthetic has cohered around this vanilla sensibility, an aesthetic that at its best — as in LFO’s borderline-stupid “Summer Girls,” which ducked insults all the way to its 36th-place tie — makes its gawky self-interest seem coltish and sexy. It’s that this aesthetic is the only new game in the console. Not that we should write off future undergrounds — quite the opposite. But except in hip hop, where I hope against hope that breakouts and consolidations are imminent, few imagine that these undergrounds are anything else.

With only four of the top 10 singles on charting albums, no one can grump that the critics are reiterating their long-form tastes; it’s not their fault when the hits they love are withheld or withdrawn to force people to buy bad CDs with good songs on them. Their singles aesthetic favors energy and edge: “Steal My Sunshine” and “Believe” and “Praise You” and “Bawitdaba” and “Vivrant Thing” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” all devote themselves to toning up the élan vital, while “No Scrubs” and “You Got Me” and “All Star” and “My Name Is” and “Unpretty” are reality rushes, upful doses of home truth that set pungent rhyme to body-friendly rhythm. But of their top 10 albums, only Moby’s Play and Beck’s Midnite Vultures (both of which scored singles, notice) pay much mind to either effect, and even those are Serious Works. If Beck had accomplished anything like the art-funk/mind-body fusion he’s claiming, he would have run away with the poll — his problem isn’t that he tries to be funny, but that his jokes are as forced as his horn charts. Moby, on the other hand, not only proved himself the humanistic sellout techno straight-edgers have always suspected but gave unto the world his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Atheists have been having mystical experiences on the dance floor since disco. This born-againer made them flesh. He’s never believed electronics were the living end, and doesn’t show proper respect for the generic blues and gospel he exploits so grandly either. That makes him our kind of guy, and that’s why he won. Hurray.

When I say these albums are Serious, I mean for one thing that they’re short on laughs. Beyond Midnite Vultures, the only top-10 albums that made jokes a project came from Tom Waits, a funny guy who should be funnier (less Kerouac, more Burroughs, and please mister could we have some Ginsberg too) and isn’t as funny as he thinks he is (more pop burlesques, fewer literary grotesques). Plus of course the Magnetic Fields, whose three-CD act of conceptual derring-do is almost never not funny — even when the presumptive mood is somber, which isn’t often, the bravura rhymes make you chuckle with delight if not amusement. Cheap or rich, the tone is so much more complex than what is suggested these days by “irony” that you can assume anyone who uses the term doesn’t get the record, which knows things about love that you don’t. Since Merge was stingy with freebies, most of its 99 supporters paid or traded for it, which makes its second-place finish even more impressive. It will, it will rock you.

Granted, other funnymen also made our top 40 — nasty Randy Newman, kindly John Prine, wiggy Handsome Boy Modeling School, buggy ODB, dirty Kid Rock, and dirtier Eminem constitute the usual quota or better. What’s more serious is how many of the critics’ favorite albums took up the burden of historical recapitulation. It would be nonsense to call this impulse millennial when it so obviously reflects rock and roll’s ever-advancing maturity, which I mean not as stodgy compliment or veiled insult but neutral description. So our winner joyfully integrated rural feeling (not to mention rural hooks) into a “postmodern” “electronica” that has lost its next-big buzz — diehards voted for the Chem Bros. and Underworld the way earlier diehards stuck with Van Morrison, but the utopian rhetoric has faded away. Our runners-up, meanwhile, impassively stuffed an eccentric reading of 20th-century songwriting into slyly rudimentary postrock arrangements that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard except old Magnetic Fields. The same historiographic impulse touched off the repertory revivals of Prine and Ibrahim Ferrer, and imbues blues- and bluegrass-steeped Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Less familiarly and more pregnantly, it also puts across the pop-schooled orchestrations of Randy Newman (who invented this shit), Fiona Apple (thank you Jon Brion), XTC (West End boys after all), and — a thorny case — the Flaming Lips.

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Newman, Apple, and XTC we grasp: sonically arresting showpieces deploying lots of traditional pop instruments, rock only by association that couldn’t have happened without it. The Soft Bulletin, on the other hand, is rock period even though it drips with violin surrogates and trips over the beats of a drummer who’s spent too much time in the practice room. It’s the prime 1999 example of the species of contained adventure in which Megapop Inc. (especially Warners, which is still bravely trying to sell it) once invested with proud alacrity. People love it because it’s neopsychedelic in such an American, wide-open-spacy way — generous by nature, jerry-built on principle, and hopeful beyond all reason. What puts me off is that Wayne Coyne evinces so much more sweetness than brain. What puts me off Nine Inch Nails’ double-hoohah, on the other hand, is that Trent Reznor evinces neither, unless you think musical intelligence equals human intelligence, his con for years — always with music that says things like “dream job: emperor” and “more fun than death by injection.” Handsome Boy Modeling School gives me better goof and better techno-obsessiveness than either attempted masterwork, plus I know they’re not just wise guys because Prince Paul’s concept-album-of-the-year had deeper politics than The Battle of Los Angeles.Why both finished below The Soft Bulletin and The Fragile (and The Battle of Los Angeles) is for me to know and you to figure out.

The difference between confronting history and leaching life from the tried-and-true often confounds our alt-country branch. Wilco fans believe Jeff Tweedy is turning into Brian Wilson, poor guy; I’m reminded more of Tom Petty and the dogged craft of Richard Thompson, auteur of the not-half-baddest effort on our list. Since good songs infused with the right compound of concept and conviction can signify in any style, Kelly Willis and the Old 97’s are a different story. Only it’s easier to hear the songs if you feel the style — others pump Robbie Williams and Everything but the Girl as thinking teenpop and techno feminism, whereas for me they’re hip fop and pseudo Sade. I prefer the hip-schnook pseudopop of Fountains of Wayne, whose Utopia Parkway promises endless fun-fun-fun to those who can forget what’s actually on the car radio and don’t know that the real Utopia Parkway is a decaying residential thoroughfare in Queens. I’ll also take Mary J. Blige’s soulful indifference to class, which more than her stalwart songs is why I prefer her to Macy Gray, whose Billie-and-Dinah voice says Birdland and whose Shara-and-Dionne material (Nelson, Farris, remember?) says bank your advance. As someone who didn’t think Me’shell Ndegéocello would come this far, however, I’m not giving up on Gray. Like Ndegéocello, she wants to do something big with her big gift. It’s conceivable that someday either might come up with her own Play — or, what can you do, Soft Bulletin.

The hip hop that is regularly shortchanged in this poll is juiced as much by a similar sense of mission as by the new or undiminished musical ideas at its disposal. Figure a more involved and representative electorate would have boosted every rap title in our top 40 as well as elevating Mobb Deep (72nd) and late-December Jay-Z (68th, wait till next year) toward the printed chart. But note that the alt-pop split that has afflicted and energized rock since punk is taking hold in hip hop too. Because its market remains far more discerning than the dolts who assume it isn’t, the Roots are genuine stars, and voter favorites like Mos Def and Prince Paul still outsell all but the biggest alt-rockers. But they don’t represent the culture, just its Talented Tenth types. Although Prince Paul’s very different tours de force make him artist of the year — quite a contrast to Dr. Dre, who edges Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion for shithead of the decade even if his grayboy Eminem has a lot better chance of turning Beastie than Limp Bizkit do — the Roots’ soul jazz and Mos Def/Black Star’s understated old-schoolisms don’t transform enough history to suit me. Nor does flava-of-the-year Mannie Fresh agitate my azz, which never caught the Miami booty-boom either — the embarrassing fact is that I have more fun with the Brits in Basement Jaxx. In case you didn’t know, however, I also don’t represent the culture — I mean, not only am I down with Q-Tip’s electrobeats, I still like the Canibus album. So I’ll abide steadfastly until some forward-looking race man — not one of those hippy-dippy West Coast guys, and quite possibly Black Star itself — takes alt-rap all the way home.

If I continue to look to hip hop for pop renewal, that’s due partly to my regard for James Brown and partly to hip hop’s art-commerce interface. But it’s too late for semipopular music to stop now — way too late. So I meant what I said about not counting undergrounds out. Which brings us to 1999’s most striking statistics.

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Reflecting Megapop Inc.’s withdrawal from the succès d’estime game, a record 14 of our top 40 (more than ’96 and ’97 combined) were manufactured and distributed by independent labels — including 69 Love Songs and Play, the first indie one-two ever. In part that’s because indie patterns have changed. Play is on V2, the thumb Richard Branson stuck in EMI’s eye after unloading Virgin; Prince Paul works for hip hop pioneer Tommy Boy, still half-owned by Warners but otherwise independent; former runner-up Pavement finished only 29th in what I hope isn’t its swan song on Matador, which earlier in the ’90s took two majors’ money and ran. Moreover, five of our finishers — Moby, Waits, Willis, XTC, Prine — spent years at Megapop before bailing to conspicuously solvent indies (or, in Prine’s case long ago, forming his own shoestring one). With all respect to The Soft Bulletin, can Built to Spill be far behind?

All this downsizing is one reason P&J’s newbie quotient is dipping as its indie quotient rises. For most of the ’90s, half or more of our top 40 artists were cracking the album list for the first time. In 1998 the total was down to 18 including the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill; this year it’s way down to 14, including Black Star’s Mos Def, Buena Vista’s Ferrer, the two entries from former De La Soul man Prince Paul, and, well, Santana. Seven of a 41-50 that goes Dixie Chicks–Caetano Veloso–Chili Peppers–Le Tigre–Blur–Cassandra Wilson–Latin Playboys–Guided by Voices–Buddy Miller–Joe Henry have been top 40 in the past, as have almost half the 51-100 finishers. Maybe this surfeit of repeaters is just one of our logjams, in which so many known thirtysomethings make honorable records that name recognition prevails until a tsunami sweeps them all away. On the other hand, maybe it indicates that the new game is controlled — temporarily, right? — by cheerleaders, suckups, and hitters. Macy Gray or no Macy Gray, the only 1999 newcomers I can readily imagine establishing new rules are my favorite hitters, Eminem and Kid Rock, both also hip hoppers of sorts. I bet both are too old, and materialistic, to risk it.

Lots of comments, so I’ve farmed out only one mini-essay, in which longtime indie-rock participant-observer Katherine Spielmann advances an encouraging claim: that at long last indie privatism is giving way to polemic and struggle. Since the privatism was a reaction to Nirvanamania, an indulgence of the agoraphobia that’s as bad for semipopular music as racism, heroin, and Germans playing synthesizers, it damn well ought to recede — especially now that the invaders are gone when you stick your head out of the root cellar. And having spent my adult life watching lefties make speeches to people who aren’t listening, I don’t expect any new bunch of white people with more time than money and not enough of either to save many souls or forge many polities. But since Spielmann’s case begins with Sleater-Kinney, whose The Hot Rock was the most undervalued record of 1999 and who this year will release two more projects (one with the Go-Betweens!), and Le Tigre, a top-30 band if more voters had heard them and certain cult heroes if they stick at it, I do expect some of them to lift my soul — and yours, if you’re into it. WHICH I HOPE YOU ARE!

We nerds need to stick together. No matter how many critics share the banal belief that the others are caught up in some banal mesh of herd mentality and genteel taste, our consensus can tell the world something about musical quality. It can also tell us. Looking down my own lengthy list of gooduns, I find scarcely an item that wasn’t originally supported by some species of word-of-mouth. I look forward to hearing and reading about more in the years to come. Maybe I’ll even be wrong about the soul saving. It’s happened before.

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Top 10 Albums of 1999

1. Moby: Play (V2)

2. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge)

3. Beck: Midnite Vultures (DGC)

4. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)

5. Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph)

6. Rage Against the Machine: The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic)

7. Fiona Apple: When the Pawn… (Clean Slate/Epic)

8. Wilco: Summerteeth (Reprise)

9. Beth Orton: Central Reservation (Arista)

10. Mos Def: Black on Both Sides (Rawkus)

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Top 10 Singles of 1999

1. TLC: “No Scrubs” (LaFace)

2. Eminem: “My Name Is” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Len: “Steal My Sunshine” (Epic)

4. Madonna: “Beautiful Stranger” (Maverick)

5. Backstreet Boys: “I Want It That Way” (Jive)

6. Cher: “Believe” (Warner Bros.)

7. Smash Mouth: “All Star” (Interscope)

8. (Tie) Ricky Martin: “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (C2/Columbia)
The Roots: “You Got Me” (MCA)

10. Santana Featuring Rob Thomas: “Smooth” (Arista)

—From the February 22, 2000, 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 From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1996 Pazz & Jop: Don’t Believe the Gripe

Let’s see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er…1995.

Guess that won’t do, will it? Well, how about — gripe, mumble — it was the worst year for guitar bands since… That’s a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single “rock” album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi’s axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O’Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the groundbreaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?

Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn’t in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what’s bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.

Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn’t “the King of America,” merely “the 100th-highest-selling album artist of the year,” the going-on-platinum sales of Beck’s Odelay put it in the black even by today’s advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we’re onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and we’re kind of proud that Hole’s now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey’s music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.

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Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what’s happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can’t limit the concept to “alternative” when artists like Guns N’ Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin–era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I’m wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren’t guitar-band albums, for reasons I’ll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn’t downsize quite yet.

In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice — the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience’s appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990’s 19 sets of axemen — sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums — were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: “Guitars: Live and Memorex.” Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in ’94, nine in ’95, and eight in ’96.

This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won’t the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that’s sure to take a form they can’t predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it’s much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band’s aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section’s did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the ’60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.

But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren’t just whistling “Born Slippy.” For starters, there’s funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop’s rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995’s scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in A&R. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it’s awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider’s weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don’t you?

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So then. Perhaps it’s time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing…DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L. T. J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn’t embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen — a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.

And after that there’s, well, there’s Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisers, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn’t lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don’t know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt’s drum ’n’ bass doesn’t enliven Tracy Thorn’s sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn’t that history has caught up with them, it’s that they’ve finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I’m down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call — and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say? — revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.

It’s not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don’t happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I’m just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I’ll call the fifth — 1959 (“the day the music died”), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977–79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course— every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn’t ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap — not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani — has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18–24s the biz dotes on. But that isn’t what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt, and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through — if any.

As it happens, I haven’t been much of a “rock” guy myself of late. Looking over a decade’s worth of top 10s, I find that, up till this year, only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year’s six-by-just-a-hair — Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana — all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction — which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh’s or Fluffy’s, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen’s, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more — you’d think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it’s that formal satiety — often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers — that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they’re merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn’t become musicians to get bored.

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With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J’s 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form. Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year’s top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.

And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother’s milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over Billboard’s charts in 1996: the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history — third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana’s, Sleater-Kinney’s moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music’s path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity; while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don’t get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what’s the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs — an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.

Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they’ve learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it’s so personal, it’s also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson’s midnight drift and I don’t. The poll honors a few great voices — [File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan — plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it’s our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker’s power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein’s power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby’s record well after he could sing along with the year’s sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn’t her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.

What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos’s Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn’t obliged to point out that such alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn’t think anything excludes anything. I don’t count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde — or, let us not forget, biz.

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Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight — as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold — not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness [of] the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them — I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning — it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.

Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he’s humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body’s ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they’re onto something — hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the ’60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow’s growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.

I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don’t get) much of this year’s top 40 — e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here’s a clue) D’Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren’t enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41–50 that went Lovett–Dr. Octagon–Reed-Chesnutt-Germano–Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as “Macarena” itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam’s refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra — he could have been Esquivel.

I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint — Iris DeMent and Zach de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker — and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That’s why, in the end, I find I don’t much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of ’60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the same way Amerindie did in the ’80s. There’s worthy music down both forks — a futurism that isn’t suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.

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Top 10 Albums of 1996

1. Beck: Odelay (DGC)

2. Fugees: The Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)

4. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing…DJ Shadow (Mo Wax/FFRR)

5. Los Lobos: Colossal Head (Warner Bros.)

6. Steve Earle: I Feel Alright (Warner Bros.)

7. Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

8. Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch)

9. Tricky: Pre-Millennium Tension (Island)

10. Pulp: Different Class (Island)

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Top 10 Singles of 1996

1. Quad City DJs: “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” (Atlantic/Big Beat)

2. (Tie) Beck: “Where It’s At” (DGC)
Smashing Pumpkins: “1979” (Elektra)

4. (Tie) Oasis: “Wonderwall” (Epic)
Pulp: “Common People” (Island)

6. Busta Rhymes: “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” (Elektra)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Setting Sun” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Beck: “Devils Haircut” (DGC)
Blackstreet: “No Diggity” (Interscope)
Primitive Radio Gods: “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (Ergo/Columbia)

—From the February 25, 1997, 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 From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1994 Pazz & Jop: Hegemony Sez Who? Does ‘Alternative Rock’ Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who’ve declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole’s Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair’s status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock’s sexual politics that renders Courtney Love’s status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal — at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it’s no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian — totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage — before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don’t really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife’s breakout at number one, his group’s exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle’s tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle’s Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle’s Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved “alternative” albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole’s gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana’s major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn’t just rool, it rules; it’s mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question “Alternative to what?” but the brand-new conundrum “Hegemonic sez who?”

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop ’94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation — the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early ’80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics’ bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic — limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there — doesn’t nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop’s politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they’re the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole “world music” finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That’s also a record, and at least Ry’s only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil “Forever” Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny “Hard” Cash, whose Rick Rubin–masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a “real” gangsta might beat them up. As in the “real” world, where people buy their records, Cash’s support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don’t let my dismay mislead you — as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn’t in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn’t put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People’s Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command — how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana — as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys — who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

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Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I’ve always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie – ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it’s held out hope for bohemia — for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippieville’s insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I’ve been wont to ask, “Why so glum, chum?” The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it’s given credit for — in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive — as with Nirvana above all, or Beck — it’s hard for anyone who’s spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. Duh.

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn’t without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain’s genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind’s and In Utero’s as well — thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn’t just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don’t believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn’t mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won’t be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn’t mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill — not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll — won’t now take out after more genuinely marginal types, “alternative” rock (and “alternative” newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers’ April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn’t be a religion — that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn’t only you don’t know it yet. Kurt’s suicide distressed me, but it didn’t surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America’s corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994’s best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them — and for most of today’s rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical — discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics’ lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying — at least any meaning or need that interests them.

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I don’t want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters — although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus — would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition — cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer — that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there’s variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one’s as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one’s as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I’m being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12 — Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you’ve lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe) — somehow seems too uniform. It’s exclusionary, myopic; it can’t last, it won’t last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who’ve been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don’t want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that’

s all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren’t just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there’s the critics’ hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he’s almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who’ll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There’s the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history — the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There’s a 41-50 list where “alternative” continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there’s the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This’s punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don’t know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn’t “sell out,” children, but she sure did “freak out,” as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney’s far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they’re her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I’m not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she’s smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one — a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don’t entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it’s OK, really — since one proof of Nirvana’s greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it’s only natural that girls in Nirvana’s wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal — I’ve never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I’m positive there’s not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they’re being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something — which I find inaudible, and isn’t it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

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Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you’d think had more important things to argue about, I’m relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select “Seether” their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck’s “Loser.” And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health — of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from “alternative” albums in the top 15 and only two didn’t score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records — Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” — could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren’t permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ’s medium that hits no longer cross over automatically — you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré’s unapology (headed “Skills, Son”) speaks for itself. I’m enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I’m reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas’s music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn’t the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren’t all that hard to come by.

It’s true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it’s undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders — if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru’s subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won’t waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism — deliberate or de facto, power play or default position — becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists — because we don’t like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It’s not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes — hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It’s that there’s no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop’s alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What’s more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility — pop hooks, pop success — and that’s as it should be. Of course it’s about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don’t endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics’ choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it’s a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation’s hip hop succés d’estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they’re lucky.

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Generalizing about blocs is tricky — most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don’t credit our vote any more than the government’s). Still, I’m struck by the third-place reissue — Bar/None’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by ’60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational — over-40s won’t give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo’s weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None’s mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn’t just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages — it’s because many voters receive only “alternative” product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it’s damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom ’zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don’t care if they make things worse — specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I’d like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that’s assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can’t be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers’ landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that — like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see “Fun Matters”), who’s probably too openhearted to be typical — alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can’t last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn’t any — especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney’s flawed feminism, who’s really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let’s hope the twain never meet, because we’ve now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we’re not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything “the ’60s” are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill’n’Hill are out of the way — that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril — left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it’s wrong. It isn’t just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn’t fall into their laps — by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it’s rejected or reconfigured. It’s also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I’m Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I’ve been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi — the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole’s guitar sound — Courtney’s singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt’s every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of stupidly embracing it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they’ve been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck’s best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced — construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I’d heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation’s ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California’s Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like “alternative rock,” that ain’t all it is.

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Top 10 Albums of 1994

1. Hole: Live Through This (DGC)

2. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.)

4. Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC)

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

6. Liz Phair: Whip-Smart (Matador)

7. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American)

8. Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat)

9. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

10. Beck: Mellow Gold (DGC)

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Top 10 Singles of 1994

1. Beck: “Loser” (DGC)

2. Veruca Salt: “Seether” (DGC)

3. Coolio: “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)

4. Warren G: “Regulate” (Violator/RAL)

5. Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (Grand Royal/Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Warner Bros.)

7. Pavement: “Cut Your Hair” (Matador)

8. (Tie) Hole: “Doll Parts” (DGC)
Liz Phair: “Supernova” (Matador)

10. Offspring: “Come Out and Play” (Epitaph)

—From the February 28, 1995, 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

Beck Goes All Al Gore on Us

And now, the first installment of “Stuff Rob Forgot to Assign,” and most assuredly not the last.

Beck
Modern Guilt
DGC

As someone who considers “Satan Gave Me a Taco” a top-5 Beck song, I am dismayed at his steady slide into self-seriousness; the notion that he’s now embarrassed by the wanton lasciviousness of Midnite Vultures is quiet upsetting. This isn’t a Beastie Boys situation, a pile of regrettable fratboy antics and attitudes he has to disown now that he’s older and wiser. He was goofing around. And while Beck these days goofs around more often than gets credit for—”Hell Yes” and “Nausea,” along with that whole puppet thing, prove he’s not a total sourpuss—it’s tough to deal with Modern Guilt, the An Inconvenient Truth of rock records, and only moderately funkier.

Shit, he’s always been a quietly macabre dude, but this is plainly, grimly apocalyptic stuff: hurricanes, melting icecaps, myriad references to his own bones, their fading warmth and eventual disposal. The catchiest tune here, “Chemtrails,” unveils an unmoored, bombastic bassline and subsumes it in suffocating melancholia, Beck moaning “So many people/So many people” as though it’s the saddest thing he’s ever thought, heard, sung. It’s arresting and beautiful, but replicating that mood over a whole album, even one as appealingly brief as this, makes you long for a bit of levity, a “pants”/”dance” rhyme, a smile, a smirk, something.

Danger Mouse is actually perfect to produce this sort of thing, already an expert, thanks to his Gnarls Barkley dalliances, at making depression and dementia palatable, appealing even. His snare-drum sound is immaculate—this is of no small importance. But too much of Modern Guilt is way more interesting than it is engaging, expertly crafted but clinically frigid, playful but profoundly joyless. The closer, “Volcano,” though, works a bit harder to earn its ennui, a skittering sound like a malfunctioning sprinkler spread over top (nice touch on such an eco-friendly record), the pace funereal but steady, the drums pristine as always, Beck’s cooing zombie backing vocals sourly sweet, and his lyrics almost rudimentary: He heard about a Japanese girl who jumped into a volcano, and he wrote a song about it, including the lines “And I heard of that Japanese girlWho jumped into/The volcano.” It will stop you short. It will make you consider donating to Greenpeace. No guarantees, though, that it’ll make you start the record over again.

Listen to “Chemtrails” free here.