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

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, 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

1986 Pazz & Jop: Township Jive Conquers the World

Over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where an accounting firm more reputable than Dean & Poobah is totting up the Grammies even as I write, the year ends October 1, to give the electoral machinery time to rumble into action. Here at the Voice, where small is still sometimes beautiful, the year begins whenever the voters tell us it did and ends the natural way, on December 31. Yet by October 1 I knew damn well who was going to take the 13th or 14th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and though I suffered a few doubts when Peter Gabriel snuck in first at the L.A. Times, my confidence returned as I glanced over the early returns. Graceland for sure — in a small landslide, actually. And if Simon & Phiri — to let Simon’s guitarist and bandleader, Ray Phiri, stand in for the black South African backing musicians whose beat is the backbone of the star’s triumph — take the Grammies as well, which I predict they will, they earned it.

Many indicators fed my hunch, small competition and instant buzz prominent among them, but what convinced me was my direct experience of the music: opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its bicultural synthesis is striking, engaging, and unprecedented — sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so plainly beautiful. Not that I expected the universe to agree — tastes differ, many dissent from Simon’s refined literary liberalism, wimpophobes have hated his guts for years, and the electorate now includes a smattering of convinced pigfuckers who think Hüsker Dü is Julio Iglesias in disguise. Yet even sworn enemies were stopped short at least momentarily by the drive and lilt and sway of Simon’s South African band, and many neutrals were won over to his Manhattan lyrics. Graceland’s victory didn’t approach the dimensions of Born in the U.S.A.’s, or Thriller’s, or London Calling’s. But by Pazz & Jop as well as NARAS standards — by the standards of any respecters of critical consensus outside the Elvis Costello Fan Club — Simon had made what sounded like the album of the year. This was certifiable township jive, to use one of the Soweto beat’s many overlapping nicknames. But it was cosmopolitan in a New York way.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I ransacked the ballots in search of quotable tributes to this ear food and found almost nothing but dim political disputation. Not that this was altogether surprising. The fact of apartheid is intrinsic to Graceland’s aesthetic interest, especially for the P&J electorate, which leans more precipitously to the left than any comparable sampling of film or book or dance or art or (God knows) classical music reviewers. Yet at the same time rock critics are almost pathologically impatient with political orthodoxy. So maybe the recent flurry of controversy — in which Simon was blitzed by hostile questions at Howard University and criticized by the chairman of the UN’s apartheid subcommittee — got their goat. Or maybe it was just Dave Marsh, who declared Simon an opponent of the South African revolution in Rock & Roll Confidential. Maybe it was even yours truly the Dean, whose more moderate censure of Simon’s political performance has come under fire from universalist humanists. Still, I’d hoped for a higher level of discussion. Certainly the music that occasioned all the hot air would get its due. And just maybe the political horror that the music was too fucking transcendent to illuminate directly would gain new resonances as a result.

No way. You can bet the outnumbered naysayers proved somewhat smarter than Simon’s aggressively defensive champions, but you can also bet that a bilious “beneath contempt” isn’t going to get us much further than a blithe “Simon’s intentions seem to have been noble”: if it’s true that nobility is too rare a thing to waste on intentions, it’s also true that you can’t get much lower than some people’s contempt. What I missed on both sides was some rudimentary grasp of the South African reality Graceland is supposed to trivialize and exploit or extend and enrich. Musically, the old bridge-between-cultures line is supported by the 10th-place finish of what has now been my own favorite current record for about a year, the Earthworks-via-Shanachie mbaqanga compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. In 1985, with Graceland yet unborn, Indestructible was showing up on UK critics polls, and it would certainly have placed here as well, but without Simon’s album — and the accompanying press coverage, a phenomenon in itself — it sure wouldn’t have gone neck-and-neck to the finish line with R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel. (Only with the last ballot did Blood and Chocolate sneak into a virtual tie with Indestructible — and Springsteen overtake Run-D.M.C. Craig Zeller has broken my heart before. He may not vote next year unless he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.)

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Nevertheless, I’d be more inclined to see in the pleasing anomaly of Indestructible’s showing irrefutable evidence of the universal language in action, of a link to black South Africa stronger than mere analysis could ever achieve, if just one of the indignant defenses of Paul Simon’s virtue had indicated that apartheid isn’t just the Afrikaans word for segregation. It’s a system, damn it, a political system; like the bicultural music that nobody pro or con described very satisfactorily either (though once again the cons made their points more cleverly), it has specific attributes. Its strategy is to reserve for whites the economic and psychological advantages of segregation while fobbing itself off with a rhetoric of racial equality and cooperation. As far as Pretoria is concerned, Graceland is for the most part quite consonant with such rhetoric. Which is why, Bruce McClelland, it’s naïve at best to claim that “Graceland is inherently political and inherently anti-apartheid.” Right now, nobody can know that — not me, not you, not Botha, not Simon. God don’t love no ignorant, boy.

Okay, I’ll stop. I’m writing about a poll, and though Simon is emblematic enough to warrant all this attention and more, it’s context time. Perhaps I’ve procrastinated because 1986 didn’t seem to add much news value to the critics’ by now traditional dour view of popular music’s immediate past and uncharted future. Wrap-up pieces made much of the nostalgia factor in a year when MTV engineered a Monkees revival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a reissue boom, and numerous same old songs returned to the hit parade, most spectacularly “Stand by Me,” back among the living in Ben E. King’s quarter-century-old version. In fact, several respondents thought it amusing to point out the aptness of the late-night typo in which I neglected to change the “1985” of our previous letter of invitation to the “1986” of this year’s model. But both poll and biz showed 365 days worth of historical movement by me, and while the nostalgia thesis has the look of a desperate stab at a headline — it’s a rare year when the pop merchants aren’t systematically sentimentalizing the past — it might be adapted to our purposes.

Lefty that I am, I often focus these ruminations on how the pop of the present relates to past and future, and in general my conclusions are fairly clear-cut: future good, past bad. Thus I’ve always been suspicious (right, Rob Tannenbaum, with exceptions) of roots moves and critical (also with exceptions) of rock conservatism from Springsteen to Fogerty and Stones to Smithereens. Middle-aged professional that I am, I’m also a respecter of history — I love the old stuff going back way before 1955, and believe absolutely that aging (and even young) rockers can do exciting work in styles that are no longer modish or commercial. But in general I’ve reserved my sharpest enthusiasms for music that breaks new ground within the aforementioned bounds of democratic accessibility, a parameter I interpret more liberally than the most progressive bizzer and nowhere near radically enough to suit your average pigfucker. And what strikes me as I ponder both my list and the critics’ choices is that such distinctions seem to be falling apart. In fact, I descry only four unequivocally “progressive” artists in the P&J top 40, three of whom I don’t like much. There’s old prog Peter Gabriel, who broke pop with an Otis Redding rip, young progs Throwing Muses, whose singularity is indistinguishable from their awfulness, and two artists whose explorations are rhythmic, as so many of the most significant rock and roll explorations always have been: Janet Jackson a/k/a Janet Jam-Lewis (whom I’m developing a taste for, actually) and young reliables Run-D.M.C.

Everywhere else, either the past is a live issue or the future a quiescent one. Among the half dozen or so artists doing strong work in established personal styles (including Elvis C., Hüsker Dü, Ornette, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock), only the Minutemen’s album holds out any vivid promise of significant future movement, and they’re now gone forever. Anyway, Elvis C. scored higher with a roots move, and in addition he produced the Pogues, the most coruscating of an unprecedented explosion of folkies — at least two of whom, Billy Bragg and Timbuk 3, chafe conspicuously at folk’s musical limitations. In addition we have a new wave band going folkloric (and downhill) (Talking Heads), a nuevo folk-rock band going pop (R.E.M.), and a new wave band going nuevo folk-rock (the Feelies). We have the biggest and best blues album in the history of the poll. We have mbaqanga, a folk-based style, and mbaqanga-rock, a roots move in cunning progressive disguise. We have two or three country neotraditionalists. We have unabashed homages to torch singing (Anita Baker), Sgt. Pepper (XTC), Sgt. Pepper plus Sly Stone (Prince), metal (Bad Brains), AOR (David & David), Spector/Ramones (Jesus and Mary), roots-era Clash (Screaming Blue Messiahs), and Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen). We have an overrated record by a New Zealander from El Lay and a sloppy record by some North Country anarchists who love American music and not America. We have the impressively eclectic unestablished punk-rock of That Petrol Emotion (barely beating out the avant-gone-neoclassicist Ellington homage of the World Saxophone Quartet). We have debuts by the nuevo retro Bodeans and the nuevo retro Smithereens. And we have debuts by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.

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I trust you understand that I’m having fun with these swift characterizations — a few of the artists I’ve summed up so cavalierly, like Simon and Prince and Bad Brains, are recombining at such a furious clip that their homages qualify as syntheses if not something altogether new, and many of the others are self-starters perfectly capable of counting their winnings and moving on. Nevertheless, only Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, both spawned around the corner from Dean & Poobah on the Lower East Side, would seem blatant exceptions to the prevailing future’s-so-dull-I-gotta-look-back mood — and in typically blatant fashion, both spit in the eye of any such historical or personal consistency. I’m accused of mistreating Sonic Youth, the old farts of pigfuckerdom, who made their surprisingly belated (and at 29, modest) P&J debut with a third (fifth?) album that certainly deserved to finish higher than True Stories or Peter Case, while overpraising the sixth-ranked Beasties, the white motherfuckers of metal-rap, as rock and roll future. Actually, I don’t see where the Beasties can go from here and do see that Sonic Youth could wind up almost anywhere. But what I’m almost certain of is this — that any future progress either achieves will partake of that annoying Lower East Side sensibility known as postmodernism.

Like you, I hope, I’ve made a principle of resisting this hotsy-totsy and all but meaningless term, only recently settling on a definition that tickles my rock and roll chauvinism. My postmodern has not much use for the decrepit modernist edifice that is high art, but that goes without saying. What’s crucial is the way it simultaneously undercuts its own seriousness and reconstitutes history by taking as primary material every piece of pop junk that ever existed. This tactic will recall for rock and rollers of a certain age the pop irony we perceived in the way the Beatles dragged “Please Mr. Postman” through the guitars until it hollered uncle, as well as the multifarious recontextualizations of the New York Dolls or the Ramones’ and Blondie’s congruent visual and aural images. My postmodern is the same only more so, often too much more so — too campy, too junky, too pop. Like rock and roll three decades on, it finds history inescapable, so inescapable that its only recourse is to seize and twist it into some shape that can pass for “new.” When Sonic/Ciccone Youth tops “Papa Don’t Preach” et al. on our singles chart by sampling bits of the Madonna “original” right onto “Into the Groovey,” when the Beasties and Rick Rubin (especially Rick Rubin) hook up their def-forever electrobeats with literal Jimmy Page and Angus Wilson licks as well as a line stolen from sucker-ass Schoolly-D, ordinary notions of retro and progressive and their reassuring Hegelian synthesis, historically conscious, seem, well, dated. If these two bands represent the wave of whatever usable future the 1986 poll points to, most likely as precursors, roots will presently shrivel up and history start stretching back from when it had oughter, about 15 minutes ago. And that can’t be all bad, can it?

Needless to say, this somewhat narrow and abstract speculation won’t add much glow to most voters’ memories of 1986, and I understand why — I found the year depressing myself. The barrenness of the ordinary flush fall release climaxed a series of alarming flops from old hands and young hopefuls alike. Get Close was 82nd, and while Chrissie Hynde has come back from follow-up jinx before, this time I have more faith in Cyndi Lauper, who made just one ballot after finishing 11th in 1984. George Clinton was 121st, and neither Tina Turner, fifth in 1984, nor Aretha Franklin, ninth last year, garnered a mention. Astonishingly, neither did John Fogerty, though I suspect Eye of the Zombie would have done respectably if 1985’s 10th-place Centerfield hadn’t already taken the edge off the cosmic Creedence craving. After three straight albums in the top 10, Lou Reed was fortunate to place 106th, while Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced “comeback” finished an even more generous 102nd. The Golden Palominos got five mentions, Jason and the Scorchers four, Lone Justice two, Let’s Active one. Sade added five points to the 56th-place 1985 finish of her late-release follow-up Promise.

And though by now my trusty A/A minus total has risen comfortably above 1985’s bare 49, I did have to sweat my top 10 once infatuations with King of America and Psychocandy flagged. Last year like most years, I would have been happy to give some points to my number 13, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s live double (a December release that topped 1986 reggae albums at 51); this year 10th-ranked New Order (relegated to a fickle 92nd by their doom and/or novelty-hooked support group) would have been more at home around 13. But in the end the self-censorship movement — the warning stickers, interviews lauding “subtlety” that sounded like farina, and craven, faux-hip condemnations of psychotropic indulgences that faux-hip lifestyles had once cravenly endorsed — sharpened my hunger for the deliberately offensive, preferably within the aforementioned parameters and especially after those three jerks from Stuyvesant rubbed my face in it. Thus I found that the Rolling Stones’ hardass farewell, which earned notes of censure from PMRC bluenoses and finished a fickle 52nd with the voters, and Motorhead’s 55th-place return to the front, in which Bill Laswell added craft and speed to the old Edward Shils nightmare of “brutal culture,” hung tougher as the countdown approached. I can live with my final selection, and I will.

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Many voters complained of top-10 dearth, but then, some always do, and the statistics were ambiguous. Prorated, the top 10’s cumulative point support was slightly stronger than in 1985. And when I let my calculator do the walking down to Timbuk 3 at 34, where the pattern reverses, I find points running almost 10 per cent ahead of 1985. Now, this could indicate intense critical enthusiasm for the top records. But it could also indicate that down below 34 the voters found bubkes, at least bubkes in common, and that’s how the also-rans make it look. After WSQ Plays Duke, 42–50 went Big Black (young farts of pigfuckerdom), Madonna (whose frontlash failed to materialize), Phil Alvin, Bangles, Christmas, Van Morrison, the Woodentops’ Giant, the 3 Johns’ The World by Storm (Live in Chicago was 92nd), and Marti Jones — which I’d break down as three pros (Bangles included), two biz hopefuls (Alvin included), two marginal Brits, two Amerindies, and one jazz. After that Brits fade and Amerindies come on for a 41st to 100th place total that goes something like: pros 14, hopefuls 9, marginal Brits 6, jazz 3, black 3, country 1, miscellaneous 3 (LKJ, John Zorn, and Astor Piazzola), Australindies 3, and Amerindies — get this — 19.

That’s right — about a third of the also-rans were by American bands on independent labels (Georgia Satellites and Rainmakers counted as hopefuls): Big Black, Christmas, Bottle Caps, Leaving Trains, Violent Femmes (on Warner/ Slash, but they operate like an indie and four of their five votes came from Wisconsin), Lyres, Camper Van Beethoven (II and III), Cramps, Camper Van again, Dumptruck (30 points from co-leader Seth Tiven’s cheaty big brother Jon), Soul Asylum (Made to Be Broken), R&B Cadets, Swans, Golden Palominos, Fire Train (14 points from co-leader Phil Davis’s proud alter ego Phil Davis), Mofungo, Moving Targets, Butthole Surfers, Die Kreuzen. Now, this is a varied bunch of records; four made my top 58, several more please me, and others could yet do either. But while Robert Palmer and your nearby college-radio PD may see our result as some sort of consummation, I see it as localism and special interest out of control. In 1985, there was a healthier breakdown: pros and hopefuls about the same, Amerindies down to 13, Brits up to 10, and black — meaning anything from Kid Creole to Whitney Houston — way up to 11.

U.S.-versus-UK-wise, I think the critics have fallen into lazy habits — Amerindie boosterism is as rife now as Anglophilia was as the decade began. Counting the Go-Betweens as Australian, I put three Brits on my 1985 list. This year I have 11, not just world-citizen Stones and mid-Atlantic Elvis C. and old pro Motorhead, but marginals and eccentrics from Jon Langford’s two best bands (with a third on my EP list) to the leftish punk of New Model Army to the lefty pop of the Housemartins to the studio pop of XTC to the studio miscellaneous of the Art of Noise. And while it would be overexcitable to read a trend into every blip, I think this apparently anomalous upswing makes sense.

With all exceptions and amalgams granted, let’s divide the Amerindies into subgroups labeled pop, roots, and pigfucker. Now, I’m not sure why the best roots band extant hails from Leeds, England, rather than the good old U.S.A., though geographical distance — good for a measure of (shall we call it?) postmodernist irony, and thus covering the inevitable chops shortfall just as it did in the Beatles’ day — isn’t hurting one bit. The pigfuckers could wind up mucking about anywhere, and they’re welcome to their wallow as long as they don’t blame the universe for not joining in. But if you’re going to truck with pop values — which often means no longer modish/commercial biz values, with many roots types and by now some pigfuckers feeling the urge — you’re better off doing it right. Because commercial corruption was the great Brit disease a few years ago, its biz is now generating marginalia by the carload. It’s also providing a context in which young bands can cop a little attitude from garagelands on both sides of the Atlantic, then bring it into the studio for the processing increasingly refined musical concepts demand.

In its sorry way the EP situation illustrates the Amerindie dilemma. For the second straight year, Alex Chilton strode like a colossus over this godforsaken category, which was infiltrated as usual by album artists on holiday and major-label turkeys — Echoless Bunnyman, crumbled colossus Tommy Keene. (Keene’s debut album got two mentions. He gained undisputed possession of 10th place — breaking a glorious tie with Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Mekons — after receiving the sole EP vote of Craig Zeller, who claimed the catchy title number made him “deliriously happy after 101 consecutive spins.”) As a source of Amerindie bands, which was how the competition was conceived back when that was still a worthy cause, this list is stronger than 1985’s: Uzi dead, but Scruffy the Cat (Dollsy Boston pop) and Balancing Act (artful L.A. folk-rock) have evident talent, and pigfuckersymps insist I’ll understand Das Damen when I catch their act. Perked up by Brits once again (though the Shop Assistants’ debut album is already out in the hall), I’m actively enthusiastic about my own list as well. The tough verve of Land of Sugar’s white Dayton funk almost equals that of DFX2’s Emotion, one of my most played records of the ’80s — by San Diego Stonesers you never heard of who were never heard from again, possibly because they deserved no better. Which is the problem with EPs — they’re marginal by nature. Who outside of northwest Pennsylvania will make anything of the New Dylans’ copious if callow songwriting skills? Is Mimi Schneider’s Iowa folk trio the Stouthearted going to interest a general audience in rural displacement? Does the world want Berkeley’s Fearless Iranians From Hell to scrawl another Khomeini cartoon? These days, Amerindie bands of potential potential cut albums when the B-sides of their singles still suck. EPs are sports and hybrids, signs of surprising life rarely capable of procreation.

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If I can accuse the voters of stroking the Amerindies, though, I can’t accuse them of unfairness to that catchall called black. Pace Ron Wynn as usual, it was a terrible year for black popular music. Granted, my critical perspective — which is very much a white critical perspective, despite what a few pophead and pigfucker ignorami believe — biases this judgment. Granted too that Pazz & Jop’s black turnout — 13 out of a carefully updated invite of 34 (approximately, since I haven’t color-coded all of our 380 names) — was the most embarrassing of the decade. As Nelson George tells me, this must in part reflect the alienation of black music writers from the Pazz & Jop consensus — rock critics’ weakness for the rough, grotesque, and outrageous offends many of them. But George himself returned to 1985 for Sade and L. L. Cool J, and not a single voter strolled out to left field with him to shake hands with Alexander O’Neal, Paul Laurence, or Full Force. I mean, what would the black caucus have settled on? James Brown’s Dan Hartman job, catapulted to 89th by Jeffrey Morgan’s 30 points? Irma Thomas’s folk-indie Gladys Knight homage, which got the same points and two more mentions? Doug E. Fresh, tied for 100th with the third-place rap album? Bobby Womack, Steve Arrington, the misguided youth of Fishbone, all also-rans last year?

I don’t think this is a blip, either. Sure Stevie Wonder and Al Green and (let us not forget) Michael Jackson will get their share of votes next time they show their voices. Sure the electorate hears black artists even more passively and trendily than it does white artists (if five voters go for Iggy Pop, the sorely underrated Tina Turner merits equal consideration). And sure crossover will continue to throw up the occasional divertissement. But for all their overstatement, Wynn’s annual anti-crossover diatribes did come true this year, with great lover Whitney Houston leading the not-here-nor-there-nor-anywhere LaBelle-Khan-Osborne-DeBarge parade (which totalled one mention, LaBelle’s). Only thing is, Wynn’s roots futurism isn’t the solution — it’s not hostile enough to the past, encouraging the kind of up-to-date tip of the hat to the verities that has turned the respectable AOR of Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton into a morass. I prefer the more radical thesis of the Black Rock Coalition, which includes old P&J hand Greg Tate and multithreat newcomer Vernon Reid (the first voter since Lenny Kaye to have played on a charting album, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Mandance in 1982). I also agree that with crossover’s somewhat exaggerated critical disrepute having no effect on its profitability, bankrolling some mix of Clinton, Hendrix, Ornette, and the Clash isn’t going to be easy — especially if it’s rough, grotesque, or outrageous.

What can it mean, do you think, that the one place black artists made out was in the newly instituted reissue category? This was the love child of Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons, and I warned him it would be a mess, favoring the majors-come-lately who’ve discovered a cheap way to feel virtuous over the importers and indies who have kept archival music alive, pitting the Police best-of against review-copies-by-written-request-if-you’re-lucky anthologies against music that comes shrink-wrapped by the carton instead of the disc. We sandbagged best-ofs by specifying a pre-1970 cutoff date, which given the defiant support for Gumbo and The Modern Lovers and Terminal Tower — not one a best-of — probably wasn’t fair. But indeed, the 14-disc Atlantic r&b box came in third, and I suppose it would have won if the average more rock critic could afford to buy the sucker. Only two indies placed, one with a box by the romantically dead Nick Drake, the sole white finisher. And I like the results anyway.

I like the way the indie Nevilles beat out RCA’s overdue, well-publicized, and slightly disappointing Sam Cooke set. I like the beginner’s guide to MCA’s daunting Chess reissue. I like seeing Duke Ellington’s name somewhere on our charts even though my personal rule against straight jazz records prevented me from placing Money Jungle right behind It Will Stand. I like knowing that PolyGram’s complete Hank Williams series would have come in second if we’d added the votes for all four extant volumes together. And maybe most of all I like James Brown up there at number four, where he can remind a few popheads and pigfuckers that obituaries for black music are invariably premature. No comparable electorate would have acknowledged the existence of Brown’s dance groove in 1970. So if some equivalent happened in 1986, it’s still waiting for the critics to find it.

Not that I’m about to lead you there. You’d never suspect black music was in trouble to look at the first three singles on our list, crossover moves so daring and astute that without a hint of wimp-out they obliterated the competition both commercially and critically. “Walk This Way” broke Run-D.M.C. CHR (though not AOR, further proof that the format refuses to challenge its market’s presumed racism). “Word Up” was the most undeniable funk single ever, and “Kiss” reestablished Prince’s repute as a powerhouse innovator — at year’s end it was one of two gold singles released in 1986. But after that we have Janet Jam-Lewis, James Brown-Hartman, and a rap novelty by a now broken group. And though I was rooting for Gwen Guthrie (early-year releases are always forgotten by some voters) and recommend Mixmaster Gee’s metal manipulation, I can’t claim to have heard tell of much else — go go went went, house is a local disco revival, and while I’ve written down the titles of some word-of-mouth rap obscurities, the great ones rarely remain that obscure.

By acclamation and any normal standard, the oft-maligned (and oft-wrong) Chuck Eddy was on the one when he charged in November that CHR had deliquesced into pap, mulch, and worse. My own singles choices are partial because it’s been years since I had ear time for radio and I no longer club much. I would have been delighted to vote for Motorhead’s “Deaf Forever,” Simply Red’s “Money’$ Too Tight (To Mention),” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” or God knows Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” each of which meant more to me than anything below “Word Up” on my list, if I’d experienced them as singles. I doubt radio would have been much help, though — I discovered both AC/DC and Karen Finley in 45 ’tween-set minutes at the Beasties’ Ritz show, but in three weeks of vacation came across nothing more compelling on my car radio than Jermaine Stewart and “On My Own,” the year’s other gold single. Which remarkable statistic may point to what’s wrong, so let me emphasize: nobody buys singles anymore. Just because albums are now designed to contain two or more CHR-compatible hits, those hits aren’t singles as we’ve traditionally understood the concept. They’re not objects to be consumed, aural fetishes we can cherish into the ground and then call back to life in a day or a decade. They’re promotional devices, not all that different from, well, videos.

Our poll is intended to resist such promotional function, and in both categories the critics did their bit. Gabriel & Johnson earned their video landslide, and though I dislike the song so much I could never get properly worked up about the ad for it, the aural “Sledgehammer” did well enough to indicate no inconsistency. The voters generously acknowledged Madonna’s overarching cinematic métier and David Byrne’s only cinematic gift. And the political foretexts that become permissible as Reaganism’s media clout deteriorates are hailed with Bruce’s shamelessly (and instructively didactic) “War,” and, more tellingly, with the nasty anti-Reaganism of a band mentioned on one album and zero singles ballots — Genesis, whose all-powerful leader took a vague “protest” and turned it into near slander and deliberate offense. The singles chart, meanwhile, singles out misleading promotional devices. In addition to Madonna and the Pretenders, beware of Stevie Winwood (eighth, album 57th), P.I.L. (ninth, album tied for 87th), two CHR-compatible Bangles tunes they didn’t write, the most tossed-off and convincing thing Talking Heads did all year, and de facto one-offs by the Pet Shop Boys (who deserve better), the Robert Palmer who sings (who deserves worse), and Bruce Hornsby (who’s just deserving enough).

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In the comments headed “Alternative Formats,” you’ll find a dissenting and indeed abnormal standard applied to these issues — that of rock criticism’s great dissenter, proud crank, and undeconstructed postmodernist Greil Marcus. My friend in California and I disagree more than we agree, at least about music, and I somehow doubt that his daily dose of kilohertz would convert me to his philosophy of art — if I spent that much time in my car I’d install a tape deck. But where my slightly kooky and definitely doomed attempt to give every halfway promising record a fair hearing submits to the modernist assumption that music is created and perceived by individuals, Marcus’s dial-spinning honors music as social fact, and especially given his elitist tendencies I admire how persistently he subjects himself to other people’s musical will. It’s one more variation on a theme of his criticism, which often focuses on moments when intense individual expression is so difficult to distinguish from random outpouring that it comes across as the world calling — that is, when what some call the bourgeois subject approaches the verge of realization and/or disintegration.

I’m aware that such talk strikes many as bullshit; it often strikes me as bullshit, too. But only orthodox know-nothings think it’s completely off the wall, and I bring it up partly to remind everyone that there are far more abstruse and radical ways to conceive rock and roll than anything hinted at in this year-in-review. The fun I had with postmodernism, for instance, was an easy way out of a thorny, multifaceted problem, one rock and rollers are stuck with as surely as legit artistic types — what to do with your tradition of the new when it gets old. In fact, Simon Frith, who chooses his words quietly and with care, described none other than Paul Simon as “a lonely, rich American in the fragmented world of postmodernity” just a few months ago in these pages. And while that may make our pollwinner sound a little hipper than he is, it’s accurate. In fact, substitute “loquacious, embittered Englishman” and “urbane black neotraditionalist” and you’d be describing our two runners-up, each of whom confronts the paradoxes of progress at least as stalwartly as the champ.

Each pulled off a coup as big as a landslide, too. After years of humdrum domination and a slight slip, Elvis Costello fell right off the chart with the aptly titled Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, so his double return to the top 10 (with more total points than Graceland) turns a comeback into a triumph. And Robert Cray’s Strong Persuader is the poll’s all-time sleeper. I mean, blues is for aging hippies who drink too much, right? Yet despite Chuck Eddy’s paternalistic surmise that Cray is a “white-man-in-disguise,” he attracted half our black critics as well as 48 of our white boys (though only four of our 30 women) to pile up just two fewer mentions than King of America and nine more than Springsteen. Talk about exciting work in supposedly outmoded styles — this record had to knock down a lot of preconceptions to break through so huge.

Of course, the preconceptions weren’t formal — that is, what the critics already knew prepared them for Cray’s steady beat and terse eloquence. With Costello abandoning his band for the T-Bone Crew on the bigger of his two entries (which in the end I find softer, a chronic weakness of roots moves), they’re as different as two Costello records can be, but both also fall comfortably within those old pop parameters. And yet Costello — who ranks with the Mekons, John Rotten-Lydon, Lora Logic, and Rosanne Cash in Marcus’s postpunk pantheon — has always strained at assumed limits. His wordplay is so obsessive that Costello-the-subject disappears into it, and the juggled readymades of his music — Blood and Chocolate makes “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sound as primal as “Honky Tonk” — work the same kind of nasty deconstructive pranks on linear notions of history. Personally, I pay him back for his cold cool by remaining an admiring nonfan, but there’s no question that he confounds past and future and expressed and found as defiantly as any pigfucker. Cray doesn’t deal consciously with such issues, but within soul-blues’s parameters he achieves a cool so unprecedented it’s beyond modern — which isn’t to say he ain’t hot. I was dismayed at first to learn that Dave Marsh dismissed his album as not-blues and Ron Wynn preferred Anita Baker and James Brown-Hartman, but upon reflection I’m encouraged that Cray makes conservatives uneasy — in a world where the young can do exciting work in unmodish forms, I wouldn’t want to except postmodern blues.

No matter what he or she thinks of hotsy-totsy terminology, anyone who reads rock criticism lives “in the fragmented world of postmodernity.” Compulsively novel yet yoked to its roots, rock and roll is a good match for this world, and in their useful if ultimately unsatisfying ways, Elvis C. and Robert Cray and Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (and Janet Jam-Lewis and the Pogues, but not, I’ll warrant, Steve Winwood or the Smithereens) try to help us live in that world. What attracted me to Graceland from the start was that in its details and its defining bifurcation and its significant groove it tackled this problem in a rock and roll way. As Dave Marsh has pointed out, Graceland’s limitations are summed up in its final line, “That’s why we must learn to live alone” — because there’s no must about it. Simon has said that one reason Graceland never confronts politics directly is that political art doesn’t last. Putting aside the always dubious equation of durability and quality, that’s a hoary modernist myth, proof of modernism’s submission to what some call the bourgeois subject. However dim their analysis, the way our critics intersperse the personal and the political in their annual choices reflects not trendiness but an inevitable evolution of sensibility, because the truth of this myth is drying up before our collective ears. Although ultimate satisfaction may be a dying myth itself and is certainly too much to expect of this fragmented world, today’s partial solutions are promises. They leave room to hope that the divisions Graceland adduces and arouses and fails to address can someday be part of our past — but not that the transcendent power of music alone can make them history.

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Top 10 Albums of 1986

1. Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros.)

2. The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello): King of America (Columbia)

3. The Robert Cray Band: Strong Persuader (Mercury)

4. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live/1975–85 (Columbia)

5. Run-D.M.C.: Raising Hell (Profile)

6. Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (Def Jam)

7. Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen)

8. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S.)

9. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Blood and Chocolate (Columbia)

10. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1986

1. Run-D.M.C.: “Walk This Way” (Profile)

2. Cameo: “Word Up” (Atlanta Arists)

3. Prince and the Revolution: “Kiss”/”Love or Money” (Paisley Park)

4. Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer” (Geffen)

5. (Tie) Billy Bragg: “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” (Go! Discs import)
R.E.M.: “Fall On Me” (I.R.S.)
Timbuk 3: “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (I.R.S.)

8. Steve Winwood: “Higher Love” (Warner Bros.)

9. (Tie) Public Image Ltd.: “Rise” (Elektra)
Talking Heads: “Wild Wild Life” (Sire)

— From the March 3, 1987, 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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Let Fury Have the Hour

Although it sets out to document a hopeful narrative of social change, Let Fury Have the Hour also demonstrates the clarifying and fertilizing effects of authoritarianism on artistic movements. In the first 15 minutes of the film, director Antonino D’Ambrosio lays out the history of the new, transatlantic conservatism that emerged in 1980, embodied by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which ultimately enriched the upper classes, eroded the social safety net, ate a gaping hole in the middle class, and diminished organized labor to a state of near irrelevance. The new American culture, the film asserts, placed emphasis on personal acquisition and Randian individualism at the expense of the whole concept of the collective good. These attitudes persist today. As a result, a new kind of social awareness—and a call for dissent—was characterized by the works of Public Enemy, Keith Haring, the Clash, Gogol Bordello, John Sayles, and others. Hip-hop and skate culture came of age. The era, and the social attitudes it spawned, are related through interviews with many of these creative people, as well as members of the generation they subsequently influenced. The work of artist Shepard Fairey, playwright Eve Ensler, author Jonah Lehrer, and joke-shouter Lewis Black was informed by the same pervasive social currents that influenced Chuck D., Billy Bragg, Eugene Hütz, and Joe Strummer. The film joyfully surveys the evolution of a politically informed artistic movement, set to a soundtrack that includes MC5, Rage Against the Machine, DJ Spooky, and others. Chris Packham

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CALIFORNIA STARS

“I need a socially conscious woman to ease my revolutionary mind,” sings Jim James on New Multitudes (Rounder). This beautiful, if somewhat solemn, centennial-year salute to Woody Guthrie finds the My Morning Jacket frontman supplying new music to previously unrecorded lyrics alongside Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), and Anders Parker (Varnaline). Although Guthrie’s New York years have inspired great albums by the Klezmatics and Billy Bragg with Wilco, New Multitudes focuses on the revolutionary folk singer’s more erratic Los Angeles stay during the early ’50s, when his health and personal life were deteriorating amid the culture-chilling Red Scare. Savor the skanky realism of “V.D. Blues” clanking against the idealism of “Hoping Machine” when the quartet makes a rare appearance together.

Wed., March 14, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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Wild Yaks+Mia Riddle

Brooklyn workaholics and perennial basement show party band Wild Yaks are sure to fill the tiny confines of Zebulon with people and sound. Their Billy Bragg brothers-in-arms dirges already sound like 100 people singing along, so the sweat-boxed reality shouldn’t be too far off. Opener Mia Riddle swings a little closer to the indie rock side of things, but her mighty croon—a mix of Nicks and Neko—has a punky fury all its own. With Themes.

Mon., Sept. 28, 8 p.m., 2009

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Billy Bragg’s Mr. Love and Justice

After a six-year break, Billy Bragg is back with his second go-round with backing band the Blokes, and his second release to steal its title from a Colin MacInnes book—following 2002’s politically charged England, Half English, now comes Mr. Love and Justice, concerned more with the former than the latter, and available as a limited-edition double CD featuring the same songs performed by Bragg solo. In either version, first single “I Keep Faith” is an intimate acoustic piece pledging a bond to one’s love—perfect for a heartfelt, all-or-nothing romantic with a talent for stirring up tenderness without sounding trite or disingenuous. The title track is pleasant but average, while “Farm Boy” has a country-soul sound, broken down by the Blokes to its bare roots. “I Almost Killed You” is punctuated by hand claps and an Irish backbeat, full of joy and resurrected life, while “Something Happened” is the album’s big rock moment, with a great guitar solo by Bragg and a similarly bombastic harmonica outburst by Ben Mandelson. Overall, Mr. Love and Justice is classic Bragg: frequently fantastic folk-rock that keeps both the faith and your attention.

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

This laudatory but not quite fawning 93-minute documentary takes a greatest-hits approach to the life and song of the now 88-year-old agit-folk musician. And surely Pete Seeger has earned the right to talking-head testimonials from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and company. Shallow, very officially sanctioned, and overly compressed, The Power of Song plays like a PBS infomercial for the inevitable DVD box set, which will surely include even more archival footage. Director Jim Brown is perhaps too determined to prove the obvious: that Seeger has lived a long, full, admirable life. (Even today, he loves chopping wood, as did his dark historical double, Ronald Reagan.) Bonnie Raitt aptly calls him “a bridge” between prewar folk and its equally political, boomer-era revival. An end-credit antiwar song (“Bring ‘Em Home”), performed with Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco, extends that bridge to Iraq. Yet today the fan base for Seeger, himself a WWII vet, is mainly the AARP demo. My favorite moment in this blandly affectionate tribute comes when an excited grandmother rushes up to Seeger in Washington Square Park like a tween spotting Justin Timberlake. They may be old now, but the music still carries the passion of youth.

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Gang of New Jersey

Joe Strummer, the Jam, and Billy Bragg are the names you most often see bandied about in comparison to East Coast power-punker Ted Leo. Those are not bad likenesses. Leo shares with the Jam a stripped-down and dirty power- trio lineup that is occasionally augmented with keyboards and second guitar. Like Bragg, he often writes righteous, left-of- center lyrics, as did Strummer, with whom Leo shares a propensity for Jamaican music.

You don’t often see Leo compared to the Elvis Costello of early albums like  Armed Forces and This Year’s Model, though; perhaps that’s because E.C., as the (admittedly classier) Rod Stewart of the post-punk generation, is no longer cool. And Leo and his band, the Pharmacists, so emphatically are really cool—purveyors of taut, melodic, punk-infused pop songs with singable choruses, anthemic guitar lines, and formidable drumming reminiscent of that of Pete Thomas of Costello’s Attractions. (Don’t believe me? Just sample “The Sons of Cain” off his new album Living With the Living. See if it doesn’t remind you of a worthy rival to some fresh hybrid of the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”)

What’s most interesting, to me anyway, about all of Leo’s likenesses is that none of them are Americans. Leo really does look, sing, and play more like people like Costello, the Jam’s Paul Weller, Bragg, and Strummer than he does his fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. His blog reveals him to be an ardent soccer fan, especially of the World Cup, and he sports an Irish soccer jersey on the cover of his 2004 album Hearts of Oak.

That same album includes a lament about the rise and fall of the Two-Tone ska movement in the 1970s British Midlands called “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” that sounds more like it was written by a native of Coventry or Wolverhampton than of Bloomfield, New Jersey. And it’s a song that just so happens to be one of the very finest rock-‘n’-roll songs of the new century. Living With the Living has a song about hanging out on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland, drinking a legendarily potent Scots tonic wine called Buckie, a Celtic analogue to MD 20/20.

So what gives? This all seems so natural to him. Is Leo a shameless Europhile or just a product of a uniquely Europeanized section of America? Does he feel more or less “American” than the people he meets in the South and elsewhere in the Red States of America?

Leo, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Florida, says he has some “crackpot” theories on the matter. “I have two very different perceptions of the South and Middle America,” he says. “Traveling in the punk/indie ghetto I meet people all the time who are of like mind and I get their perspective on, say, central Florida or Houston or whatever. So in some ways my perspective is that the South is just this hotter, slower version of Rhode Island. But then, also, I have to recognize that I don’t have the broader perspective on day-to-day life that I do for up here, so for the South I can only get that from the media version of events. And in that sense I do see that there are differences.”

Spoken like the true Notre Dame English-lit grad that he is. But he’s just warming to the subject. “As for the Northeast relating to Europe, for one thing, I think that it’s because well into the middle of the 20th century, New York and Boston were such hubs of European immigration, especially for Italians and Irish. And well into the late-20th century, Italians were still dealing with discrimination from the WASPy ascendancy. My own father is Italian, and he used to get beat up on the basketball court and called ‘meatball’ and stuff.

“So it’s kind of like the European immigrant communities stayed pretty close-knit until the middle of the 20th century. Now in New York, Little Italy has been, I don’t want to say destroyed, but almost entirely taken over by Chinatown. But that’s only been since the ’80s, so I think there were and still are a lot of people up here who grew up knowing that they were from somewhere else. So there was this kind of immigrant culture, even among the majority of white people, that was still strong and present in their lives. So because of that, there might be more of a kind of conscious connection with the Old World.”

Bloomfield, Leo’s hometown, is just west of New York City and just north of Newark. Leo says that growing up there, he was always oriented eastward, not just to New York, but beyond. “I didn’t know shit about what was happening on any given day in Philadelphia, even though it was only an hour and a half away,” he says. “But I knew everything about what was going on in Boston, which was three-and-a-half hours away. We were all focused directionally upward and outward up the coast, and
even all the way back to Europe.”

Maybe it’s his Old World outlook, or maybe it’s just his age, but Leo stands apart from many rockers today who rush their music headlong from verse to chorus and back again. The songs on Living With the Living move at their own pace, arrive at their choruses at their leisure, fade out gracefully, slow and low or fast and hard, as circumstances dictate. Leo thinks it has more to do with maturity.

“I think it’s natural that younger people that have grown up in a music world that is more single-driven and flash-in-the-pan would have those impulses to do things like rush to choruses quicker,” he says. “For me, it’s an ongoing, learning-about-songwriting process. Going back to Hearts of Oak, I think there are some songs on there that I could have tightened up. I could have not allowed myself to enjoy sitting on a riff for that extra four measures. So I took that idea going into the next record— Shake the Sheets—and actually did really try to tighten them up and see if I could achieve that same impact with a much tighter song structure, kind of get to the same end in fewer steps, but have it cover the same amount of journey.”

Leo says he felt pretty good about the way Shake the Sheets turned out. Looking back on it, though, led him to decide that concision could be sacrificed for spontaneity this time around. “On Living With the Living, I just kind of wanted to let things unfold as they would,” he says. “So ‘Colleen’ and ‘World Stops Turning,’ those are really tight pop songs where you get to the chorus fast, but a song like ‘Sons of Cain,’ it’s really like one riff that just builds and builds. So I guess I did make a sort of conscious decision to, like, go with the flow.”

And then there’s “Who Do You Love,” with a lovely, almost “Layla”–like two-guitar punk fade-out. “The main body of that song is kind of quick and tight, a Clash-y pop-punk song,” Leo says. “But then I do enjoy those ‘ride you off into the sunset’ moments, so it was like I could have ended it at one point, but it was like, ‘Nah, let’s ride it off into the sunset instead.’ ”

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play Webster Hall May 5, websterhall.com.

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Girls Can Tell

Middle school dance, last chance for a kiss, DJ doing his part: “These songs have mad dance parts, so don’t let ’em go to waste.” For a minute, watching Kid Dynamite guitarist Dan Yemin give the pep talk midway through the band’s Four Years in One Gulp postmortem DVD, it seemed he’d been to the same parties as I, but then came the clarification, courtesy of vocalist Jason Shevchuk: “Yeah, they’re angry dance parts, so look out.”

Kid Dynamite predecessors Lifetime shared two members with their later incarnation—Dan Yemin and drummer Dave Wagenshutz—and their retrospective odds-‘n’-ends Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey is angry too, though probably only danceable from the fetal position. “You” makes their emo-boy bind clear: “You took the best of her/When you had sex with her/You took the best of me/I trusted and you fucked me.”

When it hurts too bad, cut it off: Kid Dynamite perfected Lifetime’s unrequited love-as-violence-as–emotional hardcore template—Rites of Spring’s tragic rasp plus a Dag Nasty chorus, issued over Junkyard crossover-metal chugs—and made it a paradoxical farewell to the females who’d birthed the genre’s core subject matter, just by existing. Though Four Years does detail four years, there aren’t four females in its entire 90 minutes.

Swamps of Jersey features Lifetime’s own young mistake: yoking the pain of rejection to early-’90s one-word song titles (“Alive,” “Up”) and solid-state guitar tone. The mash-up didn’t work, for their sex life or otherwise, though the songs were better for trying; later, and included here, they’d cover post–Minor Threat therapy (Embrace’s “Money”) and Billy Bragg come-ons (“New England”) and realize, as on “Young, Loud, and Scotty,” that girls were just inevitable: “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do/Than have my heart broken by you.” No wonder they reunited last month.

Lifetime play the Bamboozle at Meadowlands Sports Complex May 7.

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Labor’s Punk Songman

American labor has always had its troubadours, most of them writing and singing away in the same obscurity as the working people they’ve championed. Legendary songwriter and organizer Joe Hill was an itinerant laborer in the early 1900s when he turned an otherwise harmless ditty about an engineer named Casey Jones into a pro-union anthem, and transformed the pious “Sweet Bye and Bye” into a stinging satire on preachers who ignored their congregations’ suffering (“You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”). Hill understood that, when it came to agitating, flyers and pamphlets get tossed aside, but a good tune burrows inside the brain and won’t let go.

But Hill had to become a martyr—executed in a murder frame-up—before his reputation soared. And even then, his fame was boosted by a genuine mass movement that saw songs as a weapon in class struggle.

Although there’s hardly the same mass movement around today, there is still plenty of agitating going on—everything from organizing drives for janitors and sweatshop workers to hold-the-line efforts against the loss of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. And there are more than a few organizers who understand Hill’s maxim about the tune-brain connection. Unfortunately, their work remains largely unheard and unseen outside of rallies and occasional pub dates.

One of the best latter-day troubadours who has made labor’s cause his own and turned politics into music is Kirk Kelly, a hard-driving singer and guitar and harmonica player who has been around New York City for more than 20 years, performing his own work in the mold of the early Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Kelly, 43, who will be playing at a St. Patrick’s Day benefit, is a union organizer who has brought a strong pair of lungs and a poet’s sensibility to picket lines and demonstrations. But unlike a generation of activist musicians content to strum through

the chords of “Which Side Are You On?,” Kelly has incorporated the backbeats of rock and roll and punk, fusing Joey Ramone with Woody Guthrie.

It’s the kind of thing Britain’s Billy Bragg has made a fine reputation doing. But Bragg’s burning focus on social struggles also raises the question as to the whereabouts of America’s own radical music makers.

The answer is they’re right here, something Kelly proves every time he picks up his guitar and mounts a harmonica stand on his neck to perform an updated version of Hill’s “Rebel Girl” (“It’s great to fight for freedom with a Rebel Girl”) at a blazing rhythm, or his own anguished, post-9-11 “American Patrol” (“I am on American patrol/Searching for survivors/Of a land that lost control”).

Born on Long Island and weaned on the revolutionary songs of the Clancy Brothers, Kelly made the same trek as so many before him to pay homage to the remnants of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early ’80s. But while Kelly and others were adapting the sounds of the Ramones and the Clash to their idea of modern folk music, they smacked up against the dominant ethos of those who saw them as distorters of true folk. Kelly and his friends argued that both were legitimate.

“What you had in the ’60s was these people interpreting what they thought the sound of folk music was like, and they were still running things. They didn’t think that the music that came later—punk, rock, hip-hop—had a right to make any other interpretations,” says Kelly.

That message was clearly delivered the night Kelly was banned from the open mics at the old Gerde’s Folk City for handing out flyers for a performance at an East Village venue.

Along with other like-minded young musicians, including Cindy Lee Berryhill, Roger Manning, and Lach, Kelly and his pals started calling themselves “antifolk,” an idea that eventually blossomed into a small but intense movement.

But while others focused fairly exclusively on the music itself, Kelly aimed to put his sound to work in the service of the causes he believed in. “I’ve always wanted to use music to move people,” he says. To that end, he began performing at union rallies and got many last-minute calls to show up at picket lines. The songs jibed with his own workaday world. He spent time as a fruit picker on Long Island’s East End, prompting his tune “Working in the Vineyards” (“Put in an honest day’s work for half a day’s pay”). He later labored as a white-collar member of the machinists’ union in an airline’s reservation office. “I was there a month and they made me the shop steward. I was the one who couldn’t keep his mouth shut when something was wrong.”

He stayed at the job for several years, until the day he spotted an ad in his union’s paper for an AFL-CIO organizers’ training school. He applied and was accepted. For Kelly, the training was an eye-opener. It launched him on organizing campaigns around the country. “I was all over. For a while, I was on the waterfront in Seattle, organizing for a teamsters local.”

He also kept churning out a steady stream of songs, offering caustic takes on everything from strikes to censorship. He even wrote an ode to the “Service Economy,” bemoaning the rise of McDonald’s-style employment.

Not that he hasn’t written his share of love songs. His “Waltz of Time” mourns a love lost amid the New Year’s Eve crowds in Times Square: “All the city one dance floor, all waltzing to a magic score/ The madcap chaos, laughter, mayhem, is causing me to dance with them/But I can only play the waltz/That time has played for both of us.”

“I write about things that affect me—a romance gone bad or what corporations do to working people. These are wounds and I feel them; they affect my friends, my family. You don’t have to look far to see signs of the pain it causes.”

His first CD, Go Man Go, came out in 1988 on the tiny label SST, which also included the punk group Black Flag. “I was thrilled to be on there. Here I was putting out this solo acoustic guitar album. I thought, this is where folk belonged.”

Kelly also kept knocking on the door of major record firms, and did his own dance with a large company, which in exchange for a piece of his music-publishing rights, commissioned an album in the late 1990s. Shortly before it was due to come out, however, the label went bust. “I realized then I had to do it myself. The entertainment industry is organized the same way that the old robber barons organized the railroads,” he says. “There’s no middle ground for alternate culture.”

He issued the album on his own label, Mugsy Records (mugsyrecords.com). Called New City, it included the prescient song “Hooray We Won the War,” which, since the invasion of Iraq, Kelly and his trio, Paddy on the Railway, have played to acclaim at peace rallies.

There is always a call for someone to belt out the old songs of the Irish revolution around St. Patrick’s Day, he says. “But I don’t want to stop there. It’s always amazed me that we Americans don’t have more songs about our own revolution. I’ve got one about the patriot Nathan Hale I’ve been reworking since I was a teenager. It’ll be on my next album.”


Songs in the Key Of Strife

‘Hooray, We Won the War’

The deep and ugly scars of a war-weary nation

Are borne by every race and generation.

Somewhere the paths of glory got crossed.

I’d hate to see where we’d be if we lost.

The ones who claim victory won’t bear the cost.

But they’re the ones that you’ll hear the most, saying

Hooray, hooray, hooray, we won the war.

When you see the broken bodies lying all around,

And the buildings and bridges and schools a-tumbling down.

Just remember we did the right thing.

It’s the price that you pay to let freedom ring.

So as we enjoy what victory brings

We’ll all join our voices together and sing

Hooray, hooray, hooray, we won the war.


Kirk Kelly and Paddy on the Railway upcoming dates:

March 17: Michael’s Restaurant (benefit for family of Michael Kelly, journalist killed in Iraq), 24 West 55th Street, 9 p.m.

March 17: Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 11 p.m.

March 19: Brecht Forum (United for Peace and Justice benefit), 122 West 27th Street, 7:30 p.m.

April 7: Bar on 11th Street, 510 East 11th Street, 8 p.m.

April 30: Tonic (Workers Arts and Media Festival), 107 Norfolk Street, 8 p.m.