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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

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

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

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

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

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

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

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

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

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

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

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

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

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

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

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Ben Monder & Theo Bleckmann

Harmonically kaleidoscopic guitarist Ben Monder and vocal experimentalist Theo Bleckmann have been recording together since 1997, but it all falls into place on Monder’s beautiful and oceanic new Hydra, a prog rock-tinged jewel of an album that often suggests what Brian Wilson might have heard in his deepest sandbox reveries. They perform as a duo here.

Wed., Oct. 23, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2013

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Chris Schlarb

On Psychic Temple II, Schlarb’s terrific new album of boundary-dissolving jazz-pop, members of Xiu Xiu, the Mars Volta, and Cynic help the guitarist mix bucolic Amerijazzicana and hep soul-jazz pastiches with beautiful and ingenious rethinks of Zappa’s “Sofa No. 2,” Brian Wilson’s “‘Til I Die,” and even Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” It’s all very thoughtful and very good. With Aaron Roche, Jeremiah Cymerman, The Flag.

Sun., July 14, 8 p.m., 2013

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Music Artists Who, Like Roky Erickson, Have Struggled With Mental Illness

It seemed something like a miracle back in 2005 when psychedelic-rock pioneer Roky Erickson — who plays Bell House in Brooklyn tonight — took the stage at the Austin, Texas eatery Threadgill’s, returning from decades of crippling mental illness and a hermit-like existence that had him pegged as America’s answer to Syd Barrett.

See Also:

All Roky Erickson Needs Is Love
Ron English Might Still Have That Last Unreleased Wesley Willis Record

You probably know the tale: In the ’60s, while playing with the legendary 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson gobbled enough acid to make Timothy Leary seem straight-edge. He was soon diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, and after a marijuana bust in 1969, Erickson pleaded insanity to evade 10 years in the pokey. But his sentence turned out worse: He was confined to the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane — where electroshock therapy and thorazine was forced on him — for three years, further damaging his mental condition.

After his release, Erickson continued to make music and struggled mightily with his afflictions (at one point, he proclaimed he was a space alien). But with the help of family — and support from artists like the Butthole Surfers, Henry Rollins, and other admirers who refused to let the man or his work be forgotten — Erickson finally got proper medical treatment, weaned himself off anti-psychotics, and found his way back to a fairly stable, and still creative, life. That long, strange, heart-rending journey was documented in the riveting 2005 film You’re Gonna Miss Me, the release of which coincided with Erickson’s long-awaited return to the stage. His countrified 2010 comeback album True Love Cast Out All Evil — recorded with Okkervil River — is an atmospheric, uplifting marvel; tonight’s career-spanning set should be equally so.

Erickson, of course, is far from the only musician who’s dealt with debilitating mental disorders. Numerous studies have attempted to establish a connection between artistic impulses and mental illness. In 2010, extensive medical research conducted by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden determined that “the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia,” bolstering the longstanding belief among doctors and scientists that creativity is linked to a higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Here are just a few other prominent musicians who managed to create their art and garner a devoted following all the while struggling with severe mental illness:

WESLEY WILLIS
Chicago native Wesley Willis — diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, which he termed “hell rides” – -rose from homelessness to alt-rock cult hero starting in the early ’90s, thanks to his Casio-abetted song-rants about Alanis Morissette, McDonald’s, Osama Bin Laden, and hundreds more topics. He issued several dozen recordings, and was an equally prolific visual artist as well, known for his idiosyncratic drawings of Chicago street scenes. Willis died from leukemia in 2003 at age 40.

DANIEL JOHNSTON
Like Erickson, indie-folk singer-guitarist (and cartoonist) Daniel Johnston was also the subject of a compelling documentary film — 2006’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston — which detailed his battle with severe bipolar disorder (including an episode where he became hypomanic and forced his father to crash-land the small plane the pair were flying in; both walked away from the crash unharmed) and a life spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals. And, like Erickson, Johnston — who now lives under the care of his elderly parents — has managed to find enough stability these days to tour regularly behind his brilliantly skewed songbook.

MICHAEL ANGELAKOS
Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 18, and — as he explained in a Pitchfork interview in July — spent five weeks in a Houston mental health clinic in 2009 after suffering a “dissociative psychotic reaction” at SXSW. From Pitchfork:

“It’s a constant thing — I’m on suicide watch all the time,” he says, with straightforward nonchalance, on a June evening in his Brooklyn Heights apartment. “It’s something I have a history with, so people don’t trust me. They try to take it easy with me, and I don’t like it, because I don’t want to be known as an artist that’s super volatile.” A year later, while attending Boston’s Emerson College, Angelakos attempted to take his own life: “Creativity essentially leads to suicide — where you think to cut yourself up, sit in the bathtub, and take more medication than you should.”

After canceling some shows this summer so Angelakos could receive more treatment, Passion Pit returned to the road this month.

KRISTIN HERSH
Singer-songwriter, alt-rock icon, Throwing Muses founder, and author Kristin Hersh has been extremely candid about her severe bipolar disorder (she was initially diagnosed as schizophrenic), writing about it at length in her terrific 2010 memoir Rat Girl. Recently, Hersh has claimed that acupuncture has virtually cured her of her mental illness. From the Guardian in 2010:

“I feel like music is real and bipolar disorder is not any longer,” she says. “I hated the connection between mental illness and art. I couldn’t stand that you had to be sick in order to create beauty, or confused to create truth. It made no sense. It was a huge relief to be essentially cured.”

BRIAN WILSON
After a nervous breakdown — combined with substance abuse issues — that made his mental instability more and more apparent, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the late ’60s, where he underwent electroshock, lithium, and other treatments. Wilson spent much of the next two decades sequestered in his home, addicted to drugs and food, on anti-psychotic medications, and seeking various forms of therapy. Finally, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and eventually made his way back to stages and studios, finishing his long-gestating album Smile in 2004. He’s released a handful of albums since and continues to tour.

SINEAD O’CONNOR
Irish songstress Sinead O’Connor has long battled bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has attempted suicide several times, most recently in January, when she overdosed on pills. In the spring, O’Connor canceled her tour dates on the advice of her doctors to continue psychiatric treatment. From Pollstar, in May:

After taking a medication called Tegretol, which O’Connor said made her bipolar symptoms worse, she said if she hadn’t called off the tour, she “might have acted on a suicidal compulsion alone in some hotel room.” She has now switched to a different medication which “seems to be helping a lot,” adding that it will be a slow process to get the levels right and recovery physically. O’Connor plans to continue making music because she says it is a gift from the Holy Spirit.

JOHN DENVER
Late singer-songwriter John Denver battled severe depression for many years, which he tried to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. From a 1979 People magazine article:

A complicated and intense man (for all his onstage cheerfulness), Denver admits that his Rocky Mountain highs “have been balanced by incredible lows. When I get depressed,” he admits, “I question whether life is worth living.”

In his 1994 autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver detailed his substance abuse and revealed a suicide attempt. Denver died in a plane crash in 1997, at age 53, while flying solo off the coast of California. Some speculated that the crash was a suicide, but the NTSB determined that he lost control of the aircraft while attempting to switch fuel tanks.

RAY DAVIES
Legendary Kinks frontman Ray Davies has long dealt with bipolar disorder, and has attempted suicide. From the biography Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else:

Bouts of depression have plagued Davies throughout his life, even during seemingly successful periods. In the early spring of 1966, after a string of UK and international hits, there was some talk that Davies needed help and that a temporary stay in a sanatorium might be necessary for the young but fragile and overworked rising star. Manager Robert Wace said that 1965 was “a very bad year for Ray … he was very, very unstable.” But Wace and co-manager Grenville Collins convinced the family that Ray would be secure under their watch, a duty they assumed diligently. “It is not easy being Ray Davies,” one close to him told me. “Under all the brilliance is torture. But without the torture we wouldn’t have the great art.”

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Rich Aucoin

Halifax’s Rich Aucoin is known for his ingenuity. For his first coast-to-coast tour, he biked across Canada to raise money for charity, performing an album designed to screen alongside How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 2011’s We Are Going To Live, meanwhile, employs 500 Canadian musicians on aspirational tracks that tease out vocoder-electro and contemplative disco (especially on the sweeping “Brian Wilson Is A.L.I.V.E.”). Tonight at Piano’s, Aucoin just wants to make you happy, with DIY confetti blasts, audience participation games straight out of kindergarten class, and his signature reckless enthusiasm.

Wed., Jan. 18, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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Summer Guide: Don’t Take Brad Paisley to the Airport Strip Club

Brad Paisley uses a laboratory metaphor to describe the difference between 2009’s American Saturday Night and his new album, This Is Country Music. “Last time I got as personal as I possibly could,” says the singer from his home in Nashville. He’s referring to Saturday Night cuts such as “Then,” about how he met his wife, and the two-part “Welcome to the Future,” in which he draws a line from his grandfather’s experience during World War II to the sense of wonder that comes over him every time he tucks his two young sons into bed. “It really was me in the Petri dish,” Paisley continues. “Whereas this time I’m the one looking through the microscope.”

As always, Paisley’s focus remains laser-sharp. In “One of Those Lives,” he examines a family’s battle against childhood cancer with devastating specificity, while “A Man Don’t Have to Die” offers this brutal summation of a night spent ogling dancers at the airport-adjacent strip club: “All you feel is drunk and broke and lonely when they’re through.” Country Music contains plenty of lighter stuff, too; the title of “Working on a Tan” probably speaks for itself. But Paisley never wavers in his mission to capture what he calls the “plow-through-it mentality” that seems to have suffused American life since the election-year high of 2008. The result suggests a Sundance documentary with tent-pole production values.

“Brad writes songs everyone can relate to,” says Sheryl Crow, who contributes vocals to the album’s gospel-traditional closer, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” “There are lines in his songs that make you go, ‘Oh, my God—I think that all the time!’ ”

The Country Music Association’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, Paisley singles out that universality as the defining quality of his genre, no matter how slick the delivery device. “The debate over what it means to sell out has been raging within the country-music community since the days of Hank Williams,” he says. “And it didn’t get any more civil in the ’60s, when Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold were basically cutting Frank Sinatra records in a different city.” The point he’s trying to make with the new album’s title track—which he opens by admitting, “You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song”—is that “country music is about lyrics and about choice of topic.”

In Paisley’s case, at least, it’s also about hot-shit guitar heroics. Frank Rogers, the singer’s longtime producer, says that midway through the American Saturday Night tour Paisley bought a vintage Martin acoustic that “just grabbed him.” The new album, Rogers adds, “really started with that guitar, which is why it ended up a little earthier than the last one.” (In modern-day Nashville, earthiness is a relative concept.) Paisley’s live shows contain no shortage of six-string spectacle; during a gig last year at L.A.’s Staples Center, dude strolled the arena floor while peeling off the kind of licks most country stars hire session guys to perform. “Brad basically writes songs so he’s able to get onstage and play guitar for two hours every night,” Rogers says with a laugh.

Paisley doesn’t deny it. But he also admits that his tours—this summer’s North American trek hits Holmdel’s PNC Bank Arts Center July 15—are prime research opportunities. “I’m fascinated by the lives of the people I look out at every night,” he says. “Whenever I see some statistic about the average American, I’m always like, ‘I don’t need a statistic to know about them—they come to my shows.’ ”

July 15, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey, livenation.com

Summer Music Picks

Brian Wilson

June 11–13

The recent announcement that Brian Wilson is prepping the legendary Smile sessions for official release later this year earned the expected oohs and aahs from Wilson’s devoted record-nerd constituency. Wouldn’t it have been nice, though, if more of those High Fidelity types had rallied around 2010’s underappreciated Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin? At the Highline for three nights as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, the 68-year-old Beach Boy will perform his sumptuous, sensitive renditions of such American-songbook staples as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Don’t sleep (again). Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street, highlineballroom.com

NKOTBSB

June 12–13 (Izod Center)

July 31 (Nassau Coliseum)

Armed with what might be the most unwieldy name in boy-band history, NKOTBSB unites members of New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys in a nine-member supergroup whose roots extend to the adolescence of Justin Bieber’s mom. These shows are sure to be long on hits from the old days, but the outfit also seems determined to compete with today’s young chart-toppers: “Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” a new tune from NKOTBSB’s joint greatest-hit disc, is virtually indistinguishable from Jason
Derulo’s “In My Head.” Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey, meadowlands.com; Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, nassaucoliseum.com

Sade

June 21 (Nassau Coliseum)

June 24 (Izod Center)

June 25 (Prudential Center)

Last year, the English avant-soul star released her first studio album in a decade, and now Sade and the band that bears her name are crisscrossing the globe on their first world tour since 2001. Should you anticipate a rejiggered sound here in reflection of all that elapsed time? You should not: On The Ultimate Collection, her new double-disc best-of, Sade starts out cucumber-cool and stays that way through a Jay-Z-equipped remix of “The Moon and the Sky.” With John Legend, whose smoothly operating ballads speak to Sade’s enduring influence. Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, nassaucoliseum.com; Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey, meadowlands.com; Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey, prucenter.com

Eddie Vedder

June 21–22

There’s nary a bellow to be heard on Ukulele Songs, the straightforwardly titled new solo album by Eddie Vedder: Singing fresh tunes of his own as well as standards like “More Than You Know” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the Pearl Jam frontman accompanies himself on the four-stringed Hawaiian instrument; it’s an even sparer, sweeter sound than the rustic folk settings Vedder employed on his 2007 soundtrack for Into the Wild. At the Beacon, you can expect a catalog-spanning set list stretching back to PJ’s Ten, which this summer turns 20. Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, beacontheatre.com

Def Leppard + Heart

July 12 (Nikon at Jones Beach Theater)

July 13 (PNC Bank Arts Center)

Got a hankering to hear “Foolin’ ” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” with added crowd noise? This summer, you’ve got two options: Schlep to Secaucus to pick up Def Leppard’s new Wal-Mart-exclusive live disc or hit one of the long-running hair-metal band’s two local dates. I recommend the later, if only because you’ll also see Heart, whose excellent 2010 disc, Red Velvet Car, served as a vital object lesson in how to grow up without growing boring. Bang your head to “Barracuda” and “Magic Man,” but save some fist-pumps for “WTF” and “Queen City,” as well. Jones Beach, jonesbeach.com; PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey, livenation.com

tUnE-YarDs

July 14

You don’t need me to tell you how great the new tUnE-YarDs album is: Citing raves by Robert Christgau at MSN and Mike Powell here at the Voice, Metacritic accurately refers to w h o k i l l’s critical reception as “universal acclaim.” What you might not know, though, is that Merrill Garbus’s current live band (which includes a pair of sax players) pushes her bracingly polyglot pop into brainy-funky dance-party territory. If you couldn’t afford to see Paul Simon at the Beacon earlier this month—or even if you could—this free show is not to be missed. Pier 54, Hudson River Park, riverrocksnyc.com

Zoot Woman

August 10

England’s Zoot Woman are probably best known in the United States (if they’re known at all) for the membership of Stuart Price, who in addition to his solo work under the names Les Rythmes Digitales and Jacques Lu Cont has recently carved out a healthy production career with the likes of Scissor Sisters and the Killers. Yet each of Zoot Woman’s three studio albums—start with Living in a Magazine, from 2001—is a small wonder of sleek, ’80s-inspired electro-pop. Fans of Phoenix are strongly advised to take advantage of this rare American appearance. (le) poisson rouge, 158 Bleecker Street, lepoissonrouge.com.

Sonic Youth + Wild Flag

August 12

It’s never a bad idea to check in on Sonic Youth, especially in an outdoor venue where those silver-rocket guitars can spiral skyward free of restriction. But what makes this date a must-see is the noise-rock veterans’ choice of opening act: Wild Flag, the buzzy new psych-garage outfit featuring ex-Helium frontwoman Mary Timony with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, both formerly of Sleater-Kinney. Earlier this year in a warm-up slot at Radio City, the ladies threatened to steal the show from Bright Eyes. Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve? Consider yourselves warned. Williamsburg Waterfront, 93 Kent Avenue, ticketmaster.com

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BLUE NOTE BLISS

A great jazz song leads with the attack, either rhythmically or evocatively—and the inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival has certainly adopted the same strategy, because their first endeavor is awe-inspiring. Spread over the entire month of June, at many of the best venues in town (including Highline Ballroom, B.B. King Blues Club, Mercury Lounge, and the venerable Blue Note club itself), the roster boasts jazz greats Dave Holland, Hiromi, Bobby McFerrin, Roberta Flack, and even a few pop-leaning luminaries (Brian Wilson! Questlove! Wait . . . Brian Wilson!). To resist this for a week, let alone all month, would be insane.

June 1-30, 2011

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RENAISSANCE MAN

Beauty, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 1989 album, was certainly that; a swift, searing alchemy of Western pop and traditional Okinawan and Japanese songs, it was a true feat of international expression. (The cameo from Brian Wilson didn’t hurt, either.) Sakamoto is at ease with hopscotching across borders; the Tokyo electronic composer remains the catalyst of the “Neo Geo” flux, an Asian/Western classical fusion genre. A solo star and former member of massive Japanese dance stars Yellow Magic Orchestra, the veteran artist has an astounding 50-plus studio albums and original soundtracks and an Academy Award (for his The Last Emperor score) under his belt. And onward he looks.

Mon., Oct. 18, 8 p.m., 2010

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Harry Nilsson Gets the Rock-Doc Treatment

The “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” singer and John Lennon’s self-described favorite “group” gets the full-on rock-doc treatment normally accorded to household gods like the Doors and Lennon himself. John Scheinfeld’s film traces a familiar trajectory, moving from its subject’s humble beginnings through commercial and artistic success to that inevitable rock-star decline of drugging, boozing, and bankruptcy. But as interviewees like Brian Wilson, Robin Williams, and Yoko Ono insist, Harry Nilsson did everything a little differently—refusing to cement his fame by subjecting himself to the rigors of touring and, later, galvanized by Lennon’s death, shelving his musical career in favor of gun-control activism. If Scheinfeld doesn’t share his subject’s iconoclastic taste, sticking closely to the archival footage and talking-heads formula, it’s the quality of the former (such as Nilsson’s oral autobiography) and the sense of personal involvement in the latter that elevates the film above the run-of-the-mill rockumentary. The director doesn’t bother to interview the experts—only those who knew the man best—a strategy that yields such anguished moments as Nilsson’s first son tearfully recalling his one-night reunion with the father who had abandoned him years earlier.

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Freelance Whales

Consider yourself docked a number of hipster points if this Queens crew ain’t on your radar yet. You have to give ’em credit for mixing dreamy chorales, banjos, and laptops without making it sound like a mess or just a willfully weird stew—they actually make a homey version of baroque pop that Brian Wilson could and should appreciate. And if the singer bites Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard a bit, at least he’s more creative about it than Owl City. With Animal Tropical and Still Life Still.

Wed., Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2010