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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Is Springsteen Worth the Hype?

Two years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia knew how to spell his name, but now his new album, “Born to Run,” due out within the week, is all they can talk about up there. Hope of the future. Big star. Gold record. The works. Across the land, corporate drums are making sure everybody gets the message. A new savior is at hand. The ’70s are being primed for a media killing to the nth degree. Pressing plants work long into the night. The time, as they say in the business, is right.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, the blood of the poet must be running both hot and cold about this. In the summer of ’72, Bruce Springsteen, winless after half a decade of bar-band wars, had just written several long, very unusual songs — yet another new beginning for him — and was reading Anthony Scaduto’s biogra­phy of Bob Dylan. He’d Just finished the part where Dylan goes up to Columbia, auditions for the legendary John Hammond, walks out with a record contract. One day later, Springsteen and guitar were in Hammond’s office, and history, sensing the chance to live up to its reputation, did indeed repeat itself.

Two LPs later, Bruce could boast moderate album sales, a small but rabid concert audience, and a critical reputation which was fast snowballing. Earlier incomprehension over his music — he was immediately labeled the new Dylan, the new Van Morrison­ — gradually gave way to cult pandemonium. When the eminent Jon Landau saw the singer perform in Boston and wrote, “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Sprin­gsteen,” the careers of both men soon became intertwined.

Springsteen was having major problems recording a third LP. He and producer-manager Mike Appel had been working for eight months in a Long Island studio: the results were one completed song, “Born to Run,” and such incredible frustra­tion Bruce at times threatened to give up making records altogether. Although “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” were highly regarded, almost no one, record company and critics alike, thought they were produced well: and many suspected that it was Springsteen himself who was responsible for the technical agony and ecstasy. Such assumptions were more than partly correct. In the studio, Bruce was astigmatic and shortsighted, a perfectionist who frequently took the long way around simply because he didn’t know the short one. That depression had set in would be an understatement.

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Landau, who had once produced the MC-5 and Livingston Taylor, seemed the perfect solution. He loved the music, understood it, and, equally important, could offer an analytic and pragmatic approach as a logical balance to Springsteen’s mercurial naivete. They liked each other personally. If Landau was somewhat in awe of the kind of instinctual genius who could resolve aesthetic problems by compounding them, Bruce had no less respect for someone who invariably got to 10 by counting out nine individual numbers, one at a time. It was the ideal artistic marriage of creative madness and controlling method.

Together they cut “Thunder Road,” and when Springsteen dis­covered he could write a song one night and successfully record it within the next few days, he was so astonished he began writing and rewriting the rest of the album with renewed intensity. Why hadn’t someone told him it could be this easy? The word easy, however, can have pejorative overtones; and with Bruce, one is never talking about an economy of mood. The singer was convinced he had to de­liver a masterpiece, and since noth­ing is ever perfect, especially to someone whose art is based on vola­tility, it became difficult to decide the exact degree of near-greatness attainable: once he and Landau had started a song off on the right road, Springsteen, out of uncertainty and the increasing pressures of oncom­ing and perhaps unwanted fame, didn’t know when to stop. Or didn’t dare. After all, it could always be better, couldn’t it? People are going to expect so much. Let’s just take a few more weeks because…

“Outside the street’s on fire/In a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wound­ed/Not even dead/Tonight in Jungle­land.”

***

At the Bottom Line. Wednesday. Springsteen begins the first show in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer at the piano during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It is a magic moment, avoiding preten­tiousness only because of works, for Bruce has carefully cultivated the late James Dean’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableau, and wrapped the whole package with explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock ‘n’ roll as the band comes onstage — a trick picked up from r&b groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night — is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The house has gone wild.

The night has an air of expectancy — one may even say privilege: there is an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. All 10 shows, Wednesday through Sunday, have been sold out for weeks, but at two o’clock this afternoon, a line began to form at Mercer and Fourth. By seven, several hundred kids were milling about in a pouring rain, gambling at long odds on the chance to buy one of the 36 standing-room­ only tickets. Inside the club, every other person is carrying either a notebook or camera to certify the event. Both Springsteen and the band seem aware of threat and promise, and try too hard. A bunch of South Shore street punks all sharped up for a big night in New York town, they are so charged with energy and good humor they push right past the audience, pointlessly sending the lost wail of barrio serenades all the way up to Eighth Avenue, surely one of Bruce’s spiritual homes.

If the street’s on fire outside, inside so are we, the singer seems to be saying from the secret heart of those small-town rock ‘n’ rollers set loose for the first time with booze and cars in Neon City. Hey, man, did you see that? Sexy innocents hang out on corners, soaking up urban vignettes, and striving in vain for the obscene loveliness of the true street hustler. From the cheap seats in Jersey, “Thunder Road” is Springsteen’s recurrent American dream, yet another incarnation of the run away and his woman — gimme my girl and let us outa here! — trying for the ultimate escape, no questions asked, no promises given: “Hey, what else can we do now?/…Well, the night’s busting open/…We got one last chance to make it real.”

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One last chance to make it real is the way Bruce approaches his concerts, too. Everything must get crammed in, whether it fits or not, the story lines accelerating until both singer and band reach bursting point so often that what is at first exhilarating and climactic later become mere hysterical redundancy. Too many times, one 20-minute song will follow another, their formats so similar the mind begs for brevity or at least a different set of reflexes with which to respond. Happily, Springsteen has dropped completely what appeared to be a creeping narcissism in many of last year’s concerts — in comparison, he is natu­ralness personified now — but he still has not learned that less can be more, that one well-aimed bullet can create just the kind of impact he wants while a dozen random shots may do nothing so much as bum out an audience before their time has come. Granted, he is a master at those small bits of stage business that can suddenly illuminate occasional dark alleys, but why he chooses to walk such mean streets at all remains a mystery.

Actually, Sunday night’s initial show makes practically any criticism obsolete. For the first time all week, the singer seems flexible and relaxed — Chaplin’s mobile tramp and Valentino’s slippery lover playfully filling the air with smoky mise-en-scene from an antic ’40s film noire, then delivering a Bogart, brass-knuckled haymaker that puts everyone away. It’s “Casablanca” all over again, with a gaucho Groucho in the lead. The pacing is much improved, the set structure faultless. Nothing gets repetitious. From a near-perfect mixture of bright talk (the introduction to “E Street Shuffle”), fast ones (“Born to Run”), oldies (the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”), palpably intimate slow songs (in the middle of the set, “Thunder Road,” done strict­ly solo), and raging rockers (the best “Rosalita” yet), Springsteen fashions the kind of seamless, 150-minute performance that most ar­tists can only dream about, never realize. On my feet, clapping, never wanting it to end, I ask myself when I’ve ever been so moved by a con­cert.

Four times: Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” anywhere in ’65 or ’66, the Rolling Stones at the Garden in ’72, Jackson Browne in Toronto in ’73, and a few of the New York Dolls’ late shows at the Mercer Art Center that same year.

All of the above, of course, indicates that even Springsteen’s weak­nesses stem from too much talent, not too little. When you can achieve just about anything you want on­stage it’s hard not to stay there until you’ve rung all the bells; and one often gets the feeling that Bruce is having so much fun he’d gladly pay the crowd to let him do just that. Ironically, if he weren’t as good as he is — and he is close to being the best we have — no one would be concerned with such minor issues as pace and overreach. In the long run, the sta­mina and purity of personal vision should be applauded. To be tena­ciously naive is far preferable to following the safe, downhill path which leads straight into the for­mulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own.

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***

Yet there it is, out there like an anxious Jack the Ripper, eagerly awaiting to confer the bloody award. In the East, Springsteen is already a legend — in Washington, D.C., ad­vance orders on his new album al­ready outnumber those for Elton John’s — and he has made great inroads in Texas, and parts of the Midwest. The South and the Far West remain question marks, but the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when “Born to Run” is released.

I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record, curbing most of the excess but none of the force of the only artist I know who could combine the sound of Phil Spector with the singing of Roy Orbison. (The names come from Bruce.) “Born to Run” lists three producers — Springsteen, Landau, Appel — but Landau freely acknowledges that “Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. ‘Hey, wait a second,’ he would say, ‘The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.” Mike’s great strength in the studio was his energy, his ability to keep everybody’s spirit together. No matter how bad it got, he could always get things going again.”

***

Out front, fame is at the door and knocking loudly. There’s too much light out there, and the countdown has begun. In the back, under the haze of a romantic’s moon, maybe no one will notice two figures on a fire escape jump down and run hand-in-­hand through tenement backstreets toward Spanish Harlem. On Broad­way, it’s midnight in Manhattan, so walk tall, somebody says. Walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all.

Everything is quiet. Only a whis­per.

“Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us/Those pier lights, our carnival life forever/Oh, love me tonight for I may never see you again/Hey, Sandy girl, my baby.”

Quieter. But if we’re lucky, Bruce sighs,

“Maybe we could slip away/Maybe we could steal away /Maybe we could slip away/Just for a second.”

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

2002 Pazz & Jop: Party in Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2002

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)

2. Beck: Sea Change (DGC)

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

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

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

6. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia)

7. The Roots: Phrenology (MCA)

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

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

10. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra)

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Top 10 Singles of 2002

1. Missy Elliott: “Work It” (Elektra)

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

3. Nelly: “Hot in Herre” (Universal)

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Tweet: “Oops (Oh My)” (Elektra)

—From the February 12–18, 2003, issue

 

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

 

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

1995 Pazz & Jop: Lost in the Soundscape

Buffeted by two equally implacable forces, the advertising department and the hand of God, the 22nd or 23rd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll got off to a depressing start, and not just because the Blizzard of ’96 immobilized New York on our earliest due date since Clay Felker ruled this precinct of Alternia. One of the odd luxuries of our annual retrospective is that it really is one. Where other critics are compelled to sum up a year that hasn’t ended yet, our voters commonly spend the fallow weeks of early January finding out which of their fondly remembered or recently embraced favorites stands up to one-on-one comparison and repeated listening. For me it’s always a pleasant respite —an excuse to have fun and call it work on a job that too often demands the opposite. This January, however, it felt rushed, forced, pinched, its only blessed moments the night I converted my wife to Eric Bachmann (who he, you wonder, as well you might in this ominously private year) and the midnight of Storm Sunday, when we locked James Carter onto our lists as we sat in the dark watching pioneers traverse a white, still Second Avenue.

But soon Second Avenue was a mess, and so was our poll — for a week the Poobahs and their elves alternated between counting the vote and getting it out. Generous though we were with late ballots, the short deadline daunted some — our 278 respondents represented a slight dip in the decade’s 300-ish turnouts. Or maybe the nonvoters just couldn’t get revved up for 1995’s music. With winner and runner-up foregone conclusions (some would say since April), the biggest excitement of the staggered schedule was provided by Oasis and Björk edging past Son Volt and Joan Osborne, or maybe Alanis Morissette and Wilco supplanting the Roots and Steve Earle. This beat watching paint dry, but not smelling grass grow. With young reedmaster Carter flying and Peter Stampfel and Randy Newman passé, your faithful Senior Poobah was reduced to rooting for Wilco — partly to fend off the complementary contagions of Son Volt and Supergrass, mostly just to stay awake. I mean, what a dull, disheartening bunch of finishers.

Back before Public Enemy plus Nirvana set off punk- if not Beatlemania-scale cultural expectations in rock’s long-fractured community, the standard ballot used to lead: “It was the worst year for music since…” One wag even suggested we distribute a form letter to that effect. Me, I rarely think in such terms until my rhetorical labors require it, and I entered January feeling neutral at worst. I knew my A list was kinda quirky, and as my points indicate, I felt uplifted by only the tippy-top of a satisfactory top 10. But in the crass way I measure these things — by counting good records — the year more than held up musically. And although too many people I care for are busy dying and three irreplaceable colleagues were fired in the most brutal management action this place of employment has ever known, the ups outnumbered the downs personally and professionally as well. So how would I have begun my ballot? Something like this: “It was the worst year for humanity since…”

I mean, right — you love music, I love music. It could even be said that music is my life — hyperbolically (“Your CDs or your wife,” sure), but there’s a truth there. Only that truth has limits. Assigned to a concentration camp, I’d no doubt gravitate to the guy with the guitar (guitar, hell — flute), but my passions would be putting food in my belly and getting the fuck out. And in a world consumed by a class war in which the aggressors are the rich and the rich are winning, music’s power to inspire and console is, I’m sorry, decisively diminished. This might be less true if musicians were responding actively to the crisis. But it’s the opposite, and I see no purpose in abjuring what satisfactions remain at my disposal by pretending otherwise. Which I’m afraid makes it the worst year for music since…

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Ordinarily, I consider it impolite to commence these reflections with my faves — by the fifth graf I should at least have named the winner whose mug is up front selling papers, don’t you think? But in this every-person-for-his-or-her-self year I want to note the political inadequacies my own chosen escapes. Joining the gnomic Pavement on the formerly alternative front, Luna’s languidly songful 45th-place Penthouse is the cheekily entitled career album of Harvard trust-fund semipopster Dean Wareham, while the Archers of Loaf’s cheekily dissonant 82nd-place Vee Vee flexes the muscle of four avowedly apolitical North Carolina road musicians, three of them from homes more comfortable than mine (and one of them Eric Bachmann, who also heads my favorite “post-rock” combo, cough cough hack hack ptooey ptooey, the saxy Barry Black). Randy Newman’s Faust (87th) is an insouciantly arrogant El Lay musical comedy, Peter Stampfel’s You Must Remember This… (112th) a recklessly peculiar cover cavalcade. Carter and [File Under Prince] are no-holds-barred roots innovators whose social ideas are inexplicit and sensationalistic, respectively. And Orüj Güvenç’s Ocean of Remembrance, an effort somehow overlooked by the remainder of the electorate, is trance music (the real thing for once) that fuses clinical psychology and Sufism, a faith whose attraction for Western intellectuals I have always attributed to its elitist tendencies.

Except perhaps for Vee Vee — rarely do I so adore a young band so underrated by my young colleagues — my 1995 top 10 achieved a typical consensus: three out of eight in the Pazz & Jop top 40, which makes five out of 10 now that we’re finally ready for the big guys. Ladies and germs, I give you THE UNCHALLENGED ONE-TWO PUNCH OF THE 1995 PAZZ & JOP CRITICS’ POLL. Put your hands together for PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, which got more points than the numbers two and three albums combined. And before you sit down, let’s hear it for Tricky’s Maxinquaye, which got just 63 fewer points than the numbers three and four albums combined. Really, these are some numbers. In 1988, a troika comprising Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Tracy Chapman very nearly outpointed the next nine finishers. But only one runner-up and one winner have ever piled up such margins, and they sure didn’t do it in the same year: the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls finished second back in new wave 1978, while Hole’s Live Through This steamrollered just a poll ago. Trend or blip? Both, probably. But statistical speculations will have to wait until we honor the complementary triumph of two radically dissimilar records.

In only one way is our famously blues-drenched and verity-revitalizing winner more retro than such trendy neotrads as Oasis, Joan Osborne, and D’Angelo, not to mention our raft of roots-rockers: she has the courage to go for a Great Album and the talent to bring one off. Asked to profile its creator for Spin well before the record was released, I’ve been living with To Bring You My Love for over a year as I write, and while axe-grinders will always finger-point (sings off-key, naughty girl), I’m qualified to affirm what most of you already know: the thing hits hard and holds up even though it’s impossibly old-fashioned, arty, Romantic. It addresses universals in a form as much received as renewed; intrinsic, indelible, and inimitable, its power is in its spiritual yearnings, emotional quests, and delved essences. Polly Jean Harvey can make virtues of such hermeneutic indiscretions for only one reason. She is — and I do my very best not to toss this word at people under 30 — a genius.

Tricky may be a genius too — let a thousand geniuses bloom, given how much we’re accomplishing without them — but although he’s put in a proper apprenticeship on the English trip-hop scene, wherever exactly that is, it’s too soon to know. Anyway, unlike Polly Jean he doesn’t act the genius. Yet even so he’s belittled in certain outposts for encouraging a cult of personality instead of letting the, er, culture express itself through him — or maybe just for making a record “everybody” can like. Applied to an enigma known to perform without lights whose album has yet to make the acquaintance of the Billboard 200, I find these complaints obscure. All I know is that Maxinquaye was at once my ear candy of choice and the strangest, darkest, most formally unreceived album ever to bowl over an electorate that always insists on songcraft in the end, however much rap pacesetters Public Enemy and De La Soul stretched that concept. Granted, he’s Holland-Dozier-Holland compared to Ritchie Hawtin or the Sea and Cake, even Goldie or Raekwon, and without Martine’s spacy vocal stylings his album would barely exist. Nevertheless, Tricky’s seductive ability to transmute hopelessness into escape is realized mostly with texture and mood. And in this he is the opposite of anomalous avant-rockist Polly Jean Harvey.

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Songcraft versus soundcraft is a crucial polarity this year, fused and deconstructed and recombined and mushed up though these abstractions are at their best. So I don’t want to make too much of PJ’s and Tricky’s confluences, such as the tour they shared last spring — they also share a label, after all, and anyway, Tricky’s cooled-out if surprisingly rockish show failed to convert the headliner’s followers. And while in each case a woman singer puts a novel emotional spin on a traditionally male-dominated musical approach, Tricky’s tradition is unformed and Martine is even more unreadable than he is. Still, that probably helps explain the two albums’ otherwise unapproached electoral outreach. Usually four or five records attract at least one in five respondents. But unlike Maxinquaye, Moby’s third-ranked Everything Is Wrong (album of the year in Spin, failed tom make Rolling Stone’s top 10) didn’t altogether shake its dance stigma — or else (my theory) didn’t cohere as magically as its partisans claim. And while Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters, who finished second in Rolling Stone, got just one fewer mention than Moby, our weighted voting system slotted it as a record more liked than loved — both Elastica and Neil Young–Pearl Jam’s Mirror Ball had more passionate stats.

The weakest support ever for top-10 also-rans is the obverse of the chart-toppers’ huge margins, and as I said, both are part trend and part blip. Or at least I hope they’re part blip — hope the worst year for music since… isn’t obliterated with all deliberate speed by 1996 and then 1997. Because in a more general sense this dilution of common enthusiasm has been under way for a decade or two — even in the down year of 1985, John Fogerty’s 10th-place Centerfield (remember that one, roots guys?) got more points proportionally than 1995’s fourth-place Elastica. As taste subcultures are broken down into ever-smaller components by ragged individualists plucking likely-sounding flotsam and jetsam out of a flood of local and specialized releases, diffusion becomes inevitable, and I appreciate its cornucopia effect — on the longest Dean’s List ever, 71 strong, I count 24 genuine indie labels, fewer than 10 the rock/dance/alternative outfits that define the term for most voters. But just to look a gift cornucopia in the mouth, let me mix in another metaphor, one that seemed a quaint historical abstraction until Bosnia: balkanization. The cornucopia’s glories are best utilized by those with broad taste in comestibles. Balkanization’s horrors are best avoided by those with broad taste in people.

Balkanization seemed a distant threat last year, at least to alternarockers, who rooled Pazz & Jop like — well, without trivializing real-life horror, let’s just note that Serbs aren’t the only folks convinced of their cultural superiority. Semipopular guitar bands romped in 1994, and autonomous women got respect for the third straight year. Folk music in the broadest sense had its standard-bearers, and the Mavericks’ Nashville country record counterbalanced Johnny Cash’s Burbank one. But only six black artists finished, none in the top 20, an alarming nadir, and Britannia sunk even lower: Elvis C., Shara Nelson, and Portishead, who give or take a few poppish singles was the closest we got to the burgeoning dance world. And except for grunge immortal Neil Young, over-40s charted only under Rick Rubin’s or Ali Farka Toure’s steam.

All of this made sense critically — it was a hell of a year for semipopular guitar bands. But there was less than no reason to hope it would last, especially given how fast organic culture breaks down into fliers, trends, fads, and tiresome clichés. In 1995, critics made it their business to look askance at the flavor-of-the-month alternapop bizzy being hyped — most visibly on a singles list tattooed with the new wave novelties “Lump,” “Name,” “Hey Man Nice Shot,” and “A Girl Like You.” The symbol of its hegemony, who I’ll bet the franchise isn’t a one-shot in Billboard even if her Pazz & Jop days end as soon as they begin, is the Wicked Witch of the North, Alanis Morissette, reliably reported to have been invented by Madonna herself so she could get away from the publicity machine and have a material child. The symbol of its absurdity was the New South’s answer to Michael Bolton, Alanis’s close personal friend Hootie Rucker, whom some bizzers initially slotted as alternative because they’d never heard of him before, and whom the voters denied but couldn’t ignore.

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With no consensus culture to fall back on, the voters listened more catholically and/or grasped at straws. Four Brits (plus one Icelander) in the top 10 and three in the top four constitute the proudest U.K. showing since 1978; four dance albums in the top 40 and two in the top three constitute the most ecstatic dance showing ever (easy). A dozen black artists made the cut, and although only two went top 20, one was Tricky. Hip hop generated Raekwon’s populist obscurantism and D’Angelo’s minimalist neoclassicism (although Coolio’s populist heart was confined to the singles ballot); jazz and reggae returned to the lists, as did Prince Be and Prince Used To Be. A different and highly disparate bunch of autonomous women checked in — only three of the nine, including our third consecutive female winner, had ever charted, only the winner under her own name — and five top-25 albums wedded male and female energy: Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth from literal married couples, Tricky, Garbage, and the 6ths from professional partnerships of varying conventionality. Dwight Yoakam took the Mavericks’ lateral for an end run. Bruce Springsteen embraced the folk music cause, Emmylou Harris cloaked herself in its aura, and four commercially marginal Midwestern roots-rock bands labored to evoke the same soulful past that the original folkie generation had somehow mistaken for the conformist present. Yet all told, more than a dozen noisy semipopular guitar bands also made the top 40 — most repeaters and a few brand-new, including several alternapop best-sellers who are semi only by association. There was a semipopular piano band too.

All of which looks dandy, and most of which sounds dull and disheartening. It’s clear that last year’s parochialism fed off a true musical bonanza. If anything, alternarock remained healthier than it got credit for in 1995, as Lollapalooza convinced me: Hole and Elastica, Sonic Youth and Pavement, Beck and Moby, the Dambuilders and Superchunk. Although axe-grinders prog and trad whined about “predictability,” I haven’t heard so much exciting music in one day since Monterey. As put into practice by Everclear, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, NOFX, 16th-place Rancid, 18th-place Sonic Youth, Belly, my beloved Archers, and poor Green Day (who plummeted from 12th place to four mentions atop Dookie’s perfectly sincere follow-up, which I hope teaches them never to sell a gazillion records again), Amurrican punk/grunge did more for me than for critics in general this year. Nevertheless, as an old generalist I obviously welcomed their need to seek elsewhere. What dismayed me was what they found.

At my dourest, which is usually, I suspect voters of falling for variations on the very hype they pride themselves on seeing through. Although 27 first-timers made the albums list, this high is compromised by the spinoffs and regroups and past lives that signal gathering professionalism — Björk and Farris, Son Volt and Wilco, Foo Fighters and 6ths had all put other billings on our chart. Indie action was low-normal at best while the spread among alternifying megacorps broadened notably (WEA led as usual, but PolyGram was a strong second, and the other four majors all charted three or four albums, a first). And I note with serene disinterest that one imbalance the voters failed to right was generational: the edgy returns of Ornette Coleman (47th), Yoko Ono (60th), and (I insist) Randy Newman would have been shoo-ins five years ago, and after a 23rd-place rediscovery in 1991, John Prine put out an equally good record that finished 100th. Instead, voters tried to put their own stamp on history.

I can forgive going gaga over catchy trifles like Matthew Sweet or Garbage or the noble Foo Fighters — I did it with Luna myself, only I did it because Penthouse is beautiful (only you know whose ear beauty is in). But too often records were rewarded for tackling worthy concepts that got away — D’Angelo’s Marvin Gaye abstraction, P.M. Dawn’s sample-free r&b, Wu-Tang’s hip-trop, Joan Osborne’s gotham blues mama, Dionne Farris’s intelligent black postdiva, Emmylou Harris’s grievous angel, Smashing Pumpkins’ rock slopera, Ben Folds’s Todd Rundgren tribute, and let us not forget Oasis’s phony Beatlemania rising from the dust (just what we needed — a Cheap Trick revival). No doubt converts will call me a philistine as regards this or that treasure, to which I can only reply, So’s your old man. Except for the slopera and the Rundgren, I have nothing against the concepts, but the basic thrill of these records is that they’re doing the right thing even when they’re not doing the thing right.

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About two touchstones I don’t much enjoy I’m less cocky. Like Maxinquaye, Björk’s hiply well-named Post and Goldie’s schlockily well-named Timeless are formal coups — their mix of song and sound points directions many will follow. Paradoxically, Post registers as one of our most grooveless top-10 albums ever, with the basswise productions of Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper (and the noisescape Tricky kicks in) reduced to orchestral settings over which Björk can recite and emote and shriek and coo and generally dramatize. And if Goldie is to jungle what Tricky is to trip-hop — the “accessible” name brand for strangers in wonderland — then Martin Denny was Dr. Livingston. Occasionally some diva takes up a tune, but this pleasant, far from arhythmic soundspace posits an impressionistic respite from hard-core techno, with warm links to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Rick Wakeman.

Both coups have their connection to the post-rock fiddle-faddle you may have read about, as do several of the weaker finishers on our new compilations list (all but the winner, that means). These were somewhat more grooveless than the dance- and perhaps “world”-friendly finds I’d envisioned, although the category’s instigator, Junior Poobah Ann Powers, harbored no such illusions — or desires. As Erik Davis’s sane if overly visionary counterview emphasizes, dub is the most crucial source of the hipster vogue for slow, exotic instrumentals, and also the most unimpeachable. Hence the real numbers for Macro Dub Infection in an otherwise inconclusive competition that I expect to heat up next year, and hence my critical insecurities, for despite Bruce Sterling, Augustus Pablo, and my friend Greil, I’ve been not getting dub for over a decade, always with the uneasy sense that I’m missing something. But never forget the hipsters’ fatal attraction to fusion, movie music, and the tragically neglected legacy of Holger Czukay — the real-life consequences and/or correlatives of the silly loungecore bubble. Also note that Ennio Morricone did better with reissue voters than Can, all of whose albums were put back on the market by Mute for a grand total of four mentions — and that just as I prefer Sufis when it comes to trance, I prefer Pygmies when it comes to jungle. Heart of the Forest, the real thing — dig those crazy water drums.

If the futurism doesn’t look so bright this year, the sense of history is also dim. I actively deplore only two of what I count as seven arrantly trad finishers (eight if you buy this thing about the Geraldine Fibbers being country), and actively admire Steve Earle’s 41st-place Train a Comin’. (The 42-50 also-rans: Cesaria Evora, the Roots, Portishead, Luna, Mary J. Blige, Ornette, Supergrass, Vic Chesnutt, Helium — as varied as the top 40, and as full of grasped straws.) But my choices and the electorate’s vary inversely: the Bottle Rockets’ stroke of local color is down in the thirties with the light, smooth Wilco and the soulful, densely worked Jayhawks, while Emmylou Lanois and the revolting Son Volt crowd up behind supposed blueswoman and nice enough gal Joan Osborne, who might at least offer them a few tips on avoiding sanctimony. These priorities befit an escapist, soundscape-ridden year. The Bottle Rockets rock out more than they root around, and achieve what I like in my roots-rock: class consciousness, which usually requires words. They’re specific, strike one, and funny, fouling the next pitch into the seats. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar is too smart and too stupid to take such risks. His lonesome drawl as redolent of PBS docudramas as his meticulously cornball music is of honky-tonks imagined at hootenannies, he subsumes his songs in the soundscape he hopes sells them. As for Emmylou, her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it’s fraying with age is ripe for Daniel Lanois’s one admittedly beguiling trick: gauze over every aural detail and call the soft focus soul.

Harris’s instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, because this inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup (check her out on Earle’s similar career move) has no vision of her own for Lanois to obscure. Tragedy was left to the self-determined Springsteen, whose soundscape was at once the most courageous and the most depressing of the year — and since a soundscape was hardly Springsteen’s intention, also the most contradictory. Springsteen’s motives were even better than usual. Astonishingly and disgracefully, he was (with partial exceptions for Buju’s bondage, Rancid’s solidarity, and Moby’s jeremiad of a CD booklet) the only artist in the entire top 40 to do more than hint with the odd tale or image that 1995 might have been the worst year for humanity since… — to directly address the war on the poor (and, increasingly, what is called the middle class) that is now the political agenda of the industrialized world. Of course there were moral outcries and desolate backdrops from Tricky to Neil Young to Raekwon to the Bottle Rockets to the Geraldine Fibbers. Of course improving society isn’t what artists are for. And of course my own faves are just as clueless. But when the political culture is healthy, a portion of artists will preach and protest and prophesy, even if it’s only talk. I mean, four years ago I was apologizing for the ideological fecklessness of an album list with room for Public Enemy, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Billy Bragg, the Mekons, and, Lord-a-mercy, Linton Kwesi Johnson. I’m appalled by what’s been lost — by what no longer seems possible to artists I’m used to expecting great things from. As most of its admirers realize, that sense of impossibility is the ultimate message and underlying burden of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

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The album reads well enough. But supporters should ID its “Atlantic City” or “Highway Patrolman” before citing Nebraska, and listen to Struggle before they go on about Woody. Guthrie is less literate and detailed, but he figured out a way to sing his bare-bones horror stories of battles mostly lost. He was outraged rather than sad, and his outrage is almost jaunty at times — even, dare I say it, ironic (bitterly ironic, that is). Maybe he had the guts to come on so cool because he wasn’t beset by class guilt (although in fact his background was more genteel than Springsteen’s, his everyman persona a construction), but he was abetted by, dare I say it, the Communist Party — a bunch of acquaintances who shared his anger and believed they could do something about it. Springsteen plainly doesn’t, and in addition is so frustrated by the paradoxes of his outreach — by his conviction that the very gifts that enable him to engage a large audience will distract it irrevocably from what he has to say — that he chooses to muffle his songs, so that only those who really want to hear their despair will bother trying. His tunes, arrangements, and mysteriously praised “phrasing” aren’t just forbiddingly minimal — often they’re rather careless. This Brechtian strategy may be justified aesthetically. But it’s no paradox that it fails to engage — and no capitalist plot that it’s sold dick, either. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a bore. It is recommended to the many people of conscience who’ve developed a taste for ambient techno and the Sea and Cake.

In short, the bravest artist of 1995 ended up in the same trap everybody else claimed as home. Reading the comments, I began to think the voters were angrier about Hootie and Alanis than Gingrich and Giuliani, and it could be. What’s the point of getting mad at a system you’ve long assumed has nothing in it for you? A general resignation has clearly set in, and grasped straws won’t prevent younger critics’ now habitual us-and-them skepticism — as regards Washington, music they didn’t know about first, whatever — from slipping into garden-tending know-nothingism. Alternative cultures seem self-sufficient when they’re peaking, as alt-rock did in 1994. That’s why the inevitable 1995 commercialization/rationalization of grunge/punk excites such fear and loathing. It’s also why a clutch of self-defined pioneers is convinced the Next Significant Thing will be found at that spot just over the horizon where their personally rediscovered disco, art-rock, crappy jazz, minimalism, and electronic music must certainly converge — the perfect site for New Alternia, where a person can live or at least listen free forever if only he or she is hep enough.

And though others may take hope in all the less arcane directions voters pointed, something is fucked up when artists as apparently dissimilar as Raekwon, Emmylou Harris, D’Angelo, and Son Volt — or, hell, Yo La Tengo, maybe even James Carter (not Tricky, he builds the horror right in) — devote themselves to soundscape construction instead of working to make themselves understood. If these soundscapes were marked as respites, aural environments where the beleaguered can replenish their energies, it might be different — that’s the Sufis’ gift. Instead they posit a self-sufficiency that is one more metaphor with depressing real-life correlatives and consequences.

I’m a fan of bohemias, and a bigger fan of the postpunk music and sensibility that generated the counterculture this poll now quantifies. I have scant tolerance for the puritan distinction between “new” and “novel” that would deny us both transient thrills and a greater array of genuine innovations than the puritans admit (or want any part of). And I’m proud of all the artists Pazz & Jop has gotten to first. In recent years, however, the impulse to get there first has looked more and more like a reflex in the service of a lie, whether that lie be the aura of hip, the myth of progress, the dream of eternal youth, the chimera of immortality, or the story you need to sell to pay the goddamn rent. That’s why those 27 first-timers obviously aren’t the hook here. Rather than portending a brave new anything, they merely signify an endangered counterculture desperate to make of its raison d’être — and a journalistic culture eager to make of its subject — a system that isn’t just self-sufficient but self-renewing. It will come as no surprise that I’m unconvinced. All of us — musicians, listeners, and the writers who at their most effective serve as an interface between the two — are implicated here. And I say that only if all of us make it a priority to assure that our pleasures mean outside themselves, those pleasures will seem more rushed, forced, and pinched every year. Until finally the pleasures dry up, we give up, or both.

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Top 10 Albums of 1995

1. PJ Harvey: To Bring You My Love (Island)

2. Tricky: Maxinquaye (Island)

3. Moby: Everything Is Wrong (Elektra)

4. Elastica: Elastica (DGC)

5. Neil Young: Mirror Ball (Reprise)

6. Foo Fighters: Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol)

7. Björk: Post (4AD/Elektra)

8. Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia)

9. Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador)

10. Oasis: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Epic)

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Top 10 Singles of 1995

1. Coolio: “Gangsta’s Paradise” (MCA Soundtracks)

2. Edwyn Collins: “A Girl Like You” (Bar/None/A&M)
Alanis Morissette: “You Oughta Know” (Maverick/Reprise)

4. Elastica: “Connection” (DGC)

5. TLC: “Waterfalls” (LaFace)

6. Joan Osborne: “One of Us” (Blue Gorilla/Mercury)

7. PJ Harvey: “Down by the Water” (Island)

8. TLC: “Creep” (LaFace)

9. (Tie) Dionne Farris: “I Know” (Columbia)
Shaggy: “Boombastic” (Virgin)

—From the February 20, 1996, issue

 

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

 

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

1987 Pazz & Jop: Significance and Its Discontents in the Year of the Blip

I grew up in a time when elections still had their popcult charm, like baseball standings. Since age 10 I’ve been rooting for a presidential convention to go into extra ballots, and despite the lives at stake, the first Tuesday of November is my idea of a good night for a TV party. That’s how the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was conceived — as an election with only metaphors hanging in the balance, or maybe the musical equivalent of association baseball. But usually — cf. the goddamn presidency — the thrill of the contest is undercut by its more or less foreordained result. Not this year, though. As in the march of the seven dorks through spring primaries, the winner was hard to figure out precisely because the general outlines were so predictable.

I never bought Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons’s fatalistic assumption that U2 would rampage idealistically to the top of our 14th (or 15th) poll like we were Rolling Stone or the L.A. Times or the Hot 100. But since he was opening the ballots, I eventually lost my palmy certainty that The Joshua Tree couldn’t win because it just wasn’t good enough. As the countdown approached I handicapped the yearning sons of Eire just below Bruce Springsteen, the only major artist whose courage exceeded the call of duty in 1987, and Prince, the only major artist whose professionalism ditto, and a little ahead of yearning son of Indiana John Cougar Mellencamp and Pazz & Jop perennials R.E.M. and the Replacements. If I’d had to pick one horse it would have been Sign “O” [sic] the Times, but that was a guess, and I looked forward to some fun — an all-night tally down to the wire. Instead, the 226 voters gave Prince an unprecedented landslide. Prorated, only three albums this decade — London Calling in 1980, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain in the donnybrook of 1984 — have run up more points, and Sign “O” the Times is easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Its 579-point margin is 40 per cent wider than London Calling’s over The River in 1980, 60 per cent wider than Thrillers over Murmur in 1983. If only we could expect as much of Jesse Jackson.

I voted for Prince, and given the electoral realities I was rooting for him; I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying or newsworthy result. Sign “O” the Times established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era — as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer. The set’s few lackluster cuts would shine electric anywhere else, and sides two and three never stop, piling on the crafty, eccentric, blatantly seductive pop erotica until you just can’t take no more. Between AIDS and Tipper Gore, it was a good year to stick sex in the world’s face, too, as George Michael wasn’t the only one to figure out. But I’m obliged to point out that Sign “O” the Times doesn’t right Prince’s chronic shortcomings as lyricist-icon-conceptmaster, shortcomings exemplified by the title cut, which squeaked into first in the singles category. As usual when he Makes a Statement, what it states is that he’s Making a Statement, and while I’ll take that from George Michael or even Michael Stipe these days, I expect better of a peerless musician who predicates his iconography on lyrics and concept. I prefer the runner-up, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” not because it invokes the tragedy of child abuse with all the expressive means at Vega’s collegiate disposal, but because it condenses a two-hour TV movie into four minutes. And I’ll take “U Got the Look,” Prince’s erotomanic collaboration with Sugarwalls Easton, over either. Fuck significance, let’s dance.

As we’ll see, significance and its discontents loom large in this year’s poll, with several thoughtful voters chalking up Prince’s concept problem as a strength. Of course, if everyone agreed, the title tune wouldn’t have outpolled “U Got the Look” two-to-one. One reason the album gathered such broad support is that it gives off enough verbal-conceptual signals to appease the average critical conscience. For every J. D. Considine tagging it (plausibly if meanly) as “half-assed, self-indulgent,” there’s another who thinks it’s all about, well, the times — and another who hears the music signifying, and another who says let’s just dance (or boogie) (or fuck), and maybe half a Chuck Eddy concluding that Prince’s very confusion makes him a true son of rock and roll. All of which is worth precisely eight points by me. So if I gave Springsteen 13, why was I rooting for Prince? Because Tunnel of Love is so subtle, so austere, that a victory would have smelled of the sobersided insularity, racial myopia, and old-boy conservatism rock critics are accused of every once in a while. Historically, smart but obvious beat music has won this poll. I wanted Bruce second, and I got him.

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After that, to be honest, I didn’t much give a shit. My more recondite personal choices finished higher than I’d hoped: Sonny Rollins’s hottest record in a quarter-century at 60, New Order’s definitive 12-inch compilation at 56, Jimi Hendrix’s definitive live album tied at 45, and, in a startling surge, Sly and Robbie’s Laswellized art-funk statement at 25, with the official U.S. debut of Culture’s roots-reggae classic Two Sevens Clash tied for eighth among reissues. All of which made me feel righteous. But when R.E.M.’s Document and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee didn’t turn into the contenders my enthusiasm fooled me into expecting, I just figured these personal discoveries were blips.

Because 1987 was the year of the blip. In the collective mind and ear, no fewer than five of the top 10 albums were almost as unexciting as they were unexceptionable, with individual preferences among them adding up to nothing more than a bunch of individual preferences. I liked R.E.M. and Mellencamp, others liked Los Lobos and Hüsker Dü, big deal. The Replacements do drum up more passion, and rightly so — Paul Westerberg is the Prince of critics’ rock. But all these bands articulate well-turned variants on the song-oriented Amerindie guitar-band dialect that has dominated this poll all decade, and if their professionalism is a lot more meaningful, pleasurable, and unpecuniary than Whitesnake’s or (Jesus) David Bowie’s, professionalism is nonetheless what it is. They make a living at it — in some cases a damn good one. In 1987, Mellencamp led his multiplatinum following deeper into roots while R.E.M. sold a million and Los Lobos scored a number-one single (third with the critics) and soundtrack (two mentions). Can the Replacements be far behind? Not with Westerberg engrossed by the contradictions of maturity they can’t.

One result of this professionalism is a logjam that disorients critics addicted like no others to the shock of the new. Except for 1982, when there were six, exactly five newcomers had entered the Pazz & Jop top 10 every year since 1979. In 1987, that figure plummeted to two: old P&J hands XTC with the 1986 holdover Skylarking, and old P&J also-ran John Hiatt, now alcohol-free and on his fourth major label in a career dating back to 1974. Deprived of their dose of new-thing, the critics dispersed their support into an ever-widening field of mutually exclusive cult artists as their general enthusiasm waned. Both responses were reflected in point totals that dip below ’86 and ’85 levels right after Hiatt’s depressingly impressive finish and never recover. Not since 1979 has anybody snuck into our top 40 with under 100 points the way abstemious Tom Verlaine and alcohol-free Warren Zevon did — and need I mention that we’ve seen these deserving coots around here before?

In the end, however, criticism more than statistics was what convinced me that my mood of good-but-not-good-enough wasn’t a blip. Last time, determined to bring forth a more democratic forum, I published testimonials to the top 10 from the professional and semiprofessional writers who voted them in. But this year I came up almost dry once past U2, who also elicited all the contumely due a dubious frontrunner. Not a word on XTC beyond a complaint that “Dear God” spoiled Skylarking’s concept. A single compliment for Mellencamp’s music — leading into a surly assault on all the “people” (not even “critics”) who’ve “spread ’em” (male bias? us?) for his “populist bilge” (and this from a fan of A Very Special Christmas). “No scams, no star-struck looks, and no hook-oriented lyrics” was as not-bad as it got for Los Lobos; “His singing has never been more soulful and his lyrics have never been more witty and intelligent” was as much-worse as it got for John Hiatt. I name no names because it’s not my desire to put colleagues down, but if they couldn’t rise to the occasion of their own preferences, I felt no need to cut their faves any slack.

By now, faithful readers may be wondering whether something’s changed. After years of pooh-poohing the pessimism of the electorate, am I finally buying in? Well, yeah, in a way. If in 1986 I saw progress turning into a problematic concept for rock and roll, now I get the sense something’s ending. That doesn’t mean nothing’s beginning, though. Amid the usual aye-and-nay (and more nay) — pedestrian complaints about radio and A&R, pedestrian demurrals, criticism criticism, appreciations, gibes at this or that bête noire, dull desperation, crazed desperation — there were defiant glimmers of pleasure and elation, often from respondents who don’t strike me as dopes or pollyannas, or even especially happy people.

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As usual — strangely enough, it’s how I make my living — I have the beginnings of a theory about all this. Keepers of the flame may well regard this theory as treasonous; those who’ve gotten burned, meanwhile, will wonder what took me so long. I suppose the catalyst was the rockcrit (not rock and roll) event of the year, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which sent admirers and epigones ruminating off in a hundred directions, as you can see from the comments that begin that long section entitled “Rock and Roll as Literature, Literature as Rock and Roll.” As far as I’m concerned (he ruminated), Lester’s relentless attack on significance, right reason, rock-is-art, the whole baggage of validation and domestication that’s an all but inevitable consequence of criticism no matter how wild and wooly it sets out to be, was always salutory and never the whole enchilada, not even in his own mind. Still, I was struck by what Bart Becker had to say about Lester’s elevation to “literature” on his own dust jacket. The term is sharp marketing, useful propaganda, and an all but inevitable consequence of writing as well as Lester wanted to and did, but I have to admit that it lays a dead hand on a tremendously vital life-enterprise. And I’m not so sure the same concept isn’t vitiating rock and roll itself.

The canard that rock critics only care about the words has a history so long that there was once a smidgen of truth to it — around the dawning of James Taylor, when Lester was coming up. But the most genteel songpoetry shill always knew he or she was in it for the song, not poetry, though the terminology to evoke or analyze the song may have been lacking. Anyway, that was long ago. These days critics no less than songwriters are acutely aware of music and especially musicians. Most exemplary are the de facto singer-songwriters — Westerberg, Mellencamp, Holsapple, Merchant, imminent apostate Morrissey — who actively embrace the expressive discipline (and limitations) of a band. If anything, critics are even stricter about this than bandleaders, who do have ego conflicts and little dollar signs in front of their eyes to distract them from the path of righteousness. And the bands critics like best generate their own unmistakable sounds: except for studio-bound quick-change artists XTC and Pet Shop Boys and the R.E.M.-influenced 10,000 Maniacs (plus perhaps the proudly folklorico Los Lobos), there isn’t one in the top 40 who couldn’t be ID’d without vocals inside of eight bars.

Yet nobody would be interested in these bands without vocals — not just because the vocalists are essential and usually dominate musically, but because the lyrics the vocalists articulate (or slur) are what make the music mean. They specify it, sharpen its bite. And at whatever level of change-your-life, cognitive dissonance, sound example, comforting half-truth, or craven banality, meaning — or anyway, the show of meaning — is something audiences expect from music. So from the pop factories to the garages, from Debbie Gibson to Big Black, we’re inundated with well-made songs — well-made not because they revitalize the European concert tradition with harmonic aperçus, as polite little well-made songs are supposed to, but because they yoke sense and/or nonsense to sound and/or noise. This sense/nonsense is literary in a fairly narrow way — with due consideration for the peculiarities of the genre, which often include gauche blank patches and a rather unliterary colloquial logic, but no more than in drama or epic. Most critics have little trouble, really, finding songs if not albums that meet their literary standards. But one reason good is no longer good enough is that songwriters are having trouble eluding the dead hand that pushed more than one critic into rock and roll to begin with: the relative rapidity with which words lose their power to surprise, especially when they’re competing with countless other words of similar form and quality if not import. In a crisis of overproduction, another peculiarity of the genre eludes us: stuff that gets us off, as rude little rock and roll songs are supposed to.

I don’t trust theories of formal exhaustion. They’re too tautological; they don’t explain enough. The right artist in the right place at the right time can make them look ridiculous — Rosanne Cash’s Nashville branch of the El Lay School of Rock is so well-endowed it’s a wonder John Hiatt dropped out. And there are obviously personal exceptions beyond number. Nobody’s gonna tell me that R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” isn’t a sign of the times, or that Mellencamp’s “The Real Life” is any kind of bilge, and there’s evidence that my failure to fully connect with Pleased To Meet Me shouldn’t be blamed on Bob Stinson’s gone guitar or Paul Westerberg’s broken contract with the devil — that it’s a dysfunction related to my advanced years. There are loads of blips out there without a doubt, and I’m ready to believe that blips are what make life worth living. It’s even possible the year itself was a blip. Years do differ, after all — only 15 of the 1986 top 40 even released albums in 1987, which is about normal, and among the missing were song-oriented neofolkies Bragg and Burnett and Pogues and Timbuk 3, two of whom have already posted contenders for the 1988 list. Or maybe as they break pop the great critics’ groups will go into cultural overdrive. But I suspect not. Speaking generally, collectively, historically, an aesthetic seems to have lost its charge. Words aren’t making rock and roll mean the way they have ever since I took this job.

As I said, some dare call this treason. There are critics out there who’ll die believing Robbie Robertson is cutting-edge because he gave his imprimatur to Bono Vox; if I’m not mistaken, some of them are dead already. But as I also said, others dare call it too fucking late, and them I take seriously. One way or another, consciously or instinctively, many of the most demanding younger critics have been pushing ill-made antisong for years. They look to immerse in sound that destroys or supercedes the sense/nonsense continuum: posthardcore, industrial noise, skronk, grunge, shit-rock, records that deteriorate before your very ears. Most of it sounds dead end, is dead end, but a new dead end is at least a change, and out of the wreckage of feuding cults and stupid experiments has emerged the one Amerindie band to show significant upward musical and electoral movement in recent years: Sonic Youth, who finished 12th and deserved better with a noisy album whose songs never call attention to how they’re made and connect more powerfully for it.

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Still, the wreckage is there. Beyond this year’s top 10 (plus dB’s and Blasters and 42nd-place X hanging on and Del-Lords ready to emerge from limbo), our recent LP and EP lists have touted too many imminent obscurities. The roll call begins with tragedy and fast degenerates into small-time professionalism, earned anonymity, and pathetic self-indulgence: Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Fleshtones, Lyres, Rank and File, Bongos, Love Tractor, Let’s Active, Salem 66, Violent Femmes, Neats, Lifeboat, Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Dream Syndicate, Del Fuegos. Of the 17 Amerindie bands to place 41–100 last year, seven made new albums, one of which placed 41–100 this year. (That would be Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, tied for 77th with supergriot Salif Keita’s Soro, which is my idea of poetic justice. FYI, the Leaving Trains’ Fuck got shut out.) If any of the six American ill-mades to place 41–100 this year — Red Kross, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, Big Black, Chain Gang, Negativland — ever finish as high again, I’ll be astonished. And also, probably, pleased. It’s not as if I don’t hope the Amerindies shock me into recognition again — I want to mention that the best songs of the 70th-place Silos beat Mellencamp’s by me, albeit without Kenny Aronoff to kick them home, and wonder what Negativland think of the Pet Shop Boys. Even among enthusiasts, though, enthusiasm is flagging palpably.

With this in mind, I decided we should finally 86 the EP tally, instituted in 1981 as an Amerindie showcase, though from the start it proved a refuge for major-label odd lots as well. In the early years, the list did serve a predictive function, but not lately. Simmons readily assented to the change, and after some consideration we decided EPs would compete with albums (where Feedtime’s Shovel — which some claim is an EP, although I’ve never laid eyes on the thing — finished 63rd and Pussy Galore’s Pussy Gold 5000 118th, nine points ahead of the overpraised Right Now!). We weren’t surprised when Amerindie partisans howled; what surprised us is that they changed our minds. The EP ballot will return next year by semisemipopular demand, replacing videos, where only a third of the voters exercised their franchise this year, with the Chief Poobah among the missing. Maybe the victory will give the partisans a taste for the rewards of consensus, but I doubt it, because what was most striking about the ad hoc EP lists scattershot our way was their dearth of agreement — or duplication, I guess you could say. Having grown up in a time when elections had their popcult charm, I value consensus — even (or especially) oddball consensus. The partisans value self-expression, self-interest, self-anything, in bands and criticism both. At this juncture the American “underground” isn’t just factionalized — it’s atomized, a minority of minorities of one.

Other minorities proved more coherent — and also, as should surprise no one, more suggestive. We paid special attention this year to demographics — not regional, where the usual distribution prevailed (29 states plus D.C. and Ontario, with 84 metro-NY voters; qualified boondockers please apply), but racial, sexual, and generational. After appending a brief plea for black and female participation to our first mailing, where we also asked critics how old they were, we followed up by sending an affirmative-action statement and second ballot-and-SASE to black invitees. None of which worked. Black participation rose from an embarrassing 13 to an embarrassing 16, about half of them Voicers; female participation fell from 30 to 29; and well under 100 voters revealed their ages. But we had to do what we had to do, not just because we’re always looking for new ways to wear our hearts on our sleeves, but because as devotees of what’s supposedly a novelty-obsessed youth music we combat stasis by any means necessary. After all, in a year when the top 10 was almost uniformly white, uniformly male, and depressing by nonacclamation, maybe those perennially short-changed in the Pazz & Jop (and rock and roll) consensus might offer useful input. Bob the Nonethnic Mack may think the secret is revitalizing ’70s art-rock — guitar solos welcome, neatness counts. But after you agree that the Edge’s Zeppisms do more for The Joshua Tree than Bono’s bluesisms, read Gina Arnold on Eric Clapton in the section headed “Demography in Action.” For her — and, unless she’s deceiving herself, most young women — guitar solos are the enemy. Like it or not, minority musical needs and proclivities really do differ from those of rock criticism’s white boys, a jocular heh-heh term from our invitation that was thrown jocularly heh-heh back in our teeth by a number of respondents — “I’m a white boy,” “28-year-old white-boy rock critic,” “35 years old, white, male (of course!)”

Pursuing this line of thought, I ignored the unreliability of our tiny samples and totted up women- and blacks-only top 15s. Not surprisingly in a music that has yet to generate an unseparate-but-equal female tradition, the women’s list begins not unlike the big one, but with fewer points (read: less enthusiasm) for the identical top four than 29 randomly selected voters would have assigned. Other high-finishing albums did poorly (Hüsker Dü, Coleman, and Sonic Youth featuring Kim Gordon got four mentions total), while women put Kate-Bush-with-teeth Sinéad O’Connor into the top 40 and 10,000 Maniacs featuring Natalie Merchant into the top 30. Presumably, women play this boys’ game for the same conflicted reasons they play so many others — partly because their options are limited, partly because they share the boys’ values (freely or otherwise), and partly because the game has its intrinsic attractions. Taken as a group, they decline several of its usages, notably romantic-individualist virtuosity from Coleman to Clapton (though mad poet O’Connor half-fits the mold) and the objectification of gurls/wimmin to which all boys are prone and some more prone than others. When they choose role models (or sex objects), they prefer the emotion and atmosphere of O’Connor and Merchant (or U2 and, it pains me to report, Robbie Robertson) to Kim Gordon’s defiant porn-queen fantasies (or John Hiatt’s mitigated sexism).

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Partly because they can’t change it much, the few women critics are grudgingly accepted into rock’s journalistic consensus. Black critics, who are in a position to really wreck the thing, are stuck someplace else altogether. Now more than ever, they decisively prefer their own half-separate tradition, which some people claim is the source of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols. Collectively, our 16 black critics voted for black artists, with the Replacements edging onto their list at 15; about half of them voted for no white albums, compared to the fifth of white critics who voted for no black albums and the seventh who voted only for Prince. Of course, black critics aren’t exactly encouraged to cross over. Excluding the close to a dozen blacks who now write about rock and roll at least occasionally for the Voice, I know of precisely seven nationwide with ready access to the general interest press. (Let me name them: Cary Darling, Pablo Guzman, Marty Hughley, Dennis Hunt, Belma Johnson, Connie Johnson, Ron Wynn. I must be missing some — mustn’t I? — and would love to know who they are.) The rest are confined to black-targeted consumer publications, dance and radio tipsheets, and trade journals. Opportunities to discuss Hüsker Dü in such venues are limited, and so are opportunities for real criticism — only rarely can they write negatively except by omission, and only rarely can they delve much deeper than simple function analysis. Especially given the slavishness of much white music writing, from dailies puffing the stars to you-send-it we’ll-like-it fanzines and leisure weeklies, this doesn’t bother me much. But though we solicit ballots from many such writers, few respond. Which is doubly unfortunate in a year when significance-free function analysis isn’t far removed from what some of our most disaffected respondents think we need.

At least temporarily, you see, function analysis might serve as an alternative to quasiliterary criticism. “Radio is a good, weird machine,” Greil Marcus insisted last year, and this year the theme was reflected in the singles lists of many critics who’ve never met — for instance, Frank Kogan, Rob Tannenbaum, Chuck Eddy, and Ted Cox. All were Amerindie partisans five years ago, and to an extent they still are, with Cox and Tannenbaum in the Lobos-to-Hüskers tributary and Eddy and Kogan down with noise bands like White Zombie and Pussy Galore. But for singles they listen to the radio and get off on getting manipulated. Cox and Tannenbaum go for pop-to-schlock, Fleetwood Mac or Eddie Money, while Eddy and Kogan list a lot of street-rap. But all fell for diva/girl dance records that five years ago they almost certainly would have dismissed as, dare I say it, disco: Whitney Houston, Deborah Allen, Company B, Exposé.

None of this is reflected on a singles list that doesn’t call for much rumination. Note the anti-backlash for Michael Jackson at his most professional (Bad was 49th), the big finish of M/A/R/R/S’s state-of-the-microchip multiple-climax dance smash, the second-generation soul of LeVert, and the outpouring of sentiment for American beauties from two supposedly opposed generations, X and the Dead. Also note the sole nonhit, Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” which was merely the greatest piece of rock and roll released in 1987. Then note that in general the chart is dominated even more than usual by the second-half releases from top 40 albums that are a chronic distortion of our consensus.

But if Eddie Money and Spoonie Gee are blips, they’re blips that add up to something. Cox and Tannenbaum move from meaningful, sonically distinct Amerindie songcraft to pragmatic, factory-tooled songcraft to physically manipulative (but liberating) dance-pop; Eddy and Kogan move from desperate, sonically enraged Amerindie noise to streetwise, beatwise noise to physically liberating (if manipulative) dance-pop. All respond to rhythm as meaning — or at least as a component of rock and roll’s musical vocabulary that the various unmistakable Amerindie sounds fail to account for. And all confront rock and roll’s significance-deadening crisis of overproduction by moving beyond mere critical consensus to the pop consensus at its most democratic, anonymous, and perhaps even arbitrary. Being critics, they may well get into the lyrics of their favorite disco songs as well, although not as spontaneously as Brian Chin gets into “You Used To Hold Me.” But it’s fair to say that the elation they feel is the elation of escape — not just from their troubles, as Cox believes, but from a critical dead end.

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As someone who’s always believed the stupid pleasures of mass culture deserve more respect than they get from intellectuals of any political stripe, I’m very sympathetic to this tendency. I suspect it’s prophetic, too, which doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever be fully reflected in the Pazz & Jop consensus. But it does partake of a certain voluptuous beat-me beat-me passivity that I find suspicious as the reign of Reagan drags to its enervating close. And insofar as it represents a programmatic rejection of the quasi-literary song aesthetic (as it does for Eddy), I’m not ready to go along. Just in case it seems I’ve been saying there are no more good songs any more, let me emphasize: I’ve been saying there are more than we know what to do with. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve this cognitive problem, and we definitely shouldn’t give up on it yet. I mean, every day I hear songs that not only mean something but get me off. That effect rarely endures the way it’s supposed to, sometimes because the song (words and/or music) wears out, sometimes because it’s rendered moot by the competence and worse of the LP where it appears. The thing is, why should it endure? As a peculiarity of a novelty-obsessed youth genre, the belief that rock and roll should get you off forever — that is, change your life on an approximately semiannual basis — has essential uses and attractions. But it’s also a romantic delusion. As Randy Newman put it: “Everybody dies.”

And so we find ourselves up against the third demographic. Since generational splits within rock criticism deepen every year, let’s get one thing straight. The idea that rock and roll is the eternal province of teenagers flies in the face of so much evidence by now that it’s too kind to call it a delusion — try distortion, or lie. Not only isn’t the music created primarily by teenagers, it isn’t consumed primarily by teenagers, and to claim the contrary is ’50s nostalgia as rank as the new Sun Rhythm Section album. Originally, rock and roll was indeed keyed to high-school spending cash, and teenagers have exerted innovative pressure on it ever since — without them we would never have had hip hop, hardcore, English punk, P-Funk, etc., Motown, or Beatlemania (to say nothing of MTV, heavy metal, English art-rock, and the Partridge Family). But in their total concentration on teenagers, the ’50s were an anomaly. Throughout its history, popular music has been the domain not of teenagers but of young adults whose mean age fell somewhere in the midtwenties, just as it does now — of people who lost touch with the soundtrack of their courtship years gradually if at all once they turned into grownups. In the rock and roll era, young adults have nurtured soul, disco, guitar-strummers good and bad, the best jazz-rock, the entire country-music tradition, CBGB punk/new wave, reggae, etc., black pop, and Randy Newman. I say we need them as much as we need the kids.

Of course, I don’t speak as a young adult. Call me the dean heh-heh, a 45-year-old whose fondness for his work bewilders benighted baby boomers. Except to observe that lengthy interactions with a Sesame Street fan do cut into one’s listening time, a precious resource in a crisis of overproduction, I admit to no diminution of interest or hardening of the sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean my agenda is independent of my age. And it doesn’t mean every veteran in this white boys’ game shares my enthusiasm. There’s a logjam in rock criticism not unlike that in the music itself — a logjam comprising a few lucky souls whose writing lives on, numerous pros who do an honest night’s work, plenty of hacks who should hang it up, and too many subcompetents who should never have taken it off the rack. The resentments that build are often dumb: knowledge does count for more now than it did back when there wasn’t much to be had, and between the pay and the mythos there’s plenty of turnover, so that young talents find their niches pretty fast. But the young semitalents who chafe most bitterly have a point: their half-assed ideas might well prove more provocative and productive than the solidly grounded opinions of the hacks and professionals in front of them.

Thus, two more minipolls: of critics 36-and-over and 29-and-under. The panels comprised 36 graybeards including five women (grayhairs?) and one black, 43 whippersnappers including five women and five blacks; ages provided were augmented by my personal knowledge (no guesses) to enlarge the samples. Alert for conservatism and hegemony on the one hand and rebellion and next-big-thing on the other, I got hearteningly ambiguous results. Seven of 1987’s top 10 albums finished in the graybeard top 15, which dropped those ill-behaved Replacements to 11th and made a top four out of the rest of the Pazz & Jop top five, but with much stronger than random support for under-30s Prince and U2 and only average points for near-contemporaries Springsteen and Hiatt. And they reserved their greatest enthusiasm not for steadfast Van Morrison or gaseous Robbie Robertson but for Ornette Coleman and especially Marianne Faithfull, two over-40s who stretched rock and roll in 1987 by ignoring everything about it but its attitude — by raging against the dying of the light. The whippersnappers, meanwhile, put the entire Pazz & Jop top 10 in their top 15, but with marked enthusiasm only for XTC and Hüsker Dü and marked unenthusiasm for Springsteen, Los Lobos, Mellencamp, and R.E.M. With several notable exceptions (including Sonic Youth, who also did fine among the graybeards, and the Smiths, whose two entries got nary a mention), it’s almost as if they couldn’t come up with anything better — not collectively. They couldn’t agree. Call it fragmentation, or option overload, or the shape of things to come. Maybe call it all three.

As their sneak preview the whippersnappers selected Dinosaur Jr., whose achievement outstripped their potential by me, something the whippersnappers can obviously relate to. Fan Frank Kogan would say Dinosaur Jr. acknowledge how fucked they are, and they’re certainly better at it than most, but seekers after future hep will be safer with 10,000 Maniacs or Sinéad O’Connor, or with any of the four count-’em four Pazz & Jop debuts more genuine than Hiatt’s in the graybeards’ top 15. Most curious are Brit teendreams George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, which latter received a full two-thirds of their support from our 36-and-overs and only two mentions from 29-and-unders. Pass this off as our weakness for pop muzik if you like; I say for us graybeards all youth music partakes of sociology and the field report. By now our eternal attraction to the theme is so disinterested that Paul Westerberg’s passionately fucked edge-pop and Neil Tennant’s disaffected consumerism seem equally true, equally representative, while young crits are so imbued with the guitar-crazed Amerindie ethos that they regard Tennant as the enemy. May the best boy win, I say — assuming they don’t find some way to agree.

The graybeards also went for more black music than the voters at large — not just Ornette, but crossover pheenom Alexander O’Neal and great hope Terence Trent D’Arby. Hearsay’s auteurs are pop-disco princes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but O’Neal has a good voice and a good head on his shoulders, undercutting emotionalism with a constricted timbre I associate with the marketable funk of Slave and Con Funk Shun. He certainly updates soul more smartly than veteran up-and-comer Hiatt, who equates deep feeling with overstatement like so many alcohol-prone white people before him, a fallacy that also puts me on Bob Mack’s side of the Edge-Bono question and induced me to pass over the powerful instrument and utterly tortured spirit of 1987 reissue champ James Carr. D’Arby isn’t immune to this fallacy, but in his virtuosic neotraditionalism he gets away with it, and if his lyrics recall Dinosaur Jr.’s achievement-potential gap, he’ll stick around on ego alone. Our 36 graybeards gave the young man nearly half his support. The whippersnappers vouchsafed him one mention.

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Not that the whippersnappers ignored black music — only old stuff. They championed rap, the most defiantly youth-targeted black music ever, almost as militantly as black voters — the teen-metal crossover of L.L. Cool J. more than the JB redux of Eric B. & Rakim, the year’s hands-down superthreat debut more than Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show did receive 55 of its 29-and-under points from black voters (Cool J got five), but if these middle-class midtwenties from the margins of NYC don’t qualify as sonic youths of the year, I’m giving up graph paper. After I got on Chuck D.’s hit list by assailing the album’s achievement-potential gap (have to introduce him to Lou Reed — and Sonic Youth), the December single “Bring the Noise” convinced me inside of 30 seconds that his claque wasn’t whistling dixie. This is postminimal rap refracted through Blood Ulmer and On the Corner, as gripping as it is abrasive, and the black militant dialogue-as-diatribe that goes with it is almost as scary as “Stones in My Passway” or “Holiday in the Sun.” I’m ashamed to reveal that I’m the only graybeard who voted for it. And as an amateur statistician, I must insist that the failure of a single 36-and-over to mention Yo! Bum Rush the Show was more than a blip. Old folks really don’t like loud noises much — or black militance either.

This is the first year in Pazz & Jop history when black debut albums outnumbered white, and even if you don’t expect much of Eric B.’s formalism you can’t deny that Public Enemy’s message-rap and D’Arby’s black-is-beautiful soul-revisited are ideas whose time has been too long coming — now that their commercial viability is manifest, there’ll be plenty of variations. But before you get set for one of my black-to-the-future sermons, expand your horizons. No matter how far these two ideas go, they’ll do so in the well-made songs I just claimed were wearing out, though rap does fuck with the aesthetic as effectively as any more self-conscious attack on the sense/nonsense continuum. They’ll be part of the future, depend on it; so will Brits and Amerindies. But my personal projection is more in line with the postsubcultural antijingoism espoused by graybeards Ron Wynn, Michael Freedberg, and John F. Szwed, and not just because I happen to be a reggae loyalist and Africana fan. The way I see it, internationalism has gathered an aura of historical inevitability — if the pop music I insist on calling rock and roll does progress, where else can I go?

As Szwed indicates, this is an old man’s kind of wisdom, dripping with the accrued tolerance of the years, and the flood of utter bullshit it presages is horrifying to contemplate — Europop, world-beat, white reggae, Zaireans cleaning up their acts in Paris, the romanticization of the primitive, the denial that there’s any such thing as the primitive, Indian movie music, Japanese metal, Kitaro, Little Steven, arrghhh. Rather than a quest for international understanding, think of it as a lover’s leap off the tower of babble — or as the nonpassive, postmasscultural alternative to getting off on random disco songs (though they also figure in the future, of course). In a crisis of overproduction, the solution isn’t necessarily to await a hero or movement that renders all else irrelevant. Just as likely, the solution is to go all the way with it. Overwhelmed by significance we can’t quite make sense of, we could do worse than take meaninglessness by the horns.

With U.K. Earthworks and Globestyle distributed Stateside as of 1988 by Virgin and Shanachie, the raw material will obviously get spread around, but as a critical-perceptual project this one could take decades to bear its own fruit — that is, genuinely international rock and roll. Which as far as I’m concerned is a guarantee that things will stay interesting. I’m talking more music than anybody can handle physically much less conceptually — so much more that no amount of preweeding can make the task manageable. I’m talking songs whose workmanship can’t fully register until you figure out what the words are, and good luck. I’m talking function analysis of living cultural artifacts that exist only on plastic for 95 per cent of the would-be analysts. I’m talking more shock of the new than any human being can possibly absorb, more room for disagreement than any consensus can possibly quantify. I’m talking the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

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Top 10 Albums of 1987

1. Prince: Sign “O” the Times (Paisley Park)

2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)

3. The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me (Sire)

4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)

5. John Hiatt: Bring the Family (A&M)

6. Los Lobos: By the Light of the Moon (Slash)

7. John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury)

8. R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S.)

9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)

10. Hüsker Dü: Warehouse: Songs & Stories (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1987

1. Prince: “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (Paisley Park)

2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)

3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)

4. Prince: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”/”Hot Thing” (Paisley Park)

5. M/A/R/R/S: “Pump Up the Volume” (4th & B’way)

6. (Tie) Grateful Dead: “Touch of Grey” (Arista)
Bruce Springsteen: “Brilliant Disguise”/”Lucky Man” (Columbia)
R.E.M.: “The One I Love” (I.R.S.)

9. Prince: “U Got the Look”/”Housequake” (Paisley Park)

10. (Tie) Bruce Springsteen: “Tunnel of Love” (Columbia)
X: “Fourth of July”/”Positively Fourth Street” (Elektra)

—From the March 1, 1988, 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)

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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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a “sound” out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag’s label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three “black” albums in the top 10 and six “girls” who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let’s reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let’s hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren’t young turks like Minneapolis’s Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC’s Run-D.M.C. (now running for “kings of rock”) or Britain’s Smiths (cut ’em off at JFK). In fact, they’re boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984 — not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate — to nobody’s surprise, since they’re old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls — they dominated artistically as well.

The critics’ runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, “When Doves Cry,” won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City,” finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen’s last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic “Pink Cadillac” (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling “Dancing in the Dark” to number two on the singles list, though “Born in the U.S.A.” made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard’s too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976 — not counting This Year’s Model in 1978, they’re the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year’s Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling’s 6.7, Imperial Bedroom’s 6.6, and Thriller’s 6.3 trailing).

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Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen’s baldly anti-pop Nebraska, and it’s also my problem with Prince’s quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic — but that’s only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a “meta-Byronic auteur” who’s “callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions.” What’s someone who doesn’t trust Bruce’s romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn’t even promise to abide — that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis’s pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the “When Doves Cry” mandate: “Life is death…,” he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, “…without adventure.” Whew — another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there’s no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he’s no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he’s the first black to appropriate “rockstar traditions” and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won’t be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate — who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters? — I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist’s marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen’s victory isn’t any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince’s would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It’s more instructive to see both as the stars of this year’s big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we’re not just talking gold albums; about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We’re talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz’s 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That’s the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we’re talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango’s Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash’s Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü’s outrageous “Eight Miles High” an amazing fourth.

There’s no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that’s right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop’s rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime “coffee table hardcore,” but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they’re slick or well-made. It’s because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations — which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers’ heyday, back around ’77 or ’80 or ’82 or whenever. You’re aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you’re like a third of the voting critics, they’re where you make your stand.

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I don’t want to be reductive — tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus to the Replacements’ Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü’s dense rush or the Minutemen’s jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it’s those beliefs I’m trying to pin down. I’m a fan of the SST albums myself — “Turn on the News,” the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I’m also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll’s most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984’s real action — its excitement, believe it or not — was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio — specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly, as the biz intends. Such a trend can’t show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it’s not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite’s “Missing You” (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome “Like a Virgin” came damn close) and the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and especially the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and Barry Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” and the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and Elton John’s “Sad Songs Say So Much” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Once again I don’t mean to be reductive; it’s not as if the manipulation I’m describing doesn’t interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of “Missing You” and its soul siblings. It’s just that at their best they put the same surefire elements — which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion — to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful — better — than at any time since the early ’70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-’60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation ’77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn’t make us barf. And now, since we’re rock and rollers, we’re wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn’t a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn’t limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn’t going to make us give up United States Live or “World Destruction,” as long as they’re still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force — not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it’s created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing — I do remember the Beatles, really — I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince’s band, I dare you to tell me who’s in it, and while you’re scratching your head swear you don’t picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn’t quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she’s a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That’s why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She’s So Unusual out of my top 10 — wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

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Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they’re largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983’s three and 1981’s two but not as impressive as 1982’s nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it’s been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST’s list than on CBS’s). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he’ll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they’re in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists’ crimped dreams and audiences’ crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even — ick — Let’s Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas — I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen — and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let’s Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let’s Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the ’80s, and I don’t see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn’t spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren’t English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner’s white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th! — lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course — watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The — and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

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I’ll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crüe) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they’ll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of “Ghostbusters” or the pathological deceit of “Like a Virgin” (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil), I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll’s hegemony to the president’s. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I’ll just applaud the return to “normal” 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don’t go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go’s, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I’m more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn’t share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don’t be sure you’ll like it — or hate it — when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Rubén Blades, who’s reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile — not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde’s nasty “I’ve got a kid I’m 33” was one of the year’s great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are — our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that’s explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement ’60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Rubén Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop ’84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I’ve spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean’s List at 50 and climbing — which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January — I’ve looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn’t get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A’s to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous — in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single — a year when the quaint notion of the album as “artistic unit” lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness — most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I’ll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year’s poll, from the Smiths and Let’s Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters’ top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They’ve — we’ve — arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I’m concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War Is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they’re sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don’t believe they see the whole picture. I’m very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don’t believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I’m delighted to see co-workers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through — and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that’s very far — we still have the stuff.

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

1. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

2. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

3. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash)

4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.)

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

10. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (Profile)

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

1. Prince: “When Doves Cry”/”17 Days” (Warner Bros.)

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”/”Pink Cadillac” (Columbia)

3. Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Capitol)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Eight Miles High” (SST)

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

6. Prince: “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City” (Warner Bros.)

7. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & The Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Unity” (Tommy Boy)
Run-D.M.C.: “Rock Box” (Profile)

9. Chaka Khan: “I Feel for You” (Warner Bros.)

10. (Tie) Cyndi Lauper: “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (Portrait)
Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time” (Portrait)

— From the February 19, 1985, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1982 Pazz & Jop: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

Because jazz criticism is one of the many things I know too little about, Otis Ferguson was only a name to me when The Otis Ferguson Reader came my way last fall, and I hope his admirers will accept the compliment I intended when I claim him (for symbolic purposes, at least) as the first rock critic. Remembered mostly for his movie reviews, Ferguson also wrote extensively about the music of the swing era, and there’s something about his attitude that strikes a chord. The man was a born democrat: having worked his way through college, he refused to take on airs when the job was done. Actively hostile to any hint of sham, fad, or dilettantism, he tried to describe complex aesthetic interactions so that laymen could understand them. But he refused to compromise in the other direction either. Unlike the run of fans and/or hacks who always dominate music journalism, he loved language for its own sake, written and spoken both, which means he was committed to taking colloquial risks in a honed style — he went for contemporaneity and a feisty edge without worrying about whether he’d sound dated or stilted later. He valued music’s soul and inspiration no more and no less than its shape and meaning.

Like any sensible person, Ferguson knew you couldn’t write about American music without writing about Afro-American music — he was calling blues “America’s single biggest contribution to the form of music” quite early in the life of that cliché. But he also knew that “people who talk too glibly about racial differences always get left out on a limb, sooner or later,” and added: “When it comes to the best musicians, the matter of race is a tossup as far as I’m concerned.” Ferguson was adamant if not defensive on this point — he once took John Hammond to task for “saying ‘white musician’ the way you’d use the term ‘greaseball’ ” — partly in reaction against ’20s Afrophilia, which was often not just dilettantism but elitist European. But when it came to the best musicians he got unlikely results from his tossup, devoting 13 pages (in the Reader, $10 from December Press, 3093 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois 60035) to Bix Beiderbecke against Louis Armstrong’s one, 24 pages to Benny Goodman against Duke Ellington’s six, four pages to Red Nichols against Sidney Bechet’s two bemused mentions.

People who talk glibly about racial differences might get judgmental about these statistics, but I respect Ferguson too much for that. Anyway, he did better than many of his colleagues, and even the worst of them had alibis. White musicians were more accessible, white musicians drew more readers, white musicians had (to quote Ferguson) “melodic discipline,” and “more definite organization,” white musicians “did more to spread the fame of jazz.” All of this is credible, useful, and perhaps even true; as a naif who regards jazz as an essentially black idiom, I was inspired by Ferguson to test the spritz of MCA’s delightful recent Red Nichols reissue, and I’m glad I did. But then I turned to Sidney Bechet’s RCA twofer from the same period (“his soprano saxophone can still be heard today”), and let me tell you — Bechet blew Nichols away.

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People who talk glibly about historical parallels always get left out on a limb sooner or later, so I hope I don’t push my analogy farther than it wants to go. But I kept thinking about Otis Ferguson’s Negro problem as the ballots for the ninth or 10th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll rolled in. If Elvis Costello’s victory wasn’t exactly hot news, his margin was respectable — he got a much bigger vote than the Clash in 1981, and did better proportionally than a comparable consensus choice, Graham Parker in 1979. But no matter how big a piece the winner cut off, most voters seemed weary of how stale, flat, and unprofitable the pie had become; the dejected Britcrits at Trouser Press, for instance, declined to name a number one album this year, placing Imperial Bedroom, which topped their in-house poll, at a symbolic number two. And if I once again failed to share all this dolor, it wasn’t in the hundred-flowers bloom spirit that inspired me to list my 60 top albums a year ago; though I did find another 60 gooduns, down-the-middle sales and borderline creativity both sagged ominously enough to put a crimp in my natural rock and roll optimism. Starting in early November, however, seven of my favorite 1982 albums, every one a variation on a theme, restored a lot of my fire. And if they weren’t likely to lift the mood at Trouser Press, a journal white supremacist enough to make Rolling Stone look like a hotbed of affirmative action, George Clinton’s Computer Games, Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love, Prince’s 1999, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, Chic’s Tongue in Chic, Material’s One Down, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller made it a pretty damn good year after all.

Except in re poor Tongue in Chic, which got shut out, the critics shared my enthusiasm to a moderately unprecedented degree. Prince, Gaye, and Jackson finished 6, 8, and 15, while in 1980 Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson finished 8, 9, and 13 — with no Sunny Adé or Ornette Coleman to siphon off tokenism votes. And Adé’s showing was very impressive in itself — unknown to American critics a year ago the African rhythm king finished fourth, higher than any black artist in the history of the poll except Wonder (who won in 1976). And while Ornette’s 13th-place finish doesn’t sound all that much more commanding than Dancing in Your Head’s 15th in 1977, 1982’s sampling of 216 respondents, 67 of them from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, should have been much harder to crack than 1977’s 68-critic in-group. It wasn’t, and for good reason: just as established critics were converted and new ones created by punk/new wave in the late ’70s, so now many young critics young and old are gradually learning to hear music that falls under the rubric of funk.

And the albums weren’t even the big story. Like “new wave,” the term “funk” exploits a serviceable vagueness; it’ll fit all the black records I’ve named if you stretch it around Sunny Adé a little. But funk in its purest form was the first cause of the pop event of the year, perched securely atop the singles list. Never in Pazz & Jop history has any record occasioned such blanket ecstasy as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” About 75 per cent of the voters put it in their top 10s, usually at number 1 or 2; the best percentage any album has earned was This Year’s Model’s 60 in 1978, and in three previous years of singles balloting no title has made even a third of the lists. Nor was this New York chauvinism; “The Message” did even better in the boonies (as I jocularly refer to cities off the NY-LA-Boston-Frisco axis) and the ’burbs (my pet name for LA-Boston-Frisco) than in its hometown, where it was subjected to a small gay boycott (though at least three gay voters ignored the “fag” references and named it anyway) as well as NY’s all too predictable antitrendie backlash. In any other year, the 104 votes for Marvin Gaye’s polymorphous vocal-percussive tapestry “Sexual Healing” would have been a definitive pop event all by itself. In any other year, the eighth-place finish of 1982’s most influential dance record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” would have tempted me to praise of Kraftwerk and other universalist indiscretions. In 1982, however, the sinuous synthesized skeleton against which Melle Mel and company pitted Duke Bootee’s street-surreal rhymes combined the best of Gaye’s body rock and of Bambaataa’s futuristic world-spirit — and it had a message, too.

Nor did the funk stop there. Last year “rock” by Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones, Kim Carnes, and Yoko Ono surrounded Flash’s “Wheels of Steel” in the top five; this year, except for the rejuvenated Pretenders, all of the five white artists in the top 10 — led by the Clash, who gained inner-city credibility while at the same time proving so middle American that more than half their 18th-place album support came from the boonies — scored with black dance records of one sort or another. In fact, this was a year in which good black radio proved more open to good white music than any white radio did to any black music: black supremacist Ron Wynn, who attributed 1982’s “vibrant, exciting music” to “the growing rift in black and white pop tastes” (with that vague word “pop” leaving room for agreement), deplored the way “white junk like Toni Basil” (pop tastes do differ) crowded out such worthies as Jerry Butler. White supremacists, on the other hand, will probably view the entire singles list as a huge liberal miscegenation plot.

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If in my mongrelizing depravity I seem to be prophesying interracial rockcrit hegemony, however, remember Otis Ferguson. Like rescued L.A. bluesman Ted Hawkins (heir to this year’s Longhair-Nevilles traditionalist vote) and former Blood Ulmer drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who finished 13 places ahead of his old boss), Adé and Coleman qualify as critics’ faves, like Aretha Franklin (in her first P&J charting ever), Prince, Gaye, and Jackson are black popsters who “cross over,” and while Gaye’s outreach is a simple little matter of genius rather than of conscious stylistic modulation, crossovers do by definition accommodate white journalists along with white everybody elses. I want, need, and love both pop and esoterica, but I’d be more encouraged if the voters shared my passion for the in-betweeners — if George Clinton (on whom word-of-mouth started late) had bested Richard Hell or even Lou Reed, also crazed old-timers recently arisen from the slough of despond; or if Grandmaster Flash’s LP (which would have made top 40 if only Tom Smucker, supposedly one of my best friends, hadn’t flued out on his franchise) had finished with Mission of Burma’s Vs. or the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses or the Fleshtones’ Roman Gods or even X’s Under the Big Black Sun, also groove albums of dubious verbal acuity. I’d be more encouraged if the black artists in the top 15 had finished even higher — in December I thought an Adé or Gaye victory conceivable. And I’d be most encouraged of all if I thought the flowering of funk was dispelling the gloom of white rock critics as irresistibly as it ought to be.

On one level the fact that it doesn’t makes perfect sense. Because most of the critics are white (though part of the story is how many good new ones aren’t), they find it easier to identify with white musicians, especially after five years of minor miracles from various punks and new wavers. But this isn’t as natural as it may seem: it’s a heritage of the old “progressive” sensibility and the radio it helped spawn. One reason I enjoy black music so readily is that as a child of the ’50s I grew up enjoying it — more than white music, and damn right I was aware of the distinction. Not that I came by funk spontaneously. Beguiled by progressivism myself — and therefore trained to get off on stuff that many young critics can barely hear at all (Donald Fagen, say, or Warren Zevon) — I had to retool my ears (at the urging of colleagues like Joe McEwen, Ed Ward, and especially Pablo Guzman) to understand how the new black music means; I had to learn George Clinton’s and James Brown’s language. After five or six years, I’m still working at it, and I suspect I won’t succeed to my full satisfaction without a lot more help from the likes of Barry Michael Cooper and Gregory Ironman Tate, who’ve breathed it all their conscious lives. But I can tell you that this language renders a lot of progressive standards not invalid (they still work for Zevon and Fagen) but irrelevant. If history is any guide, funk usages will eventually be taken for granted by everyone who listens to popular music; complaints about meaningless lyrics and indistinguishable rhythms will someday seem as off the mark as Otis Ferguson’s appeals to “melodic discipline” and “more definite organization.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anybody much good right now, because the pop future has to begin with your own pleasure in your own time. Unlike fan Tim Sommer, who berates “ethnic patronization” at least partly because funk is stealing hardcore’s thunder, or hack Blair Jackson, who signs off with cheery threats of “death to critics who think Grandmaster Flash is ‘important’ ” (somebody fly out to San Francisco and mug that biz-sucking hippie!), I think it’s healthy for young critics to force-funk themselves, as some do. Those African rhythms are famous for their je ne sais quoi, after all, and with Britishers like the Clash and Gang of Four and ABC (my conscience interjects: and the Human League and Joe Jackson?) outracing their attenuated U.S. art-funk rivals (I don’t mean you, Devo and Talking Heads) to black radio, many cool folk have decided that perhaps it’s time to look beyond the latest smart garage band. In New York this is unavoidable anyway — funk is literally in the air of one of the few American cities with a genuinely integrated street life. But the aging new wavers who are the principal funk converts still suffer from Ferguson’s Syndrome — their new pleasure doesn’t provide that essential existential satisfaction, because the language is still a foreign one.

I wonder how Ferguson, who died in World War II, would have adjusted to bebop. Would he have continued to turn out tersely emotional appreciations of the surviving swing giants, or would he have come to terms with those forbidding rhythmic changes the way Budd Johnson and Coleman Hawkins and Woody Herman did? The question matters because funk may well be changing rock and roll as fundamentally as bebop changed jazz. I’m aware that I made a similar claim for the punk forcebeat just four years ago, but one doesn’t cancel out the other. On the contrary, funk is stage two, providing the undeniable popular base that punk (and bebop) never achieved in this country — though it did in Great Britain, probably one reason the top British postpunk funkers make better pop than their American counterparts, wholehearted but never simple-minded.

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What rock and roll has always held out — more than any theme or even sound — is the pop edge, the promise that there’s a future out there for remarkable ordinary people to make. Sure it’s possible to say something new from a well-explored place — in a sense, not only Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon but George Clinton himself did just that in 1982. But because pop seizes the moment so decisively, it can be used to fixate on the past as well as ride into the future — it can serve nostalgia as well as progress. In my view, that’s just what Tom Petty (57th) and Graham Parker (50th) and Joni Mitchell (39th) and maybe even Fleetwood Mac (36th) are up to these days. And it’s my commitment to the future that makes my favorite albums of 1982 shake out more or less as follows.

1. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles) 16; 2. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 16; 3. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 14; 4. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol) 13; 5. Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 9; 6. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 8; 7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 7; 8. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 6; 9. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) 6; 10. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 5

11. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Juke Box Dury (Stiff) 12. Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.) 13. James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia) 14. Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic Deluxe) 15. Clint Eastwood & General Saint: Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves) 16. Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 17. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 18. ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury) 19. Ray Parker Jr.: The Other Woman (Arista) 20. Itals: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk)

21. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 22. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 23. James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder) 24. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) 25. B-52’s: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.) 26. Chic: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic) 27. Sweet Pea Atkinson: Don’t Walk Away (Island/ZE) 28. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: Good Clean Fun (Slash) 29. Material: One Down (Elektra) 30. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

31. The Roches: Keep On Doing (Warner Bros.) 32. Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.) 33. Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin import) 34. Rank and File: Sundown (Slash) 35. Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 36. Tom Robinson: North by Northwest (I.R.S.) 37. CH3: Fear of Life (Posh Boy) 38. David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky) 39. Sound d’Afrique II (Mango) 40. Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill)

41. Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 42. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra) 43. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire) 44. Bonnie Raitt: Green Light (Warner Bros.) 45. A Flock of Seagulls (Arista) 46. Soweto (Rough Trade import) 47. Ferron: Testimony (Philo) 48. Descendents: Milo Goes to College (New Alliance) 29. Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia) 50. Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat)

51. Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (Red Star) 52. Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 53. Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 54. Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 55. Speed Boys: That’s What I Like (I Like Mike) 56. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin/Epic) 57. Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia) 58. “D” Train (Prelude) 59. Mighty Diamonds: Indestructible (Alligator) 60. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns: Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) (MCA)

I ought to mention that this year’s top 60 is less final than 1981’s was. Not only are Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, two Bunny Wailer imports, and other stragglers awaiting judgment, but this turns out to have been a banner year for best-ofs. I like the Ray Parker Jr. and the Billy Stewart even more than the Squeeze and the Stevie Wonder (which ran 1-3 around Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight in an informal compilation ballot we solicited), and would name John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers and Ambient Sound’s Everything Old Is New and perhaps Shalamar and even (can it be?) Abba (behind Okeh Western Swing and the Coasters and tied with the reissued Africa Dances in the balloting). I should also announce that with an extra week to think I’d switch Pazz & Jop points and places between George Clinton and Sunny Adé; unfortunately, my ballot was due February 1 like everybody else’s. About singles I’ll say only that my firm criterion — real pleasure imported by the record heard as a single — befuddled me into omitting Flipper’s “Sex Bomb,” which I stopped playing when I got Flipper’s album. Criteria be damned, I’d now rank it number 4 anyway — a “Louie Louie” for our time:

1. Fearless Four: “Rockin’ It” (Enjoy) 2. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill) 3. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia) 4. New Order: “Temptation” (Factory import) 5. Stacy Lattisaw: “Attack of the Name Game” (Cotillion) 6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA) 7. Pretenders: “My City Was Gone” (Sire) 8. Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia) 9. Peech Boys: “Don’t Make Me Wait” (West End) 10. Flipper: “Get Away”/”The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!” (Subterranean)

11. P-Funk All-Stars: “Hydraulic Pump” (Hump) 12. Yazoo: “Situation” (Sire) 13. Captain Sensible: “Wot” (A&M import) 14. ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury) 15. Anti-Nowhere League: “So What” (WXYZ import) 16. Gang of Four: “I Love a Man in Uniform” (Warner Bros.) 17. Stripsearch: “Hey Kid”/Emily XYZ: “Who Shot Sadat?” (Vinyl Repellent) 18. Cheap Trick: “If You Want My Love” (Epic) 19. Prince: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.) 20. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: “Shelley’s Boyfriend” (Slash)

21. Joe Piscopo: “I Love Rock n’ Roll (Medley)” (Columbia) 22. A Flock of Seagulls: “I Ran” (Jive) 23. Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience) 24. Treacherous Three: “Yes We Can-Can” (Sugarhill) 25. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy) 26. Dangerous Birds: “Smile on Your Face”/”Alpha Romeo” (Propeller) 27. Eddy Grant: “California Style” (Ice import) 28. Althia & the Donazz: “Virgin Style” (Circle import) 29. Anne Waldman: “Uh-Oh Plutonium!” (Hyacinth Girls) 30. Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America)

I’ve had second thoughts about EPs, too. After scoffing all year I found myself smitten with loads of ’em — haven’t even mentioned my 1-2 in print till now. The EP is a confusing category, conceived by Poobah Tom Carson and me as a disc alternative to the now discontinued local band competition. And once again the winner wasn’t even a local band, but rather a marginal mainstreamer who’s already released five LPs and who with the help of his Lord Jesus Christ came up with what can only be called the most inspired California-rock of the year, wisely promoted by Warners in a budget format. And if T-Bone Burnett only converted me after I returned Trap Door to the active pile in 1983, well, the same goes for R.E.M., his drug-crazed opposite numbers from the Athens of the South:

1. Angry Samoans: Back from Samoa (Bad Trip) 2. The Waitresses: I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts (Polydor) 3. R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.) 4. Oh OK: Wow Mini Album (DB) 5. Minor Threat: In My Eyes (Dischord) 6. T-Bone Burnett: Trap Door (Warner Bros.) 7. Pop-O-Pies: The White EP (415) 8. Replacements: The Replacements Stink! (Twin/Tone) 9. Mofungo: “El Salvador”/”Just the Way”/”Gimme a Sarsaparilla” (Rough Trade import) 10. Steve Almaas: Beat Rodeo (Coyote)

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Return now if you will to my album list and we’ll ponder the future some more. First, count black LPs, not such a clear-cut task in this mongrel-eat-mongrel world. Disqualifying the English Beat and Material, I get 27, only two more than I named last year, but with a striking change in racial makeup on the cutting edge: five (as opposed to two) of my top 10 are black, as are 16 (as opposed to eight) of my top 30. Then try another parameter applicable to our theme: age. Three of the artists in my top 10 are over 40, just like me, and four more (giving Richard Thompson a break) over 35. Youth chauvinists should jeer at my old fartdom now, while they still can — it may indeed be that my chronic indifference to Elvis the C reflects my advancing years and the complacent rationalism consequent thereupon. It so happens, however, that Marvin Gaye (b. 1939) also made the critics’ top 10, and as we proceed down the two lists something strange happens. Only four more over-40s, including two superannuated (not to mention dead) New Orleans pianists whom I classify as rock and rollers just to be ornery, appear in my top 40; on the critics’ list you’ll find seven more. And where I list seven over-35s in all, the critics come up with a total of nine. Old farts abound.

Fascinating figures, and I mean to have them both ways. On the one hand, they make hash of the ancient canard that rock and roll is strictly for the young — if not literal teenagers then at least untrammeled striplings. The reason outmoded “progressive” standards can rejuvenate pushing-40s like Richard Thompson and Lou Reed — who share 1982 comeback honors with Bryan Ferry (b. 1945) and George Clinton (b. 1940), and may they and others like them prosper for decades to come — as well as suiting such 35-niks as Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon is that they (artists and values both) still actually do (or anyway, can) progress. Richard and Linda’s final album really is their loudest and clearest. Lou’s most contented and apparently conventional album really is (with the aid of Robert Quine and black bassist Fernando Saunders) his supplest. And Avalon, which finished higher than any Roxy Music album since 1975’s Country Life, combines the funk feel Ferry introduced on Manifesto in 1979 with the English electrosheen of his own heirs’ synth-pop for the most unabashedly romantic music this ironic romantic has ever made.

But as much as I admire many of the other oldster albums the critics selected — Morrison’s and McCartney’s and Fleetwood Mac’s and (to be nice) Mitchell’s — they do carry a rather nostalgic collective weight; they recapitulate the past and do what they can to ignore the future. Such encumbrances don’t even touch Adé and Gaye and Coleman and Shannon Jackson, whose mean age must be 43 or 44, because these men are working a tradition — significantly, a specifically musical rather than cultural tradition — that’s just begun to flower. And if I’m doubly partial to George Clinton, it’s not because he’s been in the vanguard of that tradition for so long that he could coast for five years and still be on the one. It’s because he’s also a master of such supposedly Caucasian specialties as stance and persona and pop mind-fuck — and because the humility and vulnerability of his comeback album, an album directly inspired by New York dance radio in general and his heirs Flash and Bambaataa in particular, are sharper, deeper, funnier, warmer, and more irreverent than Lou Reed’s or Warren Zevon’s.

I’m aware that Imperial Bedroom also has its formally progressive rep, but when the best line any of my normally loquacious correspondents can feed me on the album of the year is Roy Trakin’s “tongue-twisting puns for the post-Porter generation,” things are obviously desperate. I know, it’s all about emotional fascism; I know, it’s even got a lyric sheet. Try reading the damn thing — the words are almost as hard to follow on paper as in the air. I say it’s Elvis at his fussiest and I say the hell with it. In fact, like the headline-scrounging old commie fart I am, I much prefer (and was rooting for) the album that handicapped as its chief rival: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. A risky, eloquent, and successful pop mind-fuck, Nebraska cut Reagan to bits with a dignity that screamed no joke and broke AOR without a hook or a trap set. Only problem was, it was — and I use this term advisedly — boring. It was boring even if every one of its 800,000 owners played it obsessively for months on end, which I doubt. It was so monochromatic that even as it screamed no joke it whispered no exit — and maybe no future. It may have been a pop mind-fuck, but it wasn’t quite a pop event, because the very terms of the mind-fuck impelled Springsteen to negate the rock and roll hope he’s always traded in. Next time I hope he puts it all together.

But meanwhile we must take our quest for the future to the only place any sane rockcrit fan would expect it to end — ye olde new wave. As per tradition, numerous debut albums grace our list, and as per neo-orthodoxy, quite a few of them aren’t from England, new wave’s commercial center: New York’s Marshall Crenshaw and Fleshtones (and Laurie Anderson?), San Francisco’s Flipper, Austin’s Rank and File, L.A.’s Dream Syndicate, Boston’s Mission of Burma, and (on the EP chart) Athens’s R.E.M. I like all of these artists, some a great deal. I find Marshall Crenshaw’s pop touch surer and more graceful than that of such top-10 debut-LP predecessors as the Go-Go’s (10th in 1981), the Pretenders (fourth in 1980), the Cars (ninth in 1978), and maybe even the B-52’s (seventh in 1979), and I hope he gets another record into the poll someday, something none of the aforementioned have yet managed. I’m crazy about Flipper and on Rank and File’s side, and I hope that over the next year they gain more in musicianship than they’re certain to lose in conceptual panache. But I sense in every one of the others an insidious postgarage formalism in which hooks and a certain rough emotionality, even sloppiness, are pursued as ends and signify only themselves. That’s why I call them groove bands — they’re more interested in a sound than in what a sound can say. Granted, they do share an aesthetic project — they want to jolt the white rock and roll of the pre-arena era into self-conscious musciality. That’s why I like them. But it’s not exactly what I mean by a commitment to the future.

I can hear my more apolitical white readers snorting even now at the Dean’s latest integration tract. But this isn’t a moral plea — it’s a prediction, not just about critics but about the shape of the popworld. Sure I’ve been an advocate of black pop approximately forever; I dreaded Ferguson’s Syndrome before I ever heard of the man, and I’ve always fought it (in myself as well as others) on the general historical principle that, in the end, black music will out. But that never meant that I believed rock was essentially (as opposed to originally) a black idiom, and it never turned me off good new white rock and roll — it just prepared me to hear great new black albums (and singles, and more singles) as they arrived. In 1982 they arrived in profusion, as did an unprecedented array of successful white imitations and modulations, and while I wouldn’t expect a precise repeat in 1983 — Gaye and Michael Jackson will no doubt be silent, reggae is unlikely to be held to a novelty single — I do sense something seismic happening. In 1978 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll announced a “triumph of the new wave” that seemed certain to crash against an immovable, monolithically profitable record biz; in 1982 the biz was in a panic and new wave looked like one of its only hopes. In 1982 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll suggests (somewhat more tentatively) a reintegration of American popular music in the teeth of the most racist pop marketplace since the early ’50s, and I’m betting that by 1986 some kind of major commercial accommodation will have been achieved. If Sunny Adé can’t be king of MTV, maybe Prince can be prince.

What remains for critics black and white isn’t to praise every half-assed funk crossover black or white. I mean, Men at Work finished a very modest 66th and the Stray Cats got three mentions. But the white critics are going to have to give up a lot of their prejudices — against populism and chic and conspicuous consumption, against homiletics and sexual posturing, and perhaps (although of course this doesn’t mean you) against black people themselves. Even harder, they must learn how to hear how lead basslines and quintuple rhythms and cartoon chants and harmolodic abrasions and party rhetoric can make meaning and reshape time. And hardest of all, they must feel the ways in which funk’s pleasures really are their own — as human beings, as Americans, as rock and rollers. Meanwhile, the black critics, who will almost certainly multiply, have a lot of explaining to do. They’d better insist that the music they love really does make meaning, and get hip to how white music means as well — perhaps even get an inkling that rhythms natural and unnatural aren’t the only way to a better life. In short, rock critics are going to have to stop settling for fandom and/or hackdom and turn into critics for real. And maybe those who didn’t bargain for anything quite so heavy should get off the bus right now.

Oh lordy — it could be the end of us all.

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Selected Ballots

RAJ BAHADUR: Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 19; Joe Jackson: Night and Day (A&M) 18; Paul McCartney: Tug of War (CBS) 13; Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Columbia) 12; The Jam: Dig the New Breed (Polydor) 11; The Who: It’s Hard (Warner Bros.) 7; The Jam: The Gift (Polydor) 5; The Chieftains: Cotton-Eyed Joe (Island) 5; Shoes: Boomerang (Elektra) 5; Roxy Music: Avalon (Warner Bros.) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: New Order: 1981-1982 (Factory); Gang of Four: Another Day Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Hi Sheriffs of Blue: Hi Sheriffs of Blue (Jimboco); R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.); Konk: Konk Party (99).

CAROL COOPER: Explainer: “Lorraine” (Sunburst); Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); Kurtis Blow: “Tough” (Mercury); Imagination: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (CBS); Vanity 6: “Nasty Girls” (Warner Bros.); Kid Creole and the Coconuts: “No Fish Today” b/w “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy” (Sire/ZE); Sharon Redd: “Beat the Street” (Prelude); Isley Brothers: “The Real Deal” (T-Neck); Barry White: “Change” (Unlimited Gold).

BLAIR JACKSON: I don’t listen to singles — I think the artform sucks.

GREIL MARCUS: The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 20; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; The Mekons: The Mekons Story (CNT import) 20; Bunny Wailer: Tribute (Solomonic import) 10; Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 5; Au Pairs: Sense and Sensuality (Kamera import) 5; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 5; Jeff Todd Titon/Fellowship Independent Baptist Church of Stanley, Virginia: Powerhouse for God (University of North Carolina Press Records) 5; Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 5; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 16; Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 15; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 15; Steve Winwood: Talking Back to the Night (Island) 12; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 7; Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul: Men Without Women (EMI America) 6; the English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 5; Bettye Lavette: Tell Me a Lie (Motown) 5; Richard “Dimples” Fields: Mr. Look So Good (Boardwalk) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 15; Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA) 14; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 13; Trouble Funk: Straight Up Funk Go in Style (JAMTU) 13; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 11; King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 9; Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 7; Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 5; “Live” Convention “81” Bee-Bop’s #1 Cut Creators (Disco-O-Wax) 5.

KIT RACHLIS: King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 15; The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 30; Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (CBS) 5; Fleetwood Mac: Mirage (Warner Bros.) 5; Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 5; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 5; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 5; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 5; Robert Wyatt: Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade) 5.

GREGORY IRONMAN TATE: Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 10; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 10; The Time: What Time Is It? (Warner Bros.) 10; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 10; James Blood Ulmer: Blackrock (Columbia) 10; Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill) 10; Bad Brains: Bad Brains (ROIR cassette) 10; David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette) 10; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 10; Aswad: New Chapter in Dub (Mango) 10.

RON WYNN: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); The Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience); Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista); Zapp: “Dance Floor” (Warner Bros.); Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy-Boy); Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia); Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America); Junior: “Mama Used To Say” (Mercury); Stevie Wonder: “Do I Do” (Tamla).

LESTER BANGS: 1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia) 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige) 3. Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla) 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory) 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame) 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic) 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve) 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA) 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Brides & Everything (Egregious 2-album set) 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

Top 10 Albums of 1982

1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia)

2. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal)

3. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia)

4. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango)

5. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor)

6. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)

7. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.)

8. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia)

9. Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.)

10. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra)

Top 10 Singles of 1982

1. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill)

2. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia)

3. The Clash: “Rock the Casbah” (Epic)

4. Prince: “1999”/”How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.)

5. Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA)

7. Pretenders: “Back On the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

8. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy)

9. (Tie) ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury)
Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista)
The Human League: “Don’t You Want Me” (A&M)

— From the February 22, 1983, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1980 Pazz & Jop: The Year of the Lollapalooza

As we know, many voters found 1980 a confusing year. When Pazz & Jop gossip began a few months ago, various critics complained about their top 10s — after three or four inescapable lollapaloozas, 20 or 30 possibilities came to mind. Although different critics naturally heard different lollapaloozas, the poll did end up with three clear leaders, each more than 100 points (274 more in one case) ahead of its nearest rival: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, and — easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history — The Clash’s London Calling. Then there’s a cluster of four, then a cluster of two by artists who almost certainly would have done better if they weren’t black, and then the pack. The top three are the lollapaloozas, the next six inspired also-rans, and the rest varying amalgams of excellence and special interest.

Insofar as my personal take on 1980 is confusing, it’s because I spent the first nine months of the year trying to get a fix on the previous decade for a book-length Consumer Guide. As a result, I was only dimly aware of current music — after London Calling and Crawfish Fiesta in early January, no record really imprinted itself until October, although Public Image, the Brains, Gang of Four, the Pretenders, and Hassell & Eno all made dents. So I’ve spent the last three or four months force-feeding, which isn’t the method I prefer — popular music is meant to be lived with. This may have distorted some of my findings — I’m committed to a top 10 prepared two weeks ago for the balloting, and already I’d probably drop the Jacksons a few places and give five of the Clash’s points to Talking Heads and Prince. Still, I had my lollapaloozas, too — two from the collective top three and a third from the next six. But the more I listened the fonder I became of the top 10 also-rans as well, and in the end I found more than 40 A-quality records all-told. My force-fed conclusion: for quality, a good year, much like 1978 and 1979.

As our 201 1980 respondents learned late in December, the Board of Poobahs broadened eligibility this year. In the past we’ve limited the poll strictly to U.S.-manufactured (“released,” as we say) albums from the year in question. But this year both imports and “late-breaking” 1979 LPs were eligible, a change that had worked well when we introduced singles balloting in the previous poll. As a result, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall appears in our top 40 for the second time, Pink Floyd’s The Wall sneaks in for the first, and two imports — Joy Division’s Closer and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth — also make the list. My own top 40 also reflects these changes:

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 25 2. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 15 3. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 12 4. Tom Robinson: Sector 27 (I.R.S.) 12 5. Wanna Buy a Bridge? (Rough Trade) 9 6. Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (Editions E.G.) 7 7. John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy (Geffen) 5 8. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 5 9. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator) 5 10. The Jacksons: Triumph (Epic) 5.

11. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 12. Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 13. Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues (Columbia) 14. Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 15. Chic: Real People (Atlantic) 16. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 17. The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 18. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 19. Poly Styrene: Translucence (United Artists import) 20. Si Kahn: Home (Flying Fish ’79).

21. The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 22. Pretenders (Sire ’79) 23. LPJE: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 (Latin Percussion Ventures, Inc.) 24. The English Beat: I Just Can’t Stop It (Sire) 25. Pere Ubu: The Art of Walking (Rough Trade) 26. Pere Ubu: New Picnic Time (Chrysalis import) 27. John Prine: Storm Windows (Asylum) 28. Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 29. Rockpile: Seconds of Pleasure (Columbia) 30. Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Stiff import). 31. X: Los Angeles (Slash) 32. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson: 1980 (Arista) 33. Steel Pulse: Reggae Fever (Mango) 34. Michael Hurley: Snockgrass (Rounder) 35. The Undertones: Hypnotised (Sire) 36. The Suburbs: In Combo (Twin/Tone) 37. The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 38. Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 39. T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 40. Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE).

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No Room in the In: the Brains, Junie. Wait Till Last Year: XTC (Drums and Wires), the Brides of Funkenstein (Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy), Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke…). Alternative disciplines: Arthur Blythe (Illusions), Steve Reich, Dollar Brand (African Marketplace), Big Youth (Progress), Henry Cow, Michael Mantler. Judgment reserved: Joy Division, Al Green, Bunny Wailer, Pylon, Sandinista!

My album choices are somewhat eccentric — four of my top 10 finished toward the bottom of the Pazz & Jop top 100, and 13 of my top 40 didn’t make the top 100 at all. But this is the kind of thing that happens to hermits — my singles list is positively weird. I didn’t get to go out dancing much in 1980, and listened to the radio only on vacation. (When I could stand it, that is — commercial broadcasting has really regressed. I’m hanging a red ribbon out my window till PIX comes back.) I’ve always believed that singles transcended consensus and objective judgment — there are so many that those you love aren’t just good, but enter your life. Here are 10 that affected mine:

1. Pylon: “Cool” (Caution) 2. The Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet 12-inch import) 3. Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown) 4. John Anderson: “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” (Warner Bros.) 5. Joy Division: “She [sic] Lost Control” (Factory 12-inch) 6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla) 7. Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire) 8. The Slits: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Antilles) 9. Lenny Kaye: “Child Bride” (Mer) 10. Suzanne Fellini: “Love on the Phone” (Casablanca).

The top of the singles poll is pretty weird, too, in its way — and exciting. When “Rapper’s Delight” tied for 22nd last year, who would have figured that a rap record would take it all 12 months later. I like other rap records even more than “The Breaks,” but there can be no doubt that it was Kurtis Blow (later for Deborah Harry) who took a genuine (New York!) street form to all of the people some of the time. Almost as remarkable (later for Deborah Harry) is the passionate support of Joy Division, who — unlike the Pretenders, last year’s import champs — did it with little radio. As for Deborah Harry, I figured “Call Me” for a shoo-in — she’s even got a Spanish-language disco disc out on Salsoul. But after that I think the singles list gets boring — commuters enjoying favorite album cuts outnumber the voters who live for all the one-shots that make 45-rpm so speedy these days. Other noteworthies include this year’s domestic-indie champs, the Bush Tetras of Gotham’s own 99 Records; John and Yoko; destined-to-be-mythic one-offs from the Vapors (the exotically slanted “Turning Japanese”), Lipps, Inc. (the tract-disco “Funkytown”), and Martha and the Muffins (the post-surf “Echo Beach”); imports from the Jam and the Pretenders (again); indies from Pylon and the Dead Kennedys; is-it-an-indie-or-import from Joy Division; and almosts by Richard Hell, Suicide, Delta 5, the English Beat, and, er, Queen.

For the second year, voters were also asked to list three local bands, defined as groups without major-label affiliation that gig regularly in their hometown areas (which need not be the voter’s — Token Uptown Poobah Dave Marsh threatened to vote for Fela Ransome-Kuti, and that would have been fine with me). Here I indulged my own subjectivity once again by honoring my fondest club memories of 1980 with no attempt at balanced long-term assessment: thank you to Material (at CBGB in February and the late lamented Tier 3 in July), DNA (at Irving Plaza in January and CBGB in November), and the Babylon Dance Band (at Trax in December).

Since about half the Pazz & Joppers live in New York, the local band category favors this locality, especially given its mushrooming (if clouded) club scene. Last year, though, Austin’s Joe “King” Carrasco (whose debut album placed 70th in 1980) finished a surprising second, and this year Los Angeles’s X (also a favorite last year) was the overwhelming winner — 26 votes to 10 for New York’s Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Boston’s Human Sexual Response. Working Poobah Debra Rae Cohen (who voted for X herself) thinks New York is too factionalized to champion one act, although Poobah in Absentia Tom Carson’s theory that the action is now elsewhere also has its merits. In any case, only four other New York bands — the Bush Tetras and the Nitecaps with eight votes, the db’s [sic] with six, and the Dance with four — made much of a showing. Other names to remember include Los Angeles’s Blasters (eight), Wall of Voodoo (four), Go-Go’s (four), and Falcons (four); Boston’s Mission of Burma (eight), Peter Dayton Band (five), and Stompers (four); Minneapolis’s Wallets (five) and Curtiss A (four); Kent, Ohio’s Human Switchboard (five); San Francisco’s Romeo Void (four); and Lawrence, Kansas’s Thumbs (four).

But what’s most interesting about the local band competition brings me back around to the crux of the poll, the LP ballot. Not only did X’s album — on Slash, outgrowth of an L.A. punkzine — come in 16th, but the two runners-up also had minor-label albums, Kid Creole on Antilles (77th) and Human Sexual Response on PVC, a domestic arm of import biggie Jem. Other locals with Indie LPs include the Blasters, the Human Switchboard, Curtiss A, and Thumbs. And while three indie albums made our top 40 in 1979, this year two imports brought the total to six. The indies finished higher, too. In short, as the big corporations opt out of marginal music, small entrepreneurs figure out how to make money off it (X’s Los Angeles is up to around 50 thou with Jem distributing, and the band tours a lot), and journalists spread the news. In short short, to reprise an old theme: avant-garde pop.

This is the time, then, when I should begin analyzing the two critical camps into which our increasingly enormous electorate is divided — the avant-gardists versus the traditionalists, the radicals versus the conservatives. With myself, of course, firmly on the side of the former, a/k/a The Good. But while I was certainly an avant-garde radical type five years ago, before there was a punk/new wave and a ditto press, I’ve since been outflanked by youngsters who wouldn’t think of putting old farts like the Clash and Talking Heads on their lists. Anyway, my tastes aren’t always even on the respectable left — The River and Double Fantasy aren’t my chart-toppers, but I prefer them to Entertainment! and Crazy Rhythms and The Art of Walking, enjoyably significant though I think those pop experiments are. And just exactly how does one categorize Triumph? Or for that matter Crawfish Fiesta and Amtrak Blues?

I mean, there are other ways to run it down. How about formalists versus expressionists, for instance? Now which side are you on? For, in general, those of us who were championing the Ramones (81st!) in 1976 have recently found ourselves aligned with “progressives” who, until the post-punk expansion, were amusing themselves with old Soft Machine records. Granted that their tastes have improved and ours broadened (or vice versa, if you prefer), I’m not entirely comfortable with this alliance. I don’t sympathize with the blues-and-country limitations of those who delve no further into “new wave” than Rockpile and the Pretenders, who seize upon every reworking by the Stones and the Who and Van Morrison as manna from rock ‘n’ roll heaven. But I also dissent from the affectlessness, the mannered despair and/or passion of so many rock vanguardists.

If these generalizations seem a mite broad, take them as hints and consider Triumph and Crawfish Fiesta again. One indication of how rich and basic black popular music is, how essential it ought to be to anyone who claims to like rock and roll, is the way black performers confound our already contradiction-ridden categories. Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson are committed formalists — they revel in music-for-its-own-sake above all. But without second-guessing themselves they also employ form to express (or simulate, doesn’t matter) the most elementary (which doesn’t mean simple) human emotions. To dismiss such artists as “corny” or “commercial” — the usual racist commonplace — is to misapprehend their context, tradition, and aesthetic aims. And what kind of vanguardism might that be?

One way of making sense of this mess might be to refer (gingerly, I hope) to auteur theory. Say Smokey and Stevie and maybe Van Morrison and John Lennon and Ray Davies are the equivalent of Ford and Siegel and Hawks — intentional artists, sure, but unselfconscious even when they’re pretentious. Ambitious craftsmen who think about their place in history — Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley — are more like Preston Sturges (when they’re good) or John Huston (who offers more than meets the eye but can still be a real jerk). All the new guys, meanwhile, are like, how about that, Godard and de Broca and Bourguignon. La nouvelle vague, they used to call it.

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To extend the metaphor, you could say that each of the two latter groups has produced its Allens and De Palmas, too, and while away the tween-sets trying to figure who’s who. The question then becomes — where’s Francis Ford Coppola? I think 1980 was when various contestants made their bids. No more tightly controlled genre pieces for these boys; they were going for grand, sweeping — perhaps even popular! — statements. The rhythmic expansiveness of what just two years ago was a resolutely stiff-necked music — John Lydon’s reggae immersions, Talking Heads’ Africanisms, the Clash’s excavations in every rock and roll style — is one sure sign. Even more convincing that three of the top five LPs were doubles: London CallingThe River, and Second Edition. Not counting last year’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, you have to go back to the ’76 and ’75 winners — Songs in the Key of Life and The Basement Tapes — to find another two-album set in the Pazz & Jop top 20. Clearly, a new generation of artists has achieved enough commercial stability and artistic scope to think big. It’s like 1968 or 1969 all over again, with the hubris of the new hierarchy kept in check, I hope, by their less than hegemonic control of the marketplace. And if the Clash and PIL and Talking Heads are (very roughly speaking) our Beatles and Stones and Byrds, can Van Morrison and Randy Newman be far behind? Presumably, they’re not far behind at all — which is as good a reason as any for me to devote the rest of this annual wrap-up to a rundown of the albums the critics chose as the best of 1980.

40. Pink Floyd’s The Wall: Nothing like a big single to attract belated attention to a struggling young band — “Another Brick in the Wall” got four votes and catalyzed enough album points to push this late-1979 release into the bottom slot. I take the song so seriously myself that I may go for my doctorate in social psychology.

39. Diana Ross’ Diana: Chic album of the year on the strength of “I’m Coming Out,” an all-purpose sell-the-gays hit that received four votes in the singles competition, and the tenth-ranked “Upside Down,” a good time for sure. Not since Lady Sings the Blues has Ms. R. been forced into such a becoming straitjacket. But I still prefer Chic’s own Real People, where Rodgers & Edwards get to, well, express themselves.

38. Joan Armatrading’s Me Myself I: The perennially unclassifiable London-based West Indian singer-songwriter meets Instant Records honcho Barry Gottehrer (Blondie, the Strangeloves) for her hardest music ever. The title tune is to narcissism as “Brown Sugar” is to racism, which serves somebody right.

37. John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy: The only rockcrit-estab Voice-Phoenix-Stone types to vote for this besides co-fantasts R. Christgau and C. Dibbell were John Swenson and Martha Hume (cohabiting, though not with each other). The single finished high, however, so maybe more tastemakers will catch on after “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching the Wheels” top the charts.

36. Graham Parker’s The Up Escalator: By most accounts, the latest from last year’s victor-by-consensus is the downer of the year, following up on everything pinched in his singing and mean-spirited in his vision. But it’s hooky — “the hummable Graham Parker,” Tom Carson called it — and for some that’s apparently enough.

35. Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes: Mother Maybelle’s most famous granddaughter and Nick Lowe’s most famous wife has been touted as the next Marshall Chapman since she surfaced in 1978, and here she comes up with the nasty, compassionate songs to justify it. Producer Lowe puts the likes of “Cry,” “I’m So Cool,” and “To Drunk (Too Remember) [sic]” into musical shape.

34. Arthur Blythe’s Illusions: Due more to demographics than to narrowing tastes — this is a rock critics’ poll, despite its silly but immutable name — jazz fared worse in this year’s P&J than in 1979, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys placed an unprecedented 29th and LPs by Mingus, Ulmer, Davis, Blythe, Coleman & Haden, Old and New Dreams, and Monk also finished in the top 100. In 1980 the Art Ensemble’s Full Force came in 91st and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition 54th, and unless you count Weather Report (82nd) or, no kidding, George Benson (62nd), that was it — except for the more avant-garde of Blythe’s two 1980 offerings (his In the Tradition also got two mentions). In 1979 I voted for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which had a lot of witty, almost danceable things to say about body rhythms. Illusions didn’t make my list, mainly because it hit me as a “pure” jazz statement — the best I heard all year, a bracingly concise all-hands-in-top-form synthesis. Special plaudits to cellist Abdul Wadud, bassist Fred Hopkins, and guitarist Blood Ulmer. P.S.: Ulmer’s Are You Glad To Be in America? came out as a rather thin-sounding Rough Trade import in 1980; I eagerly await Artists House’s American mix.

33. Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves: This met with scorn from skeptics but was welcomed affectionately by Young’s admirers — only Neil would make a deliberately minor record about war and peace after four successive masterworks about himself. Not all of his admirers voted for it, though — me, for instance. And those who did gave it about 10 points per ballot — last year’s second-ranked Rust Never Sleeps averaged 13.

32. The Specials: Ska is/was a reactionary fad in England — white kids turning on to the black music of a time safely past. In America it’s just another Anglophile exoticism, and not a bad one — integrated bands are always an up. The Specials are on the catchy, jokey end of the continuum, their beat rapid and insistent but light, their politics liberal. The follow-up, More Specials, steepened their pop proclivities and was hailed for its brazen irony by some, but only two voters mentioned it.

31. Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta: The first blues album to make the poll was cut shortly before the death of the man who passed New Orleans piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Allen Toussaint. Part-time producer and full-time entrepreneur Bruce Iglauer deserves double thanks — it’s the best music ’Fess ever recorded, and it’s earned him the esteem he’s always deserved. The secret of the album isn’t so much standout tracks like “Big Chief” and Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving” but its jaunty, bow-legged gait, which ’Fess didn’t develop sailing the seven seas.

30. The Iron City Houserockers’ Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive): Springsteen has always had imitators — take a bow and pose for the trades, Johnny Cougar. Joe Grushecky is more like a slightly self-conscious soul brother, shorter on talent but close to the roots. It’s poetic justice that the critics prefer him to Blondie (“Now they’re playing your song in all those places/They won’t let me and Angela in”), but I still prefer Autoamerican (three mentions).

29. Lydia Lunch’s Queen of Siam: I’ve walked out on three different bands led by this dame, but she’s come up with a funny, sexy little record, exaggerating her flat Cleveland accent into a hickish, dumb-and-dirty come-on and playing her foolish nihilist poetry for laughs. Pat Irwin’s big-band atonalisms are interesting in themselves and suit Lydia’s city-of-night shtick perfectly. And “Spooky” is the cover of the year.

28. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta: Not to be confused with 1979’s 35th-place Reggatta de Blanc, except perhaps by yours truly. Jon Pareles said it all in his January 14 Riff, including my main point: De do do do, de da da da.

27. Van Morrison’s Common One: As somebody who considers Moondance an apotheosis and has never gotten Astral Weeks, I think this is his worst since Hard Nose the Highway — sententious, torpid, abandoned by God. I know lots of Astral Weeks fans who agree. But Morrison has a direct line to certain souls, and they still hear him talkin’.

26. T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay: Having put the omega on Alpha Bandmate Steve Soles (Soles does show up in the credits, but — unlike the ever-adroit David Mansfield — not as a band member), the Christer who’s reputed to have pointed out the Way to Bob Dylan turns his attention to benighted rationalists like me and I hope you. On John Fahey’s Buddhist blues label. Since no Alpha Band record ever did much in this poll, grand Burnett is succes d’estime and pray that he’ll take on the Moral Majority next time — he’s got the guts. P.S. Dylan’s Saved didn’t make a single ballot.

25. Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth: I’d call this modern romance — two brothers, a girl, and a rhythm machine — the cult music of the year, only it doesn’t have the requisite high points-to-voter ratio (cf. Closer, Queen of Siam). Maybe that’s because its cult likes not getting excited about something. Call it cult Muzak of the year — quiet, tuneful, passing weird. Me, I prefer Hassell & Eno.

24. Squeeze’s Argybargy: Poppophiles Glen [sic] Tilbrook and Chris Difford don’t settle for have-fun fall-in-love fear-girls. They pen short stories worthy of early Rupert Holmes, and with a beat. Next title: Herkyjerky.

23. Smokey Robinson’s Warm Thoughts: To me, this was the biggest surprise of the poll, not because I don’t agree that he’s come back, but because I thought the turnaround was 1979’s Where There’s Smoke…, which received zero votes last year. My guess is that a groundswell began with “Cruising [sic],” the late-breaking single off that album and his biggest since “Tears of a Clown.” The follow-up LP is, well, slower — make-out rather than dance music, a more songful version of 1975’s unmoored A Quiet Storm.

22. Joy Division’s Closer: A controversial band, due mostly to the mysterioso torments of singer-lyricist Ian Curtis, who committed suicide from the apex of a love triangle last spring. I only began to hear the band when I ignored Curtis and concentrated on the other musicians’ dark, roiling, off-center rhythms. And now Curtis sounds pretty good to me.

21. The English Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It: Known simply as the Beat in England, and rightly so — their ska is deep and driven. The bassline on “Twist and Crawl” (10 votes b/w “Hands Off She’s Mine”) moved more feet than anything Bernard Edwards came up with in 1980. Electoral-politics song of the year: “Stand Down Margaret.”

20. The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue: You can tell this is an ordinary Stones album because it finished so far out of the money. World’s greatest rock and roll band, y’know.

19. David Bowie’s Scary Monsters: Bowie’s best-received LP since Station to Station is also his hardest-rocking since Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane, and the first time I’ve been fully convinced that his fascination with fascism is a species of repulsion. Wish I could say I liked the thing — he’s always tried to sing like a mime, ornate and overstated, and after a decade he’s really learned how.

18. Dire Straits’ Making Movies: If any rock and roller aspires to auteur status it’s Mark Knopfler, and among those with a taste for his rather corny plots this establishes his claim. Me, I’d rather hear him work on somebody else’s stories — his guitar has emerged from Eric Clapton’s shadow into a jazzy rock that muscles right past Larry Carlton and ilk. Steely Straits, anyone? Or would that be Dire Dan?

17. The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms: Out-of-towners provided nine of the 19 mentions but only 72 of the 219 points for this New York cult band, and as a longtime cultist I go along with them: I can see listing this, but only near the bottom of a top 10. The band’s minimalist raveups have a body that doesn’t come fully alive on record — at least not this record, which is exciting in a disturbingly abstract way. Of course, that’s probably how these so-straight-they’re-cool weirdos want it.

16. X’s Los Angeles: Combining raw tempos and abrasive lyrics with sawed-off Chuck Berry guitar lines, the punkest album of the year almost justified the desperate stupidity of the rest of the band’s ingrown scene. But I was taken with this comment from L.A. critic Jay Mitchell: “Their death and gloom aura is closer to the Eagles, which is to say it is all Hollywood.”

15. Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure: Solo LPs by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe finished 13th and 14th in 1979. In 1980 the ace revivalists joined forces and dropped a place. Hmm. To me, this one proves Lowe’s conceptualist bravado, not his voice, is what stamps his albums. Another collection of good rock n’ roll songs in Edmunds’ neoclassicist manner, neither as slack as its detractors claim nor as meaningful as rock n’ roll loyalists wish.

14. Peter Townshend’s Empty Glass: Townshend has said the only reason this isn’t a Who record is that it wasn’t time for a Who record, which may be his way of apologizing for not being able to sing like Roger Daltrey. On his earlier solo ventures, the reflective, lyrical mood suited his light timbre. Here he tries to voice urgency and anger, with results that nonbelievers find whiny. Who fans, rock’s oldest and most steadfast critical fraternity, find the gap between aspiration and achievement touching and apt.

13. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall: Nothing like four big singles to attract belated attention to a struggling young man — why else did eight new voters regard this 18th-place 1979 finisher as a 1980 album? I hope that when “Heartbreak Hotel” and two or three others make their mark, the Jacksons’ Triumph (83rd this year) will repeat the trick.

12. Steely Dan’s Gaucho: Another painstaking step toward the cocktail rock they’ve sought for almost a decade — after half a dozen hearings, their most arcane harmonies and unlikely hooks sound comforting, like one of those electro-massagers that relax the muscles with a low-voltage shock. Craftsmen this obsessive don’t want to rule the world — they just want to make sure it doesn’t get them.

11. Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel: The first man of Genesis came back even stronger than Mark Knopfler after hitting a sophomore jinx with Peter Gabriel, on Atlantic. His post-progressive art-rock minidramas won support from formalists and expressionists both, fulfilling the debut promise of Peter Gabriel, on Atco. Personal fave: “Biko,” a different kind of Africanism.

10. Gang of Four’s Entertainment!: This suffers a bit from Feelies syndrome — the tense, zigzag rhythms sound thinner than they do from a stage, where the Gang also get to make their chanted non-melodies visible. But the band’s progressive atavism is a real formal accomplishment — by taking punk’s amateur ethos up a notch or three without destroying its spirit, they pull off the kind of trick that’s been eluding avant-garde primitives since the dawn of romanticism. And if you want to complain that their leftism is received, the same goes for your common sense.

9. Prince’s Dirty Mind: Although the vocals are love-man falsetto, the metallic textures and simple drum pattern are as much Rolling Stones as Funkadelic. And where the typical love man plays the lead in “He’s So Shy,” Prince is aggressively, audaciously erotic. I’m talking about your basic fuckbook fantasies — the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend’s boyfriend and doesn’t, and stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. I mean, Mick can just fold up his penis and go home.

8. Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July: “Side two is the perfect example of an artist doing his job and doing it well. With fun and grace at that,” saith the surprisingly quotable Jay Mitchell (never heard of him myself), who didn’t vote for it. I didn’t vote for it either, but I just played side one and found it only a little less of the same. Except for the all-embracingly pan-Afro-American “Master Blaster,” there’s no great Stevie on this album, but between his free-floating melodicism and his rolling overdrive, his hope and his cynicism, he seems more and more like the best thing the ’60s ever happened to. Sure outlasted Jerry Garcia, didn’t he?

7. Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!: When this Stax-based 20-song loss leader failed to take either critically or commercially, I thought Costello had blown it — no shock to me, but obviously a major disappointment to Mr. Costello, his many believers, and the Columbia Broadcasting System. But while Get Happy!! fared somewhat worse than any of his other albums in Pazz & Jop, it received such strong and varied support that I’m now convinced of the opposite — that Costello’s craft and commitment bespeak the kind of staying power that keeps some critical faves in the running till they finally break through on sheer persistence.

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Doc at the Radar Station: Beefheart is a genius and an utter original, but that doesn’t make him the greatest artist ever to rock down the pike — his unreconstructed eco-freak eccentricity impairs his aesthetic as well as his commercial outreach. But never before have his nerve-wracking harmonies and sainted-spastic rhythms been captured in such brutal living color — if only he’d had saved some melodic secrets for side two, this might be the undeniable masterpiece he’s always deserved.

5. Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition: In which former three-chord savage John Lydon reveals himself as yet another arty primitivist — a sharp, sophisticated one. PIL reorganizes the punk basics — ineluctable pulse, attack guitar — into a full-bodied, superaware white dub with disorienting European echoes, an ideal counterpart to the civilized bestiality of Lydon’s vocal drama. Much of this music is difficult, and some of it fails, but just about all of it makes me stop and listen. And “Poptones” could have been my single of the year.

4. Pretenders: It’s dumb to put them down as pop — pop hasn’t come this far yet and I’m not sure it ever will. They get on the radio, sure, but their structures are too open-ended (compare the anal-compulsive neatness of Squeeze or Elvis C.) and their passions too out-front. And no matter where they get their hooks, they have their own melodic style. Admittedly, though, Chrissie Hynde is a little thin in the soul — even her nastiness doesn’t sound as if there’s much behind it.

3. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light: In which David Byrne conquers his fear of music in a visionary cross-cultural synthesis, clear-eyed and rather detached yet almost mystically optimistic. One song celebrates a young terrorist, another recalls John Cale at his spookiest, a third turns failure into a religious experience. Yet when Byrne shouts out that “the world moves on a woman’s hips” — not exactly a new idea in rock and roll — it sounds as if he’s just discovered the secret of life for himself. Which he probably has.

2. Bruce Springsteen’s The River: All the standard objections apply — his beat is still clunky, his singing overwrought, his sense of significance shot through with Mazola Oil. But his writing is at a peak, and he’s grown into a bitter empathy. These are the wages of young romantic love among those who get paid by the hour. Maybe he’s giving forth with so many short fast ones because those circles of frustration and escape seem even more desperate now.

1. The Clash’s London Calling: Oh yeah, and then there was the Clash. If this was the Year of the Lollapalooza, the Clash was the Lollapalooza of the Lollapaloozas. Their triple-LP, Sandanista!, finished 55th as an import and is sure to come in a lot higher next year, and they also put out a 10-inch “EP” that had 34 minutes of music on it. But this was the biggest one, supported by all but the bared-teeth brigade and the shameless sticks-in-the-mud. It generated an urgency and vitality and ambition (that Elvis P. cover!) which overwhelmed the pessimism of its leftist world-view. And it was good for an actual hit single. I mean, what else is there?

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Selected Ballots

BILLY ALTMAN: Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 15; T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 15; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 15; Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Creedence Clearwater Revival: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Fantasy) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; Squeeze: Argybargy (A&M) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Public Image Ltd.: The Metal Box/Second Edition (Virgin import/Island) 30; Otis Rush: Groaning the Blues (Flyright import) 30; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (Virgin import) 5; The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 5; The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones) 5; Captain Beefheart and His [sic] Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 5; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 5; Sid Vicious: Sid Sings (Virgin import) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Au Pairs: “Diet”/”It’s Obvious” (021 import); Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (Migraine EP); Mars (Lust Unlust EP); The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino); The Clash: “Bankrobber” (CBS import); Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca); Ramones: “I Wanna Be Sedated” (RSO); Was (Not Was): “Wheel Me Out” (ZE/Antilles); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories”/”Another” (Virgin import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99).

TOM CARSON: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 20; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 12; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 9; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 9; The Brains (Mercury) 9; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 6; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive) (MCA) 5; The Rossington Collins Band (MCA) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): S.O.S. Band: “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” (Tabu); Queen: “Another One Bites the Dust” (Elektra); George Benson: “Give Me the Night” (Warner Bros.); Rod: “Shake It Up (Do the Boogaloo)” (Prelude); Cameron: “Get It Off” (Salsoul); Gayle Adams: “Your Love Is a Life Saver” (Prelude); Gene Chandler: “Does She Have a Friend?” (20th Century); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); Teena Marie: “Behind the Groove” (Gordy); The Brothers Johnson: “Stomp!” (A&M).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 14; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 14; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 14; Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (Factory import) 12; Arthur Blythe: Illusions (Columbia) 10; The Brains (Mercury) 7; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 8; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 7; The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”/”Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Robert Wyatt: “At Last I Am Free” (Rough Trade import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Suicide: “Dream Baby Dream” (Red Star); The Rolling Stones: “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Jam: “Going Underground” (Polydor import).

BARRY MICHAEL COOPER: Junie: Bread Alone (Columbia) 15; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 15; Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros.) 12; Herbie Hancock: Mr. Hands (Columbia) 12; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 8; Al Green: The Lord Will Make a Way (Myrrh) 8; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5.

MIKE FREEDBERG: Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 15; Change: The Glow of Love (Warner Bros.) 15; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 15; Geraldine Hunt: No Way (Prism) 10; Diana Ross: Diana (Motown) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Faces (Columbia) 10; George Benson: Give Me the Night (Warner Bros.) 10; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 5; Teena Marie: Irons in the Fire (Gordy) 5; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5.

VAN GOSSE: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Generation X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis 12-inch import); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury 12-inch); The Tamlins: “Baltimore” (Taxi 12-inch import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Christine” (Polydor import); Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Dub)” (Motown 12-inch import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Split Enz: “I Got You” (A&M); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Israel” (Polydor import).

JOHN PICCARELLA: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 12; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 12; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 9; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 15; Image Publique S.A.: Paris Au Printemps (Virgin import) 15; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive) (MCA) 15; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Carlene Carter: Musical Shapes (Warner Bros.) 15; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 5; Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood (Atco) 5; Black Uhuru: Sensimilla (Mango) 5; Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (Warner Bros.) 5; Dire Straits: Making Movies 5.

GREIL MARCUS: The Beat: “Twist & Crawl” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); J. Geils Band: “Love Stinks” (EMI America); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Refugee” (Backstreet); Blondie: “Call Me” (Polydor 12-inch); The Clash: “Train in Vain” (Epic); Red Crayola: “Born in Flames” (Rough Trade import); The Beat: “Stand Down Margaret (Dub)” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Tommy James: “Three Times In Love” (Millenium); Anemic Boyfriends: “Guys Are Not Proud” (Red Sweater).

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 30; Donna Summer: The Wanderer (Geffen) 17; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 12; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 10; Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros.) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; J. Geils Band: Love Stinks (EMI America) 5; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 5; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 5.

JON PARELES: Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 10; Steve Reich: Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ESM) 10; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 10; Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 10; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 10; Laraaji: Ambient #3 Day of Radiance (Editions EG) 10; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 5; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 5.

JON PARELES: Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Happy House” (Polydor import); Glenn Branca: “Lesson No. 1” (99); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Dance: “Dance for Your Dinner” (ON import EP); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Rod Stewart: “Passion” (Warner Bros.); Paul Simon: “Late in the Evening” (Warner Bros.); The Method Actors: “This Is It” (Armageddon import EP); Colin Newman: “B”/”Classic Remains”/”Alone on Piano” (Beggars Banquet).

ANDY SCHWARTZ: The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 22; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 13; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 13; The Decline of Western Civilization (Slash) 12; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 8; Echo & the Bunnymen: Crocodiles (Sire) 7; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 5; Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM) 5.

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Top 10 Albums of 1980

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic)

2. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia)

3. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire)

4. Pretenders: Pretenders (Sire)

5. Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island)

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin)

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia)

8. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla)

9. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.)

10. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1980

1. Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury)

2. Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import)

3. Blondie: “Call Me” (Chrysalis)

4. (Tie) The Clash: “Train in Vain”/”London Calling” (Epic)
Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire)

6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla)

7. John Lennon: “(Just Like) Starting Over”/Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen)

8. The Vapors: “Turning Japanese” (United Artists)

9. Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca)

10 (Tie) Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown)
Bruce Springsteen: “Hungry Heart” (Columbia)

— From the February 9, 1981, issue

 

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1978 Pazz & Jop: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question

Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus, and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80% of the voters contributed with at least one selection.

Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars, or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses over so far with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”

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In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone’s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.

Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ’n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are now being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.

As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez, and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press’s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — or principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.

For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts, and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.

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The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.

All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchycoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artist who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The two other most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.

One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:

1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13. 2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13. 3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13. 4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11. 5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11. 6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11. 7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7. 8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7. 9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7. 10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia) 7.

11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire). 12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA). 13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). 15. Television: Adventure (Elektra). 16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia). 17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi). 18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff). 20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).

21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum). 22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca). 23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song). 24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star). 25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island). 26. David Johansen (Blue Sky). 27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest). 28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt). 29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista). 30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).

And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.

Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave records are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.

I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots of rough, tough rock and roll.

It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemptive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to push the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.

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This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 with “Take Me to the River” still breaking as a single, so who knows where that will end? This Year’s Model has also done 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.

For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Ramones and the Clash, especially depressing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and although his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.

Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland any more. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very ears. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.

If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of whom had little of his talent and less of his integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.

Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.

There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.

One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-called sophistication has always been conceptual, not technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.

The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-’n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ’n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.

I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to its right resemble, in their patterns of production and consumption, other eccentric, largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.

In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?

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Finally, my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few samples:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Vince Aletti, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Anonymous, Lester Bangs, Michael Barackman, Alan Betrock, Michael Bloom, Steve Bloom, Jon Bream, Tom Carson, Brian Chin, Georgia Christgau, Jay Cocks, J. D. Considine, Noel Coppage, Bruce Dancis, Michael Davis, Robert Duncan, Lita Eliscu, Susan Elliott, Todd Everett, Jim Farber, Carol Flake, Mike Freedberg, Dave Frechette, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Deborah Frost, Russell Gersten, Harold Goldberg, Toby Goldstein, Jim Green, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, Bob Hilburn, Geoffrey Hines, Richard Hogan, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Scott Isler, David Jackson, George Lane, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, The Masked Marvel, Janet Maslin, Perry Meisel, Joe McEwen, Daisann McLane, John Milward, Rick Mitz, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Richard Mortifoglio, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Fran Pelzman, John Piccarella, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Joe Sasty, Mitchell Schneider, Dave Schulps, Andy Schwartz, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Bob Sheridan, Don Shewey, Michael Shore, Steve Simels, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Chip Stern, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Sam Sutherland, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Roy Trakin, Roger Trilling, Ken Tucker, Gregg Turner, Mark von Lehmden, Richard C. Walls, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Paulette Weiss, James Wolcott, Jon Young.

VINCE ALETTI: USA-European Connection (Marlin) 10; Don Ray: Garden of Love (Polydor) 10; Musique: Keep On Jumpin’ (Prelude) 10; Voyage (Marlin) 10; Sylvester: Step II (Fantasy) 10; Alec Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: Romeo and Juliet (Casablanca) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; James Wells: True Love Is My Destiny (AVI) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 10; Cerrone: Cerrone IV: The Golden Touch (Cotillion) 10.

LESTER BANGS: The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 30; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 20; Joe Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 15; David Johansen (Blue Sky) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 5; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 5; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 5; No New York (Antilles) 5.

TOM CARSON: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 18; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 15; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 12; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 7; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 7; Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff) 6; Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista) 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca) 15; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (Warner Bros.) 15; Tito Puente: Homonajo a Beny (Tico) 10; Eddie Palmieri: Lucumi Macumba Voodoo (Epic) 10; Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Secrets (Arista) 10; Chick Corea: Secret Agent (Polydor) 10; Tipico Ideal: Out of This World (Coco) 5; Van Morrison: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) 5; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 5.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM) 19; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13; Nina Simone: Baltimore (CTI) 12; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 9; Daryl Hall & John Oates: Along the Red Ledge (RCA) 8; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 7; Gerry Rafferty: City to City (United Artists) 6; Wendy Waldman: Strange Company (Warner Bros.) 5.

TOM HULL: Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 15; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 15; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 14; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 12; Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) 12; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 9; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song) 5; Silver Convention: Love in a Sleeper (Midsong International) 5; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 5.

DAVID JACKSON: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 30; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 10; D. J. Rogers: Love Brought Me Back (Columbia) 10; George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Move It On Over (Rounder) 9; Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists) 8; Joan Armatrading: To the Limit (A&M) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; 21st Century Singers: Sunday Night Fever (Creed) 5; Peabo Bryson: Reaching for the Sky (Capitol) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic) 30; Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 20; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 15; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 5; Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor) 5; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 5; Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.) 5; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 5; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5; Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 30; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 12; Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic) 12; Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone (Epic) 11; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 10; Steve Gibbons Band: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) 5; The Cars (Elektra) 5; The Who: Who Are You (MCA) 5; John Prine: Bruised Orange (Asylum) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 17; Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 16; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Eric Dolphy: The Berlin Concerts (Inner City) 12; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)(Warner Bros.) 12; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 10; Raydio (Arista) 6; Jack Clement: All I Want To Do in Life (Elektra) 5; Delbert McClinton: Second Wind (Capricorn) 5; Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest) 5.

JON PARELES: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Air: Open Air Suit (Arista Novus) 10; NRBQ: At Yankee Stadium (Mercury) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 10; Happy the Man: Crafty Hands (Arista) 10; Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (Columbia) 10; Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia) 10; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 10; Carla Bley: European Tour 1977 (Watt) 10.

TOM SMUCKER: Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia) 17; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14; Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (Capitol) 12; The Gospel Keynotes: Gospel Fire (Nashboro) 11; Bonnie Koloc: Wild and Recluse (Epic) 10; Alec R. Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Casablanca) 9; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 8; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 6; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5.

ROGER TRILLING: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 10; Conjunto Libre: Tiene Calidad (Salsoul) 10; Culture: Harder Than the Rest (Virgin Front Line import) 10; Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS/Sony import) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros) 10; Majestic Dub (Joe Gibbs import) 10; Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt) 10; Thelonious Monk: Monk at the Five Spot (Milestone) 10; Milton Nascimento: Milagre dos Peixas (Odeon import) 10; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10.

Top 10 Albums of 1978

1. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia)

2. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones)

3. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia)

4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)

5. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness at the Edge of Town (Columbia)

7. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire)

8. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise)

9. The Cars: The Cars (Elektra)

10. David Johansen: David Johansen (Blue Sky)

— From the January 22, 1979, issue

 

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

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

1975 Pazz & Jop: It’s Been a Soft Year for Hard Rock

As per tradition, let me open this discussion with my own personal top 30 for 1975, arrived at with more travail than seems healthy to me.

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” 24. 2. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” 11. 3. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” 10. 4. James Talley: “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love” 10. 5. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. Toots and the Maytals: “Funky Kingston” 8. 7. Elton John: “Rock of the Westies” 8. 8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” 8. 9. Patti Smith: “Horses” 6. 10. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 5.

11. Roxy Music: “Siren.” 12. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run.” 13. Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Nuthin’ Fancy.” 14. Neil Young: “Zuma.” 15. Eno: “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” 16. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross. 17. “Fleetwood Mac.” 18. Amazing Rhythm Aces: “Stacked Deck.” 19. Gary Stewart: “Out of Hand.” 20. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: “Nightingales & Bombers.”

21. Terry Garthwaite: “Terry.” 22. Loudon Wainwright III: “Unrequited.” 23. John Prine: “Common Sense.” 24. Randall Bramblett: “The Other Mile.” 25. “K.C. and the Sunshine Band.” 26. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame.” 27. Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here.” 28. Al Green: “Al Green Is Love.” 29. The Meters: “Cissy Strut.” 30. Leon Redbone: “On the Track.”

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A lot of my colleagues are feeling beamish with power these days; this has been a good year for rock and roll, they tell me, burping contentedly after trying to fit 13 records onto their 10-place ballot for this year’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. I disagree, and I think Pazz & Jop illustrates why. Look carefully at the results for a moment; I did not choose the figure 13 arbitrarily. Roughly speaking, that is where the critical consensus stops short. Not that any of the 38 participating critics chose from precisely those 13 records on which the consensus arrived. But those were the possibilities that dominated our collective mind; with the inevitable exceptions (especially vehement on Patti Smith, who is not much appreciated outside of New York, at least not yet; more weary and widespread on Roxy Music, who understandably leave many listeners cold, and the Who, whom even admirers of the present LP suspect of moribundity) people who apply aesthetic standards to “rock” agree that all 13 are “good records” of one sort or another.

In contrast, consider the next three finishers. Paul Simon’s staunchest fans will admit that “Still Crazy” represents a slip — the controversy is over how big a slip. “Red Headed Stranger” is a cosmic cowboy cult record. And while “Fleetwood Mac” is very, very pleasant, as my own list attests, it most certainly garnered its votes as “good listening” rather than “good art.”

Since rock criticism is determinedly hedonistic, that distinction still doesn’t go down with some participants, who insist that what they listen to is identical to what is good. Lester Bangs voted for “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” and “Metal Machine Music” because he played them more than he did “Blood on the Tracks”; Vince Aletti omitted “Al Green Is Love” because he filed it away after admiring it a few times. But more than ever the results represent a kind of balance. What mattered was not only what we’d been playing, but also how much a record had to give when it did reach our turntables.

Which brings us back to the lucky 13. Look at the titles again — a rather limited selection, wouldn’t you say? Two each from Bob Dylan (numero uno), Roxy Music (critic’s band), and Neil Young (genuine comeback, hooray). An album by numero uno’s band. Old faves the Who, new faves Steely Dan. Token blackness from two of the three single-artist reggae LPs released in America in 1975, one of them a compilation stretching back more than half a decade for its goodies. And two critic’s records, one an enormous — frightening, I’d say — commercial success, the other as yet unproved among people in general. Charley Walters — who voted for “Diamond Head,” by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera — looks over his list and experiences some disquiet: “It makes me feel as though I spent the entire year listening to Dylan and Roxy.”

In 1974, the top 13 were not so sharply demarcated from what came below, and there were really 13 of them: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Band, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, New York Dolls, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Raspberries.

Admittedly, part of this year’s narrowness reflects nonoutput by Newman, Wonder, the Stones, and Browne, all of whom will be back. But it also reflects the death of Parsons and the break-up of the Dolls (now semi-reunited and looking for a contract) and the Raspberries (a fluke anyway, I suppose — leader Eric Carmen’s solo album of this year received just one mention). And it reminds us of how badly Joni Mitchell (two mentions), Linda Ronstadt (also two mentions, albeit such enthusiastic ones that she placed number 26), and Eric Clapton (one mention for his studio LP, two for his live) let us down this year. Two fine LPs from Neil Young don’t quite compensate for all of that.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this. A certain ebb and flow is to be expected, and I have no doubt that some of the artists who were disappointments in 1975 will surprise me pleasantly in 1976 or 1979. But there’s more reason for my gloom; you can find it in the point values I assigned in my own Pazz & Jop ballot: “The Basement Tapes” 24, “Tonight’s the Night” 11… There were 12 albums vying for my top 10, but only one of them had the earmark of greatness — the same album that also dominated the Pazz & Jop consensus by a wide margin. This album was never intended to be an album at all, which is fine with me — I’m not much of a studiolator myself. But it has to be just a little depressing to people that the accident occurred in 1967.

I made the counterargument myself when the set appeared last summer: it would have been the best of 1967, too. I think so. But it is significant how utterly “The Basement Tapes” dwarfs even the most courageous music to come out of this year, this time. “Tonight’s the Night” and “Horses” — both uncompromising records — sound puny and desperate in comparison. They lack the utopian edge, that hint of cultural possibility, that gives the realism of “The Basement Tapes” its agreeably wry flavor. Realism is narrower now, more personal, and so 1975 produced 13 “good records” by 10 artists plus a lot of (often excellent but nevertheless) personalized taste.

This fact embarrasses critics a little, I think — Jerry Leichtling told me he omitted “The Basement Tapes” to make his list more contemporary, and others commented that they didn’t want to list two records by one artist. Which is to say, the consensus could have been even broader. As I compiled it was not clear for a while which of the top four would pull ahead. I was surprised and gratified by Patti Smith’s strong showing (which came almost entirely from New York in what is purposely a New York-dominated poll — a late vote from Larry Rohter of the Washington Post would have put Springsteen back in second) and slightly embarrassed by Springsteen’s. But I was worried by both, because the two records seem to me to typify the inevitable insularity of criticism.

Taking a lead from MIT prof and former Rolling Stone reviewer Langdon Winner, who came out of semi-retirement in the Real Paper to point out that “Born to Run” represents the formalization of all rock’s rebel precepts, I have to believe that neither Springsteen’s sense of history nor his saving vulgarity contributes as much to his popularity as the subliminal promise of aesthetic safety he offers. And while the acceptance of Patti Smith signifies the receptivity of rock’s critical establishment to music that is genuinely avant-garde in roots and intent, that does not obliterate two objections: one, that Smith’s avant-gardism is second-hand, semi-realized, or both — I’m not convinced that many of the critics who like her work are qualified to judge how vanguard it really is; and two, that the popular appeal of Smith’s music may be limited to those who want to think of themselves as avant-garde, critics included. I’m not saying I believe this myself; I don’t think I do. But the possibility remains, and I think it’s much too early to declare “Horses” any kind of masterpiece. The victory of “The Basement Tapes” represents the bitter truth about a year that was equivocal at best; I’ll always settle for that.

This was a bad year for black music, especially on albums; if I’d contacted more critics specializing in black music — next year I will — I’m sure the Harold Melvin album would have done even better, but after that it’s Earth, Wind & Fire, the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac. It was also an excellent year for country music, with four albums making the top 30 as opposed to one last year. In the case of each fringe I think this is largely a matter of care in making the albums inconsistent at best, while country artists are just beginning to catch on to the great “Sgt. Pepper”/Otis Redding album-as-work-of-art tradition.

Pazz & Jop was expanded this year; due to my own bad organization, I didn’t reach as many critics as I would have liked. Critics who don’t know a lot of other critics are the best corrective to critical cliquishness, though a certain penchant for the obvious does tend to result as well. Last year 24, this year 38, next year 52? And maybe someone named Brenda to help me with the tabulations.

Meanwhile, thanks to all voters, plus a few sample ballots below if there’s room: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Patrick Carr, Georgia Christgau, Ben Edmonds, Ken Emerson, Danny Fields, Ben Gerson, Toby Goldstein, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Lenny Kaye, Jerry Leichtling, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, John Morthland, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Wayne Robins, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

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Other Critics Pick Their Hits

PATRICK CARR: 1. “Red Headed Stranger” 20. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 15. 3. Delbert McClinton: “Victim of Life’s Circumstances” 15. 4. “Natty Dread” 10. 5. “Dreaming My Dreams” 10. 6. “Horses” 10. 7. Allen Toussaint: “Southern Nights” 5. 8. Robert Palmer: “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” 5. 9. Bad Company: “Straight Shooter” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

VINCE ALETTI: 1. Silver Convention: “Save Me” 10. 2. Donna Summer: “Love to Love You Baby” 10. 3. Smokey Robinson: “A Quiet Storm” 10. 4. “To Be True” 10. 5. The O’Jays: “Family Reunion” 10. 6. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 7. “The Salsoul Orchestra” 10. 8. Barabbas: “Heart of the City” 10. 9. “The Trammps” 10. 10. Bohannon: “Insides Out” 10.

TOM SMUCKER: 1. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame” 20. 2. Evie Sands: “Estate of Mind” 20. 3. “Prisoner in Disguise” 15. 4. “Stacked Deck” 10. 5. Pink Floyd: “Man Shakes Hands With Man on Fire” 10. 6. Commodores: “Caught in the Act” 5. 7. “Horses” 5. 8. “Red Headed Stranger” 5. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5. 10. The Miracles: “City of Angels” 5.

LESTER BANGS: 1. “Horses” 30. 2. The Dictators: “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” 20. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 15. 4. “Born to Run” 5. 6. David Bowie: “Young Americans” 5. 7. Lou Reed: “Metal Machine Music” 5. 7. “That’s the Way of the World” 5. 8. Kraftwerk: “Autobahn” 5. 9. “Country Life” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

ED WARD: 1. Elvin Bishop: “Juke Joint Jump” 22. 2. “Dreaming My Dream” 20. 3. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 4. Asleep at the Wheel: “Texas Gold” 10. 5. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 7. 6. Man: “Slow Motion” 7. 7. “Tonight’s the Night” 7. 8. “Out of Hand” 6. 9. “Natty Dread” 6. 10. Betty Wright: “Danger High Voltage” 5.

GREIL MARCUS: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 17. “Katy Lied” 15. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 4. “Got No Bread…” 12. 5. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 6. “Siren” 10. 7. “Funky Kingston” 5. 8. “Natty Dread” 5. 9. “Tonight’s the Night” 5. 10. “Born to Run” 5.

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 23. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 12. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 11. 4. “Horses” 10. 5. “Funky Kingston” 10. 6. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 8. 7. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 8. 8. “Stacked Deck” 7. 9. Tut Taylor: “The Old Post Office” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5.

FRED MURPHY: 1. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 2. “Revelation” 10. 3. Natalie Cole: “Inseparable” 10. 4. Labelle: “Phoenix” 10. 5. The Pointer Sisters: “Steppin’ ” 10. 6. “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan” 10. 7. Isaac Hayes: “Chocolate Chip” 10. 8. The Isley Brothers: “The Heat Is On” 10. 9. “To Be True” 10. 10. Roberta Flack: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” 10.

JAMES WOLCOTT: 1. “Horses” 18. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 13. 4. “The Who by Numbers” 12. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 10. 7. “Katy Lied” 7. 8. Elton John: “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” 7. 9. Born to Run 5. 10. “Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1” 5.

FRANK ROSE: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 2. “Horses” 14. 3. “Funky Kingston” 13. 4. “Born to Run” 13. 5. “Zuma” 11. 6. Ronnie Lane: “Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance” 9. 7. Joni Mitchell: “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” 8. 8. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 7. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6. 10. “The Basement Tapes” 5.

JERRY LEICHTLING: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 13. 3. Marlena Shaw: “Who is this Bitch Anyway?” 12. 4. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 5. “Katy Lied” 10. 6. Jan Hammer: “The First Seven Days” 10. 7. Melissa Manchester: “Melissa” 9. 8. Larry Coryell: “The 11th House: Level One” 8. 9. Leon Redbone: “On the Track” 6. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

LENNY KAYE: 1. “Physical Graffiti” 10. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 10. 3. “Blow by Blow” 10. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 5. “Natty Dread” 10. 6. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels: “The Best Years of Our Lives” 10. 7. Albert Ayler: “Witches and Devils” 10. 8. “Beserkley Chartbusters” 10. 9. “Horses” 10. 10. “Siren” 10.

CHARLEY WALTERS: 1. “Country Life” 13. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. Phil Manzanera: “Diamond Head” 12. 4. “Physical Graffiti” 11. 5. “Siren” 11. 6. “Katy Lied” 10. 7. “Blood on the Tracks” 9. 8. “Hummingbird” 8. 9. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” 6.

JANET MASLIN: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Still Crazy After All These Years” 15. 3. “Katy Lied” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 5. Bee Gees: “Main Course” 10. 6. “To Be True” 8. 7. “Born to Run” 8. 8. “Ian Hunter” 6. 9. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6.

PAUL NELSON: 1. “Born to Run” 13. 2. “Zuma” 13. 3. “Red Headed Stranger” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes: 13. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 13. 6. “Tonight’s the Night” 9. 7. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 9. 8. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 9. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 5. 10. Elliott Murphy: “Lost Generation” 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1975

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” (Columbia)

2. Patti Smith: “Horses” (Arista)

3. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run” (Columbia)

4. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” (Columbia)

5. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” (Reprise)

6. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” (ABC)

7. Roxy Music: “Country Life” (Atco)

8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” (Island)

9. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” (Capitol)

10. The Who: “The Who by Numbers” (MCA)

— From the December 29, 1975, 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 earlier this year.