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

1997 Pazz & Jop: The Year of No Next Big Thing

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since…Blood on the Tracks? — no no no, Born in the U.S.A. — it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn’t do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grown-up quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock “vanguard.” Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn’t wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. An admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan’s darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-’em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as “I Want You Back,” but though I’ll certainly take Hanson’s milk-fed cheer over Radiohead’s bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year’s old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that’s ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock’s foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ’s our winners. In 1997, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American “MMMBop” attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits “Tubthumping” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think “Wannabe” is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn’t politics, even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby — a female baby with her dad on the lam. It’s that they’re not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain’t all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than “MMMBop” itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith’s dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century’s greatest hit, “Home Sweet Home.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”692636″ /]

I love the Anthology myself — it’s not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they’re the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year’s winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers — seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally — felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan — who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13) — had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don’t mean to belittle an illness we’re blessed he survived, but I’m convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way “about death.” Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated — even if “The end of time has just begun” reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for — simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock “vanguard,” in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith’s and Bob Dylan’s arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain’s acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of “electronica” stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Björk and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Björk and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain’s techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams’s Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with “left to pursue a solo career” embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch’s much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair’s answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692633″ /]

The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don’t truck with Amerindie’s antistar niceties. They’ve been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn’t care how many records they sold. But these days they’ve all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead — there’s little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie’s musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they’re dedicated to beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn’t much of a concept stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (anti-chauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn’t the point — the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt — not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995 — that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we’d not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn’t participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, every critic’s ballot, and an extra comments file are posted at It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The most meaningful differences involved hip hop, where — despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, which now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the music press — we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person’s cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York turntablists X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn’t change the collective opinion of America’s rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock’s avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums — a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That’s why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle — loyal citizens of Alternia’s most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they’re nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else’s. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they’re alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be — hell, are willing to be — loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don’t even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692630″ /]

If there’s no point whining about this logical turn of events, there’s also no reason to worry it’s a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we’re lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don’t know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way — it won’t be Liz Phair, it won’t be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won’t be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent — old masters now, they’ve already reached out with as much common touch as they’ll ever have at their command. I’ll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard’s album chart. But the dream of an alt nirvana where aesthetes take over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed a little dull anyway, has played itself out.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and — my heart’s prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation — Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador’s sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others — they’re too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these bands continue to command broad critical respect, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension — working-class strivers bent on proving they’re not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over 7, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997 — in the U.S., which is not U2’s major market — and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996’s late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn’t chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20 — the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead — take their cues from U2.

It’s not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll — after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins — strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that‘s the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can’t break out of in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as inane a single as ever has snared the voters’ ears — that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, “The Drugs Don’t Work.” Although Jason Pierce’s drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain more functioning cerebral tissue. They’re also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their ex-junkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692625″ /]

Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke’s pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band’s brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about — an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on “Electioneering,” which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year — better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they’ve decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can’t get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was ’50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel — like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn’t punk, not at first — it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can’t to me. Maybe being old ain’t so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I’m warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk phase were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza’s second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes — they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they’re only worthy when “developed,” I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn’t happen to be “MMMBop,” an ebullient piece of product without the, I’m sorry, social vision of “Tubthumping,” which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers — Puff Daddy Inc.’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and B-Rock & the Bizz’s “MyBabyDaddy,” both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. “Missing You” you know — the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b “Candle in the Wind” at over 3 million sales, and didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. “MyBabyDaddy” sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which — as in Spice World, of all things — is raising a baby (female, but that’s muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn’t the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas’s “Ghetto Gul” drawl, it’s as dependent on the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” as “Missing You” is on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Well, big deal. Puffy’s sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer’s with “Super Freak” in 1990, when I voted for “U Can’t Touch This,” which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite’s 1984 “Missing You,” which jacks Sting’s cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think “Rapper’s Delight” is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper’s “It’s Nation Time!” As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy’s steals (which aren’t always that blatant, not unless you’re a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland’s Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more “Tyrone”s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I’m a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D’Angelo have yet to produce a “Tyrone” of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab and surprise of true vanguard pop, I’d go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. Life After Death is poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it — although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I’m not delivering any. You want to hum “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” I can’t stop you — sometimes I can’t even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I’ve been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn’t equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1997

1. Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia)

2. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

3. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

4. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)

6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

7. Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Universal)

8. Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

9. Björk: Homogenic (Elektra)

10. Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Matador)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1997

1. Hanson: “MMMBop” (Mercury)

2. Chumbawamba: “Tubthumping” (Republic/Universal)

3. The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Virgin)

4. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

5. Blur: “Song 2” (Virgin)

6. Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Block Rockin’ Beats” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Erykah Badu: “On and On” (Universal)
Smash Mouth: “Walkin’ on the Sun” (Interscope)

10. The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Puff Daddy and Mase): “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy)

—From the February 24, 1998, 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.


More Evidence That Fela Kuti Was a F–king Genius

In his 2006 memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka posed this simple question about his countryman, and first cousin, Fela Kuti, the larger-than-life Nigerian bandleader: “How would one summarize Fela?”  

For Erykah Badu, the answer is succinct: “Listen, all you need to know is…Fela Kuti is a f—ing genius.” This comes from her deeply personal liner notes for the brand-new Fela: Vinyl Box Set 4, which she has compiled for Knitting Factory Records, with additional comments from Afrobeat historian Chris May. Fela’s prolific career — which saw him imprisoned and beaten (repeatedly) by the police and military for his outspoken criticism of the government — spanned parts of five decades, from the 1950s to 1997, the year he died of complications related to AIDS.

His life and oeuvre has had a thorough and well-deserved going-over the past ten years in a variety of formats and venues, most famously in Bill T. Jones’s 2009 Broadway musical, Fela! That same year, Knitting Factory Records bought the rights to his entire catalog of recordings, and has released a series of limited-edition vinyl box sets, the first three curated by Questlove, Ginger Baker — who lived in Lagos for a time and played with Fela — and Brian Eno. Badu, for the latest set, has chosen a thrilling batch of seven LPs made up of Yellow Fever (1976); No Agreement and J.J.D. (both from 1977); V.I.P. (1979); Coffin for Head of State (1980); Army Arrangement (1984); and Underground System (1992).

The oft-shirtless Fela — taut, like a bantamweight fighter completely unafraid to take on bigger, more brutal opposition — had the kind of courage most rock stars of the time could only mimic. He began as a trumpet player and pianist while a student in late-Fifties London, but by the Seventies was mainly playing tenor saxophone and keyboards, singing lead vocals in pidgin English, and conducting his large ensemble, Africa 70. The band, anchored by drummer Tony Allen and his trusted baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun, was exceptional, especially its precise and powerful horn and vocal arrangements. This troupe may have appeared freewheeling, but it was, rather, steeped in discipline.

Fela released albums, often with the bold, immediate, equally fearless cover art of Lemi Ghariokwu, at a torrid pace — 24 between 1975 and 1977, according to Chris May’s notes — as if they were news dispatches. (In this new set, though, none of the vinyl is gatefold. For the titles that had gatefold art, foldout posters are included.) He was a kind of amalgam of James Brown, Bob Marley, and Sun Ra, with Ghanaian highlife and his own Yoruban touches, but who was under constant assault from the military government. “They beat the s–t out of me,” he said in the 1982 documentary Music Is the Weapon, before showing his most recent scars to the camera.

Bill T. Jones, in the 2014 documentary Finding Fela, actually likened Fela to Marley — and they both enjoyed copious amounts of marijuana — but said, “Marley was just somehow easier. Fela took a more sophisticated ear.”

Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu has that sophisticated ear, and her selections for this set touch on many of Fela’s ongoing political and social concerns: standing up to a corrupt and brutal military regime; the scars of colonization; and Pan-African pride, all conveyed in lengthy pieces that often ran the whole side of a vinyl record. Musically, these albums bleed into one another, yet they never feel monotonous, as the arrangements remain original and spry.

On Yellow Fever, Fela sings of the ills of skin-whitening creams on the fifteen-minute title track, while on “Na Poi,” the thirteen-minute B side, he gets graphic, in pidgin English, about sex (more on that later). “I’m from the Bible Belt,” Badu writes, “where church attendance is high and self-esteem for Blacks is low. Sexuality is just too satanic to discuss openly and the darkest student in class keeps her mouth closed, while clutching a #7 light cream concealer.”

No Agreement is about his solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised. (On the flip side, Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie, who visited Fela in Nigeria, takes a guest solo, in the all-instrumental “Dog Eat Dog.” It’s the perfect marriage of their diasporic sensibilities.)

On J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop), Fela sends up Nigerians who studied or worked abroad and return home with affectation. He could have been one of those people. He came from a prominent family. His mother was an educator, his father was a minister and school principal, and his two brothers were both doctors, one of whom, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, became Nigeria’s health minister (and subject of a 2015 short story by the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). He studied medicine himself, then classical music at London’s Trinity College. He could’ve lived anywhere, done anything.

But, as Soyinka wrote, “Fela loved to buck the system. His music, to many, was both salvation from and an echo of their anguish, frustrations, and suppressed aggression. The Black  race was the beginning and end of knowledge and wisdom, his life mission to effect a mental and physical liberation of the race.” And as musicologist Uchenna Ikonne wrote in his excellent 2016 book, Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock 1972–1977, “Inspired by the Black pride ethos then chic in American soul and jazz, Fela increasingly fashioned music around a pro-Black philosophy, fiercely advocating a celebration of traditional African values.”

He eschewed bourgeois comforts and instead built up a commune in a teeming section of Lagos and called it the Kalakuta Republic, which housed his band, family members, a recording studio, and a health clinic. It was raided several times, including during a brutal attack in February 1977, when up to a thousand troops stormed in and fractured Fela’s skull, threw his mother out of a second-story window, raped women, and burned the compound down. His mother eventually died from those injuries, and one of Fela’s responses was the album Coffin for Head of State, a weighty piece where he sings, “Them steal all the money, them kill many students, them burn many houses, them burn my house too, them kill my mama.” Earlier in the song, he’s also equally critical of what both Islam and Christianity wreaked on Africa.

V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power) was recorded at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978, the same year Fela married 27 women in a single ceremony. As pulsating as the set is, you can hear hecklers in the audience, who, according to May, were jazz purists that couldn’t take his saxophone playing (and in truth, he didn’t have the technique of the great American jazz saxophonists, though he did have his own voice) and a women’s group who didn’t like his “perceived attitude to women.”

The temptation, with lions like Fela, is, well, to lionize them. Uchenna Ikonne calls it “Fela’s beatification,” and while he’s clearly an admirer, he also refers to him as “the canny self-promoter.” But heroes aren’t necessarily saints. The Jamaican writer Lindsay Barrett, who moved to Nigeria and befriended Fela, wrote in The Wire in 1998, the year after he died: “His sexual appetite was legendary, and many young women submitted themselves to a life of virtual enslavement as he preached an ideology of chauvinistic control and established a lifestyle that was based on his theories of female submission.”

On Underground System from 1992 — with the band renamed Egypt 80 — he sang the praises of various African leaders, including the dictator Idi Amin, something Solinka noted in his memoir when he posed that question, How would one summarize Fela? “Merely as a populist would be inadequate. Radical he certainly was, and often simplistically so…. Only Fela would wax a record according heroic virtues to such an incompatible trio as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, and — oh yes, indeed — Idi Amin Dada, the terror of Uganda.… There were no grays in Fela’s politics of black and white.”

Black-and-white politics, maybe, but his work, the music, was all color — rich, vivid color — that still radiates.



Celebrate Brooklyn! is lucky to have such a fabulous Q.U.E.E.N. to open its 36th season. Janelle Monáe, one of music’s most compelling rising stars, hit refresh on 2013 with the release of her second album, The Electric Lady, an electric and star-studded android manifesto with guest spots from Solange, Miguel, Erykah Badu, and Prince. It’s a credit to Monáe that she has managed to keep her performances and personal style just as lively and individual as her unique music. She has all the makings of a superstar and is fixed squarely on the path to icon status. Expect to be dazzled.

Wed., June 4, 6 p.m., 2014



Michael Eugene Archer, otherwise known as D’Angelo, he of the silky-smooth croon and Adonisian pelvic muscles, sits down with Nelson George, filmmaker, critic, and author of The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s month-long festival in New York City. (The organization has staged similar, engaging lectures with Erykah Badu and James Murphy.) D’Angelo’s history as a prodigiously talented and innovative singer and part of seminal neo-soul collective Soulquarians are fodder enough for conversation, and it’s possible he’ll shed some light on his long-time-coming third album tentatively scheduled for release this year, which he’s recording with Questlove.

Wed., May 21, 6 p.m., 2014



Vocalist Nai Palm, who wields an Ibanez Artstar guitar and often appears garlanded with most of a midtown notions store’s contents, fronts Melbourne quartet Hiatus Kaiyote. Despite the vintage punk-rock moniker, her voice is all cool, honeyed soul, and there’s a whole lot of everything going on around her. Kaiyote’s economical debut, Tawk Tomahawk, opens with “Mobius Streak,” a six-minute sonic travelogue embracing interlocked West African rhythms, heady Los Angeles glitch-psych, interstellar space rock, and bubbly Jaco-jazz. Half the album’s tracks, however, clock in at less than two minutes; these brief gems evoke still other Eno-esque green worlds, colonized by “future soul” chanteuses like Cocorosie and Erykah Badu. Equally ambitious and accessible, Hiatus Kaiyote deserve the accolades they’ve been receiving from nearly everywhere, and if you miss tonight’s show, you’re going to wish you’d seen them here.

Mon., Aug. 12, 8 p.m., 2013


Jaclyn Rose

The Filipino-American California transplant has cut her teeth on the New York jazz scene during the past two years, honing a vocal style that blends the soul inflection of Erykah Badu with funk-laden interpretations of standard repertoire. She wouldn’t be the first to give “A Night in Tunisia” a modern swagger, but she performs with enough conviction to make people feel she’s really there. Maybe it’s because of the Rose Movement, her holistic belief system that harnesses the power of positive thinking.

Sun., July 7, 7 p.m., 2013



Just because New York City is a permanent music festival doesn’t mean it can’t also host the sort of weekend megafest more often found in the sticks of Tennessee or SoCal. Hence we have the Governors Ball, the three-year-old gathering that this weekend brings, for starters, Kings of Leon, Guns N’ Roses, Animal Collective, Pretty Lights, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Erykah Badu, Best Coast, Icona Pop, and Azealia Banks to Randall’s Island. Today, arrive early for sets from rap traditionalist Freddie Gibbs and rockers HAIM, and stick around for headliner Kanye West, he who recently tore up the SNL stage with new tunes “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.”

Fri., June 7, 11 a.m.; Sat., June 8, 11 a.m., 2013



Neo-soul was no longer neo when Erykah Badu released her 2008 album, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), but its expansive sound and softly sung narratives made the whole world sound fresh. This weekend, its long-haired auteur takes the record to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she worked with local composer Ted Hearne to create “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance,” a program that pairs some of the album’s best tunes with new original orchestration. Opener Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) has cancelled, but that doesn’t mean you should: Badu will offer a performance powerful enough to stand on its own.

Sat., June 8, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., June 9, 7:30 p.m., 2013


Music Summer Guide: Erykah Badu and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Team Up

When I’m nudged into Erykah Badu’s backstage dressing room at the Brooklyn Museum, she’s still recovering from a spontaneous outbreak of extended public adulation. The peerless soul vocalist’s Q&A for the Red Bull Music Academy has just climaxed with every audience member who wasn’t allowed to ask a question storming the stage at Ms. Badu’s invitation, to the dismay of the event crew. During the ensuing 20-minute crush, Badu’s fans took pictures, yelled questions, and staggered away from a Brief Encounter with Erykah’s Kind exhibiting signs of a mellow, but very satisfying, high.

So now she’s tired, too. A few handlers buzz around, light incense, play the role of road videographer, or busy themselves with journalistic petitioners. Her bass player, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, is the only one sitting still, anchoring the couch next to Badu as if to pin it to the ground. As I’ve only been granted a few short minutes, I immediately ask Badu about her upcoming collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic—a suite of arrangements inspired by her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)—when the singer proposes a shift in tone. “Can you give me a foot rub while we doing this?”

It’s a low-stakes dare, but a dare all the same. Thundercat looks at me with a used-to-this poker face. As in improv comedy, the interviewer’s job is often merely to say “yes, and . . .” so I accept. “My feet are kinda hard,” she warns, taking off her footwear and extending her left calf, which is hennaed with intricate designs that extend well inside her pant leg. “It look like Africa,” she tells me. The bassist cracks, finally, with a giggle. I take off my socks and shoes in a stab at solidarity, and begin massaging Badu’s foot while inquiring again about that orchestra collaboration.

Her answer: It all comes down to openness, the correct feel, and the right references. The rapper and singer Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), with whom Brooklyn’s ascendant local orchestra collaborated last season, introduced Badu to conductor Alan Pierson, who asked if she would offer up some songs for an orchestral rethink. Badu immediately nominated New Amerykah Part One. “I think a lot of the subtle mysteries and drama of that project will come across very well with timpani and strings and cellos and things,” the singer says, withdrawing her foot. “There’s just something about this social political aspect meeting this harmonic aspect.”

This is a central tension in Badu’s work, which can be both soothing and discomfiting. While her reedy, hip-hop-informed voice is a unique comfort, promoting all-is-well-in-the-world soulfulness, she has always been an experimental conceptualist and tinkerer, constructing multi-movement, suite-like pieces. (She labored on New Amerykah Part I for five years.) Badu’s fans love her for her talent, but they’re drawn to her every experimentation because few in modern pop can put the former in the service of the latter so seamlessly. “It’s bigger than religion,” Badu says of this polymath approach in New Amerykah‘s “The Healer.”

Badu’s ability to pivot from groove to gravitas is a positive omen that her next experiment won’t be a modern variant on the shticky pops-orchestral concerts of yore, with familiar songs hauled out for would-be “classy” tune-ups. Under Pierson, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has searched for experimental textures and radical noise as well as orchestral finesse. The tough, fleet renderings of Bey pieces like “Life in Marvelous Times”—as well as their joint exploration of minimalist composer Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-inspired opus “Coming Together”—proved better than anyone hoped. And the orchestra’s programming has a political subtext that matches Badu’s: They want Brooklyn audiences (and kids in Brooklyn schools, where the philharmonic also travels) to know that an orchestra can do old Mos Def songs proud and that Bey, in a new phase of his career, can deliver an innovative and successful take on modern classical compositions.

Local composer Ted Hearne—whose politically pointed Katrina Ballads cycle was released on Brooklyn label New Amsterdam Records in 2010, and who is orchestrating the new arrangements of Badu’s New Amerykah songs—notes that the experimental-music world is already heavily influenced by hip-hop production. Take Badu’s “The Healer,” which features both a crisp, bell-like percussion part and a looser, low-end groove that moves in and out of sync. “It’s all about that: about finding ways to get that push and pull happening with the beat,” Hearne says. “The drums are just keeping time in the most crisp way, and then the bass is just behind so much. Just almost enough that it’s not really in time at all,” he adds.

These rhythmic games are like a drug for any post-minimalist Brooklyn composer. Hearne talks with excitement about how much “space” lingers between all the experimental layers of Badu’s album. “She was just, like, ‘Yeah, how do you orchestrate static?’ I loved when she said that.”

The June program at BAM will include Hearne’s arrangements of five songs from New Amerykah Part One, with Badu handling vocals, plus Bey reprising last year’s song cycle (arranged by composer Derek Bermel). Some of Badu’s interviews from the recent documentary film The Black Power Mixtape may be incorporated into the Hearne arrangements, too.

“The feels are what made me make it,” Badu says about the New Amerykah series. As mottoes go, it’s unpretentious, even as it seems to guide Badu through many of her choices—whether in fan outreach, foot-rub invitations, or her response to orchestras willing to experiment. But it would be a mistake to see her improvisational, welcoming approach to the world as merely whimsical. “Everything I do is a political act,” Badu told the crowd at the Brooklyn Museum. For Badu’s fans—as well as modern classical music fans—in Brooklyn, the community able to appreciate both neo-soul and new-orchestral currents is about to get a little bit bigger.

Erykah Badu performs with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Yasiin Bey on June 8 and 9 at Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn,



Eleanor Friedberger

June 28

The sunnier half of the Fiery Furnaces impressed plenty of listeners with her assured debut album, Last Summer, in 2011. But her latest, Personal Record, is even better: It bears traces of her manic creativity, but also offers uncomplicated summery rockers as well as reflective, slower pieces graced with a world-weariness smart enough to avoid “back in the day” indie nostalgia. Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North Sixth Street,

Governors Ball Music Festival

June 7–9

It’s hard for any single music festival to plausibly appeal to a wide variety of tastes, but this annual event on Randall’s Island has made an honest attempt: Headliners include Kings of Leon, Guns N’ Roses (version who’s-counting), and Kanye West. The lower-billed acts represent a similar variety of styles: Nas, Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr., and Erykah Badu help make the day-long entry fees worth it. Randall’s Island,

Vision Festival

June 12–16

Our summer festival for adventurous jazz programming comes hard in its 18th edition. Every night boasts musicians who’ll knock you sideways—like Milford Graves, Charles Gayle, Craig Taborn, and The Roots’ favorite free-jazz pianist, D.D. Jackson—but the true can’t-miss event is a rare NYC appearance by legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran Roscoe Mitchell. The saxophonist will appear in what looks to be a burning trio, with Henry Grimes on bass, on June 13. If you like any kind of “extreme” music, you need to see him play. Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn,

Northside Festival

June 13–20

Say what you will about pedantic debates over punk-band reunions that rest on the participation of non-canonical members—here it’s Black Flag fronted by vocalist Ron Reyes (instead of Keith Morris or Henry Rollins)—these discussions are at least more interesting than listening to everyone’s opinion about the latest trend piece about North Brooklyn. So come to Williamsburg and hear Greg Ginn shred his way through the Black Flag catalog! There will be other presentations of note, too—such as those by Solange, Swans, contemporary Southern metal gods Kylesa, and post-minimalist guitarist-composer Rhys Chatham (in collaboration with Oneida). Various Brooklyn venues,

Kings of the Mic Tour

June 20

Forgive (or forget) “Accidental Racist”—LL Cool J has the gravitas and the back catalog to make his first U.S. tour in five years feel like a destination event. The fact that he’s got new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Public Enemy (still a fine album-releasing act, by the way) and Ice Cube in tow means that this night should be a crucial calendar corrective amid all the more predictably on-trend rap artists (Kanye, Kendrick Lamar) being presented this season. Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd Street

Stockhausen’s ‘Michaels Reise um die Erde’

July 18–20

The sharp, Cologne-based ensemble musikFabrik have been making a name for themselves by staging some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s most difficult theatrical works. (In Germany in 2011, I saw a jaw-dropping two-day, eight-hour performance of his final opera.) Now the Lincoln Center Festival brings the crew in to perform the North American premiere of a standalone single act from another Stockhausen opera. The composer is having a moment in NYC programming, from the Park Avenue Armory to the Philharmonic to some of Brooklyn’s more experimental dens. If you’ve missed the resurgence so far, don’t let this event pass by. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center,

Mostly Mozart

July 27–August 24

Conductor Louis Langrée is great at bringing Mozart across, and he’ll be doing plenty of that at this venerable summer event. But the International Contemporary Ensemble is taking care of the stuff that falls outside the rubric, and its festival-inside-the-festival (August 10–20) is set to include premieres of new pieces by David Lang, Tyshawn Sorey, and George Lewis—as well as one by early minimalist and tape-noise pioneer Pauline Oliveros. Various venues, Lincoln Center,



The latest musician bequeathed with the task of bridging jazz and hip-hop, pianist Robert Glasper fits much tighter with the neo-soul crowd on his newest LP, Black Radio. Although Yasiin Bey, the rapper you probably know as Mos Def, gives the album its name as the featured artist on the title track, the record really sores on cuts like the Erykah Badu–performed standard “Afro Blue” and the slow jam “Ah Yeah,” which offers vocals by Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele. Tonight, he plays two shows at Lower Manhattan’s S.O.B.’s. If he really wants to throw you off, he’ll do his cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Thu., Jan. 10, 8 & 10:30 p.m., 2013