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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

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).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692491″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

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.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

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.

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

1985 Pazz & Jop: Virtue Rewarded

Nineteen eighty-five sure was busy-busy-busy for Chuck and Elvis’s love child. You’d think it’d have its hands full just perverting the nation and feeding the world, but those were epiphenomena. Now more than ever, “rock music” is first and foremost an engine of the culture industry, whence all the rest of its inescapable visibility flows. It didn’t set quite as many dollars in motion as in 1984, when the phony recovery of 1983 came true, but the dip wasn’t panic-worthy, maybe 5 per cent off a record year. Having caved in to the Clean Lyrics League, the companies half believe Congress is going to give them their stupid home-taping tax, and if it isn’t clear where the Next Springsteen will come from now that ZZ Top has flunked the first audition, there’s product due from Michael Jackson himself. So nobody’s complaining, yet. Nobody except us complainers.

I refer, of course, to the 238 pros, fans, hacks, and illuminati who participated in the 12th or 13th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and really, what else did you expect? As anybody who’s got more important things to worry about knows without thinking, critics are malcontents as a matter of life commitment, and though rock critics value enthusiasm more than their less callow colleagues, often that just means they holler nay at the top of their lungs rather than acting civilized about it. Having fallen in love with rock and roll when it delivered them from the goody-goody bullshit that’s shoved down teenaged throats with a trowel, they like dirty lyrics, though they can live without the baddy-baddy bullshit of W.A.S.P. and maybe Prince too. They don’t think good will can feed the world, though some of them give Michael and Lionel and Bob Geldof credit for trying. And they don’t have much use for the biz’s blockbuster recovery, especially if they prescribed quality-not-quantity three years ago, when record execs were whining about their own imminent demise.

Not that the boom looked so bad in 1984, when most of the blockbusters — Bruce and Prince, Tina and Cyndi, Van Halen and ZZ — were deemed hot enough artistically to make our poll. But the big blockbuster of 1985 was a blockbuster of 1984 — Born in the U.S.A. sold six million copies or so after topping last year’s poll (with no causal relationship implied, I assure you) — and when it came to the little blockbusters the voters pushed reject. Despite some sharp antibacklash from Barry Walters and Dave Marsh, Madonna’s sextuple-platinum Like a Virgin wasn’t hot enough artistically (or whatever, Mrs. Gore) to rise higher than 85th, while Phil Collins’s quadruple-platinum No Jacket Required finished 108th and Wham!’s quadruple-platinum Make It Big (the best of these three albums by me) got one mention. The only multiple-platinum in the top 40 is John Cougar Mellencamp’s honorably overwrought populist symbol, Scarecrow, and the Mark Knopfler Band’s contemptibly contemptuous aural microwave, Brothers in Arms, although three double-platinum items did make significant showings out of the money. Whitney Houston’s 48th-ranked diva debut vied with Sting at 21 and the Smiths at (a gratifyingly tepid) 46 for the coveted All Things Must Pass Overrated Trophy. Significant in another way were Stevie Wonder’s 61st, easily his lowest finish ever not counting the Woman in Red soundtrack, and Prince’s tie for 51st, the most precipitous flop in Pazz & Jop history. “Majors See Black Music Boom,” says Billboard. “Critics See Major Crossover Sellout,” sez I.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

Of course there were exceptions — there always are. Rick Rubin’s metal-rap powered Run-D.M.C.’s sophomore gold to a generous 32nd (and L.L. Cool J’s freshman vinyl to a hopeful 37th). Luther Vandross’s platinum return to form scored consistently enough with black music loyalists to come in 30th, and Aretha Franklin’s best album in 15 years soared in at an underrated ninth and may yet get what it deserves in the marketplace, though as of now it’s “only” gold. Sade’s platinum Diamond Life — by an African-turned-English model-turned-singer whose mood music broke in the dance market, which ought to be crossover enough to satisfy Lee Abrams himself — lulled the electorate so seductively it came in 14th (with the late-’85 follow-up Promise 56th so far). There were platinum finishes as well from old man down the road John Fogerty, former boy Don Henley, and aspiring middlebrow Sting. That brings our precious metal total up to around normal at nine, and I left the first for last: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

David Byrne wasn’t being modest when he predicted in 1977 that his debuting young band would “fluctuate between a large cult audience and a possible fluke mass success,” because he’s anything but modest — gracious, putatively self-effacing, but so proud that groveling for gold was inconceivable to him. He’d just work for it. With a big push from the press — Talking Heads ’77 finished seventh, and since then every one of his band’s studio albums has been in the Pazz & Jop top five — he’s had his large cult audience since album one. And now, on the crest of years of intelligent media manipulation (visionary videos that predate MTV, high-art cachet from Tharp and Rauschenberg and Wilson, greatest concert movie ever) he has his not especially flukish mass success: Little Creatures is Talking Heads’ first platinum album as well as their first Pazz & Jop number one. This result is jake with me even though I was rooting mildly for the runner-up Replacements — it’s gratifying to see virtue rewarded, especially when there’s no mistaking it for goody-goody bullshit. But I’m obliged to report that the Heads’ victory looks slightly tainted nevertheless.

Early handicapping slotted Little Creatures at number one for the worst of reasons — there just wasn’t any competition. Hailed in some quarters as a return to basics after five years of funk, its short songs for augmented quartet evince none of the fear of music that jammed up Byrne’s short songs for minimalist quartet in the ’70s. They’re warm and supple and at peace with the world, reflecting his long encounter with black music (and also, I get the feeling, a remarkable woman), even if they decline the deeply nervous grooves of Remain in Light and its progeny. That is, they comprise the safest music he’s ever made. I’m not one who regards safe as a damning insult when it insures this level of accomplishment, but in rock and roll it’s never praise, and my initial delight faded noticeably: Little Creatures barely squeezed into my weakest top 10 in memory, and might well have been surpassed by the Pogues or Thomas Mapfumo if I’d had another week to listen. Nor was anybody else talking up the Heads. When Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons opened the ballots, he detected a surge for Scarecrow. Tim was no Let It Be and took the L.A. Times’s in-house poll anyway. Sun City was turning into the rock critics’ Live Aid. I even began to have nightmares of R.E.M.

But when the count began, a pattern asserted itself immediately and seemed a foregone conclusion by the time we finished the first folder. This New York band has gone national. Little Creatures garnered disproportionate support outside the volatile coastal corridors — not as much as Fogerty, but more than such midwestern heroes as Mellencamp and especially the Replacements. But with platinum acceptability contributing to the impression that it was a major album, it was the only consensus possible in an unprecedentedly flat year — a year so unimpressed with itself that three of its top 20 albums (Cooke, Velvets, Dylan) were recorded in the ’60s and a fourth (Lost in the Stars) was composed in the ’20s and ’30s, a year so flat artistically that it diminishes the Heads’ achievement and perhaps “rock music”’s vaunted visibility as well.

I know, I know, you read the same shit in this space all the time. Every year various turks and curmudgeons explain how rock and roll just died right in front of your eyes and you were too stupid or complacent to notice. And every year I step in wearing my voice-of-reason costume and explain how it’s not as bad as all that. Unlike many rock and roll adepts — some inspired and almost all foolish — I’ve never been of a utopian/apocalyptic turn of mind, and no matter how grim things look in a given year I know that history progresses in cycles and years can be misleadingly arbitrary units of measurement. Still, 1985 does look pretty grim. And though it’s been a long while since I’ve had such trouble getting the Dean’s List up to 50 A LPs, this isn’t a personal complaint. It’s right there in the results.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692491” /]

I mean, consensus doesn’t necessarily equal enthusiasm. At 4.5 points per respondent, Little Creatures is only the third winner ever to dip below 5.0, and two of those were instructively unmomentous precedents that came damn close anyway: Squeezing Out Sparks at 4.9 in 1979 and Imperial Boredom at 4.9 in 1982. Prorated, the Heads could have won our poll with 1979’s Fear of Music or 1980’s Remain in Light and come in a hair behind the Replacements with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. And 1981, when the top record got even softer support, had it all over 1985 in other ways. Sandinista! may have averaged just 4.3 points per respondent, but at least it was a risky mess instead of a neat retreat, and its runner-up was X’s Wild Gift, which not only outdrew Tim (4.0 to 3.5) despite indie distribution but stands as a landmark where Tim and Little Creatures and even Sandinista! are more like points on a flow chart.

And in addition 1981 had a brave future. Some of its 12 debut-album artists proved as inconsequential as the Au Pairs and Romeo Void, or failed to fulfill expectations like Was (Not Was) and the Go-Go’s and the MIA Human Switchboard, but in their own ways Joan Jett and Luther Vandross and U2 and (I hope) the Blasters have prospered mightily. I expect something comparable from Sade and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but not from 1985’s other debuts, all five of them. I’ll admit that Marti Jones isn’t a major artist if you’ll admit that Suzanne Vega isn’t a major artist, which God knows also holds for longtime Brit eccentric Robyn Hitchcock (whose Gotta Let This Hen Out! finished close behind Fegmania at 45). Jason and the Scorchers may never again recapture their old Fervor, and L. L. Cool J has the look of the (94th in ’84) Dream Syndicate or the (81st in ’85) Del Fuegos, who also snuck their B-plus-at-best intros into the top 40 on local and/or stylistic loyalty. Granted, this foreshortened debut list doesn’t include dead singers, dead composers, dead groups, or John Fogerty, all of whom made unprecedented showings that were in most cases deserved — and who between them don’t promise any more than Biograph.

Nor am I much encouraged by the continued Pazz & Jop success of the rock indies — independently owned and distributed labels like SST or Profile rather than semi-subsidiaries like Slash or Def Jam or I.R.S. Since most indies are owned by obsessive entrepreneurs with less than no penchant for collective action, I’ve never seen them as bulwarks against capitalism — just little outposts of unpredictable aesthetic principle, pockets of structural resistance in the struggle for fun. But aesthetic principle is never any sharper than the art it applies to, which despite the supposed (or real, damned if I can tell) American rock renaissance doesn’t look like any cutting edge to me — after searching every which-a-way, I’ve put only three new Amerindie bands on my A list, down from eight in 1983 and six in 1984. (Because they don’t compete so directly in the youthbuck market, the folk and blues labels — which provide four African, four reggae, and one blues album on my own list, making Shanachie my favorite corporation this side of Warner Bros. — have better luck.) And structurally, the rock indies have had it — the majors now regard them as farm teams, swooping down and snaring likely looking bands or sometimes whole labels, most recently Hüsker Dü and Tommy Boy. Not that this is necessarily so bad for band or label — unlike some resentful souls, I don’t blame the slight shortfall of Tim on Sire’s Seymour Stein, a former indie owner who’s used his signing privileges at Warners to oversee more good music than any other a&r scout of the past 10 years. Nor can I get all teary-eyed about the “commercialization” of DB’s Guadalcanal Diary or Christian Burial’s 10,000 Maniacs, picked up by Elektra for 58th- and 68th-place finishes, or of DB’s 53rd-ranked Zeitgeist or Rational’s 76th-ranked Game Theory, probably due for similar treatment. The sheer productivity of the indies, with their low overhead and lower profit margin, is welcome and healthy. But I wish I could still dream that pockets of resistance might someday connect and generate their own counter-establishment. Sponsoring enjoyable-to-important music while hanging on by their fingernails in a state of perpetual marginality, the indies have become hegemonic in spite of themselves.

Indies did manage to dominate the EP chart we devised for them five years ago, but that just illustrates my point. With ’70s cult hero Alex Chilton leading the pack and ’60s cult hero Roky Erickson bringing up the rear and album artists the Minutemen, UB40, and U2 finishing two, three, and five, the list looks almost as inauspicious as last year’s, which as predicted gave us Jason & the Scorchers, period. Full Time Men are a one-shot, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers substitute attitude for songs, and Big Black subsumes songs in attitude — Racer-X is a powerful abrasive, but not what you’d call generous of spirit. Which leaves country purist Dwight Yoakam, probably good for a better album than the Judds, and political popsters Lifeboat, probably good for a better album than Tommy Keene, to continue in the EP-launched tradition of Los Lobos, the Minutemen, the Bangles, and near misses Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

The other lists were at least as depressing. Of course I applaud the winning single and the strength of women on the chart (six of the top 15 compared to six of the top 40 LPs), and it’s a pleasure to see the Ramones place so high after the intrepid Seymour Stein refused to release their most overt political act. But I’m distressed at the paucity of dance records, and suspect my colleagues are becoming disenchanted with rap as it abandons the last vestiges of noble savagery for the inevitable formalist phase signaled by the year’s two most remarkable records: Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Double Dee & Steinski’s promo-only three-cut 12-inch (call it The Lesson), both of which take the kitchen-sink pop-for-the-people philosophy of hip hop into the realm of full-scale information seizure. (One reads that the current owner of Lennon-McCartney’s “Michelle,” a guy named Michael Jackson, has threatened to sue Doug E. Fresh in England, where “The Show” has now sold more copies than “Rapper’s Delight.”) I mean, there are nice songs on our list, but for once I didn’t get a lot of letters about how they were the vanguard. If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 was the year AOR horned back in. Except maybe for John Waite’s “Missing You,” which I prefer to regard as a magnificent fluke like “Hot Blooded” or “You’re So Vain,” there’s never been a Pazz & Jop equivalent to “The Boys of Summer” or “Money for Nothing” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Each in its way an expression of the male rock star’s endemic and crippling cynicism, these phenomenally self-conscious pieces of popcraft were flukish only in the irresistibility of their hooks, and they bode ill — not least because each came with a high-charting video attached.

We have no intention of chucking the video category, as diehards continue to demand. But I must admit that after liking almost every title the voters picked in ’83 and ’84 I find many of the latest winners appalling. Although 1985 was the year I got cable, it was also the year I gave up nightclubs for morning feedings, and since I rarely remembered to turn MTV on with the sound off like some of my canny co-workers, I saw fewer videos than ever last year. So I missed both Heads clips and barely remember the Petty or Eurythmics. But except for “Sun City” and the perhaps overvisual minimalist tour de force “Cry,” it seems to me that the main thing the others have in common is money — for nothing, just as the diehards claim. The idea of the video list is to lay a little rock and roll anti-bullshit — the low-budget spirit and simple pop smarts you see in some current documentary montage, for instance — on a medium designed to dazzle and overwhelm the unwary sensorium. But in this vote I detect instead the exact mood of luxurious passivity that those who finance these promos hope to induce in potential consumers.

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos — the top one. I don’t want to make too much of “Sun City,” a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it’s significant that amid all this year’s corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down — Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn’t jam. In a year paved with good intentions, “Sun City” was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but “Sun City” brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It’s not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song’s album votes exemplify what J. D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the “tendency to value ‘significance’ over listening pleasure.” Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak’s comment is just as apropos: “Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll.” Litwak doesn’t bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That’s what I love about rock critics.

Pazz & Joppers do a lot of dishing — the one-upmanship can get pretty vicious. I’ve formed negative impressions of my own over the years — some of these people I’ve never met strike me as thoughtless or conventional or complacent or naive, narrow-minded or status-conscious or overly earnest or pigheadedly one-dimensional, a little pretentious or a little dumb or just plain out of it. But others strike me as so smart they can fool themselves about just how superior their smarts make them. If more democracy is one thing we’re in this for, then it had better extend to ourselves. Within certain broad limits I accept and respect the critics’ tastes, which means I believe just about every one of the 535 albums they placed in their cumulative top 10 has some genuine pleasure in it. A few of the more dubious pleasures may actively contribute to our general benightedness, but most occasion sins of critical oversight at worst, and some approach a kind of creative misreading — who knows, maybe “I Want To Know What Love Is” is a great piece of music after all. And except within very narrow limits it’s an idealist fallacy (a cynic’s idealist fallacy) to blame the malfeasances of the culture industry on the venality of critics, a venality that when it’s not completely imaginary — Pazz & Joppers may conceivably concoct their ballots to impress the Poobahs, but not to impress the record companies, who’ll never see one per cent of them — is often pretty much inevitable. A world in which critics preferred Fear and Whiskey to Little Creatures and Centerfield probably wouldn’t be a world in which the Mekons felt compelled to make Fear and Whiskey.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

In a once-removed version of Chuck Eddy’s Marsh-versus-Albini dichotomy (which see), disaffected critics explain why their mainstream colleagues like what they like with two less than harmonious theories: the same poor daily peon or free-lance moonlighter can be castigated as an arty, trend-hopping elitist from one side and a craven, trend-hopping shill from the other. As Eddy points out, the worst thing about the Marsh position is that it has a chilling effect on musical movement — without a few elitists there’d never have been an X or Pere Ubu, which to his shame would suit Marsh fine, or a PIL or Talking Heads, which wouldn’t. Yet though I too suspect that many voters could afford to stretch their tastes some, it’s willful to dismiss the music they like as reactionary. You don’t have to be a fan of our top five albums, all but Tim by artists who’ve always worked for major labels, to admit that rather than proving the biz an inhuman monolith they’re evidence of genuine and not necessarily riskless pluralism — within certain frustrating parameters, of course. The basic issue is one’s tolerance for repressive tolerance. Is it ever (where have we seen this word before?) safe, not to mention fun, to allow oneself to be “manipulated” by the pleasure merchants? Is the compulsion to great refusals a virtue, a neurosis, a mark of oppression, or some combination of the three?

If I’m defending the critics after castigating them myself in the past, it’s because in this depressing year I feel bonds with them. Especially when it comes to those pushing and past 30, rock and roll itself is one bond — and as far as I’m concerned, great refuser Richard Gehr of Spin betrays his bad faith when he complains that “we’re getting too old for this crap.” But there’s also a bond of politics. The Pazz & Jop sample is skewed — presumably, some critics who find the Voice distastefully goody-goody don’t participate. But I can’t imagine a comparably representative panel of movie or book reviewers displaying the same antiestablishment instincts — film critics are too embroiled in the culture industry’s megabuck economy, book critics too embroiled in literary “standards.” I use the dated term “antiestablishment” deliberately, because these instincts are a legacy of the ’60s vision of rock as counter-culture, a vision the music of the ’60s never bore out all that specifically. That’s changed. Needless to say, specificity still isn’t a hallmark of these politics. On the music side it probably never will be, though two of 1985’s losses suggest other possibilities: Linton Kwesi Johnson, who quit performing after releasing a definitive live album that tied for 85th despite late availability, and D. Boon, who died — damn right tragically — around the post-Christmas release of 3-Way Tie for Last, which squeezed in at 40 this year and will certainly be on the chart again in 1986. No goody-goodies, these guys. The way both combined inquiring, tough-minded politics with inquiring, tough-minded music would have been inconceivable back when we were making do with Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald, and I hope we can expect more of the same, though I note regretfully that the leading candidates — Rubén Blades, perhaps Thomas Mapfumo — don’t sing in English. Even so, more than half this year’s Pazz & Jop albums are by artists who regard social commentary as a natural part of what they do. Not always for the best, either — Richard Thompson’s and John Fogerty’s politics are bathetic, Sting’s and Mark Knopfler’s smugly ironic. But the neoprimitivist orthodoxy in which the proper study of rock and roll is sex and drugs and rock and roll doesn’t cut it any more. Just as star-eyed bizzers were attracted to rock and roll’s potential as pure entertainment, left-wing rock critics were attracted to its democratic thrust, and now both tendencies have assumed trajectories of their own. Sometimes they rocket off in completely divergent directions, but sometimes they interweave again, as in sub-Springsteen Mellencamp, or Sade, whose high-gloss music hasn’t yet rubbed off on her socialist sympathies, or Blades with his unvanquishable crossover dreams.

It’s one job of the critic to figure out just what these inchoate messages mean. Since rock criticism often partakes of the same gawky naivete as the music, it’s easy to dismiss much of this analysis. You can even exploit a tack of Gehr’s and call it liberal, but despite the sentimental meliorism that pops up here and there that’s just name-calling. Liberalism is the quintessential goody-goody bullshit; the worst you could call most of our respondents is postliberal. They crave justice but don’t trust electoral politics and aren’t so sure about any other kind, which is why they like music that puts a higher premium on realism and spirit than it does on correctness. Speaking very generally, the pointed Sun City and the well-meaning if quite inchoate Scarecrow got a big push from Marsh’s Rock & Roll Confidential fans. The other albums in the top five kept their political distance. Especially on “Walk It Down,” Little Creatures puts Byrne’s willed optimism in a context of oppression and straitened opportunity; the Replacements’ project of liberation is still individualist in the time-honored youthcult tradition; Tom Waits has made identification with the downtrodden his signature and defines downtrodden more keenly all the time, but though he croaks out Brecht-Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” with the bitterness of a longtime partisan, his own songwriting distinguishes him perhaps too sharply from Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald.

Take all this for what it’s worth — in a flat year, it’s a mistake to attribute too much significance to the critics’ choices, or one’s own. Waits’s rise is partly a tribute to 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, and Kate Bush’s sudden prominence as women’s hero also has a cumulative look. Though I love the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Ramones-Pistols fusion and credit the Golden Palominos’ early-’70s revisionism, I don’t expect either to change the world, and even if they do I think this year’s historical consciousness — which also includes Hank Williams’s Just Me and My Guitar at 42nd — will be around for a while. And yes, England has definitely made a rock and roll comeback, even on my list. Then again, my list includes five country albums, a meaningless aberration — could well go right back down to zero next time. A more meaningful statistic is the five albums from 1984. Getting a bead on the simple present becomes more impossible all the time.

I would like to say something about my number one album, which at 26 also qualifies as cult record of the year. The Mekons are an inchoate bunch of political punks out of the same Leeds scene that produced those pathetic biz casualties the Gang of Four. People like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus have been hyping them for years, but not until now have they made an album professional enough to suit my notoriously fussy standards. Cheaply recorded, immersed in American roots that sound wishful now when invoked over here, Fear and Whiskey reminds me of nothing so much as my favorite album of 1976, Have Moicy!, in which a loose alliance of old folkies headed by Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks demonstrated how aging bohemian rebels get by and have a good time. But where Have Moicy!’s old hippies live outside the law at worst, the Mekons are up against it: shot at, hunted down, interrogated. Needless to say, they don’t have as good a time as the Have Moicy! crowd, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. A difference that sums up a bad decade pretty suggestively, I think.

And if 1985 equals 1976, can 1977 be far behind? What do you take me for, some mystic? All I can say for sure is that it’s not as bad as all that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1985

1. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire)

2. The Replacements: Tim (Sire)

3. John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva)

4. Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island)

5. Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City (Manhattan)

6. Hüsker Dü: Flip Your Wig (SST)

7. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.)

8. Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising (SST)

9. Aretha Franklin: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (Arista)

10. John Fogerty: Centerfield (Warner Bros.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1985

1. Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (Manhattan)

2. Aretha Franklin: “Freeway of Love” (Arista)

3. John Fogerty: “The Old Man Down the Road”/”Big Train (From Memphis)” (Warner Bros.)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Makes No Sense at All”/”Love Is All Around” (SST)

5. Ramones: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (Beggars Banquet import)

6. Don Henley: “The Boys of Summer”/”A Month of Sundays” (Geffen)

7. Eurythmics: “Would I Lie to You?” (RCA Victor)

8. Lisa-Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (Columbia)

9. Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew: “The Show”/”La-Di-Da-Di” (Reality)

10. Kate Bush: “Running Up That Hill” (EMI America)

—From the February 18, 1986, 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).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692491″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692489″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692487″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692485″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

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)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

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 Datebook Events MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bob Mould

With the release of his brutally honest autobiographical tour de force See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody in 2011, Bob Mould—legendary noise-pop architect behind Amerindie rock gods Hüsker Dü and alt-pop gurus Sugar, as well as ventures under his own name—experienced the ultimate liberation. Following a string of underwhelming solo slabs, Mould’s revealing memoir propelled him deep into another anthemic post-punk stratosphere conjuring the vintage Hüsker and Sugar years. Mould’s tenure with Merge Records has produced a pair of insanely inspired and melodious buzzsaw sonic epics (2012’s Silver Age and the recent Beauty and Ruin) and for these shows, he and his killer band—Jason Narducy (ex-Verbow) and Jon Wurster (Superchunk)—will rip through a wealth of tunes from his seminal catalog.

Wed., Sept. 10, 9 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 11, 9 p.m., 2014

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bob Mould

With the release of his brutally honest autobiographical tour de force See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody in 2011, Bob Mould—legendary noise-pop architect behind Amerindie rock gods Hüsker Dü and alt-pop gurus Sugar, as well as ventures under his own name—experienced the ultimate liberation. Following a string of underwhelming solo slabs, Mould’s revealing memoir propelled him deep into another anthemic post-punk stratosphere conjuring the vintage Hüsker and Sugar years. Mould’s tenure with Merge Records has produced a pair of insanely inspired and melodious buzzsaw sonic epics (2012’s Silver Age and the recent Beauty and Ruin) and for these shows, he and his killer band—Jason Narducy (ex-Verbow) and Jon Wurster (Superchunk)—will rip through a wealth of tunes from his seminal catalog.

Sat., Sept. 13, 9 p.m., 2014

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Torche

Musically, Torche sound like the legitimate sons of a union between Hüsker Dü and the Melvins, welding sleek, hummable, poppy hooks to hairy, bass-heavy sludge-rock riffs. Their latest album, Harmonicraft, is the sharpest snapshot of their brand of alt-metal, which can best be described as an unusually bubbly take on hard rock that has to be heard to be understood. Or maybe Harmonicraft’s cover art captures it best: Cute, round dragons puke rainbows on meaner, darker dragons who expectorate lightning bolts. They sound kinda like that.

Sat., March 2, 8 p.m., 2013

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bob Mould

Shortly after entering his own silver age (or maybe just the age of silver hair), 52 year-old Hüsker Düde Bob Mould returned to his hard-edged alt-rock rööts last year with the soaring, guitar-driven Silver Age. After years of albums that dabbled with electronics and (more surprising) Auto-Tune, the singer is applying his acidic vocals to an appropriate setting. Better yet, his concerts—including this one&$151;find him singing not just songs from Silver Age, but also dipping back into his Hüsker Dü and Sugar catalogs.

Tue., Feb. 26, 9 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 27, 9 p.m., 2013

Categories
Bars CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events FOOD ARCHIVES Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bob Mould

Three-quarters of a year after the publication of his memoir, See a Little Light, Bob Mould returns to New York as part of a tour that sees the alt-rock icon taking on a number of different roles: For his appearance at City Winery, he’ll be playing a solo set, the type of thing which in the past has featured music that has spanned his works with Hüsker Dü, Sugar, and beyond. On Friday, he’ll be doing a DJ set in tandem with Richard Morel (together referring to themselves as Blowoff) where they’ll play indie rock, electro, and house. Chances are, he won’t be taking requests at either.

Thu., Feb. 9, 8 p.m., 2012

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Bob Mould+Lenny Kaye

Quite a pairing. The headliner will be performing alone and he’ll dig into his back pages, throwing in some Husker Du and Sugar songs into the mix (which should be interesting to hear in this context). As for Mr. Kaye, he brings along his encyclopedic knowledge of music to his solo sets, including everything from garage band faves to crooner classics–and maybe even a Patti Smith favorite, too.

Thu., Nov. 4, 9 p.m., 2010

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

‘Blowoff’

Last year, Bob Mould released Life and Times, a solo record full of loud electric guitars, and recruited No Age to help blast through a set of Hüsker Dü songs at All Tomorrow’s Parties. Mould’s hardly lost his taste for dance beats, though, as he’ll no doubt demonstrate in tonight’s set by Blowoff, his D.C.-based DJ duo with Rich Morel.

Fri., June 25, 11:30 p.m., 2010