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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop Comments: It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Popular music, at its top-dollar best, is either music to drive to or music to grill to; at its bestest best, it’s both. By my reckoning, track by track, the Carters’ Everything Is Love record is for: grilling, driving, driving, grilling, driving, grilling, grilling, driving, grilling. “Music has my kids sound asleep” might not be a lyric that will appeal to many, but it did to me as the year hit its crescendo, the hills on fire on every corner of America’s 8 1/2 by 11, the sky turning peach. “Summer’s light like summer’s night/It’s like Christ’s masterpiece” indeed.
— Daniel Brockman

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https://youtu.be/syi60tUIP48

On Room 25, Noname delivered on a sophomore album with a lot more dizzying raps than her first. It’s almost like she heard the masses talkin’ shit about her skills and went wild on this record. Who else’s pussy is writing a thesis on colonialism?
— Tirhakah Love

Not enough can be said about the weight of this genre-welding meeting of titanic Texas forces: On “Gone Away,” Bun B writes what is, in all likelihood, his final letter to UGK bandmate Pimp C, but does it in a way that’s broad enough to be applied to any lost kin; Leon Bridges delivers a somber and vulnerable hook, and Gary Clark Jr. cleans up with a solo reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” They’re truly the Texas triumvirate, and it’s a wonder we aren’t talking about the magnitude of this collaboration more as a culture. What’s better, it all takes place over a beat cooked up by Big K.R.I.T., whose beats have, in the wake of Pimp C’s death, given Bun’s delivery an unmatched comfort and ease. Put this one right up there with UGK’s own “One Day” in the canon of Southern rap eulogies.
Sama’an Ashrawi

Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired ByNo mere album can live up to the cultural impact of this extremely ambitious comic book movie, but it’s a great companion piece nonetheless.
— Carol Cooper

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A rundown of personal and social horrors that’s less frantic but also far less calculated than the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” Lil Peep’s Life Is Beautiful is far more devastating. “Tryin’ to keep your cool at your grandfather’s funeral/Finding out eventually the feeling wasn’t mutual/You were not invited ’cause you’re nothing like the usual” — damn, that’s bleak. And it cuts much harder than the “My girlfriend left me so I’m depressed and I’m gonna take lots of drugs to cope” lyrics Lil Peep specialized in, as sincere as they clearly were.
— Steve Erickson

Travis Scott’s world domination is more than just a crowning achievement for an artist who’s long been a critical darling, but it’s a clear statement that the South, and especially Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, has got something to say.

Drenched in Houston’s legend’s sweat, Astroworld is a referendum on hip-hop as a genre and an art form. The album is slowed down, tripped out, and bombastic, as Scott liberally references Houston’s past as a hip-hop hotbed while pushing it past its Screwston reputation. Astroworld feels both futuristic and classic at the same time, and that’s something only Kendrick Lamar has been able to accomplish in the last half-decade.

But there will be no Nobel Prize for Astroworld. No Taylor Swift collabs, no Marvel soundtracks. It’s all just too druggy. Too street. Too Southern. Too real. 

And maybe that’s how it should be. But, one thing is for sure, Travis Scott’s moment is now, and he’s going to run with it straight to the Super Bowl halftime show, and he’s going to keep running with it till someone comes to take it from him.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon

By my count, Kids See Ghosts is the seventh time Kanye has made the best album of the year. But it’s no accident that this isn’t the 2018 record he put his name on, or that he needed a co-host to pull it off, or that it’s impossible to remember a single word he says throughout  —  which, thank God.
Nick Farruggia

Drake, “In My Feelings”: Only in 2018 Atlanta could I drive crosstown from berating a Bush speechwriter in a Roman Catholic sanctuary to Aubrey & the Three Migos at State Farm Arena preaching a center-right message of Maya Angelou vibes featuring Future, Young Jeezy, and Trey Songz. Did it for the culture. But you can imagine compassionate conservative Michael Gerson kicking himself for not writing “I wanna thank God for working way harder than Satan.” Elevate.

The next morning I returned to work, where a sickle cell anemia patient almost hemolyzed to death. 2018!
— Maureen Miller

With Cardi B’s “Bickenhead,” nasty hos from across the globe finally get the anthem they so righteously deserve.
— Jessica Hopper

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The day Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” dropped was unforgettable. I listened as it rolled out on Funk Flex (the first major terrestrial radio event in a while!), and he kept stopping at every new bar, overwhelmed, and then he would replay it from the beginning. I remember wanting him to get through the whole song, but this approach made sense — it’s a lot to take in. An unbelievable achievement in diss tracks, and Pusha’s best work this year.
Evan Minsker

Childish Gambino, “This Is America”: Donald Glover’s incantatory recitation would work without visuals, but Hiro Murai’s video represents America in 2018 as acutely as the newsreel footage in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Utterly unnerving.
— Kathy Fennessy

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I like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” but Earl Sweatshirt’s “December 24” gets the Gil-Scott Heron “Winter in America” mood more right than anything else I came across this year. (Which, my annual disclaimer, amounts to 1 percent of 1 percent of whatever hip-hop was out there in 2018.) It must be my shortest number one ever at 1:46 — I wish it went on for another 7 or 8 minutes. At the risk of sounding white-guy stupid, where does the opening genuine-dialect quote come from? I’ve Googled it, looked up the album credits, nothing. The significance of December 24 escapes me, too, but it feels right: aspirations, a plan, something that came up just short. Quote I came across in a Goon Sax interview: “Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through.”
— Phil Dellio

The Carters, “Apeshit”In perhaps pop culture’s Blackest year — Black Panther, Kendrick’s Pulitzer, and Beyoncé’s own history-making Coachella set, for starters — Black America’s reigning monarchs deliver a worthy soundtrack.
— Trevor Anderson

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

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

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

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

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

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

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

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

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

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

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

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

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

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

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

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

2001 Pazz & Jop: Not Just Your Old Man’s Takeover

Want to know something else that happened September 11? Sure you do. The Voice’s since-downsized Web radio station first “aired” a show we’d recorded five days earlier to coincide with the release of what I’d dubbed, without the slightest originality or hesitation, “Album of the Year”: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft.” Less than two plays into my late-August advance, as the debut “single” “Po’ Boy” came up again at track 10, I’d become convinced Dylan would win the 28th or 29th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Songful, funny, rocking, pro-life, it was to his runaway 1997 winner Time Out of Mind as, say, PJ Harvey’s Stories of the City was to Is This Desire? Moreover, there was no competition — no Stankonia, no Car Wheels, no Miseducation, not even a Play or 69 Love Songs. Before it had moved copy one, it was a bigger shoo-in than “Get Ur Freak On.”

So please, enough with the dumb idea that the world-gone-wrong events of “Love and Theft” ’s release date induced critics to overvalue a putatively prophetic album. “Love and Theft” was always going to win big, and it did — by most measures, bigger than any album in poll history. How did I know this? Because there is such a thing as aesthetic quality, and on “Love and Theft” it runneth over. Whatever guff musos put out about Dylan’s crack road band, this quality is overwhelmingly verbal. The old-school licks and phrasing would mean bubkes if they didn’t set off and flesh out his best lyrics since whenever. Like the Avalanches, Dylan loves sampling, which modernists called collage. He just takes different liberties with higher-grade readymades — folk, pop, and literary word-bits and music-bits reassembled into something unprecedented that would mean much less if it wasn’t also trad. It’s an old man’s record, absolutely. The old man is ready for death yet still feeling his oats. He fears apocalypse less now that his end is nearer. He thinks this is a hoot. The funnier it seems, the madder he gets about apocalypse. But the fear, somehow, is gone. And as you listen, so is yours.

If this achievement doesn’t move you, that’s your privilege. But I have no patience with claims that it just isn’t there, especially combined with mealymouthed remembrances of Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. Never one who ran on Dylan time, I’ve had a lot of fun making such comparisons lately, and gee, Blood on the Tracks did sound grand. Bringing It All Back Home, too. But song for song, joke for joke, vision for vision, risk for dare, their superiority to this year’s winner seemed marginal. Other favorites — Freewheelin’, New Morning, The Basement Tapes — merely held their own. And I was surprised to find that from the unyielding contempt of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the world-weary wind of “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 sounded a little too punk for its own good. I preferred the old man.

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Which old man, it is relevant to note, is only a year older than the one who’s writing his 28th or 29th Pazz & Jop disquisition. At two months shy of 60, I’m very nearly the oldest voter reporting. So maybe I’m just prejudiced, right? Statistically, there’s something to this. With the majority of the record 622 respondents declining to supply demographic info, I didn’t know most ages. But after a lot of e-mailing to my A–C folder and some careful guesswork with D–G, I estimated that where Dylan’s supporters constituted 38 percent of the electorate, among critics 40 and over (about a third of the voters) he pulled 55 or 60 percent. This is a sharp tilt. Note, however, that Dylan still got the preponderance of his points from the under-40s who dominate the poll base, and note too that the gender tilt was steeper. If I’m reading first names right, only 19 women voted for Dylan. The next three finishers — the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes — were far behind Dylan’s 234 mentions at 158, 120, and 106, but all three attracted as many or more women. In an all-female Pazz & Jop, Mr. It Ain’t Me Babe, now d/b/a Mr. I Never Slept With Her Even Once (what, you think he’s Mr. Singing Love’s Praises With Sugar-Coated Rhymes?), would have had some competition.

In an under-40 poll, on the other hand, Dylan would still have won handily. If this doesn’t seem self-evident, that’s because you forgot that his competitors would lose out too. You think arthritis sufferers while away their buyouts listening solely to retrofitted bluegrass and Leonard Cohen. In fact, the Strokes, Björk, and the White Stripes got about a sixth of their mentions from 40-and-over lifers. If the callow had been as kind to older artists, Cohen, the youngest of whose 20 doddering supporters was 34, would have outrogered the turgid Tool. (41-50, as anyone who checks our highly searchable online list can determine: song-challenged Mary J. Blige, $180-list-and-too-dead-to-enjoy-it Charley Patton, 65-year-old Buddy Guy, Spoon’s career album if you call that a career, garage-punk Brits Clinic, Rick Yorn’s brother, emo-punk Brits Idlewild, Madonna’s brother-in-law, the Ben Folds One, and 67-year-old Cohen.) In fact, the rest of the top 40 is anything but old-guard. In our 2000 top 20 alone loomed 40-and-over perennials U2, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, Madonna, and Steely Dan, plus late bloomer Aimee Mann, with more below. After Dylan, the only senior citizens in the 2001 top 20 are ninth-place Lucinda Williams and, out of nowhere or everywhere, 40-year-old world-ska ambassador Manu Chao. Below find comeback-of-the-year New Order, Guided by Voices’ retarded Robert Pollard, and two more new old guys: country-rock vets Alejandro Escovedo and Rodney Crowell edging belatedly onto our list. On the cusp, weirdly, is the Pazz & Jop album debut of all-ages crusaders Fugazi, led by pushing-40 Ian MacKaye. (Note: Full classification of the Langley Schools Music Project had not been completed at press time.)

Instead we get a new generation of standard bearers. Beyond the Strokes and the White Stripes, there’s a good complement of striplings: well-groomed ingenue Alicia Keys, sampledelic cheeze whizzes the Avalanches, serious-as-art-rock Cannibal Ox, cunningly childish Moldy Peaches. But no fewer than nine finishers fall into a remarkably narrow grouping of 30-ish professionals (the youngest 29, the oldest 33) hitting our chart for the second or third time: Jay-Z, Basement Jaxx, Gillian Welch, the New Pornographers’ Neko Case, the Pernice Brothers, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Macy Gray, and the Old 97’s. Fold in slightly younger repeaters Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright, Gorillaz featuring 33-year-old Damon Albarn, and former bubbling-unders Weezer, the Coup, and Low scoring Pazz & Jop debuts with their third, fourth, and fifth albums (but exclude System of a Down and the dull Tool, both too old, not to mention arty in the wrong way), and you have a cohort coming into its own. I don’t love all these artists and neither do you. But I like most of them. And I do respect them all. They’re never crass or stupid, at least not at the same time. They’re trying for something.

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Gillian Welch and Daft Punk are about as different as semipopular musicians can be. One is a DIY trailblazer, the other shoots crap in the major-label casino; one fetishizes the authentic, the other the artificial. But though the authentic one may be a little less honest, she’s no less forthright about her immersion in craft. She has an idea of what the world is like and what kind of music ought to sound good there, and she commands skills to match, which she’s sharpening. Welch says that while she and David Rawlings remain an acoustic duo, her self-released Time (The Revelator), which came in 14th (previous finishes: 23 and 33), comprises “really tiny rock songs” rather than her patented Appalachian simulations. And damned if she isn’t telling some kind of truth — it’s considerably less studied, austere, and sanctimonious-by-omission. Daft Punk are two ironic-mais-oui French DJs who pushed Homework onto the bottom of our 1997 top 40 behind an ingratiatingly clever synth-funk dance novelty (and 25th-place P&J single) self-referentially entitled “Da Funk.” Going all-out for airplay, which in dance music is as big a statement as Elvis citations are in folk music, they led the 25th-place Discovery with an irritatingly catchy synth-voice pop novelty (and 13th-place P&J single) imperatively entitled “One More Time.” Their faux pop became actual pop.

Me, I blame Welch for the O! Brother Old-Timey Strip Mine and refer privately to Daft Punk’s hit as “Please, Not Again.” Both artists pursue an aesthetic so ideologically that it narrows their music. But both deserve props just for having a vision, and though others in their cohort may be less self-conscious about it, so do they. Moreover, all have shown an ability to improve on whatever it is they do — which, because critics don’t just pump fave styles but signs of progress, attracts voters who happen to like that thing. An audacious pop album is some kind of wonder whether it sells at Jay-Z or Basement Jaxx or Old 97’s or New Pornographers or Pernices levels, while a competent one is a bit of a bore. Compare the shortfalls of marginal cohort candidates (many miss the 29-33 demo) Folds at 46th, Mercury Rev at 59th, Le Tigre at 77th, Maxwell at 87th, Garbage at 95th, Travis at 98th, Built to Spill at 118th, and (run out of town, the hussy) Shelby Lynne down at 142nd, all of whom — except for Le Tigre, who tried to piggyback more politics onto their vogue and got spanked for it — spun their wheels trying to assure their market share or drove off the road trying to expand it. And note that all of these, Le Tigre once again excepted, got twisted up playing by major-label rules.

The cohort is bedrock, a respectable foundation of artists with a future — some pop and some semipop, some quarterpop and some less. In 2002, it’ll get bigger. But its members aren’t about to change history. So towering over the entire 2001 list is the only genius in sight. With PJ Harvey and OutKast sitting out, Neil Young laying low, U2 at the Super Bowl, and R.E.M. 51st, well — achievementwise, statuswise, who’s even close? Lucinda Williams, maybe. Beatmaster to the stars Timbaland if he keeps it up for 10 years — although, lyrically, James Brown is James Weldon Johnson by comparison, Jay-Z Shakespeare. Speaking of whom, nominating Jigga is carrying this black-male-pride bit perilously close to Clarence Thomas territory, and da judge just signed an injunction to keep him out. Other observers tender faith in some promising pup or other, but though Ryan Adams, Alicia Keys, and/or Rufus Wainwright might have the stuff to take it to the next level, the conceptual effort alone would put them in mortal danger, a risk Adams kisses on the tuchis every time he opens his yap. As for the world’s greatest rock band, fifth-place Radiohead, they made the world’s greatest rock album in 1997 and it didn’t even beat Time Out of Mind. You want a credible challenge to Dylan’s hegemony-that-isn’t, your only resort is the most distant runners-up in poll history — two young bands and one 36-year-old perennial.

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Like everybody but our results page, I think the White Stripes made a better record than the Strokes. But not so’s they earned a free ride, and not so’s the Strokes deserve the drubbing they get for…what? For being white male guitar-bearing counterparts of Alicia Keys and her not-quite-superb major-label album with a sound people were waiting for and looks to match. Like Keys, the Strokes give teenpop glamour a tough undercoat — the hip hop sass salting Keys’s sweet intonation, the punk static pebbling the Strokes’ repetitious rush — and get playa-hated for choosing triumphant accommodation over doomed combat. The various ripoff charges are beyond silly; obviously the Strokes are working a tradition, and just as obviously they sound like no one but themselves. In this they resemble the former blues duo that came in fourth. Both bands end up far from their “roots,” and both are sonically thin by design — much thinner than Dylan’s guys recycling singer-with-backup riffs that coalesce as you listen up. As in much lo-fi, this thinness is a raised finger – guitars matter so much, it says, that we’re reducing them to an ugly essence. But it also begs out of any competition with the big guys. And it provides both with a ready path to progress. Soon the Strokes will shit-can their megaphone and try to think of something to say; soon the White Stripes will send their bills to V2 while continuing to unfold new wrinkles in human relations in 100 words or less.

Some believe Is This It and White Blood Cells represent an alt-rock rebirth, which would be nice. Unless you count materialistic old Spiritualized, the guitar-based hopefuls our college-radio types are always singling out number only three this year, and all are so specialized they make my teeth hurt: slowcore cohort candidates Low, Elephant 6 surrogates the Shins, and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who remind me less of the Jesus and Mary Chain than of the Screaming Blue Messiahs, another dark, catchy garage band whose enduring historical value is as a Pazz & Jop trivia question. B.R.M.C. are traditionalists like our runners-up, with commitment where they have spark. Low and the Shins are eccentrics. You can say that’s good — they defy sociology, ignore category, assert identity, blah blah blah. But that leaves me free to opine that, like Steely Dan’s showbiz kids, they don’t give a fuck about anybody else — and that, partly for that reason and partly because they play too slow, I don’t give a fuck about them either. Culturally as well as musically, they don’t make enough noise. The Strokes and the Stripes, antithetical though their outreach strategies are, both mean to resonate.

Still, Nirvana is so 1991, and guitar bands have long been and will long remain one option among many. Take as a sign our surprise No. 3, who slowly and eccentrically brought off as unmoored an album, groovewise, as has ever hit our chart. Every year I scoff at the shortfall of “techno”/”electronica”/”post-rock,” but in 2001 the Swan Girl of the Oscars helped turn it into a mainstream critical taste — as an option, not the future. Vespertine is oceanic, impressionistic, classically influenced — the kind of album I can’t stand. But its clicks and tinkles and desultory eroticism won me over, perhaps because Björk, like Tyorke, is better off outside the box of rock songform. Desultory to less pleasurable purpose were Björk’s countrymen Sigur Rós, recurring like that dream where you forgot your homework. The rest of our electronica finishers, however, took rock songform as a puzzle to be solved, with the top-20 Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, and Avalanches the payoff. Pomo’s answer to the Archies were our first virtual finishers, and (just like Blur) took hooks too much for granted. Basement Jaxx’s insanely catchy Rooty knew better. But Australia’s Avalanches scored the breakthrough — the long-promised new-songs-from-old-songs trick, in which untrackable samples are stitched together until they mesh into compelling music that never existed before. Unfortunately, the music in question is string-section disco.

Pazz & Jop dance albums are something of a contradiction in terms. The album aesthetics we calibrate, high on lyrics and hard on filler, are a rock thing — dance is the realm of the single and the mix. In 2000, we expanded our singles tally partly in hopes that a few club records would slip in. But it hasn’t worked. Although the old irritation of fave album cuts (which as a DJ I got to declare singles myself in 2001) is down to Stephen Malkmus’s “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” the now pervasive pop-versus-rock polarity — featuring dance-pop, teen-pop, rap-pop, r&b-pop, the inevitable rock-pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop — isn’t much better. I’m always pleased to see African Americans up top — Keys’s fourth-place “Fallin’ ” and Jay-Z’s third-place “Izzo” swamped by the most dominant single of our computerized era, “Get Ur Freak On.” Missy Elliott’s Timbaland tabla was a world-beat coup rivaling Manu Chao’s in a year that cried out for more of them (Cachaito and Rachid Taha, 55th and 71st, were top 10 for me, and Manteca’s Franco comp would have headed my list if it had seemed fair to put 30 years of genius up against one). But on Elliott’s good but flawed album — as on Destiny’s Child’s, Mary J. Blige’s, Blu Cantrell’s, and Craig David’s — I found songs trickier and deeper than the smash. Bidding to “penetrate pop culture,” in Jay-Z’s words, these r&b artists actually do what antipop ascetics rail against so automatically. They strive for acceptability by sacrificing idiosyncrasy and reiterating clichés, and so evade an essential part of the pop challenge. This tactic can get you great ear candy. But in today’s corporate environment it’s become compulsory.

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A vivid example is the penetrating perpetrator of the hip hop album of the year. The main reason we never get enough hip hop voters is that they don’t need us — why should the alpha dogs worry about propelling late-released Ghostface Killah (91st) and De La Soul (54th) past Low and the Shins? I don’t think The Blueprint got shortchanged as a result, though. As ear candy and public fact it has serious charms, and who can resist a line like “Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs”? But its cavalcade of hooks is smarmy and proud — a Puffy album with flow and gangsta cred (attention NYPD: “Still fuckin’ with crime ’cause crime pays” may hold up in court!). Compare the edgy samples and ’tude of 1999’s Vol. 3 and it’s like pitting Nelson Riddle’s Sinatra against the Don Costa version. As the most accessible hip hop album since Mama Said Knock You Out, The Blueprint sure beats The Chronic, but it bodes ill for the genre’s mainstream — countless wannabes will try to duplicate Jigga’s formula, and none will succeed. The underground, leached by the usual puritanism and fertile anyway, has more jam, with the complication that it now nurtures as many up-and-coming white artists as black. Another hope is that some bud among the profusion of r&b also-rans, many of them debuts — down to 100, Bilal, India.Arie, Don Costa’s girl Nikka, Res, Angie Stone, and Maxwell — will develop material nobody can deny. Final respects to 73rd-place Aaliyah, who died proving it was possible.

I’m grateful I can care, and grateful too that Aaliyah, whose garish funeral was one of many media phenomena that seemed to grow more grotesque after the WTC carnage, can now accrue dignity on the strength of a good album. This was a shitty year before it got so much shittier, and one way it was shitty was that it was subpar musically. I don’t have much doomsayer in me, and my basic belief is that in my lifetime a musical economy has been created that nothing can destroy. Good music has become such a spiritual necessity that no amount of corporate brutality can prevent people from producing, distributing, and consuming it. Nevertheless, I note that the Dean’s List, my annual catalog of recommended albums, shrank markedly in 2001, falling below 80 for the first time since 1997. Maybe it’s because for two weeks there I didn’t listen much — one more productivity hit. Or maybe the doomsayers are right, and fewer talents and lucky stiffs can afford the indie/DIY career option, which accounted for 15 or so of the voters’ top 40 albums and two thirds of the Dean’s List. That a cohort has learned to work around the moneychangers doesn’t mean we should thank capital for providing the opportunity.

The only finisher to confront this fact rather than allude to it was an overachiever on the scale of Vespertine. Ignoring its withdrawn WTC-bombing cover with the ingrained impiety that makes rock critics the permanent no-accounts of cultural journalism, the voters awarded eighth place to the Coup’s Party Music, which in its endless verbal dexterity and revitalization of an old-fashioned groove resembled “Love and Theft” more than anything Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch will ever record. There’s a lot of bluff on this record, and some bullshit too, though less than in most Dylan. But people know it — at S.O.B.’s in November, Boots Riley’s unsubstantiated claims that we were murdering babies in Afghanistan were far less warmly received than the off-kilter funk of his assaults on the rich and the racist. Riley is one of the few artists in rock’s whole history to make effective music out of the inhumanity of capital. It’s poetic that he got respect for it in the year that reminded or convinced many of us that other brands of inhumanity are probably even worse. One nuclear bomb they’re gonna blow it all away, as the New York Dolls once told us on Mercury’s dime. But every time we struggle for better music, and all of us do, we’re reminded that we have no business letting capital be.

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Top 10 Albums of 2001

1. Bob Dylan: “Love and Theft” (Columbia)

2. The Strokes: Is This It (RCA)

3. Björk: Vespertine (Elektra)

4. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

5. Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol)

6. Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway)

7. Jay-Z: The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella)

8. The Coup: Party Music (75 Ark)

9. Lucinda Williams: Essence (Lost Highway)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Poses (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 2001

1. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “Get Ur Freak On” (The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra)

2. Gorillaz: “Clint Eastwood” (Virgin)

3. Jay-Z: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (Roc-A-Fella)

4. Alicia Keys: “Fallin’ ” (J)

5. (Tie) Coldplay: “Yellow” (Nettwerk America)
Pink: “Get the Party Started” (Arista)

7. Eve featuring Gwen Stefani: “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (Interscope)

8. Mary J. Blige: “Family Affair” (MCA)

9. Weezer: “Hash Pipe” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ryan Adams: “New York, New York” (Lost Highway)
Daft Punk: “One More Time” (Virgin)

—From the February 19, 2002, issue

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

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

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

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

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

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

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

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

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

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

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

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

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

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

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

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, issue

 

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

 

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Five Years In, Hearing the Voices of Black Lives Matter

It’s been five years since the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin to death in Sanford, Florida, an event that led Oakland-based activist Alicia Garza to write on Facebook, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a Los Angeles community organizer, replied to Garza’s post with “#BlackLivesMatter”; soon, the two women (along with community organizer Opal Tometi) would lay the groundwork for what would become the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

What came next is documented in a series of new books marking the anniversary, as well as a TV documentary series on Martin that airs on the Paramount Network starting tonight. Following Martin’s death, young people and activists around the country who had been watching the Zimmerman trial with bated breath took to social media as a tool for both witnessing and coping.

The first of this year’s memoirs of the movement is the beautiful When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, written by Khan-Cullors and asha bandele and published in January. It’s a passionate testimonial about the possibility of transforming tragedy and mourning into a global force for change — “In New York, in the wake of the acquittal, Opal helps organize a major march across the Brooklyn Bridge that culminates in a 1,000-person sit-in in Times Square, the crossroads of the world” — and a document of the trauma and heartbreak so many Black communities experience from the unaccountable violence that claims the lives of Black people.

“In Oakland, Alicia leads protesters through the downtown business area, where they are set upon by police,” Khan-Cullors writes. At the same time, in Los Angeles, “working primarily with women … I begin planning what will become the largest march I’ve ever planned up until that point.” From the start, their goal is clear: “We are firm in our conviction that our lives matter by virtue of our birth, and by virtue of the service we have offered to people, systems and structures that did not love, respect or honor us. And while we are cultivating this idea in our respective meetings and our respective teams, we, Alicia, Opal and I, do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire.”

In the first year of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Khan-Cullors writes, “we are able to talk about the horrifics as they roll out with regularity. We hashtag names again and again.” After Martin comes Renisha McBride, 19, shot by Theodore Wafer in Dearborn, Michigan, when she knocks on his door to ask for help after getting in a car accident. John Crawford, 22, is shot and killed by an off-duty police officer for picking up a toy gun in an Ohio Walmart, four days before Michael Brown is killed in Ferguson.

As time marches on, the deaths and the hashtags continue to pile up.

***

“They say that time heals all wounds. It does not,” observes Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. “Had the tragedy not been so public, I probably would have taken more time to grieve, but I wasn’t given that type of privilege.”

The six-part documentary series, produced by Jay-Z and the Cinemart, begins and ends as it should, with the murdered seventeen-year-old’s parents. Over the course of subsequent episodes, the audience hears a series of 911 calls from Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the aspiring police officer who became neighborhood watch captain in his previously exclusive gated community in part to live out a racist vigilante fantasy.

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Rest in Power establishes a pattern of behavior from Zimmerman: He calls the cops so frequently on Black children who moved to his neighborhood after the 2008 economic crisis that dispatchers know his voice and refer to him by his first name.  Yet, as the series documents, it still took more than forty days, not to mention the intervention of media-savvy civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, for Zimmerman to be arrested and charged with Martin’s fatal shooting, and to get the killing reported in context by the media.

Martin’s death was the first real major convergence of race and policing in President Barack Obama’s presidency after the euphoria of post-racial liberalism had worn off. In Rest in Power, we see Obama graying at a rapid pace, weary, saying that if he had a son, his son “would look like Trayvon.” He doubles down and says that, put another way, he could have been Trayvon Martin when he was younger. As author Mychal Denzel Smith puts it in an interview, it becomes clear that there will always be more Trayvon Martins than Barack Obamas.

Rest in Power captures this monumental moment in American resistance with moving detail, showing scenes from protests around the country. And forthcoming soon are some additional invaluable histories of this period that provide a broader picture of the modern articulation of Black protest and mobilization in response to racist and vigilante violence.

These books are particularly remarkable because all too often, the narratives of resistance that do exist are positioned as though cisgender heterosexual men have always been at the forefront. As these works demonstrate, Black women have been the unsung architects of many of these protest movements — and they have only recently started to get their due.

Indeed, as we see the signs of hate rising all around us today, it becomes clear that Black women tried to warn us. Khan-Cullors notes this in When They Call You a Terrorist, writing on how she and her co-founders of Black Lives Matter as a movement were nearly erased from early reporting: “Despite it being a part of the historical record that it is always women who do the work, even as men get the praise — it takes a long time for us to occur to most reporters in the mainstream. Living in patriarchy means that the default inclination is to center men and their voices, not women and their work.”

Of these new accounts, the broadest and most inclusive is Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century (University of California Press, August 17, 2018) by historian, writer, and activist Barbara Ransby, director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The noted biographer of Black Freedom Movement icon Ella Baker, Ransby traces the political origins of modern Black protest in the form of the broader Movement for Black Lives (of which the Black Lives Matter Global Network is a part) to the U.S.-based Black feminist tradition.

“Black women have been prominent in leadership and as spokespersons, and have insisted on being recognized as such,” Ransby writes. “The movement has also addressed the racism and violence experienced by the LGBTQIA communities. … New activists have encountered Black feminist terms and concepts like intersectionality in the context of struggle rather than simply through textbooks or in college classrooms.”

That is true both for how she situates the BLM founders in relation to Martin’s case and for how she writes about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed teen Michael Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. In a chapter dedicated to activism in Ferguson, Ransby profiles Black feminist organizers, including Darnell Moore, Kayla Reed, Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, and Jamala Rogers.

“When I suggest that the movement is a Black feminist-led movement, I am not asserting that there was no opposition and contestation over leadership, or that everyone involved subscribed to feminist views,” Ransby writes. “Nevertheless, when we listen carefully, we realize that the most coherent, consistent, and resolute political voices to emerge over the years since 2012 have been Black feminist voices, or Black feminist-influenced voices.”

Citing Moore writing about Ferguson activism for The Feminist Wire, Ransby quotes him writing, “‘Not all of the freedom fighters are Black men with masculine swag and pedigree. Not all of them are cisgender and straight and able-bodied. Some of us are women. Some of us are queer. Some of us are trans. Some of us are poor. Some of us are disabled. And, yet, all of us desire the same: an end to anti-black policies, practices, and ideologies.’ These are the kinds of intersectional feminist politics that were injected into the protests in Ferguson.”

Perhaps because she is the historian with the longest, most mature lens, Ransby addresses the notion of political quilting, affectionately naming nearly every activist and leader who appears in the documentation related to Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives. “If Alicia Garza’s initial Facebook post in 2013 was a love letter to Black people, this epilogue is a love letter to the organizers in the Movement for Black Lives and a tribute to their increasingly expansive vision,” she writes, after a meticulous accounting that includes groups like the Black Radical Congress, the Dream Defenders, and the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100).

Charlene A. Carruthers, one of the Black queer feminists highlighted in Ransby’s book, has written her own nontraditional memoir, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, which will be published in August by Beacon Press. Carruthers led grassroots and digital strategy for such organizations as the Women’s Media Center and Color of Change before co-founding BYP100 to organize Black youth nationally in alignment with principles created by its membership. Her book recounts her efforts to lead a grassroots movement in the social media era. But she does not flinch from portraying the petty internal divisions that can disrupt individuals and organizations, and why they need to be reconciled.

Paying homage to elders and historical figures like Ella Baker and Ransby is an important part of learning how to develop as a leader, Carruthers writes. But there is more. “People have to feel the possibility of liberation,” she adds. “History and today’s movement teach us that Black folks have held the line of resistance for centuries. Resistance is not new, yet today’s realities require the movement to push its growing edges, tell more complete stories, and construct more complete solutions.”

***

In many of these accounts, the work Garza, Khan-Cullors, and Tometi began in 2013 is referred to as the spark that fueled the fire that would rage after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson the following year. (Though Ransby and Khan-Cullors independently reiterate that the Black Lives Matter founders were not seeking attention or credit.) There is one notable exception: that of Baltimore-based activist DeRay Mckesson, who has written an otherwise riveting and affecting memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking, September 4).

Mckesson is a gifted, pointed storyteller. Describing his childhood with his great-grandmother — who raised him in the absence of his mother, Joan, who struggled with drug addiction and with whom he was reunited when he was older — Mckesson writes with astounding poetry, vulnerability, and flair. “When she died during my senior year in college,” he writes, “it felt like she took all the music in the world with her. She was one of the first people that I knew loved me. It was sometimes a tough love, a love rooted in rules and structure. But it was a love that I understood and that I knew was there to protect me.” (Both Carruthers’ and Mckesson’s books were provided to the Voice as uncorrected advance copies; text in the published versions may differ slightly.)

Mckesson is this deliberate and careful with language throughout; it is easy to understand how he has become prominent, aside from his omnipresent blue vest, which has a story of its own.

But Mckesson also chooses, for reasons that remain obscure in a book otherwise rich with loving attention and detail, to erase BLM leaders. They are mentioned nowhere by name. Instead, he gives credit for the inception of Black Lives Matter to Marcus Anthony Hunter, chair of African American Studies at UCLA, who tweeted the hashtag in relation to his work around black migration in August 2012, though it didn’t catch on until the following year.

“It was the first time that assemblage of words would ever be used on Twitter, and months later it would take on a life all its own,” Mckesson writes. “Ferguson was a phenomenon. It was neither the logical or inevitable conclusion of a particular wave of organizing or organization, nor the result of a small set of people gathering to start a movement. The truth of that phenomenon, how it started, what galvanized it, what sustained it, why it mattered to the world, and what is its legacy — those stories are finally being told now, by the people who lived them. The movement was born from the collective energy of a people, not at the direction of a small set of leaders.”

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While it is technically accurate that Hunter was the first Black person to use the phrase and hashtag #blacklivesmatter on Twitter on August 20, 2012, context also matters: The professor’s tweet hardly went viral with seven retweets and eleven likes. The point is not who used the hashtag first, but who used it to organize around the momentum that coalesced into a movement around the world.

The erasure of Black feminist organizers and victims of vigilante violence is a glaring and curious omission that raises more questions in Mckesson’s book than it answers. But a memoir is just that — a collection of memories. In this, it is clear that his memories of the movement in context are different from those of many notable Black feminist activists.

“Acts of defiance, disruption, and insurgent rule-breaking are ways that we delink from the politics of routine, of acclimation, of compromise, and of collaboration,” Ransby writes at the end of her book. “To paraphrase James Baldwin, it is when we demand the impossible that we come close to real freedom.”

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. The common thread in these narratives of the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter is the question of whether the Black community has the energy, resolve, and imagination to continue to fight for real freedom. This is especially true in the wake of new fatal incidents that feel like repeats of the same traumatic story — whether it is Markeis McGlockton’s shooting death in a Florida parking lot or the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson in Oakland, initially reported by some outlets as if she had provoked an attack by an unmedicated 27-year-old white assailant with bipolar and schizophrenic disorders. That is, like so many others, a question for the generations — in a year that, it appears, is not a year for answers.

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Real Life Rock Top 10: Rebounds, Time Outs, and the Carters at the Louvre

1. Eleanor Friedberger, Rebound (Frenchkiss)

From a singer who in Fiery Furnaces could come across as someone backing you into a corner and talking a mile a minute while giving you the unsettling feeling she’s thinking over every word as she says it, music that, with no sense of hurry, wraps each song around the next. Angelo Badalamenti synths from old Julee Cruise records carry the tunes as if teaching them how to swim. It’s a report from a certain state of mind, one that’s saying, Time out. And as one number fades into another, a bigger question: And what if I said time out and froze everyone in the world in place and walked away? What would that sound like?

2. The Carters, “Apes**t” (YouTube/Tidal)  

First impressions:

There’s a lot of nice art in the Louvre.

The smugness of the poses doesn’t erase the thrill of the faster-than-sound words coming out of Beyoncé’s mouth.

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3. Neil Young, Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live (Reprise)

His death record, and if on the original album the chant of the title song seemed almost too much to take, here the killers — and they can make you skip a breath — are “Roll Another Number” and the oh-so-casual fatal dope deal of “Tired Eyes.” There’s a lot of stage talk, particularly about the stripper Candy Barr. “We’re doing OK in the Seventies,” Young says near the end of a show recorded in late September 1973. “We really are. History’s coming back” — there’s that displacement of someone historicizing a moment as it takes place — “everything’s OK.  Spiro says it’s all right.” The vice president resigned on October 10.

4. Dana Milbank, “Finally, a president with the guts to stand up to Canada,” Washington Post (June 11)

“They inflicted Nickelback on us. We did nothing. They sent us Justin Bieber. We turned the other cheek. They were responsible for one abomination after another: Poutine. Dipthong vowels. Hawaiian pizza. Instant mashed potatoes. Ted Cruz. Still, we did not retaliate — until now.”

5. Overheard, Minneapolis (June 8)

Two young children idly singing “Nation-wide…” and you realized that this lilting, wistful insurance commercial, bathing the airwaves with Brad Paisley and Leslie Odom Jr. and Tori Kelly offering the tune as if it held more truth, more revelation, more of themselves than anything they ever recorded before, had already colonized the minds and corrupted the aesthetic sensibilities of the nation’s youth, until the kids finished the line: “…is suicide.”

6. A reader who goes by Uhuru Comix writes in (June 14)

“Tonight, there was a surreal moment on Jeopardy. The category was Combat Rock, and the $800 clue was ‘Pere Ubu: 30 Seconds Over ________.’ None of the contestants knew the answer, of course, and Trebek had to say (in a tone that made it sound as though he thought the answer was obvious), ‘What is Tokyo.’ I think there must be an Ubu fan lurking among their writers. Either that, or the apocalypse is upon us.”

7. Daniel Zakroczemski, illustration for Marc Stein, “Warriors and Cavs Star in N.B.A.’s Version of Groundhog Day,” New York Times (May 31)

“How can you root against LeBron?” a friend asked. “Because I’ve been a Warriors fan for more than forty years and I live in Oakland?” I said. “But it’s like rooting against John Henry!” he said — and the next day, taking up more than half a page, was a blazing, Cubist-like painting by an artist whose work usually appears in the Buffalo News showing just that: an embattled but indomitable giant stopping the balls of four other muscled men as if they were just so many steam drills. And then LeBron broke his hand.

8. Allen Ruppersberg, “Intellectual Property: 1968–2018,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (through July 28)

Born in Cleveland in 1944, working out of Los Angeles, Ruppersberg practices ideas in action, and despite the time covered in this vast but uncrowded retrospective the feeling was that anything that might catch your eye could have been made either fifty years ago or the day before yesterday. Among dozens of other works that could as easily be called phenomena as constructions, with a revisit to the 1969 Al’s Café (where among the all-non-food items on the menu the cheapest was a diner plate with a 45 of the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie”) and a room devoted to blowups with cutouts of Uncle Scrooge’s battle with the Maharajah of Howduyustan over who can build the biggest statue of himself, my favorite was the 1996 installation Good Dreams, Bad Dreams — What Was Sub-Literature, with a announcement for “Lecture today at 4 PM,” which unfortunately was idea, not action, because the piece really made you want to know. There were real books in a vitrine, and rows of titles on the wall behind it: Was an 1891 cheap paper Oliver Twist sub-lit because of its format, or its writing?  What about a gorgeous edition of Evangeline? Classics Illustrated versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Typee? You could probably put money on Jack Hanley’s Let’s Make Mary as sub-literature, but what about Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, which may have been a lousy book, but was made into a great movie? The titles were a riot of pure id and the actual books were the mental attic of a whole country.

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9. Here to Be Heard — The Story of the Slits, directed by William E. Badgley (Head Gear Films/Moviehouse Entertainment)

A documentary about the punk band that began in London in 1976, dissolved in 1982, put part of itself back together in 2005, and ended when singer Ari Up died in 2010 at 48. It’s workmanlike, and because of the story as it was captured then and the present-day testimony of bassist Tessa Pollitt, drummer Palmolive, and guitarist Viv Albertine, stirring. There are bits of revelation that capture the essence of both the band’s mission to confront, attack, and destroy the marginalization of women in culture and of rock ’n’ roll as such, as when Palmolive describes the Slits on the Clash’s White Riot UK tour in 1977: “Sometimes we were playing different songs. And we couldn’t even tell! Sometimes we could tell”. There is the absolute primacy given to the clothes the Slits wore, as public action, free speech, political demonstration, and pleasure (Albertine, on “feeling like myself for the first time in my life”: “They couldn’t tell if we were male or female, or even human”), and the way the end of the band felt like a death sentence. “I fell into the terrible bath of heroin,” Pollitt says; Albertine, who as a Slit was all screaming blond hair and frilly white slips, “started dressing in brown clothes. I let my hair go back to brown.”

10. Nathan Lane, acceptance speech for Best Featured Actor in a Play, 72nd Annual Tony Awards (CBS, June 10).  

https://youtu.be/OpIoO9SpPcw

For his role as the tribune of McCarthyism, mob fixer, and AIDS death Roy Cohn in Angels in America — a role that took on far more resonance in this year’s revival than it could have had when the play premiered in 1993, since in the 1970s Cohn was also a mentor to Donald Trump — Lane produced a real thrill in the way that, in under two minutes, he thanked twenty-two individuals and groups, often in detail, with nuance, without a crib sheet, without pauses or hesitations, until the end, when he thanked his husband. It felt like a kind of rounded farewell, not that he doesn’t still have work to do. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Donald Trump said in a moment of frustration not long ago, and you can just imagine what Lane would make of the chance to materialize in his face.

Thanks to Steve Perry and Bill Brown.

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Beyoncé and Jay-Z Work It Out in the Louvre

Pop music has long cherished collisions with the visual arts. Andy Warhol’s peelable banana cover for the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut disk and his zipper motif for the Rolling Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers album both wittily played with the horndog ethos of rock ’n’ roll. In 1976, five years before the debut of MTV (and almost seven years before Michael Jackson became the first African American artist featured on the channel), David Bowie turned to a surrealist classic in lieu of a warm-up band for his Station to Station tour. Thin White Duke fans, eager for the rapturous feedback of the album’s title track to wash over them, were nonplussed when the 1929 black-and-white film Un Chien Andalou began to play. Doubtless many were only dimly aware of Salvador Dalí as a comic stereotype of the mad artist, and even fewer knew of Luis Buñuel’s artistic provocations. But when the film’s infamous eye-slashing scene lit up the various arenas on the tour schedule, groans, screams, and knowing cheers from art students in the audience mixed with the pot smoke.

In their new video, “Apeshit,” Beyoncé and Jay-Z shock in more subtle ways, not least by pulling off the shoot of their dynamic and complex music video at Paris’s Louvre Museum in total secrecy. The video opens on a young man in dreads, sneakers, and ripped jeans wearing angel wings; sirens wail in the distance and bells toll forlornly, an elegiac soundscape in a city that has seen too much terror in recent years.

But the Louvre is one of civilization’s bastions against the world’s latest wave of nihilism, and music’s supreme power couple make the most of it. Dancers do crunches on a broad staircase, and when they later gyrate in formation in front of Jacques-Louis David’s immense 1807 canvas commemorating the coronation of Napoleon, their abs are as prominent as those on the Greco-Roman statues. Throughout the video, the flesh of the performers echoes the realistic figurative representations, whether in paint or stone. The emperor himself said of David’s 20-foot-high, 32-foot-long painting, “What relief, what truthfulness! This is not a painting; one walks in this picture.”

Of course Napoleon hadn’t imagined anyone dancing into it. And, as with almost the entire canon of Western art, the assembly on David’s canvas is all white. In contrast to the song’s lyrics — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — this is a staid bunch, in their regal and clerical robes, lit as if by a passing sunray. Throughout “Apeshit,” the choreographed moves of black performers are entwined with the eternal poses of the white figures, the two now preserved in an art form unknown to the classical masters.

Graceful arabesques for a missing head

And while Palo Veronese’s monumental The Wedding Feast of Cana (1563) depicts Christ’s miracle of converting water into wine, it also celebrates conspicuous consumption on a level any successful rapper could savor. Bey amps the mood with her blistering rap:

“Poppin’, I’m poppin’/My bitches are poppin’/We go to the dealer and cop it all/Sippin’ my favorite alcohol/Got me so lit I need Tylenol/All of my people I free ’em all.” The wealthy partied hard back in the day — Veronese transported the biblical scene from Galilee to palatial digs in Venice. So perhaps Beyoncé’s last line references the few dark-skinned figures serving food and drink at the lavish banquet, even as her flowing finery marks her as an equal with the sumptuously garbed swells in the painting.

There is precedent for this mix. The great African American painter Kerry James Marshall once wrote me in an email, “There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal.” Marshall has achieved this goal through compositions that thrum with a pictorial force grounded in classical figurative traditions, even as they push space into new realms of abstraction. And Kanye West took a fascinating leap into the baroque era when he donned a hoodie adorned with Caravaggio’s Deposition for his performance at the “121212” concert, re-creating on stage the chiaroscuro illumination that gave that hard-living master’s compositions such dramatic presence.  

David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women” as showcased in “Apeshit”

Sonic rumbles drift through “Apeshit,” as if the music were being played in some far-off hall (one scene was shot in the Louvre’s basement), a bit of melancholy that chimes with most listeners’ knowledge of the marital problems the couple has experienced. (Their new album, Everything Is Love, has been released under the joint moniker the Carters, and completes a trilogy about their down-and-up relationship that began with Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade and has continued with last year’s 4:44 from Jay-Z.) Now, when Bey lip-synchs to Jay’s voice — “Have you ever seen a crowd goin’ apeshit?” — the high-living couple seem again to be joined as one in the spotlight.

This notion of resurfacing stronger is driven home in a number of ways. For instance, the artist who sculpted Winged Victory of Samothrace more than 2,000 years ago never expected it to be displayed without a head — as it has been since its discovery on a Greek isle, in 1863 — yet the statue now stands as a beautiful survivor of whatever troubles once buried her in the earth. Director Ricky Saiz calls back to the winged young man in the video’s opening scene while giving the ancient figure new life through the line of dancers’ heads that weave before it in graceful arabesques.

The video cuts a number of times to David’s 1799 Intervention of the Sabine Women, another tale of fraught relationships. The painting’s narrative is set after the Romans’ abduction of the women of the neighboring Sabine tribe. Time has passed, and Hersilia, the daughter of the Sabine leader, is married to the Roman leader Romulus. Hersilia is the painting’s central figure, voluptuous and regal in clinging white dress, her arms outstretched as she interposes her own body and that of her children between the two men in her life in order to convince them not to kill each other. The canvas had a personal dimension for the artist — he painted it partly in an effort to reconcile with his estranged wife, who disagreed with his vote to guillotine the king during the Revolution, and also as a symbol encouraging the French people to heal that conflict’s bloody wounds on the body politic. More drama, no doubt, than even rap’s most prominent power marriage can boast, but like the artists who have made the cut at the Louvre, Bey and Jay haven’t gotten where they are by thinking small.

So when Jay-Z raps about being dissed by the Grammys last year — eight nominations/zero wins — as he stands in front of Géricault’s gargantuan Raft of the Medusa, knowledgeable viewers might flash on a sense of disproportion. (And Pogues fans will recognize the canvas from the cover of that band’s 1985 Rum Sodomy & the Lash album.) Géricault’s 1819 painting portrays the grisly tale of a French vessel running aground, with the ship’s officers, connected politicians, and upper-class travelers escaping in lifeboats while the crew and poorer passengers were cast adrift on a makeshift raft. Murder, mayhem, and cannibalism ensued, making for a political scandal upon which Géricault heaped more controversy by placing a black man as the hero signaling the rescue ship, which also signaled the artist’s abolitionist sympathies, as France wavered on ending slavery. We are in different times, but by pulling us into this painting (and including a cut to a kneeling statue), Jay is reminding us of the blatant racism of slavery then, and of the NFL’s collusion against players who act on their conscience today. “I said no to the Super Bowl: You need me,” he raps, “I don’t need you/Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” History, the video tells us, is always present.

Jay-Z: Oh-for-8 at the Grammys. But he’s still starring at the Louvre.

Back in the winter of 1992–’93, I was at the Museum of Modern Art getting passes for the big Henri Matisse retrospective. The joint was jumping, with crowds surging through the lobby and — a bit north of their usual haunts — large men with serious bling roaming the sidewalk and calling out, “Matisse tickets. Who needs tickets? Who’s got tickets to sell?” When I finally made it to the head of the line, an elderly gent in a suit was stammering to the young man at the information desk, “Do you know what’s happening? It’s an outrage…there…there are people out front scalping tickets! This is an art museum.” The MOMA rep and I looked at each other incredulously, and I said, “You’ve never been to a Knicks game?” (Those were the days when you could actually turn a profit on Knicks tix.)

Henri no doubt would have appreciated it. After all, what artist wouldn’t love a crowd going apeshit over his or her — or their — art.

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Have the Grammys Finally Fixed Their Voting Problem? We’ll Find Out Sunday

For the first time in the 59-year history of the Grammys, there’s not a single white man nominated for the biggest award of the year. Instead, the Album of the Year category is stacked with diverse names: Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, and Bruno Mars. And that diversity extends across the board. Jay-Z leads with eight nominations overall, followed by Kendrick with seven, and Bruno with six, while Childish Gambino, No I.D., Khalid, and SZA are all tied with five. It’s a slate that’s been hailed by artists, critics, and the industry alike. But at the end of the night — the 60th Grammy Awards kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 28 — none of this overt display of wokeness means that any diverse creators will actually win.

For the past two decades, while the Grammys have had a fairly diverse pool of nominees,. Last year, Beyoncé led the nominations with nine, followed by Drake, Rihanna, and Kanye West with eight nominations each. Yet by night’s end, it was Adele standing in front of the press balancing five trophies — a choice so seemingly ill-informed that even Adele tried to hand off her Grammy for Album of the Year to Beyoncé. Making things especially egregious was the fact that Beyoncé was similarly snubbed two years before, when Beck won Album of the Year in 2015, a win so unpopular, Kanye West popped up onstage in protest. But this year, if, say, Lorde ends up going home the evening’s big winner, it may not be another case of #grammyssowhite, but rather a different institutional bug: vote-splitting.

Voting blocks — where one group of voters (r&b fans, for instance) divides its votes between two artists, allowing another artist to win — have long plagued the Grammys. Most notably, this phenomenon favors a single genre: rock. When votes get split between other genres, a rock album nominated for Album of the Year almost always wins: Beck in 2015; Arcade Fire in 2011; Santana in 2000; U2, Paul Simon, and Phil Collins in 1988, ’87, and ’86.

Why? The obvious reason is a voting demographic that skews older, whiter, and more male than the artists actually making the music. To help combat that fact, this year the Academy sought out members of the music community who are eligible to vote but maybe weren’t registered to, sending out staffers to its twelve chapter cities to talk about the process and get people engaged. What the Academy is trying to avoid is a repeat of 2014, when Macklemore won the Grammy for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar, and they’re pulling out all kinds of stops to try and fix this. All voting was done online this year, a move intended to attract a more diverse group of voters. The Academy included samples of the actual music on the site in hopes of reducing the number of votes based straight on name recognition.

Whether all these changes will translate into more equitable results remains to be seen, and the Grammys are doing their best to hide this voting problem under a slew of solutions. One is genre division, which separates music deemed “urban contemporary” from “pop.” As might have been expected, the former is always filled entirely of black artists, the latter with white ones, a reality so absurd even Sufjan Stevens spoke out against it last yearBut in the big four categories — Album, Song, Record, and Best New Artist of the Year — everyone votes for the four biggest awards, and every year it is clear exactly who “everyone” is. 

This year, there’s only one white artist nominated for Album of the Year: Lorde. She is also the only pop artist in the category. With a huge lane to herself, it’s very likely that Lorde will take home that award. Now, Melodrama is a great album, but it deserves to win based on quality, not bias.

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Pazz & Jop Comments: Top Albums and Singles

Kyle McGovern
Jay-Z, 4:44: The hip-hop Sinatra has finally made his September of My Years

Simon Vozick-Levinson
I hated [Selena Gomez’s] “Bad Liar” the first time I heard it, loved it the third time, and now believe it to be a canonically genius tribute to the timeless experience of going about one’s day with a Talking Heads song in your head. We’ve all been there!

Nelson George
Seeing the love SZA received at Afropunk this summer in Brooklyn was quite impressive. Felt like I was watching the current generation’s Mary J. Blige in action. 

Shannon Carlin
Charli XCX had me living in a teenage dream, and Jay-Z had me thinking about the pitfalls of monogamy. Of course, the person who got me thinking the most was Kendrick Lamar, who just can’t make a bad album. Seriously, just give him the damn Album of the Year this year.  

Rob Tannenbaum
Father John Misty’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.

Austin Brown
Cavernous, syncopated, and insecure, Lorde’s Melodrama might be an album about “the party and the after-party,” but musically, it’s an album about a love-hate relationship with transcendence, fantasy, and the pop that purports to offer it. Infinite love without fulfillment. 

Jaime-Paul Falcon
Carly Rae Jepsen left “Cut to the Feeling” — one of the best songs of 2017 — off of two separate albums, and then released this metric ton of synth-drunk bombast just for the hell of it. Jesus, we’re not even close to ready for the next album.  

Nick Farruggia
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit,Nashville Sound: This record is not a road map to solutions, nor is it a lucid history of what exactly brought forth the administration that now hovers over everyone like a monstrous storm cloud. Instead, it is more accurately a crystallization of the Small Town that helped bring the world this wretched, farcical moment.  

Ian Steaman
Let’s face it: Last year it was Cardi’s world, we were just living in it. 

Emerson Dameron
KelelaTake Me Apart: Psychologically rich sex jams with a of textures and waves of sadness and spiritual longing. The warmth of lounge pop, the chill of cold techno, and the ache of all timeless tunes about fleeting relationships.

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Personal, Political, and Otherwise: King Kendrick Rules Pazz & Jop

Remember self-brander Amanda Palmer in the last days of 2016, blitzing journos in her safe Australian home? “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again,” the pull quote went. “We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.”

Er, well…

Scanning the top forty albums of the 44th (or 45th) Pazz & Jop Critics Poll — which remains America’s most comprehensive survey of “rock critic” taste — I have trouble descrying any political satire whatsoever. Granted, there’s a big exception I’m saving for later, and although he’s so fucking ironic who can tell, many would nominate snark king Father John Misty, whose 12th place 2015 I Love You, Honeybear almost convinced me he loves his wife and whose 13th place 2017 Pure Comedy almost convinced me he hates humanity. Thus Misty gained considerable traction in early spring, when there was still comfort in believing our walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee was no worse than the voters who believed he would serve them rather than his vile class and viler self. He is worse, by miles, which I say as someone with near-zero sympathy for his “base.” And in any case, what little political consciousness I discern among the rest of our poll-toppers is fervently sincere.

Here’s to Jason Isbell’s earnest The Nashville Sound, sharpened decisively by the self-critical “White Man’s World”; to Algiers’ militant The Underside of Power, soul-rock noise-metal that calls out racist massacres, dying sex workers, and democracy’s broken promises as the horrors they are; to Margo Price’s country-folk All American Made, which names “rich white men” as the enemy and remembers Iran-Contra in a world where most people are proud to remember their passwords. Here’s to Rhiannon Giddens’s slave songs and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s immigrant songs too. And while it’s less straightforward, maybe even in some not-actually-funny sense satirical, Priests’ Gang of Four–ish punk-funk Nothing Feels Natural situates itself in the more abstruse territory of structural oppression, leftist turf they were already staking out when Trump was one more birther jerkola.

Maybe it’s significant that the poll’s most trenchantly anti-Trump finisher surfaced the same week as Palmer’s prophecy; certainly Run the Jewels 3’s political-not-satirical rap-not-punk would have finished above 34 riding a 2017 release date. But definitely it’s significant that absent from our anti-Trump list are four other hip-hop albums: Kendrick Lamar’s foreordained runaway winner DAMN, Jay-Z‘s 9th place “comeback” 4:44, Vince Staples’s spare 18th place Big Fish Theory, and Migos’s irrepressible 20th place Culture. Almost any hip-hop album signifies politically because almost any hip-hop album invokes the textures and details of black life, which always — always — involve racist oppression. Moreover, DAMN does at least utter Donald Trump’s name, and Jay-Z not only celebrates his newly out mom’s lesbian identity but weighs in with “The Story of O.J.,” where the “still nigga” repetitions put the race question in our collective face even if its dumb Dumbo joke wears almost as poorly as its explanation of why Jews own everything. (Credit, in case you forgot.)

Not one of 2017’s hip-hop big four, however, takes Trump on. Staples rides his precise, hard-bitten realism; Migos scatter their playful, unpredictable hooks. 4:44 is as intimate as anything Jay-Z has recorded, apologizing credibly for how richly he deserved Beyoncé’s dog-dogging Lemonade while waxing all too enthusiastic about black capitalism. But from Lamar we had reason to expect more. He became America’s most respected pop star in record time not just because his evolved slur and expansive beats were so musically winning but because his persona was so unprecedented as a social fact. A good kid in a mad city, a conscious rapper who exercised his right to brag without acting superior, he left you wondering why no previous next big thing had managed a balance that felt so natural once he made it so. But just as he had a right to brag, he had a right to take a break. Sure, he knows that Trump poses a special threat to Afro-America. But his success protects him from the worst of it, and also leaves him with personal perplexities few of us can truly grasp. So long before DAMN appeared in April he knew he needed a “personal” album, and why not? Why shouldn’t we want to know what this complex, talented person makes of songs entitled “FEEL,” “LUST,” “PRIDE,” and “GOD”? Autocrats even crueler than Donald Trump have failed to extirpate such spiritual fundamentals from human life.

The odd thing was, however, that Kendrick Lamar was hardly alone. Rather than amazing satirical political art, many alt types who knew very well that they detested this president and wished they could do something about it decided that their best recourse was to pursue their muse as if he didn’t exist, and so withdrew into the “personal,” too. These efforts came in all shades of significance: Lorde and Waxahatchee testing their autonomies, Julien Baker and Big Thief toning their delicacies, St. Vincent and Jens Lekman perfecting their artistries, LCD Soundsystem and the National continuing their trajectories, SZA painfully pondering her sex life, Stephin Merritt painstakingly writing his autobiography, the War on Drugs perfectionistically plumbing their vapidity, Spoon and the xx repeating themselves. My personal favorite in the category were the New Pornographers, whose 51st place Whiteout Conditions offered up eleven rapturous pop anthems with lyrics about the grimy business of purveying rapturous pop anthems.

All of the just-named explore and exploit song form, manipulating note sequences to provide the melodic frissons that were an essential yet increasingly insufficient selling point of twentieth-century pop. But for another sizable bunch of 2017 finishers, such niceties are even more peripheral than they are for the hip-hop beatmakers who do on occasion fashion what are candidly designated “hooks.” Although most of them were singers performing what they would rightly insist were songs, for almost all of them the personal equaled the atmospheric if not the downright immersive. I’m talking Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead of reunited shoegaze legends Slowdive, post-soul emoters Kelela and Sampha and Moses Sumney, Thundercat’s inebriated lounge-jazz-plus, longtime songscaper Björk, up-and-coming soundscaper Jlin, maybe the album Perfume Genius chose to call No Shape, definitely 40–50’s Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (soundscaper), Kelly Lee Owens (another soundscaper, jeez), and Daniel Caesar (craft-cocktail singer).

Although much history and many microgenres have come down since, figure this tendency goes back to 1995 or so, when an evolving profusion of unpeppy, hook-averse, “environmental” musics, tendencies, and attempted epiphanies began to be gathered under the rubric “post-rock” as the free-ranging vocal excursions of post-soul singers epitomized by Maxwell began to displace conventional songwriting in that world. It’s also when post-rock prophet Simon Reynolds and his wife, Joy Press, published The Sex Revolts, where the critical keyword “oceanic” was retrofitted to describe both Can and Patti Smith.

From Terry Riley to Hassell & Eno to Oruj Guvenc to Oneohtrix Point Never and more (last year I added Marcel Khalife’s Andalusia of Love to the list, also a L’Orange storyboard, if that counts), I have my own oceanic-etc. favorites to pick from in the rare moments when I need to micromanage a chillout, and I’m hardly suggesting they’re all the same. Those in our top fifty certainly aren’t. But though Sampha got a thumbs up from me in April, having listened enough to generalize briefly (and to fall for Jlin’s Black Origami while giving Slowdive a bye), I doubt I’ll ever play the others again. What’s more, this doesn’t appear to be some slowly evolving trend — no similar post-rock tendency was discernible in 2016, when Frank Ocean and Blood Orange remained rooted in articulated songcraft as they gestured toward soul vocalese, when in “rock” only Bon Iver and arguably Radiohead made comparable gestures, leaving us with Anohni’s Hopelessness, an album that milked her delivery for every affectation it had in it to deliver not vague angst or dislocation but the most unabashed and explicit left propaganda ever to impress our electorate. So I find it somewhat disheartening that in Trumpjahr Ein, so many artists pursued their muse into a withdrawal some might unkindly label “escapist.”

Others equally unkind, of course, might suggest that an old man’s taste for peppy tunes from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino to Wussy and Whiteout Conditions might also be classified as escapist. I’d reply that all of them cheer me up in a tonic way that only enhances my appetite for tougher stuff (and also that the best usually come up with tough stuff themselves). Then I’d add that my own 2017 was rendered more bearable by three pieces of moderately amazing political art — in two cases satirical, in one case kind of punk, and in zero cases recognized by my fellow critics. Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I give you piano-playing singer-songwriter Dawn Oberg’s one-mention three-song lounge EP Nothing Rhymes With Orange, whence I borrowed the “walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee” crack above; Hamell on Trial’s 290th place folk-punk Tackle Box, in which our president’s “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya” opens a record that insults cops, analyzes oppression, embraces fatherhood, savors lust, looks death in the eye, and makes room for four kiddie songs about a frog; and — most dismaying given P&J’s ever-burgeoning hip-hop consciousness — Joey Bada$$’s 203th place All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, a straight-up anti-racist message album that starts sweet to soften up the hoi polloi and gets tougher as it goes.

They’re not enough, those three. But much more than our poll, they prove that politically engaged popular music of quality is an option under a catastrophic reign certain to become more so. Only one is at all rock, and none are post-rock. And now let me close by praising my 2017 one-two, neither peppy, neither conducive to casual listening, and neither rock or post-rock: Mount Eerie’s stark 16th place A Crow Looked at Me and Randy Newman’s elaborate 30th place Dark Matter.

Mount Eerie is the brand name of Phil Elverum, by his own description on this very record a pensive loner from the Puget Sound woods who in 2003 fell instantly in love with a woman he soon married. They had a daughter in 2015, and a year and a half later Elverum’s wife died of cancer. That loss is all A Crow Looked at Me is about. Its first words are “Death is real/Someone’s there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art.” But then that’s what he does, while simultaneously achieving the elusive chimera of not-art, for eleven unrelentingly desolate songs lasting 41:34. Like Mount Eerie’s many earlier albums (except they featured occasional extra voices and ultimately some soundscaping), it’s altogether occupied by Elverum’s frail, lucid murmur and solitary guitar (augmented so subtly and rarely that you have to concentrate to even register this thrum or that rattle). Although Elverum is such a winning singer one might consider exploring his catalog, this entry will remain unduplicable. My favorite lines are “I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion/And mutual aching to leave” and “I don’t want to learn anything from this.” Listen three times and find your own.

Which brings us to our big exception — an old master of song form proffering his first album of new material since 2008’s Harps and Angels. Dark Matter is a long way aesthetically from A Crow Looked at Me, even though both artists craft literal lyrics as if Bob Dylan had never existed, still a rare goal in this era. But the absoluteness of Elverum’s literalism, one reason A Crow Looked at Me is some kind of classic, sets the album apart from songcraft as properly understood. And then there are Newman’s unmatched chops as an orchestrator and profitable sideline in Hollywood theme songs, two of which he dragooned into enriching Dark Matter: the paranoid Monk theme “It’s a Jungle Out There,” which sounds a dystopian alarm the album is otherwise too subtle for, and “She Chose Me,” written for a forgotten cop show circa 1990 and easily the sweetest love song in Newman’s book. The four other conventional songs — about a wayward son; a dying wife and her hapless beloved; a fiftysomething surf bum; and Sonny Boy Williamson the 1st — are all gems. But on an album that ends acutely and fondly humane, it’s the three opening songs, the first two playlets with Newman playing multiple parts and the third close enough, that are amazing satirical political art, complete with jokes that will make you chuckle long after you first heard them.

Written to the nth and arranged in exquisite colloquial detail, these are not songs to sing along to — well, maybe except for “Putin,” written long before we knew Trump’s hondling with the oligarchs would help put a tin-pot oligarch of our own in the White House. They find Newman pursuing his muse into turf not principally demarcated by the harmonies and tone colors it’s rich in. In the first, “The Great Debate,” an evangelical huckster deploys gospel music to rake in the shekels debunking evolution and climate change in the newly insane state of North Carolina. In the second, “Brothers,” JFK triggers the Bay of Pigs out of his pure love for Celia Cruz. There are talking points by the dozen, but you have to sit and listen repeatedly to get them, and pat your feet in the process you will not.

Neither playlet addresses Trumpism per se, although Newman reports that he’s written a Trump song he finds too simplistic, so maybe someday he’ll let us hear it. But this is evolved popular music that casts a light on a confederacy of dunces who’ve yet to surrender at Appomattox and a government given to disastrous malfeasance even when it’s run by the relatively good guys. It will not rid us of our walking slab of brain damage. That can only happen in a crass political arena. The hope is, however, that art as humane and achieved as these two albums, one wrenching and the other some deep and complex relative of hilarious, will give us another reason to try.