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1976 Pazz & Jop: Critics Cheer Debut Albums

Like a second-grader who can’t wait to give his mother her potholder for Christmas, I will as usual proceed immediately to the most important order of business, a personal list of the 30 finest American-release LPs of 1976 (with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10). I made this list with my very own ears and brain; body and feet pitched in occasionally as well, and the hands typed.

1. Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones: Have Moicy! 15. 2. Eno: Another Green World 15. 3. The Wild Tchoupitoulas 12. 4. David Bowie: Station to Station 11. 5. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin Wind 11. 6. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life 10. 7. Kate & Anna McGarrigle 8. 8. Ramones 8. 9. The Modern Lovers 5. 10. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Night Moves 5.

11. The Rolling Stones: Black and Blue. 12. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends. 13. Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees. 14. Hi Rhythm: On the Loose. 15. The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time. 16. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment. 17. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia. 18. Phoebe Snow: It Looks Like Snow. 19. Gasolin’. 20. Arlo Guthrie: Amigo.

21. George Jones: Alone Again. 22. Al Green: Full of Fire. 23. The Stills-Young Band: Long May You Run. 24. Billy Swan. 25. Al Green: Have a Good Time. 26. James Talley: Tryin’ Like the Devil. 27. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune. 28. Elvin Bishop: Struttin’ My Stuff. 29. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Back My Bullets. 30. Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver.

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Industrially speaking, this is an odd list — six, maybe eight of these records made top 10 in the trades, while none of the first three even cracked top 200. But reference to the more prominently displayed list on this page indicates that maybe it’s not so odd. There you will find the 1976 edition of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, compiled (with the invaluable assistance of Stephen Holden) from the ballots of 66 rock critics nationwide. The point of bringing in so many opinions (there were 38 last year and 24 in 1974) was to mitigate the cliquishness that is inevitable in this sort of survey, and a broadening of taste did result: best-sellers like Jackson Browne, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, and Rod Stewart did especially well among new and out-of-town participants, while certain “critics’ records” — Warren Zevon, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Kate & Anna McGarrigle — started to drop precipitously once the veterans had been tallied, as did Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, still a “New York record,” and watch out America. Nevertheless, I find that nine of my top 10 albums ended up in the Pazz & Jop top 15. Apparently, people who make it their business to think about the records they listen to are reaching comparable conclusions everywhere.

To my mind, those conclusions didn’t end up as pessimistic as has often seemed likely this past year. It’s clear that critical tastes and ideas have a tendency to spread and prevail — Blue Oyster Cult and Steely Dan, while always commercially self-sustaining, got valuable early support from well-known critics. It’s also encouraging that eight of the present top 30 are debut albums (there were five in 1975 and three in 1974). Critics’ faves may never dominate the charts — note, though: Average White Band finished 16th in 1974, before “Pick Up the Pieces” broke the group; Fleetwood Mac did the same in 1975, long before anyone imagined it would turn into the best-selling LP in Warners history; this year number 16 is the aforementioned Dr. Buzzard — but it seems clear that valuable extensions of what I like to call semi-popular music will continue to be available, however briefly.

Two artists dominated the poll this year, and two others deserve special mention. Songs in the Key of Life is flawed and excessive, hence controversial among critics, but the consensus is that Stevie Wonder has overwhelmed his own capacity for foolishness. His vote this year transcends tokenism; as Tom Smucker commented: “I never liked any of his other albums. I voted for this because it reminded me of Pet Sounds.” But if this was the year of Stevie Wonder it was also the year of Graham Parker. In 1975, Bob Dylan (whom see, limping in at 26) finished first and fourth; in 1976 Parker did almost as well, polling a total of 449 points (for two albums) to Wonder’s 292. Whether this critical juggernaut will translate into sales can’t be certain, but I’m taking bets. Because of rock’s pervasive sexual politics, the odds aren’t quite as impressive for Kate & Anna McGarrigle, whose debut album actually beat Wonder’s among veterans of 1975’s Critics’ Poll, and whose poor sales can be blamed at least partly on the birth of Kate’s second child, who canceled their promotional tour single-handed. Finally, this was the year Jackson Browne graduated from cult status — not only is his album a huge seller, it also placed third on 22 out of 66 votes, whereas Late for the Sky finished eighth on six out of 28 votes in 1974.

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With the possible exception of Linda Ronstadt and Jeff Beck fans, critics aren’t as easy on their perennial favorites as is sometimes suspected. In fact, only 11 of the 29 artists on this year’s list made previous ones; relatively familiar and well-respected names like Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Arlo Guthrie, and Blue Oyster Cult are new. But for me the most important function of this annual poll isn’t to reassure those hardy music professionals who manage to improve upon mediocre music, however essential they may be to the continuing health of the music, as to single out wonderful records that are all too likely to disappear. This year, three from the often courageous but lately disappointing Island label are especially noteworthy. The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a party record of primitive New Orleans rock and roll that rewards close listening, although it is recommended that you stand up while concentrating. I have never played it for anyone who hasn’t found it delightful, and it is still available at better retailers. Eno — who together with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, and Steely Dan is the only artist to have made all three polls — is finally beginning to win across-the-board critical support, but he is not selling and he is no longer with Island as a solo artist. Another Green World is not rock and roll, but even though Tom Hull describes it as “the only music to date to qualify as furniture,” it’s not Muzak either. It is melodic, electronic, and modular, without many lyrics, and people who hate the very idea of “progressive rock” (like me) are addicted to it. Seek it out now. Finally, there is Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, an uneven (in my opinion) but bracingly abrasive folk-rock album, sort of a hard version of the best Fairport Convention. If you long for a song as righteously nasty as “Positively 4th Street” — that would be “Hard Luck Stories” — rush out to the best record store you know right now, and good luck, for Island, unaccountably, has already cut it out, even though another Richard Thompson album is due for release shortly.

Now let me perform a similar service for a few of my own neglected favorites. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends is genuine country-rock, a collaboration between the Nashville scion (always an excellent singer himself) and Southern rock musicians like Toy Caldwell, Charlie Daniels, Chuck Leavell, and Pete Carr that is much, much more than a studio jam exploitation. Hi Rhythm’s On the Loose is one of the wackiest soul records of all time, far more compelling and significant than either of the two predictably expert albums released by boss man Al Green this year, and I bet it’s soon impossible to find even in black neighborhoods or King Karol. Finally, there is my numero uno, Have Moicy!, which I’m told is available at Music Inn on West 4th Street and I know for a fact is hawked for four bucks by Peter Stampfel at the Unholy Modal Rounders’ weekly Tuesday night gig at Broadway Charly’s. This record includes 13 songs and I love every one of them; just when you worry that Peter’s gonna drive you up the ceiling, Hurley or Jeffrey Fredericks cools you out. It’s on a small folk label called Rounder, and although I would estimate that no more than 15 of the 66 critics polled have even heard it, it finished a tragic 31st in a 30-place poll. I promise this is the last time I mention it unless I can think of another excuse.

I doubt there’ll be space for any individual lists this year, but my thanks to all participants:

1974 veterans: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Emerson, Vernon Gibbs, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Kit Rachlis, Wayne Robins, Frank Rose, Bud Scoppa, Geoffrey Stokes, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

1975 additions: Georgia Christgau, Peter Herbst, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Meyer, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Tom Smucker, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters.

1976 freshpeople: Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Lauren Agnelli a/k/a Trixie A. Balm, Billy Altman, Anonymous, Michael Barackman, Ken Barnes, Jon Bream, Jean-Charles Costa, Walter Dawson, Steve Demorest, Joan Downs, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore, Jim Girard, Patrick Goldstein, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Steven Levy, Bruce Malamut, Jon Marlowe, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, R. Meltzer, John Milward, Teri Morris, Kris Nicholson, Richard Riegel, Joe Roman, Michael Rozek, Susin Shapiro, Ariel Swartley, Timothy White.

Late ballots: Colman Andrews, Patrick Carr, Matt Damsker, Peter Knobler.

Top 10 Albums of 1976

1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)

2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)

3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)

4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)

5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)

6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)

7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)

8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)

9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)

10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

— From the January 31, 1977, issue

 

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

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Camila Meza

Chilean jazz vocalist and guitarist Camila Meza began with Hendrix and Joni Mitchell but caught the jazz bug when she discovered Pat Metheny and never looked back. She came to voice from guitar, encouraged by the teacher who taught Claudia Acuna, and a vocal style crystallized around the sound of a hollow body. She has performed alongside luminaries Aaron Goldberg, Ryan Keberle, and pianist Fabian Almazan, who is part of her quartet. Meza deftly imbues arrangements of songs recorded by Al Jarreau, Victor Jara, and Billie Holiday with a folkloric pulse, sometimes in odd time signatures, at once rooted in tradition yet fiercely modern.

Mon., Oct. 13, 8 & 10 p.m., 2014

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Jessica Molaskey

If Joni Mitchell isn’t singing her own songs, it’s hard to imagine anyone singing them better than Molaskey, a singer whose smoky voice carries the intellect and emotion necessary to capture Mitchell’s often chilly immediacy. “Portraits of Joni” is the evening’s come-on title, and Larry Goldings and others will be guesting. But if it were only the headliner reviewing Mitchell, you’d be assured of a surpassingly meaningful time.

Thu., Feb. 20, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2014

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School of Seven Bells

Members of our fair city’s shoegazing new-wave group the School of Seven Bells have cited Beyoncé, Joni Mitchell, and New Order among their biggest influences, but only the last of those reflects how they sound: The fuzzy synths and catchy vocals are purely British, recalling the older band’s Factory Records sound, as well as about every 4AD release before 1988, to the point that frontwoman Alejandra Deheza could do a mean impression of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser if she’d simply stop singing real words. With Prince Rama and Weeknight.

Thu., Jan. 31, 9 p.m., 2013

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Diane Cluck

Singer-songwriter Diane Cluck plays an original brand of “intuitive folk” that joins the free expression of anti-folk with an elegant yet unaffected melodic base. Born out of various cafés of the Lower East Side in 2000, Cluck has been religiously strumming out her darkly arresting songs ever since, even beginning a fan-funded “song of the week” project sending new songs straight to subscribers. With distinctive, almost harp-like guitar work and melodies sung in a broken coo, Cluck is Joni Mitchell meets Joanna Newsom meets a new spellbinding beast altogether.

Tue., Feb. 5, 10 p.m., 2013

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First Aid Kit – Music Hall of Williamsburg – 9/30/12

First Aid Kit
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sunday, September 30, 2012

Better than: Somebody with a beard.

Johanna and Klara Soderbergh walked to the edge of the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Sunday night. “We’re going to play this one without the mics,” Johanna said, slightly sliding her fingers down the fretboard, a quiet pop of reverb coming through the speakers before going silent and turning the sold-out, 550-person venue into an intimate, lo-fi basement session. The duo popped into a rendition of “Ghost Town,” one of the singles from their debut album The Big Black & The Blue. Like much of the band’s repertoire, the song’s lyrics dwell on love lost, regret, and the inability to move on. “I remember how you told me all you wanted to do, that dream of Paris in the morning or a Brooklyn window view,” they sang together, quietly using a lyric change to wink at the local audience. “I can see it now you’re married and your wife is with a child, and you’re all laughing in the garden and I’m lost somewhere in your mind.”

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First Aid Kit Are Ladies of the Fjord

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First Aid Kit is a folk duo from Sweden. Formed a couple years ago by sisters Johanna and Klara, they are respectively 22 and 19 years old. They write songs about broken hearts, life’s challenges, and sometimes overcoming obstacles. They have a song called “Emmylou,” which has lyrics that name drop so many famous folk musicians it could be mistaken for a trivia game about the genre of Americana. They recorded their sophomore record The Lion’s Roar in Omaha with assistance from a guy named Conor Oberst, and the record released this past January. They wear long, hippy-like floral dresses on stage. Often, they sing in very beautiful harmonies. The music probably sounds best on a Sunday morning as you drink coffee and read the paper with a significant other.

In other words, First Aid Kit is a band that a lot of people probably hate on the surface, especially people who don’t enjoy Music With Feelings. But what separates the Swedish duo from a band like, say, chart-topping Mumford & Sons, is that there doesn’t seem to be anything manufactured or overtly produced about their music. Sure, okay, First Aid Kit does sing songs with earnest lyrics about traveling the world and how “the pale morning sings of forgotten things,” but Johanna and Klara don’t act like these revelations are anything special or precious. Their sweet, haunting harmonies offer an innocent perspective of just trying to figure shit out. Whether its purposeful or not, they come across as naive. Even though much of their lyrics center on heartbreak or missing someone, the ideas and symbolism behind it is all very romanticized. To these sisters, it seems like the grass is always greener–and that blatant ignorance can be strangely enticing.

This perspective also gives the duo a confidence. On stage, they aren’t afraid of expressing themselves, sing from their guts and strum their guitars powerfully. Flowingly dancing around, both sway and sing with mannerisms that I imagine Joni Mitchell had. They scoot towards the mic, nod at the crowd, sway in circles, and fluidly toss harmonies back and forth. At times last night, though, they weren’t perfect. Certain renditions felt a bit sloppy–typically in situations where the duo would get too quiet and too introspective. There were also moments where they’d offer idealistic advice about the way the world works, which felt a bit too much like a kid in high school telling you how to be successful in life.

Then again, as First Aid Kit walked back onto stage for their encore and slipped into a cover of Paul Simon’s “America,” the couple in front of me wrapped their arms around each other. As they rocked slowly back and forth to lyrics of hitchhiking and Greyhound buses, the boyfriend quietly singing along into his girlfriend’s ear, the fact that I was taking notes on miscues and frustrations in the music seemed obsolete. The night may have been emotional. It may have been full of too much earnestness. But what was expected? First Aid Kit unashamedly puts what they feel on display and, by doing that, connect intimately with their audience. Perhaps ultimately, that’s the only involvement that matters.

Critical Bias: I recently went through a breakup, and this all just got too real, man.

Random Notebook Dump: Hope everyone is having a nice date night.

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Michael Arden

A strong argument can be made that he has the sweetest, most emotionally affecting pipes on Broadway, and his ventures into the intimate rooms are rather rare. Tonight, he may be reprise songs he sang in, tunes like Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan show, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” He’ll definitely visit Duncan Sheik and Joni Mitchell and probably also croon some ditties of his own devising. Incidentally, he’s a regular on TV’s Anger Management.

Sun., Aug. 12, 9 p.m., 2012

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Judy Collins & Madelein Peyroux

At first glance, these two singer-songwriters don’t share much beyond a debt to Joni Mitchell: Collins, of course, broke through in 1968 with a cover of “Both Sides Now,” while Peyroux’s albums seem deeply informed by Mitchell’s late-’70s jazz period. Listen closer, though, and you hear in both women a sense of song as a things to be measured and molded. Kudos to whomever thought of pairing them for this one-off show.

Fri., June 1, 8 p.m., 2012

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Joni Mitchell Slags Off on Bob Dylan and Madonna

Music legend Joni Mitchell has turned a shade of turbulent indigo as she hisses like a summer lawn, speaking her mind as per usual.

In a fiery interview
, Joni ragged on fellow folkster Bob Dylan, saying, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake.”

Yeah, but he has good table manners.

And mouthy Joni feels society made a big turn toward stupid and shallow when someone named Madonna came around.

Yikes! Is she right or is she just harboring a grudge that pre-teens didn’t run through the ’80s wearing necklaces made of seashells?

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Alela Diane

Diane is a neo-folkie singer-songwriter associated with the Nevada City, CA, scene that showcased Joanna Newsom and Marie Sioux. Her Joni Mitchell-esque tunes are authentic vintage folk (i.e. nothing too outside the box), but warm, earthy, and apparently huge in France. With Marissa Nadler.

Sat., Nov. 14, 7:30 p.m., 2009